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Plaques

There are believed to be only two memorial plaques to Bagehot’s memory, one on his birthplace in Langport, and the other on his London residence.

 


Stone plaque in Langport

 

Though Walter Bagehot is unquestionably Langport’s most famous citizen, until very recently – and largely at the instigation of the Bagehot Memorial Fund, formed in 2011 – there was virtually nothing in or around the town to commemorate that illustrious association.  Other than the family grave in All Saints’ Churchyard, and the superb West Window in the Church itself (the latter the subject of a fascinating article in the 2016 Level Talk[1]), the main existing memorial is the stone plaque above the entrance to his birthplace, Bank House, Cheapside.  As well as being the Bagehot family home in 1826, it also housed Stuckey’s Bank, the growing banking group run by his uncle, Vincent Stuckey, and managed by his father, Thomas Watson Bagehot.

It is an exceedingly simple memorial, and has weathered badly since it was installed a century ago on 25 March 1916.  It is easy to miss, unless you already know what it is.  Yet at the time, its unveiling was a notable event, and not just locally or in Somerset.  Although Langport has done more to commemorate Bagehot in recent years, with the repair of the gravesite, the renaming of the Town Garden in his name, and the erection of an interpretation board in the Garden (with others planned), we should not forget this memorial of a hundred years ago.

It is not known exactly why the plaque was installed in 1916.  It was ten years before the centenary of his birth, and was not a notable anniversary year otherwise for Bagehot’s life and work.  Possibly it was prompted by a revival in interest in Bagehot following the publication in 1914 of a biography by his sister-in-law, Emilie Barrington, and, a year later, of her 9 volumes of his collected works.

The guest of honour at the unveiling was Viscount Bryce. James Bryce was born in Belfast in 1838, into an Ulster Scots family, and enjoyed a long career as a practising and academic lawyer, historian and senior Liberal politician, serving in several Liberal cabinets.  He was Ambassador to the USA from 1907 to 1913, and became a peer the following year.  He died in January 1922.

Emilie Barrington wrote, in her 1914 Life of Walter Bagehot, how Bryce first met Bagehot in 1874, when the Bagehots temporarily moved house in London to 52 Rutland Gate: “It was when there that the friendly intercourse began between Lord Bryce and the Bagehots. We were staying with them at the time, and on one Sunday afternoon my husband accompanied Walter on a visit to Mr. and Mrs. George Lewes at the Priory. There they met Lord Bryce, and my husband remembers that on leaving the house together, Bagehot asked him to come to Rutland Gate to see him and my sister, which he did.”

Bryce responded to an obituary of Bagehot in 1877, written by Bagehot’s close friend, Richard Holt Hutton, by writing to Hutton on 2 October.  In that letter he suggested that some of Bagehot’s earlier writings, especially those out of print, be republished.  After all, he wrote, “his study sweepings were better than most men’s laboured works.”[2]  This proposal led to Hutton and Bagehot’s widow, Eliza, arranging for the publication of two volumes of Bagehot’s writings, Literary Studies and Biographical Studies.

In May 1881, Bryce wrote to Eliza Bagehot to thank her for her gift of a copy of the Biographical Studies and expressed the hope that “you will continue to publish what still remains, believing that everything he wrote on topics not purely temporary, is of permanent value to the world."[3]

Emilie Barrington wrote to Bryce in 1913, following his return from Washington, asking for his recollections of Bagehot for her proposed Life. He responded with a fulsome tribute, which Barrington reproduced in the Life.

On the great day itself, Russell Barrington, Emilie’s husband, drove down to Taunton to collect the honoured guests from the train, and brought them to Herd’s Hill, the Bagehot’s home just outside Langport, where Eliza and the Barringtons lived, for lunch.[4]

The Bryces were accompanied on their brief trip to Langport by Francis W Hirst, who had been editor of The Economist since 1907.  In fact, Hirst was on his way out, the decision to remove him having been taken just a couple of days before, and he left his post that July.  Eliza clearly knew of the move in advance, but they remained close thereafter.[5]  Hirst later recorded spotting the Bryces relaxing following the unveiling: “After the ceremony I took a walk in the lanes and came upon Lord and Lady Bryce in a ditch with trowels digging out plants and ferns for their collection.”[6]

The following morning, Sunday 26 March, Emilie drove the Bryces and Hirst to Burton Pynsent, and in the afternoon they walked around the local churches, including the Abbey and the Priests House in Muchelney.  After they returned to Herd’s Hill they all had tea with Eliza and she had a long talk with Lord Bryce, presumably, in part at least, about Walter.[7]  After breakfast on Monday morning, the Bryces & Hirst left for London, but, as was common at that stage in her life, Eliza spent all day in bed.[8]

The unveiling was reported in the national and local press, and the Langport and Somerton Herald of Saturday 1 April 1916 described the ceremonies of the previous Saturday afternoon, 25 March, in great detail.

Before the unveiling itself, many local worthies, members of the wider Bagehot family and others gathered across the road at Langport Town Hall.  Proceedings were opened by Col John Robert Phelips Goodden of Sherborne, who was in the Chair.  Goodden was the last chairman of the independent Stuckey’s Bank, serving from 1902 to 1909.[9]  In his address, he said that, though he did not join the Bank until after Bagehot’s death, he recalled meetings when the older directors would say ‘Walter Bagehot’s opinion was so and so’, “and that was always quite sufficient to clinch the argument.”[10]

Bryce made the keynote speech in praise of Bagehot’s memory.[11] He reminded the large audience that they were gathered in the midst of wartime, a suitable time to commemorate those whose lives had benefitted the country with some visible sign in their own birthplaces. Bagehot was “one of the finest minds of his generation ... a mind of considerable delicacy and subtlety…. There was no appearance of his exerting himself to be original and brilliant.  Originality and brilliance came upon him as easily as the soil throws up flowers in the spring.”

He praised Bagehot’s influential writings on constitutional and political subjects; on banking and financial matters, and his biographical studies of notable political and literary figures.  Most of all, he praised the quality of Bagehot’s writing style, making his articles and books so readable, even those on the so-called ‘dismal science’ of economics. In conclusion, he said that “all the admirers of his writings and those who still remain who recollect his personal charm …   will rejoice to think this memorial of him is set up here in the county of Somerset among whose worthies he will always hold a leading place.” 

Hirst, in proposing a vote of thanks to him, both praised Bryce, and, of course, Bagehot, his predecessor as editor of The Economist.  He said that “it was a distinction to any town in the United Kingdom, however large, to have had such a citizen as Walter Bagehot.”

Bryce responded that “it was perfectly understood that Langport would always be associated with the name of that illustrious man.  It was said in the Psalms that it should be said ‘That he was born there’ – and so it would be said of Walter Bagehot and Langport.  The town had a history of which it was proud [and] it was a proud thing for that little town to have produced such a man as Walter Bagehot.”

The party then adjourned across Cheapside to the Bank House where Bryce unveiled the plaque, saying “I now unveil this memorial tablet to a most illustrious citizen and commend it to the tender care of the inhabitants of Langport.”

The rectangular tablet is made of Ham Stone, with red lettering surrounded by a border of bay leaves in relief. It was produced by Messrs H Pittard & Son of Langport. It states: “Walter Bagehot was born in this House February 3rd 1826.  He died at Herds Hill, March 24th, 1877.”  It was said to have been designed by Emilie Barrington, and Eliza’s diary entry for Tuesday 22 February 1916 notes that they, and Emilie’s husband, Russell, went to Pittards, where Norman Pittard showed them the plaque, “and Emilie chose the shade of red for the lettering.”

Whether she also decided the text of the plaque is not known.  It is certainly rather brief, with no explanation of who Bagehot was and why he deserved such a memorial.  It would be nice to think that this was because at that time it was thought unnecessary to explain to the Langport of 1916 who he was.  Nevertheless, whatever its condition, it remains an important memorial to Bagehot in his home town of Langport.


[This article originally appeared in the 2017 Level Talk, the journal of the Langport & District History Society. For more on the Society, Level Talk and its other events and activities, see https://sites.google.com/site/langportheritage/home]

[1] Peter Burnett, “The Walter Bagehot Memorial Window, All Saints’ Church, Langport”, Level Talk 2016, pp9-11

[2] N St John-Stevas, Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, vol 15, 1986, pp69-70

[3] St John-Stevas, pp73-7.

[4] Eliza Bagehot’s diary entry for Saturday 25 March 1916.

[5] R Dudley Edwards, The Pursuit of Reason, The Economist 1843-1993, 1993, p542

[6] Manchester Guardian, letter, 6 Jan 1940

[7] Eliza Bagehot’s diary entry for Sunday 26 March 1916.

[8] Eliza Bagehot’s diary entry for Monday 27 March 1916.

[9] Philip T. Saunders, Stuckey’s Bank, 1928, pp42-5.

[10] Langport and Somerton Herald, Saturday 1 April 1916

[11] Quotations etc are taken from the Langport Herald report, and from the text reproduced in St John-Stevas, pp73-7.





 

 

 

Blue Plaque in London

 

In the mid-1960s, Norman St John Stevas, Bagehot’s most recent biographer and chronicler, suggested to the Greater London Council that it should erect a blue plaque on Bagehot’s London home, 12 Upper Belgrave Street, SW1, just off Belgrave Square.  The GLC accepted this sensible proposal and on 26 July 1967, a blue plaque in Bagehot’s honour was unveiled by no less than the Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson.  It was thought that this was the first time a serving Premier had performed a blue plaque unveiling.

 

Wilson was himself an economist by background, and so was well qualified to speak about Bagehot’s writing in the areas of politics and finance: “Bagehot towered over the world of journalism and public affairs during his lifetime, and was the most acute observer of the political and economic society in which he lived.  His work could be summed up in the words ‘pleasure, penetration, perception and persuasion’, and his important ability was his willingness to interpret established doctrines in new ways“

 

The text of the plaque reads:

WALTER BAGEHOT 1826-1877 Writer, Banker and Economist lived here

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