We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Melly, George (1830–1894), politician and merchant, was born in Tuebrook, Liverpool, on 20 August 1830, the second son of André Melly (1802–1851), a Swiss merchant who had settled in Liverpool in 1824 when he became agent to the Egyptian government in England, and his wife, Ellen Maria (1807–1894), daughter of , owner of Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. Brought up in a Unitarian family, he attended a preparatory school in Brighton, before going in 1844 to Rugby School, where Matthew Arnold was briefly his private tutor, and where his elder brother, Charles Pierre Melly [see below], was also a pupil. He drew upon his school years in his School Experiences of a Fag at a Private and Private School (1854), written as a contribution to the debate on ‘flogging’ and ‘fagging’; he defended the prefectorial system of government in public schools, which he contrasted with the bullying prevalent in private schools run by ‘ushers’.

Rather than proceeding with his Rugby friends to Cambridge University, where Unitarians were still not permitted to graduate, Melly entered business in 1848 with the City of London firm of merchants and foreign bankers Morris, Prevost, and Co. He had travelled in his youth, visiting his family in Switzerland, and in 1850 toured Europe with his brother and his cousin William Benson Rathbone (1826–1892). Later that year he travelled to Egypt with his family, establishing trading links, and taking a caravan tour to the source of the Nile in Khartoum. He published an account of his travels, and had a lifelong interest in Egyptian affairs. His father died of a fever on this trip, in January 1851.

Melly married at Toxteth Unitarian Chapel, Park Road, Toxteth, Liverpool, on 20 November 1852, Sarah Elizabeth Mesnard Bright (1832–1909), eldest daughter of Samuel Bright, a Liverpool merchant; she was the sister of Melly's Rugby contemporary, the writer Henry Arthur Bright. They settled at 90 Chatham Street, Liverpool, and had eight children, of whom seven survived to adulthood.

In 1853 Melly succeeded his father as a senior partner in Melly, Romilly, & Co., and having established a prosperous business career became involved in public life. As a Unitarian he was drawn to political liberalism and stood unsuccessfully in the Liverpool council elections for the Everton ward in 1857. He had high hopes for Liverpool as a liberal centre: ‘The largest commercial port in the world—and commerce is another word for free trade—commerce is another word for radicalism—commerce is another word for free and enlightened opinion’ (Northern Daily Times, 28 October 1857, Danson Collection, National Museums, Liverpool). Active in many areas of social reform, including juvenile crime and reformatory schools, and temperance, he became secretary of the congress of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, which convened in Liverpool in 1858, and made a conspicuous success of the occasion. In 1859 he was an originator of the 4th brigade of Lancashire artillery volunteers, with James Walter, who had the idea of a ‘merchants' corps’ drawn from clerks in local businesses. The brigade was to be officered by young merchants. Melly joined as a senior captain, and became a major, remaining so until he retired in 1866.

Melly stood unsuccessfully as the Liberal candidate for the parliamentary seat of Preston at a by-election in March 1862, identifying with the causes of Italian and Polish nationalism, and with religious equality. He was defeated again when he stood for Stoke-on-Trent at the general election in 1865, but having supported parliamentary reform, as a member of the Reform Union, he was elected for that constituency at a by-election in February 1868, and was returned unopposed at the general election later that year. By then his chief political interest was the creation of a system of national education; he had a longstanding concern that large numbers of neglected children were growing up without any schooling, and in a parliamentary speech in 1869 cited statistics relating to Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham to illustrate the enormous shortage of school places under the existing, voluntary system (Hansard 3, 194, 12 March 1869, 1189–1253). He belonged to the National Education League and promoted its ideas for a national, rate-supported, unsectarian, free, and compulsory system of elementary education. He was also, in 1869, an early supporter of women's suffrage.

Re-elected at the top of the poll for Stoke in the general election of 1874, Melly retired from parliament at the end of that year, when he became sole partner in the mercantile business, renamed Melly & Co., following the retirements on health grounds of his cousin Charles Forget and of his brother, Charles. He was a member of the board of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board/Company (1866–74), a director of Union Marine Insurance, chairman of the Bank of Liverpool, and chairman of the Liverpool, London and Globe Insurance Company.

Described by Liverpool's Conservative Porcupine newspaper as the ‘evil genius of Liverpool liberalism’ (Vol. 10 Hq 050 POR, Lpool RO), Melly counted among his political achievements his work towards the introduction of board schools, suffrage for all male householders, and an earlier closing time for public houses. In the year before his death he dictated a privately printed volume of memoirs, which revealed his outdoor interests, including an enthusiasm for shooting. It was said that ‘his mercurial temperament was easily depressed, but his strong intelligence, indomitance, courage and broad human sympathies never failed to reinspire him with ardour in any good cause whatever difficulties might appear to stand in his way’ (Liverpool Post, 2 Oct 1894). He died at his home, 90 Chatham Street, Abercromby Square, Liverpool, on 27 September 1894, and was interred in the family vault at the Ancient Chapel, Toxteth.

Of Melly's seven surviving children, Florence Elizabeth Melly (1856–1928), educationist, the second of three daughters, was born at 90 Chatham Street, Liverpool, on 13 October 1856. She continued her father's interest in popular education, serving as a member of the Liverpool school board, and was active in the Women's Liberal Federation. In 1901 she gave evidence to the inter-departmental committee on the employment of schoolchildren, and argued against permitting girls to be employed in any form of street trading. When school boards were replaced by education committees, she was co-opted a member of the Liverpool education committee. She was conscientious in her public duties, bicycling in all weathers to visit every elementary school in Liverpool, and took a particular interest in the education of children with disabilities. The University of Liverpool awarded her an honorary MA in 1922 in recognition of her educational work. An open-air school which opened in 1927 at Walton, Liverpool, was named after her. Unmarried, she lived in the family home in Chatham Street, dying at her brother's shooting box, The Lodge, Rosedale Abbey, Yorkshire, on 16 September 1928. Her funeral was held at the Ullet Road Unitarian chapel, Liverpool. Her brother William Rathbone Melly (1867–1944) was the last of the family to reside at 90 Chatham Street. After his death the contents were sold, some being acquired for the collections of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

George Melly's elder brother, Charles Pierre Melly (1829–1888), philanthropist, was born at Tuebrook, Liverpool, on 25 May 1829, and was educated at the Royal Institute School, Liverpool, and at Rugby, which he entered at the same time as his brother. He maintained his family's Unitarian affiliation. On 9 October 1854 he married his cousin Louise Forget (1825–1899) at the Cathedral of St Pierre, Geneva, where they had both been christened. They made their home at his parents' house, Riversley, Mossley Hill, Liverpool, and had seven sons and a daughter.

Charles Melly became a partner in the family business, but was best known for his philanthropy. In 1852 he established a night school in Beaufort Street, Liverpool. He was involved in the Domestic Mission in north Liverpool, whose work including the running of ragged schools. He frequently visited children in the ragged schools, and annually arranged for teachers and children to be brought to Riversley by cart for an afternoon of games and prizes, and a picnic.

Having seen stone drinking-water fountains in Geneva, Melly felt that the people of Liverpool would benefit from free drinking water in public places. Since water was only piped into the homes of those who paid water rates, emigrants arriving at the port, and those working in the docks, had no access to water, and were driven to public houses. He paid for the installation of fountains, providing a continuous flow of water, day and night; the first, made of polished pink granite, was installed at Prince's Dock in 1854. By 1858, when he described his initiative at the Liverpool meeting of the Social Science Association, forty-three had been put in place in Liverpool; he lobbied other towns and cities to follow the example, and funded drinking fountains in Norwich, Plymouth, and Douglas, Isle of Man. His work earned him the nickname Fountain Melly.

Melly next turned to providing free public facilities for physical exercise, creating outdoor gymnasia at Smithfield Road in 1858, and later at Wavertree, Toxteth, and Kirkdale. Although not himself a strong sportsman he saw the value of sport, and in 1862 collaborated with John Hulley in founding the Liverpool Athletic Club, which staged Olympic festivals between 1862 and 1867. Melly saw the club as ‘only the beginning of the movement which will soon become general, not in Liverpool or Manchester only, but throughout the kingdom’ (Physick, 13). Also with Hulley he oversaw fund-raising and the construction of a new gymnasium on Myrtle Street, Liverpool. Reputedly the best in Europe when it opened in November 1865, the gymnasium was the venue for the inaugural meeting of the National Olympian Association.

In 1866 Melly was elected, unopposed, as councillor for the Abercromby ward, and chaired the parks committee during the period when Sefton Park was laid out, commissioning the French designer M. André to design features such as the grottoes. The park was opened by Prince Arthur in 1872. Melly stood down from the council in 1873.

Described as a timid child, Charles Melly was recorded as having shunned public offices. From the mid-1870s, when he retired from the family business, he suffered mental health problems, and in October 1883 became an inmate of Coton Hill asylum, Stafford. While visiting Riversley accompanied by an attendant, he obtained a pistol and committed suicide there on 10 November 1888. He was interred in the family vault at the Ancient Chapel, Toxteth. A legacy of the Olympic festivals which he had helped to promote was their revival as the ‘Grecian Games’ held in Liverpool in 1892 and 1894, anticipating the first modern Olympic games in 1896. Several of the drinking fountains which he sponsored survive.

Elizabeth J. Stewart

Sources  

G. Melly, Recollections of sixty years (1893) · B. G. Orchard, Liverpool's legion of honour (1893), 500 · The Times (18 Sept 1928) · P. Hollis, Ladies elect: women in English local government, 1865–1914 (1987) · M. C. Finn, After Chartism: class and nation in English radical politics (1993) · J. Goodman and S. A. Harrop, eds., Women, educational policy-making and administration in England (2000) · E. Crawford, The women's suffrage movement (2001) · L. Goldman, Science, reform, and politics in Victorian Britain: the Social Science Association, 1857–1886 (2002) · J. Belchem, Merseypride: essays in Liverpool exceptionalism (2006) · R. Physick, Played in Liverpool: charting the heritage of a city at play (2007) · M. Polley, The British Olympics: Britain's Olympic heritage, 1612–2012 (2011) · E. Melly, ‘Memoirs of Charles P. Melly’, 1889, Lpool RO, 920 MEL/40 · C. P. Melly, ‘Recollections of the late A. Melly’, 1872, Lpool RO, 920 MEL · W. H. Rawdon-Smith, The George Mellys, 1962, Lpool RO, 920 MEL/41 · Boase, Mod. Eng. biog. · WWW

Archives  

Lpool RO, corresp. |  U. Lpool, Rathbone papers, letters to William Rathbone VI from George Melly · U. Lpool, newscuttings on the death of George Melly, RP IX.4.203–209


Likenesses  

A. de Salome, portrait, pastel, 1872, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool · portrait, Liverpool Libraries and Archives, Liverpool · portraits (Charles Pierre Melly), repro. in Melly, ‘Memoirs’ (1889)

Wealth at death  

£41,290 0s. 6d.: probate, 7 Nov 1894, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £22,397 6s. 3d.—Charles Pierre Melly: probate, 17 Dec 1888, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £45,853 14s. 4d.—Florence Elizabeth Melly: probate, 20 Nov 1928, CGPLA Eng. & Wales