National Liberal Club – a home for democracy

In 1882 the National Liberal Club was established by William Ewart Gladstone. It was to be ‘a home for democracy’. In November 1884, O’Connor Power was present when the foundation stone  for the new premises was laid on the Thames Embankment. The club house was opened in 1887 in time for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations.

Earlier the NLC was headquartered in Charing Cross where a radical clique met in the Vespers, a small smoking room. O’Connor Power, Thorold Rogers, Alfred Bennett, Fisher Unwin, and F W Chesson were members of the group and, in December 1884, were founding members of the Johnson Club. Fisher Unwin was married to Richard Cobden’s daughter.

In December 1885, the Manchester Guardian reported that O’Connor Power had successfully introduced weekly discussions on practical politics in the NLC. He continued to be an active member and, in the 1890s, he directed a political committee, organising functions and inviting speakers.

In May 1897, he addressed the Women’s National Liberal Association Conference in London on ‘Colonial Policy’.

In November 1898, he represented the NLC at the funeral of T B Potter, a Radical MP for Rochdale and founder of the Cobden Club.

In March 1909, he was the NLC guest speaker and his topic was ‘The House of Lords’. In May he spoke on ‘Adult Suffrage’.

In January 1912, he chaired a talk given by Tom Kettle to the NLC’s Political and Economic Circle.


Confusion Fusion

John O’Connor Power and John O’Connor, Fenian leaders and prominent members of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, were also members of Parliament and Priors of the Johnson Club. The two patriots, conveniently diminished in historical narratives, were frequently fused in accounts and in accompanying indexes. There is a dismaying confusion with Tay Pay, T P O’Connor, a contemporary.  Tay Pay was a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, a popular journalist and author. Through sheer longevity, he became the longest serving member of the House of Commons.


I have just finished reading R.B. McCallum’s Asquith (1936).  H.H. Asquith was British Prime Minister 1908-1916.  A Yorkshire man, he was elected in 1886  as a Liberal Home Ruler  for East Fife.  Allied with Gladstone, he continued to support Home Rule throughout his parliamentary career.

In 1920, as leader of the Opposition: ‘In regard to Ireland, then harassed by the guerilla war with Sinn Fein, he boldly declared for Dominion Home Rule. It was the most radical step of his whole public life. For once he was in advance of public opinion.  He was ridiculed for a fool and denounced as a traitor, yet within two years his policy was carried into effect by Lloyd  George and his Unionist colleagues.’ (p.136)

McCallum was later Master of Pembroke College, Oxford.

‘For this Club, at least, it is a sign of grace when a public man cites Johnson.  There is no statesman of our time who does this more often, or more effectively, than Asquith.’  The Forty Years of the Johnson Club 1884-1924, George Whale, 1925, p.18.

John Buchan admired Asquith’s ‘contempt for advertisement’.

‘He was a naturally sweet-natured man, but under that gentleness there lay judgement and firmness, as was shown in the great crisis of history.’ Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, Chap. XXIII, Some Notable People.


December 13th 1887

In December 1887, O’Connor Power took office as Prior of The Johnson Club ‘in that noted hostelry, the Old Cheshire Cheese’.   He proposed the customary toast – ‘The Memory of Dr Johnson’.

The ‘Eighty’ Club dined the same evening.  Lord Granville spoke on ‘The Attitude of the Opposition’. He said all leading Liberals had opposed the Act of Union and the next Liberal government would bring in Home Rule. The present administration had ‘suspended the Constitution in Ireland’. Lord Spencer declared the Irish people ‘will not give up their aspirations’.

Four days later, O’Connor Power left Liverpool on board the Gallia Cunard.  He arrived in New York 27 December and stayed at the Albermarle Hotel on Broadway.