19th Century

Aristocratic Violence; or, The Peer who Punched Reynolds | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo

While finalising my book, The Best-Selling Author of Victorian England: The Revolutionary Life of G.W.M. Reynolds (which has been co-edited/co-authored with my niece, Mya Driver), I’ve also been blogging about some of the interesting parts of Reynolds’s life, such as the time he drew the ire of the army by exposing their brutality, or the time that he got into legal bother with Ernest Jones and was sued for libel. But there were several events in Reynolds’s life that made for great comedic reading.

Reynolds, as well as being a novelist, was an outspoken democrat and socialist, but sometimes he appears to have rubbed people up the wrong way (some of my more conservative readers might think that nothing has changed among left wing activists…)

Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, the biggest-selling left wing newspaper in Victorian England

As part of his political campaigning, on 6 June 1850 Reynolds attended the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, held at St. Martin’s Hall (now the Queen’s Theatre). There were several dignitaries present such as Lord Harrowby as well as Prime Minister Lord John Russell but there seemed to be more people on the platform than in the audience:

The Hall was however thinly attended, and at no part of the proceedings was it more than half filled. The larger portion of the audience consisted of ladies; two-thirds of the male portion were … sanctified gentry; and the remaining third consisted of persons belonging to the working-class. But upon the platform, amongst the eighty or ninety individuals sprinkled about an amphitheatrical array of benches capable of accommodating at least five hundred. There were half-a-dozen Lords, three or four parsons, and the usual number of sleek and oily maw-worms who fatten upon every so-called religious or philanthropic society.[1]

The usual speeches and resolutions commenced, all of which were mocked by Reynolds. ‘The prayers being ended’, Reynolds sneered,

Lord John Russell made the usual appropriate speech for a chairman; and the Secretary droned through a windy and somniferous report, stuffed with statistics.[2]

It was after this that Dudley Ryder, 3rd Earl of Harrowby, stood up and began to deliver a speech. Ryder was a former military officer who was trying to carve out for himself a career in politics.[3]

Harrowby was no friend of the working class, in Reynolds’s view, and the lord’s speech was was filled with

The characteristic display of aristocratic ignorance, arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and incompetency; he could not give utterance to ten consecutive words without hem’ing and haw’ing in a most exemplary manner—and yet he was by no means abashed at his own stupendous stolidity, nor did he sit down and give up the thing as a bad job when he found himself foundering amidst all kinds of ungrammatical twaddle, inconsequent verbiage, and vain attempts to connect ideas which would persist in remaining disjointed.[4]

A Vanity Fair print of Dudley Ryder, Earl of Harrowby

The remarks over Harrowby’s speaking abilities aside, Reynolds’s main point of contention with Harrowby’s speech was when he advised the working classes to be

Obedient, docile, submissive, and follow our advice in all things without venturing to have an opinion of your own. But above all, don’t dream of becoming landowners: leave the land where it is—in the hands of the Aristocracy—because no good could possibly arise from your having anything to do with it, You see how deep an interest I take in your welfare, and what excellent counsel I am gratuitously bestowing upon you; and the only reward I ask, is that you shall continue to put faith in the honest, disinterested, humane, and intelligent class to which I, the Earl of Harrowby, belong.[5]

One can imagine that Reynolds’s jaw probably hit the floor on this occasion, and gasping and guffawing through the entire speech. He despised the aristocracy and to hear such a patronizing speech by a member of that august class delivered to the working classes present made Reynolds want to add his own tuppence to the debate.

Despite only being an audience member and not on the billed list of speakers, Reynolds mounted the stage and requested permission to speak, in order that he might defend the working classes from such a Harrowby’s calumnies.

As Reynolds approached the Prime Minister to ask permission, Lord Harrowby jumped upon him in a rage and thumped Reynolds in the face. This was a lord silencing a representative of the people—another instance of aristocratic tyranny! (At least that is how Reynolds, masterfully playing the victim in Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, portrayed the event when he wrote about it).

It is unlikely that the weedy Lord Harrowby’s punch did much damage to Reynolds, who was a rather large man by all accounts.

There cannot have been much harm done, of course; Reynolds was a big guy ( easily over 16 stone) and Lord Harrowby was a mere stripling compared to him.

But according to Reynolds there was a class dimension to this ‘violence’:

Had Reynolds been a lord, so he reasoned, Lord Harrowby would never have dared to assault him. But Reynolds insisted that he was completely unfazed by Harrowby’s actions:

Lord Harrowby and his conduct would be beneath contempt, were not the former a type of a domineering class, and the latter a sample of aristocratic arrogance. In fact, the Privileged Orders think that they can ride rough-shod over the working-classes and their champions … Lord Harrowby knew that I should not hesitate to expose cant and treachery, humbug and tyranny; and [he was] therefore equally interested in silencing me at St. Martin’s Hall.[6]

Reynolds did later apply to the police to have Lord Harrowby arrested but the police refused to follow up on the matter—this was another instance of class injustice, in Reynolds’s view, for had Reynolds been a lord, he reasoned, then the police would have investigated straight away.

Nevertheless, for Reynolds to confront not only the Prime Minister and other assembled was bold, to say the least; on this occasion his boldness made others intensely dislike him.

Reynolds’s detractors thought that he deserved the assault. One commentator took pleasure in the fact that Reynolds had gotten his comeuppance and remarked that

‘of all the dolts that were ever pooh-poohed, probably the greatest is Mr George William MacArthur Reynolds’.[7]

[1] George W.M. Reynolds, ‘Lord Harrowby’s Pugilism and Mr Henry’s Law’, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, 16 June 1850, 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] James McMullen Rigg [online], ‘Ryder, Dudley Francis Stuart’, in The Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, 63 vols (London: Smith, Elder, 1885–1900), accessed 9 September 2021. Available at: https://en.wikisource.org

[4] Reynolds, ‘Lord Harrowby’s Pugilism and Mr Henry’s Law’, 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Mr G.W.M. Reynolds’, Lancaster Gazetteer, 15 June 1850, 4.

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