Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Disraeli and North Staffordshire

Benjamin Disraeli was one of the great figures of the 19th century and credited with one of the founders creators of Britain’s imperial power. Born in London in 1804 to Jewish parents he was always a detached observer of British life and society. His rise to power was difficult, as he did not come from the great houses of the country, which were the traditional breeding ground for the grandees of the Tory Party.

Staffordshire made its impact upon him throughout his career. The clash with the Staffordshire based leader of the Tory Party in the 1840s Sir Robert Peel of Drayton Park and MP for Tamworth made his career. Early attempts to establish himself foundered perhaps because Disraeli because of his religion and his foppish personality was regarded with suspicion. Disraeli established his reputation through his journalism and his writing. He wrote his first novel when he was 23 and followed this up with a series of political novels of which Sybil published in the 1840s is the best known. He was interested and sympathetic to the demands of the working class and in his early years in Parliament called for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and working people against the rising power of industrialists.

In 1841 Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister and his action in repealing the Corn Laws- a tax on bread, which benefited the Tory gentry, split the party five years later. During the debate on repeal Peel was goaded by Disraeli who felt that the landed interests were being betrayed. The resultant divide had the greatest implications for Disraeli as most of the Government sided with Peel and Disraeli was left with a small group of landowners leading the surviving rump of the Conservative party into many years of opposition. Disraeli first opportunity to become Prime Minister came in 1868. As he remarked, "I had climbed the top of the greasy pole". It was a difficult and lengthy ascent. The administration was short lived and within 10 months the Liberals lead by Disraeli’s great parliamentary rival Gladstone was returned to power.

It was a considerable achievement by Disraeli in an admittedly more relaxed age to write a major novel- Lothair. A novel by a former Prime Minister was a unique event. The book is the life of a young nobleman who is rootless, well connected and very wealthy. Lothair becomes a target for conversion by the Catholic hierarchy. He joins the fight for Italian independence against the armies of the Pope and his experience counters any desire to convert. It is an unflattering portrayal of a manipulating Catholic Church as well as an attack on an aristocracy, which is in danger of degenerating into a useless caste

Lothair has strong connections with North Staffordshire as two of the houses mentioned in the novel are Brentham and Muriel Towers a thinly disguised Trentham Park and Alton Towers. Trentham was the home of the Duke of Sutherland and Alton Towers that of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The eighteenth and nineteenth earl served in Tory administrations that Disraeli was a member and Sutherland was equally a well-known local Tory MP. Alton Towers was built 1811-1820s and the great early Victorian architect Augustus Pugin made substantial alterations in the 1830s. Pugin would later work closely with the sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury and was much interested in medieval art. He used his associations with Alton to visit medieval churches in the area and the remains of monasteries such as Croxden to inspire him to design one of the great buildings of the gothic revival- the Roman Catholic Church at Cheadle. Another great figure of Victorian design was less convinced. William Morris on a day trip from Leek described Alton Towers as a "gim-crack palace of Pugin’s"

Disraeli however was enchanted by the setting, "Muriel Towers crowned a wooden steep, part of a wild and winding and sylvan valley at the bottom was a rushing stream. A vast park spread in all directions beyond the limit of the eye ornate and choicely timbered"

The first Duke of Sutherland had married into wealth having inherited vast areas of land in the Highlands of Scotland. The family’s name is blemished, as they are held responsible for the Clearances in which Scots were evicted from the land and forced to move to the industrial towns or emigrate to North America. This compulsory movement of people was done with great cruelty. A huge corroding statue of the Duke on which much blame was directed stands on hills above the Trentham estate another one is at Golspie in the Highland.

Trentham Hall and Gardens were created in the late 18th century. The house was extended and improved in the 1830s by Charles Barry later to be the architect of the Houses of Parliament. New bedrooms were added, a sculpture gallery and a 100-foot clock tower, a grand entrance with portico supported by stone sculptors of beasts. Trentham or Brentham in the novel is described as " agreeable" of long walks into forested ways of " thick and fragrant scrubs and a dell of high trees and gothic shrines". Trentham then as now is admired for its gardens; huge bushes of honeysuckle and bowers of sweet pea and sweet briars, and jessamine clustering over the walls". Disraeli visited Trentham frequently staying with the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland following the death of his wife. He spent Christmas1873 at the house.

The following year he became Prime Minister for a second time he was assisted by a swing away from the Liberals in towns like Leek. His Government was a reforming one and was able to push through a series of acts, which would help to improve the position of the working class. He was to die in 1881. His main biographer believes that his sceptical outlook makes him of all the Victorian figures the least dated. There is a champagne sparkle about Disraeli. Another goes so far as to describe him as " lovable". At the end one has to admire his wit: on his deathbed he was asked whether he would like a visit from Queen Victoria. " No it is better not. She would only ask me to take a message to Albert"