British Prime Minister: 1834; 1835-1838; 1838-1841

Party: Whig

Life: 1779-1849

"Nobody ever did anything very foolish except from some strong principle."

Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister, a friend (and in some cases an enemy) of Lord Byron, is generally overlooked by history. One of the greatest literary minds ever even wrote of him, yet he was largely doomed to fall into near obscurity at the hands of time. Perhaps this is because he came just after the Iron Duke and Earl Grey, and was just outshone by warlords and teamasters.

The Early years

William Lamb was born March 15, 1779. (London) There was speculation as to whether or not 1st Viscount Melbourne (Peniston Lamb) was indeed the real father, many believed it was instead Lord Egremont. He was schooled at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge and went on to study law in Glasgow under professor John Millar, a Whig. Since he was not eldest son he needed to support himself, he became a Lawyer, this however this was to be a short lived career.

As a youngster, he was friends with such people as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and other such radicals. If the measure of man is in the company he keeps - I think this speaks volumes.

Romance, scandal and satire

"Neither man nor woman can be worth anything until they have discovered that they are fools. The sooner the discovery is made the better, as there is more time and power for taking advantage of it."

After his elder brother died, his social status was raised (now he was heir to the Melbourne title) and he soon married Lady Caroline Ponsonby in 1805.

Just seven years into their marriage, she scandalized society by having an affair with none other than Lord Byron. To add insult to injury she even wrote a book about it (coining the phrase 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'), as well as her other extramarital conquests; naturally, it was a best seller (you can still buy it, for those interested look for Glenarvon, Lady Caroline Lamb).

Despite the infidelity, Melbourne and Caroline stayed together until 1825 when they were legally seperated. She ended up having a mental breakdown before dying in 1828, aided by drink and drugs. Though seperated, Melbourne was by her side when she died. His son, who had developmental problems died in 1836.

Whilst chief secretary of Ireland (1827) he had some romance with Lady Branden of Dublin. Whilst it is not known for sure whether this romance went as far as the bedroom, Melbourne did spend almost every evening with the Lady and she was living seperate from her husband. Her husband, the Reverend Lord Branden wrote to Lady Branden telling her that he had evidence of her infidelity but would forget the issue if she could convince Melbourne to help make him a Bishop. Lady Branden refused and Reverend Lord Branden tried (and failed) to sue Lamb for "criminal conversation".

The evidence that Branden had was most sparse. Apparantly he could prove that Melbourne had sent fruit to Lady Branden, and a witness saw Melbourne leaving the house early one morning. The judge cared little for the fruit as evidence and the witness described the gentleman leaving the house as being short - clearly not the rather tall Melbourne.

After refusing to loan £1,400 to former Tory MP George Norton in 1836, Norton accused Melbourne of having an affair with his wife: A friend of Melbourne's named Caroline Norton. Norton tried to sue Melbourne for 'criminal conversation', as Branden's husband had likewise done. The trial took place on 23 June 1836, and was the celebrity court case of its day. It was reported by a novice writer in the Morning Chronicle. That same writer also satirized the trial in the Pickwick Papers, yes, that writer was Charles Dickens.

“The town has been full of Melbourne’s trial; great exultation at the result on the part of his political adherents, great disappointment on that of the mob of Low Tories, and a creditable satisfaction among the better sort…”- a political observer

Caroline Norton did not escape from the scandal so easily as Melbourne, becoming a social outcast and losing custody of her children. Melbourne did stick by her side, though the intimacy of their relationship was dampened. Mrs Norton later succesfully campaigned for the Infant Custody Bill to be passed which became the 1839 Custody of Children Act which is often seen as the first piece of feminist legislation, it gave women the right to custody for under 7s (as long as the woman was of 'good character' and the Lord Chancellor agreed to it (this was added so that it was able to pass through the House of Lords)).

Political Career

"It is safest to take the unpopular side in the first instance. Transit from the unpopular is easy. . . but from the popular to the unpopular is so steep and rugged that it is impossible to maintain it."

The death of his brother which heightened him in social status, also allowed him opportunities in politics. He became a Whig MP in 1805, and was elected into the House of Commons in 1816 (Northhampton) and 1819 (Hertford). However he resigned from active politics and even resigned his seat ten years later. And with the state of his marital life, who could blame him?

His resignation was shortlived. In 1827 the Prime Minister (the short lived George Canning) offered him the post of Chief Secretary of Ireland, and just a year later he became Viscount Melbourne upon the death of his father. He didn't make any notable mark on Ireland, and resigned after the death of Canning and the resignation his succesor Frederick Robinson. Whilst Melbourne had a conservative streak, it wasn't strong enough to allow him to serve long under the Duke of Wellington.

After Wellington, Earl Grey (Whig) became Prime Minister and appointed Melbourne as his home secretary (1830-34). Not an easy job, given that only London had a modern police force. His conservative streak was plain to see in this position. He was Home Secretary during the fracas that was the Tolpuddle Martyrs (the first rumblings of Trade Unions), and he largely ignored the protests that followed the trial.

Whilst he supported it he had doubts about the parliamentary reform that was passed with the 1832 Reform Act (the Act was meant to reduce the number of Rotten Boroughs and give places such as Manchester, Bradford and Birmingham representation in Parliament).


It wounds a man less to confess that he has failed in any pursuit through idleness, neglect, the love of pleasure, etc., etc., which are his own faults, than through incapacity and unfitness, which are the faults of his nature.

When Earl Grey resigned in 1834, Melbourne had to be convinced to replace him as Prime Minister. William IV was not happy with the Whig government (for forcing the Reform Act on him), but was impotent to do anything about it due to Earl Grey's popularity. Melbourne did not pose such a problem, but was still influenced by Grey. So within a matter of months, the Whig government was dismissed and a Tory government was put in its place (Robert Peel).

This was not a disaster though, despite the Royal intervention, Whigs still held more seats and so Peel could not do anything without Whig support. This was exacerbated by what became known as the Lichfield House Compact - the Whigs were assured of Irish votes in exchange for considering reforming legislation for Ireland. Eventually, seeing the futility of the situation, Peel resigned and Melbourne was reinstated in 1835.

Melbourne's government this time around was very shaky though. It was still out of favour with the King, and a good deal of the House of Lords. Melbourne believed that the Reform Act was so radical that the country needed some time to adjust, and so he had to play the mediator at cabinet meetings. He wasn't unmovable on this opinion though - he was willing to allow other reforming measures to go ahead when it was clear they had popular support. Despite the factitious nature of his government at this time, this is where Melbourne excelled. His people skills kept the party from falling apart.

William IV died 20 June, 1837 and Queen Victoria took to the throne aged only 18. Queen Victoria was open to listening to her Prime Minister (though later in life she would become a little less tolerant of politicians), and Melbourne became somewhat of a mentor to her. He impressed on her the qualities of a good monarch (which in Melbourne's opinion had been lacking in William IV), and taught her history, politics and more. Unfortunately due to his rather conservative opinions of the poor, he didn't manage to develop her social awareness.

His closeness to the Queen (spending up to six hours a day with her) couple with his recent family losses, led him getting a private apartment at Windsor Castle. Such was their closeness that rumours were abound of a future wedding, despite the obvious age difference.

"he is such an honest, good kind-hearted man and is my friend, I know it." - Queen Victoria

Melbourne resigned after a parliamentary defeat in 1838 and Robert Peel was set to take his place. However, first came the infamous 'Bedchamber Crisis'. According to tradition, the Queen's ladies of the bedchamber were the wives and daughters of MPs for the party in power. Peel thought that Victoria was overly sympathetic to the Whigs (and who could blame him after her relationship with Melbourne and his previous minority premiership?). As such Peel asked the Queen to replace the Whig ladies with Tory ladies. Victoria, seemingly didn't like Peel's attitude and refused. Peel attempted to get his way, even enlisting Wellington to help out, but to no avail. Peel thus refused to form a government and resigned, thrusting Melbourne back into government.

Once again Melbourne returned to government with a party split on important issues such as the secret ballot (Melbourne was against the idea) and state education (Which he was also against), as well as Corn Laws, Irish rule, and foriegn policies. Despite the splits they were still able to pass important legislation, such as a bill which allowed marriage outside of the Church of England, and penny postage - bringing affordable mail to the masses.

Lord John Russell, Melbourne's home secretary and future Prime Minister, had proposed a lot of the more progressive legislations and managed to get them passed. Things such as reforming local government and reducing the number of capital offences.

The End

"It is impossible that anybody can feel the being out of Parliament more keenly for me than I feel it for myself. It is actually cutting my throat. It is depriving me of the great object of my life."

Melbourne resigned again in 1841, this time for good. Despite the fact that she had recently married, Queen Victoria was "deeply affected" by it, but maintained contact with Melbourne until the pressure to desist (showing favour for the party out of power) forced her to stop.

After his exit from politics, his health deteriorated and he missed Victoria very much. He slipped into melancholy but spent the rest of his days with friends and family.

Whilst he was certainly ahead of his time in many ways, he was still very much a relic of those same times. Whilst he believed in limiting the powers of the monarchy, religious tolerance, civil rights and the right to private property he clearly had a conservative streak and was unable to adopt the radical bent of other Whigs.

Despite this, he was a vital source of stability and moderation in a period of upheaval and change - he played an essential role in Britain's peaceful transition into democracy and provided a crucial education to Queen Victoria.


William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, died November 24, 1848. His death went largely unnoticed. In his will he left annuities to Mrs Caroline Norton and Lady Branden. In his will he categorically stated there was no guilty association between himself and Mrs Norton but interestingly made no such comment regarding Lady Branden.

And on a lighter note

An obscure place in a far away land was settled in 1835, and was named after Lord Melbourne in 1837. Today, Melbourne, Australia has a population of about four million.

Pickwick Papers, a review by Robert Giddings
Lady Caroline Lamb by sui
Reform Act 1832 by Noung
LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia

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