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Sir Joseph Davidson Qualtrough

Title: Sir

Epithet: MHK, SHK, JP, constitutional reformer (1885-1960)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Joseph Davidson Qualtrough ('JD' as he was affectionately known) was born in a small cottage, now demolished, on the beach 50 yards to the Derbyhaven side of Hango Hill, outside Castletown.

His father Joseph Qualtrough, along with his uncle by marriage, James Coole, started and ran the business of Coole & Qualtrough in Castletown. Coole died in 1891 and after a few years the firm was renamed J. Qualtrough & Co.

JD moved with the family when he was about four years old to Springfield, Alexandra Road, Castletown, a house his father had just built. There, he grew up with his two brothers, James Alexander (Jimmy, later to be manager of the Southern Farmers Combine) and John Percival (Percy, who retired as headmaster of Victoria Road School). The boys had a sister who died when she was only five years old. The three boys must have had a wonderful childhood, with the family timber yard just behind their home and the harbour and river as their play area. The sea was very much in their blood, but all three stayed on dry land to earn their livings. They attended Victoria Road School and in fact were the only pupils there on the morning after the big snow in 1895; they lived just 150 yards away.

JD then attended the old Grammar School in Castletown and from there won a scholarship to King William's College where he later became Head Boy. Instead of allowing him to go on to university, having passed his Higher School Certificate in Latin, Greek and maths, his father insisted on his joining the family business. JD joined the army in 1915, and served in France where he was promoted to lieutenant.

In 1919 a by-election was called in Castletown. His father was a Member of the House of Keys for Rushen and he wanted JD to stand for the Castletown seat. However, JD was in the process of being demobbed and no one knew where he was; old Joseph took out papers in his own name to stand as a candidate so that if elected, when JD returned home, he would resign his seat. 'You cannot do that', some said. 'Show me where it says one can't', he replied. At that time it would indeed have been possible. As it happened JD landed in Douglas at 3pm on the day that the nominations were due in, and he was rushed to Castletown just in time. He was duly elected and occupied the seat for the next 40 years.

On 22nd August 1923 he married his long-time sweetheart and namesake Ethel Mary Qualtrough (who was no relation). Ethel was eleven years his junior and JD at 38 was definitely an eligible bachelor. Four children were born in the next seven years, but great sadness struck the couple when Mary, aged five, died of diphtheria in 1933.

Sport was an important part of JD's early life. He played both rugby and soccer and enjoyed yachting, sea fishing, snooker at the Athol Club, and golf. After a trying day at the Keys he enjoyed nothing better than to take some clubs and do a few holes at the Castletown Links, just to get some fresh air. His support for Castletown Regattas and the Ace Class yacht races at Port St Mary in the late 1940s and '50s is still remembered. He had long connections with all sports and as MHK was pleased to support them. His tactful and diplomatic touch was appreciated both on and off the field.

JD's involvement in the family business grew less as the demands of politics increased. The business, in his absences, was run by a cousin and later by his son Ian.

At King William's College JD was a great debater and always took the less popular side which required more thought and persuasion. Being a scholar who was well-read, he could stand his ground in any company, even at Westminster where he frequently had to argue the Island's case against the UK government. As a Methodist local preacher from his teens, his opposition to drinking and gambling was never questioned. In the 1930s he was prominent in promoting legislation for shorter hours for shop workers, closure of public houses on Sundays and the abolition of horse racing on the Island; this sport was riddled with 'fixing', even down to changing the colour of the odd horse!

An open letter in the Isle of Man Examiner 'By Their Deeds' series written in the 1930s by The Chiel, encapsulates the public's view of J.D. Qualtrough, disagreeing with him on certain points but admiring him as a man and a politician. The writer criticises him for his stance on horse-racing, declaring:

"There is so much of the Victorian about you that one would think you were the last man in the Island to place at the head of our Publicity Board. It seems incongruous that a man who avowedly does not believe that our visitors can be trusted to behave themselves in a decent, law-abiding and respectable manner, and who is inclined to allow people on holiday to be oppressed by the gaunt shadow of Mrs. Grundy, should occupy such a position."

But the writer then adds:

"It only goes to show that your colleagues in the Legislature have the most implicit confidence in you; it is their tribute to your great ability."

After further praising JD as the most fluent and eloquent speaker in the House' and '... outstanding in dignity, courtesy and tact', the writer concludes with:

"Always to the front in furthering the national interest, you have borne yourself with marked intelligence and fearlessness in public life. Still on the right side of fifty, you have not yet reached the zenith of your powers; I hope and believe, you are destined to do great service in the years to come in the councils of the Manx nation."

This was somewhat prophetic as on the death of Speaker Clucas in 1937, JD was elected to that office which he held until his death.

In 1939 he proposed that conscription should be introduced, and that the Isle of Man declare war on Germany. The war years were very stressful for Tynwald members, but JD joined the Home Guard although he was, by then, well over 50.

From his first days in the Keys he strove for more and more independence for the Island, particularly over its own finances. He chaired the Committee for Constitutional Reform, visiting London many times, and was the first chairman of the Finance Committee set up as a result of the 1920 meeting with the Home Office. He was also chairman for many years of the Publicity (later Tourist) Board, the Council of Education and the Electricity Board. He held the chairmanship of the Noble's Hospital Management Committee and sat on the Health Services Board, Local Government Board, Manx Museum and many more. He was also an active Justice of the Peace.

During World War II, as if he did not already have enough to do, he set about learning his native language. There were still a few people with whom he could converse, and in fact he was often called on to preach in Manx at special services. Unfortunately his conversations with the old Manx speakers were not recorded, as recording machines were almost unknown.

J.D. Qualtrough was knighted in 1954. He had been elected MHK for Castletown on eight occasions, six of them unopposed. This, as was mentioned in Tynwald after his death, indicated the confidence and respect the people, not only of Castletown but of the whole Island, had in him.

Much of his spare time was taken up with his love for music. He spent many years as conductor of his chapel choir, as a Sunday School superintendent, member of Castletown Choral Society and chairman of the Manx Music Festival. He had a fine tenor voice, and could read music and play the piano.

Joseph D. Qualtrough was supported all his life by his wife Ethel, who was also much involved in public life. Charities such as her chapel, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Nursing Association, Manx Blind Welfare, Hospital Comforts Committee and Temperance Societies all benefited by her support. Ethel died, having been widowed for nineteen years, in 1979. Like her husband she was proud of her title, but preferred to be known by her first name by whoever she met.

Biography written by Ian Qualtrough (son).

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp. 376-8.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 11 June 1885

Date of death: 14 January 1960

Name Variant: Qualtrough, Sir Joseph Davidson


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