MP of the Month: Charles Capper (1822-1869)

Continuing with our recent theme of unlikely parliamentarians, our MP of the Month is Charles Capper, the son of a Manchester weaver. Capper made his fortune in the shipping industry, and wrote a notable history of the port of London, before being ruined by the financial panic of 1866. Sadly the panic, which also triggered a rapid decline in Capper’s mental health, occurred only days after he had been elected for Sandwich. His premature death, only three years later, left his family destitute.

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Charles Capper’s Candelabrum (Illustrated London News, 29 Nov. 1856).

Born and educated in Manchester, Capper’s first job was for the haulage company Pickford’s, where he worked as a clerk and gained a reputation as ‘a remarkably swift penman’. In October 1845 he married Mary Jane Dowey at St Philip’s Church, Liverpool. They relocated to East London shortly after, when Capper’s former manager offered him the role of goods manager for the Eastern Counties Railway at the company’s Brick Lane depot. He worked for the company for a decade, quickly earning promotion to superintendent of the line.

During the decade he and Mary had four sons at their residence on The Grove, Stratford. Capper was well-loved by his colleagues, and when he left the Eastern Counties Railway for a position at the newly opened Victoria Docks in 1855, they all pitched in for a silver candelabrum, which was so extravagant that it featured in the Illustrated London News.

Capper devoted the next decade of his life to reforming the organisation of London’s chaotic docks, working from his offices on Mincing Lane (considered by one contemporary to be the ‘centre of the colonial market of the metropolis’). He was an active member of London’s shipping lobby, writing numerous anonymous pamphlets and letters to editors regarding London’s docks. By 1860 he had also started to invest heavily in shipping, particularly through the East India and London Shipping Company.

In 1862 Capper increased his standing in London’s commercial circles with his economic and social history, The Port and Trade of London. His aim for the book was to explain how British commerce had recently expanded ‘with a rapidity and to an extent, utterly unexampled in the history of the world’. In it he criticised ‘modern’ historians for attributing ‘outbreaks of war and … peace to the passions of monarchs, the intrigues of courts … and rival nations’. Instead, he argued that ‘wars and revolutions’ originated primarily from the ‘commercial necessities and interests of peoples’. The book went through several editions, becoming a standard text for Victorian students of commerce.

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C. Capper, The Port and Trade of London, Historical, Statistical, Local and General (1862)

Capper’s greatest achievement, however, arguably came in 1864 with the passage of the London and St Katharine Docks Act. The Act amalgamated several East London dockyards, and it was largely thanks to Capper’s lobbying efforts that it passed through parliament. Capper continued to expand his portfolio, and by 1865 he was a ‘rich man’, serving as a director of 11 shipping, colonial and financial firms. This prompted an engagement in philanthropic activity, and following his death he was remembered as ‘one of the largest promoters of the effort to bring the Eastern Londoners within the means of religion and educational culture’.

Capper’s financial interests also opened up the opportunity of a parliamentary career. His position as director for the Down Docks Company, which was lobbying parliament for the right to build new docks in Deal, brought him into contact with the Sandwich and Deal Conservative Association in 1865. The association agreed to put Capper forward as a candidate for the borough at that year’s general election, but he polled third after his Liberal opponents accused him of trying to buy votes with promises of a new dockyard. Nevertheless, within a year he was returned for the borough at a by-election, beating his Liberal opponent by eight votes.

Unfortunately, within days of having ‘secured the high objects of his ambition’, the financial panic of 1866 placed Capper’s extensive shipping investments, and as a result his mental well-being, under considerable strain. With his portfolio diminishing rapidly, Capper found it difficult to engage fully with life in the Commons, where he acted as a silent supporter of the Conservative administration. When another Conservative announced his intention to stand at Sandwich in 1868, Capper took little convincing to retire from politics.

Capper died suddenly at his home only months later on 21 March 1869, reportedly from exhaustion following a bout of ‘severe diarrhoea’. A friend later explained that his sudden death had been occasioned by ‘anxieties’ and ‘a broken heart’, following his realisation that the panic of 1866 had left him bankrupt. Capper’s estate was entirely absorbed in order to repay his outstanding debts, leaving his wife and four children with little more than his silver candelabrum. Prominent figures in London’s commercial world, including Thomas Baring and Lionel de Rothschild, raised a subscription for Capper’s family, and his sons were offered ‘situations on small salaries’. Within eighteen months of his death, however, Capper’s wife was forced to apply to the Royal Literary Fund for £30 on account of being ‘destitute of all means and … compelled to rely upon the sale of articles of clothing’.

For details about how to access Capper’s biography and all our other draft articles click here.

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