Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Ritchie, Charles Thomson

RITCHIE, CHARLES THOMSON, first Baron Ritchie of Dundee (1838–1906), statesman, born on 19 Nov. 1838 at Hawkhill, Dundee, was the fourth son in a family of six sons and two daughters of William Ritchie, a landed proprietor, of Rockhill, Broughty Ferry, Forfarshire, head of the firm of William Ritchie & Son of London and Dundee, East India merchants, jute spinners, and manufacturers. His mother was Elizabeth, daughter of James Thomson. The Ritchies had been connected with the burgh of Dundee for two centuries. The second son, James Thomson Ritchie (1835–1912), became an alderman of the City of London, served as sheriff in 1896–7, was lord mayor from 1903 to 1904, and was created a baronet on 15 Dec. 1903. The father designed his sons for a business life, and Charles, after education at the City of London School, which he entered in September 1849 and left in July 1853, passed immediately into the London office of his father's firm. In 1858, while still under twenty, he married Margaret, a daughter of Thomas Ower of Perth. For the next sixteen years (1858–74) Ritchie's time was almost wholly absorbed by the business of the firm, of which he soon became a partner. His offices lay in the East End of London, and he thus enjoyed opportunities of studying conditions of life among the poorer classes. He interested himself in politics, adopting a toryism which was from the first of a 'progressive' type. In 1874 he was elected in the conservative interest member for the great working-class constituency of the Tower Hamlets amid the tory reaction which followed Gladstone's first administration. For the first time the constituency, which had two members, returned a tory. Ritchie headed the poll with 7228 votes—a majority of 1328 over the liberal, J. D'Aguilar Samuda, who was his colleague in the representation. The older tories regarded him with some suspicion, and he was termed a 'radical' when, in meeting his constituents after his first session, he described his work in the House of Commons (report of speech in Observer, 3 Oct. 1874). In his second session he increased his popularity with the working classes of East London by securing the passage of a bill extending the application of the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 to dockyard and customs house employees (24 Nov, 1875).

During the Disraeli government of 1874—1880 and later he devoted much of his parliamentary activity to the grievances of the English sugar refiners and the colonial growers of cane-sugar, notably in the West Indies, owing to the bounties paid in European countries upon the exportation of sugar beet. On 22 April 1879 he moved that a select committee should be appointed to 'consider the question and to report whether in their opinion any remedial measures could be devised by Parliament.' He suggested 'a countervailing duty equivalent to the bounty.' He defined free trade as 'the circulation of commodities at their natural value,' the natural value being what they would bring in free competition, but he deprecated the identification of his opinion either with protection or what is called reciprocity.' The proposed duty would be only 'an establishment of the principles of free trade, which had been practically destroyed by the bounties.' The motion was opposed by Mr. (now Lord) Courtney, but the committee was appointed, and Ritchie became chairman of it. The result was a recommendation in favour of the abolition of the continental bounties by means of an international agreement. The inquiry began a campaign against the economic system which was exemplified in the policy of sugar-bounties. Ritchie followed up the question in the next parliament and found himself in conflict with Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, then president of the board of trade and an advocate of free imports. Many years later, in a speech at Tynemouth (21 Oct. 1903), when both Ritchie's and Mr. Chamberlain's views of free trade had undergone a reversal, Mr. Chamberlain recalled the curious ’chasse-croise' which characterised their positions (Imperial Union and Tariff Reform: Speeches by J. Chamberlain, 1903, p. 109).

In the general election of March-April 1880 Ritchie was again chosen for the Tower Hamlets, no fewer than 11,720 votes being cast for him, but the first place at the poll was taken by a liberal, Mr. James Bryce, who obtained 12,020 votes. By vigorous criticism of the Gladstonian government, together with his work on the sugar bounty question, he acquired as a private member a reputation for business ability and a mastery of detail. After the Redistribution Act of 1885 Ritchie won the seat of St. George's-in-the-East. He was first elected on 20 Nov. 1885 and was re-elected on 6 July 1888.

In Lord Salisbury's first administration of June 1885 to Jan. 1886, Ritchie was first admitted to office, becoming financial secretary to the admiralty. During his seven months' tenure of this post he acted as chairman of a departmental committee to inquire into the general management and working of the dockyards and especially to investigate the causes of the slowness with which warships were turned out. The committee's recommendations resulted in a great acceleration in the process of shipbuilding and a considerable reduction in cost. Up to that time the construction and equipment of a first-class ironclad had taken on an average about seven years. The Royal Sovereign, a battleship of 14,000 tons, was built in two years and eight months (1888-91).

After the defeat of Gladstone's home rule government in July of 1886 and the return of the conservatives to power, Ritchie was appointed president of the local government board — at first without a seat in the cabinet. Mr. Henry Chaplin had been offered and had refused the post on the ground of its holder being excluded from the cabinet. But the conservatives had put the reform of local government among the first of the measures on their programme, and in April 1887, when the government decided to deal comprehensively with the subject, Ritchie received cabinet rank. For nearly a year he was occupied in the preparation of a voluminous measure dealing with the subject. On 19 March 1888 he introduced the local government bill (for England and Wales) into the House of Commons, in a speech which Gladstone called 'a very frank, a very lucid, and a very able statement.' It was a complicated measure, with its 162 clauses, its five schedules, and its eighty folio pages of amendments. The general aim almost amounted to a social revolution. In place of the nominated magistrates who in quarter sessions had hitherto managed the business of the county it established for administrative purposes councils elected by the ratepayers to be independent of any but parliamentary control. Their business was to include the levying of county rates, the maintenance of roads and hedges, lunatic asylums, industrial and reformatory schools, registration, weights and measures, and such matters as adulteration of food and drugs. The management of the county police, meanwhile, was transferred to a joint committee of quarter sessions and the county council, the appointment of chief constable remaining with quarter sessions. Together with the sanitary authorities already existing, the county councils were to enforce the provisions of the Rivers Pollution Act ; and all such powers of the local government board as related to piers, harbours, electric lighting, gas and water, tramways, the administration of the Sale of Food and Drugs Acts, the settlement of boundary disputes, and so on, were to be transferred to them. They were also to have the power to promote emigration by making advances to emigrants, and their adininistration of funds raised by the imperial executive was further widened by the power to increase the contribution towards the cost of maintaining indoor paupers. The act further provided for the distribution of the 'county' — a geographical unit to be retained, as far as possible, as it existed — into equal electoral divisions, with one member for each, the number of divisions being fixed by the local government board, and the council being purely elective with co-opted aldermen.

London received separate treatment in the bill. Together with certain other large towns it was made a county in itself, and an elected council, with co-opted aldermen, superseded the Metropolitan Board of Works. The metropolitan police, however, were left under the control of the home office, as being a national and not a municipal force, and the City of London proper was to remain the same as a quarter sessions borough. While many of its administrative duties were transferred to the London county council the City Corporation was exempted from the general condemnation of all unreformed corporations.

As originally drafted Ritchie's bill provided for the creation of district councils and included a readjustment of the licensing laws, making the county councils the licensing authority and authorising them to refuse the renewal of licences, with compensation to the licence holder. These clauses, which embodied the principle of compensation for interference with public houses, and so recognised a legal vested interest on the part of the licence-holder, were warmly contested by the temperance party, and, after considerable discussion, they were dropped (June 12). The establishment of district councils was relinquished also ; but under the Local Government Act of 1894 this part of Ritchie's work was completed six years later by the liberals.

Some extreme tories, particularly in the City of London, censured the bill, but its reception was generally favourable as being 'a great work of safe and moderate decentralisation' bound to 'reinvigorate the local energies of our people' (The Times, 20 March 1888). Ritchie's management of its complicated details in committee, his mastery of every point and phase of it, his good temper, and his clearness in explanation, constituted a parliamentary achievement of the first order, and when the bill was read a third time and passed on 27 July 1888, Sir William Harcourt, amid universal cheering, paid a warm tribute to the 'ability, the conciliatory temper, and the strong common -sense ' he had displayed (Hansard, vol. 329, 3rd series). The bill received the royal assent on 13 Aug. 1888, and came into force next year. A similar bill for Scotland became law in Aug. 1889. In addition to the Local Government Act, Ritchie was responsible, while at the local government board, for the Allotments Acts of 1887 and 1890; for the Infectious Diseases Notification Act of 1889 ; and for the Housing of the Working Classes Amendment and Consolidation Acts of July 1890. His power of mastering and classifying enormous masses of detail was again shown in his two Public Health Acts, involving the vast and complicated machinery which controls the sanitary condition of London. The first of these, introduced on 8 April 1891, was a consolidation bill which put in order the chaos of twenty-nine Acts already treating of the subject ; the second and more important was the public health amendment bill for the metropolis, which was read for a third time on 27 Jmie 1891, and, in its final form, represented the results of the best sanitary knowledge of the day. Ritchie's poor law administration showed the sympathetic spirit with which he always approached the study of the welfare of the poorest classes.

Ritchie's six years at the local government board fully established his reputation as an administrator who brought to political work the sound common-sense trained in years of business life. At the general election of 1892 he was defeated in the contest at St. Greorge's-in-the-East. A liberal government returned to power, and Ritchie was out of parliament until 1895. At a bye-election on 24 May of that year he was chosen for Croydon without a contest. The liberal government resigned in the following June, and in Lord Salisbury's third administration Ritchie again accepted a seat in the cabinet, being made president of the board of trade. In that capacity Ritchie was responsible for much useful legislation, touching the railway, marine, commercial, labour, and statistical departments of the board.

His first important measure was the Concihation Act of 1896, which established conciliation boards for the settlement of labour disputes. The board of trade was authorised to formulate regulations of procedure and thus first exercised the power of negotiating in trade disputes. Between the passing of the Act in 1896 and the end of Ritchie's presidency in 1900, the number of cases so dealt with was 113, seventy of which were settled under the Act {Official Memorandum of the Board of Trade). In Feb. 1898 his personal intervention put an end to an eight months' strike in the engineering trade. Another useful measure of the same year (1896) was the Light Railways Act, which embodied experience gained by Ritchie on visits to France and Belgium. The Act provides that light railways may be proposed by any local authority and, if their proposals are approved by the commissioners appointed to consider them, they may take the necessary land, after paying a fair valuation, by compulsion, and may proceed with the work without obtaining parliamentary sanction. In 1897 Ritchie appointed a very important departmental committee on commercial intelligence, which was required to consider the best means whereby British manufacturers might obtain information as to the most favourable markets for their goods in the colonies and in India. As a result of the committee's report, there was established in October 1899 a new intelligence branch of the commercial, labour, and statistical departments of the board of trade {Board of Trade Memorandum). A Merchant Shipping (Mercantile Marine Fund) Act which was passed by Ritchie in 1898 was based upon the recommendations of a committee appointed by Mr. James Bryce in 1894 and presided over by Mr. Leonard (now Lord Courtney). Its most important provision was an allowance to shipowners for carrying boys who enrol themselves in the royal naval reserve. The intention was to check the serious decline in the numbers of British-born merchant seamen, who were estimated to have decreased at the rate of more than a thousand annually during the past five years and were in regard to foreign sailors in the proportion of one to three. Under Ritchie's Act the British boy sailors in the reserve numbered 302 in 1899-1900, the first year of its operation, and 2230 on 31 March 1903.

The growth of fatal or serious accidents amongst railway servants (1896-8) led Ritchie to procure the appointment of a royal commission of inquiry, with the result that he passed in 1900 the Railway Employment (Prevention of Accidents) Act, which dealt fully with the means of increased protection. Ritchie's Companies Act of 26 June 1900, which was practically a bill passed by a select committee of the House of Commons appointed in 1894 {Parliamentary Debates, vol. 84, 4th series), endeavoured to strengthen the existing law against fraudulent and inflated companies.

At the general election of September 1900 Ritchie was returned for Croydon unopposed. The conservatives retained their majority, but in November 1900 Lord Salisbury made some changes in the ministry, and Ritchie was transferred from the board of trade to the home office in succession to Sir Matthew White Ridley [q. v. Suppl. II]. His administration of the board of trade, which had shown diligence, conciliatory spirit, and powers of clarifying confusion, had greatly improved the repute of the department.

As home secretary, one of Ritchie's earliest duties was to carry out the ancient ceremonies incident to the death, after a reign of sixty- three years, of Queen Victoria, with whom his personal relations were always cordial. Soon afterwards Ritchie undertook an elaborate and complicated Factory and Workshop Act which, in its 163 clauses and seven schedules, consolidated and amended the whole of the Factory-Acts since 1878. Another useful Act, the Youthful Offenders Act, provided that in some instances young offenders on remand should be committed to the charge of some responsible person, instead of being sent either to prison or to the workhouse ; and also that when offences committed by children could be directly traced to the habitual and wilful negligence of parents or guardians, the latter should be liable to prosecution. On 30 Jan. 1902, also, he introduced a licensing bill, the first part of which strengthened the law against the individual drunkard, while the second authorised a summary refusal of licences of offending publicans on the annual applications for renewal. The bill also put all retail licences absolutely under the control of the justices and provided for the registration of all clubs {Parliamentary Debates, vol. 101, 4th series).

In August 1902 Lord Salisbury resigned the post of prime minister, and Mr. Balfour, his successor, reconstructed the cabinet. Ritchie accepted with reluctance the office of chancellor of the exchequer. In the first place, as he explained to Mr. Balfour, he unwillingly left a post which was very congenial ; and secondly, he was apprehensive of the favour bestowed by the colonial secretary, Mr. Chamberlain, on colonial preference, with which he felt himself out of agreement, but in regard to which, as finance minister, he would have special responsibilities. His hope that the question would not soon arise in an acute form was disappointed. Mr. Chamberlain and a section of the cabinet argued for a reconsideration of the tariff system, with a measure of preference for the colonies, and the argument soon took a practical turn. Ritchie's predecessor, Sir Michael Hicks-Beach (afterwards Viscount St. Aldwyn), had in the budget of April 1902 imposed on corn an import duty of one shilling a quarter, which was estimated to bring in two and a half millions annually. Although it was regarded as little more than a registration duty, Mr. Chamberlain now desired to retain it as a first step towards granting preference to the colonies, and before leaving for South Africa in December he pressed the cabinet to continue it in this guise. Ritchie declined to commit himself to the imposition or remission of a particular tax so long before the end of the financial year. He declared in any case the shilling duty on corn to be a mere incident in the budget, and that he had no objection to retaining it provided that it was not to be treated as a differentiation or preferential duty or as an earnest of a new fiscal policy which could only be adopted after mature consideration as part of a specifically declared policy. The cabinet decided in favour of Mr. Chamberlain's arguments ; Ritchie registered his dissent, and was assured that the matter would come on later for further consideration. During Mr. Chamberlain's absence in South Africa Ritchie several times informed the prime minister of his inability to act on the decision of the cabinet. That information was communicated to Mr. Chamberlain on his return. Mr. Chamberlain replied that if he could not secure the com duty for preferential purposes, he did not care to have it at all. The cabinet thereupon accepted Ritchie's recommendation to remit the duty.

On 23 April 1903 Ritchie introduced his first and only budget. The war in South Africa was at an end. The financial situation, however, did not allow the chancellor to remit all the war taxes, but, on the basis of the existing taxation, he budgeted for a surplus of 10,816,000l., and therewith he took fourpence off the income-tax. At the same time he dropped the shilling a quarter duty on corn.

The abolition of the com tax was resented by the supporters of Mr. Chamberlain and by a large section of the unionist party. On 15 May 1903 Mr. Chaplin headed a deputation to Mr. Balfour asking that it should be retained. The prime minister made a moderate reply, with which Ritchie stated that he was in complete agreement ; but on the same day Mr. Chamberlain at Birmingham, in an impassioned speech in favour of a policy of preference, 'initiated the acute stage of the fiscal controversy' (Balfour, Fiscal Reform Speeches, p. 16). During the debate on the finance bill on 9 and 10 June 1903 the differences within the cabinet were more clearly defined. Ritchie declared himself to be a freetrader. He declined to be (see Parliamentary Debates, 4th series, vol. 123) 'a party to a policy which, in my opinion would be detrimental to both the country and the colonies.' Ritchie's budget received the royal assent without alteration on 30 June.

The breach in the cabinet thenceforth developed rapidly. Mr. Chamberlain came to the conclusion that he could best forward his views as to imperial preference from without. He sent his resignation to Mr. Balfour from Birmingham on 9 September, and it was accepted by the prime minister in a personal interview on 14 September. The cabinet met later in the day. As a result of its deliberations Ritchie and Lord George Hamilton resigned. They were without any knowledge of Mr. Chamberlain's earlier withdrawal, and were under the impression that he was committing the cabinet to a protective policy. Their resignations were published on 18 September with, to their astonishment, that also of Mr. Chamberlain. The duke of Devonshire alone of Mr. Balfour's free-trade colleagues had learned of Mr. Chamberlain's withdrawal before the cabinet meeting, and he remained for the time in the cabinet. Lord Balfour of Burleigh, the remaining free trade minister, resigned on the 21st. Much controversy ensued between Ritchie and his friends on the one hand and Mr. Balfour and the protectionists of the cabinet on the other. The prime minister, who in his endeavour to keep his party together had avoided any but indefinite pronouncements on the fiscal question, had yet in his ‘Economic Notes on Insular Free Trade’ (published September 1903, but circulated earlier as a cabinet memorandum) ‘approached the subject from the free trade point of view.’ Between him and Ritchie there was at the time no extreme divergence of view. It was solely the presence of Mr. Chamberlain in the cabinet that made Ritchie's retention of office impossible. Had Mr. Chamberlain's retirement been announced to Ritchie, the ground for his own resignation at the moment would have been removed. Mr. Balfour replied in later speeches that he and the majority of the cabinet inclined to some kind of change in the fiscal system, and that Ritchie and his free trade colleagues were in opposition on that point to the majority; that Mr. Chamberlain had already threatened resignation if preference were excluded from the official programme of the government, to which it was not admitted; and that Ritchie's dissent from views expressed by himself in a valedictory letter to Mr. Chamberlain (17 Sept. 1903) showed that he would have retired in any case a day or two after he actually did go (see Balfour, Fiscal Reform Speeches, p. 143). Ritchie and his friends retorted that Mr. Chamberlain's verbal announcements of resignation had been frequent in the heat of controversy and were not taken seriously. After the withdrawal of Ritchie and his friends the prime minister's pronouncements leant more decisively to the side of the tariff reformers, with the result that the duke of Devonshire parted from him on 2 October. On 19 Oct. 1903 at Croydon, on 18 November at Thornton Heath, and finally at Croydon on 2 December, Ritchie defended his attitude throughout the fiscal controversy. ‘So far as Mr. Balfour's policy of retaliation is concerned he had never said … that he would not be prepared to adopt it.’ ‘What he had said was, that “we will be no parties to any arrangement with the colonies which shall impose upon us the necessity for putting a tax upon the food of the people”’ (speech at Thornton Heath in Daily Chronicle, 19 Nov. 1903).

With his resignation and his public explanation Ritchie's public life ceased, though in the sessions of 1904 and 1905 he spoke more than once in the House of Commons in support of free trade principles. On 10 Feb. 1905 he suffered a severe blow in the death of his wife after forty-seven years of mutual attachment and happiness. It is doubtful if he recovered from the shock. The resignation of Mr. Balfour's government came on 17 Dec. 1905, and five days later Ritchie was raised to the peerage as Baron Ritchie of Dundee, of Welders, Chalfont St. Giles, co. Buckingham, his country residence. But he was not to enjoy the honour long. A few days before Christmas he went to Biarritz on a visit to Lord and Lady Dudley, and while there was stricken with paralysis. He died at Biarritz on 9 Jan. 1906, and was buried at Kensal Green. He left nine children—two sons and seven daughters. A first-born son, William, predeceased him. His elder surviving son, Charles Ritchie, succeeded him in the peerage.

Ritchie was tall and very dark, with something of a Southerner's swarthiness of complexion. His portrait by John Pettie, R.A., belongs to the present Lord Ritchie. A bust by E. Roscoe Mullins was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1889. A cartoon portrait by ‘Ape’ appeared in ‘Vanity Fair’ in 1885.

Ritchie was never as well known to the public as might have been expected from the usefulness of his political work. He lacked the qualities which make for popularity. Clear and persuasive as a speaker in the House of Commons, he was not an effective platform speaker. In his own constituency of Croydon he was mercilessly interrupted and several times shouted down when defending his fiscal views. But his grasp of complicated detail and his shrewd common-sense gave him substantial influence in the inner circle of his party. An unconciliatory manner repelled many members of his own side, although his circle of personal friends was wide. He seldom entertained, and took scarcely any part in the social side of politics.

[Private information; personal knowledge; official memoranda and letters; The Times, and Daily Telegraph, 10 Jan. 1906; reports of speeches, &c., from the Dundee Advertiser and Croydon Advertiser; Hansard's Parliamentary Debates from 1874 to 1892 and from 1895 to 1906; The Times Parliamentary Debates, vol. vii. (speeches on introduction of local government bill); Annual Register for 1888, 1889, 1890, 1895–1900, 1903, and 1906; Debrett's Peerage; Our Conservative and Unionist Statesmen, vol. i. (with portrait from good photograph); articles Balfour, Chamberlain, and Duke of Devonshire in Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edit.; Lucy's Diary of Two Parliaments, 1888; Imperial Union and Tariff Reform speeches by J. Chamberlain, 1903; Fiscal Reform Speeches by A. J. Balfour, 1906; Jenks's English Local Government, 2nd edit. 1907; L. Gomme's The London County Council: its Duties and Powers according to the Local Government Act of 1888; Arthur Elliot's Life of Lord Goschen, 1911; Holland's Life of Duke of Devonshire, 1911; Annals of our Time, by H. Hamilton Fyfe, 1887–1891; Herbert Paul's A History of Modern England, vol. v.; Sidney Low and L. C. Sanders, Political History of England; Speeches of Lord Randolph Churchill, ed. by L. J. Jennings, vol. ii.]

R. J.