On 9 June 1885 Sir Isaac Holden, then MP for Keighley, wrote this short note to his Dear Sarah to let her know that, “In consequence of the resignation of the Government, I shall come down tomorrow by the train leaving London at 12.20″.
He adds, angrily, “It was owing to the carelessness and absence of many Liberal members that the Government was defeated”.
The Holden Papers are full of similar notes – keeping in touch with his wife about train times and travel arrangements in the fast-moving world of late Victorian politics. Their immediacy, like Barbara Castle’s cabinet diaries, helps us understand how it felt to be involved in political events – as they happened.
Isaac Holden had suffered a breakdown from exhaustion during the 1860s. Passing the burden of business on to the extensive younger generation, as advised by his doctors, he found in politics an absorbing new interest. In 1865 he was elected Liberal member for Knaresborough in a closely fought event, beating Tom Collins “a jovial Yorkshireman of the horsey type” by four votes (although it had only a couple of hundred electors, Knaresborough then returned two members: Holden and Collins were contending for the second place). Holden seems to have been quiet, self-possessed and incisive at the hustings: when taunted with being a Wesleyan, he quietly replied that he was proud to be numbered among such a company of the best subjects of the realm.
Holden was a conscientious politician; he does not seem to have been personally ambitious for office and he rarely got involved in debating. His maiden speech was in favour of the Reform Bill. As one might expect given his Methodism, he believed in extending the franchise, abolishing church rates, taxing all classes fairly, and moving towards a better educated and more moral society.
This was the era in which Disraeli and Gladstone were coming to the fore. Holden had huge respect for the latter (in 1884 he wrote a delightful letter to Mrs Gladstone suggesting her husband try a favourite solution of oils in the bath, to prolong his life). Gladstone showed his appreciation of Holden’s loyalty by recommending in 1893 that he be made a Baronet. A famous anecdote tells how in 1893 he and Gladstone, two “Grand Old Men”, by then both over 80, paced the division lobbies for two solid hours on a hot summer night to get the Home Rule Bill through, putting younger men to shame by their energy.
In the 1868 election, Holden stood down from Knaresborough in favour of his son-in-law Alfred Illingworth (several members of the family were active in local and national politics). Holden himself was unable to return to Parliament for many years. He tried twice to gain the Eastern Division of the West Riding (1868 and 1874) and came close to winning the Northern Division in 1872. He was elected to the latter at last in 1882 and took the Keighley part when Northern Division was split into two. He was elected again unopposed in 1886 and 1892.
Holden’s final speech in the House of Commons in May 1894 was a fitting one given his views on the responsibility of the wealthy to support education and those less fortunate. He supported Sir William Harcourt’s financial reform: he argued that the poor were overburdened with tax; wealthy manufacturers and landlords, like himself, had deep obligations to the state and should pay more of their share. The rare intervention of this venerable MP, the richest man in the House, drew much attention. He retired from politics in 1895.
Sources: I’m grateful to the essential sourcebook for Holden history, The Holden-Illingworth letters, and to a very useful account of Sir Isaac’s early years in Parliament: K. Rix, ‘Holden, Isaac’, in History of Parliament, House of Commons, 1832-68 (forthcoming) – thank you!
PS The title of this piece comes from a speech made by Sir Isaac in 1866 and quoted by Dr Rix, calling for such reform to prevent England suffering as France had done. More on the French angle another time!