1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harcourt, Sir William George Granville Venables Vernon

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12
Harcourt, Sir William George Granville Venables Vernon
See also William Vernon Harcourt (politician) on Wikipedia; and our 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica disclaimer.
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HARCOURT, SIR WILLIAM GEORGE GRANVILLE VENABLES VERNON (1827-1904), English statesman, second son of the Rev. Canon William Vernon Harcourt (q.v.), of Nuneham Park, Oxford, was born on the 14th of October 1827. Canon Harcourt was the fourth son and eventually heir of Edward Harcourt (1757-1847), archbishop of York, who was the son of the 1st Lord Vernon (d. 1780), and who took the name of Harcourt alone instead of Vernon on succeeding to the property of his cousin, the last Earl Harcourt, in 1831.[1] The subject [ 940 ] of this biography was therefore born a Vernon, and by his connexion with the old families of Vernon and Harcourt was related to many of the great English houses, a fact which gave him no little pride. Indeed, in later life his descent from the Plantagenets[2] was a subject of some banter on the part of his political opponents. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with first-class honours in the classical tripos in 1851. He was called to the bar in 1854, became a Q.C. in 1866, and was appointed Whewell professor of international law, Cambridge, 1869. He quickly made his mark in London society as a brilliant talker; he contributed largely to the Saturday Review, and wrote some famous letters (1862) to The Times over the signature of “Historicus,” in opposition to the recognition of the Southern States as belligerents in the American Civil War. He entered parliament as Liberal member for Oxford, and sat from 1868 to 1880, when, upon seeking re-election after acceptance of office, he was defeated by Mr Hall. A seat was, however, found for him at Derby, by the voluntary retirement of Mr Plimsoll, and he continued to represent that constituency until 1895, when, having been defeated at the general election, he found a seat in West Monmouthshire. He was appointed solicitor-general and knighted in 1873; and, although he had not shown himself a very strenuous supporter of Mr Gladstone during that statesman's exclusion from power, he became secretary of state for the home department on the return of the Liberals to office in 1880. His name was connected at that time with the passing of the Ground Game Act (1880), the Arms (Ireland) Act (1881), and the Explosives Act (1883). As home secretary at the time of the dynamite outrages he had to take up a firm attitude, and the Explosives Act was passed through all its stages in the shortest time on record. Moreover, as champion of law and order against the attacks of the Parnellites, his vigorous speeches brought him constantly into conflict with the Irish members. In 1884 he introduced an abortive bill for unifying the municipal administration of London. He was indeed at that time recognized as one of the ablest and most effective leaders of the Liberal party; and when, after a brief interval in 1885, Mr Gladstone returned to office in 1886, he was made chancellor of the exchequer, an office which he again filled from 1892 to 1895.

Between 1880 and 1892 Sir William Harcourt acted as Mr Gladstone's loyal and indefatigable lieutenant in political life. A first-rate party fighter, his services were of inestimable value; but in spite of his great success as a platform speaker, he was generally felt to be speaking from an advocate's brief, and did not impress the country as possessing much depth of conviction. It was he who coined the phrase about “stewing in Parnellite juice,” and, when the split came in the Liberal party on the Irish question, even those who gave Mr Gladstone and Mr Morley the credit of being convinced Home Rulers could not be persuaded that Sir William had followed anything but the line of party expediency. In 1894 he introduced and carried a memorable budget, which equalized the death duties on real and personal property. After Mr Gladstone's retirement in 1894 and Lord Rosebery's selection as prime minister Sir William became the leader of the Liberal party in the House of Commons, but it was never probable that he would work comfortably in the new conditions. His title to be regarded as Mr Gladstone's successor had been too lightly ignored, and from the first it was evident that Lord Rosebery's ideas of Liberalism and of the policy of the Liberal party were not those of Sir William Harcourt. Their differences were patched up from time to time, but the combination could not last. At the general election of 1895 it was clear that there were divisions as to what issue the Liberals were fighting for, and the effect of Sir William Harcourt's abortive Local Veto Bill on the election was seen not only in his defeat at Derby, which gave the signal for the Liberal rout, but in the set-back it gave to temperance legislation. Though returned for West Monmouthshire (1895, 1900), his speeches in debate only occasionally showed his characteristic spirit, and it was evident that for the hard work of Opposition he no longer had the same motive as of old. In December 1898 the crisis arrived, and with Mr John Morley he definitely retired from the counsels of the party and resigned his leadership of the Opposition, alleging as his reason, in letters exchanged between Mr Morley and himself, the cross-currents of opinion among his old supporters and former colleagues. The split excited considerable comment, and resulted in much heart-burning and a more or less open division between the section of the Liberal party following Lord Rosebery (q.v.) and those who disliked that statesman's Imperialistic views.

Though now a private member, Sir William Harcourt still continued to vindicate his opinions in his independent position, and his attacks on the government were no longer restrained by even the semblance of deference to Liberal Imperialism. He actively intervened in 1899 and 1900, strongly condemning the government's financial policy and their attitude towards the Transvaal; and throughout the Boer War he lost no opportunity of criticizing the South African developments in a pessimistic vein. One of the readiest parliamentary debaters, he savoured his speeches with humour of that broad and familiar order which appeals particularly to political audiences. In 1898-1900 he was conspicuous, both on the platform and in letters written to The Times, in demanding active measures against the Ritualistic party in the Church of England; but his attitude on that subject could not be dissociated from his political advocacy of Disestablishment. In March 1904, just after he had announced his intention not to seek election again to parliament, he succeeded, by the death of his nephew, to the family estates at Nuneham. But he died suddenly there on the 1st of October in the same year. He married, first, in 1859, Thérèse (d. 1863), daughter of Mr T. H. Lister, by whom he had one son, Lewis Vernon Harcourt (b. 1863), afterwards first commissioner of works both in Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's 1905 ministry (included in the cabinet in 1907) and in Mr Asquith's cabinet (1908); and secondly, in 1876, Elizabeth, widow of Mr T. Ives and daughter of Mr. J. L. Motley, the historian, by whom he had another son, Robert (b. 1878).

Sir William Harcourt was one of the great parliamentary figures of the Gladstonian Liberal period. He was essentially an aristocratic type of late 19th century Whig, with a remarkable capacity for popular campaign fighting. He had been, and remained, a brilliant journalist in the non-professional sense. He was one of those who really made the Saturday Review in its palmy days, and in the period of his own most ebullient vigour, while Mr Gladstone was alive, his sense of political expediency and platform effectiveness in controversy was very acute. But though he played the game of public life with keen zest, he never really touched either the country or his own party with the faith which creates a personal following, and in later years he found himself somewhat isolated and disappointed, though he was free to express his deeper objections to the new developments in church and state. A tall, fine man, with the grand manner, he was, throughout a long career, a great personality in the life of his time. (H. Ch.)


  1. William, 3rd and last Earl Harcourt (1743-1830), who succeeded his brother in the title, was a soldier who distinguished himself in the American War of Independence by capturing General Charles Lee, and commanded the British forces in Flanders in 1794, eventually becoming a field-marshal. He was a son of Simon, 1st earl (1714-1777), created viscount and earl in 1749, a soldier, and from 1772 to 1777 viceroy of Ireland, who was grandson and heir of Simon, Viscount Harcourt (1661-1727), lord chancellor — the “trimming Harcourt” of Swift — the purchaser of the Nuneham-Courtney estates in Oxfordshire, and son of Sir Philip Harcourt of Stanton Harcourt. The knights of Stanton Harcourt, from the 13th century onwards, traced their descent to the Norman de Harcourts, a branch of that family having come over with the Conqueror; and the pedigree claims to go back to Bernard of Saxony, who in 876 acquired the lordships of Harcourt, Castleville and Beauficel in Normandy. Viscount Harcourt's second son Simon, who was father of the 1st earl, was also father of Martha, who married George Venables Vernon, of Sudbury, created 1st Baron Vernon in 1762. The latter was a descendant of Sir Richard Vernon (d. 1451), speaker of the Leicester parliament (1425) and treasurer of Calais, a member of a Norman family which came over with the Conqueror.
  2. The Plantagenet descent (see The Blood Royal of Britain, by the marquis of Ruvigny, 1903, for tables) could be traced through Lady Anna Leveson Gower (wife of Archbishop Harcourt) to Lady Frances Stanley, the wife of the 1st earl of Bridgewater (1579-1649), and so to Lady Eleanor Brandon, wife of the earl of Cumberland (1517-1570), and daughter of Mary Tudor (wife of Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, 1484-1545), the daughter of Henry VII. and granddaughter of Edward IV.