GLADSTONE, John (1764-1851), of Rodney Street, Liverpool and Seaforth House, Lancs.
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Family and Education
b. 11 Dec. 1764, 1st s. of Thomas Gladstones, merchant and shopkeeper, of Leith, Edinburgh by Helen, da. of Walter Neilson, merchant, of Springfield, Edinburgh. m. (1) 5 May 1791, Jane (d. 16 Apr. 1798)1 da. of Joseph Hall, merchant, of Liverpool, s.p.; (2) 29 Apr. 1800, Anne, da. of Andrew Robertson, provost of Dingwall, Ross, 4s. 2da. Dropped final ‘s’ from name informally 1787 and by royal lic. 10 Feb. 1835. cr. Bt. 18 July, 1846.
Gladstone was apprenticed in 1777 to the manager of a local ropery and, after serving his time, entered his father’s modestly prosperous business, which was primarily concerned with wholesale and retail trading in corn, flour and general provisions, with subsidiary interests in milling, whaling and chemicals. He made business trips to Germany and the Baltic ports in 1784, and two years later to Liverpool, where he met Edgar Corrie, a lowland Scot, who throve there as a brewer and senior partner in a firm of corn factors and was looking for a young man of talent to assist him in his ambitious schemes to make a major incursion into the Liverpool corn trade. After a brief period of training in London, when he made some useful contacts in the shipping world, Gladstone went to Liverpool to become Corrie’s partner for a term of 14 years, along with Jackson Bradshaw. His initial investment in the venture was £1,500, of which £500 represented his own savings, the remainder having been borrowed from his father and a Leith business associate. The firm of Corrie, Gladstone and Bradshaw prospered and by 1795 Gladstone, who had distinguished himself in 1790 by his handling of a potentially disastrous speculation in American corn (the last time in his life that he went abroad), was worth £16,000. He invested in urban development, buying up 345 yards of frontage on Rodney Street, where he built an imposing house to accommodate his sickly first wife, and putting over £1,600 into the Goree warehouse scheme. He turned increasingly to owning and operating ships on his own account, did considerable business in ship insurance and, eager to expand further, prepared for the day when he would be released from his arrangement with Corrie, with whom his relations had turned sour, by setting up his brother Robert in business with a loan of £2,500. By 1799 his fortune was £40,000.
In 1800, he and Robert signed articles of partnership for 14 years and in 1805 they took in George Grant as a third partner. They continued to deal in corn, but maintained Gladstone’s other business interests, moved into the South American and Russian trades and from 1803 became increasingly involved in the West Indian trade, particularly with Demerara. Through mortgages and agencies Gladstone steadily increased his stake in the West Indies, eventually moving into outright ownership of plantations: by 1821 over half his total wealth derived from his West Indian interests. On the eve of emancipation, which he strongly resisted, he was the direct owner of over 1,000 slaves and the indirect owner of many more. In 1812, he and Grant formed a West Indian trading house entirely separate from the firm of John and Robert Gladstone, which handled the other business and the East Indian trade into which Gladstone was quick to move when it was opened in 1814. He formed another partnership for the Demerara trade in 1817, brought in John Wilson to join himself and Grant the following year and in 1821, after quarrelling with Robert, set up the new firm of John Gladstone & Co. to deal with the East Indian business. All his companies were finally merged into the house of Gladstone, Grant and Wilson. By 1817, all six of his brothers were in business in Liverpool, all dependent on him to some degree.
Gladstone extended his land purchases to the Litherland estate, five miles from Liverpool on the Mersey, where work began on his country residence of Seaforth House in 1811. He had been brought up as a Presbyterian, but by 1804 he and his second wife were members of the Church of England, with strong evangelical tendencies. He made substantial contributions to local charities and built churches (which brought him a financial profit) at Seaforth and in Liverpool. His early contacts in Liverpool were with the Presbyterian, Unitarian and Quaker businessmen and intellectuals opposed to the corporation’s oligarchical rule, and at the general election of 1806 and 1807 he was a prominent supporter of the Whig William Roscoe*. He opposed the orders in council in 1808, but thereafter his changed religious outlook, disenchantment with the ineffectual intellectualism of Roscoe and, above all, his mounting stake in the West Indies induced him to support the ministerial policy of commercial warfare. By 1812 his political position was akin to that of George Canning, whom he met when visiting London as a delegate for the campaign against the East India Company’s monopoly. Canning provided him with a political hero who seemed certain to be of future use to his sons, and Gladstone was his ‘commander in chief’2 in his successful campaign at Liverpool at the 1812 general election, offering to guarantee the whole of his expenses and bringing a new efficiency and ruthlessness to the city’s notoriously corrupt electioneering techniques. He received much personal and political vilification during the campaign, but its success placed him in a powerful position in local and national affairs which was strengthened by Canning’s rapprochement with the Liverpool ministry in 1814.
Gladstone, who helped to manage Liverpool patronage during Canning’s absence in Lisbon and corresponded directly with ministers on the city’s commercial affairs, to the annoyance of Isaac Gascoyne, the corporation-backed sitting Member, would dearly have liked to enter Parliament as Canning’s colleague, but in this he was frustrated. Early in 1817 he considered an attempt at the next general election on Tain Burghs, where he had a stake through his wife’s connexions and property bought from her brother. Soliciting support from her kinswoman Lady Hood, 3 Feb. 1817, Anne Gladstone wrote that her husband’s ‘anxious desire would be to go into Parliament as an independent Member’ and that his ‘principles would lead him to support the government on constitutional grounds, at least whilst he could conscientiously do so’.3 Canning advised him against this venture and a reconnaissance at Stafford also proved discouraging, but at the general election of 1818 he successfully contested Lancaster, a declining slaving port where money counted for a great deal. His friends in Liverpool, where many Lancaster voters lived, subscribed £7,000 towards his election, which cost him about £12,000. On the hustings he declared his support for the existing representative system, but he told Lady Hood’s husband, who had obtained him the support of the Duke of Hamilton despite their political differences, that he would enter Parliament ‘more as a commercial, than a political character’.4
Gladstone was never prominent in the House and is not known to have spoken in his first Parliament, when he voted with government on the Wyndham Quin* affair, 29 Mar., and against Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May 1819. In his evidence before the secret committee on Bank restriction, he pointed out problems attending the immediate resumption of cash payments, but Sir John Sinclair* failed to enlist him in his proposed ‘society of rational men’ to investigate the subject and he acquiesced in the return to the gold standard.
In 1829 Gladstone bought a Scottish estate at Fasque, which later became the family home. Emancipation of the slaves forced him to wind up most of his West Indian interests by 1841, and after experimenting with the importation of coolie labour from Bengal to the Caribbean he concentrated during his last active years in business on the Indian and China trades and invested in the development of transport at home. He was largely frustrated in his own political ambitions, but lived to see his youngest son, William Ewart Gladstone, fulfil his early promise. He died 7 Dec. 1851, worth over £700,000.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: David R. Fisher
Based on S. G. Checkland, The Gladstones.