One of the most illuminating aspects of our work for the Victorian Commons is the discovery of significant, but long-forgotten, parliamentarians. September’s MP of the Month, Charles Gilpin (1815-1874), certainly falls under this description. As the first and only Quaker to hold ministerial office between the first and second Reform Acts, he was a major figure in mid-Victorian radical politics, yet only occasionally surfaces in histories of the period.
After establishing himself as a radical publisher and orator in his hometown of Bristol, Gilpin and his wife Anna moved to London in 1842 to take over the Quaker publishing firm, Edmund Fry and Son. Over the following decade he oversaw the publication of hundreds of radical books and pamphlets as well as the Quaker periodical The Friend, which he edited until 1857. During this time he was active in nearly every radical society in London, campaigning for temperance, parliamentary, economic and land reform as well as the abolition of slavery and capital punishment. In 1850 he even made an abortive attempt to establish, in the words of Britain’s foremost radical, Richard Cobden, an ‘anti-everything’ newspaper. He was also largely responsible for the ‘Kossuth Mania’ that swept the nation in late 1851, on account of his unofficial role as publicist for the Hungarian exile, Lajos Kossuth.Gilpin’s first attempts to win a seat in the Commons came during 1852, when he stood unsuccessfully at consecutive by-elections at Perth in February and May. On the hustings he supported radical parliamentary and education reform, opposed all state funding for religious purposes, and denounced Britain’s ‘expensive and cruel’ colonial policy as well as slavery in the United States. He did not stand again until 1857, however, during which time he sold his publishing firm (which left him in a position of considerable financial comfort) and continued his activity in London’s network of radical associations.
Coming forward for Northampton in 1857 on the recommendation of the Administrative Reform Association, Gilpin maintained his radical platform used at Perth. During a successful campaign, he also supported Cobden’s recent censure of the government over the Canton bombardment and condemned the unpopular income tax for Britain’s recent ‘legacy of wars’ in the Crimea and China, which he contended ‘ought never to have been undertaken’.
Gilpin immediately threw himself into parliamentary life, much to the distress of his wife, who reported that he arose at 7.30 a.m., and ate only ‘a bun or a biscuit as he moved from one board or Committee to another’ before returning home to bed at 2 a.m. This prompted some friendly advice from the recently unseated Cobden, who suggested he avoid ‘tilting at Palmerston’s windmills’ and staying at parliament past midnight, ‘unless you are pretty sure there will be a division involving some public principle’. Gilpin ignored such advice, however, citing his irrepressible need to speak up against the ‘consummate bosh’ spoken by members on both sides of the house.
As a diligent attender in his first parliament, he maintained a radical line in the division lobbies and became a regular voice in debates over religious rights, as well as foreign and colonial affairs. Notable for his outspokenness on the latter, he was instrumental in co-ordinating the radical response to the Orsini affair and condemned the British military reaction to the Indian mutiny, stating in May 1858 that when the mutiny’s history was written it would ‘raise a blush of shame on the cheek of every honest man’.
His forthright Commons performances ensured Gilpin topped the poll at Northampton in 1859. However, he shocked his radical friends and supporters when he accepted the position of secretary to the Poor Law Board in Palmerston’s new ministry. Instead of receiving congratulations for becoming the first Quaker government minister, he was criticised for selling out – John Bright reportedly stating, ‘so thou’s got thy snout in the trough, Charles!’
To some extent Gilpin’s critics proved justified, as he quickly fell in line with the government and became increasingly exasperated at his loss of ‘independence of thought and action’. Nevertheless, his assiduous attention to official duties, particularly in response to the Lancashire ‘Cotton Famine’ from 1861, allowed him to repel some detractors. Using his position to repeatedly call for benevolence from poor law unions in Lancashire, he was instrumental in passing the 1862 Union Relief Aid Act.
Gilpin resigned from office in February 1865, as soon as he was sure ‘the cloud had passed away from Lancashire’ and that ‘the loom and the shuttle’ had again begun ‘their ready and every-day work’. He was returned at that year’s election, with a reduced share of the vote, but quickly rediscovered his radical voice on the back benches.
During the subsequent parliament he spoke regularly for the total abolition of state funding for religion as well as the parliamentary oath, and offered his support to those lobbying for Governor Edward Eyre to face trial following his infamous 1865 declaration of martial law in Morant Bay, Jamaica. He also provided a radical critique of the Conservative government’s 1867 Reform Act, and emerged as a chief proponent for the complete abolition of capital punishment, leading the radical vanguard against what he considered to be the halfway measure of the 1868 Capital Punishments Act. Gilpin continued to represent Northampton as a radical backbencher until his death in September 1874.
The full biography of Charles Gilpin will soon be available on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.