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Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, 2nd Baronet PC (4 September 1843 – 26 January 1911) was an English Liberal and reformist politician. Touted as a future prime minister, his political career was effectively terminated in 1885, after a notorious and well-publicised divorce case.

Background and education

Dilke was the son of Sir Charles Dilke, 1st Baronet. He was educated at Westminster Schoolmarker and Trinity Hall, Cambridgemarker, where he was President of the Cambridge Union Societymarker. His wife was the feminist art historian Emilia, Lady Dilke.

Political career, 1868-1886

Dilke became Liberal Member of Parliament for Chelsea in 1868, a seat he held until 1885. He was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1880 to 1882 during Gladstone's second government and was admitted to the Privy Council in 1882. In December 1882 he entered the cabinet as President of the Local Government Board, serving until 1885. A leading and determined radical within the Liberal party, he negotiated the passage of the Third Reform Act, which the Conservatives allowed through the House of Lords in return for redistribution favourable to themselves (the granting of the vote to agricultural labourers threatened Conservative dominance of rural seats, but in return many double-member seats were abolished and seats redistributed to suburbia, where Conservative support was growing). He also supported laws giving the municipal franchise to women, legalising labour unions, improving working conditions and limiting working hours, as well as being one of the earliest campaigners for universal schooling.

The Crawford scandal

File:Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, 2nd Bt by George Frederic Watts
Dilke had, both before and after his first marriage, been the lover of Ellen, wife of Thomas Eustace Smith and his late brother's mother-in-law. That fact notwithstanding, in July 1885 he was the subject of accusations that he had seduced the Eustace Smiths' daughter Virginia in the first year of her marriage to Donald Crawford MP. This was supposed to have occurred in 1882 when Virginia was 19, and she claimed that the affair had continued on an irregular basis for the next two and a half years. The accusations had a devastating effect on Dilke's political career, leading to his eventual loss of his parliamentary seat (Chelsea) in the 1886 UK general election.

Crawford's inevitable divorce was heard on 12 February 1886 before The Hon. Mr Justice Butt in the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division. Virginia Crawford was not in court and the sole evidence was her husband's account of Virginia's confession and some fairly insubstantial circumstantial accounts of servants. Dilke, largely on the advice of his confidante Joseph Chamberlain and aware of his vulnerability over the affair with Virginia's mother, did not give evidence. Butt said "I cannot see any case whatsoever against Sir Charles Dilke" and found – paradoxically – that though Virginia had been guilty of adultery with Dilke, there was no admissible evidence to show that Dilke had been guilty of adultery with Virginia. He therefore dismissed Dilke from the suit with costs, and pronounced a decree nisi dissolving the Crawfords' marriage.

Investigative journalist William Thomas Stead then launched a public campaign against Dilke. Such a paradoxical finding by the court left doubts hanging over Dilke's respectability, and in April 1886, he sought to clear his name and re-open the case through the device of the Queen's Proctor being made a party to the case and opposing the decree absolute. Unfortunately, Dilke and his legal team had badly miscalculated. Though they had planned to subject Virginia to a searching cross-examination, Dilke, having been dismissed from the case, had no locus standi. The consequence was that it was Dilke who was subjected to severe scrutiny in the witness box by Henry Matthews. Matthews' attack was devastating and Dilke proved an unconvincing witness. His habit of physically cutting pieces out of his diary with scissors was held up to particular ridicule, as it created the impression that he had cut out evidence of potentially embarrassing appointments. The jury found that the decree absolute should be granted and that Virginia had presented the true version of the facts. Dilke was ruined and for a time seemed likely to be tried for perjury.

Dilke spent much of the remainder of his life and much of his fortune in trying to exonerate himself and it does appear likely that Virginia lied. It further seems probable that someone other than Dilke was her lover and a number of conspiracy theories have been put forward over the years implicating various men, including Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery and Chamberlain himself. Various lurid rumours circulated about Dilke's alleged love-life, such as that he had invited a maidservant to join himself and his lover in bed, and that he had introduced one or more of these to "every kind of French vice".

Political career after 1886

Dilke later became MP for Forest of Dean in 1892, serving until his death in 1911. He had hoped to be appointed Secretary of State for War in the Liberal Government formed in 1905, but this was not to be.

Cultural references

Following his death, fund raising commenced to establish a local community hospital in his Forest of Dean constituency. The Dilke Memorial Hospital, Cinderfordmarker, opened its doors for the first time in 1923 and still exists as a permanent memorial to the popular M.P.

In the 1994 film Sirens, detailing sexual licence in Australia in the 1930s, the local pub is called the "Sir Charles Dilke".


  1. of Art historians: "Emilia, Lady Dilke"
  2. Jenkins (2004)
  3. Crawford v. Crawford and Dilke (The Queen's Proctor intervening) (1886) 11 PD 150
  4. Juries were still used in civil trials in the UK until the 1930s.


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