Joseph Hume, 1777-1855

Joseph Hume was a Scottish radical who devoted his political career to championing the principles of retrenchment. He was born near Montrose, Forfarshire in January 1777, the first son of James Hume. Hume’s father, master of a small fishing ship, died when he was nine and the family was forced to fall back on the income provided by his mother’s crockery shop. Hume was educated at the Montrose Academy, where he befriended James Mill, four years his senior. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a local doctor and then in 1793 entered Edinburgh University to study anatomy, midwifery and chemistry. On graduating in 1797, he joined the naval service of the East India Company as a physician.

India was to prove the making of Hume. Having learned Hindustani, he worked his way up through the service of the East India Company during the Mahratta War (1802-03), eventually being put in charge of the supplies in Bengal. From such a position he was able, quite legally, to acquire a fortune and by the time he returned to England in 1808 he had amassed wealth to the tune of £40,000. With some of this in 1812 he bought a seat in Parliament for £10,000, via the influence of the Duke of Cumberland, at Weymouth & Melcombe Regis. Initially Hume pledged his support to Spencer Perceval, the Tory Prime Minister, but within a few weeks of entering the House of Commons he was demonstrating the heterodoxy and independence which became the hallmark of his radicalism. He attacked sinecures and sided with the opposition over the framework knitters’ bill. Cumberland withdrew his patronage and in the general election of September 1812 Hume was replaced, although he did receive some financial compensation from the Duke.

Out of Parliament until 1818, Hume became a close ally of Francis Place, the radical tailor and political fixer, whom he met through James Mill. Along with Samuel Whitbread they all gave support to the innovative educational system of Joseph Lancaster. Hume also became involved in attempts to break up the trade monopoly of the East India Company and in 1816 gave his backing to the call for decimalisation of weights and measures. In 1815 he married Mary Burnley, the wealthy daughter of a proprietor of East India stock, a marriage which did little to dispel suspicion of Hume’s propensity to use private means to augment his public reputation.

At the general election of 1818 Hume was returned as MP for the Borders. Over the next few years he established his reputation as the watchdog of public finance, prolonging parliamentary discussion of the estimates long into the night and remaining on his feet by eating a steady supply of pears. Between 1823 and 1825, with behind-the-scenes prompting from Place, he was involved in attempts to repeal the Combination Acts, chairing a parliamentary select committee on the subject in 1825. Hume’s reputation for financial probity took something of a knock in 1826 when he was implicated in the Greek loan scandal. However, he re-emerged at the centre-stage of English radical politics four years later when, with the advent of a new Whig ministry, he was returned, somewhat reluctantly on his part due to the expense, as one of the MPs for the populous constituency of Middlesex.

Hume welcomed the accession of the Whigs to power, believing they were committed to retrenchment. In 1835 Hume was instrumental in bringing about the Lichfield House compact between Whigs, Radicals and the Irish MPs which resulted in the selection of a more sympathetic speaker for the House of Commons. But by the end of the decade his faith in Whig leadership began to expire, as they hesitated over further parliamentary reform and appeared to take an aggressive line in Canada and Jamaica. On the emergence of the Chartist movement Hume declared he was for household suffrage, but, as he had shown twenty years earlier, his preferred palliative for social discontent was fiscal reform and retrenchment. In 1840 he chaired the influential parliamentary select committee on import duties, helping to stack it with free traders, and many of its findings and revelations went on to provide the framework for Peel’s reforms in taxation. Hume had lost his Middlesex seat in 1837 and, with Daniel O’Connell’s assistance, had been returned instead for Kilkenny. In 1841 he was defeated there, but the following year returned as MP for Montrose, the constituency he represented until his death.

When the Whigs returned to power in 1846 Hume vied with Richard Cobden and John Bright for the leadership of the large Radical presence in Parliament. He now championed parliamentary reform to a far greater extent than hitherto, introducing motions for household suffrage in three successive years from 1848, and he also joined in the agitation of the National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association. But, with his typically maverick style, he also managed to offend radical sensibilities, for example by supporting the West India planters in their constitutional struggles of the late 1840s, and by entering an unholy alliance with protectionist MPs over reform of the income tax in 1851. Hume’s manoeuvring, however, could still unsettle governments of the day. In 1852 his insistence on the government, including the secret ballot in its reform bill, was widely perceived to be one of the causes of the fall of Lord John Russell’s ministry.

Hume’s stalwart attendance in the House of Commons diminished as Britain became involved in the Crimean War. Returning from Scotland to his country seat at Burnley Hall, near Great Yarmouth, in the new year of 1855, he fell ill and died on 20 February, aged seventy-eight. Hume was not a popular man. He was considered too dour, pedantic and unpredictable to win many admirers, but his insistence on, and knowledge of, constitutional propriety, together with his defence of public economy and free trade – long before they became the shibboleths of the Liberal Party – ensured his place in the pantheon of liberalism.

There have been two fairly recent and reliable biographies of Hume: Ronald K. Huch and Paul R. Ziegler, Joseph Hume: The People’s MP (Philadelphia, 1985); and Valerie Chancellor, The Political Life of Joseph Hume, 1777-1855 (privately printed, 1986).


Miles Taylor was a Lecturer in Modern History at King’s College, London at the time of writing this piece. He is the author of The Decline of British Radicalism 1847-60 (1995), editor of The European Diaries of Richard Cobden, 1846-49 (1994) and co-editor of Party, State and Society: Electoral Behaviour in Britain since 1820 (1997).