Sir William Molesworth: an enigmatic Victorian

Sir William Molesworth is a character from the past who deserves more than the footnote usually devoted to him in histories of Cornwall. Born in May 1810, he was the eighth in a line of baronets and heir to Pencarrow, near Wadebridge. But he was an anomaly: patrician in appearance and manner but democratic in philosophy and politics; rebel by inclination but a member of the landed gentry.

Molesworth later claimed a ‘hatred of all instituted authorities’, an attitude that stemmed from some ill-treatment as a child and a series of clashes with college authorities when at Cambridge. There he first fell out with St John’s College – ‘they are not gentlemen’ he wrote, ‘nor do they possess the manners of gentlemen’. Then at Trinity in 1828 he got embroiled in a dispute over the gambling of a friend. This resulted in him challenging a college tutor to a duel. The pair were bound over to keep the peace, but met at Calais a year later, where they fortunately both missed their targets.

The year or so at Cambridge was preceded by a spell at Edinburgh and followed by tours in central Europe. In the former place Molesworth was inspired by the ideas of the Scottish philosophical radicals; in the latter his interest in horticulture was piqued by the gardens he visited in Italy.

A late portrait of Molesworth – a strange
resemblance to Stephen Fry

In 1832 in the first election after the Reform Act he was elected to Parliament for East Cornwall. Molesworth soon proved to be one of the most radical voices in the Commons, favouring later Chartist demands such as the secret ballot and triennial parliaments, as well as education for all, Irish Home Rule and the abolition of the House of Lords. These ideas, plus his opposition to the Corn Laws and support for free trade, alarmed fellow reformers in east Cornwall, and the farmers who had voted for him. In 1836 Molesworth abruptly resigned his Cornish seat, although being returned to parliament as MP for the more radical constituency of Leeds.

In the Whig Government of the later 1830s he served as Colonial Secretary, helping to phase out transportation, while consistently supporting colonial reform. But his frustration with his parliamentary colleagues – ‘timid and irresolute’ – and a lack of the political stamina needed to push through reform in Britain led him to give up his parliamentary career in 1841.

He then turned to writing an eleven-volume tome on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and improving his gardens at Pencarrow, where he introduced several new species of tree, including the monkey-puzzle. In 1841, in a diary entry that might well ring bells now, he wrote ‘I am living a life of the most tranquil repose … delighted at being free of the turmoil of politics; day succeeds day without other change than is marked by the successive pages in the books I am reading’.

Pencarrow House, largely rebuilt in the 18th century and the 1840s

His nine or ten hours a day spent reading and writing came to an abrupt end in 1844 when he married a professional singer, Andalusia Grant. Andalusia persuaded him to re-enter politics. He duly became MP for Southwark in 1845, this serving as a base for a hectic London social life. His radicalism by now somewhat diluted, he did however, as Commissioner of Works (and as an agnostic willing to face down religious prejudice) open Kew Gardens to the public on Sundays. This was regarded as a great boon for working people unable to visit during the week.

Sadly, a congenitally delicate constitution meant William Molesworth died in 1855 in London, aged just 45. Early death ran in the family. None of the seven previous baronets had survived to see their 50s either.

One thought on “Sir William Molesworth: an enigmatic Victorian

  1. Sounds like a wonderful guy and very reminiscent of Tony Benn, with patrician roots but an immense commitment to the types of causes espoused by William Molesworth. I visited Tony Benn once in his home in London for an interview for a small left wing magazine – he was very proud to have Keir Hardie’s chair – Hardie co-founded the Labour party and was its first leader.

    We love Pencarrow. I used to go there so often with the children. I remember a male peacock became very enamoured of one of my daughters and kept displaying for her! So good to know about one of its inhabitants.

    Like

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