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Joseph Hume, politician, was younger son of a shipmaster of Montrose, Forfarshire, where he was born on 22 January 1777. His mother, early left a widow, kept a crockery stall in the market-place, and having put her son to school in the town, apprenticed him in 1790 to a local surgeon. After three years he was sent to study medicine successively at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and London, and in 1796 became a member of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and on 2 February in the following year an assistant surgeon in the sea-service of the East India Company. This post was obtained for him by the influence of David Scott of Dunninald, Forfarshire, a director of the East India Company and M.P. for Forfar. He made his first voyage out in 1797, became a full assistant surgeon on 12 November 1799, and was posted to the ship Houghton. On the voyage out he discharged satisfactorily the duties of the purser who died. He was then transferred to the land service of the company, and devoted himself zealously to the study of the native languages and religions.
Having rapidly mastered Hindostani and Persian, he was employed by the administration in political duties. In 1801 he joined the army at Bundelcund on the eve of the Mahratta war as surgeon to the 18th sepoy regiment, and was at once appointed interpreter to Lieutenant-colonel Powell, commanding one of the forces. In 1802 he rendered the government an important service by devising a safe means of drying the stock of gunpowder, which was found to have become damp. During the war he filled several high posts in the offices of the paymaster of the forces, the prize agency office, and the commissariat, and at its conclusion was publicly thanked by Lord Lake. His opportunities of enriching himself had not been neglected, and in 1807 he was able to return to Bengal with £40,000 and to quit the service. He landed in England in 1808, and spent some years in travel and study. He visited the whole of the United Kingdom in 1809, more especially the manufacturing towns, and travelled during 1810 and 1811 in the Mediterranean and in Egypt.
In the same year he began a political career at home. On the death of Sir John Lowther Johnstone he was returned in January 1812 for Weymouth, having purchased two elections to the seat; but when upon the dissolution in the autumn of 1812 the owners of the borough refused to re-elect him, he took proceedings for the recovery of his money, and succeeded in getting a portion returned. While he held the seat he supported the tory government, and opposed the Framework Knitters Bill in the interest of the manufacturers.
Before re-entering parliament Hume took an active part upon the central committee of the Lancastrian schools system, and studied the condition of the working classes, publishing a pamphlet on savings banks. He also devoted great attention to Indian affairs, and tried strenuously but without success to obtain election to the directorate of the East India Company. He was indefatigable at proprietors' meetings in exposing abuses, and published some of his speeches at the Court of Proprietors. Upon the expiry of the charter of 1793 he advocated freedom of trade with India, and pointed out that it must result in an immense expansion of commerce with the East.
He re-entered parliament under liberal auspices in 1818 as member for the Border burghs, joining the opposition in 1819. He was re-elected for the same constituency in 1820, and remained in parliament, excepting during 1841, when he unsuccessfully contested Leeds, until his death. He represented the Aberdeen burghs till 1830; Middlesex from 1830, when he was returned unopposed, till July 1837, when Colonel Wood defeated him by a small majority; Kilkenny from 1837 to 1841, for which seat he was selected by O'Connell; and Montrose from 1842 till he died.
In 1820 he drew attention to the enormously disproportionate cost of collecting the revenue, and forced the appointment of a select committee, which reported in his favour. In 1822 he opposed Vansittart's scheme for the reduction of the pension charges, in 1824 obtained a select committee on the Combination Acts, and moved in the same year for an inquiry into the state of the Irish church. In 1830, however, he with other reformers supported the Duke of Wellington upon Knatchbull's motion on the agricultural distress, and so saved him from defeat for the moment.
He advocated the extension of representation to the colonies during the debates on the Reform Bill on 16 August 1831, and in 1834 moved the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1835 and 1836 he was active in attacking the Orange Society, to which was imputed a design to alter the succession to the throne.
For thirty years he was a leader of the radical party. His industry and patience were almost boundless, and he was indefatigable in exposing every kind of extravagance and abuse, but he particularly devoted himself to financial questions, and it was chiefly through his efforts that ‘retrenchment’ was added to the words ‘peace and reform’ as the party watchword. He spent much time and money on analysing the returns of public expenditure, and maintained a staff of clerks for the purpose. His speeches were innumerable. He spoke longer and oftener and probably worse than any other private member, but he saw most of the causes which he advocated succeed in the end). He secured the abandonment of the policy of a sinking fund, urged the abolition of flogging in the army and pressing for the navy, and of imprisonment for debt; he carried the repeal of the combination laws, and those prohibiting the emigration of workmen and the export of machinery; was an earnest advocate of catholic emancipation, the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and of parliamentary reform. In 1824 he became a trustee of the loan raised for the assistance of the Greek insurgents, and was subsequently charged with jobbery in connection with it. All, however, that he appears to have done was to press for and obtain from the Greek deputies terms by which, on the loan going to a discount, he was relieved of his holding advantageously to himself.
Hume served on more committees of the House of Commons than any other member. He was a privy councillor, deputy-lieutenant for Middlesex, vice-president of the Society of Arts, F.R.S., and twice lord rector of Aberdeen University. He died at his seat, Burnley Hall, Norfolk, on 20 February 1855, and was buried at Kensal Green. He married a daughter of Mr. Burnley of Guilford Street, London, a wealthy East India proprietor, by whom he had six children, of whom one, Joseph Burnley Hume, was secretary to the commission to inquire into abuses at the mint.
Another Joseph Hume (1767-1843), a clerk at Somerset House, published in 1812 a bad blank-verse translation of Dante's ‘Inferno,’ and in 1841 ‘A Search into the Old Testament.’ At his residence, Montpelier House, Notting Hill, there met Lamb, Hazlitt, Godwin, and other literary men. One of Hume's daughters was mother of Mrs. Augusta Webster, the poetess, and another married Isaac Todhunter, the mathematician.
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