Open main menu

Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/James Beal



"We cannot bring Utopia by force;
 But better, almost, be at work in sin
 Than in a brute inaction browse and sleep."

THERE is not in England's vast metropolis, or peradventure in all England, a Radical who, during the last thirty years, has more consistently acted on this principle than Mr. James Beal, the noted Regent-street auctioneer and land-agent.

He is the typical Radical citizen of London,—a bourgeois untainted by any of the political failings of the English middle class. These consist of indifference to the claims of intellectual superiority on the one hand, and to the demands of suffering humanity on the other. The British shopkeeper is not without his virtues; but he is neither the friend of thinkers nor of the proletariate. In both these respects Mr. Beal has been conspicuously above the class to which he belongs. For more than a quarter of a century this busy, bustling auctioneer has contrived to devote some portion of his day—often the best portion of it—to the furtherance of this scheme or that of municipal or national reform. Without fee or reward, in evil and in good report, he has gone steadily forward, studying, writing, lecturing, organizing on behalf of some good cause or other,—

"One of much outside bluster: for all that,
 Most honest, brave, and skilful."

Mr. Beal has made the public interest his interest to an extent that has not been excelled by any private citizen of the day. His achievements bear eloquent testimony to the good which it is possible for individual Radicals to effect who may never even aspire to a seat in the House. The self-forgetfulness which enables such public-spirited citizens as Beal to feel greater pleasure in returning to Parliament political thinkers of the eminence of Mill and Morley, than in being themselves returned, is one of the most hopeful signs of English public life. It points to the ultimate conquest of Philistia by the forces of humanity and right reason; and in that sacred warfare Mr. Beal has earned for himself imperishable distinction. In Philistia, he is not of it. On the contrary', he has assailed the Philistines in their chief strongholds of vestry, guild, and corporation, with a vigor which has caused them oft-times to tremble behind their intrenchments. But I must not anticipate.

Mr. Beal's public work, like his private business, has been of a strictly practical character, and will be best treated in brief chronological sequence. Whatsoever his hand has found to do, he has done it with his might. There are many good men willing to discharge public duties at the solicitation of others; but Mr. Beal is not one of these. It has been his function to invent duties for himself and others, as the sequel will show.

"No man is born into the world whose work
 Is not born with him: there is always work,
 And tools to work withal, for those who will;
 And he who waits to have his task marked out
 Shall die, and leave his errand unfulfilled."

James Beal was born in Chelsea (Sloane Square) in February, 1829. His father was a respectable old Tory tradesman, who had originally come from Yorkshire. He died before Beal had completed his seventeenth year, living long enough, however, to satisfy the subject of this memoir that he and his male parent possessed few or no sympathies in common. It was different with Beal's mother. She was a woman as remarkable for vigor of mind as of body, and from her her son inherited most of his mental and physical characteristics. Without brothers, and without access to his father's sympathies, Beal naturally enough "took after" this strong-minded mother, whose memory he still reverently cherishes.

There was no London School Board in those times, and young Beal's education was accordingly of a somewhat meagre kind. He attended several local schools kept by private teachers, but never got beyond the "beggarly elements" of the three R's. He was eventually put to business in his fourteenth year, the consequence being that Mr. Beal is substantially a self-taught man. No one who has gone through the regular scholastic mill could doubt this for a moment. The matter of his writings is always excellent; but the manner is generally very rugged. His arrows have terrible barbs, but no feathers. They do not kill at long range; but they are very formidable in a hand-to-hand encounter. As a journalist, the directness, not to say the fury, of his method of attack—so different from that of the professional scribe—arrests, and is bound to arrest, attention by its very novelty, if for no better reason.

Mr. Beal's business training was in every way more fortunate than his educational. He commenced as clerk in a solicitor's office; and before he had completed his sixteenth year he had mastered Blackstone, and acquired a general knowledge of legal forms and principles which could not fail to be of the greatest use to him as a man of business in after-life. About this time he had fortunately few companions except his books; and these he read with avidity, storing up much valuable information, which he shortly found most serviceable. One of his few friends happily possessed a large and well-selected library; and Beal, having the run of it, did not neglect the opportunity to make up for the shortcomings of his school-training.

Subsequently Mr. Beal entered the office of an upholsterer; but before he was twenty-one he found himself a partner in the extensive auctioneer and land-agency business of which he has now for many years been the principal. This Radical of the Radicals has bought and sold more real estate, let and hired more aristocratic mansions, than perhaps any land-agent in England. Such a fact, so antecedently improbable, speaks volumes for the integrity and capacity of the man.

In 1848 Mr. Beal began to apply his mind to politics "in earnest;" that is to say, he became a confirmed and immovable Radical. He had previously induced his father, much to the old man's subsequent astonishment, to record his vote for Cochrane, then Radical candidate for Middlesex,—a thoroughly characteristic act; for Beal, with all his fiery zeal, has a wonderful knack of converting foes into friends, if only an opportunity of exerting his personal influence is afforded hini. His own mind is so thoroughly made up, that he will speedily make up yours, if you are not on your guard. He became a member of the "Discussion Classes" which then met at the National Hall, Holborn; and there he made the acquaintance of such well-known apostles of Radicalism as Hetherington, Lovett, Watson, and Place.

The first reform with which his name is associated was the abolition of the penny stamp on newspapers. Brougham had succeeded, in 1834, in effecting a reduction of the obnoxious impost from fourpence to a penny; and Hetherington, Place, Beal, and others, in 1848, formed a committee for its total removal. In furtherance of the movement, Beal, in 1849, published an excellent pamphlet entitled "A Few Words in Favor of the Liberty of the Press, and the Abolition of the Penny Stamp on Newspapers." The committee was ultimately merged in an association for the repeal of both the advertisement duty and the paper duty,—objects which were eventually attained.

In 1850 Mr. Beal contributed to "The Freeholder" a valuable series of letters on the land question. They were reprinted in 1855; and a second edition, entitled "Free Trade in Land," appeared in 1876. Both as regards theory and practice, the author shows himself a thorough master of his subject. He has read and he has observed, and both reading and observation have convinced him that our whole system of land-tenure is simply barbarous. From 1851 to 1855 he was actively engaged in establishing freehold-land societies throughout England and Scotland. Many suburban estates were bought and subdivided among the shareholders as sites for cottages; one out of many advantages of the arrangement being that thousands of artisans, then without the franchise, were thus enabled, by a flank movement, to obtain it.

About the same time Mr. Beal came prominently forward in the character of an ecclesiastical reformer, addressing a series of trenchant letters to the Bishop of London on certain popish practices observed in the Church of St. Paul, Wilton Place, and of St. Barnabas, Pimlico. A memorable action, "Westerton and Beal v. Liddel," ensued. The legality of ritualism had never been legally challenged since the Reformation. Mr. Beal appeared in person before the Privy Council, and obtained a favorable judgment, but without costs, which were cheerfully defrayed by public subscription. The agitation resulted in the Public Worship Act, and the end is not yet.

In 1857 Mr. Beal entered on a long and arduous struggle with the gas-companies of the metropolis. These companies had "districted" London among themselves, and ruled the consumers with a rod of iron. Mr. Beal contrived to effect a combination of vestries against the companies,—on the principle, I suppose, of setting a thief to catch a thief,—and after a contest which lasted all through '57, '58, '59, and '60, the Metropolitan Gas Act was passed, which improved the quality of the gas-supply, limited its price, curtailed dividends, and effected a net saving to the consumers of three million one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars per annum,—a sum equivalent to the entire school-board rate.

In 1870 Mr. Beal induced the Government to give notice of its intention to improve the water-supply of London. Unfortunately, the good intention, like so many others, went to pave the unmentionable region spoken of by Dr. Johnson; but the subject has not been allowed to drop. It has been demonstrated at influential public meetings, recently held, that the present metropolitan water-supply is unsatisfactory as regards purity, cost, and the poundage principle of assessment. Put the water-supply under representative instead of company control, and it is calculated that seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars per annum can readily be saved to the ratepayers. In attempting to deal with this question, the late Home Secretary acted with such imprudence as to precipitate the dissolution that wrecked the Government, Mr. Beal skilfully fanning the flame of discontent excited by his monstrous proposals.

In 1876 Mr. Beal broke new and most important ground. "Fearing lest an increased education-rate should render the cause of scholastic enlightenment unpopular, he set himself to investigate other possible sources of revenue, and an altogether remarkable series of papers on "The Corporation Guilds and Charities of the City of London," contributed to "The Dispatch" and signed "Nemesis," was the result. The revelations were simply astounding. The corporation, with a revenue of three million dollars per annum derived from the "common good;" the liveries, with more than five million dollars issuing out of trust funds; and the city charities, with a good five hundred thousand dollars annual income,—were shown to be one vast network of corruption and malversation. Ab uno disce omnia.

In 1513 the mercers held a hundred and sixty acres of trust-land, located chiefly in Marylebone and Westminster (Bradbury's trust). They now retain eight and a half acres; and no man can or will tell what they have done with the rest of the estate. The eight and a half acres yield a rental of a hundred and thirty-seven thousand eight hundred and seventy-five dollars; and the trustees make a return to the Charity Commissioners of a fixed "annual payment of £1 10s. per annum to St. Stephen, Coleman Street." Having done this, they feel they have discharged their duty towards the "pious founder" and the public, and pocket the little balance for the trouble they have taken. In New York certain malefactors connected with the municipality, who in a similar manner sought to convert public trusts to private uses, speedily found their way to jail amid a hurricane of popular execration. If they had been in "famous London town," they would have been central figures at the Lord Mayor's show, clothed, not in sackcloth and ashes, but in purple and fine linen, the observed of all observers. Mr. Beal holds, and I heartily agree with him, that these nefarious city jobbers must be compelled to disgorge at least half their revenues for metropolitan education, or justice will remain a laughing-stock. Mr. Beal, almost single-handed, has carried dismay into their camp. The Grocers' Company has given a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars to the London Hospital, and the guilds are organizing a technical college to cost a hundred thousand dollars per annum. But these are not tokens of genuine repentance. They are mere dissembling peace-offerings to be set aside by the public with contempt.

The existence of so many anomalies and gigantic abuses convinced Mr. Beal, as early as 1861, that what is really wanted is a single municipality for the whole of London. In that year a committee of the House, before which Mr. Beal was examined, considered the whole subject; and ever since his views have been rapidly winning public approval. Mill, Buxton, Elcho, and Shuttleworth have each unsuccessfully brought in bills embodying Beal's ideas. Latterly Mr. Gladstone has promised his powerful support, and placed the reform of the municipality of London at the head of his long list of "unredeemed pledges." Eventual triumph is, accordingly, as good as certain. When it comes, it will be the cleansing out of the biggest Augean stable in Christendom.

Mr. Beal, as is well known, was the moving spirit in the generous electioneering effort which, in 1865, resulted in the return of the late John Stuart Mill for Westminster free of expense; and it was owing to his enlightened action that the first London School Board had among its members such distinguished men as Lawrence, Huxley, and Morley And what he did for Mill he strove hard to do for the greatest of his disciples, Morley, but in vain.

Mr. Cross's vaunted Artisans' Dwellings Act Mr. Beal would have rendered workable, if the right honorable gentleman had only had the good sense to profit by his advice. His plan was, not to enforce sales to the local authority, but to compel the owners of dilapidated tenements themselves to incur all risks in connection with the pulling down and re-erection of condemned buildings owned by them. As it is, the Metropolitan Board is at a standstill, having lost four million dollars of the ratepayers' money in the vain attempt to sell the sites of "rookeries" for as much as they cost. Verily, wisdom is justified of her children.

In conclusion, it may be said, that in no progressive movement, national or municipal, since 1848, has Beal failed to play a manly and singularly disinterested part. In 1851, when Joseph Hume and Sir Joshua Walmsley endeavored to revive public interest in parliamentary reform, Beal "stumped" London for them, and materially helped to convince Earl Russell of the inexpediency of adhering to his "finality" policy. He had his reward in the legislation of 1867.

Nor have Mr. Beal's sympathies been confined to London or England exclusively. He was a determined partisan of the North during the American civil war; and, at a public meeting held in London in the interest of the Confederates, he tore down the "palmetto flag" from the wall, and trampled it under foot at the risk of serious personal violence.

When Garibaldi was wounded at Aspromonte, he raised a fund of five thousand dollars to send out Professor Partridge, to give the noble general the benefit of first-rate surgical skill.

Indeed, as I have said, it is impossible to mention almost any good pie for thirty years past in which this indefatigable friend of humanity has not had a finger. One stands simply amazed at the multitude of his good deeds, which have no smack of self-consciousness. It would be impossible to imagine a reformer with less cant or nonsense about him than Beal. He has no "unction" of any kind,—a hearty, sharp, decisive man, ordained to be a Radical and pioneer of progress from the foundations of the world, "Wha does his best," said Burns, "will whiles do mair." James Beal, me thinks, has oft done mair.