MP of the Month: William Turner

Elected as MP for his native Blackburn in 1832, William Turner (1776-1842) was derided by his erstwhile Radical opponent, John Bowring, as having ‘had absolutely no recommendation whatever’ to enter Parliament

‘but that he had wealth, and was willing to spend it to obtain the honour of a position which he was about as fitted to fill as to quadrate the circle, to calculate an eclipse, or to give a lecture on Plato’.

A press report in 1832 was equally derogatory, dismissing Turner as ‘a low illiterate man, without any pretensions to mental qualifications’.

So why choose this obscure Lancashire manufacturer, who made only one known speech in the Commons, as our MP of the month? Firstly, he has a great story attached to him. More importantly, as Philip Salmon noted in his blog marking the 1,000th article of our 1832-68 project, studying the careers of ‘non-elite’ MPs can be particularly revealing as we seek to provide a fuller picture of the workings of the nineteenth-century Commons.

Bowring’s depiction of Turner as a wealthy man was certainly accurate. The family calico-printing business, set up in Blackburn by Turner’s father and uncles, and continued by Turner and his brothers, had made them a fortune: in 1826 Turner was rumoured to be worth £1 million. His growing wealth had enabled him to purchase a 1,700 acre estate at Shrigley in Cheshire in 1819, where he built a new mansion in 1825. The following year he was appointed as Cheshire’s high sheriff, conferring a new degree of social standing.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Turner’s year as sheriff was marred, however, by the abduction of his only surviving daughter, Ellen. Aged 15, she was lured away from her boarding school on the pretext that her mother was ill, and persuaded to marry Edward Gibbon Wakefield at Gretna Green, in the belief that Turner’s business had collapsed, and that this marriage could save him from ruin. As heiress to both her father and her uncle, Ellen was a tempting target for Wakefield, who had perpetrated a similar scheme by eloping in 1816 with a wealthy heiress, Eliza Pattle, whose family subsequently settled a sizeable sum on her. Her premature death left Wakefield free to seek another lucrative match.

Unlike Pattle’s family, Turner was determined not to acquiesce in the marriage, and sent his legal agent Thomas Grimsditch (later MP for Macclesfield) and Ellen’s uncles to pursue the newly-weds to France. Turner paid at least £10,000 to annul the marriage by Act of Parliament. Amidst great public interest Wakefield and his accomplices were tried at Lancaster assizes in 1827, when Wakefield was sentenced to three years in Newgate prison. After his release Wakefield went on to play an important part in the colonisation of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, bringing him into contact with many other MPs who we are studying in our project. Ellen married in 1828, but died only three years later.

What then of Turner’s parliamentary career? Of particular interest is the difficulty of pinning down his political allegiance. While later accounts have described him as ‘broadly Whiggish’ or ‘little more than a Liberal Conservative’ upon his election in 1832, when he benefitted from Conservative votes, Dod’s parliamentary companion for 1833 classified him as a ‘Radical Reformer’. This seemed to be confirmed by his votes in his first Parliament: he divided for the ballot and backed Radical motions which sought to abolish or curtail sinecures and pensions. He was also found in the minorities for a low fixed duty on corn and the abolition of flogging as a military punishment. Such was his parliamentary record that in December 1834 Bowring praised him as ‘an honest, straight-forward servant of the public cause’.

However, Bowring quickly reversed this verdict when, at the 1835 election, Turner encouraged his supporters to help re-elect his colleague William Feilden, who had gone over to the Conservatives, ahead of Bowring, who condemned this ‘base conduct’. Turner himself was listed by Lord Stanley as a member of the ‘Derby dilly’ willing to support the Conservatives in February 1835. Yet although he backed Peel’s ministry in votes on the address and the speakership, Turner returned to the Liberal fold in the critical vote of April 1835 on the Irish church, which brought the Conservative government down. In 1836 he wrote to correct Dod’s assessment of him as a Radical, but asserted that he was ‘always a Liberal’. However, Turner was said to have kept company with notable Radicals such as John Fielden, George Grote and Thomas Duncombe, and was found in the minorities in favour of considering the Chartist petition and against the new poor law in July 1839. Yet his political position remained far from clear-cut: one observer in 1841 even suggested that he might be considered among the ‘very liberal Tories’, although he divided with the Melbourne ministry in a confidence vote that June. Analysis of Turner’s parliamentary career provides a useful reminder of the fluidity of party allegiances during this period, and the consequent difficulty of ascribing fixed party labels to particular individuals.

Turner’s political career ended in disappointment. Having initially decided against seeking re-election for a third time in 1841, due to ‘increasing infirmities’ and the recent death of his wife, he was persuaded to stand again, but lost to a Conservative by just one vote. He petitioned for a scrutiny of the result, but was unsuccessful. This failed attempt to regain his seat was said to have resulted in ‘a broken and wounded spirit’ and ‘a broken heart, for which medicine was no avail’, and he died in July 1842.

Further reading:

  • Turner’s full History of Parliament biography can be accessed on our preview site.
  • K.M. Atkinson, Abduction. The story of Ellen Turner (2002)
  • A. Ashby & A. Jones, The Shrigley abduction (2003)
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