An Anti-Corn-Law Leaguer. The Life of Sir Joshua Walmsley – The Spectator review 1880

This may seem a slightly curious place to start, but it’s as good as any to introduce Uncle Hugh’s book about his father. A great deal of the review is very fair indeed, and the Life of Sir Joshua raises almost as many questions as it provides answers. The first chapter which in part covers Josh’s “ half-gipsy, half-sportsman life led on Stanemoor” up in Cumbria is so fantastical that it probably owes more to C19th romantic novels rather than real life. He was, with no doubt, highly successful in business leaving an estate of £140,000 when he died in 1871 [a modern equivalent of just over £ 97m.] Whether he really managed to get there from a few shillings in his pocket in 1811, or was rather creating a rags to riches  story is almost irrelevant. He had a curiously Zellig-like ability to be somewhere around some fairly extraordinary events throughout the C19th, and the luck or nous to invest very early on with the Stephensons.  The book is a surprisingly good read, large sections of it are from Sir Josh’s notes and diaries, and it’s certainly massively better than at least one of Uncle Hugh’s other books  “The Ruined Cities of Zululand”.  I will be posting each chapter, in a series, to let the work speak for itself, and then try to discover more about the man himself.


Sir Joshua Walmsley, M.P. 1794 -1871



The Life of Sir Joshua Walmsley.

By his Son, Hugh Mulleneux Walmsley,

London; Chapman and Hall. 1879.

No doubt, Mr. Walmsley has thought, and probably with truth, that the public would be impatient of personal details in the life of a man only known to them as a politician ; but then, he should have called his book, “The Political Life of Sir Joshua Walmsley.” The Paddington station-master might almost as well call a careful journal of all that happens at his station—royal entrances and exits, and the like, with which he is largely concerned—his life, as Mr. Walmsley call the book before us the life of his father. With the exception of his boyhood, we hear nothing of his private life, except a shooting episode. Two pages are thought sufficient in which to summarise the events of the four years which followed his retirement from public life. We hear nothing whatever of personal or family life, of his religious opinions, of his social relations or influence, of his tastes and pursuits at home, or of his holiday wanderings abroad. We hear nothing of his wife, after his marriage, till his death ; and nothing of children ; nor of friends, except such friends as were joined with him in public affairs. In fact, we gather that Sir Joshua’s whole soul was first in business, then in municipal work, and finally in helping to bring about those great political and fiscal reforms which were to benefit the country by putting the necessaries and comforts of life within easier reach of the people. But of Sir Joshua Walmsley himself we seem to have no picture, except as an ambitious and hard-working politician, who threw all his weight into the scale of the Liberal party.

His life—if we are to call it a life—will interest all politicians, especially Liverpool people, who remember the stirring years in the earlier part of the century, from 1826 to 1846, when municipal reform, the opening of the first railways, and the great measure of this century—the repeal of the Corn Laws—kept England—and particularly the North of England, whence emanated the Anti- Corn-Law League—in a state of excitement and action that was stimulating and spirit-stirring. In all this work Sir Joshua took a very active and useful, if not a very distinguished part, though we cannot remember him as a speaker. Bright and Cobden, indeed, or Cobden and Bright—for one was as great in lucid and logical exposition as the other was eminent for force and eloquence—threw all their fellow-workers into the shade; but Walmsley had a clear head, an iron constitution, and an invincible will, and was one of the most efficient members of the indomitable and victorious band of Anti-Corn Leaguers and Parliamentary reformers.

His early life was curious, and illustrates remarkably his tenacity of purpose. It is not perhaps altogether the most pleasing trait in his character that he seems to have been much impressed by the worldly wisdom of his father, and especially by an act and an aphorism of that father’s, and to have been largely influenced by them through life. The young Joshua had brought down a few crabs with a stone ; his father at once aimed instead, and with success, at some fine, sweet apples, and remarked to his son, “Remember, through life, my lad, that an apple is as easily felled as a crab.” On another occasion he had asserted confidently that “Jos will be Mayor of Liverpool some day,” and these words, he used to say, “rang in his ears.” His father died when his son and daughter were only thirteen and twelve; leaving them—owing to sad reverses— penniless ; they both became teachers in the schools where they had been pupils. Joshua’s engagement was at a school amongst the moors of Westmoreland, and his employer, the head master, being a good shot, united with the profession of school- master the curiously incongruous one of purveyor of game to the large towns. Joshua proved an infinitely better shot, however, than his employer, and in future led a hard but to him almost a fascinating life,—camping-out on the moors and driving home his cartload of game ; alternating this employment with that of making up his master’s books. But his ambition was not satisfied with a life so little likely to lead to anything better, and he returned to Liverpool, and sought—till he was penniless, and indebted to his kind landlady for subsistence—for a situation. One was found at last in a school, and he rose in the good graces of his employer ; but ambition was a very active force in Mr. Walmsley’s constitution, and he declined a partnership in the school, worth £400 a year, for a clerkship in a corn merchant’s office worth £40, bat which seemed to him to offer better chances of future wealth and influence. He rose rapidly, was offered a partnership in another house, and his marvellous knowledge of the grain-trade enabled him to make, lose, and remake a large fortune, and retire, according to our calculation—but there is a sad scarcity of orderly dates—at about fifty years of age. His affections seem to have been as tenacious as his purposes. He engaged himself, when a small boy at a dancing-school, to a little girl of seven, and he afterwards married her, and at the close of life attributed to her influence and. wisdom much of his varied success.

Mr. Walmsley seems to have had a strong personal friendship. for three considerable men—whose friendship in return reflects honour upon him – George Stephenson, Richard Cobden, and Joseph Hume; and it is one of the book’s merits that we hear – almost as much of Hume and Cobden as of Sir Joshua himself. Of the great engineer, with whom Sir Joshua made a business journey to Spain, we have several interesting anecdotes. We select the following, which the present writer, who had the pleasure of knowing Stephenson, recognises as very characteristic :

“The travellers’ way now lay across France, and in this part of their journey occurred the two following incidents. We crossed on foot, says Sir Joshua, “the chain bridge suspended over the Dordonne. Let us go over it again,’ said Stephenson, when we had reached the other side. Accordingly, over it again we went, the ‘old man’ walking very slowly, with head bent down, as if he were listening to and pondering over every step he took. The bridge is unsafe ; it will give way at the first heavy trial it meets with,’ he said, decisively, at last. We had better warn the authorities, your name will carry weight,’ I replied. We went to the mayor, we were- politely received, and we related the object of our visit. The mayor shrugged his shoulders with polite incredulity ; he assured us that the engineer who had built the bridge was an able man. Stephenson urged his warning, supporting the interpreter’s words with gestures and rough diagrams drawn on the spot. Still the French official shrugged his shoulders, looked incredulous, and finally bowed us out. Only a few months later Stephenson’s warning came true. A regiment of soldiers crossed the bridge without breaking step, the faulty structure gave way, and scores of men in heavy marching order were hurled down into the eddies of the rapid river below, where. many were drowned, before means of rescue could reach them. Another day we passed by a French line in process of construction ; the navvies were digging and removing the soil in wheelbarrows. Stephenson remarked that they were doing their work slowly and untidily. Their posture is all wrong,’ he cried ; jumping out of the carriage, with the natural instinct that impelled him to be always giving or receiving instruction, he took up a spade, excavated the soil, and filled a wheelbarrow, in half the time it took any one of the men to do it. Then further to illustrate that in the posture of the body lies half the secret of its power, he laid hold of a hammer and mallet, and poising his figure, he threw it to an immense distance before him ; challenging by gestures the workmen, who had now gathered round him, and were curiously watching him, to do the same, but they one and all failed to equal the feat. The interpreter explained the lesson to the navvies, and told them who their teacher was. Ste-vim-son !’ the name went from mouth to mouth. The intelligent, appreciative Frenchmen gathered close around him, and broke into vociferous cheers, such as I thought could only proceed from British lungs, until the echoes rang around us on every side.”

And while we are speaking of Sir Joshua’s friends, we must quote an anecdote, which, his son tells us, he was fond of repeating, illustrative of Mr. Hume’s popularity amongst the “working-classes :”—

” A strike had been resolved upon by the London cabmen. The night was wet and miserable. On leaving the scene of our labours, we saw through the rain a reassuring assemblage of four-wheelers and hansoms. No sooner, however, did we hail the cabs, than with a loud halloo the drivers impelled them in various directions. Hume and I were walking arm-in-arm. ‘We’ll give old Joe a lift,’ shouted three or four retreating cabbies drawing up their horses. They actually fought for the privilege of giving him a lift ; and since I was walking with him, I was allowed to get in, and so shared the advantage of his popularity.”

Before leaving Sir Joshua’s friends and acquaintance, we must record his spirited account and sagacious opinions of a party of patriots with whom it was his chance to spend an evening, and of whom, at that time, all England was speaking. The quotation is part of a narrative in Sir Joshua’s own words :—

“One morning, in February, 1854,” he narrates, “a gentleman was introduced into my study. On looking at his card, I found it was Mr. Saunders, the United States Consul. We had never met before. He intimated to me that his object in calling was to invite me to meet Mr. Buchanan, the American Minister, and some political friends. It was against my rule to accept invitations of a political or party character. I asked Mr. Saunders who the guests would be ; the list was as follows :—Mazzini, Garibaldi, Louis Kossuth, Walsh, Pulski, Ledru Rollin, Count Woxcell, and Orsini. I could not resist this catalogue of fiery names and accepted the invitation. At 25 Weymouth Street, Portland Square, the singular gathering took place. Mazzini sat at our host’s right hand. His appearance was very impressive and characteristic. His eyes, burning in his wasted countenance, his high, narrow forehead, spoke of a mind lofty and pure, but wanting in variety and flexibility. His whole appearance indicated a man of few ideas, but these ideas sublime and true. It was a never-to-be-forgotten sight, this group of patriots assembled together,—the simple, manly, honest face of Garibaldi, the attenuated features of Woxcell, the grave and handsome countenance of Kossuth, the beautiful young head of Orsini. The dinner was genuinely American in the abundance and costliness of its service. The wit, the humour, the vivacity of the conversation, were delightful, but so long as servants were present I knew the talk was superficial. When the cloth was removed and the servants had left the room, the doors were closed. I noticed they were double doors. Then a toast was given; it was to ‘Humanity.’ Mazzini was the first to speak. His austere eloquence, lit with flashes of enthusiasm, profoundly impressed me. It was like listening to the utterances of the old Hebrew prophets. He sketched the dark part of humanity, trodden down by kings and priests. Then came the struggles of the people for liberty. He saw streaks of the dawn in the present. In the future lay the glorious day of a regenerated humanity, free, self-respecting, -on whose banner the word Duty’ was inscribed. It was from his beloved Italy that he looked for this new revolution to come. Each one of the party, after him, rose and addressed the gathering. And the theme of every speaker was his country’s sufferings in the past and present, and his aspirations for it in the future. All spoke ‘freely, as men who had cast off restraint, and who were convinced of the accomplishment in the future of their object. In discussing their country’s wrongs, they frankly discussed the means by which they proposed to redeem and deliver her. From these means I should over shrink. But at such a moment, the reasoning power of the Listeners was carried away on this torrent of fiery zeal, impassioned patriotism, and persuasive eloquence. As patriot after patriot spoke, each seemed to press on to a higher and ever higher view of the subject in hand. After Mazzini, Kossuth addressed us in a speech full of power; but his eloquence was more flowery than Mazzini’s, and left less impression upon me. He was too much of a poet to guide up the dangerous height to which he had climbed. His friend Pulski was more of a man of business, and ever proved himself a sound patriot. Of all that night’s discourses, Garibaldi’s simple and straight- forward words moved me most. Ho seemed to take the wisest view of the coarse to be pursued, and to bring to the service of the subject the greatest amount of practical knowledge. His address, more unpretentious, was, to my mind, more convincing than the others. Orsini looked like a man inspired by, and resolved upon, his purpose. He spoke with much seeming sorrow of the necessity for deeds which be himself was prepared to accomplish. I shall never forget how young and handsome he looked that night, and I am persuaded that the wisest course Napoleon could have pursued would have been to have pardoned him. Of Ledru. Rollin I did not conceive a high idea. The impression he made upon me was that of a disappointed politician, rather than that of a patriot. Count Woxcell represented Poland. An exile for many years, he was so poor as often to lack the necessaries of life, yet he never complained. That night he had .evidently risen from a bed of sickness. His fine features contrasted with the exhaustion and feebleness of his frame ; death was stamped on his countenance; but his mind was bright with hopes of his country’s redemption. As he spoke of Poland’s sufferings, tears flowed down his pale cheeks.”

Those who know what were the views of Mr. Hume and Mr. Cobden know pretty nearly Sir Joshua Walmsley’s. He looked, evidently, in his Parliamentary career, as Member for Leicester, to their guidance, but was not wanting in independence and originality. He did not for instance, heartily concur in Cobden’s enthusiasm for non-intervention, though it is curious to note that he bought an interest in the Daily News, at Mr. Cobden’s suggestion, for the purpose of pressing this theory, for which, Mr. Cobden thought, the country was getting ripe. What would he say now?  Mr. Hume was eager for Parliamentary and Mr. Cobden for financial reform, and Sir Joshua seems to have shared the eagerness of both, but in a more moderate degree ; his readiness and energy were remarkable, and as in the struggle to repeal the Corn Laws, so in the subsequent efforts for financial and representative reform, Hume and Cobden, and the many other noble workers of that party, were vigorously and effectively backed by Walmsley’s business powers and knowledge, and by his wonderful faculty for success. But perhaps the great work of his life was the fierce and successful, but most laborious, attack he made on the dens of vice in his native town of Liverpool – of which he was afterwards mayor – accompanied by his reorganisation of the police, and succeeded by his earnest and successful efforts in favour of the education of the poor, which, in his view, alone went to the root of the matter, and on which he relied for the future freedom of his town from that army of beggars, paupers, and evil-doers which ignorance alone can generate and nourish, and education alone can ultimately stamp out.

The above text was found on p.17, 10th January 1880 in “The Spectator” 

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