Gladstone, Liberalism and Music: Political Leadership and Popular Legacy

British-Academy-exteriorBy Dr Phyllis Weliver

Arthur Balfour’s baiting of W.E. Gladstone in the House of Commons may be what we most remember about how these two British Prime Ministers interacted. Gladstone, almost forty years older than Balfour, was the epitome of the passionately earnest Victorian statesman, while Balfour was among the first of a new type of modern British politician: suave and publicly reserved. How surprising that they frequently met socially, coming together in rollicking fun and music-making.

As a young man, Arthur Balfour, an avid concertina player, purchased a house near the Gladstones’ London residence. He was part of a group of friends who would gather for madcap musical extravaganzas on an almost daily basis. Gladstone’s daughter, Mary, recalled of their select group:

The chief meeting ground was the Gladstone house. No. 11 Carlton House Terrace. Mr Balfour in the year 1872, bought a house in Carlton Gardens; it was conveniently near No. 11. and besides at that period he regarded our house as the most charming house and position in London.

How appropriate that 11 “CHT”– Gladstone’s home and Balfour’s haunt – has become home to the British Academy.

This musical socializing illuminates the striking legacy that my three protagonists left for modern Britain. Balfour, besides being Conservative Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, was a Founding Fellow and seventh president of the British Academy. Four-time Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone is known for his humanist foreign and domestic policies. His later premierships are acknowledged as containing the seeds for the British welfare state. Less well known, Mary Gladstone was probably the first female prime ministerial private secretary, as well as a notable musician and salon hostess. Through these intersecting roles, she had considerable influence with her father and other prominent intellectuals, statesmen, clergy and fine and performing artists.

If walls could speak, Number 11 CHT would emit a rich sound environment that included cabinet meetings and a passionate and often boisterous musicality that could be heard throughout the house. Lets try for a moment to imagine this ephemeral soundscape where state matters were debated while Balfour played the concertina and Mary played the piano.
If you point to the two links below, open them in separate windows, and play them simultaneously, you can layer together a “phonogram” recorded by Gladstone in 1888 on a wax cylinder, and a contemporary recording of the flute-like concertina and a harpsichord.

If you simultaneously play the two videos below, you can layer together a “phonogram” recorded by Gladstone in 1888 on a wax cylinder, and a contemporary recording of the flute-like concertina and a harpsichord.

Gladstone’s voice actually begins at 1 minute.

Handel, Recorder Sonata in F major, HWV 369, iv (Allegro)

Yes, it’s gimmicky, but sometimes hearing something from a novel perspective can help us to imagine what is otherwise lost, even though there are obvious limitations to layering recordings made on different mediums, in different places, and in different centuries.

I’ll be speaking more about this subject on Thursday, 16 June 2016. To explore the political legacies of British leaders like Mary Gladstone and her father, the talk focuses on the socializing that occurred in their home, 11 Carlton House Terrace; it illuminates the intersections among music, social theology and Liberalism, and makes some brief comparisons to Balfour’s political Conservatism. The architectural space will be a physical exemplar of the history that I wish to recover, but I hope that if you come along to the talk (or listen to the subsequent podcast) that you’ll also remember the historic sounds presented here.

[i] Mary Gladstone, draft memoir of “Mr Balfour,” Mary Gladstone Papers, Add MS 46270, f 188, The British Library. Memoir, f 188?

Dr Phyllis WeliverAssociate Professor, Saint Louis University

Weliver, Phyllis. “Gladstone, Liberalism and Music: Political Leadership and Popular Legacy.” Gladstone’s Daughter: Living Liberalism. June 8, 2016. Web log post. Date accessed (


Weliver, P. (2016, Jun 8). Gladstone, Liberalism and Music: Political Leadership and Popular Legacy. Web log post. Retrieved from

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