Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Anthony John Mundella

2125648Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament — Anthony John MundellaJohn Morrison Davidson



"O heavens! what some men do
 While some men leave to do!"

THERE is no better example in Parliament of what is called a "self-made man" than Anthony John Mundella, the irrepressible representative of Sheffield Radicalism.

An apologist of the late Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, once urged, in the hearing of Thaddeus Stevens, that "Andy" was at least a "self-made man." The retort of that bitterest of politicians was crushing: "I am glad to hear it; it relieves Providence of a heavy responsibility." Now, one has at first a little of this sort of feeling with respect to Mr. Mundella. The edifice which the self-made man erects is apt to appear so much more elegant to the architect than to the public. Besides, the honorable member for Sheffield is a curious combination. His coat is one of many colors. He is half Italian, half English. He has been every thing, from a "printer's devil" to a "captain of industry," and each avocation has left some traces of its influence on his character and sympathies. He is half workman, half employer. He is a churchman, and a warm advocate of religious equality; a Radical, and a supporter of the royal grants. He is a living illustration of the truth of a profound saving in Ecclesiasticus, "All things are double." Add to this that his energy is irrepressible; that he is not afflicted, to put it mildly, with mock modesty; that he represents, on pure principles, a constituency which is pre-eminently the most rascally in England; that he is, withal, fundamentally an able and honest politician, justly regarded by the working-class as one of its greatest benefactors, and it will readily be admitted that first impressions of such a man are apt to be erroneous.

Among so many seeming contradictions it is difficult to find the reconciling principle or central fact; but, like all other men and politicians, Mr. Mundella may be known by the surest of all tests,—by his "fruits." I shall merely premise, before recounting the leading facts of his career, that it would have, perhaps, been better to classify' the member for Sheffield as an eminent Democrat rather than as an eminent Radical. He is emphatically a man of the people, rightly or wrongly feeling as they feel, thinking as they think; and I doubt if there be in England, excepting Mr. Bradlaugh, a more effective out-of-door speaker, a more powerful haranguer of mass meetings. He is at home in a multitude, however vast or however rude. He is one of the very few members of the House of Commons who can beat down a refractory public meeting by unflinching resolution and sheer strength of lung. In the town of Broadhead such a qualification is simply invaluable; and, but for the unsparing exercise of it at the elections of 1874 and 1880, the Liberalism of Sheffield would have showed but poorly indeed.

Anthony John Mundella, M.P., was born at Leicester in March, 1825, the eldest son in a family of five. Mundella, senior, was a Lombard refugee, a native of Como, who, taking part in the insurrectionary movement against the Austrians in 1820, was driven into exile. He landed in England almost penniless, and settled eventually in Leicester, where he endeavored to earn a livelihood as a teacher of languages. Instruction in modern tongues was then a luxury in which but few indulged, and the luckless Antonio, in consequence, frequently broke the exile's bitter bread,—endured what his immortal countryman Dante has called "the hell of exile." Educated for the Roman Church, he had no regular profession on which to rely. His income was consequently at all times precarious. He married, however, a remarkable woman,—Rebecca Allsop of Leicester, a lady richly endowed mentally, and possessed of some little property. She was an adept in lace-embroidery, then a remunerative art, and her skill and unremitting industry in the main supported the Mundella household for the first ten years of her married life.

Then there came a crisis. Her eyesight almost completely failed; and Anthony had in consequence to be removed from school in his ninth year, in order to put his childish shoulder to the wheel. So far his education had been carefully superintended. Mrs. Mundella had a wide knowledge of English literature, was a diligent Shakespearian scholar, and little Anthony had been as quick to learn as she had been apt to teach.

His acquirements accordingly secured him employment in a printing-office, where he remained till his eleventh year. Thereupon he was apprenticed to the hosiery trade. He was most fortunate in his employer, a discriminating man, whose son, a member of Parliament, was the first to welcome Mr. Mundella to St Stephen's on his return for Sheffield in 18G8, In his eighteenth year his apprenticeship was at an end. He had mastered his trade thoroughly, and contemporaneously he had learned all that could be acquired at the Mechanics' Institute of the town, and a great deal more. He was an indefatigable reader. In his nineteenth 3^ear, so conspicuous was his business capacity', that he was engaged as manager of a large enterprise in the cotton trade. At twenty- three he removed to Nottingham, to become junior partner in a firm which shortly transacted the largest hosiery business in the Midlands,—Hone, Mundella, & Co.,—employing as many as three thousand "hands." Of this flourishing company Mr. Mundella is still a director, though not interfering very actively with the management. He is, moreover, chairman of the Commercial Union Insurance Company, and is a director of the National Bank and of the Bank of New Zealand.

To very few "printers' devils" or "stockingers" is it given thus to have a finger in the grande commerce of the country; but Mr. Mundella climbed the ladder steadily and skilfully, and it cannot be said of him that when he got to the summnit he forgot the condition of the less fortunate toilers whom he left below. On the contrary, no working-man in England has striven more earnestly or intelligently for the elevation of the mass than the member from Sheffield, as a bare enumeration of his political and legislative res gestæ will readily show.

Always precocious, Mundella's political career began in mere boyhood. The Austrian tyranny, which had driven his father from his native land, and the miserable condition of the "stockingers" among whom his lot was cast, naturally disposed him to become a partisan of the "Charter," which was at that time being earnestly advocated in Leicester by the well-known Thomas Cooper, author of the "'Purgatory of Suicides," a work written in Leicester Jail. Cooper, in his interesting "Autobiography," published in 1872, gives us a vivid glimpse of the adolescent representative of Sheffield: "I had been appealing strongly one evening to the patriotic feelings of young Englishmen, mentioning the names of Hampden, Sydney, and Marvell, and eulogizing the grand spirit of disinterestedness and self-sacrifice which characterized so many of our brave forerunners, when a handsome young man sprang upon our little platform, and declared himself on the people's side, and desired to be enrolled as a Chartist. He did not belong to the poorest ranks; and it was the consciousness that he was acting in the spirit of self-sacrifice, as well as his fervid eloquence, that caused a thrilling cheer from the ranks of the working-men. He could not have been more than fifteen at the time. He passed away from us too soon, and I have never seen him but once all these years. But the men of Sheffield have signalized their confidence in his patriotism by returning him to the House of Commons; and all England knows, if there be a man of energy, as well as uprightness, in that House, it is Anthony John Mundella."

This picture is obviously somewhat overdrawn; but in the main it is doubtless correct. At Leicester, from 1840 to 1848, Mr. Mundella agitated by voice and pen for the "Charter," and had the satisfaction of hearing reform ballads of his own composition sung in the streets.

When he removed to Nottingham in 1848, new public duties awaited him. He was made successively town councillor, sheriff, alderman, justice of the peace, and president of the Chamber of Commerce. These local experiences were, of course, valuable to him as a legislator and minister in posse; but it was in another and more original field that he first did signal, and, I might say, inestimable, service to the entire community. He was the author in 1860, as he was the president for eleven years subsequently, of the Nottingham Board of Arbitration and Conciliation for the Hosiery Trade,—the harbinger of so many others. Wearied with incessant "strikes" and "lock-outs," Mr. Mundella, after many weeks of fruitless negotiation, at last got employers and employed together. After three days' discussion, the then existing strike was closed by mutual concession, and a resolution agreed to, that, in future, all questions affecting wages should be authoritatively settled by a board consisting of nine duly elected representatives of the masters, and nine of the men. The board held its first meeting on the 3d of December, 1860. In an article on "Conciliation and Arbitration" in "The Contemporary Review" for 1870, ten years later, Mr. Mundella thus sums up the results of the experiment: "Since the 27th of September, 1860, there has not been a bill of any kind issued. Strikes are at an end also. Levies to sustain them are unknown; and one shilling a year from each member suffices to pay all expenses. This—not a farthing of which comes out of the pockets of their masters—is equivalent to a large advance of wages. I have inspected the balance-sheet of a trades-union of ten thousand three hundred men, and I found the expenditure for thirteen months to amount to less than a hundred pounds."

No sooner was the Nottingham method of settling trade disputes by arbitration recognized as feasible, than Mr. Mundella, as its author, was invited by many towns, and, among others, by Sheffield, to give popular expositions of his system. Sheffield had suffered many things at the hands of Broadhead and his infamous crew; and so pleased was the cream of the working-men with the prospect of escape from the vicious circle in which they were involved, that, in 1868, they invited the chairman of the Nottingham board to come forward as their candidate. He was returned at the head of the poll, notwithstanding the strenuous support given to Roebuck by the assassin Broadhead at trades-union meetings.

On entering Parliament, the honor of seconding the address was conferred on him by Mr. Gladstone. Since then his efforts to benefit the working-class have been unflagging, and, on the whole, most successful. His speech on the second reading of the Education Bill was pronounced by Mr. Gladstone to be the most important delivered on the occasion. He had examined into the educational systems of America, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland, on the spot, and was therefore in a position to speak with authority on the all-important theme.

His persistent efforts to repeal the Criminal Law Amendment Act, that the equality of workmen before the law might be established, and to pass the Factory Nine Hours Bill, in order that the hours of labor might be shortened to hapless women and children, have been rewarded. The late Tory Government itself did what it would not permit him to do. All the same, the credit must be accorded to Mr. Mundella, whose views on labor and factory legislation were at the general election of 1874 made test questions all over the north of England.

In 1878 he succeeded in carrying a useful bill for the preservation of fresh-water fisheries, so as to increase the supply of food and give harmless sport to the poorer class of anglers. In the subsequent session his bill to abolish property qualifications in connection with all local government and municipal bodies was lost by only six votes.

To some, such legislative achievements may appear small and commonplace; but it should be recollected that in legislation, as in other matters, it is "the mean and common, the things of the eternal yesterday," that it is most desirable and least agreeable to tackle. I have said that Mr. Mundella is a Democrat rather than a Radical, and I shall finally give an illustration of what I mean. On the vote to pay the cost of the Prince of Wales' mischievous jaunt to India, he sided with the majority in favor of the royal subsidy, and he had the temerity to assign his reasons for so doing: "As long as we had a monarchy, we should be ashamed to have a cotton-velvet or tinfoil sort of monarchy. He did not believe in a cheap, shabby, brummagem monarchy; and he always would give his vote loyally and in consistency with those opinions, which he believed to be the opinions of his constituents."

Now, it is impossible to say whether the Radicalism or the logic of this sentence is the worse; yet, I suppose, it must be admitted that such clap-trap is regarded by the demos of Sheffield—to use the language of our late democratic-imperialist Premier—as "the voice of sense and truth." In the first place, apart from the fact that an advanced Radical might reasonably be expected to be ashamed of having a monarchy of any kind, cheap or dear, Mr. Mundella knew, as every other member knew, that the reasons set forth for the prince's trip were not the true reasons. In the second place, as a friend of the people, and knowing, as he so well knows, the sore privations of the masses, how could he, with a clear conscience, hint that a royal family, which directly costs the nation five million dollars per annum, is either cheap or shabby? The presidency of the United States costs fifty thousand dollars a year; and no impartial observer has ever yet affirmed that the simple courtesies and hospitalities of the White House compare unfavorably with the ridiculous tomfooleries of the Court of St. James. In the third place, it is not the part of a good Radical, as Mr. Mundella seems to think, implicitly to follow the multitude, even if the multitude consist of one's constituents. There is a following of the multitude to do evil which the true Radical will resist, when necessary, at all hazards, in the interest of the people themselves. When great principles are at stake, the genuine Radical must ever be ready to go out into the wilderness, if need be, alone.

"Far in front the Cross stands ready,
  And the crackling fagots burn,
 While the hooting mob of yesterday
  In silent awe return
 To glean up the scattered ashes
  Into History's sacred urn."

Mr. Mundella has likewise a curious disposition to adorn his conversation with quite unnecessary allusions to the opinions of "lords" and other great people of his acquaintance, who are intellectually greatly his inferiors. In aristocracy -ridden England this is nearly always a marked trait of the self-made man. The fact is, the honorable member for Sheffield, with all his vigor of intellect and many virtues, has not altogether escaped the "society" contagion of which the court is the centre, which has made so many strong men weak, and caused "the currents of so many enterprises of pith and moment to turn aside and lose the name of action."

"O thou that sea-walls sever
  From lands unwalled by seas 1
 Wilt thou endure forever,
  O Milton's England, these?
 Thou that wast his republic.
  Wilt thou clasp their knees —
 Those royalties rust-eaten,
  Those worm-corroded lies
 That keep thy head storm-beaten
  And sunlike strength of eyes
 From the open air and heaven
  Of intercepted skies."