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Saturday 1 May 2010


I inherited the contents of my 3x great uncle Charles’ writing desk a few years ago. They are an amazing survival – 150-year old bundles of correspondence, sometimes complete exchanges including not only letters received but the draft versions of his replies to them.

One such bundle, an exchange of eight letters between Castle and a Whig called Charles Thompson, deals with his hopes of becoming a Liberal candidate in the 1857 general election. Parliament had been dissolved when the coalition government of the day collapsed in disagreements about the Second Opium War (see my recent post on Sir John Bowring). The Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, a Liberal, had lost a censure debate on 3rd March over his support for Bowring (the governor of Hong Kong) and Parkes (Bowring’s Canton counterpart) and called a snap election for 30th April.

When the Tory motion of censure was carried, Palmerston portrayed it as a vote to “abandon a large community of British subjects at the extreme end of the globe to a set of barbarians - a set of kidnapping, murdering, poisoning barbarians.” (Bowring’s wife had been poisoned by a Chinese baker.) Only six years after the triumphant (and triumphalist) Great Exhibition, popular sentiment was with Palmerston and the Empire.

Charles Castle (1813-1866),
letter writer, Whig activist

Charles, a Bristol man, was a natural Liberal, a Unitarian by religion, and he must have fancied his chances when within a week of the censure his friend Mr Hunt proposed him as a candidate of Liberal principles in the Bridgwater constituency. The Borough returned two MPs and hopes were running high that they could both be Whigs (the predecessors of the Liberal Party) for the first time since the general election of 1835.

But first, there was a Committee to get past, and that Committee had set up a Sub-Committee to draw up a short list … For all his Liberal virtues, Charles was an impatient man. Accustomed to getting his own way, he was irritated by the Committee’s delay in selecting a candidate even by a day, writing “I trust they will be able to justify themselves to the Electors. If invited now, which I confess I do not expect, I should feel bound to approach a contest with some caution.”

Four days later, Castle heard that he was not selected. Worse, Mr Otway, the local man chosen over him, declined to stand after all. With time running out, the Bridgwater Liberals opted for a celebrity candidate, a popular travel writer and historian called Alexander William Kinglake who had unsuccessfully contested the seat in 1852. When in spite of being rejected Castle offered to lend his forceful support, Henderson assured him that there was no need – “if we have fair play we are sure to win, and if our opponents want to have [corrupt] practices, why they must take the consequences. … We are such a majority on the Register that we have no need to imperil our cause.”

Alexander William Kinglake (1809-1891)
historian, travel writer, MP

Bridgwater elected two Whig members in 1857 – Kinglake and Charles Kemeys-Tynte. Kinglake was returned at next two general elections, but the result of the 1868 general election in Bridgwater was voided on petition on 26 February 1869 because of Liberal malpractice. No by-election was held, and after a Royal Commission found that there had been extensive corruption by both Whigs and Tories, the town was disenfranchised in 1870 and incorporated into the West Somerset constituency. It was reinstated in 1885. But 140 years later, boundary changes see it once again subsumed in the single “Bridgwater and West Somerset” ward in time for the 2010 general election.

Perhaps Kinglake was distracted by his other career. His magnum opus was his “Invasion of the Crimea,” in 8 volumes, published from 1863 to 1887, described on Wikipedia as one of the most effective works of its class. It has been accused of being too favourable to Lord Raglan, and unduly hostile to Napoleon III, for whom the author had an extreme aversion. But it was popular enough for the timber town of Kinglake in Victoria, Australia (2006 population 1482), to be named after him a year after the publication of the final volume.

Kinglake, Victoria
Black Saturday, 7th February 2009

I’m not sure why – neither he nor the Crimea seems to have any other connection with the town, the state or the continent. The town in turn lent its name to a huge forest National Park established in 1928. Both town and park were devastated by bushfires on 7th February, Black Saturday, in 2009. 98% of the forest was destroyed and over 100 lives were lost in the town.

For Charles Castle, that last note from Charles Thompson, confirming that not only Mr Otway but also Mr Kinglake and a Mr Follett had been picked ahead of him, marked the end of his active involvement in politics as far as I know. Charles Thompson (1815-1889), a fellow Unitarian whose ancestors had been Quakers, moved to Cardiff later that year with his family and became chairman of Spillers Flour Mills. Cardiff’s Thompson Park was donated to the city by his son (also Charles).

Charles Thompson’s final note to Charles Castle
confirming the choice of Liberal electors for candidates,
28th March 1857


  1. I must admit I find the idea of inheriting the contents of someone's desk quite spooky! We always shove stuff in drawers and into cubby holes and so I can imagine your thoughts before looking into it. An in-depth insight into your relative and family, I'm sure!

  2. I've been working my way through the letters for years now, transcribing them and getting to know the man and his world. Hard work, nineteenth century handwriting!


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