“The shadow of inquiry”: Robert Waithman, the City of London and the Address to the Crown, December 1809

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Right now I’m (painstakingly) working on a paper I will be giving in January at the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in Oxford. Entitled ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me: the Walcheren Inquiry, Lord Chatham’s Narrative, and the politics of blame’, the paper will investigate just how Chatham’s infamous narrative explaining his conduct during the Walcheren Expedition nearly caused a massive constitutional crisis, threatened the stability of Spencer Perceval’s ministry and led directly to the end of Chatham’s political career. The Walcheren Inquiry is therefore much on my mind, and it ocurred to me that today — 5 December — is the anniversary of a very important factor in the lead-up to the parliamentary investigation.

On 5 December 1809, Alderman Robert Waithman moved an Address to the King in the City of London’s Court of Common Council. Waithman is an interesting figure in his own right.

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He had a trade background (he was a linen draper): rising to become a City of London liveryman, he made his reputation as a supporter of radical political reform and a violent opponent of the war with France. True to his political track record, he had already led the City in petitioning the King for an inquiry into the Convention of Cintra in 1808, which had thrown away the advantages gained in Portugal by Sir Arthur Wellesley’s victory at Vimeiro by allowing the surrendering French to evacuate in British ships with their spoils of war. Now, following the abject failure of the Walcheren expedition, he decided to do the same thing again.

Waithman pulled no punches with his language. “The armament,” he informed the Court, “was, he believed, the greatest ever sent out from this country.” Its failure had been proportionate to its size: “This disgraceful and calamitous expedition had already cost this ill-used country not less than £8 millions of money, and six thousand of our men, without reckoning those who are suffering, or dying of the diseases to which they have been thus improvidently subjected. Could the people of England patiently bear this wasteful and profligate expenditure of their treasure and loss of their blood?”

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The Court of Common Council in Session, from here

Waithman, like the good radical he was, thought the City had a duty to speak up because Parliament would not. Recalling his experience with Cintra, Waithman said “he was sorry indeed that he could not look with hope to Parliament for such an inquiry, for what had he seen … that could lead him to expect such an inquiry from the votes of the majority in Parliament? On all occasions such inquiries were negatived by overwhelming majorities.”[1]

The proposal was controversial, and the Court did not automatically accept Waithman’s suggestion. When the Address was put to the vote, however, it squeaked through by 68 votes to 67. A subsequent vote on the text passed by five votes. On the 13th some pro-government members of the Council tried to have the original text amended on the pretext that many of the members had been absent due to the lateness of the hour at which it was passed, and they managed to get some of the more offensive paragraphs struck out. The end result, nevertheless, struck a disapproving note:

Most Gracious Sovereign

… We have witnessed with deep regret the disastrous failure of the late Expedition, as the magnitude of its equipment had raised the just hopes and expectations of the Country to some permanent benefit.

… Your Majesty’s faithful Citizens, actuated by loyal attachment to your Sacred Person and Illustrious House, and solicitous for the honour of your Majesty’s arms and the dignity and solidity of your Majesty’s Councils, are deeply impressed with the necessity of an early and strict Inquiry into the causes of the failure of the late Expedition, therefore, pray your Majesty will direct Inquiry to be forthwith instituted, in order to ascertain the causes which have occasioned it.[2]

Notably, there was nothing here to suggest the need for a parliamentary inquiry. In fact the form of the inquiry was left pretty much open to the King (and, through him, his ministers) to decide. The official Answer to the Address, however (which was delivered on 20 December 1809), pretty much fixed the parliamentary tone of the inquiry:

The recent Expedition to the Scheldt was directed to several objects of great importance to the interests of my Allies, and to the security of my dominions. I regret, that of these objects a part only has been accomplished. I have not judged it to be necessary to direct any Military Inquiry into the Conduct of my Commanders by Sea or Land in this conjoint Service. It will be for my Parliament, in their wisdom, to ask for such information, or to take such measures upon this subject as they shall judge most conducive to the public good.[3]

Unsurprisingly, this was not what Chatham had hoped to hear. He was too proud to ask “for an enquiry before a Military Tribunal”, which he thought would show he felt his conduct required justification, but he recognised that “some opportunity of my conduct being inquired into” would come sooner or later, probably around the time Parliament was due to convene in January.[4] Nevertheless, “a Court Martial … was what, under all circumstances, I felt wou’d be most advantageous for me,” and given the precedent of the military inquiry into the Conventi0n of Cintra, Chatham had good reason to expect this was the form an inquiry would take.[5]

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The King’s Answer to the Address put that out of the question. Chatham immediately spotted that the King’s Answer had expressly rejected that option and on the contrary “directly pointed to a Proceeding in Parliament”.[6]

This was perhaps the point at which Chatham realised it was actually going to happen. Richard Ryder, the Home Secretary, heard that “he says that he had disregarded former charges till the Address of the City — that then the charge appeared to wear a more serious appearance and to require some recorded testimony on his part of his desire to meet enquiry”.[7]

Chatham’s course of action, indeed the only one he could well take under the circumstances, was to write to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Liverpool, to put his willingness to face an inquiry — any inquiry — down in the official record. There was some toing and froing over the exact wording, particularly Chatham’s original phrase of being “most earnestly and anxiously desirous” for an inquiry, but the end result was as follows:

My Lord,

Having perused the Address of the City of London … together with the answer with His Majesty’s Answer thereto, I see it my duty to represent to Your Lordship, as one of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order to its being laid before His Majesty, that I am most entirely ready to submit every Part of my Conduct to such Military Investigation as His Majesty may be pleased to direct, and that I shall not be less so, whenever Parliament may assemble, to meet any Enquiry, which in their Wisdom they may judge it fit to institute into my Conduct, being perfectly conscious of having discharged with zeal and with fidelity, the important trust which His Majesty was graciously pleased to confide to me.[8]

The die was cast. Parliament met on 23 January 1810. Three days later, the oppositionist Lord Porchester moved for the inevitable inquiry. Its final form — a committee of the whole House of Commons — cannot have been foreseen by Chatham (or anyone else) at the time of Waithman’s Common Council motion on 5 December. Had Waithman not tried to seize the Commons’ initiative, however, perhaps Chatham might have got his military tribunal after all.

 

References

[1] Speech by Waithman, recorded in the Times, 6 December 1809

[2] Cobbett’s Political Register, vol. XVI, July-December 1809, cols. 983-4

[3] Ibid.

[4] Chatham to Charles Yorke, 27 October 1809, BL Add MSS 45042 f. 57

[5] Undated memorandum by Chatham, NA PRO 30/8/260 f. 112

[6] Chatham to Lord Liverpool, 31 December 1809, NA PRO 30/8/364 f. 32

[7] Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 5 January 1810, quoted in A. Aspinall, The Later Correspondence of George III, vol. 5, p. 480 n. 1

[8] Chatham to Lord Liverpool, 22 December 1809, A Collection of Papers relating to the Expedition to the Scheldt, presented to Parliament in 1810 (London, 1811), pp. 126-7