Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Lyttelton, Alfred
LYTTELTON, ALFRED (1857–1913), lawyer and statesman, born at Hagley, Worcestershire, 7 February 1857, was the eighth son of George William, fourth Baron Lyttelton [q.v.], by his first wife, Mary, second daughter of Sir Stephen R. Glynne and sister of Mrs. W. E. Gladstone. Going to Eton in 1868, he inherited and surpassed the athletic fame of his brothers, and there first exhibited the extraordinary gift of personal charm which distinguished him all through his life. His unbounded popularity and the fact that he was the finest player of his time, of cricket, football, rackets, and fives, made him like a king in the school. Proceeding to Trinity College, Cambridge, he was in the Cambridge eleven from 1876 to 1879, being captain of the 1879 eleven which was never defeated. After leaving Cambridge, where he obtained a second class in the historical tripos, he continued to play first-class cricket for some years (his play was called by W. G. Grace ‘the champagne of cricket’), and he long held the amateur championship in tennis. He was called to the bar in 1881. From 1882 to 1885 he was legal private secretary to Sir Henry James (afterwards Lord James of Hereford). He practised with increasing success, till he entered the Cabinet in 1903. His mind was that of the judge rather than that of the advocate, and he had latterly more business as an arbitrator than as counsel. Lord Darling has said of him that ‘his influence amongst his fellows was out of all proportion to his practice’.
The years between 1881 and 1895 were a period of strenuous professional work, relieved, however, by cricket, by hunting, and above all by membership of that attractive coterie in which his own relations and connexions, the Lytteltons, Talbots, Gladstones, and Cavendishes, were united with other brilliant representatives of the political and intellectual society of that generation. Here he met his first wife, Laura, daughter of Sir Charles Tennant [q.v.], the most beloved of the group of charming ladies round whom the coterie revolved. They were married in May 1885, but she died the next year, leaving an infant son who died in 1888. In 1892 Lyttelton married another member of the same circle, Edith, daughter of Archibald Balfour. He had by her two sons, one of whom died in infancy, and a daughter.
By this time Lyttelton had been successful enough at the bar to be able to begin thinking of the political career which was so natural a prospect for a man of his connexions. The popular nephew of Mr. Gladstone seemed an obvious recruit for the liberal party. But he had the gravest doubts about Home Rule, and it was not till after Gladstone had retired that he became, in 1895, a member for Leamington as a liberal unionist. He continued his work at the bar, but his interests now became increasingly political. In 1900 Mr. Chamberlain appointed him chairman of a commission which was to visit South Africa and report on the desirability of continuing the various concessions granted by the former government of the Transvaal. There, Lord Milner was so much impressed by his work that he wrote home suggesting him for the post of high commissioner. In 1903 came the great event of Lyttelton's political life. Mr. Chamberlain resigned the Colonial Office in September, and Lyttelton was appointed in his place. He was at once faced with the difficult problem of deciding whether he could consent to the introduction of Chinese coolies into the Rand, as demanded by Milner and by the almost unanimous colonist opinion of the district concerned. He was well aware how liable to misrepresentation this policy was. But having become convinced that it was economically and socially necessary and morally unobjectionable, he adopted it and faced the violent opposition which it aroused. The scheme was denounced as one of slavery, though it was far more careful of the interests of the coolie than the scheme which had been sanctioned for Guiana by a liberal government in 1894. The Chinese labour ordinance was sanctioned in March 1904, and at once caused a revival of industry, and enabled the reconstruction of the country to be pushed forward. Its necessity was so obvious that the liberal government of 1906 allowed it to be continued, and even re-enacted it in 1908.
This was Lyttelton's most controversial work at the Colonial Office. In his last two years of office he was engaged in drawing up a scheme for representative institutions in the Transvaal, to be followed later by responsible government. The unionist ministry fell, however, before his proposals had been put into effect. But the step of most permanent importance which he took as colonial secretary was probably the preparation of a circular dispatch, which he sent in April 1905 to the self-governing Dominions, pointing the way to the development of what afterwards became the Imperial Conference. It is described by Sir Charles Lucas as ‘a dispatch which no one who traces or reads the growth of imperial unity can ever leave out of sight’.
Mr. Balfour's ministry resigned in December 1905, and Lyttelton lost his seat at the ensuing general election. He did not return to the bar, but became a director of the London and Westminster Bank and other companies. In June 1906 he re-entered parliament as member for St. George's, Hanover Square. After that he took an active part in the counsels of the opposition, and especially in the resistance, in parliament and in the country, to the disestablishment of the Welsh Church. That seemed to him to involve the issue between right and wrong, which was the only one that ever greatly moved him. The same spirit of moral and social responsibility led him to give active support to housing and town-planning reform and to the Trade Boards Bill which established a minimum wage in sweated industries.
All this, with his many directorships, his arbitrations, and other business, almost exhausted his strength, which a visit to East Africa in the spring of 1913 did not restore as much as had been hoped. He had, however, resumed the full flow of his activities, when, after playing in a cricket match and making eighty-nine, he was taken suddenly ill, and, after a few days of suffering, died 5 July 1913.
The day of his funeral was one of the days of the Oxford and Cambridge match at Lord's; and a unique tribute was paid to his memory in the suspension of play for a few moments while the great crowd of spectators stood uncovered.
Neither the lawyer nor the statesman had ever reached the first rank so indisputably as the cricketer. But the truth is that, in every field, athletic or social, legal or political, Lyttelton's greatest achievement had lain in being himself. Wherever he went he brought a personal charm which all sorts of men found irresistible. Nor was that all. There was also a character and an atmosphere which, though never obtruded, and often almost imperceptible, seldom failed to inspire and elevate any circle in which he moved. He was universally loved, and no one loved him without being the better for it.
[Edith Lyttelton, Alfred Lyttelton; an Account of his Life, 1917; personal knowledge.]