Political letters from 1800s to be auctioned

A “UNIQUE” collection of letters from one of the most turbulent periods in British politics is to go under the hammer at a Scottish auction house after being found by chance in an old filing cabinet.

The letters reveal dissatisfaction with Prime Minister William Gladstone. Picture: Public Domain
The letters reveal dissatisfaction with Prime Minister William Gladstone. Picture: Public Domain

The collection of 44 letters, covering a period from 1882 to 1886, were written by leading radical Liberal politicians during the turmoil over Irish Home Rule which led to a devastating split in the Liberal Party and the creation of the breakaway Liberal Unionist Party.

The rebel movement was formed in 1886 by a breakaway faction led by the Duke of Devonshire and Government Minister Joseph Chamberlain, the father of wartime Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The Liberal rebels formed a political alliance with the Conservatives in opposition to Irish Home Rule.

The historic letters were found by chance by a 73 year-old Aberdeenshire pensioner after he bought an old filing cabinet for £10 at a previous auction sale. They are now being sold at the Elgin Auction Centre in Moray on Wednesday, 15 May.

A spokesman for the ANM Group, which owns the auction centre, explained: “All the letters were sent to Francis Schnadhorst, a Birmingham draper who became the first secretary of the National Liberal Federation and was regarded as a brilliant political organiser.

“They were written by leading political figures of the day including Joseph Chamberlain, Sir Charles Dilke, John Bright and Henry Labouchere. They give a remarkable insight into the bitter in-fighting in the Liberal Party with several criticising the then Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone over his stance in advancing Irish Home Rule.”

Chamberlain and Schnadhorst were political allies until they fell out over Home Rule and in one letter written by Chamberlain, after their fallout in April 1886, he states: “The Liberal Party is going forward to certain disaster unless some steps are taken immediately to reunite us by mutual concession.”

The ANM spokesman said: “Within two years Chamberlain had resigned from the Government and created the rival Liberal Unionist Association and continued to pursue his radical policies. Some of the letters also reveal that Schnadhorst went to Malta, Gibraltar and Australia to recover from ill health, although it may also have been to avoid giving evidence in a libel action in 1884 following the Aston riot in Birmingham when a Liberal mob attacked a Tory meeting in protest over Conservative opposition to redistributing Parliamentary constituencies. He was accused of helping organise the protest.

“One letter, written in December 1884 after the libel action, warns him: ‘Don’t come back yet as it will make it look as if you left on purpose when you did not.’”

Gordon Pirie, manager of the Elgin Auction Centre, said: “These letters were found by one of our regular customers in an old filing cabinet he bought somewhere else for £10. He is 73 years-old and has not been in good health recently so feels it is time to sell them.

“They are a fascinating snapshot of the politics of the time and there has already been interest shown in them.”

The formation of the breakaway Liberal Unionist Association marked the end of the domination of the Liberal Party at Westminster and the emergence of the Conservatives as the ruling Party in British politics.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Unionists formed a coalition government in 1895 but kept their own party organisations until a complete merger was agreed in May 1912 to form the Conservative and Unionist Party.