WAITHMAN, Robert (1764-1833), of New Bridge Street, Blackfriars, London; 7 Woburn Place, Mdx. and Reigate, Surr.

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



1818 - 1820
1826 - 6 Feb. 1833

Family and Education

b. 1764, s. of John Waithman (d. 1764), turner, of Bersham, nr. Wrexham, Denb. and w. Mary née Roberts. educ. Mr. Moore’s, ?Wrexham. m. 15 July 1787, his cos. Mary Davis of Red Lion Street, Holborn, Mdx., 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 2da. d. 6 Feb. 1833.

Offices Held

Common councilman, London 1795-1818, alderman 1818-d., sheriff 1820-1, ld. mayor 1823-4.

Master, Framework Knitters’ Co. 1815-16.


Waithman, a Welshman and London retail linen draper, with a shop at 103-4 Fleet Street, in which he was partnered by his sons John and William from about 1812, played a crucial role in the revival of reforming politics in the City in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. An energetic and combative man, he was proud, touchy, honest and brave, but often self-righteous and tiresome: there can have been few moments of repose in his life after his entry into London politics as a relentless opponent of the French wars, which he considered unnecessary and unjust until the end of his days. While he regarded himself as the champion and spokesman of his class, his reformism was essentially moderate and conciliatory - too much so for such extreme radicals as William Cobbett† and Henry Hunt*, who saw him as a Whig lick-spittle and City jobber, and whose distaste he returned with interest. In the eyes of Tories and some aristocratic Whigs, he was a dangerous revolutionary.1 His anger over Peterloo landed him in hot water with the Tory majority in the court of aldermen, who attempted to prosecute him for obstructing the mayoral election of Michaelmas 1819 by trying (in temporary alliance with Hunt) to introduce resolutions condemning the affair and the Liverpool ministry. The dispute dragged on until king’s bench discharged the rule against Waithman and his coadjutors without costs, 8 June 1820. During it Waithman and his chief persecutor, Sir William Curtis*, who had lost his seat for London in the opposition triumph in which Waithman had shared in 1818, carried on a bitter personal vendetta. At the end of 1819 Waithman hit back with an attack, which he relentlessly pursued, on Curtis’s practice as collector of the orphans’ fund coal duties of keeping large balances in his own hands.2 These controversies were aired at the 1820 general election, when Curtis, benefiting from a reaction to Peterloo and the Cato Street conspiracy, had his revenge: Waithman, who ranted interminably on the hustings and complained of being made a scapegoat, was narrowly squeezed into fifth place. His post-election dinner, 1 Apr. 1820, when he called for future unanimity among ‘the friends of liberty’, was attended by the opposition Members Henry Grey Bennet, George Byng, Charles Calvert, John Cam Hobhouse and Samuel Whitbread.3 The working class radical Samuel Bamford met Waithman at this time and described him as ‘a dissatisfied, bilious looking man’.4

Waithman, who spoke ‘at great length’ for common council’s parliamentary reform petition, 26 May 1820, took a prominent part in the City in support of Queen Caroline, though he played second fiddle to his radical rival Alderman Matthew Wood, one of the Members. He was pleased with the ‘perfectly miraculous’ and ‘quite new’ parish organizations which were set up to sustain the campaign and was present when Caroline attended St. Paul’s to celebrate the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties, 29 Nov. He was the leading promoter of common council’s address calling on the king to dismiss his ministers, 1 Dec., when he perorated that ‘it was impossible’ that they ‘could subjugate the people to the sword’; and in the court of aldermen, 5 Dec. 1820, he put up fierce but ultimately vain resistance to their loyal address. He spoke heatedly for common council’s petition for restoration of Caroline’s name to the liturgy, 11 Jan. 1821.5 As sheriff of London, he was a conspicuous figure on horseback at the queen’s funeral procession, 14 Aug. 1821; and when a section of the crowd attending the Hammersmith funeral of the two men shot dead by the Guards that day on the 26th clashed with troops outside Knightsbridge barracks, Waithman, who was apparently trying to keep the peace, was manhandled. He and his supporters in common council made an issue of the incident; but Wood’s motion for inquiry into the ‘outrage’, 28 Feb. 1822, was opposed by ministers and crushed.6 In early September 1821 John Bull, seeking to thwart Waithman’s mayoral ambitions, published pieces implying that he had handled stolen goods. Waithman, who complained at the mayoral election that ‘attacks upon his public character having failed, a systematic warfare was organized against him, to ruin ... his private fortunes’, and, when endorsing common council’s vote of thanks to Joseph Hume for his parliamentary services, 26 Oct. 1821, reflected that ‘for a man to be constantly struggling against misrepresentation and calumny required patience, temper and talents of no ordinary description’, sued for libel. He won £500 in damages, 20 Apr. 1822.7 He took the lead in promoting common council’s ‘constitutional reform’ petition, 29 Jan., supported tithe reform at a City meeting, 27 Feb., and backed votes of money for embattled Greek and Spanish liberals in June 1823.8 The king never forgave him for his espousal of the queen’s cause and was evidently tempted to veto his election as lord mayor at Michaelmas 1823, but wiser counsels prevailed.9 George IV was furious with the cabinet ministers Canning and Charles Williams Wynn for attending Waithman’s official dinner at Easter 1824, despite an earlier collective decision to boycott it.10 After a Mansion House dinner for the Greeks, when ‘the Waithman family, both male and female, were in all their glory’, Thomas Creevey* ‘could not help thinking ... what they must think of the shop, poor things, when they return to it after all their finery’.11 At about this time Waithman handed over active management of the shop to John and William. His youngest son Henry was by now in business as a silk broker in Old Bond Street, and for a few years either side of 1830 Robert, the eldest, ran a furniture printing and upholstery enterprise at 244 Regent Street. Waithman called for revision of the corn laws in common council, 7 Apr., and at a public meeting, 13 Apr. 1825; but in common council, 8 Feb. 1826, he attributed distress in the Spitalfields silk trade and other industries to ‘nefarious speculations ... [and] a vicious paper system’, and called for reduced taxation and judicious protection of domestic manufactures.12 The following month he offered for London on his usual platform of ‘freedom and purity of election’, as the spokesman for the livery; and at the general election in June, when his torrent of words included the observation that ‘men of honesty, who could speak common sense, and would not be afraid to speak it, were the men that the country wanted in Parliament’, he was returned second in the poll.13 Greeted in common hall with ‘tumultuous approbation’, 19 Oct. 1826, he expressed his ‘warmest support’ for repeal of the corn laws, but argued that a complete change of financial system was required to underpin it.14

On the address, 21 Nov. 1826, Waithman demanded ‘immediate consideration’ of the corn laws and curbs on the fraudulent speculations which had precipitated the 1825-6 commercial crisis, and challenged Brogden, the chairman of ways and means, to explain his involvement in the Arigna Mining Company. Yet he was one of the ‘many of the opposition’ who voted against Hume’s amendment.15 On 24 Nov., when he declined to join in praise for ministerial relaxation of the corn laws, he renewed his attack on Brogden after he had reluctantly given up the chairmanship. He pursued the Arigna issue, 28, 30 Nov., 1 Dec., and on 5 Dec. moved for the appointment of a select committee of inquiry into joint-stock companies, 1824-6, but acquiesced in the government amendment to restrict it in the first instance to the Arigna Company.16 He called for a reduction in insurance duty, 8 Dec. 1826, and queried the cost of king’s counsel, 12 Feb. 1827.17 He voted against the Clarences’ grant, ‘one of the most ill-timed measures that was ever submitted to Parliament’, 16 Feb., 2, 16 Mar. On 20 Feb. he spoke and voted in a minority of 15 for army reductions, and next day he supported inquiry into Northampton corporation’s alleged interference in elections; he voted in the same sense on Leicester, 15 Mar. He divided silently for Catholic relief, 6 Mar. He defied the barracking of agricultural Members to demand a lower import price for corn, 9 Mar., and complained of their renewed ‘clamour’, 12 Mar., when he voted against increased protection for barley.18 He presented but reserved judgement on a London ship owners’ petition against erosion of the navigation laws, 22 Mar. He voted for the spring guns bill, 23 Mar. He was in the opposition minority for supplies to be withheld until the uncertainty following Lord Liverpool’s stroke was resolved, 30 Mar. On 9 Apr. he presented a petition from aggrieved subscribers to the Devon and Cornwall Mining Company and personally attacked Wilks, Member for Sudbury, one of its directors; his comment that Wilks was ‘the last man alive whom I would trust myself with for five minutes, except in the presence of a third person’, earned him a rebuke from the Speaker. He withdrew a motion for inquiry under pressure from Brougham, 15 May. He indicated his ‘wish to support’ Canning’s ministry if possible, 7 May, but in common council on the 23rd he explained that ‘he had not changed his seat in the House of Commons because ... a man representing a large body of persons ought not to be dragged from one side ... to the other by any party’.19 He called for Penryn’s seats to be given to Manchester, 8 May, and spoke and voted in that sense, 28 May, arguing that it would be preferable to have ‘the abuses of the representation left in their hideous deformity’ than to adopt ‘the delusive farce’ of sluicing the borough. He supported the disfranchisement of East Retford, 11 June. Having spoken in common council for repeal of the Test Acts, 9 May, he presented favourable petitions, 18 June 1827, 18, 19 Feb., 3, 18 Mar., supported the one from London corporation, 11 Feb., and voted silently for repeal, 26 Feb. 1828.20 On 19 June 1827, foreshadowing a familiar future refrain, he suggested that ministers had gone too far in their application of free trade principles, which ‘could never be carried fully into effect, without a considerable reduction in taxation’.21

Waithman, who was widowed in September 1827, voted in Hume’s minority of 15 against the Wellington ministry’s navy estimates, 11 Feb. 1828. He was in one of eight on the same issue next day, when he deplored the automatic granting of supplies and the notion of unquestioning ‘confidence in ministers’. He had plenty more to say on this theme, 22, 25 Feb., when his attempt to reduce the army by 10,000 men failed. He declared on the former day that he was ‘sufficiently an aristocrat’ to wish to see ‘the sons of the great and wealthy families ... watching over and checking the extravagances of ministers, not making provisions for themselves’. He urged repeal of the Small Receipt Stamp Duty Act, which relied on ‘a system of informers’ against tradesmen, 19 Feb. He argued that the object of the select committee on the policing of the metropolis proposed by Peel, the home secretary, should be the prevention rather than the punishment of crime, and voiced confidence in the ‘perfect and complete’ arrangements which operated in the City. He was keen for justice to be visited on prevaricating witnesses in the East Retford inquiry, 3, 4, 7 Mar. (when he made a fool of himself by supposing the borough to be in Yorkshire), and spoke and voted for transferring its seats to Birmingham, 21 Mar., but was admonished by Peel for suggesting that taxation without representation was an ‘absolute tyranny’ which justified physical resistance. He was indignant at ministers’ opposition to this practical reform, 24 Mar., 19 May, 2, 27 June. He attacked the ‘fallacious’ Canada Company project, but withdrew his motion for papers after annoying the Speaker, 27 Mar., and opposed the Hibernian Company bill, 24 Apr. He favoured reform of select vestries, 31 Mar., 9 June. He supported the principle of Lord Althorp’s borough polls bill, 31 Mar., 28 Apr., pointing to the example of London to demonstrate that by sensible organization large numbers could be polled in a short time; he was named to the committee on it, 2 Apr. He was dismissive of Wilmot Horton’s plan to finance education by allowing parishes to mortgage their poor rates, 17 Apr. He presented petitions against the friendly societies bill, 21 Apr., when he denied assertions that the silk trade was recovering. He presented a Norwich weavers’ petition complaining of distress on account of low wages, 1 May, but dissented from its call for wage fixing. He pressed for inquiry into chancery delays, 24 Apr., and was in the minority of 39 on excise prosecutions, 1 May. He divided for Catholic relief, 12 May, and against the provision for Canning’s family next day. On the army estimates, 16 May, he criticized ministers’ failure to reduce the ‘enormous and needless expenditure’ to combat distress. Supporting Hume, 30 May, he condemned details of the miscellaneous estimates. He was in Hume’s minority of 28 against the grant for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospels, 6 June, and he voted in protest at the cost of refurbishing Buckingham House, 23 June, when he also questioned the ‘extraordinary appropriation of public money’ to pay reduced and retired army officers. He divided against the Irish and Scottish small notes bill, 5 June. On the 13th he defended the City authorities’ policy on Smithfield meat market, having seen ‘nothing’ there that morning ‘to frighten even old women and children’, and opposed the inquiry, to which, however, he was subsequently named. He denounced the additional churches bill, which authorized churchwardens arbitrarily to tax parishioners, 23, 30 June. He contended that ‘excessive taxation’ and unrestricted foreign imports had wrecked the glove trade, 26 June, when he was in a minority of ten on cider excise licences. He presented and endorsed a London glove manufacturers’ petition for protection, 8 July, arguing that free trade must be reciprocal. He was apparently not present for the division on the ordnance estimates, 4 July, but he spoke and voted against a detail of them, 7 July 1828. Next day, opposing more Canadian expenditure, he appealed to Members to ‘act from their own unbiased conviction, and show some regard to the feelings and interests of their constituents’.

Waithman, who fell foul of Hunt during the latter’s unsuccessful campaign for election to the common council in December 1828,22 supported the Irish unlawful societies bill, 13 Feb. 1829, when he gave full credit to ministers for their ‘honourable’ conduct on Catholic emancipation and persuaded them to omit a couple of ‘inquisitorial’ clauses from the relief bill. He supported it in common council, 26 Feb., and alleged that many hostile petitions were fraudulently signed,23 as he did relentlessly in the House, 27 Feb., 3, 11, 13, 16, 18, 19 Mar., when he squabbled petulantly with Inglis. He voted for emancipation, 6, 30 Mar., and lavishly praised Peel and Wellington when endorsing London corporation’s petition, 9 Mar. He voted for Daniel O’Connell to be allowed to take his seat unimpeded, 18 May. ‘With every disposition to confide in the ministry’, he still carped at their practice of evading the issue of economy by passing the buck to the finance committee, 27 Feb. On their proposals for the silk trade, 14 Apr., he expounded at length the views on free trade which he consistently maintained thereafter, arguing that current circumstances required ‘prohibition’ and that a unilateral application of free trade dogma would ruin the industry:

I do not understand the doctrine of free trade. I have read many pamphlets and books on this subject, and on political economy, but they only bewilder me; and I do not know, after reading them, whether I have any common sense or not. Things that once appeared certain, quite lack that property.

He accordingly opposed the silk bill, 28 Apr., 1 May, when he was in the minority of 22 for a wrecking amendment, 4, 7 May. On the budget statement, 8 May, he deplored but did not altogether condemn the recent silk weavers’ riots, disputed official statements that distress was abating and demanded inquiry and tax remissions:

I throw no fault on the present administration, who do pretty much like their predecessors, tread in the beaten path, though I much wish they would strike into a new and better one. I do not wish for any change of administration; for I frankly own I do not see how the country could be benefited by it.

He objected to the calico duties, 27 May, voted for reduction of those on hemp, 1 June, and the following day struggled against country gentlemen’s mockery to advocate relaxation of the corn laws. The silk bill confirmed his belief that the ‘great trading interests’ should be represented in Parliament, and he accordingly voted for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May, and for Lord Blandford’s reform scheme, 2 June. He defended the London Bridge bill, 6 May, and saw no reason to extend the metropolitan police bill to the City, 25 May. On 4 June 1829 he put to the House the stark choice between protecting domestic trade and industry and the ‘far more dangerous experiment’ of returning to a paper currency.

In October 1829 Waithman wrote to The Times from the house which he had acquired at Reigate about the fatally dangerous state of the local turnpike, and in common council, 5 Nov. 1829, he called for measures to reduce London coal prices.24 He seconded Protheroe’s abortive amendment to the address, 4 Feb. 1830, and voted for Knatchbull’s, having declared that he had ‘nothing to hope or to expect from any party’ and that, though he had ‘been charged with being a Jacobin, a republican, and everything else that implies hatred to our government’, he wanted ‘reform ... to prevent the necessity of revolution’. He again supported the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11, 26 Feb., 5 Mar., when he accused ministers of ‘wantonly playing at cudgels in a china shop’ by resisting it; he was in O’Connell’s minority of 21 for having elections there conducted by secret ballot, 15 Mar. He did not vote for Blandford’s reform scheme, 18 Feb., but divided for the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. He was in the minority of 13 for O’Connell’s radical reform bill, 28 May, and voted later that day for Lord John Russell’s more moderate proposal. On 5 Feb. he insisted that the ‘true value’ of exports had significantly diminished since the war, a theme to which he returned on the 9th, when he secured a return of accounts to prove his point. Furious that ministers were glossing over the country’s problems, he opposed going into committee of supply without better information, 11 Feb., but on Peel’s explanation admitted that he ‘may have misunderstood the matter’; he voted in Hume’s minority of nine for an adjournment, and divided with him for tax reductions, 15 Feb., though he pointed out to him, 19 Feb., when he voted against the army estimates, that it was idle to expect ministers to make retrenchments. In common council, 25 Feb., he contended that no benefit would accrue from ending the East India Company’s trading monopoly.25 In the House that day he spoke and voted in a minority of 26 for Harvey’s proposal to prevent Members from voting in private bill committees on measures in which they had an interest. In a discussion provoked by his presentation of a London merchants’ and ship owners’ petition complaining of excessive taxation, alteration of the currency and erosion of commercial reciprocity, 12 Mar., he disputed the doctrinaire views of Maberly and Hume and the political economists:

I have some experience on these subjects, more, I believe, than any other person who now hears me, having been 40 years in trade ... I stand here ... on a better footing than ... three-fourths of the Members who hear me, having been returned to Parliament free of all expense ... by the votes of ten or twelve thousand individuals ... Things are not likely to mend till there is a reform; and if we do not take that business into our hands, it will be done out of the House, by a suffering, but intelligent community. It is impossible to go on with a representation suitable to a population of five millions and no debt, now that we have a population of twenty millions, and £8,000,000 of debt. The people are everywhere in distress ... and why ... to increase the foreign trade of the country; and although it has been increased three or four millions by forcing a trade ... we have not succeeded ... though we have ground down the labourer to the dust [and] ruined our substantial farmers and merchants.

He seconded Burdett’s unsuccessful motion for inquiry into distress, 16 Mar., and spoke at length in the state of the nation debate, 19 Mar., rehearsing his usual arguments and answering his critics. He spoke and voted for a reduction in the navy estimates, 22 Mar., and divided for ordnance economies, 29 Mar, and inquiry into crown lands revenues, 30 Mar. On 2 Apr. he opposed the St. Giles vestry bill and supported the prayer of a Hull ship owners’ petition on distress. At a thinly attended common hall on this subject, 5 Apr., he confessed that he ‘saw no probability of ... reform being carried ... soon’ and blamed distress on ‘a pernicious meddling with trade’.26 In the House that day he voted for Jewish emancipation, as he did again on 17 May. He was in the minorities against Lord Ellenborough’s divorce bill, 6 Apr., and for reform of the law, 3 June. He presented petitions for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 26, 27 Apr. He paired against the grant for public buildings, 3 May. He voted for abolition of the Irish lord lieutenancy, 11 May, repeal of the Irish coal duties, 13 May (having been named to the select committee on the coal trade, 11 Mar.), information on privy councillors’ emoluments, 14 May, and the four-and-a-half per cent duties, 21 May, inquiry into the government of Ceylon, 27 May, and against the grant for consular services, 11 June. He was appointed to the committee on Littleton’s truck bill, 3 May, and warmly supported the measure, 4 May. He welcomed the sale of beer bill, 4 May, but recanted on 1 July, when he voted for an amendment to restrict on-sales. After presenting a London ship owners’ distress petition, 6 May, he voiced his weariness with the ‘dictatorial lectures’ of the free trader Poulett Thomson. He saw no point in investigating the condition of the poor as Slaney proposed, 13 May. Next day he condemned the ‘extraordinary expense’ of bankruptcy administration and called for its reform. He pressed for repeal of the house and window taxes, 28 May. He spoke and voted for Hume’s motion for inquiry into the church building commissioners’ oppressive dealings with the parish of St. Luke, 17 June 1830. At the general election that summer he was returned unopposed for London, despite his refusal to canvass. At the nomination he admitted that tax reductions would be difficult to implement without a breach of faith towards the public creditor and pronounced that in Parliament ‘a little less talk and a little more work ... would be more desirable’.27 He was criticized for declining to attend a London Tavern meeting to subscribe for the French revolutionaries, 17 Aug. 1830, but in a public rejoinder explained that he was ‘not in very good health or spirits’ and doubted the efficacy of such displays.28

In the House, 3 Nov. 1830, he lamented the lack of any reference to distress in the king’s speech and the government’s refusal to countenance reform; and on the 5th he reiterated his view that it was now a question of ‘a reform or a convulsion’. He attacked government for obscurantism on this and for believing the alarmist aldermen who had advised them to cancel the king’s visit to the City: ministers had ‘virtually and effectually signed their own death warrant’. In the court of aldermen, 9 Nov., and in common council, 15 Nov., he savaged Aldermen Key and Hunter for unilaterally recommending cancellation.29 He thought Spring Rice’s motion for a select committee on the Irish poor was futile, 11 Nov. He helped to vote the Wellington ministry out of office on the civil list, 15 Nov. On 6 Dec. he withdrew a motion for a reduction of public salaries in order to give the Grey ministry time to formulate their policies; but he promised to reveal after Christmas the results of his personal investigations into distress, which had brought him to recant his support of the resumption of cash payments. Later that day he questioned the sense of lavishing money on Canadian waterways and argued that ‘however plausible in theory’, free trade ideas had proved to be ‘most mischievous in practice’. He presented petitions for the abolition of slavery, 8 Dec., and of the truck system, 14 Dec., when he endorsed the City petition for repeal of the coastwise coal duties. He criticized ministers for maintaining the salary of the ambassador to France at £10,000 and warned them that ‘the country will expect performances as well as promises’, though he praised the ‘liberality and fairness’ of the chancellor Althorp’s subsequent observations on the estimates. On 17 Dec. he joined in calls for repeal of the duty on printed cottons and calicos and asserted that the reduction of taxes which bore on ‘the middle classes’ was essential for the restoration of full employment and general prosperity; he presented an Aldgate petition for repeal of the ‘monstrous’ assessed taxes, 22 Dec. 1830. Next day he attacked pensions which he mistakenly took to belong to members of Lord Bathurst’s family, but he backed down gracefully when his blunder was pointed out.

Waithman, whose aspirations to the chamberlainship of London in January 1831 came to nothing,30 presented a petition from his ward for an extension of the franchise and the ballot, which he now favoured, having seen at close quarters the effects of corporate influence in London, 4 Feb. He insisted that foreign imports had wrecked the silk industry, 7 Feb., and next day demanded reform of the bankruptcy laws for the benefit of creditors, as he did on the presentation of the City petition, 21 Feb. On the budget, 11 Feb., he approved the removal of the duty on printed cotton, but ‘talked a good deal of nonsense’, as one Whig saw it, about the proposals for wine and timber, and was ‘rather hostile’ to the notion of a tax on land and stock transfers.31 In any case, he added, nothing effectual could be accomplished without ‘reform and retrenchment’. He welcomed ministers’ abandonment of the transfer tax, 15 Feb., before unleashing on a restless and bored House a string of 27 statistical resolutions (which he had leaked to the press a month earlier)32 designed to prove his case that the real value of exports had fallen and that the root cause of economic distress was depreciation of the currency since the 1819 settlement. Ministers carried the previous question, but Waithman sided with them against Hume on the navy estimates, 25 Feb. He had no serious objections to the proposed transfer of duty from printed calicos to raw cotton, 28 Feb., but pressed government to extend the time allowed to claim drawback. He spoke against equalization of the timber duties at a merchants’ dinner, 11 Mar.33 He approved of Frankland Lewis’s bill to regulate the coal trade, 28 Mar. He presented London petitions for reform, 26 Feb., and cited Reigate as an example of a borough under domineering ‘influence’, 28 Feb. As ‘an old reformer’, he ‘rejoiced’ at the scope of the ministerial reform bill, which he endorsed in common council and the House, 4 Mar., when he repudiated Hunt’s attack on London corporation as a set of jobbers, and at a tumultuous meeting of the livery, 7 Mar. He was one of the delegation which presented the City reform address to the king, 9 Mar.34 On 9 Mar. he hailed the bill as ‘a measure of necessity’, called for ‘by circumstances and ... recommended by the concurrent voice of the people’. He presented more favourable petitions, 16 Mar.; voted for the second reading, 19 Mar.; spoke at a London merchants’ reform meeting, 25 Mar.;35 stated on 14 Apr. that ‘by this measure you satisfy the wise and the reasonable, and draw a line of distinction between them ... and dangerous or wild theorists’; contradicted Hunt’s allegation that Spitalfields silk workers had reacted against the bill, 18 Apr. 1831, and voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment the following day. At the ensuing general election he was returned unopposed on a joint platform with three other reformers; he denounced the self-styled ‘moderate reformers’ and urged vigour and unanimity to thwart ‘the proprietors of rotten boroughs’ in the Lords.36

Waithman spoke at the livery reform dinner, 9 May 1831, and in common council three days later ranted against the West India Dock Company as ‘one of the most disgraceful jobs ever perpetrated in the City’.37 In the House, 22 June, he said that pro-reform feeling was ‘nearly universal’ in Wales and presented a Spitalfields silk workers’ reform petition. Next day he had a rather childish clash with Hunt, whom he charged with verbal diarrhoea and egotistical use of ‘I’; Hunt retorted that ten minutes of Waithman’s ponderous oratory was an unbeatable opiate.38 Waithman voted silently for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and on the 8th confirmed the strength of his constituents’ support for it, despite the threat which it posed to the votes of many of them. He voted against the adjournment motions of 12 July, exhorting ministers not to submit to such ‘vexatious and factious’ obstruction. He was a steady supporter of the bill’s details. He dismissed borough proprietors’ demands for compensation for disfranchisement as ‘the height of insolence and arrogance’, 19 July. On 22 July he likened the captious Tory barrister Wetherell to ‘lawyer Endless in the play’, and ‘demolished’ the renegade Whig Scarlett, who had tried to exploit the livery’s reprimand of his City colleague Thompson for a wayward vote. Littleton wrote that he had ‘never heard more bold, coarse, blackguard, just or successful vituperation’, which could only have been effectively delivered by someone with ‘the Alderman’s peculiar qualities of mind’. Creevey, who relished the ‘licking’, had ‘never ... heard a more powerful execution of a culprit’.39 Waithman complained of opposition time-wasting, 29 July, 3 Aug. He pressed for the whole of Wrexham parish to be included in the Denbigh district, 10 Aug. On 24 and 30 Aug. he denied that there had been any reaction against the bill in the City and exhorted its supposed friends to stop proposing hair-splitting amendments. He reckoned that two days were enough for borough polls, 6 Sept. In common council the following day he contended that ‘the great principle of the bill had been preserved throughout, and any alterations ... were only introduced to strengthen it’.40 He presented a Manchester petition for the ballot in county elections and a householder franchise in boroughs, 13 Sept. At a common hall to petition the Lords in favour of the bill, 19 Sept., he proclaimed that ‘the king, the government and the people were firmly united for it’ against a segment of the aristocracy, and added that while he ‘did not think the bill went far enough’, he was ‘willing to take it as it was’ to secure the vital extinction of rotten boroughs.41 He divided for the passage of the bill, 21 Sept., and for the motion of confidence in ministers after its defeat in the Lords, 10 Oct. He attended but did not speak at the London merchants’ meeting which resolved to address the king in support of the government and the bill, 13 Oct.42 He supported the grant for the duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria, 3 Aug. He spoke and voted in support of ministers in the Dublin election controversy, 23 Aug., and called lord chancellor Brougham’s bankruptcy reform bill ‘a most excellent measure’, 14 Oct. 1831.

Waithman quarrelled with some of the wilder reformers in the livery that month by dissociating himself from their reported wish to nominate him in the protracted lord mayoral election farce as they sought to force the re-election of Key on the court of aldermen. His refusal in common hall, 14 Oct., to be made the ‘tool’ of a faction provoked a commotion, and he subsequently defended himself in letters to the press.43 In the House, 12 Dec. 1831, he asserted that his own inquiries had convinced him that the sensational story that the convicted burkers had confessed to dozens of murders was not true. He voted silently for the second reading of the final reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, two days before the death of his son William.44 Waithman, whose own health was now failing, voted to go into committee on the bill, 20 Jan. 1832, when he repeated his axiom that unrestricted foreign competition was destroying the silk trade. He again gave steady support to the bill in its passage through committee. He said on 27 Jan. that he would swallow the division of counties because the benefits outweighed the dangers. In an angry exchange with Croker over Tory obstruction, 2 Feb., he addressed the Speaker as ‘my lord mayor’. Later that day he made a personal attack on Wetherell over his flight from the Bristol riots, and claimed to have missed only one day’s debate on the reform bill, as a result of illness on 30 Jan. He supported the clauses concerning parochial relief and registration, 8 Feb., and the cost of booths and clerks, 15 Feb., condemned the boroughs of Amersham, 21 Feb., and Great Grimsby, 23 Feb., and endorsed the provisions for additional metropolitan Members, 2 Mar. He voted for the third reading, 22 Mar. He divided with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb., and exonerated them from blame for ‘a great waste of money’ on some naval works begun by their predecessors, 13 Feb. He said that he would support the restriction of children’s hours in factories but that it would be ‘wrong to force grown-up men out of employ’, 10 Feb. He welcomed Alexander Baring’s bill to exclude insolvent debtors from the House and end Members’ exemption from arrest, 14 Feb. On 1 Mar. he presented and endorsed weavers’ petitions from Spitalfields, Coventry and Macclesfield for inquiry into distress, and later supported Grosvenor’s successful motion for the appointment of a select committee and criticized Poulett Thomson’s mealy-mouthed speech. Although Vyvyan had not consulted him before proposing that he be added to the committee, 6 Mar., he agreed to serve in order to counter its free trade bias. He obtained a return of silk imports but agreed to drop his demand that firms found guilty of illegal trading be named, 15 Mar. He spoke and voted for Davies’s motion for inquiry into distress in the glove trade, 3 Apr. He welcomed the government’s cautious and sensible approach to the abolition of slavery, 4 Apr. Despite feeling unwell, he spoke in support of common council’s motion to petition for supplies to be withheld until the reform crisis was favourably resolved, 10 May, and secured the appointment of a committee to monitor events.45 He backed the petition in the House later that day, admitting that poor health had recently interfered with his attendance, and voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the reform bill unimpaired. Next day he supported the livery’s petition, remarking that the Lords ‘might quote bits of Latin [but] there was not a boy of 14 who could not teach them practical sense’.46 He spoke for the petition in the House, 14 May, when he mocked Wellington’s ‘futile’ attempt to form a ministry and warned that if the Commons deserted the people there would be ‘no answering for public tranquillity’. He approved common council’s address to the king that day, but suggested that ‘the best course was to uphold the House of Commons, and let the battle be fought there’.47 When presenting a supplies petition from the churchwardens of St. Bride’s, Fleet Street (where he was to be buried nine months later), he said that no parishioners had been involved in the recent disruption of a sermon by the bishop of Lichfield. He was delighted at the reinstatement of the Grey ministry, voted for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May, and on 4 July endorsed London corporation’s petition calling for the principles of the English bill to be applied to it. On a motion for inquiry into the effects on trade of changes in the navigation laws, 22 May, he deployed his familiar arguments on free trade and depreciation. He presented a petition for the lifting of theatre censorship, 31 May. He was unhappy with the fining powers given to coroners by Warburton’s bill, 20 June. On 3 July he submitted 32 resolutions, all of which were negatived, on the economy, supported them in a long and tedious speech and, replying to his many critics, expressed his contempt for the free trade ‘philosophers and poets’ who ‘think they know better than practical men’. He presented and approved a petition from St. Andrew’s, Holborn against the vagrants removal bill, 5 July. In his last known utterance in Commons debate, 7 Aug. 1832, he presented and vigorously supported a silk weavers’ petition complaining of the way in which the select committee had taken evidence. He maintained that it had been packed to promote free trade dogma and attacked Poulett Thomson, whose smile when he inadvertently referred to him as ‘Member for the board of trade’ drove Waithman to redoubled ranting rage.

He was returned in third place for London at the general election of 1832, but was too ill to take his seat in the reformed Parliament before his death at his house in Woburn Place in February 1833.48 By his will, dated 21 Apr. 1832, and proved under a modest £14,000 (later £12,000), he left his remaining interest in the Fleet Street shop to his son John, who carried it on for about ten years. Henry, who continued in business as a silk broker, received £500, and his sisters Maria and Mary Ann equal shares in a trust fund of £8,000. The residue, which included the properties at Reigate and Winchmore Hill, Middlesex, but yielded no money, went to John and his eldest brother Robert, who evidently retired from the upholstery business.49 In the summer of 1833 a St. Bride’s parish committee erected an obelisk in memory of Waithman at Ludgate Circus, on the site of his first shop in Fleet Market, and facing the column commemorating Wilkes.50 Noticing Waithman’s death, The Times patronisingly commented that ‘had his early education been better directed, or his early circumstances more favourable to his ambition, he might have become an important man in a wider and higher sphere’ than City politics, his natural stamping ground, but conceded that ‘his conduct up to the last was fearless and consistent’.51

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


See J.R. Dinwiddy, Radicalism and Reform (1992), 63-86; Biog. Dict. of Modern British Radicals ed. J.O. Baylen and N.J. Grossman, i. 504-6; Oxford DNB; DWB.

  • 1. J. Belchem, ‘Orator’ Hunt, 44, 69.
  • 2. R.R. Sharpe, London and the Kingdom, iii. 311-12; Belchem, 120; The Times, 15, 18, 30 Sept., 9, 13, 22 Oct., 8, 15, 16, 20, 27 Nov., 7, 8, 17, 29 Dec. 1819, 20, 26, 29 Jan., 29 Apr., 12, 25 May, 9 June 1820.
  • 3. The Times, 26, 28 Feb., 6, 8-11, 13-17 Mar., 13 Apr.; Add. 38568, f. 78; Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 11 Mar. [1820].
  • 4. S. Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical ed. W.H. Chaloner, i. 232.
  • 5. The Times, 27 May, 13 June, 14 July, 4 Aug., 23, 29 Sept., 20, 31 Oct., 2, 6, 11, 16 Dec. 1820, 12 Jan. 1821; Creevey Pprs. i. 341; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 884; Add. 37949, f. 87; 40120, f. 152; J.A. Hone, For the Cause of Truth, 351.
  • 6. Creevey Pprs. ii. 18; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 953; Ann. Reg. (1821), Chron. pp. 127, 134-5; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 115-16; The Times, 29, 31 Aug., 12 Sept., 27 Oct., 7 Dec. 1821, 1 Feb. 1822.
  • 7. M.D. George, Cat. of Pol. and Personal Satires, x. 14244; Colchester Diary, iii. 235; The Times, 1, 27 Oct. 1821, 22 Apr. 1822; Ann. Reg. (1822), App. pp. 404-7.
  • 8. The Times, 20 Dec. 1822, 30 Jan., 28 Feb., 11, 14, 24 June 1823.
  • 9. Ibid. 30 Sept. 1823; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1108.
  • 10. Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, ii. 65-66; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 306; Wellington Despatches, ii. 251; Wellington and Friends, 43; Hobhouse Diary, 110; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1163; Croker Pprs. i. 266.
  • 11. Creevey’s Life and Times, 192.
  • 12. The Times, 8, 14 Apr. 1825, 9 Feb. 1826.
  • 13. Ibid. 18 Mar., 4 Apr., 12, 18 May, 3, 10, 12-17, 20 June 1826.
  • 14. Ibid. 20 Oct. 1826.
  • 15. Baring Jnls. i. 51.
  • 16. The Times, 6 Dec. 1826; Add. 36463, f. 228.
  • 17. The Times, 9 Dec. 1826, 13 Feb. 1827.
  • 18. Ibid. 13 Mar. 1827.
  • 19. Ibid. 24 May 1827.
  • 20. Ibid. 10 May, 19 June 1827.
  • 21. Ibid. 20 June 1827.
  • 22. Belchem, 180.
  • 23. The Times, 27 Feb. 1829.
  • 24. GL MS 10409; The Times, 3, 6 Nov. 1829.
  • 25. The Times, 26 Feb. 1830.
  • 26. Ibid. 6 Apr. 1830.
  • 27. Ibid. 28, 31 July 1830.
  • 28. Ibid. 18, 21, 23 Aug. 1830.
  • 29. Ibid. 12, 16 1830.
  • 30. Add. 56555, ff. 86-87,
  • 31. Add. 51569, Ord to Holland [11 Feb. 1831].
  • 32. The Times, 19 Jan. 1831.
  • 33. Ibid. 14 Mar. 1831.
  • 34. Ibid. 5, 8, 10 Mar. 1831.
  • 35. Ibid. 26 Mar. 1831.
  • 36. Ibid. 25-30 Apr. 1831.
  • 37. Ibid. 10, 13 May 1831.
  • 38. George, xi. 16722.
  • 39. Hatherton diary, 22 [July]; Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 23 July 1831.
  • 40. The Times, 8 Sept. 1831.
  • 41. Ibid. 20 Sept. 1831.
  • 42. Ibid. 14 Oct. 1831.
  • 43. Ibid. 13, 15, 18, 20, 21 Oct. 1831.
  • 44. Gent. Mag. (1831), ii. 570.
  • 45. The Times, 11 May 1832.
  • 46. Ibid. 12 May 1832.
  • 47. Ibid. 15 May 1832.
  • 48. Ibid. 27 Oct., 13 Nov., 10-13 Dec. 1832, 31 Jan., 7 Feb. 1833.
  • 49. PROB 11/1815/265; IR26/1340/249.
  • 50. The Times, 20 Feb., 7, 26, 28 June 1833; Gent. Mag. (1833), i. 634.
  • 51. The Times, 7 Feb. 1833; Gent. Mag. (1833), i. 179.