Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Molesworth, William
MOLESWORTH, Sir WILLIAM (1810–1855), politician, born in Upper Brook Street, London, on 23 May 1810, was son of Sir Arscott-Ourry Molesworth, by Mary, daughter of Patrick Brown of Edinburgh. The Molesworths had been settled at Pencarrow, near Bodmin, Cornwall, since the time of Elizabeth. Sir Arscott was the seventh holder of the baronetcy, created in 1688. William had a bad constitution and was disfigured in his childhood by scrofula. His father disliked him, and he was sent very early to a boarding-school near London, where the boys teased him on account of his infirmity. His father died 30 Dec. 1823. His mother was then able to bestow more care upon him; his health improved under medical treatment; and he was sent to the school of a Dr. Bekker at Offenbach, near Frankfort, where he made good progress. He was then entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, and gave promise of mathematical distinction. He quarrelled with his tutor in his second year, sent him a challenge, and crossed to Calais with a view to a duel. The tutor did not fight, however, and Molesworth was expelled from Cambridge. His mother then went with him and his two sisters to Edinburgh (about 1828), where he finished his education at the university. He then broke away 'for the south of Europe,' and stayed for a time at Naples, where he found some young Englishmen, with whom he indulged in 'some youthful follies.' His follies, however, did not prevent him from studying Arabic for several hours a day with a view to eastern travel. His treatment by his father and at Cambridge had made him dislike all authority; in Germany he had become democratic; in Scotland, sceptical; and he had found Cambridge at a period of remarkable intellectual 'activity' (Philosophical Radicals, pp. 50-3). The utilitarian propaganda had been actively carried on there by Charles Buller [q. v.] and others. Receiving news at Naples of the growing excitement about parliamentary reform, he thought it a duty to take part in the contest. He made his first public appearance at a reform meeting in Cornwall in 1831; and he was returned as member for East Cornwall (December 1832) in the first reformed parliament. His Cornish connection made him known to Charles Buller, who had also been his contemporary at Cambridge, and was returned at the same election for Liskeard. He made the acquaintance of Grote in the House of Commons, and by Grote was introduced to James Mill. Mill thought highly of his abilities, and he was accepted as one of the faithful utilitarians. Grote was for some years his political and philosophical mentor. He was also a favourite of Mrs. Grote, to whom he confided more than one love affair at this period. Two young ladies, to whom he made offers, appear to have regarded him with favour; but in both cases their guardians succeeded in breaking off the match on account of his infidel and radical opinions. Molesworth was embittered by his disappointments: and for some years tried to console himself by study, and received many reproaches from Mrs. Grote for his unsocial habits. He declared that he preferred to be disliked.
Molesworth was again returned for East Cornwall at the general election at the end of 1835. He had meanwhile projected the 'London Review,' of which the first number appeared in April 1835 [see under Mill, John Stuart]. James Mill contributed to it his last articles, and J. S. Mill was practically editor; while it was supported by the 'philosophical radicals' generally. In 1837 Molesworth transferred it to J. S. Mill.
Molesworth continued to follow Grote's lead in politics. He voted against the repeal of the malt-tax under Peel's short administration in 1835, because he could not bear to vote against Grote, though many radicals differed from him. He was also a staunch supporter of the ballot—Grote's favourite measure—but his especial province was colonial policy. He obtained a committee to inquire into the system of transportation in 1837, and wrote the report, which produced a considerable impression. He continued to attack the system, and contributed to its ultimate abandonment. In his colonial policy he accepted the theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield [q. v.], then in much favour. He supported all measures for colonial self-government, and protested with his party against the coercive measures adopted by the whig ministry during the Canadian troubles. The 'philosophical radicals,' however, gradually sank into insignificance. As early as 1836 Buller observed to Grote that their duties would soon be confined to 'telling' Molesworth. His Cornish constituency became dissatisfied with him, he was disliked by the country gentlemen for his extreme views, the whigs resolved to give him up, and he did not satisfy the agricultural interest. He wrote an address to his constituents (September 1836) stating that he should not stand again, and looked out for a metropolitan constituency. He was finally accepted as a candidate for Leeds, and was elected with Edward Baines [q. v.] in July 1837, beating a third candidate by a small majority. An attempt to form a ' radical brigade ' in this parliament failed, owing to a proposal from O'Connell to join it. The radicals were afraid that they would be swamped, and the scheme fell through (Phil. Radicals, p. 32). On 2 March 1838 Molesworth moved a vote of censure upon the colonial secretary [see Grant, Charles, Baron Glenelg]. An amendment was proposed by Lord Sandon [see Ryder, Dudley, second Earl of Harrowby] condemning the Canadian policy, when the original motion was withdrawn. The government had a majority of 29, Molesworth and Grote not voting. During the next few years Molesworth was much occupied with his edition of 'Hobbes's Works.' It was published in sixteen volumes, from 1839 to 1845, with dedication in English and Latin to Grote. He engaged as literary assistant Mr. Edward Grubbe (ib. p. 67). The book is said to have cost 'many thousand pounds.' It is the standard edition; but unfortunately Molesworth never finished the life of Hobbes, which was to complete it, although at his death it was reported to be in manuscript (Gent. Mag. 1855, pt. ii. p. 647). Molesworth joined Grote in subsidising Comte in 1840.
At the general election of 1841 Molesworth did not stand. He had offended many of his constituents in 1840 by holding a peace meeting at Leeds during the French difficulties of 1840, when he strongly advocated an alliance with France and attacked Russia. He remained quietly at Pencarrow studying mathematics. Another love aifair, of which Mrs. Grote gives full details, had occupied him in 1840 and 1841, which again failed from the objections of the family to his principles. In 1844, however, he met a lady, who was happily at her own disposal. He was married, on 4 July 1844, to Andalusia Grant, daughter of Bruce Carstairs, and widow of Temple West of Mathon Lodge, Worcestershire. His friends thought, according to Mrs. Grote, that the lady's social position was too humble to justify the step. Mrs. Grote says that she defended him to her friends, but Molesworth, hearing that she had made some 'ill-natured remarks about his marriage,' curtly signified to her husband his wish to hear no more from her. Although Charles Austin made some attempts to make up the quarrel, the intimacy with the Grotes was finally broken off.
Molesworth after his marriage gave up his recluse habits, being anxious, as Mrs. Grote surmises, to show that he could conquer the world, from which he had received many mortifications. It may also be guessed that his marriage had made him happier. In any case he again entered parliament, being returned for Southwark in September 1845, with 1,943 votes against 1,182 for a tory candidate, and 352 for the representative of the dissenters and radicals, Edward Miall [q. v.] His support of the Maynooth grant was the chief ground of opposition, and a cry was raised of 'No Hobbes!' Molesworth retained his seat at Southwark till his death. On 20 May 1851 he moved for the discontinuance of transportation to Van Diemen's Land, but the house was counted out. He gave a general support to the whigs in the following years, and upon the formation of Lord Aberdeen's government in January 1853 became first commissioner of the board of works, with a seat in the cabinet. Cobden regarded his accession to office as an apostasy, and on the approach of the Crimean war taunted him with inconsistency. Molesworth defended himself by referring to the Leeds speech of 1840, in which he had avowed the same foreign policy. He had, however, broken with his old allies. He has the credit of having opened Kew Gardens to the public on Sundays. Upon Lord John Russell's resignation in 1855, Molesworth became colonial secretary (2 July). It was a position for which he had specially qualified himself: but his strength had already failed. He died 22 Oct. following, and was buried at Kensal Green.
As Molesworth left no issue, and as his brothers had died before him, his cousin, the Rev. Sir Hugh Henry Molesworth, succeeded to the baronetcy. He left Pencarrow to his widow for her life. She was a well-known member of London society till her death, 16 May 1888. His sister Mary became in 1851 the wife of Richard Ford [q. v.], author of the ' Handbook to Spain.' A bust of Molesworth by Behnes, executed in 1843, was presented by him to Mrs. Grote, and another is in the library of the National Liberal Club. There is a drawing of him in the 'Maclise Portrait Gallery,' p. 211. Mrs. Grote says of him at the age of twenty-three he had 'a pleasant countenance, expressive blue eyes, florid complexion, and light brown hair; a slim and neatly made figure, about 5 ft. 10 in. in height, with small, well-shaped hands and feet.' His health was always weak, and caused him many forebodings. This, as well as his unlucky love affairs and the dispiriting position of his party, probably increased his dislike to society in early life. In late years he seems to have been much liked; and his speeches in parliament were carefully prepared and received with respect, although he was rather a deliverer of set essays and had no power as a debater.
Molesworth's only separate publications were reprints of some of his speeches in parliament, and he wrote some articles in the 'London and Westminster Review.'
[The Philosophical Radicals of 1832, comprising the Life of Sir William Molesworth, and some incidents connected with the Reform Movement from 1832 to 1844, privately printed in 1866 by Mrs. Grote, gives several letters from Molesworth and many anecdotes, not very discreet nor probably very accurate. The contemporary notices in the Times, 23 Oct. 1855; Gent. Mag. 1855, pp. 645–8; New Monthly, 1855, pp. 394–400; and other journals are collected in a privately printed volume, Notices of Sir W. Molesworth [by T. Woolcombe], 1885. See also Morley's Cobden, 1881, i. 137, ii. 127, 160; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub.; Burke's Peerage and Baronetage.]