The Primrose League

-- a very brief history.

A small meeting was opened at the Carlton Club in London on the 17th November 1883 (Algernon Borthwick writes similar but gives an October 1883 date and that the scheme had sprung from the brain of Sir Henry Drummond Wolff) and the 'Primrose Tory League' (the Tory part of the title was soon to be dropped) was launched by Lord Randolph Churchill Photograph (father of Sir Winston Churchill), Mr. (later Sir) John Gorst, Sir H. Drummond Wolff, Mr. Percy Mitford, Colonel Fred Burnaby, Sir Alfred Slade and others, who constituted themselves the Grand Council (until 23rd February 1884 the title 'Ruling Council' was used) of the Primrose League and to whom were subsequently added Mr Satchell Hopkins, Mr. (later Sir) J. B. Stone, Mr Rowlands and some Birmingham supporters of Colonel Fred Burnaby, who also wished to return Lord Randolph Churchill as a Conservative member for that city. Their aim was to rectify 'the failure of Conservative and Constitutional Associations to suit the popular taste or to succeed in joining all classes together for political objects'. Membership was open to all, including Catholics, with the exception of atheists and enemies of the British Empire and who would subscribe to the following (two versions noted) --

Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill.
From Vanity Fair.

"I, ****.****., declare on my honour and faith that I will devote my best ability to the maintenance of Religion, of the Estates of the Realm, and of the Imperial Ascendancy of Great Britain; that I will keep secret all matters that may come to my knowledge as a Member of the Primrose Tory League; and that consistently with my allegiance to the Sovereign of these Realms, I will obey all orders coming from the constituted authority of the League for the advancement of these objects."

"I, ****.****., declare on my honour and faith that I will devote my best ability to the maintenance of religion, of the estates of the realm, and of the Imperial Ascendancy of the British Empire; and that, consistently with my allegiance to the sovereign of these realms, I will promote with discretion and fidelity the above objects, being those of the Primrose League."

Sir John Eldon Gorst.
From Vanity Fair.

Scottish Grand Council.

A separate Grand Council for Scotland was set up in August 1884, through the efforts of the Earl of Kinlore and W.H.Hadow. The Scottish Knight and Dames paid their tribute to the Scottish Grand Council, which administered it's own funds and issued warrants for it's own Habitations. It was thus an autonomous body, though cooperating closely with the English Grand Council. In 1892 there were 158 Habitations with a total membership of over sixty thousand and by 1905 the total had risen to ninety four thousand.

Lady Dorothy Neville
Lady Dorothy Neville
Lady Dorothy Neville
Lady Dorothy Neville

Ladies' Grand Council.

Membership was soon to be open to women, who joined in droves and subsequently (1885) formed a separate Ladies' Branch and Grand Council and within two years membership was in the thousands. This Ladies' movement was to dwarf any similar organization. The founder of this Ladies' Grand Council was Lady Borthwick (afterwards Lady Glenesk). In 1887 the Executive Committee consisted of the following Ladies: The Duchess of Norfolk, the Marchioness of Londonderry, the Countess of Jersey, the Countess of Romney, Lady Gwendolyn Cecil (Treasurer), Viscountess Folkstone, Lady Dorothy Neville, Lady Charles Beresford, Lady Stanley (of Preston), Hon. Lady Campbell of Blythswood, Hon. Mary Henniker, Hon. Mrs. Armytage, Lady Knightly, Lady Hardman (Secretary), Mrs. Akers Douglas, Mrs. Bischoffsheim and Miss M. Nevill. The 'Minutes of the Grand Council of the Primrose League' states that a Ladies' Grand Council for Scotland was formed in 1888 and that it's funds were cleared through the original Ladies' Grand Council. In 1891 they sent out vans equipped with 'Magic Lanterns' which toured Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire and from which seventy-five speeches on the Irish question were delivered. They were also to create the very influential Anti-Women's suffrage movement.

Knights Imperial Badge
Knights Imperial

Knight Imperial Chapters.

As a counterpart of the Ladies' Grand Council, Captain Phillip Green, a member of the Grand Council in 1892, launched the first chapter of Knights Imperial. Gentlemen subscribing a guinea (£1-05) yearly were eligible. In 1901 about one half the Knights Imperial were at the same time ordinary Knights of the Primrose League, and the membership elected it's own President, a Prior, and held banquets at which prominent Conservative speakers spoke on national and party politics. The Primrose League Gazette, June 1904, reports that 155 chapters had been established with a membership of over a thousand. The first Council of the Knights Imperial contained the following members: The Earl of Lathom, the Duke of Abercorn, G. Shaw Fox, Lennox-Irvin, Lord Borthwick, Capt. Phillip Green, W. De Eresby, Seager Hunt M.P., Joseph Greer, G. Hulst M.P., A.S.Barry M.P. and Col. Mallason.

Rt.Hon.Arthur James Balfour
Rt.Hon. Arthur James Balfour.
From Vanity Fair.

Primrose Bud Branches.

A juvenile branch (variously known as Primrose Buds or Junior Branch) was to follow and enabled complete families to hold membership of the Primrose League. A newspaper aimed at the young within the 'League' was titled 'The Primrose Bud' and ran from and to dates unknown, but following is known: Vol 2, No.8, 1927 (illustrated on this web site) to Dec. 1956 (recorded by the Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Junior Imperial Chapter.

Nothing so far has been found relating to this section of the Primrose League other than a badge shown in the Juvenile section of this site, which would indicate establishment prior to 1920.

Beaconsfield Badge
Beaconsfield Branch

Beaconsfield Branches.

These were established for those to old for the Children's Primrose Bud branches but not yet old enough for the Adult Organization. The youth created centres where they could amuse themselves, meet their like and be untrammelled by their elders.

Primrose League Cycling Corps.

The Primrose League Cycling Corps was established with it's own Badges and Rules under the Presidency of Rt.Hon.A.J.Balfour.

Primrose League Gazzette July 1926
Primrose League Gazette.
July 1926.
Primrose League Gazzette May 1929
Primrose League Gazette.
May 1929.

Primrose League Gazette.

The 'Primrose League Gazette' was first published in 1887, was financed by the 'League' and became the official organ. Published weekly until September 1893, when it became a monthly, then bi-monthly and later, quarterly. It continued to be printed until at least 1989. One of the arguments advanced for embarking on the expense of a 'League' newspaper was that it would make cash savings in circulating notices, reports and financial statements to the Habitations.

Primrose League Motto.

The Primrose League adopted the motto 'Imperium et Libertas' -- translated 'Autocracy and Freedom' or 'Empire and Freedom' or 'Empire and Liberty' take your pick, but according to the Primrose League Diary for 1922 they opted for the latter version. Their seal being three primroses and their badge, a monogram containing the letters PL, at the centre of a primrose or surrounded by primroses. An alternative motto 'Peace with Honour' can be found , but used mainly on unofficial Primrose League items.

No support for Conservative Candidate.

The inferiority of the Conservative's electoral machine was obvious and early 'Leaguers' believed that the existing Conservative Associations would never be able to put things to right, hence the forming of 'Primrose League Habitations' (local branches), which could be constituted with thirteen members and were to become the backbone of the Conservative Election fighting machine. The Primrose League did claim 'no exclusive or inexorable relationship with the Conservative Party' and maintained, until 1913, that it would not support a Conservative who did not support their stated principles. Critics have pointed out that they did not actively work for anyone who was not a Conservative.

Sir H. Drummond Wolff.
Sir Henry Drummond Wolff.
From Vanity Fair.

Benefit Societies, The Orange Order and The Freemasons.

Churchill it seems played little part in the Primrose League as he had hoped it would turn into a semi-secret society of younger (or livelier) Conservative gentlemen -- in short an extra-parliamentary Forth Party and not a mass organization. It was Wolff who wanted a popular body and noted that some Liberalized organizations within his Portsmouth constituency were strongly supported -- Benefit Societies, The Orange Order, The Buffaloes and The Freemasons with their hierarchical structure, underpinned by honours, badges and jewels, dressed up in titles and dignified by ceremony and ritual, and he believed these to be part of the attraction of such bodies and the Primrose League were to emulated them with much gusto.

Branches Abroad.

Membership of the Primrose League not only quickly spread throughout Great Britain and Ireland but, for example, a branch was formed in Malta in 1886 and had already reached Australia by 1887, as the 'Sydney Herald' reports 'League' activity there during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations. A diploma issued to a Knight in Trinidad, British West Indies could indicate a Habitation there.

Benjamin Disraeli
.Benjamin Disraeli
From Vanity Fair.

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield.

(Born 21st December 1804 - Died 19th April 1881).

A neighbour and close friend for many years, Lady Dorothy Nevill, when asked if Lord Beaconsfield had a particular fondness for the Primrose replied - 'not to my knowledge', 'although he did write that they are nice in a salad!' There does not appear to be any evidence written by the man himself confirming that this was his favourite flower. It has been argued that as Disraeli received Primroses from Queen Victoria on a number of occasions it was the fact that the Queen had sent Primroses and not the Primrose themselves. These flowers were laid (and possibly still are) at the foot of his statue in Parliament Square each year helping to perpetuate the myth.
The principles of the Primrose League did not mirror that of Desiraeli's but the use of his name, now sanctified by death, with his memory evoking affection and respect, being a useful tool to advance the cause. View Hughenden Manor and Disraeli's Tomb.

Colonel Frederick Burnaby
Colonel Frederick Burnaby
From Vanity Fair.

The Primrose League Hierarchical Structure.

Attempting to recapture the medieval spirit within Great Britain and Ireland there is circumstantial evidence that points to the Primrose League adopting either the Orange Order or Freemasons structure. The Freemasons use the terms Grand Master, Warden and Chapter and so did the Primrose League. Freemasonry owes much of it's medievalism to the early connection with the Order of the Knights of St. John and the Primrose League borrowed their terminology -- Esquire, Priory, Serjeant-at-arms and the idea of lay Associates, who could be male or female. Membership of the Primrose League required a pledge of loyalty and whilst not the same as the Masons, was most unusual for a political party. It was originally intended to call local branches 'Lodges' but it was thought that this term, with it's association with the Orange Order, would alienate Catholics, so the middle English word 'Habitation' was opted for. At the top of the Primrose League hierarchy stood the Grand Master with below him the Chancellor supported by a salaried Vice-Chancellor. Habitations were headed by a Ruling Councillor who relied on Wardens and Sub-Wardens. Initially the lower category of membership had been termed Esquire, and sometimes Companion, but these were dropped in 1885 in favour of Associate as this it seems was more suitable for either sex. During the first year a man was strictly a Knight Companion, then a Knight Harbinger (an office once existing in the Royal Household), whilst ministers of religion were Knight Almoners. Women used Dame (from Madame) which was once the term for the wife of a Baronet or Knight.There is no evidence to connect the Primrose League, in an way, to either the Orange Order or the Freemasons but many members of the Primrose League were also Masons or Orange Men. One example noted from 1886 shows that the Scottish Grand Council of the Primrose League agreed to hold it meetings on the same days as those of the Grand Lodge of Freemasonry, for the convenience of it's members.

Membership Figures.

The official membership figures (a claim of 1,750,000 has been noted, but more if the chart below is to be believed) makes the Primrose League the largest political party of the late Victorian and Edwardian period but, of course, figures should be viewed with some scepticism as there is evidence of a large difference between enrolments and live membership.

Dates.Knights.Dames.Associates.Habitations.Total membership.
1884, 29th March7471535746957
1885, 18th November18,5839,91334,56716963,062
1886, 31st March30,20621,365149,2661,200200,837
1887, 31st March47,23436,800442,2141,710550,508
1888, 31st March54,58042,791575,2351,877672,616
1889, 31st March58,18046,216705,8321,906810,228
1890, 31st March60,79548,796801,2612,081910,852
1891, 31st March63,25150,973887,0682,1431,001,292
1901, 31st March75,26064,9061,416,4732,3921,556,639
1910, 31st March87,23580,0381,885,7462,6452,053,019

Within it's heyday and whatever the actual membership figures, the Primrose League must have been a force to reckon with. They continued to fight elections at least into the 1930's.

The following extract from SPY - Charlie Methven -- On-line Daily Telegraph (Filed: 16/12/2004) gives a disbandment date for the Primrose League:

Primrose League has to call it a day. This week saw a significant event for any observers of political history: on Monday, after 121 years, the Primrose League was finally wound up. Founded in 1883 by a group that included Lord Randolph Churchill and named after Disraeli's favourite flower, the league's aim was to promote Toryism across the country. It was particularly keen to harness the women's vote, but over time its campaigning activities were overtaken by Conservative Central Office. 'In recent years, our meetings have become smaller and smaller,' says Lord Mowbray, one of the league's leading lights. 'It had become more of a dining club and was no longer serving usefully the political purpose for which it was founded'. The league's demise, however, was not all bad news, since its remaining funds have been donated to Tory coffers. 'On Monday, I presented Michael Howard and Liam Fox with a cheque for £70,000,' adds Lord Mowbray proudly.

The following comment by 'Igonikon Jack' dated 09/07/2010 03:39 PM - ( taken from:- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/charlesmoore/7983677/A-vast-loyal-band-of-working-class-Conservatives.html) does throw doubt on if the Primrose League is finished.

Charles Moore's article on the Primrose League is an interesting one--a movement that fostered the nucleus of present-day Conservatism in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1883, it's fortunate to have the likes of Winston Churchill as early patron. In an era Conservatism has faced serious challenge from the radical left and secularism. Conservative ideology should have institutions to turn to for support and inspiration. Primrose League faulted in 2004 was reinaugurated in 2008.

Despite the official closure of the Primrose League in 2004, at least one isolated pocket remains active (April 2006), this in Sileby, Leicestershire. The question now needs to be asked, are there more?. Well the answer is yes a further group has been found active in Brimingham (April 2009). Also see comments above

An extract from the Wikipedia on-line encyclopaedia gives much additional information on the post W.W.11 Primrose League.

The name does live on with the issue by the Clounagh Orange Hall of a centennial Jewel (1904 - 2004), their title includes the wording 'Earl of Beaconsfield Primrose League L.O.L.No.9'.

Hazell's 1887 Annual Cyclopaedia.

(Note founding date error.)
Hazell's 1887 Cyclopaedia

Haydn's 1892 Dictionary of Dates.

(Note founding date error.)
Haydn's 1892 Dictionary

The 1907 issue of The Nuttall Encyclopaedia.

PRIMROSE LEAGUE, a politico-Conservative organisation founded in 1883 in memory of Lord Beaconsfield, and so called because the primrose was popularly reported to be his favourite flower. It includes a large membership, nearly a million, comprising women as well as men; is divided into district habitations; confers honours and badges in the style of Freemasonry, and has extensive political influence under a grand-master.

Earl of Beaconsfield
Lord Randolph Churchill
Sir Michael Hicks Beach
Lord Iddersleigh
Lord John Manners
Thanks go to Mark Crail for this Portrait Gallery.

Visit his most informative and enlightening 'Chartist Ancestors' web site.

Main Index Page.
History in Swedish.
Paper read in 1891 on Women's Suffrage to the Bristol P.L.


The Tories and the People. Martin Pugh. 1985. Basil Blackwell Ltd.
Various Primrose League Official Documents.
The Primrose League 1883 - 1906. Janet Henderson Robb Ph.D. 1942. Columbia University Press.
Various Internet Documents.
Haydn's Dictionary of Dates. 20th edition. Autumn 1892. Ward, Lock, Bowden and Co.
Hazell's Annual Cyclopaedia. February 7th 1887. Hazell, Watson and Viney Ltd.
The Nuttall Encyclopaedia. Edited by the Rev. James Wood.1907 issue.
The Appointment of Bishop A.M. Buhagiar as Administrator Apostolic of Malta. Francis Azzopardi. 1981.
© J.R.P.King. 2004-2012. Updated 11th April 2012.