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This article was written by Henry James Robinson and was published in 1899
Charles Pelham Villiers, statesman, born on 3 January 1802 in Upper Grosvenor Street, London, was third son of George Villiers (1759-1827), by his wife, Theresa Parker (d. 1855), only daughter of John, first baron Boringdon. Thomas Villiers, first earl of Clarendon, was his grandfather.
While Charles Pelham was still a youth, his parents took up their residence at Old Kent House, Knightsbridge, which was so commodious that it accommodated with ease the families of George Villiers and his brother-in-law, the second Baron Boringdon. Canning, then at the height of his fame, was a frequent visitor at Kent House, and young Villiers first had his mind turned to politics by listening to the conversations of the brilliant statesman with his father and uncle; he consequently began to frequent the galleries of the houses of parliament. At that period he and his elder brothers, George William Frederick Villiers (afterwards fourth Earl of Clarendon) and Thomas Hyde Villiers, attended a school at Kensington kept by Thomas Wright Hill. Later on Villiers was sent to the East India College at Haileybury, where he attended lectures given by Sir James Mackintosh and Thomas Robert Malthus. His health not promising to endure the Indian climate, Villiers was sent to Cambridge, and entered as a gentleman commoner at St. John's College. Villiers first took part in a state pageant as a royal page at the coronation of George IV in 1820. At the university he became acquainted with Thomas Babington (afterwards Lord) Macaulay, Viscount Howick (afterwards third Earl Grey), Edward Strutt (afterwards Lord Belper), Winthrop Mackworth Praed, and Charles Austin. In 1824 Villiers graduated B.A., and in 1827 proceeded M.A.
On leaving Cambridge Villiers took up his residence in London, and entered as a student at Lincoln's Inn. He attended the lectures of McCulloch, and is referred to by J. S. Mill in his ‘Autobiography’ as among the visitors from the inns of court who early in 1825 took part in the weekly public debates at a discussion forum in Chancery Lane, where the battle on the ‘population’ question was fought out between the political economists and the followers of Robert Dale Owen. At that time Villiers made the acquaintance of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, and became associated with the school of thinkers known as ‘Benthamites,’ whose headquarters were at the house of Sir William Molesworth (then editing the ‘Westminster Review’). Chief among them were George Grote, Joseph Hume, Perronet Thompson, Charles Buller, J. S. Mill, Lytton Bulwer, J. A. Roebuck, and Mr. Temple Leader. Encouraged by such men and anxious to take service under Canning and Huskisson, Villiers attempted to enter parliament at the general election in 1826. In the summer of that year he accompanied his second brother, Thomas Hyde, into Yorkshire, and, while the elder brother won a seat at Hedon, Charles Villiers made a desperate but unsuccessful fight for the representation of Kingston-upon-Hull.
In 1827 Villiers was called to the bar by the society of Lincoln's Inn, and went the western circuit, which included Wales. In 1830 he was appointed secretary to the master of the rolls, and in 1832, when the royal commission for inquiring into the administration of the poor law was constituted, he was nominated an assistant commissioner, and spent several months investigating the subject in the parishes of the midland and western counties. The experience he then gained stood him in good stead when, many years later, he became president of the poor-law board. Through the influence of the master of the rolls, Villiers in 1833 received an appointment as examiner of witnesses in the court of chancery, a post that he retained until 1852, when he became judge-advocate-general.
At the close of 1834 Villiers was invited to stand for Wolverhampton at the approaching election, and on 16 December he issued his address to the electors. In it he pledged himself to oppose all restrictions upon trade and monopolies of every kind, and announced himself ‘a decided advocate for triennial parliaments and vote by ballot.’ After a three weeks' contest he was returned on 10 January 1835 in company with Thomas Thornely, a Liverpool merchant, and from that day until his death he remained member for Wolverhampton, although by the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885 his constituency was reduced to one-third of the old parliamentary borough.
Parliament opened on 19 February, and Villiers took his seat below the gangway on the opposition benches. After the resignation of Sir Robert Peel and the formation of Lord Melbourne's second ministry he continued to sit below the gangway, though no longer in opposition, and to associate with the group known as ‘Utilitarians.’ Villiers made his maiden speech on 1 June 1835, in connection with a demand from Wolverhampton for an inquiry into the conduct of the military in firing upon the people at an election that had been held on 27 May for the county of Stafford. As a result of the appeal to the home secretary, Lord John Russell, an inquiry was held and the military were declared ‘to have acted with exemplary propriety, forbearance, and discipline.’
Owing to the abundant harvest of 1835, wheat fell to an average of 39s. 4d. a quarter, and the farmers found that abundance had brought them face to face with ruin owing to the extraordinary fall in the price of grain. An inquiry by a committee of the House of Commons was ordered to be held, but, owing to the advanced period of the session, the committee did not sit till the next year. Villiers, however, took the opportunity of a dinner being given to Thornely and himself by their constituents at Wolverhampton on 26 January 1836 to sketch out the general line of liberal policy that he had laid down for himself, especially emphasising the necessity for free trade, legal reform, and a more sympathetic policy towards Ireland.
In February 1836 the committee on agricultural distress was appointed, and, after sitting for four months, admitted their inability to suggest means to prevent the recurrence of evil times under the existing law, and rose without making a report. The low price of food, however, caused the people at large scarcely to feel the infliction of the corn law, and it was not until after the harvest of 1836, when there was a considerable rise in the price of corn, emphasised by a pressure on the money market and the failure of certain banks, that the uncertainty of the temporary prosperity was made manifest. The small knot of free-trade members, headed by Villiers, determined to wait no longer before taking the sense of the House of Commons upon the continuance of the corn law. William Clay, who represented the Tower Hamlets, was entrusted with the duty of bringing the question before the house, and on 16 March 1837 he presented several petitions against the corn law, and moved the adoption of a fixed duty of 10s. a quarter on the importation of foreign wheat. Villiers seconded the motion in a speech in which he contended that, while England's prosperity was due to the excess of production over consumption, the tendency of the corn law was to limit production. The motion was defeated by 223 to 89. Villiers's speech is interesting from the point of time at which it was delivered. The Anti-Cornlaw League had not then been founded. Four years had to pass before Cobden entered parliament, and it was more than six years before Bright became member for Durham, while Gladstone was actually among those who voted against the motion, and for many years continued to oppose the repeal of the corn law.
In the autumn of 1837 a general election took place. At Wolverhampton there was a fair stand-up fight between the free-traders and the protectionists. Villiers pledged himself on the hustings, if elected, to move in the House of Commons for a total repeal of the corn law. The polling was decisive. Villiers and Thornely polled over a thousand votes, beating the conservative by more than four hundred.
On 15 March 1838 Villiers moved the first of his annual motions: ‘That the house resolve itself into a committee of the whole house for the purpose of taking into consideration the act 9 George IV, c. 60, relating to the importation of corn.’ He declared that if the house would resolve itself into a committee he would move for the repeal of the duties on corn. He traced the depressed state of most of our manufactures to the loss of foreign markets in consequence of the neglect of our commercial interests by the ministers, who preferred to maintain the corn law. He urged that commercial liberty was as essential to the wellbeing of the country as civil and religious liberty. The motion was defeated by 300 to 95 votes.
In July 1838 Lord Fitzwilliam presented a petition from Glasgow praying for the repeal of the corn law. In the debate that ensued Lord Melbourne declared that the government would not take a decided part in the question (which he admitted to be ‘an open one’) till it was certain that the majority of the people favoured the idea of a change. The free-traders accepted this statement as a challenge to the people to commence agitation, by which, they were reminded, they had alone obtained catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. Before the close of the year the association (afterwards converted into the Anti-Cornlaw League) was founded at Manchester, and had commenced to raise funds. So successful was the movement that a public dinner, at which eight hundred gentlemen were present, was given by the association on 22 January 1839 to Villiers and the members who had supported his motion in the previous year. He was then hailed as the parliamentary leader of the contest; and on 19 February 1839 he moved in the House of Commons that certain gentlemen should be heard at the bar of the house in support of their petition against the corn law. Villiers confined himself to setting forth the grave depression of home and foreign trade, and urged the necessity of an inquiry into the allegations of the delegates of the association as to the injurious operations of the corn law. The motion was defeated by 361 to 172 votes, but, according to a competent observer of that day, Villiers's speech was not lost; the protectionist landlords began to believe in the possibility of their monopoly being endangered. They had previously regarded Villiers's motions much in the same light as Grote's annual motion on the ballot — a matter that was to give rise to a long debate, and to be defeated by a large majority, and then to be laid aside for the rest of the session. But Villiers was so earnest and advanced such an array of facts, and so clearly traced the direct and incidental injury produced by the corn law to the manufacturers, the traders, and the working classes, that the landlords became seriously alarmed. Referring to Villiers's speech, Miss Martineau says: ‘Villiers's speech was a statement of singular force and clearness. On that night he assumed his post undisputed as the head authority in the legislature on the subject of the corn law.’ Cobden, who was present as ‘a stranger’ in the House of Commons, was so impressed by the opposition offered by the monopolists that he determined that he would thenceforth commence to agitate, and never cease until the public should be apprised of the character of the corn law and the difficulty of repealing it.
On 12 March 1839 Villiers moved his second annual motion for the repeal of the corn law, pointing out that the many applications made to parliament by the agricultural interest for relief subsequent to the passing of the corn law were sufficient proof that the law had failed in its object. The increased interest taken by the country at large was shown by the debate extending over five nights, when the motion was rejected by 342 to 195 votes. In the House of Lords Earl Fitzwilliam's motion condemning the corn law was defeated by 224 to 24 votes. To these adverse votes the corn-law repealers retorted by founding the League of Anti-Cornlaw Associations and publishing the ‘Anti-Cornlaw Circular,’ and by despatching their lecturers through the length and breadth of the land. In that year James Wilson published ‘The Influences of the Corn Laws,’ which attracted Villiers's notice, and furnished him with some of his most telling arguments when he brought forward the question of the corn law in his third annual motion on 1 April 1840. On that occasion the opposition offered to Villiers's motion was so violent that no decision upon it was taken. Petitions bearing a million and a quarter signatures had been presented by Villiers against the corn law on introducing his motion. Fresh petitions signed by another quarter of a million people were presented by Villiers on 26 May, when he renewed his motion. But the uproar was so great that the repealers failed to obtain a hearing, and a division was taken showing 300 against and 177 for the motion. In 1840 Villiers consulted James Deacon Hume, who had just retired from official life, as to the best means of forcing the facts upon the minds of the government. Hume recommended Villiers to move for a select committee to inquire into the import duties. He did so, and was refused. But on Joseph Hume, the veteran member for Montrose, appealing to the government, a committee was appointed. Villiers presided at three-fourths of the meetings, and largely conducted the examination of the witnesses (comprising John MacGregor (1797-1857), secretary of the board of trade; J. D. Hume; George Richardson Porter, head of the statistical department of the board of trade; and sixteen eminent merchants and manufacturers). The report was published on 6 August 1840, and was at once reprinted and circulated broadcast by the Anti-Cornlaw League. The council of the league declared their entire case might be decided by the evidence in the report itself.
On 15 April 1841, at a meeting at the Manchester corn exchange of nearly two thousand delegates from the principal towns of the kingdom, Villiers gave a direct impetus to a movement among ministers of religion to agitate for the repeal of the corn law, and within a few months the bread tax was being denounced from more than a thousand pulpits and platforms. In 1841 Villiers was precluded from bringing on his annual motion for repeal in consequence of Lord John Russell giving notice of a motion in terms identical with those which in former years had brought down on Villiers the ridicule and wrath of the protectionists. But the decision of Lord Melbourne's cabinet to attempt to remove the deficits that annually faced them by lessening the duties on corn, sugar, and timber did not save the government from defeat. Lord John Russell stated that he intended to propose a fixed duty of 8s. a quarter, while Sir Robert Peel declared in favour of a sliding scale. The government were beaten, and a general election returned the tories to power. Cobden took his seat in parliament, and at once thanked Villiers, ‘the hon. member for Wolverhampton, for whose great and incessant services I, in common with millions of my fellow-countrymen, feel grateful.’ Sir Robert Peel formed his ministry in September, and prorogued parliament in October without heeding the appeal of the free-traders for immediate relief.
In February 1842 Sir Robert Peel introduced his sliding scale, which O'Connell described as ‘sliding from everything honest.’ Lord John Russell opposed the measure, and was defeated by 123 votes. Villiers then moved on 18 February ‘that the corn law do now cease and determine.’ A five nights' debate followed, when the motion was rejected by 393 against 90. On 18 April Villiers spoke against the imposition of the property and income tax, urging that it would deepen the distress in the country by causing a diminution in the rate of wages. The next year (1843) found Villiers more than ever engaged in the work of the league. In the spring of that year the league removed its headquarters to London, and engaged Covent Garden Theatre for its weekly meetings, at which Villiers frequently attended. The chief debate of the session was on Villiers's motion for total and immediate repeal. After five nights' debate Villiers's motion was defeated by 381 against 125. Villiers declared that the farmers were rapidly learning that the artificial enhancement of the value of land could not benefit any but the owners of the land; and this contention was justified soon afterwards at a meeting held at Colchester (one of the most formidable strongholds of protection), when Villiers completely won over the farmers, who had attended at the invitation of Sir J. Tyrrell, a prominent landlord, and the free-traders were left in possession of the field. In the autumn the league decided to raise a fund of £100,000. At Manchester forty manufacturers subscribed at one meeting sums varying from £100 to £500 each. In July Bright entered parliament, and in October the league secured the election of James Pattison for the city of London, to the exclusion of the representative of the house of Baring. At Covent Garden Theatre, which was filled to overflowing each week, Villiers was one of the most popular speakers, alternating his logical arguments against the corn law with humorous and mirthful descriptions of the fallacies advanced by the monopolists.
On 25 June 1844 Villiers brought forward his annual motion for repeal in a novel shape. He proposed a series of resolutions to the following effect: ‘That the people of this country are rapidly increasing in number. …That a large proportion are insufficiently provided with the first necessaries of life. That a corn law is in force which restricts the supply of food, and thereby lessens its abundance. That any such restriction is indefensible in principle, injurious in operation, and ought to be abolished.’ The division, taken after two nights' debate, showed that the hostile majority had decreased from 303 in 1842 to 205, the numbers being 328 against Villiers's motion and 124 in its favour. Villiers alluded at Covent Garden Theatre to this falling off in the opposition as showing the influence of public opinion, and as meaning that the electors were becoming convinced that the corn law was an atrocious law and ought to be abolished. This appears to have been a true estimate of facts, for at the beginning of 1845 Lord John Russell stated his conviction ‘that protection was not the support but the bane of agriculture;’ and on Villiers bringing on his annual motion for the last time on 10 June 1845, Lord John Russell said that he saw ‘the fall of the corn law signified not only by the ability of the attacks made upon it, but also by the manner in which it is defended in this house;’ and Sir James Graham, on behalf of the government, could only advance that the motion was too precipitate. The numbers were 254 against and 122 for the motion. Within a week of the debate the Anti-Cornlaw League had raised £116,000 to press on the agitation. The approach of famine in Ireland daunted the ministry, and Sir Robert Peel proposed to open the ports temporarily for grain to enter at a small duty. In his speech at the opening of parliament Sir Robert Peel admitted that his opinions on the subject of protection had undergone a change, and on 27 January 1846 he unfolded his free-trade budget, reducing or repealing the duties on more than 150 articles, and proposing that on 1 February 1849 corn should be admitted duty free, subject only to a registration tax of a shilling a quarter.
With the repeal of the corn laws by the minister who for many years had been their strongest upholder, Villiers's life-work was done. He felt keenly the choice of Cobden by the members of the league as the ‘one incarnation of the free-trade principle;’ and, although the omission of the leaguers at first to offer him a testimonial, in conjunction with the gifts made to Cobden and Bright, was speedily remedied by a committee under the chairmanship of Ricardo, Villiers at once intimated that he could accept no pecuniary acknowledgment of his services; that he held that ‘the reward of public services is public confidence, and I will accept nothing else;’ and that he only desired a post in which he could better serve his country than in the one he then held (i.e. examiner in the court of chancery).
At the general election of 1847 Villiers was elected member for South Lancashire as well as for Wolverhampton. He felt that his means did not enable him to undertake the representation of a great county constituency, and he preferred to trust the tried loyalty of his borough constituents. In January 1850 he was induced by Lord John Russell to move the address in reply to the queen's speech, in order to show that the government had the confidence of the free-traders. At the close of 1852 Villiers made his final speech on the subject of free trade in the House of Commons. Lord Derby was then in office, with Disraeli as chancellor of the exchequer. Villiers then moved a series of resolutions pledging the legislature to accept the act of 1846 as ‘a wise, just, and beneficial measure.’ These terms were denounced by Disraeli as ‘three odious epithets,’ but he paid Villiers a warm tribute of admiration for his consistent adherence to his principles. The result of the debate was to pledge the country to maintain and develop a policy of free trade. Lord Derby resigned office. Lord Aberdeen formed his coalition ministry, and Villiers accepted the post of judge-advocate-general, the borough of Wolverhampton re-electing him without opposition.
In 1859 Lord Palmerston offered him the post of president of the poor-law board, which he accepted with a seat in the cabinet. In that office he effected valuable reforms by carrying through parliament measures ameliorating the condition of the poor in respect of their parish settlement, and by establishing uniformity of assessment throughout the poor-law unions, as well as by distributing the cost of the maintenance of the settled poor over the whole union in proportion to the rateable value of the parishes. But the chief event in the course of his presidency of the poor-law board was the disastrous Lancashire cotton famine. On the suggestion of Rawlinson (afterwards Sir Robert), Villiers introduced a bill enabling the public works loan commissioners to advance sums amounting to nearly £2,000,000 for the purpose of employing the starving cotton operatives upon the making of roads and sewerage works, and upon other operations having useful and sanitary ends in view. After resigning office in July 1866 he received a pension of £2,000 a year, which he continued to enjoy until his death.
During the American civil war Villiers supported Lord Palmerston in his advocacy of the cause of the Northern States. In the closing years of his life he was equally strong in his support of the union of Great Britain and Ireland. Throughout his unparalleled length of parliamentary service he never failed to give his support to the measures of reform to which he pledged himself to his constituents at Wolverhampton in January 1836; he rendered Rowland Hill efficient aid in connection with the introduction of penny postage; and he did useful work in 1853-4 in presiding over a committee of the House of Commons on public-houses. In foreign politics Villiers took broad views, and in his later years he often found himself more in agreement with the views of the party to which he was ordinarily opposed than with the liberal party. In conversation he had few superiors; and with the retention of his mental faculties to the close of his life he continued to take the keenest interest in the development of political affairs at home and abroad. With the expansion of the empire, however, he had little sympathy, contending that so long as we maintained a navy powerful enough to defend our shores we had in our manufacturing supremacy a sufficient cause to attract other countries to trade with us, without incurring the cost of acquiring and safeguarding an immense colonial empire.
Villiers paid his last visit to Wolverhampton in 1875, but the borough continued to honour him until the day of his death. He was elected at fourteen general elections, and twice re-elected on taking office under the crown. At every election subsequent to 1880 he was returned unopposed. He was last heard to speak in the House of Commons in 1885, when he rose to say that his constituents were not in favour of the parliamentary borough being divided into three single-member divisions. He was last seen in the House of Commons in the autumn of 1895, when he attended to take the oath and his seat in the new parliament. Villiers died on 16 Jan. 1898 at his residence, 50 Cadogan Place, London, at the advanced age of ninety-six, and was buried at Kensal Green on 20 January.
On 6 June 1879 Lord Granville unveiled, in front of the Agricultural Hall, Wolverhampton, a statue of Villiers in Sicilian marble, executed by William Theed, which had been paid for by the public subscriptions of his constituents. In the summer of 1897 Villiers was presented with the honorary freedom of the borough that he had so long represented in parliament. In addition to the statue at Wolverhampton, there is another standing in the Manchester Free-trade Hall. His portrait, painted by Cope, and exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1885, now hangs in the Reform Club, Pall Mall.
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