CHAPTER XI. This chapter covers events in London in February 1839. The meetings at Westminster must have been rather odd. The old Palace of Westminster had been burned down five years earlier, and work on the new Houses of Parliament had yet to start. So large parts of the buildings pictured here were either in ruins, being demolished, or temporarily repaired awaiting the new Palace of Westminster.
As ever with Hugh Walmsley, it is concerned with Josh’s political life, with no mention of family. 1839 was the year that Josh’s eldest daughter [Hugh’s older sister] got married in St Luke’s church in Liverpool; a church he had bought the advowson to [right to appoint the vicar] . It was also the year he became Mayor of Liverpool.
The Anti-Corn-Law League owed its origin to seven men taking a vow in October, 1838, to deliver England from the thraldom of monopoly. A succession of good harvests had of late years brought down the price of wheat, and the people lived unmindful of laws whose operation did not press upon them in time of plenty. The sky now was darkening.
The harvest of 1837 had proved bad; the winter of 1838-39 was a singularly hard one. “That year,” says Sir Joshua, ” the condition of the poor in Liverpool was so pitiable that it was made a subject of discussion at the council board. Subscriptions were raised, soup-kitchens established, but famine carried off men, women, and children. The price of wheat in January had risen to eighty-one shillings and six- pence per quarter. It was time for a strong pressure to be brought to bear from without upon Parliament, to force it to take this state of things into consideration. Public meetings were convened all over the country.”
” In Liverpool, on the 18th of January, one was held at the Sessions House. On being called for, I addressed the assembly, endeavouring to show how fallacious was the landlords’ favourite and plausible argument, ‘ that the price of labour is dependent on the price of corn.’ There was plenty of evidence to show that for the previous ten years there had been no proportional rise between wages and the price of bread.”
“For years,” he goes on to say, ” I had seen clearly that the Corn Laws were vicious and ruinous. I knew the sliding scale must be abolished, and that with it would cease the continual fluctuations in the price of food, which made life so harassing to the millions, yet I thought it possible that in the present state of trade a small fixed duty upon corn might be necessary. However, on the 22nd January, at the public dinner given by the Manchester Association, at which Mr. Bolton and I assisted, as delegates from Liverpool, all hesitation vanished from my mind. As I listened to the arguments of the different speakers, I became convinced that total and immediate repeal was the one right and just claim to be advanced. From henceforth I joined my humble endeavours with those of the Anti-Corn-Law League, to procure such repeal, with the resolve to accept no compromise.”
On the 14th February, delegates of the different manufacturing towns through England met at Brown’s Hotel. With petitions signed by three millions of the Queen’s subjects, they asked to be heard at the bar of the House of Commons in order to tender their evidence on oath as to the suffering caused by the laws regulating the importation of corn. Mr. Walmsley and Mr. James Aiken represented Liverpool at this smaller Parliament of the nation. ” Only Palace Yard separated Brown’s Hotel from the House of Commons,” continues Sir Joshua, in his notes, ” and members sneeringly called the Assembly of Delegates ‘ the House over the way.’ John Benjamin Smith, of Manchester, was our president, and admirably he fulfilled his duty. Our first care was to resolve ourselves into a general committee, and to appoint two sub-committees, whose duties were to collect evidence, transact the correspondence, and manage the financial concerns of the delegation. Of these two sub-committees I was appointed member. When these primary transactions had been gone through, the delegates passed their first resolution, with a certain solemnity of proceeding. We formally resigned all claims of protection for home manufactures, thus casting from ourselves the imputation levelled at us by the landed interest, that we were zealous to remove the protection on our neighbours’ products, but that we were willing to keep it on our own. We declared we were working ‘ to establish the true and peaceful principles of free trade, that we were seeking to institute the unrestricted interchange of industry and capital between all nations.’ The mornings were spent by the delegates in waiting singly or in deputations upon Members of Parliament, or upon Cabinet ministers. Our evenings were generally employed in arranging the programme of the next day, or in receiving those who were unable or unwilling to meet us publicly. It not un-frequently happened that it was early morning ere we retired to rest.”
“ The general committee met daily at half-past two, in the large room in Brown’s Hotel. The meetings were public, and were attended by members of the House of Commons; Villiers, Hume, O’Connell, Wood, Brotherton, and several others, almost daily assisted and spoke. The sittings of The Anti-Corn- Law League attracted considerable attention. The large room in Brown’s Hotel was daily crowded with eager listeners. Enemies sought to sow division in our camp, declaring that the idea of unqualified repeal was an insanity, the advocacy of which could only be explained by the supposition that we, the delegates, were visionaries. Some said we were socialists, others that we were actuated by the sordid motives of manufacturers seeking to enrich ourselves by sacrificing the peasantry to our own ends. The prime minister called us ‘ madmen.’ “ I have heard many mad things in my life,” Lord Melbourne said in the House of Lords “ but before God, the repeal of the Corn Laws is the maddest I ever heard of. “ Nor were these opponents our only antagonists. The Chartists opposed the League on the plea, that until the people were better represented it was time ill-spent to seek for the repeal of any law. The Whigs tried to win us over by proposing to make the Corn Laws a party question, promising to unite to abolish the sliding scale if the League would accept a small fixed duty instead of unqualified repeal. Under these combined influences, waverers began to appear in the camp. I sided with those who would accede to no half- measures, and would strive for nothing short of Mr. Villiers’ motion :
‘ That we should be allowed to give evidence at the bar of the House of Commons.’
” One evening, Lord Fitzwilliam, a Liberal member of the House of Lords, entered the room in Brown’s Hotel, where several of the delegates were assembled. Mr. Cobden, Mr. Bright, Mr. Sturge, Mr. Gregg, and I, besides some others, were present. With Lord Fitzwilliam came his son Lord Milton. A long and somewhat warm discussion ensued between the peers and the delegates. The object and plan of the League were naturally the subject of the discussion. The two lords admitted that the CornLaws, as they stood, were evil in their operation; but they argued that a small fixed duty was the only conceivable remedy for this evil.”
“Mr. Cobden and Mr. Bright were our spokesmen. It interested me then, as it has often done since, to watch the vigour and earnestness with which Bright rushed into the debate, whilst Cobden listened attentively, cautiously abstaining from giving any opinion until he had heard all that could be said upon the subject, then gathering the various pros and cons, delivering his judgment with overwhelming clearness and conviction. Both held resolutely by our tenets, that total repeal was just, and that nothing short of it would they advocate ; that no other concession would satisfy the League. After a discussion that grew warmer as it went on, Lord Fitzwillam rising to go, exclaimed testily as he put on his hat:”
“ You might as well endeavour to overthrow the monarchy as to strive for total repeal “ William Rawson, one of the delegates for Manchester, replied, with flashing eyes : ” My lord, if the monarchy proves as injurious to the common interests of Great Britain, as the Corn Laws are recognised to be by all thinking men, the sooner it is overturned the better. “
“Not long after Lord Fitzwilliam became a convert to the League, and as ardent for total repeal as any of the men he had visited that February night.”
The Queen opened Parliament early in February, The royal speech made no allusion to the Corn Laws, but it was expected that both the mover and the seconder of the address would touch upon them in their speeches, Mr. Wood, member for Kendal, pledged to his constituents to advocate repeal; he was also president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, that had been the first to sanction the proceedings of the League; Wood was appointed seconder of the address.
On the night Mr, Wood was to speak, the delegates assembled under the gallery. They looked eagerly forward to this speech as likely strongly to advance their cause throughout the country. To their consternation, the honourable gentleman soon involved himself in a web of contradictions. On the one hand, to redeem his pledge to his constituents, he stated that the Com Laws were most injurious to manufacturers and labourers ; on the other, he assured the ministers that the country was in a most prosperous state. Mr. Wood finished his speech amidst the laughter and applause of the whole landed interest in the House, for the picture of prosperity he had drawn struck at the very root of the argument for repeal.
Sir Robert Peel rose, and with courteous sarcasm thanked the honourable member for Kendal for the very able speech he had delivered in favour of the existing system. ” I was one of the deputation,” says Mr. Walmsley, “ who a couple of days after waited upon Lord Melbourne to lay before him the true state of the country, so different to the picture Mr. Wood had painted, repeating our prayer to be allowed to tender evidence on oath to this effect at the bar of the House of Commons. Lord Melbourne listened attentively, but held out no hope that Mr. Villiers’ motion, embodying this request, should be attended to.”
No wonder that some of the members of the smaller Parliament assembled in Brown’s Hotel began to lose heart. A crowded meeting, at which many members of the House of Commons were present, assembled on the afternoon of the interview with Lord Melbourne. Some of the delegates expressed their discouragement. Mr. Walmsley was of those who refused to share this feeling. His speech, on this occasion was an exhaustive argument establishing the identity of interests of agriculturists and manufacturers. The Morning Chronicle of the 9th February, noticing it, said: ” It must be the business of delegates to undeceive landowners with regard to the extent of the injury they suffer from the advantages given to foreign manufacturers by our Com Laws. The speech of Mr. Walmsley is exceedingly valuable on account of the information it affords with respect to the chimerical nature of the apprehensions from foreign importations of corn.”
Let us take one more anecdote from the notes before us belonging to this period, which we think will prove interesting.
“Mr. Sturge and I were the two delegates relied upon as authorities in matters relating to statistics. We were generally together, hunting in couples. Mr. Sturge had worked with Lord Brougham, in preparing the Anti-Slavery Bill for Parliament, and now, when he came as delegate to London, to agitate for the repeal of the Com Laws, he sought out his great fellow- worker. I accompanied him. We found Lord Brougham already convinced of the justice of our cause, and ready to advocate it in the House of Lords. On many details, however he required information, and he invited us to instruct him on these points.”
” Several mornings we met at an early breakfast,, and spent hours in discussion and examination of facts. We passed in review the fluctuation of prices during a number of years, and under the different Com Laws ; the prices of wheat in the corn-growing countries of Europe ; tables of averages of profit and of loss ; the speculations on bonded wheat. Sturge and I got the information together, and Lord Brougham listened with concentrated attention, asking questions occasionally, but making no memoranda in writing of the facts related. No point that could throw light on the operation of the Corn Laws was left out in these morning conferences. When all had been gone through, Lord Brougham declared himself master of the subject, and announced his intention of bringing forward the motion independently in the House of Lords. It was not this, exactly, that we had anticipated.”
Mr. Villiers had been chosen, by the ‘Smaller House, on the other side of Palace Yard,’ as the leader of the Corn-Law agitation, and his speech, it was considered, should take precedence of every other.
On the 18th February, Lord Brougham called upon ‘the High Senate of the nation to hear the prayer of the people at its bar.’ In a speech of unrivalled power he embodied the facts we had collected for him, and to which he had listened without taking a single note. He stated the various prices of corn in different countries of Europe ; he traced the many fluctuations in the price of wheat in England under the different Corn Laws; and he set out this dry information in all the pomp of imagery and the varied resources of rhetoric. The speech produced an immense sensation. It was so exhaustive that it somewhat lessened the effects of Mr. Villiers’ lucid and forcible statement, delivered in the Commons the following day.
“Some of the delegates felt aggrieved that Mr. Villiers should have been pre-stalled. Mr. John Bright, especially, expressed himself somewhat warmly on the subject. When, on the next morning, Mr. Sturge and I called upon Lord Brougham, to thank him for the great service he had rendered to our cause, he received us somewhat coldly. He was aware of the strictures passed upon him by Mr. Bright and others. ‘Do those men,’ he said, ‘ think they understand how to deal with the House of Lords better than I do ? Have you so many friends that you can afford to lose one ? “
On the day of separating, the delegates passed a vote of thanks to Lord Brougham and to Mr. Villiers. Two dissentient votes were still found recorded against the motion, regarding Lord Brougham. In acknowledging this vote of thanks. Lord Brougham reverted with some asperity to the two who had differed from him in the course he had pursued. To this origin I have always ascribed the marked coldness with which Lord Brougham treated Mr. Bright through the course of his noble political career.”
On the 20th February, the little Parliament met for the last time in Brown’s Hotel. Both the Houses of Lords and Commons had refused to hear the evidence of the delegates on the plea ” of want of time.” The members therefore separated ; one course lay clear before them — they must rouse public opinion.
To enlighten and convince it was now the aim and end of the labours of the most patriotic and practically- wise set of men that ever joined together for a public purpose. The work of the League now began. We know the result, and the name of Richard Cobden is inscribed in the heart of the nation too deeply not to impart a certain reflex interest on those men who were his fellow- workers. The friendship between him and Mr. Walmsley grew and strengthened from the day they first met in the large room in Brown’s Hotel, members of that smaller but more faithful Parliament.
” We were in almost daily communication for years,” he says, “and our friendship was never broken or suffered alteration. It was on that occasion also I met Joseph Hume.”
Before closing this chapter, we must notice an address issued to the Chartists by Mr. Walmsley, in his character of president of the Tradesmen’s Reform Association, which appeared in The Morning Chronicle September, 1838, and to which he alludes as ” having attracted some attention at the time.”
At the very outset of the work forced upon the League, of rousing and instructing public opinion, a class of antagonists amongst the wretched proved one of the greatest obstacles it had to encounter.
Chartism permeated the underlying strata of society, and welded them together. The physical-force Chartists treated as enemies all who sought to reform abuses or amend the laws by any other means than the Charter. This cry for the abolition of the Corn Laws they judged a stratagem to divert popular attention from their just demand formulated in the ” Five Points.”
With much that the Chartists demanded, Mr. Walmsley, in common with some of the noblest and purest minds in England, heartily sympathised ; and, because he sympathised, he deplored the means they adopted to obtain their end. In this spirit he issued an address. The press took it up ; it was copied and commented upon by most of the leading London and provincial papers of the day ; it was printed separately, copies circulated through the country by thousands ; and many wrote to the president of the Tradesmen’s Reform Association, thanking him for having so clearly and justly expressed the views of those who, sympathising with the Chartists, yet were compelled by the course of conduct they were pursuing to keep aloof from them.
In the November of that year , Mr. Walmsley was elected mayor of Liverpool. The Tories at the council board made a faint protest against his election to the civic chair ; but no other candidate was even proposed to compete the honour with one who was felt by all to have established his title to it.