A Victorian record-breaker: Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, Father of the House

Today we hear from Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of our Commons 1832-68 project about the lengthy parliamentary career of Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot as part of our Mothers and Fathers of the House series.

crmtalbot.jpg
Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot

In January 1890 Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot (1803-90), the Father of the House, died after almost 60 years of unbroken service representing his native Glamorgan in the Commons. The only nineteenth-century MP to surpass this length of parliamentary service was his successor as Father of the House, Charles Pelham Villiers (1802-98), who sat for 63 years. However, Talbot’s stint as Father of the House – which began in October 1874 when his predecessor George Weld-Forester succeeded to the peerage – was almost twice as long as that of Villiers (1890-8). Indeed from the time that the title first came into use in the eighteenth century until today, the only person to have exceeded Talbot’s record as Father of the House is David Lloyd George (1929-45). Talbot also held another distinction: at the time of his death he was one of only two sitting MPs who had served in the Commons before the 1832 Reform Act, the other being the Irish parliamentarian The O’Gorman Mahon, who, unlike Talbot, had not sat continuously.

Despite the length of his parliamentary career, and the fact that he was apparently ‘a clever and ready speaker’, Talbot was virtually silent in debate. An apocryphal story suggested that he spoke just once in the Commons chamber, to ask someone to close a window because of a draught. The truth is less entertaining: according to Hansard, he did make only one speech, but this was a brief remark on the Dublin corporation water bill in 1861, prompted by his service on the related committee. He appeared less frequently in the Commons in his later years. The political journalist Henry Lucy recorded in his diary on 10 June 1888 that

During the last two or three days new members have been much exercised as to the identity of a tall elderly gentleman who has been seen within the House of Commons or moving about its precincts. He is distinguished, amongst other things, by wearing a woollen comforter, which hangs straight down by his side to embarrassing lengths… The stranger, as he personally is to nine-tenths of the present House of Commons, is Mr. Talbot, member for Glamorganshire and “father of the House of Commons”.

He was, however, far better known in Glamorgan, for which he was first elected at the 1830 general election, and where he also served as lord lieutenant from 1848. He was the county’s largest landowner, with 34,000 acres, and built a new mansion for himself at Margam, which reputedly cost £50,000. He played a leading role in the development of Port Talbot and was chairman of the South Wales Railway, 1849-63. His colossal wealth was boosted by his shrewd investments in Britain’s developing railway network. He was a friend of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and contributed £60,000 to assist with the completion of his steamship, the Great Eastern. Talbot’s railway holdings were worth an estimated £3 million in 1890, helping to make him reputedly Britain’s wealthiest commoner, with an estimated £6 million at the time of his death.

Margam Castle in 1841, daguerreotype by Calvert Jones. Image credit: National Library of Wales

Talbot was a cousin of the pioneering photographer William Henry Fox Talbot, who briefly joined him in the Commons, and he encouraged his cousin’s experiments. He was himself a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Linnean Society, and had a wide range of other interests, being a talented chess-player, musician and mathematician, and a keen art collector. He also enjoyed the typical pursuits of a country gentleman: hunting, shooting and riding. His favourite hobby was yachting, although his wagers on races against fellow members of the Royal Yacht Squadron did not always end well: in 1834 he was said to have lost £50,000 in a race against Lord Belfast. Undaunted by the fact that he had never learnt to swim, in 1859 he waded into the surf at Kenfig sands to help rescue the crew of the Sunda. His heroism earned him the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s silver medal, the only MP ever awarded this honour. He secured another record when his steam yacht Lynx became the first vessel to sail through the Suez canal after its opening in 1869.

W. Pearson, The Steam Yacht ‘Lynx’: Swansea Museum [http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-steam-yacht-lynx-224875]

Although he was a committed Liberal, Talbot differed from his party on two significant occasions. The first was the repeal of the corn laws in 1846, which he opposed, although he was absent from the key votes on this question, as he was in Malta, where his wife died that March. The second came half a century later, with his vote against the second reading of Gladstone’s Home Rule bill in 1886. Despite this, he remained loyal to his party leader and was re-elected at that year’s general election with the support of the Mid-Glamorgan Liberal Association. Another notable vote was his support for John Stuart Mill’s attempt to enfranchise women under the 1867 Reform Act.

While not the most active of MPs, Talbot enjoyed parliamentary life. When Gladstone offered him a peerage in 1869, he declined (largely because his son Theodore did not want to follow him into politics), observing that ‘long habits and many friendships have made the House of Commons to me almost a home, and one which I could not quit without regret’. In the event, it was death that ended his connection with the House.

KR

Further reading:

  • R. V. Hughes, The wealthiest commoner: C. R. M. Talbot (1803-1890) (1977)
  • T. M. Campbell, ‘C. R. M. Talbot (1803-1890): a Welsh landowner in politics and industry’, Morgannwg (2000)
  • Talbot’s biography from the History of Parliament’s 1820-32 volumes can be accessed here.
  • For details on how to access his biography on our 1832-68 preview site, see here.

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