The Lambton Archive – a summer internship

Summer intern Iris Leussink looks back on two months spent working at Palace Green Library

For a lot of people in Durham, Palace Green Library is a bit of a mystery. Some of my friends, even those who have studied and lived in here for four years, have never set foot in the building. Before I started, I had only been here once to see a rare book for my History dissertation. So I’m writing this blog post to give you an idea of what an internship at an archive might look like in practice.

The archive I’ve been working on is that of John George Lambton, the 1st Earl of Durham. I have been going through his correspondence, reading the letters, and updating the catalogue entries to include all the basic information like the date, sender, recipient, locations, etc. and a summary of the contents. As you can see in the first photo below, nineteenth-century handwriting can be a bit difficult to decipher, but in this case practice definitely does make perfect.

Most of the handwriting isn’t very neat, though there are exceptions

John Lambton was sometimes referred to as by his contemporaries as ‘Jog Along Jack’ after having replied to the question of what could be considered an adequate income for a gentleman a year: “a man might jog along comfortably enough on £40,000 a year” (roughly £4,500,000 in today’s money). So it is clear this man was rich. But besides that, and this becomes abundantly clear from looking at his correspondence, he was also very much engaged with the politics of his time. Another name he was known by was ‘Radical Jack’ because he was a leading supporter of reform policies meant to make the British electoral system more democratic (a very ‘radical’ stance, I know).

Now, I would like to take you through the part of Lambton’s archive I catalogued, using quotes from Lambton and Joseph Parkes, who was one of his correspondents. Parkes, a Birmingham solicitor and election agent, supported the reform movement through the writing of frequent articles in the national press and initiating legal action against the corrupt electoral system of Warwick. Lambton greatly encouraged Parkes’ journalism, stating in 1834: “I am eagerly awaiting your Warwick missile—all I can say is—‘Strike Home’!”[1] The effort against the corruption in his home country of Warwick got him selected by the Lord Chancellor to be secretary of a royal commission on the reform of municipal electoral systems. From 1832 to 1840, he was also in constant correspondence with John Lambton.

Early in their communications, Parkes’ main purpose appears to have been keeping Lambton posted on his image, that of other Whig politicians, and the reform cause, in the press. It is at this stage that Lambton became increasingly frustrated with how he was depicted in the newspapers. He often accused the various papers writing about him of libel and was set on suing them for it. “I say again the Liberty of the Press is not the Liberty of lying, slandering, and libelling private character.”[2] Parkes, whilst agreeing with Lambton to an extent, calling them “the devils of the metropolitan press”,[3] also unceasingly attempted to dissuade Lambton from taking legal action against the papers, fearing damage to his public image. To be fair, the claims made about Lambton were preposterous; one claiming that he had raised the French tricolour flag on his sailing yacht, and another that he had razed one of his own villages to the ground out of spite.

One of the exceptional cases of great handwriting

Another development which their correspondence reflects is the slow but steadily increasing influence of the Tories. Whereas Parkes in 1837 expressed: “As for the Tories obtaining for any time the ascendant, I deem that hypothesis rediculous[sic]—a bugbear or fools[sic] belief”, Lambton was not so sure. In his view, the Whigs needed to establish a counterweight to Tory political organisation: “Surely the result of the [1835 General] Election must convince every Reformer of the necessity of having an association of Club; (call it what you will) in London, to counteract the machinations of the Tory Carlton Club.” Yet, Parkes and Lambton agreed on one thing: that the 1832 Reform Act was not the end-all-be-all of political reform. Further reforms were necessary to create a sounder political system which would (slightly) widen the electorate and create a better position for the Whigs. Parkes states on the 1835 Municipal Act, the culmination of his commission: “this Municipal Reform is the life of what the 1832 measures was only the body. […] These great results are in effect the greatest political revolution ever accomplished. I don’t except the Reform Bills 1832, for tho’ they were the keys to this change yet this Municipal Reform alone gives the vitality […] It is the breath of life.”[4]

Besides the fascinating insights the communications of these two men offer into the reform cause, in the late 1830s they also provide interesting material on British foreign relations. First, because Lambton is given the post of British ambassador to Russia. His letters from Saint Petersburg reflect his views on the happenings at court of Tsar Nicholas II, rumours of Russian expansionism, and politics in the near East: “[the newspaper correspondents] are now in full cry for the restoration of Egypt to the Sultan—Idiots!”[5] Second, after his posting in Russia he became Governor of Canada in 1838. His time there was marred with controversies. His main task was investigating the Rebellions of 1837, but two men he wanted to bring with him to Canada to serve as his council were not supported by Parliament. Commenting on this situation, Parkes notes, “Unlucky in degree & publicity of offences, & public feeling for their nature, no two men in England could attract more prejudice or commentary in their public employment, especially when engaged in the same sewice[sic] […] The object & success of your voyage are to plan the future government of the Colony not to execute it.”[6] Lambton’s decisions in regard to dealing with the Rebellion were met with opposition from Westminster, leading to his eventual resignation in October 1838. In January 1839, Lambton would publish his famous Durham Report, containing his recommendations for the governance of British Canada. Parkes and Lambton’s correspondence slowed down over time, but shortly before Lambton’s death on 28 July 1840, Parkes invited him to have dinner at his house for the first time. “As I have & shall long do you suit & service” Parkes wrote, “I hope you will for once condescend to the salt cellar of a Serf.”[7]

[1] JGL A15/2/26, 10 November 1834.

[2] JGL A15/1/25, 22 November 1833.

[3] JGL A14/2/26, 25 November 1833.

[4] JGL A14/7/1, 5 January 1836.

[5] JGL A15/4/1, 27 January 1836.

[6] JGL A14/10/1, 9 July 1838.

[7] JGL A14/10/8, 1840.

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