MP of the Month: The ‘strange career’ of John Townsend (1819-1892)

Once a successful auctioneer and undertaker, Townsend’s short and controversial parliamentary career as MP for Greenwich ended in 1859 after a protracted struggle to escape bankruptcy. His ‘strange career’ was, however, far from over and he subsequently found fame in North America, where he established himself as ‘one of the most popular actors of the day’, and became the manager of a pioneering Canadian theatre company.

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John Townsend MP. Image credit.

Born in Deptford, Townsend worked in his father’s prosperous and well-established undertaking business until 1843, when he established his own estate agency. His funeral orations were said to have had no equal, and his ‘fluent and copious addresses’ to bidders ensured his success as an auctioneer. These talents had been honed on the stage: Townsend had begun his career in the theatre at the age of 12 with Edmund Kean’s company. In 1842 he leased the theatre in Richmond, Surrey, under the pseudonym John Tamworth, but by 1844 his activities as an actor-manager had brought him to the verge of bankruptcy. He subsequently recovered his fortunes in the property business, however, and developed an interest in politics, becoming agent to the successful Liberal candidate at the 1852 general election for Greenwich.

Apparently ambitious to establish himself as the borough’s ‘Member Maker’, he unwisely handled the campaign of an impecunious and unsuccessful ‘ballot candidate’ known as Colonel Sleigh at the Greenwich by-election in February 1857. Undaunted, he founded a Liberal Association in the borough at that year’s general election and announced his candidature two days before the nomination. To the surprise of many, his support for the ballot and a wide extension of the franchise secured him second place in the poll.

Unfortunately Townsend’s political activities not only cost him a great deal of money, much of it borrowed, but also caused him to neglect his business. An attempt to replenish his coffers by raising £5,000 from his constituents brought in only a few hundred pounds, and in July 1857 his newly-acquired business partner called in the receivers. Found bankrupt that September, he managed to persuade his creditors to allow him time to liquidate their claims, but after failing to do so he was bankrupted again in March 1858. However, his case was not brought to the notice of the House until 15 June, by which time Townsend had unwittingly cast illegitimate votes in important divisions on the ballot, the abolition of church rates and the county franchise bill. These votes were subsequently disallowed, and he was deemed incapable of sitting and voting in the House. However, as a bankrupt he was allowed to remain a Member for twelve months to afford an opportunity to satisfy his creditors.

Facing debts of £5,000 with assets of £87, and with his ‘legislatorial powers in abeyance’, it was widely anticipated that Townsend would retire from the Commons. After further appearances in the court of bankruptcy he secured only the lowest class of certificate, the judge concluding that his election spending had been ‘a wanton and shameful waste of assets’. Publicly accused of having ‘aimed too soon and shot too high’, he was widely criticised for having sought parliamentary honours when he could hardly meet the property qualification. When it emerged that his family had been compelled to pawn household goods in order to ‘procure their daily bread’, Townsend was condemned by the Morning Post for ‘his absurd vanity in seeking to fill a position for which he was neither qualified by intellect, by fortune, by birth, nor by position’.

To satisfy his creditors Townsend pluckily returned to the stage, which he had abandoned in 1852 to take on his late father’s business. He played leading roles in several London playhouses and is thought to have been the last actor to perform Shakespeare’s Richard III on horseback. Shortly after reciting the four-hour play from memory to an appreciative audience at the Greenwich Literary Institution, he announced his resignation from the Commons and took the Chiltern Hundreds, 8 Feb. 1859. He retained the sympathy of the borough’s working men, however, and played a significant part in getting a progressive Liberal elected in his place. In a further attempt to clear his debts Townsend became manager of the Theatre Royal in Leicester, before emigrating to Upper Canada in 1862.

Settling near Kingston, Townsend returned to the stage in 1864 and, along with his family, all of whom had been trained for the stage, formed a troupe which toured southern Ontario and became one of the first Canadian-based companies ‘that dared swim in the sea of American touring’. Remembered as ‘a capital tragedian’, who possessed a sonorous voice and a robust style, he retired from the stage in 1877, and after some years working as a respected teacher of acting and elocution he died at Hamilton, Western Ontario, in December 1892.

Further reading: D. Gardner, ‘Townsend, John’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1990)

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