‘So tall, so handsome!’: William Henry Hyett, MP, athlete, philanthropist, teacher and poet

As the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo approaches, one is reminded of the significant number of MPs who participated in that famous feat of arms. Although our MP of the month, William Henry Hyett (1795-1877), had only a tangential connection to the battle, he was nevertheless a man who many thought ‘born to lead … [and] command’. Blessed with both a keen intellect and physical prowess, he went on to achieve personal feats of endurance and make important contributions to public life,  though most of these lay outside Parliament.

Hyett was born William Henry Adams in Shrewsbury, the eldest son of an Anglican clergyman whose family had long been involved in the Shropshire iron trade. After spending two years as a gentleman commoner at Oxford University, Hyett departed in 1815 for the Continent where he was among the first civilians to view the aftermath of Waterloo, visiting the field of battle, it was said, ‘before the burial of the dead was completed’. After spending three months in Paris during the allied occupation of the city he visited Switzerland and Italy, and in 1819 travelled via Albania (where he visited the notoriously stern governor, Ali Pasha) to Athens, before proceeding across ‘the plains of Troy’ to the Dardenelles. A handsome man with ‘clear but genial eyes’ and a mouth ‘firm as iron’, Hyett stood 6’ 1” and was said to have had a ‘superb physique’. He accomplished the feat of swimming the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos in under two hours, taking the route attributed to the mythical Leander, (Lord Byron having followed only ‘the short course’ in 1810). He returned to England by way of Constantinople, Vienna and Geneva, where he swam a potentially hazardous two mile route across the lake. He brought with him as his courier Teodoro Maiocchi, who subsequently caused a public scandal after perjuring himself at the trial of Queen Caroline.

Painswick House, Gloucestershire, home of William Henry Hyett

Painswick House, Gloucestershire, home of William Henry Hyett

By this time Hyett was a man of property, having inherited estates in Gloucestershire from his father’s cousin in 1813, when he had adopted the name of Hyett. In 1821 he married a daughter of a Bristol merchant, with whom he enjoyed fifty-six years of wedded life, and settled on his estate near Painswick, once described as the ‘Queen of the Cotswolds’. In addition to making significant improvements to his house there, he became a member of Gloucester corporation, an alderman, and in 1829 the mayor of that city.

Hyett had been privately tutored in Edinburgh and spent two summers at the home of Francis Jeffrey, a renowned editor of the Edinburgh Review who later framed the Scottish Reform Act. From Jeffrey he imbibed ‘Whig principles’ during extensive walking tours in the Scottish Highlands and by espousing these values he won a seat at the 1832 general election for the newly enfranchised two-member borough of Stroud, then an important centre of the woollen industry.

Hyett’s potentially ‘brilliant’ parliamentary career was, however, hindered by what some regarded as ‘his high tone of principle’, which made him unsuited to party discipline. Convinced that the reformed Commons had fallen prey to ‘a species of legislative Quixotism’, he condemned what he regarded as its hasty remedies for ‘partial abuses’ made regardless of the danger to society in general, and claimed that too many MPs suffered from a ‘mania for making little laws for little occasions’. His only major speech was directed against the factory reform bill in July 1833, when he questioned why the measure had been restricted to the textile industry, thus ignoring the plight of children employed in the ‘much more injurious’ manufacture of iron, lead and copper. His preference for a gradual abolition of slavery also raised concern in his constituency, where Nonconformity was strong and anti-slavery feeling was particularly intense. Reluctant to ‘answer tamely’ to the government whip, and increasingly alienated from the Radicals, who he believed had cynically encouraged ‘extravagant expectations’ for short-term political gains, he retired in 1835, subsequently abandoning the Whigs for the Conservatives.

All the same, Hyett was a man of great and varied abilities and remained prominent in the affairs of Gloucestershire, where he became known as the ‘Squire’. His experiments with the use of chemicals to improve the colour and durability of wood earned him a Fellowship of the Royal Society, and he built two new schools in his neighbourhood, where he not only taught mechanical drawing but also imported mathematical instruments to aid instruction, and installed a carpenter’s shop and printing press. In 1856 he helped to establish an asylum at Barnwood, where with characteristic thoroughness he boarded for some weeks to satisfy himself that the institution was conducted satisfactorily. In 1866 he founded the Gloucestershire Eye Institution Hospital, principally established to deal with ocular diseases and injuries suffered by local textile operatives.

A talented composer of verse and an accomplished linguist, Hyett produced well-regarded translations of the works of Horace, Goethe and Victor Hugo. In the last year of his life he even prepared a chart containing a list of remedies for use in cases of accident or poisoning, where medical help was unavailable. He died at Painswick after a severe attack of bronchitis in March 1877 and was buried in the local cemetery.

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