Wyndham Lewis (1780-1838) is probably best remembered today for bankrolling the future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s election to Parliament. Lewis’s wife Mary, an aspiring society hostess with an eye for younger men, had taken a shine to Disraeli and adopted him as her ‘political pet’. In 1837 Lewis agreed not only to let Disraeli stand alongside him as a Conservative in the two-member constituency of Maidstone, where he had been one of the MPs since 1835, but also advanced all the money to cover Disraeli’s expenses.
Given Disraeli’s precarious finances and previous election defeats, including two failed candidatures as a ‘radical’, the opportunity to stand for a safe seat and share the political platform with an established Tory was a godsend both practically and politically. Lewis and Disraeli’s jointly published address – still something of an innovation in the 1830s – stressed their support for the ‘Protestant Constitution’ and opposition to the ‘heartless’ New Poor Law with its attack on the ‘English poor’. After spending almost £5,000, much of it on bribing Maidstone’s notoriously venal freemen, Lewis and Disraeli were elected with comfortable majorities.
Mrs Lewis’s marriage to Disraeli following her husband’s death in 1838 has made the name of Wyndham Lewis a familiar one. Lewis himself, however, remains a curiously neglected figure. Indeed, for someone who appears so frequently in the footnotes of Victorian political history, surprisingly little has been written about him.
One immediately striking feature about Lewis was his non-élite background and willingness to chart his own political course. The fourth son of a Welsh clergymen, Lewis had begun his working life in 1798 as a solicitor’s clerk. By 1808 he had progressed to running his own country practice at Pentyrch, near Cardiff. The death of a childless uncle two years later transformed his life, making him and his brother major shareholders in the Dowlais Ironworks, run by Josiah John Guest MP. As well as taking the opportunity to read for the bar, Lewis began to work closely with Guest on finance and contracts, a field in which he evidently excelled. The company prospered, eventually becoming the world’s largest ironworks and earning the partners huge profits. Aided by his new wealth, in 1820 Lewis was elected as an ‘independent’ MP for Cardiff – one of growing band of industrialists and businessmen to secure election to the Commons before the 1832 Reform Act. However, he soon found himself at odds with Cardiff’s leading patron and embroiled in controversy for ‘abusing’ his position as an MP, after securing lucrative contracts for Dowlais and blocking industrial pollution controls.
Despite spending freely at elections in both Camelford and Maidstone in 1826, Lewis was unable to secure another seat until 1827, when he was brought in for Aldeburgh by a leading Tory MP in return for party support. Unwilling to back the Tory ministry’s concession of Catholic emancipation in 1829, however, he resigned. Thereafter Lewis concentrated on building up his own personal electoral interest at Maidstone. Standing there as a Conservative in 1832, he lost on account of bribery by the Radicals, as he believed. Determined not to be outgunned again, he continued to lavish money on the constituency and its fledgling Conservative societies and was elected with ease in 1835. By 1837 he was effectively the borough’s patron, able to return himself and whomsoever he pleased.
Lewis’s decision to back Disraeli, his wife’s ‘parliamentary protégé’, illustrates another revealing aspect of his career: the political influence exercised by his wife. Like his business partner Guest, Lewis had married a woman who was politically aware and active, most conspicuously at election time with canvassing and campaigning, but also generally behind the scenes. With Lewis, however, it may have gone further. His estranged son-in-law claimed that Lewis ‘was so completely under petticoat government, that he would not dare to vote on any question in the House of Commons without the sanction of his wife!’ Maidstone’s electors, he asserted, were ‘being represented, de facto, in the British Legislature by a woman!’
The same son-in-law also accused Wyndham of having two illegitimate children (both of whom appear to have been provided for in Lewis’s will) and Mary of ‘flagitious behaviour’ with other men. Mrs. Lewis’s affairs have indeed been the subject of much historical speculation. However, there is no doubting the genuine feeling that existed between the couple, as the affectionate notes and keepsakes of hair collected by Mary following Wyndham’s death in 1838 amply testify. Eighteen months after being widowed Mrs Lewis married Disraeli, twelve years her junior, and began funding his political career. She was rewarded with the rare honour of a peerage in her own right four years before her own death in 1872.
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