Gladstone and Laura Thistlethwayte, 1865–75
By Jenny West
Historical Research, Volume 80, Issue 209 (2007)
Abstract: Gladstone’s recent biographers – most notably H. C. G. Matthew – have discussed his friendships with women, ranging from aristocrats to courtesans. Regarding his thirty-year friendship with Mrs. Laura Thistlethwayte biographers retain a largely protective view – that Gladstone was tempted into a situation in which he became bound, yet maintained control. In re-assessing this intriguing relationship for the most intense period, 1865–75, this article suggests the reverse – that Gladstone had free choice and, for much of this time, was acting under circumstances more serious, and therefore more challenging of that control, than acknowledged. The precise nature of the relationship remains a mystery. However, re-examination of documentary sources and study of information previously omitted, as well as additional diaries, correspondence and Gladstone’s reading, facilitate further understanding of that relationship and of Gladstone himself.
Introduction: The first official biography of Gladstone, John Morley’s Life of Gladstone (1903), emphasized his ability as a strong political, moral and religious force; this was during a long career in which he served four terms as prime minister. Many other publications on Gladstone appeared in the years to follow but, as J. P. Gardiner states, Morley’s work remained the standard biography for approximately fifty years.
One aspect of Gladstone’s life receiving comparatively little mention until recently was that relating to women, with whom he admitted close personal friendships. Among the most intriguing of these – outside family, the prostitutes and courtesans in his ‘rescue work’ and such figures as the duchess of Sutherland – was that with Mrs. Laura Thistlethwayte. H. C. G. Matthew, one of Gladstone’s main biographers, believes that the friendship was conducted with the full knowledge of the political elite. It certainly provoked concern, gossip and warning among certain colleagues but how many fellow politicians were fully aware of it is unclear.
Gladstone recorded in his diary that he spoke individually during 1868 and 1869 respecting Mrs. Thistlethwayte to the duchess of Sutherland, the duke of Argyll, Mr. Glyn (later Lord Wolverton) and Lord De Tabley, the latter a fellow executor and trustee of the Newcastle Trust. What was said is unrecorded. Although not directly connected, the statement of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton, one of Gladstone’s private secretaries, that ‘the practice of questioning the private actions of public men is of entirely novel growth’, might be considered in this context.