portrait of young lord houghton  


..a most bland- smiling, semi-quizzical, affectionate, high-bred, Italianized

little man, who has long, olive-blonde hair, a dimple, next to no chin,

and flings his arms around your neck..'

(Thomas Carlyle, Collected Letters, 1840)


There are so many vivid and intriguing quotes and descriptions concerning Richard Monckton Milnes by his contemporaries – political, literary and social – that it would be possible to create an article comprising these alone. He was such a flamboyant, warm, ubiquitous character, and certainly not one to fade into any background.


Richard Monckton Milnes was born in London at Bolton Street, Mayfair on the 19th June 1809. His father was Robert Pemberton Milnes (1784-1858), the son of Richard Slate Milnes of Fryston Hall near Wakefield, where the family were wealthy cloth manufacturers. At the age of twenty-two Pemberton Milnes became Member of Parliament for Pontefract, which was near the family estate at Fryston. As well as his political interests he enjoyed the life of a country squire. He made an outstanding maiden speech, and became known as the ‘brilliant political meteor of Bolton Street’. He became one of Yorkshire’s leading politicians, opposing the Repeal of the Corn Laws and advocating Catholic emancipation. In 1808 he married Henrietta Monckton, daughter of Lord Galloway, and Richard was born the following year. This was a significant year for another reason; Prime Minister Perceval offered Pemberton Milnes the posts of Chancellor of the Exchequer or Secretary of State for War.  He did not accept either, saying if he did he would be dead within a year.  Shortly afterwards he withdrew from parliament and repaired to Yorkshire, rarely visiting London.  He became known as ‘Single Speech Milnes.’ In 1856, Palmerston offered him a peerage but to the annoyance of his son Richard, he refused the honour.  Pemberton Milnes had a talent for behaving in a contrary way, and employing an acerbic wit which had an impact on the personality of his son.


Richard Monckton Milnes was educated briefly at Hundhill Hall School, Doncaster, but his health was delicate and as a result he was privately educated. In October 1827, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a fellow commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge.  He was not academically outstanding but his sociable personality gained him notice. He became a member of the famous ‘Apostles’: an exclusive university society with a membership of only twelve.  Members in Milnes’ time included Arthur Hallam and Alfred Tennyson.  Tennyson wrote of Milnes after seeing him for the first time, ’ That is a man I should like to know. He looks the best-tempered fellow I ever saw.’ (1)  Milnes became a successful speaker at the Debating Society. He began to write, contributing poems and reviews to the ‘Athenaeum.’ W. E. Gladstone invited him, along with Hallam and Thomas Sunderland to take part in a debate at the Oxford Union arguing in favour of Shelley’s poetry as against that of Lord Byron.


Milnes graduated in 1831 with an MA and enrolled in the newly founded University of London, meeting new friends such as Thomas Campbell and John Sterling.  He then travelled to Bonn to continue his studies and developed an empathy with German culture and tradition.  After Bonn, he went to Italy, where he joined his parents and sister, Harriet, who had been living there for some time. The family had moved to the continent to save money as Pemberton Milnes had been obliged to settle a large gambling debt incurred by his brother Rodes.  Milnes endeared himself to Italian society and began to develop a certain continental style.  After a stay in Florence, where he met the celebrated Walter Savage Landor, he joined the family in Rome.  The eternal city made a powerful impression, ‘St. Peter’s really knocked me down; the Vatican blinded me with the multitude of its treasures, and the Coliseum has a glory of ruin which must be grander than its past perfection.’ (2). A contrast with his father who was disappointed with everything but the aqueducts.

Milnes next stop in his Grand Tour was Greece. He travelled there with Christopher Wordsworth, brother of William, who was Master of Trinity. Greece and Italy inspired Memorials of Residence upon the Continent and Poems of Many Years. In all he spent some eight years in Germany and Italy, and acquired continental manners and a distinctly cosmopolitan approach, which at first did not endear him to Victorian London society.

Milnes also made a visit to Ireland.  He set out to find his friend Aubrey de Vere. One evening, in 1831, the de Vere family were seated in their library mulling over the events of the Great Reform Bill, when,  ‘ out of the post-chaise jumped a young man with a jaunty step and vivacious, intelligent face.’ (3).  He leaped up the stone steps to the terrace, asking if his young friend was at home.

‘In another half-hour we seemed to have leaped into an intimacy with the young

traveller as close as if it had begun years before, so entirely easy and familiar was our     

guest in all his ways and so singularly unconventional in his manner.’ (4)


The visit was a great success. ‘Aubrey de Vere,’ Milnes wrote about the Irish poet, 'was one of the most glorious creatures in this or any other world.’ (5).


Milnes began his life in the capital in 1835. He already had friends from his university years in literary and social circles established in London. His warmth of manner and generosity soon saw him attending the literary salons of the day. In 1837 he established himself at 26 Pall Mall, and began his own literary breakfasts, inviting a wide circle of guests.


Milnes was elected Member of Parliament for Pontefract in 1837 as a Conservative, and held his seat until he was elevated to the peerage in 1863.  His special focus in the House was religious and civil liberty, and other progressive causes such as reformatories for juvenile offenders and factory education. From the start of his career he supported women’s suffrage; he was an outspoken supporter of women in various spheres of public life. A contradictory aspect of this was his interest in flagellation and pornography.  He was a prime mover in the passing of the Copyright Act of 1842.

Milnes was not a gifted orator like his father, his style became elaborate and rather pretentious.  According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in 1848, his speeches were a signal for ‘emptying the House.’ (1).   Emerson, a warm admirer of Milnes goes on to say,  ‘He makes speeches of exquisite infelicity and then joins in the laughter against himself.’ (6).  

Milnes made frequent trips to France during the upheavals there in the 1840s, engaging with both sides of the political spectrum.  He socialised with King Louis Philippe and Lamartine, and developed a lifelong friendship with Alexis de Tocqueville.  His knowledge of the continent convinced him he was a likely candidate for an under-secretary for foreign affairs, but was rejected by Peel.  A previous supporter of Peel he began to find himself out of tune with Peel’s policies, and joined the Liberal Party.

His friend Thomas Carlyle comforted him, ‘There is only one post for you and that is the office of perpetual President of the Heaven and Hell Amalgamation Society’ (7).

lord houghtonSOCIAL LIFE

Milnes’ breakfast parties became famous; he entertained the talented and famous of his day. He was celebrated for bringing together a wide variety of guests, many from overseas. One such occasion on 12th June 1846, included Richard Cobden, Disraeli, Suleiman Pasha, Louis Napoleon and the Count d’Orsay.  Milnes also entertained at Fryston Hall, where guests were engrossed by his eclectic library.

He was described by Emerson as: ‘fat, easy, affable and obliging; a little careless and slovenly in dress.’ (8).  Disraeli, in 1847, in Tancred, depicted Milnes as Mr. Vavasour: ‘a real poet, and a troubadour, as well as a Member of Parliament; travelled, sweet-tempered and good-hearted; amusing, clever with catholic sympathies and an eclectic turn of mind, Mr. Vavasour saw something good in everybody and everything, which is certainly amiable, and perhaps just, but disqualifies a man in some degree for the business of life, which requires for its conduct a certain degree of prejudice.’ (9).

Milnes supported women’s rights and enjoyed the company and correspondence of many of the literary ladies of his day, such as Mrs Gaskell and Eizabeth Barrett Browning.


Milnes wrote both poetry and prose. His stay in Germany and Italy and his travels in Greece and the Ottoman Empire inspired Memorials of Residence upon the Continent; Poemsof Many Years; Poetry for the People and Palm Leaves. His poetry was considered cultured and elegant, but lacking in fire.  He also wrote ballads which became very popular. He had an excellent singing voice.

His prose writing included publication of his parliamentary speeches and pamphlets relating to issues of the day.  His writing was often influenced by religious questions. In 1841 he published One Tract More, which was a call for balance and toleration of Anglo-Catholicis. This was praised by J. H. Newman and Gladstone. He wrote a pamphlet on France in 1848, entitled The Events of 1848, Especially in their Relation to Great Britain. This provoked a dismissive attack by George Smythe, and Milnes challenged him to a duel. Fortunately this was prevented by the diplomacy of their seconds.

His most famous literary work was the Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats. (1848. 2 Vols) Milnes' work rescued Keats from obscurity, retrieving his reputation as a great Romantic poet. Milnes made many contributions to magazines and reviews. Disraeli described him as: ‘Boswell, without a Johnson.’   (10).

Milnes’ most precious gift to the literary world was his appreciation for the gifts of other writers and his great encouragement of young poets such as Algernon Charles Swinburne.

photo of florence nightingaleFAMILY

‘Dear Friend, My dear father died on the 9th of this month closing a long and weary illness with a peaceful and easy transit to the spiritual world.’ Milnes wrote to J. McCarthty on the death of his father.  Robert Pemberton Milnes died at Fryston in 1858. He had been ill throughout the year, and Milnes had avoided travel abroad on this account.  He had lost his mother Henrietta in May, 1847.  She was always a positive influence upon her son, with her warmth and zest for living, and her death was a blow. He was closer to Henrietta than to his father, and from her he had inherited his enthusiasm for life and good humour.  Richard Milnes’ most enduring and deepest affection was for his sister Harriet.  He was broken hearted when she married their cousin, Lord Galway in 1838. 

At the age of forty-two Milnes married the Hon. Anabella Hungerford Crewe (1814-1874). He had already famously proposed to Florence Nightingale unsuccessfully several times.  He had always been a tireless supporter of her worrk and the two remained close friends.  His friend de Tocqueville thought he was in love with George Sand, and there is gossip that he was called ‘Miss Nancy’ by Thackeray, but such suggestions are unproven. As he grew older he longed for security and domesticity, and settled into a contented marriage with Anabella. There were three children of the marriage: Amicia Henrietta Hungerford Milnes, Florence Ellen Hungerford Milnes and Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe Milnes. His letters to his children are affectionate, lively and very communicative.  He always addresses them as ‘Dearest’ even when adult.

Richard, 1st Lord Houghton died in Vichy, in August, 1885, and was buried at Fryston.  Florence Nightingale wrote to her sister after his death, 

‘His brilliance and talents in tongue or pen – whether political, social or literary – were inspired chiefly by good will towards man: he had the same voice and manners for the dirty brat as he had for a duchess, the same desire to give pleasure and good: for both were his wits and his kindness.’ (11)


      ‘Adieu, dear Yorkshire Milnes! we  think not now

      Of coronet or laurel in thy brow;

      The kindest, faithfullest of friends was thou.’   (12).  (W. Allingham, 11th August, 1885)




  1. James Pope-Hennessy, Monckton Milnes: The Years of Promise, 1809-1851, New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955, p.17
  2. Ibid, p.41
  3. Ibid, p.39
  4. Ibid, p.39
  5. Ibid, p.40
  6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journeys and Miscellaneous Book, ed. M. Sealts. 1973. p. 530
  7. Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, The Collected Letters, e, K. Fielding, p. 12-13.
  8. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ibid
  9. Disraeli, B. Tancred, (1847) Ch. 14.
  10. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Milnes, Richard Monckton, First Baron Houghton.
  11. T. Wemyss Reid, The Letters and Friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, First Lord Houghton, Vols 1 & 2. London: Cassell & Co. 1890.  p.7
  12. Ibid. P. 467



Carlyle, Thomas & Jane Welsh, Collected Letters, ed. K. Fielding. Duke University Press,     Durham & London:  2006

Disraeli, Benjamin, Tancred,  The Project Gutenberg,

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebook, e. M. Sealts,  Harvard Press, 1973

Pope-Hennessey, James, Monckton Milnes, The Years of Promise, 2 vols. London: Castell & Co.         1949-1951 

Pope-Hennessy, James,  Lord Crewe, 1858-1945: The Likeness of a Liberal, London: Constable         & Co. 1955

Wemyss Reid, The Letters and Friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, first Lord Houghton. 2 Vols. (1890)  Scholar Select Repro. London: Castell co.


1. Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton by George Richmond, chalk, circa 1844, © National Portrait Gallery

2. Lord Houghton's biography of John Keats

3. Florence Nightingale by William Edward Kilburn, albumen carte-de-visite, (circa 1856) © National Portrait Gallery