Thorold Rogers

Thorold Rogers

Thorold Rogers, the eleventh son of George Vining Rogers, a surgeon, and his wife, Mary Blyth Rogers, was born in 1823. He attended Magdalen Hall and graduated from Oxford University in 1843. He was ordained shortly after taking his degree and in 1848 he became curate of St Paul's Church, Oxford.

On 19th December, 1850, he married Anna Peskett. However, she died, childless, three years later. He married Anne Reynolds in December, 1854. Over the next few years she gave birth to five sons and one daughter.

Rogers settled in Oxford, where he became established as a successful private tutor in classics and philosophy. In 1859 he was elected first Tooke professor of economic science and statistics at King's College, and began his pioneering researches into the history of agriculture. (1)

On 23rd February, 1865, George Odger, Benjamin Lucraft, George Howell, William Allan, Johann Eccarius, William Cremer and several other members of the International Workingmen's Association established the Reform League, an organisation to campaign for one man, one vote. Karl Marx told Friedrich Engels "The International Association has managed so to constitute the majority on the committee to set up the new Reform League that the whole leadership is in our hands". (2)

The Reform League received financial and political support from middle-class radicals such as Thorold Rogers, Peter Alfred Taylor, John Bright, Charles Bradlaugh, John Stuart Mill, Henry Fawcett, Titus Salt, Thomas Perronet Thompson, Samuel Morley and Wilfrid Lawson. (3)

The 1867 Reform Act gave the vote to every male adult householder living in a borough constituency. Male lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms were also granted the vote. This gave the vote to about 1,500,000 men. The Reform Act also dealt with constituencies and boroughs with less than 10,000 inhabitants lost one of their MPs. The forty-five seats left available were distributed by: (i) giving fifteen to towns which had never had an MP; (ii) giving one extra seat to some larger towns - Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds; (iii) creating a seat for the University of London; (iv) giving twenty-five seats to counties whose population had increased since 1832. (4)

A member of the Liberal Party Rogers was elected for Southwark in April 1880. In his first speech he commented on the case of Charles Bradlaugh, the MP for Northampton. Bradlaugh, an outspoken republican, had helped to establish the National Secular Society, an organisation opposed to Christian dogma and the way that atheists were treated. At this time the law required in the courts and oath from all witnesses. "Atheists were held to be incapable of taking a meaningful oath, and were therefore treated as outlaws." (5) Thorold Rogers upset some progressives by arguing that there was a well-recognised connection between religions scepticism and political Conservatism". (6)

Rogers was a strong supporter of the proposed 1884 Reform Act. The bill was passed by the Commons on 26th June, with the opposition did not divide the House. The Conservatives were hesitant about recording themselves in direct hostility to franchise enlargement. However, Gladstone knew he would have more trouble with the House of Lords. Gladstone wrote to twelve of the leading bishops and asked for their support in passing this legislation. Ten of the twelve agreed to do this. However, when the vote was taken the Lords rejected the bill by 205 votes to 146.

Lewis Ward (Spy), Thorold Rogers (29th March 1884)
Lewis Ward (Spy), Thorold Rogers (29th March 1884)

Queen Victoria thought that the Lords had every right to reject the bill and she told Gladstone that they represented "the true feeling of the country" better than the House of Commons. Gladstone told his private secretary, Edward Walter Hamilton, that if the Queen had her way she would abolish the Commons. Over the next two months the Queen wrote sixteen letters to Gladstone complaining about speeches made by left-wing Liberal MPs such as Thorold Rogers. (7)

The London Trades Council quickly organized a mass demonstration in Hyde Park. On 21st July, an estimated 30,000 people marched through the city to merge with at least that many already assembled in the park. Thorold Rogers, compared the House of Lords to "Sodom and Gomorrah" and Joseph Chamberlain told the crowd: "We will never, never, never be the only race in the civilized world subservient to the insolent pretensions of a hereditary caste". (8)

Queen Victoria was especially angry about the speech made by Chamberlain, who was President of the Board of Trade in Gladstone's government. She sent letters to Gladstone complaining about Chamberlain on 6th, 8th and 10th August, 1884. (9) Edward Walter Hamilton, Gladstone's private secretary replied to the Queen explaining that the Prime Minister "has neither the time nor the eyesight to make himself acquainted by careful perusal with all the speeches of his colleagues." (10)

The Spectator attacked the activities of Thorold Rogers. After admitting that "his Radicalism was not only curbed and moderated by a very large knowledge of economic facts" the journal went on to argue that: "His weakness was rather his strong party feeling than his abstract creed. He never could endure to hear people pouring forth their satisfaction with the existing condition of things, without striking a blow at such Philistinism; but he fell into similar Philistinism himself in his thick-and-thin advocacy of the democratic policy which was constantly quite as blind and undiscriminating, as that thick-and-thin advocacy of the Conservative policy which he resented with all his heart." (11)

A total of 79 Liberal MPs, including Thorold Rogers, urged Gladstone to recognize the claim of women's householders to the vote. Gladstone replied that if votes for women was included Parliament would reject the proposed bill: "The question with what subjects... we can afford to deal in and by the Franchise Bill is a question in regard to which the undivided responsibility rests with the Government, and cannot be devolved by them upon any section, however respected , of the House of Commons. They have introduced into the Bill as much as, in their opinion, it can safely carry." (12)

In August 1884, William Gladstone sent a long and threatening memorandum to the Queen: "The House of Lords has for a long period been the habitual and vigilant enemy of every Liberal Government... It cannot be supposed that to any Liberal this is a satisfactory subject of contemplation. Nevertheless some Liberals, of whom I am one, would rather choose to bear all this for the future as it has been borne in the past, than raise the question of an organic reform of the House of Lords... I wish (an hereditary House of Lords) to continue, for the avoidance of greater evils... Further; organic change of this kind in the House of Lords may strip and lay bare, and in laying bare may weaken, the foundations even of the Throne." (13)

Other politicians began putting pressure on Victoria and the House of Lords. One of Gladstone's MPs advised him to "Mend them or end them." However, Gladstone liked "the hereditary principle, notwithstanding its defects, to be maintained, for I think it in certain respects an element of good, a barrier against mischief". Gladstone was also secretly opposed to a mass creation of peers to give it a Liberal majority. However, these threats did result in conservative leaders being willing to negotiate over this issue. Hamilton wrote in his diary that "the atmosphere is full of compromise". (14)

Gladstone refused to accept defeat and reintroduced the measure. This time the Conservative members of the Lords agreed to pass Gladstone's proposals in return for the promise that it would be followed by a Redistribution Bill. Gladstone accepted their terms and the 1884 Reform Act was allowed to become law. This measure gave the counties the same franchise as the boroughs - adult male householders and £10 lodgers - and added about six million to the total number who could vote in parliamentary elections. (15)

After the redistribution of seats in 1885 Rogers was elected for Bermondsey, but he lost the seat in the July 1886 general election after backing Gladstone's Irish Home Rule policy. (16) He was not considered a successful Parliamentarian: "He was one of those Radicals who feel a strong impulse to make those persons uncomfortable who never realise how little merited is their own ease and comfort. And a great deal of Radicalism is no doubt due to that very primitive instinct of Radicalism... A considerable proportion of modern Radicalism, and that, too, of by no means the most dangerous type, is due to half-generous, half-peevish class-vindictiveness". (17)

In later years Thorold Rogers developed a distinct stoop in his shoulders "which had the effect of projecting his head far forward, so that his face, with his magnificent brow and piercing eyes, seemed to be entering a room before his body crossed the threshold". (18)

Thorold Rogers died on 12th October 1890.

Primary Sources

(1) The Spectator (29th May, 1880)

Thorold Rogers referred, in his speech in the Bradlaugh debate of Monday, to the well-recognised connection between religions scepticism and political Conservatism, citing the classical instances in our literature, the abject Toryism of the atheistic Hobbes, and the very decidedly anti-popular tendencies of the agnostic Hume and the deistic Gibbon. We have never denied, but on the contrary always strongly asserted, that there is a real connection between the belief that man is groping his way in a universe where there is no being higher than man who concerns himself about our destiny, and that dread of the mines, so to say, which may be sprung upon us by the possibilities of the future, which is at the root of much Conservatism. But then, though we think that faith in the guidance of divine goodness has a real and very close connection with the belief that the past is the true preparation for a better present, and the present for a still better future, we cannot deny that the absence of that faith is perfectly compatible with either that horror of the unknown which clings as long and as tenaciously as it can to what it finds at least tolerable in the world as it is, or that horror of what is, which is ready to shatter it to pieces, on the mere chance of building something better out of the ruins. It is positive faith which, as it seems to us, cherishes at once reverence for the past and courage for the future. The absence of faith is a purely negative condition, so far as it goes, and you cannot tell what its political bias will be till you have some further data to go upon, such as, for instance, the sympathy of the sceptic with power, or rank, or wealth, which, if it exists, is sure to determine his scepticism in the Conservative direction; or, on the other, the sympathy of the sceptic with misery, humiliation, and rags, which, if it exists, is sure to determine his scepticism in the revolutionary direction. The man who profoundly believes that God has guided human history cannot possibly despise the teaching of experience, and cannot possibly doubt, that courage is our true attitude in looking to the future. But the opposite attitude of mind is perfectly consistent with very different tempers in relation to things as they are. He who regards that condition as a matter of fate or accident, or at least of fate or accident as slightly modified by that modicum of human wisdom to which the beat men in the best ages have been able to attain, may either think that though life is poor as it is, it would be very easy for things to go from bad to worse; or that life is so bad as it is, that it would be almost impossible for any rashness of revolutionary change to make it worse, and be quite willing, therefore, to play with Destiny for double or quits. Now, it is obvious that Hobbes, Hume, and Gibbon all belonged to the classes which had a very strong respect for things as they were. They were all more or less identified with the powers that be, and with the social prepossessions of the classes which have. But this has been absolutely untrue of the greater number of French sceptics, and accordingly in France you generally find scepticism combined with what many English sceptics look upon with horror as foolhardy revolt against law, with economic theories such as those of Proudhon, or politics such as those of Blanqui. In this country, we have not been wanting in sceptical revolutionists of the same sort, whether they have been poets like Shelley, or doctrinaires like Robert Owen, or iconoclasts like Bradlaugh. Nor can we see that there is any reason why such scepticism, when it begins with a prepossession against the present distribution of power and wealth, instead of a prepossession in its favour, should not be prepared to risk a good deal even of such existing well-being as it may admit, in the hope of securing a much more equal division of that well-being amongst the different orders of society.

(2) The Spectator (18th October, 1890)

Professor Thorold Roger's death has brought rather vividly before the world the very rough though highly intelligent and well-informed type of Radicalism of which he was one of the ablest of the surviving representatives. It is wholesome sometimes to remind ourselves that the same political creed in different men often results from the most different elements of character. Sir Walter Scott and Dr. Johnson were undoubtedly Conservatives because they reverenced the Past; Sir Robert Peel was a Conservative rather because he dreaded change, as a builder dreads meddling with a wall which he thinks likely to fall about his ears. Mr. Disraeli became a Conservative chiefly because he thought it easier to rule men by appealing to their old associations than by appealing to their love of innovation. And so it has been with Radicals. Cobden and Bright were Radicals chiefly because they had fully appreciated the mischief of the great Protectionist effort to improve upon Nature by a long series of artificial provisions of which they clearly discerned the folly. Shelley was a Radical because he fed his mind on an abstract ideal which he contrasted with the actual failures and injustices of life, and because he thought that by pulling down what was gross and evil, he should provide a breathing- space for loftier and sweeter emotions. Mr. Labouchere is a Radical probably because he despises the political institutions which he knows, not because he has much confidence in any that he hopes for. If idealism attaches itself to aspects of life which are venerable and fleeting, it makes a Conservative, and a hearty Conservative. If the same idealism attaches itself to visions of what may be, but has never yet been, it makes a Radical, and a hot Radical. Yet there is a very close resemblance in essence between the passionate idealism which clings to a dying past, and the sanguine idealism which builds castles in the air of the future. And it is the same with the realists.

There is a realism which makes men Conservative because they cannot believe in any substantial change of the human nature they know; and there is a realism which makes men innovators because they cannot endure the foolish complacency with which the obvious stupidities and injustices of the past are treated by those who propose to perpetuate them. So that the very same attitude of mind which, when it concerns itself with the vacant-minded complacency of optimists, turns men into cynics who treat substantial improvement as all but impossible, when it concerns itself with that equally vacant-minded complacency towards evils which might certainly be greatly attenuated, if not removed, turns men into rough-and-ready reformers. It is worth while to remember this when we wax indignant with the mistakes of either party. Perhaps the most dangerous of all reformers are those who, like Shelley, are made reformers by their passionate and inexperienced idealism. Perhaps the most dangerous of all Conservatives are those Conservatives who are made so by their imaginative delight in forms of social and political action which are rapidly becoming obsolete and impossible. It is the ultra-idealist who makes alike the most reckless reformer and the most reckless Conservative; and yet it is not the ultra-idealist whom we can ever in our hearts despise. We may think very badly of his sagacity and wisdom, but we can hardly think very badly of his eager devotion to even impracticable aims.

Professor Thorold Rogers was not a Radical of a dangerous type, for his Radicalism was not only curbed and moderated by a very large knowledge of economic facts, which are quite sufficient to prevent a man from crying for the moon, as reformers of the Shelley type are apt to do, but he was both a student and a rough sort of wit, and the habit of mind of either a student or a wit is not one which suits well the sanguine political visionary. His weakness was rather his strong party feeling than his abstract creed. He never could endure to hear people pouring forth their satisfaction with the existing condition of things, without striking a blow at such Philistinism; but he fell into similar Philistinism himself in his thick-and-thin advocacy of the democratic policy which was constantly quite as blind and undiscriminating, as that thick-and-thin advocacy of the Conservative policy which he resented with all his heart. He was a Radical of the Cobdenite type, but with somewhat less than Cobden's candour and openness of mind, for Professor Rogers had lived almost all his life amongst Oxford Conservatives of a very prosperous and comfortable school, and he rebelled against that prosperous Conservatism with all the heat of one who knew well what the physical sufferings of the masses have been, and, even though greatly ameliorated, must always continue to be, and he could not bear to see the serene satisfaction with which dignified and well-to-do persons who have won all their honours by a little diligence and a very moderate amount of talent, treat the miseries and troubles, not all of them beyond amelioration, of the great majority of their fellow-creatures. He was one of those Radicals who feel a strong impulse to make those persons uncomfortable who never realise how little merited is their own ease and comfort. And a great deal of Radicalism is no doubt due to that very primitive instinct of Radicalism. For even genuine Radicalism is by no means wholly due to sympathy with the miserable; a great deal of it is due to a sort of disinterested wrath against the complacency of classes who are a great deal more fortunate than they deserve to be, and who yet are very apt to think that all their good luck is due to their merits, and all its deficiency to their wrongs. A considerable proportion of modern Radicalism, and that, too, of by no means the most dangerous type, is due to half-generous, half-peevish class-vindictiveness. And of that there was no doubt a very large dash in Professor Rogers. He cannot have thought the progress of democracy too slow, and he must have had his doubts at times as to whether it was not too rapid; but he could not bear to throw his weight into the scale of resistance to what was called progress, if only on this account, that it so greatly alarmed those whom he loved to alarm, for which he cared quite as much as he did to serve those whom he loved to serve. The Radicalism which exults when the prosperous Conservatives can be made to tremble, is extremely common in this country, and is, in fact, more or less due to the existence of so much smug and unconscious conceit in the possessors of property and influence. It is the negative political current which seems to be excited by the mere strength of the positive current of sedate and complacent determination to hold fast by power and wealth and rank. We cannot regard Radicalism of this kind as an evil, because it is almost as much due to a natural force as the physical recoil of a gun; but it is not at all the kind of Radicalism to which we can trust as a guide in matters of political judgment, and the wonder is that men so highly furnished as Professor Thorold Rogers was, with all the means of checking it by the teaching of history and of philosophy, should give themselves up so frankly to its guidance. The truth is, we suppose, that he loved political buffeting as dearly as some men love boxing, and especially loved buffeting those who were quite unconscious of their own shortcomings. But he was by no means unaware of the follies to which eager Radicals are liable, and he would have been found one of the most strenuous foes of that Socialism which is the chief danger of modern Radicals. Perhaps we may think of Professor Thorold Rogers and of his class as the representatives of that Nemesis whom Nature prepares for the selfish and sleepy Conservatism of satisfied Englishmen. Such men will always prevent our settling down into self-complacency when we are disposed to think that we may "rest and be thankful." Indeed, Radicals of this class are rendered restless by the sight of rest, and feel under am imperious obligation to disturb the thankfulness of those who are thankful for their own merits.

Student Activities

Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)

1832 Reform Act and the House of Lords (Answer Commentary)

The Chartists (Answer Commentary)

Women and the Chartist Movement (Answer Commentary)

Benjamin Disraeli and the 1867 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)

William Gladstone and the 1884 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)

Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)

Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)

Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Canal Mania (Answer Commentary)

Early Development of the Railways (Answer Commentary)

The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Answer Commentary)

The Plight of the Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)

Health Problems in Industrial Towns (Answer Commentary)

Public Health Reform in the 19th century (Answer Commentary)


(1) William Hewens, Thorold Rogers : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Paul Foot, The Vote (2005) page 135

(3) Alan Ruston, Peter Alfred Taylor : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) Annette Mayer, The Growth of Democracy in Britain (1999) page 48

(5) Edward Royle, Radical Politics 1790-1900 (1971) page 62

(6) The Spectator (29th May, 1880)

(7) Roy Jenkins, Gladstone (1995) page 493

(8) Joseph Chamberlain, speech in Hyde Park (21st July, 1884)

(9) Paul Foot, The Vote (2005) page 166

(10) Edward Walter Hamilton, letter to Queen Victoria (July, 1884)

(11) The Spectator (18th October, 1890)

(12) Roger Fulford, Votes for Women (1957) page 92

(13) William Ewart Gladstone, memorandum on the House of Lords sent to Queen Victoria (August, 1884)

(14) Edward Walter Hamilton, diary entry (30th October, 1884)

(15) Annette Mayer, The Growth of Democracy in Britain (1999) page 57

(16) William Hewens, Thorold Rogers : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) The Spectator (18th October, 1890)

(18) The Newcastle Daily Leader (14th October, 1890)