HERON, Sir Robert, 2nd. Bt. (1765-1854), of Stubton Hall, nr. Grantham, Lincs.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 27 Nov. 1765, o. surv. s. of Thomas Heron of Chilham Castle, Kent, recorder of Newark, by 1st w. Anne, da. of Sir Edward Wilmot, 1st Bt., of Chaddesden, Derbys. educ. by Rev. John Skynner at Easton, nr. Stamford 1773; L. Inn 1775; St. John’s Camb. 1783; Grand Tour with Robert Deverell* 1784-5. m. 9 Jan. 1792, Amelia, da. of Sir Horatio Mann*, 2nd Bt., of Linton, Kent, s.p. suc. fa. 1794; uncle Sir Richard Heron as 2nd Bt. 18 Jan. 1805; uncle Rev. Robert Heron to Grantham estate 1813.
Maj. Kesteven vol. cav. 1798; lt.-col. commdt. Grantham vols. 1803, Loveden militia 1808.
Sheriff, Lincs. 1809-10.
A Lincolnshire country gentleman, Heron was the nephew and heir of Sir Richard Heron, who was rewarded for his services as Irish secretary (1776-80) with a baronetcy.1 With no parliamentary interest of his own and indifferent health, Heron found no opening for many years. Perhaps his chief ambition was to represent his county, but he never achieved it. In 1807 he drew attention to himself at the county nomination meeting by challenging the fitness of the Lincoln banker Ellison to represent the agricultural interest of the county: a gesture which, together with his outspoken language, provoked Sir Joseph Banks to predict that he had prejudiced his chances on any future occasion. He was a Whig by sympathy and had he joined forces with Sir Gilbert Heathcote in the county election of 1806 would have had the good wishes of the minister, Lord Grenville. In 1807 he declined to stand at the Lincoln by-election on the Monson interest. In 1812 he was convinced he might have come in for the county but ‘a contest was certain’, so he gave up: yet ‘nothing but the fears and entreaties of my uncle’, he claimed, ‘would have induced me to do so’. Less than a year later his uncle (Robert Heron) died and he no longer feared the expense, though the estate was much encumbered.2
Meanwhile by an arrangement made in September 1811 he came in for Grimsby, ‘named by Lord Yarborough’, at the election of 1812. His own story was that he came to the rescue of the Whig peer’s interest, then in decay, on the suggestion of ‘a common friend’ and gained credit by his complete frankness with the electors as to his principles, though assured that such conduct would ruin him. He felt that his ‘simplicity of manner and conversation’ won him perfect approval at Grimsby, but
in Parliament, to be brilliant, to argue with force, to reply with effect, require powers which I do not possess, or experience which it is too late to attain. The utmost, then, I can permit myself to hope, is, that I may occasionally deliver my opinions in a plain and manly manner, without becoming ridiculous.3
Heron took his seat on 2 Feb. 1813 and on 25 Feb. spoke in favour of the Catholic claims, reporting that his reply to Tomline was ‘exceedingly well received’ and that a witticism of his ‘had a very great effect upon the House’. His criticism of the conduct of the bishop of Lincoln, he admitted, ‘gave considerable offence’ and on 2 Mar. he was attacked by Charles Manners Sutton for it, but he was, he claimed, ‘acquitted by acclamation’ of the charge of having misrepresented the bishop. On 25 Mar., however, his attempt to reply to Rose on finance, in which he opposed touching the sinking fund and called for retrenchment at home, was less happy: ‘The House was tired, I was not sufficiently master of my subject, was alarmed, confused, and failed’. He lamented the deficiency of oratory in the House in general, though he believed it was ‘more fair and candid than for many years’. He voted for sinecure reform, 29 Mar., and was bitterly disappointed at the failure of Catholic relief, 24 May, though he thought the measure proposed inadequate. He voted against the East India Company trade monopoly, 14 June.
In February 1814 he reported:
I have not yet attended the session of Parliament. There was in fact nothing to do. All agreed that every exertion must now be made to prosecute the war to an honourable termination and none of the measures of ministers have met with any opposition.
He was present on 25 Apr. when he voted for Romilly’s motion and on 28 Apr. when he defended Governor Ainslie of Dominica, whose wife was his ‘near relation’, against allegations of inhumanity—he did so again on 2 June 1815 and secured ‘an honourable retreat for him’. His constituents’ gave him no trouble:
they are satisfied with my never going near them but at elections, and they are totally indifferent to politics. Once, indeed, they most anxiously charged me with the negotiations relating to their haven bill. My colleague was absent in Scotland, and the whole rested on me. I took infinite pains, offered good terms to the Haven Company, and these being refused, and finding the whole a job of the Tennysons, for their private interests, I threw out the bill, and had the good fortune to please all parties; it must be owned, however, that good fortune is the only word I am justified in using on the occasion.4
In assenting to the use of the military to protect the approaches to the House, 6 Mar. 1815, Heron raised a laugh by showing his coat torn by the mob and stating that he had ‘escaped with difficulty to tell his tale’. He had supported the corn bill, whence the assault. On 13 Mar. he delivered his sentiments
against the proposed war establishment during peace for four years; incidentally, against the proceedings of the Congress; and above all, against the extravagance of ministers and of the Regent; to little purpose, indeed, but with the satisfactory reflection in my own mind of having discharged my duty.
Next day he went home ‘a good deal indisposed, from a continuation of late hours, together with repeated colds acquired from the bad weather’. The return of Buonaparte did not surprise him as he had ‘betted 5 guineas with Mrs Arbuthnot that he recovered the throne before the year 1816’ and, ‘on the most mature consideration’, he voted against the war with the restored emperor, though he did not doubt its success, because of the expense involved. He admitted that he voted with ministers on the property tax, in 1815,
not to enable them to carry on the war, but, because I infinitely prefer it to the multitude of oppressive taxes, of doubtful produce, by which it must have been replaced. The property tax has, at least, the merit of being productive, it being economical in the collection: of obliging those who live abroad to contribute their share; and of obtaining something, though far from what is due, from the mercantile and monied interests.5
In the session of 1816 Heron was a prominent critic of government’s inability to economize. On 12 Feb. he called for the reduction of taxation and suggested that the Regent should set an example by reducing his expenditure. With reference to a more abusive attack on the Regent by Brougham later, he remarked:
I was the first who spoke the truth on this subject. I was nearly as strong as Brougham, yet it gave almost general satisfaction, merely because it was done without violating accustomed forms, and appeared to rise naturally from the subject in debate.
He favoured a scrutiny of new official salaries, though he had previously clashed with Croker in defence of the four marine barrack masters, who, he felt, were being deprived of their perquisites without adequate remuneration: he regarded this ‘job’ as a stratagem by ‘one of the most determined jobbers’ to ‘obtain credit with the public for economy’. He found the army estimates beyond the country’s means, 27 Feb., and deprecated alliances with foreign despots whose rapacity he emphasized: his contempt for the Bourbons was apparent. Privately he regarded their restoration as ‘the restoration of the Jesuits, of the inquisition, the persecution of the Protestants’. He announced on 28 Feb. that he would oppose the renewal of the property tax that year, calling for retrenchment and a loan instead. He defended the Lincolnshire petition inspired by himself against it, 18 Mar., and when the county member Chaplin criticized it, obtained support from two other Members. He also opposed the continuation of the wartime malt tax and was delighted when ministers abandoned both taxes; he hoped inspectors of taxes would now be declared redundant, 25 Mar. He concluded
I can reflect with some satisfaction, that I have, during the whole session, never omitted any exertion in my power, to promote the great object of public economy. I have, on every occasion, spoke boldly what appeared to me the truth, and have never spared either the ministers or the Court. Contrary to the opinion of almost all my friends, who, though they heartily supported me, yet thought the measure impolitic, I called a county meeting, and justified my determination by the most complete success, after obtaining a most numerous and respectable assembly. My petition against the property and malt tax, and for economy and retrenchment, was presented at the same time with those from Yorkshire, London, and many others, and on the very day on which the fate of the property tax was decided; and to that decision it cannot fairly be denied to have contributed its share.
He gained further satisfaction in April from his successful introduction of a local Poor Acts amendment bill (56 Geo. III c. 130) designed primarily to remedy defects in the Lincoln poor bill of 1796: he thwarted the efforts of Richard Ellison*, who had secured the passage of the latter measure, to obstruct his proposals and was helped on this and other occasions by Romilly.6
When a vacancy arose for Lincolnshire in the autumn of 1816, Heron contemplated standing, but his friends ‘all advised peace’, though his success was ‘deemed sure’, since ‘great part of the county might resent the attempt of carrying two men of independent principles’ and an expensive contest was certain. He was invited at the nomination meeting to come forward, but the election would have had to be postponed to give him time to vacate his seat and he decided to bide his time. Meanwhile, he felt, ministers with ‘neither talents, decision, nor virtue to qualify them to act in such a crisis’, were leading the country to ‘national bankruptcy, a revolution, or both’. On 3 Jan. 1817, opposing the address, he called once more for a reduction of public expenditure and charged government with being too weak to carry out their promises. On 21 Feb. he presented a petition from Gainsborough for triennial Parliaments, with which he did not altogether agree, but felt that it expressed the wishes of the people for reform. He was an opponent of the suspension of habeas corpus in February and June and a sharp critic of the civil services compensation bill in May and June, though he believed his speeches had more effect in the country than in the House. He believed that government were too satisfied with their success in having ‘realarmed the alarmists’ to give any plan of reform a fair hearing, and when Sir Gilbert Heathcote promised a county meeting to petition for economy and reform, he was ‘against bringing forward the second question, though ready to support it’ and it was dropped.7 He voted for Burdett’s reform motion, 20 May.
In December 1817 Heron announced his candidature for the county, intending to take advantage of the clash between Cust and Chaplin, the friends of government. His situation was, however, almost immediately prejudiced by the retreat of Cust and by the refusal of the sitting Whig member to join forces with him. Nor was Heron able to spend as much as the other candidates: he relied on the goodwill of the smaller independent freeholders and a subscription, which was not enough. Meanwhile, in the House, he had expressed his ‘decided opposition’ to the indemnity bill, 13 Mar. 1818, opposed the marriage grant to the Duke of Kent, 15 May, and on 19 May unsuccessfully moved the repeal of the Septennial Act. This confirmed his reputation as ‘a Whig and a reformer’, though he regarded the proposal as ‘the most moderate project of reform which can be entertained. I was heard with great attention for 40 minutes, and did my best. The ministerial side of the House did not vouchsafe a word in reply.’ His motion was defeated by 117 votes to 42.
Heron lost the ensuing county election, but was unwarrantably enthusiastic about his future prospects. He had been materially helped by his friend Lord Milton and, thanks to the latter, came in for Peterborough in November 1819 on Earl Fitzwilliam’s interest. In offering him the seat, 3 Nov., Fitzwilliam hoped they agreed in politics, except perhaps on parliamentary reform; in reply Heron minimized his efforts for reform, describing himself as a moderate who had ‘never been very prominent’ in its support. He accepted the offer, volunteering to resign if they differed, though he was confident that ‘our principles on public questions as nearly agree as can be expected from two men who think for themselves’ and that differences might be resolved by discussion. Unexpectedly, there was a remonstrance against his nomination at Peterborough, based on insinuations about his ‘moral and religious character’. Lord Milton, who checked it, discovered that the opposition was basically political, though Heron’s support for Catholic relief doubtless came into it and the high church clergy were his chief critics: he found that he had been described by one clergyman as ‘a rascal, a jacobin, and an atheist’. However, he made a conciliatory speech, believed that his electors had ‘little respect for the clergy’ and held the seat for the remainder of his public life; the county seat continued to elude him.8
After the Peterloo incident, Heron was confirmed in his belief that ministers had totally failed
in all their political speculations. They had predicted increasing prosperity, and we find only increasing misery and ruin: it appears, therefore, to them absolutely necessary to throw the blame upon the people and this idea is, probably, the more welcome to them, as it will, at the same time, give them the opportunity of diminishing their rights and liberties, particularly those which relate to the consideration of grievances, whether by the use of the press, or in public assemblies.
In Lincolnshire, he claimed, ‘we dare not call a meeting’; and in the House he was disappointed in the prospects of opposition, which he felt Tierney had badly damaged by his imprudence earlier in the year:
This appears to me the most corrupt and vulgar Parliament that ever sat; they blindly support the minister in every proposition. Then, they are all orators, half of them want to speak on every important question. It is true there is an increased number, hostile to administration, but then, there is no third body, of any weight or numbers, to turn the scale on any occasions.
He contented himself with stating that he ‘perfectly and entirely’ opposed the seditious meetings prevention bill, 6 Dec. 1819, and voting steadily against repression 2-15 Dec. Subsequently, ‘the present corrupt system’ in Parliament continued to excite his indignation.9
Heron was a keen observer of the parliamentary scene as his Notes published in 1850 indicated, though his scrutiny of the House is there interspersed with equally perceptive observations on the menagerie he kept at Stubton. He adopted the stance of the man of independent principles and viewed the Whig leaders, as well as ministers, with detachment. He despised political adventurers, among whom Canning was to him the archetype, though outright rogues like Andrew James Cochrane Johnstone amused him by outrageous behaviour; he equally despised opportunism in politics, citing the Addingtonian group as an instance of it. Arrogance and ignorance seemed to him to be the main characteristics of the Regent and his ministers, but his most searching criticisms were reserved for his own side, on which he viewed with distaste the jockeying for prominence. Whitbread, whom he had known since he was 18, was perhaps his favourite, but marred by want of judgment and taste; Ponsonby was ‘deficient in energy’ as a leader, and the dupe of ministers; Tierney too much swayed by ‘party feeling’; Brougham too mischievous; Burdett the victim of his own vanity.10 Heron himself emerged as a somewhat quixotic country gentleman, of whom little notice was taken by the Whig junta. He had his quirks: while opposed to the slave trade, he was equally hostile to missionary activities; and he was the only member to oppose Taylor’s bill to abolish the pillory, 22 Feb. 1816. But his disinterestedness gave him ‘honest satisfaction’, and his credo was clear: ‘In my opinion, in politics and religion, all who are sincere are right.’11 Heron died 26 May 1854.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. DNB.
- 2. Banks Letters ed. Dawson, 409; Fortescue mss, Grenville to St. John, 21 Oct. 1806; Monson mss, memo, 17 Dec. 1807; Heron, Notes (1851), 3, 8.
- 3. Fortescue mss, Lauderdale to Grenville, 2 Sept. 1811; Heron, 3.
- 4. Heron, 10, 13, 14, 29, 41, 46, 59.
- 5. Ibid. 50, 51, 53.
- 6. Ibid. 59, 64, 66, 71.
- 7. Ibid. 73, 74, 78, 80, 84.
- 8. Horner mss 7, f. 131; Heron, 87, 91, 93, 107, 109; Fitzwilliam mss, box 98, Fitzwilliam to Heron, 3 Nov., Heron to Fitzwilliam, 6, 10, 14 Nov.; copy of Heron’s speech, 30 Nov.; X515/10, Milton to Fitzwilliam [23 Nov. 1819].
- 9. Heron, 101, 104, 110, 117.
- 10. Ibid. 13, 15, 37, 57, 68, 80, 85, 101, 230.
- 11. Ibid. 46, 309, 344.