MP of the Month: The ‘strange career’ of John Townsend (1819-1892)

Once a successful auctioneer and undertaker, Townsend’s short and controversial parliamentary career as MP for Greenwich ended in 1859 after a protracted struggle to escape bankruptcy. His ‘strange career’ was, however, far from over and he subsequently found fame in North America, where he established himself as ‘one of the most popular actors of the day’, and became the manager of a pioneering Canadian theatre company.

John-Townsend-low-223x300

John Townsend MP. Image credit.

Born in Deptford, Townsend worked in his father’s prosperous and well-established undertaking business until 1843, when he established his own estate agency. His funeral orations were said to have had no equal, and his ‘fluent and copious addresses’ to bidders ensured his success as an auctioneer. These talents had been honed on the stage: Townsend had begun his career in the theatre at the age of 12 with Edmund Kean’s company. In 1842 he leased the theatre in Richmond, Surrey, under the pseudonym John Tamworth, but by 1844 his activities as an actor-manager had brought him to the verge of bankruptcy. He subsequently recovered his fortunes in the property business, however, and developed an interest in politics, becoming agent to the successful Liberal candidate at the 1852 general election for Greenwich.

Apparently ambitious to establish himself as the borough’s ‘Member Maker’, he unwisely handled the campaign of an impecunious and unsuccessful ‘ballot candidate’ known as Colonel Sleigh at the Greenwich by-election in February 1857. Undaunted, he founded a Liberal Association in the borough at that year’s general election and announced his candidature two days before the nomination. To the surprise of many, his support for the ballot and a wide extension of the franchise secured him second place in the poll.

Unfortunately Townsend’s political activities not only cost him a great deal of money, much of it borrowed, but also caused him to neglect his business. An attempt to replenish his coffers by raising £5,000 from his constituents brought in only a few hundred pounds, and in July 1857 his newly-acquired business partner called in the receivers. Found bankrupt that September, he managed to persuade his creditors to allow him time to liquidate their claims, but after failing to do so he was bankrupted again in March 1858. However, his case was not brought to the notice of the House until 15 June, by which time Townsend had unwittingly cast illegitimate votes in important divisions on the ballot, the abolition of church rates and the county franchise bill. These votes were subsequently disallowed, and he was deemed incapable of sitting and voting in the House. However, as a bankrupt he was allowed to remain a Member for twelve months to afford an opportunity to satisfy his creditors.

Facing debts of £5,000 with assets of £87, and with his ‘legislatorial powers in abeyance’, it was widely anticipated that Townsend would retire from the Commons. After further appearances in the court of bankruptcy he secured only the lowest class of certificate, the judge concluding that his election spending had been ‘a wanton and shameful waste of assets’. Publicly accused of having ‘aimed too soon and shot too high’, he was widely criticised for having sought parliamentary honours when he could hardly meet the property qualification. When it emerged that his family had been compelled to pawn household goods in order to ‘procure their daily bread’, Townsend was condemned by the Morning Post for ‘his absurd vanity in seeking to fill a position for which he was neither qualified by intellect, by fortune, by birth, nor by position’.

To satisfy his creditors Townsend pluckily returned to the stage, which he had abandoned in 1852 to take on his late father’s business. He played leading roles in several London playhouses and is thought to have been the last actor to perform Shakespeare’s Richard III on horseback. Shortly after reciting the four-hour play from memory to an appreciative audience at the Greenwich Literary Institution, he announced his resignation from the Commons and took the Chiltern Hundreds, 8 Feb. 1859. He retained the sympathy of the borough’s working men, however, and played a significant part in getting a progressive Liberal elected in his place. In a further attempt to clear his debts Townsend became manager of the Theatre Royal in Leicester, before emigrating to Upper Canada in 1862.

Settling near Kingston, Townsend returned to the stage in 1864 and, along with his family, all of whom had been trained for the stage, formed a troupe which toured southern Ontario and became one of the first Canadian-based companies ‘that dared swim in the sea of American touring’. Remembered as ‘a capital tragedian’, who possessed a sonorous voice and a robust style, he retired from the stage in 1877, and after some years working as a respected teacher of acting and elocution he died at Hamilton, Western Ontario, in December 1892.

Further reading: D. Gardner, ‘Townsend, John’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1990)

Advertisements
Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs

Earlier this year we were delighted to attend the launch of Seth Thévoz’s first book, Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs, published by I. B. Tauris. This book is based on research undertaken for Seth’s PhD thesis on ‘The political impact of London Clubs, 1832-68’, which was jointly supervised by Dr. Sarah Richardson, of Warwick University, and our editor, Dr. Philip Salmon, and funded by a PhD scholarship from the History of Parliament Trust. Part of Seth’s work included compiling a database of the club membership of every MP who sat during this period, which we are using in our biographies of the 2,590 MPs we are covering in our project.

As this summary of the book explains, Seth’s work provides important new insights into the political impact of London’s clubs.

Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs (20171221) by [Thevoz, Seth Alexander]The phenomenon of ‘Club Government’ in the mid-nineteenth century, when many of the functions of government were alleged to have taken place behind closed doors, in the secretive clubs of London’s St. James’s district, has not been adequately historicized. Despite ‘Club Government’ being referenced in most major political histories of the period, it is a topic which has never before enjoyed a full-length study. Making use of previously-sealed club archives, and adopting a broad range of analytical techniques, this work of political history, social history, sociology and quantitative approaches to history seeks to deepen our understanding of the distinctive and novel ways in which British political culture evolved in this period. The book concludes that historians have hugely underestimated the extent of club influence on ‘high politics’ in Westminster, and though the reputation of clubs for intervening in elections was exaggerated, the culture and secrecy involved in gentleman’s clubs had a huge impact on Britain and the British Empire.

Many congratulations to Seth on his publication.

 

Posted in Publications | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The 1868 Boundary Act: Disraeli’s attempt to control his ‘leap in the dark’?

As part of our series on the 1867 Reform Act, we are reblogging this piece from Martin Spychal on an important associated measure, the 1868 Boundary Act.

The History of Parliament

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Boundary Act. As Martin Spychal of the Commons 1832-68 Section discusses in today’s blog, the oft-neglected story of the Act provides several key insights into Britain’s second Reform Act and, in particular, the intentions of Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister in 1868…

Leap in the Dark The 1867 Reform Act, or Disraeli’s leap in the Dark

It is often forgotten that Benjamin Disraeli intended to mitigate the democratising impact of the 1867 Reform Act’s borough householder franchise through boundary changes and the redistribution of seats. For Disraeli, boundary reform also offered an opportunity to increase Conservative influence over the English electoral system, and the chance to put his increasingly ambitious electoral intelligence network to the test.

The 1868 Boundary Act provided new boundaries to 59 English boroughs as well as 10 Welsh borough districts, and altered the temporary limits that had been assigned…

View original post 1,154 more words

Posted in Constituencies, Legislation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: Lord Hotham (1794-1870)

Beaumont-Hotham-3rd-Baron-Hotham

Beaumont Hotham, 3rd Baron Hotham (1794-1870) (c) National Portrait Gallery

Our MP of the Month, Lord Hotham, is one of a small number of individuals who sat for the entire period covered by our 1832-68 project. A Waterloo veteran, he had first been elected to the Commons in 1820 as a Tory MP for Leominster, which he represented – with a brief gap in service in 1831 – until 1841. He then sat for the East Riding of Yorkshire, where he owned extensive estates, until retiring in 1868.

Given his political longevity, it was hardly surprising that Hotham became a well-known character in the Commons. One reason he stood out was his ‘curious and quaint attire’. His old-fashioned clothes included ‘his favourite blue broad cloth coat’ with ‘shining gilt buttons’, ‘a buff waistcoat’, ‘low shoes and gaiters’ and a hat with a curled brim.

Contemporary observers also commented on Hotham’s diligent attendance at Westminster, even into his seventies. William White, the Commons doorkeeper, wrote of Hotham in 1868 that ‘he is as erect as he was when he marched with his regiment of Guards at Waterloo; and to see him run when a division is called you would not deem him to be more than fifty’. In his penultimate Commons speech, Hotham was scathing in his criticism of fellow MPs who did not live up to his standards, objecting to a proposal that Members should be allowed to correct their vote if they had accidentally entered the wrong division lobby:

‘It argued very little for the competence of Members if, when they were told “Ayes to the right, Noes to the left,” they did not know which way to go. If hon. Members were asleep, or on the terrace smoking, or reading newspapers in the vicinity of the House, or, in short, doing anything except what they ought – attending to the Business of the House in their places – that was their own fault, and the matter was, in his opinion, not of such importance as to require special legislation’.

Despite his emphasis on the importance of attending to parliamentary business, Hotham had a lengthy spell of absence from the Commons in the early 1840s. His election address, seeking the votes of the East Riding’s electors in 1841, was written on his sick-bed, and he did not appear on the hustings that July. This did not, however, prevent him being elected unopposed in his absence alongside a fellow Conservative. Hotham’s health worsened after the election and he did not take his seat in Parliament until 1843, when he was still convalescing. Not until 1844 did his name appear again in the division lists.

Hotham later told his constituents that although he had considered resigning his seat when he was ill, he felt that the relative position of the two parties was such that ‘a vote on two on either side was of no importance whatsoever’. Having switched from Leominster to the East Riding, Hotham had the major advantage of representing a seat where he never faced an election contest. Although his political sympathies lay with the Conservatives, he prided himself on his ‘independence’ from party, voting in Parliament on the basis of ‘measures, not men’. He turned down an invitation from Lord Derby to join his ministry in 1858, and was not afraid to vote against his leaders, being one of a handful of Conservatives who divided against the Derby ministry’s reform bill in March 1859.

As an army veteran, who had served in the Coldstream Guards, Hotham took a perennial interest in military matters, where no detail was too small to escape his attention. In 1857 he raised concerns that the families of recipients of the Order of the Bath were expected to return their relatives’ insignia after their death. He also complained that the ‘star’ which formed part of this insignia was of poor quality, made of ‘pasteboard, tinsel and spangles’. Hotham did not let this matter drop, and in 1859 received assurances from the Secretary for War that the star would in future be made from silver, rather than embroidered, and would not have to be surrendered when the holder died. More significantly, Hotham served on several committees on military questions, and chaired the royal commission on army recruitment which sat in 1859-60 and made an extensive set of recommendations in 1861.

Hotham’s parliamentary interests went beyond his obvious expertise in military matters, especially as he became one of the longer-serving members of the House. ‘Precise and somewhat punctilious, but always courteous’, he often intervened on procedural points, and was concerned about issues which might affect the dignity and reputation of the Commons. He formed an unlikely alliance with the Radical MP Joseph Hume in 1840 to ensure that in future the judge of the admiralty court would not be allowed to be a Member of Parliament. The holder of this post, Stephen Lushington, was MP for Tower Hamlets, and Hotham felt it was inappropriate for him to be sitting as a judge one day, and ‘on the next engaging as a partisan in the House of Commons’. Hotham and Hume failed in a later attempt to prohibit other judges, including the master of the rolls, from being MPs. Hotham did, however, score another success in 1858 when he carried a motion to prevent MPs from promoting or advocating any measure or proceeding in the Commons for which they had received ‘any pecuniary fee or reward’. Essentially this was an attempt to tackle the problem of lobbying.

Having spent almost half a century in the Commons, Hotham retired at the dissolution in 1868, at the age of 74, concerned that he might no longer be able to offer the ‘close and constant attention’ which his parliamentary duties deserved. He died in December 1870, when he was remembered as ‘a most devoted, independent, influential representative of the people’.

Further details of Hotham’s pre-1832 career can be found in our 1820-32 volumes, available here. His 1832-68 biography will be available shortly on our preview site.

Posted in MP of the Month | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Call for papers: ‘From “Old Corruption” to the New Corruption? Public Life and Public Service in Britain, c. 1780–1940’

Our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, will be one of the keynote speakers at a 2 day conference entitled ‘From “Old Corruption” to the New Corruption? Public Life and Public Service in Britain, c. 1780–1940’, to be held at Oxford Brookes University, 24-25 January 2019. The conference is also supported by Newman University, Birmingham, and the History and Policy Unit, King’s College, London.

Further details can be found in the call for papers. The deadline for the submission of abstracts is 27 July 2018.

Posted in Conferences and seminars, Corruption, Forthcoming events | Tagged , | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: Joseph Locke (1805-1860)

Our Victorian MP of the Month is Joseph Locke (1805-1860), who represented Honiton from 1847 until his death. With Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) and Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), Locke formed the ‘triumvirate of the engineering world’, who laid the architecture of Britain and Europe’s nineteenth-century railways. Unlike Stephenson and Brunel, however, Locke has remained a marginal figure in histories of nineteenth-century Britain, partly due to his political standing at the time of his death.

Joseph Locke was born in Attercliffe, near Sheffield, in 1805, but had relocated to Barnsley by 1810, where his father was a colliery manager. After receiving his education at a local grammar school, Locke was apprenticed at the age of 14 as a colliery viewer in Durham, and later under his father in Barnsley. As a gifted mining engineer, Locke caught the eye of family friend and ‘father of the railways’, George Stephenson, who employed him as an engineer at his locomotive works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 1823.

B1981.25.2698

‘Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway’, Isaac Shaw, 1830, Yale Centre For British Art

In 1826 Locke was appointed assistant engineer to Stephenson on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and with Robert Stephenson (George Stephenson’s son) was crucial in ensuring the use of locomotives on the railway. In an episode that haunted him for the rest of his life, Locke was directing the Rocket at the line’s opening ceremony in 1830 when it fatally injured William Huskisson, the leading Canningite and former minister. Although some felt he was culpable for Huskisson’s death on account of the excessive speed at which the Rocket was travelling, Locke was never officially blamed for the incident.

The episode did little to hamper Locke’s upward trajectory in the burgeoning field of railway engineering. He was appointed chief engineer of the Grand Junction Railway in 1835 and subsequently enjoyed an illustrious career overseeing, among others, the London to Southampton, Sheffield to Manchester, Paris and Rouen, and Rouen and Le Havre lines, as well as railways in Spain and Holland. As an engineer, Locke developed a reputation for his innovative, efficient designs, which allowed for railways on steeper gradients. The apparent simplicity and cost-effectiveness of his work partly explains the subsequent lack of public recognition for his engineering career.

iln-27-mar-1842.jpg

The impressive Barentin Viaduct, part of the Paris Le-Havre Railway. Locke was the railway’s chief engineer, ILN, 27 March 1847

It was a railway project that brought Locke into Parliament. In August 1846, he purchased the manor of Honiton for £80,000 (roughly £7 million in today’s money) to aid the London and South Western Railway’s attempts to build a line between Exeter and Yeovil. The tenancies owned by the manor effectively provided Locke with a safe seat for the notoriously corrupt borough of Honiton. He was first returned at the 1847 election, labelling himself a ‘Liberal in politics’, and calling for a transformation in the social and moral condition of the country at a rate akin to that with which the railways had revolutionised travel since the 1830s.

Honiton

Locke represented the venal borough of Honiton from 1847 until his death (PP 1831-2 (141) xl.)

He held his seat until his death in 1860, and from 1857 struck an increasingly radical, anti-Palmerstonian tone. The railways featured prominently in all of his election campaigns. And, when he criticised the Conservative’s government’s international diplomacy during the 1859 election, his opponents suggested that his radicalism and involvement in continental railway development had been a covert attempt to support a much feared French invasion.

It was on one of his trips to France in 1856 that Locke sustained a knee injury during railway construction. This left him with a limp for the rest of his life and led to doctors’ orders that he be accompanied at all times by an ‘assistance-pony’. Unfortunately, we have found no proof of him using the donkey in Parliament.

Locke maintained a regular attendance in the Commons, where he usually sided with radicals on issues like the ballot, shorter parliaments and the abolition of the income tax. He was a regular presence in the committee rooms and made a number of speeches during his career, with one contemporary recording that he spoke ‘with much effect’ and that his ‘easy elegance’ was ‘equalled by his choice of language’.

During his first Parliament Locke tried to assume the role of figurehead for the railway interest at Westminster. This boosted his national profile a little, particularly when his 1849 attempts to secure the Sunday opening of railways inadvertently pushed him to the forefront of the anti-Sabbatarian lobby for the restoration of Sunday post-office deliveries in 1850. However, the forty or so MPs connected with the ‘railway interest’ proved difficult to manage, and Locke failed in his major aim of introducing legislation to prevent fraudulent practices in railway companies, a move he had hoped would restore investor confidence in the railways following a recent collapse in share prices.

Joseph-Locke-J.F.Mayall-(1855)

Engraving of 1855 photograph of Joseph Locke by John Mayall, from Devey, The Life of Joseph Locke (1862).

After dispensing with the idea of representing the railway interest, Locke turned to the scrutiny of publicly funded engineering and building projects from 1852. While his regular interventions were generally ‘well heard’ in the House, his efforts to effect a cultural shift in parliamentary attitudes towards the costing and planning of projects proved generally fruitless.  He was highly critical of the management of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, the Thames embankment, the National Science Museum and the Scottish Ordnance Survey.

His activities meant that by the end of his parliamentary career he was regarded as Westminster’s foremost engineering expert, particularly following the death in 1859 of his friend and former colleague, Robert Stephenson, who had sat as MP for Whitby. This prompted rumours that Locke would succeed Henry Fitzroy as first commissioner of works in January 1860. However, he was disregarded by Palmerston on account of his unpopularity with the Cabinet, his lack of loyalty to the Liberal party and his reputation for outspokenness.

mw232527

Albumen print of Carlo Marochetti’s statue of Joseph Locke, c. 1865, Camille Silvy, NPG

Locke died suddenly of appendicitis (after complaining of ‘considerable pain in the bowels’) in September 1860 while shooting in Scotland during the parliamentary recess. He was a wealthy man and left around £350,000. Following his death, the Institute of Civil Engineers commissioned a statue of Locke which was proposed to be placed in St Margaret’s, Westminster. It was intended to complement Robert Stephenson’s statue in Euston Square, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s in Embankment gardens. However, the Liberal government refused the application, probably as a result of Locke’s parliamentary independence. The statue was instead installed in Locke Park, Barnsley, and a replica was also erected in 1951 at Barentin in France, where Locke had overseen the construction of the impressive Barentin Viaduct.

For a brief period Locke had a memorial window in Westminster Abbey. However, after being in storage ‘for many years’, it was purchased by Barnsley town council in 1952 and is currently held by Cannon Hall Museum, Cawthorne.

The full biography of Joseph Locke MP is on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

Posted in MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Upcoming event: Victorian Elections & Political Culture Workshop

Keble College: home to the Research Centre in Victorian Political Culture

On Friday 20 April 2018 the Research Centre in Victorian Political Culture, led by Professor Angus Hawkins, will be hosting a workshop on Victorian politics aimed at graduate students in the Jean Robinson Room, Keble College, Oxford OX1 3PG. The seminars will consist of 30 minute papers on some key topics followed by 45 minutes of questions and discussion.

Timetable:

9.15  Philip Salmon (Editor, The History of Parliament, 1832-1867), Victorian Elections 1832-1867

10.30 Coffee break

11.00  Simon Skinner (Balliol College, Oxford), Elections and Confessional Politics

12.15  Sandwich lunch

1.00  Alex Middleton (Corpus Christi College, Oxford), The Impact of Foreign Autocracies on mid-Victorian Political Culture.

To register please email Professor Angus Hawkins and include details of any dietary or access requirements.

Posted in Conferences and seminars, Forthcoming events, Uncategorized | Leave a comment