BULLER, Charles II (1806-1848), of Polvellan, Cornw. and 4 Lincoln's Inn Fields, Mdx.

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



12 Feb. 1830 - 1831
1832 - 28 Nov. 1848

Family and Education

b. 6 Aug. 1806, in Calcutta, 1st s. of Charles Buller I* and Barbara Isabella, da. of Maj.-Gen. William Kirkpatrick, E. I. Co. service. educ. Harrow 1811-21; Edinburgh Univ. 1822-3; by Thomas Carlyle 1822-4; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1824; L. Inn. 1824, called 1831. unm. d. 28 Nov. 1848.

Offices Held

Chief sec. to gov.-gen. of Canada 1838-41; sec. to bd. of control June-Sept. 1841; judge adv.-gen. July 1846-Dec. 1847; pres. poor law bd. Dec. 1847-d.


Buller, who was described by Thomas Carlyle in 1831 as a ‘great tower of a fellow, six feet three in height, a yard in breadth’, was bedevilled throughout his life by ill health, which his most recent biographer has ascribed to an asthmatic condition.1 He was born in Calcutta, where his father was an East India Company civil servant, and travelled to England with his aunt and uncle in 1811; during a stopover at St. Helena he suffered a fall which left him with a broken nose and a permanent limp. At Harrow he showed an aptitude for the classics and was made head of school, though Edward Irving, the Scottish divine to whom his mother turned for guidance on his further education in 1821, assessed him as ‘a rather difficult subject’, who was ‘clever and acute ... not ill informed for his age, but his tastes are all given to Boxiana, Bond Street and pleasure gathered out of the speculations and ambitions of Harrow School’. On Irving’s advice Buller and his younger brother were placed under the tutelage of Carlyle, first in Edinburgh, where they attended classes at the University, and later at Kinnaird House, Perthshire. Carlyle pronounced him ‘one of the cleverest boys I have ever seen, he delights to inquire and argue and be demolished’, but in December 1824 he reported that ‘poor Charlie likes Cambridge ill, and runs a risk of becoming a dandy and a dissipated person’.2 Such concerns proved ill-founded: in December 1826 Buller was elected to the Conversazione Society, the elite group known as the ‘Apostles’, and he served as president of the Union the following year. In its debates, he spoke in favour of Catholic relief, parliamentary reform and the superiority of the American to the British constitution, though not necessarily out of conviction.3 To the chagrin of Carlyle he wholeheartedly embraced Utilitarianism because, he explained to his mentor in August 1828:

I think it affords the best explanation of men’s opinions on morals, and because on it may be built, I think, the best framework on which we may form and instruct the natural feelings of men to do that which produces peace and good will among them.

He confessed to being an agnostic, ‘because I have not yet found that faith in which I could believe, and none among the creeds of this world that I could wish to be true’; he always adhered to this position.4 His anti-clericalism and humour were displayed in an anonymous satirical article in Blackwood’s Magazine of June 1829, which charted the political somersaults performed by a latter day vicar of Bray on the Catholic question.5 His range of early contacts was wide: he joined the London Debating Society in 1826, and was welcomed by John Stuart Mill as a valuable addition to its radical contingent. Two years later he became a member of a discussion group started by his future parliamentary colleague George Grote, which became the focus for the Benthamite philosophic radicals, with whom he was closely identified in the years immediately following the Reform Act.6

Buller was returned for West Looe on the interest of his uncle John Buller* in February 1830, when his father vacated for him. He took the oaths, 15 Feb. He divided for Lord Blandford’s parliamentary reform plan, 18 Feb., the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 Mar. Writing to his fellow ‘Apostle’ Richard Chenevix Trench, the historian John Mitchell Kemble reported that Buller’s maiden speech, on Davenport’s motion on the state of the nation, 18 Mar., had been

evidently very comic, though infamously reported in the papers. As usual his hand appeared to be against every man, and among other things, he compared [William] Cobbett†, the idol of a certain set in and out of the House, to the ‘brazen serpent’ set up in the wilderness. You will see him make a figure some of these fine days, depend on it.7

Taken at face value his speech revealed little in the way of radical sympathies as, speaking from the ministerial side of the House, he played down the significance of distress and defended the 1819 currency reform. He presented petitions against renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 19 Mar., 8 June, 9 July. He voted for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May. Next day he presented a petition from Glasgow merchants for protection of their Mexican trade. He divided for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 24 May, 7 June. He voted for reduction of the grants for South American missions, 7 June, and Prince Edward Island, 14 June, repeal of the Irish Vestries Act, 10 June, and amendments to a government bill to reform the libel laws, 6, 9 July 1830. Richard Monckton Milnes†, a fellow ‘Apostle’, wrote shortly afterwards that Buller’s mother was ‘much disappointed in her son’s ill-fortune in the House’, as ‘he has had six regularly prepared speeches, I believe of very high merit, without having obtained a hearing, and this continual repulse has made him more nervous than when he began’.8 According to the later account of his cousin Edward Strachey, Buller signed the proclamation of William IV, being one of the ‘principal gentlemen of quality’ entitled so to do; he was probably made aware of this ancient right by his uncle James Buller, then clerk in ordinary to the privy council.9 He was returned unopposed for West Looe at the general election that summer.

The Wellington ministry listed Buller as one of the ‘bad doubtfuls’, and he was absent from the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830. He did not accept that the degree of electoral corruption at Evesham warranted punitive measures, 14 Dec. He presented an anti-slavery petition from East and West Looe, 17 Dec. 1830. In his pamphlet On the Necessity of a Radical Reform, published in February 1831, he advocated a system of parliamentary representation founded on the advanced principles of equal electoral districts, vote by ballot and a franchise based on eligibility for jury service. He ruled out universal suffrage on the grounds that the masses were ‘too low, in point of morals and knowledge, to be trusted with any political power’, and, with a placatory nod to alarmists, maintained that ‘the most virtuous and intelligent of the higher classes will always be those whom the people will acknowledge as their leaders’. Of Lord Grey’s recently formed ministry (which he later described as ‘a heartless, spiritless canaille’)10, he claimed that the majority were ‘chiefly interested in retaining their places as long as possible’, though he named the leader of the Commons, Lord Althorp, among the honourable exceptions. He anticipated the form, if not the extent of their reform proposals, and identified the arbitrary nature of borough disfranchisements as a likely Achilles heel. The ‘vivacity and spirit’ of his polemic earned him a notice of praise in The Times, 28 Feb. However, following the introduction of the reform bill Buller changed tack, declaring to Carlyle that these were ‘great days ... for those who have long in sorrow and almost in solitude embraced the true Radical faith, and great even for those who like myself have embraced that faith just in time to share in its triumph’. Yet he apparently never delivered a promised ‘illustrious speech’ on the bill.11 In line with his pamphlet’s call for borough proprietors to surrender their privileges gracefully, he dissented from a hostile petition from East Looe corporation (which was controlled by his relatives), 18 Mar., and expressed his conviction that the measure would be ‘attended with beneficial results to all classes of the community’. He divided for the bill’s second reading, 22 Mar., and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. He demonstrated his radicalism on other issues, speaking and voting for a reduction in the army, 21 Feb., and condemning the newspaper stamp duty as ‘one of the worst description of taxes’, 7 Mar.; his promised motion on this subject was presumably a casualty of the dissolution in April 1831. The circumstances of his replacement by his uncle, an anti-reformer, at West Looe, are not well documented, but his cousin later recalled that he was ‘not allowed’ to retain the seat.12

In June 1831 Buller was called to the bar and that autumn said he was preoccupied with ‘unexpected heavy legal business’; he later practised on the western circuit.13 He also became a regular contributor to several periodicals, including the Edinburgh Review and the Westminster Review, and wrote editorials for the Globe and pieces for the short-lived radical paper the Constitutional.14 By September 1831 he was confident of success in the first post-reform election for Liskeard, which was near his family seat at Polvellan. Two months later he mentioned to a Liskeard agent his attendance at a meeting of the London Political Union, and he encouraged the formation of a similar local body. Without extra-parliamentary pressure, he feared the loss of the reform bill, and ‘the more I see, the more firmly convinced I am that a most horrible convulsion will be the instantaneous consequence of such rejection’. In October 1832 Mill observed that Buller was ‘not only sure for Liskeard, but is at this time one of the most popular and important men in the eastern division of Cornwall’, as ‘he speaks at all the meetings where the radical candidates face their constituents and always makes the best speech of the day.15 He was returned unopposed at the general election that December and sat for Liskeard until his death.

Aided by voice training from the actor William Macready, Buller emerged as a formidable parliamentary debater and eventually became, according to Greville, ‘perhaps the most popular Member of the ... Commons’.16 In 1838 he was appointed secretary to Lord Durham’s mission to Lower Canada, and two years later he published Responsible Government for the Colonies, in which he advocated a large measure of colonial independence; he was also involved in promoting the systematic colonization of Australia and New Zealand.17 As the Radical party in Parliament disintegrated and his Benthamite convictions weakened, Buller drifted closer to the political centre, and he accepted office during the final months of Lord Melbourne’s administration and again in 1846 from Lord John Russell*.18 He died in November 1848 of typhus, which had apparently been preceded by erysipelas, following an operation.19 He was commemorated in Westminster Abbey.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Howard Spencer


D.A. Haury, Origins of the Liberal Party and Liberal Imperialism: The Career of Charles Buller, 1806-48 is the most comprehensive biography.

  • 1. J.A. Froude, Carlyle: first 40 years, i. 218; Haury, 26, 256.
  • 2. Cornhill Mag. n.s. iii (1897), 393-4; Macmillan’s Mag. xlv (1881-2), 234-44; Froude, i. 143, 166; Letters of Carlyle to his bro. Alexander ed. E.W. Marrs, 184.
  • 3. P. Allen, Cambridge Apostles, 272; Cambridge Union Soc. (1866), 53; E. Sweetman, ‘Life and Times of Charles Buller’ (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1952), 17-20.
  • 4. Froude, ii. 33-34; E.M. Wrong, Charles Buller and Responsible Government, 6-7.
  • 5. Blackwood’s Mag. xv (1829), 728-31.
  • 6. J.S. Mill, Autobiog. ed. H.M. Taylor, 216; H. Grote, Personal Life of George Grote, 60; J. Hamburger, Intellectuals in Politics, 1, 11, 29, 115.
  • 7. Chenevix Trench Letters ed. M. Trench, i. 58.
  • 8. Reid, Monckton Milnes, 99-100.
  • 9. Cornhill Mag. n.s. iii. 402.
  • 10. M. Fawcett, Life of Sir William Molesworth, 40.
  • 11. Hamburger, 29; Haury, 17, 252.
  • 12. Cornhill Mag. n.s. iii. 396.
  • 13. Macvey Napier Corresp. ed. M. Napier, 370-2; Mill Works, xii. 152.
  • 14. Tait’s Edinburgh Mag. n.s. xvi. (1849), 71-72; Hamburger, 167, 211.
  • 15. Sweetman, 46, 105-6; Mill Works, xii. 128-9.
  • 16. Macready Reminiscences ed. Sir F. Pollock, 6; Greville Mems. vi. 137.
  • 17. Wrong, 41, 54-56 and passim.
  • 18. Haury, 181-203, 218-222.
  • 19. Plymouth Herald, 2 Dec. 1848; Letters of Sir George Cornewall Lewis ed. G.F. Lewis, 196.