MP of the Month: Thomas Barrett Lennard (1788-1856)

Thomas Barrett Lennard‘s career neatly captures some of the oddities and contradictions of early Victorian politics, especially the survival of older attitudes and beliefs alongside the emergence of more ‘modern’ progressive ideas. Lennard’s campaign to abolish the death penalty for theft and to remove various forms of corporal punishment was way ahead of its time. But he attracted ridicule for repeatedly trying to revive the ancient ‘freeman-by-marriage’ franchise, whereby men acquired their voting rights by marrying the daughters of freemen (see below). He also campaigned steadily against slavery, while at the same time owning slaves on a Jamaican estate inherited by his wife.

Original ‘wife’ based freeman voter enrolments: Maldon 1826

Lennard had been groomed for a political career by his ambitious father Sir Thomas Barrett Lennard (1762-1857), the illegitimate son and heir of the extremely wealthy Essex landowner Lord Dacre. First returned for Ipswich in 1820, and then the venal borough of Maldon from 1826-37 and 1847-52, Lennard had quickly established himself as a highly respected backbench radical, backing Dissenters’ rights, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. However, his attempt in 1831 to prevent the Whig ministry from abolishing the ‘freeman-by-marriage’ voting qualification, in order to protect the ‘privileges’ of the ‘fair sex’ in his own constituency of Maldon, was widely ridiculed. When he applied to Lord Grey, the premier, for a peerage for his father later that year, he was fobbed off. Despite being over 70, Lennard’s father then decided to also enter the Commons. In 1832 he was elected as a Whig for Essex South, joining Lennard, who had been re-elected for Maldon.

Father and son MPs were not unusual at this time. But having a very elderly father join a veteran political son reversed the normal relationship and sparked inevitable criticism and jibes. Launching a stinging harangue against a local Whig peer, who had refused to back the campaign of his elderly father, Lennard declared:

Thank God the days of aristocratic influence are over! Thank God my father does not come forward the creature of the aristocracy … I care not for my Lord Petre, nor for the aristocracy … I look only to the people because I know it is only among the people that real public virtue and intelligence, and feeling, are to be found [Loud cheering].

Sir Thomas Barrett Lennard MP

Perhaps because of his father’s moderating influence, Lennard kept a lower profile for the next few years, curbing his radicalism and loyally backing the Whig government on most key issues. In 1835, however, he couldn’t resist another shot at reviving the marriage  franchise, during the debates on the municipal reform bill. Insisting that it was ‘one of the most valued rights of the daughters of the freemen of Maldon’, he proposed to restore the freeman franchise to anyone ‘who shall espouse the daughter of any freeman of any borough’. His speech, recorded the reporters, was ‘rendered wholly inaudible by the general confusion and noise’ that ensued. His motion was thrown out, 163-50. Lennard’s subsequent claim at the 1837 election to have ‘toiled night and day in the house of commons for the benefit of the freemen’ and their ‘wives and daughters’ cut little ice. He lost his seat. When he was re-elected in 1847, however, he again targeted his campaign at the ‘ladies’ of Maldon, believing they could influence the freemen.

Lennard had declared himself the ‘most decided enemy of slavery in every shape or form’ at the 1832 election. His actions in the Commons seemed to bear this out. He presented at least 14 anti-slavery petitions the next year and steadily supported the Whig government’s plans to abolish colonial slavery in the division lobbies. At the 1835 election he went even further, accusing his Tory opponents of being the ‘bigoted advocates of slavery’. Yet later that year he was himself a beneficiary of the government’s scheme to compensate slave owners. He received £1,252 for manumitted slaves in Jamaica. The plantation involved was the Stewart Castle estate owned by the Sheddon family, with 288 slaves, part of which had been inherited by his wife Mary Bridger Sheddon.

Lennard later declared that ‘of all the things’ he was ‘most proud’, it was ‘having been a party to removing much of the barbarous system of capital punishments, which not long ago made the fronts of our gaols little better than human slaughter houses’. Although none of his own proposals ever became law, the vast bulk of his Commons speeches were in support of measures limiting the use of capital and corporal punishment. He was particularly active in the ultimately successful campaign to remove the death penalty for theft, believing that many criminals were ‘often urged to the deeper crime of murder to avoid the conviction of the lesser crime’. He also spoke regularly about the tragedy ‘of a man unjustly convicted of murder, and afterwards executed’. Both in this and his vehement denunciation of flogging, whipping and beating, Lennard was way ahead of most of his contemporaries.

Lennard maintained a much more traditional approach when it came to elections and was never shy of opening his purse at election time. Defeated in 1852, after a notoriously corrupt contest that almost led to Maldon being disfranchised, he vowed to stand again at the next opportunity but died in 1856. His 94 year old father was by then the country’s oldest living baronet.

To access the full biographies of Thomas Barrett Lennard and his father or any other articles being prepared for the 1832-68 volumes please click here.

Related blogs:

MP of the month: Thomas Neville Abdy (1810-77) and electoral misconduct

A Victorian Essex Election

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