Our MP of the Month Thomas Greene (1794-1872) represented his Lancaster constituency for more than three decades. As a well-respected back bench MP, he made an important contribution to parliamentary business behind the scenes, and served as chairman of ways and means from 1841 until 1847.
The name of Thomas Greene may be obscure today, but at the time of his death in 1872, The Times recorded that he had been ‘widely known and highly respected in Parliamentary circles’. He provides a good example of those diligent back bench MPs who made an unshowy, but significant, contribution to the smooth functioning of the Victorian Commons. His parliamentary career also illustrates another feature of nineteenth-century politics which we have explored in previous blogs: the fluidity of party allegiances, particularly in the 1830s.
Greene entered the Commons in 1824 following a by-election victory at Lancaster, which lay close to the family estates he had inherited in 1810. He represented the borough – with one brief hiatus – until his retirement in 1857, and was unopposed at his first six elections. Although he was elected as a supporter of Lord Liverpool’s Tory ministry, Greene asserted that he was ‘not devoted to party and would always vote conscientiously’. During his early years in the Commons, he ‘tacked between the Tories and Whigs to retain the local support by which he made his seat his own’. He opposed Catholic emancipation, but voted for the Grey ministry’s reform bill, hoping to prevent a more sweeping reform. In 1831 he was elected as a ‘moderate reformer’ and again took a pro-reform stance on the hustings in 1832, although he was keen to go to Parliament ‘unshackled’ by pledges and preserve his ‘independence of character’.
Greene’s votes in the first Reformed Parliament confirmed his unwillingness to follow a strict party line. At the 1835 election he again advocated a policy of moderate reform, but this time stood as a supporter of Sir Robert Peel and his Tamworth manifesto. He duly backed Peel’s short-lived ministry on key issues in the division lobbies and was listed by the Parliamentary Test Book (1835) as a Conservative. While other parliamentary guides were slower to recognise his change of allegiance, it was evident from his subsequent votes against the Melbourne ministry that his loyalties had shifted.
When the Conservatives returned to office in 1841, Peel, on Lord Stanley’s recommendation, appointed Greene to the important position of chairman of the committee of ways and means. In addition to the committee’s handling of matters relating to the public revenue, the chairman of ways and means had recently been given responsibility for overseeing unopposed private bills in the Commons. Peel cited Greene’s experience in ‘the private business of the House’ as a key reason for his selection. Although he had not been a regular speaker in the chamber, he had taken a particular interest in procedural matters, and had been a diligent member in the committee-rooms. In the 1837-41 Parliament he had served on several select committees dealing with procedural issues, including the select committees on private business and the revision of the standing orders. Alongside this experience, Greene could draw upon his training as a lawyer. He had been called to the bar in 1819, although he did not pursue a legal career.
Greene’s appointment as chairman of ways and means prompted a marked increase in his attendance at Westminster, voting in at least half of divisions in every session except 1843. He spoke much more regularly, although his interventions were mostly brief procedural points when chairing debates. He was keen to make improvements in the procedure followed by committees on railway bills, which were occupying an increasing amount of the House’s time, as well as on private bills, and again sat on several select committees on procedural matters. He remained loyal to Peel over the Maynooth grant, despite this giving ‘mortal offence to his ultra-Tory supporters’ at Lancaster, and also backed him over the repeal of the corn laws. While his moderate views had previously been a source of strength, he recognised on the hustings in 1847 that this was no longer the case, since ‘I do not go far enough for either party, and so I have doubtless lost many votes’. He was, however, re-elected in second place, assisted by the ‘personal regard’ of many voters for him.
Greene was replaced as chairman of ways and means by a Liberal in 1847, but continued to give the Commons the benefit of his procedural expertise. In 1848 he was appointed as one of three commissioners who would superintend the completion of the new Palace of Westminster, which had been subject to delay and increased expense. This prompted several contributions to debate as he and the other commissioners attempted to resolve problems such as the acrimonious dispute between Charles Barry and David Boswell Reid over the ventilation of the Commons chamber. Greene displayed his frustration with Barry, complaining in April 1851 that his ‘very unsightly’ interior decoration was at odds with the wish of the Commons that ‘the new chamber should be as unadorned as possible’.
The new Conservative ministry of 1852 led by the Earl of Derby (who as Lord Stanley had recommended Greene to Peel in 1841) saw Greene as ‘the natural person to bring forward’ as chairman of ways and means, but expectations that he would resume his former role were scuppered by his defeat at that year’s general election. Derby instead chose John Wilson Patten, hoping he might accept the position ‘temporarily … with an understanding that he would resign it if Greene should regain his seat’. Greene did not, however, displace Patten when re-entered the Commons at a by-election in April 1853. He rarely spoke in debate in his final Parliament, but remained active in the committee-rooms, serving on the select committees on the business of the House and on standing orders, as well as inquiries into the ventilation of the Commons, Peterborough’s elections, the Thames marshes, compensation claims against the Portuguese government, the public health bill and the nuisances removal amendment bill. He also played another important part in managing the business of the House as one of the chairmen of the general committee on railway and canal bills and regularly chaired the committee of selection, which oversaw the appointment of committees on private bills. While Greene’s name was not associated with any landmark piece of legislation or a campaign on any particular issue, his diligent activity at Westminster was essential to the functioning of parliamentary business.