PRIMROSE, Archibald Philip, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847–1929)
Plaque erected in 1962 by London County Council at 20 Charles Street, Mayfair, London, W1J 5DT, City of Westminster
Politics and Administration
ARCHIBALD PHILIP PRIMROSE 5th EARL of ROSEBERY 1847-1929 PRIME MINISTER and first Chairman of the London County Council was born here
Archibald Primrose, later 5th Earl of Rosebery, was a Liberal politician and committed imperialist. He served briefly as Prime Minister in 1894–5 and was the first Chairman of the London County Council in 1889–90.
Early life and family
The eldest son of Lord Dalmeny and his wife, Lady Catherine Lucy Wilhemina, née Stanhope, and the grandson of the 4th Earl of Rosebery, Archibald Primrose was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He left without a degree, having bought a racehorse against college rules. Horses from his stables won the Derby three times and he retained a passion for the turf until the end of his life.
Archibald became Lord Dalmeny on the death of his father in 1851, and succeeded his grandfather as 5th Earl of Rosebery in 1868. He made his maiden speech in the House of Lords three years later.
Rosebery married Hannah de Rothschild in 1878, causing consternation to his antisemitic mother and alarm among the British Jewish community that the most prominent Jewish heiress was marrying out of the faith. Hannah, who remained devout and a generous supporter of Jewish charities, would be a valuable Liberal political hostess.
Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister
Rosebery was appointed Lord Privy Seal in 1885 and then served as Foreign Secretary in 1886 and 1892–4 in the Liberal governments under William Ewart Gladstone. As Foreign Secretary he imposed a British protectorate on Uganda, against opposition from many in his party. An advocate of colonial representation on the Privy Council and of regular colonial conferences, he was the first president of the Imperial Federation League in 1884. His vision was for an empire of de-centralised, largely self-governing colonies.
On Gladstone’s resignation in 1894, Rosebery – Queen Victoria’s favoured candidate – became Prime Minister. Rosebery, however, felt himself unsuited to the role. Although he had been a successful platform orator with a public following, he had never sat in the House of Commons and found it difficult to lead a government from the Lords.
The government was defeated by the Tories in 1895 and Rosebery resigned as the Liberal party leader. He was, at this time, under a lot of personal strain. Existing insomnia was exacerbated by fear that his name would be mentioned in connection with the trial of Oscar Wilde. Lord Drumlanrig, the elder brother of Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover, had been Rosebery’s private secretary, and there were rumours of a sexual relationship between them.
Rosebery led the minority faction – the ‘Liberal Imperialists’ – who supported the second South African (Boer) War (1899–1902). Along with others, including RB Haldane, Herbert Asquith and Sir Edward Grey, he regarded the war as a consolidation of the British Empire, the rule of which he regarded as essentially benevolent. This split the party, with David Lloyd George, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and others condemning the campaign as barbaric.
Rosebery now also declared his opposition to Irish Home Rule, one of Gladstone’s key policies. His distance from the party widened when in 1905 Campbell-Bannerman was chosen as Liberal Prime Minister, and he became a cross-bencher. He made his last appearance in the House of Lords in 1911 but was vocal in his support for the war effort from 1914. A stroke in 1918 led to the loss of his hearing, sight and mobility. Yet he regained his mental powers and in his last years turned to writing political biographies, which proved popular.
London and the Blue Plaques Scheme
Rosebery’s term in 1889–90 as first Chairman of the London County Council (LCC) is considered to have been more successful than his role in national politics. ‘I think that great body made London for the first time a unit’, he said in 1892 of the LCC, and of the new municipal spirit it represented.
Rosebery Avenue, a new tree-lined highway through Clerkenwell, was named in his honour and opened by him in 1890.
In 1903 he unveiled the first of the council’s blue plaques, to the historian Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay. At this Rosebery stated that ‘great cities gratefully remember those who have honoured them by living in their midst’. Macaulay’s house was later demolished and he is commemorated in a plaque of 1930 together with his father, Zachary.
Rosebery’s own blue plaque marks his birthplace at 20 Charles Street, in Mayfair. He lived there for the first year of his life, then at 2 Berkeley Square in 1869–78, followed by Lansdowne House, before settling in 1888 at 38 Berkeley Square, his London home until his death.
As all but the first of these properties have been rebuilt, 20 Charles Street – which dates from the mid 18th century and was re-fronted in about 1840 – was chosen for commemoration. The plaque was unveiled in 1962 by his son Harry Primrose, 6th Earl of Rosebery.
J Davis, ‘Primrose, Archibald Philip, fifth earl of Rosebery and first earl of Midlothian (1847–1929)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required: accessed 22 Feb 2021)
ET Raymond, The Man of Promise – Lord Rosebery: A Critical Study (London, 1923)
M Bloy and T Little, ‘Earl of Rosebery (Archibald Philip Primrose), 1847–1929’, Liberal History (accessed 22 Feb 2021)
Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, GOV.UK (accessed 22 Feb 2021)