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Bagehot at Home

 

There was standing room only at Hurd's Hill on Monday night, 5th March, for the Langport & District History Society's talk on Walter Bagehot. For most people it was their first opportunity for decades to see the inside of the house where Bagehot lived and died. It had been a nursing home for many years until it was bought in 2011 by Clifford Lee and David Holmes. As soon as Clifford saw that the History Society had scheduled a talk on Bagehot, he offered Hurd's Hill as the venue. They weren't to know that the day of the talk would, sadly, also be the day that the death was announced of Norman St John Stevas, Lord St John of Fawsley, who did so much to keep Bagehot's name and writings alive.

Barry Winetrobe, former lecturer in constitutional law who now lives near All Saints Church, where Bagehot is buried, gave an illustrated talk far removed from the constitutional theory he used to teach to his students. The packed audience, including many non-members of the Society, were treated to a new perspective on Bagehot which explained why he is so famous in some circles, such as economists and constitutional experts, and so little known among the general public. In particular, Barry showed why there should be more information and memorials to commemorate Bagehot in his home town. There is even an asteroid named after him, which makes him more famous in the universe than in Langport. A recent BBC Somerset vox-pop demonstrated that even those local residents who have heard of him are not sure whether his name is pronounced 'Bag-got' or 'Badge-ot' (the latter is the more accepted now).

Born in the Bank House, Cheapside, Langport, Bagehot was a clever and eager student, although he never enjoyed good health, and was particularly frightened of exams. He passed everything with flying colours, and studied for the bar. However, he gave up a career in the law to return to Langport to work in the family banking business, Stuckey & Co. Here he learned about finance at first hand, and became such an expert over the years that he was consulted by Chancellors of the Exchequer like Gladstone. He was introduced to James Wilson, an MP who had founded the Economist, and more to the point, had a daughter, Eliza, who became the love of Bagehot's life. They married in 1858.

After Wilson's death, Bagehot later became Editor of the Economist, a position he held for 16 years, until his death in 1877.

In his most famous work, The English Constitution, Bagehot's observation and analysis of the Victorian constitution remains to this day the definitive account of how our political system works. His chapter on the monarchy has been used to teach successive British monarchs the duties of a constitutional monarch. Bagehot's analysis of the behaviour of the money market, Lombard Street, has come back to prominence in the era of the credit crunch. It is still regarded as the most acute analysis of the financial markets. In a recent lecture in the USA, Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, has quoted Bagehot in this context.

US President Woodrow Wilson, when he was a Professor at Princeton University, made a pilgrimage to Bagehot's grave in 1896, and Norman St John Stevas followed in his footsteps in the 1950s, when he was writing his definitive collected works. Robert Peston often quotes Bagehot – perhaps it's time he also made the pilgrimage to Langport.

Contrary to the impression given by his few portraits, Bagehot was no stolid Victorian worthy, but a precocious and energetic individual who wrote with such wit that his sayings are much quoted. In a letter to his mother after visiting the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace, he described it succinctly as "a great fair under a cucumber frame". One oft-quoted and always relevant saying of his is "The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do."

Barry also updated the audience on the progress in Langport setting up a Bagehot Memorial Fund, to repair and maintain Bagehot's gravesite and to commemorate the man and his work in his home town.