by Frank Sharman

Sir Rupert Kettle came to be known as the “Prince of Arbitrators”.  A barrister and county court judge, he spent much of his own time in establishing arbitration as a means of settling industrial disputes, and met with considerable success at it.  It was for these efforts that he was knighted.  He, and Henry Hartley Fowler, Lord Wolverhampton, were the two Wolverhampton lawyers who achieved the greatest fame on the national scene. 

His early years

Kettle was born in 1817, the last of ten children.  His parents ran a glass staining business in Birmingham. These were turbulent times in Birmingham with demonstrations and riots related to Chartism and the Reform Act.  Rupert’s daughter, Mary, said “I can remember Father speaking of town riots, and of what might happen if soldiers refused to obey orders – and how dreadful it was if they were ordered to fire.  So it seems probable that he was a witness to these disorders - and that his judgement was gradually formed, so that in later life he could realise the need of work for a truer understanding between the rulers and the masses, between masters and men”.  It is clear that something, sometime, put him to the Liberal left of the political spectrum.

Rupert went to school in Wolverhampton at the Grammar School, which would have distanced him somewhat from the events in Birmingham.  But he left the school, at the age of fourteen, in 1831, and joined the family firm back in that politically turbulent city.

The old Grammar School buildings in John Street, which Kettle attended.  

He returned to Wolverhampton when he was articled to Richard Fryer, a solicitor there.  He passed the solicitors’ exams on 15th June 1839 and was admitted a Solicitor.  He started to practise in Wolverhampton and did so until 2nd June 1841.  During this time he is said to have attended the Birmingham School of Art but in June 1842 Kettle started to study for the bar and was called on the 6th June 1845.  He was a member of Middle Temple. 

Kettle practised on the Oxford Circuit and must have met with success.  On the 5th October 1851 he proposed to Mary Cooke and was accepted.  They married on the 18th December 1851 and went to live at 9 Hill Street, Knightsbridge.  (It is not clear how long this London house was maintained.  It seems that when children came along the couple lived at Merridale House.  There is a later reference to the Reform Club being his usual lodgings in London).  

Merridale House, now known as 124 Compton Road.  The house belonged to Mary Cooke when she married Rupert Kettle.

It was in and from here that most of Kettle's work was carried out.  

He continued as a barrister until 1859.  The nature of his practice is not known but his later career and interests suggest that in addition to the usual criminal practice he had some connection with industrial and commercial matters, including mining matters.

As a County Court Judge

In 1859, during the Chancellorship of Lord Campbell, Kettle was appointed as County Court judge on Circuit 23, which included Dudley, Droitwich, Kidderminster, Worcester, Upton-on-Severn, Malvern and Ledbury, Bromyard, Tenbury; this was usually known as the Worcester Circuit.  The judge was supposed to hold a court at each place on his circuit on at least one day in each month – whether there was any business to transact or not.  But some of the courts on his circuit might have lasted several days.  Kettle would have spent much time travelling – mostly by train – and having to endure overnight stays in Judge’s Lodgings. 

The position of County Court judge was well enough paid but would not have produced the rewards which a successful career as a QC might have done.  It seems likely that Kettle had opted for security; and perhaps he was influenced by his access to his wife’s property, which would have reduced the urgency of high earnings;  or the fact that the life of a county court judge could be less intellectually stressful and less time consuming than that of a barrister. 

There seems to have been at least one perquisite of being a county court judge:  you got a free servant.  Amongst the “faithful servants” at Merridale House, Mary Cooke lists “Henry Hayden, the official Noter of the County Court and also Father’s personal servant;  something of a character;  very efficient in every way;  punctual;  methodical;  a good valet;  understood pantry work;  silver cleaning; and waiting at table.  He guarded mother’s domestic interests and was most reliable at packing up and arranging the move to Towyn; a good trainer of a young servant”. 

As to his judgeship, Mary Cooke wrote: 

No man could be better fitted for it.  Technical knowledge, wide sympathy and sound clear judgement and insight were his.  He was sometimes called the ‘poor man’s judge’.  Questions regarding mining he understood so thoroughly that, on one occasion, a witness exclaimed, puzzled by the judge’s knowledge “Blest if thee hasn’t been a collier!’.  Helping as he always did, the poorer litigants, yet he saw through falseness and inaccurate statements, and he always maintained the principle of a ‘fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work’.  (Some people, indeed, assert that this saying originated from him).  He also believed equally in a ‘full day’s work for a full day’s wage’.  He rarely gave in full his reasons for his decisions.

There is no information on where Kettle got his particular knowledge of mining.  And his not giving full reasons for his decisions seems unusually Delphic, even for a county court judge.  As to his being the originator of the phrase “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”, no one else seems to have been credited with it and it is quite reasonable that, whether or not Kettle formulated the saying, he could well have given it currency, but in his arbitrations rather than in his county court work.

In an obituary a local newspaper said that “he readily detected the slightest appearance of chicanery” and “whilst seeking legitimate agreement protection he invariably gave to the poor.”

Other legal appointments and work

Kettle continued as a County Court judge throughout the rest of his career.  That gave him his income – he seems never to have been paid for his arbitration work - and a high status in Wolverhampton. 

The family history mentions that, before 1866, he had been appointed as a J.P. for the counties of Stafford, Worcester and Merioneth.   Stafford was the county bench for Wolverhampton, Worcester for the area of his county court, and Merioneth was the county for his second, seaside, home in Towyn. 

In 1866 he was also appointed a Deputy-Lieutenant of Staffordshire – and he wore his uniform when he attended the unveiling, by Queen Victoria, of the statute of Prince Albert in Wolverhampton.  This would have been an important event for Kettle, showing the world the high status he had achieved.

Further recognition was to follow.   In 1869, on  Mr Twemlow’s being appointed Chairman of Quarter Sessions, Kettle became Assistant Chairman.

Kettle’s sympathies for the underdog, in criminal as well as civil matters, can be seen in the titles of two of the pamphlets which, according to the family history, he produced.  One is “Notes on Rating for the Poor” and another “Suggestions for Diminishing the Number of Imprisonments” (the latter dated 1875).  His daughter Mary also wrote: 

I do not know whether he was one of the very first to initiate the "Discharged Prisoners" Aid Society at Stafford - but it is certain that its formation and continuance was largely due to him and to Lord Lichfield; there were often meetings in connection with "A poor chap wants some one to speak to, when he comes out of goal': he would say - these beginnings led on the the wonderful and wide-spread work of the Police Court missionaries of the present time.

Quarter Sessions and Assizes brought to his home at Merridale something of the wining and dining camaraderie of the circuit.   Kettle’s daughter, Mary, records that during these times “on Sunday some of Father’s old barrister friends would come to Merridale.  Chief among these friends was John Powell, afterwards Recorder of Wolverhampton.  Patrick Mahon, an Irishman, full of good stories and fun.  Robert Sawyer – very keen Temperance Reformer, afterwards a Revising Barrister.  Macnamara, another Irishman.  The anecdotes and geniality of these men charmed them all.  “Bob” Sawyer promoted cheap dining and refreshment rooms for railway men, such as Lockhart’s and Lyon’s are now.”

As a county court judge, and maybe also in connection with his arbitration work, Kettle was involved in various governmental committees.  There are references in the family history to his being engaged in such work in London, and the history of the Wolverhampton Chamber of Trade mentions a delegation of local businessmen and solicitors going to see him in London when he was on a committee dealing with the county court rules.  In the family history there is an entry for 1874 quoting a letter from Kettle, addressed from the County Court Department, Whitehall, in which he says:  “The work at this office is long and tedious.  Today we have been hampered by the printers”.  There are also brief mentions in the family history of his involvement with Mines Drainage and Mines Drainage Appeals.  

In 1882 Kettle was elected a Bencher of Middle Temple. 


In all of the matters covered thus far Kettle’s career was probably not very different from that of many another Victorian county court judge.  What sets him apart, and gives him a claim to some national fame, was his work in industrial arbitration.  The general context of this work can be gathered from this extract from Pauline Gregg’s Social and Economic History of Britain 1760 – 1972 (Harrap, 7th edition, 1973)

Neither the hours of adult men nor the wages of any persons were regulated … by any Factory Act. …. In the second half of the nineteenth century there developed a method of bargaining between masters and men for regulating hours of work and wages by committees of conciliation and arbitration which became known variously as joint boards, wages boards, or trade boards.


Among the earliest were the Nottingham Hosiery Board and a Building Trades Joint Committee, both established in the sixties. There was arbitration machinery at different times in the pottery, silk, and printing trades. In the iron and steel trade there was a continuous history of arbitration and concilia­tion from the time of the formation of the North of England Iron and Steel Board of Conciliation and Arbitration in 1869 and the Midland Iron and Steel Wages Board in 1876. These Iron and Steel Boards developed a system of regulating wages by a sliding scale based on selling prices. Soon the whole iron and steel industry was covered by conciliation machinery and regulated by sliding scales. A similar system spread through the coal industry. The cotton workers, engineers, and boot and shoe operatives developed their own negotiating machinery. 


By the end of the nineteenth century there were similar District Boards acting for a number of small and generally unorganized trades within a given locality. These District Boards of Conciliation consisted normally of representatives of the local Chamber of Commerce (employers) and of the local trades council (workmen), and worked with considerable success. In this way a substantial part of British industry was subject to collective agreements made in a formal way between highly organized trade associations. It was the culmination of the policy of the New Model trade unions.

It is this system that Rupert Kettle takes much of the credit for establishing.  Arbitration – referring a dispute to a third party, not necessarily, or normally, a judge – was a well established process and some forms of it had been used in industrial relations throughout the century. The early part of the century had seen Parliament and Government generally favouring laissez faire – letting the economic system find its own way without government intervention, including a defence of the notion of freedom of contract – not interfering with the contract which employee and employer freely negotiated between themselves.  And so Parliament passed the Combination Acts which, in effect, made trade unions legal but made illegal everything a trade union might wish to do.  But even Parliament had to recognise that the reality of the matter was that the employer was powerful an the employee powerless.  Therefore from time to time they provided for statutory systems of arbitration in an attempt the redress the balance.  This legislation made provision for arbitration by magistrates.  But magistrates were seen by workers as operating in a criminal court, as being mainly employers or of their class and as being against the workers – a view for which evidence was readily available in the magistrates operation of the Combination Acts.  (In Wolverhampton the efforts of Edward Perry would amply justify this view).  In any even they could arbitrate on almost anything except the wages to be paid in future – disputes about which were the major cause of industrial unrest.  The legislation was a dead letter – most people did not even know it existed.  This system, as Lord Amulree somewhat tastelessly pointed out, was like cutting off a man’s legs and then giving him a bicycle as compensation. [Lord Amulree, Industrial Arbitration in Great Britain, O.U.P., 1929].

Industrial relations therefore continued to rely on the old, confrontational methods, of a demand for changed wages from one side or the other, a flat refusal to accept and then destructive strikes and lock outs.  Neither side found this satisfactory.   What Government and Parliament could not provide, the two sides of industry had to provide for themselves.  Amulree records that a Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867 collected evidence about the operation of these arrangements.   They recorded one such system, set up by A. J. Mundella, in the hosiery trade in Nottingham in 1860.   Mundella was himself a hosiery manufacturer who made a great deal of money but he became a radical MP in 1868 and was a minister in several government posts, serving in Parliament until almost the end of the century.  The organisation he had set up was called The Nottingham Board of Conciliation in the Glove and Hosiery Trade and under its aegis there had been no strikes or lock outs in at all.  The Royal Commission also took evidence about a scheme in the Potteries and then, as Amulree has it:

The third instance of conciliation and arbitration which appears to have impressed the Commission was that which existed in the building trades in Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Coventry, the Potteries, Malvern, and Worcester, in regard to which Sir Rupert Kettle, a County Court Judge, gave evidence. These schemes provided for Joint Boards, over some of which Sir Rupert Kettle presided himself, and had for their aims not merely the settlement of disputes, but also the drawing up of working rules and conditions which were promulgated annually, enabling employers to settle the terms of their contracts for the ensuing season. Provision was made for posting these rules in the various workshops, and delivering copies to workmen employed, so that they became the basis of the contract of service between employer and workman. The Commission which examined Sir Rupert was bothered - as were most people who, at that time, approached the subject of arbitration - with the question of enforcement. It had to be admitted that in the end, either employer or worker could vary the terms of the contract at will, or, at least, after giving the necessary notice of termination of employment and re-engagement;  but Sir Rupert was at pains to bring home to the Commission that in practice the rules were well observed as the result of no other than a moral sanction and the force of trade or public opinion. 

To this it might be added that people tend to stick by agreements they have reached after negotiation on terms of equality and that will also stick to agreements which they feel were fair.  It is clear that Kettle was trusted by both sides of industry and somehow managed to bring the two sides together and get an agreement which satisfied them both.  This was particularly remarkable as it was done at a time when how to determine a fare wage was much debated but there were no generally accepted principles to apply. 

So Kettle did not invent the idea of arbitration in industrial relations but he does seem to have been one of the earliest to promote the version of the system which proved successful throughout the rest of the century.  And he seems to have developed the machinery under which the system operated.   The success of all aspects of his efforts in individual cases helped to establish and spread the system. 

The first mention of his connection with industrial arbitration in the family history comes in 1865 when his daughter, Mary, writes:

It was in this year that Father first was asked to arbitrate in a trade dispute.

A strike in the building trade at Wolverhampton had lasted for nearly a year; then the Mayor called a meeting, and it was decided to seek arbitration from Rupert Kettle, as from one who could be trusted to give a wise and steady judgement.


A code of rules which he drew up was unanimously accepted by masters and men, and not only so, but the Executive of the Bricklayers Unions was willing to accept similar means for settling their disputes, and the Carpenters were of a like opinion. Father was appointed as arbitrator, and was able to satisfy them so that they accepted his decisions.

A local newspaper obituary said:

1864.   This year there had been a strike in the building trade at Wolverhampton lasting 17 weeks. Notwithstanding the disastrous losses on both sides another disagreement arose upon which another strike was impending.  The Mayor called a public meeting to endeavour to avert the threatened disturbance of trade. At this meeting masters and workmen requested that Mr. Rupert Kettle should settle their differences. This ultimately established a legally organised system of arbitration. This Board of Arbitration worked so satisfactorily in Wolverhampton that Rupert Kettle was prevailed upon to introduce the system to other towns. It rapidly extended so as to include a large proportion of the building trade in the U.K.

If this was, indeed, the first time Kettle was involved in arbitration, (whether in 1864 or 1865) he was clearly associated with the system near its beginning but not right at the start.  But he seems to have become an advocate of the system.  In 1866 he published a pamphlet on the working of the Wolverhampton Trades Union, of which he was President.  It was called “Strikes and Arbitration”.

 G. T. Lawley, in his Bibliography of Wolverhampton (1890)says:  "

The principle of arbitration as en effective means of settling trade disputes found in Sir Rupert Kettle its ablest advocate and exponent.  He it was who triumphantly proved its practicability, in spite of the sinister prophecies and thinly veiled sneers as to its being better suited to Utopia or New Atlantis than for nineteenth century England.  On many important occasions, when he held the office of arbitrator, his judicial impartiality won the confidence of all parties concerned and men and masters were thus taught that the ultima ratio regni was as disastrous to trade disputes as in matters of state policy.  For his splendid services in the cause of pace and common sense, Mr. Kettle was knighted, an honourable acknowledgement that peace hath her heroes as well as war.  He wrote:

1.  A paper on coal mining, read at a conference of mine owners, mine agents and members of the Dudley and Midland Geological Society, 1864.

2.   Strikes and Arbitrations, with the procedure and forms successfully adopted in the building trade at Wolverhampton.  Written at the request of the Working Men's Club, 1866.  44pp.

3.   Masters and Men.  A lecture delivered in the Theatre of the Royal School of Mines, London, 8th July 1871, and publissed by permission of the author, by the General Committee on Labour and Capital of the Social Science Association. 1871. pp.38.

Mary Kettle says that her Father never accepted any payment for this arbitration work –  not even his travelling expenses.  These expenses, and those of the overnight accommodation which would often have been needed, must have been high.  But had the railways not spread across the country, it would not have been possible at all.  Occasionally Kettle was thanked for his efforts by some sort of presentation.  Mary Kettle records a presentation at the Middlesborough Iron and Steel Institute of a dispatch box, a beautiful leather case for papers – and that there was a leader in the Times referring  to this presentation.  A more general recognition was made at his fiftieth birthday in 1867 when, at a public meeting at the Athaeneum, Wolverhampton a silver ink stand was presented to him. 

The list of Kettle’s arbitrations is impressive.  In some cases he would have to persuade the two sides to agree to a system of arbitration at all.  Then he would have to draw up the agreement of the terms of arbitration.  Then he might have to arbitrate when called upon to do so. 

The family history mentions, in general terms, the Ironworkers; the Miners; the Lace Industry; Handmade Paper workers; Ruler-makers and Spinners; and more specifically of Pottery workers.  Places to which he travelled for the purpose included Darlington many times, Middlesborough,  Cleveland, Nottingham, Rotherhithe, and Coventry.

He sometimes had to keep going under difficulties.  He suffered from gout.  It was particularly bad in 1868 when, in January, he held an arbitration in the dining room at Merridale as he was not well enough to go away from the house.  And more than once he had to be carried on a chair to a meeting at the Swan Hotel. 

1873 is recorded in some detail and gives an idea of how busy he was.

  Arbitration work kept Father busy all through this year.

  24th February:   Father goes to Manchester for an arbitration.

23rd March:  Rupert to an arbitration at Chester.

29th March:   he went to Saltburn to settle a dispute in the Iron trade;  he came back home after a few days, wrote his Award (taken down in shorthand by Charles Wheeler) and the strike was averted, by the full acceptance of his decision.

30th March:   to an arbitration at Hanley Potteries.

In June he was at Darlington on the same important work, travelling up north on the same day as the grammar school award giving [at which he gave out the prizes, including one to one of his own sons].  His award there was spoken of as being “impartial, clear as crystal”.

8th June:   Father to Nottingham, to a strike difficulty and thence to London.

7th July:   Arbitration meeting at Aberystwyth.

 In the autumn he was asked to arbitrate at Newcastle on Tyne Collieries – also went to Norwich, staying with Mr. Colman of mustard fame; and from there he went to York and Durham, writing after his return home, his Award for the collieries on October 11th. 

November:  and arbitration at Hanley – potteries trade

3rd November:   Again arbitration work at Nottingham, returning home next day.

13th November:   again Nottingham

1st December:   Mines Drainage meeting, sitting to move appeals for two days.

  3rd December:  to Nottingham again.

Note how he had to provide his own offices – Merridale House – and his own secretary; and how he had to fit this in with all his other activities, judicial duties in the County Court and  public duties such as attending the Grammar School prize giving.  And he would have fitted in several weeks of summer holidays. 

His work started in 1864 or 1865 and he seems to have kept it up for ten years.  That is the period given by his daughter, who also notes that  “It was not until 1875 that he resigned the Presidentship of the Building Trades Arbitration Board in Wolverhampton.”   This may have been one of the steps in shedding the load.  But he maintained an interest in the general issues, for in October 1877 he read a paper on Trade Unions at the Church Congress. He retired as a county court judge in 1892 at the age of 71 and only two years before his death.

Kettle achieved his fame through these efforts, if not his fortune. The Dictionary of National Biography records him as the “Prince of Arbitrators” and Vanity Fair produced a Spy cartoon of him under the same title.  Official recognition took him a little while.  In 1874, in a letter to his wife, Kettle said:  “Last night I went down to the House of Commons and had a long and very satisfactory talk with members.  Everybody seems to think very highly of my arbitration work and all say I ought to be liberally rewarded for it.”.  In the end he was rewarded, not financially, but when Gladstone had returned to power he wrote to Kettle, on the 25th August 1879, offering him a knighthood “in recognition of the services you have performed by promoting the establishment of a system of arbitration between employers and employed”.  Kettle accepted.  After the ceremony at Windsor he sent a telegram to Merridale House saying “Ceremony over.  Got through it all right”.  But his daughter Constance later recorded: “Poor Father found his knees rather stiff and they did not even give him a stool to kneel upon!”. 

It may be at this time Kettle acquired a coat of arms (shown on the title of this page) showing a beehive surrounded by a laurel wreath.  He adopted the motto "Qui Tel", a reference to the origin of his name.  It is in French and can be translated as "Who is such a man as this?".  

Political and Civic Life

Kettle was a Liberal, apparently from an early age, as his daughter says that he supported the Reform Bill and remembers his saying that he had supported Cobden and the Free Trade movement. He did not believe in capital punishment and, when a barrister, refused to prosecute in murder cases.  His work on trade unions in his mature years confirms that these tendencies to the left stayed with him into maturity.   

Sir Charles Villiers.

He did not make much impact on national politics.  The family history records that he once stood for Windsor (presumably in the days when he was a barrister) but was defeated.  

Normally he contented himself with supporting the Wolverhampton MP, Sir Charles Pelham Villiers.  “He was secretary to Mr. Villiers’ first Committee when he first contested Wolverhampton.  They were life long friends, and corresponded with one another to the last.”   

But even that relationship must have been tested when the American Civil War broke out.  According to his son, William, “Villiers followed Gladstone who backed the Southerners, i.e. the slave-owning part.  Father took the other view and for a short time was a candidate to oppose Mr. Villiers at Wolverhampton. 

Disestablishment of the Church was a burning question then, and father apparently “trimmed” a bit on this question – subsequently Gladstone changed and backed the Northern States and Father’s candidature was withdrawn.”   

On the local scene his political career was equally brief.  Though he as a good church man, he stood at the first School Board elections in November 1870, on the side of those who favoured secular education.  He thought that parents should decide what their children should be taught on religious matters.  He seems to have been, himself, somewhat perturbed by the advances in modern science, especially the theory of natural selection which could be, and was, seen as a contradiction of Christian doctrine.  For his own part he managed to reconcile these apparently opposed positions but it seems to have lead him to believe that in these personal and contended areas the state should not impose an answer.

For his own family, although one son went to Rugby, the three elder sons were sent to the Wolverhampton Grammar School, where he himself had been.  He said that “if they sat next to other boys in class, that they would understand each other better when one, as a carpenter, and plumber, came to work for the other”.  This may be oddly expressed but the intention is clear enough.  Kettle himself “always talked to those he met in railway carriages – he said he learnt so much from them”.  And “he encouraged and helped illiterate and clever men to express their views and opinions on a platform, if they so wished.  Especially I remember a locksmith, Whittell by name, whose wife was a charwoman”. 

The new Grammar School buildings, seen in about 1871.

Kettle became a governor of the Grammar School and when it moved from John Street in the Town Centre to a site just opposite Merridale House, he took a keen interest, especially in the design of  the buildings.  Having designed his own house at Towyn, Kettle clearly thought he knew something about architecture.  And perhaps he did.  The present Headmaster, Dr. Bernard Trafford, in his history of the school,  says that “Fortunately Sir Rupert Kettle, Chairman of Governors, added buttresses and stone mullions and raised the height of the tower from the original design which was far more utilitarian.”  One might add that the building is now listed:  the brick box of the original design might not have been.  Kettle laid the foundation stone on 10th April 1874.

Kettle’s inclination was to take part in the civic life of the town and his status as a judge and county magistrate gave him an easy entry.  His name does not appear much in Jones’s “Municipal Life of Wolverhampton” nor in his “Literary Institutions of Wolverhampton”.  But the Wolverhampton Journal records that Kettle was one of those who promoted the new Theatre Royal, which opened in 1840.  And when the new Free Library was opened, on the 3rd September 1869, at the meeting which followed at the Agricultural Hall, he was one of those giving a speech, along with the Rector, and Henry Hartley Fowler and “some working men”. 

In the same year the Wolverhampton Industrial Exhibition was held.  His daughter records: 

Father had taken immense trouble to arouse interest and enthusiasm in the district and he was successful to a marked degree.  Mr. George Wallis, curator of the South Kensington Museum, at Father’s request, gave help and advice in the Art section;  and lent from South Kensington a collection of pictures and works of art.  A Roman priest, named Irenor, was an authority of some kinds of art-metalwork, and was very kind and useful.

Wallis was an old friend from school days who retained a close interest in Wolverhampton, especially its art school.  It probably did not need much prompting from Kettle to get him to participate.  It is interesting that, before the Great Exhibition of 1851, it had been Wallis who had stomped the country drumming up interest; in Wolverhampton it was Kettle who was following Wallis’s example.  Mary Kettle continues:

It was a great event for the town.  The new Art Gallery was the outcome and result of it.  This was mainly due to Father’s initiative and practical advice.

This could best be described as an odd view of the matter (and throws a little doubt on Mary’s reliability on matters outside the immediate family life).  No other source suggests that the Art Gallery was the result of the Exhibition or that Kettle initiated it.  But he was one of those who made a speech at the opening of the Art Gallery and that, and his lifelong interest in art, suggest that he had been involved in the gallery’s creation in some way – probably more in the form of support when the idea was mooted and practical advice on managing the project.   It would, in fact, have been hard to keep him out of it.  

Kettle also appeared in public as a lecturer.  Sometimes these lectures were on matters related to industrial relations but his enthusiasms carried him over much wider fields.  Mary Kettle records his lecturing on such subjects as “Work and Play”, “Decorations”, “Ornament” and “Physiognomy”. 

Kettle was keen churchman and, having rejected his local parish church as having narrow evangelical views, he and his family attended St. Peter’s.   In 1872, Mary Cooke records:

There was a meeting held about the restoration of St. Peter’s Church which Father attended.  All were unanimously in favour of  taking down the old side galleries (not the Jacobean one at the west end) and of removing the organ, re-pewing the church and restoring the chancel.  Father promised to subscribe £50 but refused to have anything to do with a bazaar.  The work was put in hand and the church was finished and re-opened on August 17th, 1873.

Whether Kettle’s problem with the bazaar was a theological one or simply a feeling that it would be undignified for him to run a bazaar is not known;  but the bazaar was a great success without him and raised over a thousand pounds. 

A committed Liberal all his working life, in or about 1880 Kettle became a Unionist.  This information is baldly recorded in the family history, without explanation.  Perhaps it was the conservatism of old age.

Art and architecture

Kettle was interested in art.  He was at school with George Wallis, the great Victorian industrial art guru, and remained friends with him throughout his life.  During the time he practised as a solicitor in Wolverhampton he attended the Birmingham School of Art where, it is said, he sat next to David Cox.  He painted throughout his life and spent much time at this hobby during the long family holidays at Towyn, sometimes leaping up at 5 or 6 in the morning and painting, wearing his dressing gown.  But it was at Merridale that he had a studio built for himself in 1872.  “This room was 20 – 30 feet long and had a glass roof 200 ft [sc. 200 sq.ft?] and there he could have his easels out and be undisturbed”. 

This etching of the Star & Garter was made by George Wallis.  Inscribed on it is:  "Sketched 1838, Painted and Etched 1888;  to Sir Rupert Kettle Jany lst 1889 with all good wishes."  [from the Wolverhampton City Archives collection, call no. L4/STA/E/3]. 

He painted in both oils and water colours but did not confine himself to the landscapes.  The family history records that in 1863 he painted “The Burial of Saul”.  But probably, like most Victorian amateurs, he mostly painted landscapes.  He was certainly a great observer of landscapes.  His daughter records:  “He would stop and get out of his carriage at a special point so as to look over a gate or a gap in the hedge, to see the view or, perhaps, to make notes of a sketch.”  And his artistic flair carried over into his court work.  As an obituary records, he would frequently solve “a knotty point by exhibiting a clever freehand drawing made on the spur of the moment with his quill on a slip of paper”.

Kettle “never failed to visit all the London exhibitions and the water colour salons appealed to him most”.  And when his children visited him in London they got the whole thing too:  “He showed them everything, pictures, galleries, South Kensington Museum and its treasures and curiosities, Temple Church … the Tower, the Guildhall, and Mansion House, Opera and theatres”.  And on another visit:  “Kew, Richmond, the Houses of Parliament, the Temple, some operas and the year’s pictures.  Thus they learnt from him to know what was good in Art”.  Kettle clearly had the Victorian certainty that art could be classified as good or bad and that good taste could be taught.  He tried to teach is children to see colour and “He always encouraged May to paint – he kept her steadily at the School of Art, Wolverhampton”.

Apparently Turner and David Cox were his particular favourites though as “Ben Leader as he was called was a very special friend in the Art world” he presumably admired his work too.  His daughter comments that “Millais was in great favour then, also Leader, Watts, Peter Graham, George Moore, Poynter and others.”  It may be that she intended to indicate that Kettle admired these painters too. But “Father could never admire Holman Hunt”.  One suspects that Kettle was in the academic school and probably all the pre-Raphaelites were beyond him.

George Wallis was a life long friend and this association doubtless contributed to Kettle’s giving lectures on Decorations and Ornament. Mary Cooke quotes him as saying: “Never trim or ornament a surface without a reason – do not have a loop without a button or a button which has no possible use”.  There is a problem here.  By definition the only reason for decorating a surface is to decorate it.  What was probably meant was that decoration must be appropriate – you must have a reason for decorating that thing in that way.  This was a firm principle with Wallis.

Kettle also bought pictures.  One instance is recorded when, one winter, there was a sale of old masters at Dolgauwyn:   “He went and found only farmers there and no one wanted or valued pictures by old masters in huge frames!  He knew they were worth having.  He bought many of them.  Perhaps some slight consternation arose on their arrival at Merridale – they were big.  The Hondecote; a portrait after Lely; some Canalettos; a small one after Rubens or of his period; and others.  He paid about 14/- to £5 for each of them.”  This is probably a typical Victorian gentleman’s accumulation – mostly copies and some dodgey attributions. 

The family history asserts that the Wolverhampton Art Gallery came into existence through his initiative.  The standard story is that Philip Horsman offered a large sum to the Mayor for building an art gallery and that the corporation built it on this initiative.  Somehow the Art School also got new premises at the back of the gallery, the whole being designed to look of a piece.  What Kettle’s role in all of this was is not known and would be worthy of further investigation;  it was probably practical advice on the implementation of the project.

"Westacres", on Finchfield Hill, was built for William Cooke Kettle and, according to the stained glass window on the staircase, was completed in 1895.  This is a year after Sir Rupert's death but he may have been involved in the design of his son's house.  It is vaguely Elizabethan, like the Grammar School.

The building itself is now a pub and suburbia covers its grounds.

Kettle’s interests were not confined to painting.  He dabbled in architecture too.  He designed the family house at Towyn from start to finish and he intervened in the design of the new buildings of the Grammar School.  These would have been the first thing he saw when he came out of Merridale House and he clearly did not like the plain brick box which the architect at first proposed.  Kettle seems to have produced the idea of increasing the height of the tower and adding buttresses to the main hall, thereby making the building far more decorative.  The building is now listed – the original box might well not have been.


Sir Rupert Kettle died at Merridale House at 2.15 am on Saturday 6th October 1894.  He family was there, including one son who was a priest and a son-in-law who was also a priest.  He was buried on Tuesday, 9th October, 1894 in the plot which he had purchased at Wolverhampton Cemetery and in which his wife, who had died ten years before, was already interred.  He had chosen a block of polished porphyry for the stone and this replaced whatever memorial there had been to his wife.  The stone slab is of fine proportions and, of course, undecorated.  The inscription, which is for both Sir Rupert and his wife,  is simple – it does not even record his knighthood. 

The porphyry slab marks the grave of Sir Rupert and Lady Kettle in Merridale Cemetery.

The celtic cross next to it is that of his eldest son, William. Its style may be an allusion to the family's strong ties to Towyn.

His sons and daughters erected a memorial to their parents in St. Peter's church. Very oddly, it refers to Lady Kettle as Dame Mary Kettle.   And it is considerably more ostentatious than the grave stone Kettle had chosen for himself 

Memorial to Sir Rupert and Lady Kettle in St. Peter's Church.

Sir Rupert's will was duly noted in the Illustrated London News, which recorded that he had left £31,000 in personal property.  This sum did not include the value of any real property, such as Merridale House, the house at Towyn and any other land and buildings he may have owned.  These could have been the land in Wolverhampton he acquired on his marriage and possibly other land elsewhere:  Kettle seems to have had interests in Bristol, arising from his association with his wife's relatives, the Riddle family.  His fortune was duly noted in the diary of J. T. Danson of Liverpool, who seems to have known Kettle in connection with arbitration and trade unions.  Danson wrote:  "Sir Rupert has left more than I expected.  He began, like myself, with nothing.  In a good many years he had the highest salary of a County Court judge (£1,500?).  He married ... a Miss Cooke who brought him 'Merridale'".   It is doubtful that Kettle really started with nothing but it seems that, despite the expense his arbitration work must have caused him, he had become, and died, a wealthy man. 

Much of this information comes from Wing Commander David Annand's booklet "Kettle Family Tree", which he published in 1984.  I have not been able to contact the author or any other relative of the Kettle family.  I would be very glad to hear from any of them.

I am also very grateful to Karen Mullhouse and the Merseyside Maritime Museum for letting me have a copy of the entry in the Danson Diary.  They also have copies of two of Kettle's pamphlets.  The property connection with the Riddle Family (which is noted in various places in the "Kettle Family Tree") appears from the records of the Aldworth, Harford and Riddle Families in the Bristol Record Office.  

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