MP of the Month: Joseph Locke (1805-1860)

Our Victorian MP of the Month is Joseph Locke (1805-1860), who represented Honiton from 1847 until his death. With Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) and Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), Locke formed the ‘triumvirate of the engineering world’, who laid the architecture of Britain and Europe’s nineteenth-century railways. Unlike Stephenson and Brunel, however, Locke has remained a marginal figure in histories of nineteenth-century Britain, partly due to his political standing at the time of his death.

Joseph Locke was born in Attercliffe, near Sheffield, in 1805, but had relocated to Barnsley by 1810, where his father was a colliery manager. After receiving his education at a local grammar school, Locke was apprenticed at the age of 14 as a colliery viewer in Durham, and later under his father in Barnsley. As a gifted mining engineer, Locke caught the eye of family friend and ‘father of the railways’, George Stephenson, who employed him as an engineer at his locomotive works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 1823.

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‘Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway’, Isaac Shaw, 1830, Yale Centre For British Art

In 1826 Locke was appointed assistant engineer to Stephenson on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and with Robert Stephenson (George Stephenson’s son) was crucial in ensuring the use of locomotives on the railway. In an episode that haunted him for the rest of his life, Locke was directing the Rocket at the line’s opening ceremony in 1830 when it fatally injured William Huskisson, the leading Canningite and former minister. Although some felt he was culpable for Huskisson’s death on account of the excessive speed at which the Rocket was travelling, Locke was never officially blamed for the incident.

The episode did little to hamper Locke’s upward trajectory in the burgeoning field of railway engineering. He was appointed chief engineer of the Grand Junction Railway in 1835 and subsequently enjoyed an illustrious career overseeing, among others, the London to Southampton, Sheffield to Manchester, Paris and Rouen, and Rouen and Le Havre lines, as well as railways in Spain and Holland. As an engineer, Locke developed a reputation for his innovative, efficient designs, which allowed for railways on steeper gradients. The apparent simplicity and cost-effectiveness of his work partly explains the subsequent lack of public recognition for his engineering career.

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The impressive Barentin Viaduct, part of the Paris Le-Havre Railway. Locke was the railway’s chief engineer, ILN, 27 March 1847

It was a railway project that brought Locke into Parliament. In August 1846, he purchased the manor of Honiton for £80,000 (roughly £7 million in today’s money) to aid the London and South Western Railway’s attempts to build a line between Exeter and Yeovil. The tenancies owned by the manor effectively provided Locke with a safe seat for the notoriously corrupt borough of Honiton. He was first returned at the 1847 election, labelling himself a ‘Liberal in politics’, and calling for a transformation in the social and moral condition of the country at a rate akin to that with which the railways had revolutionised travel since the 1830s.

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Locke represented the venal borough of Honiton from 1847 until his death (PP 1831-2 (141) xl.)

He held his seat until his death in 1860, and from 1857 struck an increasingly radical, anti-Palmerstonian tone. The railways featured prominently in all of his election campaigns. And, when he criticised the Conservative’s government’s international diplomacy during the 1859 election, his opponents suggested that his radicalism and involvement in continental railway development had been a covert attempt to support a much feared French invasion.

It was on one of his trips to France in 1856 that Locke sustained a knee injury during railway construction. This left him with a limp for the rest of his life and led to doctors’ orders that he be accompanied at all times by an ‘assistance-pony’. Unfortunately, we have found no proof of him using the donkey in Parliament.

Locke maintained a regular attendance in the Commons, where he usually sided with radicals on issues like the ballot, shorter parliaments and the abolition of the income tax. He was a regular presence in the committee rooms and made a number of speeches during his career, with one contemporary recording that he spoke ‘with much effect’ and that his ‘easy elegance’ was ‘equalled by his choice of language’.

During his first Parliament Locke tried to assume the role of figurehead for the railway interest at Westminster. This boosted his national profile a little, particularly when his 1849 attempts to secure the Sunday opening of railways inadvertently pushed him to the forefront of the anti-Sabbatarian lobby for the restoration of Sunday post-office deliveries in 1850. However, the forty or so MPs connected with the ‘railway interest’ proved difficult to manage, and Locke failed in his major aim of introducing legislation to prevent fraudulent practices in railway companies, a move he had hoped would restore investor confidence in the railways following a recent collapse in share prices.

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Engraving of 1855 photograph of Joseph Locke by John Mayall, from Devey, The Life of Joseph Locke (1862).

After dispensing with the idea of representing the railway interest, Locke turned to the scrutiny of publicly funded engineering and building projects from 1852. While his regular interventions were generally ‘well heard’ in the House, his efforts to effect a cultural shift in parliamentary attitudes towards the costing and planning of projects proved generally fruitless.  He was highly critical of the management of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, the Thames embankment, the National Science Museum and the Scottish Ordnance Survey.

His activities meant that by the end of his parliamentary career he was regarded as Westminster’s foremost engineering expert, particularly following the death in 1859 of his friend and former colleague, Robert Stephenson, who had sat as MP for Whitby. This prompted rumours that Locke would succeed Henry Fitzroy as first commissioner of works in January 1860. However, he was disregarded by Palmerston on account of his unpopularity with the Cabinet, his lack of loyalty to the Liberal party and his reputation for outspokenness.

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Albumen print of Carlo Marochetti’s statue of Joseph Locke, c. 1865, Camille Silvy, NPG

Locke died suddenly of appendicitis (after complaining of ‘considerable pain in the bowels’) in September 1860 while shooting in Scotland during the parliamentary recess. He was a wealthy man and left around £350,000. Following his death, the Institute of Civil Engineers commissioned a statue of Locke which was proposed to be placed in St Margaret’s, Westminster. It was intended to complement Robert Stephenson’s statue in Euston Square, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s in Embankment gardens. However, the Liberal government refused the application, probably as a result of Locke’s parliamentary independence. The statue was instead installed in Locke Park, Barnsley, and a replica was also erected in 1951 at Barentin in France, where Locke had overseen the construction of the impressive Barentin Viaduct.

For a brief period Locke had a memorial window in Westminster Abbey. However, after being in storage ‘for many years’, it was purchased by Barnsley town council in 1952 and is currently held by Cannon Hall Museum, Cawthorne.

The full biography of Joseph Locke MP is on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

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