Having drafted more than 1,000 biographies of MPs for the History of Parliament’s 1832-68 volume since our project began, we are now able to begin examining particular groups of parliamentarians in more thematic ways. In recent blogs, for example, we have looked at English Catholic MPs and at politicians drawn from one notable family. To give things a festive twist, our final blog post of 2014 takes Members of the Victorian Commons who were born on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and considers what their biographies tell us about parliamentary life in this period.
What is immediately evident is that the family backgrounds of the Christmas-born MPs are diverse. Born on Christmas Day 1825, Humphrey Mildmay, Liberal MP for Herefordshire, 1859-65, was heir to his father’s estates in Kent and spent much of his life as a gentleman of leisure. His career provides a good example of historian John Vincent’s ‘gentlemen of liberal views’: the solid, unexceptional, moderate MPs who were minor landowners, and made up the bulk of the parliamentary Liberal party in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the aristocratic element is also represented in our small sample. Born on Christmas Eve 1824, Heneage Finch, styled Lord Guernsey, Conservative MP for Warwickshire South, 1849-57, was the son of the fifth Earl of Aylesford and had blood ties with other noble (and Tory) Warwickshire families.
In contrast, Edmund Buckley, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, 1841-47, who was born on Christmas Eve 1780, was something of a self-made man. Although he hailed from the West Riding gentry, Buckley built up his own business empire, trading variously as a canal carrier, an iron merchant, coal proprietor and copperas manufacturer. By the 1850s he was described as ‘probably the richest man in Manchester’. The phenomenon of the self-made man entering the Commons represents an important shift in the parliamentary culture of the Victorian era, a transformation that we intend to shed more light on as our project progresses.
Although from different backgrounds, Mildmay, Guernsey and Buckley were united by an unwillingness to speak in the Commons chamber. While some historians have highlighted the development of a ‘rage for speaking’ in the post-Reform era, the careers of the Christmas-born MPs serve as a useful reminder that many remained silent in debate. Before his election, Buckley admitted that he had hardly ‘spoken twenty words in public life’ and he never spoke in the House. Guernsey was similarly mute, while Mildmay rose only occasionally to question ministers on a range of mostly minor topics, such as the issue of planting shrubs in Hyde Park.
Silence, though, did not necessarily mean inactivity. Here, our blog takes a rather gloomier turn, by considering an MP who died on Christmas Day 1864. Richard Bethell, MP for the East Riding, 1832-41, rarely spoke in debate, but his career provides a good example of a diligent county member. Bethell was active in introducing local bills and he served usefully on a wide range of select committees, reflecting his important contributions to the (often overlooked) institutional operations of the Commons.
Finally, the Christmas-born MPs shed light on the development of the two-party system in the mid-Victorian era. Significantly, some of their careers suggest the continuing fluidity of party labels, even in the 1860s. Sir Robert Clifton, born on Christmas Eve 1826, possessed a particularly nebulous political faith, proclaiming himself an ‘independent’ and voting both for and against Palmerston’s ministry on foreign policy issues whilst MP for Nottingham between 1861 and 1866. Kedgwin Hoskins, meanwhile, who died on Christmas Eve 1852, serves as a reminder that not all Liberals were free traders. Unlike the bulk of his party, he opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, when he represented Herefordshire.
The MPs briefly discussed above represent only a miniscule sample of the 2,589 MPs who sat in the House of Commons between the First and Second Reform Acts. Yet, the fact that such a small, random sample throws up issues that either challenge existing orthodoxies or suggest new avenues for research, underlines the importance of charting the careers of every single Member of the Victorian Commons, regardless of their political status.
The Victorian Commons blog will return in the New Year. In the meantime, a Merry Christmas to all our readers.