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William Schaw Lindsay, Victorian Entrepreneur by Bill Lindsay

Book Review by Charles Priestley.

Please Note that Bill Lindsay will be talking at the Civil Service Club and by Zoom on Saturday 17 February 2024 and you may book this event now at

In April 2002, I drove down from London to Shepperton in search of William Schaw Lindsay.  I cannot now remember when or where I first came across Lindsay’s name, but I knew of him as the Liberal MP who sympathised strongly with the Confederacy and who accompanied John Arthur Roebuck, MP to Paris in June 1863 in order to sound out Napoleon III before Roebuck introduced his motion for recognition in the House of Commons.  My objective was to visit Lindsay’s grave and to see the house where he had lived, Shepperton Manor.  I quickly found his large tomb in the cemetery, on land which he had given to the village, and then discovered a memorial to him high up on the east wall of the north transept of St. Nicholas’s Church.  His house presented more of a problem.  High walls and CCTV cameras prevented access, and someone in the village told me darkly that the Manor was now owned by “the Arabs”.  After a bit of exploration, however, I found that I could get a very good view of it from the sailing club just across the river.  I finished in the local library, where I was delighted to find copies of a recent reprint of Lindsay’s history of the village, with an introduction by a Bill Lindsay, Lindsay’s great-great-grandson.  Twenty years later, that same Bill Lindsay has produced a life of his distinguished ancestor, based mainly on that ancestor’s unpublished papers. 


William Schaw Lindsay’s story reads like the plot of a Victorian novel – the orphaned Scots boy who runs away to sea and rises, through dedication and native ability, to become the owner of a major merchant shipping company and a prominent and highly respected Member of Parliament, consulted on maritime matters by, amongst others, Napoleon III.  Nevertheless, it is all true.


All of this Bill Lindsay takes us through, largely in his great-great-grandfather’s own words, from the hardships and dangers of William Schaw Lindsay’s early years at sea, to his setting up as a shipbroker and gradually building up his own shipping business, standing for Parliament and finally being elected, to his services in the Crimean War and his reaction to the American Civil War, to his enforced retirement after a stroke, at the early age of 49, and his consequently occupying himself in writing and in investment in property.


William Schaw Lindsay emerges, not surprisingly, as a man of firm principles and strong opinions, which he was not ashamed to voice.  “By sticking to my principles,” he says, “I sometimes landed in hot water and was unpopular.”  During the Crimean War, a number of his ships were hired by the Admiralty as transports, and he also chartered ships to transport supplies and troops for the French.  Lindsay did not attempt to hide his disgust at the “gross inefficiency” of the Admiralty, which he contrasted very unfavourably with the performance of its French equivalent.  The war itself he referred to as “that foolish War”, and he had “no sympathy for the Turks … the idlest and most miserable people.”  On occasion, though, he met someone equally outspoken.  When Brunel showed him around the Great Eastern, then nearing completion, and asked him what he thought, Lindsay replied “she is the strongest and best built ship I ever saw.”  Brunel’s response was “I should think I know rather more about how an iron ship should be put together than you do.”

There is much about the sea, of course.  The first part of the book gives a sobering picture of the “tough life” of a sailor on a British merchant ship, with bullying mates, poor navigators, pirates, yellow fever and the constant threat posed by gales and storms.  Near the end, there is a disturbing section on “coffin ships”, vessels that were deliberately sent out overloaded or with rotten timbers, tampered with in some way or with unsafe cargo, so that they would inevitably founder, and the owner could claim the insurance.  There is a great deal about Free Trade and maritime laws, two great interests of Lindsay’s; he used his position as an MP to strive constantly to have the navigation laws revised.  The book shows, too, how quick he was to recognise and make use of new techniques in shipbuilding; the W S Lindsay, built in 1852, was “the largest iron-built sailing ship at that time”, and Lindsay was one of the first to commission “auxiliary steamers”, sailing ships with an auxiliary engine.  His less successful ventures, though, are also mentioned, including the failure of his mail line to Calcutta via the Cape, a contract with the Portuguese Government for which he was never paid and a disastrous voyage carrying prospective brides to British Columbia in 1862, when everything possible went wrong.


Having stood unsuccessfully in the Liberal interest in Monmouth and then in Dartmouth, Lindsay was finally elected MP for Tynemouth in 1854.  His account of these elections gives an extremely interesting picture of Victorian electioneering methods, involving “threats, bribes and undue influence of every kind”, as well as “fighting, brawling, and debauchery difficult to describe.”  Lindsay, however, resolved from the start “not to spend one penny on drink and much less on bribery and corruption.”  Once elected, he sat on several Parliamentary Commissions, and was once part of a delegation which urged the Government to consider the adoption of decimal coinage.  He also had an opportunity to come to know many of the prominent figures of the day.  His portraits of some of   them, presumably not intended for publication, are fascinating.  In particular, he gives us his view of three Liberal Prime Ministers, Gladstone, Palmerston and Lord John Russell.  He greatly admires Gladstone, emphasising his “genius and commanding talents”.  Palmerston he describes as “a charming man”, but he does not seem to feel that there was anything behind the charm.  Lord John Russell he clearly dislikes intensely.


Then came the American Civil War.  In September 1860, Lindsay travelled to the United States for the first time, spending two or three months there.  Since he was there to meet American shipowners with whom he had been doing business and to discuss maritime questions of interest to both countries, he spent the whole of this time in the North.  He was agreeably surprised by the Americans, who were nothing at all like the image which he had formed from books.  When he did finally meet someone there who fitted perfectly his idea of the typical Yankee in dress, speech and behaviour, this turned out to be Charles Dickens’s brother Augustus.  He was disappointed, though, in the women, who he felt needed to “take more outdoor exercise” like English girls. 


Amongst the introductions which Lindsay had was a letter from his friend Richard Cobden to the Vice-President of the Illinois Central Railroad, a company in which both Cobden and Lindsay were thinking of investing.  The Vice-President was a certain Nathaniel P. Banks, ridiculed a year or two later during the Civil War by the Confederates as “Commissary” Banks.  Banks arranged for Lindsay to be given a tour of the line, from Chicago right down to St Louis.  On Lindsay’s return from St Louis, Banks then took him off to visit the newly elected Abraham Lincoln, who insisted, much to Mrs Lincoln’s horror, on fetching a prize ham from the larder to feed his two guests.  Lindsay also spent an evening with Hannibal Hamlin.


Although Lindsay did not visit the South, while in Washington he met several Southerners, including William Trescot, Howell Cobb and Raphael Semmes.  How far they may have influenced him it is impossible to know, but certainly when the war started his conclusion was that the cause was purely economic – “taxation without representation”, as he put it.  He summarised his views in May 1861 in a letter to Gladstone, at Gladstone’s own request: “The Confederate States are a Nation …. [with] a constitution, a government and an army.”  Britain had acknowledged them as belligerents, “so let our Government with France now say they are a Nation.”  Gladstone replies that he has read the letter “with great interest, and I shall at once bring it to the attention of my colleagues.”  Could Lindsay, t hen, have been ultimately responsible for Gladstone’s famous speech at Newcastle the following year?


From then on, Lindsay spoke both in Parliament and in public on the need to recognise the South in order to bring the war to an end, tabling notice of a motion for recognition in the House of Commons ready to be brought forward at an opportune moment.  Nor did he confine his efforts to Britain.  As we have seen, he stressed the importance of acting in concert with France.  He had first met Napoleon III during the Crimean War to discuss transporting troops and supplies and had been impressed by the Emperor’s grasp of the subject.  He now had several meetings with Napoleon in the early part of 1862.  The official reason was to discuss the navigation question, but at the first of these meetings Napoleon almost immediately brought up the subject of the Civil War in America.  Since there was a great deal of controversy, both at the time and later, over what exactly was said both at these meetings and, in particular, at the later one involving Roebuck, it is very helpful indeed to have Lindsay’s own account.


Napoleon seems to have been using Lindsay as a sort of conduit, in order to feel out possible British Government reaction to a formal French proposal for joint action to break the blockade and recognise the South.  Two earlier messages on the subject had apparently been sent through the French Minister to Britain, but had received only an “evasive” reply.  What was more, Napoleon said, Russell had apparently reported the substance of these despatches to the United States.  As requested, Lindsay passed on Napoleon’s views, but was told firmly that any communication from France must come through the proper channels.  There matters rested, but in June 1863 a motion for recognition was tabled by the pugnacious radical MP John Arthur Roebuck.  A rumour had started that Napoleon had changed his mind over recognition, and Roebuck insisted on Lindsay’s accompanying him to France to hear the truth from the Emperor himself.  Napoleon said that he could not make a “formal application” to Britain at this time, but that he had most certainly not changed his mind, and authorised them to say so.  Roebuck then submitted his motion on June 30.  He spoke in some detail about the meeting with Napoleon, giving the impression that he had a direct message from the Emperor.  Unfortunately, he also gave a rather confused account of what the Emperor had mentioned in passing to Lindsay, in confidence, about Britain’s letting Washington have details of the earlier French notes.  What he said and the way in which he said it made a bad impression upon the House, and he was persuaded to withdraw his motion.  Lindsay, simply from being associated with him, shared some of the opprobrium.


This, however, did not affect his efforts on behalf of the Confederacy.  He continued to press for recognition of the South, and was a founder-member, in December 1863, of the London branch of the Southern Independence Association.  Although his partners were involved in blockade-running, he felt strongly that his position “as a Member of Parliament, and as a public man” precluded him from doing so himself.  He did, however, invest in the Confederate Cotton Loan, although he claims that this was only to the amount of “about £2,000.”  Meanwhile, throughout the war he entertained Confederate agents and sympathisers at Shepperton Manor.  Yancey, Lamar and Mason all stayed there.  He became particularly friendly with Mason, who often stayed there for weeks at a time.  Despite their differences over the Civil War, Lindsay remained friends with Cobden, one of the Union’s chief champions in Parliament.  It is surprising to learn from him that Cobden always mentioned Mason’s name “with the highest respect.”


Then, at the end of 1864, Lindsay suffered a sudden stroke.  From then on, he was confined to a wheelchair.  He political and business activities were over, and he was forced to find other projects to occupy his brain.  He therefore started to invest in property, building houses in Shepperton and buying up land further afield to develop.  He also built a large house, still standing, high above the sea in Bournemouth, which he and his wife could occupy in the winter and let out for the rest of the year.  At the same time, he took up writing.  In particular, between 1872 and 1876 he published his magisterial four-volume History of Merchant Shipping.  He also wrote two novels, one of them published posthumously, and spent a large amount of time cataloguing his journals.    


Apart from two pages at the beginning and the very useful summary in the Epilogue, the book is written throughout in the first person.  As we know, it is based largely, though obviously not exclusively, on W S Lindsay’s writings.  Bill Lindsay has said that “more than 80%” of it is in his great-great-grandfather’s own words.  It may be a minor quibble, but this reviewer would have liked to be shown precisely which words are in fact the ancestor’s and which the descendant's.  A clearly delineated linking commentary would also have allowed Bill Lindsay to fill in occasional gaps in the narrative. 


By any standards, though, Bill Lindsay has done full justice to his illustrious great-great-grandfather.  Anyone with any interest in Victorian history, maritime history or the American Civil War will be grateful to him.


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