In 1832 John Fenton, a Nonconformist Whig from a local banking and textile manufacturing family, was elected as the first MP for his native Rochdale, which had been given a parliamentary seat by the 1832 Reform Act. He lost to a Conservative in 1835, a defeat which he blamed on his opponent using beer as ‘the great canvasser’ and undertaking extensive ‘treating’ of voters. Six men were said to have died from the effects of intoxication during this contest, and ‘every stomach-pump in Rochdale was employed to remove the effects of beastly drunkenness’. Yet drunkenness and venality alone did not explain the result. Fenton’s parliamentary support for the new poor law had proved unpopular, and the Conservatives had put significant effort into improving their position on the electoral register.
With the Liberals having renewed their organisational efforts, Fenton returned to Parliament at a by-election in April 1837 and was re-elected at that year’s general election, before retiring in 1841. During this time he crossed paths with two well-known Liberal politicians associated with Rochdale. His fellow townsman John Bright seconded his nomination on the hustings at the 1837 by-election, when he described Fenton as a man who took a ‘common-sense view of things’ and commended his support for the ballot and the extension of the franchise. Fenton did not, however, impress Richard Cobden, who first met him at a dinner in London in June 1837 in company with a group of other northern MPs, whom Cobden dismissed as ‘a sad lot of soulless louts’. Despite this, it was Fenton who chaired the meeting on education that December at which Cobden – later the borough’s MP – made his first public speech at Rochdale.
The columns of Hansard do not record any contributions from Fenton, who made little impact at Westminster, although The Times reported that he did speak briefly when he presented a petition from Rochdale on the Irish Church in 1833. He admitted himself that he was ‘not gifted with eloquence’. He proved more useful in the committee rooms, serving on the select committees on the sale of beer (1833) and the problem of drunkenness among the ‘labouring classes’ (1834), as well as the inquiries into the Caernarvon and Carlow election petitions. By 1839 he had decided that he would not stand again for Rochdale and his parliamentary attendance dwindled. He voted in just 29 out of the 365 divisions taken in the 1840 and 1841 sessions.
Fenton’s decision to retire at the 1841 election was due partly to ‘infirm health’ and partly to his ‘love for private life and domestic enjoyment’. His family was growing rapidly, with ten children born to his second wife between 1831 and 1845, to add to the seven children from his first marriage. He does not appear to have been politically active after he left Parliament, although he did make donations to the Anti-Corn Law League and signed a Lancashire millowners’ memorial against the Ten Hours Bill in 1847.
Instead, Fenton, ‘a fine hale-looking man’, retired happily into private life. Character sketches published in nineteenth-century local histories provide a detailed picture of his somewhat quirky domestic habits. Despite his substantial wealth – he and his brother had shared a £400,000 fortune when their father died in 1840 – he was ‘homely in his habits’, digging the fields with his workmen and trimming the hedges at his residence at Crimble Hall. He was ‘ingenious at needlework’, which he undertook with a favourite canary perched on his shoulder. He also ‘had a habit of carrying gingerbread in his pocket, which he munched frequently at odd times’. He died in 1863, and was commemorated with a bust in Rochdale town hall, presented by his widow in 1872.
Two of Fenton’s sons made unsuccessful attempts to follow him into politics. His son William seconded Cobden’s nomination as Liberal candidate for Rochdale in 1859, and was considered as a potential successor to Cobden after the latter’s death in 1865. He spent nearly £3,000 unsuccessfully contesting Chester in 1865, and was also defeated at North-East Lancashire in 1868.
Another son, Roger (1819-69), canvassed Rochdale in 1850 in anticipation of a by-election, but his political ambitions were thwarted when the sitting MP’s health improved. The following year he took up a career in photography, becoming one of the most notable photographers of the mid-nineteenth century, renowned particularly for his depictions of the Crimean War. He also photographed the Houses of Parliament – not the buildings his father would have known when he first became an MP, which were destroyed by fire in 1834, nor the temporary accommodation in which Fenton spent most of his parliamentary career, but the new Palace designed by Charles Barry.