Rosebery, Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of (1847-1929)

Lord Rosebery in 1903
Lord Rosebery in 1903
Image courtesy of Surrey Libraries and is held in the
Epsom & Ewell Local And Family History Centre

A hundred years ago, Lord Rosebery was the golden boy of his age. Adoring crowds followed his career and he was treated much like a modern celebrity. The music halls rang with the words 'Nearly everyone knows me, from Smith to Lord Rosebery, I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow'. Archibald Philip Primrose was born in London on 7 May 1847, the eldest son and third of the four children of Archibald Primrose, Lord Dalmeny and his wife Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina Stanhope. His father, the son of the fourth Earl of Rosebery, died when Archibald was only three years old and he became heir to the earldom with the courtesy title of Lord Dalmeny. After attending a boarding school in Hertfort, he went to Eton between 1860 and 1865. In 1866 he entered Christ Church, Oxford but left in 1869 without taking a degree when the university authorities presented him with the choice of giving up either his studies or a racehorse he owned. He chose to give up his studies. He is supposed to have said that he had three ambitions in life: to be Prime Minister, to marry an heiress and to win the Derby. He fulfilled them all, and more - winning the Derby not once but three times, and marrying not just any old heiress, but Hannah de Rothschild.

In March 1868, his grandfather died and Rosebery succeeded to the earldom and to the family estates in Scotland. The following May he took his seat in the House of Lords where he allied himself to the Liberals in parliament.

He became the first chairman of the London County Council, Gladstone's Home Secretary, and in 1894, Prime Minister - all before he was fifty. As Chairman of the LCC he took the advent of local democratic politics very seriously, attending over three hundred meetings in his first year. As Prime Minister he had electric lighting installed in Downing Street and insisted on all official correspondence being typed, a move greatly resisted by the Queen. When he was asked to join the government, he insisted, as the price of his entry, on the appointment of a Minister for Scotland - thus setting in train a long process of devolution, which arguably saved Scotland for the Union. He was an untiring champion of better working conditions, the minimum wage and trade union rights. He was also the first Minister to arbitrate in a miners' strike, and when he was successful, he was so delighted that he said 'this would have been a good day to die on'.

During the Boer War (1899-1902) Rosebery became estranged from most of the Liberal Party because of his enthusiasm for the British Empire and in 1905, shortly before the Liberals returned to power, he completely broke with them by declaring his opposition to Irish Home Rule.

The Durdans, Epsom
The Durdans, Epsom
Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre (Opens in a new window)

In 1872 Lord Rosebery purchased the Durdans in Chalk Lane, and so began an involvement with Epsom which would last until his death. Durdans, as it had previously been called, became his real home with its encrusted ivy, spacious grounds, large stables and sweeping lawns: he would travel down from Downing Street just to spend the night there. Henry James described the Durdans as 'a delightful house, full of books and entertaining sporting pictures', to say nothing of several charming Gainsborough's. Despite not having a degree, Rosebery was considered to be one of the most widely read young men of his time and it was at the Durdans that he followed his greatest love, that of books; throughout his lifetime he built up one of the finest libraries in private hands in the country. His collection of rare Scottish books, pamphlets and broadsheets was second to none; he presented over 3,000 items to the National Library of Scotland, including numerous letters from Burns and the personal records of Mary Queen of Scots.

Durdans had many famous visitors including the Prince and Princess of Wales, who came in June 1881; such days were full of hazard for the host, since on this occasion the royal train arrived five minutes early, and Lord Rosebery was almost late in meeting them. They looked at the horses, played lawn tennis and amused themselves by trying to hit a tennis ball over the house, when Rosebery came within inches of putting the ball though the bedroom window where the Prince was taking an after dinner nap.

Rosebery brought his new bride, Hannah Rothschild, to the Durdans in 1878. The town turned out to greet them with lavish decorations; they were read a special presentation outside the Post Office by James Andrews the postmaster, then the townspeople led the couple in procession to the Durdans, and at eight in the evening there followed a firework display on the Downs. It was a happy marriage, cut short when Hannah died after a brief illness in 1890. Their marriage was founded on admiration and warm affection on one side and adoring devotion on the other. Hannah had the qualities that Rosebery lacked, being gifted with common sense and tact; she was also very shy, and disliked entertaining on any scale. She hated the official functions which the wife of a man of Rosebery's stature was expected to attend, but was always inviting local people to the Durdans when she believed her husband ought to meet them. Much of the local popularity of Lord Rosebery in Epsom was due to Hannah. They had four children; first the two daughters, Sybil born in 1879, and Margaret (known as Peggy) in March 1881; then two sons followed, Harry (who became the 6th Earl) in January 1882, and Neil also in 1882 (December).

Rosebery was a family man, and was often seen with his four children at Epsom Fair. His daughter Margaret's wedding drew a crowd almost as big as the Queen's Jubilee, with thousands wearing primroses as a gesture to the family name, and that day's London Evening News was printed on primrose paper. In his later years, his granddaughter Ruth Primrose (daughter of Neil Primrose) became the apple of his eye: many of the firework displays laid on at the Durdans were for her enjoyment as much as that of the Epsom guests. Rosebery was ready to rejoice with local people, and to mourn with them. Many local families remembered with fondness the sympathy and help shown to them when their loved ones were killed in the Great War. During this conflict, Rosebery lost his own eldest son, Neil Primrose, who was killed in action in Palestine. Rosebery placed a memorial to him in Christ Church which simply reads 'The Joy of My Life'.

Rosebery and Hannah Rothschild had met at Newmarket, for Hannah's father, the Baron Meyer de Rothschild, was another great racing man; he named one of his horses after her, and in 1871 this won the Oaks, One Thousand Guineas and St Leger. That June he had also won the Derby, and 1871 was known long afterwards in racing circles as the Baron's Year. Four years later, Rosebery achieved one of his great ambitions by winning the Derby with his horse Ladas II. The pub in Chalk Lane, previously the Fox, became known as the Ladas after this event. The triumph of Ladas was witnessed by the Prince and Princess of Wales along with what is believed to be the biggest Derby crowd ever. Police were swept off their feet in front of the weighing room. The win was hugely popular, coming at a time when Rosebery was Prime Minister, a top sportsman and also a local man. One telegraph from America read 'only Heaven left'.

Detail of Cicero.  Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre
Detail of Cicero from a photograph taken by the Empress Marie at The Durdans 1913
Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre (Opens in a new window)

About a month after Ladas' Derby win, some 800 local people were invited to the Durdans, where they were entertained with tea and the house was thrown open for them to view. The next year, Rosebery won the Derby again with Sir Visto: and for a third time in 1905 with Cicero, who set a new record time for the race. Again, all the working people of Epsom were invited to the Durdans - this time over 2,000 people came to hear three bands, play sports and watch the fireworks in the evening. Even the inmates of the workhouse in Dorking Road were given dinner which include two pints of beer each. After this win Lord Rosebery stated 'I feel guilty winning the Derby for a third time as most owners do not get the chance to win it once'. To each member of the committee who organized the event he gave a horseshoe brooch with the name 'Cicero' in the centre enamelled in his racing colours, and he presented the town with a horse trough carrying the winner's name.

Rosebery Drawing
Drawing of Rosebery leading in Ladas
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Rosebery was one of the dominant figures in British racing history. He won no less than 11 classics, and once told a Downing Street official 'politics and racing were inconsistent which seemed a good reason to give up politics'. He was not just a racing man: he had a great love for football, surprising in such an aristocrat, and would normally attend the Cup Final, taking his stable lads with him after a kick-around in the stable yard. The crowd at Crystal Palace - where the Final was held before Wembley was built - could be 66,000 strong, and Rosebery often addressed them. Rosebery was also Honorary President of the Scottish Football Association, and up to the 1920s the Scottish national side would often turn out in his racing colours. His other sporting loves included yachting but perhaps his favorite sport after horse-racing was shooting and he was an expert shot.

Rosebery was a great churchman, attending services at Christ Church and showing the church great generosity: he paid for the whole costs of building the south aisle, and was present at the opening of Christ Church Hall in West Hill. There was a special chair provided for him at Christ Church until, in the illness that followed the death of his son Neil, he had his motorcar adapted to take a chair on four wheels. This could be wheeled out of the back of the car and into the church. Before then he had been accustomed to walk out of a service just as the vicar was about to ascend the pulpit, which the incumbent, Canon Hunter, found rather disconcerting. Taking his parishioner to task, he wrote that it was wrong for people to absent themselves while the word of God was being delivered. Lord Rosebery answered that the good done by the service was too often undone by the sermon; though people criticised the sermon, he had never heard of anyone criticising the prayers. He also supported the Dissenting churches, and laid the foundation stone for Epsom's Congregational Hall. In 1897 he opened the new Epsom Technical Institute and Art School, and used the occasion to give a major speech on the rise of Germany as a industrial power, stressing the importance of schools like this in Epsom where people could learn the skills to keep British industry ahead of Germany. Soon, he felt, Britain and Germany would be joined in an industrial war. He was president of practically every association and society in the area, and was a member of the local branch of the Foresters. He was steward of Epsom races, and almost every local sporting fixture included a Rosebery Cup.

Rosebery and the Council were at loggerheads about the patients at the new Horton asylums. Like many other local people, he was worried that they had too much freedom to leave the hospitals and come into the streets of Epsom. He spoke at a public meeting in Epsom on this subject; arriving half-way through the meeting from the House; he had not heard the earlier discussions which showed how much support there was from local tradesmen, with whom the hospitals were placing orders and spending money. Rosebery's speech against the new asylums was met by such a hostile reception that he never spoke in public in Epsom again. He did however use the dinner of the Surrey Agricultural Association to deliver a famous speech calling for Britain to wipe out the humiliation of General Gordon's death in the Sudan, something achieved by Lord Kitchener's troops, so that both Kitchener and Rosebery became heroes of the hour.

Rosebery may not always have seen eye to eye with the council but in 1899 he was elected to it, at the head of the poll, although at the time he was not even in the country. He was unanimously voted Chairman, a post which he refused. 'I will be attending merely as a learner and pupil and therefore not qualified to take a leading part', he said.

In 1913 Rosebery purchased Woodcote Place, an extensive house in South Street with the lands of Epsom Common Fields at the back. This house was to be a home for his daughter, Lady Crewe: the old Common Fields were separated from the purchase and given to the Council as a park, which they named Rosebery Park after him. Rosebery's generosity was mixed with other motives. A new road had been proposed, cutting across from the bottom of Ashley Road across these fields to join the beginning of Dorking Road. This would have cut out the bottleneck at the South Street/ High Street corner, which even in the moderate traffic conditions of 1913 had been giving problems. But the new road junction at the comer of Dorking Road would have cut right past the gardens of Woodcote Hall. By his generous gift to the Council, Rosebery had kept the road improvements at bay. The donation of Rosebery Park had a condition attached - no organized games or entertainments were to take place. Shortly after it became public land, goalposts were set up for local football teams, and they stayed up despite Rosebery's objections. Relations with the council cooled, and later on, when there was a need to extend Epsom Cemetery, he made a point of selling the land involved for the market price instead of giving it as a benefaction. The £2,000 realized by the sale of the land was immediately paid out to charity. Epsom & Ewell Cottage Hospital benefited with a new extension, and work on Epsom College chapel was completed.

After World War I, Rosebery was one of the subscribers for Epsom's War Memorial. The original plan, which he supported, was to site the monument in the High Street, near the Clock Tower. But objections came from a group of tradesmen, each of whom had lost a son in the war - they became known as the Seven Fathers. They did not want to be reminded, every day, of the loss of their family. Epsom showed very little interest in a War Memorial at all, and during the following discussions over what it should be like and where it should go, Rosebery withdrew his original subscription and gave it to charity instead. Relations with the Council improved later. In the 1920s Rosebery offered to purchase the right to hold Epsom Market, which was then held by the Lord of the Manor. This entitlement would have cost him five hundred pounds, but the Council felt that there was little demand for a market so his offer was declined.

In 1919 Rosebery made a presentation of gold watches to the policemen who had defended Epsom Police Station against rioting Canadian troops, on the night when Station Sergeant Thomas Green was killed. He was so moved by this tragedy that he wrote the inscription for Green's grave, which stands to this day in Ashley Road cemetery.

During 1922, Epsom was flooded with rumors that Rosebery had died. In fact he had another seven years to go, although he was increasingly infirm: so he had himself taken out in his bath chair, first to the Epsom Bowling Club, then to the Cricket Club, by way of disproving the rumors. One of his last public appearances involved the local Boy Scout movement, of which he was president. In April 1923, George VI and Queen Mary came to lunch at the Durdans, and local scout troops were called on to supply the Guard of Honour.

On the evening of May 20th 1929, Rosebery sank into a coma and in the early hours of the next day he died with his son by his bed and the sound of a gramophone playing the Eton Boating Song. That was his last wish; if he could have heard the music at all, it would have reminded him of hot summer afternoons and the golden days of his young manhood at the school. He left the Durdans taken by car to his house in Berkeley Square, where it slowed down but did not stop, and on to Kings Cross and so by special train to Scotland, where he was buried in the family vault at the kirk in Dalmeny.

Lord Rosebery's name lives on in the neighborhood - not only is there Rosebery Park, Avenue and Road, but in 1927 Epsom's new girls' school was named after him to celebrate his eightieth birthday. Rosebery School has a primrose as its badge, to commemorate his family name, and the original school colours of pink and brown were taken from his racing colours.

Marji Bloy, The Victorian Web
Jeremy Harte, Bourne Hall Museum

Article written by David Brooks; Bourne Hall Museum

Lady Crewe
Lady Crewe
6th Earl or Rosebery
Rosebery 6th Earl
Lady Sybil
Lady Sybil