TORRENS, Robert (1780-1864), of Stonehouse, Devon and 12 Fludyer Street, Mdx.

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

Constituency

Dates

1826 - 26 Feb. 1827
1831 - 1832
1832 - 1834

Family and Education

b. 1780,1 1st s. of Robert Torrens of Herveyhill, co. Londonderry and Elizabeth, da. of Skeffington Bristow, preb. of Rasharkin, co. Londonderry. educ.? Derry diocesan sch. m. (1) 8 Nov. 1801, Charity (div. by 1818),2 da. of Richard Chute of Roxburgh, co. Kerry, 1s. 1da.3 (2) 12 Dec. 1820, Esther Jane, da. of Ambrose Serle, solicitor to bd. of trade, 1da.?4 d. 27 May 1864.

Offices Held

Lt. R. Marines 1797, capt. 1806; maj. army 1811, lt.-col. 1819, half-pay 1823; maj. R. Marines 1831, ret. 1834.

Chairman, crown commrs. for colonization of S. Australia 1835-9.

Biography

Torrens, whose grandfathers were both Irish clergymen and who was a cousin of Sir Henry Torrens, adjutant-general of the armed forces, combined for some years a military career with literary and philosophical pursuits. In March 1811 he was the commander of a 380-strong garrison on the island of Anhalt, which repulsed a Danish force of 4,000. Although it was ‘a minor action’ the ‘sweeping victory caught the public imagination’ and Torrens, who was seriously wounded, earned both celebrity and promotion.5 His numerous publications included two novels, but he achieved greater distinction through his contributions to the development of political economy, becoming an active figure in Whig-radical intellectual circles and helping to found the Political Economy Club in 1821. He was one of the first theorists to emphasize the role of land, labour and capital as the three instruments of production and to expound the law of diminishing returns. In 1808 he attacked the views of Thomas Spence regarding the primacy of agriculture as the foundation of national wealth, and by 1815 he advocated free trade in corn, which he saw as necessary to generate overseas demand for British manufactures. However, he was ‘outside the mainstream of Ricardian monetary and fiscal policies’ in that he favoured an income tax as a means of ‘diverting resources from the drones to the socially useful’, and because he opposed the resumption of cash payments on the ground that currency depreciation would likewise redistribute wealth from landlords and other rentiers to the productive classes. He also retained certain ‘mercantilist proclivities’ and regarded foreign trade as an instrument for acquiring colonies and augmenting national power.6 Early in his career he lacked financial independence, and in 1818 he lamented that he had been about to marry a ‘lady whose sudden death has ... deprived me of all that love and ambition could desire, an intellect of the first order and a fortune more than sufficient for my wants’.7 During the 1820s, perhaps thanks to his second marriage, he acquired an impressive stable of newspapers and periodicals, including the Nation, True Briton and Athenaeum. He tried unsuccessfully in 1821 to gain control of the Morning Chronicle, in the hope of establishing himself ‘in the confidence of the Whig party’. In 1823 he amalgamated two London evening papers, the Globe and the Traveller, which provided a ‘forum for the political economists’ and which he edited for a time in the late 1820s, maintaining close connections with Henry Brougham*. After 1830 the Globe and Traveller was the ‘avowed ministerial organ’ of the Whigs and by the middle of that decade it sold 3,000 copies nightly and yielded annual dividends of £5-6,000. Torrens continued to write many of its leading articles and was ‘still the chief, although ... nearly dormant proprietor’ in 1860.8

He stood for Rochester in 1818 as an opponent of Lord Liverpool’s ministry but came bottom of the poll; he did not contest the seat again in 1820.9 In 1826 he apparently sought government support for his candidature at Ipswich, by expressing to the minister Robert Wilmot Horton* his ‘uncompromising allegiance to the government generally, and specially to the foreign policy of Canning, the free trade of Huskisson and the criminal law reform of Peel’. In the event, he was opposed by two ministerialists but was returned with a Whig banker after a ‘desperate struggle’ which cost him £5,000.10 It was suspected that his ‘ambition is to supply [David] Ricardo’s* place in the ... Commons’, and he immediately planned to ‘publish a declaration against the corn laws’, but on arriving at Westminster he was reportedly ‘somewhat puzzled with the annoyance of his pretended Whig friends’, who advised him ‘not to do anything this session ... [or he] will lose himself’.11 He presented numerous anti-corn law petitions between November 1826 and February 1827.12 However, he also adopted a more friendly tone towards the landed interest, which may have reflected his changing perspective on the dangers of inflationary growth and the desirability of saving, in the light of the recent financial crisis, or may have resulted from a desire to improve his chances of obtaining official employment.13 He emphasized the interdependence of agriculture and industry and declared that he ‘considered the value of land as the true barometer of national opulence’, 24 Nov. 1826, but he warned that agriculturists risked their own ruin by seeking artificially high prices. He argued that manufacturers had no need for protection and only required repeal of the corn laws to make their products more competitive, 30 Nov. He predicted that agricultural shortages in the spring would show the ‘evil’ of the present system of protection, 1 Dec. Though ‘generally speaking a friend to free trade’, he was prepared to make an exception for the export of machinery, 6 Dec. 1826, as he believed in ‘the policy of each country reserving to itself the sole benefit of those exclusive advantages which, either from nature or by acquisition, it might enjoy’. He regarded emigration as the ‘only efficient remedy’ for the nation’s economic ills, 15 Feb. 1827, maintaining that it was ‘merely the application of the redundant capital and population of the United Kingdom to the redundant land of the colonies’ and that it would save England from ‘the alarming and destructive increase of her poor rates’. On 5 Dec. 1826 he announced his intention of introducing a bill for the pacification of Ireland, and he argued next day that if Catholics were given political power they would seek to retain it by acting responsibly.14 Nothing came of this, as he did not contest the petition against his return for Ipswich, which alleged that the count had been inaccurate; he was unseated, 26 Feb. 1827.

Shortly afterwards Torrens accepted an invitation to stand as a supporter of Canning’s ministry at Canterbury, where an early vacancy was expected, but this did not materialize and he eventually withdrew his name.15 In August 1827 he proposed himself for the vice-presidency of the board of trade in Lord Goderich’s ministry, claiming that his appointment would be ‘acceptable to the great manufacturing and commercial interests’, but the post had already been filled.16 At the dissolution in July 1830 the Ultra Lord Blandford* recommended him as a suitable candidate for Marlborough, describing him as ‘a person of ... sound constitutional independent politics’. However, the local Tories suspected that he was really ‘a radical’ and doubted whether he could ‘show a qualification, or that his money is forthcoming’, and they threw him over.17 He offered instead for Pontefract as the champion of independence and opponent of slavery, but came bottom of the poll. He afterwards complained to the premier the duke of Wellington that he had stood in the expectation of receiving government support, which had not been forthcoming, and he requested that another seat be found for him; the duke pleaded ignorance of the matter and Torrens’s petition was rejected.18 In March 1831, having returned to active military service, he applied to Lord Grey’s ministry for the office of adjutant-general of the marines, but was considered too junior.19 When Parliament was dissolved the following month he received financial assistance from the government to contest Ashburton as a supporter of their reform bill, and he was returned in second place, ousting an anti-reformer.20

He argued that peace and security must be restored to Ireland before measures were taken to alleviate distress, 22 June 1831, but suggested that an ‘equitable’ reform of Irish church revenues might provide some relief. He believed that ‘rash’ currency reforms were largely to blame for Ireland’s depressed state and favoured public works projects such as ‘the draining of ... bogs and morasses’ to provide ‘employment for [the] poor’, 25 July. He rejected calls to promote manufacturing in Ireland, 10 Aug., arguing that its agriculture must be improved through investment and the consolidation of farms, with the surplus population migrating to the colonies. He objected to a legal and permanent provision of poor relief in Ireland, 29 Aug., as this would ‘aggravate and perpetuate the misery of that country’ by undermining wealth creation and further increasing the population. He considered it ‘most unfair’ to tax Irish Catholics for the support of an education system which was ‘directed against themselves’, and he favoured allowing the various denominations to educate their young according to their own tenets, 14 July. He deplored Anglican petitions against the Maynooth grant, 2 Sept. He voted to print the Waterford petition for disarming the Irish yeomanry, 11 Aug., and for the Irish union of parishes bill, 19 Aug. He warned that ‘no permanent union could be kept up’ between Britain and Ireland if the latter had its own Parliament, 16 Aug., and he wanted the inhabitants of the two countries to be ‘rendered one people, by being governed by one system of laws ... equally and ... impartially administered’, 31 Aug. He voted to swear in the 11 Members chosen for the Dublin election committee, 29 July, and to postpone issuing the writ, 8 Aug. He objected to the reference in the Dublin election committee’s resolutions to unconstitutional practices, when similar abuses had occurred in other constituencies such as Ashburton, 23 Aug., and he voted to punish only those guilty of bribery and against the censure motion on the Irish administration. He dismissed criticisms of the anomalies in the reintroduced reform bill, 5 July, declaring that the precise rules for voting and redistribution were a matter of ‘comparative indifference’, since the measure was founded on the crucial principle that ‘the constituent body should be so extensive as to have an identity of interest with the community at large’; he was confident that ‘honest and able men will be returned to Parliament’. He also rejected claims that popular excitement on the subject was a temporary phenomenon, observing that public opinion had been growing for 50 years and that ‘when thus formed [it] becomes omnipotent and the voice of the people is the voice of God’. He divided for the second reading, 6 July, and steadily for its details. He put the case for removing Ashburton, ‘the principal seat of a large manufacturing district’, from schedule B, 27 July, and called for Bolton to be given two Members as it was the second most important manufacturing town in Lancashire, 5 Aug. On 21 Sept., when he voted for the bill’s passage, he appeared at the Westminster reform meeting where he moved, in provocative terms, to petition the Lords in its favour, suggesting that if they continued to resist the will of the people they might be added to schedule A. Two days later he explained in the House that this expression had been ‘used hypothetically’, but the outraged king demanded his dismissal from the marines for having ‘shown the cloven foot’. He was only saved by ministers’ fear that they would fatally undermine their own position if they were seen to be bowing to royal pressure at that moment.21 He divided for Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. He voted to condemn the bribery committed during the Liverpool election, 5 Sept. He maintained that it was ‘only owing to the grossest mismanagement’ that New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land were costing Britain money, and that with the ‘sale of colonial lands’ they would be financially self-sufficient, 18 July. He regretted that the island of Fernando Po was not to be retained, 25 July, as it might have become a valuable ‘commercial depot’ in West Africa and given Britain greater influence in putting down the slave trade. He thought the only relief that could be given to the West Indian planters was to reduce their costs by revising the navigation laws and working to abolish slavery worldwide, 12 Sept. He favoured a measure for enforcing better observation of the Sabbath, which would benefit working men, 2 Sept., but was wary of interfering with their recreations. He observed on 12 Sept. that ‘while our corn laws remain, and our oppressive taxes continue’, abolition of the truck system could ‘do little for the people’, as profits were too low for employers to be able to pay better wages. However, he was willing to support abolition as a temporary experiment. He voted to postpone the grant for Windsor Castle and Buckingham House, 28 Sept. He gave notice of a bill for the next session to repeal all taxes paid for out of wages and profits and substitute for them a modified property tax, 12 Oct. 1831.

He announced his intention of moving for the repeal of all prohibitions on foreign imports, 6 Dec. 1831, but did not do so. He warned that prohibiting glove imports would damage other manufacturers, 15 Dec. 1831, and maintained that the real cause of industrial distress was that ‘England is oppressed by taxation and a high price of food’, 31 Jan. 1832. He blamed the corn laws and high taxes for manufacturers’ low profits and the long hours worked by factory children, 1 Feb., but was prepared to support the factory bill as ‘it is impossible to argue that the principles of political economy are opposed to those of humanity’, 7 Feb. He supported the vagrants removal bill on the ground that English labourers needed to be ‘protected in some way ... from the competition of the Irish’, 28 June 1832. He advocated repeal of the taxes on newspapers, 7 Dec. 1831, as ‘the salvation of this country depends upon the general promulgation of sound political knowledge ... by allowing well informed and upright men to set the people right’. He divided for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, steadily for its details and for the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He rejected fears that reform would lead to democracy, 20 Mar., arguing that this confused cause and effect since the bill had been ‘produced by that democratic change which the progress of society has already completed’. It was ‘impossible any longer to govern this country by means of a nomination Parliament’, as ‘the aggregate of the wealth and knowledge of the middle class now exceeds ... [that] of the upper orders’, but if the aristocracy recognized this fact ‘their superior wealth and their leisure for acquiring superior knowledge will still secure to them important advantages, and they will continue to be the natural leaders of the country’. He voted for Ebrington’s motion for an address asking the king to appoint only ministers committed to carrying an unimpaired measure, 10 May. In presenting a Bolton petition for withholding supplies until reform was secure, 17 May, he warned that continued resistance by the Lords would encourage demands for universal suffrage. He voted for the second reading of the Irish bill, 25 May, and welcomed reform as ‘the means to a magnificent end ... of securing good government, cheap government and the universal prosperity of the people’, 5 June. From his own experience of Bolton and Manchester, he said it was untrue that the new registration system was inefficient, 15 Aug. He divided with ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12, 16 July, and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb. He was named to the select committee on the East India Company, 27 Jan. He protested ‘in the name of the people’ against Britain incurring any expense for the civil establishments in the colonies, 17 Feb., and voted for a representative system for New South Wales, 28 June. He divided for reform of Irish tithes, 27 Mar., insisted there should be no coercion bill until a tithes measure was ready for simultaneous passage, 6 Apr., and voted to postpone the subject until the next Parliament, 13 July. He advocated a redistribution of Irish church property so that ‘a sufficient Catholic clergy may be paid out of it to meet the wants of the majority of the people’, 6 Apr., and maintained that since Irish Catholics paid taxes they were entitled to a fair share of their appropriation for such purposes as education, 11 Apr. He divided for the government’s navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr., but was in the minority for reduction of the barracks grant, 2 July. He voted for inquiry into the inns of court, 17 July 1832.

In November 1832 Torrens informed Lord Brougham that while he had been offered two Irish borough seats and had ‘secured Bolton’, he was ‘not very desirous of remaining in Parliament’. He thought his opinions were likely to place him ‘in opposition to government on commercial questions’ and resented the ‘treatment I have received from Lord Althorp’, the leader of the Commons, who he claimed had reneged on a promise made the previous year to appoint him to an unspecified Irish commission in return for agreeing to contest Ashburton: ‘I never recovered from this staggering blow ... [and] never afterwards went straight or entered the House except under feelings of disappointment and mortification’. He requested Brougham’s help in securing the governorship of Van Diemen’s Land ‘or an appointment at home equivalent to the promised Irish commission’, but nothing could be done. The following year he again expressed a wish to be ‘permanently employed on a government board’.22 At the general election of 1832 he was returned at the head of the poll for Bolton and sat, as an advocate of ‘Whig principles, inclining in some particulars to radicalism’, who favoured ‘the ballot and the immediate abolition of slavery’, until his defeat in 1835. A parliamentary journalist described him as having a ‘gentlemanly and prepossessing’ appearance and judged that he had achieved ‘some status in the House’: he possessed ‘considerable talents and often made very effective speeches’, but his delivery was marred by ‘something hard and unmusical about his voice’ and there was ‘a good deal of affectation and pomposity in his manner’.23 In 1835 he was appointed chairman of the commission for promoting the colonization of South Australia. Meantime, his involvement with the South Australia Land Company made him a ‘disciple’ of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and he became convinced that systematic colonization was the only way of avoiding a glut of capital at home. His later writings on political economy developed his vision of a ‘vast colonial empire populated by persons of British stock’, and he was increasingly drawn to the idea of an ‘imperial zollverein’ and believed free trade should only be adopted on a reciprocal basis.24 Though ‘not in the first rank’ of political economists, ‘among men of the next grade his standing was not negligible’, and his views on banking reform influenced Peel’s legislation of 1844. He was ‘firm in his grasp of general principles but lacking perhaps the intensity of vision to push through to the elaboration of a complete system’.25 He died in May 1864 and left property in South Australia and New Zealand to his only son, Sir Robert Torrens (1814-84), Liberal Member for Cambridge, 1868-74.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Terry Jenkins

Notes

  • 1. IGI (Dublin).
  • 2. In Oct. 1818 he said that he had ‘long been separated and for some time divorced’ (Add. 37949, f. 79).
  • 3. His will mentions a da. named Charity.
  • 4. His 2nd da. was named Jane.
  • 5. F. Fetter, ‘Robert Torrens: Colonel of Marines and Political Economist’, Economica, n.s. xxix (1962), 152-65.
  • 6. S. Meenai, ‘Robert Torrens, 1780-1864’, ibid. xxiii (1956), 49-61; L. Robbins, Robert Torrens and the Evolution of Classical Economics, passim; B. Semmel, Rise of Free Trade Imperialism, 60-64, 78-79; B. Hilton, Corn, Cash, Commerce, 63,