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The Right Honourable
 John Bright

In office
9 December 1868 – 14 January 1871
Monarch Victoria
Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone
Preceded by The Duke of Richmond
Succeeded by Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue

In office
30 September 1873 – 17 February 1874
Monarch Victoria
Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone
Preceded by Hugh Childers
Succeeded by Thomas Edward Taylor
In office
28 April 1880 – 25 July 1882
Monarch Victoria
Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone
Preceded by Thomas Edward Taylor
Succeeded by The Earl of Kimberley

Born 16 November 1811 (1811-11-16)
Rochdale, Lancashire
Died 27 March 1889 (1889-03-28) (aged 77)
Nationality British
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) (1) Elizabeth Priestman
(d. 1841)
(2) Margaret Leatham

John Bright (16 November 1811 – 27 March 1889), Quaker, was a British Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with Richard Cobden in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League. He was one of the greatest orators of his generation, and a strong critic of British foreign policy.


Early life

Bright was born at Rochdale, Lancashire, England — one of the early centres of the Industrial Revolution. His father, Jacob Bright, was a much-respected Quaker, who had started a cotton mill at Rochdale in 1809. His own father, Abraham Bright, had been a Wiltshire yeoman, who, early in the 18th century, removed to Coventry, where his descendants remained. Jacob Bright had been educated at the Ackworth School of the Society of Friends, and apprenticed to a fustian manufacturer at New Mills, Derbyshire. John Bright was his son by his second wife, Martha Wood, daughter of a Quaker shopkeeper of Bolton-le-Moors. Educated at Ackworth School, she was a woman of great strength of character and refined taste. There were eleven children of this marriage, of whom John was the eldest surviving son. His sisters included Priscilla Bright (whose husband was Duncan McLaren MP) and Margaret Bright Lucas. John was a delicate child, and was sent as a day pupil to a boarding school near his home, kept by William Littlewood. A year at the Ackworth School, two years at Bootham School, York, and a year and a half at Newton, near Clitheroe, completed his education. He learned, he himself said, but little Latin and Greek, but acquired a great love of English literature, which his mother fostered, and a love of outdoor pursuits. In his sixteenth year, he entered his father's mill, and in due time became a partner in the business.

In Rochdale, Jacob Bright was a leader of the opposition to a local church-rate. Rochdale was also prominent in the movement for parliamentary reform, by which the town successfully claimed to have a member allotted to it under the Reform Bill. John Bright took part in both campaigns. He was an ardent Nonconformist, proud to number among his ancestors John Gratton, a friend of George Fox, and one of the persecuted and imprisoned preachers of the Religious Society of Friends. His political interest was probably first kindled by the Preston election in 1830, in which Edward Stanley, after a long struggle, was defeated by Henry "Orator" Hunt. But it was as a member of the Rochdale Juvenile Temperance Band that he first learned public speaking. These young men went out into the villages, borrowed a chair of a cottager, and spoke from it at open-air meetings. John Bright's first extempore speech was at a temperance meeting. Bright got his notes muddled, and broke down. The chairman gave out a temperance song, and during the singing told Bright to put his notes aside and say what came into his mind. Bright obeyed, began with much hesitancy, but found his tongue and made an excellent address. On some early occasions, however, he committed his speech to memory. In 1832 he called on the Rev. John Aldis, an eminent Baptist minister, to accompany him to a local Bible meeting. Mr Aldis described him as a slender, modest young gentleman, who surprised him by his intelligence and thoughtfulness, but who seemed nervous as they walked to the meeting together. At the meeting he made a stimulating speech, and on the way home asked for advice. Mr Aldis counselled him not to learn his speeches, but to write out and commit to memory certain passages and the peroration. This "first lesson in public speaking," as Bright called it, was given in his twenty-first year, but he had not then contemplated a public career. He was a fairly prosperous man of business, very happy in his home, always ready to take part in the social, educational and political life of his native town. A founder of the Rochdale Literary and Philosophical Society, he took a leading part in its debates, and on returning from a holiday journey in the east, gave the society a lecture on his travels.

Cobden and the Corn Laws

He first met Richard Cobden in 1836 or 1837. Cobden was an alderman of the newly formed Manchester Corporation, and Bright went to ask him to speak at an education meeting in Rochdale. Cobden consented, and at the meeting was much struck by Bright's short speech, and urged him to speak against the Corn Laws. His first speech on the Corn Laws was made at Rochdale in 1838, and in the same year he joined the Manchester provisional committee which in 1839 founded the Anti-Corn Law League He was still only the local public man, taking part in all public movements, especially in opposition to John Feilden's proposed factory legislation, and to the Rochdale church-rate. In 1839 he built the house which he called "One Ash", and married Elizabeth, daughter of Jonathan Priestman of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

John Bright

In November of the same year there was a dinner in Bolton in honour of Abraham Paulton, who had just returned from an unsuccessful Anti-Corn Law tour in Scotland. Among the speakers were Cobden and Bright, and the dinner is memorable as the first occasion on which the two future leaders appeared together on a Free Trade platform. Bright is described by the historian of the League as "a young man then appearing for the first time in any meeting out of his own town, and giving evidence, by his energy and by his grasp of the subject, of his capacity soon to take a leading part in the great agitation."

In 1840 he led a movement against the Rochdale church-rate, speaking from a tombstone in the churchyard, where it looks down on the town in the valley below. A daughter, Helen, was born to him; but his young wife, after a long illness, died of tuberculosis in September, 1841. Three days after her death at Leamington, Cobden called to see him. "I was in the depths of grief," said Bright, when unveiling the statue of his friend at Bradford in 1877, "I might almost say of despair, for the life and sunshine of my house had been extinguished." Cobden spoke some words of condolence, but "after a time he looked up and said, 'There are thousands of homes in England at this moment where wives, mothers and children are dying of hunger. Now, when the first paroxysm of your grief is past, I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Laws are repealed.' I accepted his invitation," added Bright, "and from that time we never ceased to labour hard on behalf of the resolution which we had made."

Into Parliament: the Member for Durham

At the general election in 1841 Cobden was returned for Stockport, Cheshire and in 1843 Bright was the Free Trade candidate at a by-election at Durham. He was defeated, but his successful competitor was unseated on petition, and at the second contest Bright was returned. He was already known as Cobden's chief ally, and was received in the House of Commons with suspicion and hostility. In the Anti-Corn Law movement the two speakers complemented of each other. Cobden had the calmness and confidence of the political philosopher, Bright had the passion and the fervour of the popular orator. Cobden did the reasoning, Bright supplied the declamation, but mingled argument with appeal. No orator of modern times rose more rapidly. He was not known beyond his own borough when Cobden called him to his side in 1841, and he entered parliament towards the end of the session of 1843 with a formidable reputation. He had been all over England and Scotland addressing vast meetings and, as a rule, carrying them with him; he had taken a leading part in a conference held by the Anti-Corn Law League in London had led deputations to the Duke of Sussex, to Sir James Graham, then home secretary, and to Lord Ripen and Gladstone, the secretary and under secretary of the Board of Trade; and he was universally recognised as the chief orator of the Free Trade movement. Wherever "John Bright of Rochdale" was announced to speak, vast crowds assembled. He had been so announced, for the last time, at the first great meeting in Drury Lane Theatre on 15 March 1843; henceforth his name was enough. He took his seat in the House of Commons as one of the members for Durham on 28 July 1843, and on 7 August delivered his maiden speech in support of a motion by Mr Ewart for reduction of import duties. He was there, he said, "not only as one of the representatives of the city of Durham, but also as one of the representatives of that benevolent organisation, the Anti-Corn Law League." A member who heard the speech described Bright as "about the middle size, rather firmly and squarely built, with a fair, clear complexion, and an intelligent and pleasing expression of countenance. His voice is good, his enunciation distinct, and his delivery free from any unpleasant peculiarity or mannerism." He wore the usual Friend's coat, and was regarded with much interest and hostile curiosity on both sides of the House.

Mr Ewart's motion was defeated, but the movement of which Cobden and Bright were the leaders continued to spread. In the autumn the League resolved to raise £100,000; an appeal was made to the agricultural interest by great meetings in the farming counties, and in November The Times startled the country by declaring, in a leading article, "The League is a great fact. It would be foolish, nay, rash, to deny its importance." In London great meetings were held in Covent Garden Theatre, at which William Johnson Fox was the chief orator, but Bright and Cobden were the leaders of the movement. Bright publicly deprecated the popular tendency to regard Cobden and himself as the chief movers in the agitation, and Cobden told a Rochdale audience that he always stipulated that he should speak first, and Bright should follow. His "more stately genius," as John Morley calls it, was already making him the undisputed master of the feelings of his audiences. In the House of Commons his progress was slower. Cobden's argumentative speeches were regarded more sympathetically than Bright's more rhetorical appeals, and in a debate on George Villiers's annual motion against the Corn Laws, Bright was heard with so much impatience that he was obliged to sit down.

In the next session (1845) he moved for an inquiry into the operation of the Game Laws. At a meeting of county members earlier in the day Robert Peel, then Prime Minister, had advised them not to be led into discussion by a violent speech from the member for Durham, but to let the committee be granted without debate. Bright was not violent, and Cobden said that he did his work admirably, and won golden opinions from all men. The speech established his position in the House of Commons. In this session Bright and Cobden came into opposition, Cobden voting for the Maynooth Grant and Bright against it. On only one other occasion—a vote for South Kensington—did they go into opposite lobbies, during twenty-five years of parliamentary life.

John Bright

In the autumn of 1845 Bright retained Cobden in the public career to which Cobden had invited him four years before; Bright was in Scotland when a letter came from Cobden announcing his determination, forced on him by business difficulties, to retire from public work. Bright replied that if Cobden retired the mainspring of the League was gone. "I can in no degree take your place," he wrote. "As a second I can fight, but there are incapacities about me, of which I am fully conscious, which prevent my being more than second in such a work as we have laboured in." A few days later he set off for Manchester, posting in that wettest of autumns through "the rain that rained away the Corn Laws," and on his arrival got his friends together, and raised the money which tided Cobden over the emergency. The crisis of the struggle had come. Peel's budget in 1845 was a first step towards Free Trade. The bad harvest and the potato blight drove him to the repeal of the Corn Laws, and at a meeting in Manchester on 2 July 1846 Cobden moved and Bright seconded a motion dissolving the league. A library of twelve hundred volumes was presented to Bright as a memorial of the struggle.

"England is the Mother of Parliaments"

Bright coined this famous phrase on 18 January 1865 in a speech supporting an expansion of the franchise.

Marriage and Manchester

Bright married firstly, on 27 November 1839, Elizabeth Priestman of Newcastle, daughter of Jonathan Priestman & Rachel Bragg. They had one daughter, Helen Priestman Bright (b. 1840) but Elizabeth died on 10 September 1841. Helen Priestman Bright later married William Stephens Clark (1839–1925) of Street in Somerset. Bright married secondly, in June, 1847, Margaret Elizabeth Leatham, sister of Edward Aldam Leatham of Wakefield, by whom he had seven children including John Albert Bright and William Leatham Bright.

In the succeeding July 1847, Bright was elected uncontested for Manchester, with Milner Gibson. In the new parliament, he opposed legislation restricting the hours of labour, and, as a Nonconformist, spoke against clerical control of national education. In 1848 he voted for Hume's household suffrage motion, and introduced a bill for the repeal of the Game Laws. When Lord John Russell brought forward his Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, Bright opposed it as "a little, paltry, miserable measure," and foretold its failure. In this parliament he spoke much on Irish questions. In a speech in favour of the government bill for a rate in aid (a tax on the prosperous parts of Ireland that would have paid for famine relief in the rest of that island) in 1849, he won loud cheers from both sides, and was complimented by Disraeli for having sustained the reputation of that assembly. From this time forward he had the ear of the House, and took effective part in the debates. He spoke against capital punishment, against church-rates, against flogging in the army, and against the Irish Established Church. He supported Cobden's motion for the reduction of public expenditure, and in and out of parliament pleaded for peace.

In the election of 1852 Bright was again returned for Manchester on the principles of free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. But war was in the air, and the most impassioned speeches he ever delivered were addressed to this parliament in fruitless opposition to the Crimean War. Neither the House nor the country would listen. "I went to the House on Monday," wrote Macaulay in March, 1854, "and heard Bright say everything I thought." His most memorable speech, the greatest he ever made, was delivered on 23 February 1855. "The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land. You may almost hear the beating of his wings," he said, and concluded with an appeal to the prime minister that moved the House as it had never been moved within living memory.


John Bright marble statue in Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum

In 1857, Bright's unpopular opposition to the Crimean War led to his losing his seat as member for Manchester. Within a few months, he was elected unopposed as one of the two MPs for Birmingham in 1858. He would hold this position for over thirty years though he would later leave the Liberal Party on the issue of Irish Home Rule in 1886.

On 27 October 1858, he launched his campaign for parliamentary reform at Birmingham Town Hall[1]. This would lead to the Reform Act of 1867[1].

He delivered the opening address for the Birmingham Central Library in 1882, and in 1888 the city erected a statue of him. The marble statue of him by Albert Joy was in store[1]) until it was recently restored to a prominent position in The Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum. John Bright Street, close to the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, is named in his honour along with the township of Bright in the Victoria, Australia.

Decendents of Bright still live in the Birmingham area.

After parliament

Quite exceptionally, John Bright, from 1864 until his death, had a long and frequent association with Llandudno in North Wales. This following a holiday with his wife and son, staying at the St. George's Hotel. On a visit to St. Tudno's Church on the Great Orme and passing through the graveyard, his five year old son said: "Mamma, when I am dead, I want to be buried here" and so he was just a week later, the victim of scarlet fever. John Bright returned to Llandudno at least once each year for 25 years until his own death in 1889. And he is still remembered in Llandudno where the principal secondary school for many years (and there have been several on different sites) is known by his name. The present Ysgol John Bright was built new in 2004 ('ysgol' is Welsh for school).[2]

In 1866 John Bright wrote an essay with the title "Speech on Reform". In this speech he demands the enfranchisement of the working class people because of their sheer number. He also says that one should rejoice in open demonstrations rather than being confronted with armed rebellion or secret conspiracy.

Bright had much literary and social recognition in his later years. In 1880 he was elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, and Dr Dale wrote of his rectorial address: "It was not the old Bright." He was given an honorary degree of the University of Oxford in 1886. The Marquess of Salisbury said of him, and it sums up his character as a public man:

"He was the greatest master of English oratory that this generation--I they say several generations--has seen. At a time when much speaking has depressed, has almost exterminated eloquence, he maintained that robust, powerful and vigorous style in which he gave fitting expression to the burning and noble thoughts he desired to utter."

On his death, Bright was buried in the graveyard of the meeting-house of the Religious Society of Friends in Rochdale.


  1. ^ a b c Bill Cash MP, A Working Class Hero, Birmingham Post, p.18, 27 October 2008
  2. ^ Ivor Wynne Jones. Llandudno, Queen of Welsh Resorts, Landmark, Ashbourne Derbyshire 2002 (page 113) ISBN 1-84306-048-5 .

Further reading

  • The Life and Speeches of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., by George Barnett Smith, 2 vols. 8vo (1881)
  • The Life of John Bright, M.P., by John M Gilchrist, in Cassell's Representative Biographies (1868)
  • John Bright, by CA Vince (1898)
  • Speeches on Parliamentary Reform by John Bright, M.P., revised by Himself (1866)
  • Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, by John Bright, M.P., edited by JE Thorold Rogers, 2 vols. 8vo (1868)
  • Public Addresses, edited by JE Thorold Rogers, 8vo (1879)
  • Public Letters of the Right Hon. John Bright, MP., collected by HJ Leech (1885)
  • Life and Speeches of John Bright, by Frank Moore (1865).

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Thomas Colpitts Granger and
The Viscount Dungannon
Member of Parliament for City of Durham
With: Thomas Colpitts Granger
Succeeded by
Thomas Colpitts Granger and
Henry John Spearman
Preceded by
Mark Philips and
Thomas Milner Gibson
Member of Parliament for Manchester
With: Thomas Milner Gibson
Succeeded by
Sir John Potter and
James Aspinall Turner
Preceded by
George Frederick Muntz
William Scholefield
Member of Parliament for Birmingham
With: William Scholefield, 1857–1867
George Dixon, 1867–1876
Joseph Chamberlain 1876–1885
Constituency divided
New constituency Member of Parliament for Birmingham Central
Succeeded by
John Albert Bright
Political offices
Preceded by
The Duke of Richmond
President of the Board of Trade
Succeeded by
Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue
Preceded by
Hugh Childers
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Succeeded by
Thomas Edward Taylor
Preceded by
Thomas Edward Taylor
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Succeeded by
The Earl of Kimberley
Academic offices
Preceded by
William Ewart Gladstone
Rector of the University of Glasgow
Succeeded by
Henry Fawcett


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John Bright (1811-11-161889-03-27) was a British politician and orator.


  • The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one, as when the first-born were slain of old, to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side-posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on; he takes his victims from the castle of the noble, the mansion of the wealthy, and the cottage of the poor and lowly.
  • I am for peace, retrenchment, and for reform—thirty years ago the great watchwords of the great Liberal Party.
    • Speech on 28 April, 1859. This phrase was first used by William IV' speech from the Throne on 17 November, 1830 for the Whig government of Earl Grey.
  • We may be proud that England is the ancient country of Parliaments. With scarcely any intervening period, Parliaments have met constantly for 600 years, and there was something of a Parliament before the Conquest. England is the mother of Parliaments.
  • The right honorable gentleman is the first of the new party who has retired into his political cave of Adullam and he has called about him everyone that was in distress and everyone that was discontented.
    • On Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke Speech, March, 1866.
  • Force is no remedy.
    • On the Irish troubles, 1880.
  • I feel outside all the contending sections of the liberal party—for I am not in favour of home rule, or the creation of a Dublin parliament...I cannot consent to a measure which is so offensive to the whole protestant population of Ireland, and to the whole sentiment of the province of Ulster so far as its loyal and protestant people are concerned. I cannot agree to exclude them from the protection of the imperial parliament. ...In any case of a division, it is I suppose certain that a considerable majority of British members will oppose the bill. Thus, whilst it will have the support of the rebel members, it will be opposed by a majority from Great Britain and by a most hostile vote from all that is loyal in Ireland. The result will be, if a majority supports you it will be one composed in effect of the men who for six years past have insulted the Queen, have torn down the national flag, have declared your lord lieutenant guilty of deliberate murder, and have made the imperial parliament an assembly totally unable to manage the legislative business for which it annually assembles at Westminster.
    • Letter to William Gladstone opposing his plans for Irish Home Rule (13 May, 1886).
    • John Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone. Volume III (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 326-29.


  • Had they been in the wilderness they would have complained of the Ten Commandments.
    • Speaking about the Tories.

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