An ‘upstart from the ranks’: MP of the Month, John Thomas Norris (1808-70)

Norris’s political career illustrates a number of the striking developments being explored in our work on the Victorian Commons, including the ever-expanding number of ‘non-elite’ MPs; the role of town council elections as a stepping stone to Parliament; and the emergence of new types of party activism in even the smallest constituencies. Norris’s experience of getting elected also hints at the ongoing prejudices against many of those who had dared to ‘raise themselves up from the ranks’.

Thomas Norris MPBy the mid-1830s Norris was running a paper mill with his father at Sutton Courtenay, near Abingdon. He had also started a London print works in Aldersgate, which in 1837 secured the contract to supply the ‘county printing’ for Middlesex. The firm published a number of trade journals, such as the weekly Railway Times, which Norris helped to finance and eventually owned. In 1854 he leased another paper mill at Sandford in Oxfordshire, by which time about 80 of his London printers were attending his ‘annual treats’ to a dinner in Abingdon’s town hall.

Alongside business, Norris threw himself into local radical politics. In 1835, at the height of the crisis  over the passage of the Whigs’ municipal reform bill, he published a scathing attack on a City of London Tory councillor for opposing the ‘democratic’ changes being made to the way aldermen were appointed. A supporter of the radical parliamentary candidates for the city at the 1837 general election, and a regular target of Tory ‘objections’ in the voter registration courts, he stood as a ‘reforming’ councillor for Aldersgate ward in 1839, only to have his election overturned on petition by the Tories for alleged ‘non-residence’. Standing again, in an ‘extraordinary’ by-election, he comfortably won the seat and went on to become a key figure in London’s campaign to remove the ‘cruel and filthy’ live cattle market from Smithfield.

In Abingdon, a few miles north of his Sutton Courtenay paper mill, Norris served as one of the Thames navigation commissioners and became part of a local group of reforming tradesmen and businessmen intent on breaking the Tories’ stranglehold over the borough. Along with the local coal and wine merchant Gabriel Davis (1809-89), Norris helped organise a series of by-election challenges to the sitting Tory MP, backing the campaign to elect the Liberal army officer James Caulfield, who finally won the seat in 1852. Norris was an obvious replacement when Caulfield died, but was pushed out by the leading Whig Lord Norreys. In a ‘remarkable’ struggle he was then beaten by a ‘more moderate’ Liberal when Norreys succeeded to the Lords in 1854. Mocked on the hustings, Norris was accused by a former ally of being an ‘upstart’:

In too great haste to get to the top of the ladder, he was not content to climb step by step, but wished to vault at once to the top (laughter).

Norris had the last laugh when he was elected without opposition in 1857. (He also easily defeated a Tory in 1859). An active constituency MP, he campaigned steadily against the proposed closure of Abingdon’s gaol and the transfer of its county sessions to Reading, as well as on local police and railway matters. His most significant contribution, however, was in pressing the case for a repeal of the paper duties, which had been part of Gladstone’s 1860 budget but was controversially rejected by the Lords. Insisting that English paper makers were being forced out of business by tax-free imported paper, and that repeal would benefit the working classes as well as producers of literature, he urged the chancellor to ‘abide manfully by his budget’ and for the ministry to back him, which they duly did in 1861. This incident was crucial in clarifying the Commons’ supremacy over the Lords in all money matters.

Norris then turned his attention to the import duties on the ‘foreign rags’ used to make paper, warning in 1864 that many English paper manufacturers were starting to go bankrupt. By then he was clearly speaking from bitter personal experience. With his business in difficulty, he became far less active in Parliament. Standing again for Abingdon in 1865, he was unfairly accused of being an ‘absentee’ and narrowly defeated by another rival Liberal. Later that year, to ‘much astonishment’, he was declared bankrupt, with debts of £89,000 and assets of £40,000. The Sutton Courtenay paper mill failed to sell, however, and he was still running it in 1869, when a boiler exploded, killing a stoker. He was ‘fully insured’.

Norris died childless the following year. His paper mill struggled on until the 1880s and was demolished in the early 20th century. The associated Mill House later achieved fame as one of the country retreats of the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. More recently it was bought back by Asquith’s great granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter.

The full biography of Norris will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Further info about Norris can also be found here.

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The Commons and Cricket: Charles George Lyttelton (1842-1922)

Being that time of the year when, to use Kipling’s less than charitable terms, the ‘muddied oafs at the goals’ begin to make way for ‘the flannelled fools at the wicket’, it seems apt for our MP of the Month to be one of the most accomplished cricketers to take his seat in the reformed Commons.

Charles George Lyttelton, Viscount Cobham (from Vanity Fair, 1904)

Charles George Lyttelton, Viscount Cobham (from Vanity Fair, 1904)

Charles George Lyttelton (1842-1922) was a scion of one of Worcestershire’s leading Whig families, the Lytteltons having held land in the Vale of Evesham since the beginning of the thirteenth century. Among his ancestors were scholarly judges, colonial governors, and a Chancellor of the Exchequer. The family was, however, was not without its black sheep. The libertine 2nd Baron, Thomas Lyttelton (1744-79), known within the family as ‘Naughty Tom’, was – according to Horace Walpole – a ‘detestable character’ whose ‘ingratitude, profligacy, extravagance, and want of honour and decency’ were aimed at nothing but ‘shocking mankind, and disgracing himself’. On the other hand, Lyttelton’s father, George William Lyttelton (1817-76), was among the most brilliant scholars of Victorian England, and in 1846 served his brother-in-law, William Gladstone, as under-secretary for the colonies. He was one of the chief promoters of the colonisation of New Zealand.

A gilded youth, Charles Lyttelton stood well over six foot with ‘auburn hair and fine dark eyes’. A crack shot and ‘superb games player’, he quickly made his name at Eton as a cricketer. A ‘splendid bat, with a free, commanding style’, he subsequently played first-class cricket for Cambridge University, where he topped the batting averages for two years running, with a highest score of 81 at the Oval in 1864. He was not only an outstanding batsman but also an effective medium pace bowler and a good wicket keeper, and took part in 12 matches for Gentlemen against Players between 1861 and 1866.

Alfred Lyttelton

In fact, the Lytteltons were obsessed with cricket, and all seven of Lyttelton’s brothers played cricket for Eton. Like him, three of them captained the team, his brother Edward going on to represent England at football, while the youngest brother, Alfred, became one of the country’s finest tennis players. At their ancestral home, Hagley Hall, the brothers joined their father and two uncles to form a cricket XI, the highlight of the year being their annual game against Bromsgrove School.

Unlike his siblings, Lyttleton was deeply reserved and ‘had no natural social gifts’. He was nevertheless the only member of his family to sit in Parliament between 1820 and 1895, being elected as a Liberal for East Worcestershire at a by-election in June 1868. He sat until he was defeated at the 1874 general election, during which time he proved a loyal Gladstonian, although much to his uncle’s disgust he would break with the Liberals over the question of Irish Home Rule in 1886. Once in the Lords he served on royal commissions on agriculture and metropolitan traffic, and was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

Lyttelton’s achievements as a commissioner for land, 1881-9, and for railways, 1891-1905, and as deputy chairman of the Great Western Railway, 1890-1, were in some ways overshadowed by the more illustrious careers of his brothers. Neville Gerard (1845-1931) became chief of the army general staff; George William Spencer (1847-1913) was a private secretary to Lord Granville, and to Gladstone when prime minister in 1880-5 and 1892-4; Arthur Temple (1852-1903) was Bishop of Southampton; Edward (1855-1942) was headmaster first of Haileybury College, then Eton; while Alfred (1857-1913) was a long-serving MP and secretary of state for the colonies, 1903-5.

Hagley Hall, home of the Lyttelton family, in the 1820s

Hagley Hall, home of the Lyttelton family, in the 1820s

Although Lyttelton’s gifts were ‘of a less shining order’ than those of his brothers, he was well suited to the role of a patrician. After succeeding as 5th Baron Lyttelton following his father’s suicide in 1876, he inherited the title of 8th Viscount Cobham from a distant relative in 1889. As ‘the quietest and most modest of men’, his role as ‘the old-fashioned patriarchal head’ of his family was fulfilled ‘in everything except the desire to exercise authority’. His grandson, the jazz trumpeter and legendary broadcaster, Humphrey Lyttelton, remembered him only as ‘a disembodied head’ from a family portrait in which all the darker tints had turned pitch black.

Further reading:

  • B. Askwith, The Lyttletons. A Family Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century (1975)
  • S. Fletcher, Victorian Girls. Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters (2004)

For another cricket-themed blog from us, see

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A family affair: the Knightleys and Northamptonshire South, 1832-1868

The double-member county division of Northamptonshire South is often associated with the Spencer family, most notably Viscount Althorp (later the third Earl Spencer and older brother of Princess Diana’s great-great-grandfather), who played a key role in the reforming ministry of Lord Grey. However, the Spencers, including Althorp and his nephew, only occupied the representation of the division for a mere three years between 1832 and 1868.

In reality it was the Cartwrights and the Knightleys, who, through two father-and-son combinations, dominated the constituency’s electoral politics. Of the two, Charles and Rainald Knightley were the most successful. They represented one of the division’s seats uninterrupted from 1835, demonstrating that the key to electoral success was reputation, money and a firebrand form of agricultural, independent conservatism.

The Knightleys, whose Daventry estate lay in the west of the county, had returned MPs for Northamptonshire since 1420. Charles, born in 1781, was a celebrity in the county long before he was returned to Westminster. One of the best riders in the county’s famous Pytchley Hunt, he once allegedly leapt 31 feet over a brook near Brixworth Hill on his horse ‘Benvolio’ (the official world record for such a feat is still just over 27 feet). He was also a renowned cattle breeder and spent considerable resources on agricultural improvement on the family’s estates.

He had been an active character in Northamptonshire’s Conservative electoral politics since 1826, and after failing to get elected in 1831 was returned for the new southern division in 1835. His charismatic speaking style, willingness to pay close attention to voter registration and canvassing, as well as his outspoken support for the Protestant Church and the interests of agriculture – he was a fierce advocate of protection – meant he comfortably retained his seat until his retirement in 1852.


‘a fine old Tory’, Rainald Knightley by Spy, Vanity Fair (1881)

Charles’s stranglehold over the county exasperated his local Liberal opponents (who repeatedly criticised his influence over the Tory Northampton Herald) and bewildered some national commentators – The Times mocked him ahead of the 1847 election, calling him ‘a well dried specimen of the old English squire’, who should be ‘ticketed and put in a museum’. Nevertheless, Charles’s critics failed to knock him off his perch, and on his retirement he rubbed salt into their wounds by successfully supporting the candidacy of his son, Rainald, who replaced him as one of the constituency’s two MPs.

Charles’s decision to support his son’s candidacy in 1852 also angered those in the upper echelons of the local Conservative party who preferred an alternative candidate. Importantly, the internal party dispute over Rainald’s candidacy received extensive coverage in the local press and quickly established his reputation in the county as an ‘independent’ Conservative – a status he actively cultivated, with considerable success, throughout his subsequent forty-year career as an MP.

Until at least 1868, Rainald repeatedly described himself to the electors in an ambiguous manner. In 1859, for instance, he stood as a ‘moderate and liberal, but consistent, Conservative’. However, in Parliament he followed in his father’s footsteps, aligning himself with a group of backbench Tory ‘Old believers’ led by ‘Big Ben’ Bentinck, who shared a deep disdain for Disraeli’s attempt to establish a disciplined Conservative party at Westminster.

This distrust of Disraeli was reflected in the division lobbies, and his support for Palmerston over the Chinese War in 1857, as well as his outspoken support for the established Church, helped him to stand out from his Liberal and Conservative rivals at the 1857 and 1859 elections. His independence from Disraeli also allowed him to play a key role in the debates over parliamentary reform between 1866 and 1868. In 1866 he coalesced with the Liberal ‘Adullamites’ to prevent the passage of the Liberal ministry’s reform bill, and in 1867 he was instrumental in forcing Disraeli to underpin his Conservative reform bill with a separate measure dealing with corrupt practices.

Rainald’s good finances were also important, as they helped him to maintain his reputation for independence. This was perhaps best exemplified when his fellow Conservative incumbent Henry Cartwright was forced to retire ahead of the 1868 election, after Rainald refused to stand alongside him on the basis that Cartwright would be beholden to the whims of the local party due to his inability to fund his own election campaign.

The Knightleys’ brand of independent Conservatism proved remarkably popular with electors in Northamptonshire South, and Rainald continued to represent the county until his retirement in 1892, when the centuries-long Knightley link with the representation of Northamptonshire came to an end.

The full biographies of Charles and Rainald Knightley, as well as Northamptonshire South’s other MPs during the 1832-68 period, will soon be available on our preview site.

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From ‘true blue’ Tory to Reformer: Samuel Adlam Bayntun (1804-1833)

While our MP of the Month sat only briefly in the Commons after 1832, his parliamentary career provides valuable insights into two important aspects of nineteenth-century politics: the fluidity of party labels and the influence which money had in the selection of candidates.

A ‘dashing young man’, Samuel Bayntun was the son of a wealthy Wiltshire clergyman. After graduating from Oxford, he joined the army, serving with the 1st Dragoon Guards and then transferring to the 1st Life Guards. While stationed at York in 1827 he was asked to stand for that constituency at a future election as a ‘Protestant Tory’. At the 1830 general election he was elected as a supporter of ‘old true blue’ principles. By the time of the 1831 election, however, Bayntun’s political position had already begun to shift. Although he remained a Tory, he declared his support for the Whig ministry’s reform bill as a measure of constitutional ‘renovation’. Following his unopposed return, he maintained his support for parliamentary reform in the division lobbies.

In October 1832 Bayntun began canvassing at York in anticipation of that December’s general election. Finding his views on parliamentary reform ‘too liberal’, many of his former supporters, including his election committee, transferred their allegiance to another Tory, John Lowther. This left Bayntun reliant on the votes of York’s Reformers and ‘liberal Blues’. Although his election address emphasised his ‘strictly independent’ principles, it also declared his support for numerous ‘liberal’ measures, including reductions in public expenditure and taxation, the removal of sinecures and monopolies, reform of the Church, the abolition of slavery and amendment of the corn laws. On the hustings he even asserted that the ballot might prove necessary to secure purity of election. His opinions led some reports to describe him as a ‘reformer’ or a ‘liberal’. However, Bayntun insisted that he was ‘no less’ a Tory than before, although Wellington’s ‘despotic dicta’ against parliamentary reform had left Bayntun unable to support his ministry. He won the second seat at York, behind the Whig Edward Petre, with whom he shared 741 split votes. In contrast, he shared only 124 votes with Lowther, the Tory candidate.

Reports on the composition of the new Parliament showed continued uncertainty about Bayntun’s party affiliation: the Morning Post classed him as a Conservative, while the Spectator described him as a Ministerialist and Reformer, and the Leeds Mercury considered him a Liberal. However, his votes in the division lobbies soon confirmed that he had abandoned his Conservative views, giving general support to Whig ministers, but also joining the minorities in support of Radical causes. These included the ballot, repeal of the house and window taxes, and the abolition of flogging as a military punishment.

Bootham Bar, York, bef. c. 1840 (c) The Mansion House and Guildhall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Bootham Bar, York, bef. c. 1840
(c) The Mansion House and Guildhall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Although Bayntun’s shifting political position was one reason for the defection of his former backers at York, another important factor was an ongoing dispute over the costs of the 1830 election. Bayntun claimed in September 1832 that he had been told that this earlier contest would cost him no more than £5,000, but, having paid out more than £11,000, he was still being asked for a further £3,000 or £4,000. In December he initiated court proceedings against the treasurer of his election committee, Mr. Cattle, for the return of money provided for the 1830 contest. With little prospect of Bayntun spending large sums in 1832, especially given rumours that he was heavily in debt, his former supporters turned to another candidate who was more likely to foot the heavy election expenditure which York’s freemen expected.

Bayntun’s court case against Cattle ended in humiliation in March 1833. While Bayntun’s counsel claimed that Cattle had embezzled funds, the jury found that Cattle had in fact spent all the money Bayntun had given him, much of it on bribery and corruption, with Bayntun’s knowledge. Bayntun was further embarrassed by another court case that April when he was charged with illegally pawning a looking-glass (valued at £6), which he had rented with other furniture for his London lodgings. Although the case was dismissed, it was indicative of his precarious financial position, with creditors looming. The ‘mental anxiety’ caused by his ‘pecuniary embarrassments’ was felt to have hastened Bayntun’s untimely death from scarlet fever in September 1833, aged just 29. According to an unconfirmed later account, he was buried secretly by torchlight in St. John’s churchyard, Devizes, ‘to prevent the seizure of his corpse by creditors’. In a curious and macabre final twist, one of Bayntun’s brothers, with whom he had quarrelled, exhumed the body and discharged a pistol into its face.

For Bayntun’s parliamentary career before 1832, see our 1820-32 volumes.

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MP of the month: Rowland Alston (1782-1865)

Rowland Alston’s career provides a useful illustration of just how diverse (and to a modern eye incongruous) the political outlook of MPs in the same party could be before the development of more formal modern political allegiances. It also serves as a reminder that not all Liberals supported free trade and the repeal of the corn laws, and offers another example of a slave-owner MP who was a Whig-Radical and supported abolition (see our previous blog on William Pinney). Tellingly, it was not political inconsistency that secured Alston notoriety, but his role in averting a potentially fatal duel involving the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel.

Pishiobury Park, Herts.

Pishiobury Park, Herts.

Alston’s background, like his politics, seems unconventional to a modern eye, but scarcely warranted comment at the time. His father was the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Alston (1724-74), an MP known for his bouts of insanity, and his ‘housekeeper’, to whom all of Sir Thomas’s property had passed. Alston, an impoverished second son, initially pursued an army career, serving with the Scots Guards, but in 1810 he married a wealthy heiress, whose properties included the Pishiobury estate in Hertfordshire and a plantation in Jamaica.

Over the next twenty-five years Alston became one of Hertfordshire’s leading reformers, campaigning steadily for parliamentary reform, almost standing for election at Hertford in 1823 and 1831, and only narrowly being defeated when he contested the county as an ‘advanced reformer’ and candidate of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. Quizzed about why he supported abolition, yet owned slaves, he explained that he had come into his slaves ‘by marriage’ and would happily emancipate them ‘the instant provision was made to ensure them employment and food’. In 1835 two of the sitting MPs for the county retired and he came in unopposed.

In the Commons Alston generally backed the Whigs, although he occasionally sided with the radicals on military issues, including their campaigns to end army flogging and put Lord Cardigan on trial for the brutal treatment of his troops. In 1836 he and his son received £2,505 in slavery compensation from the Whig government, a sum which he freely admitted amounted to almost ‘half the value of his entire property’, but he opposed their plan of slavery apprenticeships and joined other abolitionists in trying to secure an immediate end to indenture in 1838.

Alston’s main loyalty, however, was to the agricultural interest. He followed Lord Chandos (and many Tories) regularly into the lobbies in support of repealing the malt tax, relieving distress on farmers, and preserving the corn laws. In 1839 he even tried (unsuccessfully) to derail the Whig ministry’s new beer bill, protesting that it would ruin maltsters and brewers alike. Unlike most of his ‘agricultural’ allies, however, Alston was also a staunch and outspoken supporter of the Whig ministry’s new poor law and workhouse system, which he helped to implement locally. He also strongly backed the Whig ministry’s proposed reduction of import duties on foreign sugar in 1841.

This put him at odds not only with agricultural Protectionists, wary of any free trade initiatives, but also with many of his radical colleagues in the Anti-Slavery Society, who feared that cheaper imports would encourage slave-grown sugar from non-British colonies. By the time of the 1841 election, therefore, Alston had managed to alienate former allies in both the agricultural and Liberal camps. With party lines now so much more clearly defined across a range of issues – ironically helped by the sort of local registration activity that he himself had encouraged – Alston became a victim of the times and lost his seat.

He is now best remembered for saving the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel from a potentially catastrophic duel with the navy officer Captain John Townshend, the Liberal candidate at Tamworth in 1837, who after his defeat had accused Peel of ‘breaking his word’ about allowing his tenants to vote freely. Peel had demanded ‘satisfaction’ and it was only through the furious backstairs negotiations of Alston (Townshend’s second) with Sir Henry Hardinge MP that the affair was eventually settled without bloodshed after Townshend was persuaded to issue a full public apology.

The full biography of Alston and many other MPs is available on our 1832-68 preview site.

For the Legacies of British Slave ownership project click here.

Further details about Alston can also be found on this genealogical site.

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Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons

As 2015 comes to a close, we would like to wish all the readers of the Victorian Commons a very Happy New Year for 2016! We’re looking forward to another year of blogging, but in the meantime, here are some of our highlights of 2015.

Our most popular post this year featured the unfortunate case of James Platt, the newly elected Liberal MP for Oldham, who was accidentally shot dead by his friend, the mayor of Oldham. Platt was one of our twelve MP of the Month blogs, which have also included Edward Greene, of the Greene King brewery; Captain Brownlow Layard, who lobbied on the issue of soldiers’ welfare; and William Pinney, whose election for Lyme Regis shed intriguing light on the question of slavery. Particularly interesting reads were Albert Grant, whose shady reputation as a financier inspired Anthony Trollope to create Augustus Melmotte, the central character in The Way We Live Now, and Benjamin Rotch, would-be duellist, inventor, teetotaller and prison reformer.

In the summer we said goodbye to one of our research fellows, Dr. James Owen, who found time to write one last blog for us, on William Schaw Lindsay, an MP whose remarkable rise from destitute orphan to merchant prince included an encounter with a sabre-wielding pirate. Although James will be much missed, we are pleased to be joined from January 2016 by Martin Spychal, whose PhD research on the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act featured on our blog earlier this year.

Two other historians have shared their PhD research with us in guest blogs: Gary Hutchison of the University of Edinburgh, who is working on Scotland and the Conservative party, 1832-1868; and Rebekah Moore, our AHRC collaborative doctoral award student, who is investigating the temporary Houses of Parliament after the devastating 1834 fire.

Alongside our blogs on parliamentary elections, our editor Philip Salmon shared his expertise on Victorian political memorabilia and on town council elections, marking the 180th anniversary of the Municipal Corporations Act. We also remembered the 200th anniversary of Waterloo with Stephen Ball’s blog on some of the Irish MPs who fought there. With youthful MPs in the news following Mhairi Black’s election in May, we blogged about the youngest MP of the 1832-68 period, returned at the age of 20. Our assistant editor Kathryn Rix has been looking beyond the Victorian period with a series of posts on the main History of Parliament site about MPs killed during the First World War.

Our draft biographies and constituency articles can be found on our preview site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can sign up to follow our blog via e-mail, or follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons

We look forward to sharing more of our research with you in 2016. Happy New Year!


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‘A kindhearted savage of a man’: Arthur Wills Blundell Sandys Trumbull Windsor Hill, Earl of Hillsborough (1812-68)

While the Reformed Commons undoubtedly contained men who had broken the sixth commandment, most had done so while licensed by military service. The Earl of Hillsborough, however, appears to have been responsible for the death of at least one man before he left university, and managed to acquire a fearsome reputation which dogged his later years.

Hillsborough’s family (marquesses of Downshire) possessed large estates and extensive political influence in the north of Ireland, but made limited contributions to affairs of state. The 1st Marquess of Downshire’s record as a secretary of state was such that ‘no historian has had a good word to say’ for him. Hillsborough – the eldest son of the 3rd Marquess – was no exception to the family tradition. Yet in representing County Down from 1836 to 1845 he provided solid support for Sir Robert Peel before breaking with him over the Maynooth grant and the repeal of the corn laws.

From youth Hillsborough was reputed to possess ‘immense physical strength’. While studying at Oxford University in 1830 he got involved in ‘a pugilistic affray’ with two local boatmen. One of the pair, whom Hillsborough ‘easily disposed of’ due to his ‘superior science’ in fighting, was said to have died as a result of the bout. Jane Welsh Carlyle (wife of the historian Thomas Carlyle) later recorded that Hillsborough ‘is awfully strong, and his strokes tell, as he doesn’t expect!’

Oxford from the towpath with Christ Church Meadow, William Turner (1789-1862) (c) Worcester College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Oxford from the towpath with Christ Church Meadow, William Turner (1789-1862) (c) Worcester College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A few months later, in February 1831, Hillsborough accidently caused the death of Lord Conyers Osborne, the favourite son of the Duke of Leeds. After the two young men had ‘a slight rencontre’ in the quadrangle of Christ Church, Oxford, Osborne collapsed and died, the cause of his death being attributed by the Regius Professor of Anatomy to ‘an effusion of blood upon the brain’. The coroner’s verdict of death by ‘Chance medley’ satisfied Osborne’s father, and there the matter ended.

Osborne’s death left Hillsborough ‘in a state of mind approaching distraction’, but this did not prevent him entering the fray at a ‘ferocious’ election riot at Oxford just three months later. With ‘his gigantic arm’ he ‘knocked the mob about on either side of him’ in order to save a fellow undergraduate who ‘had been hung to a lamp-post by the strings of his gown!’ Nevertheless, in 1836 he was described by the king’s aide-de-camp, General William Dyott, as quiet, ‘unassuming’ and ‘gentlemanlike’, while Mrs. Carlyle later characterised him as ‘a dear, good kindhearted Savage of a Man!’

In August 1836 Hillsborough replaced his uncle, Lord Arthur Moyses Hill, as MP for County Down, and that November demonstrated his combative spirit at Banbridge by thanking Daniel O’Connell for giving him the opportunity to fling his ‘contemptuous defiance in his teeth’. A silent Member, Hillsborough rarely visited the division lobbies, but was a staunch Protectionist, arguing that in Ireland there was ‘no nice line of separation’ between the agricultural and the manufacturing interest, the weaver and the farmer being ‘frequently combined in one person’.

In April 1845 Hillsborough left the Commons upon succeeding as 4th Marquess of Downshire. Generally regarded as a benevolent landlord who treated his Catholic and Protestant tenants even-handedly, he lived mainly in England, but maintained a strong electoral interest in County Down. His English estates consisted of 5,500 acres in Berkshire and Suffolk. When in Ireland he resided ‘in regal state’ at Hillsborough, the owner of 115,000 acres in five Irish counties worth a total of £72,500 a year. He remained a staunch Protectionist, using his position as president of the Royal Agricultural Society to call for ‘a war … on the part of the farmers against the Manchester cotton manufacturers’. He became one of the Conservative leader Lord Derby’s closest confidants among the aristocracy.

In 1860 his pugnacious reputation caught up with him when it was alleged that he had used his ‘Herculean strength’ to throw the skipper of his yacht overboard after finding the ‘rough, worthy sailor’ kneeling by the side of his seventeen-year-old daughter. Rumours that he was ‘being brought home to be tried by the Peers’ forced Downshire to issue a public rebuttal, in which he promised that if he ever caught the ‘scoundrel’ who had circulated the story, he would ‘throw him overboard’. Whether or not the matter ended as Jane Carlyle predicted it might, ‘in Lord Downshire giving somebody a good thrashing!’, is not known.

Having avoided further scandal, Hillsborough died in August 1868 at Herne Bay, Kent. His correspondence is held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the Downshire Papers forming a major historical archive of nineteenth-century estate management.

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