MP of the month: Rowland Alston (1782-1865)

Rowland Alston’s career provides a useful illustration of just how diverse (and to a modern eye incongruous) the political outlook of MPs in the same party could be before the development of more formal modern political allegiances. It also serves as a reminder that not all Liberals supported free trade and the repeal of the corn laws, and offers another example of a slave-owner MP who was a Whig-Radical and supported abolition (see our previous blog on William Pinney). Tellingly, it was not political inconsistency that secured Alston notoriety, but his role in averting a potentially fatal duel involving the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel.

Pishiobury Park, Herts.

Pishiobury Park, Herts.

Alston’s background, like his politics, seems unconventional to a modern eye, but scarcely warranted comment at the time. His father was the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Alston (1724-74), an MP known for his bouts of insanity, and his ‘housekeeper’, to whom all of Sir Thomas’s property had passed. Alston, an impoverished second son, initially pursued an army career, serving with the Scots Guards, but in 1810 he married a wealthy heiress, whose properties included the Pishiobury estate in Hertfordshire and a plantation in Jamaica.

Over the next twenty-five years Alston became one of Hertfordshire’s leading reformers, campaigning steadily for parliamentary reform, almost standing for election at Hertford in 1823 and 1831, and only narrowly being defeated when he contested the county as an ‘advanced reformer’ and candidate of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. Quizzed about why he supported abolition, yet owned slaves, he explained that he had come into his slaves ‘by marriage’ and would happily emancipate them ‘the instant provision was made to ensure them employment and food’. In 1835 two of the sitting MPs for the county retired and he came in unopposed.

In the Commons Alston generally backed the Whigs, although he occasionally sided with the radicals on military issues, including their campaigns to end army flogging and put Lord Cardigan on trial for the brutal treatment of his troops. In 1836 he and his son received £2,505 in slavery compensation from the Whig government, a sum which he freely admitted amounted to almost ‘half the value of his entire property’, but he opposed their plan of slavery apprenticeships and joined other abolitionists in trying to secure an immediate end to indenture in 1838.

Alston’s main loyalty, however, was to the agricultural interest. He followed Lord Chandos (and many Tories) regularly into the lobbies in support of repealing the malt tax, relieving distress on farmers, and preserving the corn laws. In 1839 he even tried (unsuccessfully) to derail the Whig ministry’s new beer bill, protesting that it would ruin maltsters and brewers alike. Unlike most of his ‘agricultural’ allies, however, Alston was also a staunch and outspoken supporter of the Whig ministry’s new poor law and workhouse system, which he helped to implement locally. He also strongly backed the Whig ministry’s proposed reduction of import duties on foreign sugar in 1841.

This put him at odds not only with agricultural Protectionists, wary of any free trade initiatives, but also with many of his radical colleagues in the Anti-Slavery Society, who feared that cheaper imports would encourage slave-grown sugar from non-British colonies. By the time of the 1841 election, therefore, Alston had managed to alienate former allies in both the agricultural and Liberal camps. With party lines now so much more clearly defined across a range of issues – ironically helped by the sort of local registration activity that he himself had encouraged – Alston became a victim of the times and lost his seat.

He is now best remembered for saving the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel from a potentially catastrophic duel with the navy officer Captain John Townshend, the Liberal candidate at Tamworth in 1837, who after his defeat had accused Peel of ‘breaking his word’ about allowing his tenants to vote freely. Peel had demanded ‘satisfaction’ and it was only through the furious backstairs negotiations of Alston (Townshend’s second) with Sir Henry Hardinge MP that the affair was eventually settled without bloodshed after Townshend was persuaded to issue a full public apology.

The full biography of Alston and many other MPs is available on our 1832-68 preview site.

For the Legacies of British Slave ownership project click here.

Further details about Alston can also be found on this genealogical site.

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