An exhibition examining the connections between the four-times Prime Minister William Gladstone and the county of Nottinghamshire begins today at The University of Nottingham’s Weston Gallery.
Curated by Dr Richard Gaunt of the University’s School of History in association with the Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections and the Nottinghamshire Archives, W.E. Gladstone: The Grand Old Man in Nottinghamshire features letters, handbills and contemporary illustrations recording his connections with the county throughout his life.
William Ewart Gladstone enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle in his early political career. He was elected MP for Newark in 1832 following the Great Reform Act — documents from this era show that elections were very different in this era than they are today. Diaries of Gladstone’s contemporaries, tickets, handbills and invitations record that he canvassed heavily in the area. The influence of the Duke of Newcastle ensured his candidacy, but unpopular local feeling about his patron meant that he could not assume the automatic support of the people.
The exhibition records Gladstone’s disgust at the standard election tactic of ‘treating’ — essentially bribery by another name. ‘Treating with drink’ described the provision of free ale to voters, a method that Gladstone disagreed with, and which fuelled election violence.
Though his political career took him away from Nottinghamshire, his links with the county remained. Though he fell out with the Duke of Newcastle, he remained friends with his son — the fifth Duke, (formerly Lord Lincoln) — who inherited in 1851. They were cabinet colleagues and switched political allegiance together, from Conservative to Liberal.
Lord Lincoln died in 1864, appointing Gladstone as one of the trustees of his estate. Here the politician’s links with Nottinghamshire flourished. Gladstone’s signature is on the documents instigating the development of Nottingham Castle and The Park estate. All works had to gain his approval, and he came to Nottingham regularly to carry out his duties.
In 1831 riots against the Duke of Newcastle’s opposition to the Reform Act saw Nottingham Castle burnt to the ground. This was a direct attack on its owner, the Duke, who left it derelict until his death in response. It was Gladstone, his former protégé, who oversaw the site’s conversion to a Museum of Fine Art which would eventually belong to the City of Nottingham.
A ceremony of special significance for Nottingham and the University took place in September 1877, when the foundation stone of University College, Nottingham was laid. Gladstone gave public speeches at the ceremony and at the Alexandra Rink later the same day. The event was given extensive media coverage, both locally and nationally. Unfortunately, Gladstone’s political commitments meant that he had to send his apologies when University College was formally opened in 1881.
Exhibition curator Dr Richard Gaunt said: “It is entirely appropriate that Nottingham should be commemorating the county’s enduring connections with Gladstone, who in later life was known as ‘the Grand Old Man’ of British politics. I hope that visitors to the exhibition will see how many resonances exist between the problems which engaged Gladstone in his lifetime and which, in many respects, continue to confront us today.”
WE Gladstone: The Grand Old Man of Nottinghamshire runs at the Lakeside Arts Centre’s Weston Gallery from Friday December 11 2009 to Sunday March 21 2010. A series of lunchtime talks will accompany the exhibition. For more information and for opening times, contact the Lakeside Box Office on 0115 846 7777 or visit www.lakesidearts.org.uk
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