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Waithman detail

In Salisbury Square, an obelisk can be found as a memorial to Robert Waithman who died in 1833.

obelisk Waithman in Salisbury Court

obelisk Waithman in Salisbury Court

Waithman was born in Wrexham in 1764 and became apprenticed to a linen draper in London. He became a freeman of the Framework Knitters’ Company in October 1787 and obtained the freedom of the City the following January.(1) On 18 July, 1787, he had married Mary Davies (1761–1827), his cousin, at St. George the Martyr, Queen Square. They had at least 8 children (see here). Robert started trading at Fleet Market, but soon opened a shop at 120 Newgate Street. The British Library has a trade card of his in their collection which they date to 1791.


trade card Waithman 1791

©British Museum

trade card Waithman-Bristow 1799

©British Museum

But soon after opening his first shop – how soon is unclear – Waithman entered into a partnership with Charles Bristow and business boomed. In 1797 they were listed for the Sun Fire Office as having insurance for premises at 104 Fleet Street, 120 Newgate Street, 7 Holborn Hill, south end Fleet Market, and Winchmore Hill. Another trade card (dated 1799) shows their shop on the corner of Fleet Street and New Bridge Road. See for a larger picture of the shop with both their names above the shop windows here. As a notice in the London Gazette of 25 December 1802 testifies, Waithman was the partner with the most financial clout, 3/4 as against 1/4 for Bristow. Very soon afterwards, the partnership seems to have been dissolved and Waithman went into a new partnership with Everington at roughly the same addresses. The trade card (dated 1803) again shows the 103-104 Fleet Street property, but now with Everington’s name in stead of Bristow’s.

trade card Waithman Everington

©British Museum

The Sun Fire Office records for 1803 and 1804 list John Etherington alongside Waithman, but in 1811, a partnership was dissolved between Robert Waithman and his son John on the one hand and William Everington on the other.(2) Is there a mistake and are Etherington and Everington the same? And is John related to William? Whatever the exact details of the partnership(s), by 1811, the business was solely in the hands of the Waithman family. After Robert’s death, the shop in Fleet Street was continued by his sons (see here).

Portrait of Robert Waithman by Edward Scriven © National Portrait Gallery, London

Portrait of Robert Waithman by Edward Scriven © National Portrait Gallery, London

But Robert was not just a linen draper, he also went into politics. He frequented a debating society at Founders’ Hall in Lothbury and became a liveryman of the Framework Knitters’ Company. In 1795, he was elected as a common councilman for the ward of Farringdon Without and took a stance against the war with France. He was involved in the founding of the Society of the Independent Livery of London and, in 1800, published a pamphlet War proved to be the real cause of the present scarcity and enormous high price, of every article of consumption, with the only radical remedies, which was directed against the injustice of the income tax and in which he demanded reform for a more equal society. The Independent Livery became a lobbying group to be reckoned with in City politics, working for the people against high prices and taxes, and campaigning against war and for parliamentary reform. Waithman tried several times to get a seat in Parliament for London, but did not at first succeed. His background and lack of education spoke against him. “It was time to teach Mr Waithman that the government is not in the common hall, and that we are not to have a supreme council of war made up of the tradesmen of London”.(3)

But, in 1818, he was voted as one of the four City representatives, defeating the Tory candidate, Sir William Curtis. Waithman’s speech of 1 July 1819 on parliamentary reform was published in 1823. Soon after his election, in July 1818, he was chosen as alderman for his ward of Farringdon Without, replacing the deceased Sir Charles Price, but failed to hold on to his parliamentary seat in 1820. He attained the post of sheriff of London and Middlesex in 1820–21, during which time he sided with the popular radicals in support of Queen Caroline. He also became Lord Mayor of London in 1823-1824, satirized by his political opponents in Maxims of Robert, Lord Waithman, Somewhile Chief Magistrate of London (1824). Waithman always tried to strive for reform without becoming too radical, which resulted in an unfortunate middle position, where the Whigs thought he was too radical and the Radicals considered him too much of a Whig. And his background led to accusations of trying to use politics for his personal gain which he vehemently denied. His concern was the fairer distribution of power and wealth between the classes.(4) While some may claim he was just an upstart shopkeeper, he, although not always successful, did much to reform the political landscape in favour of the ordinary man in the street.

Waithman died at his house at 7 Woburn Place on 6 February 1833 and was buried in St. Bride’s on the 14th. His body was brought there from Guildhall in a cortège of twenty-seven carriages. Waithman Street in London was named in his honour and a subscription was raised by the St Bride’s Society to set up an obelisk. The Morning Chronicle of 26 June 1833 reported that the day before “the first stone of the Waithman Obelisk was laid by Alderman Harmer … attended by the architect and the Secretary of the Haytor Granite Company, by whom it was constructed”. A little further on in the report on the occasion, they name the architect as John Elmes(5) and the secretary of Haytor as Mr. Bigg.

obelisk Waithman in Salisbury Court 1

The inscription seen on the pedestal of the obelisk was, according to the paper, also engraved on a sheet of lead which was deposited with a portrait of Waithman and a list of the subscribers in a hermetically sealed bottle which was placed in a cavity in the lower foundation stone. Is it still there? The obelisk was originally erected at the southern end of Farringdon Street, opposite the Fleet Street shop, but it was relocated twice. The first time in 1951 to Bartholomew Close and in 1972 to it’s present position in Salisbury Square. And if negotiations had not broken off – reason unknown – the obelisk might even have ended up in Waithman’s birthplace Wrexham.(6)

Besides the obelisk, a wall tablet was erected in the south wall of the tower of St. Bride’s which now lives in their crypt with other miscellaneous gravestones and memorials. According to The architecture of St Bride’s(7), the tablet was accompanied by a shield of arms “Or an eagle holding in his beak a crosslet [], on a chief engrailed vert an escallop [] between two molets []”. That, however, is no longer to be seen in the church, but you can see the coat of arms on the bosses above the text on the obelisk.

Waithman memorial stone in St. Bride's

Biographical information on Waithman from:
– Michael T. Davis, ‘Waithman, Robert (1764–1833)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
– Lawrence Taylor and R. G. Thorne, ‘Waithman, Robert (c.1764-1833), of 7 Woburn Place, Mdx.’ in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986 (online here).

(1) Freedom admissions papers, 1681 – 1925. London Metropolitan Archives: COL/CHD/FR/02.
(2) London Gazette, 17 Sept. 1811.
(3) William Huskisson on the reception given to Waithman’s petition for an inquiry into the convention of Cintra (Source: www.historyofparliamentonline.org)
(4) J.R. Dinwiddy, Radicalism and Reform in Britain, 1780-1850 (1992), p. 78.
(5) John Elmes (1782-1862), A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, ed. E. Skempton, vol. 1: 1500-1830 (2002), pp. 212-213.
(6) Many thanks to Martyn Partridge to pointing this bit of history out to me (see his comment). A photo of the obelisk in its original position can be found here.
(7) ‘The architecture of St Bride’s: Monuments’, Survey of London Monograph 15: St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street (1944), pp. 55-113 (online here).

You may also like to read the two other posts on Waithman:
Waithman Street
Waithman & Co., linen drapers