Our MP of the Month, Lord Hotham, is one of a small number of individuals who sat for the entire period covered by our 1832-68 project. A Waterloo veteran, he had first been elected to the Commons in 1820 as a Tory MP for Leominster, which he represented – with a brief gap in service in 1831 – until 1841. He then sat for the East Riding of Yorkshire, where he owned extensive estates, until retiring in 1868.
Given his political longevity, it was hardly surprising that Hotham became a well-known character in the Commons. One reason he stood out was his ‘curious and quaint attire’. His old-fashioned clothes included ‘his favourite blue broad cloth coat’ with ‘shining gilt buttons’, ‘a buff waistcoat’, ‘low shoes and gaiters’ and a hat with a curled brim.
Contemporary observers also commented on Hotham’s diligent attendance at Westminster, even into his seventies. William White, the Commons doorkeeper, wrote of Hotham in 1868 that ‘he is as erect as he was when he marched with his regiment of Guards at Waterloo; and to see him run when a division is called you would not deem him to be more than fifty’. In his penultimate Commons speech, Hotham was scathing in his criticism of fellow MPs who did not live up to his standards, objecting to a proposal that Members should be allowed to correct their vote if they had accidentally entered the wrong division lobby:
‘It argued very little for the competence of Members if, when they were told “Ayes to the right, Noes to the left,” they did not know which way to go. If hon. Members were asleep, or on the terrace smoking, or reading newspapers in the vicinity of the House, or, in short, doing anything except what they ought – attending to the Business of the House in their places – that was their own fault, and the matter was, in his opinion, not of such importance as to require special legislation’.
Despite his emphasis on the importance of attending to parliamentary business, Hotham had a lengthy spell of absence from the Commons in the early 1840s. His election address, seeking the votes of the East Riding’s electors in 1841, was written on his sick-bed, and he did not appear on the hustings that July. This did not, however, prevent him being elected unopposed in his absence alongside a fellow Conservative. Hotham’s health worsened after the election and he did not take his seat in Parliament until 1843, when he was still convalescing. Not until 1844 did his name appear again in the division lists.
Hotham later told his constituents that although he had considered resigning his seat when he was ill, he felt that the relative position of the two parties was such that ‘a vote on two on either side was of no importance whatsoever’. Having switched from Leominster to the East Riding, Hotham had the major advantage of representing a seat where he never faced an election contest. Although his political sympathies lay with the Conservatives, he prided himself on his ‘independence’ from party, voting in Parliament on the basis of ‘measures, not men’. He turned down an invitation from Lord Derby to join his ministry in 1858, and was not afraid to vote against his leaders, being one of a handful of Conservatives who divided against the Derby ministry’s reform bill in March 1859.
As an army veteran, who had served in the Coldstream Guards, Hotham took a perennial interest in military matters, where no detail was too small to escape his attention. In 1857 he raised concerns that the families of recipients of the Order of the Bath were expected to return their relatives’ insignia after their death. He also complained that the ‘star’ which formed part of this insignia was of poor quality, made of ‘pasteboard, tinsel and spangles’. Hotham did not let this matter drop, and in 1859 received assurances from the Secretary for War that the star would in future be made from silver, rather than embroidered, and would not have to be surrendered when the holder died. More significantly, Hotham served on several committees on military questions, and chaired the royal commission on army recruitment which sat in 1859-60 and made an extensive set of recommendations in 1861.
Hotham’s parliamentary interests went beyond his obvious expertise in military matters, especially as he became one of the longer-serving members of the House. ‘Precise and somewhat punctilious, but always courteous’, he often intervened on procedural points, and was concerned about issues which might affect the dignity and reputation of the Commons. He formed an unlikely alliance with the Radical MP Joseph Hume in 1840 to ensure that in future the judge of the admiralty court would not be allowed to be a Member of Parliament. The holder of this post, Stephen Lushington, was MP for Tower Hamlets, and Hotham felt it was inappropriate for him to be sitting as a judge one day, and ‘on the next engaging as a partisan in the House of Commons’. Hotham and Hume failed in a later attempt to prohibit other judges, including the master of the rolls, from being MPs. Hotham did, however, score another success in 1858 when he carried a motion to prevent MPs from promoting or advocating any measure or proceeding in the Commons for which they had received ‘any pecuniary fee or reward’. Essentially this was an attempt to tackle the problem of lobbying.
Having spent almost half a century in the Commons, Hotham retired at the dissolution in 1868, at the age of 74, concerned that he might no longer be able to offer the ‘close and constant attention’ which his parliamentary duties deserved. He died in December 1870, when he was remembered as ‘a most devoted, independent, influential representative of the people’.