A new portrait of Robert Townley Parker

One of the most rewarding aspects of local history research is the way in which close study of often-overlooked detail can transform the accepted view of a period or a person, confounding the established orthodoxies. It shows that historical study should be fluid, not fixed: more fractal than broad brush. This continuing revisionism is fuelled by the ever-increasing sources that are being revealed and made widely available, thanks to the internet. A case in point is the character of the 19th-century Preston MP Robert Townley Parker, who has been portrayed as a Catholic-hating bigot. New material is now suggesting he was possibly deserving of a far more rounded portrait. I wrote the following article for the Lancashire Local History Federation‘s’ latest newsletter, which gives some indication of the complexity of his character:

Robert Townley Parker, as a young man
Robert Townley Parker, as a young man. (Wikipedia Commons)

I’ve recently started working on a shortish biography of the 19th-century Preston MP Robert Townley Parker, which I thought was going to be a straightforward account of a ‘Church and State’ Tory and his hostility to the town’s Catholics. This would have aligned him with the virulently anti-papist position of the town’s Anglican clergy, led by the vicar, the Rev John Owen Parr. And this was the view I had taken from the many references to Townley Parker in Nigel Morgan’s Lancaster University MPhil thesis on politics in Preston in the first half of the 19th-century.

Nigel wrote:

The right wing, identified from 1835 to 1852 with the bigoted Protestant squire of Cuerden Hall, Robert Townley Parker, exploited the sectarian and anti-Irish animosities of the lower orders … the Tories resorted to the 19th century equivalent of race riots: they attacked the Irish, … possibly with the connivance of Robert Townley Parker, the Tory candidate … Townley Parker denied that he was a violent Orangeman: he was not ‘one who would flog alive all Roman Catholics’.

But when I started gathering material it soon became clear that Townley Parker was a far more interesting and complex character. This in no way diminishes Nigel’s contribution to historical research, it is simply that sources not available when he was writing have now become available. Indeed, the people working on the next section of the History of Parliament project were delighted to discover Nigel’s thesis, and his work will be incorporated in the section on the Preston constituency.

Although a formidable opponent of any attempts to weaken the Church of England establishment, Townley Parker was a lifelong friend of many Catholics and supported many of that church’s Lancashire projects. For example, in 1814, at the end of a European tour, he and his companion were granted an audience with Pope Pius VII, when Townley Parker would have just turned 20. He included among his friends the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, and the Catholic bishop of Liverpool, who was a welcome guest at Townley Parker’s home, Cuerden Hall. He saw to it that priests were provided for Catholics in the Preston House of Correction and in the county asylum, with their stipends paid by the county. When he decided not to contest his seat again a delegation of the town’s leading Catholics visited him at Cuerden Hall and tried to persuade him to change his mind.

Politically, Townley Parker was an unlikely candidate for Preston, which was becoming increasingly industrial. He was a prominent member of the county’s landed gentry, living on his rents and rigorously enforcing the game laws, both in court and on his estate, where an armed battle between his gamekeepers and a gang of poachers left one poacher dead and several badly injured.

He was a staunch opponent of Free Trade and firmly resistant to many aspects of electoral reform, including the ballot, at a time when Preston was the scene of mass protests against the Corn Laws and for electoral reform. Why did he persist in supporting measures unpopular in the town? In his defence he followed Edmund Burke in arguing that as MP he was a representative of his constituency, not its delegate:

I could have given my vote [in line with the town’s Anti Corn Law Association] … for the sake of popularity it would perhaps have been the most expedient conduct; but in so doing I must either have disguised my real sentiments … or have acknowledged myself the Delegate of the Electors of Preston, and have abandoned all the feelings on an independent Member of Parliament. [Emphasis in original].

Later he expressed himself more forcibly, ‘I will either enjoy a seat in parliament unshackled, the independent representative of independent electors, or I must decline accepting it.’

Two public statues in Preston give a clear indication of Townley Parker’s political views. When subscriptions were sought for a statue of Sir Robert Peel, he subscribed on the understanding that it was made clear that his subscription was for Peel the man, not Peel the politician who had split his party. Yet when the former prime minister the Earl of Derby died Townley Parker showed his support for Derby’s politics by leading the fund raising for a statue and was instrumental in ensuring it was sited prominently in Preston and not in Lancaster, the other suggested site.

At the very end of his long life, in 1878, looking back on his political career, he said he was still unconvinced of the benefits of the century’s parliamentary reforms. On Free Trade, he was still an opponent, arguing it was those countries that had maintained tariffs that had prospered at Britain’s expense. He would probably have supported Joseph Chamberlain’s Imperial Preference tariffs.

There was clearly much more to Townley Parker than a superficial account of his career would suggest. I plan to compare and contrast the careers of Townley Parker and his contemporary the social reformer Joseph Livesey, which I believe might help illuminate the politics of Preston for much of the 19th century. However, I blundered badly and blushingly in my early researches on Livesey, and had to be reined in by the Preston historian Steve Harrison. To avoid more embarrassment I would like make contact with anyone who could suggest avenues to explore or who would be willing to point out the grosser errors in anything I put on line.

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