TENNANT, Charles (1796-1873), of 62 Russell Square and 2 Gray's Inn Square, Mdx.

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



1830 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 1 July 1796, 2nd s. of George Tennant (d. 1832) of Southampton Row and Margaret Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Beetson of St. Andrew’s, Holborn.1  educ. Harrow 1806-7.  m. 11 Sept. 1847, Gertrude Barbara Rich, da. of Adm. Henry Theodosius Browne Collier, 1s.3da. d. 10 Mar. 1873.

Offices Held


Tennant came from a north country family. Christopher Tennant (d. 1678) of Milbeck, Dent, Yorkshire, had a son Richard (1672-1719), whose younger son and namesake was born in 1705, lived at Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, and died in 1760. His elder son John Tennant, born in 1733, was admitted as an attorney in 1755, had a practice in Wigan and lived at Standishgate there. He married Alice Latham of Wigan in 1759 and died in 1767. His only son George Tennant, the father of this Member, was baptized at Wigan, 21 Jan. 1766.2 By 1792, when he married Margaret Beetson, he was settled in London; and by 1796 he was in practice as an attorney at 2 Gray’s Inn Square in partnership with Thomas Green. In 1816, he bought the Glamorgan estate of Rhydings, just north of Neath, and soon afterwards he acquired the adjoining property of Cadoxton. His scheme to revive and improve the defunct Glan-y-wern canal received no support from local landowners, but he went ahead on his own initiative in 1817, and by the autumn of 1818 had completed a four-mile navigation from Neath to the River Tawe, with a shorter branch to Glan-y-wern. In 1820, aiming to encourage the development of the collieries and iron works of the Neath Valley and give them improved communications with the sea at Swansea, he decided to extend his canal beyond Neath Abbey to join the Neath canal at Aberdulais. Tennant began the work, without an Act of Parliament, the following year; and, after overcoming considerable difficulties, he saw the canal (the longest private one in Britain, after the duke of Bridgwater’s) opened at a lavish ceremony, 13 May 1824. At the Swansea end there was an outlet to the sea at Port Tennant, on the eastern side of the Tawe, though Tennant’s plans for a floating dock came to nothing. The canal, initially styled the Neath and Swansea Junction, but soon familiarly known as Tennant’s, cost at least £20,000, probably very much more; but it operated at a good profit, despite the restrictions imposed by the inability of Port Tennant to take vessels of over 80 tons. In 1826, Tennant, who had publicized the canal enterprise in his Narrative two years earlier, obtained an Act for the construction of a railway along the Dulais Valley, but it was never built.3

Tennant’s elder son Henry, born in 1795, was educated at Oxford (he was a fellow of New College, 1813-21) and Gray’s Inn, and called to the bar in 1820, though he did not practise. Charles was articled to his father in November 1812 and admitted as an attorney in partnership with him and Richard Harrison in 1821. In August that year he embarked on a tour of the Low Countries, Germany, Switzerland, Savoy and France, which, with characteristic immodesty, he described in two published volumes in 1824. In the pretentious preface he wrote (p. vi):

I believe that if the superiority of the English nation, as a people, in respect of general information over other nations, be attributable more to one circumstance than to another, it is to that restless spirit of enquiry, the predominant trait in the English character, and which marks the Englishman in every portion of the globe.

On 5 Sept. 1829 he wrote to Peel, the home secretary, asking him to consider the plight of George John Thicknesse Touchet, 20th Baron Audley, who was in severe financial difficulties, and to whom he had gullibly given £10 of his own money. He was informed by the duke of Wellington, the prime minister, that the eccentric Audley had already received more than his fair share of government assistance.4 In 1830, Tennant, who was attracted to the doctrines of Utilitarianism, published a Letter to Sir George Murray, in which he expounded his scheme for ‘systematic colonization’ as a challenge and alternative to the ‘inadequacy and the ruinous expense’ of the plans advocated by Robert Wilmot Horton*.

At the general election later that year he came forward as the third man for the open and venal borough of St. Albans. Never inclined to use one word when he could resort to a dozen, he produced an introductory address of striking verbosity:

My religious creed will be found in the Christian doctrines of our church, which teach universal benevolence and toleration. My political principles will lead me to support a government, which, as respects the governed, can combine the greatest portion of individual happiness with the least portion of human distress; which can unite protection with freedom; forbearance with power; and which can shield that labour to which every government must, at the last, owe its existence. The present administration appears to me to be directed by principles which have this tendency; and so far as these principles may hereafter be directed to the consummation of those most important objects, the present administration will receive my humble support.

On the hustings, he proclaimed himself ‘a lover of civil and religious liberty’ and ‘a staunch and independent advocate of freedom’. He said that he was ‘inclined to support the present government’ while it acted in the national interests. He attributed Wellington’s recent admission that the system of taxation required revision to pressure from ‘the voice of the people’; and, to laughter, went on to say that ‘I rejoice in this power in the people, and thus you see, my friends, I am a radical also’. He declared his support for the existing constitution, but denounced slavery and promised to oppose ‘all monopoly’, notably those of the brewers and the East India Company, and to promote the diffusion of knowledge:

I ... will not cease till the oppressions which have bowed down the labouring classes of England have been relieved, until the mists of ignorance are dispelled, and the chains drop from the hands of the slave.

After his return in second place above a Whig he said that ‘I have promised all my efforts and will use them; but I cannot pledge myself that their exercise will ensure the taking off taxation’.5

Tennant condemned Brougham’s scheme for the establishment of local jurisdictions in England and Wales as expensive and inefficient, 10 Nov. 1830. Ministers had listed him among their ‘friends’; but after he was added to the published list of their minority on the civil list, 15 Nov., he made it known through a local newspaper that he had in fact not voted.6 As ‘a decided enemy’ to the ‘odious and barbarous’ game laws, he called for their abolition in preference to the half-baked measure of reform proposed by Lord Chandos, which he admitted he had not studied, 7 Dec.; he was talked out of executing his threat to divide the House on his killing amendment. The following day he called on the Grey ministry to repeal the duties on seaborne coals, a particular grievance for those who, like his family, had ‘expended our fortunes’ in collieries in the Swansea and Neath area, and resented the statutory exemption enjoyed by Newport coals carried east of Flatholm. He opposed Littleton’s bill to abolish truck payments, 13, 14 Dec., arguing that such interference in the relations between masters and workmen was ‘based upon principles of unphilosophical legislation’ and was an ‘entire departure from the principle of political economy’; he preferred inquiry by select committee. On 20 Dec. he gave notice that at the earliest convenient moment next session he would move for a commission of inquiry into the colonization of waste lands in Canada, South Africa and Australia; his attempt to expatiate on the benefits of organized colonization was nipped in the bud by the Speaker. He tried again, 23 Dec. 1830, when presenting a St. Albans petition for repeal of the coal duties, but he was barracked into silence.

Tennant, who had quickly acquired a reputation in the House as a bore, welcomed government’s plans for civil list economies and auditing, 4 Feb. 1831, when he spoke from the opposition benches. He seconded a motion to print a petition for the holding of a national synod, 11 Feb., and presented petitions from Chorley and Salford calico printers for repeal of the duty on cotton goods. The House would not allow him to deliver his views on the budget, 14 Feb. Two days later he pressed for the tax on coal exports to be removed rather than merely reduced, and was laughed at when he stated that even if the present consumption of coal increased tenfold, there was enough to last for a thousand years. Ministers had to wring out of him his ‘entire approbation’ of their proposal to repeal the duty on seaborne coals; and he persisted in calling for an end to the export tax, peevishly denying that he was being wilfully obstructive and ungrateful. When ministers unveiled their bill to encourage the unemployed poor to emigrate, 22 Feb., Tennant attacked and rejected it, along with the ideas of Wilmot Horton, on which it was based. He confessed that the latter had told him that no subject was more guaranteed to empty the House, and so forbore on this occasion to detail his own notions, which he said would require a speech of two or three hours. He set them out in a substantial pamphlet, entitled Letters forming part of a correspondence with Nassau William Senior. He advocated emigration on such a scale as would permanently raise wages in Britain, to be financed by the colonists by ‘certain arrangements which would confer wealth on the colonies’. He proposed that all persons of the appropriate age should be given free passage, that only childless married couples and young single adults should be eligible and that there should be no forced settlement of wildernesses. He sprang a surprise, 9 Mar., when he applauded the ministerial plan of reform as a ‘great and good service rendered to the country’. Despite the obvious restiveness of his audience, he sought to demonstrate by means of arithmetical principles that the bill would correct an imbalance which had distorted the constitution; and he voted for its second reading, 22 Mar. He opposed the Manchester and Leeds railway bill as a threat to a perfectly adequate canal, 11 Mar. He repeated his objections to legislation against truck payments, 12 Apr., hinting that emigration was the best means of eradicating distress and with it the need for payment in kind. He was probably in Hume’s minority of 15 against the bill; and he secured one amendment to it in committee, but failed with another. He supported a motion to revive the committee on the Colne River Waterworks bill, 20 Apr., speaking as a member of the former committee who had dissented from every recommendation of his colleagues. He voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the reform bill, 19 Apr. 1831. He did not stand for St. Albans at the ensuing general election, ostensibly because he did ‘not wish to involve himself in the expense of a contested election ... against two powerful and wealthy opponents’.7 He was never again in the House, which was thus spared a full exposition of his views on systematic colonization.

Tennant’s father died, worth £10,000 in personalty, 27 Feb. 1832. By his will, dated 30 Aug. 1831, he left all his property to his wife, after providing his two unmarried daughters with modest annuities; and to Tennant he devised all property vested in him by mortgage or trust.8 Tennant, who continued to live in his father’s house at 62 Russell Square, became head of the firm, in which Harrison remained a partner. In August 1832, recalling his ‘not unserviceable’ parliamentary labours on colonization, he asked the colonial secretary Lord Goderich for a place in the service for a young man of ‘liberal education’, the ‘son of a gentleman who once possessed considerable property’, but had died leaving the individual in question a ‘burden’ on Tennant’s family. No realistic hope could be held out to him; and in response to this rejection he informed Goderich’s secretary that he

had formed no expectation of success. I recollected the polite attention which I had received from Lord Goderich when I was in Parliament, and when I had the honour of an interview with his Lordship on a subject which was considered to be one of much public importance, and which cost me much labour, time and expense ... Certainly I never entertained the thought of the slightest personal advantage to myself ... The young man on whose behalf I was induced to make my application, is one of many dependants upon me, and I am now ill able to bear the weight. But though unsuccessful, I have no ground for disappointment.9

In 1834, the seemingly shameless Tennant inflicted on the world a truly execrable epic poem on The State of Man, in which he sought to ‘exhibit, in a concise form, a view of the Divine purpose in the creation of Man’. (Conciseness is by no means its leading characteristic, as it runs to 4,026 turgid lines.) His letters of February 1838 to lord chancellor Brougham, in which he claimed to have ‘intelligence of state importance’ bearing on the Canada bill, in so far as it adversely affected the interests of an unnamed peer for whom he was acting, seem to have been ignored.10 In 1846, he tried unsuccessfully on behalf of his mother to secure compensation for injury to the canal’s prospects from the projected Vale of Neath railway. (This and other railways progressively eroded the canal’s profitability, but it was not until about 1934 that it ceased to carry commercial traffic.)11 After marrying at the age of 51, Tennant became even more prolific with his pen in the promotion of what he described to Brougham in 1858 as ‘those higher laws which more immediately concern the government and welfare of human beings’.12 His most substantial contribution to the cause of rational improvement was his treatise of 1857 on taxation, The People’s Blue Book; but between 1856 and 1869 he published at least nine other works on the Bank of England and decimal coinage; national defences; the American and Irish questions; Utilitarianism; railways, and the franchise. Tennant, whose brother died, apparently in rather straitened circumstances, in 1865 (his effects were sworn under £100, 12 Dec. 1866), seems to have retired from his legal practice the following year. At some time after this he moved his London residence to 2 Richmond Terrace, and it was there that he died in March 1873. By his will, dated 1 Aug. 1853, he left all his property, other than that vested in him as a trustee, to his wife, his sole executrix. His only son, Charles Coombe Tennant (1852-1928), became the owner of Cadoxton.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. IGI (London).
  • 2. Ibid. (Lancs.).
  • 3. C. Hadfield, Canals of S. Wales (1967), 19, 77-88, 254-5; Glam. Co. Hist. v. 162, 286, 434, 441, 462, 470; Glam. Historian, ii (1965), 96; C. Baber, ‘Canals and Economic Development of S. Wales’, Modern S. Wales ed. Baber and L.J. Williams, 28, 35, 37.
  • 4. Wellington mss WP1/1043/19.
  • 5. Herts Mercury, 10, 17 July, 7, 14 Aug.; The Times, 17 July 1830.
  • 6. The Times, 19 Nov.; Herts Mercury, 27 Nov. 1830.
  • 7. The Times, 27 Apr. 1831.
  • 8. PROB 11/1799/256; IR26/1303/157.
  • 9. Add. 40880, ff. 388, 390.
  • 10. Brougham mss, Tennant to Brougham, 2, 6 Feb. 1838.
  • 11. Hadfield, 87-88.
  • 12. Brougham mss, Tennant to Brougham, 24 Sept. 1858.