Michael Thomas Bass (1799-1884) was one of Victorian Britain’s most successful businessmen, but as this blog shows, he was also a highly effective MP. Taking over the management of his family’s Burton-on-Trent brewery in 1827, he converted the firm of Bass, Ratcliff and Gretton into the largest brewery in the world. His firm pioneered the lighter Burton ales that became increasingly popular in the Victorian period, and exploited the development of the railways to reduce transport costs and expand their market. He also developed Indian Pale Ale to appeal to the large market in the subcontinent. He successfully challenged the supremacy of the traditional London breweries in the metropolis. Such was the brewery’s renown that an 1884 biography noted that Bass was ‘a household word amongst Englishmen’, with the red triangular logo as ‘familiar to the eye as Her Majesty’s visage on the postage stamps’. In his budget speech of 10 June 1880, the Liberal prime minister William Gladstone praised Bass’s ‘ability and his long experience and skill’ displayed through his brewing career.
Bass’s immense wealth allowed him to be a generous patron of Burton but also Derby, which he represented as a Liberal MP from 1848 until 1883, funding a library, two churches, a public baths and a recreation ground. While he remained a popular MP in Derby, Bass was less successful when trying to lead opposition to Conservative MPs in Staffordshire. His attempts on one occasion prompted Joseph Parkes the influential Liberal election agent, to comment that ‘Bass is an excellent & active Liberal, but his judgment in politics is not as good as in ale-brewing. He is more at home in the latter business than in the former’.
Of course Bass could not rival the electioneering prowess of Parkes, but he proved to be a highly effective parliamentarian. Bass was one of the industrious, hard-working back-benchers who were, in many respects, the unsung heroes of the mid-Victorian Commons. These MPs, often businessmen, brought great expertise to the House, prided themselves on their common sense, and expressed themselves sparingly in debate. Bass himself complained that windy parliamentary oratory was ‘unbusiness-like’. With characteristic bluntness he told other MPs that ‘unless a man had something to say which the House had not heard before, he should hold his tongue’. He only spoke on matters on which he was knowledgeable, such as malt duty, which he argued should be reduced and then repealed in 1851. His trade knowledge and mastery of statistics made him an authority on such issues.
In Bass’s view, much of the most important work was done outside the Commons chamber. He commented on one occasion that he regularly stayed at Westminster from midday until two o’clock in the morning working on ‘public business’. This was at the same time as he was actively running one of Britain’s most successful enterprises. He remained a regular attender and a well-informed and active committee man. For example, on the 1857 inquiry into hop duties, he frequently intervened to probe and correct witnesses. In his photographic portrait taken for the House of Commons Library in the 1860s, Bass projected a self-image as a hard-working, diligent backbench MP. He was pictured swivelling away from a desk, clutching papers in his hand. While these were generic props in contemporary portrait photography, in Bass’s case they implied his attentiveness in answering correspondence and reading official papers.
Bass’s main legislative achievement, which earned him a reputation for eccentricity, was the 1864 Street Music Act. This introduced fines to discourage the spread of Italian organ grinders in London. While the measure was gently mocked by Punch, Bass received the enthusiastic support of the metropolitan literati, who regarded street musicians as a disruptive nuisance.
Given the climate of the time it was easy for Bass to reconcile his economic interests and his political allegiance. His sons, Michael Arthur Bass, MP for Stafford and later East Staffordshire, and Hamar, MP for Tamworth, were to find the position of being a Liberal brewer more problematic given the growth of temperance and prohibitionist sentiment among local Liberal activists in the later nineteenth century. They ultimately resolved the tension between political and commercial pressures by joining the Liberal Unionists, Hamar in 1886 and Michael in 1894, eight years after being ennobled as 1st Baron Burton.
For details of how to access Bass’s full History of Parliament biography from our preview site, see here.
T.R. Gourvish and R.G. Wilson, The British brewing industry, 1830-1980 (1994).
C.C. Owen, ‘The greatest brewery in the world’: a history of Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton (1992).
Fortunes made in business, vol. II (1884), 408-50.
R. Wilson, ‘Bass, Michael Thomas (1799-1884)’, www.oxforddnb.com