Mundella, Anthony John (DNB01)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement
Mundella, Anthony John

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MUNDELLA, ANTHONY JOHN (1825–1897), statesman, was born at Leicester on 28 March 1825. His father, Antonio Mendella, a native of Monte Olimpino, near Como, had come to England some years before as a political refugee, and after many hardships settled at Leicester, where he married a wife of Welsh descent, Rebecca, daughter of Thomas Allsopp. He remained a Roman catholic, but the children were brought up as protestants. Young Mundella attended the national school of St. Nicholas in Leicester, but his schooling ended at the ago of nine. Its chief feature was the reading aloud of the bible and of English poets, especially Milton. This, with his mother's tales from Shakespeare, was the commencement for him of a thorough knowledge and peculiarly keen enjoyment of the English classics. His first work was in a printing office. At eleven years he was apprenticed to Mr. Kempson, a hosiery manufacturer in Leicester, and at nineteen he was engaged as a manager by Messrs. Harris & Hamel in the same town and trade. Shortly after, in 1845, he married Mary (d. 1890), daughter of William Smith, formerly of Kibworth Beauchamp in Leicestershire. To this union with a woman of rare strength, sweetness, and dignity of character, he and his family attributed much of the success as well as the joyousness of his life.

In 1848 he was taken into partnership by Messrs. Hine & Co., hosiery manufacturers in Nottingham, and continued in this business till he had acquired a sufficient fortune to devote himself to public life. Meanwhile he took an active part in local politics, served as sheriff and town councillor, and was one of the first five volunteers enrolled in the Robin Hood volunteer corps, in which he was for some time a captain. While a lad at Leicester he had declared himself on a chartist platform for ‘the party of the working men.’ When he entered on his political career he was a radical, ardent for the extension of the franchise, hostile to all that savoured of religious inequality, anxious for the pacification of Ireland, a strong free-trader, and, above all, in most complete sympathy with the class from which he had raised himself. In 1866, a time of much exasperation between employers and employed, he succeeded in forming the 'Nottingham board of conciliation in the glove and hosiery trade,' for the termination and prevention of disputes by constant conference between representstires of each side, This was the first permanent and successful institution of the kind in this country. It at once began to be copied in other towns, and to attract the attention of foreign observers. Incidentally it led Mandella into parliament, for he was invited to lecture on this subject at Sheffield, and this lecture and his settlement of a grave labour conflict at Manchester suggested the request that he should stand for the former city against John Arthur Roebuck [q. v.], whose bitter tone towards labour movements had caused much irritation. His first contest at Sheffield took place durlng the emotion which followed the famous trade union outrages there [see Broadhead, William, Suppl.] He had a robust faith in the British working classes, and in the essential soundness of trade unionism, which he regarded as the basis of improved relations between masters and men. Defeating Roebuck, he was returned to parliament by Sheffield in 1868, and he represented Sheffield (from 1885, the Brightside division of that city) till his death, nearly thirty years later.

In parliament Mundella mainly devoted his efforts to procuring legislation in favour of labour, and was especially zealous in the cause of popular education. Strongly averse to any toleration of disorder, he was persistent in urging the amendment of certain provisions of the law upon offences arising in labour disputes, as straining the principles of criminal jurisprudence against working men in the mistaken interest of employers. He criticised keenly the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1871, and his efforts contributed to secure Mr. (afterwards Viscount) Cross's legislation of 1875, which to a great extent gave effect to his views. In 1873 he put a stop, by effective exposure in parliament, to a system of frauds by which the Truck Act had previously been defied.

With this work must be associated his principal, though not his only, contribution to factory legislation. In 1874 he introduced a bill to reduce the hours of labour for children and young persons in textile factories from sixty to fifty-four hours a week, to raise the age at which 'half-time' may begin from eight to ten, and the age for 'full-time' work from thirteen to fourteen, to shorten the duration of half-time work, and otherwise to strengthen the law in question. Although his bill did not become law, he brought about, by his agitation in this matter, the passing in the same year of Mr. (afterwards Viscount) Cross's Factories (Health of Women, &c.) Act, which effected most of his objects. Ten years after, at s great demonstration in Manchester, his wife received a fine bust of him by Sir Edgar Boehm, the gift of 'eighty thousand factory workers, chiefly women and children, in grateful acknowledgment of her husband's services.'

Even more important was Mundella's parliamentary work in connection with education. His early struggles had taught him what want of education meant. As a manufacturer he felt the national need of technical training. His business took him at times to Chemnitz, where his firm had a branch factory; what he there saw led him to study closely the educational systems of Saxony, Prussia, and other states. Thereafter he devoted himself to preaching at public meetings, as Matthew Arnold preached in literature, that this country should not be behind its neighbours in public provision for education. In parliament he made his mark by insistence on the same text. And none rated more highly than Forster his share in procuring the Education Act of 1870.

In the debates upon this measure Mundella stood out as one mainly interested in getting the utmost done for the teaching of children. He consequent]y held a moderate attitude on the vexed religious question. While he was himself a member of the church of England, he was anxious for the protection of religious liberty, and no less anxious in 1870 that the progress of popular education should not be sacrificed to excessive fears in this regard. He gratefully recognised the past work of denominational schools and desired its continuance, but his ideal would have been best satisfied by the presence throughout the country of undenominational schools under public management. The religious difficulty, he said, was made not by but for the people whose children were to be taught. He wished the bible to take the place in the future education of children that it had taken in his own; and twenty-five years later he was enthusiastic in the belief that the religious teaching of good board schools, supplemented as it was by the Sunday schools, gave a more valuable result than anything for which the partisans of denominational schools were striving. He was early a prominent advocate of compulsory education, which, partially applied by the acts of 1870 and 1876, was made universal in England by his own act of 1881.

On the return of the liberals to power in 1880 Mundella entered Gladstone's government, and was appropriately appointed (3 May) vice-president of the committee of council for education, and sworn of the privy council. His administration as vice-president was chiefly marked by the code of 1882. Up to that time the government grant had been assessed almost entirely on the results of individual examination in certain elementary subjects. Hence the attention of teachers and inspectors had in too many cases been directed rather to the number of children who had been prepared to 'pass' the examination than to the skilled methods, the discipline, and general intelligence which should characterise the school as a whole. Mundella's code sought to correct this tendency in three ways: 1. By the recognition for the first time in the infant schools of the manual employments and organlsed play devised by Fröbel. 2. By the introduction of a 'merit grant' designed to reward other forms of excellence than those which could be tabulated in an examination schedule, and to encourage the inventiveness and independent efforts of good teachers. 3. By giving greater scope and variety to the list of optional or 'specific' subjects for use in the higher classes. In these and other ways the code of 1882 made a substantial advance towards many of the most beneficial educational reforms of later years. An important step was taken at the same time in the reorganisation of the inspectorate by establishing a system of annual conferences to be held by the chief inspectors in their several districts.

The development of the South Kensington (afterwards the Victoria and Albert) Museum was also a most congenial subject of Mundella's official work. Outside his office various labours in connection with societies and institutions for technical instruction, for the higher education of women, for the training of schoolmasters, for teaching the blind and the deaf and dumb, for Sunday schooling, and latterly in raising and administering funds for giving poor school-children meals, occupied most of his time.

Mundella left office with Gladstone's government in June 1885. On 6 Feb. 1886, when Gladstone again returned to power, he became president of the board of trade, and was admitted to the cabinet. He adopted Gladstone's home-rule views, and held his post until the defeat of the government in the following July. The chief mark he left on the board of trade was by virtue of his creation of the labour department. This Mundella started in 1886, when he appointed Mr. Burnett, secretary of the Amalgamated Engineers' Trade Society, as labour correspendent. The department was developed by the next administration. After the general election in July 1892 Mundella became once more president of the board of trade, with a seat in the cabinet. He then further strengthened the labour department, and began making its information more widely useful by the publication of the 'Labour Gazette.' A most characteristic act of his administration in the same office was the appointment of two railway servants as inspectors of accidents on railways. At the same time he was able to render another signal service to industrial peace. The settlement of the great coal strike of 1893 by Lord Rosebery as conciliator took place under Mundella's administration at the board of trade. He attached much importance to making such intervention in industrial disputes one of the regular and authorised functions of the board, and had already in 1892 introduced a bill for this purpose. There was then no time to pass it, but he continued to press the matter, and the subsequent passing of substantially the same measure by Mr. Ritchie, his successor in the board of trade on the return to office of the unionists in 1895, was one of the public events which interested him most in the closing years of his life.

It was in 1894-5 that, as chairman of the departmental committee on poor-law schools, Mundella directly rendered his last most important public service. In this committee his power of diligent and thorough investigation, his fine enthusiasm, and his deep sympathy with the claims and the best aspirations of the poor were conspicuously displayed, and the report of his committee convinced the public of the need of reforms which have since been effected. In particular the report demonstrated the evil of herding pauper children together in institutions cut off from the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, in 1894, Mundella had retired from the government under painful circumstances. He had been a director of the New Zealand Loan Company from 1870 to 1892, when he resigned this position upon again taking office. Among his colleagues in the directorate of the company were Sir James Fergusson, at one time postmaster-general, the late Sir George Russell, and Sir John Gorst, now vice-president of the council. The company, once very prosperous, went into liquidation in 1893, and in the following year a public inquiry was held as to its affairs. Feeling that his previous position of director might cast doubt on the impartiality of his department, Mundella at an early stage of these proceedings offered his resignation of the presidency of the board of trade. The prime minister (Lord Rosebery) requested him to withdraw it, but later on he insisted upon it, and his resignation took effect on 12 May 1894. He gave his reasons for it in the House of Commons on the 24th. As for the bearing of these proceedings upon his character, the opinion of a stout political opponent intimately acquainted with the facts can here be given. In a letter, not at the time intended for publication, Lord James of Hereford (then Sir Henry James) wrote: 'It seems strange to me that, after having had an intimate acquaintance with Mundella for nearly thirty years, I should now be writing in regard to him a letter which may be regarded as of an exculpatory character. I say it is strange, because during all our intimacy I have had full reason to know by what a high standard of rectitude his conduct has been controlled. My object, however, in writing to you is to say that I have had an opportunity of obtaining some insight into the affairs of the New Zealand Loan Company and Mr. Mundella's connection therewith. I can discover nothing in all these proceedings, so far as I know them, which ought to disentitle Mr. Mundella to the confidence of any man.'

Nevertheless a suffering, poignant in proportion to his keen sense of honour, shook the health of his robust frame. In the succeeding general election of 1895, which proved so disastrous to his party, his constituents returned him unopposed, and his former colleagues invited him to take his place again upon the front opposition bench. His energy in and out of parliament returned; in particular he took a prominent part in debate on the education bills of 1896 and 1897. But on the night of 18 June 1897 he was struck with paralysis, and he died on 21 July at his house, 16 Elvaston Place, Queen's Gate. A memorial service was held at St. Margaret's on the 26th, and he was buried at Nottingham on the 27th.

His life was one of unresting public activity, characterised throughout by a certain eager and warm-hearted combativeness, but characterised too by a modest estimate of the range of his own capacities, and by unselfish desire that good work should be done, whether he or another got the praise. Few strenuous partisans have counted in their circle of friends so many of their foremost opponents. To those friends he left the recollection of a man full of fire and fight; shrewd, but none the less simple-minded and tender of heart. In parliament he seldom spoke except to put the house in possession of his own experience. Voice, manner, presence, temperament, and intense but genial conviction lent him oratorical resources which he used with powerful effect in popular meetings. His relation to Gladstone was that of enduring trust and personal loyalty. His history is in part merged in that of the political cause of which he was a champion; but he is to be remembered as one of the two or three who established the British state system of popular education, and as a great and successful labourer for industrial peace.

The bust of Mundella, by Boehm, passed to his daughter, Mrs. Roby Thorpe, Stowe House, Lichfield; an oil painting by Cope is in the mayor's parlour, Sheffield; and a replica in the possession of his daughter, Miss Mundella, 18 Elvaston Place, W.—both presented by 'constituents independent of party.'

[Private information; Hansard's Debates; Revue des Deux Mondes, 1898; pamphlet biography published by the Sheffield Independent Company in 1897.]