On St. David’s Day, there could be no more fitting choice for our blog than a record-breaking Welsh MP. Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, the ‘Father of the House’, died in January 1890 after almost sixty years of unbroken service representing Glamorgan. The only nineteenth century MP to surpass this record was his successor as Father of the House, Charles Pelham Villiers. Talbot also held another distinction: at the time of his death he was one of only two sitting MPs who had served in the Commons before the 1832 Reform Act, the other being the Irish parliamentarian The O’Gorman Mahon, who died the following year.
Given the length of his parliamentary career, it may seem surprising that Talbot was virtually silent in debate, especially as one obituary recorded that he was ‘a clever and ready speaker’. An apocryphal story suggested that he spoke only once, to ask someone to close a window because of a draught. The truth is less amusing: he did indeed make only one known speech in the Commons chamber, but this was a brief remark on the Dublin corporation water bill in 1861. He served on a number of select committees, but was not particularly active in this sphere.
Talbot was, however, a powerful presence in his native Glamorgan, the constituency for which he was first elected in 1830. The county’s largest landowner, he constructed a new mansion for himself at Margam (right) and played a leading role in the development of Port Talbot. Astute railway investments added to his colossal wealth, and he was reputed to have been the richest commoner in Britain, worth an estimated £6 million at the time of his death.
A cousin of the pioneering photographer William Henry Fox Talbot – who briefly joined him in the Commons – Talbot encouraged his cousin’s experiments and pursued a wide range of interests himself. He was a talented mathematician, chess-player and musician. Yachting was a particular passion, but his wagers on races against fellow members of the Royal Yacht Squadron did not always pay off: in 1834 he was said to have lost £50,000 in a race against Lord Belfast. Undaunted by the fact that he had never learnt to swim, in 1859 he waded into the surf at Kenfig sands to help rescue the crew of the Sunda. His heroism earned him the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s silver medal, apparently the only MP ever awarded this honour.
Talbot was a lifelong Liberal, but differed from his party on two key questions. He opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws, although he was absent from the major votes on this question in 1846, as he was in Malta with his ailing wife. In 1886 he divided against the second reading of Gladstone’s Home Rule bill, but he remained loyal to his party leader and was re-elected that year for Mid Glamorgan (a seat created when the county was divided in 1885) with the support of his constituency’s Liberal association. Despite not being the most active of MPs, Talbot was fond of parliamentary life. He told Gladstone in 1869, when he declined the offer of a peerage, that ‘long habits and many friendships have made the House of Commons to me almost a home, and one which I could not quit without regret’. In the event, it was only death which ended his connection with the House.
Suggested further reading:
- J.V. Hughes, The wealthiest commoner: C.R.M. Talbot (1803-1890) (1977)
- T.M. Campbell, ‘C.R.M. Talbot (1803-1890): a Welsh landowner in politics and industry’, Morgannwg (2000)
- Talbot’s biography from the History of Parliament’s 1820-32 volumes can be accessed here.
- For details on how to access his biography on our 1832-68 preview site, see here.