By Duncan Bowie
George Grote, historian of Greece and MP for the City of London between 1832 and 1841, lived at Dulwich Wood, later known as Wood Hall on College Road on the east side, south of the Toll Gate between 1832 and 1837. The house was demolished by a bomb during the second world war and the story of the building and its occupiers was told by Brian Green in an article in the journal in June 2010. The site was redeveloped as Woodhall Drive.
George Grote was born at Clay Hill, between Beckenham and Bromley in 1794. His father was a banker - his grandfather Andreas Grote was a migrant of Dutch and German extraction. George Grote left school to join the family bank at the age of 15, his father not believing in the value of university education. Grote was largely self-taught, studying Latin, Greek, German, history, literature, philosophy and political economy. He knew the economist, David Ricardo, who encouraged his economic studies and Grote sent Ricardo a paper on foreign trade. Grote was also a member of a literature society which met in chambers in the Temple, to which Grote contributed a paper on the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius. In 1819, Grote met James Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was an active writer on political reform and in 1821, at the age of 27, Grote published a Statement on the Question of Parliamentary Reform, James Mill having published his Essay on Government the previous year. The pamphlet was accompanied by a letter to the Morning Chronicle, critical of an anti-reform speech of George Canning, who at the time was President of the Board of Trade in Lord Liverpool’s Tory government. Grote argued for an unrestricted franchise (that is without any property or educational qualifications), the secret ballot and annual parliaments, at the time an extreme radical position, which Grote was later to moderate somewhat. Like his fellow utilitarians, Grote was sceptical of established religion. In 1822, he published An Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind. This was actually published by the radical atheist, Richard Carlile, who at the time was imprisoned in Dorchester gaol for blasphemy, and written under the pseudonym of ‘Philip Beauchamp’, his authorship only being revealed after Grote’s death. The general argument of the pamphlet was that religion did more harm than good. Given that from 1816, Grote was the main working partner in his family bank, the extent of his studying, writing and political activity is impressive. Grote’s radicalism did not seem, at least initially, to impact on his role as city banker.
In the 1820’s, Grote lived first at Fortis Green in North London and then in Stoke Newington. Grote also had a house next to the bank in Threadneedle Street and it was there that the initial group of young radicals met, apparently two mornings a week, including John Stuart Mill, Charles Buller, J A Roebuck and Grote’s banking partner, W G Prescott. Grote got married in 1821 to Harriet Lewin, daughter of a member of the East India Company. The couple married secretly as Harriet’s parents disapproved of Grote’s views on religion. Harriet was a strong personality and regarded by some of the philosophical radicals as much more dynamic than her husband. As well as being a hostess to the radical group, she had an extensive correspondence with a much wider circle. She was to write a history of the philosophical radicals, which focused on the Grotes’ friendship with Sir William Molesworth, and a very personal biography of her husband after his death as well as publishing many of his early works and papers. It was Harriet who, clearly constrained by living next to the bank, in 1832 sought out a new home and found the house in Dulwich, which had been built some twenty years earlier and had 15 acres of grounds, bordered Dulwich wood and had a view over the city. Harriet described the house as ‘naked and a wilderness, not papered, painted or warmed or anything’. The Grotes paid £4,500 for the house and spent £2,000 on making the house into an attractive country residence. They also rented five more acres of what is now the Dulwich and Sydenham golf course which was then agricultural land.
From 1822, Grote started on his magnum opus - his history of Greece. However, before the first volumes were ready for publication, he had to put aside his work to focus on political activity, with the resurgence of the movement for parliamentary reform. Grote’s father died in 1830 and the Beckenham house was sold. Grote inherited his father’s banking interests as well as estates in Lincolnshire. Grote was now in a position to finance the reform cause. Following the July revolution in France which led to the deposition of the Bourbon monarchy, Grote gave £500 to the French radicals, through his contacts, the French sociologist and founder of ‘positivism’ August Comte and the economist, Jean-Baptiste Say. The following year, he revised his earlier reform pamphlet as Essentials of Parliamentary Reform. His views had been moderated - he now advocated the phased lowering of the property qualification, suggesting that the electorate be increased to one million, and while still preferring annual parliaments proposed triennial parliaments as a more pragmatic alternative. Grote argued that increasing the electorate would reduce patronage and would purify government, ensure economy, produce an improvement in law and an abstinence from unnecessary wars. The pamphlet made no reference to whether women should be eligible to vote, which Bentham had supported. James Mill had opposed female suffrage, though his son John Stuart Mill was later to be a leading advocate of women’s right to vote.
With the dissolution of parliament in April 1831, Grote was urged, apparently by John Stuart Mill, to stand for parliament for the City of London. He declined. However, by October, he was actively engaged in the reform movement and corresponding with Francis Place, the radical tailor of Charing Cross, and with Joseph Parkes, the leader of the Birmingham radicals. Grote organised a petition in favour of reform from city bankers and merchants and presented it to the Prime Minister, Lord Grey. The Reform Bill was carried in the Commons but rejected by the Lords. Grote organised a protest meeting in the City at Mansion House, which led to a further petition being submitted. Grote was still hopeful that parliament would carry the Bill against the opposition led by the Duke of Wellington. while Place was more pessimistic. Place sought to force the issue by calling for a run on the banks - “To stop the Duke, Go for Gold.” Grote was opposed to this tactic as he thought it would damage the reform cause and wrote to The Times to express his disapproval. Wellington however could not form a government, as Robert Peel and his moderate Tories in the Commons supported reform. Grey had persuaded the King to appoint sufficient new peers to drive the Bill through the Lords. Grey returned to the position of Prime Minister, and the Bill was carried. Place wrote in triumph to Grote claiming that it was his own more radical tactics which had forced the issue. The main features of the Act, popularly known to all history students as the Great Reform Act, were an extension of the franchise and a redistribution of seats from rural to urban areas. It did not include the secret ballot or triennial parliaments.
When another general election was called, this time Grote agreed to stand for one of the four parliamentary seats for the City of London. His manifesto focused on the need for the two further reforms - triennial parliaments and the secret ballot. He also argued for limiting public expenditure, economy in taxation with regard to taxes which ‘either press peculiarly on persons of low income, or cramp the operations of industry’. He opposed taxes on knowledge - the stamp duty on newspapers. He also called for the abolition of church tithes and opposed the Corn Laws - the tariffs on imported corn, condemned slavery and called for universal education as necessary ‘to advance the well-being and improve the character of the LABOURING classes.’. In the election in December 1832, Grote topped the poll. He was cheered by a crowd of 4,000 outside Guildhall. A band played The Conquering Hero. His three colleagues, including two former Lord Mayors, were reforming Whigs but not as radical as Grote.
Harriet Grote wrote of these early parliamentary years ‘We could not sleep and the day seemed ever big with events.’ The Dulwich house became the centre of the radical parliamentary group, of which Grote was seen as the leader - Molesworth and Buller both represented Cornish constituencies so often stayed in Dulwich during parliament sessions. The radical group also included Roebuck representing Bath, Henry Warburton representing Bridport in Dorset and John Romilly, also representing Bridport and Edward Romilly, representing Ludlow, both sons of Sir Samuel Romilly, the legal reformer and former solicitor general. At a meeting at Threadneedle Street, attended by James Mill as well as the small group of radical MPs, it was agreed that Grote take the lead on the issue of the secret ballot. Grote unsuccessfully raised the issue annually from 1833 to 1839, though the majority against the ballot fell from 173 in 1835 to 51 in 1836. Models of ballot boxes were distributed around the country - an image of one was to appear in the Chartists Charter of 1842.
In 1834, Melbourne succeeded Grey as Prime Minister, though early in the following year Peel led a Conservative ministry, to be replaced by Melbourne’s Whigs in April. Grote and his colleagues tried to establish a Radical party separate from the Whigs and their Irish nationalist allies. Most of the radical MPs however wanted to maintain the Whig alliance as did the Irish MPs led by Daniel O’Connell. This however did not stop some Radicals standing against Whigs in the 1835 election. By 1837 the Grotes were favouring this alliance but a grand dinner at Drury Lane on 23 January to celebrate the alliance was a disappointment. Grote argued for the true Radical doctrine, but found that the Radicals were drawn into supporting the Ministry without winning any concessions. Harriet Grote recorded with reference to her husband that ‘never have I seen him so ashamed and contrite’. A general election followed the death of William IV and the succession of Queen Victoria in July 1837 resulting in a Whig government under Melbourne opposed to reform and the radicals weakened.
Despite the lack of further progress on parliamentary reform, the radical-Whig alliance did produce some results. Harriet Grote records a celebration in 1835 at the Dulwich house of the passage of the Municipal Corporations Act and the reform of the poor laws. However, by 1837, the radical group was in decline. Grote only scraped back into parliament by 6 votes, coming 4th out of the four-seat contest. By 1841, Grote had become disillusioned with parliament and decided to stand down. He would probably have been defeated as the city was no longer that radical -it elected two Whigs including Lord John Russell, the future Prime Minister, known as ‘Finality Russell’ for his 1837 speech opposing further parliamentary reform, and two Conservatives. In 1837, the Grotes left Dulwich and moved to Eccleston Street in Belgravia. Grote was apparently tired of spending nights in lodgings in the city after late night sessions as it took too long to travel to Dulwich - the railway line to Sydenham Hill station, just opposite the Dulwich house had not yet opened. Harriet was reluctant to leave Dulwich - “I had bestowed a great deal of time, trouble and expense on our present house and grounds, it had become suited to our wants, and I knew that London would prove injurious to my health.”
What was left of the radical group therefore moved their social hub to Belgravia, where Harriet continued her role as hostess. In fact. with the dispersal the radicals, the Grotes began to circulate in more establishment circles, including being invited to Holland House, the social centre of the traditional Whigs, and to Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s ball. In Grote’s last few years in parliament, despite his declining interest in politics, he managed to speak in favour of an unsuccessful household suffrage bill in 1839, support self-government in Jamaica, comment on penal policy in New South Wales, suggesting this be funded by the home country which had transported the convicts and criticised Palmerston’s imperialistic adventures in the Middle East. He also turned his attention to higher education. Despite never having himself gone to university, he joined the council of the new University College, known at the time as ‘the Godless college’, becoming president in 1868. He also joined the senate of the reformed London University, becoming the third vice-chancellor in 1862, a post he held until his death in June 1871 at the age of 76. He used his position to argue for the right of women to take degrees. He did not live to see the passage of the Ballot Act the following year, which introduced the secret ballot in British parliamentary elections.