The House of Commons, 1793-94 by Karl Anton Hickel. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Published in 2009
These are the most recent volumes in the History of Parliament series to appear, providing the most comprehensive study ever compiled on Parliament between 1820 and 1832, the period of Catholic Emancipation, the trial of Queen Caroline, the pursuit of ‘Old Corruption’ and the Great Reform Act, when the United Kingdom came as close to revolution as it has been in modern times, and began its long transition to democracy. They include biographies of the 1367 members of the House of Commons and accounts of politics and elections in each constituency during the period. The biographies include all of the political giants of the period: the Tories Lord Castlereagh, George Canning, Robert Peel, William Huskisson, and Lord Palmerston; and the Whigs Henry Brougham; George Tierney; Lord John Russell, and Lord Althorp. But there is also new light on many of the workhorses of Parliament and administration: men as varied as Henry Goulburn, chancellor of the exchequer, 1828-30, a saintly, cross-eyed man with a head for business but no talent for speaking; and the foul-mouthed Irishman ‘Black Billy’ Holmes, chief Tory Whip. They include famous backbenchers William Wilberforce, Daniel O’Connell, and ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt of Peterloo notoriety. Among the many more obscure characters whose lives have been illuminated for the first time are men at opposite extremes of fortune: James Morrison, the son of a Wiltshire publican who made his way in London and emerged as a silk merchant on a grand scale, went into merchant banking and was probably the richest commoner of the nineteenth century; Lord Chandos, a significant Ultra Tory backbencher, who completed his father’s achievement of squandering a glittering inheritance in land and other property in 34 years and spent his last years as a pensioner on his worthy son’s charity; and the Newfoundland merchant and gambler Christopher Spurrier, who was reputed to have wagered and lost his last silver teapot on a maggot race.
A quartet of Members well illustrate the stresses and strains caused by the reform agenda of these years. Among the most characteristic figures of the period was the obsessive reformer Joseph Hume, industrious, stubborn and impervious to the ridicule and abuse which he attracted from his political adversaries: he made over 4,000 interventions in debate in this period in his relentless campaign for reducing public expenditure, which he saw as a product of political corruption and the cause of the unnecessarily high taxation which oppressed working people and hampered economic growth. Another was the diarist Henry Grey Bennett, who complained to his diary about the failure of whig leadership in 1821 to push harder for political reform: “Our duty is to inflame the people and keep the momentum up at the pitch it now is. Our only chance of getting rid of the system which disgraces and oppresses us is by urging the people out of doors by speeches within, but … it would seem that the … Commons in the only place in the kingdom in which there is no sympathy with the feelings of the people at large.” The leading opponent of reform, Sir Edward Knatchbull, married to Jane Austen’s niece, was an easy target for reformers such as O’Connell’s right-hand-man Richard Lalor Sheil who described him as “a proud, obstinate, dogged sort of squire, with an infinite notion of his own importance as an English county Member and a corresponding contempt for seven millions of his fellow citizens… He is rude without being honest and offensive without being sincere”. The intellectual John Cam Hobhouse, a close friend of the poet Lord Byron, wrote in his diary shortly after his election that “I find politics a most engrossing pursuit”, but complained a year later that “My attendance in the House … has certainly broken my health.”