MP of the Month: John Gully (1783-1863)

Following on from the History of Parliament’s blog series on ‘Unlikely parliamentarians’ to mark Parliament Week 2016, our MP of the Month is another unlikely parliamentarian. John Gully, ‘an advanced reformer’, served as MP for Pontefract for five years from 1832. In a parliamentary sketch, Charles Dickens described this

quiet gentlemanly-looking man in the blue surtout, grey trousers, white neckerchief, and gloves, whose closely-buttoned coat displays his manly figure and broad chest to great advantage.

Gully’s gentlemanly demeanour in the Commons gave little hint of his extraordinary background. The son of a Gloucestershire innkeeper, he had been in turn a butcher, imprisoned debtor, champion pugilist, pub landlord, professional betting man and racehorse owner, and fathered 24 children (by two wives). Indeed his return to Parliament seemed so incongruous that it was rumoured that he had only sought election to win a bet.

John Gully

John Gully (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gully was born in his father’s pub near Bristol in 1783. When his father opened a butcher’s shop in Bristol, he trained Gully in this trade. Subsequent financial difficulties saw Gully imprisoned for debt in London’s King’s Bench prison. However, he secured his release in 1805 after his debts were paid by prize-fight promoters who had noted his prowess in a brief fight against his Bristol acquaintance, Henry Pearce, a champion prize-fighter, and were keen for the pair to fight a proper match. Six feet tall, with an ‘athletic and prepossessing’ frame, Gully lost their bout at Hailsham, Sussex, at which the future William IV was among the numerous spectators. When Pearce retired later that year, Gully was regarded as his successor as ‘champion of England’, and won notable fights in 1807 and 1808, before quitting to become landlord of a London pub.

Described as ‘second to none’ as a judge of racehorses, Gully became a professional betting man on the Turf, making his own wagers and taking commissions for others. He acquired his own racehorses in 1812, and in 1827 moved to Newmarket to pursue this more seriously. He won (and lost) huge sums through gambling: he and his business partner were said to have made £90,000 when their horse won the 1832 Derby. Although one contemporary claimed that Gully was ‘a regular blackleg’, the general consensus was that, in contrast with most of those involved with betting on the Turf, Gully was notably honourable and straightforward.

pontefract

Pontefract constituency map

Continuing his upward social trajectory, Gully bought Ackworth Park, near Pontefract, in 1832, and invested in coal mines in northern England, which brought him ‘immense profits’. (He left a fortune of £70,000 on his death in 1863.) The Reformers of Pontefract invited their new neighbour to stand as their candidate at the general election in December 1832. Visiting the town to decline their invitation, Gully was so angered by comments by their Tory opponents that he changed his mind and decided to stand. He was elected unopposed as one of Pontefract’s two MPs. The diarist Charles Greville, while listing him among the ‘very bad characters’ returned to the first Reformed Commons, conceded that despite being ‘totally without education’, Gully had ‘strong sense, discretion, reserve, and a species of good taste’ and had ‘acquired gentility’. When Gully was presented at court by Lord Morpeth in 1836, another contemporary described this as ‘an instance of the levelling system now established in England’.

Although Gully rarely spoke in the Commons, he was a diligent attender who served on several select committees. He was often found in the minorities voting with Radical and Irish MPs in support of reforms such as the ballot, the removal of bishops from the House of Lords, the abolition of flogging as a punishment in the army and reform of the corn laws. He was re-elected in 1835, but retired in 1837 as the ‘late hours’ sitting in the Commons had damaged his health. He stood again at Pontefract in 1841, when he declared himself ‘the enemy of all monopolies, and the friend of the poor’, but retired early from the poll.

Despite this defeat, Gully remained politically active. Given his humble origins, it was perhaps unsurprising that he was sympathetic to the demands of the Chartists for parliamentary reform, although he disliked their violent tactics. He was also a keen supporter of the Anti-Corn Law League. He continued to enjoy considerable success as a racehorse owner, and the Manchester Times recorded in 1846 that ‘few men are more popular on the English race course, or more approved of by the aristocracy of the land’. The parliamentary career of this sporting celebrity demonstrates the ways in which those from non-elite backgrounds could find their way into the post-1832 House of Commons.

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MP of the Month: James Lamont (1828-1913), Arctic explorer and scientist

Our MP of the Month blog for October comes from Dr Matthew McDowell, of the University of Edinburgh, who has contributed to our 1832-68 project with articles on Buteshire and its MPs. In this guest blog, he explores the career of James Lamont, better known for his exploits outside Parliament than in the Commons.

At only four years old, a frightened James Lamont witnessed the enormous crowds present in Edinburgh to celebrate the passing of the 1832 Reform Act throwing stones at his window: his father, a Tory, had refused to light up his window at night, which was taken as a signal that he did not support Reform. In contrast with his father’s views, Lamont sat as Liberal MP for Buteshire, 1865-8, but his political career was a brief and irregular interlude in his scientific and literary endeavours, and at odds with the more mobile, heroic, robust figure written about in his accounts of sea voyages to Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya. He was one of the pre-eminent Arctic explorers and celebrity scientists of his day, and his daughter Augusta, who followed her father into science rather than politics, would later note:

Three years in Parliament! – what a contrast to the roving outdoor life that he had hitherto led! His later ‘gloomy reflections’ suggest that there was regret for time so spent.

Contemporary accounts, however, cast a different light on Lamont’s otherwise unremarkable time as an MP, for his political campaigns themselves revealed much about the fault lines in Scottish society in the immediate run-up to the passing of the Second Reform Act in 1867.

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

Lamont was the son of Lt. Col. Alexander Lamont, of Knockdow Estate, in Toward, Argyll. He was educated at Rugby School and the Edinburgh Military Academy. Upon his uncle’s death in 1849, Lamont inherited a fortune which, as Stephen Mullen has noted, was largely based on government compensation for his uncle’s Trinidad slave plantations. He began to attend to his estates in both Scotland and the West Indies, at the same time devoting himself to travelling and exploration. Lamont’s many voyages included trips to Nova Scotia, Labrador, the Mediterranean and South Africa, but it was his trips to the Nordic and Russian Arctic that remain his defining explorations. In 1858 and 1859, Lamont, on board his schooner the Ginerva, sailed up to and explored areas of Svalbard. He was also a keen hunter of seals, walruses, grouse and polar bears. These adventures formed the basis of Lamont’s first book, Seasons with the Sea Horses; or, sporting adventures in the northern seas (1861).

In 1869, 1870 and 1871, upon a newly-constructed yacht, the Diana, Lamont went further: not only did he explore more of Svalbard and Jan Mayen, but he also went on extensive trips which documented Novaya Zemlya. These voyages were documented in his second book, Yachting in the Arctic Seas, or notes of five voyages of sport and discovery in the neighbourhood of Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya (1876). Both books are bloody reads: the hunting and slaughter of animals dominates Lamont’s stories. A recent article on Lamont by Leah Devlin has focused on his beliefs on the evolution of walruses and polar bears, as discussed in his books, as well as in correspondence with Charles Darwin. Certainly, his political opponents made much of his support for the theory of evolution.

Lamont’s brief political career was sandwiched in between these two major publications. He had been selected by the Liberals to run for the Paisley constituency in 1857, before his first voyage to the Arctic, but did not go to the poll. In 1859, he was selected as Liberal candidate for the island constituency of Buteshire, one of the Conservative Party’s safest Scottish seats, bordering Lamont’s ancestral home, but was defeated by nine votes. ‘The result’, he later recollected in Seasons with the Sea Horses, ‘proved unfortunate for the walrus, although perhaps the cynical reader may be disposed to add, “fortunate for the constituency”, and I was once more at liberty to proceed on my intended voyage’. Here, his political career was treated as an inconvenient footnote. It fared no better in Yachting in the Arctic Seas, where Lamont painted his 1868 retirement from Parliament as a chance to get back to his one true passion:

So completely did these ideas gain possession of me that at the general election of 1868 I abandoned a seat in Parliament … and set to work to build a vessel which should embody all Arctic requirements in a moderate compass.

buteshire_map

Buteshire, from The Imperial gazetteer of Scotland. Vol. I, by Rev. John Marius Wilson

The reality of Lamont’s ‘abandonment’ of his political career was far messier. Standing again for Buteshire at a by-election in 1865, Lamont had launched a scathing attack on his Conservative opponent George Frederick Boyle, the local landlords’ preferred candidate, on account of his religious affiliations. Boyle was both a layman in the Scottish Episcopal Church and a well-known patron of Tractarianism, who famously built an Episcopal training college in Millport. Exploiting the sectarian rivalries between Scotland’s competing faiths, Lamont enlisted the support of local Free Church ministers and sought to portray Boyle as the ultimate nightmare: a Catholic landowner in disguise. ‘When our forefathers rose against the superstitions and mummeries of the Romish Church at the Reformation’, he declared on the hustings, ‘an ancestor of mine, also called James Lamont of Knockdow, pulled down a Roman Catholic Church on Loch Striven side, so that not one stone of it remained upon another’. Although he narrowly lost the by-election, Lamont used his speech at the declaration to charge local landlords with intimating crofter-electors, provoking a riot.

At the 1865 general election six months later Lamont rode the Liberal wave into Parliament. Reporting on his 1865 campaigns, the Tory Edinburgh Courant referred to him as a ‘Darwinite murderer of seals’, whose own graphic exploits, as written about by the man himself, displayed a lust for power. Once elected, however, Lamont failed to make his presence felt in the Commons, rarely speaking at any length in debate and voting infrequently in the division lobbies. After siding with the Conservatives against Gladstone on the question of Irish church disestablishment, to which he was bitterly opposed, Lamont was deselected by Buteshire’s Liberals, forcing his retirement at the 1868 election. That so little space was given to politics either by himself or his daughter in their accounts of his career confirms that unique celebrities of Lamont’s make were not necessarily suited to life at Westminster.

Further reading

  • Augusta Lamont, Records and Recollections of Sir James Lamont of Knockdow (self-published, 1950)
  • A.G.E. Jones, ‘Lamont, Sir James, first baronet (1828-1913)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [www.oxforddnb.com]
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MP of the month: James Barlow Hoy (1794-1843)

As biographies of long-forgotten politicians go, this month’s MP ticks all the boxes, offering an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale, the beginnings of a brilliant political career accompanied by fraud and bankruptcy, and even an allegation of murder.

Hoy, or Barlow as he was originally known, was working as a lowly assistant surgeon in the army in 1828 when a chance inheritance from a cousin transformed his life, providing him with ‘extensive property’ in Hampshire and a ‘great fortune’ of almost £88,000. Within a year he had adopted the surname of his benefactor, the merchant Michael Hoy, and within two years had been elected for the venal borough of Southampton at vast expense, assisted by his cousin’s mercantile connections. Hoy’s opposition to the Grey ministry’s reform bill lost him the seat in 1831, but in 1832 he defied the national trend and was re-elected as a Conservative MP. The discovery of ‘fraudulent voting’, however, led to his being unseated on petition in 1833, following a lengthy investigation into Southampton’s corrupt electoral practices.

Determined to leave nothing to chance, Hoy launched a highly effective campaign at the 1835 election, pitching himself as a protector of the ‘ancient English rights’ of Southampton’s pre-1832 electors, whose entitlements to vote he had helped to defend by funding lawyers to attend the registration courts. With the support of the treasury, now in Tory control, and another vast outlay on treating and entertainment, including a series of musical election ‘rounds’ composed in his support, he topped the poll.

1835 Southampton election round

1835 Southampton Election Round

Another of Hoy’s bugbears on the hustings had been the radical cry for the secret ballot. ‘Was public opinion not to have any influence?’, he had demanded, to the approval of many non-voters. ‘Was a voter to sneak privately to the poll and not let his neighbours know what he was doing?’

Hoy not only became a noted campaigner in the Commons against this most ‘un-English’ of innovations, but also used it to highlight the glaring hypocrisy of other Liberal measures. In an impressive speech on 2 June 1835, he derided all those who supported the ballot and municipal corporation reform, noting how he was ‘surprised to see those who had been foremost in exclaiming against corporations, on account of the secrecy of their proceedings … coming forward as the advocates of a measure, the whole object of which was to secure the most complete secrecy’. If ‘public opinion were thought a necessary restraint’ and ‘useful control upon the actions’ of MPs, he asked, why should it be any ‘less necessary when voting for MPs’? Although his attempt to make the new town council elections ‘be taken openly’, in the same manner as parliamentary polls, was defeated, provision was subsequently made for council voting papers to be available for public inspection on payment of a fee.

Clearly a rising star of the Tory opposition, Hoy’s sudden departure for the Continent in 1837, ostensibly on account of his wife’s health, came as a surprise to his constituents. It may have been related to the huge sums involved in contesting Southampton on five occasions in as many years. He stayed in Naples during the 1837 and 1841 elections, although the publication in 1839 of his pamphlet Manufacturers and corn growers, a defence of the protective import duties on corn, suggests that he may have been contemplating a return to UK politics.

His ‘accidental’ death in 1843 attracted widespread publicity. During a ‘shooting excursion’ with an ‘old friend’ Captain Richard Meredith in the Pyrenees, Hoy slipped into a ravine, dropping his gun, which ‘went off’, lacerating the blood vessels in his arm. He died from these injuries and ‘lock jaw’ the following day. Hoy’s will made generous provision for his wife Marian, but due to his outstanding mortgages of £58,500 there were insufficient funds to carry it out fully and his estate was declared ‘insolvent’.

Hoy’s younger brother, the Reverend Robert Joseph Barlow, later became convinced that Hoy’s wife and Captain Richard Meredith had conspired to murder Hoy, and that Hoy had been pushed by Meredith into the ravine, allegations which found their way into his autobiographical novel W. Fitzallen, Remarkable but still true (1872). Just over a year after the accident Hoy’s widow married Meredith. In 1850, following Meredith’s own death, she took a third husband, the Catholic author John Richard Digby Beste.

For details about how to access this biography and all our other draft articles click here.

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A Westminster Boy Made Good: Charles Barry (1795-1860)

barry-book-cover

Caroline Shenton won the Political Book of the Year Award in 2013 with The Day Parliament Burned Down and its sequel Mr Barry’s War is published this month. 

In this guest post she reflects on an often-forgotten aspect of the background of Charles Barry, architect of the New Houses of Parliament.

On the night of 16 October 1834, thirty-nine year old Charles Barry was travelling back to town from business in Brighton. As his stagecoach trundled over the top of the North Downs, and began its descent towards the city,

a red glare on the London side of the horizon showed that a great fire had begun.  Eager questions elicited the news that the Houses of Parliament had caught fire, and that all attempts to stop the conflagration were unavailing. No sooner had the coach reached the office, than he hurried to the spot, and remained there all night.  All London was out, absorbed in the grandeur and terror of the sight … the thought of this great opportunity, and the conception of designs for the future, mingled in Mr Barry’s mind, as in the minds of many other spectators, with those more obviously suggested by the spectacle itself. [Alfred Barry, The Life and Works of Sir Charles Barry (1867)]

Barry had more reason than many to wonder about the future of the Palace.  One of the most startling things about the enigmatic man who became the architect of the new Houses of Parliament was that he was born and brought up in Westminster itself and knew the area inside out even before the competition which changed his life.

Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight, oil on canvas, circa 1851 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight, oil on canvas, circa 1851 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

The ninth of eleven children of a government Stationery Office supplier, Barry was born and spent his childhood at 2 Bridge Street, which ran along the side of New Palace Yard, opposite the door of Westminster Hall at the northern end of the ramshackle old Palace.  He was christened at St Margaret’s, Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, only a few steps from home. Some fifty years after Barry’s birth, the Clock Tower of the New Palace of Westminster – its most well-known feature – began to be constructed just opposite his birthplace. Orphaned at ten years old, at fifteen he was articled to a firm of surveyors in Lambeth across the river.  So up until he was twenty-one, Barry lived and worked in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament, though very different to the one which is familiar to us today.

The old Palace must have been a constant presence in his life.  From his attic bedroom at the top of the Barry home it would have been possible to see the north door of Westminster Hall, still with the law courts held inside, as well as the Abbey and St Margaret’s, a view painted in the 1820s by Auguste Pugin, father of Barry’s most famous collaborator.  As a trainee surveyor and architect Barry’s daily walk over Westminster Bridge to Lambeth provided fine views of its eastern flank across the Thames.  Growing up in its shadow and then working across the river would have impressed on Barry’s vivid imagination the muddled shapes and textures of the Palace which had been home to the House of Lords since the thirteenth century, and to the House of Commons since the Reformation.  In 1812, at the age of seventeen, he successfully entered a drawing for exhibition at the Royal Academy for the first time. Tellingly, its subject was the interior of Westminster Hall.  For the rest of his life, Barry both drew on the existing iconography of Westminster and then indelibly imprinted his own vision on it.

‘What a chance for an architect!” he exclaimed on watching the terrible fire of 1834.  But it was also an amazing opportunity for a local boy.  For when, in 1835, he entered the competition to design a new Houses of Parliament, he had – like the other 96 entrants – to do it anonymously.  They weren’t allowed to sign their drawings but instead each competitor marked the corner of every sheet with a unique symbol – or rebus, as it was called – and then placed their name in an otherwise unmarked envelope bearing the symbol on the outside, to be opened only if they won.  Barry’s choice of rebus was the Portcullis: the heraldic badge of Lady Margaret Beaufort found peppered all over the Henry VII Chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey (whose Perpendicular style Barry had already reflected across his whole design).  This very personal choice from a building so well-known to Barry subsequently became the universal symbol for Parliament, and can be found decorating nearly every nook and cranny of the new Palace, thanks to Barry’s collaborator, A. W. N. Pugin who incorporated it into the carpets, wallpaper, fixtures and fittings, and woodwork of the Palace’s interior, and the stone mason John Thomas who was responsible for the exterior carvings.  Today, Portcullis House, the parliamentary building which houses MPs’ offices and committee rooms, stands on the very site of Barry’s childhood home.

Despite living for a time in Hatton Garden and then the West End, in 1840 Barry moved his wife and family to 32 Great George Street, so that he could keep an eye on the growing Palace just a few hundred yards away.  Great George Street was in fact simply an extension of Bridge Street westwards towards St James’s Park.  In the 1850s, Barry was highly influential in the design and construction of a new Westminster Bridge whose profile he was determined had to blend with the Palace when viewed from downriver.  And finally, when he died in 1860, worn out with the stress of working on the Palace for twenty-five years, Barry was buried in Westminster Abbey among the most famous of his peers, but also fittingly, just a stone’s throw from the place where he was born and had gazed upon from his attic bedroom whose walls he had once decorated with imaginary scenes of faraway places.

Caroline Shenton @dustshoveller

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MP of the Month: Edward Lucas and the administration of Ireland, 1841-5

Edward Lucas was already an experienced parliamentarian when in September 1841 he was appointed under-secretary for Ireland, a post which for at least three-quarters of the year made the holder ‘the executive of Ireland’. In practice the political head of the civil service, the under-secretary was responsible for the routine working of the Irish administration and the supervision of almost every public department in Ireland. Indeed, Lucas acted as the Irish administration’s sheet anchor during the height of the Repeal agitation, yet he remains overlooked by both the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Lucas came from a Suffolk family that had migrated to Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century and acquired a large estate in county Monaghan. His family had frequently represented the county in the Irish Parliament and after attending the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford Lucas became involved in parliamentary politics on the independent and anti-Catholic interest from 1807. It was not until July 1834, however, that he was finally returned to the reformed Commons.

DublinCastle

Dublin Castle (image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

A consistent supporter of Sir Robert Peel, Lucas spoke frequently against the Whig government’s Irish reforms and in 1838 led the opposition to the introduction of an Irish poor law. Although he retired at the dissolution in 1841 to manage his estate, his talents as an MP had not gone unnoticed by Peel, who regarded him one of the ablest of the Conservative Irish members. Accordingly, that September he was appointed to the demanding post of under-secretary for Ireland, which, since the Whigs had appointed Thomas Drummond to the position in 1835, had been treated as a political appointment. Lucas was therefore charged with the day-to-day supervision of the chief secretary’s office in Dublin Castle during what would be a challenging time for British authority in Ireland.

Wood, John, 1801-1870; Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859), 2nd Earl de Grey, KG, PC, FRS

Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859), 2nd Earl de Grey. Copyright Ministry of Defence Art Collection.

As Daniel O’Connell’s agitation for the repeal of the Union came to maturity in 1843, it became apparent that Lord de Grey’s administration as viceroy in Dublin was not a happy one. Lucas had the thankless task of mediating between de Grey and the chief secretary, Lord Eliot, and the lord chancellor, Edward Sugden, both of whom the hard-line viceroy had candidly described to Peel as ‘useless’. Lucas also criticised what he regarded as Eliot’s failure to act decisively against the Repealers, and in June 1843 tendered his resignation. Regarding Lucas’s behaviour as ‘very shabby’, Peel nevertheless found it impossible to find an adequate replacement, particularly as the viceroy had informed him that Lucas was the only senior official in Dublin in whom he had any confidence. Lucas again submitted his resignation rather than continue to serve under Eliot in May 1844, but was persuaded to remain and subsequently convinced the new viceroy, Lord Heytesbury, that he was an ‘indefatigable’ and highly efficient public servant, who had proved particularly useful in facilitating communication between the government and the leaders of the Orange party.

In August 1845 Lucas cited ‘a serious affection of the eyes’ as his reason for resigning as under-secretary. He became a member of the Irish privy council. That November he chaired a commission of inquiry into the failure of the Irish potato crop, although political opponents considered him ‘too Orange-tinted’ to provide sympathetic guidance to what they had dubbed the ‘Starvation Commission’. In fact, he proved highly critical of the government’s relief measures and was replaced when the commission was restructured in February 1846.

Convinced that the country’s prospects were unlikely to improve, Lucas left Ireland for the Continent in 1850. On Lord Derby coming to power in February 1852 he was reportedly ‘wandering somewhere about’ southern Europe when the government despatched a special messenger to offer him his old job. In the event the position went to another Irish landowner, Edward Wynne, the member for County Sligo, this being the last time that the Irish under-secretaryship was given to a politician. The post was again made a permanent one in 1854 during the tenure of Wynne’s successor, Sir Thomas Larcom, although later appointments would become politicised for some years after 1886 by virtue of the Home Rule question.

Lucas eventually returned to Ireland and in the 1860s supported fellow Conservative landowners at parliamentary elections for County Monaghan, acting on the principle of maintaining ‘what is old until it is proved to be bad’. Lucas’s death at Castle Shane in November 1871 went largely unremarked, and his time at the fulcrum of the Irish executive during a turbulent period in Irish politics has been largely forgotten.

Further reading:

  • K. Flanagan, ‘The Chief Secretary’s Office, 1853-1914: a bureaucratic enigma’, Irish Historical Studies, xxiv, no. 94 (Nov. 1984), 195-225
  • R. B. McDowell, The Irish Administration 1801-1914 (1964)
  • R. B. O’Brien, Dublin Castle and the Irish People (2nd edn., 1912)
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Petitioning Parliament: two PhD studentships

One of our former colleagues, Dr Henry Miller, has recently secured a major grant to further his work on petitioning, as part of an important new project with Dr Richard Huzzey at the University of Durham. Petitioning has long been overshadowed by elections in the study of British politics, yet before the 1880s many more constituents (including women) often put their names to petitions than actually cast a vote at the polls.

A 'Monster' Petition being carried to Parliament, 1842

A ‘Monster’ Petition being carried to Parliament, 1842

As well as the landmark campaigns that used and refined the art of petitioning – slavery abolition, the agitation for the 1832 Reform Act, corn law repeal and Chartism – petitions also served as a continuous safety valve for airing local gripes and grievances on a vast range of issues, both public and private. Parliament kept records, including a entire series of volumes issued by a special select committee on public petitions. Relating this resource (once digitised) and others to digitised newspaper accounts and Hansard will provide new insights into how petitioning was organised and its long-term impact in helping to shape local and national political culture right across the UK.

This exciting new study is now looking for two PhD researchers – for full details see below or click here. As historical projects go, it could hardly be more topical.

Durham University and Warwick University are pleased to announce that we have two funded PhD studentships available as part of the ‘Re-thinking Petitions, Parliament, and People’ project generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2016-097). This new initiative, led by Dr. Richard Huzzey (Durham) and Dr. Henry Miller (Durham), explores the powerful role of parliamentary petitioning in the development of modern Britain and exploits the under-used records of the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Petitions. One student will be based in Durham while the other will work at Warwick with Dr. Sarah Richardson, a member of the project’s advisory board.

For full details, including the process for applying before the 19 August 2016 deadline, please see the webpages for these two studentships:

Petitions from Ireland: https://www.dur.ac.uk/history/postgraduate/funding/leverhulmepppd/

Petitions from women: https://www.dur.ac.uk/history/postgraduate/funding/leverhulmepppwd/

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‘The sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form’: MP of the Month, George Ward Hunt (1825-77)

The recent rise of a certain parson’s daughter to the premiership provides a fitting opportunity to consider the unexpected ascent of a parson’s son to one of the great offices of state during the 1860s – George Ward Hunt, Conservative MP for Northamptonshire North between 1857 and his death in 1877, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Disraeli’s 1868 administration.

Hunt’s name has become synonymous with two moments in Westminster’s popular memory. His inability to locate his dispatch box prior to his only budget speech in 1868 is often bandied about on budget day by journalists seeking historical precedent for the custom of the chancellor holding up their red box outside 11 Downing Street. When he later served as First Lord of the Admiralty in Disraeli’s second ministry from 1874, the practical need to accommodate his gargantuan frame – he was 6ft 4 inches tall and weighed between 21 and 25 stone throughout his adult life – has been used to explain a unique semi-circular recess in the Admiralty’s boardroom table, known as ‘Hunt’s Bay’. Both legends – one that paints a picture of ineptitude, the other of extraordinary obesity – have served to distort the otherwise exemplary parliamentary service of one of the rising stars of the Conservative party in the early 1860s.

Hunt’s political career did not start well. After graduating with a MA from Christ Church, Oxford, and being called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1851, he failed twice to get elected as a Conservative candidate for the borough of Northampton in 1852 and 1857. To make matters worse, in 1857 he suffered the ignominy of being on holiday in Egypt throughout the election, a fact that his local Liberal opponents never let him forget, through heckling about crocodiles, pyramids and mummies at future hustings.

NPG D43474; George Ward Hunt ('Statesmen, No. 77.') by Carlo Pellegrini

‘The fat of the land’, George Ward Hunt by Carlo Pellegrini, Vanity Fair (11 March 1871)

He was finally elected in December 1857 at a by-election for Northamptonshire North, the county division that contained his family’s Wadenhoe estate. Although Hunt’s family could trace their lineage back to Edward III, his lowly status as the son of ‘a well connected country clergymen’ marked him out from the county’s usual stock of aristocratic representatives, and his election bemused Northamptonshire’s established elite. He quickly allayed these fears by throwing himself into the business of the Commons as an active Tory backbencher during his first short Parliament. He made his maiden speech within days of being sworn in (many MPs thought it courteous to wait at least a year before rising to address the Commons, if at all), contributed frequently to debate thereafter and had introduced his first bill within six months of assuming his seat.

After his re-election in 1859 he ramped up his parliamentary activity, taking a particular interest in the fine details of electoral, legal, Church and financial reform. His commitment to debate, committee work and legislative drafting had brought him to the attention of the Conservative leadership by August 1863. In 1865 he confirmed his ambitions within the party by moving a vote of censure on the Liberal Lord Chancellor, and distancing himself from the hard-line Protestant wing of back-bench Conservatives by voting in favour of introducing a Roman Catholic parliamentary oath – a move that prompted jibes of ‘he’s half a Liberal already’ when he was re-elected at that year’s general election.

His dogged campaign to rouse the Liberal government out of its inactivity over a rinderpest outbreak during the latter months of 1865, which had infected almost 75,000 cattle by the start of the 1866 session, confirmed his worthiness for office during the early months of 1866. His farming experience and close connections with England’s agricultural elite made him steadfast in his commitment to much stricter regulations than those proposed by the Liberal government for the movement, quarantine and slaughter of cattle. Hunt’s demands were eventually adopted as national policy leading to a virtual cessation in new cases of cattle plague by November 1866, down from almost 18,000 a week earlier that year.

His excellent parliamentary record was rewarded in 1866 by his appointment as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in Derby’s third Conservative government, where he attended diligently to his official duties in the Commons as well as his daily bureaucratic responsibilities. His command of economic policy and dependable performances in the Commons led many to the realisation that he was the brains behind Disraeli’s third chancellorship, earning his chief’s endorsement as ‘our best man’ by March 1867.

On Disraeli’s ascent to the premiership in 1868, Hunt was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the new prime minister provided the following reference to Queen Victoria ahead of her first meeting with her new chancellor:

he is more than six feet 4 in stature, but does not look so tall from his proportionate breadth – like St Peters, no one is at first aware of his dimensions … he has the sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form … simple, straightforward & truthful … & of a very pleasing & amiable expression of countenance. He has gained golden opinions in the execution of his office as Sec[retary] of the Treasury, & is so popular in the House of Commons that the opposition even intimated recently that if a new Speaker were required, they were not disinclined to consider Mr Ward Hunt’s claims.

[Disraeli to Queen Victoria, 26 Feb. 1868: Benjamin Disraeli letters, 1868, ed. M. G. Wiebe et al. (2013), x. 82]

While Victoria remarked on such a ‘strange description’, she jokingly expressed no doubt that Hunt would ‘add weight to our counsels’. Accordingly, she accepted Disraeli’s recommendation, confirming Hunt’s rise from unknown parson’s son to one of the four great offices of state after only a decade in Parliament.

The full biography of Hunt will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Further reading:

  • Margaret Main Schoenberg, ‘Hunt, George Ward: A 19th Century Giant’, Northamptonshire Past and Present, 5, 4 (1976)
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