Thomas Wakley

Thomas Wakley

Thomas Wakely, the youngest of Henry Wakley's eleven children, was born in Membury, Devon, on 11th July, 1795. Henry Wakley was a country squire who bred racehorses. After being educated at the local grammar school, he left at the age of sixteen, to be apprenticed as an apothecary in Taunton. Thomas enjoyed the work and decided to become a surgeon. After training at Guy's Hospital, London, Wakley qualified in 1817.

Wakley established himself as a doctor in Argyll Street, one of the most expensive areas in London and in February 1820 married the daughter of a wealthy iron merchant. Six months later the Wakley's house was destroyed by fire. Wakley's claim for insurance was refused as the fire had been started deliberately. Thomas Wakley claimed that the fire had been an attempt to murder him. While waiting for the insurance company to pay him for his losses, Wakley became a doctor in a less prosperous part of London.

In 1821Wakley met the radical journalist William Cobbett, who published the weekly newspaper Political Register. Wakley told Cobbett about how the need to reform in the medical profession. Cobbett suggested that Wakley should publish a journal that could be used to campaign for these reforms.

Wakley liked the idea and in October 1823 began publishing The Lancet. In the journal Wakley criticised the autocratic powers of the council that ran the Royal College of Surgeons. He also campaigned for a united profession of apothecaries, physicians and surgeons and a new system of medical qualifications to help improve standards in the medical profession.

In 1828 Thomas Wakley became involved in the campaign for parliamentary reform. This brought Wakley into contact with other political reformers in London and in 1832 he was asked to become the Radical candidate for Finsbury. With 330.000 potential voters, this new constituency was one of the largest in Britain. With the support of his two closest political friends, Joseph Hume and William Cobbett, Wakley campaigned for an extension of the vote, the removal of property qualifications for parliamentary candidates, the repeal of the Corn Laws, the abolition of slavery and the suspension of the Newspaper Stamp Act. Wakley was defeated in 1832 but he won when he tried again in January 1835.

Thomas Wakley spent the next seventeen years in the House of Commons. Thomas Wakley's maiden speech was an attack on the decision to convict the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Wakley was the main spokesman for the campaign to have the men reprieved and when their freedom was celebrated in 1838 by a vast procession through London, Wakley was the guest of honour, in recognition of the fact that he had done more than any other person in Britain to secure their pardon.

Thomas Wakley was also one of the main opponents of the stamp duty on newspapers. As part of the campaign, Wakley published six issues in 1836 of an unstamped newspaper called A Voice from the Commons. Wakley was also a passionate opponent of the 1834 Poor Law and in 1845 helped to expose the Andover Workhouse scandal.

Wakley remained a strong supporter of parliamentary reform and was one of the few members of the House of Commons who defended the activities of the Chartists. However, Wakley did not agree with all the six points of the Charter. Although he wanted an extension of the franchise, he never publicly argued for universal suffrage. Wakley also had doubts about the wisdom of annual parliaments arguing that he would prefer a triennial system of elections.

As a former doctor Wakley took a particular interest in medical reform. He was mainly responsible for the setting up of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1843 and the General Council of Medical Education and Registration in 1858. His long campaign against the adulteration of food and drink resulted in the passing of the Food and Drugs Act in 1860. Wakley died on 16th May, 1862, and like many other Radicals of the period, was buried at Kensall Green Cemetery.

Primary Sources

(1) Robert Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement (1894)

A Convention was appointed to sit in London for three weeks, for the purpose of superintending its presentation. The body met in London on the 12th of April, 1842, and received the signatures to the National Petition, which in the aggregate were stated to amount to thirty-three thousand. The Petition was presented to the House of Commons by Mr. Duncombe on the 2nd of May, on which occasion there was a large procession.

Duncombe's speech was noble and manly, and elicited the warm esteem of men of all parties; but no amount of good speaking was sufficient to draw forth a response from the House of Commons, and only fifty-one members were found to vote in favour. The House was too cowardly, or too callously indifferent to the condition of the people, to consent to meet the representatives of the suffering poor face to face, and listen to the exposure of their wrongs from those who were best qualified to make it.

(2) (2) The Observer (18th September 1845)

Mr. Wakley presented a petition to the House of Commons from one of the guardians of the Andover Union, complaining that men who were in the workhouse employed in crushing bones had been in the habit of selecting and eating from the heap such as had gristle or marrow in them. Sir James Graham promised an inquiry into the conduct of McDougal, the master, who was charged with neglecting the sick poor in refusing them the comforts directed by the medical officer, and having appropriated them to his own use. The matron was also accused of neglect and general unfeeling conduct to the paupers.