Who Was Walter Bagehot?

Our beautiful Somerset has a large ovine population but is also famous for people who did not follow like sheep.  You may want to sprawl on one of Sheepland’s Handcrafted Long Fur Sheepskin Rugs while we regale you with a tale of a Langport resident who was admired by an American president, Woodrow Wilson, and consulted by William Gladstone.  Walter Bagehot (pronounced ‘badge-it’) was an economist, political analyst, banker, editor of the journal ‘The Economist’ for 17 years and one of the most influential journalists of the Victorian era.  His most famous work is The English Constitution (1867), in which Bagehot attempted to discover how the system of British government operated.  He examined how the monarch and the Lords and Commons (the government) worked, in order to ascertain who held the real power.  He concluded that the overriding power of the Cabinet lay with the party that commanded a majority in the Commons. The English Constitution is still recommended reading for law students and the sovereign allegedly advises young royals to read it.

Before anyone tells us that England does not have a constitution, we‘d like to remind them that we do, but it’s not all written in one document, i.e. it’s not codified (as is France’s Code Napoléon).  Instead, it consists of Acts of Parliament, court judgments and conventions.  So you have to run all over the place trying to piece together the structure of our government and its relationship with its citizens.  An example of a convention is that the monarch has the power to veto any bill passed by the two houses of Parliament, but in fact never does so and automatically gives her consent. This convention is not written in any law.

Bagehot was born on the 3rd February, 1826, in Bank House, Langport.  This building was occupied originally by Stuckey’s Bank, founded by Bagehot’s mother’s family, the Stuckeys.  Latterly, until the summer of 2017, the building was occupied by NatWest (Gone!  And never called me mother)!  Bagehot’s maternal uncle, Vincent Stuckey, was head of the bank after his father’s death and expanded the business to the extent that its circulation of banknotes was surpassed only by the Bank of England.

Bagehot attended Langport Grammar School, where the headmaster was a friend of the poet William Wordsworth.  He then attended one of the finest schools in England, Bristol College. He was unable to study at Oxford or Cambridge because his father was a Unitarian and those establishments were (horror) Anglican. Therefore, he went to University College, London.

Bagehot described himself as a ‘conservative Liberal’.  He stood for Parliament three times, once for the then infamously corrupt district of Bridgwater, but never succeeded as he was an inadequate public speaker.

Sadly, Bagehot had always suffered from ill health and he died of pneumonia in 1877, aged 51, at his Langport home, Herd’s Hill House (now Hurd’s Hill; once a nursing home but now a business school and conference centre) and is buried in All Saints’ churchyard, Langport

Released On 15th Aug 2018