This is the third part of my article on Grant Thorburn’s journal. For the first and second parts please see the earlier entries from 1st July and 5th July 2015.
Next on the agenda for Thorburn was an investigation into the world of politics. He first remarked upon Wellington’s residence, Apsley House.
Lord Wellington’s palace stands in the corner of Hyde Park and Piccadilly. The back windows look out on his monument aforesaid. The front windows are all covered outside with iron blinds, to prevent the mob from breaking his glass. Here we see the mutability of fortune. Sixteen years ago he and his carriage were dragged in triumph through the streets – now he walks out in disguise. Then his face was as the light of the sun among them – now the light of the sky is shut out from his dwelling with iron blinds and bars.
The iron shutters had been installed just over a year before Thorburn’s visit, after demonstrators angry at the Tory rejection of the Reform Bill had smashed the windows of Apsley House twice during 1831. But Wellington’s political career was not yet over. In 1834 he became Foreign Secretary in Robert Peel’s government, and subsequently held other political roles before retiring in 1846.
Thorburn’s visit to Britain was at a time of great political upheaval and unrest. Earl Grey was Prime Minister for the duration of his visit but had only just been restored to power by William IV, and would not last many months after Thorburn’s return to America. Thorburn turned down the chance to visit the House of Lords on the grounds of the costs involved, but managed to secure an invitation to watch a debate in the House of Commons. He was shocked at the rabble he saw before him, with Members of Parliament ‘in small groups, and conversing as loud as merchants do on exchange’. He observed that ‘many of them were also talking in pairs, and a few, but very few, were listening to the member who was speaking.’ The MP delivering a speech at the time was Daniel O’Connell, who had recently become the first Catholic MP to sit in Parliament after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. When another member of parliament spoke in support of O’Connel, Thorburn was astonished at the reception he received.
Mr. Holcomb next rose in support of O’Connell’s project. While he spoke a scene ensued which I could never have believed would have been acted in the British House of Commons, had I not seen it with my own eyes. British House of Commons, indeed! thought I, as I viewed the uproar: common enough you look in all conscience; and a Reformed Parliament too.
You have often seen in their speeches the word (hear) and sometimes (hear, hear.) I used to think this was indecorous enough ; but it was hear, hear, hear, hear, hear, five times, and by five times twenty-five voices at once, and as fast as they could blow them out of their mouths – strangers in the galleries joining in confusion. Then it was ba, ba, ba, and at last they came to a loud hurrah. Here Mr. Holcomb paused. Says he, “Mr. Speaker, am I to be insulted in this manner in this house with impunity. If any gentleman will step forward and give his name, I shall know how to take my measures.” Here he was again drowned by the hears, the bahs, the hurrahs, and a universal laugh, in which the speaker of the house, the clerks, door-keepers and strangers joined. In 1793, there might have been more blood shed in a meeting of the sans culottes in Paris, but more confusion and more noise I think there could not be.
Says I to my neighbour, is this the far-famed House of Commons ? Was it by such men and manners that the measures which lost to Britain a continent were sanctioned?
‘Mr Holcomb’ was presumably John Halcomb, the MP for Dover between 1833 and 1835. Beside O’Connell sat William Cobbett, a strong supporter of O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation. Thorburn likened them to ‘two great mastiffs of democracy, panting to enter the ring of political bull baiting.’ Thorburn was also offered the opportunity to meet the King. Few would have turned down this chance, but Thorburn would not agree to the expense of the ‘silk stockings, breeches, a cocked hat and a sword’ that the occasion demanded he should wear.
Why, says he, you may get them all for twenty guineas. Twenty guineas, says I; I would not give twenty guineas to see all the kings in Christendom. Ah, says he, you are a true Scot.
Perhaps he thought the King should change his outfit to meet him, not the other way round! He was, after all, something of a celebrity due to Galt’s novel. In fact, on a coach trip he had an encounter with a fan.
Pray, sir, says she, (looking in my face,) did you ever read any of John Galt’s novels? I have, Madam, says I. Did you ever, says she, read Laurie Todd? Yes, Madam; and have you, Madam, says I read that book? I have, says she; and if I mistake not, I see before me the hero of the tale. As I said nothing to the contrary, she held out her hand. Most willingly, says she, would I have travelled a hundred miles from my road for the pleasure of meeting you.
Thorburn did not always receive such a positive welcome. He found his appearance being judged by servants when visiting their masters, which could cause him to be viewed with some suspicion.
I arrived in London next day about sun down. It is amusing to see the deference paid to dress and appearances by the livery servants in London. They seem to be more tenacious on this point than most of their masters. If you approach the door, except you come in a carriage of some sort, no matter how mean, you are hardly treated with civility. I went to deliver a letter of introduction to a gentleman in Russell Square on foot: rang; the liveryman looked from a door in the area of the cellar. “What’s wanting ?” says he. “Is Mr. W. within?” says I. “He is gone out.” – “When he comes in give him this letter and card,” says I. Next day Mr. W. called at my dwelling, having his lady, two children, a young gentleman, and himself in an elegant carriage, a coachman before, and this same livery servant behind. Being called, I went to the carriage. Mr. W. came out, insisted on going in the house. I wished him not to leave his family in the street. He came in however, conversed ten minutes, gave me his address, with an invitation to dine that and every other evening at 6 o’clock while I was in London. I always dined with him from that day, when my other engagements would admit. But I was much amused to see with what pointed attention I was treated by this same servant next time I called – as taking off my surtout, hanging up my hat, etc, after he had seen the polite manner in which his master had answered my call.
As well as the wonders of London there were also sombre sights. Thorburn witnessed funerals that were much more grand and ‘imposing’ affairs than he was used to, ‘even among the middling classes’. He was baffled by the employment of professional mourners.
The hearse and horses, all decorated with large and splendid black and white plumes, all nodding and floating in the breeze; the mourning coaches, the drivers and footmen, the mutes and undertakers, wrapped in black cloth cloaks with white or black bands around their hats and hanging far down between their shoulders; others walking before and on each side of the hearse in the same dress, with long black rods in their hands; and as they are often hired to mourn by those who have no sorrow at the heart, they hang on a face of grief, which is the very picture of melancholy itself.
The majority of Thorburn’s journal is concerned with London and Scotland. However, on his journey north to return to his birthplace, he stopped off at Liverpool, where he visited the grave of William Huskisson, whom Thorburn described as ‘the most popular man in England’ at the time of his death. He was probably not very wide of the mark with this comment, as Huskisson’s long-standing battle against the Corn Laws had made him something of a hero to the poor.
Here is deposited the remains of the great Mr. Huskisson. They are just about erecting a splendid monument to his memory, this day, December 18, 1833. The workmen have laid bare the iron chest which contains his bones, preparatory to laying the foundation. The sight of his premature grave was fraught with solemn reflections and admonitions of instruction.
Unfortunately Huskisson was remembered as much for the manner of his death as his political achievements. He attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and stepped onto the tracks to greet the Duke of Wellington, who had arrived in a train, shortly before the approach of Stephenson’s Rocket. Realising that he was in the path of the train, he grabbed hold of the door to Wellington’s carriage, which swung open and Huskisson fell onto the tracks and was hit by the train. He died of his injuries, becoming the first ever railway fatality.
19th Century travellers who visited Scotland rarely omitted to write about Edinburgh and Glasgow in their journals, and Thorburn is no exception. He had little of any great interest to say about Glasgow other than to praise its general appearance and comment that the locals looked to be contented with their lot in life.
The streets are in general regular, while many of them may be called fine; and what adds greatly to the pleasure experienced by a stranger in contemplating them, is, that all are filled during the whole day by crowds of prosperous and happy-looking people, who walk at a lively pace, and in whose eyes some animating purpose of business or of pleasure may constantly be read.
His experience of Edinburgh was not so overwhelmingly positive.
About 9 o’clock this morning I saw a woman sitting on a cold stone begging – it rained at the time. She had no umbrella – was nursing a child at each breast – said they were twins. I threw in my mite. I thought the police ought to have seen to this; it was in a very public street.
However, there were plenty of interesting places to visit, including the house of John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian church. The house was occupied by barbers who were clearly happy to capitalize on the history of the house to help themselves earn a good living.
The house is now occupied by two barbers – one below, the other up stairs. I got shaved on the ground floor, and paid one penny. Next day, as I was curious to see as much as possible of this notable house, I got shaved up stairs – they charged me two pence. “How is this,” said I, “your neighbour below charged me only a penny yesterday?” “O, ho,” says he,” “but this is the very room that John Knox studied his sermons in, and that is the very winnock (window) that he used to preach ou’r to the folks in the street.” “Well,” said I, “this being the case, I think myself it is worth a penny more.”
The twopenny shave was not the best deal that Thorburn ever made, as the house he visited is no longer considered to be the actual residence of Knox.
In the final part of this article we will look at Thorburn’s very emotional homecoming, and his reunion with his elderly father after decades apart. That will be available to read on Windows into History in a few days. I welcome comments and suggestions and will consider guest posts.