POPULAR PORTRAITS. — No. XLIX.
Mr. Oastler is in all respects a remarkable man ; and therefore entitled to a place in our gallery of national portraits. He is remarkable for his talents — for his habits — his physiognomy — the expression of his countenance — his principles, and firm adherence to them — his perseverance — his energy — his courage — his moral and political position ;— for his vigorous oratory — and especially for the extraordinary controul which he exercises over the minds of great assemblages of working men, the secret of which is, his long-tried honesty, and his disposition and ability to promote the real interests of the poor and the oppressed. His motto is, "the Altar, the Throne, and the Cottage." In no instance of an active life has he been known to deviate from it.
Richard Oastler was born in St. Peter's Square, Leeds, on the 20th of December, 1789. He was the son of Robert Oastler — the youngest of eight children. His grandfather lived and died upon the paternal estate, at Moorhouse, Kirkby Wiske, in the North Riding of Yorkshire. His forefathers, and the forefathers of the present Earl of Harewood, were substantial yeomen, occupying neighbouring farms, and connected by business, friendship, and congenial disposition, for many generations.
In early life Robert Oastler formed an intimacy with the celebrated John Wesley, while under the fostering care of his uncle, John Oastler, at Thirsk ; and this intimacy afterwards ripened into such close friendship that Robert Oastler's house was Wesley's home whenever the latter visited the town or neighbourhood of Thirsk in the prosecution of his missionary labours. In process of time Robert Oastler removed with his family to Leeds ; and it is worthy of remark that the venerable Wesley, on the last visit he paid to that part of Yorkshire, and very shortly before his death, took the little Richard up in his arms, and solemnly and affectionately blessed him.
Mr. Oastler's father for many years followed the buttress of a cloth merchant, in Leeds, and most actively exerted himself in the cause of charity and local improvement His mother was the daughter of Mr. Joseph Scurr, of Leeds, a member of an ancient and honourable family, and a woman of great but unostentatious piety.
At eight years of age, Richard, the subject of this sketch, was sent for education to Fulneck, near Leeds, the celebrated Moravian establishment ; where, until he was sixteen, his mind was stored with useful knowledge ; but more particularly was he taught the importance of religion, and the inestimable value of the Christian duties and virtues.
At seventeen, Mr. Oastler entertained a strong desire to be allowed to prepare himself for the bar, but his father's wishes were in the direction of trade. Subsequently a kind of compromise took place : he was articled to Mr. Charles Watson, an eminent architect, then of Wakefield, afterwards of York ; but this profession, after following it four years, he was obliged to relinquish on account of weak sight. He then turned to business as a commission agent ; in 1816 he married Miss Mary Tatham, a member of a highly respected Nottingham family. In 1820 he found the commercial vicissitudes which followed the change from war to peace press so heavily on him, in common with hundreds of others, that he was constrained to wind up his affairs, but he did so with an integrity of mind and purpose which gained him universal respect, and many proffers of assistance, which latter, however, he thankfully yet positively declined.
In July, in the year last mentioned, Mr. Oastler's father died, then holding the situation of steward to Thomas Thornhill, Esq., the owner of large estates in the West Riding. The vacant post, without solicitation, was offered to the son, who at once accepted it, and removed from Leeds to Fixby Hall.
From the time that Mr. Oastler gave his attention to politics to the present hour, he has been a zealous Church and King Tory, free, however, from the slightest taint of intolerance or uncharitableness; and so early as 1807 he actively engaged in the support of Wilberforce and Lascelles, and warmly advocated negro amelioration and the suppression of the slave-trade.
Mr. Oastler holds that the state should provide for the proper celebration of public worship, and give the means of Christian education to the mass of the people. But he is severe in his estimate of clerical duty. He tolerates no yielding in this respect to power, worldliness, or expediency. He was, therefore, strongly opposed to "Catholic Emancipation," for religious reasons, as well as on political grounds. His notions of what he expects from the Church may be gathered from two of his works, "Vicarial Tithes," and "A Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury." These spirited productions came forth in aid of a memorable struggle between the parish of Halifax and its vicar respecting small tithes ; in which contest the parish prevailed, and by the issue of which Mr. Thornhill's Yorkshire estates were benefited to the amount of from £15,000 to £18,000. Mr. Oastler's efforts on this occasion cost him six months' illness, and an expenditure of many hundreds of pounds, out of his private resources. In the district in which he lived, he was, notwithstanding the part he took in the Halifax struggle, a general peace-maker and arbitrator.
Mr. Oastler's philanthropy did not begin abroad and end before it arrived at home. In 1829, his attention was first attracted to the rigour of the Factory System, and the sufferings of the poor factory children. He began by calling public attention to the subject in the local newspapers. At first his statements were received by the public generally as "exaggerations," "impossibilities ;" and by the great body of the mill-owners with that bitterness of hostility which invaded interests too often prompts. Mr. J. Wood, of Bradford, however, stepped forward to his assistance, though himself an extensive mill-owner, and afforded the powerful aid of his practical knowledge and his purse. Oastler had rushed into the truly holy war single-handed, and alike courageously and ably maintained the fight ; but backed, first by Mr.Wood, and afterwards by the lamented Michael Thomas Sadler (whom he had known from boyhood), the "factory agitation," as it was called, spread rapidly over the woollen and cotton districts ; committees were constituted, and meetings were held, to whom Mr. Oastler and Mr. Sadler addressed spirit-stirring speeches, and Mr. Sadler soon had the honour of piloting the question into the House of Commons, where he succeeded in obtaining a parliamentary inquiry, and afterwards brought forward (founded upon the evidence ami report) the Ten Hour Bill. The Whig Ministers, then in power, literally found themselves compelled, as it were, by public opinion, to take the matter up ; and, though Sadler lived not to see it, a Factory Protection Bill was passed : vastly short, indeed, of the requirements of the case ; yet this enactment, imperfect as it is, besides doing much good at home, has served as the model of laws for factory regulation in France, Germany, and the United States of America. This act, which gave rise to the ameliorations in other branches of labour obtained by Lord Ashley, is now about to undergo improvement.
It cannot be a matter of surprise that Mr. Oastler declared himself a strenuous opponent of the New Poor Law the moment that its character and objects became known. In one of his earliest letters on this subject, he predicted all that has since taken place. In 1834, he said : "Never was there such a libel on Englishmen as this Poor Law — this Malthusian art — which is framed on the presumption that 'the labourers of England are idle, and will not work,' and that they deserve to be pined to death, or banished from their native soil."
His movement against the New Poor Law, however, made him an enemy in a quarter where he had hitherto found a fast friend — Mr. Thornhill. That gentleman had encouraged Mr. Oastler in his factory agitation, but looked with far other feelings upon the Poor Law agitation. Mr. Thornhill, at first, satisfied himself with expressing his disapprobation in advice; from advice he advanced to command ; and Mr, Oastler's prompt, but respectfully-worded, reply was, that he could give up his situation, but not his principles and sense at public duty. Some time elapsed. At length (May 29, 1838), Mr. Thornhill, having been insulted (as he supposed) by a handbill which some enemy or injudicious friend to Mr. Oastler had put out at Huddersfield, containing personal allusions to the honourable gentleman, he sent the zealous steward a formal dismissal.
Mr. Oastler received the intimation with regret, but not with surprise. He prepared for quitting Fixby, where he had resided, as his father's successor, upwards of eighteen years. The day of departure was a memorable one ; he was escorted by at least twenty thousand persons, who accompanied him into Huddersfield, and there he took leave of his friends in a long and heart-melting speech, but in which, though delivered under circumstances of great irritation, and not a little wrong, there was not one word derogatory to Mr. Thornhill's character or motives.
Circumstances, nevertheless, led to a more decided rupture, For sixteen years out of the eighteen of service, Mr. Oastler had received a salary of no more than £300 per annum, though he had to keep up in some degree the hospitality of the ancient hall, and was subjected to frequent personal expense which did not form allowable items of stewardship account. The consequence was that Mr. Oattler made himself Mr. Thornhill's debtor (with the latter's entire consent) to the amount of about £3000, for which sum a note of hand was given in order to bring the account to a settlement. This was in 1836. The salary was then increased to £500, for the manifest reason that it was insufficient, but the accumulation was not cancelled. In two years, however, Mr. Oastler paid off upwards of £700 of the obligation, and would soon have liquidated the entire debt.
Mr. Oastler repaired to London, and lived in comparative retirement. Mr. Thornhill brought an action in the Court of Common Pleas. In that court a sort of accommodation took place. The learned leader of the plaintiff's case disclaimed all intention on the part of his client of imputing dishonour, and the defendant at once acquiesced in a verdict for the balance, giving up at the same time various documents which had been retained for his own safety. He then turned his attention to the means of discharging the debt, and was making arrangements for that purpose, when, towards the close of 1839, be was arrested, and consigned to the Fleet Prison.
This was the origin of the Fleet Papers, which, for more than two years, consisted of a weekly epistle, on public matters, inscribed to Thomas Thornhill, Esq., and when the prisoners in the Fleet were removed under the new act, to the Queen's Prison, the weekly letter was addressed to Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary of State, and sometimes, under the feeling that wrong had been inflicted, the strain was rather that of the harsh trumpet than the "soft pleadings" of the lute.
At last, after an imprisonment of three years and a quarter, sustained with unflinching fortitude, Mr. Oastler's health began to manifest visible decline. His Yorkshire friends came to a determination that one so valuable in all the relations of life, should not wear out existence in a prison. They held a meeting, and set a subscription on foot. Mr. Ferrand, M.P. for Knaresborough, long bound to Mr. Oastler by ties of friendship and community of political feeling, kindly undertook to attend meetings wnerever requested to do so ; he was present at from thirty to forty meetings, and advocated the cause with equal vigour and ability. The effect of these, and the exertions of other friends, was the realization of about £2500 at the close of the last year. In January, in the present year, the Central Committee came to a resolution to take steps for Mr. Oastler's immediate liberation. On applying to Mr. Thornhill's professional adviser, they found that a charge of about £600 for interest and law costs had been added to the amount recovered by the verdict in the Common Pleas. But their zeal was not to be overcome by a surmountable obstacle. An arrangement for the advance of the requisite sum was made with Messrs. Beckett and Co., the Leeds bankers, and twelve gentlemen, including Lord Feversham, John Walter, Esq., late member for Nottingham, and W. B. Ferrand, Esq., M.P., gave a guarantee for £1000 ; so that on Monday the 12th of February, 1844, Mr. Thornhill had paid to him the utmost farthing of his demand, principal, interest, costs, Sheriff's expences, &c., and the prison doors flew open. The Committee went to the Queen's Prison in a body, and brought forth Mr. Oastler with gratification and pride, though with no unseemly exultation. Mr. Rashleigh, M.P. for Cornwall, sent his carriage : Mr. Oastler was conveyed to the London Committee Room, at the British Hotel, Cockspur Street ; Lord Feversham, chairman of that Committee, presided ; and a vote of congratulation and confidence having been moved, seconded, and adopted by acclamation, Mr. Oastler addressed his deliverers in a speech, the appropriateness of which was felt by every one present, for "in all that goodly company" there was not a tearless eye. As one of the daily journals observed, in reporting what had taken place, "men, not given to the melting mood, wept like women, and the speaker himself was so overcome by emotion, that, though he retained the faculty of utterance, his voice was altogether changed."
On the Monday following, February 20th, Mr. Oastler made his re-appearance in public life by a public entry into the town of Huddersfield, amid at least 40,000 spectators. The ceremonial was admirably conducted.
The subscription committees are still in operation, both in town and country. The object is, not only to cover the sum advanced and guaranteed, but, if possible, to provide a life-annuity for Mr. and Mrs. Oastler. We wish success to the effort.
Mr. Oastler is a voluminous writer, as well as a copious speaker. Besides the Fleet Papers (now in the 4th vol., 8vo.), and innumerable letters in various public journals, some of them partaking of the character of treatises, he is the author of "Letters to the Duke of Wellington," "Facts and Plain Words," "The Right of the Poor to Liberty and Life," &c. He is no metaphysician — no thetorical flourisher — but for a statement of facts, an array of bold impressive truths, an appeal to the warm and genuine feelings of unsophisticated nature, and a broadside upon the strong holds of selfishness or hypocrisy, he is rarely equalled. Mr. Oastler, however, has come out of prison deeply impressed with the inutility and impropriety of mixing up with public discussion anything like personal vituperation, and, thenceforth, though inflexible in his adherence to his principles, he is resolved not to enter upon personal quarrels of any kind in connexion with political proceedings.
Mr, Oastler's public labours have brought him in close fellowship with men of rank and talent, and with most of them he is on terms of familiar friendship. Twice has he contested the borough of Huddersfield ; the first time with Mr. Ellis, jun., when he lost by 50 only ; the second time with the late Mr. Black-burne, barrister-at-law, when he was in the still smaller minority of 21. It has been said in some of the journals that he did this under the patronage of Mr. Thornhill. The fact is otherwise. In coming forward he obeyed the call of the Conservative and independent electors. The Ramsden family possess the entire soil on which the town stands, with a very slight exception, and it was in spite of that overwhelming influence that he so nearly succeeded ; no other man could have come within 150. It is generally supposed that many months will not elapse ere Richard Oastler take a seat in the House of Commons for one of the boroughs where the success of an election mainly depends upon the working-classes.