Francis Burdett was not an obvious candidate for radicalism… The son of a Baronet, educated at Westminster School from 1786 until his expulsion in 1788, and Christ Church, from 1786 to 1788;
married to Sophia Coutts, the daughter of the extremely wealthy banker, Thomas Coutts; handed the rotten borough of Boroughbridge in Yorkshire by his father-in-law…
But Burdett became friends with the radical lawyer, Horne Tooke, and was deeply influenced by his political views. In parliament he refused to join the Whigs or the Tories, and acted as an independent. His maiden speech was on Ireland and he upset most of his colleagues with the claim that the government was guilty of the “oppression of an enslaved and impoverished people”.
Burdett opposed the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1796 and criticised all attempts by the government to suppress individual freedom.
He campaigned in 1798 and 1800 on behalf of mutinous sailors imprisoned in Cold Bath Fields Prison and his fierce attack on prison conditions won him popular support. During his election campaigns his appearance on the hustings, elegant and long-limbed, brought cheering crowds…
Burdett was one of the few members of the House of Commons that supported the idea of parliamentary reform. Radicals in London approached Burdett and asked him to stand as their candidate for the county of Middlesex, a seat previously held (after famously uproarious elections) by populist demagogue John Wilkes. He was elected there in 1802, but was defeated in the elections held in 1804 and 1806.
Burdett now switched to Westminster, a constituency with a reputation for electing Radicals; partly because it had one of the largest electoral rolls in England. Most of the 13,863 voters were shopkeepers and artisans who had a strong dislike of aristocratic privilege. Sir Francis Burdett easily won the 1807 election, polling more votes than the combined total of the three defeated candidates. He later recalled: “The best part of my character is a strong feeling of indignation at injustice & oppression & a lively sympathy with the sufferings of my fellows”.
Burdett’s close friendship with William Cobbett led to his arrest in 1810. In 1809 he had been charged with a breach of privilege by the House of Commons, after his article in Cobbett’s Political Register attacked parliamentary corruption and the exclusion of reporters from debates on a controversial military expedition. Burdett was defended by Samuel Romilly. On 6 April the Commons voted to commit Burdett to the Tower of London, whereupon he challenged the speaker’s warrant and barricaded himself in his London house, refusing to allow soldiers to arrest him… Crowds surrounded his house, and rioters attacked the residences of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval and prominent Tories. After two days of rioting, armed troops were called in to London, firing on rioters on April the 8th. In the end though, Burdett backed down, and submitted to arrest. He was arrested on the morning of 9th April 1810 and was driven to the Tower of London (sparking more rioting), where he was held until the end of the parliamentary session on 21st June. The government was too afraid to expel him from Parliament. When Burdett was released, he cancelled a march through London, fearing further riots and loss of life. His biographer has argued: “Burdett’s popularity reached its peak after the incarceration; three separate biographies of him were published during that spring. But he proceeded to disappoint his followers by preventing a procession through London on his release, fearing further riots and loss of life, or that he would be assassinated.” Richard Carlile complained that “the mind of the people has marched, and Sir Francis has not been disposed to march with it”.
Sir Francis was now seen as the leader of the Radicals in the House of Commons. He introduced motions for parliamentary reform, supported attempts to expose government corruption, and the campaign against the slave trade. Unlike other anti-slavery MPs he linked slavery of other races to oppression at home. In 1816 he attacked William Wilberforce when he refused to complain about the suspension of Habeas Corpus. Burdett commented: “How happened it that the honourable and religious member was not shocked at Englishmen being taken up under this act and treated like African slaves?”
In 1819 Burdett led the campaign for an independent inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre. Burdett wrote to the Westminster electors on 22nd August 1820 condemning the massacre and calling on “the gentlemen of England” to join the masses in protest meetings. Burdett was prosecuted for seditious libel, found guilty, sentenced to the Marshalsea Prison for three months, and fined £2,000. Samuel Bamford, a weaver from Manchester, wrote during this period that Burdett “was our idol”.
Burdett was also a strong advocate of religious toleration and several times attempted to persuade Parliament to grant Catholics equal rights with Protestants. The Catholic Emancipation Act was finally passed in 1829. Burdett also had the satisfaction of seeing the start of parliamentary reform with the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.
Burdett became friends with Benjamin Disraeli and supported him as the Radical candidate for High Wycombe. Disraeli later wrote about Burdett: “He was tall, and had kept his distinguished figure; a handsome man, with a musical voice, and a countenance now benignant, though very bright… He still retained the same fashion of costume in which he had written up to Westminster more than half a century ago… to support his dear friend Charles Fox; real top-boots, and a blue coat and buff waistcoat.”
As he got older, Burdett became more conservative. In his sixties he began to argue that the Catholic Emancipation Act and the 1832 Reform Act had gone too far. These opinions upset the Radicals and his thirty years as M.P. for Westminster came to an end in 1837. He was approached by the Tories to be their candidate in North Wiltshire. Sir Francis Burdett accepted their offer and he won the election, remaining a tory MP till his death in 1844.
Read a Report of the Committee appointed by the Court of Lord Mayor and Aldermen – “to investigate by what causes and under what Circumstances some persons were killed or wounded by the Military, on Monday the 9th of April, 1810.”
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online