Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Milnes, Richard Monckton
MILNES, RICHARD MONCKTON, first Baron Houghton (1809–1885), born on 19 June 1809 in Bolton Street, Mayfair, London, was only son of Robert Pemberton Milnes (1784-1858) of Fryston Hall, near Wakefield, by the Hon. Henrietta Maria Monckton, second daughter of the fourth Viscount Galway. The family, originally from Derbyshire, was in the eighteenth century largely interested in the cloth trade. The father achieved some distinction. Born in 1784, eldest son of Richard Slater Milnes, M.P. for York, by Rachel, daughter of Hans Busk of Leeds, he was educated at a private school in Liverpool and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had a brilliant career, proceeding B.A. in 1804. In 1806, at the age of twenty-two, he became M.P. for Pontefract, and on 15 April 1807 he defended the Duke of Portland's administration in a remarkable speech, which was long remembered. In October 1809 he declined the offer of a seat in Mr. Perceval's administration, and retiring to Yorkshire as a country gentleman led the politics of the county, supporting catholic emancipation and opposing the repeal of the corn laws. After paying a brother's debts he found himself forced to reside abroad, chiefly at Milan and Rome, for several years from 1829. In 1831 he travelled in southern Italy, and afterwards printed the journal of his tour for private circulation. He was highly popular in society, but of a fastidious nature, and he refused a peerage offered by Lord Palmerston in 1856. He died on 9 Nov. 1858.
Monckton Milnes, who was delicate as a child, was educated at Hundhill Hall school, near Doncaster, and then privately, until in October 1827 he was entered as a fellow-commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he owed much to the influence of his tutor, Connop Thirlwall [q. v.], afterwards bishop of St. Davids, and without great academic success he won notice. A conspicuous member of the association known as the ‘Apostles,’ he was intimate with Tennyson, Hallam, Thackeray, and other promising men of his time; he spoke often and well at the Union Debating Society, and was a fair amateur actor. He also contributed occasional reviews and poems to the ‘Athenæum.’ In December 1829, on the invitation of F. H. Doyle and W. E. Gladstone, he went with Hallam and Thomas Sunderland as a deputation from the Cambridge to the Oxford Union Society, to argue the superiority of Shelley as a poet to Byron.
On leaving Cambridge, where he proceeded M.A. in 1831, Milnes went to London, and attended classes at the recently founded University College, Gower Street, and associated with Thomas Campbell, F. D. Maurice, John Sterling, and others. After travelling in Germany, where he spent some time at the university of Bonn, he went to Italy and became popular in Italian society. He visited Landor at Florence. With Christopher Wordsworth he made a tour in Greece, and afterwards described it in a volume of poetical ‘Memorials’ (London, 1834), which drew praise from Christopher North. Returning to England in 1835, he began his life in London society in the following year. In spite of certain foreign manners which at first made him enemies, his social and literary qualities, the number and variety of his friendships, and a kind of bland audacity, obtained him an entrance into the best circles, in particular to Lansdowne, Holland, and Gore Houses, then recognised salons. He was a constant guest at Samuel Rogers's breakfast-parties in St. James's Place, and he began himself to give parties of a similar but more comprehensive nature in the rooms he took at 26 Pall Mall in the spring of 1837. Both then and afterwards it was notoriously Milnes's pleasure to bring together men of widely different pursuits, opinions, and social position, and no one was unwelcome who had any celebrity, or was likely to attain it.
In the general election in June 1837 Milnes became conservative M.P. for Pontefract, and in the following December made a successful maiden speech. But he afterwards adopted a serious and at times pompous vein which was not appreciated; and although he was a warm advocate of several useful measures, he failed to make any mark as a politician. In 1839 he published a speech he had delivered on the question of the ballot, and a pamphlet on ‘Purity of Election.’ He often visited the continent, and increased his acquaintance with men of note, meeting in 1840 King Louis-Philippe, De Tocqueville, Lamartine, and others. With Guizot he kept up a correspondence on English politics. His interest in foreign affairs led him to expect office, and he was disappointed at not receiving a place in Peel's ministry in 1841. He did much to secure the passing of the Copyright Act, and he introduced a bill for establishing reformatories for juvenile offenders. In Irish questions he urged a scheme for endowing catholic concurrently with Anglican clergy, as likely to aid in averting a repeal of the union. On Peel's conversion to free trade, Milnes, who had hitherto supported him, unlike the other Peelites who formed a separate party, joined the liberals. In 1848 he went to Paris to see something of the revolution, and to fraternise with both sides. On his return he wrote, as a ‘Letter to Lord Lansdowne,’ 1848, a pamphlet on the events of that year, in which he offended the conservatives by his sympathy with continental liberalism, and in particular with the struggle of Italy against Austria. The pamphlet excited some controversy and much hostile criticism, which came to a head in a leading article in the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ written by George Smythe, afterwards Lord Strangford, whom, in December 1845, Peel had preferred to Milnes for the under-secretaryship for foreign affairs. Milnes, who was coarsely handled in the article, at once challenged the writer; but Smythe made an apology, and it was accepted.
Milnes had meanwhile continued his efforts as a writer. In December 1836 he had assisted Lord Northampton to prepare ‘The Tribute,’ a Christmas annual, for which he obtained contributions from his friends, in particular from Tennyson. After some hesitation, the latter sent Milnes the stanzas which afterwards formed the germ of ‘Maud.’ He published two volumes of verse in 1838, and a third in 1840. His poems excited some public interest, and a few of them became popular, especially when set to music. In the ‘Westminster Review’ he wrote a notice of the works of Emerson, who sent him a friendly acknowledgment. In the controversy over the anglo-catholic revival he supported the movement in his ‘One Tract More, by a layman’ (1841), a pamphlet which was favourably noticed by Newman (Apologia, ch. ii. note ad fin.) In the winter of 1842-3 he visited Egypt and the Levant, where he was commonly supposed to have had numerous adventures, and in 1844 he published his poetical impressions of the tour in a volume entitled ‘Palm Leaves.’ Milnes, who was always ready to assist any one connected with literature, at this time exerted himself to obtain a civil list pension for Tennyson, and he helped Hood in his last days, and on his death befriended his family. In 1848 he collected and arranged various papers relating to Keats, and published them as the ‘Life and Letters’ of the poet. Much of the material was presented to him by Keats's friend, Charles Armitage Brown [q. v.] The memoir, greatly abbreviated, was afterwards prefixed to an edition of Keats's poems, which Milnes issued in 1854. He also contributed several articles to the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ and took an interest in the management of the Royal Literary Fund.
On 30 July 1851 Milnes married the Hon. Annabel Crewe, younger daughter of the second Baron Crewe. They went to Vienna for the honeymoon, and proposed to visit Hungary; but the Austrian government refused the author of the pamphlet on the events of 1848 entrance into that kingdom. On his return Milnes resumed his literary work, and partly from disappointed expectations, partly from disagreement with either party, relinquished his practical interest in politics; he refused a lordship of the treasury offered him by Lord Palmerston, whom he now followed. He revised Gladstone's translation of Farini's ‘History of the Roman State;’ and in 1853 he and M. Van de Weyer, Belgian minister in London, established the Philobiblon Society, a small circle of eminent men at home and abroad, interested in rare books and manuscripts. Milnes edited its ‘Transactions.’ During the Crimean war he addressed meetings on behalf of Miss Nightingale's fund, and in September 1855 published in the ‘Times’ a poem on the English graves at Scutari. In 1857 he attended and spoke at the recently established Social Science Congress, over which he presided later on (1873) when it met at Norwich; and he warmly advocated the formation of mechanics' institutes and penny banks.
In July 1863 Milnes was at Palmerston's instance created Baron Houghton of Great Houghton, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Differences of opinion respecting the pronunciation of his new name were commemorated in J. R. Planché's poem in ‘Punch’ (Locker-Lampson, Lyra Elegantiarum, 1891, p. 376). In the House of Lords Houghton spoke against the condemnation by convocation of ‘Essays and Reviews,’ and in aid of the movement for legalising marriage with a deceased wife's sister. He was one of the few peers who eagerly supported the reform of the franchise, which he advocated at a meeting at Leeds, and, with John Bright, at a banquet at Manchester. To a volume of ‘Essays on Reform’ (1867) he contributed an article on ‘The Admission of the Working Classes as a part of the Social System.’
In 1866 he delivered the inaugural address at the opening of new rooms for the Cambridge Union Society. He was president of the group of liberal arts at the French Exhibition of 1867, when he spent some months in Paris, and met most of the leading statesmen of Europe. In 1869 he represented the Royal Geographical Society at the opening of the Suez Canal, and presented a report on his return. In 1873 he published, under the title ‘Monographs,’ interesting recollections of some friends, the Miss Berrys, Landor, Sydney Smith, Wiseman, and others; and in 1875 an edition of Peacock's novels, with a preface.
In his later years Houghton's social qualities were given the fullest play. Both at Fryston and in London, at 16 Upper Brook Street, he was constantly entertaining his distinguished friends; and he continued to relieve genius in distress. In 1860 he befriended David Gray [q. v.], and in 1862 wrote a preface to his poem ‘The Luggie.’ Milnes was also instrumental in making Mr. A. C. Swinburne known to the public, and he drew attention to ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ in the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ He knew every one of note, and was present at almost every great social gathering. In 1875 he visited Canada and the United States, where he met Longfellow, Emerson, Lowell, and was everywhere widely received by leading men, partly for the sympathy he had shown with the north during the civil war. Towards the close of his life, Houghton, already a fellow of the Royal Society, honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, and LL.D. of Edinburgh, became an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, secretary for foreign correspondence in the Royal Academy, and a trustee of the British Museum. He succeeded Carlyle, who had been his lifelong friend, as president of the London Library in 1882. In May 1885 he took part in unveiling a bust of Coleridge in Westminster Abbey, and of Gray at Cambridge. His last speech was at a meeting of the short-lived Wordsworth Society in the following July. He died at Vichy on 11 Aug. 1885, and on 20 Aug. was buried at Fryston. His wife had predeceased him in February 1874. He left two daughters and a son, who afterwards became lord-lieutenant of Ireland in Mr. Gladstone's fourth ministry.
Houghton abounded in friendliness, but his sympathies were broad rather than deep. Naturally generous and always ready to offer his help, he found a romantic pleasure of his own in giving it. His poetry is of the meditative kind, cultured and graceful; but it lacks fire. In society, where he found his chief occupation and success, especially as an after-dinner speaker, he was always amusing, and many stories were told of his humorous originality. But he was eminently a dilettante; while his interests were wide, he shirked the trouble necessary for judgments other than superficial. He had many fine tastes and some coarse ones.
Houghton's poetical works are: 1. ‘Memorials of a Tour in some parts of Greece, chiefly Poetical,’ London, 1834. 2.‘Memorials of a Residence on the Continent, and Historical Poems,’ London, 1838, of which an enlarged edition appeared in 1844. 3. ‘Poems of many Years,’ London, 1838. 4. ‘Poetry for the People, and other Poems,’ London, 1840. 5. ‘Poems, Legendary and Historical,’ London, 1844, which included pieces previously published. 6. ‘Palm Leaves,’ London, 1844. He also issued several songs in single sheets. A collected edition in two volumes, with a preface and portrait, appeared in London in 1876.
His prose writings include, besides those noticed, pamphlets and articles in newspapers and reviews: 1. ‘A Speech on the Ballot, delivered in the House of Commons,’ London, 1839. 2. ‘Thoughts on Purity of Election,’ London, 1842. 3. ‘Answer to R. Baxter on the South Yorkshire Isle of Axholme Bill,’ Pontefract, 1852. 4. Preface to ‘Another Version of Keats's “Hyperion,”’ London, 1856. 5. ‘Address on Social Economy’ at the Social Science Congress, London, 1862. 6. ‘On the present Social Results of Classical Education,’ in F. W. Farrar's ‘Essays on a Liberal Education,’ London, 1867. He also edited various papers in the publications of the Philobiblon Society and the Grampian Club; and he wrote a preface to the ‘History of Grillion's Club, from its Origin in 1812 to its 50th Anniversary,’ London, 1880.[The Life, Letters, and Friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, first Lord Houghton, by T. Wemyss Reid, London, 1890, is a generous account of its subject. See also the Times, 12 Aug. 1885; and the Athenæum, Academy, and Saturday Review (art. by G. S. Venables) for 15 Aug. 1885; Sir F. H. Doyle's Reminiscences and Opinions, pp. 109 et seq.,and the Correspondence of Carlyle and Emerson, London, 1883, i. 263.]