They Lived in Headingley

Sir Edward Baines (1800 – 1890).

For a total of 29 years  members of the Baines family served as MPs for Leeds, they were without any doubt the most politically influential family in the town, yet surprisingly today their name is almost forgotten. The founder of the dynasty, Edward Baines senior (1774-1848) was a printer by trade  who was appointed by a group of Dissenters to edit the Leeds Mercury which they had  just purchased as a mouthpiece for their reforming views. Baines didn’t let them down, he made the Mercury the most influential provincial newspaper in the country. ‘Old Edward Baines’ always lived within the confines of  what we would regard as the city centre but his son, Edward Junior by the middle of the century, had joined the middle class flight to the suburbs, living first at Headingley Lodge, north of Kirkstall Lane, and  then St  Ann’s Hill on St Ann’s Lane where he remained until the end of his life.

At the age of 15, Edward junior began his career as a reporter on the Mercury and three years later he wrote his first editorial attacking the restrictions on the press introduced by the government.  These were the days of heroic liberalism: father and son exposed Oliver the Spy, the agent provocateur employed by the government to entrap disaffected workers. Edward junior reported on the Peterloo Massacre and defended the radicals at the official inquiry that followed. The Baineses and the Mercury were vociferous protesters against a political system  which was dominated by London, the Church of England and the landed interest, championing in particular  the causes of parliamentary and municipal reform which extended the vote to the middle classes, gave Leeds its first MPs and its first elected local council.

Edward’s political credo was rooted in a stern Congregationalism and focussed on the virtues of industry and thrift, religion and sobriety and above all self-reliance in a context where he believed that freedom could only be maintained if the state did as little as possible. Baines was convinced that these ideals were the unique contribution of the middle class to British life but he also believed that with proper superintendence, the working class might be re-formed in a bourgeois mould.

Key to this elevation of the working class was Baines’ passionate commitment to education, but with equal passion he also believed ‘it was not the province of the government to train the minds of the people’  From the age of 14 until he was elected to Parliament in 1859, he was a Sunday School teacher; it was on his suggestion that the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society was founded in 1819 to advance the education of the middle class, and he was an early champion of the Mechanics Institute movement. Yet in 1843 when the Tory government proposed to legislate for a national education system, Baines became the nationally recognised leader of the ‘voluntarist’ opposition which successfully fought the legislation and postponed all hopes of educational reform until 1870. The reasons for his opposition were partly religious and partly ideological: a national education system would enhance the entrenched power of the Church of England and he also argued that people only valued what they actually paid for. Children should be the responsibility of their parents and the intervention of the state could only damage that sense of parental responsibility.

Baines was an MP for 17 years and  his parliamentary career seems to have led to a mellowing of his views. On three occasions in the 1860s he introduced private members bills to extend the franchise to some working men; all were rejected but they did add to the growing demand for reform. Another volte face came in 1870 when he supported Forster’s Education Act.

Most of us today probably find it difficult to warm to Edward Baines but we can  admire his energy and dedication. On his death he was said to have been the oldest journalist in Europe, writing his last article for the Mercury in 1888  The causes he championed both in his paper and  on the platform, were legion: the Anti-Corn Law movement and free trade, Anti-Slavery was a life-long concern  and he was active in various temperance organisations.  He was instrumental in the founding of the Yorkshire College, the forerunner of Leeds University and served as the chairman of its council from 1880 until 1887. 

Through the Mercury the Baines family sought both to lead and reflect middle class opinion and such was their power that for much of the 19th century, Leeds was known as ‘a Bainesocracy’.  There is no record of what the novelist, Jilly Cooper thinks of her rather unbending great grand father but she would surely chuckle at his celebrated intervention at one meeting ‘three groans for the Queen’!

Janet Douglas