Ayrton, Acton Smee (DNB01)

AYRTON, ACTON SMEE (1816–1886), politician, born at Kew in 1816, was a son of Frederick Ayrton (student at Gray's Inn 27 Jan. 1802, barrister-at-law about 1805, and afterwards practising at Bombay), who married Julia, only daughter of Lieutenant-colonel Nugent. Acton Ayrton went to India and practised as a solicitor at Bombay, returning about 1850 with a moderate fortune. On 30 April 1853 he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple, with the intention of devoting himself to a political career.

Ayrton sat in the House of Commons from 1857 to 1874 as liberal member for the Tower Hamlets, His long speech, on 24 April 1860, in support of the abortive bill for reforming the corporation of the city of London {Hansard, clviii. 69-85) attracted attention. Towards the end of his life he resumed his interest in that movement. In 1866, when addressing a meeting of working men in his constituency, he reflected somewhat severely on the queen's retirement from public life owing to the death of the prince consort, and was rebuked with dignity by John Bright, who was present at the meeting. In the administration formed by Gladstone at the end of 1868 Ayrton was nevertheless appointed parliamentary secretary to the treasury, and held the post until 11 Nov. 1869. From that date, when he was created a privy councillor, to August 1873 he was first commissioner of works.

His administration as commissioner of works was not popular, but was marked by zeal for economy in the public interest. He possessed great ability and varied knowledge, with conspicuous independence of character; but his manners were brusque, and he came into personal conflict with numerous men of eminence with whom his official duties brought him into contact. He cut down the expenditure on the new courts of justice, treated Alfred Stevens [q. v.], the sculptor of the Wellington monument at St. Paul's Cathedral, as a negligent contractor, and, but for the interposition of Robert Lowe, would have forced him to surrender his models (Martin, Life of Lord Sherbrooke, ii. 379-80). He also had protracted differences with Sir J. D. Hooker, the director of Kew Gardens, Sir Algernon West, 'in some very complicated negotiations, made peace between them,' and thought Ayrton the 'more reasonable man of the two' (West, Recollections, 1832-86, i. 14). With two other members of the ministry (Gladstone and Lowe) Ayrton was in March 1873 unjustifiably caricatured at the Court Theatre in London in the burlesque called 'The Happy Land,' which was written by W. S. Gilbert and Gilbert à Beckett [q. v.]

In August 1873 Gladstone deemed it prudent to transfer Ayrton from the office of commissioner of works to that of judge-advocate-general. He resigned with the rest of the ministers in March 1874, and Ayrton's political career came to a somewhat inglorious end. At the general election of 1874 he contested the Tower Hamlets again, but was badly beaten, and after the redistribution of seats in 1885, in a contest for the Mile End division of the Tower Hamlets, only 420 votes were tendered for him.

For the last few years of his life he was a daily frequenter of the Reform Club. He died at the Mount Dore Hotel, Bournemouth, on 30 Nov. 1886.

[Times, 2 Dec. 1886 (p. 9), 3 Dec. (p. 6), 4 Dec. (p. 6); Annual Reg. 1886, pp. 168-9; Memoir of G. E. Street, pp. 168-70.]

W. P. C.