In the Persian Gulf in 1839, William Schaw Lindsay, captain of the merchant ship Olive Branch, was attacked by a sabre-wielding pirate, whom he promptly shot dead. If this brief encounter was almost unbelievably spectacular, Lindsay’s rise from a destitute orphan to a merchant prince was no less remarkable. Born in Ayr, Scotland, in 1815, he lost his parents at an early age, and ran off to Liverpool to seek employment before his sixteenth birthday. Beginning as a cabin boy, he rose swiftly to the rank of captain and only narrowly escaped death during a shipwreck in which he broke both of his legs and an arm. After short spell as a ship fitter in Hartlepool, he founded the shipbroking firm W. S. Lindsay and Co. in 1849 and rapidly amassed 220 vessels in his fleet, making him one of the largest shipowners in the world.
Lindsay’s parliamentary career was less spectacular. His activities inside the walls of the Victorian Commons never reached the dramatic heights of his adventures in the Persian Gulf. Yet, as MP for Tynemouth (1854-59) and then Sunderland (1859-65), Lindsay’s parliamentary path intertwined in surprising ways with a number of significant political events.
Shortly after his election for Tynemouth as an ‘independent’ Liberal, Lindsay played an active part in the Administrative Reform Association, founded in 1855 as a reaction to the perceived aristocratic mismanagement of the Crimean War. As his ships were under charter to the British government during the conflict, he had first-hand experience of what he believed to be ‘official indolence and inefficiency’ and in the Commons he vociferously criticised the government’s capabilities. His outspokenness, though, often exasperated his parliamentary colleagues, one of whom accused him of meddling ‘with matters which he does not understand’.
It was Lindsay’s actions during the summer of 1859, however, that briefly made him a pariah among Westminster Liberals. At the Willis’s Rooms meeting of 6 June that year, which witnessed the official birth of the Liberal party, Lindsay was one of a few dissenting voices who spoke out against the newly-united party’s co-ordinated attack on the Conservative ministry’s reform bill. In the preceding days he had acted as an intermediary between the Conservative Disraeli and John Arthur Roebuck, a prominent Liberal on the verge of crossing the floor of the Commons to join the Tories. According to a fellow MP, his subsequent declaration of support in the Commons for the reform bill drew ‘rapturous cheers from the Tories’ and ‘dealt several damaging blows to the Liberal leaders’.
Lindsay’s outspoken support for the Confederate states also courted controversy. He had travelled widely in North America before the Civil War and on his return he announced to the Commons his intention of moving a resolution to recognise the Southern states, which he believed ‘must become an independent nation’. Alongside Roebuck, he subsequently met privately with Napoleon III in an effort to draw the French emperor into pressing Britain to recognise the Confederate government, a contentious mission that earned them a strong rebuke in the Commons from Palmerston, the Prime Minister. Although his parliamentary efforts came to nothing, his private actions had an impact on a personal level: in 1862 he sheltered families of the Confederate diplomats who were removed, as contraband of war, from the British mail packet the Trent, in his Shepperton home.
Lindsay’s parliamentary career ended prematurely in 1864, when he became paralysed and lost the use of his legs. Thereafter he focused his energies on writing, producing anonymous accounts of his experiences at sea and publishing his authoritative four-volume History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce (1874-6). He died at Shepperton Manor in August 1877.
Lindsay’s diary, held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, provides an unrivalled insight into the Administrative Reform Association, while his correspondence, also at Greenwich, paints a vivid portrait of a man who responded both politically and personally to the American Civil War. His outspokenness in the Commons chamber, meanwhile, serves as a useful reminder that, even by the 1860s, some politicians continued to defy national party labels. While his heroism on the high seas and meteoric rise from orphan to captain of industry understandably captures the imagination, his brief but colourful parliamentary career provides a useful, alternative thread with which to trace key developments in the life of the Victorian Commons.