With the election of Mhairi Black as MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South at the age of 20, there has been some discussion of how far back in the parliamentary records one has to delve to find a younger MP.
To date, our research on the 1832 to 1868 period has uncovered just one MP who was returned to Parliament under the age of 21. The Hon. William Charles Wentworth Fitzwilliam, grandson of Earl Fitzwilliam, was born on 18 January 1812. Educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was elected on 12 December 1832 for Malton, aged 20. Although it seems likely that he was the youngest MP of our period, he was some months older than Mhairi Black when he was first elected.
A double-member constituency, Malton was one of several ‘nomination’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs which continued to be controlled by an aristocratic patron after the 1832 Reform Act. Firmly under the control of the Fitzwilliam family, who were prominent Whigs, it did not see a single contested election between 1832 and 1868. Opposition to William Fitzwilliam, even if he was under-age, was therefore pointless. Moreover, it was generally believed that as the new Parliament would not assemble until after his 21st birthday, he would not be disqualified.
Fitzwilliam did not represent Malton for long, however. His grandfather died on 8 February 1833, when Fitzwilliam’s father succeeded to the earldom, and Fitzwilliam took the title of Viscount Milton. His father had been MP for Northamptonshire North, and Milton (as he now was) resigned his Malton seat in order to be elected for that constituency instead. He was re-elected for Northamptonshire North at the 1835 general election, when one hostile account referred to him as the ‘baby Fitzwilliam-nominee’. He found it difficult to get a hearing at the hustings, as ‘all kinds of noises, and particularly most successful imitations of the bellowing of an enraged bull and the yelping of a cur just run over by a gig, were raised by the Blue party, and continued till Lord Milton bowed to the storm’. However, he was elected unopposed alongside a Conservative.
Although Milton did not contribute to debate in the Commons, he proved a useful member in the committee-rooms. He demonstrated a growing confidence in public speaking when he proposed Lord Morpeth on the West Riding hustings at a by-election in May 1835, earning plaudits for ‘the manly excellencies of his character, his abilities, and his strong attachment to liberal politics’. However, this promising political career was cut short by his death from typhus on 8 November 1835, aged just 23. One fellow MP lamented that ‘the tomb has deprived the House of one destined to be a future ornament’.