Sir James Whitehead (1834-1917)

Sir James Whitehead

Written by Andy Connell

Occupations: Businessman, Philanthropist and Politician
Location: Appleby

A proud and insistent Westmerian, James Whitehead was actually born in Yorkshire, at Bramhaw near Sedbergh, on 2nd March 1834, the sixth and youngest child of James, an owner-occupier ‘statesman’, and his wife Agnes. His early years were spent at Castle Farm, Raisbeck, in Orton parish; but before he was ten his father retired from farming, moved his family to Appleby and sent young James to the town grammar school.

Although Whitehead would later credit his school with being ‘the foundation of the position he had won’, his devotion was not unqualified. He remembered the headmaster, the Rev. John Richardson (1807-1868), as disorganised and unmethodical, presenting his pupils with Virgil and Euripides before they had mastered Latin and Greek grammar, but recalled with relish the teaching of Hartley Coleridge who ‘used to come over from Nab Cottage to teach the sons of Westmorland statesmen to make free translations’. Another such farm-raised Appleby Grammar School boy was John Percival (1834-1918) of Brough Sowerby, six months younger than Whitehead. Alike handsome and athletic, academically able and unsparingly driven, confident in their moral rectitude and Liberal politics, they were to be lifelong friends, though their careers soon diverged. Percival stayed under the tuition of Richardson – ‘a good scholar and a splendid coach’ for all his pedagogical limitations – to win a scholarship to Queen’s College, Oxford, and a life as high-flying clergyman-cum-schoolmaster. Whitehead left school at fourteen, taking up employment with John Nicholson, draper of Appleby. He would later claim that his choice of career went against the advice of his father, who wanted him to enter a profession.   

Around the time of his mother’s death in 1852, James Whitehead became an assistant draper in Finkle Street, Kendal, Westmorland’s commercial and industrial heartland and – as a single-member parliamentary borough since 1832 – a blue Liberal oasis in a yellow Tory desert: the two county members were effectively nominees of the Lowther family. It was during his time in Kendal that Whitehead took his first step in public life, serving as secretary of the local branch of the Royal Patriotic Fund, established in 1854 for the relief of the widows and orphans of British servicemen killed in the Crimean War. His next step took him out of the shop and out of the county. In 1856 Whitehead moved to Little Horton in the boom town of Bradford, to take up employment as a commercial traveller. He sold textiles to drapery stores around East Midlands to such good effect that in 1860 he acquired both a wife – Mercy Matilda Hind (1834-1911) fourth daughter of a Huntingdon draper – and a position in London. Soon after their marriage, the couple moved to the metropolis where he acted as agent for Russell, Douglas & Co, manufacturers of worsteds and such wool and cotton blends as balzarine. The 1861 census recorded James Whitehead as a ‘commercial agent from Bradford’ in the ‘stuff trade’, residing at 5, Alma Road, Islington, with his wife and one servant.

His business interests expanded and throve: he went into partnership with a wholesale drapery business in Gresham Street and then with an upmarket proto-department store, John Barker & Co of Kensington High Street, established in 1870. Providing most of the initial £6,240 capital, Whitehead – now residing in the leafy environs of Ravensbourne Park, Lewisham – left the retailing to his partner Barker (1840-1914), but pioneered mail order trading. He developed an intense admiration for Rowland Hill (1795-1879), creator of standardised postal charges, after whom he named his second son, and a correspondingly strong dislike of railway companies, whose freight rates he considered arbitrary, complex and discriminatory. So successful were Whitehead’s ventures and investments that in 1876 he could afford to establish his growing family in Highfield House, Catford Bridge, a mansion with over thirty rooms. The motto he placed above the front door explained, without undue modesty, his achievements: Virtute et Labore. His first two sons George (1861-1931) and Rowland (1863-1942) were despatched to the recently-established Clifton College, whose formidable headmaster was his school friend John Percival; and when Percival was head-hunted to take on the presidency of Trinity College, Oxford, in 1879, George would follow him there. Percival returned to the world of school in 1886 as headmaster of Rugby; one of his flock was Whitehead’s fourth son Wilfred (1873-1934), who likewise progressed to Trinity.

At the age of 45, and now with two young daughters as well as four sons, James Whitehead was sufficiently secure to give up active business and – while retaining his interest in Barker’s, various directorships and an investment portfolio – devote himself to public life. When Sir Rowland Hill died in 1879, Whitehead became secretary of a committee to raise funds for a national memorial. His belief in the importance of communication was evident too in his purchase in May 1880 of The Citizen, a City weekly in whose columns he was not averse to self-promotion. In August 1880 he became a founder vice-president of the International Arbitration and Peace Association, and then spent several months, accompanied by 19 year-old George on a round-the-world trip that took them to Egypt, Ceylon, Australia, New Zealand, and across the United States. In 1881 he attended a conference at Berne on railway regulation, and saw the statue of Hill unveiled in his home town of Kidderminster; surplus subscriptions were invested in a benevolent fund for indigent retired postal workers, of which Whitehead was a trustee. All this activity was punctuated by bouts of ill-health from which the world tour had been intended as recuperation; but they would recur. We can only speculate on the cause of ‘attacks’ variously reported as severe influenza or protracted colic; his longevity suggests the condition was not degenerative.

Hand-in-glove with the growing prominence of his public profile went political activism. Already chairman of Liberal Associations in the London wards of Cheap, Cordwainer and Dowgate, Whitehead was invited in the General Election of March 1880 to stand against the Conservative incumbents; he declined, but bankrolled the local campaign. His first election was in November 1882, when – eligible by virtue of his membership of two livery companies, the Fruiterers and Fan Makers  –  he was persuaded to accept nomination as alderman for Cheap Ward on the London Common Council and returned  unopposed after all the other candidates withdrew.  The new alderman, described in his own newspaper as having ‘so refined a physiognomy … so delicate a figure … an oval face suggestive more of Holy than of Westmorland’, quickly embraced a range of responsibilities: he chaired the boards of visitors to Borstal and Holloway Gaol, and was on the governing bodies of Queen Anne’s Bounty and Bartholomew’s Hospital. In 1884 he was elected both Sheriff of London and Master of the Fan Makers; in the latter capacity he launched ‘Penny-a-Week’ scheme to raise money for London hospitals, addressing meetings in shops and factories to such good effect that he collected £50,000 a year for the appeal. Education was another passion: he became a governor of both Christ’s Hospital, still located in Newgate, and of his old school in Appleby, where his brother John had a printing and stationery business.

The town in which James Whitehead had grown up was emerging from five decades of political slumber. Losing its parliamentary borough franchise in 1832, Appleby had been absorbed into the Westmorland county seat, for which a brace of Conservatives was returned unopposed at every election until 1880, when Sir Henry Tufton (1844-1926) of Appleby Castle stood as a Liberal candidate. Although he came third with 28% of the votes cast, the status quo would not return. The 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act outlawed most of the means by which votes had customarily been bought in advance. The 1884 Representation of the People Act, harmonised borough and county franchises: any male householder or lodger over 21 who had been in occupation for a year before the registration date could now vote.  The Conservatives yielded the vote to the rural labourer in return for drastic redrawing of constituencies by the 1885 Redistribution of Seats Act which ended the old system of two-member boroughs and counties; Westmorland was cut in two and Appleby gave its name to the single-member constituency of North Westmorland.

William Lowther (1821-1912), elected in second place in the 1880 county contest, would be the Conservative candidate, but would not face an opponent from his family’s traditional aristocratic rivals. Sir Henry Tufton had in 1882 been rewarded for his Liberal commitment by ennoblement as Baron Hothfield, and his brother Alfred, a London-based barrister, decided against taking up the torch. Instead the constituency party, chaired by Hothfield, turned in April 1884 to James Whitehead, local boy made good. The Liberal Press enthused over ‘a strong candidate sprung from the people’ who would ‘issue out of the conflict in glorious victory over the domination of Toryism’; the Daily News thought his prospects in an election fought on an enlarged franchise were bright. In October 1884 at a Liberal demonstration in Appleby Public Hall protesting against the Lords’ delay in passing Parliamentary reform, Whitehead was hailed ‘with enthusiastic cheering and waving of hats and handkerchiefs’. ‘The alderman’, as the Penrith and Kendal newspapers tended to call him, was formally adopted as in February 1885, a new kind of candidate for a new kind of election; although the Westminster parties did not manoeuvre their way to the dissolution of Parliament until November, the North Westmorland campaign had effectively begun.

Though unwilling to canvass in person, Whitehead was a fluent and engaging speaker at the political meetings in halls, schoolrooms and institutes that had recently become the accepted medium of communication both with those who attended and, through exhaustive local Press reports, with the wider public. Proclaiming the Gladstonian formula that ‘the principle of Liberalism is trust in the people, qualified by prudence; the principle of Toryism is mistrust, qualified by fear’, and casting the Conservatives as defenders of privilege and inequality and enemies of reform, he called for elected Local Government Boards, reform of the House of Lords, free compulsory education and ‘perfect religious equality’. Although himself an Anglican, he claimed descent from the Orton-born Quaker George Whitehead (1636-1723) and courted nonconformist support, warning that the Church of England would lay itself open to disestablishment if it became ‘the Church of one political party only’. He mocked the patronage at his opponent’s disposal: ‘Somehow clergymen are invariably a very prominent feature of a meeting at which a member of the family of Lowther is going to take part. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the thirty three church livings in the gift of the family’. A staunch teetotaller, he earned the endorsement of the Band of Hope by voicing his support for the local option on closing licensed premises on Sundays.  

His election address paraded such ‘advanced Liberal’ articles of faith as disavowal of jingoistic imperialism; arbitration of international disputes; Irish self-government, universal male suffrage; elected local government boards with powers to regulate licensing; free education; and compulsory employer liability. But with over half the electorate new voters, of whom many were farm labourers, Whitehead’s most insistent message was land reform: too much of Britain was in too few hands; to create a ‘peasant class’ like that of France, primogeniture should be abolished and there should be legislation to facilitate compulsory purchase of uncultivated land and prevent landlords passing on rate increases to tenants. While William Lowther derided these ‘absurd communistic doctrines’, the alderman insisted that even in ‘the heart of the Lowther preserves’, his proposals ‘had been received with the greatest cordiality’. Liberal confidence was rising in North Westmorland: ‘the political weather-glass points unmistakeably to the return of Alderman Whitehead’. At an Appleby meeting in late October chaired by Collin Threlkeld (1836-1907), headmaster of the Grammar School, Whitehead’s mention of Joseph Chamberlain –  Gladstone’s radical President of the Board of Trade whose ‘unauthorised programme’ held out the prospect of three acres and a cow to newly-enfranchised farm labourers  –  brought ‘loud and prolonged cheers’. A few days later, following the town’s re-incorporation by its 1885 royal charter as a municipal borough under the terms of the 1882 Municipal Corporations Act, Appleby’s first ratepayer elections produced a Liberal-leaning council that at its first meeting in November elected John Whitehead mayor.  His younger brother James was convinced that on the other side of the sprawling constituency, Ambleside too was undergoing a sea change: the light of Liberalism had dawned, and with it ‘the prospect of a brilliant future’.

Polling days were staggered, and North Westmorland was one of the last constituencies to vote.  The boroughs, relatively little changed since 1880, had seen some Conservative gains; but as the results came in from the redistributed county seats overall Liberal victory with an increased majority was a certainty. In South Westmorland the votes of Liberal Kendal were outweighed by its Conservative rural surrounds, but in Penrith & Mid-Cumberland a clash of dynasties saw the Liberal Henry Howard (1850-1914) prevail over the Conservative, James W. Lowther (1855-1949), who had previously sat for Rutland. In North Westmorland his father William Lowther, whether through nervousness or aristocratic insouciance, boarded the 10 a.m. southbound train from Appleby West on the morning of 3rd December 1885, while the votes were still being counted in the Shire Hall, and was thus spared the tension that preceded the announcement of the result to the waiting crowd: Lowther 2,694; Whitehead 2,684. From the upper window of the Tufton Arms, the alderman told his disappointed supporters that they had been defeated not ‘in a fair and honest manner’, but, as he had forewarned, by ‘faggot’ votes: at least twenty names against which objections had been sustained by the Revising Barrister were still on the list.  But the time would come when Liberal electors would not be ‘overawed by people who have no right to be on the register … If God spares us we will win in the long run’. North Westmorland Liberals contemplated legal action; but the rising barrister Herbert Henry Asquith, about to launch into his own political career, advised that, despite evidence of ‘illegal practices such as personation, inciting to personation, payment of railway fares, treating, intimidation … and small acts of bribery’ it would be better to stay out of court, particularly since Whitehead intended to fight the seat again.           

How soon he would do so could hardly have been foreseen. Gladstone resumed the premiership in February 1886, only to split his party within weeks by introducing a bill for Irish Home Rule Bill. ‘Radical Joe’ Chamberlain declared himself a defender of the integrity of the Empire, resigned from government and formed the parliamentary Liberal Unionist group, which in April voted with the Conservatives in the second Commons reading of the Irish Home Rule bill; among the defectors was Henry Howard who wrote to Whitehead, ‘I don’t know what is going to happen to the Liberal Party. I hope you are not in favour of the Home Rule Bill.  I cannot see my way to voting for it’. Defeated on his flagship policy, his notional majority of 166 transformed into a losing margin of 30, Gladstone resigned, precipitating in July the second general election within eight months. Howard declined to contest Penrith as a Liberal Unionist, opening the way for James W. Lowther to gain the seat comfortably for the Conservatives, commencing a tenure of 35 years; the defeated Liberal was the youthful Wilfrid Lawson junior (1862-1937), who had been a contemporary of George Whitehead at Trinity, Oxford.

In South Westmorland no Liberal candidate could be found; in the North, though the constituency party chairman Lord Hothfield declared himself a ‘thorough Gladstonian’, Whitehead, whose age, self-made business background and fastidious dress sense gave him much in common with Joe Chamberlain, evidently wavered.   ‘I very much regret that anything has happened which makes you hesitate’, wrote the Chief Whip Arnold Morley; ‘Hoping that you may see your way again to support the Government in a crisis of no ordinary magnitude’. His compromise was to fight North Westmorland as an Independent Liberal, ‘neither Separationist nor Liberal Unionist . . . I am a Unionist in the broadest sense of the term, and I believe that a true Union can only be stablished by the concession of a liberal measure of self-government to the sister kingdom.’ He expressed admiration for Gladstone’s ‘gallant and heroic attempt’ to solve the Irish problem – which he had seen for himself – and said that he would have voted for the second reading of the Bill; but that he did not agree that the buy-out of Irish landlords over twenty years at a price of £160 million should be borne by the taxpayer. He tried to shift the campaign on to other battlegrounds: land reform, lower railway freight charges and the liberation of North Westmorland from ‘the Lowther yoke with all its weight of Tory shackles’; but the Conservatives, branding the alderman ‘a Home Ruler in disguise’, concentrated remorselessly on Ireland, insisting that Home Rule would be the first step to the break-up of the Empire, would bring ‘misery and ruin’ to loyal Protestants in Ireland and cheap Irish labour flooding into England. Lowther’s majority rose from 10 to 186, which Whitehead said was about what he had expected. He was again inclined to blame faggot voting, though the Liberal agent and Lord Hothfield thought ‘that d__d Irish business beat you,. With the Liberals losing half their English seats, a campaign in North Westmorland that resulted in a Conservative swing of less than two percent in Appleby probably merited the Kendal Mercury’s description of Whitehead’s campaign as ‘plucky and energetic’ against ‘fearful odds’. The local esteem in which he continued to be held was apparent when the farmers of the Appleby & Kirkby Stephen Agricultural Society elected him as their president in 1886 and 1887; his intention to fight North Westmorland again was confirmed in in October 1888.

By then he had reached the summit of corporate London life. In 1887 he was part of a consortium also including the mustard magnate and Liberal MP Jeremiah Colman (1830-1898) that in January 1888 launched The Star, an avowedly radical halfpenny London daily edited by the Irish Nationalist MP and journalist T.P. O’Connor (1848-1929). At Michaelmas 1888 the City liveryman assembled at Common Hall chose James Whitehead as their next Lord Mayor: ‘a capable, courtly man, who will do honour to the high position he is called to, and will, with peculiar fitness, inaugurate a new era of City administration’ Punch opined. As befitted his advanced Liberal credentials, he made well-publicised economies in the pageantry of the inaugural Lord Mayor’s Show and banquet – turtle soup was off the menu – while providing London’s workhouse inmates with extra rations that included, the Lord Mayor’s avowed teetotalism notwithstanding, a pint of porter.  This ‘real example of bread before circuses’ was unsurprisingly praised by the Star, though soaring sales on the evening of the Show may have owed more to graphic details of the latest Jack the Ripper murder.

Some flummery he condoned: his banquets might be ‘dull in their ascetic moderation’, but the 700th anniversary of the Lord Mayoralty was marked on May Day 1889 by a ‘Juvenile Ball’ featuring sixty-four children in an ‘Historical Procession and Quadrille illustrative of Costumes and Characters’ in which Whitehead’s daughters Leila and Florence were Puritan Maidens from the 17th Century. But he seldom lost sight of serious causes.  He earned more praise from Punch for ‘Arming the Knight’ by setting up a subscription fund to equip the Volunteers more adequately; he launched an appeal to relieve famine in China that raised £31,000; and after a visit to the Paris Exposition he raised subscriptions to support the work of the Pasteur Institute, leading to the establishment of the British Institute of Preventive Medicine in 1891. Whitehead’s crowning glory was decisive intervention, in conjunction with the venerable Cardinal Manning (1808-1892), to mediate in the ‘Dockers’ Tanner’ strike of August-September 1889, which had brought the Port of London to a standstill.  Allegedly at the express request of Queen Victoria whom the Lord and Lady Mayoress had just visited at Balmoral, he set up a conciliation committee, which achieved a settlement within a fortnight. Nearly three decades later, at a Dockers’ Conference, Ben Tillett (1860-1943) recalled his part with gratitude; the owners were less impressed than the union leaders, but they accepted the deal.  The routine baronetcy conferred on him at the conclusion of his term of office cited ‘highly valuable services in an eventful mayoralty’; the family would cherish the legend that the Queen remarked on Sir James’s superiority in looks and physique to run-of-the-mill Lord Mayors of London.

He had continued to make occasional visits to Westmorland. In January 1889 Whitehead had the Lord Mayor’s coach brought by train for the opening of the newly-built Kendal Grammar School; the borough conferred its freedom on him, an honour repeated by Appleby in August when he presented the prizes at the Grammar School, also on a new site. Whatever unease Fitzwilliam Davidson, the recently-appointed headmaster, may have felt as the distinguished guest detailed with affectionate frankness the ‘slipshod’ quality of Richardson’s tuition, Sir James’s speech got the same fulsome coverage in the local Liberal press as was lavished on his achievements at Mansion House. Optimism was rising among North Westmorland Liberals: their agent was confident that, thanks to the removal of hundreds of dubious ‘owner’ voters from the register, the seat was within grasp.

But the candidate would not be Sir James Whitehead. In March 1890 he let it be known that at the next election he would stand in Leicester, one of whose two members, the veteran Irish-Australian Alexander MacArthur (1814-1909) – another London businessman with whose attitudes Whitehead had much in common – was standing down. Despite the absence of roots other than commercial dealings, Leicester was an ‘easier’ seat than Appleby, both in terms of its distance from Kent and the likelihood of election. The ‘consistent Radicalism’ of unionised boot and shoe workers had ensured that the comfortable majorities of the town’s two Liberal members were barely affected by the party’s convulsions in 1886. As prospective candidate Whitehead would team up with James Allanson Picton (1832-1910), Congregationalist minister and admiring biographer of Oliver Cromwell. 

Although he maintained his Westmorland links, presenting All Saints Church, Orton, with a stained glass window in memory of his parents in 1892, Whitehead’s public life continued to be lived out in corporate London. He was elected Master of his other livery company, the Fruiterers, in 1890, remaining in office for two years. In 1890-91 he served as High Sheriff of the newly-created County of London. His duties included supervising executions: disapproving of the arcane practice of the admission of the press as spectators, he made a point of debarring journalists from the hanging on 23 December 1890 of Eleanor Pearcey, convicted of murdering her lover’s wife. The Liberal Leicester Chronicle & Mercury commended this firmness on the part of the town’s prospective Member - ‘a tallish, erect, alert man, who moves with precision and looks the world straight in the face’. In the general election of July 1892 Sir James Whitehead and Allanson Picton were elected unopposed. Though remaining resident in Kent, Leicester’s new MP was soon patron of both Leicester Sunday School Union and Leicester Commercial Travellers’ Association, as well as president of Leicestershire Rugby Football Union.

By the time North Westmorland went to the polls Whitehead had arrived in Appleby, secure in the knowledge that the Liberals had done well enough in the boroughs to ensure a return to government. Following William Lowther’s announcement in 1891 that he would not stand again, two first-time candidates from London contested the seat: the Liberal Alfred Tufton (1852-1925), Lord Hothfield’s brother, on whose platforms Sir James had appeared on a previous visit in April; and for the Conservatives, Sir Joseph Savory (1843-1921), former Lord Mayor of London and well-known to Whitehead.  In March 1892 the Appleby and Kirkby Stephen Agricultural Society, over which Whitehead had once presided, had pointedly chosen Sir Joseph Savory as its vice-president.  When the result was announced at the Shire Hall on 14 July the electors of North Westmorland returned him as their new Member of Parliament, with the Conservative majority up from 186 to 707.  Savory told the crowd outside Appleby Shire Hall that North Westmorland had ‘shown the world at large its determination to maintain the integrity of the Empire’, and left for London on the afternoon train; it did not go unnoticed that Sir James Whitehead was his travelling companion.

The issue on which the new Member for Leicester’s energy was likely to be concentrated was that of railway rates.  Though made up of independent, notionally competing companies, the Victorian railway was effectively a cartel, strongly represented in Parliament, over which the Railway & Canal Commission, under the aegis of the Board of Trade, attempted to exercise a degree of supervision. Whitehead, with years of experience in wholesale drapery, commercial travel and mail order, had long criticised the ‘injustice’ of railway rates. Involvement with Leicester strengthened his commitment: it was an established grievance of Midlands traders that, with transportation of goods by sea impracticable and canals mostly owned by railways, they were charged discriminatorily high rates.  But the railway companies, after two decades of struggle to cover costs as growth in freight tonnage decelerated following the mid-Victorian boom, considered existing charges inadequate, and on 1 January 1893 published a greatly raised tariff. Whitehead’s parliamentary course was set: freight rates must be brought back to 1892 levels and legislation enacted to prevent future ‘unreasonable’ increases. Used to commercial decision-taking, he envisaged a quick legislative fix, but soon had to acknowledge that he was ‘placed at a very great disadvantage, inasmuch as, having had myself but little parliamentary experience, I have to rely for guidance upon friends’. He had to be satisfied with a place on a Select Committee on railway rates, which met twenty three times in twelve weeks in the summer of 1893. Whitehead was assiduous in his courteously detailed questioning of witnesses; his closest ally was the Conservative Member for St Pancras, Sir Albert Rollit (1842-1922). The Committee’s first report in August recommended legislation, as did a supplement published in November following further sessions which Whitehead missed because of ‘severe influenza with a slight lung complication’ that laid him low for four months.

Other stresses may have exacerbated his prolonged indisposition. In April 1893 – the year in which he terminated his partnership with Barker – the General Phosphate Corporation, of which he was a director, was subject to a winding-up petition less than three years after its flotation, following heavy losses in its Canadian mines. Henry Smallman, fellow Fanmaker and future City alderman, sheriff and knight, publicly accused him of insider trading in General Phosphate shares. Although Whitehead’s solicitors wrote to the Westminster Gazette in October rebutting the allegations, they would persist – though never put to the test of legal proceedings – for years. A more public, though less protracted, assault on Whitehead’s integrity came from a very different source. The 1892 General Election trend of Liberal advance had been bucked by increased Conservative majorities in South as well as North Westmorland. Arguably this reflected county-wide fear of Irish Catholics, a growing element in the population of West Cumberland, as well as suspicions among owner-occupier ‘statesmen’ that Gladstone’s proposed Irish land reforms might then be applied in England, leading to the sequestration of their farms. But some disappointed North Westmorland Liberals looked for more personal explanations. It was alleged that the pre-poll doorstep message of Conservative canvassers had been that Sir James Whitehead, having been forced to withdraw his candidacy at Lord Hothfield’s insistence and had a covertly supported the Conservative Sir Joseph Savory, a crony from the City.

Rumour was brought into the public arena by Thomas Hodgson (1837-1913), radical proprietor and editor of the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald, who had for years championed Whitehead, devoted many column inches to his achievements in London, and now believed himself betrayed. A January 1893 editorial insisted it was time for Sir James to answer the charges that had ‘wilfully damaged the Liberal cause in North Westmorland’ and had ‘made no effort to prevent the Tories from using him as a tool’. Months of public correspondence, increasingly bitter in tone, ensued. Lord Hothfield accused Whitehead of ‘dirty and dishonourable methods’ in secretly writing to Sir Joseph Savory with the ‘preposterous and untrue’ story that he had been forced to stand aside for Alfred Tufton. Whitehead’s response was that, though he had not deigned to respond to earlier ‘scurrilous and malignant effusions’, he would now reveal that he had indeed been driven out, ‘slighted and harassed’ by Hothfield when he ‘was really ill’. This Hothfield dismissed as ‘vague and florid innuendo … vulgar abuse … commercial room vulgarity’ from a man whom he had treated ‘with the greatest consideration and indulgence’. He felt sorry for Leicester ‘which, I believe, has always up till now had honourable and reliable men as its representatives.’ The controversy escalated in June 1893, when the Tufton brothers published a pamphlet quoting correspondence between themselves and Whitehead to demonstrate that he had not been a sound Home Ruler in 1886, had deserted the constituency in 1890, and plotted with the Conservatives in 1892. Sir James, after remarking that ‘His Lordship with the want of courtesy that has frequently marked his bearing towards me’ had not sent him a copy, responded in July with his own publication of letters and telegrams allegedly suppressed by the Tuftons, to demonstrate that they drove him out of a seat which he would certainly have won.  He quoted an un-named Liberal supporter: ‘You drew the people towards Home Rule, but Mr Tufton frightened them away.’

With the Tory Press lionising Whitehead, ‘head and shoulders above his detractors’, the North Westmorland Liberal Association unsurprisingly took the side of its chairman and passed a vote of censure on Sir James.  William Sanderson, pillar of Appleby Liberalism, lamented Whitehead’s ‘treacherous conduct to old and tried political friends’, his ‘cowardly insinuations’ against Lord Hothfield, and – recalling  the two City baronets boarding the train after the declaration – how ‘throwing off all disguise, he deserted his own party and openly fraternized with the Tories’. There might have been yet more exchanges had not Lord Hothfield then summarily pulled the rug from under the feet of his supporters. On 8 September 1893 Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule Bill, having struggled through the Commons, was brought to the Upper House: the peers threw it out by 419 to 41.  Voting with the majority was Lord Hothfield, already rumoured to have taken to sitting alongside the Liberal Unionist Duke of Devonshire and commencing a political journey that would by 1911 find him in the ranks of the ultra-Tory ‘Ditchers’. Correspondents in the local press reacted predictably. He ‘deserts his party in the thick of the fight and goes over to the enemy’, complained ‘Disgusted Liberal Elector’; ‘Disgusted Radical’ concluded that North Westmorland Liberals must in future ‘fight shy of lords and City baronets’. From a distance the Leicester Chronicle explained that it had hitherto been silent on the ‘North Westmorland feud’ because the attacks on Whitehead were ‘obviously the outcome of merely personal feeling … unworthy of the smallest advertisement’.  Now the Home Rule vote had shown the protagonists in their true colours: ‘Sir James Whitehead stands abundantly justified.  The hon. Baronet need pay no more attention to the Hothfields’.

Fit to resume his parliamentary duties late in 1893, Whitehead found his patience further tested by the six months it took the government to implement the Select Committee’s recommendation in a Railway & Canal Traffic Bill. By the time the draft was published in April 1894, Gladstone had resigned, Lord Rosebery was in uncomfortable occupation of 10 Downing Street, and A.J. Mundella (1825-1897) – who confessed to Whitehead ‘I know nothing about railway rates’ – had been replaced as President of the Board of Trade by James Bryce (1838-1922). Frustrated both by a perceived lack of urgency on the government side and eccentric opposition filibustering, Whitehead saw the bill through its second reading on 22 June, and claimed the ‘right to say a word’, having ‘borne the brunt of this controversy for five years on behalf of traders’.  He ‘accepted’ it as better than nothing, but was ‘somewhat disappointed’ that it did not include the provision for which he had pressed to make canals once again ‘independent competitive means of transport’ by mandating their compulsory purchase from railway companies that had acquired them as a means to route monopolies.

After last-minute haggling over the rates chargeable when long-distance freight was handled by multiple companies, the Railway & Canal Traffic Bill emerged from the committee stage. If freight rates were raised above the levels of December 1892, the customer could take the case to Railway & Canal Commissioners who could decide whether or not the increase was reasonable.  Although traders complained that the onus was on them to appeal, with attendant legal costs and no guarantee of a finding in their favour, a landmark judgement in 1899 would make it extremely difficult for railway companies to raise rates any further.  Differential rates did remain, but the law was on balance disliked more by the companies than by the customers. If not on the heroic scale to which he aspired, by sheer persistence Sir James Whitehead achieved his parliamentary objective.  

By the time the Bill made its final express parliamentary journey to Royal Assent on 25 August, 1894, Sir James Whitehead was in Pontresina Switzerland, having formally effected his departure from the House of Commons by being appointed Steward of the Manor of Northstead on 17 August; on the same day his fellow-Member for Leicester, Allanson Picton had done the same by taking the Chiltern Hundreds. Ill-health was the ostensible cause of this unprecedented double resignation. Picton suffered from chronic gout, and his withdrawal had been expected; but, despite Whitehead having been ‘very ill with colic’ in late July, his summary departure occasioned widespread surprise. ‘I cannot understand why you suffer so’ wrote Francis Channing (1841-1926), MP for East Northants; ‘when you have been in the House you always seem so fit and well ...  I hope you will go on at Leicester.  Do not be in such a hurry to get out’. Whitehead told his constituency party that the behaviour of opposition members, ‘an irresponsible body whose sole cause seems to be to secure class privilege’ had worn him down. ‘A few years ago the day was never too long’, but now ‘excessive labour’ had brought ‘the usual penalty … I am not, in these days of deliberate and systematic obstruction, equal to the strain of Parliamentary life’.

The Conservative Leicester Express remarked that Whitehead’s constituents, ‘irrespective of politics’, would hope that ‘the results of his sojourn in Switzerland will be the ultimate falsification of these alarming reports and that, when relieved of his Parliamentary duties, Sir James will be able to speedily return to London, and again render valuable service to the commercial, if not the political world’. It was not to be. In contrast with his friend Percival, who in 1895, accepting Rosebery’s invitation to quit Rugby and become bishop of Hereford,  leapt nimbly from a public school peak to one in the Church, Whitehead was evidently set on leaving the stage of public life. In May 1896 he wrote to Walter Wilkin (1842-1922), Lord Mayor of London, tendering his resignation from  the City Council: after ‘recent serious illness’ and ‘frequent attacks’, medical advice was that ‘restoration to even comparative health will require several months rest’.

In 1897 Whitehead moved his household a few miles further east into Kent to the village of Wilmington: he installed George and his wife and five children in Wilmington Hall, while he and Lady Whitehead moved into Heath House, renamed Wilmington Manor. Rowland was already married and Gilbert and Wilfred married in 1901 and 1907 respectively; but the two daughters, whether through choice or parental design, lived out their Juvenile Ball roles of puritan maids.  Leila had gone up to Girton, Cambridge, in October 1892, but – for reasons unrecorded in the college archives – withdrew after five terms without sitting any examinations; she became her father’s secretary and estate manager.  Her less studious younger sister Florence ran the household and managed the servants. Both assisted their parents in the administration of a benign seigneurial regime that gradually enveloped the village. Sir James bought, refurbished and developed the Mission Room which became a Temperance Centre, housing interdenominational Bible classes run by his daughters, a Band of Hope, Total Abstainers Football Club and Boy Scout troop. He established and presided over a District Benefit Society, provided the village with a drinking fountain and in 1910 marked his golden wedding by building a Village Institute.

Though his own political activity had long since ceased, he was proud when his barrister son Rowland, after unsuccessfully contesting South East Essex in 1900, took the seat in the 1906 Liberal landslide. Parliamentary Private Secretary first to Herbert Samuel (1870-1963), then to the Attorney-General William Robson (1852-1918), Rowland attended the House with greater regularity than his father had done, but was one of many Liberals unseated in January 1910; he did not stand again. By then Sir James had lost his third son, Gilbert (1866-1908), who left a widow and daughter; and he was himself widowed in 1911, when Lady Mercy died. In her revered memory he endowed a leaving scholarship at Appleby Grammar School to add to funding he was already providing for entrance scholarships and for the teaching of Science. Ministered to by his daughters, he spent his twilight years in Wilmington. In April 1917, with over half a million pounds at his disposal, he made his will; in August he took to his bed; on 9 October he died, aged 83.

The baronetcy was inherited by George Whitehead, now living in North Oxford, where, perhaps not coincidentally, his former headmaster and his father’s boyhood friend John Percival spent his brief retirement from the bishopric of Hereford. Less than two years after he inherited the title, the second baronet lost both his sons. James Hugh Edendale Whitehead (1890-1919) died of influenza in March 1919 after sustaining war wounds in service with the 9th battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment. He was predeceased by George William Edendale (1895-1918), killed in action with the RAF in October 1918. Both had been talented cricketers, good enough to play at first class level. According to George Whitehead’s Wisden obituary, ‘among the many public-school cricketers lost during the war, perhaps none … had better prospects of winning distinction at the game’. An ‘old Cliftonian’s’ quoted view of  George as ‘a perfect flower of the public schools … as happy with a good book as when scoring centuries … though gentle and broad-minded, he always stood uncompromisingly for all that was clean’ would surely have delighted his grandfather.

In consequence of these deaths, it was Sir James’s second son Rowland who became third baronet in 1931, since when the title has been inherited in direct line.

Leila (1874-1956), who became Dartford’s first female magistrate, and Florence (1876-1958) devoted the rest of their lives to good works in the locality where their father had made his final home. The Manor House where he ended his days is now part of Wilmington Girls’ Grammar School; a plaque unveiled in 2012 commemorates his name. So too does the Whitehead Science Laboratory at Appleby Grammar School, paid for by Sir James’s endowment and opened in 1924.  Comprehensive since 1962, the school is still visited by his descendants, and prizes continue to be awarded in memory of one of the greatest of its alumni.


  • The principal source for Whitehead’s political life is Andrew Connell, ‘“I feel I am placed at a very great disadvantage” Sir James Whitehead: the parliamentary travails of a Liberal meritocrat’ Journal of Liberal History, issue 91 (Summer 2016) pp. 24-33. For a broader local political context see also A.N. Connell, ‘The Domination of Lowtherism and Toryism in Westmorland Parliamentary Elections, 1818-1895’ Northern History XLV: 2 (September 2008), pp. 295-321.
  • Two lives of Sir James Whitehead have been privately published in typescript: Robert Walker, Sir James Whitehead (1987) and Jean Radford, Sir James Whitehead, Gentleman of Wilmington (2012).
  • The Parliamentary Archive contains four boxes of only roughly sorted Whitehead material, mostly correspondence, WHD/1 and 2 relate to Sir James, and WHD/3 and 4 to Sir Rowland. Some items of primary source material, not yet archived, remain in the hands of the present baronet. Sir James’s parliamentary utterances are to be found in Parliamentary Reports, 4th series (Hansard), vols. VII-XXVI. See also First Report of Select Committee on Railway Rates, 22 Aug. 1893.
  • The other main contemporary sources are newspapers and magazines: from a Cumbrian perspective, the Mid-Cumberland & North Westmorland Herald, Penrith Observer, Westmorland Gazette, Kendal Mercury, Carlisle Journal and Carlisle Patriot; from a Leicester perspective, the Leicester Chronicle, Leicester Express and Wyvern. Particularly during his Lord Mayoralty he was frequently reported and portrayed in the London press and in Punch. 
  • Records of the Fan Makers, Needlemakers, and Fruiterers list the offices he held:  some are to be found online, others by application to company clerks.