The Honourable Craven Berkeley

The Honourable Craven Berkeley, Cheltenham’s first – and first Liberal – MP. Portrait reproduced by kind permission of the Wilson Art Gallery & Museum.

Whig/Liberal

1832-1847, 1848, 1852-55

Cheltenham’s first MP could politely be called a bit of a character.  The twelfth child of the high-living Fifth Earl of Berkeley and a former maidservant Mary Cole, Craven reached the rank of captain in the Life Guards and was brother to four previous Gloucestershire MPs.  He was once accused of guarding the door of a London bookshop while his brother horsewhipped the Tory proprietor for publishing a bad review of his book. He also fought a duel against the Tory MP for Chippenham but, mercifully, both missed twice.

Craven was first elected as MP for Cheltenham unopposed after the town won its own parliamentary representative for the first time in the Great Reform Act of 1832.  He was re-elected in 1835 against token opposition from a Radical candidate.  His election campaigns were boisterous affairs involving entertainment, marching bands decked out in his orange and green colours and several small riots. He defeated serious Tory opponents in 1837 and 1841 but was defeated by Sir Willoughby Jones in 1847 – the only Tory ever to beat him at the polls – after tactlessly drawing attention to the mortality rate in Cheltenham during a parliamentary debate on public health. It was an important issue to raise but potentially devastating for the spa town’s tourist trade. Re-elected again in 1848 after Jones was unseated on petition for bribing and treating, Craven was promptly unseated himself for the same reason. Barred for one parliament, he was re-elected for the last time in 1852.

Craven crossed swords with ‘the Pope of Cheltenham’, the formidable evangelical Anglican and arch-Tory Francis Close. Craven certainly didn’t share Close’s disapproval of racing, theatre and drink and accused him of slander after Close called him ‘an atheist, an infidel and a scoffer at religion’.  Close probably felt vindicated when Craven proposed an amendment to Sunday pub opening hours which would have removed closing time! A passionate liberal, Craven couched even this argument in terms of solidarity with working people and was a consistent supporter of extending the vote to more of the population.  Perhaps he always had his own mother’s modest origins in the back of his mind.

One of his last parliamentary interventions in 1855 was to question the orders given at the disastrous charge of the light brigade during the Crimean War. He died in Carlsbad in Germany in 1855, still an MP but aged just 50.