The George Beattie Project - A Poet Lost in Time


Joseph Hume was a Scottish radical who devoted his political career to championing the principles of retrenchment. He was born near Montrose, Forfarshire in January 1777, the first son of James Hume. Hume's father, master of a small fishing ship, died when he was nine and the family was forced to fall back on the income provided by his mother's crockery shop. Hume was educated at the Montrose Academy, where he befriended James Mill, four years his senior. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a local doctor and then in 1793 entered Edinburgh University to study anatomy, midwifery and chemistry. On graduating in 1797, he joined the naval service of the East India Company as a physician.
India was to prove the making of Hume. Having learned Hindustani, he worked his way up through the service of the East India Company during the Mahratta War (1802-03), eventually being put in charge of the supplies in Bengal. From such a position he was able, quite legally, to acquire a fortune and by the time he returned to England in 1808 he had amassed wealth to the tune of £40,000. With some of this in 1812 he bought a seat in Parliament for £10,000, via the influence of the Duke of Cumberland, at Weymouth & Melcombe Regis. Initially Hume pledged his support to Spencer Perceval, the Tory Prime Minister, but within a few weeks of entering the House of Commons he was demonstrating the heterodoxy and independence which became the hallmark of his radicalism. He attacked sinecures and sided with the opposition over the framework knitters' bill. Cumberland withdrew his patronage and in the general election of September 1812 Hume was replaced, although he did receive some financial compensation from the Duke.
Out of Parliament until 1818, Hume became a close ally of Francis Place, the radical tailor and political fixer, whom he met through James Mill. Along with Samuel Whitbread (q.v.) they all gave support to the innovative educational system of Joseph Lancaster. Hume also became involved in attempts to break up the trade monopoly of the East India Company and in 1816 gave his backing to the call for decimalisation of weights and measures. In 1815 he married Mary Burnley, the wealthy daughter of a proprietor of East India stock, a marriage which did little to dispel suspicion of Hume's propensity to use private means to augment his public reputation.
At the general election of 1818 Hume was returned as MP for the Borders. Over the next few years he established his reputation as the watchdog of public finance, prolonging parliamentary discussion of the estimates long into the night and remaining on his feet by eating a steady supply of pears. Between 1823 and 1825, with behind-the-scenes prompting from Place, he was involved in attempts to repeal the Combination Acts, chairing a parliamentary select committee on the subject in 1825. Hume's reputation for financial probity took something of a knock in 1826 when he was implicated in the Greek loan scandal. However, he re-emerged at the centre-stage of English radical politics four years later when, with the advent of a new Whig ministry, he was returned, somewhat reluctantly on his part due to the expense, as one of the MPs for the populous constituency of Middlesex.
Hume welcomed the accession of the Whigs to power, believing they were committed to retrenchment. In 1835 Hume was instrumental in bringing about the Lichfield House compact between Whigs, Radicals and the Irish MPs which resulted in the selection of a more sympathetic speaker for the House of Commons. But by the end of the decade his faith in Whig leadership began to expire, as they hesitated over further parliamentary reform and appeared to take an aggressive line in Canada and Jamaica. On the emergence of the Chartist movement Hume declared he was for household suffrage, but, as he had shown twenty years earlier, his preferred palliative for social discontent was fiscal reform and retrenchment. In 1840 he chaired the influential parliamentary select committee on import duties, helping to stack it with free traders, and many of its findings and revelations went on to provide the framework for Peel's reforms in taxation. Hume had lost his Middlesex seat in 1837 and, with Daniel O'Connell's assistance, had been returned instead for Kilkenny. In 1841 he was defeated there, but the following year returned as MP for Montrose, the constituency he represented until his death.
When the Whigs returned to power in 1846 Hume vied with Richard Cobden (q.v.) and John Bright (q.v.) for the leadership of the large Radical presence in Parliament. He now championed parliamentary reform to a far greater extent than hitherto, introducing motions for household suffrage in three successive years from 1848, and he also joined in the agitation of the National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association. But, with his typically maverick style, he also managed to offend radical sensibilities, for example by supporting the West India planters in their constitutional struggles of the late 1840s, and by entering an unholy alliance with protectionist MPs over reform of the income tax in 1851. Hume's maneuvering, however, could still unsettle governments of the day. In 1852 his insistence on the government, including the secret ballot in its reform bill, was widely perceived to be one of the causes of the fall of Lord John Russell's (q.v.) ministry.
Hume's stalwart attendance in the House of Commons diminished as Britain became involved in the Crimean War. Returning from Scotland to his country seat at Burnley Hall, near Great Yarmouth, in the new year of 1855, he fell ill and died on 20 February, aged seventy-eight. Hume was not a popular man. He was considered too dour, pedantic and unpredictable to win many admirers, but his insistence on, and knowledge of, constitutional propriety, together with his defence of public economy and free trade - long before they became the shibboleths of the Liberal Party - ensured his place in the pantheon of liberalism.

There have been two fairly recent and reliable biographies of Hume: Ronald K. Huch and Paul R. Ziegler,
Joseph Hume: The People's MP
(Philadelphia, 1985); and Valerie Chancellor,
The Political Life of Joseph Hume, 1777-1855
(privately printed, 1986).


Miles Taylor


MONTROSE can boast of two Reformers, each of them great in his own way—Andrew Melville, Reformer of the Church, and Joseph Hume, Reformer of the State. The latter was a native of the town, and the former was born at Baldovie, an estate in the neighbourhood, and received his early education in Montrose. It has been justly said of Mr Hume, that he conferred more honour on Montrose, than ever he received from it. He was a man eminently fitted by natural gifts, both of mind and body, to act the part he did in the great council of the nation. He brought to the task sound sense, and powers of reflection, which enabled him to draw from observation and experience, those practical lessons which the times required— indeed as was said of Sir Robert Peel, at the time of the Com Bill “ he was the man for the times”—a man, in short, of “facts and figures." As the mainspring of all, he had the welfare of his native town, and of the country at large, as his ruling principle; and what motive can be stronger 1 and his hardy and robust constitution made labour sit light upon him, so that he could weary out all opposition. The pear was ripe, too, and fell into his hand; for at the time he was first made member for the burgh, there was a noble band of Reformers in Montrose, who prepared his way. These were Provost Charles Barclay, James Burns, Esq., Dean of Guild, Dr. Gibson, Alex. Thomson, Esq., Mr James Bisset, and GEORGE BEATTIE, ESQ.

The Town Council at that time, like all the other Municipal Corporations of Scotland, since the act 1469, were self-elected—the old councillors electing the new; and although power may be conferred upon any set of men who know how to use it, yet human nature is' such that the best become arbitrary in its exercise and sometimes tyrannical in the extreme. How few are like the present Emperor of France, who seems to know the exact measure of liberty to mete out to his subjects, and how much they can rightly use; and how well may the epithet, applied to his uncle’s prowess in the field, be ascribed to him, “acer et indomitus” as a ruler of his people. But such was not exactly the complexion of the rulers of the burgh of Montrose, when Joseph Hume was elected in 1818. They had not the discretion to see that the Burgesses required to know more of the affairs of the town, than came to their knowledge. They refused to satisfy their reasonable desire to know the state of the funds, and tried to prohibit a public meeting, called by advertisement, to look into them, but had afterwards to submit to an opinion of counsel requiring them to do so. Then they held out the olive branch, and in their confusion resolved to appoint their successors in the council by ballot—a mode of election not known to the constitution, by which step the burgh was disfranchised, and a warrant obtained from the Prince Begent for a new set of the burgh, by which the Burgesses were empowered to elect 12 councillors. This warrant was obtained through a recommendation of the Lord Advocate and the Law-officers of the crown, the latter of whom afterwards, when they saw to what it would lead, sought to have it withdrawn, but it would not do; and Lord Gifford, the vice-chancellor, expressed surprise when these law-officers wished to repudiate their own act and deed. So the other towns were set on edge* and wished to have the same privileges, which however, were not granted, till the time of the Reform Bill, and then not to the extent granted to Montrose. But they in admiration of the example set them by this town, and of Mr Hume as a public man, united in returning him to parliament; and ever after the character given of him in the speeches delivered at that meeting, especially in that of Dr. Gibson, was thoroughly sustained by Mr Hume in after life.
Mr James Bisset acted a most important part in carrying out the views of the Reformers by the counsel which he gave, as well as by his writings in the Review, and his appeals to the patriotism and public spirit of his townsmen; but none drew the attention of public men, or fastened the eyes of all upon him, so much as Provost Bumes, for in the appearances that he made in Edinburgh before the convention of royal burghs, he astonished the lawyers, whom he is said to have equalled in forensic powers. He was one who possessed in an eminent degree suavity of manner, with persuasive force; and if it had not been for him, the convention itself might have retraced its steps. A writer in the Montrose Review, for 1818, with the signature of “Meg Merilees” labours to prove that the Prince Regent was not the channel by which the right of corporations should have been regulated, but parliament. Sir A. Hamilton, though fully acknowledging and bewailing the corrupt state of the burghs, took the same line of argument in his plaoe in parliament; but the Prince Regent, acting for the king, and by the advice of his constitutional advisers, the Lord Advocate and the law officers of crown, granted a warrant for a new set of the burgh, and as the kings at firfet granted these charters, they had certainly a right to see that their intentions were given effect to, and as law is the science which teaches justice, Lord Gifford took the same view. If law is a science, it has fixed principles, which are deeply imbedded in the mind of every lawyer; and if it were not so, and we had nothing but party to guide us, there would be nothing sure, for whatever party was most powerful would dictate the laws, to maintain its own ascendancy. The Montrose Review for the year 1818, particularly is full of compliments to Montrose, for the part she took in opening up the Scotch Burghs; for we find in the London, Edinburgh, and provincial papers, many notices to that effect; and as a proof that the Prince Regent acted wisely, we have parliament at last following up tardily years afterwards in the same direction, though not to the same extent in the general Reform Bill. And the people of Montrose well deserved all the praise they got, for they went prudently to work, and all concerned, , it may be said, were satisfied. The three Commissioners also, appointed by the Prince, viz., the Sheriffs of Forfar, Perth, and Kincardine-shires (Mr Duff, Mr Forbes, and Mr Douglas), in very eloquent addresses, complimented the electors and elected on the propriety of their conduct during the whole election, and explained to the magistrates and citizens their duties. The names of the councillors were:—Charles Barclay, John Dorward, William Anderson, William Ross, William Caird, Thomas Dougal, James Clark, George Shepherd, David Whyte, Alexander Smart, James Burnes, James Crawford, John M'Gregor, Dr. Gibson, James Birnie. James Burnes, Esq., Dean of Guild, gained his election by a majority of 5. His assessors werePatrick Mason, Robert Smith, William Anderson, David Buchan, George Shand, William Smart. The Commissioners met again on Thursday, at Two o’clock when the New Council appeared before them, and elected the following Magistrates and Office-Bearers, Charles Barclay, Esq., Provost; James Clark, Esq., George Shepherd, Esq., William Caird, Esq., Bailies; William Anderson, Esq,, Treasurer; Alexander Smart, Esq., Hospital Master.
The Trades appeared before the Commissioners, and elected the following gentlemen: —Alexander Keith, Convener; Alexander Stewart, James Watt, James Will. The word “Reform” is sometimes taken in an unworthy sense, as what tends to the breaking down of time-honoured institutions; but this cannot be said of Mr Hume. He, like a wise and prudent partner in a mercantile house, wished only to restore what had gone into disorder, and to place every thing on a sound footing—to carry on the business of the state with prudence and foresight, and in an economical way. None can object to such reforms.
After his death, there was a statue erected in the middle of the High Street, to his memory. In digging the fund-ation, about 20 silver coins were picked up, of the reign of Edward I., which are to be seen in the Museum.
The following Poem, on the Inauguration of the Statue, is taken from Smart’s “Songs of Labour and Domestic Life”:—
Unveil the form, the face unveil,
That never quailed to mortal man ;
In sculptured stone the Tribune hail,—
The Patriot's manly features scan.
Fit tribute to his honoured name,
The first Reformer of the age;
The heir to an enduring fame
In truthful history’s brightest page.
His advent into public life,
Girt in his patriot coat of mail,
Brought courage to the gathering strife,
A voice that turned corruption pale:
He placed his back against a rock,
While hostile ranks enclosed him -round,
And bore unmoved the fiercest shock,
Nor bated once an inch of ground.
Assailed by many a venal scribe,
By slander coarse, by scornful jeer,
To every worthless taunt and jibe
He turned a deaf and dauntless ear.
The ridicule that few can stand,
When polished satire aims the dart,
And malice seeks a name to brand,
Fell pointless from his noble heart.
With facts and figures doubly armed,
Strong in its cause the brave man stood 
No labours tried, no fears alarmed,
No frown of power his soul subdued.
From licensed plunderers bent to guard
The public purse, the public weal,
Chief of a little band he warred,
With words more strong than pointed steel.
He lived all hostile clamour down,—
The few- became a phalanx strong,
And round the chief of gray renown
Reform rung forth—a chuckoo song;
And he, the pioneer of old,
Through good and ill report the same,
Saw quondam foes, converted, hold
His early faith—his triumph claim.
The friend of universal man,
Whate’er his creed, whate’er his clime,
His mind o’erleapt the narrow span
Of party, for a field sublime.
The heat and burden of the day
With steadfast will the patriot bore
Then sunk to rest with evening gray,—
His task fulfilled, his warfare o’er.
While senates owned his matchless worth,
Integrity no power could bend,
The joy of the domestic hearth,
He lived the husband, father, friend.
Robed in simplicity and truth,
A Spartan virtue round him shone,
And mingled with the fires of youth
The wisdom that with years had grown.
Home of his early dreams, Montrose
Scenes where his joyous boyhood ran!
His name reflected lustre throws
O’er wood, and stream, and flowery lawn:
The Esk runs sparkling to the sea,
The billows lave thy lovely shore,—
An anthem to the brave and free,
Still blending with the ooean’s roar.


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