Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 12 - The Annual Habitation of the Primrose League

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THE chief interest, in the way of public meetings, the last week in April was the annual "Habitation of the Primrose League." The annual address was delivered Wednesday afternoon in the Covent Garden Opera House and the orator of the occasion was the Grand Master, the Most Honorable the Marquis of Salisbury. On the previous evening a reception had been held at the Grafton Galleries, which was attended by representatives of the various auxiliary organizations throughout the kingdom, numbering several thousand.
    The Grand Habitation began at three o'clock, the doors being opened at 1:45 o'clock. Even at that early hour the line of carriages extended down Wellington street and far up the Strand; the horses' heads were decorated with primroses and with yellow and purple ribbons; the lamps were filled with nosegays of the fragrant flowers, men wore them on their lapels, and maids and matrons carried bouquets and displayed them at their throats and     on the corsage of their gowns.
    Nothing more brilliant could be imagined than the vast opera house itself, crowded from the stage to the topmost gallery; around the three tiers of boxes were ropes and garlands and festoons of primroses and the cushioned ledges were banked with them; the great crystal chandelier in the center of the dome and myriads of incandescent burners were a blaze of mellow light.
    [-126-] In addition to the display of flowers, from nearly every box hung a splendid satin and gold or silver embroidered banner, each elaborately decorated and bearing the name and number of an organization. The boxes were filled with beautifully dressed women, the delegates from the various habitations, and upon the stage was seated a very distinguished company of men and women, evidently the officers of the various habitations.
    Among them, and the first of all, was Lord Salisbury, with Lord Poltimore, the Chancellor; Mr. G. S. Lane- Fox, Vice Chancellor; the Marquis of Abergavenny, Grand Registrar; the Duke of Norfolk, Postmaster General, and Viscount Curzon.
    The band sat beneath a sort of canopy above the reserved seats and proved to be rather unmanageable. Lord Salisbury arrived at a little past three, accompanied by his private secretary, the Hon. Schomberg K. McDarnell; and this was the signal for a prolonged roar-  very different from the American "three cheers." As he took his seat the entire audience rose, and at the same moment three great torches flared up - a dazzling calcium light - like the flash of cannon; this was the ubiquitous photographer taking instantaneous photographs of distinguished gentlemen as they appeared upon the platform. It had, however, quite another and unanticipated effect, as if it were some very melodramatic and special recognition.
    There was a hitch in the beginning which would have hopelessly confused an American audience, but which this English assemblage accepted with a little good-natured laughter and their usual philosophic indifference. It had been arranged that the first and third verses of the national anthem should be sung by Mme. Alice Gomez, a favorite London concert singer, the audience to repeat with her the last verse. The band struck up accordingly and played a few bars; nobody uttered a sound, and the [-127-] leader rapped with his baton, silencing the instruments, when there were excited shouts of "Go on, Go on." Thus encouraged they began again, and a few piping, treble voices joined, but it was some time before the audience recovered its presence of mind, so that only the last few lines were sung with anything like the proper spirit.
    The most impressive feature of this great meeting was the presence of hundred's of women, who were not there, as they would have been in a political meeting almost everywhere in the United States, on sufferance, and as a compliment to their negative "influence." They were a component part, a vital factor, in what to-day is one of the greatest political organizations in England; officers, delegates, equal in authority with the men. Fully a third of them - every woman householder - were entitled to vote at all except the parliamentary elections, and they constituted what Liberal and Conservatives alike recognized and, what is more, respected - an active political influence which both parties were forced to accept as such. Lord Salisbury, Mr. Balfour, and other of the Conservative leaders had advocated the extension of the Parliamentary franchise to women, and were, personally, confessed advocates of equal suffrage.
    The women of that great audience, while they were dignified and modest, and, above all, well-bred, showed by their manner that they realized their own political value; and they proved, also, in a manner that might have reassured the most doubting and uncertain, that they had acquired their political power at no sacrifice of their womanliness and refinement.
    A statement was presented by Lord Poltimore which proved that' the Primrose League, both financially and in point of membership, had enjoyed a year of phenomenal success. He announced that 60,000 new members had been added to the League and that thirty new habitations [-128-] had been formed, while it had been necessary to subdivide many of the older ones, which had grown to unwieldiness.
    The first prize banner, the reward of zeal and activity, was presented to the Elswick Habitation, Newcastle-on-Tyne, by the Countess of Ancaster, and was received by the secretary as its representative; the second was given to the Harvey Habitation, Potton, Bedfordshire, and the third to St. George's, Hanover Square, and to Oldham, whose records in well-doing were equal.
    At the conclusion of the ceremony, Lady Ancaster was presented with a bouquet of lilies of the valley and roses, by Lord Salisbury, which she accepted with much grace.
    Lord Salisbury then rose, and was greeted with great applause and an especially blinding flash of the calcium light. He said that Lord Rosebery had reviewed the administration of the present government up to the present moment the evening before, arraigning the proposed educational bill, which was designed to give voluntary, or church schools, state aid; the rating bill, the advance in the Soudan, and the South African imbroglio.
    The defensive is usually an easy position, and Lord Salisbury made the most of it, replying to the criticisms which had been unsparingly made. He was well worth studying - this big broad-chested descendant of the great Cecil of Elizabeth's court, who has all the physical vitality and intellectual force of the race from which he sprung. He had a heavy face, with a fringe of white hair, like a tonsure, and a short, grayish beard; an almost ungainly figure, and was slow and deliberate, even clumsy, in his movements; he had also, the sloping shoulders common to Englishmen, and which, but for his stout figure, would have given him an effeminate appearance.
    But he was a living refutation of a belief, firmly fixed in the American mind, that the English are not orators. [-129-] While his voice was neither loud nor deep, but, on the contrary, rather thin and soft, it had a remarkable carrying quality, and although many of his hearers were so far away that their features could not be distinguished from the stage, they applauded every point as enthusiastically as those who sat about the Chancellor, and it could be seen from their close attention that they heard perfectly every word. His enunciation was finished and delightful; he spoke with deliberation, but did not drawl, and he had, moreover, a personal magnetism that was somewhat unexpected.
    As for the address itself, it was a model of diplomatic evasion; an illustration of that art of concealment which is usually ascribed to the language of diplomacy. At the same time, there was a frank confession of the uncertain tenure of Conservative rule, and an honest admission that Conservative policy was to be tested to the utmost, with results that no one could forecast.
    He did not consider the growth of the Primrose League an electioneering accident, but asserted boldly that it represented the introduction of a latent force into English politics which had not been utilized before, and said that it had largely brought into action the influence of many men who, otherwise, would not have devoted their efforts to the support of the country. It had knit together classes that had been separated, and whom it was the interest of agitators to keep apart; and it had brought into action for the support of the fundamental institutions of society those who were most deeply interested in them - namely, the women of England.
    "I am one of these," he continued guardedly, "I speak only for myself individually-who are of the opinion that women have not the voice they ought to have in the selection of the representatives of the kingdom; but I warn you that there is no question at present which divides [-130-] parties more completely, and I am not certain even whether I express the opinion of the majority of my own party; but however that may be, whether they obtain or whether they do not obtain any formal share in directing the political course of this country, there can be no doubt that their action, through the machinery of the Primrose League, has largely modified the development of our political history." This observation was received with approving cries of "Hear, hear !"
    The action of the Primrose League, he continued, was the action of social influence - the influence of men and women on each other, and of men and women in society, meeting each other in private life. Hitherto political action had been largely the effect either of literary productions or speeches on the platform. The great change which the last fifteen years had introduced was that political opinions were advocated by those who believed in them, not in ostentatious ways, but in the quiet influence of private life. It was a powerful influence because it was multiplied in infinite proportions throughout the length and breadth of the land. This opinion was also warmly applauded.
"And if I am not deceived by all the information that reaches me," he added, especially addressing his remarks to the women members, "it is this private, non-public influence, this influence of mind on mind in conversation, and not in speeches, that has largely affected the constituencies in every part of the country during recent elections. It is an influence which is most valuable to maintain, because it is the influence of those who are most deeply interested in the steady and peaceful working of your institutions, but yet who are guided by none of the methods which lead agitators to disturb society. It is for you to cultivate this influence in the time that lies before you."
    [-131-] Of course, in this acknowledgment of the service which women had rendered the Conservative party, Lord Salisbury carefully kept his private convictions in the background, and so, virtually, advocated work of the bricks-without-straw description, just as our own American politicians sanction women's political work without tangible reward; service that is willingly accepted, but which is never properly acknowledged. Still, there was a splendid confidence among the women which said plainly:
    "We have advanced thus far; we shall continue to progress and there shall be no retrogression." Whatever his lips might utter, they knew well the real convictions of their leader, and they trusted him.
    The speaker, continuing, said that the effects of the victory which had been achieved would be enduring. By that he did not mean that the majority or the ministry would be enduring, but that the striking effect, the permanent result, would be that each succeeding battle would be fought with an advantage not possessed before.
    There had been a clamor for the abolition of the House of Lords, induced "by producing artificial subjects of discord," but when challenged on this distinct issue the country had replied by the largest majority which any government had received in the last half century.
    This assertion, the truth of which could not be controverted, was received with tremendous cheering and shouts of "Hear, hear !"
    He touched gingerly upon the education question, and here his non-committal attitude - the evasion of the diplomat - was especially marked. It is a question on both sides of the Atlantic which requires very delicate handling, and in the general dissatisfaction of all except the Establishment was, at that time, as vexed a problem in England as it had been in the United States, wherever church influence has attempted to interfere.
    [-132-] The elections had determined, he said, that education should be religious; by which he meant, practically, that the parish schools controlled by priests and curates should be subsidized; but he added, and very wisely - judged from the standpoint of self-preservation - that he would not dwell upon it, though he deprecated the Conservative belief that religion was no longer dear to the English people. He thought that the elections had shown that it had lost none of its hold upon the hearts of the nation.
    As to the rating bill, he regretted that he had not been able to do more for the relief of agricultural distress, but said that the navy had run away with most of their resources, and that they were arrested by the homely wisdom of the proverb which says: "You must cut your coat according to your cloth." He declined to express an opinion upon the death sentence which had just been passed upon the Reform Committee in the Transvaal, but announced that as he entered the building a telegram had been placed in his hands informing him of the commutation of the sentence.
    This was received with an outburst of enthusiasm and excitement, men and women springing to their feet, shouting and waving hats and handkerchiefs.
    His apologetic attitude on the Armenian question, which he approached with extreme caution and treated with marked reserve, was, nevertheless, an unequivocal denial of the personal responsibility of the Sultan, placing the blame upon irresponsible savage tribes, and very properly exonerating England because of her unwillingness to go to war with the whole of Europe.
    Of operations in the Soudan, he felt that there was a unanimity of opinion in England, and that the English were bound to relieve Egypt of the fearful curse of "savage incursion and domination which had been placed upon the people," a modest promise which has since been [-133-] most brilliantly fulfilled. He said, however, that he did not wish to be misconstrued as foreshadowing any immediate advance to the South, or any plan as to proposed military operations.
    The speech closed with a very eloquent exhortation to the Primrose League to continue in zeal and well-doing. One observation was well worth remembering, and this was his especial and urgent appeal for the United Habitations to labor for the promotion and establishment of public confidence, "By which alone," he very truthfully added, "commerce and industry live.''
    As the audience dispersed many stepped into the boxes, lingering a moment to admire the beautiful decorations; some hundreds sought for the reviving tea in the ante- rooms, the line of carriages moved toward the porte coch?re at the entrance, and lords and gentlemen, titled dames and maidens took their places therein.
    The meeting had been characterized by the utmost dignity throughout; there was sufficient enthusiasm without any hysterical demonstration, and, while the reports showed a very considerable gain in membership and extended and successful work, there was no disposition to exult unduly or to exaggerate facts. Lord Salisbury's speech was straightforward, clear and succinct; however, one might disagree with his views, one was forced to admit his sincerity and his honest desire to do his duty in the high position to which he had been chosen; an integrity of purpose that could not fail to inspire profound confidence.

source: Mary H. Krout, A Looker-On in London, 1899>