Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons for 2017

We would like to wish all the readers of the Victorian Commons a very Happy New Year for 2017! We’re looking forward to another year of blogging, but in the meantime, here are some of our blog highlights from 2016.

Looking back over our MP of the Month series, some interesting common themes have emerged. One developing strand in our research is the growing number of MPs from non-élite backgrounds, and the impact that their activities – which were often particularly noticeable in the committee rooms – had on the Commons. Among them are the Abingdon paper manufacturer, John Thomas Norris, described as an ‘upstart from the ranks’; Charles Capper, the Manchester weaver’s son who made his fortune in the shipping industry before serving briefly as MP for Sandwich; and James Barlow Hoy, formerly an assistant surgeon in the army. Another rather unlikely parliamentarian was John Gully, elected in 1832 for Wakefield, but better known as a champion pugilist, professional betting man and racehorse owner. Like Gully, Charles George Lyttelton was an enthusiastic sportsman, but it was his prowess as a cricketer which brought him renown.

Once again we have been delighted to host guest blogs. Caroline Shenton shared her expertise on the building of the new Houses of Parliament with her post on its architect, Charles Barry. Having contributed articles on Buteshire to our project, Matthew McDowell of the University of Edinburgh blogged for us about one of its MPs, James Lamont, better known as an Arctic explorer and scientist than as a parliamentarian.

We were joined this year by a new member of our research team, Martin Spychal, whose first blog for us looked at county politics in Northamptonshire South, where the Knightleys were one of the dominant families. He has also blogged about a Chancellor of the Exchequer described by Disraeli as having ‘the sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form’, George Ward Hunt. Another office-holder to feature as one of our MPs of the Month was Edward Lucas, who served in the important role of under-secretary for Ireland.

The fluidity of nineteenth-century party labels has been a recurrent theme in our research, and was brought to the fore in our blogs on Rowland Alston (who was also noted for averting a duel involving the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel) and on Samuel Bayntun, a ‘true blue’ Tory turned Reformer. We have continued to explore the political influence of women, as shown in our blog on the Unitarian MP Daniel Gaskell, whose wife played a key role in encouraging his parliamentary career. In June we marked the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill presenting the first mass women’s suffrage petition to the Commons.

The draft biographies and constituency articles we are preparing for the 1832-68 project can be found on our preview site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can sign up to follow our blog via e-mail or WordPress, or follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons

We look forward to sharing more of our research with you in 2017. Happy New Year!

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New book: Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910

Our assistant editor, Dr. Kathryn Rix, has just published her first book, with Boydell and Brewer, in the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series, entitled Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910. She shares some of the key themes of her research in this blog.

bookcoverParties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 is the first major study of the professional constituency agents during a key transitional period in British politics. Following the electoral reforms of 1883-5 – which extended the franchise, redrew the electoral map and introduced more stringent corrupt practices legislation – the Liberal and Conservative parties were confronted with the challenge of harnessing the support of a mass electorate. The expansion of local government, with county councils from 1888 and parish and district councils from 1894, created another potential arena for partisan effort. The solicitor agents who had typically undertaken the work of registration and electioneering on a part-time basis prior to 1880 were increasingly replaced by a new breed of full-time professional organisers, who handled the work of registration, electioneering and the day-to-day political, educational and social activities of local parties in the constituencies. These professional agents performed a vital role as intermediaries between politics at Westminster and at grass-roots level, bridging the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, and between politicians and those they sought to represent. The relationship between central party organisation and the localities is one of the underlying themes of this book.

My research considers the agents not only as political figures, but also as men (and occasionally women) determined to establish their status as professionals, placing them within the broader socio-economic context of late nineteenth-century professionalisation. It analyses the agents’ social and occupational backgrounds, drawing on a collective biographical study of almost 200 agents. Significantly for a group who often served as local figureheads for their party, agents came to a surprising extent from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds. In exploring the agents’ efforts to improve their position by means of professional associations (established on a national basis by the Liberal agents in 1882 and 1893, and by the Conservatives in 1891), it also assesses the impact which this had on political culture.

Electioneering in North Devon, 1910 (via sophialambert.com)

Electioneering in North Devon, 1910 (via this website)

In particular, this book analyses how far the professionalisation of party organisation can be equated with the ‘modernisation’ or ‘nationalisation’ of politics. It argues that while the agents’ professional networks and their high levels of geographical mobility contributed to a growing uniformity in certain aspects of party organisation, local forces continued to play a vital role in British political life. The balance of local, regional and national factors is explored particularly in relation to three key aspects of the election campaign: the selection of candidates; the ‘platform’ campaign of speeches by leading party figures, MPs, candidates and other activists; and the vast provision of election literature by local, regional and central party bodies.

One of the principal questions which has occupied historians in assessing Liberal and Conservative party activity in the later Victorian period is how the ideals and beliefs espoused by each party’s members were reflected not only in the policies they presented to the electorate, but also in the organisational structures and methods through which they sought to cultivate their political appeal. The Liberal approach to politics has been characterised as a more rational, sober and serious-minded one, while the Conservatives have been seen as more proficient at creating a social appeal and defending the ‘pleasures of the people’, such as sport and the public house. This book uses the agents’ perspective to shed new light on these important debates about party identity, arguing that the cultural differences between the parties were less clear-cut than might be supposed. Many Liberal agents, for example, were keen to overcome the impression that Liberalism was the creed of dull, temperance-abiding killjoys, and made efforts to develop the social side of party organisation in their constituencies. While the main focus of the research presented here is the two established political parties, the role of professional organisation within the embryonic Labour party is also discussed.

Overall, this book highlights the transformation of the function and standing of the political agent between 1880 and 1910, and the impact which the presence in the constituencies of this professional cadre of party organisers had on political and electoral culture.

For further details on this book, see here and here (with a discount offer from the publisher).

Kathryn will be giving a paper on her research to the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on Tuesday 30th May 2017 at 5:15 p.m.

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MP of the Month: Charles Capper (1822-1869)

Continuing with our recent theme of unlikely parliamentarians, our MP of the Month is Charles Capper, the son of a Manchester weaver. Capper made his fortune in the shipping industry, and wrote a notable history of the port of London, before being ruined by the financial panic of 1866. Sadly the panic, which also triggered a rapid decline in Capper’s mental health, occurred only days after he had been elected for Sandwich. His premature death, only three years later, left his family destitute.


Charles Capper’s Candelabrum (Illustrated London News, 29 Nov. 1856).

Born and educated in Manchester, Capper’s first job was for the haulage company Pickford’s, where he worked as a clerk and gained a reputation as ‘a remarkably swift penman’. In October 1845 he married Mary Jane Dowey at St Philip’s Church, Liverpool. They relocated to East London shortly after, when Capper’s former manager offered him the role of goods manager for the Eastern Counties Railway at the company’s Brick Lane depot. He worked for the company for a decade, quickly earning promotion to superintendent of the line.

During the decade he and Mary had four sons at their residence on The Grove, Stratford. Capper was well-loved by his colleagues, and when he left the Eastern Counties Railway for a position at the newly opened Victoria Docks in 1855, they all pitched in for a silver candelabrum, which was so extravagant that it featured in the Illustrated London News.

Capper devoted the next decade of his life to reforming the organisation of London’s chaotic docks, working from his offices on Mincing Lane (considered by one contemporary to be the ‘centre of the colonial market of the metropolis’). He was an active member of London’s shipping lobby, writing numerous anonymous pamphlets and letters to editors regarding London’s docks. By 1860 he had also started to invest heavily in shipping, particularly through the East India and London Shipping Company.

In 1862 Capper increased his standing in London’s commercial circles with his economic and social history, The Port and Trade of London. His aim for the book was to explain how British commerce had recently expanded ‘with a rapidity and to an extent, utterly unexampled in the history of the world’. In it he criticised ‘modern’ historians for attributing ‘outbreaks of war and … peace to the passions of monarchs, the intrigues of courts … and rival nations’. Instead, he argued that ‘wars and revolutions’ originated primarily from the ‘commercial necessities and interests of peoples’. The book went through several editions, becoming a standard text for Victorian students of commerce.


C. Capper, The Port and Trade of London, Historical, Statistical, Local and General (1862)

Capper’s greatest achievement, however, arguably came in 1864 with the passage of the London and St Katharine Docks Act. The Act amalgamated several East London dockyards, and it was largely thanks to Capper’s lobbying efforts that it passed through parliament. Capper continued to expand his portfolio, and by 1865 he was a ‘rich man’, serving as a director of 11 shipping, colonial and financial firms. This prompted an engagement in philanthropic activity, and following his death he was remembered as ‘one of the largest promoters of the effort to bring the Eastern Londoners within the means of religion and educational culture’.

Capper’s financial interests also opened up the opportunity of a parliamentary career. His position as director for the Down Docks Company, which was lobbying parliament for the right to build new docks in Deal, brought him into contact with the Sandwich and Deal Conservative Association in 1865. The association agreed to put Capper forward as a candidate for the borough at that year’s general election, but he polled third after his Liberal opponents accused him of trying to buy votes with promises of a new dockyard. Nevertheless, within a year he was returned for the borough at a by-election, beating his Liberal opponent by eight votes.

Unfortunately, within days of having ‘secured the high objects of his ambition’, the financial panic of 1866 placed Capper’s extensive shipping investments, and as a result his mental well-being, under considerable strain. With his portfolio diminishing rapidly, Capper found it difficult to engage fully with life in the Commons, where he acted as a silent supporter of the Conservative administration. When another Conservative announced his intention to stand at Sandwich in 1868, Capper took little convincing to retire from politics.

Capper died suddenly at his home only months later on 21 March 1869, reportedly from exhaustion following a bout of ‘severe diarrhoea’. A friend later explained that his sudden death had been occasioned by ‘anxieties’ and ‘a broken heart’, following his realisation that the panic of 1866 had left him bankrupt. Capper’s estate was entirely absorbed in order to repay his outstanding debts, leaving his wife and four children with little more than his silver candelabrum. Prominent figures in London’s commercial world, including Thomas Baring and Lionel de Rothschild, raised a subscription for Capper’s family, and his sons were offered ‘situations on small salaries’. Within eighteen months of his death, however, Capper’s wife was forced to apply to the Royal Literary Fund for £30 on account of being ‘destitute of all means and … compelled to rely upon the sale of articles of clothing’.

For details about how to access Capper’s biography and all our other draft articles click here.

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MP of the Month: John Gully (1783-1863)

Following on from the History of Parliament’s blog series on ‘Unlikely parliamentarians’ to mark Parliament Week 2016, our MP of the Month is another unlikely parliamentarian. John Gully, ‘an advanced reformer’, served as MP for Pontefract for five years from 1832. In a parliamentary sketch, Charles Dickens described this

quiet gentlemanly-looking man in the blue surtout, grey trousers, white neckerchief, and gloves, whose closely-buttoned coat displays his manly figure and broad chest to great advantage.

Gully’s gentlemanly demeanour in the Commons gave little hint of his extraordinary background. The son of a Gloucestershire innkeeper, he had been in turn a butcher, imprisoned debtor, champion pugilist, pub landlord, professional betting man and racehorse owner, and fathered 24 children (by two wives). Indeed his return to Parliament seemed so incongruous that it was rumoured that he had only sought election to win a bet.

John Gully

John Gully (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gully was born in his father’s pub near Bristol in 1783. When his father opened a butcher’s shop in Bristol, he trained Gully in this trade. Subsequent financial difficulties saw Gully imprisoned for debt in London’s King’s Bench prison. However, he secured his release in 1805 after his debts were paid by prize-fight promoters who had noted his prowess in a brief fight against his Bristol acquaintance, Henry Pearce, a champion prize-fighter, and were keen for the pair to fight a proper match. Six feet tall, with an ‘athletic and prepossessing’ frame, Gully lost their bout at Hailsham, Sussex, at which the future William IV was among the numerous spectators. When Pearce retired later that year, Gully was regarded as his successor as ‘champion of England’, and won notable fights in 1807 and 1808, before quitting to become landlord of a London pub.

Described as ‘second to none’ as a judge of racehorses, Gully became a professional betting man on the Turf, making his own wagers and taking commissions for others. He acquired his own racehorses in 1812, and in 1827 moved to Newmarket to pursue this more seriously. He won (and lost) huge sums through gambling: he and his business partner were said to have made £90,000 when their horse won the 1832 Derby. Although one contemporary claimed that Gully was ‘a regular blackleg’, the general consensus was that, in contrast with most of those involved with betting on the Turf, Gully was notably honourable and straightforward.


Pontefract constituency map

Continuing his upward social trajectory, Gully bought Ackworth Park, near Pontefract, in 1832, and invested in coal mines in northern England, which brought him ‘immense profits’. (He left a fortune of £70,000 on his death in 1863.) The Reformers of Pontefract invited their new neighbour to stand as their candidate at the general election in December 1832. Visiting the town to decline their invitation, Gully was so angered by comments by their Tory opponents that he changed his mind and decided to stand. He was elected unopposed as one of Pontefract’s two MPs. The diarist Charles Greville, while listing him among the ‘very bad characters’ returned to the first Reformed Commons, conceded that despite being ‘totally without education’, Gully had ‘strong sense, discretion, reserve, and a species of good taste’ and had ‘acquired gentility’. When Gully was presented at court by Lord Morpeth in 1836, another contemporary described this as ‘an instance of the levelling system now established in England’.

Although Gully rarely spoke in the Commons, he was a diligent attender who served on several select committees. He was often found in the minorities voting with Radical and Irish MPs in support of reforms such as the ballot, the removal of bishops from the House of Lords, the abolition of flogging as a punishment in the army and reform of the corn laws. He was re-elected in 1835, but retired in 1837 as the ‘late hours’ sitting in the Commons had damaged his health. He stood again at Pontefract in 1841, when he declared himself ‘the enemy of all monopolies, and the friend of the poor’, but retired early from the poll.

Despite this defeat, Gully remained politically active. Given his humble origins, it was perhaps unsurprising that he was sympathetic to the demands of the Chartists for parliamentary reform, although he disliked their violent tactics. He was also a keen supporter of the Anti-Corn Law League. He continued to enjoy considerable success as a racehorse owner, and the Manchester Times recorded in 1846 that ‘few men are more popular on the English race course, or more approved of by the aristocracy of the land’. The parliamentary career of this sporting celebrity demonstrates the ways in which those from non-elite backgrounds could find their way into the post-1832 House of Commons.

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MP of the Month: James Lamont (1828-1913), Arctic explorer and scientist

Our MP of the Month blog for October comes from Dr Matthew McDowell, of the University of Edinburgh, who has contributed to our 1832-68 project with articles on Buteshire and its MPs. In this guest blog, he explores the career of James Lamont, better known for his exploits outside Parliament than in the Commons.

At only four years old, a frightened James Lamont witnessed the enormous crowds present in Edinburgh to celebrate the passing of the 1832 Reform Act throwing stones at his window: his father, a Tory, had refused to light up his window at night, which was taken as a signal that he did not support Reform. In contrast with his father’s views, Lamont sat as Liberal MP for Buteshire, 1865-8, but his political career was a brief and irregular interlude in his scientific and literary endeavours, and at odds with the more mobile, heroic, robust figure written about in his accounts of sea voyages to Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya. He was one of the pre-eminent Arctic explorers and celebrity scientists of his day, and his daughter Augusta, who followed her father into science rather than politics, would later note:

Three years in Parliament! – what a contrast to the roving outdoor life that he had hitherto led! His later ‘gloomy reflections’ suggest that there was regret for time so spent.

Contemporary accounts, however, cast a different light on Lamont’s otherwise unremarkable time as an MP, for his political campaigns themselves revealed much about the fault lines in Scottish society in the immediate run-up to the passing of the Second Reform Act in 1867.

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

Lamont was the son of Lt. Col. Alexander Lamont, of Knockdow Estate, in Toward, Argyll. He was educated at Rugby School and the Edinburgh Military Academy. Upon his uncle’s death in 1849, Lamont inherited a fortune which, as Stephen Mullen has noted, was largely based on government compensation for his uncle’s Trinidad slave plantations. He began to attend to his estates in both Scotland and the West Indies, at the same time devoting himself to travelling and exploration. Lamont’s many voyages included trips to Nova Scotia, Labrador, the Mediterranean and South Africa, but it was his trips to the Nordic and Russian Arctic that remain his defining explorations. In 1858 and 1859, Lamont, on board his schooner the Ginerva, sailed up to and explored areas of Svalbard. He was also a keen hunter of seals, walruses, grouse and polar bears. These adventures formed the basis of Lamont’s first book, Seasons with the Sea Horses; or, sporting adventures in the northern seas (1861).

In 1869, 1870 and 1871, upon a newly-constructed yacht, the Diana, Lamont went further: not only did he explore more of Svalbard and Jan Mayen, but he also went on extensive trips which documented Novaya Zemlya. These voyages were documented in his second book, Yachting in the Arctic Seas, or notes of five voyages of sport and discovery in the neighbourhood of Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya (1876). Both books are bloody reads: the hunting and slaughter of animals dominates Lamont’s stories. A recent article on Lamont by Leah Devlin has focused on his beliefs on the evolution of walruses and polar bears, as discussed in his books, as well as in correspondence with Charles Darwin. Certainly, his political opponents made much of his support for the theory of evolution.

Lamont’s brief political career was sandwiched in between these two major publications. He had been selected by the Liberals to run for the Paisley constituency in 1857, before his first voyage to the Arctic, but did not go to the poll. In 1859, he was selected as Liberal candidate for the island constituency of Buteshire, one of the Conservative Party’s safest Scottish seats, bordering Lamont’s ancestral home, but was defeated by nine votes. ‘The result’, he later recollected in Seasons with the Sea Horses, ‘proved unfortunate for the walrus, although perhaps the cynical reader may be disposed to add, “fortunate for the constituency”, and I was once more at liberty to proceed on my intended voyage’. Here, his political career was treated as an inconvenient footnote. It fared no better in Yachting in the Arctic Seas, where Lamont painted his 1868 retirement from Parliament as a chance to get back to his one true passion:

So completely did these ideas gain possession of me that at the general election of 1868 I abandoned a seat in Parliament … and set to work to build a vessel which should embody all Arctic requirements in a moderate compass.


Buteshire, from The Imperial gazetteer of Scotland. Vol. I, by Rev. John Marius Wilson

The reality of Lamont’s ‘abandonment’ of his political career was far messier. Standing again for Buteshire at a by-election in 1865, Lamont had launched a scathing attack on his Conservative opponent George Frederick Boyle, the local landlords’ preferred candidate, on account of his religious affiliations. Boyle was both a layman in the Scottish Episcopal Church and a well-known patron of Tractarianism, who famously built an Episcopal training college in Millport. Exploiting the sectarian rivalries between Scotland’s competing faiths, Lamont enlisted the support of local Free Church ministers and sought to portray Boyle as the ultimate nightmare: a Catholic landowner in disguise. ‘When our forefathers rose against the superstitions and mummeries of the Romish Church at the Reformation’, he declared on the hustings, ‘an ancestor of mine, also called James Lamont of Knockdow, pulled down a Roman Catholic Church on Loch Striven side, so that not one stone of it remained upon another’. Although he narrowly lost the by-election, Lamont used his speech at the declaration to charge local landlords with intimating crofter-electors, provoking a riot.

At the 1865 general election six months later Lamont rode the Liberal wave into Parliament. Reporting on his 1865 campaigns, the Tory Edinburgh Courant referred to him as a ‘Darwinite murderer of seals’, whose own graphic exploits, as written about by the man himself, displayed a lust for power. Once elected, however, Lamont failed to make his presence felt in the Commons, rarely speaking at any length in debate and voting infrequently in the division lobbies. After siding with the Conservatives against Gladstone on the question of Irish church disestablishment, to which he was bitterly opposed, Lamont was deselected by Buteshire’s Liberals, forcing his retirement at the 1868 election. That so little space was given to politics either by himself or his daughter in their accounts of his career confirms that unique celebrities of Lamont’s make were not necessarily suited to life at Westminster.

Further reading

  • Augusta Lamont, Records and Recollections of Sir James Lamont of Knockdow (self-published, 1950)
  • A.G.E. Jones, ‘Lamont, Sir James, first baronet (1828-1913)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [www.oxforddnb.com]
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MP of the month: James Barlow Hoy (1794-1843)

As biographies of long-forgotten politicians go, this month’s MP ticks all the boxes, offering an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale, the beginnings of a brilliant political career accompanied by fraud and bankruptcy, and even an allegation of murder.

Hoy, or Barlow as he was originally known, was working as a lowly assistant surgeon in the army in 1828 when a chance inheritance from a cousin transformed his life, providing him with ‘extensive property’ in Hampshire and a ‘great fortune’ of almost £88,000. Within a year he had adopted the surname of his benefactor, the merchant Michael Hoy, and within two years had been elected for the venal borough of Southampton at vast expense, assisted by his cousin’s mercantile connections. Hoy’s opposition to the Grey ministry’s reform bill lost him the seat in 1831, but in 1832 he defied the national trend and was re-elected as a Conservative MP. The discovery of ‘fraudulent voting’, however, led to his being unseated on petition in 1833, following a lengthy investigation into Southampton’s corrupt electoral practices.

Determined to leave nothing to chance, Hoy launched a highly effective campaign at the 1835 election, pitching himself as a protector of the ‘ancient English rights’ of Southampton’s pre-1832 electors, whose entitlements to vote he had helped to defend by funding lawyers to attend the registration courts. With the support of the treasury, now in Tory control, and another vast outlay on treating and entertainment, including a series of musical election ‘rounds’ composed in his support, he topped the poll.

1835 Southampton election round

1835 Southampton Election Round

Another of Hoy’s bugbears on the hustings had been the radical cry for the secret ballot. ‘Was public opinion not to have any influence?’, he had demanded, to the approval of many non-voters. ‘Was a voter to sneak privately to the poll and not let his neighbours know what he was doing?’

Hoy not only became a noted campaigner in the Commons against this most ‘un-English’ of innovations, but also used it to highlight the glaring hypocrisy of other Liberal measures. In an impressive speech on 2 June 1835, he derided all those who supported the ballot and municipal corporation reform, noting how he was ‘surprised to see those who had been foremost in exclaiming against corporations, on account of the secrecy of their proceedings … coming forward as the advocates of a measure, the whole object of which was to secure the most complete secrecy’. If ‘public opinion were thought a necessary restraint’ and ‘useful control upon the actions’ of MPs, he asked, why should it be any ‘less necessary when voting for MPs’? Although his attempt to make the new town council elections ‘be taken openly’, in the same manner as parliamentary polls, was defeated, provision was subsequently made for council voting papers to be available for public inspection on payment of a fee.

Clearly a rising star of the Tory opposition, Hoy’s sudden departure for the Continent in 1837, ostensibly on account of his wife’s health, came as a surprise to his constituents. It may have been related to the huge sums involved in contesting Southampton on five occasions in as many years. He stayed in Naples during the 1837 and 1841 elections, although the publication in 1839 of his pamphlet Manufacturers and corn growers, a defence of the protective import duties on corn, suggests that he may have been contemplating a return to UK politics.

His ‘accidental’ death in 1843 attracted widespread publicity. During a ‘shooting excursion’ with an ‘old friend’ Captain Richard Meredith in the Pyrenees, Hoy slipped into a ravine, dropping his gun, which ‘went off’, lacerating the blood vessels in his arm. He died from these injuries and ‘lock jaw’ the following day. Hoy’s will made generous provision for his wife Marian, but due to his outstanding mortgages of £58,500 there were insufficient funds to carry it out fully and his estate was declared ‘insolvent’.

Hoy’s younger brother, the Reverend Robert Joseph Barlow, later became convinced that Hoy’s wife and Captain Richard Meredith had conspired to murder Hoy, and that Hoy had been pushed by Meredith into the ravine, allegations which found their way into his autobiographical novel W. Fitzallen, Remarkable but still true (1872). Just over a year after the accident Hoy’s widow married Meredith. In 1850, following Meredith’s own death, she took a third husband, the Catholic author John Richard Digby Beste.

For details about how to access this biography and all our other draft articles click here.

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A Westminster Boy Made Good: Charles Barry (1795-1860)


Caroline Shenton won the Political Book of the Year Award in 2013 with The Day Parliament Burned Down and its sequel Mr Barry’s War is published this month. 

In this guest post she reflects on an often-forgotten aspect of the background of Charles Barry, architect of the New Houses of Parliament.

On the night of 16 October 1834, thirty-nine year old Charles Barry was travelling back to town from business in Brighton. As his stagecoach trundled over the top of the North Downs, and began its descent towards the city,

a red glare on the London side of the horizon showed that a great fire had begun.  Eager questions elicited the news that the Houses of Parliament had caught fire, and that all attempts to stop the conflagration were unavailing. No sooner had the coach reached the office, than he hurried to the spot, and remained there all night.  All London was out, absorbed in the grandeur and terror of the sight … the thought of this great opportunity, and the conception of designs for the future, mingled in Mr Barry’s mind, as in the minds of many other spectators, with those more obviously suggested by the spectacle itself. [Alfred Barry, The Life and Works of Sir Charles Barry (1867)]

Barry had more reason than many to wonder about the future of the Palace.  One of the most startling things about the enigmatic man who became the architect of the new Houses of Parliament was that he was born and brought up in Westminster itself and knew the area inside out even before the competition which changed his life.

Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight, oil on canvas, circa 1851 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight, oil on canvas, circa 1851 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

The ninth of eleven children of a government Stationery Office supplier, Barry was born and spent his childhood at 2 Bridge Street, which ran along the side of New Palace Yard, opposite the door of Westminster Hall at the northern end of the ramshackle old Palace.  He was christened at St Margaret’s, Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, only a few steps from home. Some fifty years after Barry’s birth, the Clock Tower of the New Palace of Westminster – its most well-known feature – began to be constructed just opposite his birthplace. Orphaned at ten years old, at fifteen he was articled to a firm of surveyors in Lambeth across the river.  So up until he was twenty-one, Barry lived and worked in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament, though very different to the one which is familiar to us today.

The old Palace must have been a constant presence in his life.  From his attic bedroom at the top of the Barry home it would have been possible to see the north door of Westminster Hall, still with the law courts held inside, as well as the Abbey and St Margaret’s, a view painted in the 1820s by Auguste Pugin, father of Barry’s most famous collaborator.  As a trainee surveyor and architect Barry’s daily walk over Westminster Bridge to Lambeth provided fine views of its eastern flank across the Thames.  Growing up in its shadow and then working across the river would have impressed on Barry’s vivid imagination the muddled shapes and textures of the Palace which had been home to the House of Lords since the thirteenth century, and to the House of Commons since the Reformation.  In 1812, at the age of seventeen, he successfully entered a drawing for exhibition at the Royal Academy for the first time. Tellingly, its subject was the interior of Westminster Hall.  For the rest of his life, Barry both drew on the existing iconography of Westminster and then indelibly imprinted his own vision on it.

‘What a chance for an architect!” he exclaimed on watching the terrible fire of 1834.  But it was also an amazing opportunity for a local boy.  For when, in 1835, he entered the competition to design a new Houses of Parliament, he had – like the other 96 entrants – to do it anonymously.  They weren’t allowed to sign their drawings but instead each competitor marked the corner of every sheet with a unique symbol – or rebus, as it was called – and then placed their name in an otherwise unmarked envelope bearing the symbol on the outside, to be opened only if they won.  Barry’s choice of rebus was the Portcullis: the heraldic badge of Lady Margaret Beaufort found peppered all over the Henry VII Chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey (whose Perpendicular style Barry had already reflected across his whole design).  This very personal choice from a building so well-known to Barry subsequently became the universal symbol for Parliament, and can be found decorating nearly every nook and cranny of the new Palace, thanks to Barry’s collaborator, A. W. N. Pugin who incorporated it into the carpets, wallpaper, fixtures and fittings, and woodwork of the Palace’s interior, and the stone mason John Thomas who was responsible for the exterior carvings.  Today, Portcullis House, the parliamentary building which houses MPs’ offices and committee rooms, stands on the very site of Barry’s childhood home.

Despite living for a time in Hatton Garden and then the West End, in 1840 Barry moved his wife and family to 32 Great George Street, so that he could keep an eye on the growing Palace just a few hundred yards away.  Great George Street was in fact simply an extension of Bridge Street westwards towards St James’s Park.  In the 1850s, Barry was highly influential in the design and construction of a new Westminster Bridge whose profile he was determined had to blend with the Palace when viewed from downriver.  And finally, when he died in 1860, worn out with the stress of working on the Palace for twenty-five years, Barry was buried in Westminster Abbey among the most famous of his peers, but also fittingly, just a stone’s throw from the place where he was born and had gazed upon from his attic bedroom whose walls he had once decorated with imaginary scenes of faraway places.

Caroline Shenton @dustshoveller

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