Contrary to popular perceptions of the nineteenth-century British army, a significant number of its officers who sat in the Commons held progressive and radical views. Among them was our MP of the Month, Captain Brownlow Villiers Layard (1804-53), who sat as a Liberal for Carlow between 1841 and 1847 and campaigned tirelessly to improve the common soldier’s lot.
A career officer, Layard was no ‘feather bed soldier’ and had joined the British army in India in 1823. Three years later he distinguished himself at the siege of Bhurtpore by planting his regiment’s colours on the ramparts of the city. After purchasing a captaincy in 1834 he married an Irishwoman and settled in county Dublin.
Although little known in politics, Layard came forward at the 1841 general election for Carlow, a significant Irish borough and a frequent party battle-ground. As in many such constituencies money was ‘lavishly and unblushingly squandered’, and it seems likely that Layard’s return was financed by Josiah John Guest, the wealthy Welsh ironmaster and Liberal MP for Merthyr Tydfil, 1832-52, who had married Layard’s first cousin, Lady Charlotte Guest.
An advocate of ‘civil and religious liberty’ and a keen supporter of the Irish temperance movement, Layard consistently supported the Whigs, but also favoured more radical policies such as the secret ballot, and, having witnessed its effects in China and Singapore, the suppression of the opium trade. Although he was opposed to a repeal of the Union, he demanded that Ireland be governed ‘with justice and impartiality’ and offered an enthusiastic welcome to Daniel O’Connell when he returned to the Commons after his state trial in 1844.
However, Layard’s chief concern was army reform, and he frequently called for better equipment, transport, pensions and education to be provided. A critic of the system by which officers could purchase rank, he also wanted to improve the welfare of families of married soldiers, recommending that their wives and children receive treatment in regimental hospitals and be allowed to accompany them on foreign service. Above all, Layard wished to see the practice of life-time recruitment ended, arguing that Britain was the only country to require such long periods of service. He raised the issue on several occasions between 1842 and 1845, and generated favourable publicity for his cause when he moved unsuccessfully for an inquiry into enlistment in August 1846.
Layard returned to this subject the following year and used parliamentary returns to demonstrate that in just three years 28,000 British soldiers had served terms of imprisonment, 3,500 had been flogged and 8,000 had deserted. He also denounced the ‘immense’ mortality rates of colonial service, informing the House that since 1817 more than 120,000 soldiers had died while serving in the Leeward Islands and Jamaica alone. He argued that by reducing the minimum period of service to ten years the army would attract a better class of recruit and thus reduce the cost of apprehending and imprisoning deserters. He also hoped that it would remove the need for corporal punishment, which he regarded as a ‘revolting custom’ and ‘a national disgrace’.
Unfortunately for Layard, such concerns had little resonance in Carlow, where at the 1847 general election he was defeated by John Sadleir, later leader of the Irish Independent party. Within ten years both Sadleir (implicated in bank fraud) and Layard had ended their own lives. One of Layard’s chief criticisms of the long service tradition of the British army was that it caused so many young soldiers to kill themselves rather than face a lifetime in the ranks, suicide then accounting for one in twenty deaths in some branches of the army. His final speech in the Commons had outlined the fate of one such man who had cut his throat while under arrest in county Galway.
After he retired from the army in 1852 Layard became concerned about his financial circumstances and began to suffer ‘various fanciful diseases’. In December 1853 he fatally slashed his throat with a razor after being refused laudanum. A largely forgotten man, Layard’s ideas would not bear fruit until the Cardwell army reforms of 1868-74, when shorter terms of army service were introduced and flogging (at least in peacetime) was abolished.