Potter, Thomas Bayley (DNB01)

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POTTER, THOMAS BAYLEY (1817–1898), politician, born on 29 Nov. 1817 at Manchester, was the younger son of Sir Thomas Potter, knt., by his wife Esther, daughter of Thomas Bayley of Booth Hall, near Manchester.

Sir Thomas Potter (1773–1845) and his brother Richard Potter (1778–1842) were Unitarians and leading members of the Manchester school of liberals. They were among the founders of the 'Manchester Guardian,' and afterwards of the 'Times' (of Manchester), later called the 'Examiner and Times.' Thomas, after actively promoting the incorporation of Manchester, was elected its first mayor in 1838. During his second mayoralty, in 1839, he was knighted; he died at Burle Hill, near Manchester, on 20 March 1845 (Gent. Mag. 1845, i. 562). A portrait of him is in the office of the lord mayor in Manchester town hall. His brother Richard, known as 'Radical Dick,' was elected M.P. for Wigan in the first reformed parliament in 1832 and again in 1835 and 1837; he died at Penzance on 13 July 1842 (Gent. Mag. 1842, ii. 429). The brothers founded the wholesale house in the Manchester trade so long known as 'Potter's,' and it became a rendezvous for political and philanthropic reformers. The business was first carried on in Cannon Street, and was removed to George Street in 1836. It was one of the rooms in the George Street premises that was called 'the Plotting Room.'

Thomas Bayley Potter first attended Mr. John's school in George Street, Manchester. At the age of ten he went with his elder brother, John, to Dr. Carpenter's school at Bristol. Dr. Carpenter used to read aloud the parliamentary debates, and of about sixteen boys who attended during Potter's time eight became liberal members of parliament. From Bristol Potter went to Rugby under Dr. Arnold. While he was there the reform bill passed, and immediately on leaving school, at the age of sixteen, he took part in his uncle Richard's election at Wigan. In 1833 he joined the London University, the only one open to him as a Unitarian.

On returning to Manchester Potter became a partner in the family business, and a vigorous supporter of the family politics. At the age of twenty-three he was chairman of the Manchester branch of the Complete; Suffrage Society. In 1845, on the death of his father, his brother John became head of the firm now known as 'Potter & Norris.' John was mayor of Manchester during three successive years, and was knighted in 1851; he was elected M.P. for Manchester on 30 March 1857, and died on 25 Oct. 1858. At the time of the Crimean war a temporary estrangement occurred between the Potters who supported the war, and the party of Bright and Cobden who opposed the war. Sir John stood for Manchester in 1857 in opposition to Bright, and, with the support of his brother Thomas, was elected at the : head of the poll. In the following year Sir John died, and his brother Thomas became head of the firm. The split in the liberal party was soon repaired, and long before 1861 Potter was again co-operating with his old friends. In that year he warmly espoused the cause of the North Americans in the American civil war, and in 1863 founded the Union and Emancipation Society, which he carried on at great cost of money and labour during the continuance of the American war. His friendship with Richard Cobden became very strong, and in 1865, when Cobden died, he was elected to succeed him in the representation of Rochdale, his candidature being warmly recommended by John Bright. In the general election which happened a few months later the seat was not contested, but in the six following general elections he fought hard fights, winning with substantial majorities. In 1886 he stood as a homeruler. Shortly after the death of his partner, Mr. Francis -Taylor, which occurred about 1870, the business was sold, and Potter ended his commercial connection with Manchester. In 1895 failing health compelled him to retire from parliament. During his thirty years in the House of Common, he was a consistent supporter of free trade and of the principles of political freedom. He seldom spoke, but was a diligent member. He introduced a bill in 1876 designed to abolish the law of primogeniture, the second reading of which was lost by only thirty-five votes. Outside the house he gave influential and substantial support to many public movements; for example, to that for the unity of Italy, and for many years he had a close personal friendship with Garibaldi. In 1879 he visited America with the object of encouraging the adoption of free trade in the United States. While at Boston he was elected the first honorary member of the Merchants' Club.

The most important work of Potter's life was the establishment and successful conduct during many years of the Cobden Club. This society was started in 1866, partly at the suggestion of Professor Thorold Rogers, and was intended to educate the people by means of printed publications, lectures, and otherwise in the principles of free trade as held by Richard Cobden. Potter himself acted as secretary, and for some time as chairman of the club, and in 1890, twenty-four years after its establishment, received from Gladstone, in the presence of several distinguished statesmen, an address setting forth the valuable public work accomplished by the club under his guidance.

At the end of his life Potter spent his vacations in Cobden's old home at Midhurst, where he died on 6 Nov. 1898.

In 1846 Potter married Mary, daughter of Samuel Ashton of Gee Cross, Hyde. They had four sons and one daughter, of whom, the third and fourth sons, Arthur and Richard, and the daughter Edith survive their father. Mrs. Potter died at Cannes in 1885, and Potter, in 1887, married Helena, daughter of John Hicks of Bodmin, who survives him.

Potter was popular in the House of Commons with men of all parties. His appearance was that of a stout Yorkshireman, with a florid complexion; and he was jestingly spoken of as 'the greatest man in the house,' his weight amounting to eighteen stone.

[Private information; Hansard's Parl. Debates; personal knowledge.]

E. O.