Disraeli, his Debts + the Duke with Dr Fiona Clapperton

The 5th Duke of Portland, 1880, J E Boehm (c) Harley Foundation, Portland Collection

Learn about Benjamin Disraeli’s friendship with The 5th Duke of Portland, with historian and Education Manager, Dr Fiona Clapperton.

The most quoted British Prime Minister in history, Benjamin Disraeli, once said: “The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity.” For Disraeli, his window of opportunity came when he met and befriended the Portland family.

At this time, his political career was in its infancy. He was Jewish and a bankrupt school dropout. The press pointed out that, ‘other than a clutch of novels and striking good looks, [he] had no qualifications or accomplishments to merit election.’ Yet, through the patronage of the Portland family, including a loan which today would be worth over £2,000,000, Disraeli was able to become the leader of the Conservative Party and eventually, Prime Minister.

This talk charts the friendship between Benjamin Disraeli and the Fifth Duke of Portland in particular. It argues that Disraeli’s success was due to the support given to him by the Portland family, something Disraeli himself was aware of.

Read the transcript below

Benjamin Disraeli is the most quoted British Prime Minister in history. There are more quotes attributed to him than Winston Churchill! However, one of his most telling quotes is as follows

“The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity.”[1] For Disraeli, his window of opportunity came when he met and befriended the Portland family.

This talk charts the relationship between Benjamin Disraeli and the sons of the Fourth Duke of Portland in particular. It argues that Disraeli’s later success was largely due to the support given to him by the Portland family and that this was something Disraeli himself recognized and never forgot.

So, to measure the amount of assistance given to him by the Portlands, let’s look at Disraeli’s early career…

Disraeli’s early career

Disraeli grew up in a middle-class Jewish family but was baptized into the Church of England as a child. His father was anti-Whig, and Disraeli was brought up with a Tory understanding of British history, which glamourized the prestige and power of Britain. After deciding to leave school early, Disraeli began working as an assistant at a law firm. However, as historian David Cesarani noted:  “He was more interested in clothes than contracts. It was around this time that he fell in with the trend amongst young men of dandyism, turning up at the office in ever more spectacular and expensive outfits.”

This was the era of the Grand Tour – when well-off young men travelled through Europe to learn more about the histories and cultures of the continent. Not that dissimilar to modern-day gap years! Disraeli decided to take a break from the law and emulate the example of the young men he looked up to by going on his own grand tour. While he was travelling, he had a change of heart about his career in law. It would not bring him the level of riches and fame that he desired. Disraeli would later claim: ‘Money is power.’[2] So, upon his return, he decided to quit his job and begin speculating on the stock market instead.

Speculative investing

Unfortunately, there was a problem with this plan. Disraeli had no capital of his own with which to invest and as a minor under the age of 21, he was not legally competent to borrow money or even trade in shares, so Disraeli persuaded his family and friends to let him invest considerable sums on their behalf… He decided to speculate on mining in South America, which was proving very popular at that time. However, the consequences were disastrous. The value of the stock plummeted and they all lost money.

Disraeli needed to find a new career and make some money, so he persuaded a family friend whom he had lost money on the stock market, to help him set up a political newspaper. While Disraeli put a small amount of money into the scheme, his friends were the ones who chiefly financed it. Disraeli, with no experience in this area, reinvented himself and promised to contribute his share by finding editorial staff, and writers, and to produce articles himself. They called their paper, The Representative. It was while he was trying to recruit staff for his newspaper that Disraeli met Sir Walter Scott. He had hoped to encourage Scott’s son-in-law to join his team. However, Scott was unimpressed and, after a meeting with him, referred to Disraeli as a Young Coxcombe.

Debts and reinvention

Disraeli wanted the newspaper to be a success in its own right. But, by writing favourable articles about mining in South America, Disraeli also hoped his newspaper would influence the stock market and encourage share prices to rise. In December 1825 the South American mining stock finally collapsed entirely.

The newspaper also flopped and closed after only a few months in business. This left his friend with start-up costs of £26,000 and with no way to recoup them. This man ended up selling his two London homes to cover the costs.[3] Disraeli himself was left with a combined debt of around £2,500 (the equivalent of £140,000 today).

If he had not been under the legal age of responsibility, he would have faced debtors’ prison. At this point, he decided to reinvent himself once more. He knew he was good at writing from his work in the newspaper. And so as a stopgap, he tried his hand at writing novels as a way to make some money and raise his profile.

Vivian Grey

Disraeli’s experiences with the stock market and journalism provided the inspiration for his first novel, Vivian Grey. In it, Disraeli portrayed the main character Grey, (based on himself) as a brave and blameless survivor of events beyond his control. Vivian Grey eventually decides that true fame and success can be found through politics.

As Disraeli himself noted, ‘In Vivian Grey I have portrayed my active and real ambition.’[4] However, it holds little clues about Disraeli’s stance on political issues. Later on in life, when he looked back on his early novels, Disraeli would reflect that books written by young men ‘can be, at best, but the results of imagination… of such circumstance, exaggeration is a necessary consequence.[5]

This first novel earned him £700 which was a respectable figure, and did go some way to achieving Disraeli’s aims of making money and to raising his profile. But this amount was not large enough to clear his mounting debts.

Entering politics

In 1831, Disraeli reinvented himself once more. He finally felt able to try his hand at politics, the ambition he had set out in Vivian Grey. He wrote to his father to declare that ‘If the Reform Bill Passes, I intend to offer myself for the seat at Wycomb(e).’[6] ’ The reform bill, which did pass, introduced major changes to the electoral system of England and Wales, meaning that there was more opportunity for newcomers to enter politics.

Yet, this was still a bold move for Disraeli: he didn’t belong to a party, had no political allies and was still in debt. But he had ambition and, in true Disraeli tradition, he approached his friends to help finance his campaign.[7]

Choosing a party

The real challenge was in deciding which party to align with. He was anti-Whig, but the Tories were facing difficulties with infighting. Their leader, Robert Peel, didn’t enjoy the entire party’s support due to some of his reformist tendencies. So, Disraeli decided to run as an independent, stating ‘As for Parties, I am for myself.’

He stood three times as an independent candidate for Wycombe between 1832 and 1834 but lost each time. The local press pointed out that other than a clutch of novels and striking good looks, Disraeli had no qualifications or accomplishments to merit election.[8] He finally put aside his qualms and turned to the Tories. It was on his fifth attempt that he finally entered parliament as a Tory MP, not for Wycombe for Maidstone.

Disraeli was still sceptical of the Tories’ future, particularly under the leadership of Prime Minister Robert Peel, whose policies he did not agree with.[9]

Befriending the Bentincks

Lord George Bentick, son of the Fourth Duke of Portland, was a conservative MP. Though he was better known for his interest in horse racing than his politicking. He made a name for himself by exposing a racing scandal in 1844 when a four-year-old horse won a three-year-old’s race.

In relation to politics, he himself stated ‘On general subjects I am much too ill informed and on a multitude of questions entirely ignorant.’ However, like Disraeli, he disagreed with Peel’s leadership of both the conservatives and the country.[10] And what he lacked in political experience, he made up for in his credentials. He was rich, the son of a Duke, the grandson of one Prime Minister and the nephew of another.

Effective allies

Disraeli and Bentinck quickly became allies, driven by their determination to bring down Peel. In this case, both Disraeli and Lord George proved to be very effective.

Lord George refused to eat before giving his speeches. Hungry and angry, he proved hard to beat. He had a head for statistics, gained in a lifetime of betting on horses, which was a powerful weapon during the debates. Meanwhile, Disraeli, with his flair for persuasive language, became seen as the ablest mouthpiece of the Tory opposition to Peel.

Together, the two managed their aim and Peel had to step down as leader in 1846. However, this caused a split in the conservative party. Those who had stood against Peel called themselves the Protectionists, and Lord George became their leader. When Parliament returned after the collapse of Peel’s government in January 1847, Disraeli took a seat on the Conservative front benches alongside Lord George Bentick. He had established himself as someone you could not ignore, but he didn’t yet have the credentials to lead the Tories. Disraeli didn’t seem bothered by this. He accepted Lord George’s leadership and supported him loyally.

Ulterior motives

Disraeli wished to cement his increased political standing. To do so, he decided he needed to make two changes: firstly, he wanted to stand for a safer political seat. He had family ties to Buckinghamshire and this was the county where he had first tried to enter Parliament as a representative for Wycombe. Secondly, he decided he needed a country estate to help Tory squires and landowners to accept him.

However, despite marrying a rich widow in 1839, Disraeli’s debt had continued to grow and he now owed around £15,000. Therefore, when he saw the Buckinghamshire Estate of Hughenden was being sold for just under £35,000, he turned to Lord George Bentinck.[11] While the exact details of the loan have not been found, the memoirs of the 6th Duke of Portland, written much later in 1937, give us a potential version of events.

The 6th Duke’s memoirs

He wrote that: ‘the following story [was] told me by Mr. Henry Chaplin, afterwards Viscount Chaplin, who knew Disraeli and Lord Henry Bentinck particularly well…during the Debates on the Free Trade policy introduced by Sir Robert Peel, and carried into effect in 1846, Lord George, the leader of the protectionist Party, came home to Welbeck.

As he appeared to be in low spirits, his brother, Henry Bentinck, M.P. for North Notts., said to him, ‘What is the matter, George? You seem out of sorts.’ George replied, ‘ ‘It is nothing much, I am only annoyed at the stupidity and narrow-mindedness of our friends in the House of Commons, for I have found an ideal leader for the Protectionist Party in Benjamin Disraeli; but they will not listen to my advice because they say he is not a landed proprietor.’ ‘What of that, George?’ Said Henry, ‘let us make him one!’ George replied, ‘ Don’t talk nonsense. How can we make him a landed proprietor?’ Henry answered, ‘You and I may not be able to, but father could. I have been with him this morning and he seems to be in a very good humour, so let’s go and talk to him about it.’

Evidently, their mission met with success, for soon afterwards the Duke advanced a sufficient sum of money to buy Hughenden; so after this Disraeli had the necessary qualification for leadership, as a landed proprietor.[12]

Whether or not this version of events is true, letters show that Lord George agreed to lend Disraeli around £25,000 to help him buy the property. So, let’s put this cost into context –

In 2017, this was worth approximately: £2,004,652.50. In 1850, you could buy one of the following with £25,000: Horses: 1666 Cows: 4681, 125000 days of skilled labour[13]

Tragedy strikes

However, tragedy struck before the arrangement was completed. Two weeks after Disraeli bought Hughenden, Lord George Bentinck died suddenly. On 21st September 1848, after spending the morning at Welbeck Abbey writing a letter to Disraeli, Lord George decided to walk the 6 miles to Thoresby. On the way, he collapsed and died. He was only 46.

Disraeli declared that the death was ‘The greatest loss I have ever experienced’. He panicked because he had relied on Lord George’s money to purchase Hughenden, but after his death, there was no guarantee that his family, in particular, his brothers Lord Titchfield (future 5th Duke), Lord Henry and their father, the Duke of Portland (4th Duke) would honour the loan.

Disraeli relied on his penmanship skills and wrote a calculated letter of condolence to Lord Henry, stating: ‘It seems to me that the pulse of the nation beats lower after this… All is unutterable woe! And I only write this because, when the occasion is fitting, there are reasons which make it necessary I should see you.’

Lord Henry

Lord Henry asked Disraeli to meet him less than a month after his brother’s death on 18th October. We do not know exactly what they agreed, but the meeting was a triumph for Disraeli. In a letter to his wife, Disraeli claimed that he had made it clear to Lord Henry that, if he needed to pay the loan he would have to sell Hughenden and resign his Buckinghamshire seat.

‘This he declared to be utterly impossible. Then I went on [to] the state of my affairs, observing that it would be no object to them and no pleasure to me, unless I played the high game in public life; and that I could not do that without being on a rock…he entreated me not to mention this to the Duke, or to anyone but himself: that the moment affairs were settled, he would himself see what he could do about my private affairs; that he was resolved that I should play the great game; and that I must trust him. He remained with me four hours, and appears more devoted than even Lord G.’

Taking the lead

With his affairs now in order, and Lord George Bentinck deceased, Disraeli became leader of the Protectionist wing of the Tory Party in 1849.

Well aware of the debt he now owed the Bentincks, Disraeli sought to show his gratitude. Though he was not in a position to pay off his debt, He wrote a political biography of Lord George Bentinck, which he published in 1851. The historians Douglas Hurd and Edward Young noted that this book was an attempt “to repay the debt in the only coin in which he was rich.”

In the book he heaped praise on Lord George, picking out in particular his aptitude for hard work and his stance against Peel. The book was a surprising commercial success, going through four editions in 6 months.[14] In his memoirs, the 6th Duke of Portland, a distant relative of Lord George, recalled that, in 1880, Disraeli ‘very kindly gave me a copy of his book Lord George Bentinck:  A Political Biography, in which he wrote ‘The Duke of Portland from his friend.’ It is still one of my most cherished possessions.’ 

In 1857, Lord George’s eldest brother, who had recently become the 5th Duke of Portland, finally called time on the loan. By this time, Disraeli had accrued debts of around ten thousand pounds on the estate. However, he had found other political sponsors having quickly risen through the Tory party’s ranks. By this time, he had already served as Chancellor of the Exchequer once – an interesting role given his financial history! – and he would hold the role again the following year.

Disraeli’s gratitude

A series of letters exchanged between the 5th Duke and Disraeli demonstrate the depth of Disraeli’s gratitude. And they once again showcased his literary skills:

“I am aware of the personal interposition, which your grace made, on my behalf, at the time of the catastrophe [by this he means the death of Lord George]. It must have cost your great pain & solicitude & it merited and obtained, my gratitude. I am not insensible of the forbereance, which I have experienced from your grace… Of course, kind & considerate conduct, which has ranged over so long a period, whatever the motive, ought not to be disregarded by the recipient, and I wish to offer you my thanks, in terms, not conventional but cordial.”

He went on to explain:

“The accounts of the estate have been regularly kept, & it appears by the balance, which has been recently studied, that the pecuniary loss of the project to myself has been little short of ten thousand pounds.”

In his response, the 5th Duke wrote graciously that Disraeli did not need to justify himself:

“I hasten to acknowledge receipt this afternoon of your letter of yesterday’s date & to express my very great regrets that you should have felt it in the slightest degree called for.”

Yet, Disraeli still wanted to demonstrate his gratitude to the Bentinck family for all the support they had given him in his earlier years.

Honour from the Queen

He wrote again to inform the 5th Duke of an honour Queen Victoria would like to bestow on him. Whether Disraeli had suggested the idea to Queen Victoria, or whether he merely wanted to be the person to share the news with the Duke, we will never know:

“My Lord Duke,

The Queen has lately, on more than one occasion, expressed to me her majesty’s admiration of the quality spirit of your Grace, characterized, as it is, not only by a large generosity but by original and independent love…

The Queen was heard to express her Majesty’s regret that it seemed not in her power to signify her Majesty’s appreciation of these rare qualities…& remarked to me on Sunday, that it would please her Majesty if your Grace would accept the [Order of the] Garter…

I have, therefore, to assure your grace, that I do not make this communication as a minister, but as a private individual, honoured in that respect, by her majesty’s confidence…

No political tie or sentiment are admitted into this transaction, I hope I may presume to add, that I feel favoured by being the instrument of conveying so distinguished a mark of the esteem of our sovereign to the head of a great house for which I must ever feel respect & affection,

I have the honour to remain,

Your Grace’s faithful servant”

However, the 5th Duke of Portland was a private individual and he declined the offer of being admitted to the Order of the Garter.

Playing the great game

Disraeli had more luck demonstrating his gratitude to the 5th Duke’s heir, the 6th Duke of Portland, a distant cousin who inherited the title in 1879. By this time, Disraeli had become leader of the Conservative Party, was Prime Minister, and had been given the title ‘The Earl of Beaconsfield’. He would never have achieved these things without the backing and the support of the Portland family, in particular, Lord George and his brothers who had allowed him to ‘play the great game’. This was clearly at the forefront of Disraeli’s mind.

The 6th Duke reflects

In his memoirs, the 6th Duke reflected:

“In December 1879, without my stepmother’s knowledge, it was suggested to the Prime Minister, Lord Beaconsfield, that Queen Victoria might be inclined to recognise her position by conferring a title upon her. Within a fortnight of my succession to the Dukedom, Lord Beaconsfield invited me to visit him at Hughenden.

I well remember how nervous I felt at the prospect…

After arriving at Hughenden, Lord Beaconsfield, Monty Corry and I dined together. I do not think Lord Beaconsfield talked much during dinner, but when it was over he said to me, ‘And now my young friend – I trust you will allow me to call you so, and that you will look upon me as a friend too – I should like to explain why I wished to make your acquaintance.’

‘Well,’ he continued, ‘I am a man of many faults, and many failings like everyone else, but perhaps I have one redeeming quality. I mean, that the feeling of gratitude is very strong within me; and I believe I owe any success that may have been mine in my long life mainly to two people. One of these was of course my dear wife; and the other was your realative, Lord George Bentinck.

When I was a struggling young man, Lord George held forth the hand of friendship to me, and we became not only political allies, but very sincere friends. I had a great respect for him and for his brother, and so I shall be only too glad to be of some service to you. Now, I hope, you understand why I was anxious to make your acquaintance; and I trust that I may be able to pay back a small part of the debt which I owe to the Bentinck family.”

Baroness Bolsover

Some historians have gone even further when describing Disraeli’s behaviour that evening. According to Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, Disraeli told the young 6th Duke of Portland that he had decided to recommend a peerage for his stepmother Mrs Cavendish-Bentinck adding by way of explanation: “I come from a race which never forgives an injury, nor forgets a benefit.”[15]

On March 12 1880, Disraeli wrote to the 6th Duke, asking for his stepmother’s Christian names at length. On 23 April, she was created Baroness Bolsover, so it seems like this was why he was double-checking details. It seems Disraeli did indeed follow through with his promise to demonstrate his gratitude to the family which had given him so much.

The 6th Duke of Portland visited Hughenden again in summer 1880. In his memoirs the 6th Duke recalled:

“On my departure from Hughenden, [Disraeli] said, ‘I am so glad to have seen you again; and now that I have held forth the hand of hospitality to you, it would give me great pleasure if you would do the same to me, for I am very anxious to visit Welbeck, the home of my dear friend George Bentinck, where he died so suddenly, causing so much grief, not only to me but to the whole of the country as well.’

In due course, I invited him to Welbeck for Easter week… we were all looking forward with great interest to his visit, but unfortunately, he fell ill a fortnight before he was due to arrive at Welbeck. One of his private secretaries wrote on 7 April to say that it would not be in his power to fulfil his engagement.”

On 19 April, the 6th Duke received a telegram to say he had died at half past four in the morning.

A special significance

Whilst Disraeli never visited Welbeck, it is clear that the ancestral home of the Portland family held a special kind of significance to him. Up until the end of his life, Disraeli was keen to thank the family for their assistance and to deepen his close association with them. He certainly won over the 6th Duke of Portland, who reflected that ‘his manner was particularly kind and courteous’ before adding that ‘Lord Beaconsfield’s debt to the Bentinck family was larger than may appear.’

Disraeli, and indeed the Portland family, knew that his debt extended beyond the thousands of pounds he had borrowed. He owed his respectability to the family. It was due to first Lord George Bentinck, and then his brothers, that Disraeli was seen as a credible leader of the Tory party.

Another quote attributed to Disraeli goes as follows: ‘What appear to be calamities are often the sources of fortune.’[16] Here, he seems to be suggesting that his earlier errors in playing the stock market and failing in the newspaper business helped him on the way to his later success. However, I think the more relevant quote is the one I began this talk with: “The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity.”[17] I hope this talk has demonstrated how, for Disraeli, his window of opportunity came when he met and befriended the Portland family.


[1] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Benjamin Disraeli: The Two Lives’, p. XV & Daniel Coenn, Benjamin Disraeli, His Words

[2] Benjamin Disraeli (2016). “Delphi Complete Works of Benjamin Disraeli (Illustrated)”, p.1815, Delphi Classics

[3] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Benjamin Disraeli: The Two Lives’, p. 35

[4] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Benjamin Disraeli: The Two Lives’, p. 36

[5] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Benjamin Disraeli: The Two Lives’, p. 36

[6] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Benjamin Disraeli: The Two Lives’, p. 44.

[7] David Cesarani, The Novel Politician, p.50

[8] David Cesarani, The Novel Politician, p.56

[9] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Benjamin Disraeli: The Two Lives’, p. 45.

[10] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Disraeli Or The Two Lives, p.90

[11] Charles Richmond& Paul Smith, The Self-fashioning of Disraeli, p.172

[12] Men, Women and Things, Memories of the Duke of Portland


[14] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Disraeli Or The Two Lives, p.107.

[15] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Disraeli Or The Two Lives, p.258

[16] Benjamin Disraeli, Edmund Gosse, Robert Arnot (1904). “The works of Benjamin Disraeli, earl of Beaconsfield: embracing novels, romances, plays, poems, biography, short stories and great speeches”

[17] Douglas Hurd & Edward Young, Benjamin Disraeli: The Two Lives’, p. XV & Daniel Coenn, Benjamin Disraeli, His Words


Fiona Clapperton – Education

Dr Fiona Clapperton

Fiona is a historian and educator. She has a PhD the social history of Country Estates, and her experience includes working at Chatsworth, English Heritage, and the Wallace Collection.


Top image: The 5th Duke of Portland, 1880, J E Boehm (c) Harley Foundation, Portland Collection

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