top of page

1877/8: Disraeli, Gladstone, Mayor Owden and the Jingo demos

Meeting of anti-Russian jingoes in Guildhall, London

Cuckfield-born Thomas Owden, in his office as Lord Mayor of London managed to bring together the country’s two leading politicians after a period of bitter domestic political and international tension. His efforts earned respect from both sides of the debate and a knighthood.

This was at a time of strong nationalistic unrest over a potential war between Russia and Turkey.

The British and the Russians had been rivals for years, with Britain at times invading Afghanistan to block Russian designs in India. In the 1850s the two nations had clashed in the Crimean War. The likelihood of Britain being dragged into a conflict seemed inevitable.

Parliamentary parties were taking opposing views. The Liberal Party, under Gladstone, was essentially anti-Turkish as a result of the ‘Bulgarian atrocities’ of 1876 in which some 12,000 Bulgars were massacred by Turkish troops. The Conservatives, led by Disraeli, were pro-Turkish, seeing Turkey as the gallant bulwark against Russia’s westward expansion.

There were demonstrations and meetings in Hyde Park and pro-intervention lobbies in the City's Guildhall.

Educational website ThoughtCo neatly sums up the situation:

Public opinion in England seemed to settle on staying out of the conflict and remaining neutral, but that began to change in 1878. Partisans supporting a more aggressive policy began breaking up peace meetings, and in London’s music halls, a popular song was stirring up audiences into a more belligerent stance.

One such patriotic song was ‘MacDermott’s Warsong’, or the ‘Jingo Song’ the core lyrics were:

We don't want to fight But by Jingo if we do, We've got the ships, We've got the men, We've got the money too. We won't let the Russians get to Constantinople!

The song caught on and spread widely through the public. Advocates of neutrality began to deride those calling for war by labelling them ‘jingoes.’

Meeting of anti-Russian jingoes in Guildhall, London 1895

Inevitably the Lord Mayor, Thomas Owen, was drawn into the debate as businessmen in the City became increasingly concerned about their investments being threatened or lost by onset of war. He will have directly engaged with No 10 to pass on their concerns and the likely consequences of conflict for Britain's trading overseas.

Sir Fitzroy Kelly - commercial lawyer, Tory politician and judge - after congratulating Owden on his having attained to the high dignity of Chief Magistrate of London, addressed him: ‘My lord, we live in troubled times. The peace of Europe has once again been broken, and a war is raging which England may well contemplate with serious anxiety and even with alarm.

‘You, my Lord Mayor, are called upon to preside over the greatest commercial city in the world. Indeed, the commerce of the whole of England is based upon the power and policy of London; and such is now the state of affairs that it behoves our commercial citizens, and especially those having commercial relations with our great Empire in the East, to watch the course of public events with deep attention.'

Not only did Owden take on the Government but he had to address an angry demonstration of citizens in Guildhall who were demanding action against threatened Russian aggression. He also was seen to act fairly to those who were brought before him as magistrate charged with public order offences.

Truce declared

From the Russian standpoint, the capture of Istanbul would have given the Russian Navy, based in the Black Sea, unfettered access to the Mediterranean Sea. But the whole matter was resolved in 1878 by the Treaty of San Stefano; this truce came about by sending our fleet, diplomatic pressure from Britain and other countries and the threat of war.

After the truce was declared and later in his Owen's mayoralty, the freedom of the City of London was very diplomatically conferred upon both Benjamin Disraeli and Gladstone. The citation read ‘in testimony of the appreciation of the Corporation of the genius and power with which they had represented the British nation in the recent Berlin Congress’. The presentation of the honour was followed by a banquet at the Mansion House under the Lord Mayor’s presidency.

The aim of the Berlin Congress had been to render such a war impossible in the immediate future. It was also the summer of 1878 that witnessed Disraeli's triumph not only over his enemies but also his rivals.

In 'The Memoirs of Sir Wemyss Reid' Stuart Reid gives us a comprehensive insight into the cabinet politics and personalities of the time:

'Looking back, I do not think I am unfair when I say that Disraeli's triumph seemed to be largely due to his power of playing to the gallery. He gave the crowd in the streets the scenic effects which they loved. He flattered their vanity, and he played upon their weaknesses, and thus he was able in a great measure to realise the florid dreams of his youth, and to strengthen English influence in that Eastern world which had always exercised so great a fascination over him.'

Owden was also a man of the people who 'played to the gallery' with the welfare of the poorer Londoner in mind, and this no doubt helped build a rapport with Prime Minister Disraeli.

It was a result of his even-handed treatment of people who were brought before him in the court and his management of the pressures placed upon him by the City Livery Guilds that led to his reward of a knighthood.

Owden defined 'by Jingo'

From then on Sir Thomas Scambler Owden became defined by the Jingo demonstrations. His actions and demeanor in office were summed up in the Mail newspaper as follows:

‘He is a man of high and sterling honesty and frankness; he is an administrator of exalted calibre; he is a business man of firm principles and acute penetration, but the acts which demonstrate all this are done 'by stealth' in that spirit of true but retiring greatness which prefers to the enjoyment of verbose gratitude the true pleasure of blushing to find his actions fame.'


Celebrities of the Day, British and Foreign Vol I 'A Monthly Repertoire of Contemporary Biography'No. I. April 1881

What Is Jingoism? Definition and Examples; A Music Hall Song of the 1870s Gave a Name to Belligerent Patriotism

Alderman Sir Thomas S Owden from Famous City Men, by James Ewing Ritchie 1884

Origin and Meanings Of ‘Jingo’


Meeting of anti-Russian jingoes in Guildhall, London – from Cassell’s History of England – vol. VII, 1910

‘Wail of the Jingos’ Illustration from Puck, v. 37, no. 937 (20 February 1895) Wikimedia public domain image.

Memoirs of Sir Wemyss Reid 1842-1885, Stuart J.Reid, 2004


bottom of page