January’s MP of the Month takes a look at the unusual pre-parliamentary career of Robert Spankie, who was returned for Finsbury in 1832. A ground-breaking parliamentary reporter during the 1790s, Spankie ascended to the editorship of the Morning Chronicle before re-training as a barrister and serving as a controversial advocate-general of Bengal.
The son of a Church of Scotland minister, Spankie was born in Falkland in 1774 and at 14 was sent to the University of St Andrews. He left for London in 1792 without graduating, after his work at an Edinburgh newspaper brought him to the attention of James Perry, the Scottish editor of London’s leading Whig newspaper, the Morning Chronicle.
Perry invited the ‘tall and rather athletic’ Spankie to work as a parliamentary reporter, a role that entailed recording speeches in the Commons and Lords for daily publication in the newspaper. Over the following decade he established himself as ‘one of the most rapid writers ever known on the press’ due to his shorthand speed and ability to compose a newspaper column in an hour (double the speed of the next quickest correspondents).
He was also known for his unwavering commitment to the relay system of parliamentary reporting, where journalists sat in shifts through the early hours to record debates for publication that morning. His reputation in this regard was thanks largely to the Fleet Street legend that once, when faced with a looming deadline and a congested Commons after a late night division, Spankie:
climbed over the balustrade of the stairs which communicated from the old smoking-room with the strangers’-gallery; and, suspending himself by his hands therefrom, dropped into the members’ lobby below (a height of 16 to 18 feet), amidst a crowd of senators. So suddenly was the affair accomplished, and so fleet of foot was the performer, that he escaped caption by any of the myrmidons of the Sergeant-at-Arms, and reached the office [of the Morning Chronicle] in safety and triumph [The Times, 5 Nov. 1842].
By around 1800 Spankie had become an editor and part-proprietor of the Morning Chronicle, earning the respect of radicals such as William Cobbett for his ‘excellent articles’ and cultivating a social atmosphere at the newspaper’s offices where ‘port wine and claret flowed freely’.
Discontented with his status as a lowly ‘gentleman of the press’, Spankie began to train as a lawyer at Inner Temple in 1803. He maintained his editorial duties while reading for the bar and developed increasingly close ties with the Whigs, acting as the chief conduit between the Ministry of All the Talents and the Morning Chronicle between 1806 and 1807. His increasing political moderation during this period earned him a lifelong enemy in the previously sympathetic William Cobbett, who was outraged that Spankie had succumbed to ‘the degrading influence of ministerial temptation’.
After selling his shares in the Morning Chronicle in 1807 Spankie was called to the bar and gradually built up a practice on the Home Circuit. He developed a distinctively ‘animated’ courtroom style to detract from common complaints about his ‘most discordant voice and a revoltingly coarse Scottish accent’. His brogue would continue to hinder him for the rest of his life despite sparing ‘no pains or cost to train himself as an orator’, which included elocution lessons from the radical reformer and speech therapist, John Thelwall.
In 1813 Spankie married Euphemia Inglis, the daughter of the East India Company director, John Inglis. Family connections soon secured lucrative legal work for the East India Company, and in July 1817 he was elected advocate-general of Bengal. Arriving in India in January 1818 he enjoyed a generous salary and precedence over all other members of the Calcutta bar. As the official legal representative of the East India Company he became notorious for his role in the suppression of the Calcutta Journal and the expulsion from India of its editor James Silk Buckingham in April 1823. Radical critics at home and abroad did not fail to note the irony of a journalist of former radical leanings enthusiastically working to curtail press freedoms and defend the unpopular East India Company monopoly.
Liver disease forced his return to London later that year, where he settled at 36 Russell Square. Quickly re-establishing himself on the Home Circuit and in the Court of Common Pleas he was appointed a serjeant-at-law in July 1824, granted patents of precedence in January 1831, and appointed King’s serjeant in November 1832. He retained his East India contacts throughout and was appointed standing counsel to the East India Company in July 1831.
Having exhibited little traceable political activity since his return from India, Spankie announced his intention to contest the newly enfranchised constituency of Finsbury in July 1832. His candidacy reignited his now long-standing rivalry with William Cobbett, whose Political Register condemned Spankie’s treatment of the press in India and accused him of being complicit in the ‘crowds of vendors of cheap publications, who are in Coldbath Fields Prison’. His campaign was also subject to charges of voter intimidation, when it was alleged that East India Company workers had been pressured by their bosses into voting for him.
While identifying as a lifelong reformer on the hustings he astutely positioned himself as the most moderate candidate in a field of five candidates professing Whig-Liberal sympathies. Despite Spankie’s refusal to accept any party label, the anti-reform Standard observed approvingly that Spankie was neither ‘Whig or Tory’, but ‘essentially Conservative’. Amidst cries of ‘No East India Monopoly’ on Islington Green on 12 December 1832 Spankie was declared an MP for Finsbury. His return in second place was thanks largely to a split vote among his more progressive opponents. It was also one of the rare instances of a parliamentary reporter making it from the strangers’ gallery to the benches of the Commons.
For details about how to access the biographies of Spankie and other MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, see here.