Hunt, Henry (DNB00)
HUNT, HENRY (1773–1835), politician, came of a Wiltshire family, being the eldest son of Henry Hunt of Week, near Devizes, and was born at Widdington Farm, Upavon, or Upphaven, Wiltshire, on 6 Nov. 1773. He was a delicate, though high-spirited child, and was educated first at Tilshead, Wiltshire, by a Mr. Cooper, then at Hursley in Hampshire by Mr. Alner, next under the Rev. Thomas Griffith at Andover grammar school, where he was treated with such tyranny that he ran away, and lastly under the Rev. James Evans at Salisbury and Oxford. Holy orders were proposed to him by his father, but his own bent was towards farming, and he began work on the farm at sixteen, though he continued to study classics with a tutor. A quarrel with his father induced him to leave home in 1794, but his father's entreaties led him to forego his intention of shipping as clerk on board a Guinea slaver. His opinions on reaching manhood were mainly those of a loyal supporter of the constitution and government; but his experiences of the sufferings of the poor and the rural administration of his own district soon inclined him to radical views. At the age of twenty-two he fell in love with Miss Halcomb, daughter of the innkeeper of the Bear Inn, Devizes, without having seen her, and on the strength of his father's recommendation of her virtues he married her shortly afterwards; but after she had borne him two sons and a daughter, he separated from her in 1802, and eloped with a friend's wife, Mrs. Vince. He began farming for himself at Widdington Farm, his birthplace, and on his father's death occupied all the land held by his father.
Hunt's first public appearance was in 1797, when he addressed the Everley troop of yeomanry, of which he was a member, urging them to consent to serve, if required, out of the county. Failing in this he quitted that force in disgust, and joined the Marlborough troop, at the request of Lord Bruce, the colonel, but subsequently he challenged his commanding officer to fight a duel, and was indicted for the offence. He allowed judgment to go by default, and as he refused to apologise was sentenced to a fine of 100l. and six weeks' imprisonment in the King's Bench prison at the end of 1800. About this time he became acquainted with Home Tooke and other politicians of his party, and though full of martial ardour during the apprehensions of invasion in 1801 and 1803, adopted their advanced opinions. His personal habits were expensive, and he lost money in a brewing speculation at Clifton, near Bristol. Nevertheless he began to make a figure in local politics. At the dissolution of parliament in 1806 he took a prominent part in the elections for his own county (see Cobbett, Political Register, 1806) and for Bristol. In 1807 he visited London, and was introduced by his friend Henry Clifford to the radical leaders. Returning to Bristol, he organised the Bristol Patriotic and Constitutional Association to promote electoral reform, and offered to contest the next vacancy. In May 1809 he got up a meeting in Wiltshire to thank Colonel Wardle for demanding an inquiry into the conduct of the Duke of York as commander-in-chief, and in order to qualify William Cobbett to address it, presented him with a freehold tenement. He engaged in perpetual lawsuits with his neighbours, and appeared in the courts in person. He was imprisoned for three months in 1810 in the King's Bench prison for assaulting a gamekeeper, but was permitted to go out and in much as he liked, and availed himself of the opportunity to frequently visit Sir Francis Burdett in the Tower. When Cobbett was committed to gaol in July 1810, they shared the same rooms. In 1811 he began farming on a large scale near East Grinstead in Sussex, maintaining meanwhile a close intimacy with Cobbett in London. He came forward as a candidate for Bristol in June 1812 against Sir Samuel Romilly, Mr. Protheroe, and Mr. Davis, but was not elected, and his petition against the return on the grounds of bribery and illegal violence was heard on 26 Feb. 1813. Though it was dismissed, it was not held to be frivolous or vexatious. After losing money by his farm in Sussex, he gave it up, and in 1814 took another at Cold Henley, near Whitchurch, with the same result. On 15 Nov. 1816 he met Thistlewood, Watson, and others, and with them took part in the Spa Fields meetings, and addressed the people. The soldiers who were on the ground had orders, in case of disturbance, to shoot at him and the other speakers, instead of firing into the crowd. When parliament met in 1817 he was delegated by the Hampden clubs at Bristol and Bath to present petitions to the borough members, and on this visit to London became acquainted with several of the Lancashire reformers. When Thistlewood and the others were arrested in 1817, Hunt expected arrest also, but was not interfered with. He presided at a public meeting, originally held in compliance with the provisions of the Seditious Meetings Act, on 7 Sept. 1817, in Palace Yard, and succeeded in restraining the people within legal limits. In 1818 he unsuccessfully contested Westminster, obtaining a majority at the show of hands, but only eighty-four votes at the poll. He had advocated annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and vote by ballot. He was very active in opposing the election of John Cam Hobhouse [q.v.] for Westminster in February 1819, and succeeded in procuring the election of George Lambe in succession to Sir Samuel Romilly. In the summer of 1819 he published a pamphlet called 'The Green Bag Plot,' charging Burdett with shirking the battle of reform, and the government with formenting disturbances in Derbyshire.
Hunt presided at the Smithfield reform meeting on 21 July 1819, and at the meeting in St. Peter's Fields, Manchester, on 16 Aug. which was broken up by the yeomanry, and was known as the Peterloo Massacre. Hunt was arrested, and lodged in the New Bailey prison, Manchester, and with Johnson, Moorhouse, and others was committed for trial on 27 Aug. In November he moved unsuccessfully for a criminal information against the Manchester magistrates for misconduct on 16 Aug. Hunt's trial took place before Mr. Justice Bayley at York, 16-27 March 1820. Hunt conducted his own defence. He was allowed great latitude, and showed much asperity and even violence to the counsel for the crown. The prisoners were convicted. After an unsuccessful motion in the king's bench for a new trial on 8 May, sentence was passed on 15 May. Hunt was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, and to find security for his good behaviour after the expiration of his sentence, himself in 1,000l. and two sureties in 500l. each. His term of imprisonment was passed in Ilchester gaol, where he solaced himself by composing his wordy and egotistical memoirs. Bamford's opinion is that while in gaol his mind was deranged with diseased vanity. His treatment in prison was the subject of a discussion in the House of Commons in March 1822, and of an inquiry at the gaol. He was liberated from gaol on 30 Oct. 1822, amid carefully organised rejoicings, and was presented with a piece of plate.
For some time after his release Hunt was comparatively inactive. He contested Somersetshire in 1826, but it was a candidature of protestation only. In August 1830 he contested Preston, which he had also previously contested in 1820, on Stanley's appointment as chief secretary, and was at the bottom of the poll, with 1,308 votes; but at the election in December Stanley thought it best to retire in his favour. He made a public entry into London, took his seat on 3 Feb. 1831, and frequently took part in debate. But his course pleased neither party, and he became alienated even from his former friend Cobbett. He attacked the ministerial plan of reform, demanded the ballot and universal suffrage, assailed royal grants, and moved for the repeal of the corn laws. He presented the earliest petition in favour of 'women's rights.' In October 1831 he went through the manufacturing towns of Cheshire, holding a series of meetings. The citizens of Preston, however, grew dissatisfied with him. In 1833 he lost his seat, and quitted political life, devoting himself thenceforth to his business as a blacking manufacturer. On 15 Feb. 1835, while travelling for orders, he was seized with paralysis, and died at Alresford, Hampshire, and was buried at Parham, in the family vault of his mistress, Mrs. Vince. Gronow, who was in command of the troops at the Spa Fields meeting, describes him in his ‘Reminiscences’ as ‘a large, powerfully-made fellow,’ who might have been taken for a butcher. It was he who made wearing a white hat the badge of a radical in the third decade of this century. He was handsome, gentlemanly, extremely vivacious and energetic, a violent and stentorian, but impressive speaker. Even to his colleagues he was vain, domineering, and capricious, and jealous of their popularity. Romilly sums up his opponents' view of him in the words ‘a most unprincipled demagogue,’ but his own memoirs are the worst evidence against him.
[The principal authority for the life of Hunt is his own Memoirs, published in 1820; they are, however, brought down only to 1812. His correspondence, published in the same year, consists chiefly of political addresses to and by himself, and does not contain much personal information. Huish's Life of Hunt, 1836, is little more than a repetition of the Memoirs. Samuel Bamford's Passages from the Life of a Radical is valuable, though not very favourable to Hunt. See also report of a meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern to secure Hunt's election for Westminster, 1818; Investigation at Ilchester Gaol into the conduct of W. Bridle to H. Hunt, 1821; Addresses to the Reformers by H. Hunt, 1831; and his Lecture on the Conduct of the Whigs to the Working Classes, 1832. The authority for his trial is the report in vol. i., Macdonnell's State Trials, new ser.; see also State Trials, xxxii. 304, for the Spa Fields meetings. There are also references to him in Molesworth's Hist. of the Reform Bill; Greville Memoirs, 1st ser.; Croker Papers; Life of Romilly, and Duke of Buckingham's Memoirs of the Court of England during the Regency and reigns of George IV and William IV.]