SPOONER, Richard (1783-1864), of Glindon House, Warws.
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Family and Education
b. 28 July 1783, 5th s. of Isaac Spooner (d. 1816), nail manufacturer and banker, of Elmdon Hall and Barbara, da. of Sir Henry Gough†, 1st bt., of Edgbaston Hall. educ. Rugby 1796. m. 20 Dec. 1804, Charlotte, da. of Very Rev. Nathan Wetherell, DD, master of University Coll. Oxf. and dean of Hereford, 2s. d. 24 Nov. 1864.
Spooner’s family had been established in the West Midlands since the fifteenth century. His grandfather Abraham bought a share in a Birmingham slitting mill in 1746 and built his own three years later. His father succeeded to this business and in 1791, with another manufacturer Matthias Attwood, opened what was only the fourth bank in Birmingham, Attwoods, Spooner and Company. The firm prospered and opened a London branch in Fish Street Hill in 1801.1 Spooner’s mother was the sister of the 1st Lord Calthorpe and his eldest sister was married to William Wilberforce*. In 1807 he wrote to Arthur Young, the agriculturist, describing himself as ‘a young farmer’ and seeking advice on crops; he remained a keen amateur farmer throughout this period.2 He joined the bank ‘at an early age’ and was also involved in the family nail business. He received £4,000 as his share of his father’s estate in 1816.3 He first came to public notice in 1812, when he addressed the series of meetings held in Birmingham to protest against the orders in council. With Thomas Attwood,† the son of his father’s partner, who also worked in the bank, he was chosen to represent the views of Birmingham to the government. They gave evidence to a parliamentary committee and the subsequent revocation of the orders brought them great popularity in Birmingham. Spooner was elected high bailiff in 1813, in succession to Attwood, and immediately organized a mass meeting to denounce the East India Company’s monopoly. The same year he orchestrated moves to establish a chamber of commerce in the town, of which he became the first president. Together Spooner and Attwood developed their currency theories, which Attwood in particular popularised some years later: their proposals for a paper currency which was not tied to gold, and the encouragement of ‘productive expenditure’, became known as the doctrines of the ‘Birmingham School’.4 He became a member of the Political Economy Club in 1821.
Spooner’s first known involvement in a parliamentary election was at Boroughbridge in March 1819, when Marmaduke Lawson* was returned. It was reported that summer that he intended to ‘offer himself if a vacancy happened’, either at Boroughbridge or neighbouring Aldborough, and early in 1820 he was with Lawson in London apparently trying to secure candidates for the two boroughs. At the subsequent general election they contested Boroughbridge themselves, against the Tory nominees of the duke of Newcastle. There was a double return and the sheriff declared Spooner and Lawson elected, although the other candidates petitioned against the result.5 During his brief sojourn in the Commons he spoke of the distress in Birmingham, 12 May 1820. On 19 May he postponed his notice of a motion on distress at the request of Lord Castlereagh, the leader of the Commons, but Attwood confidently told his wife that ‘when R.S. speaks upon this subject it will have a great effect’, adding that ‘I shall advise R.S. respecting his speech and conduct’.6 This did not come off, though he did speak on agricultural distress, 31 May, when he criticized the composition of the select committee on it, complaining that ‘not one Member from the great manufacturing counties of Warwickshire, Staffordshire or Lancashire had been included’. His only recorded vote was against Lord Liverpool’s ministry on the appointment of an additional Scottish baron of exchequer, 15 May. In the first week of June an election committee sat to decide on the Boroughbridge petition. Newcastle was informed that Spooner ‘appears determined to try every point’, but Lawson’s mother reported that ‘Spooner wrote ... in doleful plight’ and observed that ‘his eagerness for success makes him soon cast down if there is the least appearance of other ways’. The committee’s verdict, 7 June 1820, was to unseat Spooner and Lawson. Newcastle heard that Spooner was ‘mortified beyond description’ and ‘threatens to appeal’, and that ‘amongst other things’ he ‘talks of starting for Newark [another of the duke’s boroughs] at the next general election’.7 He petitioned against the committee’s decision, 5 Feb. 1821, but this was rejected.
In the autumn of 1820 a vacancy occurred for Warwickshire and Spooner was immediately requisitioned as the champion of unrepresented Birmingham against the aristocratic interest. In his published address, he maintained his ‘independence’ and promised to uphold the town’s interest in agriculture, trade and manufacturing. His supporters included the high bailiff of Birmingham, Joshua Scholefield, who later came to prominence with the Political Union, and the Tory industrialist Sir Robert Peel†. The near unanimous support he received from freeholders in Birmingham was insufficient to carry the county, however, and after his attempt to poll the freeholders of Coventry was thwarted, he was heavily defeated.8 His petition to validate the Coventry votes, 9 May 1821, was rejected. In the interim he had suffered another disappointment, as an anticipated vacancy at Boston, where he had conducted a canvass, did not arise. Lawson’s sister commented, ‘he is so unlucky that I begin to despair of his ever getting into the House’.9 For the next five years he concentrated on his business interests, helping to bring the railway to Birmingham, and he was instrumental in the foundation of the Birmingham Mechanics’ Institute, becoming its first president, with Attwood as treasurer.10 At the general election of 1826 he offered again for Boroughbridge, but Newcastle was now firmly in control and he was beaten. On his way home, he stopped at Knaresborough where he was invited to stand against the nominees of the Whig duke of Devonshire, but he declined.11 Later that year he offered for the vacancy at Stafford, where he told the electors that in his opinion there was only ‘one topic of importance’, namely, ‘the principle of free trade as connected with manufactures and the same principle considered with relation to the food we have to eat’, and declared that ‘he was upon both these grounds the advocate of free trade’. Although he reputedly spent £6-7,000 on the contest, the deeper pocket of his Whig opponent proved too much for him.12 In June 1827, when Charles Tennyson proposed in the House that East Retford’s seats be transferred to Birmingham, Spooner enthusiastically took up the cause and, with Attwood, organized a meeting in the town to promote the idea. Early the following year he was a member of the Birmingham delegation to the new prime minister, the duke of Wellington, to press Birmingham’s case.13 At a meeting in Worcester to establish a Brunswick Club, November 1828, Spooner spoke against the scheme and in favour of Catholic relief. The following year he helped organize a pro-emancipation meeting in Birmingham.14 On 25 Apr. 1829 a large meeting was held in the town to protest at the distressed state of the country. Spooner and Attwood appeared and resolutions were adopted which reflected their currency doctrines. This meeting was the catalyst for the formation of the Birmingham Political Union, and was the last at which Spooner and Attwood spoke and acted in concert: from that point their politics diverged, and when Attwood formed the Union Spooner refused to join on account of his magisterial duties. They remained friends and business partners and continued to develop their currency theories. In July 1830 Spooner attended the public dinner given in honour of Sir Francis Burdett* and to celebrate the first anniversary of the Union, explaining that he was present merely to show his respect for Burdett’s conduct as a reformer.15 At the subsequent general election he spoke on behalf of the Whig Edward Ellice* at Coventry and briefly entered the contest as the third man, in the expectation of obtaining ‘the second vote from each party’. He soon found that he had been deceived and abandoned the fight.16
Between 1830 and the general election of 1835 the transformation of Spooner’s politics was completed. In December 1834 he was instrumental in the formation of the Birmingham Loyal and Constitutional Association, which later became the Conservative Association. He was appointed chairman and came forward in 1835 to contest a seat for Birmingham in opposition to Attwood, who thought he had been ‘seduced by a knot of Tories’, but still called him ‘my own partner and intimate friend’.17 He failed on this occasion and again in 1841, but he succeeded at a by-election in 1844 and became the first Conservative to represent Birmingham. He was returned for North Warwickshire in 1847 and was a prominent backbench Protectionist and Protestant, leading the campaign against the Maynooth grant. He died in November 1864 and divided all his real and personal estate equally between his two sons. One obituarist recorded that ‘his sharp, harsh and somewhat singular features made him one of the most noticeable Members’, and concluded that ‘it will be impossible to find another more honest and conscientious’. A local newspaper recalled that he was ‘always the same: frank, outspoken, courageous, manly and invariably good-humoured’.18
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Martin Casey
- 1. VCH Warws. vii. 249, 265; C.M. Wakefield, Thomas Attwood, 2; F.G. Hilton Price, London Bankers, 156.
- 2. Add. 35129, ff. 458, 480; L.S. Pressnell, Country Banking, 348.
- 3. Gent. Mag. (1865), i. 240; PROB 11/1585/543; IR26/691/1919.
- 4. PP (1812), iii. 52; R.K. Dent, Old and New Birmingham, 349, 372; Wakefield, 27; D.J. Moss, Thomas Attwood, passim; S.G. Checkland, ‘The Birmingham Economists, 1815-50’, EcHR (ser. 2), i (1948), 4.
- 5. Leeds Mercury, 3 Apr. 1819; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Newcastle mss NeC 6624; T. Lawson-Tancred, Recs. of a Yorks. Manor, 336.
- 6. Wakefield, 75.
- 7. Newcastle mss NeC 6637, 6640; Lawson Tancred, 345.
- 8. Birmingham and Lichfield Chron. 12, 19, 26 Oct., 2, 9 Nov. 1820.
- 9. Lawson-Tancred, 347.
- 10. Wakefield, 94, 107.
- 11. Leeds Mercury, 15 June; Yorks. Gazette, 17 June 1826.
- 12. Staffs. Advertiser, 12 Aug., 16 Dec. 1826.
- 13. C. Gill, Hist. Birmingham, i. 203; Hatherton diary, 22 Feb. 1828.
- 14. G.I.T. Machin, Catholic Question in English Politics, 138.
- 15. Wakefield, 122-4, 146.
- 16. Coventry Mercury, 1 Aug. 1830.
- 17. Wakefield, 283.
- 18. Birmingham Post, 30 Nov. 1864; Gent. Mag. (1865), i. 240-2.