Biography of John Bright
John Bright (16 November 1811 – 27 March 1889), Quaker, was a British Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with Richard Cobden in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League. He was one of the greatest orators of his generation, and a strong critic of British foreign policy. He sat in the House of Commons from 1843 to 1889.
Bright was born at Rochdale, in Lancashire, England — one of the early centres of the Industrial Revolution. His father, Jacob Bright, was a much-respected Quaker, who had started a cotton mill at Rochdale in 1809. Jacob's father, Abraham, was a Wiltshire yeoman, who, early in the 18th century, moved to Coventry, where his descendants remained. Jacob Bright was educated at the Ackworth School of the Society of Friends, and apprenticed to a fustian manufacturer at New Mills, Derbyshire. John Bright was his son by his second wife, Martha Wood, daughter of a Quaker shopkeeper of Bolton-le-Moors. Educated at Ackworth School, she was a woman of great strength of character and refined taste. There were eleven children of this marriage, of whom John was the eldest surviving son. His younger brother was Jacob Bright, an MP and mayor. His sisters included Priscilla Bright (whose husband was Duncan McLaren MP) and Margaret Bright Lucas. John was a delicate child, and was sent as a day pupil to a boarding school near his home, kept by William Littlewood. A year at the Ackworth School, two years at Bootham School, York, and a year and a half at Newton, near Clitheroe, completed his education. He learned, he himself said, but little Latin and Greek, but acquired a great love of English literature, which his mother fostered, and a love of outdoor pursuits. In his sixteenth year, he entered his father's mill, and in due time became a partner in the business.
In Rochdale, Jacob Bright was a leader of the opposition to a local church-rate. Rochdale was also prominent in the movement for parliamentary reform, by which the town successfully claimed to have a member allotted to it under the Reform Bill. John Bright took part in both campaigns. He was an ardent Nonconformist, proud to number among his ancestors John Gratton, a friend of George Fox, and one of the persecuted and imprisoned preachers of the Religious Society of Friends. His political interest was probably first kindled by the Preston election in 1830, in which Edward Stanley, after a long struggle, was defeated by Henry "Orator" Hunt.
But it was as a member of the Rochdale Juvenile Temperance Band that Bright first learned public speaking. These young men went out into the villages, borrowed a chair of a cottager, and spoke from it at open-air meetings. John Bright's first extempore speech was at a temperance meeting. Bright got his notes muddled, and broke down. The chairman gave out a temperance song, and during the singing told Bright to put his notes aside and say what came into his mind. Bright obeyed, began with much hesitancy, but found his tongue and made an excellent address, although sometimes he spoke with a syntax similar to Yoda from Star Wars. Tales of these early years circulated through England and the United States late into his career, to the extent that students at institutions such as the young Cornell University regarded him as an exemplar for activities such as the Irving Literary Society.
On some early occasions, however, he committed his speech to memory. In 1832 he called on the Rev. John Aldis, an eminent Baptist minister, to accompany him to a local Bible meeting. Mr Aldis described him as a slender, modest young gentleman, who surprised him by his intelligence and thoughtfulness, but who seemed nervous as they walked to the meeting together. At the meeting he made a stimulating speech, and on the way home asked for advice. Mr Aldis counselled him not to learn his speeches, but to write out and commit to memory certain passages and the peroration. This "first lesson in public speaking," as Bright called it, was given in his twenty-first year, but he had not then contemplated a public career. He was a fairly prosperous man of business, very happy in his home, always ready to take part in the social, educational and political life of his native town. A founder of the Rochdale Literary and Philosophical Society, he took a leading part in its debates, and on returning from a holiday journey in the east, gave the society a lecture on his travels.