This week archivist John Rooney discusses a recent cataloguing project focusing on the Cowper-Temples and the Broadlands Conference on the Higher Life.
William Cowper-Temple, and his second wife, Georgina, were prominent figures in nineteenth-century Britain. As a member of the Liberal Party, William was MP for Hertford from 1835 to 1868 and Hampshire South from 1868 to 1880. During the course of his career he was a private secretary to his uncle Lord Melbourne, a junior minister in Lord Palmerston’s government, groom in waiting to Queen Victoria, and held positions on the Board of Health and the Board of Works. William was stepson and heir to Lord Palmerston (who was rumoured to be his natural father) and inherited a number of estates, including the Broadlands estate in Romsey, in 1868.
After the early death of his first wife, Harriet Alicia (nee Gurney), in 1843, William married Georgina Tollemache, sister of the first Baron Tollemache, in 1848. William and Georgina shared a strong and enduring interest in religious matters. Though never orthodox, William had been closely associated with Evangelicalism since the late 1830s. After their marriage, Georgina notes that they embarked on a search for religious truth. This led to their acquaintance with Evangelical figures such as Henry Drummond and Christian Socialists such as F.D.Maurice, Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley. It also led to their association with a number of unorthodox figures, including the American “theo-socialist” Thomas Lake Harris.
Georgina had a particular interest in mysticism and an eagerness to engage with spiritualism and other esoteric religions as a means of truth seeking. The death of her mother had a strong influence on her belief in a connection between earthly life and the spiritual. Despite not all their acquaintances sharing an appreciation for the practice, the Cowper-Temples mixed with leading spiritualist figures from Britain, American and Europe, and attended a number of séances (spiritualist meetings to communicate with the dead).
However, the most notable manifestation of their religious activities was to be the annual ecumenical conference held at Broadlands between 1874 and 1888. Precipitated by the Holiness movement in America, the 1870s saw the emergence of the Higher Life movement in England. Named after William Boardman’s book The Higher Christian Life (published in 1858) the main aim of the movement was to help in advancing the Christian’s progressive sanctification, and enable one to live a more holy, less sinful, life. Though principally Evangelical, the movement was seen as non-denominational. Together with William Boardman, two other key figures helping to spread the holiness message in England were Robert Pearsall Smith and his wife, Hannah, both of whom were acquainted with the Mount-Temples and were involved in the conferences at Broadlands.
The first conference took place over six days in July 1874 and was designed to deepen the work of sanctification through prayer, the reading of scripture, short addresses, and the discussion of personal experience of grace. The beautiful surroundings at Broadlands aimed to create a “foretaste of heaven” with many of the services taking place under the beeches or in the orangery. Among the hundred guests attending were George MacDonald, Andrew Jukes, Edward Clifford, Catherine Marsh, Lady Gainsborough, George Wilkinson, Stevenson Blackwood, Theodore Monod and Professor St Hilaire.
While the conferences have been criticised for being private gatherings of titled persons hosted by wealthy aristocrats, over the years they were to attract a diverse range of people from across both denominational and social divisions. James Gregory notes that “the conferences expressed hope that believers of all denominations could meet and demonstrate the validity of their belief through Christian love and ‘faith in that great and blessed truth that God loves the creatures He has made’, rather than in doctrine.”
Among the Broadlands archives held by the University of Southampton, there is a significant collection of material relating to the Cowper-Temple’s religious interests and activities (see BR43-5; 47-58). I have recently catalogued just a small section of this material (BR49-51) which contains a range of correspondence from people either attending the Broadlands conference or discussing religious and spiritual matters, including letters from R.W.Corbett, Thomas Lake Harris, Laurence and Alice Oliphant, Lord Palmerston, Hannah and Robert Pearsall Smith, and Lord Shaftesbury, among others. It also contains printed and typescript copies of testimonials, programmes for the conference (including subjects for consideration), and notes on matters such as the Christian’s relationship to the world. Finally there is a selection of William Cowper Temple’s notebooks and diaries providing accounts of séances together with his personal thoughts on religious, spiritual and health matters. As a whole, the material offers fascinating insights into the curious social and cultural world of these two intriguing Victorian figures.