FEATURE: Getting the most out of a Baring
IF William Bingham Baring is remembered, it is probably as a magistrate who, in 1830, had his hat knocked off by Henry Cook, a young man from Micheldever, who was hanged for it.
More of that later, but perhaps the most interesting fact about this member of the fabulously wealthy family of investment bankers is that he is not included in the current Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – the touchstone of the great and the good – while his two wives have many entries.
So who was this man and what was he doing (hereafter referred to as WB Baring, to distinguish him from his American grandfather William Bingham)?
His father, Alexander Baring, was the second son of East Stratton-based Sir Francis Baring, who together with a brother had founded the family banking business in London in the 1780s (destroyed in 1995 by Nick Leeson). His great-grandfather, Johann, had come in 1717 from his native Germany to England, where in Exeter he had prospered as a merchant.
Alexander did not inherit Sir Francis’ estate, but made up for it by working in the family business and elsewhere as a banker and trader. His reward was Bath House in Piccadilly, The Grange in Northington and Bay House, a seaside villa in Stokes Bay, Gosport. In 1835 he became 1st Baron Ashburton
Much of Alexander’s business was in the United States, where his biggest deal was the purchase from the French in 1803 of what became the state of Louisiana. The Americans paid in paper bonds, which he literally took to Holland to convert to cash (which, by the way, helped the French fight the English).
In the United States he also met and married Ann Louisa, daughter and co-heiress of the fabulously wealthy William Bingham, who had profited from racing with the French during the American Revolutionary War.
Unlike his father, WB Baring, who was born in Philadelphia, was not cut out for transactions and banking. So, after being educated in Geneva and Oxford, he entered Hampshire in 1821 with the purchase of a cornet commission (the lowest officer rank) in the Dogmersfield Yeoman Cavalry.
A year later he toured the Continent, where he met and proposed to 16-year-old Lady Harriet Montagu, a daughter of the late Earl of Sandwich, whose widow was left with three daughters to support. The match was simple: he had access to the money and she had a title.
A year later the couple were married, funded by Alexander’s enormous generosity: he gave them £5,000 a year jointly, with £25,000 a year ‘under settlement’ and personal income for her £3,000 a year.
Harriet was “witty, intelligent and proud”, “tall and imposing in person, but without any pretense to beauty”. Lady Palmerston, wife of the future Prime Minister, noted his ‘prominent nose’ and ‘chin redundancy’
She more than made up for that, however, with her character. She soon played the literary and political hostess to men like William Thackeray (a snob-hater) and Thomas Carlyle (an anti-Democrat).
One of his attributes for such a company was apparently his disregard for social norms. This led to a serious upheaval in the Carlyle household, when Thomas described her as a “glorious queen” and “the lamp of my dark path”.
Unsurprisingly, his wife took offense, but was not without tolerance, commenting: “She is immensely big– could easily have been one of the ugliest women living—but is almost beautiful, simply by the intelligence and the cordiality of its expression”.
However, after Lady Harriet’s death, Jane Carlyle was more candid: “I sometimes think that [she] was an evil spirit. No clever elf could have caused more misery.” Another member of his entourage commented, “I don’t mind being knocked down, but I can’t stand it being danced to afterwards.”
While Harriet must have been delighted with her husband’s material wealth, she considered her stepmother – the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America – as her social inferior. Some men of the day might have challenged such a dominant woman, but WB Baring, described as “shy” and “lacking in daring”, seemed content to let his wife rule the roost.
Unfortunately their only child died in infancy and after his wife’s death in 1857 he “weakened by gout” was deprived. A year later, while staying at an upland shooting lodge, he proposed to Louisa Caroline Stewart Mackenzie, a high-born Scot nearly 30 years his junior.
It was a ‘classic beauty’ but hopelessly hardened and something loosely canon, with ‘an inexhaustible hustle and bustle’. She successively fell in love with men and women: the writer Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, Florence Nightingale, Lady Trevelyan (first wife of the naturalist Sir Walter) and the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer.
The one person who expressed any enthusiasm, however, was artist Edwin Landseer, who was soon poorly received after WB Baring’s sudden offer. Louisa performed what Carlyle described as “a shrewd dodge move” and within months they were married.
They had a daughter and it was apparently a happy marriage. After six years he died and she had to leave The Grange, but could still enjoy one of three other houses, including Melchet Court – now St Edward’s School – near Sherfield English. This had been bought in 1835 by Alexander and until his death in 1903 she lived there in style, in the new “Jacobean” house started by her late husband.
During her lifetime, Louisa amassed an enormous collection of chaotic art and – like WB Baring’s first wife – became a literary hostess. Five years after her death, she reportedly even proposed to 57-year-old poet Robert Browning and was furious at his rejection.
She later donated some of her considerable wealth to charitable causes including the Ashburton Home of Rest, Tower Hamlets Mission and the Cattle Trough Association.
Now back to Henry Cook’s story of Micheldever, the young villager hanged for knocking off WB Baring’s hat (or more) during the Swing Riots. He was one of hundreds of farm laborers who on November 30, 1830 marched down the Dever Valley to protest their plight – wages so low they were starving.
At Northington Down Farm – which still exists – things went wrong. In his capacity as local justice of the peace, WB Baring arrived from nearby The Grange, only to be harangued by a spokesperson. Exercising his right of arrest, he grabbed the man by the collar – at which point Cook lunged at him with a pole or hammer, according to various accounts.
According to Alexander, the justice of the peace “wasn’t much hurt” and order was quickly restored by his younger brother, the Reverend Frederick Baring, rector of Itchen Stoke.
At the ensuing trial, Cook and five other men were sentenced to hang – two from Fordingbridge and one from Barton Stacey, Andover and Headley. Many more were transported to Australia.
At the time WB Baring and his father were MPs for Callington, ‘a nondescript borough’ in Cornwall. Until 1848 he continued to sit ‘in the interest of the family’ in Westminster – where not only his father but two uncles were MPs. He represented one of four different constituencies including Winchester during 1832-37.
Ironically, his Hansard record shows that he was probably more liberal than those close to him, often expressing compassion for the poor. In one speech, he portrayed the aristocracy as “the natural protectors of the people”. These were complex times, but neither those close to Henry Cook nor those of others hanged or deported could have agreed.