Colonel Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorp MP was a man of uncompromising principles who confounded a Queen, opposed all progress and took xenophobia to new heights. He was a most unconventional conventionalist. In an age before mass communication, he fought to preserve one corner of Empire against the most surprising of foes.
The Rough And Tumble Of Politics
Born in 1777 into an ancient and wealthy family of landowners, Sibthorp never really became known to the wider public until 1826, when he stood as a candidate in the Parliamentary elections for the constituency of Lincoln. Although a well-known figure locally, no-one had ever heard him offer an opinion on politics. At the first hustings, a large crowd were drawn to hear exactly what this flamboyant character had to say.
Unfortunately when his turn to speak came, Sibthorp was busy being unconscious, having been felled by a missile thrown from the crowd as he stood from his chair.
An Opponent Of Change
It was left to the press to ascertain his political leanings and a few days later he gave an interview. Asked how he intended to represent Lincoln and his views on Parliamentary reform, Sibthorp replied 'On no account would I sanction any attempts to subvert that glorious fabric, our matchless Constitution, by any new-fangled schemes which interested or deluded parties might bring forward, and those who expect advantages from such notions will find their visions go like a vapour and vanish into nothing.'
A Conservative then. Obviously this appealed to the electorate as he was duly elected and served as MP for Lincoln until his death in 1855.
The first half of the 19th Century was a time of dizzying technological and social change and Sibthorp was singularly ill-equipped to deal with it. He persisted in dressing in the Regency style, with antique quizzing glasses and top-boots. Whenever anything he disapproved of was brought up in the House of Commons, typically being anything he deemed new or foreign, his loud calls of 'Humbug' brought chuckles from the assembled members.
The British Love A Character
Although somewhat gruff, the British people always displayed a fondness for Sibthorp, perhaps enjoying his eccentricities or possibly because he gave a voice to opinions which they secretly shared. He despised all foreigners and never missed an opportunity to denounce anyone he considered not British.
Standing Against A Queen
On the eve of Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert, a motion to grant the Prince Consort an annual allowance of £50,000 was being debated in the Commons. Sibthorp opposed it, on the grounds that £30,000 was quite enough for a foreign Prince. Normally, this would be ignored and his cries of 'Humbug' would ensue but Sir Robert Peel, seeing a chance to defeat the Government, supported Sibthorp and the motion was unexpectedly carried. Queen Victoria was infuriated and swore never to visit Lincoln while Sibthorp remained MP. She was true to her word.
Nefarious Plots And The Crystal Palace
Prince Albert of course was the prime supporter of the Great Exhibition held at the purpose built Crystal Palace in 1851. It was the 'Millennium Dome' of its era and it was almost inevitable that Sibthorp opposed the Exhibition for the stated reason that it was a ploy by Prince Albert to 'bring even more of his hypocritical foreigners into the country.' Sibthorp publicly prayed to God to destroy the Crystal Palace with hail or lightning. God's response wasn't recorded at the time, although 'Humbug' might well have been apt. In any event, the Crystal Palace was not destroyed before the Exhibition. Indeed, it survived the Exhibition, a relocation and decades of use until 1936 when it was destroyed by fire. The cause of the fire is unknown, but it would be unwise to discount the possibility that Sibthorp continued to badger God long after his death.
Throughout the building of the Crystal Palace, Sibthorp continued to rail against what he perceived as the iniquities of the forecasted foreign visitors. 'Take care of your wives and daughters, take care of your property and your lives!,' he warned the nation. He bemoaned the huge numbers of trees cut down to make way for the building, which he called ‘that palace of tomfoolery’ and the 'unwholesome castle of glass.' He saw the exhibition as a forerunner of national catastrophe arising from: the corruption of morals by hypocritical foreigners; the desecration of the Sabbath; political disunion; an increase in poverty; and national bankruptcy.
Of course, Sibthorp never visited the Exhibition himself but his fury grew at reports of poor country folk being inveigled into travelling to London to see it, pawning their clothes for the fare, and ending up naked, destitute and demoralised. He went so far as to declare in the House of Commons that Prince Albert was the instigator of a plot to overthrow the Empire. His words largely fell on deaf ears as the Exhibition was a great success, attracting people from every corner of Britain. Unlike the Millennium Dome.
A Prudent Fiscal Man
National bankruptcy became a particular obsession for Sibthorp and he opposed any unnecessary expense that Parliament put forward. He proposed that all British diplomats should work for no salary and that over-running projects such as the National Gallery be pulled down to spare further expense.
The Evils Of Steam
Another bone of contention for Sibthorp was the railway. Beginning with the announcement that he had no intention of ever riding in 'the Steam Humbug', he opposed all railway bills in principle and details. This 'degrading form of transport' would bring disasters from moral ruin to wholesale slaughter upon travellers. He was convinced that only one in ten railway accidents were publicised and he accused the railway companies of 'private frauds and public robberies.' He maintained until his death that railways were a mere flash in the pan, and that he was 'of the decided opinion that these nefarious schemes would ere long appear before the public in their true light - that all the railway companies would be bankrupted and that the old and happy mode of travelling the turnpike roads, in chases, carriages and stages, would be restored.'
Sibthorp died in his London home in 1855, but was succeeded by his son Gervaise as MP for Lincoln.
Sibthorp is believed by many to be the inspiration for the character Lebedev in the classic Dostoyevsky work The Idiot. As the man himself may have remarked, 'Humbug'.