Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bernal Osborne, Ralph

BERNAL OSBORNE, RALPH (1808–1882), politician, the eldest son of Ralph Bernal [q. v.] by his first wife, was born on 26 March 1808. He was educated at the Charterhouse, and in October 1829 matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he lived for two years as the son and heir of an opulent landowner, rather than as a hardworking student. At that time his father married again, with the result that his eldest-born child was taken from the university and sent into the army as ensign of the 71st regiment. Not long after he exchanged into the 7th royal fusiliers, and retained his commission until his entrance into parliament in 1841. When Lord Mulgrave, afterwards the Earl of Normanby, was made lord-lieutenant of Ireland, Ralph Bernal became an extra aide-de-camp in the viceregal establishment, remaining in Ireland until 1841 and passing his time chiefly in the pleasures of society and in the composition of satirical verses. At the dissolution in 1841 his dashing manners won a seat at Chipping Wycombe for the liberal interest against the influence of Lord Carington, an event which surprised the political world. From his first entrance into the House of Commons he spoke with great vigour, especially on Irish topics, on behalf of the adherents of advanced liberalism. On 20 Aug. 1844 he married, at St. George's, Hanover Square, Catherine Isabella, the only child and heiress of Sir Thomas Osborne, an Irish baronet, and on 19 Aug. he assumed her name, being generally known for the rest of his life as Bernal Osborne. When an appeal to the country was made in 1847, he had the honour of being elected for Middlesex, and his prominence in political life was shown by the fact that in August 1850 he presided at the banquet which was given at the Reform Club to Lord Palmerston. Though he was fiercely opposed by the protestant-evangelical party in the county of Middlesex at the dissolution in 1852, he was re-elected by a small majority. The post of surveyor-general of the ordnance had been rejected by him in December 1851, but on the formation of the Aberdeen ministry, a year later, he accepted the place of secretary of the admiralty, and continued in that position until the fall of the Palmerston ministry in 1858. In this position he had little opportunity for display, but immediately on his freedom from the trammels of office he resumed his old criticisms on his opponents with such ardour that Mr. Disraeli characterised his oratory as a ‘wild shriek of liberty.’ From 1857 to 1859 he represented Dover, and on his defeat in contesting that constituency in the latter year was out of parliament for a few months, until he was returned for Liskeard. His opposition to Lord Palmerston's fortifications scheme, and his criticism of the action of the ministry on the Danish question, gave offence to his Cornish constituents. This difference was smoothed over for a time, but widened in 1865, and on his learning that Sir Arthur Buller, then sitting for Devonport, had been elected by the liberal party at Liskeard as their candidate at the coming general election, he suddenly resigned his seat in pique only a week or two before the dissolution. In the spring of 1866 Bernal Osborne was engaged in a hotly contested election at Nottingham, when there was only a difference of 211 votes between the highest and the lowest of the four candidates, but he came out at the top of the poll. Two years later he was badly defeated in the same constituency, but the independent party in the borough defrayed his expenses by a subscription, and gave him a banquet in the Exchange Hall in December 1868. His parliamentary career was one constant change of constituency, and Mr. Disraeli once brought out a burst of laughter by stating in one of his speeches that Mr. Bernal Osborne had sat for so many places that he really forgot at the moment which of them his friend represented. His next experience was at Waterford, which he contested against Sir Henry Barron in November 1869, but was rejected by sixteen votes. The sitting member was unseated on petition, and by a majority of just half that number Bernal Osborne was returned amid a scene of popular fury which he subsequently described in the House of Commons. He was unsuccessful at the same city in 1874, and with that defeat his active political career ceased; for the future he devoted himself to the pleasures of social life. His wife died suddenly at his seat, Newtown Anner, near Clonmel, 21 June 1880. He himself died at Bestwood Lodge, the seat of the Duke of St. Albans, on 4 Jan. 1882, and was buried at Bestwood on 10 Jan. Their issue was two daughters. The elder sister married Henry Arthur Blake, now governor-general of the Bahamas; the younger married, 3 Jan. 1874, the Duke of St. Albans. Bernal Osborne was for many years one of the recognised wits of politics. His speeches at Westminster abounded in telling hits, and were eagerly welcomed by houses crowded with an audience impatient to hear him. On the hustings he was one of the most effective speakers of his age. Biographical and historical anecdotes he revelled in and freely used in his political addresses. His failure to reach those positions which his talents justified was due to his want of official industry and to the absence of that sobriety of judgment which is dear to the average Englishman. Many of his most popular sayings are preserved in the columns of the ‘Times,’ which chronicled his career. Notices of his life, based on Bagenal's life, appeared in ‘Temple Bar,’ September 1884, and the ‘Fortnightly Review,’ October 1884.

[Bagenal's Life of Ralph Bernal Osborne, M.P., 1884; Times, 5 and 11 Jan. 1882; Gent. Mag. 1844, pt. ii. 310, 538.]

W. P. C.