BATEMAN ROBSON, Richard (1753-1827), of Manchester Square, Mdx. and Weybridge, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. 1753, 2nd s. of Henry Holland, builder, of Church Row, Fulham, Mdx. by Mary, da. of William Byrom of Fulham.1 m. 25 Jan. 1781,2 Elizabeth, da. and h. of Bateman Robson, solicitor, of Hartford, Hunts., s.p. Took names of Bateman Robson by royal lic. 26 Nov. 1791.
Chairman, Grand Junction Waterworks 1817.
Unlike his elder brother Henry Holland, the distinguished architect employed by the Prince of Wales and several leading Whigs, Richard took no active part in the family building business and his early life remains obscure. At the time of his marriage to an heiress he was living in Curzon Street. Henry Holland joined the Whig Club in 1785 but Robson (as he was usually styled after his change of name in 1791) was never a member.
By 1795 he had bought from the 5th Duke of Bedford an estate at Okehampton which gave its owner control over one of the borough seats, and at the general election the following year he was returned unopposed with a friend of the Prince of Wales, who sold his own Okehampton property to Henry Holland in 1797. He voted with opposition on the Bank stoppage, 28 Feb. and 1 Mar., and again in favour of adding Fox to the finance committee, 13 Mar., and on Ireland, 23 Mar. 1797. He voted for Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 26 May, against the triple assessment, 14 and 18 Dec. 1797, and the land tax redemption bill, 18 May 1798, and for the Whigs’ motion on the Irish rebellion, 22 June 1798, but he evidently took no part in the opposition to the Union in 1799. It is uncertain whether it was Robson or James Brogden who voted against the address commending the refusal to negotiate peace terms, 3 Feb. 1800, but he divided with the small opposition minorities on the Dutch expedition, 10 Feb., against war for the restoration of the Bourbons, 28 Feb. and 8 May, and against the income tax, 5 June.
On 11 June 1800 Lady Holland recorded a story told by her husband to illustrate ‘the whimsical effect produced by a droll manner of compressing the substance of a man’s speech’:
A Mr Robson, who is neither witty nor clever by-the-way, gave his whole attention to one of Windham’s speeches; he did not listen to the other debating, and when it came to voting he rose and said that ‘The Honourable Gentleman had declared that we were not fighting for the restoration of the Bourbons, but that we should fight till they were restored, therefore he should give his vote against him’. This done with gravity would get the laugh on his side, and provokingly perplex his adversary.3
Perhaps the comment was too laconic to catch the attention of the parliamentary reporters, for no trace of it has been found, though it was at about this time that Robson began to speak in the House. Nor did he achieve such economy in his many reported speeches against the war, high taxation and wasteful expenditure. Holland recalled him as ‘remarkable for his illiterate and vulgar language’;4 and, as Robson was no respecter of the rules of debate and was never deterred by ignorance from airing his views, the House was usually guaranteed a lively time when he got to his feet.
In his first known speech, 10 June 1800, he moved for an account of money spent on London soup establishments since 1799. Pitt resisted and the motion was defeated by 108 votes to 50. Robson also failed in his efforts to block the proposed London poor relief bill, 27 June and 1 July, which he deplored as an ‘attempt to convert private benevolence into permanent taxation’ and to secure information intended to further his object of having extra-parochial property put on the same basis of taxation as parochial, 9 July. He attached himself to the independent and garrulous Thomas Jones, whose motions on the alleged breach of the Anglo-French convention concerning the evacuation of Egypt he supported, 8 and 23 July. On the second occasion he complained that
when he got a seat in Parliament, he thought he had obtained a right to inquire into the disbursement of public money, and to call for inquiry on public measures; but no sooner had he attempted to exercise this imagined privilege, than he found that he possessed it not.
The Speaker thwarted his subsequent attempt to debate the poor rate question by way of illustration of his grievance. He condemned the £150,000 German indemnity, 22 July, and used the debate on the consolidated fund bill, 24 July, to attack the seditious meetings bill and the Russian subsidy.
Supporting Burdett’s amendment to the address, 11 Nov. 1800, Robson listed heavy taxation, the proliferation of paper money, the government’s ‘determination not to make peace and their inability to manage the affairs of the nation’ as ‘the causes of our calamity’. He voted for a call of the House, 12 Nov., supported Jones’s motion on Egypt and acted as teller for the minority of 12 in the division, 18 Nov., and divided in favour of inquiry into the state of the nation, 27 Nov., a separate peace with France, 1 Dec., and against the renewed suspension of habeas corpus, 11 and 12 Dec. The ministerial laughter which punctuated his speech in support of Jones’s censure motion, 4 Dec., when he lamented Fox’s absence from the House, was echoed in Canning’s private mockery of Robson, Jones and John Nicholls as ‘the three Horatii’ in their makeshift opposition.5 On 19 Nov. he took up the problem of the alleged grain scarcity and advocated a thorough, scientific inquiry into supply and demand. The Speaker raised technical objections and did so again on 28 Nov. when Robson moved to reduce the cavalry with a view to increasing the amount of grain available for human rather than equine consumption. His revised motion of 2 Dec. for an address recommending ‘the greatest economy’ in the cavalry’s use of corn was rejected without a division. He was teller for the minority of eight who voted to postpone consideration of the report on the scarcity, 19 Dec., when he also objected to the proposed emergency measures for poor relief in East London. On 22 Dec. he unsuccessfully opposed the adjournment, with a motion to restrict the cavalry’s use of oats and the comment that ‘ministers could easily relieve the people, by giving up their places, or allowing part of their salaries for that purpose’; and he and Jones were the only supporters of Nicholls’s peace motion, 31 Dec. 1800.
Robson welcomed Lord William Russell’s proposal to relieve the burden of rates on poor householders, 25 Feb., advocated a tax on country bank-notes, 4 Mar., was teller for the minority on the provisions report, 6 Mar., opposed the Irish master of the rolls bill, 19 Mar., voted for Grey’s motion on the state of the nation, 25 Mar., and supported Jones’s renewed call for inquiry into the Egyptian affair, 27 Mar. 1801. For this episode, he said, the late ministers deserved impeachment; and, unlike Jones, he was no more favourably disposed towards their successors, whose repressive legislation he steadily opposed. He attacked the ‘calamity’ of Bank restriction, 21 and 30 Apr., 14 May, was called to order for digressing in the debate on Egypt, 1 May, but managed to keep to the point in a lengthy speech on the same subject, 2 June. By failing to give notice he ensured the rejection of his motion for an account of sums expended on war subsidies, 15 May. On 19 May he attacked the Portuguese subsidy and observed that while Addington had been expected to make peace, ‘a majority of the former administration, who had brought the country into its present state, were still in power’ and accused ministers of ‘sinking the country deeper into war, while amusing it with declarations of being in pursuit of an honourable peace’. He secured returns of subsidy accounts, 28 May, and of information on pensions and places, 5 June, but on 26 June complained that some of these papers had not yet been produced and was only persuaded to drop his threatened motion to name the negligent officials by ministerial assurances of prompt action.
When Parliament reassembled in November 1801 Robson continued to make a nuisance of himself by sniping at the estimates. The Times, a ministerial organ, was provoked into commenting, 27 Nov., ‘how low are the opposition sunk, when its partisans are obliged to consider Mr Robson as one of its leaders!’ He next took up the distillation question, approving the bill prohibiting the use of wheat, 5 Dec., but arguing that the ban should be extended to all types of grain: ‘Ministers were entitled to praise in giving us peace; but peace, in the eyes of the people, was to have cheap provisions’. He spoke and voted for keeping the distilleries closed, 9 and 14 Dec. 1801.
On 4 Feb. 1802 Robson called on William Cobbett, whose Political Register had just commenced publication, and ‘expressed his abhorrence of the peace, from which he expected the ruin of the country’.6 In the House he criticized certain ‘scandalous’ items in the army estimates, 5 and 8 Feb., and contended that, as Buonaparte’s aggrandizement threatened the peace, it was necessary to husband resources properly. On 4 Mar. he renewed his attack, condemned the government’s general record, was called to order and proceeded to oppose the barrack estimates and to allege that ‘the finances of the country were in so desperate a situation that government was unable to discharge its bills’. Uproar ensued and ministers eventually forced out of a blustering Robson the admission that he had been alluding to the refusal of a government bill at the Sick and Hurt Office. Addington later informed the House, amid laughter, that the bill in question had been for £19 7s. Robson sought to vindicate himself by moving for an account of bills drawn on the office, 9 Mar., but only Jones, Nicholls and James Martin followed him into the division lobby. Later in the month he appeared with Jones at the common hall meeting to petition against the income tax, but took no active part in the proceedings.7
He was a persistent critic of the Irish revenue bill and forced a division on it, 19 Mar. 1802. When he opposed the implementation of a statutory requirement concerning the Duke of Richmond’s annuity, 24 Mar., Thomas Steele, the paymaster-general, observed that he had, as usual, demonstrated ‘his total and consummate ignorance on what he was speaking’; but Robson retorted that it was ‘an honour to be abused by a placeman’ and went on to oppose the militia establishment, which seemed to him to undermine confidence in the ratification of peace and to add to the heavy expenses already incurred during its delay. In April he unsuccessfully moved for accounts with a view to curbing Bank profits and led the opposition to the additional window tax and the beer and malt duties. He voted for Nicholls’s motion for a vote of thanks for Pitt’s removal from office, 7 May, and attacked the size of the peace establishment, the barrack system and the Irish chancellor’s £10,000 salary, 9 June 1802.
At the ensuing general election he made way at Okehampton for his nephew, Henry’s son, and unsuccessfully contested Bishop’s Castle against the Clive interest. It was also reported that 200 Sudbury voters resident in London had ‘signed a paper to support that perpetually talking man Robson, who has declared he will go as far as £4,000 expenses’, but he did not go to a poll.8 After the elections he visited France and then moved on to Naples, where he lived in style and fêted Earl Spencer’s son Althorp, who wrote home, with apparent sincerity, that Robson had ‘let me into the secrets of finance and politics with as much clearness and eloquence as he frequently has done in the House of Commons’. He returned to England in November 1803.9
In January 1806 he showed an interest in standing again for Okehampton if Althorp, now one of the sitting Members, was successful in the Cambridge University by-election, but Althorp was defeated and had to fall back on the borough. In April he came in on a vacancy for the venal borough of Honiton, to the disgust of the other sitting Member, Augustus Cavendish Bradshaw, who told Lord Holland, 8 Apr., that Robson had been taken up ‘for want of a candidate of Whig principles’.10
He did not vote with the ‘Talents’ on the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr., and was soon causing the new ministers as much irritation as he had their predecessors. He criticized details of the property tax bill, 12 May, but was called to order when he tried to air his views on its principles. On 16 May he moved for information on the barracks, ‘with a view to institute an enquiry into certain gross abuses in that department’. When Lord Henry Petty, the chancellor of the Exchequer, advised him to await the imminent publication of the report of the military commissioners, Robson likened him to the ghost of Pitt and insisted on his right to inquire. The motion was eventually agreed to, but a second related one was resisted and defeated by ministers, because Robson refused to give an adequate explanation of his object in making it. Five days later Petty announced that inquiries had revealed that the motion related to the hire of barracks in the Isle of Wight at extravagant rates in 1805 and moved for production of the information, but he ignored Robson’s truculent demands for an apology. On the introduction of the West Indian accounts bill, 21 May, Robson sarcastically thanked Petty for ‘having explained so ably the atrocious corruption which had been carried on for the last twenty years’. Cobbett, who in 1805 had publicized Robson’s ‘revelation’ about the government bill in 1802 as the ‘first clue’ to the Melville scandal, began to support his campaign on the barracks in the Political Register and intervened at Honiton against Cavendish Bradshaw in June 1806, when he sought re-election after acquiring an Irish sinecure. He subsequently coached and encouraged Robson on the barracks question, sending him, through his hack John Wright, instructions and detailed motions to be moved in the House and backing up his efforts with articles in the Register.11 Robson’s motions of 16 July for returns concerning the hire of temporary barracks since 1793 and the renting of canteens were reluctantly agreed to by ministers, but a subsequent one for information on the sale of cavalry horse dung and other waste matter was negatived. He was furious when, on 18 July, the secretary at war moved for papers in order to disprove some of his allegations; and on 21 July he again moved, this time successfully, for the information denied him on the 16th, though his attack on ministers for refusing to institute a full inquiry led to angry exchanges with Windham:
He had heard much of the talents of this broad-bottomed administration. He wished to God he could persuade them to give up some of their enormous pensions and sinecure places, and thus bring their talents of gold and their talents of silver into the service of the public.
At about this time Farington mentioned Robson to Wilberforce, who bracketed him with Jones and the radical windbag James Paull, dismissed him as ‘very absurd’ and observed that such Members were only troublesome ‘in thin Houses, as it requires numbers to make a body of sound sufficient to cry them down’. Cobbett took a different view and wrote to Wright from Hampshire:
I hope Mr Robson will come down here this summer and he and I will then settle upon a general scheme for an examination into the public expenditure ... Tell him that if he intends to stand for Honiton, he shall have my aid in preference to all other men ... I think him the most valuable man in the Parliament.
In August Cobbett asked Wright to press Robson to make up his mind about Honiton and, in particular, to dispel the rumour that ‘he has an understanding with Bradshaw’, which ‘would be so shamefully bad, that I cannot think of it without shuddering’. Whether Robson had originally intended to stand again for Honiton, where the reformer Lord Cochrane was also in the field, is not clear; but in the event he found himself a cheaper seat. Henry Holland had died in June 1806 and, by his will, Robson became co-trustee of his Okehampton property. He had already agreed to return a nominee of the Prince of Wales for one seat and at the dissolution he took advantage of his position as trustee to override his nephew’s promise of the other to government. Although he informed Spencer, through his embarrassed nephew, of his ‘disposition to support administration’, he ‘refused treating with the Treasury’ and stood himself.12
A month after his unopposed return he wrote to Lord Carysfort, on the pretext of having always supported his interest in Huntingdonshire, asking to be introduced to Lord Grenville in order to discuss the barracks question:
I have in the course of the summer visited many of the barracks and sorry I am to say many of the same abuses now exist, of which I complained as long ago as 1802 ... Wishing as well as I do to his lordship’s administration, I cannot help expressing an anxiety that he should immediately adopt such measures, as will be speedy, effectual, and satisfactory to the people.
Passing the letter on to Grenville, Carysfort wrote:
I have received the enclosed from a troublesome cur in the House of Commons. What shall I say to him? As he cannot be prevented from yelping, and professes to be well disposed, I suppose it will be best to put him under some direction.
Grenville agreed that he should be promised an interview and assured of his interest in any proposals to reform abuses in expenditure.13
On 18 Feb. 1807 Robson, who had recently been depicted in a public print as one of Burdett’s henchmen in his efforts to pull the government down,14 moved again for barracks papers and claimed that his plans for reform could have saved £2,000,000 since 1803. Lord Howick raised difficulties and Robson, satisfied that ministers did intend to reform the barracks system, said he would not press his motion, though in the event it was put from the chair and negatived. In his last known speech, 26 Mar., he complained that barracks papers ordered to be printed four months ago had not yet reached the House and gave notice of a motion on the subject for after the recess. He did not vote with the fallen ministers for Brand’s motion condemning their successors’ pledge on Catholic relief, 9 Apr. 1807.
He had sold the Okehampton property to Christopher Savile* by the time of the general election, when he stood for re-election with Savile’s son, but was ousted by a stranger. He later complained that the Prince’s confidant Thomas Tyrwhitt*, from whom it took him nearly two years to extract money owed for the return of a friend in 1806, had broken a promise and intervened against him.15 He canvassed but did not contest Sandwich on a vacancy in 1808 and the following year showed an interest in a seat for Malmesbury, but negotiations fell through.16
At the general election of 1812 he stood for Shaftesbury and was returned after a contest in which he and his running mate defeated two ministerialists. He was nevertheless listed among Members expected to support government, but the accuracy of this probably optimistic forecast was not put to the test, for he was unseated on petition in February 1813. In 1818 he stood for Dover on the independent interest, proclaiming himself, through his agent, ‘a friend of the people’, but he did not attend in person and his candidature was withdrawn on the second day.17 Robson died 10 Mar. 1827.18
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: David R. Fisher
- 1. D. Stroud, Henry Holland (1966), 18-19.
- 2. Reg. St. Geo. Hanover Square, i. 319.
- 3. Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 98.
- 4. M. D. George, Cat. Pol. and Personal Satires, viii. 9855.
- 5. Add. 38833, f. 11.
- 6. Melville, Cobbett, i. 151.
- 7. The Times, 16, 19 Mar. 1802.
- 8. Add. 38236, f. 103.
- 9. The Times, 21 Feb., 4, 9 Nov. 1803; ‘Althorp Letters’, 27.
- 10. Spencer mss, H. Holland to Spencer, 31 Jan. 1806; Add. 51844.
- 11. Pol. Reg. 30 Mar., 20 Apr. 1805, 17, 24 May, 7, 21 June, 5, 19 July, 16 Aug. 1806; Add. 22906, ff. 163-9, 172.
- 12. Farington Diary (Yale ed.), viii. 2830; Add. 22906, ff. 175, 179, 183; Spencer mss, Holland to Spencer, 19 Oct. 1806; Blair Adam mss, Robson to Tyrwhitt, 7 Jan. 1807.
- 13. Fortescue mss, Robson to Carysfort, 1 Dec., Carysfort to Grenville, 4 Dec., Grenville to Carysfort, 5 Dec. 1806.
- 14. M. D. George, viii. 10697.
- 15. Blair Adam mss, Robson to Tyrwhitt, 7 Jan., to Adam, 29 Apr. 1807, 29 June 1808, Tyrwhitt to Adam, 16 Jan. 1807, 10 July 1808.
- 16. Kent AO Sa/ZP1, Sandwich address, 17 Apr. 1808; Berks. RO, Preston mss, Robson to Sellwood, 16, 19, 22 Nov. 1809.
- 17. Add. 38458, f. 257.
- 18. Gent. Mag. (1827), i. 283.