Walpole, Spencer (DNB12)

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WALPOLE, Sir SPENCER (1839–1907), historian and civil servant, born in Serle Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, on 6 Feb, 1839, was elder son of Spencer Horatio Walpole [q. v.] by his wife Isabella, fourth daughter of Spencer Perceval, the prime minister. His younger brother. Sir Horatio George Walpole, was assistant under-secretary for India from 1883 to 1907.

Walpole's health in childhood was delicate, and it was chiefly on his account that his father, when the boy was six years old, moved with his family from London to Ealing for the sake of purer air. In the autumn of 1852 he was sent to Eton, where he became a favourite pupil of the Rev. William Gifford Cookesley [q. v.]. In 1854, when Cookesley left Eton, he changed to the pupil-room of William Johnson (afterwards Cory) [q. v. Suppl. I]. At Eton Walpole gained health and strength through rowing—becoming captain of a boat; to the effects of that exercise he attributed the excellent constitution which he enjoyed through life after an ailing childhood. Acceptance of office as home secretary in the short-lived administration of 1852 involved for Walpole's father the loss of a good practice at the bar, and for this reason the son, instead of being sent to a university on leaving Eton in 1857, became at the age of nineteen a clerk in the war office, achieving his first success in life by winning the first place in the preliminary examination. Though Walpole always regretted that he missed a university career, the loss allowed him, when his father again became home secretary in 1858, to gain an early insight into public life as his private secretary. He continued to hold the same position under Sotheran Estcourt, home secretary after the elder Walpole resigned in Jan. 1859. Estcourt on his retirement in the following June wrote to the head of the war office that almost his only regret in quitting office was that he lost Walpole as a companion of his work. Walpole resumed his duties at the war office until, on his father's return to the home office in 1866, he once more became his private secretary. Those were the years of the volunteer movement—the origin and significance of which Walpole afterwards described in his history. He entered with characteristic energy into the movement, taking his full share of the work of organisation at the war office, and himself joining the Ealing division. In March 1867 Walpole was appointed, on his father's recommendation, one of two inspectors of fisheries for England and Wales with a salary of 100l. a year. The income enabled him to marry, while the work with its promise of 'many a pleasant wandering by river, lake and sea-shore' was most congenial. His great practical ability gave every assurance of success in the performance of his duties. He was fortunate, too, in his colleague, Frank Buckland, the naturalist, whose energy and kindliness rivalled his own. Nevertheless these were difficult years. After his marriage he lived, when in London, in a small house in Coleshill Street, where he supplemented his official income by hard work for the press. Frederick Greenwood [q. v. Suppl. II], to whose suggestions he owed something in the formation of his literary style, had recently become editor of the newly founded 'Pall Mall Gazette,' and Walpole contributed, often in hours stolen from sleep, the financial articles. His domestic expenses were increasing, and there had been loss of money through failure of an investment. Happily, in the intervals of official work and journalism he made time to write the life of his grand-father, Spencer Perceval. This book, published in 1874, so pleased Lord Egmont, the head of the Perceval family, that he bequeathed 10,000l. to the author, and his speedy death brought Walpole into possession of this bequest. This turn of fortune enabled him to relinquish journalism and to devote himself to the chief achievement of his life—the ’History of England from 1815' — the first two volumes of which, appearing in 1878, quickly gave him rank as an historian.

Dislike of Beaconsfield's foreign policy, and whig sympathies derived from his historical studies, caused Walpole to recognise his true political convictions and to leave the Carlton Club. In April 1882 he was appointed by Gladstone governor of the Isle of Man. That post he held for nearly twelve years. His literary activity, though it was such as would have left to most men of letters little time for other occupation, was in no way checked by administrative duties efficiently discharged. In 1889 he published the official life of Lord John Russell — one of the best of political biographies. The history of England to 1856 appeared in its final form in 1890, when the last of the six volumes was published; in 1893 there followed a slim volume called 'The Land of Home Rule' — an essay on the history and constitution of the Isle of Man; and he contributed many articles to the 'Edinburgh Review.'

In 1893 Walpole left the Isle of Man on his appointment as secretary to the post office — a post which gave new opportunities to his aptitude for organisation and enabled him during his five years' tenure to effect lasting improvements in the British postal system. In 1897 he went as British delegate to the Postal Congress which met at Washington in that year, and was greatly interested by all that he heard and saw in America. A mutual attraction and respect marked his relations with Americans and led to the formation of friendships which he valued.

At the beginning of 1898, 'in recognition of his valuable public services,' Walpole was promoted to the rank of K.C.B.— an honour unduly delayed in the opinion of his friends. In Feb. 1899, to the regret of colleagues and subordinates, he left the post office, and early in the following year bought Hartfield Grove, a small property in Sussex pleasantly situated on the edge of Ashdown Forest.

In London, where he was very popular, Walpole had been warmly welcomed when he returned in 1893. Of versatile human interests, he won confidence and regard by his candour, modesty, consideration for others, and freedom from self-consciousness. Honours and compliments fell to him in abundance. In 1894 he had been elected president of the Literary Society — an office which his father had held for nearly thirty years, and he had been for some years a member of The Club when he was elected to Grillion's in May 1902. In 1904 he was given the honorary degree of D.Litt. at Oxford on Lord Goschen's installation as chancellor, and he was made a fellow of the British Academy. He was appointed chairman of the Pacific Cable Board in 1901 and chosen a director of the London and Brighton Railway Company in 1902. He was a valuable member of the committee of the London Library. A continuation of his history under the title of 'A History of Twenty-five Years (1856-1880)' appeared in 1904, and there were contributions from his pen in the 'Encyclopædia Britannica' and the 'Cambridge Modern History,' as well as in the 'Edinburgh Review.' At his country home he was made a magistrate, took much interest in his stock, and played golf. It was in the midst of these various activities that he was stricken down by cerebral hemorrhage and died at Hartfield Grove on 7 July 1907.

It is by his 'History of England from 1815,' brought down to 1880 in the four vols. of the 'History of Twenty-five Years,' that Walpole's name will be remembered. A knowledge derived from experience of the world which he describes, a high integrity of mind, the spirit of detachment, a just sense of proportion, an aptitude for the handling of statistics, with a perception of the right deductions to be drawn from them, and scrupulous accuracy, are high qualifications for the historian of recent events, and Walpole possessed them all. Like Macaulay he is at times too much inclined to accentuate his observations by the use of antithesis, and his generalisations, though interesting, are not always invulnerable when subjected to analysis, but, in the words of his friend, Sir Alfred Lyall, he has, in a style clear, level, and straight-forward, 'filled up, with distinguished merit and ability, large vacant spaces in the history of our country.' Though educated in a conservative atmosphere, he ultimately accepted a political philosophy which was more nearly that of Manchester than of other schools of thought. A believer in laissez faire, he was equally distrustful of toryism and of socialism. Walpole's chief publications were: 1. 'The Life of Spencer Perceval,' 1874. 2. 'The History of England from the Conclusion of the Great War in 1815 to 1856,' 6 vols. 1876-90. 3. 'The Life of Lord John Russell,' 2 vols. 1889. 4. 'The Land of Home Rule,' 1893. 6. 'The History of Twenty-five Years (1856-1880),' of which the first two volumes appeared in 1904, and the last two, incomplete, under the supervision of Sir Alfred Lyall in 1908. 6. 'Studies in Biography,' 1907. 7. 'Essays Political and Biographical,' with a short memoir by his daughter, posthumously in 1908. Besides these works he wrote two volumes for the 'English Citizen' series, viz. 'The Electorate and the Legislature' (1881) and 'Foreign Relations' (1882).

Walpole married on 12 Nov. 1867 Marion Jane, youngest daughter of Sir John Digby Murray, tenth baronet of Blackbarony, who survived him till 9 May 1912. He left an only daughter, married to Mr. Francis C. Holland.

An excellent portrait of Walpole, painted in later life by Mr. Hugh Riviere, is in the possession of his daughter.

[Private information; Proc. Brit. Acad. (by Sir Alfred C. Lyall), 1907-8, pp. 373-8; memoir prefixed to Essays Political and Biographical, 1908.]

F. C. H.