BUNBURY, Thomas Charles (1740-1821), of Barton, Suff. and Bunbury, Cheshire

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1761 - 1784
1790 - 1812

Family and Education

b. May 1740, 1st s. of Rev. Sir William Bunbury, 5th Bt., by Eleanor, da. and coh. of Vere Graham of Wix Abbey, Essex. educ. Bury St. Edmunds 1747; Westminster c.1754; St. Catherine’s Hall, Camb. 1757; Grand Tour ?1760-1. m. (1) 2 June 1762, Lady Sarah Lennox (divorced for desertion 1776), da. of Charles, 2nd Duke of Richmond, s.p.; (2) Margaret, s.p. His sis. Annabella m. (1) 14 Apr. 1762, Sir Patrick Blake, 1st Bt.; (2) c.1778, George Boscawen. suc. fa. 11 June 1764.

Offices Held

Sec. to Paris embassy, 4 Aug. 1764-May 1765; sec. to ld. lt. [I] May-July 1765; he did not discharge the duties of either office.

Sheriff, Suff. 1788-9.

Biography

The Bunburys were a Cheshire family, and Charles Bunbury’s grandfather and uncle sat for Chester; but his father inherited the Suffolk estates of his maternal uncle, Sir Thomas Hanmer, Bt., M.P. for Suffolk, and at the general election of 1761 put up his son for the county. Before the county meeting at Stowmarket Sir William met the other two candidates with a view to an agreement, and is reported to have said: ‘I own I am anxious my son should have the honour this time; he is now upon his travels, and this will be the completest finishing of his education.’1 (On 13 Sept. 1760, Horace Mann wrote from Florence to Horace Walpole: ‘Your recommandé Mr. Bunbury is a very knowing, agreeable young man, but too retired out of complaisance to his companion, Lord Torrington, but not at all out of choice.’) On a compromise Bunbury was returned unopposed, though still a month under age. ‘His vanity is monstrously flattered by being Member for the county at his age’, wrote Lady Holland to Lady Kildare, 22 June 1762, ‘... he is chosen upon the Tory interest in Suffolk’ (i.e. by the independent country gentlemen).2

‘Mr. Bunbury is much attached to Lord Shelburne’, wrote Lady Caroline Fox, 27 Jan. 1762.3 On 10 Dec. 1761, the day Barré delivered his attack against Pitt and the German war, Bunbury, speaking first, did likewise in a much condemned maiden speech. ‘Mr. Bunbury’, reported George Onslow to Newcastle,4 ‘began by objecting in general to the German war; that he should never agree (as the last Parliament had done) from servile and mean unanimity to measures they could not approve.’ And Lord John Cavendish to the Duke of Grafton: ‘Mr. Bunbury stood up, and with a very theatrical tone and gesture made a flimsy kind of speech against the German war, and took the liberty of abusing Pitt heartily.’5 John Milbanke described the speech as flashy, with ‘no small assurance’ and ‘a great deal of bombast and false action’;6 Harris as ‘vehement, abusive, and yet set and formal’; and Newcastle as ‘most impertinent’.7

Bunbury’s next parliamentary performance was equally immature. On 5 Feb. the Duke of Bedford, supported by Shelburne, moved for the recall of the troops from Germany, which embarrassed the King and Bute, though themselves opposed to the German war. On the 9th Bunbury gave notice that he would make a similar motion in the Commons on the 12th. But, discouraged by Fox, he only appeared when the House was about to adjourn, ‘looking ... rather awkwardly ... All departed laughing at what had happened’.8 Still, the next day he announced he would make the motion on Wednesday, the 17th. ‘Pushing it now in the House of Commons will certainly be imputed to you’, wrote Fox to Shelburne, the same day. ‘... Mr. Bunbury has at Lady Caroline’s desire put it off till Wednesday, which is very obliging.’9 And on the 14th Fox wrote to Bute that Bunbury, dissuaded by Shelburne, had laid it aside altogether.10 ‘For a young man moving a question of so much importance ... was at least ridiculous if not indecent’, was Lady Caroline’s comment.11

Since the autumn of 1761 Bunbury had been courting Lady Sarah Lennox, a younger sister of Lady Caroline Fox. Her family, who had entertained the most ambitious hopes for her, were not over-pleased. ‘It’s far from a good match’, wrote Lady Caroline, 27 Jan. 1762; ‘they are both young and in high life, they will not have the prudence to live within their income.’ 9 Feb.: his father gives him £2,000 a year, ‘a house in town and one in the country ... ’tis in the county he is chose for, and where he must keep up an interest, which is very expensive’. 8 Apr.: ‘The match ... proves worse and worse, now the lawyers have examined it’—even after Sir William’s death ‘they will never see more than £2,500 in hard money probably’. ‘A most miserable match in point of fortune’, opined the Duke of Richmond. He also thought Bunbury ‘a coxcomb’. Lady Caroline took a more favourable view of him: ‘a very good character’; ‘a grave young man of an elegant ingenious turn ... a scholar and poet’. But even she wrote three days after the wedding: ‘I own he don’t take with me, neither Mr. Fox or I are more acquainted with him than we were the first week, though we have seen so much of him.’ On 20 July 1762:

I don’t think Mr. Bunbury so great a coxcomb as he is reckoned, nor so very fond of himself; he seems to me a cold insipid disposition, loving Sarah better than anything else, very good tempered and indolent, having no pleasures, at least not seeming to enjoy them with the eagerness natural to his age.

And nearly four years later, 15 Mar. 1766: ‘he mends upon long acquaintance. I think him a good man, not an agreeable one, but he makes her happy.’12

They settled at Barton; attended races (Bunbury was well known on the turf); and tried to make themselves popular with their county neighbours. But some better financial provision for them was required. ‘Lord Shelburne’, Lady Caroline had noted on 16 Feb. 1762, ‘assures me Mr. Bunbury has such notions of independency he would not take a place for the world; this would vex me had I not seen so much of all that talk come to nothing.’ Wherein she was right; by September Bunbury aspired to the post of secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, worth £4,000 p.a. (which would not vacate his seat: the country gentleman might not wish to re-elect a placeman); while Fox, wrote Lady Sarah to Lady Kildare, 30 Sept.,13‘wants him to ask for a place immediately, but that he don’t choose’.

Mr. Bunbury intends speaking for Lord Bute [she wrote]. Don’t imagine ... that he means to say, ‘my Lord I am your creature’; for he dreads that more than anything in the world, and would not take a place but on condition he may speak as he pleases. Mr. Fox is trying to persuade him to be quite attached to Lord Bute, and has a notion that Mr. Bunbury is one of the wrong-headed, prating people that were in a set last winter—you heard of them, I don’t doubt; Lord Shelburne is at the head of them—but he is vastly mistaken, for, to do my poor husband justice, he is the most right-headed person I ever saw ... He has told me that his intentions are to be of Lord Bute’s side in everything he approves of; but not to be tied to him or anybody else. He wishes to be independent as much as possible and yet wishes to be in business; and this place seems to answer both ends as much as any place can.

On 19 Oct., in a letter to Shelburne, Bunbury formally declared his support of Bute, and asked for the Irish post.14 But it eluded him—‘I am mad to think there is no likelihood of my being Madame la Secretaire’, wrote Lady Sarah on 25 Nov.15

There is no record of Bunbury having spoken during the session of 1762-3; nor during the Grenville Administration: his only recorded intervention was on 25 Apr. 1765 when he divided the House and found himself in a minority of one against 124.16 Early in April 1763 he was appointed secretary to the Paris embassy—‘they like it’, wrote Lady Holland, ‘it’s a step to farther preferment, will break into their expensive Barton life and suit them both very well.’17 But the appointment was made without previous communication with Lord Hertford, the ambassador designate, who meantime had offered the post to David Hume. On 10 Apr. Hertford expressed to Bute his ‘very sensible mortification’; disclaimed any personal objection to Bunbury, whom he hardly knew, but thought him ‘a very young man from whom I can expect little assistance’; and feared that the manner of making the appointment, contrary to unvaried practice, would lower himself in the world’s opinion.18 ‘I am surprised’, wrote the King to Bute, ‘Lord Egremont should commit so great a blunder as to send to Bunbury before he did to Lord Hertford’; and he told Hertford that the post had been promised to Bunbury before he ‘had been pitched on as ambassador’.19 On 20 Oct. Hertford set out for Paris with Hume for private secretary,20 and resolved never to see, nor do business with, his official secretary.21 Meanwhile the meeting of Parliament supplied an excuse for retaining Bunbury in London. ‘If Mr. Bunbury comes to Paris’, wrote Sandwich to Holland, 26 Sept. 1763, ‘I must depend on your taking care that he is over at the opening of the sessions, but we will endeavour to stop him here.’22 ‘Keep Bunbury with you, don’t send him here for a month’, replied Holland, 2 Oct.23 And Sandwich to Holland, re-assuringly, 4 Oct.: ‘Mr. Bunbury’s detention has no meaning whatever in it but to add to our numbers in the House of Commons.’24 But Hume to Adam Fergusson, from Fontainebleau, 9 Nov.:25 ‘Mr. Bunbury has been told that he must not go to Paris.’ Hertford protested to George Grenville against his doing so;26 Grenville spoke to the King who said ‘he would not send Mr. Bunbury to Paris during the present session of Parliament’; and Grenville hoped that in the meantime another place would be found for him.

According to the pamphlet The Four Last Suffolk Elections (1772), Bunbury ‘luckily escaped the question of general warrants, being not in town at the time’ (he was at Newmarket); but his name is not in Jenkinson’s list of friends absent from the division of 17-18 Feb. 1764; and while his mother’s death on 14 Feb. may have kept him away from the division on the 15th, it seems improbable that anyone in his position would have absented himself from all the divisions on general warrants. In April 1764 Hume wrote from Paris:27 ‘I ... do the business of the embassy without any character. Bunbury has the commission and appointments ... above £1,000 a year.’ Hertford continued to press for his removal: after having publicly on all occasions declared that he would not act with Bunbury, he wrote to Grenville, 28 July 1764, ‘I cannot now depart from it without drawing on myself the imputation of levity or weakness.’28 In March Bedford had urged Northumberland, then lord lieutenant of Ireland, to appoint Bunbury his secretary—he even quoted the King as ‘desirous of obliging Mr. Bunbury’.29 But Northumberland’s reply was negative; it was essential to the comfort of a lord lieutenant that his first secretary should be his private friend.30 At last, when in May 1765 Weymouth was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, Bunbury obtained the place he had so long desired, but now rendered less desirable by the feud between Weymouth and Bunbury’s brother-in-law, Lord Kildare.31 Anyhow six weeks later both Bunbury and his chief were out of office. Bunbury followed the Bedfords into opposition, and never again held a post.

On 17 Jan. 1766 Bunbury spoke on the Opposition side against rescinding the order to print the American papers;32 he attended debates and divisions (‘your nasty American business has kept him in town till now’, wrote Lady Sarah to Lady Susan, 5 Feb.); voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act; and in 1766-7 was classed by all the parliamentary managers as a Bedford; but he did not vote either on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, or on nullum tempus, 17 Feb. 1768. At the general election of 1768 the agreement of 1761 that either Bunbury or Holt should stand down for Rous was disregarded, and a contest was expected. Bunbury, wrote Whately to Grenville, 5 Nov. 1767,33 ‘does not seem much alarmed at the opposition to him in Suffolk, but is vexed at the expense.’ And Lady Sarah to George Selwyn, the same day:34

We talk and think of nothing but elections. Sir Charles’s county meeting is tomorrow, where he expects an opposition, and the day after we both set out, he to go one side of the county, and I on the other, to canvass.

Sir William Musgrave to Lord Carlisle, 1 Dec.,35 described her as ‘an indefatigable canvasser’—‘For the greater expedition she undertakes one district while he goes into another, and the other day she alone secured 94 out of 100 voters.’ In the end he was returned unopposed.

In the summer of 1768 he went again ‘jaunting to Paris’—‘I believe’, wrote Lady Holland, 30 June, ‘because travelling is good for his disorders—the gravel, which is one, and change of place for his ennui, which is another.’ What was worse, by that time Lady Sarah seems to have been bored with him. Mme. du Deffand’s suspicions in February 1767, and Lauzun’s claims36 may have been unfounded; but the daughter to whom Lady Sarah gave birth, 19 Dec. 1768, was Lord William Gordon’s;37 and in February 1769 she left her husband and joined her lover. Bunbury, though greatly distressed, behaved toward her with much kindness and consideration—‘she herself told me,’ wrote Lady Holland, 27 Feb. 1769, ‘Sir Charles made her as happy as she could be in her undone state.’38 At times there were hopes of a reconciliation; and even after he had divorced her, his behaviour remained delicate and affectionate: when they met in 1778 he treated her ‘like an old friend he was rejoiced to see’ and assured her ‘he had not a grain of resentment’.39 Perhaps Mme. du Deffand’s description of him, in her letter to Walpole, 6 Feb. 1767, was just: ‘il me prait le meilleur enfant du monde, doux et plein de candeur; il aime Milady à la folie.’

Politically Bunbury’s role in the Parliament of 1768-74 was insignificant, and his attitude incoherent: it is difficult to discern any pattern in it. On 27 Jan. 1769 he voted for Wilkes’s petition, but on 8 May for declaring Luttrell duly elected. Next, on 11 Mar. 1772, he voted with Opposition on the royal marriage bill; similarly on the petition of naval captains on hal-pay, 9 Feb. 1773, but in the King’s list was marked as one of those who normally were friends of Government. He voted with Government on Grenville’s Act, 25 Feb. 1774, when again many regular supporters went against them; and at the end of the Parliament was classed by Robinson as ‘hopeful’.

Nor do his interventions in debate explain his politics; they were not on major political issues, but were usually concerned with justice to individuals (the returning officer at New Shoreham, Clive, Home, etc.), or with humanitarian causes. Bunbury supported Sir William Meredith, who on 27 Nov. 1770 moved for ‘a committee to be appointed to consider of so much of the criminal laws as relate to capital offences’, and on 6 May 1771 reported their conclusions. The committee, re-appointed on 31 Jan. 1772, on 14 Apr. was instructed to prepare and bring in a bill; besides Bunbury it included Meredith, Henry Herbert, Charles Fox, Sir George Savile, Serjeant Glynn, and Constantine Phipps.40 Bunbury presented their bill; presided over the committee of the whole House which discussed it; and when it was passed on 21 May, carried it to the Lords (where it was rejected). Radzinowicz writes about Bunbury in his History of English Criminal Law:41

Sir Charles Bunbury was very much interested in prison reform and the system of transportation, and took an active part in several debates on these matters in the House of Commons. Together with Eden, Howard and Blackstone, he was a member of the committee which framed 19 Geo. 3, c.74—one of the most important laws in the history of the prison system.

In 1774 Bunbury was returned unopposed. In the new House he seems at first to have sided with Government; his name does not appear in any of the four division lists 1775-7, which give the names of the minority only; nor is there any record of his having spoken before 8 May 1777 when he opposed the Government over a minor financial resolution. On 26 May, when moving an amendment to the tax on servants, he dragged in the subject of America (his speeches were often singularly inconsequential); declared that the American war ‘was no longer justifiable’; and that he who ‘had supported Government in this unhappy contest’, was now convinced that its continuation ‘must be disastrous to Great Britain’. ‘I am not for lavishing more millions in search of a peppercorn, which perchance we never may be able to wring from them.’ It was therefore hardly fair to Bunbury when Walpole described his speech of 4 Dec. in which, after Saratoga, he ‘declared off the court’, as a ‘ratification of misfortune’. The experience of every campaign, said Bunbury, showed more and more that America ‘was invincible’; ‘all the laws enacted against them since the beginning of the disturbances’ should be repealed; he could no longer vote for continuing measures ‘which could be productive of no good’ but would ‘probably bring on ruin and destruction’.42 On 2 Feb. 1778 over America, and on 4 Dec., over the conciliatory mission, Bunbury voted with Opposition; over the contractors bill he was listed by Robinson as ‘contra, absent’ (12 Feb. 1779); and on 6 Apr. 1780 he presented the Suffolk petition in favour of economical reform.

His next political speech, 26 Jan. 1779 (he himself remarked on how rarely he asked for ‘the indulgence and patience’ of the House) was a plea in favour of union of ‘all the men of abilities, let them be of what party they would’.43 Lord John Cavendish wrote to Rockingham the same day: ‘I believe Charles Fox knows more than he owns; his friend Sir C. Bunbury made a very odd speech today; the drift of which was the necessity of an union of all people of abilities; characters and panegyrics of Thurlow, Dunning, C. Fox and Lord North; though it was very absurd I do not think it was without a meaning.’44

Bunbury reverted to the subject on 22 June 1779, when speaking on the militia bill, critical of the Government though not hostile. Convinced that America could not be recovered by force, in a series of speeches he opposed the tendency ‘to augment our land rather than our sea forces’; the armies asked for were ‘too small for the conquest of America, too large for the defence of this island’; ‘a large army to an Englishman was always disagreeable: a large army for no use was ... disgustful’. It was insanity for this country to rely on any other security than a large naval force, and the condition of the fleet ‘was truly deplorable’; etc. In September the news of the capture of Grenada by the French reached London: through inferiority at sea ‘the valuable island of Grenada’ was lost. And this was a very sore point with him: with engaging candour he admitted that he spoke as owner of property in the island. Thus on 27 Feb. 1782:45

Sir Charles said, his sensibility was strong, which prevented him from speaking in public, and made him seldom trespass on their attention ... He was, he acknowledged, much better calculated for a man of pleasure than politics; but his property in the West Indies compelled him to attend to those islands, however disagreeable and uncongenial the study might be.

During the critical years 1779-83 Grenada, and his property there, seems to have been an all-engrossing concern with Bunbury; and he was doubly sensitive to the alleged hardships inflicted on enemy civilians by the British commanders when St. Eustatius was captured in February 1781: he feared retaliation. In a speech of 21 Mar. Bunbury contrasted that capture, ‘sullied by the seizure of private property’, with ‘the generosity’ of the French King who had lately ‘ordered the restitution of their property to the subjects of Grenada, as one of which he was happy to give this public testimony of his admiration and gratitude’.46 A very long letter of 17 May to Thomas Walpole who, himself deeply engaged in Grenada, was in Paris carrying on dubious negotiations with the French, best describes attitude and activities:47

If any apology were necessary for troubling you with this letter it would be sufficient to say that I am unfortunately very deeply interested in the fate of Grenada ... You will conceive I have not been inactive in endeavouring to obtain redress for the French merchants, for I can truly assure you that not a day has elapsed, and hardly an hour ... that I have not either in person, or by letter, solicited one, or other, of his Majesty’s ministers in their behalf, and from the gracious reception I meet with from some of them (others being very well inclined), I have reason to believe my zeal in this business has rendered me as disgusting to their sight as a messenger bringing bad tidings from Lord Cornwallis. From the activity of my zeal upon this occasion however I can claim no merit, every man will struggle where his own interest is concerned, and I confess I have been stimulated by the mixed motives of compassion and self interest; compassion, for the unmerited sufferings of those French merchants who were settled at St. Eustatia, which however I believe have been greatly exaggerated in France, and the fear of having my property in Grenada seized, or grievously taxed in consequence of the violent and I fear unjustifiable behaviour of Sir G. Rodney and General Vaughan.

Governments changed but Bunbury’s preoccupation remained the same: Charles Fox, ten days after having assumed office, was writing to Thomas Walpole about Bunbury and Grenada;48 and in September 1782 Bunbury was asking for an interview with Shelburne ‘as an unfortunate proprietor ... of lands in Grenada’.49

In 1780, when a contest seemed imminent in Suffolk between Holt, Bunbury, and Sir John Rous, Robinson thought that Bunbury ‘probably ... would fail’. But in the end Holt stood down, and the return was unopposed. In the new Parliament Bunbury voted regularly with Opposition. Next he followed his friend Fox; but did not vote on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries; voted for Fox’s East India bill; and presumably with him against Pitt after the Coalition had been dismissed—all political managers listed him as ‘Opposition’; and as such, contrary to Robinson’s forecast,50 he was ignominiously defeated in April 1784. He re-entered Parliament in 1790 when ‘all the gentlemen of the county’ supported him.51

Bunbury retired in 1812, after having represented the county for 45 years, though never a politician. He was best known as a racing man, as the co-founder and first winner of the Derby in 1780 (and again in two other years), as a friend of Fox and his set, and a member of the Literary Club (March 1774); he was one of the pall-bearers at Samuel Johnson’s funeral.

Bunbury died 31 Mar. 1821.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier

Notes

  • 1. ‘A Plain and True Narrative’, E. Suff. RO, XLV/7; Hist. Four Last Elections County of Suff. (1772).
  • 2. Leinster Corresp. i. 332-4.
  • 3. Ibid. 311
  • 4. Ad. 32932, ff. 107-8.
  • 5. Grafton, Autobiog. 35.
  • 6. Rockingham Mems. i. 81.
  • 7. Add. 32932, f. 137.
  • 8. Harris’s ‘Debates’; Add. 32934, f. 289.
  • 9. Lansdowne mss.
  • 10. Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, i. 105-6 (misdated); Corresp. Sir Thos. Hanmer, 370-1.
  • 11. Leinster Corresp. i. 317.
  • 12. Ibid. 311-34 passim. and 437.
  • 13. Ibid. ii. 113.
  • 14. Lansdowne mss.
  • 15. Life and Letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, 126.
  • 16. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 17. Leinster Corresp. i. 365.
  • 18. Bute mss.
  • 19. Letters Geo. III to Bute, 215, 217.
  • 20. Ilchester, Letters to H. Fox, 186.
  • 21. Klibansky and Mossner, New Letters of Hume, 77.
  • 22. Ilchester, Letters of H. Fox, 184.
  • 23. Sandwich mss.
  • 24. Henry Fox mss.