Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whitbread, Samuel

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WHITBREAD, SAMUEL (1758–1815), politician, was only son of Samuel Whitbread (d. 1796) of Southill, Bedfordshire, by his first wife, Harriet, daughter of William Hayton of Ivinghoe. Samuel Whitbread the elder came of a nonconformist family in Bedfordshire, where he inherited a small property. As a young man he entered a London brewery, in the first instance as a clerk, and in course of time became possessor of the whole brewery through hard work and good luck. After realising a large fortune he purchased Lord Torrington's Southill estate in 1795 (Lysons, Bedfordshire, p. 134), and for a time supported the tory interest in Bedfordshire (Cornwallis Corresp. ii. 104).

Samuel Whitbread the younger was born at Cardington, Bedfordshire, in 1758. His early home education was remarkable for strictness approaching severity, and a strong religious character. An only son, he was the object of great parental care; at Eton, where he was a contemporary and friend of Charles Grey (afterwards second Earl Grey) he was accompanied by a private tutor; thence he was sent to Christ Church, Oxford, and matriculated in July 1780. His progress at Oxford not satisfying his father, he was removed to St. John's College, Cambridge, whence he graduated B.A. in 1784, and was then sent on a foreign tour throughout Europe, under the charge of William Coxe [q. v.] the historian. He returned in May 1786. For the next three years he completely devoted himself to the business of the brewery. His marriage in 1789 with Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Sir Charles (afterwards first Earl) Grey, and sister of his old schoolfellow, inclined his interests to politics, and at the general election in 1790 he was elected as a whig to represent Bedford. Almost immediately he began to take a prominent part in the debates in the house, and in November 1790 energetically attacked the government for waste of money on military preparations. A speech on 12 April 1791, in which he severely and powerfully criticised the ministerial policy, attracted public attention. From the first he attached himself closely to Fox, who soon admitted him to his confidence in foreign affairs, and in June and July 1791 he took a part in the correspondence with Fox's emissaries at St. Petersburg, who, if not actually assisting in bringing about, were rejoicing at, the failure of Pitt's negotiations. Well qualified by the special information he possessed, he was entrusted with one of the opposition motions in the debate on the Russian armament, and, though the motion was lost by a considerable majority on this occasion, he greatly distinguished himself. Whitbread now rapidly developed into a leading spirit in opposition, and an earnest opponent of everything savouring of oppression and abuse. He proved himself a constant advocate of negro emancipation, the extension of religious and civil rights, and the establishment of a form of national education. He consistently cherished a belief in the possibility of maintaining peace with France, and on 15 Dec. 1792 strongly supported Fox's motion for sending a minister to negotiate with France. In the beginning of 1793 he presented petitions in favour of reform from Birmingham and other great towns in the north of England, and he expressed his conviction of the necessity for reform on 7 May 1793. Towards the end of 1795, when there was great distress and the wages of agricultural labourers were at the lowest point, Whitbread brought in a bill (9 Dec.) to enable the magistrates to fix the minimum as well as the maximum wage at quarter sessions; this proposal was opposed by Pitt and defeated. In 1790 he was one of those who left the house with Fox on the occasion of the seditious assembly bill being referred to the committee of the house, and the following year he moved an inquiry into the conduct of the administration (3 March 1797) and a vote of censure (9 May).

He continued steadily to harass the government, supporting Arthur O'Connor [q. v.] on his trial at Maidstone, May 1798, urging the consideration of the French overtures for peace, 3 Feb. 1800, and opposing (March 1801) the continuance of the act for the suppression of rebellion in Ireland. On the conclusion of peace in 1802, he expressed his approval of the Addington ministry by supporting the address, 17 Nov. 1802. He was quite unable to understand the unstable character of the peace, and even in May 1803 separated himself from some of his own party by imagining that its continuance could be procured through the intervention of Russia.

The report of the commissioners (1805) who had been appointed to inquire into the abuses of the naval department set forth a case of suspicion against Lord Melville [see Dundas, Henry, first Viscount Melville]. Whitbread was accepted by his party as their instrument of attack on the friend of Pitt. He commenced proceedings by moving a series of resolutions, 8 April 1805, detailing and attacking the whole conduct of the treasurer of the navy, and, despite Pitt's strenuous endeavours to prevent the passing of the resolutions, they were adopted by the house on the casting" vote of the speaker. Encouraged by this success, Whitbread immediately moved, on 10 April, an address to the king to remove Melville from his presence and councils for ever, but after a debate this motion was withdrawn. Whitbread now moved (25 April) for a select committee, and on their report gave notice of moving for the impeachment of Melville, and of resolutions to follow against Pitt. Though Whitbread's motion for the impeachment of Melville was lost in the first instance (11 June), and an amendment in favour of criminal prosecution adopted, it was subsequently agreed to, and on 26 June, accompanied by nearly a hundred members, he carried up the impeachment to the bar of the House of Lords. His name was now placed at the head of the committee appointed by the commons to draw up the articles of impeachment, and he was appointed manager on the nomination of Lord Temple. He entered on the task with the energy of an enthusiast, and the same session moved for a bill of indemnity in favour of those who had been in office under Melville who should give evidence on his impeachment. On 29 April 1806, on the first clay of the trial in Westminster Hall, Whitbread opened all the charges in a speech of three hours and twenty minutes. Later in the trial he offered himself as a witness to prove the substance of the charges before the commons, and was severely cross-examined. He began his reply on the entire case on 16 May, and concluded it on the following day. Melville was acquitted on all the charges on 12 June. In his management of the trial Whitbread appears to have been somewhat masterful, and to have insisted on his own methods in opposition to the general views of the managers and of his friend Romilly in particular (Colchester, Diary, ii. 58). His diligence in preparing the case was remarkable, but he is said to have been so occupied with displaying his own wit and eloquence, or, as the Duchess of Gordon expressed it, 'with teaching his drayhorse to caper,' that his speeches failed to convince (Holland, Memoirs of the Whig Party, i. 234). Rowlandson records the result of the trial by his cartoon, 'The Acquittal, or upsetting the Porter Pot' (20 June 1806).

On the approaching death of Fox (September 1806) the inclusion of Whitbread in the ministry was under consideration (Buckingham, Memoirs of Court and Cabinets of George III, iv. 65), but on this occasion Lord Grey appears without sufficient warrant to have vouched for his brother-in-law having no desire for office (ib.) At this period he certainly deserved well of his party, for his attack on Melville, which he followed up by a vigorous exposure of the conduct of the Duke of York, was popular in the country and improved the position of the whigs (Le Marchant, Life of Lord Spencer, p. 115; see art. Johnstone, Andrew James Cochrane).

In 1807 Whitbread brought in a poor-law bill of the most elaborate and unwieldy character. His speech, delivered on 19 Feb. 1807, was published in pamphlet form. His scheme comprised the establishment of a free educational system, the alteration of the law of settlement, the equalisation of county rates, and a peculiar proposal for distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving poor by the wearing of badges. It excited considerable public interest, and was keenly criticised in the press by Malthus, Bone, Bowles, and others. The portions of the main scheme dealing with education and the law of settlement were subsequently converted into separate bills which passed their second reading; the parochial schools bill, under which children between the ages of seven and fourteen and unable to pay were entitled to two years' free education, was regarded as such a practical proposal that it was circulated in the country for the consideration of the magistrates. The proposed measures, though containing much that was good and exhibiting political foresight, were hurriedly prepared, and showed want of exact knowledge on the part of their author. They were committed, but subsequently abandoned (29 July).

Whitbread's attitude with regard to the conduct of the war and foreign affairs now began to cause differences of opinion between himself and other leading members of the opposition, and in December 1807 his brother-in-law (now Lord Grey) privately warned him of the dangers attending his peace-at-any-price policy. But he was not to be restrained, and insisted upon moving a peace resolution on 29 Feb. 1808, wherein it was stated that there was 'nothing in the present state of affairs which should preclude his majesty from embracing the opportunity of commencing negotiations.' George Ponsonby [q. v.], acting in concert with Lords Grenville and Grey, moved and carried the previous question by 211 to 58, but Whitbread's following was probably increased by mistake (Life of Lord Grey, p. 183). His action on this occasion caused a party split, which resulted in the practical disbandment of the opposition in 1809. Though Ponsonby had been accepted as leader of the opposition by Whitbread with certain reservations on 11 Dec. 1807 (Buckingham, Memoirs of the Court and Cabinets of George III, iv. 219), yet a section of the party, following Whitbread, Folkestone, and Burdett, had in 1809 completely asserted its independence (ib. p. 414); and their strongly expressed policy that 'peace should be the cry of the nation' and the furious attack on the Duke of York caused open variance between them and Lords Grenville and Grey in April 1809 (Colchester, Diary, ii. 177). As the regular opposition relaxed its efforts, so Whitbread and his following redoubled their energies and became the only forcible organs of liberal principles in the house (Le Marchant, Life of Lord Spencer, p. 115).

From 1809 up to the time of his death Whitbread spoke more frequently than any member of the House of Commons. His opinion that publicity was the very essence of the British constitution accounts for the earnestness with which he attacked abuses of all kinds, and the frequent debates he occasioned on foreign affairs. His criticism of Lord Chatham's conduct with regard to the Scheldt operations was highly successful and greatly inspirited the opposition; his motion on 23 Feb. 1810 for an address to the king asking for all papers submitted at any time by the Earl of Chatham was carried by seven votes, and the subsequent motion of censure on Lord Chatham's conduct by thirty-three (2 March 1810). Despite the carrying of this resolution, it is said that Chatham only resigned on Whitbread threatening publicly to ask whether he was still master-general of the ordnance.

On the tumults preceding Sir Francis Burdett's arrest, Whitbread, though generally in sympathy with the extremists, played the part of prudent adviser to his friend, and urged him not to resist the speaker's warrant he also affirmed in the house the legality of the warrant and the consequent proceedings.

He was one of the few who uniformly and on principle expressed disapprobation of the regency bill, and on 25 Feb. 1811 he moved for a committee to inspect the journals of the House of Lords concerning the king's illness in 1804, and condemned the conduct of Lord Eldon in 1801 and 1804. When in 1811 it appeared certain that the whigs would secure office, it was arranged, despite objection to him from the Grenvilles, that Whitbread should be secretary of state for home affairs (Brougham, Autobiography, vol. ii.) The calculations of the opposition were, however, upset by the abrupt determination of the regent to maintain in office the Perceval administration. After Perceval's death, Whitbread pursued his independent course in opposition, acting separately from the bulk of his party.

In the summer of 1812 he appears to have made the acquaintance of the Princess of Wales (ib. ii. 148). From the first he deemed it his duty to stand by her, 'considering her as ill-used as possible, and without any just ground' (ib. ii. 165). Although his action was absolutely independent and alienated him from some of his own relatives (Adolphus, Memoirs of Caroline, i. 561), he was on better terms with the whigs now than in 1809. In the House of Commons he constituted himself champion to the princess, and, with his usual earnestness, attempted on all occasions to do her service. His zeal, however, outran his discretion when, in a long speech on 17 March 1813, he made a groundless charge against Lord Ellenborough and the other commissioners who had inquired into the princess's conduct, of suppressing a portion of Mrs. Lisle's evidence, On this occasion his friends in the commons censured him for his rash credulity, and Lord Ellenborough in the House of Lords on 22 March 1813 denounced the accusation 'as false as hell in every part.' Whitbread with characteristic obstinacy refused to admit himself in the wrong (Hansard, pp. 25, 274). His ardour on behalf of the princess was not checked by this episode, and he continued to exert himself in her support. On her departure from England in August 1814 he wrote expressing 'his unalterable attachment, his devotion and zeal for her re-establishment' (Adolphus, Memoirs of Caroline, i. 565).

During the last year of Whitbread's life his desire for peace, despite all change of circumstance on the continent, determined his conduct in opposition. He questioned the grounds of war with America on 8 Nov. 1814, urged the maintenance of peace on 20 March 1815 whether the Bourbon dynasty or Napoleon should prove successful, protested on 3 April against the declaration of the allies in congress against Napoleon, and on 28 April moved an address praying the crown not to involve the country in a war upon the ground of excluding a particular person from the government of France. When, however, war was actually entered upon, he supported the vote of credit for its prosecution.

During the last few years of his life the part taken by Whitbread in the rebuilding and reorganisation of Drury Lane Theatre occasioned him great anxiety and annoyance, and is said to have materially affected his health. On the burning down of the old theatre, 24 Feb. 1809, he became a member, and soon after chairman, of the committee for the rebuilding of the theatre. A bill for its re-erection by subscription was passed through parliament, and Whitbread supported the interests of Drury Lane in the commons, successfully opposing the introduction of bills for the establishment of rival theatres, one of his arguments being that the more theatres the worse actors and no one good play (9 May 1811, 20 March 1812). In 1811 and 1812 he was much occupied with the rebuilding and reorganisation of the theatre, which was opened again on 10 Oct. 1812. Innovations which he attempted by beginning the performances at an earlier hour and by playing every night the whole year round involved him in disputes and difficulties with other theatres (Addit. MS. 27925, f. 40), but his monetary relations with Sheridan were to him a source of still greater annoyance. His businesslike abilities enabled him to stand firm against Sheridan's powers of persuasion (Moore, Life of Sheridan, ii. 443), but there does not appear to be any ground for the suggestion that he treated Sheridan harshly, or that at this time he was suffering from disease of the brain.

Whitbread died by his own hand on 6 July 1815, having cut his throat at his town house, 35 Dover Street. At the inquest, held the same day, the jury found that he was in a deranged state of mind at the time the act was committed; his friend Mr. Wilcher gave evidence that his despondency was due to belief that his public life was extinct. He was buried at Cardington in Bedfordshire. His widow died on 28 Nov. 1846. Whitbread died possessed of five-eighths of the brewery, his father by will having made it compulsory on him to retain a majority of the shares" in his own hands. He left two sons William Henry (d. 1867), M.P. for Bedford 1818-37; and Samuel Charles and two daughters, Elizabeth (d. 1843), who married William, eighth earl Waldegrave; and Emma Laura (d. 1857), who married Charles Shaw-Lefevre, viscount Eversley [q. v.]

In the opinion of a good judge of character, Whitbread 'was made up of the elements of opposition' (Ward, Diary, ed. Phipps, i. 403). His eloquence was more suited for attack in debate than defence. Lord Byron considered him the Demosthenes of bad taste and vulgar vehemence, but strong and English; his peculiar and forcible Anglicism was also noted by Wilberforce, who, however, thought 'he spoke as if he had a pot of porter to his lips and all his words came through it' (Wilberforce, Life, v. 339). He was, in the words of Romilly, 'the promoter of every liberal scheme for improving the condition of mankind, the zealous advocate of the oppressed, and the undaunted opposer of every species of corruption and ill-administration;' but too vain and rash to acquire any real ascendency over the minds of well-educated men (Holland, Memoirs of Whig Party, ii. 237). Whitbread was frequently portrayed by both Rowlandson and Gillray in their political cartoons, and is invariably distinguished by a porter-pot or some reference to Whitbread's 'entire.'

A half-length portrait of Whitbread was painted by Thomas Gainsborough. An engraved portrait, from an original drawing, appears in Adolphus's 'Memoir of Caroline' (i. 461); and another engraved portrait, by W. Ward, after the painting by H. W. Pickersgill, was published on 27 June 1820.

[Hansard, 1806-15, passim; Annual Register; Hone's Tributes of the Public Press to the Memory of the late Mr. Whitbread, 1815; Authentic Account of the Death of Mr. Whitbread, 1815; Sir F. Grey's Life of Lord Grey; Le Marchant's Life of Earl Spencer (which contains a short biography of Whitbread, pp. 172-80); Diary and Correspondence of Lord Colchester; Edinburgh Review, April 1838; Memoirs of the Life of Sir S. Romilly; Moore's Memoirs.]

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