Unlikely Parliamentarians 4: a view from the Victorian Commons

ukparliamentweek_logo_partner_tag_rgbThis week is Parliament Week, a programme of events and activities that connects people across the UK with Parliament and democracy. To mark it, every day this week we are publishing a blog on ‘unlikely parliamentarians’  – the men and women across history who became parliamentarians only unexpectedly.

In our fourth blog of the series, Dr Philip Salmon, editor of the Victorian Commons, discusses some of the MPs from working backgrounds who found their way into the Victorian Commons long before the rise of Labour …

From 'The March of Reform' by H.B (John Doyle), 1833.
From ‘The March of Reform’ by H.B (John Doyle), 1833.

The traditional view of the nineteenth-century House of Commons is that despite some democratic advances it remained an exclusive and elite club, dominated by the land-owning classes and a growing number of rich industrialists and well-connected professionals. MPs from non-elite and working class backgrounds, especially of the kind later associated with the rise of the Labour party, remained pretty thin on the ground.

The History of Parliament’s 1832-68 project, however, is revealing a surprising number of MPs from an unusual range of backgrounds, some of whom made significant contributions to parliamentary life, especially behind the scenes. Recent examples include the Welsh shopkeeper’s assistant William Williams, who set off on foot for London aged 16 with just 30 shillings in his pocket and established a thriving warehousing business. Others include John Duncuft, a glazier’s son who made a fortune in cotton, the Irish baker and brewer James McCann, the prize fighter and butcher’s son John Gully, and the Regent Street tailor Donald Nicoll.

Many of these non-elite MPs acquired the wealth necessary for a parliamentary career by leaving their old jobs and making money from a new venture, becoming archetypal ‘self-made’ men. (Elections continued to be a huge expense for most candidates until the reforms of 1883 and MPs were not paid until 1911.) A substantial number of MPs from working backgrounds, however, remained firmly attached to their original trades, even whilst sitting in Parliament.

The London-based builder John Treeby, for instance, in a rather novel interpretation of his constituency duties, even started building houses in Lyme Regis after being elected for the borough in 1865. On the hustings in 1859 he had been ridiculed for his ‘bricks and mortar’ background and ‘taunted’ for having ‘risen from the people’. Responding to these jibes, he countered that rather than ‘disqualifying’ him, his lowly origins meant he knew most people’s ‘wants and could sympathise with them’. In the Commons ‘bricks and mortar’ Treeby, as he was soon affectionately known, became a surprisingly effective Tory backbencher, occasionally siding with Radical MPs on working class and social issues. During the debates on the Conservatives’ 1867 reform bill he even managed to add a clause of his own, aimed at preventing lower class electors who were behind with their rates from missing out on their new voting entitlements. This was a substantial and, as it turned out, democratically extremely significant achievement.

Another ‘upstart from the ranks’, as his opponents liked to call him, was the Liberal MP John Thomas Norris, who operated a Berkshire paper mill and a printing works in Aldersgate. Like Treeby, he was pilloried on the hustings for his lowly birth and presumptuous behaviour. ‘In too great haste to get to the top of the ladder’, jeered one opponent, ‘he was not content to climb step by step, but wished to vault at once to the top (laughter)’. Elected for Abingdon on his third attempt in 1857 with the support of local tradesmen, he became a leading figure in the campaign to repeal the paper duties (a sales tax on paper production), which he condemned as a ‘tax on knowledge’ that was adding 5% to the cost of school books. In 1860 he even took on Gladstone, the Liberal chancellor of the exchequer, challenging him to stand by his budgetary proposals to repeal the duty after they had been controversially thrown out by the Lords. Urged on by Norris and others, in 1861 the government forced through the repeal of the duty, an event which became crucial in clarifying the Commons’ supremacy over the Lords in money matters.

Like many other ‘working’ MPs, Treeby and Norris had no option but to try and combine their existing careers with their duties at Westminster. This undoubtedly restricted both their effectiveness as parliamentarians as well as having an impact on their livelihoods. Both MPs lost their seats at the next general election and Norris, shortly after his election defeat, actually went bankrupt. Before the payment of MPs in 1911, this scenario was not uncommon. The fact that so many non- elite MPs still managed to serve in Parliament during this period, however, says a great deal about public attitudes to politics and the sacrifices that many people felt it was worth making for public service during the Victorian era.


For details of these non-elite and other MPs being researched by the 1832-68 project, please visit The Victorian Commons blog.

Join us tomorrow for the next in our series on ‘Unlikely Parliamentarians’. For more about Parliament Week, visit their website.


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