By the 1850s a seat in Parliament was proving a useful career path for men of relatively humble means to achieve substantial professional advancement. A prime example was our MP of Month, Alfred Rhodes Bristow. The son of a Greenwich tradesman, he honed his legal and political skills in municipal politics and election agency before securing a parliamentary seat, which he then readily traded for a lucrative government position.
Bristow was born in Greenwich in 1818, the youngest son of a draper and government contractor. Educated at King’s College, London, he qualified as a solicitor in 1841, and the following year married the daughter of a local calico printer. He subsequently established a successful conveyancing practice and in 1851 began acting as the election agent for an independent Liberal barrister named Montague Chambers. Chambers held moderately radical views and despite losing to a government candidate at the Greenwich by-election of February 1852, he later won the seat with Bristow’s help at the 1852 general election.
Alongside parliamentary elections, Bristow became involved in municipal affairs. In December 1855 he was elected to the new metropolitan board of works as a representative for Greenwich, Deptford and Hatcham. An active committee man, he demonstrated his political flexibility in February 1857 by bringing forward a government nominee, General William Codrington, for another by-election at Greenwich. Codrington, a former commander of the British army in the Crimea, easily defeated the Radical candidate. By the time of the 1857 general election, Bristow – who was described as rather ‘beyond middle-height’, well-proportioned but ‘inclined to bulk’, with features which beamed ‘with intellect and intelligence’ – was said to have the representation of Greenwich ‘in his pocket’. Although in 1857 he was unable to save Chambers from defeat by a more advanced Radical, Bristow had astutely formed a joint committee which secured Codrington’s return at the top of the poll.
When Chambers abandoned his candidature for Kidderminster at the 1859 general election for another unsuccessful attempt on Greenwich, Bristow agreed to take his place at the venal carpet-making borough. Although he stood under the motto of ‘Bristow and the working classes’, he adopted a conciliatory stance towards his Conservative opponent, whose party nevertheless branded him ‘an out-and-out Republican’. Elected with a small majority, he was accused of unduly influencing the electors. A petition against his return, however, was dropped after reportedly being ‘paired’ with a Liberal petition at Pontefract, on the condition that Bristow paid £700 towards his opponent’s election costs.
Bristow was well suited to life at Westminster, where he paid unwearied attention to matters of business. He had a ‘rich, pleasing, and harmonious’ voice, and developed a reputation as a candid and straightforward public speaker. His genial nature and talent for putting people at their ease made him ‘a universal favourite’ in the House. Although he advocated a thorough programme of reform, he insisted that it could be achieved ‘without a particle of revolution or rebellion’, and attracted popular support in Kidderminster. At Westminster he helped to restructure the municipal administration of London by assisting William Tite with a bill to amend the Metropolis Local Act of 1855. At the same time he was always ready to provide ‘bustling support’ for Lord Palmerston’s ministry whenever ‘his vote was of consequence’.
He made himself particularly useful to the Palmerston ministry by resigning his parliamentary seat in 1862 in order to create a vacancy for Luke White, the government’s ‘Irish whip’. He was rewarded with the post of solicitor to the admiralty, with a ‘comfortable’ salary of £2,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, the medical grounds he cited as his reason for retirement from the Commons were derided by the Conservative press, which reported the House’s ‘unbounded amusement’ that after only three parliamentary sessions this ‘stout, muscular individual’ could no longer ‘without risk to his life, remain out of bed after midnight!’
Bristow discharged his duties at the admiralty with ‘tact, ability, and energy’. Still keen to advance his legal career, he was called to the bar in November 1868, and continued to maintain substantial business interests, which included a directorship of the East London Bank. Not done with politics, he answered a call from the Kidderminster branch of the Reform League to offer himself at the 1868 general election, but subsequently withdrew from the contest. In 1874 he seconded the nomination of his former client, General Sir William Codrington, as a candidate for the Westminster constituency. Active to the end, Bristow spent a particularly busy day in the capital on 5 April 1875, when he collapsed and died at the feet of his wife and niece outside the Crystal Palace Hotel, Norwood.