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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
A 5-MINUTE PAPER READ AT THE JOINT
MEETING OF THE CAITHNESS FIELD CLUB AND THE WICK SOCIETY IN THE ASSEMBLY
ROOMS, WICK ON THE 26th APRIL, 1978,
SIR JOHN PENDER: A THUMBNAIL SKETCH OF A VICTORIAN MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT AND PIONEEROF SUBMARINE TELEGRAPHY
Why have I chosen, you may ask, a seeming not very engaging subject, a Member of Parliament, who was a contemporary of Mr. Gladstone? I found an election leaflet of 1892 in my old shop. It was an address "to the electors of the Northern Burghs" by the Liberal candidate, Sir John Pender, 18 Arlington Street, London, S.W. I imagine that it had been kept because Sit John's photograph, taken by my grandfather, had been reproduced by the collotype process - an early method of half-tone printing.
I can remember old people in Wick recalling the days of Sir John Pender as an M.P. so I thought, perhaps, a little delving into his life and times might turn up something of interest. The Northern Burgh were Kirkwall, Cromarty, Dingwall, Tain, Dornoch and Wick. Sir John's address is written in an earnest rhetorical style, I shall read parts of it. Don't be alarmed. There is nothing about democracy or the T.U.C. However one thing strikes a contemporary note, capable then as now of causing anguish in some quarters, namely the threatened unity of the United Kingdom. Sir John states "The question before the country is whether the United Kingdom is to be maintained in its integrity, or whether it is to be disintegrated and thereby discredited before the world". Sir John is referring to Home Rule for Ireland. He continues "I hold the opinion strongly that we should maintain intact this great empire, which with its vast colonial and Indian possession, is the admiration of the civilised world". Sir John then turns to other matters. "I shall advocate the redress of grievances affecting the interests of fishermen, crofters and workmen, and the improvement of the sanitary condition of the dwellings of the poorer classes." Note the desire to help others and the interest in hygiene. These are two traits of those born with the sun in the sign of Virgo, as was Sir John, whose birthday was the 10th of September. I venture very briefly into astrology and its general interpretations. People born under Virgo are practical, businesslike and painstaking. They are faithful to duty and give more than willing service. I am inclined to believe that those virtues were found in good measure in Sir John Pender and contributed to his success in life.
He was born in 1815, in the Vale of Leven, Dumbartonshire. As a young man he was a merchant in textile fabrics in Glasgow and Manchester but became interested in submarine telegraphy. In 1856 he was a director of the Atlantic Cable Company. After three attempts a cable was laid across the Atlantic but in operation it was not successful. Sir John then founded the Anglo-American Company in 1865, to lay a new cable. Difficulties arose with the Gutta Percha Company, the suppliers of the insulating material. They had serious misgivings about the huge capital expenditure and the 2,000 miles of cable, but Sir John saved the day by giving them his personal guarantee of a quarter of a million pounds. By using Brunel's ship, the Great Eastern, which at one time lost the cable in mid ocean, the task was completed in 1866.
Sir John was also a politician. He was Liberal member for the Northern Burghs from 1872 until 1885, when he lost the seat. By then he had become disenchanted with the policy of his party. In the House of Commons, the Irish members under Parnell held the balance of power, and Mr. Gladstone proposed to introduce a scheme of Home Rule for Ireland. In the 1892 General Election Sir John was returned once again for the Northern Burghs, this time as Liberal-Unionist. The result in West Ham was a harbinger of things to come. There the successful candidate was a sturdy champion of the working man named James Keir Hardie. The election brought Mr. Gladstone back to office and he formed his fourth and last administration. Neither Mr. Gladstone nor Sir John Pender would see the century out. Sir John died of a "paralytic seizure" at his home in Kent on the 7th of June 1896 "at 5.40 in the afternoon" as the "Groat" so meticulously informs us, adding "The first intimation of Sir John's death was received in Wick by Provost Paterson Smith, who exhibited the telegram in the Unionist Club, and when the sad intelligence became generally known, there was sincere regret expressed on all hands, that our old and respected former representative had at last been called to join the great majority". The Groat had this to say. "He was one of the silent, useful, influential members of the House of Commons. He spoke to a public meeting as he would converse with persons in a private room, but the hearers never failed to be struck with the practical force of what he had to say. It was mainly through his instrumentality that the town of Wick was relieved of a debt of near £150,000 to the Government in respect of the breakwater that the waves had destroyed, which debt had greatly crippled the energies of the town."
In Wick to-day Sir John is not entirely sunk without trace. His portrait hangs in the Town Hall. It was done in 1888 by a fashionable painter of the time, Sir Hubert von Herkomer, R.A. Although the artist has placed his sitter in a strong dramatic light it is a dark tonal painting of somewhat undistinguished colour. Good portrait painters are also psychologists and I think the artist has conveyed the quiet dignity and the earnest expression with maybe a hint of care on the homely face - painted with great realism - of this long forgotten eminent Victorian.