Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Samuel Whitbread - Brewer, Whig Politician, Reformer and Lover of Peace

Samuel Whitbread (1758-1815). Head of the famous brewing family, Whig leader in the House of Commons, a leading advocate of domestic reform and of peace with France and America.
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. - Sir Samuel Romilly.

The wittiest man who ever sat here said
That half our nation's debt had been incurred
In efforts to suppress the Bourbon power,
The other half in efforts to restore it, (laughter)
And I must deprecate a further plunge
For ends so futile!
- Samuel Whitbread, as represented in Thomas Hardy, The Dynasts, Act Fifth.

Whitbread and Napoleon
Whitbread was not an uncritical observer of Napoleon, and was particularly opposed to his policy in Spain.

Like a number of Whigs however, he was opposed to the way in which Government supporters demonised Napoleon as the "Corsican Ogre", and he continually urged a path of negotiation rather than war.

I would here take leave to observe upon the idle and childish way in which many persons are pleased to indulge when speaking of that person .. Whitbread in 1807

In 1808 he said that Ministers reluctant to negotiate with Napoleon should be forced to do so with a proper consideration for his extraordinary talents: You made it necessary for him to fight these battles. You combined the world against him ..

When Napoleon returned from France to Elba, Whitbread led the opposition to war in the House of Commons. His brother in law, Earl Grey, was a leading anti-war spokesman in the House of Lords.(1)

On the return of the emperor from his exile in the island of Elba, the member for Bedford strongly and emphatically censured the declaration of the allies, more especially that part of it which seemed to recommend the detestable principle of assassination. He also loudly insisted both on the impolicy and injustice of a new war, on the ground that the executive power of the enemy was vested in the hands of any one particular person. But above all things he protested against the forcible restoration of the Bourbons by a foreign force, and the assumed right of dictating a government to France. (2)

One of the best speeches in Parliament was made by the radical, Sir Francis Burdett:

Who ever knew a sole and single man
Invade a nation thirty million strong,

.. No man can doubt that this Napoleon stands
As Emperor of France by Frenchmen's wills.
Let the French settle, then, their own affairs;
I say we shall have nought to apprehend!--
Thomas Hardy, The Dynasts, Act Fifth.

After Waterloo Whitbread joined in a vote of national gratitude to the Duke Of Wellington, for the memorable victory at Waterloo, but he also made clear that events had not altered his sentiments in respect to the pretended justice of the original contest. (3)

A Victim of Waterloo?

A number of British supporters of Napoleon were devastated by Waterloo. Whitbread went further - on July 6th 1815, just a few days after Waterloo, he cut his throat with a razor. There is some doubt whether Waterloo was the cause of his suicide; he had been working too hard for years in the family brewing business; in Parliament he spoke more often than anyone else; he had been heavily involved in the costly restoration of the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1815 he began to show signs of paranoia and depression. Whatever the causes of his ill health, Waterloo could not have helped.

Certainly some contemporaries made the connection: nothing was left but to follow Whitbread's example - was Byron's comment as reported by Hobhouse.

Napoleon took a keen interest in English politics, and he asked Members of Parliament who visited him on board ship in Plymouth about the death of Mr. Whitbread.


Suicide was surprisingly common among members of Parliament at this time. No fewer than 19 committed suicide between 1790 and 1820, and 20 more became insane.

Lord Castlereagh, architect of the continental policy which many Whigs had vigorously opposed and which had led to the final defeat and exile of Napoleon, suffered the same fate as Whitbread. Castlereagh became depressed apparently because of the unpopularity of the repressive measures that the Government introduced after Peterloo, and on 12th August 1822 he cut his throat with a penknife.(4)


1. Earl Grey was later Whig Prime Minister, responsible for the first Reform Bill; the famous tea is named after him.

2. Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1817.

3. Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1817.

4. On 16th August 1818 a huge meeting in favour of parliamentary reform took place in St Peter's Fields, Manchester. 15 people were killed, and 400-700 were injured as a result of a cavalry charge by the local militia. It was soon given the name the Peterloo Massacre, an ironic reference to Waterloo. In November 1819, Castlereagh introduced the Six Acts, designed to prevent further demonstrations. He and other members of the Government were booed whenever they appeared in public.

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