Sue Young Histories

John Bright 1811 – 1889

March 28, 2009

John Bright 1811 – 1889 Quaker, was a British Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with Richard Cobden, John Epps, and George Wilson in the formation of the Anti Corn Law League. He was one of the greatest orators of his generation, and a strong critic of British foreign policy, and he coined the phrase ‘England is the Mother of Parliaments’.

John Bright was also a was a good friend of the Manchester Swedenborgian, Edward Broadfield (1831-1913)

John Bright was an advocate of homeopathy and a patient of Joseph Kidd, and Thomas Hahnemann Hayle, and Thomas Mackern (Anon,* Aberdeen University Review, Volume 6, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Alumnus Association(Aberdeen University Press, 1919). Page 90) (Anon, Western Homeopathic Observer: a monthly journal of homeopathic medicine and surgery,* (1869). Page 326) (Robert Alfred John Walling (Eds.),* The diaries of John Bright, *(W. Morrow & company, 1931). Page 212).

John Bright was also a patient of James John Garth Wilkinson ’… Just before Christmas 1892, James John Garth Wilkinson wrote to a Mr. John Marten from 4 Finchley Road: ‘… One day, years ago, a pious churchman of militant character, knowing that John Bright was an acquaintance and patient of mine, said to me, tell John Bright from me that he is an Ass. I said to him, before you vilify an Ass, as you here intend to do, remember that Christ, on a Royal Progress, rode on an Ass into Jerusalem. My friend, a very strong man to look at, turned pale, & almost fainted away… *(Swedenborg Archives K125 [44] Christmas 1892))…’ _See also James John Garth Wilkinson* ‘… I knew Dr. Roth the elder [Mathias Roth (1818-1891)]*, a Hungarian disciple of Ling’s Swedish Kinetic treatments. His son married a daughter of John Bright MP, __who was a patient of mine…’ *(Swedenborg Archive K125 [44] Letter dated 8.10.1896 from Garth Wilkinson to John Marten)._

From Helen Kelsall, The Development of Voluntary Medical Institutions in Rochdale 1832-1872), Transactions New Series Number 4, (1994, Rochdale Literary and Scientific Society). In John Bright, Robert Alfred John Walling (Ed.), The Diaries of John Bright, (1931). Page 136, John Bright told us that he visited London to consultant a Dr. Chapman, a ‘… homeopathist in Grosvenor Street…’ who prescribed him pusatilla and charged him 1 guinea (James Chapman MA Cantab. In 1850, a Jas Chapman MA Cantab is mentioned in the London Medical Gazette as a Medical Officer at the Hahnemann Hospital at 39 Bloomsbury Square, he is mentioned again (as ‘… MA Cantab and MD…’) in The British Journal of Homeopathy in 1850 practicing at 28 Grosvenor Street,  and he is mentioned again in 1851 in The __British Journal of Homeopathy). John Bright also consulted a Dr. Benett (an orthodox surgeon), and a homeopathic physician, Dr. Ramsbottom [John Hodgson Ramsbotham], and John Bright noted that ‘… Dr. Bennett [was] rather awkward at seeming to act with an ‘irregular’ mendical man…’ (Rochdale Observer 13.2.1869).

Henry Kelsall (?-?) Rochdale’s first non conformist Justice of the Peace, proposed an infirmary in Rochdale, with an amendment from Alderman Robinson for a homeopathic ward to be added to the new institution ‘… *in recognitition of the strong tradition of this medical practice in the town, because of the increased subscriptions that would accrue as a result, and with people obviously more likely to subscribe to an institution that encompassed their specific medical beliefs… The proposal was seconded by Counsellor Hoyle and a stormy debate ensued in which is became obvious that the orthodox medical profession in the town, as represented by Doctors Elliott, March and Wood, objected, at times quite vitriolically. ‘No connection with quacks’ was one of the phrases used by Dr. Wood, a Medical Officer in the Dispensary, at the prospect of homeopaths practicing in the proposed Infirmary. Nevertheless despite these objections the proposal was carried and a pledge of £3650 *[£166,805.00 in today’s money] _taken from the various people present…’ _However, the course of the proposed homeopathic Rochdale Infirmary became mired in the perennial argument between old and new medicine. In Rochdale, the supporters of homeopathy were primarily non conformists, dissenters and Liberalists, and included John Bright, Benjamin Butterworth, Dr. Cox, Thomas Hahnemann Hayle,  Dr. HollandEdward Miall,  George Morris, J K Cheetham, and Joseph Seed amongst many others. The Homeopathic Infirmary in Rochdale was never  built as a result of all this upset. (From Helen Kelsall, The Development of Voluntary Medical Institutions in Rochdale 1832-1872), Transactions New Series Number 4, (1994, Rochdale Literary and Scientific Society)).

John Bright’s brother Jacob Bright was on the General Committee of the Manchester Homeopathic Institution (Anon, The Homeopathic Medical Directory of Great Britain and Ireland, and annual abstract of British homeopathic serial literature, (Henry Turner, 1871). Page 115).

John Bright was a colleague of Robert Peel, and John Bright objected to laws on compulsory vaccination, alongside John Hunter, Robert Peel, Herbert Spencer, William Gladstone, and Lord Salisbury.

From Bright was born at Rochdale, Lancashire, England - one of the early centres of the Industrial Revolution. His father, Jacob Bright, was a much respected Quaker, who had started who had started a cotton mill at Rochdale in 1809. His own father, Abraham Bright, had been a Wiltshire yeoman, who, early in the 18th century, removed to Coventry, where his descendants remained.

John Bright was his son by his second wife, Martha Wood, daughter of a Quaker shopkeeper of Bolton le Moors. Educated at Ackworth School, she was a woman of great strength of character and refined taste. There were eleven children of this marriage, of whom John was the eldest surviving son. His sisters included Priscilla Bright (husband of Duncan McLaren MP) and Margaret Bright Lucas.

John was a delicate child, and was sent as a day pupil to a boarding school near his home, kept by William Littlewood. A year at the Ackworth School, two years at Bootham School, York, and a year and a half at Newton, near Clitheroe, completed his education. He learned, he himself said, but little Latin and Greek, but acquired a great love of English literature, which his mother fostered, and a love of outdoor pursuits. In his sixteenth year, he entered his father’s mill, and in due time became a partner in the business.

In Rochdale, Jacob Bright was a leader of the opposition to a local church rate. Rochdale was also prominent in the movement for parliamentary reform, by which the town successfully claimed to have a member allotted to it under the Reform Bill. John Bright took part in both campaigns. He was an ardent Nonconformist, proud to number among his ancestors John Gratton, a friend of George Fox, and one of the persecuted and imprisoned preachers of the Religious Society of Friends.

His political interest was probably first kindled by the Preston election in 1830, in which Edward Stanley, after a long struggle, was defeated by Henry “Orator” Hunt. But it was as a member of the Rochdale Juvenile Temperance Band that he first learned public speaking. These young men went out into the villages, borrowed a chair of a cottager, and spoke from it at open air meetings.

John Bright’s first extempore speech was at a temperance meeting. Bright got his notes muddled, and broke down. The chairman gave out a temperance song, and during the singing told Bright to put his notes aside and say what came into his mind. Bright obeyed, began with much hesitancy, but found his tongue and made an excellent address. On some early occasions, however, he committed his speech to memory.

In 1832 he called on the Rev. John Aldis, an eminent Baptist minister, to accompany him to a local Bible meeting. Mr Aldis described him as a slender, modest young gentleman, who surprised him by his intelligence and thoughtfulness, but who seemed nervous as they walked to the meeting together. At the meeting he made a stimulating speech, and on the way home asked for advice. Mr Aldis counselled him not to learn his speeches, but to write out and commit to memory certain passages and the peroration.

This “first lesson in public speaking,” as Bright called it, was given in his twenty first year, but he had not then contemplated a public career. He was a fairly prosperous man of business, very happy in his home, always ready to take part in the social, educational and political life of his native town.

A founder of the Rochdale Literary and Philosophical Society, he took a leading part in its debates, and on returning from a holiday journey in the east, gave the society a lecture on his travels.

He first met Richard Cobden in 1836 or 1837. Richard Cobden was an alderman of the newly formed Manchester Corporation, and Bright went to ask him to speak at an education meeting in Rochdale. Richard Cobden consented, and at the meeting was much struck by Bright’s short speech, and urged him to speak against the Corn Laws.

His first speech on the Corn Laws was made at Rochdale in 1838, and in the same year he joined the Manchester provisional committee which in 1839 founded the Anti Corn Law League He was still only the local public man, taking part in all public movements, especially in opposition to John Feilden’s proposed factory legislation, and to the Rochdale church-rate. In 1839 he built the house which he called “One Ash”, and married Elizabeth, daughter of Jonathan Priestman of Newcastle upon Tyne.

In November of the same year there was a dinner in Bolton in honour of Abraham Paulton, who had just returned from an unsuccessful Anti Corn Law tour in Scotland. Among the speakers were Richard Cobden and Bright, and the dinner is memorable as the first occasion on which the two future leaders appeared together on a Free Trade platform. Bright is described by the historian of the League as “a young man then appearing for the first time in any meeting out of his own town, and giving evidence, by his energy and by his grasp of the subject, of his capacity soon to take a leading part in the great agitation.”

In 1840 he led a movement against the Rochdale church rate, speaking from a tombstone in the churchyard, where it looks down on the town in the valley below. A daughter, Helen, was born to him; but his young wife, after a long illness, died of tuberculosis in September, 1841.

Three days after her death at Leamington, Richard Cobden called to see him. “I was in the depths of grief,” said Bright, when unveiling the statue of his friend at Bradford in 1877, “I might almost say of despair, for the life and sunshine of my house had been extinguished.”

Richard Cobden spoke some words of condolence, but “after a time he looked up and said, ‘There are thousands of homes in England at this moment where wives, mothers and children are dying of hunger. Now, when the first paroxysm of your grief is past, I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Laws are repealed.’ I accepted his invitation,” added Bright, “and from that time we never ceased to labour hard on behalf of the resolution which we had made.”

At the general election in 1841 Richard Cobden was returned for Stockport, Cheshire and in 1843 Bright was the Free Trade candidate at a by election at Durham. He was defeated, but his successful competitor was unseated on petition, and at the second contest Bright was returned. He was already known as Richard Cobden’s chief ally, and was received in the House of Commons with suspicion and hostility.

In the Anti Corn Law movement the two speakers complemented of each other. Richard Cobden had the calmness and confidence of the political philosopher, Bright had the passion and the fervour of the popular orator. Richard Cobden did the reasoning, Bright supplied the declamation, but mingled argument with appeal.

No orator of modern times rose more rapidly. He was not known beyond his own borough when Richard Cobden called him to his side in 1841, and he entered parliament towards the end of the session of 1843 with a formidable reputation.

He had been all over England and Scotland addressing vast meetings and, as a rule, carrying them with him; he had taken a leading part in a conference held by the Anti Corn Law League in London had led deputations to the Duke of Sussex, to James Graham, then home secretary, and to Lord Ripen and William Gladstone, the secretary and under secretary of the Board of Trade; and he was universally recognised as the chief orator of the Free Trade movement.

Wherever “John Bright of Rochdale” was announced to speak, vast crowds assembled. He had been so announced, for the last time, at the first great meeting in Drury Lane Theatre on 15 March 1843; henceforth his name was enough.

He took his seat in the House of Commons as one of the members for Durham on 28 July 1843, and on 7 August delivered his maiden speech in support of a motion by William Ewart for reduction of import duties. He was there, he said, “not only as one of the representatives of the city of Durham, but also as one of the representatives of that benevolent organisation, the Anti Corn Law League.”

A member who heard the speech described Bright as “about the middle size, rather firmly and squarely built, with a fair, clear complexion, and an intelligent and pleasing expression of countenance. His voice is good, his enunciation distinct, and his delivery free from any unpleasant peculiarity or mannerism.” He wore the usual Religious Society of Friends’s coat, and was regarded with much interest and hostile curiosity on both sides of the House.

William Ewart’s motion was defeated, but the movement of which Richard Cobden and Bright were the leaders continued to spread. In the autumn the League resolved to raise £100,000; an appeal was made to the agricultural interest by great meetings in the farming counties, and in November The Times startled the country by declaring, in a leading article, “The League is a great fact. It would be foolish, nay, rash, to deny its importance.”

In London great meetings were held in Covent Garden Theatre, at which William Johnson Fox was the chief orator, but Bright and Richard Cobden were the leaders of the movement. Bright publicly deprecated the popular tendency to regard Richard Cobden and himself as the chief movers in the agitation, and Richard Cobden told a Rochdale audience that he always stipulated that he should speak first, and Bright should follow.

His “more stately genius,” as John Morley calls it, was already making him the undisputed master of the feelings of his audiences. In the House of Commons his progress was slower. Richard Cobden’s argumentative speeches were regarded more sympathetically than Bright’s more rhetorical appeals, and in a debate on George Villiers’s annual motion against the Corn Laws, Bright was heard with so much impatience that he was obliged to sit down.

In the next session (1845) he moved for an inquiry into the operation of the Game Laws. At a meeting of county members earlier in the day Robert Peel, then Prime Minister, had advised them not to be led into discussion by a violent speech from the member for Durham, but to let the committee be granted without debate.

Bright was not violent, and Richard Cobden said that he did his work admirably, and won golden opinions from all men. The speech established his position in the House of Commons. In this session Bright and Richard Cobden came into opposition, Richard Cobden voting for the Maynooth Grant and Bright against it. On only one other occasion—a vote for South Kensington - did they go into opposite lobbies, during twenty five years of parliamentary life.

In the autumn of 1845 Bright retained Richard Cobden in the public career to which Richard Cobden had invited him four years before; Bright was in Scotland when a letter came from Richard Cobden announcing his determination, forced on him by business difficulties, to retire from public work. Bright replied that if Richard Cobden retired the mainspring of the League was gone. “I can in no degree take your place,” he wrote. “As a second I can fight, but there are incapacities about me, of which I am fully conscious, which prevent my being more than second in such a work as we have laboured in.”

A few days later he set off for Manchester, posting in that wettest of autumns through “the rain that rained away the Corn Laws,” and on his arrival got his friends together, and raised the money which tided Richard Cobden over the emergency. The crisis of the struggle had come.

Robert Peel’s budget in 1845 was a first step towards Free Trade. The bad harvest and the potato blight drove him to the repeal of the Corn Laws, and at a meeting in Manchester on 2 July 1846 Richard Cobden moved and Bright seconded a motion dissolving the league. A library of twelve hundred volumes was presented to Bright as a memorial of the struggle.

Bright married firstly, on 27 November 1839, Elizabeth Priestman of Newcastle, daughter of Jonathan Priestman & Rachel Bragg. They had one daughter, Helen Priestman Bright (b. 1841) but Rachel died on 10 September 1841. Helen Priestman Bright later married William Stephens Clark (1839-1925) of Street in Somerset. Bright married secondly, in June, 1847, Margaret Elizabeth Leatham, of Wakefield, by whom he had seven children, John Albert Bright being the eldest.

In the succeeding July he was elected uncontested for Manchester, with Thomas Milner Gibson. In the new parliament, he opposed legislation restricting the hours of labour, and, as a Nonconformist, spoke against clerical control of national education. In 1848 he voted for Hume’s household suffrage motion, and introduced a bill for the repeal of the Game Laws.

When Lord John Russell brought forward his Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, Bright opposed it as “a little, paltry, miserable measure,” and foretold its failure. In this parliament he spoke much on Irish questions. In a speech in favour of the government bill for a rate in aid (a tax on the prosperous parts of Ireland that would have paid for famine relief in the rest of that island) in 1849, he won loud cheers from both sides, and was complimented by Benjamin Disraeli for having sustained the reputation of that assembly.

From this time forward he had the ear of the House, and took effective part in the debates. He spoke against capital punishment, against church-rates, against flogging in the army, and against the Irish Established Church. He supported Richard Cobden’s motion for the reduction of public expenditure, and in and out of parliament pleaded for peace. In the election of 1852 he was again returned for Manchester on the principles of free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom.

But war was in the air, and the most impassioned speeches he ever delivered were addressed to this parliament in fruitless opposition to the Crimean War. Neither the House nor the country would listen. “I went to the House on Monday,” wrote Thomas Babington Macaulay in March, 1854, “and heard Bright say everything I thought.”

His most memorable speech, the greatest he ever made, was delivered on 23 February 1855. “The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land. You may almost hear the beating of his wings,” he said, and concluded with an appeal to the prime minister that moved the House as it had never been moved within living memory.

In 1857, Bright’s unpopular opposition to the Crimean War led to his losing his seat as member for Manchester. Within a few months, he was elected unopposed as one of the two MPs for Birmingham in 1858. He would hold this position for over thirty years though he would later leave the Liberal Party on the issue of Irish Home Rule in 1886.

On 27 October 1858, he launched his campaign for parliamentary reform at Birmingham Town Hall. This would lead to the Reform Act of 1867.He delivered the opening address for the Birmingham Central Library in 1882, and in 1888 the city erected a statue of him (now in store). John Bright Street, close to the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, is named in his honour along with the township of Bright in the Austrian Alps.

Quite exceptionally, John Bright, from 1864 until his death, had a long and frequent association with Llandudno in North Wales. This following a holiday with his wife and son, staying at the St. George’s Hotel. On a visit to St. Tudno’s Church on the Great Orme and passing through the graveyard, his five year old son said: “Mamma, when I am dead, I want to be buried here” and so he was just a week later, the victim of scarlet fever.

John Bright returned to Llandudno at least once each year for 25 years until his own death in 1889. And he is still remembered in Llandudno where the principal secondary school for many years (and there have been several on different sites) is known by his name. The present Ysgol John Bright was built new in 2004 (‘ysgol’ is Welsh for school).

In 1866 John Bright wrote an essay with the title “Speech on Reform”. In this speech he demands the enfranchisement of the working class people because of their sheer number. He also says that one should rejoice in open demonstrations rather than being confronted with armed rebellion or secret conspiracy.

Bright had much literary and social recognition in his later years. In 1880 he was elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, and Dr Dale wrote of his rectorial address: “It was not the old Bright.” He was given an honorary degree of the University of Oxford in 1886…

On his death, Bright was buried in the graveyard of the meetinghouse of the Religious Society of Friends in Rochdale.