SPENCER, John Charles, Visct. Althorp (1782-1845).

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



27 Apr. 1804 - 1806
1806 - 1832
1832 - 10 Nov. 1834

Family and Education

b. 30 May 1782, 1st s. of George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer, by Lady Lavinia Bingham, da. of Charles Bingham, 1st Earl of Lucan [I]. educ. Harrow 1790-8; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1800-2; Grand Tour 1802-3. m. 13 Apr. 1814, Esther, da. and h. of Richard Acklom of Wiseton Hall, Notts., s.p. suc. fa. as 3rd Earl Spencer 10 Nov. 1834.

Offices Held

Ld. of Treasury Feb. 1806-Mar. 1807; PC 22 Nov. 1830; chancellor of Exchequer and leader of House of Commons Nov. 1830-Dec. 1834.

Cornet, Northants. yeoman cav. 1802, capt.-lt. 1805.


At Cambridge, to please his mother, Althorp paid more attention to his studies than was expected of his rank and was classed first in his college, without neglecting the Turf or losing an innate modesty. ‘There are no subjects on which I can fancy that I possess more information than other people’, he remarked in an autobiographical fragment of 1834, and as to his qualifications for politics:

Even before I was engaged myself I passed my boyhood at the Admiralty, during my father’s brilliant administration of the naval department. I was acquainted with Mr Pitt and Mr Fox, and ever since their deaths I have been on the most intimate terms with all the leaders of the Whig party.

Mrs Nicholson Calvert described him as ‘just grown up’ in 1805. She added ‘He is not handsome, and don’t look like a man of fashion, but he seems very good-humoured and pleasing’. Lady Harriet Cavendish in 1807 noted that he was teased mercilessly by his mother, but was ‘so very natural and has so much simplicity and sincerity of character that it is impossible not to feel a great regard for him, but he wants everything that living out of his own family would perhaps give him’. His sister summed him up as ‘a complete country gentleman of the most respectable sort. An active magistrate, a good-humoured companion, and what very few indeed of the squirearchy are, a sensible, well-informed and well-read man.’1

Althorp returned from his continental tour in May 1803, having shown in his letters to his father how much he approved Earl Spencer’s association with the Grenvillite opposition to Addington’s ministry. Spencer was now on the look-out for a seat in Parliament for him. The illness of the Duke of Portland suggested a vacancy for Buckinghamshire in June 1803, but nothing came of his father’s hopes there. The Spencer nominee for St. Albans, William Stephen Poyntz, solved the problem by purchasing a seat for Althorp at Okehampton on Henry Holland’s interest, in acknowledgment of retaining his own seat gratis. Althorp met with no refusals in a borough of which his father had formerly been co-patron. When he took his seat, 5 May 1804, Pitt was about to return to power. He joined his father and the Grenvilles in opposition. The Whigs complimented him with membership of Brooks’s, 26 June 1804. He voted against Pitt’s additional force bill that month, against war with Spain, 12 Feb., and for Windham’s defence motion, 21 Feb. 1805. Though advised to stay away, he voted in the majorities against Melville, 8 Apr., 12 June 1805, but refused to attend the attempted censure of Pitt.2

On Pitt’s death, Althorp’s father engineered his candidature for Cambridge University. Pitt had acquiesced in this idea formerly, and as recently as June 1804, when there were rumours of Lord Euston’s obtaining a peerage: but Althorp’s competitor was Lord Henry Petty, who enjoyed the support of the ‘old opposition’. It was ‘very awkward’ and despite the prevalent notion that Althorp as the weaker on the canvass would give way and content himself with staking his claim, he did not do so: there was in any case a third man, Lord Palmerston. Petty was successful. Althorp was at first earmarked for a place at the Admiralty board, but on Lord William Russell’s demur, became a lord of the Treasury. ‘The business’, he later claimed, ‘might have been done by anyone who could sign his name as by himself.’ He once acted as government teller, 19 May 1806. It never interfered with his pleasures, which were those of a country sportsman: ‘indeed he used to have horses posted on the road from London to Althorp, and often rode down at night as soon as the House had risen, in order that he might hunt with the Pytchley the next morning’.3

In July 1806 Althorp’s father, brushing aside a hint that he might put him up for Surrey in the place of Lord William Russell, instigated his candidature for Northamptonshire. It was a bold step as he was forcing the hand of Francis Dickins, one of the sitting Members, who was supposed to wish for retirement, and inviting resentment against the heir of a peer with a government place.4 The emergence of another candidate hostile to Althorp ensured a contest, though Dickins eventually gave way. Althorp nevertheless headed the poll. He was listed among the ‘staunch friends’ of abolition of the slave trade. He voted against his friends’ successors in office, 9 Apr. 1807. Unopposed at the ensuing election, he rallied to opposition in the divisions of 26 June and 6 July. On 3 Feb. 1808 he voted against the bombardment of Copenhagen and on 14 Mar. in the minority on the mutiny bill. He indicated his sympathy for Catholic relief, 5, 11, 25 May 1808, and voted against the convention of Cintra, 21 Feb. 1809.

It was the Duke of York affair that broke Althorp’s silence. As Lord Holland reminisced:

‘We have for once’, said Lord Althorp, a spirited young man, keen in sport and in politics, ‘the people in full cry against the Court, and we are fools if we do not ride up to the hounds’.

In his maiden speech, 20 Mar. 1809, Althorp moved that in view of the duke’s resignation the House should not now take further action. His colleague Cartwright successfully amended the motion, omitting the word ‘now’. Althorp’s sister reported that his speech was ‘really excellent, and we hear so from all quarters—the most impartial quarters—it was just what it ought to be’. A month later she reported:

Althorp ... is up to his very ears in politics. Ever since his speech he is grown quite keen about them, and the line of his conduct ... is so perfectly honest and sensible that it is a great comfort to us all. He is very highly thought of and spoken of by everybody.

The older generation was less complacent. Thomas Grenville warned his indulgent father that Althorp was keeping bad company, particularly that of Whitbread and Lord Folkestone, and that he endorsed Thomas William Coke’s plea at Brooks’s for ‘honest youth’ to renounce the compromises of their elders in politics. Spencer defended his son, admitting that he was disillusioned with the opposition leadership and favoured moderate reform. He added that he was gratified that Althorp, who had recently dislocated his shoulder for the second time while hunting, had dipped into politics at all, as he had been in danger of becoming ‘a second Hugo Meynell’. He refused to believe that his son would be drawn into the radical orbit and left it to Grenville to lecture him on the subject. Meanwhile, Althorp himself had indicated to Folkestone, to whom he always gave credit for his political debut, that he was not to be led by the nose. Writing to him on 26 Mar., he revealed that he thought a county meeting to thank Gwyllym Lloyd Wardle* for his exposure of the Duke of York futile; and that while he was gratified with the popularity the affair had gained for opposition, he saw no point in pushing ahead with parliamentary reform, or even the exclusion of placemen from the House (which he favoured), until alarm about radicalism had died down. He warned Folkestone that his father would not stomach his proposal for the statutory exclusion of the royal princes from offices of state and suggested rather that they should pursue corruption wherever it might be found. He could not support Madocks’s intended motion for reform. He did vote for Folkestone’s motion for inquiry into abuses, 17 Apr. 1809, a fact noted with regret by Spencer Perceval in his report to the King.5 He was also in the minorities against corruption, 25 Apr., 1 and 11 May.

By the autumn his excitement had died down and he was ‘fuller of hunting than of political ideas’. His sister was confident that he was ‘as happy as a king’ during the session and a gentle reformer, averse to mobs and violence. Early in 1810 he was ‘always on the road ... torn to pieces by his zeal in wriggling out ministers on one hand and his longing to profit by the thaw in Northamptonshire on the other’. Thus he voted against ministers on 23 and 26 Jan., paired on 5 Mar., but was back to vote against them on the Scheldt question on 30 Mar. He avoided the case of Sir Francis Burdett and the reform issue, but was roped in to second Charles Williams Wynn’s resolutions on the privileges of the House, 8 June 1810. On 17 May he had supported sinecure reform. After dislocating his shoulder yet again, he joined opposition against the adjournment, 29 Nov. 1810, and (after being out of town) on the Regency bill, 1 Jan. 1811, but took no further part that session until 6 June when he seconded Milton’s censure of the reappointment of the Duke of York as commander-in-chief. Soon afterwards he was obliged to escort the duke through his father’s park. In the session of 1812 he was also selective, pairing with his hunting companion Viscount Lowther in March.6 He had voted in the minorities on the Household bill, 27 Jan., on the state of Ireland, 4 Feb., and for Turton’s censure motion, 27 Feb. He went on to oppose McMahon’s appointment, 14 Apr., and supported Catholic relief, 24 Apr. He voted for a stronger administration, 21 May. He opposed the leather tax (abhorred by his constituents) 26 June, 1 July, and the domestic search bill, 13 July 1812.

Althorp was not conspicuous in the ensuing Parliament until 1815. In the first session he voted, as always, for Catholic relief and sinecure reform. He also renewed his opposition to the leather tax and opposed the East India Company’s commercial monopoly, 14 June, while supporting Christian missions to India, 22 June 1813. The next session (the year of his marriage) was a blank. He later claimed to have opposed the Corn Laws. In 1815 he resumed steady opposition, without seeing eye to eye with the Whigs on all questions. He opposed the resumption of hostilities, 7 Apr., acting as teller for Whitbread’s motion, and again on 28 Apr. He opposed the continuation of the property tax and voted steadily for retrenchment. On 31 May 1815 he moved for inquiry into the Prince Regent’s expenditure of £100,000 granted him by Parliament for his ‘outfit’: the motion was defeated by 225 votes to 105. Renewing his opposition to the property tax, against which he presented local petitions on 26 Feb. and 6 Mar. 1816, he adumbrated his motion of 7 May for a committee of inquiry into public offices, with a view to eliminating junior Members at the Treasury and Admiralty boards. This failed by 169 votes to 126. He also failed in a bid to amend the aliens bill, 28 May 1816, but secured a committee on the leather tax, 9 May. In February and June 1817 he opposed the suspension of habeas corpus, making ‘a useful and impromptu speech’, which was, he complained, not ‘answered or taken notice of in the House, and ... very ill-reported in the Chronicle’.7

At the opening of the session in January 1818, Althorp was entrusted with an attack on the renewal of the suspension of habeas corpus and on the conduct of the attorney-general in Hone’s trial as his parliamentary objectives. The former was frustrated by ministers who themselves announced repeal, 27 Jan. 1818, but he made his point about the latter the same day. On 11 Feb. he objected to the ‘lavish’ compensation to Spain for foregoing the slave trade by treaty. He tried on 6 Mar. to secure a reduction of the army by 5,000 men, but was defeated by 63 votes to 42. On 9 Mar. he opposed the indemnity bill. He was given credit for these efforts. On 21 Mar. he informed his friend Lord Milton:

The experienced people in the opposition say it is impossible for us to go on without an acknowledged leader. Duncannon says that without one we must certainly go entirely to pieces and that he has never had so much difficulty in getting an attendance as this session. Tierney, Newport and Duncannon have pressed me very much to take the office and they say that most of the party wish it very much. Now I must admit to you at least that there are some circumstances which render me not an improper person. I am very intimate with both Tierney and Brougham, am also very well with Burdett and Lambton and particularly intimate with Folkestone and Bennet, these render my personal influence in the House of Commons perhaps more general than that of any of our party. I am also as intimate with Lord Lansdowne as anybody and he is likely to be the opposition leader in the House of Lords, but against these advantages and perhaps some other inferior ones is to be set my total incapacity for the office, for the most overpowering vanity could not make me fancy that I could speak readily on the different subjects that come under discussion. They say that by practice I should attain this power—this may possibly be the case but at present I certainly am not equal to it. If however this was not the case I have most decided objections to myself or any one else being made leader unless he comes quite naturally into the situation, it only incites jealousy in our own party and ridicule among our opponents. I therefore have decidedly refused. I will not say that there was not a considerable struggle between my vanity and my reason before I came to this decision, because I think the being leader of such a party as the present opposition is the most honourable one a man can have; it is given by the unbiased votes of a large number of very clever men whereas any other sort of honour in the country comes from the single choice of an individual on whose good opinion no sensible man would particularly plume himself. For these reasons I confess my vanity was very near overpowering my reason but I know you will be glad that my reason conquered at last.

He added that he thought the leadership ought to go into commission, but on 14 Apr. he wrote to say that he had given up this idea as being unconstitutional: the opposition was ‘not a body acknowledged in the state and they ought not therefore to organise themselves so much as to elect a committee of superintendence for the purpose of thwarting the measures of government’. Tierney who thought the party needed, above all, an ‘eating leader’ made no reference to what, in John George Lambton’s view, was the chief objection to Althorp: ‘He had an impediment in his utterance which is not only very tiresome to the House but makes it very painful for them to listen to him’. He subsequently supported the move to make Tierney leader, and signed the requisition to him.8

Althorp had to give up his bill to repeal the leather tax, defeated on 6 Apr. 1818. He announced his intention of opposing the ducal marriage grants, except that to the Duke of Clarence, on whom it was incumbent to produce an heir to the throne. He said as much, 15 May 1818. He supported Tierney’s motion for a committee on the state of the circulating medium, 1 May, though he admitted that he was no financier.9 He opposed the aliens bill, 5 May. On 19 May he voted for the repeal of the Septennial Act, and, though he did not vote for Burdett’s reform motions of 1817 and 1819, he did support burgh reform in the latter year.

His wife’s death in childbed, 11 June 1818, caused him infinite sorrow. He gave up his farming at Wiseton, even his hunting, and took up residence with his mother-in-law in a state of religious melancholy. He was almost written off, but his ‘natural turn’ was ‘politics’, which, as he later complained, ‘have a tendency to diminish religious feelings’, and in February 1819 he was back at Westminster voting steadily with opposition.10 In March he took up the case of Thomas Stinton, a soldier court-martialled for attending a committee of the House in dereliction of his military duty. He spoke in support of the resumption of cash payments by the Bank, 5 Apr. He opposed the army estimates, 7 May. He sponsored an insolvent debtors relief bill, rejected in the Lords. (He renewed it next session, but it was thwarted by the dissolution.) In November 1819 Lord Grey pronounced him ‘full of warm and good feelings, and remarkably sensible’.11 He joined the young lions of the party in opposition to repression, moving (in conjunction with Lord Lansdowne in the other House) for information on the state of the country, 30 Nov. The motion was defeated by 323 votes to 150. He spoke against the seditious meetings bill, 7 Dec. He proposed three amendments. His bid to confine its operation to 12 troubled counties was defeated by 191 votes to 51. He opposed all the ensuing restrictive measures. At the same time he described Robert Owen’s experiment as ‘absurd’. His attendance at the Yorkshire county meeting to deplore Earl Fitzwilliam’s dismissal from the lord lieutenancy, and at the Westminster protest meeting, 8 Dec. (at which he in fact opposed the radical resolution instructing the opposition in both Houses to secede) did not go unnoticed: in January 1820 a bid was made to oust him from the chair of the county sessions. Although unopposed for the county since 1806, he could never make much headway against what he called ‘the old Tory interest’. Once more his family was alarmed about the company he kept.12

‘Honest Jack Althorp’ relished the label of an ‘old mountaineer’ and, as ‘the best leader of the House of Commons that any party ever had’, ushered through parliamentary reform in 1832.13 He died 1 Oct. 1845. He believed in the value of parliamentary debates ‘as a key to a correct knowledge of English history’.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


Based on the Spencer mss and Sir Denis Le Marchant, Mem. of Visct. Althorp (1876).

  • 1. Warrenne Blake, Irish Beauty, 44; Letters of Lady Harriet Cavendish, 184, 194; Corresp. of Lady Lyttelton, 51.
  • 2. Spencer mss. ‘Althorp letters’, pp. 21, 23, 32; Lady to Ld. Spencer, Mon. [30 Jan.], Althorp to same, 24 Apr. 1804; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iii. 304; HMC Fortescue, vii. 255; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 15 June 1805.
  • 3. Kent AO, Stanhope mss 731/5; Fitzwilliam mss, X516/26, Fox to Fitzwilliam, 22 Jan., Ld. Dundas to same, 30 Jan.; Chatsworth mss, Duchess of Devonshire to Hartington, 22, 23 Jan.; Spencer mss, Althorp to Spencer, 25, 27, 31 Jan. 1806; HMC Fortescue, viii. 16-17; Parl. Deb. xxxiv. 361; Le Marchant, 87.
  • 4. Spencer mss, Bedford to Spencer, 21 June; Blair Adam mss, Bedford to Adam, 21 June, Spencer to Bedford, 25 June 1806; see NORTHAMPTONSHIRE.
  • 5. Holland, Further Mems. Whig Party, 28; Corresp. of Lady Lyttelton, 64, 68; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 27 Mar.; Add. 48154, ff. 239, 241, 243, 245, 249, 253; Spencer mss, Grenville to Spencer, 30 Mar., 1, 5 Apr. 1809; HMC Fortescue, ix. 285, 288; Berks. RO, Pleydell Bouverie mss 025/68, 69, 94; Geo. III Corresp. v. 3857.
  • 6. Fitzwilliam mss, box 76, Althorp to Milton, 7 Oct. 1809; Corresp. of Lady Lyttelton, 71, 89, 93, 116; Add. 41858, f. 56; Beds. RO, Antonie mss UN452, Whitbread to Lee Antonie, 3 Dec. 1810; HMC Fortescue, x. 150; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 446.
  • 7. Parl. Deb. xli. 1210; Pope of Holland House, ed. Lady Seymour, 140; Spencer mss, Lady to Ld. Spencer [25 June 1817].
  • 8. Fitzwilliam mss, box 92, Althorp to Milton, 21 Jan., 21 Mar., 14 Apr. 1818; Romilly, Mems. iii. 327; Grey mss, Lambton to Grey, 26 Mar. [1818]; Holland, 265; Hants RO, Tierney mss 23b.
  • 9. Fitzwilliam mss, box 92, Althorp to Milton, 14, 20 Apr. 1818.
  • 10. Ibid. box 94, same to same, 4 Nov.; Add. 51584, Tierney to Holland, 23 Sept. 1818; Buckingham, Regency, ii. 278.
  • 11. Grey mss, Ld. to Lady Grey, 26 Nov. 1819.
  • 12. Fitzwilliam mss, box 70, Althorp to Fitzwilliam, 16 Nov. 1806; Pleydell Bouverie mss 025/68; Grey mss, Althorp to Grey, 12, 16 Feb. 1817, Tierney to same 25 Sept. 1819; Spencer mss, ‘Althorp letters’, pp. 95, 97; The Times, 9 Dec. 1819; Corresp. of Lady Lyttelton, 222.
  • 13. Fitzwilliam mss, box 92, Althorp to Milton, 17 May 1818; Greville Mems. ed. Strachey and Fulford, v. 230-1.