|This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.|
X is the most eXasperating letter of the ABC Wednesday alphabet as there not many subjects to choose from when you’re writing about the eXemplars of eccentricity, so as a matter of eXpediency I offer instead a prime eXample of a xenophobe.
Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorp was born in 1783 and was elected as the Member of Parliament for Lincoln in 1826, setting standards for xenophobia unequalled in parliamentary history.
Even the normally respectful Dictionary of National Biography describes him as ‘the embodiment of old-fashioned prejudice’.
Charles Dickens, on the other hand, described Sibthorp as ‘a militiaman, with a brain slightly damaged and, quite unintentionally, the most amusing man in the House’.
Sibthorp cut an eccentric figure in Westminster, dressed as in was in the then outdated Regency fashion of a long frock coat, Wellington boots and large gold quizzing glasses on a long chain.
His views were as anachronistic as his dress and he was a fierce opponent of progress, denouncing it as ‘at best a dangerous thing… which had done everything to cause revolution, railroads and other dangerous novelties’. (He shared Wellington’s belief that the railway only encouraged the working classes to move about making a nuisance of themselves)
Sibthorp also opposed the bill that would levy rates for the building of free libraries. He told the House that he had never cared for reading and particularly disliked it when at Oxford.
But he saved most of his vitriol for anything foreign. As far as he was concerned, the only reason for any Englishman to leave the country was to make war on another, and he demanded that all those who had applied for passports be recorded and taxed for absenteeism reckoning that it would raise £4m to be spent at home that was currently spent abroad.
Sibthorp also detested Queen Victoria’s marriage to the German Prince Albert and proposed that the consort’s £50,000 annuity be reduced to £30,000. To everyone’s surprise – Sibthorp’s included – he won the debate by 104 votes, the only time he ever found himself on the winning side.
He next turned his attention to Prince Albert’s idea for the Great Exhibition of 1851 which Sibthorp called ‘an absurdity and a wild goose-chase’. He first objected to the felling of trees in Hyde Park to make way for the buildings, saying:
A gentleman who lives near the Park and pays £110 a year ground rent told me that he was admiring the trees one evening before he went to bed and when he got up in the morning to shave they were gone. The object is to introduce among us foreign stuff of every description.
Sibthorp warned that once the exhibition opened London would be swamped by foreigners ‘talking all kinds of gibberish’ that honest English folk wouldn’t understand and that all manner of disturbances would ensue.
Suppose a case: a foreigner called a cabman and told him to drive to a certain place; the cabman could not understand and before he knew what he was about, he would have something like a stiletto inside him.
And it wasn’t just foreign visitors he feared. English criminals were ‘at present scattered over the country’ but would be drawn to the exhibition as a favourable place for a felony. That being the case, he warned anyone living near Hyde Park to ‘keep a sharp look-out after their silver forks, spoons and servant maids.’
Sibtorp’s campaign was unsuccessful of course and Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in May 1851, but he continued to rail against it and brought to Parliament an engraved decanter that had cost sixpence as an example of ‘the foreign trash and trumpery’ on sale.
How is a man in this country who is accustomed to eat roast beef and drink strong ale, after the manner of a Christian, to compete with those nasty foreigners who live on brown bread and sauerkraut and manufacture decanters at sixpence apiece?
In many ways, you can hear echoes of such xenophobic opinions among politicians and the media today. As for Sibthorp, he suffered a stroke in the House in 1855 while suggesting that Lord John Russell had misappropriated funds on a mission abroad. ‘However, I will leave it to the public to draw their own conclusion,’ he said and promptly keeled over and died.