Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Lord Sydenham
Chapter IV - A Cabinet Minister

IN the last of May, 1834, the cleavage which had been gradually taking place within the cabinet resulted in an open rupture between the more Conservative and more Liberal sections. Those who went out included Sir James Graham, Mr. Stanley the colonial secretary, the Duke of Richmond, and the Earl of Ripon, formerly Lord Goderich. Lord Auckland took Graham's position as First Lord of the Admiralty, enabling Poulett Thomson to succeed to the titular headship of the "Board of Trade with a seat in the cabinet. Otherwise this made little difference in the character of his work, as he had previously covered the whole field. Board of Trade matters being entirely related to the House of Commons, and Lord Auckland sitting in the House of Lords.

Mr. Greville m his racy and cynical manner, has left us a sketch of Poulett Thomson about this time, which brings out in mild caricature several of the distinctive features of the president of the Board of Trade. "I had a great deal of conversation with Poulett Thomson last night after dinner on one subject or another; he is very good-humoured, pleasing, and intelligent, but the greatest coxcomb I ever saw, and the vainest dog, though his vanity is not offensive or arrogant; but he told me that when Lord Grey's government was formed (at which time he was a junior partner in a mercantile house, and had been at most five years in parliament), he was averse to take office, but Althorp declared he would not come in unless Thomson did also, and that, knowing the importance of Althorp's accession to the government, he sacrificed a large income, and took the Board of Trade; that when this was offered to him, he was asked whether he cared if he was president or vice-president, as they wished to make Lord Auckland president if he (Poulett Thomson) had no objection. He said, provided the president was not in the cabinet, he did not care; and accordingly he condescended to be vice-president, knowing that all the business must be in the House of Commons, and that he must be (as in fact he said lie was) virtual head of the office. All this was told with a good-humoured and smiling complacency, which made me laugh internally."

Here we recognize his strong ambition, and entire self-confidence, and yet both rendered quite inoffensive by his sincerity of purpose, his great industry, and his determination to realize his ambitions by proving his worth through his achievements, the whole pervaded by an atmosphere of urbanity and charm of manner which was everywhere acknowledged to be remarkably captivating.

The sequel to the withdrawal of the Graham and Stanley wing of Lord Grey's cabinet, was the resignation, a couple of months later, of Lord Grey himself, and the succession of Lord Melbourne as prime minister. Harmony being restored, the cabinet which seemed on the eve of dissolution secured a new lease of life; the majority, however, was too small, and there were too many live questions before the country, which stirred deep convictions and strong prejudices, to permit of the government holding its position in a comfortable or dignified manner. Its own chief political strength lay in the still greater weakness of its opponents, who, though offered several opportunities and having others within their power, yet found it impossible to take advantage of these to defeat the government, since they knew they could not sustain one of the ir own in the face of a combination of the Whigs, Radicals and Irish, upon whom Melbourne relied for his majorities.

Lord Grey's administration had not been in much favour with the king, but when the more Conservative element had hived off, and it came under Lord Melbourne's leadership, it seemed to lose what grace it had in the king's eyes. When, in November, 1834, owing to Earl Spencer's death, Lord Althorp, his heir, passed to the House of Lords, the House of Commons lost the only leader iu whom the king had any confidence. The king, therefore, declared to Lord Melbourne that he intended to apply to the Duke of Wellington to form a ministry. Peel being at the time in Italy, the duke took the place of the whole cabinet, being himself sworn in for as many offices as it was necessary to fill.  While waiting for the arrival of Peel the king had a glorious holiday, spiced by the joy which he felt in the discomfiture of his late cabinet. When Peel arrived and the ministry had been filled out, dissolution was granted and a new election called. It did not, however, give Peel sufficient backing, and the new government in spite of, and to a certain extent in consequence of, the loyal support of the king, suffered one defeat after another, beginning with their defeat on the appointment of the Speaker, a contest in which Poulett Thomson took a prominent part. They finally gave up in April, 1835. The king made the best of a disagreeable situation and took back the Melbourne government with "that dangerous little Radical," Lord John Russell, as leader of the House. Poulett Thomson, who had been strongly supported at Manchester, returned as president of the Board of Trade with a seat in the cabinet.

As we have seen, though capable of producing able, if not popular, speeches, Poulett Thomson was by preference a worker rather than a debater. Hence he seldom troubled the House with more than short statements in committee in explanation of measures which he had in charge. This was particularly true in the sessions of 1835 and 1836, during which questions of the tithes, the Irish Church, municipal councils, and Orange associations were engaging the attention of the House. Incidentally there was a struggle going on between the Commons and the Lords, accompanied by a great deal of very unedifying political strategy, which gave point to the criticisms of the Radical press and platform as to the decadent condition of the existing political parties, and the need for a new and more vigorous policy having respect to the needs of the masses rather than the whims of the classes. During these years also, owing to the conjunction of a narrow ministerial majority and the prominence of the Irish question, O'Connell was very much to the fore, and his party was understood to hold the fate of the government in its hands. With so slim a majority, however, the fate of the government was m several hands, which by no means improved the quality of its measures; and still it could not be overthrown, for the Opposition was even more powerless to carry its own measures.

One of those periodic financial and industrial depressions which specially characterized the nineteenth century, was at this time deepening over the world, and destined to reach its nadir in 1837. During such unpropitious times Mr. Poulett Thomson, having much to engage him in the duties of his own department, found little inducement to take part in the discussions in the House. Indeed, being now a member of the cabinet, he had not the same freedom to express in public his personal convictions on certain vital points, where these were still considerably in advance of the opinion of the cabinet as a whole.

When all things seemed to be at their lowest ebb, William IA died, and the Princess Victoria succeeded to the throne. This involved another election, during which Mr. Poulett Thomson had as an opponent at Manchester that rising young star of the Tory party Mr. W. E. Gladstone. As the Liberals had carried Poulett Thomson to victory without his personal assistance, so the Tory element endeavoured to elect Gladstone, though he still sought re-election under the auspices of the Duke of Newcastle at Newark. Gladstone came in at the foot of the poll, and Poulett Thomson decidedly at the head of it, with Mr. Phillips as his colleague. During a subsequent reception at the hands of his Manchester friends, Mr. Gladstone complained of the unfair advantage which Poulett Thomson had taken of him owing to the connection of the Gladstone family with the slave-holding system of the West Indies.

The accession of Queen Victoria brought a new lease of life to the Melbourne cabinet, but did not bring Mr. Poulett Thomson any more prominently before the public, inasmuch as he still confined his attention to the multifarious duties of his office, and the systematic pursuit of the policy to improve British trade relations with the various countries of Europe. His work lying so largely out of the line of ordinary politics, he came to be regarded by those who look chiefly to parliamentary debate as the one measure of political capacity, as a man who must have been considerably overrated. Hence the surprise which was expressed in several quarters when his appointment to Canada was announced. Still no one who knew him intimately had any doubt as to his great ability. The estimate of his political opponents, divested of party rancour, may be gathered from the brief account of his career given by Thomas Raikes in his journal. Raikes was a staunch supporter of all Conservative principles, the friend and confidant of Wellington, Peel, and other party leaders; of Thomson he says, " I knew him from the early commencement of his career in life, which lias been eminently successful. He was originally a merchant of the old firm of Thomson, Bonar & Co., in the Russian trade. He obtained a seat in parliament, and was a great follower of the political economists, with Hyde-Villiers, and a few other young men who cried up the march of intellect, and advocated the new doctrines of reform. He was clever, and whenever he spoke on commercial questions, was always correct in figures and references, though not an eloquent speaker. He was an arithmetical man, which gained liiin the favour of Lord Althorp, with whom he always voted, and who, when the Whigs came into power, made him vice-president of the Board of Trade. When Althorp was made Chancellor of the Exchequer, having little previous knowledge or habits of business, he was glad to have a practical man at his elbow, whom he mi 'lit consult on every occasion. As the Whigs grew in power, Thomson was promoted, and became a cabinet minister. He entered into all the plans of his colleagues to maintain themselves by pandering to the popular cry of reform. He represented the city of Manchester, under the radical interest, as an advocate of free trade, and in that capacity I have some years back alluded to him in my journal."

Poulett Thomson's prolonged efforts to improve the trade relations between Britain and the other European countries were only very partially effective, chiefly because of the opposition of the general public in France to any change in the exist ing system, and the difficulty of improving trade relations with Germany so long as Britain would abate little or nothing of her duties on wheat, that item being one of the chief articles by which Germany must pay for her imports. With Austria he was more succcssful, and an important commercial treaty was signed in 1838, which broke up the prohibitive system which had hitherto prevailed in that country. The negotiations with foreign countries were, for the most part, incomplete when he left the Board of Trade.

An institution of much importance for the promotion of British industry, founded during Mr. Thomson's presidency of the Board of Trade, was the School of Design at Somerset House established in 1837. Superior to the countries of the continent in many other aspects of industry and commerce, Britain had tended to lag behind them in the matter of technical training. With a view to remedy this defect the School of Design was established, marking the beginning of a system of education as applied to industry which received a fresh impetus with the great exhibition of 1851, and led to the extending of these schools throughout the country. It also led to the development of the magnificent industrial museum of South Kensington.

Another subject which specially engaged his attention was that of international copyright, which he earnestly sought to promote as one important feature of that larger intercourse between nations which was his cherished ideal. In 1838 he succeeded in having a bill passed enabling the British government to enter into treaty arrangements with foreign countries for the establishment of international copyright. He endeavoured to negotiate such treaties with France and the United States, but they were as yet unprepared for such advances.

As we have seen, his interest in the promotion of freedom of trade and intercourse was never confined to abstract principles. He had, indeed, a comprehensive and well-balanced conception of the general advantages of free trade, but it was the outcome of a close study of the actual conditions of trade and industry. Experience had taught him that freedom of trade was to be secured in detail rather than in the gross, and this was the manner in which it was actually accomplished, for the final overthrow of the Corn Laws in 1846 was only the culmination of a series of inroads made upon them. Notwithstanding the numerous modifications of the general protective system and the Navigation Acts, from 1822 to 1846, the protective system was by no means abolished with the Corn Laws. Mr. Poulett Thomson's method of accepting every modification which could be secured and making it; the logical basis for further concessions, proved the most effective system in the end. Its great virtue was that it demonstrated to the people m an educative manner that the fears which they entertained as to the injurious effects of the extension of free intercourse were quite groundless. Thus the public prejudice was broken down in a natural and effective manner. In the last speech which he delivered in the House of Commons on the subject of the Corn Laws, on Mr. Wliers' motion to go into committee on the subject m January, 1830, he thus states his attitude: "If I were asked whether it might not be better to have even a free trade in corn, I would reply in the affirmative also. But when I state this I am perfectly aware that here are considerable and weighty interests to be looked into which cannot be lightly treated, and that they should be all fairly considered and equitably dealt with, and time given gradually to effect a change. I am therefore taking a practical view of the subject, ready to go into a committee upon it, in the hope that we shall be able to introduce such a practical change in the existing system of laws as may prove really beneficial to all parties, and which will not injure any interests whatsoever." In pursuance of this method he sought to follow up Mr. Huskisson's initiative in gradually extending the warehousing system, first by enlarging the list of seaports admitted to the privilege, and then by extending it to the inland towns. The latter extension, however, had not been secured when he left the Board of Trade, nor indeed for some years afterwards.

In extending the range and usefulness of the Board of Trade, Poulett Thomson found that it could most effectively undertake the regulation of the railway system, which as an important factor in national life came into existence during his administration of the department. He introduced a system of supervision of the rapidly increasing number of railway charters previously issued by the Home Office, which had not the facilities for enquiring into such matters. The number of charters had increased from nine in 1832 to forty-two in 1837, when they were checked by the crisis of that year. This principle of supervision of private bills with a view to protecting the interests of the general public, he extended to all measures relating to trade, and this was found to be a much better safeguard than the loose and irregular supervision by committees of the House. Thus was begun that systematic supervision of corporate enterprises which has since kept pace with the growth of economic corporations. With the usual shortsighted conception as to what freedom of trade really implies, there were many who thought that this policy of regulating corporations in the public interest was a very inconsistent one to be so strongly advocated by an advanced free-trader.

In 1832, while si ill vice-president of the Board, he assisted in organizing a special department of it for collecting and publishing digests of the statistics of the empire, and selected for the office Mr. G. R. Porter, whose well-known book The Progress of the Nation, has long been a work of reference and a mine of information as to the economic and social development of Britain from the beginning of the nineteenth century to 1845.

Mr. Poulett Thomson's constitution, as we have noted, was not at all robust. Being already the victim of chronic gout, he found the double duties of supervising the increasing functions of the Board of Trade and of attending the long night sessions of the House of Commons to be rather more than his impaired health would permit. One rather obvious method of getting rid of attendance upon the sessions of the Commons, without giving up his office, would be to secure his elevation to the House of Lords. Ambition being a strong factor in his composition, such a recognition of his services would undoubtedly have been very gratifying, and there were numerous precedents. As lie seldom spoke in the House, his elevation to the Lords would not have weakened the debating power of the cabinet, although it was by no means strong in that direction. In outstanding names before the country, the ministry was decidedly weak. Sydney Smith very well expressed the general public sentiment on this subject. Speaking of Lord John Russell, the one outstanding personality in the ministry, he said, " I only mention Lord John Russell's name so often because he is beyond all comparison the ablest man in the whole administration; and to such an extent is he superior that the government could not exist a moment without him. If the foreign secretary were to retire, we should no longer be nibbling ourselves into disgrace on the coast of Spain; if the amiable Lord Glenelg were to leave us, we should feel secure in our colonial possessions; if Mr. Spring Rice were to go into holy orders, great would be the joy of the three per cents. A decent, good-looking head of the government might easily be found irt lieu of Viscount Melbourne. But, in five minutes after the departure of Lord John Russell, the whole Whig government would be dissolved into sparks of Liberality and splinters of Reform."

We get a glimpse of the estimation in which Poulett Thomson was held by his colleagues and of the place which he occupied in the cabinet from Lord Melbourne's reply to certain rather urgent suggestions from Lord .John Russell m October, 1838, as to necessary changes in the cabinet. Speaking of the proposed changes, including the possibility of removing Spring Rice from the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer, the prime minister says, "If you open the exchequer, consider whether it would be really wise or prudent or fair to pass over Thomson. He is a much abler man in finance than any of them, has a more complete knowledge of the subject, he is clear, short, distinct, and not trammelled with crotchets or scruples. Suppose he were to ask you, 'Why am I passed over?' what could you say to him t You could not say 'You are not the best qualified,' because he certainly is. You could not say that 'You arc unpopular,' because that is to make a man's fortune depend upon fancy, taste, and fashion. His connections in the city are as much an objection to his being president of the Board of Trade. I think he would be more easy and happy in the office after all the worry of the other." Elowever, the sudden death of Lady Russell on November 1st put an end for a time to the proposed reconstruction of the cabinet. Shortly afterwards, owing to the defection of their Radical support, Melbourne and Russell decided to resign on May 7th, 1839.

Peel undertook the formation of a ministry, but one of his conditions was that certain ladies, relatives of the late ministers, should retire from immediate attendance upon the Queen. To this the young Queen refused to assent, with the result that within four days Melbourne and his ministry were back in office. The waning support which the Whig cabinet had received in the House of Commons had been partly due to the unpopularity of Mr. Spring Rice as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Moreover, Canadian matters, as we know, were in a terrible tangle, owing to the outbreak of the rebellion in Lower Canada and the subsequent indiscretions of Lord Durham as governor-general. Lord Glenelg, as colonial secretary, had been quite unable to command the situation, and though he was supplanted by Normanby, things were scarcely improved. Hence, ui taking up office again, it was felt that some changes must be made in the ministry. As one result, Spring Rice, and not Poulett Thomson, was elevated to the peerage.

Thomson then had to choose whether he should take the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer or go out as governor-general to Canada. What the final considerations were which determined his acceptance of the Canadian position, it is not easy to determine, though his journals throw some light on the subject, once the decision was made. The difficult appointment of Canadian governor was undoubtedly offered to more than one before it was accepted by Poulett Thomson. There were even some who volunteered to take it. The Marquis of Normanby, desiring to be relieved of the position of lord-lieutenant of Ireland, expressed to Melbourne his willingness to undertake Canada. Mentioning this to Lord John Russell in a note, Melbourne said, "I so much like Normanby's readiness to undertake Canada, that I am loath to make any sarcastic observations upon it." They did not send him to Canada, however, but made him colonial secretary for a short time. Another marquis willing to undertake the difficult position was Lord Breadalbane. But though Melbourne was pleased to note the willingness of men of his rank to undertake public service, his offer also was declined. On the other hand, the position was tendered to Lord Clarendon, Lord Dunfermline, and Earl Spencer, but declined for one reason or another.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.