In 1780, George Robinson’s grandfather Lord Grantham married Mary Gemima Grey Yorke, who was the daughter of the second Earl of Hardwicke. They had two sons who survived infancy: The elder, Thomas Phillip was born in 1781 and he inherited the title and estates when Grantham died in 1786. Additional inheritances, including the de Grey earldom and the magnificent Ripon estate of Studley Royal made him one of the greatest landowners in England. The younger brother Frederick John entered politics and went on to become Prime Minister, (albeit briefly) in the autumn and winter of 1827/28. It was during his father’s short tenure as Prime Minister that George Frederick Samuel Robinson was born, on the 24th October, 1827, at No. 10, Downing Street.
George’s schooling was given at his mother’s home, Nocton Hall in Lincolnshire and he attended neither school nor university. His mother’s first son had died soon after birth and a daughter (Elinor Henrietta) at the age of eleven. Unsurprisingly, Lady Sarah was very protective of George.
Ripon duly survived into adulthood and was married at the age of 24 to Henrietta Vyner, his cousin, the ceremony being held at the house of Earl de Grey in St. James Square, London. He came into his inheritance in 1859; this comprising not only his father’s estates, but his uncle’s too, including Studley Royal and Fountain’s Abbey.
The magnificent house of Studley Royal, which burned down in 1946.
The house of Studley Royal burned down in 1946 but the stables (now privately owned) survive. The grounds, a four-hundred acre deer park and one of the most beautiful water gardens in England, are in the ownership of the National Trust and open to the public.
Around 1849, Ripon, who had already developed ‘radical’ views, became inclined to enter politics. Europe at that time was still reeling from the great 1848 ‘year of revolutions’. The British government feared dissent and open rebellion by the people against the ruling aristocracy, who still held the controlling strings in both national and local politics. Ripon’s father therefore arranged for him to go on a diplomatic mission to Brussels. Perhaps he hoped that direct contact with a Europe in turmoil would dissuade his son from his radical viewpoint. On the contrary however, it further cemented it. On his return from Europe, and to his father’s horror, Ripon began to associate with the Christian Socialist movement.
In late 1851, Ripon was drawn out of his previously mainly academic and paternalistic politics into the moil of an industrial dispute: the ‘lock-out’ of the engineers. The Christian Socialists were here prominent by their appearances on worker’s platforms, their letters to newspapers, and by their many public lectures. After the collapse of the dispute in April 1852, Ripon turned his full attention to politics, convinced that the country needed to become more democratic, with the aristocratic hegemony broken and suffrage extended beyond the land owners and middle class.
Because of his opinions, Ripon’s uncle (the Earl de Grey) would neither sponsor him, nor provide him with a family ‘pocket borough’, (which was the usual route by which young aristocrats were entered into politics). Undeterred, Ripon stood as a parliamentary candidate for Hull, a tough, sea-faring borough with a reputation for corruption. Ripon, who took great pride in honest electioneering, was duly elected although he was unseated shortly afterwards when a campaign official was accused of bribery. It did not put him off however, and he re-entered the Houses of Parliament via the constituency of Huddersfield.
In parliament, Ripon became the de facto leader of the Goderichites, who took a particular interest in army and civil service reform, Indian and industrial affairs, and the abolition of privilege.
In January 1859, on his father’s death, Ripon was elevated to the House of Lords as the Earl of Ripon, later the Earl de Grey and Ripon.
In 1861, Ripon was appointed to the cabinet as Secretary for War, his term of office coinciding with the start of American Civil War (1861-5). He worked closely with Florence Nightingale to improve military hygiene and the status and role of medical officers.
By the time WE Gladstone returned to power in 1868, Ripon had established a reputation as an enlightened and efficient administrator. He was given the Lord Presidency of the Council, which allowed him to pursue another long-standing passion, educational reform, and particularly its provision to the lower classes.
A high-point of Ripon’s tenure in office within Gladstone’s administration was his work on the joint Anglo-American High Commission of 1871. The state of Anglo-American relations at the time was so low that war seemed inevitable. Underlying this was the failure of the British to understand the deep sense of grievance felt by the Americans over the fitting out of several Confederate ships in British ports at the time of the Civil War. The crisis reached its zenith over what were known as the Alabama claims. The British statute on neutral conduct, (the Foreign Enlistment Act, 1819), forbade the equipping, furnishing, fitting- out, or arming within British jurisdiction of vessels for the purpose of attacking the commerce of friendly powers, or the augmentation of ‘the warlike force’ of such vessels, but it did not expressly prohibit the building of such vessels.
Taking advantage of this loophole, Captain James D. Bulloch, the Confederate agent charged with such business, arranged with English shipbuilding firms for the construction of the Confederate cruisers Florida and Alabama and later the Shenandoah. In each case the ship was built but not equipped, fitted-out or armed in a British shipyard. Instead, they put to sea, where they were met by another ship bringing armament, officers, and crew.
The United States also held that Great Britain had violated the principles of neutrality by permitting confederate cruisers to undertake replenishment and repair in ports of the British Empire.
With Canada at risk from an aggressive United States, Britain was facing the possibility of war on two fronts. Into the midst of this, Ripon was dispatched as Chairman of the Joint Commission. Ripon’s conciliatory approach won widespread praise and he succeeded in quickly diffusing the crisis. Tanterden, who was the secretary to the British commissioners remarked upon: ‘...the very able way in which (Lord) Ripon conducts the discussion. He never loses temper, never presses an advantage too far and hits hard whenever required... and is wonderfully quick in catching at, and making his points’.
For Britain’s failure to exercise "due diligence" over the Alabama, the Florida and the Shenandoah, she agreed to pay £3 million in reparations. The ‘Washington Treaty’ was a landmark in the history of international law and lead to much improved relations between the two nations. In addition, it enabled the withdrawal of the British from North America without conflict, whilst leaving Canada intact. For his role in the treaty, Ripon was given a marquisate and in 1871 became the 1st Marquess of Ripon.
In August 1873 Lord Ripon resigned from Gladstone’s government, partly because the great reform ministry had effectively run its course, but also because of personal troubles. His mother, to whom he was devoted, died in 1867; F.D. Maurice, his great political mentor, died in 1872; in 1870, his brother-in-law was massacred by Greek brigands and in 1873 his son came close to death.
In September 1874 there was a development in lord Ripon’s life, which I use as a major plot-line in The Satyr’s Dance. Lord Ripon announced his conversion to Catholicism, something that took society and even his closest friends by complete surprise. He had been an active Freemason for over twenty years, even rising, in 1870, to become its Grand Master. However, his religious conversion prompted not only his resignation from the Freemasons but also his stern direction to his gardener that his Masonic regalia be burned.
When Ripon was formally received into the Catholic Church on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin on 8 September 1874, the outcry from press and pulpit, and the dismay of Gladstone himself, effectively ended his political career.
The Viceroy of India.
The spring of 1880 saw the return of the Liberals to power, with Gladstone again at their head. Lord Ripon was offered, and accepted, the position of Viceroy of India. He personally disliked imperial rule and anticipated to its eventual demise. Pursuant to this, he strived towards a greater ‘native’ participation in local government. Self-government was one of Ripon’s most cherished political principles.
Ripon also re-established the freedom of the press in India. A free press, subject only to registration, had been the norm in India since 1853, and was only temporarily suspended during the 1857/8 Uprising. However in 1878, Lord Lytton curbed the indigenous press, and printers and publishers were obliged to give bonds and submit proofs for local government inspection before they were permitted to go to press.
Ripon is often credited for laying the foundations of a future independent India and is still held in high regard in the subcontinent.
After Ripon returned to England in January 1885, he was appointed 1st Lord of the Admiralty (1886) and, in 1892, Colonial Secretary, an office he held until 1895 under both Gladstone and Earl Rosebery. (From 1895 to 1902 the Liberals were in opposition against the Conservatives under the Marquess of Salisbury).
Lord Privy Seal.
After the revival of Liberal fortunes in 1903, Ripon became Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords. He acquired a renewed enthusiasm for political life, being charged at almost eighty years of age to lead the small band of Liberal peers against the entrenched Conservative majority. He resigned from office in 1908, citing his advanced age and failing health.
Lord Ripon also served for many years as Chairman of the Guardians of Ripon Union Workhouse. Ripon workhouse was well-known amongst the county’s vagrants as one of the better ‘spikes’. It had a reputation for paternalism and kindliness which undoubtedly reflected Lord Ripon’s own nature. Indeed, regular excursions were arranged for the pauper inmates to the Studley Royal estate, a short walk from the city, which must have been an exciting and much appreciated break from their toilsome existence. This perhaps as much as anything illustrates the depth of the man’s humanity.
Lord Ripon died at Studley from heart failure in July 1909. He is interred at St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal.
St Mary's Church at Studley Royal.
The Satyr's Dance, Gary Dolman, May 2016.