WOOD, Matthew (1768-1843), of 77 South Audley Street, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 2 June 1768, 1st s. of William Wood, serge manufacturer, of Tiverton, Devon by w. Catherine née Cluse. educ. Southgate Street, Exeter; Blundell’s, Tiverton. m. 5 Nov. 1795, Maria, da. of John Page, surgeon and apothecary, of Woodbridge, Suff., 3s. 2da. suc. fa. 1809; to Hatherley, Glos. 1836 under the will of James Wood, banker, of Gloucester. cr. Bt. 11 Nov. 1837.
Common councilman, London 1802-7, alderman 1807-d., sheriff 1809-10, ld. mayor 1815-17.
Prime warden, Fishmongers’ Co. 1834-6; gov. Irish Society of London 1835-d.
Dir. British Herring Fishing Co. 1812.
Maj. 8 Loyal London vols. 1803.
Wood, the son of a dissenting serge maker at Tiverton, was at first his father’s business assistant, then at 14 apprenticed to a chemist, his cousin Newton at Exeter; five years later he was a wholesale chemist’s traveller and in 1790 was engaged in the same capacity by Messrs Crawley and Adcock of Bishopstone Street, London until 1792, when he went into a short-lived partnership with one of the Adcocks and John and Thomas Price at Devonshire Square. He then set up business on his own in Cross Street, Clerkenwell, moving in 1801 to Falcon Square, Cripplegate, for which ward he was elected a common councilman in 1802. About this time he invested £2,000 in a patent to provide a new harmless colouring matter ‘to heighten the colour of porter’, which was used by most brewers. He was less successful in marketing sugar colouring, owing to fears of adulteration, but was permitted to sell it for five years from 1811. Meanwhile, in 1804 he had gone into partnership with Edward Wiggan of Southwark at Falcon Square and afterwards at Cannon Street, as hop merchants, dry salters and wholesale chemists. He also acquired an interest in the Wheal Crennis copper mine in Cornwall. Cyrus Redding the journalist, on being introduced to Wood about 1805, found him ‘a kind, hospitable, sensible man, not highly educated, but possessing ... the courage to think and act for himself.1
Elected an alderman in 1807, Wood was an admirer of Col. Wardle’s campaign against the Duke of York. He was a sheriff in 1810 when the warrant for Burdett’s arrest was issued by the Speaker, and prepared to assist Burdett, with whose politics he sympathized, in evading arrest; but the scheme miscarried and he had to be satisfied with a protest against the use of the military to disperse the crowds, which had led to bloodshed. He carried his point on the day of Burdett’s release from the Tower, when despite the crowd’s disappointment at their hero’s exit by the river, order was preserved by the civil authorities. He was a spokesman at the constitutional reform dinner in 1811 and a founder member of the Hampden Club and of the Union Society for parliamentary reform in 1812, under the aegis of John Cartwright, whose candidature for Westminster in 1814 he at first favoured, with a view, it was thought, to becoming a candidate there himself in due course.2
In 1812 Wood was a candidate for London and boasted of having thrown open the doors of common council, but fared badly, in sixth place: he had hoped that his fellow radical Robert Waithman would make way for him, but the latter refused and they were at daggers drawn. Wood fared no better at the Grampound by-election of 1814, where he was invited to stand, but did not go to the poll. He had obtained some credit with the mob by presenting a City address to the Princess of Wales at Kensington Palace, amid huzzas of ‘Wood for ever’, in February 1813, congratulating her ‘upon her triumph over a wicked conspiracy against her honour and her life’. Henceforward he cultivated the Princess and her cause assiduously. His ultimate success in London was, however, ensured by his popularity as lord mayor: he held office two years running, 1815-17, the first mayor to do so since 1691. He achieved this by encouraging resistance to government measures at a time when they were very unpopular in the City and by his vigour as first magistrate in campaigning against the London underworld. In 1816 he smashed what his friend Romilly called ‘an atrocious conspiracy of thief takers to get innocent men convicted of coining that they might share the rewards’. His attempt to clear the streets of prostitutes was less successful and gave rise to the ribald cartoon entitled ‘City Scacvengers Cleansing the Streets of London’. In November 1816 ministers showed their resentment of Wood’s stature by absenting themselves for the second year running from the lord mayor’s dinner. In December he dispersed the Spa Fields riot, but went on to present a petition to the Regent expressive of the rioters’ demands. In January 1817 he promoted the reform banquet which called for triennial parliaments.3
In 1817 Wood, who though ‘an eager oppositionist’ was found ‘impartial as a magistrate’,4 was named a third time for the mayoralty, without success, but he had already been returned to Parliament for the City on the resignation of the Whig alderman Combe. This was engineered on Wood’s behalf by Henry Hunt†. He acted steadily with the advanced Whigs. His maiden speech, 24 June 1817, was both an attack on the suspension of habeas corpus and a justification of his own conduct as magistrate. Of the Spa Fields riot, he commented ‘this alarming insurrection was put down in an hour’: elsewhere, in Cornwall for example, distress was ‘almost insupportable’, but there was no rioting. After defending the City’s prison administration against its critics, 10 Feb. 1818, Wood so far retracted as to bring in a motion to investigate its improvement, 18 Feb. He upheld the corporation, however, when their application of their revenues came under fire that session. On 27 Feb. he presented the London petition against the operation of the suspension of habeas corpus, and on 16 Mar. the individual one of Thomas Preston.
Wood had a brother in business at Dublin and visited Ireland: his bill for the better employment of the poor through the encouragement of partnership in the fisheries, trade and manufactures of the country, brought in on 10 Apr. 1818, was intended to do good in Ireland; but it failed that session, and again when he reintroduced it as the Irish partnerships bill on 5 May and 14 Dec. 1819, with the aim of promoting English capital investment in Ireland. He complained that Irish gentlemen had no feeling for their country in this matter. Other subjects that engaged Wood’s attention in his first full session were rewards to informers, which he deplored, 13 Apr. 1818; freedom of worship for dissenters’ children living on the parish, 7 May 1818; compulsory payment of workers in some trades in legal tender, 20 May; and lotteries, which he attacked, 26 May (again on 4 May 1819). On 1 June 1818 he presented the Westminster reform petition.
Wood, who boasted that he had not missed a day’s attendance in the last session, headed the poll easily in the opposition triumph in London at the election of 1818. There was an odd rumour that he would contest Dover. In declining to chair a meeting to promote John Cam Hobhouse’s† return for Westminster in November 1818, his excuse was that his long absence abroad had brought too many other engagements in its wake.5 On 25 Jan. 1819 he and his new colleague Waithman were cheered when they presented the London petition for the reform of the criminal law, complaining of the overcrowding of prisons. On 12 Feb. he advocated legislation to suppress bawdy houses, in support of another London petition. On 2 Mar. he supported Mackintosh’s motion for a committee to review the criminal law and was named to the committee. The day before he had stated that the increase in crime was due to the multiplication of prisoners in unclassified prisons. On 12 Mar. he accordingly defended the London petition against the crowded state of Newgate. He somewhat whimsically opposed the abolition of trial by battle, 22 Mar., with one other Member, thinking the liberty of the subject would be somehow diminished thereby. He was a spokesman for parliamentary reform, 12 May, and again on 1 July, on Burdett’s motion, when he stated that
the honourable baronet had last year proposed resolutions which appeared to him extravagant, and therefore he had not voted with him; but this year he had proposed no plan, and therefore he would vote with him.
Wood also opposed any additional taxation, 9 June 1819, and expressed surprise that the landed interest put up with it; on behalf of Londoners he had supported the equalization of the coal duties, 20 May. He opposed the foreign enlistment bill throughout, presenting a Westminster petition against it. On 2 July, acting as he said at the request of the duke’s trustees, he brought up the Duke of Kent’s petition to dispose of his property by lottery; but he was pressed to withdraw it by ministers as discreditable to the royal family. John Wilson Croker wrote of the duke when he died soon afterwards, ‘he had a base appetite for popularity which disgusted everybody except Alderman Wood’.6
Wood further courted the hostility of the House when on 29 Nov. 1819 he brought in Henry Hunt’s self-exculpating petition about the Peterloo incident. On 7 Dec. he defended the London petition on the state of the country, blaming ministers for the lingering distress and warning them that agitation for reform would spread, despite their manoeuvres, by means of private societies, which were more dangerous than ‘the late tumultuary meetings’. On 7 Dec. he proposed as an amendment to the seditious meetings prevention bill that in London the power of authorizing public meetings should not be limited to aldermen, but be extended to any three or more common councilmen in a ward; he also wished the London livery to be awarded the powers offered by the bill to other corporate bodies. On 13 Dec. he alleged that Newgate was unfit to receive John Cam Hobhouse as a prisoner for his breach of privilege. His last speech in that Parliament, 16 Dec. 1819, was in favour of Robert Owen’s scheme and he linked it with his own unsuccessful Irish partnership bill as a means of providing employment in areas where there was waste land and surplus labour. He continued to vote against repressive measures for the next week.
Early in 1820, Wood went to France to escort Queen Caroline back to England and champion her cause, the climax of his public career, which revealed him, however, as a ‘vain, weak, mischievous man’. Brougham, who dubbed him ‘Jackass’ Wood, commented that the Queen should be warned of ‘the ridicule that attaches everywhere to him, and that he never rises but to make a roar of laughter’. A chorus of similar abuse followed his activities: ‘that enlightened mountebank’, ‘that vain, foolish busybody’ and so on. His municipal achievements were far more effective than his political efforts. Wood died 25 Sept. 1843. Lord Denman said he possessed ‘uncommon perseverance and activity, no small share of natural sagacity, and much acquaintance with the character of the English people’.7
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Lawrence Taylor / R. G. Thorne
- 1. Gent. Mag. (1843), ii. 541-4; DNB; Hunt Mems. ii. 110-12; P. Mathias, Brewing Industry in England, 420, 422, 508; C. Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, 2nd ed. (1858), i. 23.
- 2. Gent. Mag. loc. cit.; Geo. III Corresp. v. 4127; M. W. Patterson, Sir F. Burdett, 263; Cartwright Corresp. ii. 129; Brougham mss 39156; Add. 27850, ff. 283, 285, 287.
- 3. The Times, 6 Oct.; Grey mss, Goodwin to Grey, 24 Dec. 1812; Colchester, ii. 435; Brougham mss 10160, 10349, 32131; Beaven, Aldermen of London, i. 135, 282, 310; Romilly, Mems. iii. 264-5; M. D. George, Cat. Pol. and Personal Satires, ix. 12809, 12813, 12814.
- 4. Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 256.
- 5. Morning Herald, 17 June 1818; Add. 27842, f. 136; 38458, f. 458.
- 6. Lonsdale mss, Croker to Lowther, 24 Jan. 1820.
- 7. Farington, viii. 251; Brougham mss 61; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 821; Colchester, iii. 121; Gent. Mag. loc. cit.; J. Arnould, Mem. Lord. Denman, i. 139.