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‘A very nice old lady’

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley examines the case of three-times Tory PM Lord Salisbury

13 June, 2019 — By Neil Titley

How Vanity Fair saw The Marquis of Salisbury in 1869

WHEN the Tory politician Michael Gove opined that in matters pertaining to Brexit the British public had no need of “experts” to guide their decision, he had an illustrious forbear who took much the same view.

The Victorian prime minister Lord Salisbury stated that: “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.”

Salisbury, aka Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (pronounced “Sissle”: 1830-1903) was a man of superlatives – arguably the prime minister with the most prestigious lineage (his ancestor Lord Burghley ran England on behalf of Elizabeth I); with an annual income of £3.5m in today’s money, probably the richest; at 6ft 4ins, the tallest; and (again arguably), the fattest.

In addition to his family home at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, he also lived for a time at 21 Fitzroy Square in Camden.

Lord Salisbury upheld the family tradition of political service, becoming successively secretary of state for India, foreign secretary, and three times Conservative prime minister (1885-86, 1886-92, 1895-1902). However, he was never fully convinced of the legitimacy of the democratic principle: “a dangerous and irrational creed by which two day-labourers shall outvote Baron Rothschild”.

He admitted rather wistfully that “one of the nuisances of the ballot is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means”.

A traditional Tory to his bootstraps, he opposed extending the suffrage to working-class men (and women of all classes), while adhering to his pessimistic credo that “whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible”.

It is possible that his anti-democratic views were formed while he was at school at Eton College. While there, he was subjected to merciless bullying and as a result was forced to leave aged only 15.

He decided that people were intrinsically cruel and that mob rule would destroy all that was decent.

Salisbury had an aristocratic contempt for ambition and ostentation. He was such a scruffy dresser that in 1886 he was refused entrance to the Monte Carlo Casino as they thought he was a tramp.

He was once arrested in his own grounds on suspicion of being a poacher. When reproved by the meticulous Prince of Wales for arriving at a function dressed in the coat of one uniform and the trousers of another, he replied airily: “My apologies but my mind must have been occupied by some subject of less importance.”

In spite of his desire to maintain the status quo at home, he was an enthusiastic promoter of imperial expansion. Within the jockeying for territory that characterised the late 19th century, he managed to avoid all-out war, firstly with the USA in 1896 over the Venezuela border dispute, then with France in 1898 over the Fashoda Incident in Africa.

However, he did find himself drawn into the unpopular and difficult Second Boer War.

Surprisingly for one so fascinated by global diplomacy, according to various reports, Salisbury appeared to have little grasp of the actual terrain.

The journalist Frank Harris reported that: “Salisbury was blissfully ignorant of geography and gasped with astonishment when told that Zanzibar was an island.”

The adventurer Sir Richard Burton wrote that: “He was so ignorant he didn’t know where Mombasa was, and the idea that I had brought back treaties handing over the whole of Central Africa to Britain merely filled him with dismay. He kept repeating ‘dreadful responsibility – dreadful’. He was in reality, I believe, a very nice old lady.”

Salisbury’s own view was that “British policy should be to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions”.

He suffered from bad eyesight and, at a court ceremony, complained that some young man kept on grinning at him. He was informed that the young man was actually his eldest son.

In his final years, to combat his increasing weight problem he rode a tricycle, but made sure to have a footman alongside to push him up hills.

On one occasion, Salisbury entertained a friend in the library of his home at Hatfield House.

He had instructed that some decorative alterations be carried out, included fitting a door in the library in such a way that it dovetailed perfectly with the shelves of books and gave the impression of visual continuity.

The work had been done so well that Salisbury and his friend spent an hour trying to find the exit, before having to ring for a servant to release them.

His name was perpetuated until 1982 as the capital of Rhodesia, but after independence the new rulers of Zimbabwe replaced it with Harare.

However, he does linger on in popular parlance. When “Bob” Salisbury retired, the job of prime minister passed seamlessly to his nephew Arthur Balfour – hence the expression: “Bob’s your uncle.”

Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to


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