POWYS, Thomas (1743-1800), of Lilford, Northants.

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



1774 - 13 July 1797

Family and Education

b. 4 May 1743, 1st s. of Thomas Powys of Lilford by Henrietta, da. of Thomas Spence of Palgrave, Norf., serjeant-at-arms to the House of Commons. educ. Eton 1744-9; King’s, Camb. 1760. m. 31 Mar. 1767, Mary, da. of Galfridus Mann of Boughton Malherbe, Kent, 5s. 6da. suc. fa. 1767; cr. Baron Lilford 26 Oct. 1797.

Offices Held

Member, board of agriculture 1793.

Sheriff, Northants. 1768-9.


An independent country gentleman, Powys had his moment of parliamentary glory in 1784 when, after criticizing every government to date, he attempted to lead a phalanx which dictated coalition to Pitt and Fox. On the failure of this bid, in the course of which he alienated Pitt, he again inclined towards opposition. By 1788, as he himself was roundly informed in the House by George Hardinge*, his undoubted debating ability was at a discount, because he had become a partisan. But his return was not opposed in 1790 and he continued to be prominent, though not to shine, in debate. On 21 Dec. 1790, attacking the additional malt tax, the first tax he had ever opposed, he complained that the orders of the day scarcely ever started before five o’clock, and called for a regular time. He was chairman of the Westminster election committee that session. He was a disappointed supporter of the penitentiaries bill approved by a meeting of justices of the peace but lost on 23 Feb. 1791, and insisted on trying another. He was a critic of the corn bill on behalf of the agricultural interest in April. He saw no danger to the established church in English Catholic relief, 8 Apr., and was listed as a supporter of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland at that time. He criticized Pitt’s conduct over Oczakov, 12 Apr., and at first disliked the Quebec bill, though he finally swallowed it, 16 May. He was peevish about parliamentary grants in aid of the civil list to the royal family, 20 May. (He had been defeated in the ballot for the revenue committee in April.) He voted for the abolition of the slave trade, 18 Apr. 1791.

Powys spoke and voted with the minority of 1 Mar. 1792 against the Russian armament, but for the last time. On 15 Mar., symptomatically, he defended Lord Cornwallis’s conduct in India. What really alarmed him was the growth of sedition. He had in 1790 been enthusiastic about Burke’s Reflections on the French revolution.1 He criticized the Friends of the People and on 25 May 1792 seconded the royal proclamation against disaffection. Henceforward Pitt merely noted his speeches in favour of government to the King, without comment. In December 1792 he was listed a Portland Whig. He opposed Fox, 14 Dec.: ‘he would draw a line round France, to prevent the spreading of her infection—he would avoid meddling with her; but if she meddled with us, we had not a choice’. From this it was but one step to seconding the address in favour of a ‘just and necessary war’, 12 Feb. 1793. On 10 and 17 Feb. he attended the ‘third party’ meetings at Windham’s house, presumably as prosyletizer rather than convert. On 18 Feb. he was a teller for government. He declared himself a foe to parliamentary reform on Grey’s motion, 6 May, and was teller against the committal of reform petitions next day. On 28 May he was of the committee appointed to review Warren Hastings’s impeachment. He tried that session to promote a tax on canals. He defended the Sardinian subsidy, 31 Jan. 1794, and the landing of foreign allied troops in England, 10 Feb. On 13 Mar. he approved the militia augmentation, calling for provision for the families of embodied militiamen. On 14 May he was one of the secret committee on sedition. He assured the Speaker, 28 Sept. 1794, of his constant attendance next session, at whatever inconvenience, in support of firm government and the war.2 He opposed Grey’s motion in favour of peace, 26 Jan. 1795. He was in favour of the larger grant to relieve the Prince of Wales’s debts, 14 May, and supported Pitt’s proposals (acting as teller) on 1 June, but deplored the necessity for it, and seconded Sir William Pulteney’s censure of 15 June. That session he carried a bill to standardize weights and measures. He defended the legislation against sedition in November and December 1795. On 9 Dec. he was granted a month’s leave of absence to recover his health.

Powys seconded Addington’s recall to the Speaker’s chair, 27 Sept. 1796. In December he justified the conduct of the county magistrates in calling in the military against rioters at Northampton. He frequently spoke on matters of interest to magistrates, such as poor relief, and was required to help prepare bills. Charles Abbot secured him for his committees on statutes in 1796. On 20 Nov. 1796 he warned Pitt that many Members who were magistrates would be prevented from attending his ‘important measures of finance’ by their local duties.3 On 1 Mar. 1797 he was placed on the secret committee on the Bank stoppage. He last spoke in the House on 12 May 1797: he was alleged to have a ‘coarse and vulgar voice’ and a manner ‘rude and awkward in the extreme’.4 In July he vacated his seat for reasons of health and in anticipation of a peerage. The Morning Chronicle gibed: ‘Equality is the most hideous of all the monsters that haunt poor Mr Powys. It alarms him into the distinction of a peerage.’ He hoped that he would ‘so far recover’ his health as to be active as a peer. On 29 August he informed the Speaker that ‘systematic indolence’ had improved his health, but he ‘cast many a longing lingering look behind’. On 2 Nov. 1797 a member of his wife’s family defended him in the House against a slight on Pitt’s new batch of peers. He himself doubted whether he should ever ‘feel . . so much at home’ in the Lords.5 He died 26 Jan. 1800. He had made Lilford ‘a very fine place’.6

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Burke Corresp. vi. 110, 161.
  • 2. Sidmouth mss.
  • 3. PRO 30/8/168, f. 290.
  • 4. Parl. Portraits (1795), i. 47.
  • 5. Morning Chron. 24 July; Spencer mss, Powys to Spencer, 14 July 1797; Sidmouth mss.
  • 6. Sidmouth mss, Hatsell to Addington, 19 Sept. 1793.