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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Primrose, Archibald Philip (1847–1929)

by D. D. Cuthbert

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Archibald Philip Primrose (1847-1929), by unknown engraver

Archibald Philip Primrose (1847-1929), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S24/10/83/196

Archibald Philip Primrose (1847-1929), statesman and author, was born on 7 May 1847 in London, elder son of Archibald Primrose and his wife Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina, daughter of Earl Stanhope. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where after three years he was forced to choose between his race-horse Ladas and his degree; this most literate of future prime ministers unhesitatingly opted to retain the horse. On 4 March 1868 he had succeeded to the earldom and many Scottish properties. On 20 March 1878 he married Hannah de Rothschild, 'the richest heiress in England'.

In 1879 and 1880 Rosebery brilliantly managed Gladstone's first and second Midlothian campaigns and in 1881-83 reluctantly filled and readily vacated the under-secretaryship at the Home Office, an unglamorous apprenticeship that Gladstonian rigidity prescribed. In September 1883 he travelled via America and New Zealand with his wife to Australia and arrived in Sydney on 17 November. In the next nine weeks he visited Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, looking at outback stations, mines, vineyards and horse-races, and enjoying himself immensely. On the inevitable colonial banquet circuit he talked of the exciting destiny of the Liberal empire. The climax came at the Adelaide Town Hall on 18 January 1884. With the temperature oppressive and a town drunk in attendance, the statesman and orator turned prophet and presented the Australian colonies as a nation and in a happy and enduring phrase the empire itself as a 'Commonwealth of Nations'. He had bought real estate in Sydney and lost it in the 1892 crash, but never lost his deep interest in Australia.

On his return to Britain Rosebery managed Gladstone's third Midlothian campaign and with characteristic moodiness fenced with the prime minister over acceptance of full cabinet office, surrendering only when the ministry was in extremis by the fall of Khartoum and the death of Gordon. Rosebery followed Gladstone although unenthusiastic for Irish Home Rule, and became foreign secretary in Gladstone's third and fourth ministries. After nineteen months of conflict between Gladstonian 'little Englandism' and Roseberyite 'Liberal Imperialism' he became prime minister in March 1894 on Gladstone's final resignation.

The Rosebery ministry was almost a disaster. His wife had died in 1890 and he was plagued by insomnia, isolated in the overwhelmingly Tory House of Lords and harried by Sir William Harcourt, the Liberal leader in the Commons and spokesman for the 'little Englanders'. After sixteen months Rosebery was ready to take any plausible excuse for resignation and after another sixteen months as leader of a discomfited Opposition resigned that office too. He was approached by (Sir) Edmund Barton who in 1900 led the delegation to watch the passage of the Commonwealth Constitution bill through the imperial Parliament. Rosebery introduced the delegates to many influential Liberals, thereby helping to advance their case for leaving the bill unaltered.

Rosebery was nominal leader of the Liberal imperialists during the South African war. For a decade he remained a great figure in British politics but had become extraordinarily remote and dated by the time of his death on 21 May 1929.

Select Bibliography

  • R. O. A. Crewe-Milnes, Lord Rosebery (Lond, 1931)
  • R. R. James, Rosebery (Lond, 1963).

Citation details

D. D. Cuthbert, 'Primrose, Archibald Philip (1847–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Archibald Philip Primrose (1847-1929), by unknown engraver

Archibald Philip Primrose (1847-1929), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S24/10/83/196

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • fifth Earl of Rosebery
  • Rosebery, fifth Earl of

7 May 1847
London, Middlesex, England


21 May 1929

Cultural Heritage