There are always some MPs who defy convention and become something of an institution in the House. Many are respected, even fêted, for their idiosyncracy. Some though, for one reason or another, find themselves the object of derision and contempt. The ludicrously named William Hughes Hughes, MP for Oxford from 1830-37, was said to have been ‘one of the most thoroughly unpopular of all the Members’. Originally a trainee solicitor, he had changed his name from Hughes Hewitt on inheriting a vast fortune from his grandfather, a Clapham property speculator and landlord, in 1825. A brief spell as a barrister followed, before he abandoned the law to concentrate on becoming an MP.
Elected for the notoriously corrupt borough of Oxford on his second attempt in 1830, Hughes Hughes is reckoned to have haemorrhaged over £70,000 on electioneering in the city by 1837 (much of it on ale and ‘treating’). This was a massive financial outlay from which his wallet never recovered. An ‘independent’ Member, who began his career supporting parts of the Whig reform bill but then drifted towards the Tories, Hughes Hughes managed to upset both camps with his swings from one side to another. According to another Oxford MP, he was ‘a political apostate, veering with every puff of wind that blew, the execration of all’. But it was his disregard for the conventions of the House and his attention-seeking stunts which really rankled. His incessant attempts to speak using (banned) notes, were often ‘the signal for general uproar’ in the chamber. As the parliamentary reporter James Grant recalled:
The moment he pronounced the word “Sir”, addressing himself of course to the Speaker, he was assailed with the most tremendous uproar and confusion. Such a variety of sounds, and so discordant, hardly ever before greeted mortal ear … One honourable member near the bar repeatedly called out “Read” (to the member endeavouring to address the House) in an exceedingly bass and hoarse sound of voice. At repeated intervals a sort of drone-like humming, having almost the sound of a distant hand-organ or bagpipes, issued from the back benches: coughing, sneezing, and ingeniously extended yawning, blended with the other sounds, and produced a tout ensemble which we have never heard excelled in the House. A single voice … imitated very accurately the yelp of a kennelled hound … Not far from the same spot issued sounds marvellously resembling the bleating of a sheep, blended occasionally with an admirable imitation of the braying of an ass … The deafening uproar was completed by the cries of “Chair, chair!” “Order, order!”, groans, laughter etc. which proceeded from all parts.
It was the destruction of Parliament by fire in 1834 that brought Hughes Hughes to national attention. The ‘first MP on the spot’, he was instrumental in rescuing ‘a large quantity of the private papers and most valuable property of the Speaker’ as well as ‘the books, pictures, and beautiful tapestry in the library and levee rooms’, along with (apparently) a ‘chimney piece’ . Initially mistaken in the press for Joseph Hume MP, who arrived slightly later, he lost no time in amending the newspaper reports of what had happened and publishing a letter of thanks from the Speaker praising his ‘most energetic’ exertions. Charles Dickens, then a parliamentary reporter, wryly recounted the episode in his Sketches by Boz:
He, and the celebrated fireman’s dog, were observed to be remarkably active at the conflagration of the two Houses of Parliament – they both ran up and down, and in and out, getting under people’s feet, and into everybody’s way, fully impressed with the belief that they were doing a great deal of good, and barking tremendously. The dog went quietly back to his kennel with the engine, but the gentleman kept up such an incessant noise for some weeks after the occurrence, that he became a positive nuisance. As no more parliamentary fires have occurred, however, and as he has consequently had no more opportunities of writing to the newspapers to relate how, by way of preserving pictures he cut them out of their frames, and performed other great national services, he has gradually relapsed into his old state of calmness and obscurity.
Hughes Hughes was soon embroiled in another public spat over his voting intentions on the speakership, after he reversed his decision to support the Liberal candidate. ‘We never relied for an instant on his vote’, declared the Liberal press. ‘He is one of those essentially unimportant persons who strive to make themselves of temporary consequence on such occasions … He also seems to think, that because he saved some of the Speaker’s furniture in the late fire, he is bound to vote against Mr. Abercromby. It is evident that Mr. Hughes is no every day logician’.
Hughes Hughes, clearly by now a marked man, lost his seat at the 1837 election to ‘a nominee of Joseph Parkes and the London Reform Club’. A subsequent attempt to stand as a Conservative in 1841 had to be abandoned due to lack of support. His efforts to restore his finances by speculating in railway shares backfired disastrously in the 1840s, and when he died in 1874 he was worth a mere £300.
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