David and Harriet Urquhart: a team

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David Urquhart and his Foreign Affairs Committees

If we know anything of David Urquhart (1805-1877), it is that he was eccentric, that he re-introduced the Turkish bath into the British Isles, and that politically he was a Russophobe and a Turkophile.

His political career is almost invariably encapsulated by these two labels—concision which is in this instance, perhaps, appropriate, and certainly inevitable. For so many of Urquhart’s views on foreign policy can be traced back to these two obsessions rooted in attitudes embraced during his early diplomatic career in Constantinople in the early 1830s. Even his fixated belief that Palmerston was a traitor was based on his view that he had been ‘bought’ by the Russian aggressor.

Those historians who have thought his political career worthy of attention have tended to focus on two areas of interest: first, his mission in Constantinople culminating in the Vixen episode (which, a year later in 1837, effectively put an end to his direct involvement in policy-making); second, his creation of a network of  Foreign Affairs Committees (FACs) which, mainly in the mid-1850s and particularly in the north of England and the Midlands, promulgated his views and furthered his personal war against Palmerston.

Most historians agree that neither Urquhart nor the FACs made any lasting impact on foreign policy. But all are agreed that Urquhart, ‘one of the most remarkable publicists of his day,’ was a knowledgeable, charismatic, and eccentric person who, to the surprise of many, was often right—though Karl Marx probably had tongue firmly in cheek when, on 2 November 1853, he wrote to Engels,

Strange though it may seem to you... I have come to the same conclusion as the monomaniac Urquhart—namely that for several decades Palmerston has been in the pay of Russia.

Miles Taylor is one of several historians to ask who comprised Urquhart’s following. To the educated contemporary observer of foreign affairs, Urquhart’s doctrines may well have been ‘a specialized taste’ and, as Anderson has noted, ‘once acquired they became an addiction.’ No-one, however, has satisfactorily explained what it was that attracted so many working-men to the committees, or why Russophobia (or any other aspect of foreign policy) bound them to Urquhart so loyally, and for so long.

As for Urquhart’s re-introduction of the Turkish bath to a Victorian society in which any form of bath was a novelty for the wealthy, historians seem to have thought such diversions not worthy of serious study. Neither have they sought to consider Urquhart as a person, other than to notice, repeatedly, such obvious eccentricities as his refusal to shake hands with anyone. (He taught his children to kiss the hands of visitors.)

Several historians have studied parts of the important unpublished collection of Urquhart correspondence at Balliol College, Oxford, but hardly any attention has been paid to those letters in the group labelled ‘Turkish baths’, nor even to the significance of the occasional paragraphs on the subject to be found in a surprising number of other letters dating from the 1850s and 1860s.

Several other items in this collection seem also to have escaped attention as, for example, a letter from Urquhart’s son David to Gertrude Robinson, his father’s biographer, and the cutting of an article with the unacademic title of 'The Feast of kébôbs' which, however light-heartedly, begins to show us a different side of Urquhart the human being. Both are discussed further, below.

An article by Briggs on West Riding FACs is one of very few exceptions to this catalogue of neglect. Briggs suggested that in their meetings can be found,

the proto-type of a highly successful and intelligent WEA tutorial class. However wild the personality and outlook of Urquhart himself—and he was the main inspiration of all this effort—the Foreign Affairs Committees mark an impressive stage in adult working-class education.

David Urquhart—the political man

Briggs noted also that ‘another activity of the committees was the building of Turkish baths’ and that ‘Local letters were often headed "the Turkish Bath".’ But this article was written nearly forty years ago, and no-one seems yet to have followed up these acute observations.

The positive view of Urquhart traditionally taken is of a well-read person, extremely knowledgeable on his own subjects, a clear thinker with reasoned answers to any question put to him in the course of his public meetings and,

with a singular genius for impressing his opinions upon all sorts of men, from aristocratic dandies down to the grinders of Sheffield and the cobblers of Stafford.

To this must be added some less attractive traits: that his unchecked enthusiasms ‘often obscured his judgment;’ and that ‘he put down with ostentatious insolence anyone who ventured to demur to anything he said.’

At first sight, photographs of Urquhart seem to confirm a surly demeanour, although when he was in Constantinople in his mid-twenties, he had ‘looked much younger than his age’ with ‘fair hair which he wore almost to his shoulders’ and ‘vivid blue eyes.’

But too much should not be inferred from such photographs because very few mid-nineteenth century photographic portraits show their subjects in anything other than serious mien. This photograph taken shortly after his marriage at the age of about 50—a happy period for Urquhart—shows him still ‘young looking, though the wrinkles of age appear when he becomes animated by passion’.

A later photograph taken around 1874 when he was almost 70, three years before he died, shows a face on which there is not even a hint of a smile. But this was a man who was approaching the end of a life during most of which he had endured ‘a personal and individual knowledge of the tortures of acute rheumatism,’ often noted in the letters of those writing to him, but rarely mentioned by Urquhart himself.

Urquhart among family and friends

Accounts of his public appearances seem to confirm the general impression of humourlessness gained from reading his numerous speeches and pamphlets. Indeed Maria Catherine Bishop writes of the Urquhartite Free Press that perhaps ‘a keener sense of humour would have contributed the element which would have made it more digestible by working souls.’

But with family, friends, and others in a non-work environment, Urquhart was quite different. So much so that in 1920, after reading Gertrude Robinson's biography 0f his father, David, the eldest of his surviving children, in what can best be called a polite letter of thanks, wrote to the author,

…You have selected, and well selected those sections of his work which appeal to you and you have given a wonderful picture of the man he was, when working—He had a lighter side tho’— Brilliant conversationalist full of fun, jokes and quips—That does not show in his letters and with increasing bodily sickness and pain, there was little of that in his later years…

David confessed that he was ‘really more interested in the man than in his work’. He was also aware that the author had been helped in her selection of Urquhart’s correspondence by his own younger sister Harriet—Gertrude's lifelong friend. But Harriet (known in the family as Hatty), was a timid girl who had been only fifteen years old at her father’s death. Indeed, having once seen him in a ‘great rage’ she had been somewhat frightened of him. He wrote that when young, Maisie (the elder of his two sisters) , Hatty and he, 

used to go into [our parents’] bedroom in the mornings and have a real romp and fight in the big bed with him—I can well remember that little Hatty never really enjoyed these romps.

So it is, in part, a distorted picture which emerges from a biography unduly coloured both by Hatty’s view of her father and by the author’s personality. Her own father, the staunch committeeman A E Robinson, had looked up to Urquhart and at his death had written, ‘I have loved the man who gave me light a thousand times more than he who would give me gold.’ While Gertrude herself, immersed in political Catholicism, sums up her view of Urquhart (in the chivalric subtitle of her biography) as ‘a Victorian knight errant of justice and liberty’.

David’s happier picture of his father is given credence by an amusing description by Lady Currie of a party at her parents’ home around 1856 when she was just in her teens, and Urquhart (known to his friends as ‘The Bey’) was one of the guests.

Upon one side of [my mother] was seated the Prince Frederick of Schleswig-Holstein... From time to time, with a shrieking laugh which sounded almost hysterical, he bounded up and down in his chair, and slapped the table with his hands, by which one knew that the Bey, who sat upon his other side, had made some more than usually witty sally.

Urquhart seemed to retain the friendship of those for whom he campaigned even when unsuccessful, for he was seen to be honest, caring, and (unlike many of his contemporaries) had genuine respect for those beyond the borders of Europe with whom he chose to work. Ahmed Khan of Daghlestan, for example, began a letter, ‘Beloved Daoud Bey—Your Highness,’ and if he had not fully grasped the specific British usage of the latter phrase, the intention is evident. While Hassan of Circassia began, ‘Most noble Daoud Bey,’ extending his greeting to Urquhart’s young son in his valediction, ‘I salute thee and little Daoud Bey and all your friends.’

Jenks has pointed out that Urquhart’s personality particularly appealed to women. He welcomed their assistance, and ‘almost all of the men who were most closely involved with him received the encouragement of their wives.’

But he also worked well with women who were single as was, for example, Harriett Ann Curtis. She was a long-standing supporter of Urquhart’s activities. It is not clear how she first became involved, but she was important enough to he consulted by committee secretaries who needed advice and did not wish to trouble Urquhart. Later, she was to become the second largest shareholder in Urquhart’s London & Provincial Turkish Bath Co Ltd.

Harriet Urquhart

But it was Harriet Fortescue who, after her marriage to Urquhart on 5 September 1854, became his chief support and collaborator in all things. An independent-minded individual, and a believer in rational dress for women, she had earlier, with financial help from Ruskin, started a shirt factory for the unemployed of Ardee in Co. Louth. During the year before her marriage, she had been preparing an introduction to some of Urquhart’s papers which she was ‘going to republish in a volume without her name.’ And the day after her wedding, the Morning Advertiser published 'The Words of Lord Palmerston' under her pseudonym ‘Caritas.’

Maria Catherine Bishop found it extremely difficult to distinguish between Urquhart’s writing and Harriet’s. ‘Half her articles in his paper, the Free Press, and her many other writings were by him, and half of his by her.’ Bishop quotes a letter from their son David who wrote that, generally speaking, ‘the argumentative work, the collating of extracts from despatches, treaties, &c., was done by her first, and then my father dictated the introduction and conclusion.’

Historians do not seem to have given Harriet credit for the closeness of her collaboration with Urquhart, though it must be clear to all who go to the source documents. Their two temperaments complemented each other in exactly the manner needed to ensure that their work was most effectively undertaken. The retention of committee members’ loyalty to Urquhart was in no small measure due to her calm soothing rationality.

Her contribution was widely recognized by many of the FAC members themselves, Benjamin Morrell, for example, referring to her in a letter to her husband as ‘your valuable partner Mrs Urquhart.’ They appreciated the trouble she took in her explanations of difficult points, as when David Scott wrote asking John Johnson to ‘present my sincere and grateful thanks to Mrs Urquhart’ for helping him overcome his habit of ‘jumping to Conclusions without weighing evidence.’ And they responded to her personal interest in their lives, as when Thomas Dean, answering her query, wrote, ‘My wife’s name is Bridgett, but having lived in service where certain names are not liked, we have got the habit of calling her Ann…’

Harriet could not, even had she wished, avoid involvement in Urquhart’s campaign to re-introduce the Turkish bath. Whenever they moved house, one of David's first actions would be to build a new Turkish bath. Harriet’s biographer wrote:

My first impression of the hot air room contrived in his Geneva villa was of a dimly lighted catacomb. Mrs Urquhart, in white bathing costume, slight and picturesque in the light of the lamp she carried, stood at the foot of the stairs in friendly welcome. She taught us as we lay panting on our shelves in a heat of 170° Fahrenheit, all the merits of what is truly a sanitary institution, but one that with its attendant shampooing was not then as freely recognized as now.

Throughout his life Urquhart was hospitable to all who wished to try the Turkish bath whether they were friends or neighbours, his servants, local doctors with their patients, FACs wanting information, or their members who were unwell. The Turkish bath at the first home they built, at Riverside near Rickmansworth, was internationally renowned and considered ‘a great boon to the neighbourhood.’

Harriet agreed that its use should be offered to those who sought to discover its worth, and kept many sciatic and invalid guests over for breakfast.

If David Urquhart was used to receiving effusive letters from his acolytes, he was not alone. Harriet too, received highly complimentary letters written by those who realised the contribution which she made to their common endeavours. John Harlow writing from Small Heath, Birmingham, spoke for many when he wrote:

To yourself Madam, I would only say—Who that has seen you, has heard you speak, and has known your acts as I have, can have other feelings towards you than those of humble reverend admiration.

The members of the FACs had ‘an absolute conviction that they were right and an utter devotion to Urquhart and his cause.’ But Jenks, for one, finds it difficult to explain how this was inspired. It is clear that many factors were involved, but one of these must surely have been the feeling shared by committee members that within the movement there was a knowledgeable intercessor able to take the rough edges off any problems which might arise in their work.

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2023

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Urquhart's nightmare

David Urquhart shortly after his marriage

Urquhart, aged about 69

Harriet Urquhart

The Riverside Turkish bath

Urquhart's bookplate

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