An ‘upstart from the ranks’: MP of the Month, John Thomas Norris (1808-70)

Norris’s political career illustrates a number of the striking developments being explored in our work on the Victorian Commons, including the ever-expanding number of ‘non-elite’ MPs; the role of town council elections as a stepping stone to Parliament; and the emergence of new types of party activism in even the smallest constituencies. Norris’s experience of getting elected also hints at the ongoing prejudices against many of those who had dared to ‘raise themselves up from the ranks’.

Thomas Norris MPBy the mid-1830s Norris was running a paper mill with his father at Sutton Courtenay, near Abingdon. He had also started a London print works in Aldersgate, which in 1837 secured the contract to supply the ‘county printing’ for Middlesex. The firm published a number of trade journals, such as the weekly Railway Times, which Norris helped to finance and eventually owned. In 1854 he leased another paper mill at Sandford in Oxfordshire, by which time about 80 of his London printers were attending his ‘annual treats’ to a dinner in Abingdon’s town hall.

Alongside business, Norris threw himself into local radical politics. In 1835, at the height of the crisis  over the passage of the Whigs’ municipal reform bill, he published a scathing attack on a City of London Tory councillor for opposing the ‘democratic’ changes being made to the way aldermen were appointed. A supporter of the radical parliamentary candidates for the city at the 1837 general election, and a regular target of Tory ‘objections’ in the voter registration courts, he stood as a ‘reforming’ councillor for Aldersgate ward in 1839, only to have his election overturned on petition by the Tories for alleged ‘non-residence’. Standing again, in an ‘extraordinary’ by-election, he comfortably won the seat and went on to become a key figure in London’s campaign to remove the ‘cruel and filthy’ live cattle market from Smithfield.

In Abingdon, a few miles north of his Sutton Courtenay paper mill, Norris served as one of the Thames navigation commissioners and became part of a local group of reforming tradesmen and businessmen intent on breaking the Tories’ stranglehold over the borough. Along with the local coal and wine merchant Gabriel Davis (1809-89), Norris helped organise a series of by-election challenges to the sitting Tory MP, backing the campaign to elect the Liberal army officer James Caulfield, who finally won the seat in 1852. Norris was an obvious replacement when Caulfield died, but was pushed out by the leading Whig Lord Norreys. In a ‘remarkable’ struggle he was then beaten by a ‘more moderate’ Liberal when Norreys succeeded to the Lords in 1854. Mocked on the hustings, Norris was accused by a former ally of being an ‘upstart’:

In too great haste to get to the top of the ladder, he was not content to climb step by step, but wished to vault at once to the top (laughter).

Norris had the last laugh when he was elected without opposition in 1857. (He also easily defeated a Tory in 1859). An active constituency MP, he campaigned steadily against the proposed closure of Abingdon’s gaol and the transfer of its county sessions to Reading, as well as on local police and railway matters. His most significant contribution, however, was in pressing the case for a repeal of the paper duties, which had been part of Gladstone’s 1860 budget but was controversially rejected by the Lords. Insisting that English paper makers were being forced out of business by tax-free imported paper, and that repeal would benefit the working classes as well as producers of literature, he urged the chancellor to ‘abide manfully by his budget’ and for the ministry to back him, which they duly did in 1861. This incident was crucial in clarifying the Commons’ supremacy over the Lords in all money matters.

Norris then turned his attention to the import duties on the ‘foreign rags’ used to make paper, warning in 1864 that many English paper manufacturers were starting to go bankrupt. By then he was clearly speaking from bitter personal experience. With his business in difficulty, he became far less active in Parliament. Standing again for Abingdon in 1865, he was unfairly accused of being an ‘absentee’ and narrowly defeated by another rival Liberal. Later that year, to ‘much astonishment’, he was declared bankrupt, with debts of £89,000 and assets of £40,000. The Sutton Courtenay paper mill failed to sell, however, and he was still running it in 1869, when a boiler exploded, killing a stoker. He was ‘fully insured’.

Norris died childless the following year. His paper mill struggled on until the 1880s and was demolished in the early 20th century. The associated Mill House later achieved fame as one of the country retreats of the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. More recently it was bought back by Asquith’s great granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter.

The full biography of Norris will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Further info about Norris can also be found here.

This entry was posted in Biographies, Constituencies, Local government, MP of the Month and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An ‘upstart from the ranks’: MP of the Month, John Thomas Norris (1808-70)

  1. Pingback: Unlikely Parliamentarians 4: a view from the Victorian Commons | The History of Parliament

  2. Pingback: Oxfordshire Local History: Abingdon in the nineteenth century – The History of Parliament

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