Laslett family history
William and Maria Laslett of Abberton Hall Worcester
William was baptised on 14 October 1799 at All Saints, Worcester the first
born child of Thomas and Sophia Laslett, a Worcester banker and his wife
The most enigmatic of the Lasletts William evoked strong reactions from all that knew him. He was a shrewd, hard and successful moneymaker whose quoted saying, "how fast money accumulated", gives an indication of his business acumen. He was the greatest landowning commoner in all Worcestershire and Herefordshire but never appears to have luxuriated in his wealth rather giving vast amounts of money to charity. He was a keen supporter of the underdog and even crossed the floor of Parliament on a matter of principle during the debates concerning the opium question and the war with China. This action helped to bring down Palmerston's Government. He married the daughter of a Bishop under questionable circumstances and had a stormy marriage, much argued over in public, which was ended, after only six years, by the early death of his wife at age 47.
Ellen Price, the wife of a Worcester Banker who had fallen on hard times, writing as 'Mrs Henry Wood' used William as the basis of her book East Lynne, the first of the 'popular' romantic novels. Published in 1861, fact and fiction mingle in its pages so much that it is often difficult to separate the two but to anyone acquainted with William's story immediate recognition of place and plot comes with virtually every page.
We know little of William's early life except that his upbringing was comfortable, his father being prominent in the Worcester 'Old Bank', Messrs Berwick, Wall and Isaac (later Messrs Berwick & Co.). He was educated in Worcester and started as a boy clerk at the bank, he rose to the position of assistant cashier before leaving to be entered as a student at the Inner Temple in 1825, he served all the terms necessary for a call to the bar and was also articled to Solicitor and Banker William Wall who had his rooms in the old bank building at 50 Foregate Street, Worcester. Wall was prominent in local politics being a member of the Common Council of Worcester for a number of years. William later took over the practice from Wall. Records show that William practised as a solicitor at Worcester from 183(?) until 1846. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple on 30 April 1856.
Although the Worcester Lasletts had built up considerable wealth from their middle class occupations and judicious marriages it is William who made them truly rich. He appears to have come into some money on the death of his father in 1816 and to have demonstrated his speculative talents through dealing in land at the end of the Napoleonic War. By the 1840's he was exceedingly wealthy.
In the 1830s William bought Thorngrove House in Grimley which is situated about five miles north west of Worcester and was the former home of Lucien Bonaparte the Prince de Canino a younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. Around 1840 William sold Thorngrove to buy the estate and house of Abberton Hall near Pershore from the Sheldon family. The house came complete with all furnishings. Thomas Southall, later Town Clerk of Worcester, described the house and effects as impeccable.
William married Maria Carr the daughter of the late Right Rev. Dr James Robert Carr, Lord Bishop of Worcester, on 3 February 1842 at Aldingbourne, Sussex.
This marriage is the centre of much controversy and was a talking point for the society of Worcester during the 1840s. The following verses, attributed to William, succinctly tell the tale:
Poor Parsons and Doctors aspiring to Marriage,
Rarely, if ever, attain to a Carriage;
But Law, lucky law, is happier far
Keeps a carriage, and sports an episcopal "Carr."
Conveyancer Cupid egregious ass let
A Lass "Carr" to be Sold to become a Laslett;
Her sorrowing friends with illogical tone
Say "If a Lass is to let - let Laslett alone."
The Bishop had died at Hartlebury Castle at about half-past 9 on Saturday night 24 April 1841. He was interred privately in St. James Churchyard Hartlebury on Monday 3 May 1841. William's disastrous marriage to Maria Carr stems directly from the strange circumstances surrounding Dr. Carr's life and death.
Ellen Price in East Lynne mentions the funeral of the Bishop:
The body of a church dignitary, who had died deeply in debt, was arrested as it was being carried through the cloisters to its grave in the cathedral.
On this story Ellen based the death of her heroine's father, the dissipated William, Earl of Mount Severn. Gouty, and grown old before his time, the Earl had squandered his sixty thousand a year and died leaving only debts. The daughter, who is styled on Maria Carr, is unaware of her father's financial position until the body is 'arrested' by the creditors. To her rescue comes Archibald Carlyle, her late father's solicitor, who pays the debts from his own money so that the body can be buried. The character of Carlyle is based on William.
Later Archibald, more out of pity than love, proposes marriage to the now impoverished daughter. The daughter accepts, marries, and then betrays her husband - the sins of the father re-occurring in the daughter to fatal effect. Archibald is by our standards an aloof and undemonstrative husband but by Victorian standards would be considered a much more sympathetic character, always correct and noble.
We have a description of Bishop Carr's funeral as it was reported in The Times. As said before he died at 9pm on Saturday 24 April 1841 but was not buried until 10am on Monday 3 May 1841. The fact that nine days elapsed between death and burial is unusual, that it was a private funeral is most unusual for a Bishop of the Church of England. The Times of Thursday 6 May 1841 says:
The clergy had expressed their wish to follow the remains of their late diocesan - a wish which, while it was warmly acknowledged by the family, was negatived, on the score of the funeral being intended to be strictly private. This intention was adhered to; for everything connected with the last obsequies was of as simple and unostentatious a description as was consistent with the station which the deceased had occupied in the church. In the absence of all pomp and parade, it was pleasing to observe the homage paid to the late Bishop's kindly character. In the long line of procession there was scarcely a shop the shutters of which were not partially or altogether closed. The blinds of all the numerous private dwellings were drawn down, and a general and respectful silence marked the passage of the late Bishop from the See house of his diocese to the "home appointed for all living." His Lordships's remains were interred at Hartlebury by the side of Mrs. Carr.
Bishop Carr's death brought down the financial pack of cards that he had built to maintain his opulent lifestyle. His reputation in episcopal circles was destroyed and his family brought to despair and devastation. Outstanding debts amounting to £100,000 were left behind. This is a large sum even these days but in the 1840s it was astounding. Robert Carr had been active in Court circles and was a lifelong friend and intimate of George IV whose preferment assured his episcopal ambitions. As Bishop he was one of Worcester's more absent prelates preferring the fast life of the Court in the luxury of the Pavilion at Brighton, the Royal playground, to the more austere surroundings of Hartlebury Castle. Within Worcester Cathedral, where there are countless memorials to the works of its Bishops, some dating back to Saxon times, there is nothing to record the episcopate of Robert Carr apart from the record of his period of tenure in the Custo's reference book. In Hartlebury Castle however there are a number of mementoes, one being his portrait hanging in the hall at the lower end on the opposite side to the entrance, another being a sideboard which was bought from Bishop when he was short of funds by one of his clergy and recently returned to the Castle by a Mrs Kirkham from Worcester, a great granddaughter of the clergyman.
Preferment had come to Robert Carr by a combination of luck and skill. He came from a comfortable rather than a wealthy background but was adroit or lucky enough to secure the Parish of Brighton where his superb oratory skills brought him to the notice of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, by whose patronage he was appointed Bishop of Chichester in 1815 at the young age of 40 and made Bishop of Worcester in 1831.
In the Birmingham Post of Thursday 24 December 1953 a correspondent identified as "C.D.T.B.-C." and "Bishop Robert Carr's great-great-great-grandson" wrote that for many years Bishop Carr had been accumulating debts, of which only £20,000 can currently be identified, since, with little personal assets, the pace of Court life and the cost of entertaining Royalty was expensive.
He quoted one occasion when George IV and his consort, Queen Caroline, told Bishop Carr that they would be coming for a week's visit. The Bishop and his wife, Nancy, immediately had the castle redecorated and a considerable amount of new furniture installed. The bill came to around £5,000.
In the event George IV and Caroline "stayed for only one night after enjoying a sumptuous banquet on their arrival--- leaving the Bishop with a larder filled for another six days' feasting on a scale suitable for a monarch who gloried in his food and wine, as well as a bill for one days' entertainment large enough at the present value of the pound, but staggering high for those days."
During the Bishop's early manhood a family member had written a poem that contains references to the future Bishop being accused of cheating at cards and mentions a minor dalliance with "a most lovely girl, with not quite so lovely a name". In part the poem goes:
To Young Robert Carr, A Divine.
As for you, Mr. Bob,
Who with Deans hob or nob.
Or with gentlemen-sinners,
Take a circle of dinners,
And leave Psalms in the lurch
When you go to your Church-
Like a Buck, hunt and shoot-
Wear a tight-sitting boot-
Play, as you and we know,
All the game at casino-
Dance and kick up your heals
With Miss ........ in reels-
Ride a short little hack
To Lord Pembroke, and back-
I fore-see that you'll dish-up
Quite an elegant Bishop.
The author of the Birmingham Post article assures us "elegant perhaps, a fine preacher without doubt, strict churchman and popular everywhere he went, Bishop Carr was generous and loyal to a fault in his habits and tastes, but he was unable to keep pace with the lavish spending of the Court and its Monarch who summoned him to the Royal deathbed at Windsor. Bishop Carr was Chaplain to the King - the title of this office being 'Clerk to the Closet' - as well as Bishop of Chichester, before his translation to Worcester."
Robert Carr died aged 66 of a cerebral haemorrhage, or paralysis as it was then termed. When word got out his creditors panicked and besieged Hartlebury Castle but one being particularly adroit, took legal action, and had the Sheriff's officers seize the Bishop's body on account of his debts. The Bishop's only son disclaimed any responsibility and the Rev. Thomas Baker, the Rector of Hartlebury, who was the Bishop's son-in-law generously, perhaps foolhardily, volunteered to take on the debts. Immediately the creditors moved in and the Rector's belongings were ticketed for sale by public auction.
Baker with £2,000 a year from Hartlebury, one of the clerical plums of the day, could not hope to repay his father-in-law's debts. It appears that this is where William Laslett came in and assisted the family. Some of the debts were actually paid off personally by William while he must have arranged finance for Baker to enable him to cover the balance. This sort of action would fit perfectly into the picture we have of William as a man of charity and one to whom a sense of honour was paramount. Anyway the auction was avoided and the Bishop buried quietly in the family tomb in St. James Church Hartlebury. The tomb is on the North side of the church fairly near the front entrance. It has an inscription on one side which is a replica of the narrow side which has worn away and reads "In the vault beneath are deposited the remains of Robert James Carr D.D. Lord Bishop of Worcester who departed this life April 24th 1841 In the 67th year of his age". On the opposite side but considerably more worn away is visible "Thomas Baker M.A. ..... years Rector of this Parish. Died ...... Aged 79". The unfortunate Rector, who ultimately served 50 years at Hartlebury and as Rural Dean of Kidderminster and Hon. Canon of Worcester Cathedral, lived and died a poor man, but finally the debts were paid off.
William married Maria Carr seven months after her father's death, whether she accepted William from a sense of grateful, naive romanticism, or as part of a deal, we do not know. We only know that at 41 she was perhaps as unable as William to adjust to married life. William's motives for entering into the marriage are equally unclear but considering the age, the financial, and the social scandal surrounding his bride he can hardly have been seeking any personal advantage and if he felt his was a noble action to rescue Maria from penury then it was sadly unappreciated. Perhaps the marriage was a manifestation of the eccentricity that William was to increasingly display as he grew older. When Jim Lasslett from Melbourne visited Abberton Hall a few years ago the present owner told him that in all Maria only stayed with William for three weeks. This would perhaps indicate that the reason for their incompatibility may have been sexual but the comment is also an exaggeration. What is certain is that it was a very unhappy marriage and although Maria died after six years (please see email information) with William the enmity towards William of some of Maria's friends and supporters remained and he was to suffer continually at their hands. Also William's fluctuating political sympathies served to exaggerate this enmity. Even after 20 years Lord Lyttleton, Lord Lieutenant of the county, who had sympathy with Maria, refused to put William's name forward as a Justice of the Peace. This contrasts with other evidence indicating that William remained on good terms with the late Bishop's family to the extent of making Thomas Baker's son, Rev. Robert James Baker, Rector of Landeglos, his executor and primary beneficiary under his will. Abberton Hall, Bishampton, Flyford Flavell, Naunton Beauchamp, North Piddle, Kington, Dormston, Grafton Flyford and Hanbury all went to Robert which must have made him one of Worcestershire's largest landowners. Ellen Price, in East Lynne makes it very apparent that she considered Maria to be at fault in the marriage.
In H.W. Gwilliam's Old Worcester Gwilliam says "Thomas Southall, who knew them both, said the fault was not all on one side. Maria openly showed dislike and contempt for William, and in return, his behaviour was, at times abominable. The story is told, that when Maria was ill, Laslett would not allow fires to be lit in her room, though the weather was cold, and the doctor remonstrated with him, saying she must have a fire. Whereupon Laslett told the servant to light the fire, but when it was lit, told the gardener to cut a large piece of turf, and then ordered him to get a ladder and place it on top of the chimney of her room."
Years later the spectre of Bishop Carr was to bring tragedy to the family again. In 1877 Thomas Baker died and many newspapers resurrected the story of the family's financial embarrassment and of the noble actions of Hartlebury's loved Rector. They also pointed out the actions of the Bishop's only son and mentioned that he had later inherited a fortune from an aunt. Eight days after the death of Thomas Baker the son suicided. He was staying at his country home on the south coast at the time and whether he shot himself out of remorse or for other reasons is not known - but the implication is that he took the "gentleman's" way out of an intolerable situation.
The newspapers also carried an allegation that has never been proved although it could account for the disparity between Bishop Carr's known debts of £20,000 and the total amount of £100,000. To quote: "The Bishop was one of George IV's bosom-friends and advanced His Majesty a large sum, or became security for him in some way." George IV on his coronation was faced with literal poverty. The £10,000 a year granted to him as regent to his father George III ceased with the death of his father and though his income was still considerable it was practically all absorbed in interest on his debts. At a dinner once, he proposed the health of Mr. Coutts as "my banker for upwards of thirty years". Mr. Coutts was heard to whisper, "It is your Royal Highness who has done me the honour to keep my money for thirty years?" It would be hardly surprising if George did borrow from Robert Carr although the figure of £80,000, if true, is more a comment on the gullibility of the Bishop than the wantonness of his King.
In 1843 Thomas Southall, later Town Clerk of Worcester, was articled to William. Years after Thomas could remember how as a young man he was asked to dine with William at Thorngrove, the house and furnishings were magnificent, William having bought the contents of the house from the previous owner. (Interestingly this same circumstance appears in East Lynne.) The dinner silver and wines were of the very best but two dishes made an indelible impression on the young guest - two sucking pigs, one at each end of the table, one boiled and one roasted. When Thomas had qualified as a Solicitor William gave him £100 to set up his own practice, a very generous act. Thomas remained a staunch supporter of William, eventually joining him in practice and finally being one of William's executors and overseeing the Laslett Charities for many years.
William continued his acquisition of property and in 1848, the year of his wife's death, purchased the Crowle Estate, of upward of 1,000 acres, for £28,000.
It is also apparent that William was increasingly displaying his philanthropy. On 15 November 1849 William, who was a parishioner of St. Nicholas parish in Worcester, gave the Rector, the Rev. W.H. Havergal, £2,500 to carry out alterations and enlargements.
In his letter of 17 November 1849 which accompanied the gift William asked "that the additional sittings should be free that the poor may not be overlooked". On 21 November 1849 he again wrote to the Rector this time asking "When you mention the subject of the gift to your parishioners, I wish you to withhold my name. I wish to avoid public gaze and remarks."
In 1850 the church obtained a faculty from the Bishop of Worcester to carry out alterations and enlargements and accordingly Mr. Day, the architect appointed, obtained two tenders but as they were unacceptably high the architect was asked to obtain more quotes. Unfortunately these tenders too were unacceptable so Day tried to revise his plan but due to problems with a property adjoining the church, the cost of the alterations was still in excess of the church's budget. The Rector writing to the Bishop sought his leave to defer the matter stating that he had "no alternative but to wait for some favourable opportunity". By early 1852 the work was no further advanced except that the committee was in the process of considering Day's third revision of his plans. William, it appears, had been watching this with growing anger. He was not one to suffer fools gladly, especially ones who he considered were not making the best use of his charitable donations. It seemed to William that the alterations would never be made and that his money would be dissipated. An opportunity had come to him for a major charitable work so he decided that by their inaction the parishioners of St. Nicholas had "rejected" his gift. Accordingly on 31 March 1852 he wrote to the Reverend Havergal, "The parishioners having rejected the gift, I determined to erect 12 Almshouses and the Bishop has signed the document for the enfranchisement of the land for the purpose. I therefore cannot continue the gift and erect the Almshouses; the latter will take £8,000". He also withdrew a note of hand for £1,000 for the Reverend Havergal. In so doing William went against the terms of his gift as set out in his letter of 17 November 1849 to the Reverend Havergal, "I hereby assign and make over the notes of hand and moneys to (the) church absolutely for the purpose aforesaid or for any charitable foundation".
Writing of the incident in the 27 February 1975 issue of Berrow's Worcester Journal Canon George Browning, Chaplain of the Laslett Charities, stated that:
After many consultations and distressing vestry meetings and interviews, Laslett turned the screw and threatened to institute legal proceedings to ensure that his gift was returned to him.
Having read the letters Laslett and the Rector wrote to each other, and the columns and columns which filled the city's papers, I am quite sure that Laslett was in the wrong in this matter and had the rector of St. Nicholas withstood Laslett's threats, Laslett would have lost his case and been discredited and shamed.
This did not appear to affect William's political ambitions for, standing as a Liberal, he was elected to Westminster top of the ticket on 28 April 1852 assuming his seat on 9 July 1852. The electors of Worcester, and in those days before universal suffrage there were not many, elected William with 1212 votes followed by his Liberal running mate Osman Ricard with 1164 votes and the Conservative, J.W. Huddleston, with 661 votes. He was elected again on 28 March 1857 topping the poll with 1137 votes and again on 29 April 1859.
For a description of these elections one could do no better than read 'East Lynne' where the story of Archibald Carlyle's election to Westminster is most probably based on William's election, in fact, one suspects that Henry Wood and his wife actively supported William in his campaign.
William's parliamentary career was successful and he served his Worcester electors well and faithfully. He appears to have had strong convictions for fairness as is illustrated by the stand that he took over the Arrow incident following the first Opium War with China. William, seeing the justice of the Chinese position, crossed the floor and voted with the opposition thereby helping bring down Palmerston’s Tory government. Canan Browning of the Laslett Charities in Worcester wrote of in Berrow's Worcester Journal of 27 February 1975:
‘The most impressive indications of Laslett's real character are to be found in the speech he made at the Guildhall (in Worcester) when he was seeking re-election as a Liberal in 1857. He had no easy task, for on this occasion, he had to defend himself for having voted against his own party on the China question and had been instrumental in bringing down the government of his own party leader, Palmerston. He showed himself as a clear thinking, enlightened and conscientious politician when he told this crowded meeting:
‘"I regard the violent course pursued by the British authorities in their quarrel with the Chinese as unwarranted by the laws of nations or treaty stipulations and inconsistent with due regard to the rights of humanity."
‘These words might well have been said by a secretary-general of the United Nations in our own day. Laslett put his conviction to the people of Worcester with pikestaff clarity as he said: 'You know, we profess to be a Christian country, but I say that it is most unChristian to act in the spirit in which our representatives abroad have done. As a powerful, and above all Christian country, we ought not to tyrannise over a weak one'.
‘Laslett was no great orator but he was a very forceful speaker.
‘The actual debate in the House of Commons, which preceded the adverse vote which brought down Palmerston's government, was described by Gladstone 'as doing more honour to the House of Commons, which any I can remember'.
‘Laslett was a long way ahead of many men of his own day in his ideas of social justice.’
To give more background to the matter the following is condensed from Jasper Ridley ‘s book Lord Palmerston (Constable & Co, London 1970).
‘But one of the unforeseen results of the Treaty of Nanking was to create a new body of opinion which was opposed to opium. The terms of the treaty made it possible for Christian missionaries from Britain and the United States to settle in China. Many went in the years after 1842, and had more success than they had dared to hope for. Christianity, with its egalitarian doctrines, made a great appeal to many of the lowest classes in China, and was adopted as the creed of the revolutionary peasant movement of the Taipings which sprang up after 1850, and worried the European merchants in Shanghai and Canton as well as the Emperor of China and the mandarins.
‘The British missionaries, like the Taipings themselves, opposed opium?smoking; and as the missionaries had powerful supporters in Britain, including Lord Shaftesbury, Palmerston was continually receiving memorials and petitions from the Missionary Societies asking him to collaborate with the Chinese authorities in suppressing the opium trade. The British merchants organised counter?propaganda, and sent Palmerston a large number of statements from English and Scottish doctors who had practised for many years in the Far East.
‘These doctors explained that the evils of opium?smoking had been much exaggerated, and that opium, like alcohol, was harmful if taken in excess, but not if used only in moderation. It was, therefore no more necessary or justifiable to prohibit opium than to ban all alcoholic beverages; and the doctors did not hesitate to say that alcohol was worse than opium, because the opium?addict harmed no one but himself, whereas the drunkard often caused injury to others…
‘The British merchants had been inconvenienced by the fact that the Chinese authorities, and the Chinese people often victimised those Chinese who collaborated or traded with the British. In order to protect these people, the Government of Hongkong adopted the practice of granting British registration to ships belonging to Chinese subjects who traded with Hongkong, as the Chinese authorities were prevented, by the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, from interfering with British ships flying the British flag in Chinese territorial waters. Soon Chinese pirates began to register their ships in Hongkong, and many pirate vessels off Canton operated under the British flag. The British Navy assisted the Chinese authorities in their operations against the pirates; but piracy increased rapidly, and Commissioner Yeh considered that the British practice of granting registration to Chinese ships was largely responsible for this.
In October 1856 a small vessel of the type which the Portuguese at Macao called a lorcha was engaged in piracy in the Canton river. It had been registered at Hongkong two years before as a British ship under the name of the Arrow, though it was owned by a notorious Chinese pirate. The pirate found a twenty?four?year?old Ulsterman who had never been a seaman, and made him the nominal captain of the Arrow; and the Arrow set out with the Ulsterman and twelve Chinese on board, and the British flag at the mast, to rob the ships trading in the Canton river. It was intercepted in Chinese territorial waters and boarded by Chinese coastguards, who hauled down the British flag and arrested the thirteen members of the crew. The Ulsterman was immediately released, but the twelve Chinese were imprisoned in Canton. Parkes accused the Chinese coastguards of insulting the British flag, and demanded an apology and the immediate release of the twelve pirates, offering to investigate the charges against them if they were handed over to him at the British consulate. Yeh offered to release nine of them, but not the pirate leader and two of his most notorious followers. Parkes refused to accept the nine unless all twelve were released, and again demanded an apology pointing out that under the terms of the treaty the prisoners should have been immediately handed over to the British consulate. At this juncture, the authorities in Hongkong discovered that the registration of the Arrow as a British ship had expired three weeks before the Chinese had seized her, and that at the time she was no longer a British vessel and had no right to fly the British flag. But Bowring and Parkes decided that they could not now withdraw from the position which they had taken up, and that, as the Chinese coastguards were not aware at the time that the Arrow’s registration had expired, they could not rely on this fact to excuse their action.
‘Parkes therefore again demanded that Yeh release all the pirates and apologise for the insult to the British flag. Yeh released all the twelve prisoners under protest, but refused to send an apology. Bowring then ordered the Navy to bombard Canton. Yeh’s palace was destroyed, a large part of the city was set on fire, and there was considerable loss of life, though it was a matter of dispute as to whether the worst damage was caused by the British bombardment or by the large?scale looting by the Chinese criminal population which followed it. Yeh replied by a proclamation which called on the people to exterminate the British barbarians, and offered 30 dollars for the head of every Englishman. The people of Canton launched a partisan war against the British, in which no rules of warfare were observed. All the British factories in Canton were destroyed. Saboteurs tried to blow up British ships. Chinese cooks in H6ngkong put ground glass and arsenic into the food of their British employers, and Englishmen who strayed abroad were murdered. The British Navy sank Chinese boats, and summarily shot the saboteurs whom they captured. By the end of 1856 war was being waged in the vicinity of Canton; but the Emperor and his Government in Peking made no move, and all was quiet between British and Chinese in the four other treaty ports.
‘When the news reached London, the Cabinet was disturbed. Most of them felt that Bowring had acted unwisely; but while some thought that it was impossible to endorse an action which was both legally and morally wrong, the majority believed that the rules of international law could not be applied to a barbarous country like China, and that it would be fatal to British prestige in China and throughout the Far East, if the act of a high?ranking British official were repudiated by his Government. Palmerston told the Cabinet that he had invited the Attorney?General to be present and suggested, if they had no objection, that the Attorney?General be asked in, so that he could explain the legal position to them. This was an innovation, for no junior minister outside the Cabinet had ever before been invited to attend a Cabinet meeting: the law officers had previously submitted opinions in writing to the Cabinet. The ministers agreed to hear the Attorney-General. He was Sir Richard Bethell, later Lord Westbury, one of the most brilliant and successful advocates at the Chancery Bar. The little man with the enormous bald head and the slow, mincing utterance, gave a masterly exposition of the legal issues in the case. Although it could be argued that the Arrow remained a British ship until the end of the voyage during which her registration expired, he had very little doubt that Bowring had been wrong in international law, because even if the Arrow was a British ship when the Chinese captured her ? and this was doubtful ? Bowring should not have bombarded a city in the territory of the Emperor of China until the British Government had raised its complaint with the Chinese Government in Peking. When Bethell had finished, Palmerston thanked him most courteously for his assistance, and, as soon as he had withdrawn, told the Cabinet that they would of course have to support Bowring, as they had no choice in the matter. All his ministers agreed with him.
‘The Government’s policy was strongly attacked in Parliament, where they faced a coalition of both the Nonconformist and the High Church Tory conscience, and the political interest of the Conservative Party. In the Lords, Lord Derby’s motion of censure was defeated by 146 votes to 110. In the Commons Cobden moved the vote of censure on high moral grounds, and was followed in this vein by Gladstone and Lord Robert Cecil, who, at the age of twenty?seven, was already well embarked on the political career which led him, twenty eight years later, when he was Marquis of Salisbury, to become Prime Minister. Sir James Graham, Lord John Russell, Bulwer?Lytton, MiIner?Gibson and Disraeli supported the motion of censure, as did several eminent lawyers. All these speakers condemned Bowring’s action in the strongest terms as illegal and outrageous, and praised the restraint which had been shown by Yeh and the Chinese authorities. The only speakers of note who supported the Government were a number of junior ministers, the witty and cynical Bernal Osborne, and Admiral Napier, who regaled the House with a description of what he would do to anyone, particularly to any Frenchman, who insulted the British flag. Even Roebuck, who had moved the resolution congratulating Palmerston in the Don Pacifico debate, spoke against him on this occasion. He said that he was, reluctantly compelled to support the censure motion, for on this occasion Britain was clearly in the wrong. Disraeli challenged Palmerston to fight a general election on the issue. After saying that during the last half?century Palmerston had ‘professed almost every principle, and connected himself with almost every party’, Disraeli concluded: ‘Let the noble Lord not only complain to the country, but let him appeal to the country.... I should like to see the programme of the proud leader of the Liberal party ? "No Reform! New Taxes! Canton Blazing! Persia Invaded! " ‘
‘On the fourth night of the debate, 3 March 1857, Palmerston rose to speak. The issue, he said, was between Sir John Bowring and Yeh. ‘Who is Sir John Bowring? ... Was he a member of that aristocracy which some people wish to banish from public employment? Sir John Bowring is essentially a man of the people; and he had at one time been a member of the Peace Society. ‘What is this other man who has been made the subject of panegyric, and whose productions have been praised at the expense of those of our own officers? What is the character of this Yeh? He is one of the most savage barbarians that ever disgraced a nation. He has been guilty of every crime which can degrade and debase human nature. In the contest between these two men, it is most extraordinary that partiality should turn rather towards this barbarian than towards the British representative’. He pointed out that Yeh had decapitated 70,000 Chinese in a few months; and though speakers in the debate had praised Yeh for his forbearance, the only forbearance which he had shown was a forbearance in speaking the truth. He then made a strong attack on Cobden. Cobden had said that Bowring was an old personal friend of his; then how came it that Cobden now attacked an old friend in his hour of need? And Cobden had said that British merchants in China sometimes behaved in an overbearing manner. Where had Cobden learnt to form such an opinion of his fellow?countrymen? Was it in his travels on the Continent? The whole of Cobden’s speech had been pervaded with ‘an anti?English feeling, an abnegation of all those ties which bind men to their country and to their fellow?countrymen, which I should hardly have expected from the lips of any member of this House. Everything that was English was wrong, and everything that was hostile to England was right’. As for Cobden’s gibe that the Government behaved very differently towards a strong power like the United States than towards a weak nation like China, and had taken no action when coloured British subjects were ill?treated in South Carolina, this only showed that Cobden and the Peace Society wanted to go to war with that progressive republic, the United States. Gladstone had condemned Bowring’s action; but then Gladstone had cheered in 1840 when the Chinese poisoned the wells. If this censure motion were carried, it would mean that the House had voted to ‘abandon a large community of British subjects at the extreme end of the globe to a set of barbarians ? a set of kidnapping, murdering, poisoning barbarians’.
‘The vote of censure was carried by 263 votes to 247. This was much closer than had seemed likely from the course of the debate, and Palmerston had done well to lose by only sixteen votes. He had rallied the support of many silent backbenchers who never spoke in the House. Next day, Palmerston told his ministers at a Cabinet meeting that he had decided to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament. The reports which he received from all over the country convinced him that he could safely take up Disraeli’s challenge. The Queen, who warmly approved of Bowring’s action and Palmerston’s attitude, granted him the dissolution, and, Palmerston prepared to fight the general election on his China policy and on his achievement in leading the nation to victory in the Crimean War.
‘Some of his ministers suggested that it might be advisable to give some pledge about electoral reform. Reform had been shelved, by general consent, for the duration of the Crimean War; but twelve months had elapsed since the conclusion of peace, and the Government had done nothing further about reform. Palmerston said that he did not think that it was necessary to say anything about reform at the election. The ministers then asked Lord Lansdowne, the father of the Cabinet, to intervene with Palmerston. At Lansdowne’s insistence, Palmerston agreed to include a reference to reform in his address to the electors of Tiverton; but he drafted a passage which was so ambiguously worded that it was not clear whether he was referring to a major reform of the franchise or to some minor administrative reforms.
‘But it was not the references to reform that people noticed when they read Palmerston’s election address to his constituents. They noticed only one sentence ? a sentence which summarised the policy upon which Palmerston’s candidates were fighting the election, and which was quoted by them in every constituency: ‘An insolent barbarian wielding authority at Canton had violated the British flag’. Thousands of copies of Palmerston’s election address were printed and distributed all over Britain, and for the first time in British political hi ‘ story the Prime Minister was making a personal appeal to the whole nation as well as to the electors in his own constituency. The Conservatives and Cobdenites realised almost immediately that they would lose the election, and complained that Palmerston had acted unfairly in forcing a general election on this issue. They also resented his imputations on their patriotism. For the first time for many years, personal friendships were affected by the bitterness of the political controversy, and Lady Palmerston ceased, for the time being, to invite Palmerston’s opponents ? ‘the Chinese’, as she called them ? to her Saturday evening parties.
‘The middle classes, particularly the business community in the great commercial centres, were solidly behind Palmerston. The associations of merchants trading in the Far East sent him messages of support from Manchester, Glasgow, Dundee and other cities; and Palmerston told them how encouraging it was to know that those persons with expert knowledge and experience of China approved of the Government’s policy. The City of London was most enthusiastic of all. He declined the offer from the members of Lloyd’s to nominate him as a candidate for the City at the general election, for he was safe enough at Tiverton; but he accepted an invitation to speak at a dinner at the Mansion House during the election campaign. His speech enraged the Conservatives. Speaking in the presence of the Lord Mayor and the diplomatic corps, he said that the Conservatives were so pro?Chinese that, if they had been logical, they would have offered to provide the money which Yeh had offered as a reward for the heads of Englishmen. The guests at the Mansion House cheered him loudly, but Lord Malmesbury wrote him an indignant letter, which he published in the press. He said that it was unpardonable of Palmerston to make such allegations against men on whose political support he had relied in the past, including Lord John Russell, who, until recently, had been a member of his own Cabinet. He asserted that it was unworthy of a Prime Minister to descend to such depths of political controversy; this kind of ‘electioneering claptrap’ might be excusable if uttered on the hustings at Tiverton, but it was unforgivable in the staid and responsible atmosphere of a dinner at the Mansion House. He then expounded, at some length, his criticism of Bowring’s action and of Palmerston’s policy towards China.
‘Malmesbury’s letter ran to fourteen pages. Palmerston’s reply, which was also published in the press, covered less than one page: ‘My dear Lord Malmesbury, I have received this Evening your letter of this day. I have neither Time nor Inclination to renew the China debate. I have used a Right which I do not deem myself deprived of by my Official Position to express publicly my opinion of the Conduct of public Men on an occasion of no small public Importance, and I have nothing to retract or to qualify. Yours faithfully, Palmerston’.
‘Palmerston won a resounding victory at the General Election. Bright and Milner?Gibson lost their seats in Manchester. Cobden was thrown out at Huddersfield, and Layard at Aylesbury. Roebuck just managed to hold Sheffield, and, to every one’s surprise, Lord John Russell achieved a great personal triumph by retaining his seat in the City of London by very small majority after a bitter contest. Palmerston was returned unopposed at Tiverton; for though Bronterre O’Brien, the Chartist leader, had announced that he would stand against Palmerston, he withdrew before the election. In the country as a whole, Palmerston won a clear majority of 85 seats over all his opponents in the House of Commons. It was the greatest electoral victory that a party leader had won since Lord Grey’s victory in the first election after the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832; and by increasing his majority in the House of Commons after having held office as Prime Minister for a substantial?time, Palmerston achieved a feat which he repeated in 1865, but has subsequently only been equalled in 1918, 1959 and 1966. Disraeli and Lord Robert Cecil learned the lesson that, from an electoral point of view, it does not pay to support international morality against patriotic fervour. Shaftesbury, who, despite opium, supported Palmerston on the China issue in 1857 because he believed that Palmerston was the instrument chosen by God to carry out Shaftesbury’s social and religious aims, wrote in his diary: ‘P’s popularity is wonderful – strange to say, the whole turns on his name. There seems to be no measure, no principle, no cry, to influence men’s minds and determine elections; it is simply, "Were you, or were you not? are you, or are you not, for Palmerston?”’
On 12 March 1860 William resigned from Parliament but stood again, only this time as a Conservative, styling himself as a "turncoat" and "renegade Rad. of Abberton Hall" and was elected on 17 November 1868 at the top of the poll with 2439 votes.
It was in this election that Lord Lyttleton, Lord Lieutenant of the county, had a son who ran as a Liberal candidate. Lyttleton had had sympathy with Maria Laslett and had slighted William by refusing to put forward his name as a J.P. Apparently no opposition was expected to Lyttleton's son but William came back to politics, nominated as a Conservative, and threw himself into the campaign achieving a 25% increase in the Conservative vote and defeating the son outright.
Around this time William wrote the following poem setting out his dissatisfaction with the Liberals:
THE BEGGAR'S PETITION
Pity the sorrows of a headstrong man,
Whose mad ambition brings him to your door.
With fawning sycophancy - his usual plan -
Entreats your vote, he asks for nothing more.
His oft turned coat dishonesty bespeaks;
His greasy hat has lasted many years;
Should you refuse, his weather-beaten cheeks
Will soon be flooded by dissembling tears.
Yon House erected on St. Stephen's ground,
With tempting aspect drew me from the Road,
Sent up by Worcester Radicals, I found
It was a grand magnificent abode.
Better far be faithful if you are poor,
For when I servilely craved him for his vote,
This honest Radical spurned me from his door,
And then upbraided me for my turn'd coat,
Oh! send me to yon splendid gilded dome,
Cold blows the wind, and piercing is the cold,
Refuse, and you consign me to the tomb,
My nether garments torn and miserably old.
The last line would have been particularly apt as William was renowned throughout the county as a man who did not study physical necessities much, and appearances not at all. It is said that he walked the streets of Worcester in a top hat and clothes that a ragman would not want.
Mr. R.T. Rea, former Worcester City Coroner and Clerk of Peace, told a story of William's attitude to dress - Mr. Levi, a Jewish secondhand clothes dealer of Newport Street, who had been an energetic supporter of Mr. Laslett's recent election was sent a letter purporting to be from William Laslett, but was in fact written by some of the local 'wags'. In the letter an invitation was made to Mr. Levi come to Abberton to buy the Member's surplus clothes. "My dear", Mr. Levi says to his wife, "Mr. Laslett is grateful and wishes to do me a good turn. I will hire a horse and gig and you shall go with me."
They found themselves unexpected. Host and guests were equally astonished when the Levis' mission to inspect the M.P.'s wardrobe was explained and Laslett replied aghast at their suggestion: "Wardrobe! I've only the suit I'm standing in!" And that was one to all intents and purposes borrowed from a scarecrow.
William's parsimony in matters to do with his own comfort is even more astounding considering that he was always willing to give large quantities of money away either to charities or just to worthy individuals who were in need. It is said that for stationery he wrote on the backs of old envelopes and when attending Parliament his daily lunch consisted of a penny "twist" which he proudly claimed that he "always bought stale at a halfpenny". In fact he was heard to boast that his journey to London and back as Worcester's M.P., apart from his fare, cost only 3d. He breakfasted before he started and during the day would only indulge in a penny bun and a glass of ale. A Worcester tradesman once invited him to have a glass of ale with him at Paddington and the Member for Worcester then boasted that this journey would only cost one penny.
In 1869 William was made Justice of Peace for the City and County of Worcester. He was also chairman for many years of the Upton Snodsbury Highway Board. But by the 1870s his political ideas were becoming outdated, in fact they have been referred to at this stage as "fossilised toryism". On 6 February 1874 William was defeated in the election by the Liberal T. Rowley Hill. He never stood again.
It is William's various charitable works which really serve as the main backdrop to his life. Their extent is hard to gauge as William did not seek publicity in his giving and it is this secrecy combined with the vast extent of his charity that makes it impossible to give a full list of his various gifts and endowments. We know from family letters that he was even generous to various family members who were at best his third and fourth cousins.
William's problems with his gift for the rebuilding of St. Nicholas, Worcester have been mentioned but these should perhaps also be considered in the light of his following gifts to the Church of England:
In 1861 at his own expense he rebuilt the church of St. Eadburga at Abberton and in 1863, again at his own expense he rebuilt the church of St. Peter at Flyford Flavell.
He was Patron of six Livings in Worstershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.
He gave 22 acres of land "to the inhabitants of his native city" to become Worcester's New Astwood Road Cemetery. There is a plaque just inside the main gates on which is recorded the expressed gratitude of the Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens for this gift.
For the establishment of an Orphan Asylum he gave £500 and towards building Holy Trinity Church he gave another £500. He build the grandstand at the Worcester County Cricket Ground and in 1876 funded the Worcester Music Hall upon terms very advantageous to the citizens.
In addition, his will, a copy of which appears on page 254, contains numerous other bequests.
But the gift for which William is most remembered, and which has now been linked together with the rest of his running bequests into the Laslett Charities, is the purchase of the old Worcester city prison and its conversion into Almshouses.
On 19 Sept 1868 he paid £2,225 for the old city gaol site on Union Street, Worcester next door to the Greyfriars in Friar Street and converted it at his own expense into four blocks of Almshouses with each block having four houses. Also included in the conversion was the building of a Church within the Almshouses site. These prison buildings, which William sought to be used to shelter the poor, were rather grim. Made surplus by an Act of Parliament in 1867 the gaol was advertised for sale and the lot included blocks of cells, treadwheel and mill houses with machinery and boundary walls, hospital building, Governor's house, outbuildings and offices, etc., the whole comprising about 2,600 sq. yds.
The Gaol itself was not that old, having been built in 1822 in that early period of reform occasioned by the growing realisation that 18th Century ideas of transportation of felons was not effective in the industrially developing England of the 19th Century. It replaced the City's old gaol in Castle Street which had proved itself not secure enough. The Union Street site had contained an ancient friary which was pulled down to make way for the new gaol.
The new gaol held about 30 prisoners and, as was common in those days, the treadmill was its centrepiece. William Griffiths, the first and only Governor in the 45 year life of the gaol, did very nicely out of his charge. Not only a large house came with the job but also the use of the prisoners as servants. Griffiths always dressed as a Regency dandy and was noted for the excellence of his hospitality and the quality of his table. His guests were even given a trustee prisoner to carry a torch to light their way home. I don't know what the lags at Port Macquarie, at Old Toongabbie and at Emu Plains would have thought of it. Still as one of our more distant relatives went straight from recidivist in chains at Norfolk Island to Police Inspector in Sydney nothing is really surprising in the 19th Century prison system. It is reported that only one of the Worcester trustees ever failed to return to the prison after his torch carrying job and that would not have worried Griffith overly much except the light fingered felon had also taken a quantity of the Governor's family plate.
A story is told that there was strong bidding at the auction for the site and William exasperated by this protested: "You ought not to bid against me, I am buying it for the poor!"
The cells and prison buildings were immediately put to use to house 30 poor and elderly married folk. At first, there was no money allowance provided for the day to day living expenses of the residents, but they lived in the Almshouses rent free. On 9 April 1875 William remedied this situation by presenting the Newton Court Estate in the parishes of Dilwyn, and Weobley in Hereford, in all about 351 acres, to the Trustees of the Almshouses. Income from the estates was to provide an allowance to maintain the residents of the Almshouses. He followed this up on 17 January 1879 when he gave a large landed estate of 2200 acres at Hinton-on-the-Green in the county of Gloucester, for which he had paid £84000, to the City in trust for charitable and religious uses, one of which was to provide additional funds for the Almshouses and another the restoration and repairs of certain Churches. In fact, the Trust is for sixteen different objects and these include a very wide range. It is still active today, over one hundred years after its establishment.
A gaol obviously converts into rather gloomy Almhouses so in 1912, under the supervision of William's friend, Thomas Southall, the whole lot was pulled down and rebuilt as a group of half timbered buildings. With their timber panelling painted black and white the Almshouses fit in well with the Greyfriars building next door and their other historic surroundings. Over the entrance to the new buildings, carved in stone, is William's escutcheon with his motto inscribed "Finem Respice", which probably comes from Gesta Romanorum (Acts of the Romans) Quidquid agas, prudenter agas, et respice finem (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end). A classical scholar consulted by Robert Laslett suggested that the phrase originated in Homer and is consequently a philosophical reflection, a sombre reminder of mortality. The Almshouses still serve the poor of Worcester as William wished, they provide comfortable accommodation for 15 elderly folk plus a warden and chaplain.
All this did not change William and so the stories and anecdotes about him still went around.
A party of singers who called at Abberton Hall found the place very untidy, with flagstones broken and out the back was William stripped to the waist digging a saw pit himself to save the 2/6d it would cost to hire a labourer to do the job. Another story related by R.T. Rea, the former City Coroner whom we have mentioned before, recalled a visit to Abberton Hall where the door was opened by a charwoman who said she came twice a day to make the bed and empty the slops only as William did his own cooking.
NOT FINISHED YET
" ....never forget that the only way to ensure peace in the end, is to strive always to be doing right, unselfishly, under God."
Kentish Express & Ashford News 18th March - Sarah BAKER deceased. Notice is hereby given, that all persons having any claims upon the estate of Sarah BAKER, late of Eastry, in the county of Kent, widow, deceased (whose will was proved on the 26th day of August last, in the Principal Registry of the Probate Division of Her Majesty's High Court of Justice, by William LASLETT, the sole Executor), are hereby required to sent particulars, in writing, of such claims to us, the undersigned on behalf of the said Executor, on or before the 13th Day of April next; after which day the Executor will proceed to distribute the assets and estate of the said Testatrix amongst the parties entitled thereto, having regard only to the claims of which the Exector shall then have had notice. Dated this 13th day of March 1882. EMMERSON and COTTEW, Sandwich, Solicitors to the said Executor.
Abberton Hall as it is today
Situated in the beautiful hamlet of Abberton, between the historic towns of Stratford Upon Avon & Worcester. On the top of the hill, next door to the church is Abberton Hall, built in 1619 and steeped in history. A beautiful location providing an ideal base for any one wishing to explore Warwickshire, Worcestershire, the Cotswolds and The Vale of Evesham. The cottages are newly converted from the Grade II listed Georgian Stable block, tack rooms and grooms quarters and are set in 8 acres of woodland and gardens