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Chapter XI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


The Edmunds Scandal: Its Origin: The Lord Chancellor's connection with it - The Wilde Scandal: Report of Select Committee: Motion of Mr. Ward Hunt - Lord Westbury resigns the Seals: Succeeded by Lord Cranworth - Parliament Dissolved - General Election: Mr. Mill returned for Westminster: Mr. Gladstone rejected by Oxford University; Returned for South Lancashire: Large Liberal Majority - The Road Murder - Accident on the Matterhorn - Speculative Enterprise - The Cattle Plague: Official Description of the Malady: High Percentage of Fatal Cases: Orders in Council - The Milk Supply.
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The end of the session of 1865 was troubled by certain transactions which caused great tribulation to the Government of Lord Palmerston, and proved fatal to the career of one of the highest officers of state. These transactions are commonly grouped together under the name of "the Edmunds scandal." Their details are complicated, and can only be told shortly here; the circumstances are such as no Englishman can read of with pleasure, and yet there is a kind of consolation in the fact that so much was made of them at the time, and that the principal persons concerned were so severely visited. Irregularities will occur even in high places; "but Parliamentary government, whatever its faults, has the merit of resenting irregularities, and of a readiness to call their authors to account.

The name of " the Edmunds scandal " is not quite properly applied; for, strictly speaking, there were two sets of transactions - the one referring to Mr. Edmunds, the other to an appointment in the Leeds Bankruptcy Court. The case of Mr. Edmunds was as follows: - In 1833, Lord Brougham, at that time Lord Chancellor, had appointed Mr. Leonard Edmunds to the post of Clerk of the Patents, at the small salary of £400 a year. In 1852, the Patent Laws were amended, and a new body called the Commissioners of Patents, consisting of high legal officials, was formed; and in October, 1852, Mr. Edmunds was appointed their clerk. This brought him in an additional salary of £600 a year. In two years from this time, a quarrel took place between Mr. Edmunds and Mr. Woodcroft, also an official of the Patent Office, and each charged the other with irregularities, mismanagement, or worse. Two lawyers of position - Mr. Hindmarch and Mr. Greenwood, both Queen's Counsel - were appointed to make a full inquiry into the cross-accusations; and their finding was adverse to Mr. Edmunds. They determined that, during the twelve years since 1852, he had been generally extremely irregular in his payments of public money into the Exchequer; that ho had in 1853 advanced £500 out of the public money to buy stamps, and that ten years afterwards he had placed to his own credit £500 of public money in pretended repayment; that he had put public money to his own use without accounting for it; that he had sent to the Treasury an incorrect return of his fees, keeping back, in 1852, the sum of £5,190; that, in short, a total sum of £9,617 had been improperly retained by him, and was due to the Treasury. This report was handed to the Lord Chancellor by the two commissioners - Mr. Greenwood and Mr. Hindmarch - with the very natural suggestion that Mr. Edmunds should be at once removed from the Patent Office. The authorities, however, were lenient enough to allow him to resign, on his repaying the sums due to the Treasury. And then arose the question which brought Lord Chancellor Westbury into his unfortunate position. Mr. Edmunds, as well as being clerk in the Patent Office, was clerk in the House of Lords; and it was to his evident interest to resign that post before rumours of his troubles in his other office should reach the ears of the Parliament Office Committee, and defeat his chance of a pension. What immediately followed is obscure, nor is the part played either by Lord Westbury or by Mr. William Brougham, a friend and partisan of Mr. Edmunds, absolutely clear. It is known that Mr. Brougham asked the Lord Chancellor to " help Mr. Edmunds to a pension," and that the Lord Chancellor promised to do " all he could with propriety to obtain him a pension; " adding the significant postscript - " I can with truth certify that Mr. E. has properly discharged all the duties of the office he holds in the House of Lords." So Mr. Edmunds at once addressed a petition to the House of Lords, asking leave to retire from his post of clerk, and begging for a pension, " in conformity with the usage on like occasions." Now the time at which this petition was presented was during the critical interval between Mr. Edmunds' defalcations having become officially known to the Lord Chancellor and their becoming known to the public. That is to say, the Lord Chancellor knew of them, and the House of Lords did not. Nevertheless, the Lord Chancellor himself presented Mr. Edmunds' petition; himself moved that the resignation should be accepted, and that the question of pension should be referred to a select committee, of which he was to be one; and this without one word of reference to the grave charges which were hanging over the head of Mr. Edmunds. The select committee was appointed, and recommended to the House that a pension of £800 a year should be conferred on Mr. Edmunds; and this recommendation the House adopted. Meanwhile, the Chancellor appointed his son, the Honourable Slingsby Bethell, to the post in the House of Lords vacated by Mr. Edmunds.

Before long, however, the floating rumours about Mr. Edmunds' conduct in the Patent Office had caught the public attention, and Lord Stanley expressed the general uneasiness about the affair in some questions which lie addressed to the Attorney-General in the House of Commons. Next night, the Chancellor himself took up the matter, and, courting inquiry, moved for the appointment of a select committee to examine all the circumstances. The committee sat; reported that the charges against Mr. Edmunds were fully proved by evidence; and, by a majority of one, gave it as their opinion that the Lord Chancellor had failed in his duty, when lie presented Mr.» Edmunds' petition without informing the committee of the facts of the case. But, by way of softening their censure, the select committee added, " that they had no reason to believe that the Lord Chancellor was influenced by any unworthy or unbecoming motives in thus abstaining from giving any information to the before-mentioned committee."

Upon this, the House revoked Mr. Edmunds' pension, and there apparently the matter ended. The 'committee had not condemned the Lord Chancellor; his position remained as before; and yet everybody felt uncomfortable. It was known that Lord Westbury was not a stupid man; it was suspected, in fact, that he was the cleverest man in England; and when a clever man makes a blunder it is generally felt to amount to a crime. Hence it was in no lenient mind that the public heard rumours of a fresh scandal, touching the Lord Chancellor still more nearly, in the matter of certain appointments in the Leeds Bankruptcy Court. Mr. Ferrand, member for Devonport - a man whose spécialité lay in troubling the peace of Governments - brought this new scandal before the world in some questions addressed in Parliament to the Attorney-General; namely, whether Mr. H. S. Wilde, Registrar of the Leeds Court of Bankruptcy, had been required by a superior official, by authority, to resign his office; whether, on his having refused, he had been promised, on his producing a medical certificate, a pension of £600 a year, he being then in good health; whether, upon Mr. Wilde's accepting this arrangement, a Mr. Welch, a man of precarious health, had been appointed, under arrangement that he should hold the post until the reversal of the outlawry of the Hon. Richard Bethell, a son of the Lord Chancellor; whether Mr. Bethell's appointment had been made out after his outlawry had been reversed; and whether, on or about the 24th of February last, he had attended the Leeds Court, and then told the officials that he was appointed Registrar?

The answer of the Attorney-General was sufficient to show that Mr. Ferrand was mainly wrong as to the details of the Leeds transactions, but that there was evidently something in the rear which wanted clearing up. So the appointment of a select committee followed, and five members were chosen, with Mr. Howes for chairman, to inquire into the whole affair. The result of their investigations, during which all the persons concerned, including the Lord Chancellor, were examined, was to bring to light a most lamentable state of things, the principal facts being the following: - Mr. Wilde, the Registrar of the Leeds Court of Bankruptcy, had been charged, in the year 1864, with improperly passing the accounts of his subordinates, and with borrowing money of them " to the destruction of his independence and efficiency." The Lord Chancellor, through Mr. Miller, the Chief Registrar, called upon him, in May, 1864, to explain the charges; but apparently no satisfactory explanation was forthcoming, for, on the 26th June, Mr. Miller, by order of the Chancellor, wrote to Mr. Wilde, offering him in a peremptory way the option of resignation, or of appearing in open court to show cause why he should not be dismissed. But Mr. Miller added, without the Chancellor's authorisation, that if Mr. Wilde chose to resign upon a medical certificate, he might perhaps claim a pension. Mr. Wilde took the hint, and sent up a certificate from a Mr. Key, a Leeds surgeon, saying " that, in the previous August, Mr. Wilde had consulted him on account of the failure of his sight " - a certificate weakly expressed, but, according to the evidence of the Lord Chancellor, not seen or noticed by him. Mr. Wilde was allowed to retire on a pension, and Mr. Welch was appointed by Lord Westbury to the office he had resigned- Now Mr. Welch' was a friend of Mr. Richard Bethell; he was a barrister on the Northern Circuit, and he had money; Mr. Bethell, on the other hand, had, in the month of May, been compelled by his father to resign his post as Registrar in Bankruptcy on account of debt, and money was of importance to him. Here came the scandal. A certain Reverend George Harding gave his evidence before the committee to the effect that, in May, 1864, an arrangement had been made between himself, Mr. Welch, and Mr. Richard Bethell, of the following nature. Mr. Welch was to give Mr. Bethell £500 for his good influences with his father, the Lord Chancellor, and a further £1,000 on receipt of an appointment, one-third of this latter sum to go to Mr. Harding as his share in the transaction. The fact of Mr. Welch having given Mr. Bethell a cheque for £500 on May 6th was not denied, not was the fact of Mr. Welch having made further advances to him to the extent of £550." In February, 1865, after Mr. Bethell had been for some time abroad, his claims for a new office were pressed on the Chancellor by Mr. Miller; and hopes were held out that some post in the country, not in London, might be found for him - in fact, that Mr. Welch might be transferred to London, and Mr. Bethell appointed to Leeds. Presuming on this, he went down to Leeds on the 24th, and talked to the officials as if the arrangements were concluded, but meanwhile the Lord Chancellor had changed his mind, and did not appoint his son.

The report of the select committee acquitted the Lord Chancellor " from all charge except that of haste and want of caution in granting a pension to Mr. Wilde; " but it went on to say that the inquiry had been a most necessary one. The newspapers were immediately filled with criticisms of the Chancellor's conduct; but Parliament was just about to be prorogued, and it was generally supposed that he was to be left free from authoritative censure. But just before the prorogation, a motion on the matter was put on the notice-book of the House of Commons by Mr. Ward Hunt, member for Northamptonshire, and afterwards Mr. Disraeli's Chancellor of the Exchequer. The least hint of a " personal question " always fills the House; and when, as on this occasion, the question nearly touches a great officer of state, not even the heat of July can keep members away from Westminster. Mr. Hunt spoke to full benches when he proposed his motion: " That the evidence taken before the committee of this House on the Leeds Bankruptcy Court discloses that a great facility exists for obtaining public appointments by corrupt means; that such evidence, and also that taken before a committee of the House of Lords in the case of Leonard Edmunds and laid before this House, shows a laxity of practice and want of caution, on the part of the Lord Chancellor, in sanctioning the grant of retiring pensions to public servants over whose heads grave charges are impending, and in filling up the vacancies made by the retirement of such officers, whereby great encouragement has been given to corrupt practices; and that such laxity and want of caution,

A scandal of this kind was by no means a pleasant end to the life of a Parliament, and for the Government by no means a pleasant prelude to a general election. Yet it seemed, after all, to do them very little harm with the constituencies. Questions as to the personal conduct of a minister are more piquant in the clubs than in election committee-rooms; such amount of interest as the elector had to spare for personal questions was absorbed by the personal character of the candidate that asked his vote, and his public and strictly political interest was taken up by the election cry of Reform. But it cannot be said that public feeling was very deeply or very generally stirred. There was no question of deciding upon the life or death of a Ministry; it was a " natural dissolution; " Parliament had died of old age, and not by the violent hands of a defeated minister. So most of the constituencies fought out their battles quietly and uneventfully; the Liberals making, as we have said, Reform their war- cry, and the Conservatives making answer that Reform was neither necessary nor expedient. It was generally expected that Lord Palmerston's Government would have a considerable majority. Only two contests were looked upon with a very high degree of interest - that for the University of Oxford, where Mr. Gladstone was opposed by Mr. Gathorne Hardy; and that for Westminster, where Mr. John Stuart Mill came forward as a candidate. It was almost the first time, perhaps the very first time, in English history that a philosophical and economical writer of the first rank had come forward to ask for the vote of a constituency solely on the ground of his writings. Hence it was that Mr. Mill's candidature was looked upon with such intense interest by so many persons. A large committee was formed, including most of the leading Liberal names in England, to carry him into Parliament at no expense to himself - in accordance with the principle which he had laid down in his book on "Representative Government," that a man ought to look upon the representation of his fellow citizens in Parliament rather as a duty to be undertaken under certain circumstances, than as a duty to be paid for. The exertions of his admirers, the novelty of the experience, and the influence of Mr. Mill's own dignified presence, seen as it was by so many for the first time, carried him to his seat, and gave him for three years to the service of his country and his party in Parliament; and of those who had voted for him, few regretted his success when they saw how his clear luminous speeches tended to enlighten difficult questions, and how his lofty character seemed sometimes to raise the very character of debate and of legislation itself. But enthusiasm for an idea does not hold its ground for very long in England. When we come to tell the story of the general election of 1868, we shall have to record the defeat of Mr. Mill.

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Pictures for Chapter XI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

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