Biography

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William Huskisson (1770-1830)

William Huskisson was born in Worcestershire in 1770. In the period 1783-92 he was in Paris where his uncle was doctor to the British Embassy, and saw the French Revolution at first hand. In 1795 he was appointed as Under-secretary in the colonial Department. In 1793 he entered parliament as MP for Morpeth, Northumberland, as a supporter of Pitt the Younger. In 1804 he was elected for the constituency of Liskeard and became Secretary of the Treasury. He held the same appointment in Portland's ministry of 1804-09. In 1811 he became a Commissioner of the Woods and Forests. He was prominent in the Corn Law Debates (about the regulation of import and export of grain) of 1814-1815, and in 1821 was appointed to a committee to investigate distressed farming communities. Subsequently, Huskisson proposed a relaxation of the law. In 1823 he was appointed as President of the Board of Trade and Treasurer of the Navy in Liverpool's ministry. He sat as a member of the Bullion Committee which was chaired by Peel. Under Wellington he was Colonial Secretary but resigned in 1828.

Huskisson had threatened to resign on a number of occasions and had had a disagreement with Wellington over the sliding scale on the Corn Laws. Wellington may have been completely wearied by Huskisson's constant threats to resign: he does not seem to have trusted Huskisson during Liverpool's administration because the Duke thought that Huskisson was ready to replace the Corn Laws as early as 1826 with just a nominal duty. Huskisson's tendered his resignation over what was to be done with the two parliamentary seats that were to be disenfranchised for corruption in 1828 (Penryn and East Retford) - not expecting his resignation accepted. Wellington perhaps was glad of an excuse to remove him (my thanks to Anthony Smith for this information).

He obtained the removal of restrictions on the trade of the colonies with foreign countries, the removal or reduction of many import duties and the relaxation of the Navigation Laws. He was an active leader in the movement towards Free Trade.

He has the misfortune to be remembered most for being the victim of the first fatal railway accident. He died on 15 September 1830 following the incident at the official opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway line. There is a memorial to the event housed in the National Railway Museum, York

Charles Greville wrote about Huskisson, soon after his death, as follows:

Huskisson was about sixty years old, tall, slouching, and ignoble-looking.  In society he was extremely agreeable, without much animation, generally cheerful, with a great deal of humour, information, and anecdote, gentlemanlike, unassuming, slow in speech, and with a down-cast look, as if he avoided meeting anybody's gaze.  ... As a speaker in the House of Commons he was luminous upon his own subject, but he had no pretensions to eloquence; his voice was feeble, and his manner ungraceful...

There is no man in Parliament, or perhaps out of it, so well versed in finance, commerce, trade and colonial matters, and he is therefore a very great and irreparable loss. It is nevertheless remarkable that it is only within the last five or six years that he acquired the great reputation which he latterly enjoyed. I do not think he was looked upon as more than a second-rate man till his speeches on the silk trade and the shipping interest; but when he became President of the Board of Trade he devoted himself with indefatigable application to the maturing and reducing to practice those commercial improvements with which his name is associated, and to which he owes all his glory and most of his unpopularity. It is equally true that all the ablest men in the country coincide with him, and that the mass of the community are persuaded that his plans are mischievous to the last degree. [Greville Diaries, 18 September 1830]

The monument of Huskisson in his toga at the top of Princess Avenue, Liverpool, has disappeared. After the riots of 1981 the bronze statue, some 10 to 15 foot tall, was pulled down by people who thought he was a slave trader. Damage was sustained, the head was nearly smashed off. It lay unceremoniously in a council car park until 1984. The statue is now housed at the Oratory, St James's Mount Gardens. The vandals also pulled down F.J. Williamson's white stone statue of Hugh Stowel Brown, a Baptist preacher. This has also disappeared, possibly moved to the council store at that time, for fear of similar 'local' action. Brown stood at the other end of Princess avenue by Princess Park Gates.

I am grateful to Owen Schmoen for this information.

*********

The Walker Art Gallery Liverpool statue of Huskisson  was originally in St James's Cemetery, Liverpool, on top of the remains of William Huskisson. The sculpture was housed in a specially built mausoleum. The housing of the sculpture attracted a lot of criticism. Many critics thought that to allow such an important sculpture to be viewed from one direction only was a waste.
The critics suggested that the sculpture could be moved to another location in the city. However, William Huskisson's wife wanted the sculpture to remain above her husband's grave. She commissioned the sculptor Gibson to create another sculpture in marble. This second sculpture was supposed to stand in the Custom House, Liverpool. The sculpture, completed in 1836, didn't stay in Liverpool however, and was instead placed at the Royal Exchange, London. Today it can be found in Pimlico Gardens, London.

Using the second marble sculpture as a master, a bronze version was cast. This bronze version of the sculpture was unveiled in October 1847. Its original location was in front of the Customs House in Canning Place, Liverpool. The Customs House was destroyed during air raids in 1940 during the Second World War. In 1954 the sculpture was moved to a new home on the Princes Road/Princes Avenue boulevard. The sculpture was pulled from its plinth in the Toxteth Riots of 1981because people thought Huskisson had been a slave trader. From 1982 onwards the bronze sculpture was housed in the Oratory in St James's Mount Gardens. In 2004 it came into the sculpture studios at the National Conservation Centre for conservation. The sculpture is now located in a new housing development off Duke Street in the city centre. (Duke Street Terrace near The Chinese Arch).

I am grateful to Alan Maycock for putting together this information. His sources were various National Museums in Liverpool: the National Conservation Centre, Liverpool Monuments , Lowton history site.


Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).

William Huskisson was the son of William, the second son of William Huskisson of Oxley, near Wolverhampton. He was born at Birch Moreton Court, Warwickshire, on 11 March 1770. His mother, Elizabeth, daughter of John Rotton of Staffordshire, died in 1774, and in the following year William was sent to school, first at Brewood, then at Albrighton in Staffordshire, and afterwards at Appleby in Leicestershire. At an early age he showed mathematical ability. In 1783 his maternal great-uncle, Dr. Gem, a well-known medical man residing in Paris, where he had been physician to the British embassy since 1762, undertook his education. For some years he lived at Paris in the society of French liberals, and made the acquaintance of Franklin and Jefferson. He is said to have entered Boyd & Ker's bank in Paris for a time, but this is very doubtful. He was present at the fall of the Bastille, and in 1790 he joined the 'Club of 1789,' a monarchical constitutional club, before which on 29 August 1790 he read a discourse on the currency, which was printed and much applauded. When the French government decided upon the issue of assignats he separated himself from this club. About the same time he was introduced, through Dr. John Warner, the chaplain to the embassy, to Lord Gower (subsequently Marquis of Stafford), then British ambassador at Paris, whose private secretary he became. They remained intimate friends all their lives. On 10 August 1792, after the attack on the Tuileries, he was instrumental in enabling its governor, M. de Champcenetz, to make his escape from the populace. On the recall of the embassy in 1792 Huskisson returned to England. For some time he remained an inmate of Lord Gower's household in England, and thus became well acquainted with Pitt.

By the death of his father in 1790 he became entitled to such of the family estates at Oxley in Staffordshire as remained unalienated, but they were neither extensive nor unencumbered, and, finding himself a poor man, he was glad to avail himself of the offer of a new office, created under the Alien Act, for making arrangements with the émigrés. In this employment, for which his knowledge of the French people and language well fitted him, he became acquainted with Canning, and his talents recommended him to Pitt and Dundas.

In 1795 he succeeded Sir Evan Nepean, on his promotion to be secretary to the admiralty, in the office of under secretary at war. The business of the office was practically done by Huskisson, Dundas, his chief, being otherwise occupied, and it was he who superintended the arrangements for Sir Charles Grey's expedition to the West Indies. His friendship with Lord Carlisle procured him in 1796 the representation of Morpeth; but, always diffident of his own abilities and conscious that he was no orator, he did not speak in the House of Commons until February 1798. In January 1801 he resigned with Pitt, but at the request of Lord Hobart, the new secretary at war, who was unfamiliar with the work of the office, he remained at his post until the battle of Alexandria in March 1801. An unfounded charge was made at the time that Huskisson made use of his knowledge of official secrets in stockjobbing operations, in which he engaged with Talleyrand. Meantime, on the death of Dr. Gem in 1800, he inherited an estate at Eastham, Sussex, then occupied by Hayley, the biographer of Cowper, and another in Worcestershire. This rendered his position in public life unembarrassed.

In 1802 he contested Dover, but was beaten by Trevanion and Spencer Smith, the government candidates, and did not re-enter parliament till February 1804, when he was elected for Liskeard. There was a double return, and a petition was presented against him, but he kept his seat. On the recall of Pitt to office (May 1804) he was appointed a secretary to the treasury, but when the 'Talents' administration came in (January 1806) he retired, and went into active opposition. He moved a number of financial resolutions in July 1806, which the chancellor of the exchequer, Lord Henry Petty, was obliged to accept. At the general election in the autumn of 1807 he was again returned for Liskeard; was made secretary to the treasury again in the Duke of Portland's ministry in April 1807; and at the ensuing general election was returned for Harwich, which seat he retained till 1812.

Up to this time Huskisson had rarely engaged in general debate, but had rested content with his reputation as a man of business. In 1808 he took a large share in the rearrangement of the relations between the Bank of England and the treasury, and in 1809 he undertook the reply to Colonel Wardle's motion on public economy. In the same year the Duke of Richmond, the Irish viceroy, was anxious that he should succeed Sir Arthur Wellesley as chief secretary, but his services could not be spared by the English government. Though not personally concerned in the dispute which brought about Canning's resignation in 1809, he resigned with him out of loyalty to his friend, and in his private capacity in parliament remained for some time little noticed. But in 1810 he published his pamphlet on the 'Depreciation of the Currency,' which at once met with success and earned him the reputation of being the first financier of the age. In the debates on the Regency Bill he adhered to Canning's views, and in January 1811, when he was sounded about joining the regent's ministry, he rejected the overture. In the following year, if Canning had joined Lord Liverpool, Huskisson would have been chief secretary to the viceroy and chancellor of the Irish exchequer. His adherence to Canning retarded the advance of his public career by many years, and allowed Peel and Robinson, of whom one was his junior and the other much his inferior, to pass him in the race. During this year he became colonial agent for Ceylon. That post, which was worth £4,000 a year, he held till 1823.

At the general election in the autumn of 1812 Huskisson was elected for Chichester. He made several speeches on currency questions in March 1813, and on Sir Henry Parnell's motion on the corn laws he brought forward for the first time his scale of graduated prohibitory duties. Next year on 6 August he succeeded Lord Glenbervie, in Lord Liverpool's ministry, in the woods and forests department, and was sworn of the privy council on 29 July 1814. He quickly mastered the special duties of his office.

In 1815 was passed the first corn law, which absolutely prohibited the importation of corn when the price fell below a certain minimum average, and Huskisson took a prominent part in the debates on the bill. In May 1816 he spoke in the bank restriction debates in favour of leaving to the bank the determination of the time, not to exceed two years, within which they might continue the restriction on gold payments; but two years afterwards he was in favour of granting the bank a further extension of time. He usually voted for Roman catholic emancipation without speaking, and very seldom intervened in a debate on foreign policy. One of his rare speeches on general topics was made in 1821 on Lord Tavistock's motion for a vote of censure on the government for its behaviour to the queen. In 1819 he became a member of the finance committee, and his speech on the chancellor of the exchequer's income and expenditure resolutions probably saved the government from defeat. He also addressed to Lord Liverpool an important memorandum on the resumption of cash payments.

In 1821 he was a member of the committee appointed on Gooch's motion to inquire into the prevalence of agricultural distress, and the report of the committee was principally drafted by him; but his speeches on taxation in the same year gave rise, not unnaturally, to a distrust of him among the agricultural party, which was never afterwards removed. He felt his position in the government to be unsatisfactory, though he did not resign with Canning in that year, and when, at the end of 1821, a rearrangement of the administration was projected and the Irish secretaryship was offered him, he at once refused the post. In February 1822 Huskisson spoke against Lord Londonderry's proposal to lend £4,000,000 for the relief of agricultural distress, and on 29 April and 6 May succeeded in defeating Lord Liverpool's first resolution on the report of the committee on agricultural distress. Thereupon he tendered his resignation, which Lord Liverpool refused, and Huskisson shortly after did excellent service in fighting the country party single-handed on Western's motion for a select committee to inquire into the consequences of the resumption of cash payments, and carried an amendment in the terms of Montague's resolution of 1696, 'that this House will not alter the standard of gold or silver in fineness, weight, or denomination'.

When Canning rejoined the ministry as foreign secretary in September 1822, he failed in an endeavour to obtain for his friend the presidency of the board of control, with cabinet rank. On 31 January, however, Huskisson was promoted to the treasurership of the navy, and on 5 April to the board of trade, holding both offices together, and he was soon afterwards admitted to the cabinet. The board of trade was an office in which his special knowledge and his advanced free-trade opinions were certain to make him conspicuous. Accordingly, as Canning was retiring from the representation of Liverpool, which he found too laborious for his new position, Huskisson was selected to succeed him as the only tory able to conciliate the Liverpool merchants, and after a hollow contest he was elected, 15 February 1823. Huskisson thus became the prominent representative of mercantile interests in parliament. He was soon active in office, and introduced a bill for regulating the silk manufactures, but owing to the sweeping character of the lords' amendment he dropped it for that session, and did not pass it till 1824. He also introduced and passed a merchant vessels' apprenticeship bill, a bill to remove the restrictions on the Scottish linen manufacture, and a registration of ships bill. He announced his intention of moving the repeal of the Spitalfields acts, and supported Joseph Hume's motion for a select committee on the combination laws, which led ultimately to their repeal.

The year 1825 was one of great activity for him. With the assistance of James Deacon Hume of the board of trade, he completed the consolidation into eleven acts of the whole of the existing revenue laws. He obtained a select committee to inquire into the relations of employers and employed, the result of which was the passing of an act which regulated the relations of capital and labour for forty years. One object of his policy was at the same time to give England cheap sugar; and he also amended the revenue laws in the direction of a modified free trade in regard to other commodities, reducing the old duties on foreign cotton goods, which ranged from 50 to 75 per cent., according to quality, to a uniform 10 per cent. duty on all qualities; on woollen goods from 50 and 67 per cent. to 15 per cent., and similar reductions were made in the duty on glass, paper, bottles, foreign earthenware, copper, zinc, and lead.

Early in 1825 Huskisson foresaw the crisis to which excessive speculation was leading. His warnings were neglected, and when the panic came he was accused of having caused it by his policy of free trade. Meanwhile he was busily occupied in negotiations with the American government about the north-western boundary, the navigation of the St. Lawrence, and the slave trade. In 1826 the Liverpool merchants presented him, in acknowledgment of the success of his policy, with a service of plate. He took a prominent part in the debates on the Bank Charter and the Promissory Notes Acts, and on 24 February 1826 delivered what Canning called 'one of the very best speeches that I ever heard in the House of Commons' against Ellice's motion for a committee on the silk trade. Later on, in speaking upon Whitmore's motion for a committee on the corn laws, Huskisson, though advocating delay in their repeal, admitted his dislike of the existing system. During the autumn he assisted Lord Liverpool in preparing a new corn bill. The labour thus involved, and the calumnies to which his economic policy had exposed him, permanently injured his health. On 7 May he vindicated his commercial policy against the attacks made upon it by Gascoyne in his motion for a committee on the shipping interest. The speech, which was afterwards published, was one of his best efforts. His corn bill was duly introduced, but was abandoned owing to the opposition of the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords.

Huskisson was travelling in the Tyrol to recruit his health when the news of Canning's death reached him (August 1827). He hastened home. At Paris a message from Lord Goderich, the new prime minister, offered him the colonial office, with the lead of the House of Commons. His friends urged that there was no other way of securing the continuation of Canning's policy, and he accepted the offer on 23 September 1827. Had he chosen he might have been chancellor of the exchequer. Dissensions soon broke out between him and John Charles Herries, the chancellor of the exchequer, about the appointment of Lord Althorp as chairman of the committee of finance. Huskisson, as leader of the house, insisted upon his nomination; Herries, as chancellor of the exchequer, complained that he had been slighted by not being previously consulted. The dispute grew so severe that Lord Goderich resigned, and was succeeded by the Duke of Wellington.

Huskisson decided to continue in office, and was re-elected at Liverpool without opposition. In addressing his constituents he said that the duke had acceded to his stipulations in favour of the continuance of free trade and Canning's foreign policy. The duke on the earliest opportunity denied this, and Huskisson was obliged to withdraw the statement in the House of Commons on 18 February. The tension between himself and the duke soon became acute. At several cabinets in March a difference of opinion arose on the amendment to the corn bill with regard to the taking of corn out of warehouse, which the duke proposed and insisted upon. Peel and Huskisson were both against it. Huskisson tendered his resignation, but a compromise which he suggested was accepted, and he remained in office. Shortly afterwards it became necessary to decide what should be done with the two seats which would be available for redistribution upon the disfranchisement of Penryn and East Retford for extensive corrupt practices. The duke was for giving both seats to the adjacent hundreds; Huskisson, Palmerston, and Dudley were for bestowing them upon large manufacturing towns.

In the House of Commons Peel advocated a compromise by giving Penryn to Manchester and East Retford to the hundred. Huskisson on 21 March pledged himself to give one seat to a manufacturing town. In the lords it was decided by the government, first, not to deal with both cases together; secondly, to give the Penryn seat to the hundred. In committee of the House of Commons, when the East Retford case came up, it was moved on 19 May to give that seat also to the hundred of Bassetlaw, Nottinghamshire. Huskisson and Palmerston, in the belief that the cabinet held that morning had resolved on leaving East Retford an open question, voted against the ministry. Immediately after leaving the house Huskisson wrote to the duke offering to resign if he considered that the interest of the government would be better served by a resignation. The duke had long felt that Huskisson, who entered the administration as the successor to Canning's position, was in some sort his rival. He treated Huskisson's letter as an actual resignation, although Huskisson explained that he only meant to tender it if the duke thought fit to demand it, and he repudiated any formal offer of resignation. But the duke was inflexible, and laid the matter before the king. Huskisson demanded a personal audience of his majesty, but this was refused, and the resignation was definitively completed on the 29th, when he gave up the seals and received expressions of the king's personal regret at his loss. Although he explained in the House of Commons the summary mode by which he had been removed, his party censured him for imperilling the ministry by an ill-timed and factious resignation.

Huskisson appeared little in parliament during the remainder of the session, and, his health failing, he spent the autumn abroad. In 1828 he supported the Roman Catholic Emancipation Bill; made a great speech on the silk trade, and took up the study of Indian questions. In consequence the governorship of Madras was offered him, and he was sounded about the governor-generalship of India, but the state of his health made his acceptance of either post impossible. He was, however, an active member of the East India committee, especially on matters referring to the China trade. During the session of 1829 he was unusually prominent in debate. He made several speeches in favour of moderate reform, warned the ministry that some change was inevitable, and supported Lord John Russell's proposal to confer additional parliamentary representation on Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester. During 1830 his health grew worse, and, though he was able to attend the king's funeral in July, he was seriously ill.

He went to Liverpool in September for the opening of the Manchester and Liverpool railway, and was received warmly by his constituents. On 15 September he attended the opening ceremony. A procession of trains was run from Liverpool. Parkside was reached without mishap. There the engines stopped for water, and the travellers, contrary to instructions, left the carriages and stood upon the permanent way, which consisted of two lines of rails. Huskisson went to speak to the Duke of Wellington, to whom, in spite of their recent disagreement, he felt bound, as member for Liverpool, to show courtesy. At that moment several engines were seen approaching along the rails between which Huskisson was standing. Everybody made for the carriages on the other line. Huskisson, by nature uncouth and hesitating in his motions, had a peculiar aptitude for accident. He had dislocated his ankle in 1801, and was in consequence slightly lame. Thrice he had broken his arm, and after the last fracture, in 1817, the use of it was permanently impaired.

On this occasion he lost his balance in clambering into the carriage and fell back upon the rails in front of the Dart, the advancing engine. It ran over his leg; he was placed upon an engine and carried at its utmost speed to Eccles, where he was taken to the house of the vicar. He lingered in great agony for nine hours, but gave his last directions calmly and with care, expiring at 9 p.m. He was buried with a public ceremonial in Liverpool on the 24th.

Huskisson achieved little success in public life compared with that which his rare abilities should have commanded. His adherence to Canning, combined with a coldness of manner, probably accounts for much of his failure. Lamb, afterwards Lord Melbourne, told Greville that, in his opinion, Huskisson was the greatest practical statesman he had known, the one who best united theory with practice. Sir James Stephen's judgment on him was almost the same. As a speaker he was luminous and convincing, but he made no pretence to eloquence; his voice was feeble and his manner ungraceful. Sir Egerton Brydges, in his Autobiography speaks of him as 'a wretched speaker with no command of words, with awkward motions, and a most vulgar, uneducated accent,' but this accent seems to have worn off in later life.

Greville describes him as 'tall, slouching, and ignoble-looking. In society extremely agreeable without much animation; generally cheerful, with a good deal of humour, information, and anecdote; gentlemanlike, unassuming, slow in speech, and with a downcast look as if he avoided meeting anybody's gaze. There is no man in parliament, or perhaps out of it, so well versed in finance, commerce, trade, and colonial matters; it is nevertheless remarkable that it is only within the last five or six years that he acquired the great reputation which he latterly enjoyed. I do not think he was looked upon as more than a second-rate man, till his speeches on the silk trade and the shipping interest, but when he became president of the board of trade he devoted himself with indefatigable application to the maturing and reducing to practice those commercial improvements with which his name is associated, and to which he owes all his glory and most of his unpopularity.'

He married, on 6 April 1799, Elizabeth Mary, younger daughter of Admiral Mark Milbanke, who survived him. There was no issue of the marriage. Though so impoverished on entering public life that he sold the family estate at Oxley, his personalty was sworn, 15 November 1830, under £60,000. He received on 17 May 1801 a pension of £1,200 per annum, nominal, £900 actual, with a remainder of £615 to his widow; and in 1828 he received a second pension of £3,000 a year.

There is a monument of him by Carew in Chichester Cathedral, and another at Liverpool. His portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Another, by Richard Rothwell, is in the National Portrait Gallery. It was engraved in mezzotints by Thomas Hodgetts.

Another statue of Huskisson, dressed in a Roman Toga, stands on the the banks of the Thames in the borough of Westminster.
( I am grateful to C Panajotovic for this information)


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