For historians of the Victorian House of Commons, there is perhaps no richer source for throwing light on the political personalities of the day than the journals and diaries of nineteenth-century Members of Parliament. Although Sir Robert Heron (1765-1854), who sat for Grimsby from 1812 to 1818 and for Peterborough from 1819 to 1847, was described by a contemporary as ‘a somewhat obscure … Whig’, his eclectic Notes, first published in 1850, offer a fascinating insight into one backbencher’s views of not only some of the most prominent Victorian politicians, but also the culture of the Commons during the age of Reform.
Heron made little impact in the Commons, but this was absolutely his intention. In an age that witnessed a significant increase in the time that the Commons devoted to MPs’ speeches, Heron stood as an important reminder that some politicians still believed in the virtues of silence. He thought that the time of the reformed House was ‘eternally wasted in the most futile and idle manner’, and he was unimpressed by his fellow members, who were ‘almost all seized with the rage for speaking, and persevere in making all sorts of motions – many very absurd – to the interruption of the most important measures’. He thus largely refrained from speaking in debate, preferring to record his opinions in his diary, which would form the basis of his published Notes.
His diary entries make clear his vehement opposition to Conservative politicians. The Speaker of the House, Charles Manners Sutton, had ‘slender abilities’, while Sir Robert Peel was a man of ‘no talents’ who sought ‘neither to disguise his despotism, nor conciliate his supporters’. He had greater faith in Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister, praising his ‘temper and discretion’, but doubted the capabilities of Lord Althorp, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1830 to 1834, who had ‘not sufficient talents or vigour for his situation’. He therefore had little faith in his political leaders, who in turn seemed to have taken little notice of him.
Heron published his Notes in 1850, three years after he had retired from public life. For contemporary readers looking for scurrilous observations on the political elite, there was plenty to satisfy, though Heron’s political commentary was unfortunately punctuated by rather prosaic observations on his ‘menagerie’ of exotic animals kept on his Stubton estate, near Grantham. John Wilson Croker, whom Heron had described as ‘one of the most determined jobbers’, savaged the work in the Quarterly Review, describing it as a ‘farrago of nonsense and libel’ written by a ‘crazy simpleton’. More wryly, the historian Thomas Macaulay merely hoped that Heron was ‘a better zoologist than politician’.
A fantastic resource for political historians (and perhaps anyone interested in exotic animals), the second edition (1851) of Heron’s Notes is available on Google Books. His lengthy parliamentary service means that biographies of him covering the different phases of his career can be found in the History of Parliament’s 1790-1820 volumes, its 1820-32 volumes and on our 1832-1868 preview site. For details of how to access the 1832-1868 preview site, click here.