WAITHMAN, Robert (c.1764-1833), of 7 Woburn Place, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. c.1764, s. of John Waithman, turner, of Bersham, nr. Wrexham, Denb. by w. Mary née Roberts. educ. Mr Moore’s, ?Wrexham. m. 14 July 1787, his cos. Mary Davis of Red Lion Street, Holborn, Mdx. 2s. 2da. surv.
Common councilman, London 1795-1818, alderman Aug. 1818-d., sheriff 1820-1, ld. mayor 1823-4.
Master, Framework Knitters’ Co. 1815-16.
Waithman’s father was a native of Warton, Lancashire, evidently of Quaker antecedents, who came to the Bersham furnace in the wake of Isaac and John Wilkinson the iron-masters, when (by 1756) they moved from Backbarrow near Furness to Bersham. He married Mary Roberts at Wrexham 29 Jan. 1761, but Waithman’s baptism is not recorded there. His father died soon after his birth and in 1776 his mother remarried at Wrexham, Thomas Mires, furnaceman, and had a second family, whom Waithman subsequently supported. The boy was placed in the care of an uncle, upon whose death he found employment first at Reading and subsequently in a linen draper’s shop in London. He opened his own retail shop at Fleet Market about 1786 and prospered, moving by 1794 to 103-4 Fleet Street, but maintaining premises at 120 Newgate Street. His partners were Bristow (1798), Evrington (1805) and his sons by 1814: about 1823 they took over from him.1
Waithman’s interest in politics was stimulated by the French revolution. A talented man, though with little formal education, he learnt to become a demagogue in debates at Founders’ Hall, Lothbury, which were held in imitation of the proceedings of the French revolutionaries. In January 1795, as a London liveryman, he seconded resolutions in common hall against the war, which were rejected. He spoke against the sedition bills in November. As common councilman for Faringdon Without from 1795, he established his reputation as a radical orator critical of corporation and government measures, and acquired the esteem of his fellow travellers at the Chapter coffee house near St. Paul’s.2 In 1800, as a member of the Independent Livery, he published a pamphlet entitled War proved to be the real cause of the present scarcity and enormous high price, of every article of consumption, with the only radical remedies,3 which was particularly vehement against the injustice of the income tax, and demanded the reform of abuses.
In 1802 Waithman was nominated for London by his radical friends, but hissed when he attempted to speak. In April 1805 he was a leading opponent in common hall of Lord Melville and in February 1806 of the proposal to erect a monument to Pitt’s memory in the Guildhall. It was said that Fox intended to reward Waithman’s exertions on behalf of the Whigs (he was a member of the Whig Club) with the place of receiver-general of the land tax, but nothing came of it. He appeared at Maidstone and Boston during the election of 1806, threatening to stand as an independent, but did not do so: a seat for London, where he supported the candidature of John Atkins, was his ambition, but he was thwarted by the prejudice against retail traders and hoped to obviate it by becoming a merchant (i.e. wholesaler).4
In March 1808, Waithman led the common council campaign against sinecures and for government economy, and in October he presented a City petition to the King for an inquiry into the convention of Cintra. Of the answer given this, William Huskisson commented approvingly to Spencer Perceval, 13 Oct., ‘It was time to teach Mr Waithman that the government is not in the common hall, and that we are not to have a supreme council of war made up of the tradesmen of London’. In the following year he was a virulent critic of the Duke of York and led common council in their resolution thanking Wardle for his exposures and calling for speedy reform, 6 Apr. 1809. Romilly described him about this time as ‘a common councilman, who has much distinguished himself in the City on the popular side’. He was by now an advocate of parliamentary reform and in April 1809 held a dinner of independent liverymen in its favour, at which he toasted Burdett and reform, as well as speaking at Cartwright’s Crown and Anchor meeting. In September 1809 he tried to frustrate the London corporation’s scheme to celebrate the jubilee of the King’s accession: in retaliation his shop windows were broken. The Whig leaders were suspicious of a man they knew only as a demagogue critical of them. Lord Grey alleged, 9 Dec. 1809, that his ideas on parliamentary reform were deliberately misrepresented (in a speech of 5 Dec.) by Waithman, ‘as usual with such people’. The ‘Mountain’, on the other hand, were more favourable: Thomas Creevey informed Whitbread, 8 Apr. 1809, ‘we like him very much’. With the speech referred to by Grey, Waithman inspired a common council address deploring the government’s misconduct of affairs following the Walcheren expedition: Creevey had reported, 15 Nov., ‘he has quite beat the enemy in the common council’ and in the following month he added, ‘the people are quite eager to support him’. Francis Horner reported that ‘citizen Waithman’ had acted ‘against the advice and remonstrances of his friend Cobbett’. In fact, the address was subsequently toned down by counter-resolution, which spurred Waithman into successful activity in the ensuing municipal elections. His insistence on the need for parliamentary reform was rather too strong for the taste of some Whigs: Lord Holland thought he regarded it ‘as both a panacea and a sine qua non to anything good’, 9 Jan. 1810. When he was again active, organizing a dinner of reformers and a petition on behalf of Burdett, in April 1810, he hoped for the backing of the Whig leaders: ‘they must put their hearts and souls to the accomplishment of the great objects of reform in every branch of the government and the representation of the people if they mean to be supported by the people— the system is wore out’, so he informed Creevey, 6 Apr. Failing to get their support, he abused them publicly, which led to a remonstrance from Lord Grenville to Samuel Whitbread, who was partial to Waithman, denied he was an extremist and respected his influence in the City. Creevey feared Waithman was too much inclined to Burdett and thought he was ‘in danger of not being considered as sufficiently patriotic to govern the councils of the livery of London’, while Thomas Grenville believed that it was ‘the fear of Cobbett and Waithman’ that prevented the House from asserting its privilege more strongly against Burdett. In June he seconded the common council petition for reform. Yet he was not an intractable man: when the Regency was being instituted in January 1811 he wrote to Creevey asking for advice on a common council address to the Prince, but realistically ruled out any possibility of Lords Grey and Grenville being included in a new administration. On 10 June 1811, as a steward, he made a moderate and conciliatory speech at the meeting of the Friends of Constitutional Reform, urging the Whigs to return to it.5
In 1812 Waithman, claiming to be the shopkeeper’s friend against the ‘great interests’, contested London. He was no longer the man of the moment, as in 1809: ‘the patriotic linen draper’, as he had been dubbed, was placed fifth, more than a thousand votes behind the fourth man, after being supported by a subscription. He was reported to have blamed the Whigs for his defeat ‘because Combe’s friends would not sacrifice him and his election to Waithman’; but the candidature of his ‘brother patriot’ Alderman Wood, than whom he received more votes and to whom he had refused to give way, dished him. ‘Hinting his superiority both in purity and consequence’ over Wood, he was at daggers drawn with the latter. In 1813 he fell out with Cobbett over the defence of the Princess of Wales. There was further bad blood in June 1814 when, during a debate on the slave trade at Freemasons’ Hall, he attacked Lord Grey after the latter had expressed his views, whereupon Grey rebuked him. Burdett, however, reported that ‘at the slave meeting they would not let Waithman reply to Lord Grey! These are your liberal people. How absurd public meetings if men cannot speak their minds.’ He subsequently enhanced his reputation by leading the City opposition to the corn bill and the property tax and the petition for parliamentary reform in November 1816. He somewhat redeemed his standing with the Whig leaders by corresponding, for instance, with Lord Holland ‘in a very temperate and serviceable mood’ in January 1817 on the subject of public meetings proposed by the Hampden Club, which he had joined in 1812, to harry the government. When, however, he and the reformers met Lord Grey that month to discuss parliamentary reform, Grey refused to allow it as a priority among the Whig proposals. Waithman had promoted a common council petition for triennial elections and the enfranchisement of copyholders and taxpaying householders. He had in the previous November clashed with the more radical Henry Hunt on the subject and now thwarted Hunt’s attempt to substitute annual parliaments in the petition. Likewise, in February 1818, he carried his resolutions against Hunt’s in opposition to the suspension of habeas corpus.6
In 1818 Waithman, who had been thwarted by Wood at the City by-election of May 1817, was returned for London in third place: he had still not become either a merchant or an alderman (though he obtained the gown soon afterwards) and exulted:
This was the first time a tradesman, in the situation to which he belonged, had been returned as a Member for the City. The citizens did not now conceive it necessary that their representative should hold the rank of merchant. Had he been ambitious of attaining that rank, he might have hired a little counting-house for £50 a year, and be called a merchant, without having more pretensions to the favour of his fellow-citizens than he now enjoyed.7
In the ensuing Parliament Waithman voted with opposition in most surviving divisions and made over 40 speeches. His first, 25 Jan. 1819, was in support of parliamentary investigation of the criminal code in accordance with a London petition which Alderman Wood had defended first; it ‘succeeded completely’ and was received with cheering from both sides of the House. He had not signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the Whigs, but William Henry Lyttelton wrote in the following month: ‘Even Citizen Waithman bends the knee to Tierney, and behaves decorously now that he is a senator’. Sir Charles Monck informed Lord Grey, ‘Waithman’s appearance, of face particularly, is against him, and his expressions and pronunciation are both vulgar, but he is not coarse in sentiment’. Sydney Smith assured Lady Grey that Waithman ‘has been an improved man ever since Lord Grey gave him such a beating’. In February 1819 he was the advocate of the London petition against the insolvent debtors bill, then due for renewal; he had been the City spokesman against the bill in 1813 and now stated that ‘no Act ever passed that House which made so complete an inroad on the property of traders, or which gave a more deadly blow to the morals of the people’.8 He subsequently attempted to have merchants nominated to the committee on the bill: they would do justice to unfortunate creditors who had received less than a farthing in the pound since the operation of the Act. He spoke in favour of Brougham’s being added to the committee on Bank restriction, 8 Feb. 1819, but regarded the committee as hopelessly biased. Next day he was an advocate of Poor Law reform. On 22 Feb. he defended Carlile, a Fleet Street bookseller who had been imprisoned for selling radical works, and on the same day and the next indignantly attacked the Duke of York for taking a grant, under the Windsor establishment bill, ‘out of the pockets of an impoverished people’. He was a spokesman for London in a bid to obtain an equalization of the coal duties, 2 Mar. and 20 May. On 9 Mar. he rebuked the attorney-general for his insensitivity to abuses in the method of proceeding on excise informations in the court of Exchequer; he explained how he had twice been exchequered for conspiracy, but the cost of proving his innocence was greater than if he had paid the penalty. He was a teller for Harvey’s unsuccessful motion on the subject. He went too far, however, in presenting a petition from one William Weaver against excise prosecution, 19 Mar., and moving for an account of it, 31 Mar., since government revealed that Weaver was a repeated offender who had imposed upon Waithman. He had to fall back on the excuse that his intention was ‘to expose the system itself’.
By now Waithman was being obstructed when he spoke: when on 10 May 1819 he rose to give his views on parliamentary reform, he was coughed down and exclaimed that ‘he could not see why on every occasion several Members in that House should exert themselves to cry him down’. He added that, however loath to speak unwanted, he could not ‘compromise the rights of his constituents’. It worked: ‘for the remainder of the worthy alderman’s speech, not the slightest symptom of impatience was evinced in any part of the House’. Waithman was then able to explain that he was a warm advocate of reform, though not of ‘the wild principles of universal suffrage and annual parliaments’: he would vote for the Barnstaple bribery bill, faute de mieux, but pointed out graver defects in the electoral system, such as the disfranchisement of freeholders in London. A week later, on the same subject, he alleged that ‘the electoral franchise ought to be considered as a public not a private right, to be exercised for general and not for personal advantage’. On 8 June he objected to government’s tax proposals as unbearable and offered to move for an independent committee to propose alternative ways and means: he maintained, 18 June, that he would not vote for a single new tax until ‘the experiment of retrenchment’ had been tried.
The climax of Waithman’s endeavours in his first Parliament was his speech, afterwards published, on parliamentary reform, 1 July, in which he defended Burdett’s motion on the subject, while insisting that he had no communication with the latter. He perorated:
Sir, the people of this country are treated, on some occasions, as if they were destitute of common comprehension. They are thought to be incapable of understanding their own interests, and unfit to be entrusted with the exercise of those rights they inherit from their ancestors ... I have this superiority, at least, of knowing the real sentiments of a great portion of the British public, no one having mixed more with them, or been more accustomed to popular assemblies ... I know them to be an enlightened, intelligent, and reasoning community. I have recently canvassed some thousands, and, invariably, a spirit of sound and rational reform has appeared. I never could have obtained my seat in this House on any other principles.
Waithman went on to quote Fox and Burke in favour of reform; it would not feed the hungry, but it would make parliamentary control over government effective, as a prerequisite for improvement; it would make the franchise respectable by excluding the rabble who voted in many rotten boroughs and prevent the election of self-seeking Members: if government did not adopt reform, it would be forced upon them.
In the autumn of 1819 Tierney communicated his views on the holding of a Middlesex county meeting to protest about the Peterloo affair to Waithman, who, he thought, had ‘conducted himself extremely well in the City’, and described him as ‘the most likely person to be informed of what was going on and the most certain channel through which, in certain circles, I could make known my opinion on the Manchester business and the steps which I think ought to be taken’. Waithman claimed to know nothing about it, but thought no step should originate in the City and added, ‘gentlemen of property and influence should take the matter into their own hands, otherwise it will be done without them’. He spoke against the seditious meetings prevention bill, 6 Dec. 1819: it was legislation ‘without evidence’. It tended to alienate a nation that had no desire for revolution, particularly the middle classes, who depended on meetings to promote parliamentary reform. These views were not radical enough for the hero of the ‘Manchester business’, Henry Hunt, who regarded Waithman as ‘very little better than an aristocrat’. Next day Waithman described the bill as ‘a subversion of the constitution’ and backed the London petition on the state of the nation. He deprecated Alderman Wood’s attempt to amend such a bill, which would be totally rejected by the people: the suggestion was, however, received with loud laughter. Waithman’s differences with the extreme radicals became clear when on 9 Dec. he deprecated the Westminster radicals’ meeting at Smithfield as ‘one of the most despicable public meetings which he had ever seen’, and when on 16 Dec. he rejected Robert Owen’s plan as ‘a visionary expectation’ (a view he had already publicly expressed in August 1817) though he voted for its investigation by committee. On 20 Dec. he opposed the newspaper stamp duties bill as being fatal to the liberty of the press.9
Waithman, who fell foul of his fellow aldermen during the mayoral election of 1819, was defeated in 1820, which soured him and made him all the more ‘violent and coarse in his abuse of government’ during the trial of Queen Caroline: but, after repeated frustration, he was finally elected mayor in 1823 and regained his seat in 1826. He died a respectable figure, 6 Feb. 1833, having ‘filled a large space in City politics’. According to a recent estimate, ‘He led the long campaign which transformed the City of London from a bastion of Pittite loyalism into one of moderate reform; and within the national reform movement (although at times his attitude to the Whigs may have been too harsh and antagonistic) he deserves to be remembered as a pioneer of conciliation’.10
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Lawrence Taylor / R. G. Thorne
- 1. DWB; Maxims of Robert Lord Waithman (London, 1824), 41-42; The Times, 13 Oct. 1812, 19, 20 June 1818; A. N. Palmer, Wrexham, iv. 179-80; Gent. Mag. (1833), i. 179; DNB .
- 2. Gent. Mag. loc. cit. For Waithman’s activities in municipal politics see J. R. Dinwiddy: ‘The Patriotic Linen-Draper’, Bull IHR, xlvi. 72.
- 3. BL 8140h.41.
- 4. Farington, iii. 155; Gent. Mag. loc. cit.; The Times, 1 Nov. 1806.
- 5. Perceval (Holland) mss 14, f. 5; M. D. George, Cat. Pol. and Personal Satires, viii. 11048, 11298, 11314; Romilly, Mems. ii. 276; Brougham mss, Grey to Brougham, 9 Dec. 1809, pub. in Brougham, Life and Times, i. 485; Whitbread mss W1/373/14, 17; 374, 378, 379/1; Horner mss 4, ff. 178, 214; Waldegrave mss, Grenville to Whitbread, 23 Apr., reply 25 Apr.; NLW, Coedymaen mss 1/22, Grenville to Williams Wynn, 27 May 1810; Creevey’s Life and Times, 51; Morning Chron. 11 June 1811.
- 6. The Times, 6 Oct.; Grey mss, Goodwin to Grey, 24 Dec. 1812, Holland to Grey, 17 Jan., Tierney to Grey, 20 Jan. 1817; Brougham mss 32131, 35902; Broughton, Recollections, i. 150; Add. 51644, Lady Holland to Horner, 17, 25 Jan. 1817.
- 7. Morning Herald, 26 June 1818.
- 8. Grey mss, Lambton to Grey, 27 Jan., Monck to same, 5 Feb. 1819; Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 316; Canning and his Friends, ii. 91; Romilly, iii. 110.
- 9. Add. 51584, Tierney to Holland, 14, 15, 16 Sept.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 17 Sept. 1819; Ward, Letters to Bishop of Llandaff, 157; M. D. George, ix. 12891; G. D. H. Cole, Robert Owen, 143-4.
- 10. S. Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical, ii. 45; Jnl. of Mrs Arbuthnot, i. 306; Colchester, iii. 235; Gent. Mag. loc. cit.; Dinwiddy, loc. cit.