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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The youngest MP? The ‘baby’ of the first Reformed Parliament

With the election of Mhairi Black as MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South at the age of 20, there has been some discussion of how far back in the parliamentary records one has to delve to find a younger MP.

To date, our research on the 1832 to 1868 period has uncovered just one MP who was returned to Parliament under the age of 21. The Hon. William Charles Wentworth Fitzwilliam, grandson of Earl Fitzwilliam, was born on 18 January 1812. Educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was elected on 12 December 1832 for Malton, aged 20. Although it seems likely that he was the youngest MP of our period, he was some months older than Mhairi Black when he was first elected.

Malton

Malton

A double-member constituency, Malton was one of several ‘nomination’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs which continued to be controlled by an aristocratic patron after the 1832 Reform Act. Firmly under the control of the Fitzwilliam family, who were prominent Whigs, it did not see a single contested election between 1832 and 1868. Opposition to William Fitzwilliam, even if he was under-age, was therefore pointless. Moreover, it was generally believed that as the new Parliament would not assemble until after his 21st birthday, he would not be disqualified.

Fitzwilliam did not represent Malton for long, however. His grandfather died on 8 February 1833, when Fitzwilliam’s father succeeded to the earldom, and Fitzwilliam took the title of Viscount Milton. His father had been MP for Northamptonshire North, and Milton (as he now was) resigned his Malton seat in order to be elected for that constituency instead. He was re-elected for Northamptonshire North at the 1835 general election, when one hostile account referred to him as the ‘baby Fitzwilliam-nominee’. He found it difficult to get a hearing at the hustings, as ‘all kinds of noises, and particularly most successful imitations of the bellowing of an enraged bull and the yelping of a cur just run over by a gig, were raised by the Blue party, and continued till Lord Milton bowed to the storm’. However, he was elected unopposed alongside a Conservative.

Although Milton did not contribute to debate in the Commons, he proved a useful member in the committee-rooms. He demonstrated a growing confidence in public speaking when he proposed Lord Morpeth on the West Riding hustings at a by-election in May 1835, earning plaudits for ‘the manly excellencies of his character, his abilities, and his strong attachment to liberal politics’. However, this promising political career was cut short by his death from typhus on 8 November 1835, aged just 23. One fellow MP lamented that ‘the tomb has deprived the House of one destined to be a future ornament’.

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Predicting the polls: a Victorian perspective

Kathryn Rix:

Our editor Philip Salmon explains the complexities of Victorian polling.

Originally posted on The History of Parliament:

As the UK goes to the polls today, here’s the last in our series of blogs on elections through the centuries. With the outcome of today’s vote still baffling the pollsters, Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the Victorian Commons, discusses how parties tried to deal with uncertainty before voting was secret…

Victorian electoral print of an elector and candidate

As the UK’s pollsters and pundits vie for coverage in what appears to be a remarkably unpredictable election campaign, it is worth noting how Victorian political parties tried to minimise the uncertainty of going to the polls, using their own very distinct methods.

Victorian politicians enjoyed one major advantage over modern candidates. Because all voting was done in public before 1872, they could easily ascertain how each elector had behaved at a previous poll. Pollbooks listing all the individual votes cast by every elector provided agents with a clear guide to the politics of each constituency…

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MP of the month: John Wright Treeby and another kind of ‘villa Toryism’

In April’s ‘MP of the month’ post Dr Philip Salmon highlights the career of a Tory builder dubbed ‘bricks and mortar’ Treeby, who helped build parts of St John’s Wood and London’s first underground railway.

One of the more surprising aspects of researching the lives of MPs for the 1832-68 project has been the number of self-made men from non-élite backgrounds who were elected to the Victorian Commons. Often silent in debate but active behind the scenes, especially in the select committee inquiries that developed so dramatically in this period, these men get short-shrift in most accounts of 19th century Westminster.

Prominent Liberal and radical MPs who clawed their way up from various trades into national politics have, of course, always attracted attention. Men like the Littlemore stonemason Henry Broadhurst (1840-1911), who helped build the new Houses of Parliament before sitting there as a ‘working class’ Lib-Lab MP, achieved a celebrity status even in their own lifetime. Less well-known MPs who ‘rose from the people’ in the pre-1868 period, however, and especially those like John Wright Treeby (1809-82) who became Tories, remain far more obscure and unresearched.

One of Treeby's St John's Wood Villas

One of Treeby’s St John’s Wood Villas

Treeby’s father was an itinerant builder. By 1808 he was working in Chudleigh in Devon, helping to rebuild the town after the ‘great fire’ of the previous year, which destroyed over half its 300 houses. Treeby, who was born there the next year, followed his father into business. By his late twenties he had started acquiring building plots on the St. John’s Wood estate in north-west London, where he soon became a pioneering builder of the new style of low-density dwellings (as opposed to terraces) that became known as ‘villas’. His more memorable developments included ‘Devonshire Villa’ at 26-28 Finchley Road, the last home of the famous poet Thomas Hood, and a grandiose ‘Elizabethan Villa’ at 44 Finchley Road.

As well as building villas and speculating in land, Treeby also worked on the construction of London’s first underground railway, which opened in 1863. He was part of the original group that negotiated with the Metropolitan Board of Works and almost certainly assisted with the construction of its brickwork archways and sewers, structures in which he seems to have excelled.

Brick archways built for London's first underground

Brick archways built for London’s first underground

By 1859 he was sufficiently wealthy to consider entering Parliament. Armed with a letter of support from the Tory chancellor of the exchequer Benjamin Disraeli, he stood for the notoriously corrupt borough of Lyme Regis, where he had been buying up properties for development, only to find himself pilloried for his ‘bricks and mortar’ background and ‘taunted’ for having ‘risen from the people’. His willingness to bribe electors, however, led to a tie with his Liberal opponent, which the mayor then settled controversially by adding the vote of an elderly Liberal after the poll had closed. The mayor later blamed a slow-running watch for his error.

Leaving nothing to chance, Treeby continued to cultivate the borough, purchasing its premier estate of Highcliff House and playing the role of local squire. Aided by his promises (and ability) to sort out the town’s sewage problems ‘free of expense’, and with the price of votes reaching £100, he narrowly beat another opponent at the 1865 election.

Although Treeby loyally supported the Conservatives in the Commons, he was far from being mere lobby fodder. On a range of issues relating to the parliamentary and local government franchises he broke ranks and sided with the radical John Stuart Mill, speaking and voting for his amendments. He even managed to add a clause of his own to the Conservative reform bill, aimed at helping lower class electors. This forced overseers to publish lists of ratepayers who were in arrears and therefore at risk of losing their voting entitlements.

Not all his initiatives went down well. His attempt to make the secret land deals made between ‘resident country gentlemen’ and railway companies public knowledge earned him a snobby rebuke from one of his Tory aristocrat neighbours, who inferred that he was plainly no gentleman. And when he again found himself at loggerheads with Disraeli over the 1868 Scottish reform bill, which threatened to transfer Lyme Regis’s parliamentary seat to Scotland, his protests got him nowhere, leaving him without a seat at the 1868 election.

It says much about contemporary attitudes to men like Treeby that when he left the Commons most newspapers mistakenly assumed that he had been one of the Tory party’s Protestant fanatics, well known for their ‘lowest type of ignorance’ and ‘inability to make a decent speech, much less influence a single vote’. It would be a few more decades before MPs from similar backgrounds started to receive wider public recognition and a more positive press. ‘Villa Toryism’ has featured significantly in the history of Conservative middle-class voting after 1885. But the villas built by men like Treeby are also a reminder of the enduring appeal of working-class Toryism.

Treeby’s recently completed biography is among those available on our 1832-68 preview site. For details about how to access this and all our other draft articles click here.

Further reading:

M. Galinou, Cottages and Villas: the birth of the garden suburb (2010)

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The parliamentary diary of Henry Broadley

One of our early modern colleagues at the History of Parliament, Dr. Stephen Roberts, recently gave a fascinating seminar paper on a parliamentary diary recording events from 1640 and 1641. Inspired by this, our MP of the Month is a man who kept a diary exactly two hundred years later: Henry Broadley (1793-1851), Conservative MP for the East Riding of Yorkshire from 1837 until his death in August 1851.

Broadley came from a family of merchants based in Hull, who had acquired considerable wealth through their purchase of land and its subsequent sale for building plots as the town expanded. Broadley also owned a substantial country estate near Howden. Despite his considerable wealth, he was notorious for his stinginess, and caused dissatisfaction among his supporters by quibbling over election costs. This, together with concerns that he was not sufficiently identified with his constituency’s agricultural interests, prompted a failed attempt to replace him with an alternative Conservative candidate. However, he proved his commitment to the needs of the East Riding’s farmers when he voted against the repeal of the corn laws in 1846, expressing his ‘grief’ at Robert Peel’s change of heart on this question. He remained a committed Protectionist for the rest of his parliamentary career.

An edition of Broadley’s diary, covering the period from 1 January 1840 to 17 March 1842, with almost daily entries, was published by Humberside Leisure Services in 1987, with notes and an introductory essay by John Markham. Markham describes Broadley as

‘a disciplined but infuriating diarist, recording in pedantic detail the topics of discussion and correspondence which at the time seemed so important but are now justly forgotten, missing almost every opportunity of describing the scenes and people to which his wealth and privilege gave him access’.

There is certainly plenty of the mundane in Broadley’s diary: the weather, the state of his health and his household arrangements. Lost keys, broken combs and the purchase of cheeses and wine are all carefully noted. (Despite his parsimony, he left a wine cellar worth over £850.) In a rare comment on any of the leading figures of the day, he observed that Queen Victoria looked ‘fat and pasty’ at the opening of the 1842 parliamentary session.

However, as Markham notes, the diary also provides an invaluable account of ‘the busy life of a backbench MP: his meetings, journeys, correspondence, work on behalf of constituents, attendance in the Commons, and, most important, voting’, and also covers one of the election contests which Broadley fought in the East Riding, that of 1841.

Broadley’s detailed daily record is particularly useful in providing insights into how a Member whose name is absent from Hansard – although he did, according to his diary, utter ‘a few words’ in the Commons chamber when seconding a bill on sewerage – could nonetheless be an effective constituency representative. The Yorkshire Gazette praised his parliamentary efforts in no uncertain terms, declaring that ‘a more attentive member… did not exist. His name appeared in almost every division, and his punctuality was equalled by his consistency’. Broadley himself complained at an election dinner that ‘the fatigues of parliamentary life were great, occasioned by the uncertainty of the length of time that members had to sit’ listening to debates.

Seal of the Hull and Selby railway company

Seal of the Hull and Selby railway company

One of Broadley’s key roles outside Parliament was as chairman of the Hull and Selby railway company, and his diary reveals the amount of time which this occupied. Given the substantial number of MPs in this period who had similar outside interests, this provides several useful insights into how such positions could be combined with parliamentary activities. Broadley was a dutiful parliamentary representative, which his diligently kept, if somewhat dull, diary aptly reflects.

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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Rebekah Moore, ‘Contested spaces: temporary houses of Parliament and government, 1834-52′

jowen1832:

Our PhD student Rebekah Moore (on an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and the Institute of Historical Research) shares some of her research on the temporary houses of Parliament, 1834-52, a project that is set to shed fresh light on an important aspect of the Victorian Commons.

Originally posted on The History of Parliament:

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, Rebekah Moore, holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and Institute of Historical Research, gave a paper on the temporary Houses of Parliament after the fire of 1834. Here Rebekah gives an overview of her paper…

From 1557, the House of Commons was situated in St Stephen’s Chapel, one of the medieval buildings of the Palace of Westminster. Following the Great Reform Act of 1832, St Stephen’s was home to 658 MPs. Yet St Stephen’s was increasingly suitable for use by the Commons, only seating around 300 MPs on the floor of the House. The cramped conditions, and the increasingly poor ventilation led James Grant to declare that St Stephen’s was akin to the ‘second edition of the Black Hole of Calcutta’ [James Grant, Random Recollections of the House of Commons… (London, 1837), p1].

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MP of the Month: Edward Greene, brewer and businessman

At Westgate, in the heart of Bury St. Edmunds, stands the historic Greene King brewery, first established in 1799 by Benjamin Greene, a member of a Nonconformist Northamptonshire family of drapers, and his business partner William Buck. The brewery had a rocky start and it was only when Greene inherited a West Indian plantation in 1823 that its financial future was secured. The stellar transformation of the family business into one of England’s most successful breweries took place later, in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, and was orchestrated by Greene’s third son, Edward (1815-1891), who took over the reins of the company in 1836 and was elected Conservative MP for Bury St. Edmunds in 1865.

Depctcion of Westgate Brewery in the 1830s, copyright Greene King

Depiction of Westgate Brewery in the 1830s, copyright Greene King

In many ways, Edward Greene was not the archetypal Victorian Conservative MP. Firstly, he was zealously devoted to free trade: the foundation of his success was disposing of public houses tied to his brewery and instead creating a system of agents who travelled East Anglia, promoting his Burton-type pale ale – an amber-coloured liquid known for its distinctively hoppy flavour – which was sold at a shilling per gallon. Secondly, whereas Conservatives were generally rooted in the Anglican Church, his ancestors (though not himself) were Nonconformist. He was, however, a quintessential product of the Victorian era: the railway boom allowed his agents to widely sell his beer and he shored up his political popularity by successfully promoting the Bury St. Edmunds to Thetford railway, an achievement which he was never slow to remind the electors about on the hustings.

While his ale was smooth and mild, Greene was a rather gruff character. He had a strong Suffolk accent and was unapologetically plain spoken. His distaste for Gladstone’s lofty oratory was matched only by his dislike of the ‘vile, black turgid’ beer of the early Victorian era, and after one particularly protracted debate he complained that, in the Commons, it often appeared that ‘black was not always black, or white always white’.

1870s housing for Westgate's workers, built by Greene, copyright Greene King

1870s housing for Westgate’s workers, built by Greene, copyright Greene King

Greene contributed regularly and forcefully to debate, and there was always a strong moral undertone to his message. He was a vociferous supporter of improving housing for the poor, believing that many dwellings were ‘unfit for a sporting dog’, and he was particularly concerned that overcrowding in agricultural labourers’ cottages led to moral decay and physical deterioration. He was careful, though, not to denigrate the agricultural labourer. In the mid-nineteenth century the general view of the rural worker in Britain was a dim one – the Morning Chronicle reported in 1850 that the agricultural labourer was a ‘physical scandal, a moral enigma, an intellectual cataleptic’ – and Greene repudiated such ‘misrepresentation’, arguing instead that labourers genuinely wanted to better themselves. He also set new standards of housing for his own workers in Bury St. Edmunds, building a number of vastly improved dwellings.

Over the course of a parliamentary career that lasted twenty-three years, Greene established himself as a notable authority on commercial matters and unlike Liberal brewers, such as the Bass family, his natural political support was not threatened by the temperance and prohibitionist movement. His brewing interests, however, remained his foremost concern. After 1868, under pressure from a rival brewer, Frederick William King, his commitment to free trade softened and he began to acquire the security of public houses tied to his Westgate brewery. In 1887 he merged companies with King, creating Greene King, which owned 150 public houses and possessed capital of over £550,000. He became the first chairman of the board of directors, an office he held until his death in 1891.

The Greene King brewery at Westgate in Bury St. Edmunds, which is open to the public, is a tangible reminder of Greene’s success (just as the beer is a palatable one), but his parliamentary career, usually overlooked, offers an important insight into the increasing diversity of Conservative MPs in the Victorian era.

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