John Poyntz Spencer, Fifth Earl Spencer
THE RIGHT HONOURABLE John Poyntz Spencer, Fifth Earl Spencer, K.G., D.C.L., L.L.D., P.C. (27 October, 1835 – 13 August, 1910) was a Liberal politician and statesman who served as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1892 to 1895.
Early Life & Career
John Poyntz Spencer was the only son, in a family of three children by his first wife, of Frederick, the fourth earl (1798–1857). His mother was Elizabeth Georgiana (d 1851), second daughter of William Stephen Poyntz of Cowdray, Sussex. His father, who as a naval officer had commanded the Talbot at the battle of Navarino, was the third son of George John Spencer [q.v.] , second earl, at one time first lord of the admiralty. John Charles [q.v.] , third earl, best known in political history as Viscount Althorp, was the latter's eldest son and uncle of the fifth earl.
The fifth earl, born on 27 Oct. 1835, at Spencer House, St. James's, the town mansion of the family, was known in youth as Viscount Althorp. In June 1848 he entered Harrow school, and stayed there six years. He was in later life an active and influential governor of the school. In Michaelmas term 1854 he matriculated from Trinity College, Cambridge, and graduated M.A. (as a nobleman's son) in 1857. He received the honorary degree of LL.D. in 1864. He achieved no academical distinction. On 6 April 1857 he was elected to the House of Commons, in the liberal interest, as one of the two members for South Northamptonshire—a family seat. But the death of his father on 27 December following called him to the House of Lords.
A wealthy nobleman of manly character, commanding presence, and engaging manners, Spencer was soon a prominent and popular figure in society. At Spencer House in London and at Althorp Park, his Northamptonshire seat, he soon exercised magnificent hospitality. Devoted to sport, he was an admirable horseman. Through life he rode about London on business or social errands, and he was thrice master of the Pytchley hounds. In shooting, too, he always took a lively interest, largely with an eye to national needs. In 1860 he was chairman of the committee which met at Spencer House to form the National Rifle Association, and with that body he was closely connected till death. For nearly fifty years he was a member of the council, of which he was chairman in 1867–8. He gave the Spencer cup to be competed for at the annual meetings by boys at the public schools, and frequently shot in the Lords' team in the Lords and Commons match. A large canvas by H. T. Wells, R.A., depicting Spencer and others at the camp at Wimbledon in 1868, belongs to the present Earl Spencer, and Spencer presented in 1909 a portrait of himself by the same artist to the council of the Rifle Association.
Spencer's first public employment was at court. He was appointed groom of the stole to the Prince Consort in 1859, and held that office until the prince's death on 14 Dec. 1861. In the following year he was appointed to the same position in the newly constituted household of the Prince of Wales, afterwards King Edward VII. He retained the office until 1867. But Spencer was ambitious of political service. On 14 Jan. 1865 Lord Palmerston had nominated him K.G., and the liberal party welcomed his co-operation. On 11 Dec. 1868, when Gladstone formed his first administration, Spencer became lord-lieutenant of Ireland, but without a seat in the cabinet. Chichester Fortescue, afterwards Lord Carlingford, was made chief secretary for Ireland with a seat in the cabinet.
With the measures of conciliation for Ireland—the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and the reform of the land laws—to which the government was pledged, Spencer was in full sympathy, but he had no direct responsibility for them. In regard to the third remedial measure of the government—the Irish University education bill of 1873, which the House of Commons ultimately rejected—Spencer sought in vain to win the support of Cardinal Cullen (25 Feb. 1873). His duties were executive and administrative rather than legislative. While he preferred keeping order by ordinary methods of peaceful suasion, he had no compunction in meeting persistent defiance of the law by ‘coercion.’ On his entry into office ‘Fenianism’ proper had been crushed, and he found himself justified in releasing forty political prisoners. But within a year organised crime, chiefly in agrarian districts, developed anew. An increase of the military forces proved of little avail. Consequently early in 1870 Spencer obtained a Peace Preservation Act, with special clauses directed against sedition in the press. The Act received the royal assent on 4 April. The Land Act followed, and the consequent improvement in the country's tranquillity enabled Spencer at the end of the year to release the remaining Fenian prisoners subject to their banishment from the United Kingdom for life. A recrudescence of terrorism among the riband societies of Westmeath and neighbouring counties in 1871 called in Spencer's judgment for another coercive measure—the ‘Westmeath Act’ (16 June). He believed his task was greatly facilitated by that Act. In August 1871, when he entertained the Prince of Wales in Dublin, a riot in Phœnix Park showed continued need of vigilance. On the overthrow of Gladstone's government in 1874 Spencer left Ireland with a reputation for combining a firm with a conciliatory temper.
During the next six years, while his party was in opposition, he for the most part occupied himself privately. He had become lord-lieutenant of Northamptonshire (11 Aug. 1872), and was always attentive to county business. When Gladstone formed his second administration in 1880 Spencer joined the liberal cabinet as lord president of the council. The office constituted its occupant the chief of the education department. Spencer discharged his varied duties with discretion until the spring of 1882. Then he was suddenly reappointed to his former position in Dublin (3 May 1882). A grave crisis had arisen in Ireland, where at the instigation of the Land League disorder had raged for more than two years and coercive measures failed in their purpose. Gladstone and his government were now seeking some accommodation with the revolutionary leaders. But the Irish viceroy, Lord Cowper, and the Irish secretary, W. E. Forster [q.v.] , deprecated any reversal of policy, and both resigned. Spencer became viceroy, retaining his seat in the cabinet, and Lord Frederick Cavendish [q.v.] joined him as chief secretary. Their appointment was designed as a step towards conciliation. ‘Suspects’ imprisoned without trial were to be released. A new land bill was to be prepared. At the same time the cabinet felt that some exceptional powers were still needed by the Irish executive, and a measure for conferring them was ready for drafting before Spencer and Cavendish left for Dublin on 5 May (LADY FREDERICK CAVENDISH in The Times, 18 Aug. 1910).
On the morning of 6 May Spencer was sworn in as lord-lieutenant at Dublin Castle and Cavendish as a member of the Irish privy council. At a council in the afternoon the provisions of the proposed ‘coercion’ measure were discussed. At the close of the meeting Spencer rode to the Viceregal Lodge in the Phœnix Park. Cavendish soon followed on foot, and was joined by the under-secretary, Thomas Henry Burke [q.v.] . A terrible outrage followed. Cavendish and Burke were murdered by a gang of ruffians known as the ‘Invincibles’ in the Phœnix Park in full view of Spencer's windows. The outrage completely changed for the time the character of Spencer's mission. Sir George Trevelyan succeeded Lord Frederick as chief secretary, and together they sought to bring the conspirators to justice. The crimes bill, which was already sanctioned in principle by the cabinet, received the royal assent (12 July) and was rigorously enforced. The murderers were discovered and punished, and disorder was gradually suppressed.
The resolution with which Spencer and Sir George Trevelyan faced the situation exposed them to ‘daily even hourly danger of their lives’ (ibid.) and to floods of obloquy and calumny from the mass of the Irish people. Spencer was credited with a ‘cruel, narrow, and dogged nature,’ and was popularly christened the ‘Red Earl.’ The colour of his long and bushy beard had long before suggested that sobriquet as a friendly nickname, but the words were now freely employed to imply his delight in blood. By the law-abiding population he was hailed as a saviour of society. Trinity College conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D. in 1883 amid immense applause.
In the spring of 1885, when the Crimes Act was about to expire, acute differences arose in the cabinet both as to its renewal and as to the general Irish policy of the party. Spencer with the support of the whig element in the cabinet desired that certain provisions in the old Coercion Act should be renewed, and he suggested that a new land purchase bill should accompany the new Coercion Act. The radical leaders, Mr. Chamberlain and Sir Charles Dilke, dissented unless Spencer accepted in place of the land bill a large measure of local government. Before the dispute went further, the government were defeated in the Commons on a different issue in regard to the budget, and Spencer with his colleagues resigned (8 June).
The new conservative administration, which enjoyed nationalist favour, not only declared against an immediate renewal of the Crimes Act but disclaimed ‘responsibility for its practice in the past’ (MORLEY, Life of Gladstone, iii. 213). When Parnell and his friends imputed to Spencer a wilful miscarriage of justice in the trial and conviction of persons charged with murder at Maamtrasna, the conservative leader of the house, Sir Michael Hicks-Beach (afterwards Lord St. Aldwyn), spoke with hesitating approval of Spencer's past action and promised inquiry (17 July). Spencer's friends held that the conservatives who had denounced him as being too lenient now threw him overboard as having been too severe. The debate brought home to many on both sides of the house the varied perils and temptations springing from a coercive policy. On 23 July 1885 Spencer was entertained at dinner at the Westminster Palace Hotel by 200 liberal members of parliament under the chairmanship of Lord Hartington, and he defended with spirit his administration of the Crimes Act.
When at the end of 1885 Gladstone adopted the policy of home rule, Spencer supported him. The change of view was partly due to Gladstone's commanding personal influence over him and to his sense of party loyalty. But another cause doubtless lay in his conviction that coercion was impracticable in view on the one hand of the impatience with it manifested by an important section of his own party, and on the other hand of the cynical readiness with which the tories had rejected the principle to gain a party advantage. In Spencer's belief the only alternative to effective repression was effective concession.
On 1 Feb. 1886 Gladstone resumed office, having committed himself to a measure of home rule as yet undefined. Spencer joined him as lord president of the council, and took an active part in the framing of the first home rule bill. The measure was rejected on the second reading by a majority of thirty owing to the opposition of the liberal unionists, who combined with the tories (7 June). Gladstone dissolved parliament at once, and was heavily defeated at the polls. During the six years of opposition which followed Spencer took from time to time a conspicuous share in the agitation for home rule. He met on the same platform many Irish members of parliament who had previously been prominent in scurrilous denunciation of him. At the general election of 1892 Gladstone secured a small majority, and in his fourth and last administration Spencer accepted the office of first lord of the admiralty. His grandfather had held the post from 1794 to 1800.
Spencer administered the navy with great energy and efficiency and with a single-minded regard to the national security on the seas. He was the first to set the precedent, which has since been consistently followed, of retaining in office the professional members of the board who had been appointed by his predecessor (SIR WILLIAM WHITE in The Times, 20 Aug. 1910). The large ship-building programme embodied in the Naval Defence Act of 1889 was in course of prosecution, and continuity of administration was therefore of primary importance. Spencer handled firmly and judiciously the critical questions, personal, administrative, and constructive, which were raised in 1893, when the Victoria was rammed and sunk by the Camperdown with great loss of life. The ship-building policy included the introduction of the ‘torpedo-boat destroyer,’ a new and valuable type of warship. Above all he made with his professional colleagues an historic stand against the indifference of some members of the cabinet to the requirements of national security. In this regard he came into conflict with both Sir William Harcourt and Gladstone. At the end of 1893, when Lord George Hamilton, Spencer's predecessor at the admiralty, moved a resolution declaring the necessity for an immediate and considerable increase in the navy and called on the government to make a statement of their intentions, Sir William Harcourt, then chancellor of the exchequer, professing to represent the opinion of the sea lords, asserted that in their opinion as well as his own the existing condition of things in respect to the navy was satisfactory. Spencer at once privately protested that Harcourt's statement was unjustified, and Spencer's colleagues at the admiralty threatened resignation if it were not corrected. The correction was made. Then followed the ‘Spencer programme’ of shipbuilding, extending over several years. Gladstone's final resignation in March 1894 was determined by the increased expenditure which Spencer's navy estimates involved (see MORLEY, Life of Gladstone, iii. 507–8). There is excellent authority for recording that when these estimates were presented to the cabinet, Gladstone exclaimed in an aside ‘Bedlam ought to be enlarged at once.’
But Gladstone's high opinion of Spencer was not affected by such differences. On 2 March 1894, after Gladstone had forwarded his resignation to Queen Victoria, he remarked that should the queen consult him as to the selection of his successor he should advise her to send for Spencer. But his advice was not asked, and the queen chose Lord Rosebery, under whom Spencer agreed to continue at the admiralty. He steadily pursued his previous policy until Lord Rosebery's government fell in 1895.
Spencer did not return to office. But until his health failed he took a leading part in the counsels of the liberal party. In the House of Lords he acted as the lieutenant of the liberal leader, Lord Kimberley, when the latter fell ill in 1901, and he succeeded him in the leadership on his death in 1902. Amid the anxieties caused to the party by the successive withdrawals of Lord Rosebery and Sir William Harcourt from its leadership and by the accession of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman to the leadership in the House of Commons, Spencer loyally did what was possible to preserve unity. Public opinion early in the twentieth century pointed to him as the probable prime minister when the liberals should return to power. But his withdrawal from public life was at hand. The death of his wife on 31 Oct. 1903, which greatly shook him, was followed in 1904 by a severe cardiac illness. Although he recovered and continued to lead his party in the House of Lords until the close of the session of 1905, a cerebral seizure in the autumn, while he was shooting on his estate in Norfolk, led to a gradual failure of his powers. In the new liberal government which was formed in December 1905 he could take no place. He resigned the lord-lieutenancy of Northamptonshire in 1908. He died at Althorp on 14 Aug. 1910, and was buried there beside his wife.
On 8 July 1858 Spencer married Charlotte Frances Frederica, fourth daughter of Frederick Charles William Seymour, a grandson of Francis, first marquis of Hertford. Lady Spencer was a woman of rare beauty and charm, and was known while she presided at Dublin Castle by the affectionate sobriquet of ‘Spencer's Faery Queen.’ She had no issue. Spencer was succeeded in the title by his half-brother, Charles Robert Spencer, who was created Viscount Althorp in 1905.
Spencer, whose family estates comprised some 26,000 acres in the Midlands, was a considerate landlord and was interested in the progress of agriculture. In 1860 he joined the Royal Agricultural Society, of which his uncle was a founder and first president, and was himself president in 1898, when the annual show was held at Four Oaks Park, Sutton Coldfield. Spencer's income suffered much from the agricultural depression of 1879 and the following years. In 1892 he sold for 250,000l., to Mrs. John Rylands, the great library of Althorp, which now forms a main part of the John Rylands library at Manchester. He afterwards disposed of his Oriental MSS. to the earl of Crawford. Spencer was chancellor of the Victoria University, Manchester, from 1892 until 1907. He was from 1889 chairman of the Northamptonshire county council. In 1901 he became keeper of the privy seal of the duchy of Cornwall.
Spencer's lofty character, grace and dignity of manner, transparent sincerity, wide experience of affairs, and imperturbable fortitude in the midst of perils, lent weight to his utterances and opinions, but he was a hesitating and awkward speaker, and it is doubtful if his capacities were quite equal to the post of prime minister, for which at one time he seemed destined.
Besides the portraits already mentioned there are at Althorp portraits of Earl Spencer by Henry Tanworth Wells, R.A. (1867), and by Frank Holl (1888); the latter is admirable in every way. A third painting by Weigall is at Spencer House in London. A small statuette was done by Melilli in 1905. There is a good sketch, executed by Wells for Grillion's Club in 1881. Two cartoons appeared in ‘Vanity Fair,’ respectively by ‘Ape’ in 1870 and by ‘Spy’ in 1892.
- "Earl Spencer" (Obituaries). The Times. Monday, 15 August, 1910. Issue 39351, col A, p. 7.
| Preceded by
The Rt. Hon. Lord George Hamilton
| First Lord of the Admiralty
1892 – 1895
| Succeeded by|
The Rt. Hon. George J. Goschen