Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

British Quakers in Parliament in the Nineteenth Century

In 1698, John Archdale of Upperside Meeting, (now Chilterns), in Buckinghamshire, was the first Quaker to be elected as an MP. However he could not take up his seat because he would not swear an oath of allegiance to the King, a requirement for all MPs at that time. How could a person who openly refused to swear an oath to uphold the monarch be trusted in Parliament?  This refusal kept Quakers out of Parliament until an alternative was finally found in the nineteenth century.

Joseph Pease (1799-1872) was elected to represent South Durham in 1832, and his election catalysed change.  A committee was formed to try to find a way round his ‘oath problem’. The resulting 1832 Reform Bill enabled Quakers to express their loyalty through affirmation rather than an oath.  (To this day, many Quakers do this in several contexts where oath taking is the norm. ) Joseph Pease duly affirmed, and became the first Quaker MP. He worked with Thomas Fowell Buxton (whose mother was a Quaker) in the anti-slavery movement.  In 1841 he left politics and in 1860 he became the President of the Peace Society. Six other members of the Pease family also became MPs, including Henry and Arthur Pease, mentioned below.

John Bright (1811–1889) was the second Quaker MP. In 1843 he was elected to represent the City of Durham. He was a very accomplished orator and was famous for his passionate speeches.  He joined with MP Richard Cobden in a campaign that succeeded in 1846 in repealing the Corn Laws that were keeping bread prices high. Bright led the Peace Society in opposing the Crimean War and lost his seat in 1850.  His unwillingness to modify his principles did not make him popular with his fellow MPs.  He was re-elected soon afterwards and remained in Parliament for the next thirty years.  During the American Civil War he helped to prevent Britain from breaking the blockade of Confederate ports by force.  In 1868 Prime Minister William Gladstone invited him to join his cabinet, the first Quaker to do so.  In 1882 he resigned from a second cabinet appointment over British Military intervention in Egypt.  His brother Jacob was also an MP.

John Ellis (1789-1862) another Quaker became the MP for Leicester from 1848 to 1852 and joined John Bright in Parliament.  He was a liberal reformer who had attended the1840 anti-slavery convention in London.

Charles Gilpin (1815-1874) was elected to Parliament to represent Northampton in 1857. He remained in Parliament for seventeen years.  He served as Secretary to the Poor Law Board (which oversaw workhouses, and provided basic poor relief) until 1865,  When he was appointed, John Bright disapproved, because of the nature of the work, and is said to have told Gilpin "Thou'd better have a rope put around thy neck". This is especially ironic since Gilpin was an active campaigner against capital punishment.

For the rest of the nineteenth century there was a disproportionate number of Quaker MPs. Among them were:

Henry Pease (1807-1881), son of Edward Pease, the railway pioneer, represented Durham South in Parliament from 1857 until 1865. He was President of the Peace Society and visited the Tsar of Russia with Joseph Sturge, in an attempt to prevent the Crimean War.

Edmund Backhouse was elected as MP for Darlington in 1867 serving until 1880. Unlike Bright and Gilpin he was not an orator but he was reputed to be very able and conscientious having common sense and sound judgement.

Theodore Fry (1836-1912), son of chocolatier Francis Fry, succeeded him.   He was MP for Darlington from 1880 to 1895.

Arthur Pease (1837-1898), son of Joseph Pease MP, was MP for Whitby from 1880 to 1885 and for Darlington from 1895 until 1896.  He was a member of the Royal Commission on Opium in India from 1893-1895.

John Pennington Thomasson (1841-1904) represented Bolton in Parliament from 1880 to 1885.   He was a great philanthropist and gave over £30,000 to improve education in Bolton.

George William Palmer (1851-1913), whose family were partners in the biscuit makers Huntley and Palmers, was prominent in local government prior to entering Parliament in 1892. He was defeated in the 1895 election but regained his seat in 1898 and remained in Parliament until 1904.

Quaker parliamentarians were mostly Liberals.

Print this article