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John Arthur Roebuck (1801-1879)

This article was written by William Fraser Rae and was published in 1897

JA RoebuckJohn Arthur Roebuck, politician, was born at Madras in 1801. He was fifth son of Ebenezer Roebuck, a civil servant in India, who was third son of Dr. John Roebuck. His mother was a daughter of Richard Tickell, the brother-in-law and friend of Sheridan. Losing his father in childhood, he was brought to England in 1807, whence his mother took him to Canada after her marriage to a second husband. He was educated in Canada. Returning to England in 1824, he was entered at the Inner Temple, and called to the bar on 28 January 1831. He went the northern circuit. In 1843 he was appointed queen's counsel, and was elected a bencher of his inn. In 1835 he became agent in England for the House of Assembly of Lower Canada during the dispute between the executive government and the House of Assembly, and on 5 February 1838 he was heard at the bar of the House of Lords in opposition to Lord John Russell's Canada Bill. His practice as a barrister was not large. The only trial in which he made a decided mark was that in which he successfully defended Job Bradshaw, the proprietor and editor of a Nottingham newspaper, for a libel upon Feargus O'Connor.

A disciple of Bentham and a friend of John Stuart Mill, Roebuck professed advanced political opinions, which he resolved to uphold in the House of Commons. On 14 December 1832 he was returned by Bath to the first reformed parliament. The constituency had previously invited Sir William Napier to contest the seat. Napier refused, but expressed warm approval of the selection of Roebuck, with whom he thenceforth corresponded frequently on public questions. Roebuck delivered his maiden speech on 5 February 1833, during the debate on the address, declaring himself ‘an independent member of that house.’ That position he always occupied, attacking all who differed from him with such vehemence as to earn the nickname of ‘Tear 'em.’ With the whigs he was always out of sympathy, and never lost an opportunity of exhibiting his contempt for them. In domestic questions his attitude was usually that of a thoroughgoing radical. He joined O'Connell in opposing coercion in Ireland, and advocated the ballot and the abolition of sinecures. In 1835, when he was re-elected for Bath, he proposed to withdraw the veto from the House of Lords, substituting a suspensive power, and providing that a bill which had been rejected by the lords should become law, with the royal assent, after having been passed a second time by the commons. In the same year he collected in a volume a series of ‘Pamphlets for the People,’ in support of his political views, which he had issued week by week, first at the price of three-halfpence each, and afterwards of twopence. Their aim resembled that of Cobbett's ‘Twopenny Trash’ (1815). The act which, by the imposition of a fourpenny stamp on each copy, had caused the suspension of Cobbett's periodical was circumvented by Roebuck's scheme of publishing weekly pamphlets, each complete in itself. His chief fellow-workers were Joseph Hume, George Grote, Henry Warburton, and Francis Place, all, save the last, being members of parliament. In one of his pamphlets Roebuck denounced newspapers and everybody connected with them, with the result that John Black, editor of the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ sent him a challenge. A duel was fought on 19 November 1835, but neither party was injured.

The Reform Club was founded in 1836 for promoting social intercourse between the whigs and the radicals, and Roebuck became a member and continued one till 1864; but his original aversion for the whigs was not modified by personal association. His final opinion of them was declared in his ‘History of the Whig Ministry of 1830 to the Passing of the Reform Bill’ (1852). ‘The whigs,’ he wrote, ‘have ever been an exclusive and aristocratic faction, though at times employing democratic principles and phrases as weapons of offence against their opponents. ... When out of office they are demagogues; in power they become exclusive oligarchs’. He failed to be re-elected for Bath in 1837, but he regained the seat in 1841. On 18 May 1843 a motion of his in favour of secular education was rejected by 156 to 60, and on 28 June, in the debate on the Irish Colleges Bill, he taunted the Irish supporters of the bill with such bitterness that Mr. Somers, M.P. for Sligo, threatened him with a challenge, a threat that Roebuck brought to the attention of the speaker. In April 1844 Roebuck, with some inconsistency, defended Sir James Graham, Sir Robert Peel's home secretary, from various charges, and was denounced by George Sydney Smythe, seventh viscount Strangford, as the ‘Diogenes of Bath,’ whose actions were always contradictory. Roebuck's retort provoked a challenge from Smythe. He was rejected for the second time by Bath in 1847, when his admirers there consoled him with an address of confidence and a gift of £600. He spent some of his leisure in writing ‘A Plan for Governing our English Colonies,’ which was published in 1849. He was returned for Sheffield unopposed in May of the same year, and with that constituency he was closely identified until death.

In questions of foreign policy Roebuck always championed spirited action on England's part. On 24 June 1850 he moved a strongly worded vote of confidence in Palmerston's recent foreign policy. In 1854 he defended the Crimean war; but the inefficiency which soon became apparent in carrying it on excited his disgust. His most noteworthy appearance in parliament was on 26 January 1855, when he moved for a committee to inquire into the conduct of the war. Lord John Russell resigned the office of president of the council as soon as notice was given of the motion. Although physical infirmity hindered Roebuck from saying more than a few sentences, his motion was carried on 29 January by 305 against 148 votes, and the administration of Lord Aberdeen resigned next day. Lord Palmerston succeeded to the premiership, and at once appointed a committee of inquiry into the war. Of this body, which was known as the Sebastopol committee, Roebuck was appointed chairman. Its report was adverse to Lord Aberdeen's government, and on 17 July Roebuck moved that the ministers who were responsible for the Crimean disasters should be visited with severe reprehension. The previous question was carried, but 181 members voted with Roebuck. Kinglake, in recording these incidents, criticises with acerbity the indiscriminate invective which Roebuck habitually employed.

Roebuck was an unsuccessful candidate for the chairmanship of the metropolitan board of works at the first meeting on 22 December 1855. On 3 September 1856 his Sheffield constituents marked their appreciation of his parliamentary activity by presenting him with his portrait and eleven hundred guineas. At the same period he became chairman of the Administrative Reform Association, but that body failed to answer the expectation formed of it by its friends. He was re-elected at Sheffield after a contest in 1852 and 1857, and without opposition in 1859. He headed the poll there in 1865. But, although his popularity with the Sheffield electors was always great, his studied displays of political independence and the gradual modification of his radical views on domestic questions alienated many of his liberal supporters. A speech at Salisbury in 1862, in which he alleged that working men were spendthrifts and wife-beaters, made him for a time unpopular with the artisan classes. Broadhead and other organisers of trade-unionist outrages at Sheffield in 1867 found in him a stern denouncer.

When civil war raged in the United States of America he violently championed the slave-holders of the South, boasting that Lord Palmerston had cynically confessed to him that he was on the same side. In like manner, Roebuck defended Austrian rule in Italy. So uncompromising and so apparently illiberal an attitude led to Roebuck's rejection by Sheffield at the election of 1868, when the liberals returned Mr. Mundella in his stead. His friends gave him £3,000 by way of testimonial. He regained the seat in 1874. During the administration of Lord Beaconsfield, with whom, when Mr. Disraeli, he had had many lively encounters, he favoured the policy of supporting the Turks against the Russians, and finally broke with his few remaining liberal friends. On 14 August 1878 he was made a privy councillor by the tory government. He died at 19 Ashley Place, Westminster, on 30 November 1879. He married, in 1834, Henrietta, daughter of Thomas Falconer (1772-1839) of Bath. She, with a daughter, survived him.

Roebuck was short in stature, vehement in speech, bold in opinion. He addressed popular audiences with easy assurance and great effect. His indifference to party ties was appreciated by the multitude, who regarded him as a politician of stern integrity. A portrait of him by H. W. Pickersgill, R.A., belongs to the corporation of Sheffield.

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