Job opportunity on our project: Research assistant / Research fellow

The History of Parliament has a vacancy for a research assistant / research fellow on its 1832-1945 House of Commons project. The successful candidate will have a PhD (or be close to completing one) in a relevant area of history or a related field and will join a small team of professional historians writing articles for the 1832-68 volumes and undertaking research on the period after 1832.

Further particulars are available here and an application form can be downloaded here.

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MP of the Month: the remarkable rise of William Schaw Lindsay

In the Persian Gulf in 1839, William Schaw Lindsay, captain of the merchant ship Olive Branch, was attacked by a sabre-wielding pirate, whom he promptly shot dead. If this brief encounter was almost unbelievably spectacular, Lindsay’s rise from a destitute orphan to a merchant prince was no less remarkable. Born in Ayr, Scotland, in 1815, he lost his parents at an early age, and ran off to Liverpool to seek employment before his sixteenth birthday. Beginning as a cabin boy, he rose swiftly to the rank of captain and only narrowly escaped death during a shipwreck in which he broke both of his legs and an arm. After short spell as a ship fitter in Hartlepool, he founded the shipbroking firm W. S. Lindsay and Co. in 1849 and rapidly amassed 220 vessels in his fleet, making him one of the largest shipowners in the world.

William Schaw Lindsay, copyright National Portrait Gallery

William Schaw Lindsay, copyright National Portrait Gallery

Lindsay’s parliamentary career was less spectacular. His activities inside the walls of the Victorian Commons never reached the dramatic heights of his adventures in the Persian Gulf. Yet, as MP for Tynemouth (1854-59) and then Sunderland (1859-65), Lindsay’s parliamentary path intertwined in surprising ways with a number of significant political events.

Shortly after his election for Tynemouth as an ‘independent’ Liberal, Lindsay played an active part in the Administrative Reform Association, founded in 1855 as a reaction to the perceived aristocratic mismanagement of the Crimean War. As his ships were under charter to the British government during the conflict, he had first-hand experience of what he believed to be ‘official indolence and inefficiency’ and in the Commons he vociferously criticised the government’s capabilities. His outspokenness, though, often exasperated his parliamentary colleagues, one of whom accused him of meddling ‘with matters which he does not understand’.

Willis's Rooms, Westminster

Willis’s Rooms, Westminster

It was Lindsay’s actions during the summer of 1859, however, that briefly made him a pariah among Westminster Liberals. At the Willis’s Rooms meeting of 6 June that year, which witnessed the official birth of the Liberal party, Lindsay was one of a few dissenting voices who spoke out against the newly-united party’s co-ordinated attack on the Conservative ministry’s reform bill. In the preceding days he had acted as an intermediary between the Conservative Disraeli and John Arthur Roebuck, a prominent Liberal on the verge of crossing the floor of the Commons to join the Tories. According to a fellow MP, his subsequent declaration of support in the Commons for the reform bill drew ‘rapturous cheers from the Tories’ and ‘dealt several damaging blows to the Liberal leaders’.

Lindsay’s outspoken support for the Confederate states also courted controversy. He had travelled widely in North America before the Civil War and on his return he announced to the Commons his intention of moving a resolution to recognise the Southern states, which he believed ‘must become an independent nation’. Alongside Roebuck, he subsequently met privately with Napoleon III in an effort to draw the French emperor into pressing Britain to recognise the Confederate government, a contentious mission that earned them a strong rebuke in the Commons from Palmerston, the Prime Minister. Although his parliamentary efforts came to nothing, his private actions had an impact on a personal level: in 1862 he sheltered families of the Confederate diplomats who were removed, as contraband of war, from the British mail packet the Trent, in his Shepperton home.

Shepperton Manor, which Lindsay purchased in 1856

Shepperton Manor, which Lindsay purchased in 1856

Lindsay’s parliamentary career ended prematurely in 1864, when he became paralysed and lost the use of his legs. Thereafter he focused his energies on writing, producing anonymous accounts of his experiences at sea and publishing his authoritative four-volume History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce (1874-6). He died at Shepperton Manor in August 1877.

Lindsay’s diary, held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, provides an unrivalled insight into the Administrative Reform Association, while his correspondence, also at Greenwich, paints a vivid portrait of a man who responded both politically and personally to the American Civil War. His outspokenness in the Commons chamber, meanwhile, serves as a useful reminder that, even by the 1860s, some politicians continued to defy national party labels. While his heroism on the high seas and meteoric rise from orphan to captain of industry understandably captures the imagination, his brief but colourful parliamentary career provides a useful, alternative thread with which to trace key developments in the life of the Victorian Commons.

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The Palace of Westminster: the balance between the traditional and the practical

In this week’s blog Rebekah Moore, one of our AHRC collaborative PhD students, recalls an earlier debate about the cost and location of the UK’s Parliamentary buildings …

Last week, a report examining the necessary repairs and alterations to the Palace of Westminster suggested that if MPs and Lords remained in the Palace, the repairs would cost £5.7 billion over the course of thirty-two years. However, if the building was vacated, the cost would be reduced to £3.5 billion over six years. This has prompted debate over whether parliament should vacate its ancient home for a more practical building, better suited to the demands of modern parliamentary business.

The 'Black Hole of Calcutta' Chamber of the House of Commons in 1834

The Black Hole of Calcutta Chamber of the House of Commons in 1834

These debates mirror those that took place between 1830 and 1834, when MPs discussed whether the Reformed parliament should move to a more suitable location. Following the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, St Stephen’s was home to 658 MPs, yet the floor of the House of Commons could only seat 300. The cramped conditions led one commentator to remark that the House of Commons was reminiscent of ‘the second edition of the Black hole of Calcutta’.

The inconvenience of the Commons chamber led to two Select Committee inquiries, in 1831 and 1833 to discuss potential improvements to the House of Commons. In 1833, twenty-two plans were submitted, with suggestions about where a new House could be constructed. Many of these proposals suggested alterations to the existing Commons chamber. However, the parliamentary estate was increasingly cramped, and there were no opportunities to expand the House of Commons without significant disruption and expense.

By the 1830s, Westminster was an increasingly inconvenient location for parliament. The proximity of the river to the ancient Palace posed a risk of flooding, and MPs were forced to endure the stench of the Thames. In addition, Westminster was home to some of the worst slums of London. In 1832, a cholera epidemic claimed around 22,000 lives across England and Wales, with Westminster being one of the areas worst affected.

Both Hyde Park and St James’ Park were suggested as alternative locations for the new Houses of Parliament. There were several advantages to these sites. There was sufficient space to construct a building that contained all the requirements for modern parliamentary business. Also, both sites were close to Buckingham Palace, which was nearing completion. This provided increased convenience when the monarch was required for the State Opening of Parliament at the start of each session. Despite attracting support from radical MPs, however, alternative sites for parliament were never seriously considered.

The debate was briefly reignited by the destruction of the Palace of Westminster in October 1834. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, William IV offered Buckingham Palace for the use of parliament, hoping to dispose of a residence he disliked. However, Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister, was ‘unwilling to be the Minister who should advise your Majesty, upon his responsibility, to remove the Houses of Parliament from their ancient and established place of assembly at Westminster’.

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

The attachment to the site of the Palace of Westminster remained throughout the 1830s. The Palace provided a link with the past, supporting a narrative of political progress. It evoked the memories of great parliamentarians, such as Charles James Fox and William Pitt the younger, whose political rivalry was associated with one of the great ages of parliamentary oratory. After the political upheaval of Catholic emancipation (1829), followed by the 1832 Reform Act, the Palace of Westminster also provided an important symbol of stability and continuity. As a result, despite the extensive damage caused by the fire of 1834, parliament continued to meet in temporary accommodation constructed within the ruins of the Old Palace until the occupation of the New Palace of Westminster in 1852.

In 1835, a Select Committee published a list of requirements for the New Palace. Whilst most detailed the architectural requirements, it also stipulated that the new building should be constructed on the traditional site, effectively ending discussions about the location of the Houses of Parliament. The victor of the architectural competition was Charles Barry with his gothic palatial design, which has now been used by parliamentarians for over 150 years. The current debates on how to deal with the growing strain placed on this nineteenth century building by the demands of a twenty-first century Parliament have clear echoes of the debates on parliamentary accommodation in the 1830s.

Further reading:

Andrea Fredericksen, ‘Parliament’s Genius Loci: The politics of place after the 1834 fire’, in Christine and Jacqueline Riding (eds.) The Houses of Parliament. History, Art Architecture (2000).

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Waterloo: The Irish Dimension

As we commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Britain’s epoch-making victory at Waterloo, we examine the contribution made by Irish soldiers who fought in the battle, and in particular the men who later sat in the reformed Parliament for Irish seats.

While only three Irish regiments fought at the battle, recent research has demonstrated that as many as one in three of the soldiers in some of the British regiments that participated were Irish-born. Indeed Wellington was himself born in Dublin, and three of his brigade commanders were also Irishmen.

Of the eight Irish MPs known to have served in the battle, four had aristocratic backgrounds. Lord Arthur Moyses Hill (1792-1860), was the second son of the marquess of Downshire, and served as an aide-de-camp to Wellington during the battle. He sat as a Conservative for County Down, 1817-36.

George Lionel Dawson Damer (1788-1856), third son of the 1st earl of Portarlington, a major with the 1st Dragoon Guards, was an assistant quarter-master-general to the Prince of Orange during the Waterloo campaign, in which he was wounded. One of ‘the Regency dandies’ of the Prince Regent’s social circle, he married Mary ‘Minnie’ Seymour, the adopted daughter of the prince’s unlawful wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert. In 1835 he was elected as a Conservative for his family’s borough of Portarlington, for which he sat until 1847, serving as comptroller of the household under Peel’s ministry, 1841-6, before representing Dorchester until 1852.

Another Irish aristocrat to fight was William Browne (1791-1876), a younger son of the 1st earl of Kenmare. A lieutenant in the 52nd Foot, Browne had fought at the siege of Bergen op Zoom in 1814, and took part in his regiment’s famous charge on the flank of the Imperial Guard, in which he was severely wounded. A supporter of Catholic emancipation, he was elected for County Kerry in 1830 and backed the first reform bill before being forced out by the Repeal party in 1831. He sat again for his native county as a Liberal in the 1841 Parliament, and then retired to life as ‘an inconspicuous country gentleman’.

Standish O’Grady (1792-1848) served as a lieutenant with the 7th Hussars at Waterloo, where he demonstrated his skills by leading his regiment in a successful rear guard action against the French cavalry during the army’s withdrawal from Quatre Bras. He sat as a Whig for County Limerick on three separate occasions between 1820 and 1835, and is the only one of these eight MPs to leave a substantial record of his involvement in the battle, his letters to his father, whom he succeeded as 2nd Viscount Guillamore in 1840, being preserved in the archives of the National Army Museum.

Sir James Charles Chatterton

Four commoners also fought in the battle. James Charles Chatterton (1794-1874), who had the longest army career of this group of MPs, was decorated for his services in Portugal, Spain, Flanders and France, and fought at the battle with the 12th, or Prince of Wales’s light dragoons. He was returned as a Conservative for Cork in 1835, only to be unseated on petition, but sat again from 1849 to 1852, when he carried ‘the great banner’ at Wellington’s funeral. Having succeeded to the family’s baronetcy in 1855, he was made a knight commander of the Order of the Bath in 1862 and was promoted to the rank of general in 1866.

Sir Wiiliam Verner (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Wiiliam Verner (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Irish veteran who served longest at Westminster was William Verner (1782-1871), another experienced soldier who had served with distinction in the Peninsula campaign. Like O’Grady, he was an officer of the 7th Hussars and was wounded in the head at Waterloo, where he was given the field rank of major, and subsequently served on Wellington’s staff. One of Ireland’s leading Orangemen, he entered politics in 1820 and sat as a staunch Conservative for his native county of Armagh from 1832 until he retired aged 85 in 1868. He was created a baronet in 1846.

William Henry Watson (1796-1860) was an Englishman who fought at the battle but went on to represent an Irish constituency. After his father had been killed on active service in 1811 he was ‘left an orphan in the establishment at Sandhurst’, and entered the army aged 15. He served in the Peninsula with the 1st Royal Dragoons before exchanging into the 6th Inniskillen Dragoons shortly before the battle and entered Paris with the allied army. The following year he left the service to pursue a highly successful legal career and represented Kinsale as a Liberal from 1841-7. Returning to parliament as MP for Hull in 1854, he criticised the ‘scandalous’ system under which ‘nepotism and patronage’ rather than merit determined the composition of the army’s officer corps. He was knighted and became a judge in 1856.

Sampson Stawell (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sampson Stawell (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sampson Stawell (1785-1849) the son of a Cork flour merchant, also joined the army aged 15 and in 1809 served on the ill-fated Walcheren expedition. Like Chatterton, he fought with the 12th light dragoons in many of the major battles of Wellington’s Peninsula campaign. Although he was only a junior captain at Waterloo he assumed command of his regiment after all of its senior officers had been killed. Given command of the regiment in 1827, he was elected for Kinsale in 1832 as a supporter of the Whig ministry. Not finding politics to his taste, however, he retired in 1835 to resume his military career, and regularly attended the annual Waterloo dinners given by Wellington to the officers he had commanded.

The political views of the MPs considered here ranged widely, but on 18 June 1815 they were united in a common cause which ushered in almost a century of relative peace in Europe.

For more on MPs who fought at Waterloo, see our editor Philip Salmon’s post on the main History of Parliament blog:

Further reading:

  • J. & D. Bromley, Wellington’s Men Remembered. A Register of Memorials to Soldiers Who Fought in the Peninsula War and at Waterloo, vols. 1 (2011) & 2 (2015).
  • P. Molloy, ‘Ireland and the Waterloo campaign of 1815’, (MA thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2011).
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Conference on petitioning

Readers of our blog may be interested in an event involving our former research fellow, Dr. Henry Miller (now at the University of Manchester’s History Department). During his time at the History of Parliament, he published an article in the English Historical Review on ‘Popular petitioning and the corn laws, 1833-46′. He is now expanding his research to study the culture of petitioning in Britain during the ‘long nineteenth century’ (1780-1914).

Dr. Miller is organising a symposium on ‘Transnational Cultures of Petitioning’, which will take place in Manchester on 29 and 30 June. Further details can be found here:

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Goodbye and Good Luck to Dr James Owen!

Dr James Owen

Dr James Owen

This month we bid farewell to Dr James Owen, who is leaving the 1832-68 project for a teaching post in the USA. Since joining us in 2009 James has completed over 200 MP biographies and almost 30 full-length constituency articles ranging across the entire country – a huge contribution totalling over half a million words. Somehow he also found time to manage our social media and write an extremely well-received book on Labour and the Caucus, details of which can be found here.

Nottingham election riots: badly damaged committee rooms

Nottingham election riots: badly damaged committee rooms

James’s many articles for us include studies of the outrageously corrupt borough of Harwich, with its 18 contested elections, new analyses of county politics in places as diverse as County Durham and Suffolk, and accounts of towns and cities targeted by the Chartists such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Nottingham, the latter of which became notorious for its election riots. A full list of James’s constituency articles appears below. Along with the 200+ related MPs he has profiled, most of this material can now be accessed on our preview site.

As well as wishing James all the best in his new post we would like to pay tribute to his dedication, good humour and extraordinary productivity. We will miss him hugely.

Constituency articles by Dr James Owen:

  • Bury St Edmunds 
  • Carlisle
  • Cockermouth
  • Colchester
  • Cumberland East
  • Cumberland West
  • Durham City
  • Durham North
  • Durham South
  • East Retford
  • Essex North
  • Essex South
  • Eye
  • Gateshead
  • Grantham
  • Harwich
  • Morpeth
  • Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Northumberland North
  • Northumberland South
  • Norwich
  • Nottingham 
  • Nottinghamshire North
  • Nottinghamshire South
  • Suffolk East
  • Suffolk West
  • Sunderland
  • Thetford
  • Tynemouth and North Shields
  • Westmorland
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MP of the Month: Albert Grant (1830-1899), the financier who inspired Trollope

The name of Albert Grant will not be known to many, although he was one of the most famous entrepreneurs of mid-Victorian England. A pioneer of ‘mammoth company promoting’, his career had much in common with that of George Hudson, the ‘railway king’. Despite making several fortunes Grant’s reputation suffered greatly by the promotion of ‘bubble’ companies which were financially unsound and involved shareholders in enormous losses.

Perhaps more familiar will be the name of the corrupt financier Augustus Melmotte, the central character of Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Way We Live Now. Grant is widely believed to have served as the model for Melmotte, and the novel was first published serially at the height of Grant’s fame in 1874-5.

Albert Grant, depicted by 'Spy' in Vanity Fair

Albert Grant, depicted by ‘Spy’ in Vanity Fair

Grant was born Abraham Gottheimer in Dublin in 1830, but changed his name to Albert Grant in 1863. He was the son of Berton Gottheimer, a Jewish commission agent who was born in Prussia around 1798. Having dissolved a partnership as a Liverpool merchant in 1829, Berton subsequently set up in London, as an importer of fancy goods. Grant’s mother, Julia, was born in Portsmouth.

By 1851 Grant was employed as a merchant’s clerk in the city of London. He then became ‘a traveller in wines’, a business he dissolved in 1857. By then he had been baptised into the Anglican faith. He was admitted as a freeman of the city of London, and by 1858 had established himself as a banker and discount agent in Lombard Street. In 1859 he set up the Mercantile Discount Company, which provided financial services for the trading community. Concerns were voiced about the large salaries and beneficial financial guarantees enjoyed by Grant and his partners. The company failed in 1861 with liabilities of £1,500,000. Grant, however, escaped any personal loss in the affair, and was soon financing railway schemes in Yorkshire, Essex and Wales.

In 1863 he expanded his activities in the city, establishing Crédit Foncier and Mobilier of England, one of a number of ‘rip-off finance houses’ which flourished in the sustained bull market of the period. This institution served as the principal vehicle for Grant’s company promotions, most of which were subject to allegations of fraud.

Having systematically enriched himself by rigging the market and routinely inflating the price of the shares he sold, Grant stood for parliament as a Liberal-Conservative for the corrupt borough of Kidderminster at the 1865 general election. Promising to support ‘a well-digested’ scheme of parliamentary reform, and a policy of ‘non-intervention’ in foreign affairs, he was narrowly returned despite being confronted on the hustings by a disgruntled investor, who called him ‘a confounded German swindler’. He survived a petition against his return.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuel, Milan, c. 1880

Galleria Vittorio Emanuel, Milan, c. 1880

One of Grant’s greatest successes was funding the construction of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, a huge arcade in the centre of the city, and now one of the world’s oldest shopping malls. The king of Italy rewarded him with a barony in May 1868. However, the ‘grand but inevitable smash’ of Crédit Foncier came in July 1868, when Grant left the company amidst allegations that large commissions on the company’s profits had been improperly pocketed by the directors. Although he attempted to defend his conduct, he decided to retire from Parliament at the 1868 general election.

Grant soon rebuilt his financial empire. During a period of extraordinary activity between 1871 and 1874, he floated numerous domestic and foreign companies, including the Cadiz Waterworks, Central Uruguay Railway, and Russian Copper Company, the nominal capital of which amounted to more than £25,000,000, but whose shares eventually lost four-fifths of their market value. He was said to have obtained lists of financially naïve investors to capitalise his schemes. His ventures were also assisted by his ‘masterly’ use of the press, which included making large payments to the city editor of The Times, and the acquisition of The Echo, a London evening paper which he bought for £20,000.

By now immensely wealthy, in 1872 Grant bought Horstead Hall, near Norwich, and the following year acquired a site near Kensington Palace, where he built Kensington House, a magnificent Italianate palace, at a cost of nearly £350,000.

Square of Shakespeare in Leicester Square, presented by Albert Grant

Square of Shakespeare in Leicester Square, presented by Albert Grant

Grant was re-elected for Kidderminster at the 1874 general election. That May he enhanced his public reputation by paying 800 guineas for a portrait of Sir Walter Scott by Landseer, which he presented to the National Portrait Gallery, earning him a vote of thanks from the Commons. That July his public career reached its apogee when he presented Leicester Square to the people of London. The square, then known as Leicester Fields, had long been in a dilapidated state, but because the site was owned by numerous freeholders the municipal authorities had found it practically impossible to improve the area. Yet Grant managed to purchase the rights of all the respective owners and, after planting an ornamental garden and erecting a statue of Shakespeare, along with busts of Newton and Hogarth among others, transferred ownership of the site to the Metropolitan Board of Works at a personal cost of £28,000.

Shortly after this public triumph, Grant’s election at Kidderminster was declared void on grounds of bribery and corruption, and his business affairs began to suffer a dramatic reverse. Not all of Grant’s companies were worthless, but one which was proved to be his undoing. Although he pocketed £200,000 for the flotation of the Emma Silver Mining Company of Utah in 1871, it was subsequently found that there was actually little or no silver, and a law suit initiated against Grant revealed ‘the murkiest details of stock market manipulation’.

His career as a company promoter appeared to be over, but Grant was adept at defending himself against subsequent lawsuits. In May 1875 he displayed great skill as ‘a legal orator’ during a three-day speech, believed to have been the longest ever made in a court of law by a layman, on the interpretation of the Limited Liability Act. He became chairman of the General Banking Company in 1878, but a year later filed a petition for liquidation with liabilities of £800,000 and assets of just £18,000. Undeterred, he sought parliamentary honours once more, but was defeated at Kidderminster in 1880.

Grant found Kensington House impossible to maintain as a private residence and sold it at auction in 1878. It was dispersed in lots in 1882 and demolished the following year. The marble staircase, estimated to have cost £70,000, was acquired by Madame Tussaud’s, and the front gates were reconstructed as the East Sheen entrance to Richmond Park. Having attempted to clear his debts, he set up yet another new company, the National Finance Corporation, in 1885.

While Augustus Melmotte’s story ended in a dramatic fashion with his suicide, Grant’s concluded with his bankruptcy in 1897. In dwindling health for some time, he died at Bognor in August 1899.

Further reading:

  • D. Kynaston, The City of London. A World of Its Own 1815-1890 (1994)
  • T. Seccombe, rev. M. Reed, ‘Grant, Albert [formerly Abraham Gottheimer], Baron Grant in the Italian nobility’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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