ASHHURST, William Henry (1778-1846), of Waterstock, nr. Thame, Oxon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Constituency

Dates

12 Oct. 1815 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 19 Oct. 1778, 1st s. of Sir William Henry Ashhurst, judge of k.b., 1770-1800, and Grace, da. of Robert Whalley, MD, of Oxford. educ. Charterhouse 1790-4; Worcester, Oxf. 1796. m. (1) 10 Dec. 1806, Elizabeth (d. 2 Oct. 1828), da. of Oswald Mosley of Bolesworth Castle, Cheshire, 5s. (1 d.v.p.) 3da. (1 d.v.p.); (2) 15 Aug. 1839, Selina, da. of Sir John Morshead†, 1st bt., of Trenant Park, Cornw., wid. of Sir Charles Mill, 10th bt., of Newton Berry, Hants, s.p. suc. fa. 1807. d. 3 June 1846.

Offices Held

Cornet Bullington cav. vols. 1798, lt. 1806.

Sheriff, Oxon. 1810-11; chairman, q.s. 1822-d.; pres. Oxon. Agric. Soc. 1837-d.

Biography

Ashhurst, whose family had been settled at Waterstock since the late seventeenth century, was a progressive dairy farmer, a promoter of enclosure and, from 1822, a long-serving chairman of Oxfordshire quarter sessions.1 As county Member, he had shown a degree of independence in his first Parliament, but all his known votes in that of 1818 were with the Liverpool ministry. He signed the requisition for a county meeting to vote a loyal address to the regent in the aftermath of Peterloo and moved the vote of thanks to the sheriff at the end of its proceedings, 12 Nov. 1819.2 His written addresses at the general election of 1820, when he stood again for the county, contained only the customary platitudes. At the nomination, when there was no opposition to him and the other sitting Member, Ashhurst, who had earlier endorsed the address of condolence and congratulation to George IV, responded to complaints of agricultural distress by observing that the 1815 corn law had ‘failed in its intended effect’ and that ‘the depreciation in the price of grain was attributable to the large, unrestrained importation of foreign corn’. He claimed to desire ‘an enlightened and judicious’ revision of the law.3

In January 1821 he signed the requisition for a county meting to vote a loyal address to the king over the Queen Caroline affair. He attended it, 22 Jan., when supporters of the queen carried an amendment condemning her prosecution.4 Perhaps mindful of this demonstration of popular support for her, he voted, to the surprise of Charles Long*, in the minority for the restoration of her name to the liturgy, 26 Jan.5 He divided with government against the opposition censure motion, 6 Feb., but was again in the minority on the liturgy question, 13 Feb. He presented Oxfordshire agricultural distress petitions, 19 Feb., 1 Mar., but voted with ministers against repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr.6 He voted against Catholic relief, 28 Feb. He paired against abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 23 May. He was in the ministerial majority against the omission of arrears from the grant to the duke of Clarence, 18 June 1821. Ashhurst was named annually to a number of select committees, but his attendance at the House appears to have become rather spasmodic. He voted against more extensive tax reductions, 11, 21 Feb., Canning’s bill to relieve Catholic peers of their disabilities, 30 Apr. 1822, and Scottish parliamentary reform, 2 June 1823. On 11 Mar. 1823 he presented a Thame petition for a bill to facilitate the recovery of small debts.7 A radical publication described him at this time as a ‘ministerialist’.8 He voted against reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 26 Feb., and repeal of the usury laws, 27 Feb. 1824. He presented a Thame petition for repeal of the assessed taxes, 18 Mar.9 On Hume’s motion for information on commitments by magistrates, 2 Mar., he expressed a fear that ‘imputations would be thrown upon the magistrates which they would not possess the means of refuting’. He presented a petition for the abolition of slavery, 17 Mar. 1824.10 In 1825, when it was remarked that he ‘voted very rarely, and always with the administration’,11 he voted against Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May, and the Irish franchise bill, 26 Apr., and for the duke of Cumberland’s grant, 30 May. He presented Oxfordshire petitions against any alteration of the corn laws, 25 Apr., 4 May.12

When a vacancy occurred for Oxford University early in 1826 and it seemed likely that the unpopular Sir Charles Wetherell* would walk over, an approach was made to Ashhurst, whose brother Thomas was a fellow of All Souls, but he declined to stand. Peel, the home secretary and Member for the University, who had an unaccountably high regard for Ashhurst, commented that he ‘would be at least a creditable Member’. He was criticized by one observer for his subsequent ‘foolish’ act of telling his brother that there was still widespread support at Westminster for the pretensions of the pro-Catholic Canning.13 In the House, 21 Feb. 1826, responding to Martin’s demand to know why he had not punished a man accused of torturing a bull who had been brought before the bench, he said that the evidence had been inconclusive and that bull-baiting was not illegal. He presented petitions for the abolition of slavery, 20 Mar.,12 Apr.14 He was against ‘the indiscriminate admission ... of the public at all times’ to Westminster Abbey, 13 Apr., because ‘the monuments would be exposed to every kind of mutilation and injury’. He presented a Chipping Norton petition against alteration of the corn laws, 27 Feb.,15 and voted in the protectionist minority against the second reading of the corn bill, 11 May 1826. His poor parliamentary attendance record and perceived failure to defend the agricultural interest with sufficient vigour had created some discontent in the county. (He had been criticized for failing to explain his support for the modified corn law of 1822 at that year’s meeting of the Oxfordshire Agricultural Society.) At the general election of 1826 he offered again, resting on his past conduct, but his critics promoted the candidature of George Stratton, a zealous protectionist and opponent of Catholic claims, who had nominated him in 1820. At the annual meeting of the Agricultural Society, 7 June, he defended himself:

He had from the first supported the corn laws; he had constantly advocated them; he was morally certain that a protecting price, below which corn was not to be admitted, was the only sure and effective protection to the agriculturists, that no duty which they could hope to obtain would afford them the like or indeed any protection; and ... he had ... continued his support of those laws ... by voting in the minority [on 11 May].16

Peel was ‘very sorry’ to learn from one of his Oxford correspondents that Ashhurst was in ‘great danger of losing his seat’, for ‘I really think him a most valuable Member of Parliament, a man of most independent mind, and of the soundest principles’.17 At the nomination, Ashhurst and his seconder boasted that such was his commitment to the county that he had turned down the chance of a seat for life for the University. He again vindicated his conduct on the corn laws, denied having voted for the Cumberland grant, and excused his failure to show himself in all parts of the county, especially the north, by pleading the demands made on his time by his parliamentary and magisterial duties. Complaining of betrayal by some of his former supporters, he announced his retirement, for ‘with a large family of children, and with no large fortune’, he was not prepared to fight a contest. He reminded the freeholders of the ruinous ‘speculative projects’ which had forced Stratton to sell his Oxfordshire property and warned them to consider well before returning him. His supporters nominated an alternative candidate, who ‘declined a contest’, and subsequently issued a declaration calling on Ashhurst to stand his ground and offering financial support through a public subscription. He retracted his resignation and went to a poll, which he topped, after a surge of support on the third day for himself and the other sitting Member had wiped out Stratton’s early lead. In anticipation of this, he told Peel, who claimed that he would derive ‘sincere personal gratification’ from his success, that he had ‘no doubt’ of overcoming the ‘totally unexpected’ opposition.18

Ashhurst presented several Oxfordshire petitions against Catholic relief, 5 Mar. 1827, and voted in that sense the following day.19 He voted against the second reading of the corn bill, 2 Apr. He conveyed his ‘unfeigned regret’ to Peel over his departure from office on the formation of Canning’s ministry that month.20 He was given a week’s leave, 14 May 1827. When Peel notified him of his return to the home office under the duke of Wellington in January 1828, Ashhurst responded warmly, observing that despite the current fractured state of parties and opinions, there was ‘not the slightest doubt of your having the confidence and support of the nation’, as ‘character and principle in their rulers always ensures the confidence of the people’.21 He was appointed to the finance committee, 15 Feb. He voted against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and presented hostile petitions from his neighbourhood, 17 Mar. He secured a return of average corn prices and duties under the 1827 law, 29 Feb., and on 14 Mar. presented an Oxford maltsters’ petition for repeal of the Malt Act. He criticized aspects of Gordon’s legislation to regulate the running of asylums for pauper lunatics, 17, 25 Mar. He presented three anti-Catholic petitions, 25 Apr., and voted against relief, 12 May. He presented petitions from Chipping Norton for the more effectual prevention of horse stealing, 23 May, and the abolition of slavery, 30 May, and one from Dolgelly in favour of the circulation of small bank notes, 13 June. He was in the ministerial majority on the ordnance estimates, 4 July 1828. His wife died three months later.

In early February 1829, when Planta, the patronage secretary, predicted that he would vote ‘with government’ for Catholic emancipation, Ashhurst’s brother informed the bishop of Oxford, who in turn told Peel, that he would ‘wait to see what measures were proposed’.22 When he presented and endorsed hostile petitions, 16 Feb., he said that his view of the dangers of emancipation, which would not in itself satisfy the Catholics, remained unchanged; but he disclaimed any intention of offering ‘pertinacious opposition’ if it proved to be the ‘decided determination’ of the Commons to carry it, and gave full credit to Peel for ‘the purity of his motives and the manliness of his conduct’. He presented more petitions against emancipation, 20 Feb., 10 Mar., and was its steady though silent opponent, 6, 18, 23, 27, 30 Mar. He presented a Witney petition against the labourers’ wages bill, 15 May 1829. Emancipation did not permanently alienate him from the administration, and in November 1829 Peel told Wellington that Ashhurst had written to him ‘in very good humour’.23 He voted with government against the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., and Lord Blandford’s reform scheme, 18 Feb. 1830. He voted against Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May. He presented a Chipping Norton petition for relaxation of the penal code, 7 Apr., but voted against the abolition of capital punishment for forgery, 7 June, when he was also in the government majority for the grant for South American missions. He presented a Henley petition against the consumption of beer on retail premises, 19 May, and on 21 June 1830 voted for an amendment to the sale of beer bill to that effect. Four days later, a new candidate having started for Oxfordshire in anticipation of the general election, he announced his retirement, as ‘occurrences have taken place, which, in a domestic point of view, render the duties of a Member of Parliament peculiarly inconvenient to me’.24

In late November 1830 he helped to organize a force of special constabulary in his locality to deal with ‘Swing’ disturbances.25 The following month he sought information from a friend in Oxford about the comparative prices of meat, grain and butter at the local market before the French wars and at present; he wished to ascertain whether land and tithe holders were being fairly abused for increasing rents, though he saw no reason why labourers’ wages should not be increased in proportion.26 At the contested county election of 1831 he plumped for Lord Norreys*, whose candidature had provoked his own retirement, and who, as a professed supporter of moderate reform, was defeated by two uncompromising reformers.27 Ashhurst, whose eldest son William Henry died in June 1843, applied at least three times to Peel during his second ministry for church preferment for his second surviving son James Henry, an impecunious curate. Although Peel was genuinely anxious to oblige his ‘old friend’ if possible, his attempts to do so were frustrated.28 James subsequently obtained livings at Great Milton and Waterstock.29 Ashhurst, who had been ‘in failing health for some time’, died of ‘dropsy’ in June 1846, having survived long enough to see Peel repeal the corn laws. By his will, dated 3 Oct. 1828, and a codicil of 19 June 1843, he provided for his five younger children out of his first wife’s fortune. His settled estates passed to his eldest surviving son John Henry Ashhurst (1813-85). According to a glowing obituary

his death has thrown a gloom over the whole county; cheerful, generous and good, he fulfilled the character of a thorough English country gentlemen, combined with that of the higher character of a Christian; and he is followed to the grave by the tears and blessings of many, by the respect and regret of all.30

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher

Notes

  • 1. VCH Oxon. vii. 221, 223, 225; W.E. Tate, ‘Members of Parl. and Enclosure’, Agricultural Hist. xxiii (1949), 219; Gent. Mag. (1846), ii. 98.
  • 2. Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 30 Oct., 13 Nov. 1819.
  • 3. Ibid. 26 Feb., 4, 11, 18 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. Oxford University and City Herald, 13, 20, 27 Jan. 1821.
  • 5. Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 27 Jan. [1821].
  • 6. The Times, 20 Feb., 2 Mar. 1821.
  • 7. Ibid. 12 Mar. 1823.
  • 8. Black Bk. (1823), 136.
  • 9. Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 27 Mar. 1824.
  • 10. The Times, 18 Mar. 1824.
  • 11. Session of Parl. 1825, p. 448.
  • 12. The Times, 26 Apr., 5 May 1825.
  • 13. Add. 40342, ff. 307, 316; 40385, ff. 132, 151.
  • 14. The Times, 21 Mar., 13 Apr. 1826.
  • 15. Ibid. 28 Feb. 1826.
  • 16. Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 3, 10 June; Oxford University and City Herald, 10 June 1826.
  • 17. Add. 40387, ff. 105, 107.
  • 18. The Times, 13, 16, 19-21 June; Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 17, 24 June; Oxford University and City Herald, 17 June 1826; Add. 40387, ff. 135, 146, 188.
  • 19. The Times, 6 Mar. 1827.
  • 20. Add. 40393, ff. 226, 233.
  • 21. Add. 40395, f. 67.
  • 22. Add. 40343, f. 353.
  • 23. Add. 40308, f. 262.
  • 24. Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 26 June 1830.
  • 25. Wheatley Recs. ed. W.O. Hassall (Oxon. Rec. Soc. xxvii), 86.
  • 26. Add. 34570, f. 356.