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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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Martin Spychal, ‘One of the best men of business we had ever met': Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act

Kathryn Rix:

Our PhD student Martin Spychal (on an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and the Institute of Historical Research) shares some of his research on the 1831-2 boundary commission, an undertaking of great significance for our project.

Originally posted on The History of Parliament:

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, Martin Spychal, holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and Institute of Historical Research, gave a paper on Thomas Drummond and the 1832 Reform Act. Here Martin gives an overview of his paper…

Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh

Thomas Drummond is best known for his invention of a portable limelight device (which would illuminate the world of nineteenth-century theatre) and his tireless efforts as Under-Secretary for Ireland between 1835 and 1840, which would contribute to his premature death at the age of 43. Comparatively less is known about his work supervising the English and Welsh borough boundary commission for the Grey ministry between August 1831 and September 1832. This is something of an anomaly given that so much historical ink has been spilled over Britain’s first Reform Act. Whereas Whig reforms to the…

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‘He has wasted all the affections of my poor heart’: Jane Welsh Carlyle and George Rennie MP

Two years ago our Valentine’s Day blog featured the youthful romance between Jane Austen and Thomas Lefroy. Austen had died long before Lefroy entered the House of Commons in 1830 as MP for Dublin University. In today’s blog, we look at the more enduring relationship between another pair of erstwhile suitors: George Rennie, Liberal MP for Ipswich, 1841-2, and Jane Welsh, who married the essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1826. Rennie had been one of her suitors in their native Haddingtonshire in the early 1820s, but in January 1822, Jane wrote that ‘he has wasted all the affections of my poor heart – and now there is not the vestige of a flirt about me’.

Jane Welsh Carlyle

Jane Welsh Carlyle

Despite her disappointment, Jane remained in contact with Rennie during what was, even by the standards of Victorian parliamentarians, an eclectic career. She was a prolific letter-writer, and although often tinged with bitterness, her candid observations provide telling insights into Rennie’s character which cannot be gleaned from official records or the somewhat anodyne obituaries published in the press.

Rennie was the son and namesake of George Rennie, a noted exponent of agricultural improvement, and the nephew of the renowned civil engineer John Rennie. However, he chose an entirely different career, leaving Scotland in 1822 to study sculpture in Italy. Jane Welsh predicted that ‘this fatal liberty that his too indulgent Father allows him can lead only to ruin’, but demonstrated some vestiges of affection, reflecting that ‘false’ and ‘heartless as he is, I tremble to think on all the dangers … to which he is about to be exposed’. She noted sardonically that the sculptors Francis Chantrey and Samuel Joseph ‘have cruelly told him he has a genius for it—and who is unwilling to believe himself a genius?’

George Rennie

George Rennie

Rennie confounded Jane’s expectations: following his return to England in 1828 after several years’ study on the Continent, he produced his best-known sculpture, The Archer, and became a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy. In 1834 he carved a series of bas-reliefs for the Bank of England’s dividend office. Meeting him again that year, Jane described him as ‘a grave handsome, man … much improved by age, in appearance, manner, and also I think in character’, but ‘still self-willed and vain enough to show me as often as I see him that I made an escape’.

Although sculpture seemed an unlikely preparation for a political career, Rennie’s interest in improving the arts in England brought him into contact with MPs including William Ewart and Joseph Hume, and he gave evidence to several parliamentary inquiries on the subject. At the 1837 general election he initially came forward as a candidate for Hull, but withdrew from a crowded field. He stood instead for Beverley, a notoriously corrupt borough, alongside another Reformer, James Clay. They were defeated, in part because, as one election squib complained:

‘Rennie and Clay,

Will never pay,

For Clay and Rennie,

Aren’t worth a penny’.

After abandoning his candidature at Kidderminster in 1841 because he would not countenance corruption, Rennie offered for Ipswich, where his Liberal colleague promised that they would win ‘on purity principles’. This did not prove to be the case, for although they were victorious, they were unseated on petition due to bribery undertaken by their agents. Rennie later confessed ‘with shame and regret’ that ‘I lost my virtue’ at Ipswich.

Rennie directed his energies elsewhere, drafting a plan in 1842 for a new settlement in New Zealand. Advising a relative whose son thought of getting involved, Jane Carlyle cautioned that

‘any adventure which George Rennie is at the head of would need to be looked at on both sides… tho’ a clever and enterprising man, [he] has some want of perseverance or other want in him which hinders his ever succeeding in any business he undertakes, besides I do not like his principles of action which are all for his own vulgar aggrandisement’.

Although Rennie pursued extensive correspondence with the New Zealand Company and the Colonial Secretary in an effort to get his plans off the ground, Jane’s forecast of failure proved accurate. In 1845 he was ousted from the project by fellow Scots who were keen to promote an exclusively Free Church settlement. However, Rennie still deserves some of the credit for initiating what eventually became Dunedin.

After deciding not to stand again at Ipswich in 1847, Rennie was appointed governor of the Falkland Islands, where his successes included improving its agriculture to remove its dependence on rations from England, and seeing off American incursions on its fisheries and coastline.

When he arrived back in London with his family in 1856, Rennie again came into contact with the Carlyles, and Thomas Carlyle noted that he

‘was well worth talking to on his Falkland or other experiences: a man of sternly sound common-sense… of strict veracity… [who] had swallowed manfully his many bitter disappointments’.

Jane’s assessment of Rennie was rather less generous, writing in 1859 that ‘great ambition and small perseverance have brought him a succession of disappointments and mortifications which have embittered a temper naturally none of the best!’ She added, though, that ‘in spite of all this, I am always glad to meet George, for the sake of dear old long ago; and if he is not glad to meet me, he is at least still very fond of me, I am sure’. Their continued closeness was shown by the fact that Jane helped Rennie’s wife to tend him on his death-bed in 1860.

Rennie’s biography is among those currently being written for our 1832-68 volumes. For details of how to access our draft articles, see here.

The quotations from Jane Carlyle’s correspondence come from the excellent Carlyle Letters Online project.

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New book: Politics Personified

9780719090844img01One of our former Research Fellows on the 1832-68 project, Dr. Henry Miller, has just published his first book, with Manchester University Press, entitled Politics Personified: Portraiture, Caricature and Visual Culture, 1830-1880. He shares some of the key insights from the book in this blog:

Politics Personified examines the remarkable popularity and cultural resonance of political portraiture and likenesses during the 1830 to 1880 period. Utilizing a variety of interdisciplinary methods, the book analyses a huge and diverse range of visual and material culture, including photography, prints, ceramics, banners, coins and tokens, sculpture and paintings. These sources shed new light on a number of long-standing historiographical debates including the 1832 Reform Act, the development of party politics and parliamentary government, the popularity of radicalism, and the careers of leading politicians such as Lord Palmerston. In all these ways, the book explores how visual culture shaped public perceptions of politics and politicians in a pre-democratic era distinguished by vibrant popular politics and an expanding media.

The development of new visual technologies, such as steel and wood engraving, lithography and photography, meant that massive quantities of images could be produced by the mid-nineteenth century. Surprisingly perhaps, the overwhelming majority of political likenesses were produced commercially for a paying audience. Portraits of politicians were eagerly awaited by the public and the press and carefully scrutinized for the quality of their likenesses and what they revealed about their character.

Statue of James Oswald MP, George Square, Glasgow

Statue of James Oswald MP, George Square, Glasgow

Portraiture was the dominant mode of visualizing Victorian politics. Georgian-style caricature fizzled out in the 1830s, while portraiture was better suited to an era when Parliament and politicians were viewed respectfully and positively. MPs were frequently depicted as independent representatives, and on their retirement or death, their public service was often commemorated through statues or portraits funded through public subscription by their constituents.

Political likenesses, I argue, fulfilled a number of important roles. Firstly, they allowed people to express and reaffirm their political identity through the public or private display of individual likenesses. Series of individual likenesses were produced by the mighty movements of the time like Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League to project broad, diverse yet coherent political identities to supporters and the wider public.

Secondly, portraits, particularly group portraits, formed broader narratives linking the past, present and future. For example, George Hayter’s The House of Commons, 1833 (NPG 54, 1833-43) presented a Whiggish narrative of peaceful constitutional progress achieved by an enlightened aristocratic elite.

Thirdly, political likenesses clearly addressed a very real need for people to ‘see’ those who sought political leadership in a pre-democratic era. When the Birmingham mayor Joseph Chamberlain was about to stand for Sheffield in the 1870s he was informed by a local that ‘people are anxious to see what you are like’. It was suggested that the ignorance about Chamberlain in the constituency could be countered through publicly displaying photographs of him in shops. In an era obsessed with the ‘character’ of public figures, likenesses seemed to offer unique personal insights into individual politicians, which could be accessed through the intuitive folk wisdom of physiognomy.

Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston

Fourthly, likenesses were an important form of communication and means of constructing public images of politicians. For example, in the 1850s the prime minister Lord Palmerston was frequently portrayed as younger than his seventy-odd years in cartoons and portraits, projecting an image of vigorous manliness in contrast to his rivals. Even photographs of Palmerston, which portrayed his age more accurately, seemed to preserve the ‘old jaunty air’ that had been characteristic of earlier pictorial representations.

Politicians could influence their portrayal in visual media through controlling access to sittings and their interaction with artists and publishers. A good example of this would be the Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli. Early images of Disraeli in the 1830s and 1840s presented him either as a dandyish, Romantic writer (reflecting his career as a novelist) or he was caricatured in anti-Semitic cartoons. To counter this, Disraeli rationed the number of sittings he gave and cultivated an impassive, sober appearance, with restrained gestures, in later portraits, thus exercising a degree of control over his public image.

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli

Overall, the book highlights the profound importance of visual forms of political communication as well as print and oratory and the relationship between portraiture and political identity. More specifically the book engages with a number of historical debates around popular and elite politics in this period. I hope that the book stimulates further discussion, debate and research.

For more information about the book, see here.

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‘So tall, so handsome!’: William Henry Hyett, MP, athlete, philanthropist, teacher and poet

As the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo approaches, one is reminded of the significant number of MPs who participated in that famous feat of arms. Although our MP of the month, William Henry Hyett (1795-1877), had only a tangential connection to the battle, he was nevertheless a man who many thought ‘born to lead … [and] command’. Blessed with both a keen intellect and physical prowess, he went on to achieve personal feats of endurance and make important contributions to public life,  though most of these lay outside Parliament.

Hyett was born William Henry Adams in Shrewsbury, the eldest son of an Anglican clergyman whose family had long been involved in the Shropshire iron trade. After spending two years as a gentleman commoner at Oxford University, Hyett departed in 1815 for the Continent where he was among the first civilians to view the aftermath of Waterloo, visiting the field of battle, it was said, ‘before the burial of the dead was completed’. After spending three months in Paris during the allied occupation of the city he visited Switzerland and Italy, and in 1819 travelled via Albania (where he visited the notoriously stern governor, Ali Pasha) to Athens, before proceeding across ‘the plains of Troy’ to the Dardenelles. A handsome man with ‘clear but genial eyes’ and a mouth ‘firm as iron’, Hyett stood 6’ 1” and was said to have had a ‘superb physique’. He accomplished the feat of swimming the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos in under two hours, taking the route attributed to the mythical Leander, (Lord Byron having followed only ‘the short course’ in 1810). He returned to England by way of Constantinople, Vienna and Geneva, where he swam a potentially hazardous two mile route across the lake. He brought with him as his courier Teodoro Maiocchi, who subsequently caused a public scandal after perjuring himself at the trial of Queen Caroline.

Painswick House, Gloucestershire, home of William Henry Hyett

Painswick House, Gloucestershire, home of William Henry Hyett

By this time Hyett was a man of property, having inherited estates in Gloucestershire from his father’s cousin in 1813, when he had adopted the name of Hyett. In 1821 he married a daughter of a Bristol merchant, with whom he enjoyed fifty-six years of wedded life, and settled on his estate near Painswick, once described as the ‘Queen of the Cotswolds’. In addition to making significant improvements to his house there, he became a member of Gloucester corporation, an alderman, and in 1829 the mayor of that city.

Hyett had been privately tutored in Edinburgh and spent two summers at the home of Francis Jeffrey, a renowned editor of the Edinburgh Review who later framed the Scottish Reform Act. From Jeffrey he imbibed ‘Whig principles’ during extensive walking tours in the Scottish Highlands and by espousing these values he won a seat at the 1832 general election for the newly enfranchised two-member borough of Stroud, then an important centre of the woollen industry.

Hyett’s potentially ‘brilliant’ parliamentary career was, however, hindered by what some regarded as ‘his high tone of principle’, which made him unsuited to party discipline. Convinced that the reformed Commons had fallen prey to ‘a species of legislative Quixotism’, he condemned what he regarded as its hasty remedies for ‘partial abuses’ made regardless of the danger to society in general, and claimed that too many MPs suffered from a ‘mania for making little laws for little occasions’. His only major speech was directed against the factory reform bill in July 1833, when he questioned why the measure had been restricted to the textile industry, thus ignoring the plight of children employed in the ‘much more injurious’ manufacture of iron, lead and copper. His preference for a gradual abolition of slavery also raised concern in his constituency, where Nonconformity was strong and anti-slavery feeling was particularly intense. Reluctant to ‘answer tamely’ to the government whip, and increasingly alienated from the Radicals, who he believed had cynically encouraged ‘extravagant expectations’ for short-term political gains, he retired in 1835, subsequently abandoning the Whigs for the Conservatives.

All the same, Hyett was a man of great and varied abilities and remained prominent in the affairs of Gloucestershire, where he became known as the ‘Squire’. His experiments with the use of chemicals to improve the colour and durability of wood earned him a Fellowship of the Royal Society, and he built two new schools in his neighbourhood, where he not only taught mechanical drawing but also imported mathematical instruments to aid instruction, and installed a carpenter’s shop and printing press. In 1856 he helped to establish an asylum at Barnwood, where with characteristic thoroughness he boarded for some weeks to satisfy himself that the institution was conducted satisfactorily. In 1866 he founded the Gloucestershire Eye Institution Hospital, principally established to deal with ocular diseases and injuries suffered by local textile operatives.

A talented composer of verse and an accomplished linguist, Hyett produced well-regarded translations of the works of Horace, Goethe and Victor Hugo. In the last year of his life he even prepared a chart containing a list of remedies for use in cases of accident or poisoning, where medical help was unavailable. He died at Painswick after a severe attack of bronchitis in March 1877 and was buried in the local cemetery.

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Victorian Political Memorabilia

One of the many eye-openers of this project has been the sheer amount of political memorabilia produced by the Victorians. British politics has of course always been associated with satirical prints and various forms of commemorative art. However, the volume and range of political material that became available in the nineteenth century was unique and unprecedented. Aided by advances in manufacturing, and the sort of popular interest in politics that enabled rival publications of parliamentary debates to be sold commercially, a popular mass market in political memorabilia emerged during the Victorian era, catering for almost every taste and pocket.

The best known items today remain the cartoons, especially the soft satires of HB (John Doyle), Punch and Vanity Fair. These have long been a staple of the political historian’s study wall (and book cover). The celebratory items produced to mark the 1832 Reform Act have also acquired a sort of iconic status – so much so that much of the pottery from this period is usually referred to as ‘reformware’.

reform-jugs-pictureIn recent years this and other ‘material culture’ associated with the various reform acts of the nineteenth century has been the subject of a number of significant studies.

P1000052

Stockport Municipal Reform Jug 1836

HoP242

1835 Coventry Municipal Reform Medal

Alongside these better known cartoons and reformware, however, there was also an expanding industry in lesser political trinkets and domestic ceramics and objet d’art, which also helped to bring politics into everyone’s home. One of the more surprising features to emerge from our constituency studies (and email inquiries) is the extent to which local political events were routinely commemorated, either by enterprising producers or via political subscriptions. The jugs and medallions made to celebrate municipal reform, for instance, suggest that at least in some boroughs the introduction of an elected town council was a far more significant event than the rather amorphous passage of reform at Westminster. This would certainly fit with the findings of John A. Phillips on this subject in his pioneering book The Reform Bill in the Boroughs (1992).

A similar emphasis on locality is suggested by depictions of local MPs on ceramics and coins issued to mark national occasions. The range of items produced to mark political achievements other than reform, such as the repeal of the corn laws, is also extremely revealing.

P1000056

Corn Law Jug 1846, Dundee Reform Plate 1832, Bolton Reform Jug 1868

In the next few weeks our former colleague Dr Henry Miller (University of Manchester) will be blogging about how visual imagery helped to reshape Victorian politics, both at the popular and parliamentary level. His new book Politics Personified: Portraiture, Caricature and Visual Culture in Britain, c. 1830-80 adds very significantly to a growing body of innovative work on this important subject. In the meantime, please keep the inquiries about any Victorian political curios you come across coming in!

Further reading:

J. Carlisle, Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain (2012)

R. Gaunt, ‘Robert Peel: portraiture and political commemoration’, The Historian (2012), 22-6

S. Morgan, ‘Material culture and the politics of personality in early Victorian England’, Journal of Victorian Culture, xvii (2012), 127-46.

G. Pentland, M. Nixon and M. Roberts, ‘The Material Culture of Scottish Reform Politics, c. 1820 – c. 1884’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, xxxii (2012), 28-49.

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