Political Biographies of the Mayors of Portsmouth (1836-1900)

MAYORALTY:- November 9th 1870-1871. 1871-1872.
PROFESSION:- Outfitter
WARD:- All Saints
FIRST ELECTED ALDERMAN:- September 5th 1871
OTHER CIVIC POSITIONS HELD:- Magistrate. Member of Hospital Committee. Chairman of the School Board for twenty-one years. Member of the Board of Guardians for eighteen years. Life Governor of the Grammar School. Three times MP
RESIDENCE:- North End House. London Road Portsmouth.
DECEASED:- 9th November 1909. Aged 81.
BURIED:- Kingston cemetery.
A noted orator and businessman who gave over fifty years' service to the Corporation. "No maker of modern Portsmouth has a finer record than Sir John Baker." comments W.G. Gates. Baker came to prominence during a specially convened meeting of the council on the 4th of June 1863. At this landmark meeting Baker proposed that the borough adopt the 1858 Local Government Act. His motion was carried by 45 votes to 8. Gates goes on:- (1)
"Always a reformer, it was he who secured the adoption of the Local Government Act whereby the inefficient Boards of Improvement were abolished. Thereafter he took a prominent part in every scheme of development and the soundness of his reasoning, his foresight, his earnestness and his business acumen were of inestimable benefit to his fellow townsmen. In the cause of education he rendered lasting service, presiding over the School Board from its inception until it attained its majority, his farewell being marked by the entertainment of the 20,000 children attending elementary schools."
Then another sphere opened to him. After forty years' hard fighting in the Liberal cause he was chosen as candidate for the Borough in Parliament. His first attempt in 1886 was unsuccessful, but he headed the polls in 1892, 1895, and 1906. He was made a Freeman of the Borough in 1901. His qualities as a man and the homeliness of his private life endeared him to all and, by common consent, friend and opponent alike dubbed him 'Honest John.'
At the 1870 meeting the proposer was Alderman R.W. Ford. who noted that Baker had done sterling service in promoting the Local Government Act. However, it had been mooted in the press a week prior that Baker was to be mayor. This did not suit Cllr B.C. Miller at all. He said he would not be dictated to by the press. He thereupon proposed Cllr Dore. Dore declined to accept the nomination and Miller was prevailed upon to withdraw it. Baker was consequently elected unopposed - without having been an alderman first. (2)
Never did a mayor have such a year. 1871 marks beginnings of popular education in Portsmouth - prior to that there was no mass schooling in the Borough. On the 13th January 1871 the first School Board was elected and there was keen competition for a place on the Board. Baker was elected its first chairman. In April 1871 the census showed that the population of Portsmouth had risen to 113,569. In June the Royal Counties Agriculture Show was held in the People's Park (Victoria Park) There were more honours in store for the mayor. He was elected a Guardian, appointed a Magistrate and finally, in September, elected Alderman, filling one of the vacancies created when the Fords resigned. All this within the space of ten months but perhaps even better was the news that in September, Baker's wife, Louisa, gave birth to a son. To mark the occasion in October the council presented her with a silver cradle. (3)
Baker was nominated for a second term by Alderman Hellard. Cllr B.C. Miller, not one to miss a chance, stood to ask Baker if he really wanted the job for a second term - as he had heard rumours to the contrary. Both Alderman R.W. Ford and Alderman Sheppard rose to support Baker the former noting that though in principle he was adverse to second terms, the job of mayor had by now become so involved that it took the incumbent a year to learn it. Thus it made sense to re-elect a good man. The vote was unanimous. At this stage a fine legalistic point was raised. The aldermanic posts vacated by the Fords, one of which was filled by the mayor, fell due for re-election. At this moment in time the mayor was technically not a member of the council and therefore invalid as mayor. Would he have to withdraw and be re-elected all over again? Common-sense prevailed and Baker was re-elected alderman without further ado.
In 1872 the first Board School was opened in Chance Street and during the course of the year five others were inaugurated. By 1872 most working class men had gained the right to vote and in this year the secret ballot was introduced. For the Borough, in 1872, a new Local Government Act came into force and as a consequence, in September the local Board of Health, which had really been the Council, became the Urban Sanitary Authority. The new powers came not a moment too soon as smallpox was reported on Portsea Island - which eventually claimed some 500 victims.
In November 1872 at the close of his second mayoral year the customary vote of thanks was accorded to Baker. In proposing it Alderman Emanuel said Baker had been noted for his unfailing courtesy. Emanuel added there had not been a wry word said in council for if a gentleman got up rather out of condition (laughter) the mayor with his amiable good temper very soon put him to rights. (5)
Politically Baker was initially a Conservative but in 1865 changed his allegiance to the Liberals becoming at one time Chairman of their Association. But Baker's political ambitions went higher. He decided to stand for Parliament. He first stood in the General Election of July 1886 - and came bottom of the poll. Undaunted he stood again in July 1892 and was returned top of the poll.
His first job as MP was in supporting the case of the depositors and shareholders of the failed Portsea Building Society. The Society was wound in the County Court on the 21st January 1892 but it still had assets by way of real estate, which could be realised. However, the Act under which the Society had been put into liquidation tended to favour the shareholders and gave no protection to the claims of the depositors in the matter of the liquidation of the assets. To obtain equitable distribution it was thought ad hoc legislation may be needed and Baker championed this cause. Eventually after some years both shareholders and depositors received 10/- in the Pound. (Robert Barnes 1893, Tom Scott Foster 1892 & James Moody 1885 were also involved).
Despite his good efforts the press were not inhibited from censuring him where they thought it merited. On the 15th August 1853 the Portsmouth Times printed of him that he was both a political jester and political chameleon. An incident in the Commons gave some credence to this when it was reported that on one occasion Baker had rushed into the House at the last moment intending to vote and had inadvertently gone into the Unionist lobby. (6)
Noted for his expansive oratory and following a particularly long winded speech wherein he forecast for himself increased majorities, the Portsmouth Times of the 4th November 1893 commented:-
"The senior member for Portsmouth must not be taken too seriously. As a politician Alderman Baker has for many years developed a penchant for prophesy. He has not however always been right! "
Nevertheless, for his services he was knighted in the 1895 New Year's Honours List an honour which even the pro Tory Evening News (1st January 1895) agreed was appropriate. The paper said, "Sir John Baker has richly deserved this distinction. His Parliamentary duties have been carried out in a manner worthy of all praise, which his services to the Municipality, and in the cause of education in the borough, thoroughly entitle him to the gratitude of those for whom he has laboured." He was also accorded the congratulations of the borough council.
In the bad tempered July 1895 election campaign, with running mate W.O. Clough, he was associated with a Temperance Campaign known as the 'Local Veto' policy. But, even in Portsmouth, this did not hold him back and he was returned in with the largest single number of votes cast for any candidate in this election. However, he lost his seat in khaki election of October 1900 only to regain it in January 1906.
Throughout this time he retained his aldermanship on the council and at the time of his death was the senior alderman. In business he opened shops in Brighton, Winchester and Southampton and was credited with interests in four local pubs. He was also a director of numerous companies including the Gas Coy, the Clarence Pier Coy et al. In private life he married Miss Louisa Crispen, daughter of Paymaster in Chief, R. Crispen RN by whom he had one daughter and three sons - two of whom became prospective Liberal candidates. He was a man who had always enjoyed good health but on returning from Brighton to Portsmouth, in November 1909, to attend the mayor making, he died suddenly of a heart attack on the morning before the event.
He is commemorated by having a J.D. Wetherspoons' public house in Kingston Road, North End named after him.
Norman Gordon
Obituaries:- Hants Post 12th November 1909. Portsmouth Times, 13th November 1909.
1. City of Portsmouth. Records of the Corporation 1835-1927. W.G. Gates. 1928.
2. Portsmouth Times November 12th 1870 page six col 'f'
3. Portsmouth Times 14th October 1871.
4. Portsmouth Times 11th November 1871.
5. Portsmouth Times 13th November 1872.
6. Portsmouth Papers No 43. 'The 1895 Election.'