Department of History


The 'Grand Old Man' of Nottinghamshire

William Ewart Gladstone was Prime Minister of Britain and Ireland four times between 1868 and 1894, and in later life was popularly known as the ‘Grand Old Man’.

Returned to Parliament as MP for Newark, after the Great Reform Act of 1832, Gladstone retained connections with Nottinghamshire after he retired from his seat in 1846.  

This project explores Gladstone's connections with Nottinghamshire and provides new study materials available for schools and local history study groups.

Whilst much is known about Gladstone’s later political career and development, relatively little has been written on the formative early part of his political life in Nottinghamshire. 



Project overview and critical insights

Research themes cover issues of representation and democracy, the creation of political reputation and local estate and family connections.

The bicentenary of Gladstone’s birth (December 2009) provided an excellent opportunity to consider these research issues anew and present the findings to a wider public audience. To this end, the curator undertook the following research:

  • Transcription and editing of the diaries of Godfrey Tallents, Gladstone’s election agent at Newark in Nottinghamshire. The diaries are held privately by John Tallents, a family descendant and actor, who agreed to loan them for this research and for the exhibition.
  • Work on the Newark election song-book (Nottinghamshire Archives) to transcribe and contextualise the song lyrics and select telling extracts.
  • Further work on related printed and archive collections held at Nottingham University and Nottinghamshire Archives to uncover wider Gladstone-related links to the county, especially in respect of the planning and development of Nottingham Castle and Park.

The distinctiveness of the research is that, whilst much is known about Gladstone’s later political career and development, relatively little has been written on the formative early part of his political life (1832-1846) and none of it utilises the archival collections used here. Critical insights to emerge from the research were:

  • The importance of engaging constituents through electoral activity (canvassing, social events, influence or coercion) even where those constituents lacked formal political representation through the right to vote.
  • The symbolic and practical importance of electoral culture and activity (election songs, party colours or flags, physical confrontations between rival groups of supporters).
  • The continuing association between Gladstone and the county on multiple levels even after his formal political connection with the county ceased; in particular, his importance as a trustee of the Newcastle Estate in the development of Nottingham Castle and Park.
  • Gladstone’s enhanced public profile in satirical cartoons, advertising material and illustrated periodicals of the period.



Selected publications for the WE Gladstone project

  • Gaunt, Richard (ed.), Unhappy Reactionary: The Diaries of the Fourth Duke of Newcastle- under-Lyne, 1822-50 (Thoroton Society Record Series, vol. 43) (Nottingham, 2003) ISBN 0-902719-19-1 – key text informing genesis of the exhibition. Reviewed by Norman Gash in English Historical Review, Vol. 119 (Issue 483), September 2004, p.1072.
  • Gaunt, Richard (ed.), Politics, Law and Society in Nottinghamshire. The Diaries of Godfrey Tallents of Newark, 1829-1839 (Nottinghamshire County Council, 2010) ISBN 978-0- 902751-65-1 - Publication was in the Nottinghamshire County Council Local History series (1500 copy print-run) - promoted and sold through Nottinghamshire Libraries and Archives, in Newark, and online.
  • Gaunt, Richard, ‘Cheering the Member. Gladstone Election Songs at Newark’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, 114 (2010), 159-66 - discusses exhibition item in historical context (also reprinted in The Local History Magazine [2010] 17-21)
  • Gaunt, Richard and Wrigley, Chris, ‘William Ewart Gladstone. A bicentenary perspective’, Journal of Liberal History, 75 (Summer 2012), pp.4-20 – published versions of the two academic lunchtime talks given during the exhibition.
  • Gaunt, Richard, 'A Stern Unbending Tory and the Rising Young Hope: Gladstone, Newark and the Fourth Duke of Newcastle, 1832-46' in P. Francis (editor), The Gladstone Umbrella (Hawarden, 2001), pp. 14-35 – early research findings which informed focus on Gladstone as a constituency MP.
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Public engagement

Events and collaborations with the general public

‘W E Gladstone. The Grand Old Man in Nottinghamshire’ Exhibition, Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, University of Nottingham (11 December 2009-21 March 2010).

The exhibition comprised themed boards, which explored aspects of public image, commemoration and reputation in the life of Gladstone, and themed cases containing display items including original documents, facsimiles, artefacts and printed materials. Themes included:

  • Gladstone as MP for Newark (representation and democracy)
  • Gladstone and local families (estate collections)
  • Gladstone Election Songs and Printed Material

The exhibition was supported by three lunchtime lectures.

Following the Weston Gallery exhibition, consultation was provided for a smaller  Newark Town Hall Museum and a library touring exhibition, for which additional boards were created.

Local historical society talks

The exhibition was supported by approximately twelve evening talks and guest lectures to local historical societies in Nottinghamshire including the Nottinghamshire Archives (as part of their themed series on diaries) and at Southwell and District Local History Society.

School curriculum enrichment

The Weston Gallery education officer worked with Richard Gaunt to isolate core curriculum areas (such as citizenship, democracy, and the Victorians) for parties of school and FE college visitors. A learning activity sheet for all younger visitors to the exhibition was produced (including word-searches, empathy exercises etc.). The education officer also ran two schools days for local schools studying the Victorians as part of KS2. In addition, Gaunt spoke to a visiting group of thirty Sixth Form students about Gladstone (an A- Level curriculum subject).



Open educational resources

New educational materials were produced for the W.E. Gladstone: The 'Grand Old Man' in Nottinghamshire exhibition, including videos and poster displays. 

Gladstone's experience as MP for Newark (1832-46)

Gladstone's assorted connections with Nottinghamshire events and personalities after 1846.


Exhibition display boards

Schools and families activity sheet

The Red Club Song  (mp3)

As part of the project, Dr Gaunt worked on a neglected source, the Newark election song-book, held by Nottinghamshire Archives. The original song-book was displayed at the exhibition. A local singing group, Sempre, worked on a recording of one of the more distinctive songs. Using the original musical score and lyrics, they produced the version of downloadable here.

Gladstone Election Songs

In this ‘CampusCam’ video, recorded by Iain Botterill, Richard Gaunt talks about the importance of the election songs and how they feed into his wider research.


Gladstone opening lecture and exhibition talks podcasts (mp3)


Professor Chris Wrigley has provided a small collection of letters from Gladstone in the University's Manuscripts and Special Collections. Some of these can be viewed here along with a transcription document:

Letter dated 14 June 1852 PDF file icon 
Gladstone discusses election business as an MP for Oxford University.

Letter dated 27 September 1860 PDF file icon
Gladstone discussing a machanics institution during the period he was known as 'The People's William'.

Letter dated 19 May 1861 PDF file icon
Gladstone acknowledges receipt of the many complimentary books sent to him for enjoyment and edification.

Letter transcriptions PDF file icon  


Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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