A joke about Mr Gladstone

It was customary in Victorian times for the local landowner to inspect the village school – after all, he was probably paying for it – and to quiz the children, so that he might assure himself that all was going well.

In this case, the elderly squire was not just a worthy but also a wordy gentleman. The teacher took the precaution of lining up the brightest boy in the school to answer the questions.

The story dates from well before the 1902 Education Act, which massively developed secondary schooling, so we may assume that the young polymath was about ten years old.

"Now my boy," booms the distinguished visitor, "who is Her Majesty the Queen's principal constitutional advisor?"

The little lad can handle that one. "Please, sir, the prime minister, sir. Mr Gladstone."

The squire is impressed, but he wonders: has this urchin heard of the Archbishop of Canterbury?

"Very good, my boy, but now I want you to tell me: who plays the role in the Church of England analogous to that of Mr Gladstone in the State?"

Quick as a flash comes the response: "Please, sir, Judas Iscariot, sir."


Two things struck me when I heard this story in 1972. The first was that it was – to me, at least – mildly amusing. Anyone who has scanned the pages of Punch will know that Victorian humour does not travel well down the corridors of time. Perhaps it was my innate dislike of William Ewart Gladstone that made me smile, but the unexpected punchline might even be described – to anticipate a term from modern alternative comedy – as "edgy". Second, the circumstances in which I heard the joke gave it a persuasive provenance as part of a genuine oral tradition.[1]

In 1972, I wrote a journal article about a bizarre episode in the history of Cambridge University.[2] In 1866, dons had rejected the offer of an endowment designed to support a biennial visit from an American academic who would be nominated by Harvard to deliver a course of lectures on the history and institutions of the United States. This well-intentioned initiative stoked just about every possible academic resentment. The American Cambridge was not then regarded as a major university. More to the point, it was not an Anglican institution. Throughout the Civil War, Cambridge University opinion had been predominantly pro-Southern, and a college in Massachusetts was not a welcome intellectual partner. The proposed benefaction also coincided with the political crisis that culminated in the Second Reform Act of 1867. It was not the ideal moment to invite an overwhelmingly Conservative community to provide a platform for the elucidation of democratic principles. Dons had the right to circulate manifestos, known as "flysheets". A collection of these in the University Library provided a collage of pungent arguments for and against the proposal.

Among the flysheets I found – as no doubt I should have expected from the Cambridge of that era – a set of Greek verses.[3] Regarding myself as being on the cutting edge of educational technology, I obtained a photocopy of the verses (then called a "xerox") and asked Magdalene College's Classics Fellow, Richard Martineau, to supply an outline translation. We agreed upon an initial reconnaissance designed to establish whether a more polished and quotable version was required. Richard Martineau was a charming man, who seemed quietly bemused by the modernity of the nineteen-seventies. He had transferred to Cambridge after retiring from a life-long career teaching at Eton, and was well described at the time of his death in 1984 as "a most remarkable type of classical schoolmaster of a kind almost extinct".[4] It was quickly apparent from his draft that the verses were little more than a pastiche that added nothing of importance to the controversy. One allusion, however, was puzzling. Richard Martineau's translation contained a mysterious but evidently negative allusion to something that he had rendered as "sweet stone". We concluded that the comment made sense as a barb directed not against a thing but a person: "sweet stone" was a coy reference to Gladstone. It was in that context that Richard Martineau related the Judas Iscariot story. It was, so I understood, something he had heard very early in his life.

Richard Martineau had been born into a Suffolk landowning family in 1906. His education could hardly have been more privileged: Summer Fields in Oxford, England's leading preparatory school, followed – in 1918 – by admission to Eton as King's Scholar. Although he only just survived Spanish influenza during his first 'half' (term), he rose to become a member of 'Pop' (the elite Eton Society, prefects in any other academy) and Captain of the School. In 1924, he moved on to Trinity College Cambridge, where he took Firsts in both Parts of the Classical Tripos. He also won the Chancellor's Medal for Classics, in that era the Olympic Gold of academic prizes. After teaching briefly at Winchester, "which he much disliked", he joined the Eton staff in 1928. There he remained until he retired in 1966, never considering the possibility of moving elsewhere.[5] An unobtrusively wealthy bachelor, he owned not so much a country house as a handsome house in the country.[6] Richard Martineau's universe was undoubtedly small-c conservative. While he gave the impression of being apolitical, I have no doubt that his affiliation was also capital-C Conservative. It hardly matters whether he heard the Judas-Gladstone story from a family source or through the Eton network: there is every reason to believe that it represented a genuine echo of Conservative distaste for the Grand Old Man.

Nor was that transmission accidental. Richard Martineau's "great interest in people gave him a rare ability as a teacher to make historical figures come alive as human beings." He had taken to History almost before he mastered his irregular verbs: on arriving at Eton at the age of twelve, he could enthusiastically quote Macaulay's History of England.[7] If the young Richard Martineau had heard his elders enjoying a spiteful jibe about a recently dead Liberal politician, he would certainly have appreciated its significance. Although I never encountered nor observed anything but urbane courtesy from him, an Eton contemporary noted that his wit was "occasionally spiced with malice, but principally at the expense of what he saw to be pretentiousness." Given his background and conditioning, it is eminently likely that he classed Gladstone among those who were not over-deserving of respect.

The Judas joke presumably originated sometime during the quarter-century between 1868 and 1894 in which Gladstone served four terms as prime minister. His first two periods in office, from 1868 to 1874, and from 1880 to 1885, were perhaps more likely to have generated the bitterness inherent in the joke. Each of them five-year terms in which he was backed by secure majorities in the House of Commons, he was able to carry shockingly radical legislation. By contrast, he achieved very much less during the shorter premierships of 1886 and from 1892 to 1894, when he led minority governments. Gladstone's defection from the ranks of the Conservative party was a drawn-out process: as late as 1858, he was earnestly pressed to join Lord Derby's government. He did not resign from the Carlton Club until 1860 and remained MP for Oxford University until his defeat in 1865. The young man who had vaunted the Church as not only independent of the State but even proclaimed it, in its own sphere, as a superior entity became, in 1869, the Liberal reformer who not only disestablished the minority Protestant Church of Ireland, but substantially disendowed it as well. No doubt it was uncharitable for Gladstone's opponents to liken him to Judas, but his defection from High Church Toryism probably seemed to them to justify the comparison. If so, Richard Martineau's joke was already a century old when he related it to me. Now, a further half-century has almost passed, and I hope that I may give it a new lease of life on the Internet.

ADDENDUM (19 March 2020)
Dr Frederick Jones recalls a Music Hall song which he heard from his grandfather. It is thought to date from the 1890s. The artiste played the role of a "poor washerwoman", who earned "a few pence ... at the tub every day":

I used to do washing for Mr Gladstone
But never again let us hope
They say he's a nice sort of gentleman
But he accused me of stealing the soap.

It would be over-intellectualising to classify the ditty as a comment on Gladstone's well-known moral rectitude, but it does provide an echo of his place as a readily identifiable figure in popular culture at the end of his career.

For a list of material relating to W.E. Gladstone on this website, see "Gladstone on www.gedmartin.net" (https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/370-gladstone-on-ged-martin-s-website).


[1] For a wide-ranging discussion of the relationship between Gladstone and jokes, see Joseph S. Meisel, "The Importance of Being Serious: The Unexplored Connection between Gladstone and Humour", History, lxxxiv (1999), 278-300. Meisel discusses Gladstone's own sense of humour (which did exist, although it was not side-splitting), and the various strategies used by others to lampoon and caricature him. This "Judas" joke suggests an additional category of hostile mockery.

[2] "The Cambridge Lectureship of 1866: A False Start in American Studies", Journal of American Studies, vii (1973), 17-29, https://www.gedmartin.net/published-work-mainmenu-11/271-the-cambridge-american-lectureship-of-1866.

[3] The verses were by Richard Shillito, a noted 'coach' [crammer], who had rendered himself ineligible for a College Fellowship by marrying, and was obliged to support a wife and children through intensive teaching.

[4] The Times, 22 May 1984. Internal evidence suggests that the obituary was written by his friend, Walter Hamilton.

[5] Richard Martineau was a housemaster from 1944 to 1961. Information culled from Eton College Chronicle, 15 May, 631; 31 December 1924, 1; 4 October 1928, 517; 15 July 1966, 5863-4; 22 October 1984, 4; The Times, 22 June 1925; 20 June 1927; 4 June 1928.

[6] Although a shy personality, Richard Martineau was generously hospitable. His house was at Droxford in Hampshire: the river Meon trickled pleasantly at the end of the garden. I was a weekend guest there in 1970. He invited neighbours to dinner to meet his Cambridge visitors. One of them was an interesting retired Army officer. Conversation turned to the fact that Droxford, in the hinterland of Portsmouth, was a popular place of retirement for senior Naval personnel. "You know," said the Army man, addressing our host, "you and I are the only people in the village who aren't Navy." This struck me as implying a very restricted definition of the village community. I once probed Richard Martineau, as tactfully as I could, to know how somebody so obviously unworldly had undertaken a major property transaction. It was straightforward, he explained, naming a prominent estate agency firm that specialised in the sale of country properties. The son of the family had been in his Eton house.

[7] Eton College Chronicle, 15 July 1966, 5863-4.