Correspondence of Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire

Scope and Content

This collection of political and personal correspondence largely comprises letters to and from Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire (SCC), 1833-1908, and fellow politicians, royalty, family members and other associates between 1841 and 1908. From June 1859 onwards this correspondence gives a more or less continuous history of SCC's political career.

The types of material in this collection include: letters (both handwritten and early examples of typed); telegrams; a photograph; sketches; memoranda; official certificates and awards; and newspaper cuttings.

The collection contains correspondence received and sent in relation to SCC's roles as: Captain of Furness Yeomanry (1850s); Patron of Lancaster Society (1865); Civil Lord of the Admiralty (1863); Under-Secretary of State for War (1863); Secretary of State for War (1866, 1882-1885); Postmaster General (1868-1871); Chief Secretary for Ireland (1871-1874); Secretary of State for India (1880-1882); President of the Board of Education (1900-1902); Lord President of the Council (1895-1903); Chancellor of the University of Cambridge (1892-1903); President of the British Empire League (1894-); Chancellor of Manchester University (1907-1908); Member of Parliament (1857-1891), Leader of the Liberal Party (1875-1880), and Leader of the Liberal Unionist Party (1886-1891) in the House of Commons; and Leader of the Liberal Unionist Party (1891-1903), Leader of the Conservative Party (1902-1903) and Leader of the Lords (1902-1903) in the House of Lords.


Correspondents who feature prominently in this collection include: William Ewart Gladstone, 1809-1898; Granville George Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville, 1815-1891; Joseph Chamberlain, 1836-1914; John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, 1835-1910; Queen Victoria, 1819-1901; Garnet Joseph Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley, 1833-1913; Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, 1830-1903; George Joachim Goschen, 1st Viscount Goschen, 1831-1907; Thomas George Baring, 1st Earl of Northbrook, 1826-1904; Sir William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt, 1827-1904; Michael Edward Hicks Beach, 1st Earl St Aldwyn, 1837-1916; Henry Bouverie William Brand, 1st Viscount Hampden, 1814-1892; Reginald Baliol Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher, 1852-1930; John George Brabazon Ponsonby, 5th Earl of Bessborough, 1809-1880; Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, 1819-1904; Edward VII, 1841-1910; George John Douglas Campbell, 8th and 1st Duke of Argyll, 1823-1900; Henry James, 1st Baron James of Hereford, 1828-1911; Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, 1874-1965; Francis and William Currey (lawyers and land agents).

As well as politicians, family and royalty, correspondents include: newspaper editors; artists; land agents; local campaigners; members of the public; constituents; authors; deans of universities; gentry; other aristocrats; military officers; foreign representatives and royalty; associations; doctors; lawyers and clergymen.


The correspondence includes reference to: the opening of Crystal Palace (1851); the Duke of Wellington's funeral (1851); SCC's trip to Lismore, Ireland (September 1855); SCC's trip to Russia, via Copenhagen for the coronation of Alexander II (1856); SCC's trip to North America to Confederate lines during the Civil War (1862-3); Fenianism in the Army (1866-1871); General Elections (1868, 1874, 1880, 1885, 1886); by-elections in Ireland and England; the withdrawal of troops from Lismore (1867); the Irish Church Bill (1869); the Land Bill (1870); the "Admiralty Circular" publication of 1871 and the topic of fugitive enslaved people on board British Naval ships being returned abroad to owners (1871); parliamentary responses to the "Admiralty Circular" concerning the treatment of fugitive enslaved people (1871); Irish policy on liquidation (1871); British dealings with Russia in relation to the decline of the Ottoman Empire (from 1874) referred to in the correspondence as the "Eastern Question"; the case of Valentine Baker Pasha and the petition to reinstate him (1874); Alexander II's Turkish War (1877-1878); the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880); negotiations with Afghan rulers and the agreement with Abdur Rahaman and retreat of British troops despite the disapproval of Queen Victoria (1880); the Duke of Argyll's resignation over the Liberal party's policy on Ireland (1880); affairs in the India Office especially relating to the perceived threat to British control of India from Russia (1880); the Mahdist War and Sudanese campaign (1881-1899) including policy in Egypt, the Siege of Khartoum and proposed relief of General Charles Gordon (1884); communication between military command in Egypt and the Government (1884); the "Kilmainham Treaty" and correspondence between Parnell and Katharine O'Shea (1882); the Phoenix Park Murders including Lord Frederick Cavendish (1882); the Third Reform Act and franchise and redistribution of MP seats (1884); the death of General Gordon and the publication of his letters (1885); the Harwarden Kite affair (1885); the Government of Ireland Bill - the first Home Rule bill (1886); the creation of the Liberal Unionist Party and SCC's joining of it (1886); SCC's transition to the House of Lords (1891); the Royal baccarat scandal/ Tranby-Croft affair (1891); the proposed purchase of the Leeds Mercury newspaper (1893); the second Irish Home Rule bill (1893); Evicted Tenants Bill and Aliens Bill (1894); discussions with the Queen over the dissolution of Parliament (1894); the Venezuela Crisis (1896); the Boer War (1899-1902); the Samoan Crisis (1899); the death of Queen Victoria (1901); the coronation of Edward VII (1901); the Education Act (1902); the Tariff Reform vs. free trade; India and the preferential tariff reform controversy (1903); the Free Trade Manifesto (1905); and the Education Bill (1905).

Family & Estates

Although the correspondence is largely political in nature, references to events relating to the Cavendish family and their estates include: the personal finances of SCC as discussed with his lawyer Currey; a fire at Holker Hall (1871); the appointment of some new staff including keepers of the estates; financial dealings with Paxton after the death of the 6th Duke of Devonshire; the marriage of Lady Louisa Cavendish to Admiral Egerton (1865) and the birth of Louisa's first child (1868); the death of Henry Howard; the death of Lord Frederick Cavendish and the Phoenix Park murder trial (1882); the repatriation of the Duke of Manchester's body from Italy (1890); the possible sale of Chiswick and work at Compton Place (1890); the ill-health and death of Lord Edward Cavendish and subsequent details of financial arrangements/provisions for his widow and children including the restructuring of estates and the route of succession to the Dukedom (1891); Victor Cavendish (future 9th Duke)'s election (1891); the ill-health and death of the 7th Duke of Devonshire (1891); the marriage of SCC to Louisa, Dowager Duchess of Manchester (1892); the threat to Chatsworth estate from succession duties/ taxation including an estimate of duties payable (1894); Historic Manuscripts Commission enquiry about historic papers of the family (1894); Lord John Cavendish's wish to be sent to South Africa (1899); and Lord Frederick Egerton's leg amputations and death (1899).


The correspondence illuminates parliamentary affairs during SCC's career including the minutiae of protocol in the Houses of Parliament and parliamentary tactics. There is also much written about diplomatic negotiations that were carried out by SCC and his colleagues. Debate speeches; political offices; petitions; resignations from cabinet; new appointments and peerages; bills; and acts of parliament are all discussed in detail with the opinions of the correspondents on these subjects forming the main content of some letters. There is also much comment on party politics relating to the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Unionist Party which was formed over the differing opinions on Irish Home Rule within the Liberal Party.

Irish Home Rule and the effect of this subject on SCC's relationship with Gladstone and other politicians (also against the idea) is made clear through Gladstone's correspondence with SCC. Irish land reform, the army, universities and the Church are also covered in this collection. In their correspondence SCC presses Gladstone for his opinions on the government of Ireland and dissects their differences of opinion.

Elections and campaigning are another well-covered theme of this correspondence and there is reference to campaigning for seats; the logistics of 19th-century campaigning; delivering campaign speeches; planning the most appropriate candidate likely to win in each seat; and letters of support or requests for it. The letters also capture political advice SCC sought from his father and mentors such as Granville in relation to election campaigning and his own role as a mentor to younger politicians in his later career.

The relationship SCC and British politicians had with the press is also evident in these letters. It is clear from them that SCC had influence over what was published and when, and to some extent was in control of what information was leaked relating to affairs such as the war in Sudan in the 1880s. His own interest in a consortium of ownership of the Leeds Mercury and Manchester Guardian are also topics of his correspondence.

The substantial influence that the Royal family had on the political affairs of the day is a theme that runs through much of the correspondence. It shows the close working relationship between Prince George, Duke of Cambridge as Head of the Army and SCC as Secretary of State for War etc. Queen Victoria's letters and those of her secretary, Ponsonby, feature prominently in this collection and show the level of detail in which she meddled with political affairs - from commenting on the movement of troops to vetoing the colour of military uniforms. It also illuminates the close relationship between SCC and Edward VII (and other Cavendish family members) on a political and personal level.

Money and finance, both government and personal, are another theme of this collection. This includes loans between aristocrats; government finance in relation to war; a proposed royal residence in Ireland; salaries of government ministers; business dealings including shares in various consortiums or companies; inheritance taxes and livings.

Possibly the widest theme of this correspondence is the influence of British colonial power on global events of the day ranging from Ireland across the British Empire and beyond it. The letters here show this influence specifically through the lens of the British Government and its ministers responsible for many of the decisions made in this fifty-year period of the mid-late 19th century. This is covered by formal government policies and also 'off the record' political discussions and opinions. The letters show the wariness and nervousness of politicians as they navigated the beginning of the decline of the British Empire and with it the need to be seen to maintain British prestige on the world stage. The letters discuss states such as Russia, the United States, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt, China, Afghanistan, France and Germany. It is evident how the delay caused by the means of communication (letters and telegrams) affected perceptions of situations on the ground and therefore impacted Government decision-making. Together these letters provide a rich resource on some of the most important foreign policies of the day relating to Sudan, Afghanistan, Russia, Egypt, India and Ireland that still have repercussions today for the UK's political dealings and decisions on the global stage.

The correspondence provides a picture of the 8th Duke's political manouevrability; his interaction with fellow politicians and royalty; his social interests (such as horse racing, hunting, attending balls at Kimbolton); his patronage of Cambridge University, artists, societies, building projects etc; and his relationship with his family. His correspondence shows he was not afraid to have a difference of opinion and that he often used his diplomatic skill in the varied roles he took on as a politician.

Administrative / Biographical History

Spencer Compton Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington and 8th Duke of Devonshire (1833-1908), was born on 23 July 1833 at Holker Hall, Lancashire, the eldest son of William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Burlington and afterwards 7th Duke of Devonshire (1808-1891), and his wife, Lady Blanche Georgiana (b. 1812). His mother died on 27 April 1840, leaving also two younger sons, Frederick and Edward, and a daughter, Louisa.

Education, the turf, lovers, and early political career

The sons were educated at home. Known at first as Lord Cavendish, he was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, at 18, in 1851. Without much reading he gained a second class in the mathematical tripos of 1854, graduating MA the same year. During the following three years he led the life of a young man of high social position. In January 1858 his cousin, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, died. Cavendish's father succeeded to the dukedom and estates, and he himself became Marquess of Hartington, the name by which he became famous (frequently shortened, in political gossip, to Harty or Harty-Tarty, though to his family he remained Cav or Cavvy).

Hartington quickly discovered an addiction to the turf, and many of his happiest hours were spent at Newmarket, where he later built himself a house. He spent lavishly on horse-breeding. He was also a keen shot and bridge player. Hartington continued to indulge these tastes throughout life, playing bridge most days until the small hours at one of his clubs (the Turf, the Travellers', and Brooks) and rising late. From a young age he was a member of the social circle of the prince of Wales, later Edward VII. His high social position worked together with his natural secretiveness to obscure from contemporaries and posterity much of his early private life, though he is known to have had a long and deeply felt affair with the young society courtesan Catherine Walters (Skittles) (1839-1920) between 1859 and 1863.

His habits of life were not viewed favourably by his father, on whom Hartington remained financially dependent until he was 58 (receiving a regular allowance and periodic debt settlements). Parental influence, in two senses, led to his return to parliament for North Lancashire as a Liberal and a supporter of Lord Palmerston in 1857. He was appointed junior Lord of the Admiralty by Palmerston in March 1863 and Under-Secretary at the War Office two months later. Palmerston, who influenced Hartington's political outlook greatly, died in 1865. In February 1866 Hartington became Secretary of State for war in Lord Russell's brief administration, thus entering the cabinet in his 34th year.

In the early 1860s Hartington formed a lifelong attachment to Louise Montagu, Duchess of Manchester (1832-1911), the daughter of Count von Alten of Hanover. Her husband, the 7th Duke of Manchester, did not die until 1890, and in 1892 she married her long-term lover. For nearly 30 years, therefore, Hartington combined a bachelor lifestyle with an adulterous affair which was common knowledge in aristocratic circles, though successfully shielded from the world at large at a time when it would almost certainly have damaged his political prospects. He sometimes accompanied the duke and duchess abroad, but in public in England he and she always addressed each other formally.

Like a number of Lancashire Liberals, Hartington lost his seat at the general election of December 1868. Gladstone, the new Liberal leader, offered him the post of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, which he declined. He accepted instead the office of Postmaster-General, with a seat in the cabinet, and in early 1869 obtained a new seat from the Radnor boroughs in Wales. His chief work as Postmaster-General was the nationalization of the telegraphs. In 1869 he was appointed chairman of the select committee appointed to investigate parliamentary and municipal electioneering. Following its report in 1870 he introduced the first of three government bills to establish voting by ballot. The proposal became law in 1872. He himself was a reluctant convert to the need for secrecy in voting.

Irish secretary

At the end of 1870 Hartington, much against his will, became Chief Secretary for Ireland, a job which required him to spend long periods away from his mistress and from London society. His acceptance indicated the extent of his commitment to politics. It also brought him into daily contact with the Irish problem at a time when it was beginning to pose a severe strain on British, and especially Liberal, politics. The Devonshires owned 60,000 acres in Cork and Waterford, and Hartington was naturally conscious of the need to defend the security of Irish property. He never wavered in his belief that the firm administration of law was the prerequisite of peace, stability, and prosperity in Ireland, and the primary duty of Liberal government. His first major act as Chief Secretary was to urge the suspension of habeas corpus in co. Westmeath in early 1871 in response to the campaign of agrarian outrages known as Ribbonism. Anxious to prevent the extension of priestly control over Irish education, he staunchly defended the mixed national education system and the independence of the protestant Trinity College, Dublin. He strongly disliked Gladstone's proposal of 1873 to reform Irish university education by subordinating Trinity to a federal university examining board, which Roman Catholic colleges might dominate and which had the option to restrict the scope of examination in deference to Catholic susceptibilities. The scheme was defeated in parliament, leading to the government's temporary resignation. Hartington's view was that the future stability and prosperity of Ireland would best be secured by encouraging investment, and to that end he argued in vain that the state should purchase and run the Irish railway network.

Liberal leader in the Commons, and political creed

The Liberal government was defeated at the general election of 1874. In early 1875 Gladstone announced his retirement as Liberal leader in the Commons, and on 3 February, despite his reluctance, Hartington was elected his successor at a party meeting held at the Reform Club. This was, not least, because he was almost the only cabinet minister to have enhanced his reputation during the 1868-74 government. Many Liberals also considered that Gladstone's Irish, religious, and foreign policy had alienated too many propertied voters and that a move in the direction of a more Palmerstonian approach would help to restore electoral confidence in the party. And Hartington's lack of clerical sympathies reassured those nonconformists who were hostile to the only serious rival candidate, W. E. Forster, on account of the privileges conferred on church schools by his 1870 Education Act.

Hartington developed a quiet mastery of the post by the same qualities of hard work, fair-mindedness, and independence of thought that he was to demonstrate in all the offices he held. He was not a natural orator; one wit dubbed him 'Lieder ohne Worte'. But his speeches quickly became effective; they were clear, incisive, unpretentious, and unvarnished, and they exuded trustworthiness. The years 1875-80, in opposition, were difficult for the Liberals, not least because of an internal difference of opinion about how to respond to the 1874 defeat. Some, like Hartington, argued that a Conservative spirit was dominant in the nation and that the Liberals would remain united and recover power only by patience and consolidation. But others believed that the Conservative victory did not reflect public feeling and that the Liberals could build a majority by arousing popular fervour. The young Birmingham radical Joseph Chamberlain took this view. So, though nominally in retirement, did Gladstone, and his behaviour, especially on foreign policy, was a severe trial to Hartington.

Disraeli's foreign policy aimed to strengthen imperial sentiment at home and British prestige abroad. Hartington did not object to these goals, and thought that opposition to them would be politically counter- productive. For this reason his criticism, in 1876, of the purchase of the Suez Canal shares and the bestowal on Queen Victoria of the title empress of India was limited. However, he did not approve of Disraeli's presentation of imperial policy, which he thought placed too much emphasis on empty pomp and display. His view was rather that the colonies were maturing, at various speeds, into a loose federation of progressive self-governing communities which would be beacons of commercial and constitutional liberalism, spreading 'all over the world the language, the civilisation, the laws and the customs of England'.

On the Eastern question, which dominated politics between 1876 and 1878, Hartington criticized Disraeli's pursuit of grandeur, taking the view that Britain should have co-operated with the European powers in order to force through reforms in Ottoman administration of her European provinces, rather than ostentatiously breaking ranks and so bolstering Constantinople's intransigence. But he could not accept Gladstone's suggestion that the European provinces should be given autonomy, believing that the mixture of races there would provoke conflict, perpetuate instability, and encourage Russian penetration. And he was alarmed at the agitation mounted by provincial Liberals against Turkish misrule in Europe (which Gladstone inflamed). In his eyes it elevated sentimental above informed and pragmatic judgements of British and European interests in the region, and it looked damagingly unpatriotic, especially after England's traditional bête noire, Russia, declared war on Turkey in April 1877. Both in May 1877 and in the spring of 1878 Hartington refused to accept that there were no circumstances in which British military support of Turkey against Russia would be justified. The Liberal parliamentary party split at these times, a substantial number of MPs following Gladstone in a rigidly anti-Turkish viewpoint. However, Hartington regained control of the situation after the congress of Berlin of 1878, taking the view that the government was unwise to commit Britain single-handedly to maintaining the integrity of the Ottoman empire, given the impossibility of forcing through administrative reforms, and that the only viable solution was for the powers to deal with Turkey in concert. This policy, balancing pragmatism and moralism, maintained party unity in the approach to the 1880 election. At that election Hartington also condemned the aggrandizing impulsiveness which he felt had led the government into the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80), and developed a general critique of Conservative foreign policy-that it sought to dazzle voters with empty, foolish, and costly gestures. He claimed that the government had lowered the standing of parliament, both by marginalizing its input into foreign policy and by failing to maintain a regular diet of useful legislation to meet domestic grievances.

Though an electioneering gambit, this argument accurately reflected Hartington's constitutional outlook. He never deviated from the Whig view in which he was educated, that a vigorous parliament, active in legislative reform, was the key to the working of the British constitution, forcing government to take account of public demands, but filtering those demands in the course of discussion by independently minded men of property and education. However, Hartington did not think that parliament was now the only important forum for discussion of reforms, in the light of the growth of the press, elected local authorities, voluntary bodies, and the professions, all of which played valuable roles in shaping opinion and demonstrated the welcome pluralism of British public life. In an inaugural address as Lord Rector of Edinburgh University in 1879 he argued that the health of the British polity depended on the continuation of this diffusion of effective power among a great variety of free associations of informed people, but that this placed a heavy responsibility on the universities to train future members of these agencies. He urged a training in scientific and philosophical method, as most likely to cultivate the independence of mind and disciplined imagination that the prominent men of the future would need in order to resist 'clamour and exaggeration' and to supply cogent, disinterested leadership.

In November 1877 he told the advocates of Scottish disestablishment and temperance reform that they must 'induce their Countrymen to agree' with them by a reasoned campaign of persuasion. Nor did he consider it his place, as leader of the whole parliamentary party, to associate with the National Liberal Federation set up by Joseph Chamberlain, which at this stage represented a selection of the large borough constituencies and sought to generate a policy programme out of the views of local activists in those places. At the 1880 election Hartington sought to rally the Liberal Party by a three-pronged attack on landed complacency. The extension of household franchise to the counties would weaken the grip of the tory squirearchy and make more Commons seats available for representatives of landed Liberal families.

Secretary for India, and for war

The Liberals won the election and Queen Victoria invited Hartington, who had been returned MP for North-East Lancashire, to form a government. However, Gladstone, who had dominated press coverage of the election owing to his speeches in Midlothian, told him that, as a former prime minister, he would not serve in cabinet beneath him. At this moment, the most crucial in his career, Hartington's diffidence overcame him. Sensitive to the difficulties of disciplining the party at any time, he rejected the notion of leading a government of which Gladstone might well become a back-bench critic. Instead, Gladstone became prime minister on 23 April.

Hartington was appointed Secretary of State for India. His most important work in this post was to help settle the Afghan question. Amir Abdurahman was installed in power and all the British forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan, except from the Sibi and Pishin frontier districts, which with Quetta were permanently added to the empire.

On 16 December 1882 Hartington became Secretary of State for War-soon after the virtual establishment of the British protectorate over Egypt, for which he had argued vigorously. In January 1884 the British government decided to send General Charles George Gordon to superintend the Egyptian army's safe evacuation from the Sudan after it had encountered trouble from the forces of the Mahdi. Hartington, together with Lord Granville, the foreign secretary, was most responsible for this decision. Gordon's duties were defined imprecisely, partly because Hartington and Lord Wolseley, the adjutant-general, on whose military advice he relied heavily, doubted the practicability of the swift disengagement for which others in the government hoped. When it became apparent in March that peaceful evacuation had become impossible, and that Khartoum and Berber were threatened by the Mahdi, Hartington, supported by strong memoranda from Wolseley, repeatedly urged the Prime Minister and the cabinet as strongly as he could to prepare a relief expedition. Opposed throughout by Gladstone, he was unable to induce the cabinet to agree to do so until the end of July 1884, and then only by a threat of resignation. Consequently Wolseley's expedition-sent by the War Office up the Nile, contrary to the advice of those on the spot-arrived near Khartoum just too late to save that city from capture and Gordon from death on 26 January 1885. The government decided at first to retake Khartoum, and in parliament on 25 February Hartington pledged himself to this policy in the strongest terms, believing that the reputation of the Empire, not least among its Muslim subjects, was affected by it. But the feeling died away; the momentary probability of a war with Russia in connection with the Afghan frontier enabled Gladstone to withdraw from the undertaking, which he had never liked; and Hartington had the mortification of seeing the complete abandonment of the Sudan, resisting in vain the proposal to evacuate even the province of Dongola, which had not as yet fallen to the Mahdi. In retrospect Hartington considered the Sudan episode to be the most shameful which he had ever witnessed in politics.

Domestic politics, distrust of Gladstone, and the Liberal split

This imperial crisis intensified Hartington's unhappiness at the state of domestic politics, which had been manifest throughout the early 1880s; more than once he talked of retiring. One difficulty in these years was the impending democratization of the electoral system due towards the end of the government's term of office. Chamberlain exploited the uncertainty over the consequences, presenting himself as the exponent of a new programmatic politics. Hartington was angry at Chamberlain's behaviour and tone, which he considered were creating unrealizable expectations among poorer voters, but he lacked confidence that his own brand of politics could compete. So from the early 1880s he was thrown back on the defensive, and was generally seen as the leader of a whiggish section of the party. In this guise he opposed, in late 1883, the proposal to separate the franchise and redistribution parts of the electoral reform package, fearing that the latter would then be determined by a more democratically elected parliament. This did not happen, but more small boroughs were disfranchised in the Redistribution Act of 1885 than he wished.

The dominance of the Irish question increased Hartington's defensiveness in these years. Indeed his anxiety about electoral reform in 1883-4 was largely caused by concern that the protestant minority in Ireland would be swamped in a more democratic representative system. Since 1880 Hartington had been a strong supporter of coercive measures to check agrarian crime and the power of the Land League. The regime of violence culminated in the assassination of his brother, Lord Frederick Cavendish, the new Chief Secretary for Ireland, on 6 May 1882. Though Hartington characteristically did not vent his feelings in public, this tragedy, and the serious threat of continuing agitation, strengthened his view that it would at present be 'madness' for Britain to diminish her responsibility for order in Ireland by granting significant power to locally elected bodies. In 1885 Hartington and his cabinet allies successfully resisted Chamberlain's scheme for a central board and elected county boards throughout Ireland.

One reason why Hartington never carried out his half-threats to resign was the fear that it would throw Gladstone, and the party, more into the hands of Chamberlainite elements. However, the situation changed by the end of 1885. Gladstone's administration was defeated in parliament and resigned in June; Lord Salisbury formed a minority Conservative government, upheld by Parnell's Irish nationalists; and an election late in the year removed the Liberals' majority. Chamberlain's exuberant radical rhetoric was largely blamed for this, and his position vis-à-vis Hartington (who was returned for the new division of Rossendale in Lancashire) was weakened. Meanwhile, the fact that the Parnellites held the balance of power enabled Gladstone to avoid retirement and instead to recover office by embarking on a policy of home rule for Ireland. Most of the members of the previous Liberal cabinet decided to follow him, but a minority, led by Hartington, declined to accept office in the government which he formed in February 1886 after defeating Salisbury in parliament. On the introduction of the Home Rule Bill (8 April), Hartington declared his opposition to it. He insisted that Britain had a responsibility to secure law and order in Ireland and to protect property-not least that of protestants with capital to invest in economic development.

Gladstone claimed that his scheme guaranteed the continuing supremacy of the imperial parliament over Irish affairs, but Hartington regarded this as naïve. Hartington's opposition was assisted by Chamberlain, and on 8 June 1886 the bill was defeated on a second reading by a majority of 30, with 94 Liberal MPs voting against it. Gladstone obtained a dissolution of parliament, leading the dissident Liberals to form a distinct Liberal Unionist group under Hartington's leadership and to fight the ensuing election in tandem with the Conservatives.

Liberal Unionism, dukedom, and marriage

The 1886 election returned 316 Conservatives and 78 Liberal Unionists. Salisbury, with Queen Victoria's warm encouragement, asked Hartington to form a coalition government or, alternatively, to serve under him in one. Hartington was tempted, because he was worried that the Conservatives, governing alone, would be too weak to resist Irish pressure. But he feared that acceptance would split the Liberal Unionists and encourage Chamberlain and others to revert to the Gladstonian fold, imperilling the Union; while he had not yet abandoned the hope that Gladstone might retire, allowing him to return to the Liberal Party as leader on a Unionist basis. Salisbury renewed the proposal in January 1887, after the crisis due to the sudden resignation of Lord Randolph Churchill; but Hartington again rejected it, for the same reasons. During the next five years Hartington continued with the strategy of keeping the Conservatives in power in order to uphold the Union, while hoping that this might force the Liberals to abandon home rule. However Gladstone did not retire, and the breach between the two Liberal factions widened owing to the government's strict public order policies in Ireland, which Gladstone opposed in an emotional and contentious manner. As a result, by 1891 the bond between Conservatives and Liberal Unionists was much stronger.

On 21 December of that year Hartington became 8th Duke of Devonshire on his father's death and so left the House of Commons. He became leader of Liberal Unionism in the House of Lords, while Chamberlain led in the Commons. With Salisbury confirmed as leader of the whole coalition by the events of 1895, Devonshire's position was from now on that of an influential elder statesman. This was assisted by his marriage on 16 August 1892 to the Dowager Duchess of Manchester, because she developed Devonshire House and Chatsworth as prestigious social centres. Probably the most famous festivity was the historic fancy-dress ball given at Devonshire House in 1897, in celebration of the diamond jubilee, which was regarded as the most splendid London social event for over 20 years (the duke himself appeared as the emperor Charles V).

When, after three years in opposition to an ineffective Liberal government, the Unionists returned to power in June 1895, Salisbury offered five cabinet posts to the Liberal Unionists. A strong coalition government was formed, which lasted until Salisbury's resignation in 1902. The Duke declined the foreign secretaryship. Instead he became Lord President of the Council, with particular responsibilities for the two political problems which most interested him for the remainder of his career, imperial defence and education.

In 1890 the Duke had presided over a royal commission which identified weaknesses in defence planning. From 1895 he was chairman of a cabinet committee on defence set up in order to tackle these weaknesses, though its powers were inadequately defined, the service chiefs were not members, and it was unable to overcome obstruction in the individual defence departments. The Duke also chaired the committee which oversaw the conduct of the South African War. The progress of the war intensified concern about the lack of co-ordination in defence matters, and the defence committee meeting that he chaired in December 1902 drew up proposals to strengthen itself. During 1903 and 1904 these ideas bore fruit and a new committee of imperial defence evolved, including military advisers from outside the cabinet and, by invitation, colonial governors and dominion ministers. Devonshire chaired the committee until he resigned from the government in October 1903. He was also president of the British Empire League, formed in 1894 to promote harmony between the countries of the Empire through informal discussion of problems of defence, communications, and commerce.

As Lord President of the Council Devonshire was in charge of government educational policy. He headed that group which believed that the state must respond to international competition by establishing a systematic policy for secondary education, for which it had not taken responsibility up to that point. After several abortive attempts, local education authorities for secondary education were established by the 1902 Education Act. The Duke was the politician most responsible for this act, and in particular for insisting that it should also deal with elementary education. As introduced, it encouraged the transfer of responsibility from school boards to local education authorities. In the interests of efficiency, authorities would, where established, also maintain the voluntary schools, which educated half of English schoolchildren. These had previously been funded not by the rates but by central government, because nonconformists had objected to paying from their rates for Anglican teaching. Characteristically, Devonshire rejected the argument of Chamberlain that the threat of agitation by partisan dissenters should obstruct the furtherance of a national interest. Indeed, during its passage the bill was amended in the direction of uniformity, so that all localities were required to set up local education authorities with these duties. After the South African War, Devonshire also became interested in the movement to investigate deficiencies in the physical condition of children, hoping that it would lead local authorities especially to address problems of overcrowding, nutrition, and physical education. He helped to establish an interdepartmental committee on physical deterioration, which reported in 1904, and he publicized its findings in a speech in the Lords in 1905.

Like his father, the Duke was also anxious to encourage technical, scientific, and higher education. He was made FRS in 1892, and was president of the Royal Agricultural Society for 1893-4. He succeeded his father as Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1891, and discharged his duties there with energy, being especially interested in promoting the teaching of applied science. He was, for example, responsible for securing funding from the Drapers' Company for a chair of agriculture, established in 1899. At a meeting under his aegis at Devonshire House leading members of the university decided to launch a public appeal to rectify the lack of funding for laboratories and professorships in modern subjects. Devonshire gave £10,000 and used his personal contacts to encourage other contributions. But the appeal was a failure, raising only £100,000 in all. He discovered that successful businessmen were reluctant to support the university financially, believing that its education was of little relevance to their world. He came to the opinion that a wide-ranging royal commission should be established, with a view to changing the content and tone of the courses by diverting powers and financial resources from the colleges to university teachers. He also remained interested in the university extension movement and, at the Privy Council, facilitated the grant of charters to Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool universities. He was chancellor of Manchester University from 1907.

Many honours and responsibilities devolved on the Duke in consequence of his political and social standing. He was made KG by Queen Victoria in 1892, Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire in the same year and of Waterford in 1895, and GCVO in 1907. In the control and management of his large estates in England and Ireland he was recognized as an excellent landlord and public-spirited benefactor; he took a particularly close interest in the development of Eastbourne. He presided over the successful restructuring of the family's finances, which had been hit by the agricultural depression and by the collapse of demand for the ships and steel produced in Barrow in Furness, in which his father had invested over £2 million. He took advantage of the Land Purchase Acts to sell a lot of his Irish land and reinvested the proceeds in the stock market. By these means the family debt was reduced from £2 million to £0.5 million. He also continued the family tradition of opening Chatsworth to the public; there were 80,000 visitors a year by the end of his life, testifying in some degree to the respect in which he and his order were held.

Free trade, tariff reform, and death

The Duke, schooled in the principles of political economy by his father, was an instinctive advocate of free trade, unlike the majority of government supporters. Moreover, his involvement in the City encouraged him in the view that invisible earnings, which protection might jeopardize, would continue to underpin British economic success. He was willing to accept an inquiry into the merits of protection, in view of the damage then being suffered by elements of British industry. But careful consideration of the economic arguments did not change his mind, nor that of a minority of his cabinet colleagues. Three of them resigned after the cabinet meeting of 14 September. The Duke would have followed suit, had not Balfour informed him that Chamberlain had also resigned. Conscious of the supreme importance of holding the government together, and of his own indispensability, as leader of the Liberal Unionist forces, in that task, he allowed himself to be persuaded by Balfour to stay in office. But Balfour's strategy depended on leading the party some way down the road of fiscal reform, and as this quickly became clear Devonshire soon found that his position in cabinet was untenable. On 2 October he resigned, taking advantage of strong expressions in favour of a change in fiscal policy used by Balfour in a speech at Sheffield. The government never recovered from these events. The Duke strongly opposed the new policy of tariff reform in the House of Lords. In May 1904, recognizing that the Chamberlainites controlled the party's constituency organization, he resigned his chairmanship of, and connection with, the Liberal Unionist Association, over which he had presided since its formation in 1886.

But the Duke was not among those free-traders sympathetic to an association with the reviving Liberal Party, believing that the Union was an even more important cause than that of free trade. So, having been a supporter of the dominant governing force during his entire political life, Devonshire's last years were spent out of sympathy with both major parties. In June 1907 he suffered a sudden collapse of health through weakness of the heart. Having recovered to some degree, he left England on 24 October and went to Egypt for the winter. On his way home, on 24 March 1908, he died almost suddenly at the Hotel Metropole at Cannes. His body was brought to Derbyshire and buried at Edensor, close to Chatsworth. He left no children, and the title and estates passed to his nephew Victor, son of the late Lord Edward Cavendish.

Primary Source: Parry, Jonathan. "Cavendish, Spencer Compton, marquess of Hartington and eighth duke of Devonshire (1833-1908), politician." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). By permission of Oxford University Press. Accessed 14 Jun. 2022.


This collection is arranged in accordance with ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description, Second Edition, Ottawa 2000 and The Devonshire Collection Cataloguing Guidelines.

When this correspondence was extracted from CS2/340, it was rearranged into strict chronological order, with undated letters put at the end of each estimated year of creation. This arrangement included separating enclosed letters from their enclosures where the dates differed. In other words, often an enclosure comes in the sequence several letters before the letter that mentions it as an enclosure to SCC.

In the most recent cataloguing project to make this catalogue available online, the arrangement was left in its current calendar format, and detailed item-level descriptions of each letter were written with cross-reference to enclosures, where they are known.

Access Information

The collection is open for consultation. Access to the archive at Chatsworth is by appointment only. For more information please visit:

Copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study and personal research purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

Other Finding Aids

A copy of the original typescript calendar catalogue is available to consult.

There is a typescript index of writers and recipients of the letters for this collection also available for consultation.

Archivist's Note

This catalogue was produced with support from Archives Revealed, funded by The National Archives, The Pilgrim Trust and The Wolfson Foundation.

Appraisal Information

There were no items added to the collection during the cataloguing project June 2022.

CS8/3319A - a letter from from Arthur Augustus William Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby to Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire was removed and filed under: DF8/1/30: Correspondence of Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire, 1917 - 1918; 1933 - 1950.

Custodial History

The majority of correspondence held in the archives of the Devonshire Collection was first arranged and catalogued in the 1920s under the guidance of Francis Thompson. The letters in these catalogues were arranged primarily by person and then in date order in two sequences as correspondence from before 1839 (CS1) and correspondence from 1839 onwards (CS2).

The letters in this collection of the 8th Duke's correspondence were originally a part of the 2nd Series of Correspondence (CS2), filed under Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire and given the reference CS2/340.

However, from the 1970s to the 2000s, the correspondence of the 6th and 8th Dukes of Devonshire, and that of their families and associates which were arranged under the Dukes' correspondence in CS2 were extracted to form, respectively, the 6th Duke' s Group (CS6) and the 8th Duke's Group (CS8). The letters in this collection were extracted from CS2/340 to form the 8th Duke's Correspondence, and given the new reference number CS8. The collection was arranged chronologically and spans the period of the the 8th Duke's life - beginning with a letter in 1841, aged eight, and ending at his death in 1908.

A number of letters that were filed by Spencer Compton Cavendish's secretaries were kept as separate series and indexed under the name of the writers in the 2nd Series of Correspondence (CS2). These letters are as follows: John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer's letters from Ireland, 1870-1874 (CS2/354); George Frederick Samuel Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon's letters from India, 1880-1883 (CS2/382); and John Tilley's letters from the General Post Office, 1869-1871 (CS2/383), all arranged under their names and still in CS2 today.

Because Spencer Compton Cavendish (SCC), had a close personal and political relationship with his father, a number of the letters and enclosures he wrote and received were to and from his father - William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire, so that the 7th Duke's correspondence is somewhat represented in this collection too.

Original letters that were sent by SCC and have found their way back into this collection may have come from the posession of the 7th Duke or Lady Louisa Egerton. In the case of most political letters, if they were neither to nor from SCC they were likely sent as enclosures with a letter to SCC.

The letters of Lady Louisa Egerton (nee Cavendish), the Duke's sister, and some later ones belonging to his wife, Louisa, Duchess of Devonshire, were also part of this collection as it was arranged in the 1970s. These letters are either to or from SCC, or are in some way related to him in content.

In some years there are fewer letters than others (e.g. 1867), this may suggest that some correspondence was destroyed.

Related Material

Further related correspondence and papers can be found in the following Devonshire Collection Archives (GB 2495):

CS2 - 2nd Correspondence Series (from 1839), specifically CS2/354 - Correspondence of John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer,1835- 1910;

DF6 - Papers of Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire;

DF14/1 - Correspondence of Louise Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, 1855- 1922;

DF5 - Papers of William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire;

DF7 - Papers of Victor Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire;

DF18- Papers of Lord Edward Cavendish (1838-1891);

DF25- Papers of Lady Louisa Egerton (nee Cavendish);

CS9 - Correspondence of Victor Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire.

Further related correspondence and papers can be found in the following external collections:

Cambridge University: Department of Manuscripts and University Archives:


British Library:

Letterbook of SCC as Secretary of State for India 1880-82 - IOR Neg 43901880-1881;

Letters to Lord Ritchie, 1903 - Add MS 53780;

Correspondence with Lord Granville - PRO30/29;

Lambeth Palace Library:

Papers of F Temple - correspondence with SCC - F. Temple;

National Library of Scotland:

Correspondence MSS 10072-130, 10202, 10998 Passim;

Oxford University, Special Collections Bodleian Library:

Correspondence with Lord Selborne - MSS Selborne;

Correspondence with Lord Harcourt - MSS Harcourt.