BONHAM, Francis Robert (1785-1863), of Old Steyne, Brighton, Suss. and 16 Clarges Street, Piccadilly, Mdx.
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Family and Educationb. 6 Sept. 1785, 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of Francis Warren Bonham of Ballintagart, co. Kildare and Clongaffyn, co. Meath and 2nd w. Dorothea, da. of Edward Herbert, MP [I], of Muckross, co. Kerry. educ. privately; Corpus, Oxf. 1804; L. Inn 1808, called 1814. unm. suc. fa. to Clongaffyn 1810. d. 26 Apr. 1863.
Storekeeper of ordnance Dec. 1834-Apr. 1835, Sept. 1841-July 1845; spec. commr. of property tax 1853-d.
Bonham’s father, who came from a substantial Irish Protestant family, was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and called to the Irish bar in 1764. By his first marriage in 1767 to Mary Ann, daughter of James Leslie, bishop of Limerick, he had a son John (1769-1844) and a daughter Joyce, who died unmarried in 1796. In 1776 he made a second marriage, to Dorothea Herbert of Muckross, whose family were related to the earls of Pembroke and Powis. Her father sat in the Irish Parliament, 1749-70, and both her grandfather and uncle represented Ludlow at Westminster. Her maternal grandfather was John Cuffe, 1st Baron Desart. She produced five children, only two of whom survived infancy: Susannah and Francis Robert, the subject of this biography.
Francis Warren Bonham inherited the family property in county Kildare in 1781, but before the end of the century he moved to England. His son John was one of the United Irishmen under surveillance by government in London in 1797. He was arrested on suspicion of treason with Valentine Lawless (later Lord Cloncurry) and others in 1798 and again in 1799, when he was detained for two years. He settled in France in 1802, but was linked with the Despard conspirators later that year. These episodes were the basis of Disraeli’s charge in the Commons, 20 Feb. 1845, intended to discredit the premier Peel, that Francis Robert Bonham, a member of his government, had been involved in the Despard plot. Peel exposed the falsehood the following day, when he read a letter from Bonham stating the fact of his half-brother’s detention in 1799 and explaining that in 1802 he himself had been studying under a private tutor at Bath, where he was in attendance on his father, who was ‘suffering under a severe and lingering attack of paralysis’. (John Bonham later led a respectable life as owner of Ballintagart and served as sheriff of Kildare in 1835.)1 Bonham’s father’s place of residence was given as Clifton, Gloucestershire, when Francis Robert entered Lincoln’s Inn in January 1808; but he described himself as ‘now of Bath’ when he drew up his will later that year. On his death in 1810 at Richmond, Surrey, Francis Robert, his residuary legatee, inherited £5,000 and a property in county Meath, which he later sold. He received an additional £5,000 from the estate of his late half-sister.2
Bonham does not seem to have practised at the bar and presumably led the life of a gentleman of independent means. He later wrote of ‘entertaining from infancy a strong ... prejudice in favour of the church’, and his political views were those to be expected of a man of his background. He was on cordial terms with Peel, then home secretary, by March 1829, when he passed on a suggestion from one of his ‘Irish uniform supporters’ for modification of the bill to disfranchise the 40s. freeholders.3 At the 1830 general election he was returned for Rye on the Lamb interest after a contest. The Wellington ministry listed him among their ‘friends’, and he voted with them in the division on the civil list which brought them down, 15 Nov. 1830. Soon afterwards Frederick Pollock* met him in Peel’s company at a Tory dinner party, where he was ‘very conspicuous in his conversation’.4 Lord Ellenborough met him for the first time at another dinner in the company of prominent opposition Members in February 1831, and a few days later he was engaged with William Holmes* and Joseph Planta* in making what proved to be an optimistic forecast of how the Commons would divide on the Grey ministry’s reform bill.5 He voted against the second reading, 22 Mar., and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. He is not known to have spoken in debate in this period. He did not stand at the 1831 election, when he assisted in the management of the opposition campaign. Charles Arbuthnot* recalled that he was ‘cautious’ and ‘desponding’ as to the result: justly so as it turned out.6 Bonham was a member of the Charles Street committee formed in May 1832 to fight the next general election in England, and by the time it took place at the end of the year he had supplanted Holmes as the Conservative party’s chief election manager. He contemplated a return of about 260 seats, but in the event they fell far short of this figure.7
Although Bonham was an assistant-whip in the 1835 Parliament, it was as the party’s first full-time election agent, operating from the Carlton Club, that he did his most important work. The Conservative victory of 1841 partly reflected the efficiency of the organization which he helped to create after the rout of 1832. He was utterly devoted to Peel, whom he kept constantly informed of the temper of his followers. He resigned his salaried office of storekeeper of the ordnance in 1845 after the exposure of his acceptance of the proceeds of shares in a railway company whose bill he had promoted as a Member of the 1835 Parliament, though he was deemed to have acted foolishly rather than corruptly. He lived for the last 30 years of his life with his spinster sister.8 His active involvement in politics virtually ended with Peel’s death in 1850, and he faced a struggle against declining health and financial problems. On 27 July 1853 he appealed from his Knightsbridge house to Peel’s former colleague Sir James Graham*, a member of the Aberdeen ministry:
My affairs are ... such that without being at all in debt I am driven by duty to the one who has shared (not merely to myself for my wants are small) all my sorrows and sacrifices to the humiliation of stating them to you ... My object is to solicit your influence with Lord Aberdeen for any moderate permanent appointment to which he might feel himself disposed to appoint me. Broken in health, strength, and spirits, withdrawn altogether from general society, as inclination and necessity have compelled, my aspirations are of a very limited kind. My suburban residence expires at Christmas next and it matters little to my sister or myself in what part of the empire our destiny may be fixed hereafter, I fear not in London.
Graham responded warmly and, thanks to his representations to Aberdeen and Gladstone, Bonham was appointed a special commissioner of income tax, which enabled him to go on ‘comfortably’ with his sister in their London establishment.9 According to Disraeli, Bonham was noted for his ‘morose jocularity’.10 In 1905 the 7th duke of Rutland cast his mind back to 1841, when Bonham was
an elderly man, dressed in a long brown coat and carrying a large strapped book, full of electioneering facts, figures and calculations ... my recollection of Mr. Bonham is distinctly favourable - rough, faithful, honest, indefatigable, the depositary of a thousand secrets and the betrayer of none.11
Bonham died at 13 Albert Terrace, Knightsbridge in April 1863. By his will, dated 10 Mar. 1862, he left all his property to his sister, who died on 8 Oct. 1863 and was buried with him in Brompton cemetery. His effects were sworn under a meagre £600, 1 June 1863.
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: David R. Fisher
See N. Gash, ‘F.R. Bonham: Conservative ’Political Secretary’, 1832-47’, EHR, lxiii (1948), 502-22; Politics in Age of Peel, 412-18, 464; and ‘Bonham and the Conservative Party, 1830-1857’, Pillars of Government, 108-35.
- 1. J.A. Hone, For the Cause of Truth, 53, 85, 89, 91, 106, 119; Parl. Deb. (ser. 3), lxxvii. 909, 999-1000, 1004-5.
- 2. PROB 11/1515/454; Gent. Mag. (1810), ii. 292.
- 3. Add. 40399, ff. 22, 23; 44110, f. 202; Gash, Pillars, 112.
- 4. CUL, Pollock mss Add. 7564 A/4, Pollock to Eliza Alexander, 6 Dec. 1830.
- 5. Three Diaries, 60, 62.
- 6. Add. 57370, Arbuthnot to Herries, 30 Dec. 1832.
- 7. Three Diaries, 266; Raikes Jnl. i. 110; Add. 40403, ff. 93, 95; 40617, ff. 2, 4.
- 8. Oxford DNB.
- 9. Add. 40616, ff. 347-54.
- 10. Disraeli Letters, iii. 352.
- 11. Gash, Politics, 463 and Pillars, 108.