WASON, Peter Rigby (1797-1875), of Cable Street, Liverpool, Lancs. and 49 Lincoln's Inn Fields, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1831 - 1834
19 June 1835 - 1837
1841 - 25 Apr. 1842

Family and Education

b. 12 Apr. 1797, 2nd s. of John James Wason (d. 1810), merchant and ironmonger, of Berkeley Square, Bristol, Glos. and Catherine, da. of Peter Rigby, merchant and iron founder, of Liverpool. educ. M. Temple 1818, called 1824. m. c.1843, Euphemia Douglas, da. of Peter McTier, yeoman, of Corwar and Knockglass, Ayr, 4s. (1d.v.p.) 1da. d. 24 July 1875.1

Offices Held


Wason’s family had benefited from the growth of the iron industry in West Derby, Lancashire, and reciprocal toll exemptions available to Bristol and Liverpool freemen. His maternal grandfather Peter Rigby (d. 1794) was mayor of Liverpool, 1774-5, when the corporation negotiated the purchase of a reversionary interest in the lordship of Liverpool from the 1st earl of Sefton; and in February 1777 he himself bought the reversion of properties in Lord Street for less than £7,000.2 Rigby’s business interests and fortune passed to his sons (the eldest of whom, Peter, was detained in the Fleet prison for debt, 1812-20), but Wason’s mother (Rigby’s only daughter) and her issue had equal rights to the reverted properties and ground rents; she also inherited the toll revenue from Black Rock lighthouse.3 Wason’s father left under £1,500 in trust for his children, but bequeathed his Bristol property, trading interests and a house in Cable Street, Liverpool, to his widow, who made it her home.4 From the age of 21 Wason, who had probably acquired mercantile experience previously, trained as an equity draughtsman and barrister, which brought him into contact with Elizabeth Hart, daughter of Sir Anthony, the lord chancellor of Ireland. He proposed marriage to her in 1822 but was deemed not to have ‘enough money’, and when, as a barrister on the western circuit, in 1827 he renewed his suit and offered to settle £1,200 on her, Hart had his financial affairs investigated and rejected him. Wason, in turn, challenged Hart’s attorney to a duel, for which he was prosecuted in the court of king’s bench for a libel with intent to provoke a breach of the peace.5 He was appointed soon afterwards to the sessions at Bristol, where his cousin James Wason was a solicitor, and retained close ties with Liverpool, where his younger brothers Eugene Edmund Wason (d. 1836) and Edward Sidney Wason (d. 1841) became attorneys.6 Wason was not a Liverpool freeman, but ‘Wason Buildings’ was a popular venue for meetings and he was an interested observer at the November 1830 by-election contest between John Evelyn Denison* and William Ewart*. Amid the furore and bribery allegations which followed, he took it upon himself, with possible encouragement from John Gladstone*, as whose ‘tool’ he was denigrated, to petition Parliament for ‘measures to prevent the recurrence of such scandalous proceedings’, and, encouraged by the Liverpool Chronicle, he requested the common council, who resented his intervention, ‘to aid him in his attempt to purify the system of voting’ and prevent bribery.7 Squibs bemoaned the loss of public revenue ‘by having a parcel of drones pensioned on [the lighthouse]’, and a mob stoned his mother’s house after the parliamentary committee chaired by John Benett found Ewart guilty of bribery, 26 Mar. 1831.8 Eugene Wason, however, was appointed solicitor for the Liverpool disfranchisement bill. Wason’s conduct before the election committee brought him to the attention of lord chancellor Brougham and led to his candidature in the reform interest at Ipswich, where he was returned with the reformer James Morrison at the general election in May, at a personal cost of £1,200.9 An Ipswich contemporary described him as ‘a tall gaunt gentleman with a cast in one of his eyes ... called by some of his opponents "two yards of bad stuff"’.10 A parliamentary commentator recalled him as ‘well known and much esteemed on both sides of the House ... bearded, tall and well formed ... his grave expression ... would have well become the pulpit’ and classified him as a ‘stock still speaker’.

He speaks with some rapidity and is usually fluent enough in his utterance, but at times he hesitates a little. His language is unpolished ... but his style is correct. He is not wordy; he expresses himself with great conciseness, and is always clear, were he sufficiently audible in his statements and arguments. He is not a man of superior intellect but he has a sound judgement ... [and is] exemplary in his attention to his parliamentary duties.11

Wason’s particular interests in 1831-2 lay in supporting reform and the bill to prevent bribery and treating at Liverpool, opposing the anatomy bill, promoting the Westminster improvement scheme and re-establishing Ipswich’s right to hold the assizes. He was praised by The Times when, on 29 June 1831, the paymaster general and architect of the reform bill Lord John Russell wrote conceding his request that half-yearly rate payments should not be a prerequisite for qualification as £10 voters.12 He was prevented from making his maiden speech that day, as the House became inquorate, and one of the Liverpool reformers, the Rev. William Shepherd, was informed by Ewart, 5 July:

You would be amused at the issue of Benett’s resolutions. Wason came into the House with all the pomp and circumstance of a judge about to record the final sentence of disfranchisement against the freemen. He was armed with a large black book in mourning for the carpenters and other victims of his legislative justice. Great was his wrath when John Wood so promptly put an end to the proceedings; and he seemed well disposed to quarrel with me. This I shall avoid as much as I should his acquaintance.13

He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July. Opposing the issue of a new Liverpool writ, he made his first speech on the prevalence of bribery and corruption there, 8 July, when he urged Members not to take pity on the borough merely because it was a large, populous town.14 The Manchester Herald attributed the motion’s defeat (by 117-99), despite government backing, to Wason’s descriptions of on-going treating, to which he referred again, 14 July.15 He informed The Times that he had not missed a single division on the motions to adjourn proceedings on the reform bill, 12 July; and he generally divided for its details and campaigned and spoke out against any he opposed.16 On 27 July he proposed making all schedule B boroughs contributory because they

contribute only £32,151 in taxes and contain only 50,000 inhabitants ... 12,000 voters would return a sixth of the Members of this House. Looking to these facts, I say that it is impossible that schedule B should remain a final measure in a reformed Parliament. The only way I see by which we can prevent the rediscussion of it, is to make the boroughs in that schedule contributory boroughs; and instead of returning 39 Members, to return only 16, giving to each borough a constituency of about 800 voters.

Claiming that he was not ‘bound hand and foot to the bill’, he voted in the minority for awarding Stoke-on-Trent two Members, 4 Aug., and suggested doing the same for all towns in schedule D because of their large numbers of £10 houses. He made a point, when Whitehaven was considered, 6 Aug., of asking the anti-reformer John Croker if he would seek separate representation for neighbouring Workington, Harrington and Bissington, and proposed enfranchising Toxteth Park independently of Liverpool. He withdrew the motion for want of government support, but his speech, drawing parallels with Gateshead, to which the bill accorded separate representation from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was extensively reported in the Liverpool press.17 He cast wayward votes for the separate representation of Merthyr, 10 Aug., against the division of counties, 11 Aug., to permit borough voters to vote in county elections, 17 Aug., and for the enfranchisement of £50 tenants-at-will, 18 Aug. His suggestion that sheriffs be liable to penalties for non-performance of duties if a returning officer proved unsatisfactory was received in uproar, 19 Aug. He called in vain for freeholders in boroughs and corporate counties to be given the right to chose whether to vote in the borough or the county, 20 Aug. Using Liverpool as his example and backed by Nicolson Calvert, he secured an amendment enabling £10 occupiers to qualify as £10 voters in districts where landlords compounded with parishes for rates and charged tenants a neat rent, 26 Aug. He voted for the bill’s third reading and passage, 19, 21 Sept., and for Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. Arguing that the reform bill was inadequate to ‘meet so gross a case of corruption as that at Liverpool’, he called for the postponement of the writ and claimed that the select committee appointed to investigate corruption there was dominated by Members sympathetic to the freemen and willing to suppress evidence, 29 Aug. He was a majority teller for Benett’s amendment for including a reference to bribery at the last election in the order for the Liverpool writ, and was appointed with him to bring in the Liverpool franchise bill, 5 Sept. He failed by 93-67 on 12 Oct. 1831 with an amendment deferring the writ until 14 days after the opening of the next parliamentary session, a calculated concession following the reform bill’s defeat in the Lords.18 He was paraded through the streets and docks of Liverpool in effigy during the corporation elections that month.19

He divided for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and for its details. Referring to Ipswich, which had ‘only 800 persons assessed to the rates at £10 and upwards ... but about 1,800 who occupy houses of the value of £10 and upwards’, 3 Feb. 1832, he opposed Denison’s amendment settling the £10 householder qualification on particular properties in each borough, and another raising the qualification to £15 in boroughs where the number of £10 houses exceeded 500; but he now conceded that £10 was ‘too low a franchise for Liverpool’, where rents were high, properties frequently subdivided and poor rate assessments ‘fiddled’ to prevent large families becoming chargeable on the parish. His amendment clarifying the residence qualification of freeman voters retaining their franchise under the bill was deemed ‘advantageous and proper to be adopted’, 7 Feb. Another preventing metropolitan police officers from voting until 12 months after retirement was rejected outright, 8 Feb.; and one limiting polling to one day in constituencies with electorates below 1,000 was defeated by 95-1, 15 Feb. He recommended sorting voters ‘by alphabet’ rather than ‘by district’ in Liverpool, 15 Feb., thought Totnes should take Dartmouth’s place in schedule B, 23 Feb., and, in a renewed call for the enfranchisement of Toxteth Park, 28 Feb., he asked for maps of Bath, Bristol and Liverpool to be made available for scrutiny before the House divided on the separate enfranchisement of Gateshead and Salford. He explained that unlike last year, when there were 30 ‘vacancies’, there were now none, and he therefore wished to combine Salford with Manchester and Gateshead with Newcastle; he spoke and voted against awarding a Member to Gateshead, 5 Mar. At the bill’s third reading, 22 Mar., when he divided in the government majority, he reaffirmed his commitment to it, despite his opposition to separating Gateshead and Newcastle and to particular clauses. He spoke in passing of his support for Sadler’s bill to regulate child labour. Later in the debate, he repudiated a suggestion by the anti-reformer Sugden that ministers had enfranchised £10 householders who paid rent quarterly in order to pacify the political unions, and explained that he himself had secured the concession, two days before the unions had raised the problem, by bringing to the attention of ministers the case of ‘a property belonging to my family and myself situated in the best part of Liverpool, and amounting to £10,000 per annum, for which not a single tenant would have had the right of voting, all the rents being paid quarterly’. He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the reform bill unimpaired, 10 May, and against a Conservative amendment to the Scottish measure, 1 June. He said he would vote to retain the proposed £300 property qualification for parliamentary candidates in the Scottish districts of burghs, 22 June 1832.

The editor of the Albion had speculated from the outset ‘whether his motive is actuated by private pique or by public principle’, and by 1832 it was rumoured at Westminster that Wason’s agent had admitted that he was promoting the Liverpool disfranchisement bill so that he could subsequently take legal action against individuals to recover penalties.20 As announced, 3 Feb., he produced a letter from his agent denying the charge, 8 Feb.21 He spoke against the Liverpool revenue buildings bill that day, and was a majority teller for the second reading of the disfranchisement bill, 23 May. Seconding Benett’s motion to proceed with it in committee, 4 July, he criticized Liverpool’s sitting Members Lord Sandon and Ewart for attempting to kill the bill by adjournment and spoke of the franchise as a ‘trust’, which ‘if an individual chooses to sell that trust to the highest bidder, he cannot complain that it should be taken away from himself and consequently from his children’. He dismissed Alexander Baring’s electoral bribery bill as ‘a piece of waste paper compared with the effect that would have been produced by the passing of the Liverpool disfranchisement bill, which it seems has been dropped’ (on 13 July), and proposed moving an amendment in the next Parliament making it retrospective, 30 July. As in his subsequent correspondence, publications and speeches, he argued that as malpractice was the work of agents not candidates, it was impossible to frame an effective bribery oath.22 He divided with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 16 July, relations with Portugal, 9 Feb., and the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr. 1832.

Wason’s liberalism generally ‘stopped short of radicalism’,23 but he voted in radical minorities for inquiry into the conduct of the magistrates of Winchester towards Thomas and Caroline Deacle, 27 Sept. 1831, and military punishments, 16 Feb. 1832. He voted against the Vestry Act amendment bill, 23 Jan., for inquiry into the glove trade, which concerned his colleague Morrison, 31 Jan., 3 Apr., and to reduce the sugar duties, 7 Mar., and urged that strict attention be paid to all judicial appointments in the colonies, 13 Apr. He voted to tax absentee landlords to provide for the Irish poor, 19 June, and for inquiry into the Inns of Court, 17 July; but he supported ministers when Sugden, in a thinly veiled attack on the appointment of William Brougham* as a master in chancery by his brother the lord chancellor, criticized their failure to abolish chancery sinecures, 25 July. Wason was opposed in principle to the sale of bodies, but not to dissection at licensed medical schools, and he strenuously opposed the anatomy bill, 27 Feb., objecting to 11 of the first 15 clauses on inspectors and contracting parties and listing seven points which he wished to see included. In committee, he vainly tried to secure amendments to prevent body-snatching, dissection at surgeons’ residences and the sale of bodies by innkeepers and workhouses, 30 Mar., 11, 13, 18 Apr. He called for the bill to be recommitted ‘to place my amendments on the records of the House’, 8 May, and suggested sarcastically at its third reading, 11 May, that as the ‘whole purpose of the bill is to regulate dissection at private residences of surgeons’, its title should reflect this; but his amendment to this effect was rejected with another making the sale of bodies illegal, and he now failed to delay the bill by adjournment. He voted to make coroners’ inquests public, 20 June. He moved successfully for and was appointed to a select committee on Bardwell’s plan to improve the approaches to the House, the law courts and the ‘immediate neighbourhood of Buckingham Palace’, 6 June; and objected to but failed (by 48-22) to secure a reduction in the grant for new barracks at Birdcage Walk, which jeopardized it, 2 July. He said he would continue to ‘report from time to time’ on the Westminster improvements committee’s work, 29 June, and had their minutes of evidence printed, 18 July, but he failed to prevent the report’s deferral, 31 July.24 Drawing parallels with the ‘injustice’ to Liverpool and Manchester of holding the Lancashire assizes at Lancaster, Wason supported the bill making Norwich Norfolk’s sole assizes town, 3 Apr., and was a seconder and majority teller at its second reading, 23 May.25 He presented and endorsed Ipswich’s petition for the right to hold the assizes alternately with Bury St. Edmunds, 2 June, and, acknowledging that it exposed him to taunts of electioneering, obtained leave to introduce a bill to this effect, 3 July. His speech described how previous attempts to transfer the sessions to Ipswich had been blocked by the duke of Grafton and the marquess of Bristol, whose sons shared the representation of Bury St. Edmunds. He raised no objections to the bill’s deferral at the request of Bristol’s heir Lord Jermyn while the opinion of the county was taken, and presented a favourable petition from the magistrates, grand jury and yeomanry of East Suffolk, 13 July, but he failed to prevent the measure being deferred for that session, 23 July 1832.

Wason was returned for Ipswich as a Liberal at the general election of 1832, petitioned successfully following his defeat there in 1835 by Fitzroy Kelly, who challenged him to a duel, and was re-elected at the ensuing by-election. His ‘match extraordinary’ in 1837 with Kelly, commemorated in MacLean’s cartoon ‘Cock-a-doodle-do practising the bar’, left them both without seats. Wason topped the poll at Ipswich in 1841, but was unseated on petition, and he did not stand for Parliament again. He remained a member of the Reform Club, ‘ever conspicuous and attractive on the hustings’.26 He now moved permanently to Ayrshire, where his brother Eugene had died in 1836, living at Kildonnan, before building a mansion at Drumlamford, which he purchased from his brother-in-law Thomas Dickason Rotch, and sold to purchase the Corwar estate.27 He retained a taste for litigation, wrote regularly to the newspapers and published pamphlets on land reclamation at Corwar, bribery at elections, the route of the railway, Hope and Napier’s plan for London sewage, the 1866 parliamentary reform proposals, usury, monetary panics and the currency, on which, as an anti-bullionist, he disagreed passionately with William Ewart Gladstone†; he was bitterly disappointed not to be invited to speak before the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce.28 He died of angina at Corwar in July 1875 and was buried with both Free and Established Church rites in the mausoleum he had built at Barrhill.29 An agreement of 1832 with his mother and brothers had made him the major shareholder in their Liverpool estate, which, as he had willed, was retained by his family and Corwar sold. He had provided for his widow and daughter and divided his real estate and the residue equally between his three surviving sons. Two became well-known parliamentarians: Eugene Wason (1846-1927), Liberal Member for Ayrshire South, 1885-6, 1892-5, and Clackmannan and Kinross, 1899-1918; and John Cathcart Wason (1848-1921) Liberal Member for Orkney and Shetland, 1900-21.30

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott


  • 1. Mr. M.S. Wason of Highfield Lodge, Church Hill, Totland Bay, I.o.W. (in 1991) supplied information on Wason’s date of birth and marriage and McTier’s residence. He points out that the assumption that Wason married Euphemia, some 28 years his junior, in 1843 is not confirmed by the following entry for 1844 in the Colmonell par. reg.: ‘son to Rigby Wason and Fanny Mactier, Kildonnan, born 17 July and baptized 11 August, but not lawful wedlock’. The date of birth matches that of Wason’s eldest son Rigby (d. 1870).
  • 2. J. Touzeau, Rise and Progress of Liverpool, 559-60; Liverpool Vestries Bk. ii. 205, 212, 298, 394; R. Brooke, Liverpool During Last Quarter of 18th Cent. 195, 212-3.
  • 3. Gent. Mag. (1794), ii. 1209; PROB 11/1255/471; Caledonian Mercury, 27 Apr. 1820.
  • 4. Gent. Mag. (1810), i. 676; PROB 8/203; 11/1515/483.
  • 5. The Times, 18 June 1827, 19, 20 May 1828; R. Gatty, Portrait of a Merchant Prince, James Morrison, 1789-1857, p. 124.
  • 6. Gent. Mag. (1836), i. 102; (1841), ii. 665.
  • 7. The Times, 7, 11 Oct., 29 Nov., 2, 9, 14, 21 Dec.; Liverpool Chron. 25 Dec. 1830, 1 Jan. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 103; Brougham mss, W. Shepherd to Brougham [n.d.].
  • 8. Albion, 20, 27 Dec. 1830, 3 Jan., 21, 28 Mar.; Liverpool Mercury, 28 Jan., 1 Apr.; St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 103, Denison to J. Gladstone, 12 Mar.; 197, T. Gladstone to same, 18 Mar., 21 Apr.; Liverpool Chron. 2 Apr. 1831; J. Picton, Memorials of Liverpool (1875), i. 429.
  • 9. Liverpool Mercury, 15 Apr.; Ipswich Jnl. 7 May 1831; R. Wason, Short and Sure Way of Preventing Bribery at Elections, 3, 4.
  • 10. Suff. RO (Ipswich), J. Glyde, ‘Materials for Parl. Hist. Ipswich’, f. 211.
  • 11. [J. Grant], Random Recollections of Commons (1838), ii. 61-66.
  • 12. The Times, 30 June 1831.
  • 13. Manchester New Coll. Oxf., William Shepherd mss VII, f. 53.
  • 14. Ibid.; Liverpool Mercury, 15 July 1831.
  • 15. Manchester Herald, 13 July 1831.
  • 16. The Times, 18 July 1831.
  • 17. Liverpool Mercury, 12 Aug. 1831.
  • 18. Picton, i. 448-9.
  • 19. Manchester Herald, 26 Oct. 1831
  • 20. Albion, 27 Dec. 1830, 3 Jan. 1831,
  • 21. Glynne-Gladstone mss 199, T. to J. Gladstone, 6, 9, 11 Feb. 1832.
  • 22. Brougham mss, Wason to Brougham, 10 July 1847; Wason, Short and Sure Way and Extension of the Franchise (1866).
  • 23. Grant, ii. 62.
  • 24. Gent. Mag. (1832), i. 630.
  • 25. Bury and Norwich Post, 2, 30 May 1832.
  • 26. Glyde, ff. 123-45, 214; Suff. RO (Ipswich) HD12/2747/3; Add. 40503, ff. 98-104.
  • 27. Gent. Mag. (1836), i. 102; J.L. McDevitt, House of Rotch, 562.
  • 28. Wason, Monetary Panics Rendered Impossible (1867), 3-13 and app.
  • 29. Ayr Advertiser, 29 July; Galloway Advertiser, 5 Aug. 1875; Solicitors’ Jnl. (1875), xix. 713,
  • 30. Liverpool Mercury, 28 July 1875; PROB 11/1882/577; IR26/2941/913; 3383/1208.