BUXTON, Thomas Fowell (1786-1845), of Hampstead, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 7 Apr. 1786, 1st s. of Thomas Fowell Buxton of Earls Colne, Essex by Anna, da. of Osgood Hanbury of Holfield Grange, Essex. educ. Kingston-upon-Thames; Dr Charles Burney’s sch. at Greenwich; Trinity, Dublin 1803; L. Inn 1805. m. 13 May 1807 Hannah, da. of John Gurney of Earlham Hall, Norf., 3s. 2da. suc. fa. 1793; cr. Bt. 30 July 1840.
Buxton was the son of an Essex country gentleman and a Quaker mother, whose relations the Gurneys of Earlham (his mother’s sister had married Richard, brother of John Gurney) had great influence upon his upbringing and education. It was at Earlham that he imbibed the ambition for knowledge which made him dissatisfied with desultory reading and field sports and which sent him to Trinity College Dublin, where he distinguished himself. In 1807 he was asked to stand for the University, but declined. He shortly afterwards married one of his Gurney cousins and in 1811 became a partner in the Spitalfields brewery of his uncles, Sampson and Osgood Hanbury.
Buxton took a deep interest in the charities of Spitalfields, particularly those connected with education, the Bible Society and the sufferings of the distressed weavers. Among his associates were William Allen, the Quaker philosopher and philanthropist, his brother-in-law Samuel Hoare the banker, and his wife’s sister Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer. His first public appearance was made in 1812 when he defended the Bible Society from the attacks of Dr Herbert Marsh, a leading opponent of Evangelicalism. Buxton’s work in Spitalfields culminated in a meeting at the Mansion House in 1816, when he reported on his investigations among the distressed weavers and helped to raise over £40,000 on their behalf. William Wilberforce wrote to him after the meeting:
I must in three words express the real pleasure with which I have both read and heard of your successful effort ... in behalf of the hungry and naked ... It is partly a selfish feeling, for I anticipate the success of the efforts which I trust you will one day make in other instances in an assembly in which I trust we shall be fellow-labourers, both in the motives by which we are actuated and in the objects to which our exertions shall be directed.
A series of visits to London prisons led to the publication in February 1818 of An enquiry whether crime and misery are produced or prevented by our present system of prison discipline, a pamphlet which ran through six editions in the course of a year and was praised by Sir James Mackintosh in the House of Commons (25 Jan. 1819). ‘I hope you will soon come into Parliament’, wrote Wilberforce to Buxton, ‘and be able to contend in person, as well as with your pen, for the rights and happiness of the oppressed and the friendless.’
In February 1817 when a by-election was expected at Weymouth, Buxton, who was connected by marriage with the Henning family there, went down to the borough at the invitation of William Williams*; he was dissuaded from contesting the vacancy, but wrote shortly afterwards:
I am far from regretting that I came, as I do not doubt it will secure me an independent seat next election: that word ‘independent’ has been the obstacle upon this occasion. I intend to spend a good portion of the next two years in preparation for the House.
His friends the Hennings were supporters of government and he was expected to support them too when, in the general election of 1818, he was returned after a contest.1
He made his maiden speech on 25 Jan. 1819 on a motion for an inquiry into the state of convict ships. ‘The House could not be better occupied’, he said, ‘than in attending to the amelioration of our penal code’; he spoke on this again on 18 and 22 Feb. and on 1 Mar., when he was appointed to the select committee on prisons, which he called ‘schools of vice’. On 2 Mar. he seconded Mackintosh’s motion for a select committee on the criminal laws.
I spoke for nearly an hour [Buxton wrote]. I was low and dispirited and much tired (bodily) when I rose. I cannot say I pleased myself. I could not at first get that freedom of language which is so essential, but I rose with the cheers of the House and contrived to give much of what was on my mind. Everybody seems to have taken a more favour0able opinion of the speech than I did.
William Smith* wrote:
The House is prepared to receive him with respect and kindness; and his stating sense, his good language, and his earnest manner fully keep up the prepossession in his favour, so that I recollect very few who have made their debut with so much real advantage and seem so likely to maintain the station thus early assumed.
In April 1819 Buxton wrote to his friend John Henry North:
My line is distinctly drawn. I care little about party politics. I vote as I like, sometimes pro and sometimes con; but I feel the greatest interest on subjects such as the slave trade, the condition of the poor, prisons, and criminal law. To these I devote myself, and should be quite content never to give another vote upon a party question.
On party questions he had indeed proved unpredictable. He stayed in with ministers on 2 Feb. on the Bank question, but voted for adding Brougham to the committee on 8 Feb. The Grenville ‘third party’ then hoped to recruit him.2 Although the Treasury hoped to have his vote on Ridley’s motion of 18 Mar. against the junior lords of the Admiralty, he voted for it. Thomas Wallace*, who was engaged to sway him on this, was indignant and regarded Buxton as a renegade who would not be able to retain his seat.3 On 1 Apr. he paired in favour of burgh reform. He reluctantly abstained on Catholic relief under his constituents’ pressure, 3 May. He opposed lotteries, 4 May and 9 June. On 18 May he voted against Tierney’s motion for a committee on the state of the nation, but on 20 May he voted for the repeal of the coal duties, on 3 and 21 June against the foreign enlistment bill and on 7 June against the budget proposals. He criticized the new taxes, which did nothing to prove to the public that peace was better than war, 9 June, and voted against the malt tax that day. On 25 June he opposed the excise duties. He also voted for Brougham’s motion for inquiry into the abuse of charitable foundations, 23 June.
Buxton did not vote for the opposition motion on 23 Nov. 1819 for an inquiry into the conduct of the magistrates during the Peterloo riots, but he seems to have sympathized with it. He wrote to Charles Buxton before the debate:
I quite agree with you in reprobating the radicals. I am persuaded that their object is the subversion of religion and the constitution, and I shall be happy to vote for any measure by which the exertions of their leaders may be suppressed, but I fear we shall much differ as to the nature of those measures. I most strongly condemn the conduct of the magistrates at Manchester, and I equally condemn the conduct of ministers in giving them public thanks; and I think in justice as well as common prudence that wretched affair ought to be strictly scrutinized, and it will be very awkward if it should turn out that these magistrates, having been thanked, deserve to be punished.
On 30 Nov. he voted for Althorp’s motion for a select committee on the state of the country and on 2 Dec. against the seditious meetings bill. He failed in a bid, 6 Dec., to limit its duration to three years: but if this was unacceptable, he preferred a longer period to a shorter one. He probably supported the blasphemous libel bill, 23 Dec.
The years of his greatest influence—as leader of the anti-slavery party in the House of Commons—lay ahead of him. ‘Buxton’s great merit as a public man’, according to his obituary, ‘consisted in his industry, his energy, and his straightforward honesty of purpose.’4 He died 19 Feb. 1845.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: Arthur Aspinall
C. Buxton, Mems. of Sir T. F. Buxton ; R. H. Mottram, Buxton the Liberator.