Acton Smee Ayrton

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Acton Smee Ayrton
Acton Smee Ayrton, Vanity Fair, 1869-10-23.jpg
Caricature by Ape published in Vanity Fair in 1869.
First Commissioner of Works
In office
26 October 1869 – 11 August 1873
MonarchQueen Victoria
Prime MinisterWilliam Ewart Gladstone
Preceded byAusten Henry Layard
Succeeded byWilliam Patrick Adam
Personal details
Born5 August 1816 (1816-08-05)
Died30 November 1886 (1886-12-01) (aged 70)
Political partyLiberal
Funerary monument, Brompton Cemetery, London.

Acton Smee Ayrton (5 August 1816 – 30 November 1886) was a British barrister and Liberal Party politician. Considered a radical and champion of the working classes, he served as First Commissioner of Works under William Ewart Gladstone between 1869 and 1873. He is best remembered for the "Ayrton controversy" over scientific facilities at Kew Gardens.


Ayrton was the uncle of the physicist and electrical engineer William Edward Ayrton.

Political and legal career[edit]

Ayrton practised as a solicitor in Bombay, British India, and was called to the Bar, Middle Temple, in 1853.[1] In 1857 he was elected Member of Parliament for Tower Hamlets, a seat he held until 1874.[2] He held office in William Ewart Gladstone's first administration as Financial Secretary to the Treasury from 1868 to 1869 and as First Commissioner of Works from 1869 to 1873 and was sworn of the Privy Council in 1869.[3]

Ayrton is best remembered for the so-called "Ayrton controversy". In an attempt, in the early 1870s, to reduce Government spending, Ayrton (as First Commissioner of Works) encouraged a proposal that the costly scientific functions of Kew Gardens should be transferred and that the gardens should be retained purely as a public park. This prompted a confrontation with Joseph Dalton Hooker (Director at Kew), who enlisted the support of Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell, amongst other scientific luminaries. After debates in both Houses of Parliament, Ayrton was transferred to the post of Judge Advocate General and the proposal failed.[4]

Ayrton remained as Judge Advocate General until the Gladstone government fell in February 1874. He lost his seat in parliament in the general election of that year and never returned to the House of Commons.

In the Palace of Westminster the lantern at the top of the Elizabeth Tower (commonly called Big Ben) is called the Ayrton Light, lit when either House of Parliament is sitting after dark. It was installed in 1885 at the request of Queen Victoria so that she could see from Buckingham Palace when the members were sitting and named after Ayrton.[5][6]

Personal life[edit]

For the last few years of his life he was a daily frequenter of the Reform Club. He died at the Mount Dore Hotel, Bournemouth, on 30 November 1886.[7]

He is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.[8]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ The Handbook of the Court; the Peerage; and the House of Commons. 1862. p. 302. Retrieved 8 August 2010.
  2. ^ "House of Commons: Tipperary South to Tyrone West". Archived from the original on 15 July 2018. Retrieved 2 August 2017.
  3. ^ "No. 23554". The London Gazette. 12 November 1869. p. 6033.
  4. ^ "A Botanical career". Hooker's Biography. Archived from the original on 3 December 2008. Retrieved 28 April 2009.
  5. ^ Jones, Christopher (1983). The Great Palace: The Story of Parliament. London: British Broadcasting Corporation. ISBN 978-0563201786., pp. 112–3.
  6. ^ "Elizabeth Tower virtual tour". UK Parliament. Retrieved 15 May 2010.
  7. ^ Courtney 1901.
  8. ^ Archived 23 August 2006 at the Wayback Machine
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir William Clay, Bt
Charles Salisbury Butler
Member of Parliament for Tower Hamlets
With: Charles Salisbury Butler
Succeeded by
Charles Ritchie
Joseph d'Aguilar Samuda
Political offices
Preceded by
George Sclater-Booth
Financial Secretary to the Treasury
Succeeded by
James Stansfeld
Preceded by
Austen Henry Layard
First Commissioner of Works
Succeeded by
William Patrick Adam
Preceded by
Sir Robert Phillimore, Bt
Judge Advocate General
Succeeded by
Stephen Cave