|William Ewart |
William Ewart (1798–1869), politician, was born on 1 May 1798 at 7 Queen Square in Liverpool, the second of the four sons of William Ewart (1763–1823), merchant, and his wife, Margaret (1773–1844), daughter of Christopher Jaques of Bedale, Yorkshire. Descended from a Kirkcudbrightshire family, William Ewart senior, who was the brother of the diplomatist Joseph Ewart and godfather of the future statesman William Ewart Gladstone, had made his fortune as a general commission merchant, and was senior partner in the firm of Ewart, Rutson & Co. of Liverpool. His son and namesake was educated at Eton College from 1811, and proceeded in 1817 to Christ Church, Oxford, where he won the college prize for Latin verse in 1819 and the Newdigate prize the following year. He graduated in 1821, undertook a two-year tour of the continent, and, having been admitted to the Middle Temple in March 1820, was called to the bar on 26 January 1827. On 15 December 1829 at Prestwich he married his first cousin Mary Anne (1805–1837), the daughter of his father's youngest sister, Mary, and the Manchester cotton merchant George Augustus Lee of Singleton.
Ewart, who was elected for Bletchingley at a by-election in July 1828, took his seat in the Commons on 5 February and made his maiden speech in favour of Catholic emancipation on 27 March 1829. He was left without a constituency in 1830, but, following the death of William Huskisson later that year, he was narrowly elected for Liverpool after a fierce contest. Although unseated on petition by the house on 28 March 1831, he regained his seat at the general election in May, and held it until 1837. A Liberal with radical leanings, who advocated the ballot, reform of the established church, abolition of colonial slavery, and repeal of the corn laws, he was active in parliament, speaking on general topics ‘with considerable ease, and with much rapidity … without being eloquent’ (Grant, 289–90). In 1832 he secured the passage of an act to end the use of capital punishment in cases of theft of money or animals from a dwelling house (2–3 Will. IV c. 62), and in subsequent years succeeded in obtaining other legislative steps towards the total abolition of the death penalty. On 1 August 1833 he made the first of a series of annual motions for equalization of the duties on East and West Indian sugars, as an indirect attack on the use of slave labour in the West Indies. Other humanitarian achievements of his included the acts of 1834, to end the hanging of the bodies of prisoners in chains (4 & 5 Will. IV c. 26), and of 1836, to allow felons to be defended by counsel (6 & 7 Will. IV c. 114).
Having been defeated at Liverpool and Kilkenny borough in 1837, Ewart lost a by-election at Marylebone in March 1838, but returned to the Commons as member for Wigan in March 1839. In The Reform of the Reform Bill (1837) he urged the case for widening the scope of political changes, and in a major intervention in the Commons on 28 January 1840, called for these to be extended to the realms of free trade and national education. At the general election of 1841 he returned to his family's Scottish roots, becoming member for Dumfries burghs, which he represented for the next twenty-seven years. In the 1840s he continued to press for free trade, being involved in the activities of the Anti-Corn Law League. Strongly internationalist in his outlook, he also attended several peace congresses in Europe. He maintained consistent opinions on public finance, arguing for a system of more direct taxation in a published speech (28 May 1847). Other speeches which were separately printed were those on capital punishment (10 June 1856) and European settlement in India (16 March 1858), in which he expressed the hope that ‘our mission there would be for the benefit of the Natives themselves’ (Munford, 145). He chaired a select committee on this question, which provoked John Warden to write his Letter to William Ewart. The select committee on the adoption of the metric system, which he also chaired, led to the permissive act of 1864 (27 & 28 Vict. c. 117). On 3 May 1864 he secured the appointment of a royal commission on capital punishment, on which he served from July 1864 to January 1866.
Ewart's concern to promote education and public libraries, which was largely motivated by a wish to improve the economic and social status of the lower classes, began in 1836, when his select committee's report on arts and manufactures led to the creation of the School of Design at Somerset House, London. He spoke often on education—for instance, on the need to free it from church domination (20 June 1839)—and in 1841 requested that an annual ministerial statement be made to parliament. In the autumn of 1846 he explained to Lord John Russell that while he was against large-scale public provision of education, he was ‘rather desirous of combining the voluntary system with government inspection and public encouragement of it’ (Baines, 135). He endeavoured to introduce competitive examinations for entry to the civil and diplomatic services (1845 and 1852), and the army (1847). He supported the Museums Act of 1845, which enabled town councils to levy rates to pay for local museums, and was instrumental in securing the extension of this scheme to libraries, chairing the select committees which were appointed in 1849 and 1850. The resulting Libraries Act of 1850 (13 & 14 Vict. c. 65) established what ultimately became a nationwide system of public library provision. He sponsored an amendment bill in 1855, and on the introduction of another on 27 February 1866, Gladstone told the Commons that Ewart's name was ‘associated with many achievements of public utility, but with this act of legislation [of 1850], I think, he may feel assured that his name will be associated not only during his life, but after he is gone’ (Munford, 151). In July 1863 Ewart proposed in the Commons a scheme for ‘inscribing on those houses in London which have been inhabited by celebrated persons, the names of such persons’ (Cole, 9). Ewart's idea of identifying residences with plaques was initiated by the Society of Arts in 1866 and taken on by London county council in 1901 and English Heritage from 1986. A blue plaque marking Ewart's home at 16 Eaton Place, Belgravia, was installed in 1963, a century after his original proposal.
Ewart, who retired from parliament in 1868, died of pneumonia on 23 January 1869, at Broadleas, near Devizes, Wiltshire, which had been his country residence since 1854. He was buried on 28 January at Bishops Cannings, Wiltshire, where his next younger brother, Joseph Christopher Ewart (1799–1868), who was Liberal member for Liverpool from 1855 to 1865, had recently been interred. He left the bulk of his estate, which included personalty sworn under £70,000, to his only son, William Lee Ewart (1836–1892), and provided for the two of his four daughters who survived him. Ewart, who was described by Benjamin Robert Haydon as ‘a keen little man’ (Diary, ed. Pope, 3.356), was a slightly built figure of respectable character, who applied himself diligently to the introduction of many social improvements over a long career. He was an advanced Liberal, whose political philosophy was based on a desire for better public administration, and this was expressed in all his concerns, which ranged from the organization of business in the Commons to the establishment of free public libraries. The Ewart Library in Dumfries is named in his honour, and a bust of him is displayed in the Ewart room at the Library Association headquarters in London.
We may all have access to books, libraries and the internet nowadays, but this was not always the case. Yonks ago books were only accessable to those who were part of the establishment or those who could afford to pay the subscription fees, William Ewart was one of the pioneers who made public access to libraries a key part of modern day culture. And that was amongst his many other reforms to make the law more favourable to the less well fortunate.