DOLBEN, Sir William, 3rd Bt. (1727-1814), of Finedon, nr. Wellingborough, Northants.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



3 Feb. - 11 Mar. 1768
1768 - 1774

Family and Education

b. 12 Jan. 1727, o.s. of Rev. Sir John Dolben, 2nd Bt., rector of Burton Latimer and vicar of Finedon, by Hon. Elizabeth Digby, da. of William, 5th Baron Digby [I]. educ. Westminster 1734; Christ Church, Oxf. 1744. m. (1) 17 May 1748, Judith (d. 6 Jan. 1771), da. and h. of Somerset English of Scotland Yard, Westminster, 1s. 1da.; (2) 14 Oct. 1789, his 1st cos. Charlotte, da. of Gilbert Affleck of Dalham Hall, Suff., wid. of John Scotchmer, banker, of Bury St. Edmunds, Suff. s.p. suc. fa. as 3rd. Bt. 20 Nov. 1756.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Northants. 1760-1; capt. Northants. vol. cav. 1797, 2 militia 1798-9; capt. commdt. Finedon vol. inf. 1803.


Dolben was secure in his university seat as long as he was ‘able to perform the duties annexed to it’1. He more than once contemplated retirement, before old age and ‘increasing deafness’ prompted his decision to do so in 1806; even then, he was reluctant to stand down unless a suitable successor (preferably a Christ Church man) replaced him without conflict. His extreme tenderness towards the conventions of his university, manifest in his letters of abdication to the dean of Christ Church, was undoubtedly the secret of the esteem in which he was held as its representative. His august character (he was the son of a baronet clergyman, a former Visitor of Balliol College and descended from archbishops of Canterbury and York), his independence of political behaviour, his loyalty to the establishment in church and state and his conscientiousness and humanitarianism in the matter of the slave trade made him an ideal Member for the university.2

Dolben contributed fairly frequently to debate and he was generally one of the Members whose views Pitt mentioned to the King. On 9 Feb. 1791 he successfully moved for an immediate committee on the criminal offenders bill. On 8 Apr. he had something to say (probably critical) on the Catholic relief bill: that month he was listed hostile to the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland. On 3 June 1791 and 7 Mar. 1792 he feared that the establishment proposed for the Prince of Wales was too generous and a burden to the people: he was a member of the committee of inquiry into it. His main subject, however, was the abolition of the slave trade, on which he had collaborated with William Wilberforce*, although they did not always see eye to eye. On 21 May 1792 he was given leave to bring in his annual bill to regulate the slave trade, that is, to continue existing but expiring legislation on the subject, and on 14 May 1793 he ‘strenuously’ supported Wilberforce’s abolition bill. He was usually chairman at the committee stage of abolition bills. On 10 Apr. 1793 he supported a bill to prevent canal workings at harvest time and on 15 May was in favour of the establishment of a board of agriculture, though he thought that unless it awarded prizes it would be ineffective (17 May). On 22 May, backing Wilberforce, he opposed the slave trade with foreign lands, alleging that commerce would not suffer by its prohibition. On 7 June, opposing the Farnham Hop bill, carried by George Rose against the consensus of legal opinion in the House, he said that ‘his admiration of a man propositum tenacem could only extend to that man whose propositum was justum’. On 17 June he objected to Fox’s peace motion as premature. He concurred with the findings of the secret committee on sedition, 16 June 1794.

On 26 Jan. 1795 Dolben voted with the minority against Pitt’s amendment to Grey’s peace motion, his first such vote of the Parliament. Yet on 7 Feb. he supported the imperial loan, and was against Grey’s peace motion the following day. On 20 Feb. he raised the question of the alleged ill treatment by administration of the claims of the recalled governor of Cape Breton island, Des Barres: he had written to Pitt in favour of the ex-governor in January 1793, asking for an inquiry to be instituted into the state of the island during his administration.3 He reverted to the subject in the House, without avail (11 June). In March and April 1795 he shepherded through the committee stage a bill to make the Lord’s Day Observance Act more effective. On 27 May he supported Wilberforce’s peace motion. On 1 June, reassured by the King’s message, he spoke in favour of the payment of the Prince of Wales’s debts, and he was teller for the unsuccessful bid to guarantee a fixed allowance to the Princess, 17 June. On 26 and 27 Nov. 1795 he and Windham were alone in speaking and voting ‘in exculpation’ of John Reeves’s High Tory pamphlet Thoughts on English government. On 29 Nov. he thought rioting should be treated as a misdemeanour and not as a felonious offence. On 14 Dec., again attempting to defend Reeves’s pamphlet, he was called to order by the Speaker. He was teller against Reeves’s prosecution that day. On 7 Mar., 15 Mar. and 27 Apr. 1796 he supported the total abolition of the slave trade by voice and vote and after this had failed brought in a regulating bill, 9 May, which he begged, as he would not sit in another Parliament, the House might carry, May; as, however, he proposed to place the trade in the hands of the government and not of individuals, Wilberforce dissented.4

Nor did Dolben retire from Parliament: on 15 May 1797 he was again advocating abolition and on 26 May Grey’s motion for the reform of Parliament, a cause which he had supported in 1783 and 1785. He had voted with Sheridan against the order in council on specie, 28 Feb., and on 27 June he spoke against the notion of a general enclosure bill, because he thought enclosures made provisions dear: moreover, he thought enclosers should be made to plant more timber on their land to furnish the navy, 1 Jan. 1799. On 11 May 1798 he brought up the report on his slave carrying bill and defended it, 21 May. He had voted for Pitt’s assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798. On 18 May he supported Buxton’s proposal that there should be no new land tax without a tax on other property. On 31 Mar. 1800 he defended William Baker’s bill to prevent the removal of the casual poor, for which he had suggested a new title. In the debate on the union with Ireland he in vain suggested that no Irish representative peers be created without independent means—Pitt pointed out that there was never a property qualification for the peerage. He voted for Sturt’s motion critical of the Ferrol expedition, 19 Feb., and for Grey’s for an inquiry into the state of the nation, 25 Mar. 1801.

Dolben supported Addington’s administration. He said it was the farmers selling corn too dear that put up the poor rates, 9 Dec. 1802. On 2 Mar. 1803 he suggested, outspokenly, that the Princess of Wales be guaranteed £6,000 out of £60,000 p.a. proposed for the Prince, but after a debate withdrew the suggestion. On 3 May he said he approved of unbeneficed clergy taking on farms and he took part in other debates on the condition of the clergy. He defended the Marine Society fishery bill against the imputation of monopoly, 27 Mar. 1804. On Pitt’s return to power in 1804, Dolben was opposed to the additional force bill, 8 June, though he said he would give it a fair hearing, 15 June. He was listed as a supporter of Pitt in September. On 19 July 1804 he gave notice of a motion to make planting timber on enclosed lands compulsory—it was eventually negatived, 31 May 1805. On 6 Mar. 1805 he voted for Sheridan’s motion for the repeal of the Additional Force Act. In the debate on the Catholic claims, 14 May, Dolben, whose retirement was thought imminent, said he rose ‘under great infirmity of body’ to give his negative. He voted against the Duke of Atholl’s Manx claims, 7 June. He was listed ‘doubtful Sidmouth’ in July. On the advent of the Grenville ministry he was unsympathetic and even voted against their repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. His last speech, 9 May 1806, was on preventing bribery at elections—in August he informed the university of his retirement, reassured that Charles Abbot* would succeed to his seat. Spencer Perceval reported, 26 Oct.:

His reason for retiring is his deafness; he says he can hardly hear common conversation, cannot follow a debate; and thinks therefore that he ought not to continue in Parliament. He looks very well and is very cheerful. He is anxious about the contest in the county, thinking Dickins ill used.

He went on to nominate Dickins for Northamptonshire and to call on the two new candidates to retire. In September 1808 the Duke of Portland obtained a pension for him.5

He died 20 Mar. 1814, ‘one of the most virtuous senators and public characters of his time’, as well as being ‘an elegant and sound scholar ... zealous for the established church’, addicted latterly to writing Latin poems, of lively conversation full of apt quotations ancient and modern and of a ‘calm yet cheerful spirit’. His only son and heir being a lunatic, his grandson became his administrator.6

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Boroughs, ii. 22.
  • 2. PRO 30/9/15, Dolben to the Dean of Christ Church, 11, 15 July 1806; W. R. Ward, Georgian Oxford (1958), 229; Dolben mss at Northants. RO.
  • 3. PRO 30/8/130, f. 11.
  • 4. Colchester, i. 11.
  • 5. Add. 49188, f. 15; Northampton Mercury, 8 Nov. 1806; Geo. III Corresp. v. 3712.
  • 6. Gent. Mag. (1814), i. 417; PCC admon. act bk. June 1814 (Suffolk).