The life of Sir Joshua Walmsley – Chapter VI.

CHAPTER VI. This chapter covers a period from the mid 1820’s until Josh’s retirement from the Corn Trade. It’s unclear when he stopped being a corn broker because all Hugh Walmsley tells us is a reference to 1833 and ” some years after [that] he retired.”  It is slightly odd that there is no mention of family because by 1830, five of the six Walmsley children had been born, and even if Hugh didn’t mention his brothers and sisters, he might have mentioned himself.

At the close of the third year the partners changed positions. Mr. Walmsley, now becoming principal, took the management of the town business, Mr. Booth attending the country markets.

” I determined,” he says, ” now that the control of affairs had passed into my hands, to make the firm the first brokerage business in the town. To attain this I adopted a new mode of conducting it. My partner and I were buying brokers, receiving orders from all parts of the country, and charging a small commission. We ran no risk of debt. I now made it a practice personally to inspect every bag of grain, to compare the bulk with the sample, and to become responsible for the quality and shipment of the whole, charging a small commission for so doing. This involved great personal labour, but I did not shrink from it. To this I added the habit of calling in person at the offices of the leading merchants of Liverpool, to ascertain what they had for sale and what they desired to purchase.”

George Dock, and the Goree Warehouses

“I had done this in the days of my humble beginning; and then I had learned the value of personal intercourse, and the value too of doing my own work myself. To be at my post early in the morning and late in the evening, to allow no hour of the day to find me unprepared for business, to be ready to answer every question promptly and accurately that might be put to me in connection with the corn trade ; these were the rules I took to accomplish the aim I had set before myself, and I did not swerve from them. For years my dinner was sent daily over from home to my office, in a tin box resembling those in which soldiers’ rations are carried, and kept warm by means of hot water. It was a movable feast, swallowed when time permitted.”

This strict and thorough attendance to duty soon began to reap its reward. After some years, nearly the whole monopoly of the brokerage business had passed into our hands. Enemies, jealous of this monopoly, occasionally sought to undermine the credit of the firm; but Mr. Walmsley instantly confronted slander, and at once refuted it, as in the following instance. “One day,” he says, ” our banker sent for me, and told me he had heard bad reports of my partner and myself — that we were deeply engaged in rash and ruinous speculations ; and he insinuated other irregularities. I listened quietly, returned to the office, and called for our books.”

” These I carried to the banker, and bade him examine them. From these I proved that my partner and I had remained simply brokers, that we had never bought or sold on our own account, that our means were good, and that no speculation endangered any other man’s money. Fully convinced, the banker gave the name of his informant. He was one of the best-known corn merchants in Liverpool, who had taken an unaccountable dislike to Mr. Booth. With the books under my arm I proceeded to this gentleman’s office, told him what I had heard, and requested him to examine the accounts and transactions which I laid before him ; should he find himself in error in the assertions he had circulated, I requested he would make what amends he could. This straightforward proceeding abashed the enemy. He examined the books, and the examination resulted in his becoming one of our customers, and remaining to the last a staunch friend of mine.”

Other interests besides those of business were entering into his life ; for during these years Liverpool was growing in population and increasing in trade. Public life was astir and betrayed by many symptoms the liberal tendencies that ere long were to transform the political and social aspects of the country. Meetings were held to raise subscriptions for the Spaniards, whose constitution had been attacked by the French.

Ardent appeals were made for money and sympathy for the Greeks in their struggle for independence — a struggle glorified by the death of Byron. This growth of Liberalism in Liverpool Mr. Walmsley watched with keen interest. He attended and spoke at the meetings called to express abhorrence of the slave trade. In common with many Liverpool merchants, the blot that had once sullied the commerce of the town he felt as one upon his own honour. Nowhere did Wilberforce’s endeavours to abolish slavery in every colony of England find more hearty support than in Liverpool.

In his spare hours Mr. Walmsley attended meetings called to consider the subject of the Corn Laws. In a memorandum, dated somewhere about 1826, he notices ” that the most advanced reformers had not dared as yet to advocate a total repeal ; a moderate fixed duty being as yet the most startling innovation they dared to propose.”

Liverpool Mechanics Institute

In 1826 Mr. Walmsley joined the Liverpool Mechanics’ Institute, and shortly after was elected president But these institutions, which spread quickly over the country — thanks to the exertions of men like Dr. Birkbeck and Mr. Brougham – did not effect the good expected ; although men of science and talent often gratuitously gave their time to them, becoming themselves teachers.

In 1827 the famous sliding scale [of duty on the price of corn]  came into operation, and its actual working may be understood from two instances drawn from Mr. Walmsley ‘s notes.

“ One year the harvest give every promise of being favourable, but as to this I could judge from a tour made through the agricultural districts. Naturally the sliding scale ran up to its highest point. From my personal observation I felt sure this prospect of plenty would not hold good, and that there would be a deficient harvest. Whilst others waited the action of the sliding scale, I despatched agents to buy up foreign grain and ship it for England as quickly as possible. Thus my ships would have the start in the race which I knew must soon be run. The vessels left Tamboff, two of them arriving just as the deficit I had foreseen sent the tax imposed down to the nominal price of one shilling a quarter. Head winds and a succession of storms delayed the others. Had all arrived in time, a large fortune would have been realised. As it was, the cargo of the two ships first entering not only covered all loss, but left a handsome profit on the whole.”

Singularly enough, while thus profiting by the working of the sliding scale, Mr. Walmsley by his presence and by his speeches at public meetings protested against it, and was one of the first in Liverpool to advocate repeal of the Corn Laws, and previous to the formation of the Anti-Corn-Law League, delivered lectures on the subject

“ In 1833 I fully realised,” Mr. Walmsley writes, “ the depth of folly and cruelty this tax on bread involved. The sliding scale had remained stationary so long at its highest figure, no foreign corn entered the port, and the warehouses were full of bonded grain thus kept out of the market. A large share of this belonged to me. A sudden fall in the scale announced a deficiency. The price of food rose with great rapidity, so that soon pale thin faces might be seen in the streets. To let loose the bonded corn would avert famine.”

At the last moment the storehouses were thrown open, but it was found that the wheat had been so long kept that it was rotten, and the starving people watched as load after load was thrown into the Mersey. The sad tale of “Walmsley’s corn” was long remembered, and served as a war-cry when the final agitation compelled the repeal of the Com Laws.

So far Mr. Walmsley’s career had been prosperous, but now from brokers they aspired to be commission agents. Evil times came, and some of their heaviest advances remained uncovered. Failure followed failure, and they lost considerably. In one, the firm lost twenty-five thousand pounds. [Present-day value £32.5m] In twelve months the fruit of years of toil melted away and ruin seemed imminent.

” I alone,” he writes, ” was aware of the full extent of the danger. Neither my partner nor our banker was cognisant of it. My wife alone shared the anxiety with me, and I resolved if only I could work through never again to meddle with speculation. The danger was tided over, and the firm emerged with diminished funds but untarnished credit. It was no easy task to return into the old groove, but once more we became simple brokers, and at the end of seven years won back all that had been lost.”

Mr. Walmsley now separated from his partner, carrying on business on his own account, and some years after he retired, having achieved moderate competence.

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