Heritage: The forgotten Romford MP and the Regent Street roadblock
PUBLISHED: 15:00 29 October 2017
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A politician made himself a figure of fun after being fined for dangerous driving in 1904, says Prof Ged Martin
It’s not surprising that we’ve forgotten Louis Sinclair, MP for Romford from 1897 to 1906.
His parents’ surname was Schlesinger. He insisted that they were English but, as he himself had been born in Paris, he took the precaution of formally taking British citizenship a fortnight before the 1897 by-election.
Orphaned at the age of two, he had been reared by a guardian in England. Aged seventeen, he ran away to Australia.
Fed by the wealth of the Victorian goldfields, “Marvellous Melbourne” was a boom town, dominated by Scots businessmen. Louis adopted a Scottish surname, and became Sinclair.
After working as a schoolteacher, he became a journalist, and then made a fortune in property.
He returned to England, married a wealthy wife and invested in a fancy goods business in London’s Bond Street. It specialised in making embroidered kneeling cushions for churches.
In 1897, he fought a by-election to become Conservative MP for the Romford division of Essex, which extended from East Ham to Upminster.
Since MPs were expected to subscribe sports clubs and charity events, only a very rich man could afford to represent so large a constituency.
His Liberal opponent was Herbert Raphael, who’s remembered for the park that he presented to the people of Romford.
Raphael promised his Nonconformist supporters that he would close the pubs on Sunday. This threw the powerful drink trade behind Sinclair, giving him a narrow victory.
The result was Sinclair (Con): 8,156; Raphael (Lib): 8,031.
Louis Sinclair was re-elected in the Conservative general election victory of 1900, although there was some criticism of his election expenditure. Personally, he was becoming unpopular, with voracious local do-gooders claiming that he was “parsimonious”.
Sinclair had some far-sighted ideas.
In 1902, he called for a Ministry of Commerce, arguing that the existing government department, the Board of Trade, was mainly concerned with collecting statistics and supervising railways, shipping and harbours.
A new body was needed, which would aggressively develop Britain’s export trade.
Sinclair campaigned, without success, to gain more MPs for the growing Essex suburbs. The Romford constituency, he told the Commons in 1902, contained 31,000 voters. Newry in Ireland had only 1,800.
But he did little for the area himself. Having promised to live in the constituency, he briefly rented Nelmes, a rambling old mansion in Emerson Park, but left in 1903.
In 1903, he backed legislation to bring trams to Romford. The bill never passed, and the trams never materialised.
Down Under, he was regarded as Australia’s voice at Westminster.
In 1904, he made himself a figure of fun. Driving home from a Commons sitting late one evening – only very rich people owned motor cars – he encountered an obstacle in Regent Street. Workman had left a coiled hosepipe in the road. To avoid it, he swerved along the right hand side of the street, where he was nabbed by an officious policeman.
Magistrates disliked motorists, and Sinclair was fined for dangerous driving.
Furious, he raised the matter in the House of Commons. Parliament had ordered the police “to take care that all passages through the streets to this House be kept clear and open”.
It was a constitutional principle, he insisted, that MPs must not be obstructed on their way to or from Westminster.
Liberal MPs greeting this pompous rant with “boisterous laughter”. One Irish MP “narrowly escaped a fit of apoplexy”.
The Speaker treated the complaint with mock solemnity. “I do not think the House will expect me to deal with this as a question of privilege,” he pronounced, to howls of Opposition derision. “The line must be drawn somewhere.”
Even his fellow Conservative MPs joined in the laughter.
The 1906 general election was a Liberal landslide. Louis Sinclair was defeated in Romford by nearly 9,000 votes.