‘I am not in a position of life in which our Members usually are’: William Wood (1816-71), MP for Pontefract

The Lib-Lab MPs Thomas Burt and Alexander Macdonald, both miners who were elected to the Commons at the 1874 general election, are generally regarded as the first working men to enter Parliament. As we continue our research for the 1832-68 project, it is becoming clear that while Burt and Macdonald may have been the first ‘labour’ representatives at Westminster, there were MPs before 1868 who had similarly humble roots. These self-made men form a particularly interesting group, and one of them, William Wood, who sat as Liberal MP for Pontefract from 1857 until 1859, is the focus of this month’s blog.

When invited to stand for his native borough in 1857, Wood initially professed reluctance, on the grounds that ‘I am not in a position of life in which our Members usually are’. Having agreed to come forward, his election address emphasised his humble origins, describing himself as ‘a native and resident elector … who can be fairly classed as a working man’. Wood was the son of a small shopkeeper, and, in contrast with the vast number of MPs who attended Oxford or Cambridge universities, he ‘received his mechanical education in a mechanics’ institute’. It was his practical abilities and his genius for invention which enabled Wood’s rise. In 1838 he left Pontefract to become the resident managing partner of the Wilton carpet manufactory, where he began what he described as ‘a mechanical revolution’. He took out numerous patents for improvements in the manufacture of carpets, devoting himself in particular to the problem of how to apply steam power to carpet-weaving. In 1855 he exhibited a version of his loom at the Paris Exhibition, where it won a first class medal. Wood improved his financial position by selling the rights to his inventions to the Halifax carpet manufacturer, John Crossley.

1855 Paris Exhibition

1855 Paris Exhibition

Wood had returned to live in Pontefract in 1851, and was keen to share the fruits of his success with his fellow townspeople. In December 1855 he and his second wife (who had formerly been his servant) distributed sums of 2s. 6d. and 5s. to 900 local families, who returned their thanks by presenting Mrs. Wood with a silver cream jug. Wood had larger plans for benevolence, hoping to set up a ‘model factory’ in Pontefract, with organised homes for workers, which would provide employment for ‘female orphans, the deaf and dumb, and the destitute generally’. This scheme, in which he claimed to have invested £10,000, never bore fruit, and his political opponents alleged that it was ‘a mere bubble affair’, designed to curry favour with Pontefract’s electors, although they offered no evidence for this.

At the 1857 election, Wood agreed to stand for Pontefract on condition that he would ‘be allowed to devote as much time as could properly be spared from national public duties to the local interests of the town’. He described his political views as ‘liberal but not partisan’, declaring in plain terms his support for ‘such measures as are based upon common sense, and the principle of doing unto others as we would they should do unto us’. His sympathies for the working classes were demonstrated when he argued for meritocracy in the civil service and the armed forces, so that ‘every man, rich or poor, shall have a fair field and no favour’. He also advocated reforms of taxation, remarking that ‘I cannot see the justice of taxing the poor man on nearly everything he eats and drinks, and allowing the rich man’s property to go free’. He supported ‘a large extension of the franchise’ and the introduction of the secret ballot. Despite his admitted political inexperience, Wood finished second in the poll, ousting one of the sitting members, Benjamin Oliveira, who was also a Liberal. Oliveira had lost local support, and petitioned against Wood’s election in a fit of pique. However, Wood’s assurances that he had stood ‘wholly and solely on the principles of purity of election’ were accepted by the election petition committee, and he retained his seat, although the defence of it cost him £2,000.

Although Wood had declared that if elected, he would ‘strive to show that the capability of governing was not solely confined to what is considered as the upper class of society’, he failed to make any impact at Westminster, neither speaking in debate nor serving on any select committees. Given his apparent lack of enthusiasm for parliamentary life, and his unpleasant and costly experiences with the election petition in 1857, it was hardly surprising that he retired at the 1859 election, wishing to devote his time to local affairs. Although his model factory scheme floundered, he continued to register patents throughout the 1860s, not only on processes relating to carpet manufacture, but also to the manufacture of Pontefract cakes, the liquorice sweets associated with the town.

Compared with many fellow MPs, Wood died in relatively modest circumstances, leaving effects valued at under £2,000. His properties in Pontefract were subsequently sold for £9,880, but his widow and four children from his second marriage evidently remained in a difficult financial position. In 1872 she was granted a pension from the civil list of £70, in recognition of Wood’s service as an MP and magistrate and the contribution made ‘by his inventive genius to the carpet manufacture of the country’, from which he had ‘reaped little advantage himself’.

For details on how to access our draft biographies, see here.

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