The greatest living Englishmen

In the mid-1880s, at the very height of the Victorian era, the Pall Mall Gazette polled its readers to discover who were considered to be the Greatest Living Englishmen.

Just to be clear: the term English at this point was widely used as the adjective to describe the United Kingdom; it didn’t exclude the Welsh, Irish or Scottish. On the other hand, the gender implication was clearly observed – otherwise, surely, Queen Victoria or Florence Nightingale would have rated a mention somewhere.

Votes were invited in ten separate categories, and the winners – as announced in 1885 – were as follows:

Greatest Statesman – Lord Salisbury
Greatest Journalist – George Augustus Sala
Greatest Painter – John Everett Millais
Greatest Soldier – Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley
Greatest Man of Science – Thomas Huxley
Greatest Writer – John Ruskin
Greatest Novelist – Wilkie Collins
Greatest Preacher – Canon Henry Liddon
Greatest Actor – Henry Irving
Greatest Humbug – The Claimant [in the Tichborne case]


Wilkie Collins

It should be noted that the Statesman category specifically excluded William Gladstone, since it was taken as read that the Grand Old Man would win at a canter. In his absence, this category produced the narrowest of all margins of victory, Joseph Chamberlain running Salisbury a close race.

The biggest winner, meanwhile, was Henry Irving, who massively outpolled all would-be pretenders to the title of top thespian.

Also worth noting is the Humbug division, where the Tichborne Claimant was pursued hard by the ill-matched pair of Oscar Wilde and General William Booth, the Founder of the Salvation Army.

And, in terms of what it says about the priorities of the time, it’s noticeable that writing, novels, art and acting are covered, but there’s no room for music. Nor for engineering. Meanwhile soldiers are to be considered, but not sailors.

Various other publications followed the Pall Mall Gazette in running readers’ polls on the Greatest Living Englishmen. In 1889 the readers of the Saturday Journal opted for William Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, Charles Spurgeon, Henry Irving and Joseph Chamberlain in that order.

Here are some more results from the turn of the twentieth century. This is the verdict of readers of the Belfast Weekly News in 1898:

1. Prince of Wales
2. Lord Salisbury
3. William Gladstone
4. Duke of Devonshire
5. Joseph Chamberlain
6. Arthur Balfour
7. Field Marshal Lord Roberts
8. Henry Irving
9. Cecil Rhodes
10. Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley

This particular Duke of Devonshire, incidentally, is the 8th Duke, formerly the Marquess of Hartington, who had been leader of the Liberal Party and was now leading the Liberal Unionists.

Then there was the poll in a boys’ magazine for boys in 1900 (which magazine is not specified in the widespread reporting of the results):

1. Prince of Wales
2. Lord Salisbury
3. Field Marshal Earl Roberts
4. Field Marshal Earl Kitchener
5. Joseph Chamberlain
6. Cecil Rhodes
7. Lord Rosebery
8. Henry Irving
9. Arthur Balfour
10. Rudyard Kipling

The magazine Leisure Hour ran a poll in 1901, though judging by the number of ties, there weren’t many votes cast:

  1. Lord Roberts; General William Booth
  2. Marquess of Salisbury
  3. King Edward VII
  4. Archbishop of Canterbury; Lord Milner; Lord Lister; Herbert Spencer

Reporting this, the Paisley & Renfrewshire Gazette noted: ‘Not a Scotsman among them and not a single literary gent!’

And finally, the Taunton Courier & Western Advertiser in 1902:

1. Field Marshal Earl Kitchener
2. Joseph Chamberlain
3. Lord Salisbury
4. Arthur Balfour
5. King Edward VII
6. Field Marshal Earl Roberts
7. Lord Milner
8. Lord Rosebery
9. Frederick Treves
10. Henry Irving

By this stage, the impact of the Boer War is unavoidable: not only the military commanders Kitchener and Roberts, but also Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner to South Africa, the man who did so much to provoke the Boers in the first instance. And indeed the surgeon Frederick Treves, recognized here presumably for his work in a field hospital in South Africa, rather than for his role in the story of the Elephant Man (in which capacity he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in David Lynch’s best film).

As a footnote, John Bull ran a satirical piece in 1912 in which it imagined what various celebrities would say if asked to nominate the Greatest Living Englishman. This is their version of Marie Corelli:

Your question is absurd. There are no great living Englishmen. The modern Englishman is a poor fool, vicious, blasé, frivolous and cowardly. How else would he submit to be ruled by a parcel of Scotch, Irish and Welshmen? I tell you the day of the Englishman is done. Whatever heroic qualities he may have possessed in the past, today he is little better than a slave. There is no great living Englishman. See my recent article in a well-known monthly magazine.


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