1811 – 1889
The Bright family were Quaker cotton spinners from Rochdale, Lancashire. Over five years John attended four Quaker schools including Ackworth, where he found the regime harsh and Bootham, which he loved. His father came from humble beginnings and had worked to become the owner of his cotton mill. At fifteen John joined him.
He remained a man of the people, fiercely against inequality and poverty and the powerlessness that resulted. He showed a natural talent for oratory and by the mid 1830’s had started to make a name for himself in local politics. As a lot of his own education had been through independent study, he was a keen supporter of better educational provision. He was asked by Richard Cobden, a wealthy cotton trader who shared his interests, to speak at a meeting about education. They became firm friends. Bright was also passionate in his opposition to the setting of a rate of donation to church funds in Rochdale as he felt that the vicar should use his own resources for this. The struggle reached a climax when Bright and the Vicar climbed on the tombstones in St Chad’s churchyard to deliver their speeches. Although Bright’s speech won the day, the rate was imposed at a subsequent meeting.
Bright’s reputation as a leader of political dissent in Rochdale did not help him in his private life. He fell in love with fellow Quaker Elizabeth Priestman but her family initially opposed the marriage because of his political notoriety. They eventually married in 1839 and had a daughter, Helen. Sadly Elizabeth died in 1841.
Bright was devastated. His friend Cobden had become an MP in 1841 and begged him to overcome his grief by helping him with the work on the abolition of the Corn Laws, which made it too expensive for cereals to be imported into Britain. These laws kept prices high, including the cost of flour for bread making, an essential food for working people. Bright became convinced of the justice of the move to repeal the Corn Laws. Some Quakers were uncertain about the morality of entering Parliament, but by 1843 Bright felt that more could be achieved this way and fought for the seat of the city of Durham. He lost to Lord Dungannon, but he was subsequently unseated for bribery. At the next election a couple of months later, Bright was victorious and took his seat in the House of Commons in July1843.
He was an immediate success with his passionate speeches and youthful vigour at only thirty-one years of age. He and Cobden were a dynamic duo. Cobden presented the factual information and Bright then used his rhetoric to expose the weaknesses in his opponents’ speeches. Their constant questions in Parliament, and the impact of the Irish Famine eventually influenced the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.
Then he turned his attention to the plight of the agricultural labourers and supported Cobden in his efforts to get a select committee set up to examine the effects of protection on tenant farmers and their labourers. He also attacked the Game Laws which allowed landowners to preserve game for hunting, regardless of the damage that they did to the crops of tenant farmers.
He often took a stance that was in opposition to the Government. As a Quaker and pacifist he was against the Crimean War of 1853 – 1856 which he saw as a waste of money and life. His brilliant unscripted speech greatly moved his fellow parliamentarians and is recorded in Hansard (see link below).
His opposition to the war cost him his seat but within a few months he was re-elected unopposed as the MP for Birmingham, a position that he held for the next thirty years.
On the American Civil War of 1861 – 1865, in contrast to Chancellor Gladstone, he supported the North against the South. When Lincoln was assassinated a testimonial from Bright urging his re-election was found on his body.
Bright was opposed to Gladstone’s Irish home rule policy as he felt that the Irish nationalists had made a mockery of parliamentary government and resigned over this issue in 1882.
Bright died in 1889. Many of the workers from his mill attended the funeral in the Quaker Burial Ground at Rochdale Meeting House of ‘honest John’ a man of the people who had lived by his Quaker principles throughout his life.