DENISON, John Evelyn (1800-1873), of Ossington Hall, Notts.
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Family and Education
b. 27 Jan. 1800, 1st s. of John Denison† (formerly Wilkinson) of Ossington and 2nd w. Charlotte, da. of Samuel Estwick†. educ. by Rev. Charles Drury, Esher, Surr.; Eton 1811; Christ Church, Oxf. 1817. m. 14 July 1827, Lady Charlotte Cavendish Bentinck, da. of William Cavendish Bentinck†, 4th duke of Portland, s.p. suc. fa. 1820; cr. Visct. Ossington 13 Feb. 1872. d. 7 Mar. 1873.
Member, ld. high admiral’s council May 1827-Jan. 1828; pres. R. Agricultural Soc. 1856-7; PC 6 May 1857; trustee, British Museum 1872-d.
Capt. commdt. 1st and 3rd troop Clumber yeoman cav. 1824-7.
Speaker of House of Commons 30 Apr. 1857-7 Feb. 1872.
Like William Joseph Denison*, to whom he may have been distantly related, Denison’s father owed his standing and estate to the prosperity of the Leeds woollen cloth industry.1 According to the duke of Newcastle, a hostile observer, he was originally ‘a bagman and used to carry samples about the county’, but, if so, this did not prevent him inheriting Ossington and setting up as a country gentleman.2 He sat in the Commons between 1796 and 1812 as an inactive independent, and lived to see his daughter Charlotte, this Member’s half-sister, married to Charles Manners Sutton, the Speaker.3 Denison, the eldest of a gifted brood of nine sons, flourished under the Rev. Charles Drury and continued to excel at Oxford, being urged by his father, 15 June 1819, to let nothing ‘divert you from attaining that pre-eminence to which your abilities, with the application you are so well disposed to give, will ultimately lead you’.4 Following the death of his father in May 1820, when he came into a substantial estate at Ossington and the bulk of personalty sworn under £35,000, Evelyn, as he was called in the family, brought up his younger siblings with what one of them described as unfailing ‘fatherly care’.5
In July 1823 Denison was brought forward for a vacancy at Newcastle-under-Lyme, where the sitting Member Robert John Wilmot Horton, co-ordinating the corporation interest, noted that, as an anti-Catholic Tory, he had ‘all the prescribed qualifications’. He was forced by an independent opponent to deny that he was the nominee of the Liverpool administration, and only defeated him by 23 votes after a severe contest, but Wilmot Horton commented to the home secretary, Peel, one of whose brothers might otherwise have been chosen, that Denison ‘has had a sweet thing of it’.6 In fact, according to Wilmot Horton, the election had cost him £5,000, or £2,000 more than had been predicted, while another report later put his expenses at £7,000.7 Parliament had already been prorogued and he apparently went abroad that winter, when he was described by Lady Blessington as ‘a remarkably gentlemanlike, well informed young man’.8 He attended the Commons diligently in February and March 1824, during which period he made entries on parliamentary procedure and personal matters in a surviving notebook.9 He voted against the reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 26 Feb., but occasionally sided with opposition. Thus, he divided for criticizing the lord chancellor over an alleged breach of privilege, 1 Mar., and, unless they were his namesake’s votes, to postpone the grant for Irish charter schools, 15 Mar., and against the aliens bill, 23 Mar. He privately welcomed the orders in council to protect slaves from ill-treatment, 16 Mar., applauding the foreign secretary Canning’s ‘most excellent and brilliant speech’ and commenting that the ‘Saints do harm by exaggerated statements’. He voted against Henry Brougham’s motion condemning the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824. That spring he devoted some of his energies to the revision of legislation on workhouses, and, carrying on a ‘voluminous correspondence’ with Newcastle, was enthusiastic about the rearrangement of the Clumber yeoman cavalry, in which he accepted a command.10
Denison, a member of the Travellers’ Club, left England in June 1824 and undertook an extensive tour of North America with his Christ Church friends Henry Labouchere*, Edward Smith Stanley* and John Stuart Wortley*. He had a great interest in the American legislative system, as well as the colonial administration of Canada, and amassed economic information which he was later to draw on at Westminster. Having missed the whole of the following session, he was back in England by August 1825, when Lord John Russell* portrayed him as ‘as true a gentlemanlike, sensible Englishman as can be found’.11 The following month Canning, who confided to him his reflections on the Catholic question, noted that he was ‘one of the first, if not the very first of the young men of his standing in point of ability and information, and of disposition to turn both to good account’.12 Smith Stanley, who had heard him called a ‘most determined politician’, referred in December 1825 to Denison’s journal.13 In fact, the only extant volume from this period dates from 1 Feb. 1826, when he recorded that he had arrived in London, ‘with full determination to exert myself to the utmost, and under a conviction that the next five months are to have great influence on all the future prospects of my life’. He attended the debate on the address on the 2nd, and thereafter recorded his more or less constant attendance in Parliament and his active engagement in political affairs, making telling judgements on the personalities and performances of his contemporaries.14
On the divided state of the country over free trade, Denison, who generally backed ministers during the continuing financial crisis, commented privately, 8 Feb. 1826, that
the liberal part of the government are supported against the old steady Tory faction by the opposition. The city, and Bank, the India House, which used to be strongholds of Mr. Pitt’s administration, have turned round on his successors, and now Lord Liverpool is an old woman and Huskisson a dangerous speculator. It will be a severe struggle. The silk question will be the point of attack this session. If they stand on this, corn will be the last hold.
He went to the House with the intention of opposing repeal of the usury laws, 15 Feb., but the debate was deferred. He voted in the minority against further inquiry into the conduct of the Welsh judge William Kenrick†, 17 Feb. He took an American visitor to the Commons for what proved a ‘very remarkable’ night, 23 Feb., when he recorded that, over the issue of exchequer bills, ‘ministers would have been outvoted on the question put immediately, I feel sure’; and, of Huskisson’s resistance to increased protection for silks, that ‘I almost think it was the ablest speech I had ever heard in the House’. He voted against condemning the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar. He agreed with what Peel told him about the impoverished condition of the labouring classes, 8 Mar., and the following day privately marvelled at the home secretary’s proposals to reform the criminal law, which he felt marked a change of character on the part of the ministry. He ‘let slip the moment’ of speaking on the mutiny bill, 10 Mar., and did so again on the 14th on Wilmot Horton’s motion for a select committee on emigration, to which he was named. On this, he expressed some anxiety for the security of British dominion in Canada, 17 Mar., and he busied himself on this and another committee, on Scottish and Irish bank notes, until Easter. Writing to Lady Holland, 26 Mar. 1826, Russell observed that politicians like Denison and his friends Lord Sandon*, Smith Stanley and Stuart Wortley, would always be of more importance than her son Henry Edward Fox*, since ‘they really attend to questions and give themselves trouble’.15 During the recess, he spoke to the duke of Portland of his affection for his daughter Charlotte, but received the ‘most shuffling and contemptible’ answer, and subsequently recorded that he experienced the ‘most extraordinary alternations of hopes and fears’. He remained at Ossington until 6 Apr., missed the divisions on the treasurership of the navy, 7 Apr., but was present to vote for giving the president of the board of trade a ministerial salary, 10 Apr. He again divided against reforming the representation of Edinburgh, 13 Apr. Unwell and in low spirits, he determined to ‘make an exertion and speak’ against Russell’s parliamentary reform motion, on which he made detailed preparations and consulted Canning, who ‘exhorted me strongly to speak’. Full of anxiety, he took his place ‘on the second upper bench ... just below the treasury bench’, 27 Apr., and rose at the same time as Charles Ross:
The House called for me, and I began in a tone too low and something confused. I spoke for about 40 minutes, very pale and very nervous. I never lost my head, or said what I did not mean, and never lost the thread of my reasoning. But I once hesitated for a moment, and would have given worlds to look at a bit of paper, on which I had entered two or three heads, and, though I had this in my hands, which were clasped together, I could not look at it. As it was, perhaps I did as well without it. I was very well attended to during my speech, cheered in the course of it, and loudly cheered on sitting down. Indeed, from all quarters I was assured of my very good success.
Denison, who was teller for the majority against reform that day, was disparaged for unoriginality by The Times, but the Whigs’ former Commons leader George Tierney stated that, apart from ‘one or two awkward slips, young Denison made a first speech of, in my judgement, great promise’.16 Emboldened by his success, he ‘had a mind’ to contribute to the corn debate in early May, ‘when it seemed to me the question was ill understood’; he expected that the corn laws would be relaxed within a year. Opposing Peel, he argued strongly for the select committee to report in favour of assimilating the currencies by suppressing Scottish one pound notes, 11 May, declaring that the ‘great principle of paper and gold hung in our decision’. On 19 May 1826 he was among the dissentients from Peel’s face-saving report, which, as he later recorded, caused great confusion within the government that month.
Denison left Westminster before the dissolution to undertake his yeomanry duties at Newark and to canvass Newcastle, where he issued a joint address with Wilmot Horton at the general election of 1826. His position there had been the subject of much negotiation, but it was understood that if, as occurred, it became necessary to reach a lasting compromise with the anti-corporation candidate, Richardson Borradaile*, he would continue in place, while contributing financially to the return of Wilmot Horton, a junior minister, elsewhere. However, fearing undue expense and recognizing Wilmot Horton’s superior claims on the borough, he withdrew in favour of his colleague, who was returned unopposed. In return, he expected to receive ministerial assistance in obtaining another seat, ‘independently of any government obligation, and in short just as if I retained my seat at Newcastle’.17 Remarking that ‘nothing would have induced me to spend £5,000 on such a chance as this Parliament’, he regretted the surprise success of an independent candidate at Newark, opining to William Edward Tallents, Newcastle’s agent there, that ‘no worse thing could happen as a single measure, than the opening of such boroughs as Newark. The immediate effect is, worse men, lower men and not a mite more honest men get into Parliament, and that is a clear evil’. However, he remained ambitious for the public service: ‘Parliament is the highest and the best, and Parliament connected with honourable office quite the best’.18 Stephen Rumbold Lushington*, the patronage secretary, informed him that Hastings, a treasury borough, was available to him, and that Liverpool, who later mentioned him ‘as one of those whom he much wished to have an opportunity of bringing forward’, had said that ‘we must take care of Denison’.19 In July 1826 he discussed his prospects with the Whig man of business James Abercromby*, who considered that ministers should promote him, ‘as a pupil of Huskisson’s’, to Charles Grant’s* place at the board of trade, adding that ‘they ought to give you office, and you ought to take it’. He returned briefly to Nottinghamshire, for which, as his friend Henry Gally Knight* told him, he might well have considered standing.
Denison travelled on the continent, which he thought technologically backward, from July to November 1826, returning via Paris, where he was often in Canning’s company.20 He paid Lushington £3,250 for Hastings, 15 Nov., although, under the terms of his agreement with Wilmot Horton to divide their expenses equally, the ultimate cost was approximately £2,375. This was more than he had bargained for, but he was reassured to learn that he would be entitled to a fair proportion of what the seat might be worth, should he choose to resign. He was fêted a good deal by Canning and his wife, who, aware of his love for Lady Charlotte, reportedly demanded of her sister, the duchess of Portland, ‘my God, how can you put anything in competition with personal character and qualifications?’ According to Mrs. Arbuthnot, Denison took offence at being asked to act as a second for Canning’s son-in-law, Lord Clanricarde, in a duel over a gambling dispute, and this affair cooled his admiration for the foreign secretary.21 Denison made a short visit to Hastings for the ludicrous election formalities, 11 Dec. 1826, and put in the briefest possible appearance there to witness his unopposed return four days later. His diary entry for his birthday, 27 Jan. 1827, recorded that ‘I am afraid I have passed a year of very little profit, of great anxiety and trouble certainly’; but Lady Holland, who considered him a sincere man, commented to Fox the following month that, in Parliament, ‘much is expected from your friends Denison and [Lord] Ashley’.22 He tried to take his seat, 8 Feb., but was told that he had not obtained the requisite form from the crown office and was inappropriately wearing boots; he had to wait until the 12th, when he noted with annoyance that ‘nobody sees or cares how you are dressed’ on being sworn. He was reappointed to the select committee on emigration, 15 Feb. 1827, and was busy with his duties on this and various election committees during the session.
Dismayed by the state of public finances, Denison felt that he ‘could not consent to any such expenditure’, and so quietly left the chamber before the division on the grant to the duke of Clarence, 16 Feb. 1827. Later that month he visited his sick brother Frank at the naval college in Portsmouth and had several meetings with the American diplomat Abraham Gallatin, on topics including emigration and the currency. He witnessed the lengthy proceedings on the Catholic question, 2 Mar., when he observed that ‘a good deal of angry discussion took place, and a very bitter spirit showed itself on both sides’, and 5-6 Mar., dividing in the favourable minority on what he called the ‘fatal, horrible vote’ on the 6th. Afterwards he wondered how the obviously disunited ministers could continue: ‘They cannot dissolve the Parliament, for one party would not dare face the appeal to Ireland, and the other would not like to try the effects of an election in England under a "No Popery" cry’. He attempted to answer ‘some illiberal and unfair’ remarks of Sir Edward Knatchbull on the corn laws, but Peel pre-empted him, 8 Mar. He had ‘hasty words’ with Wilmot Horton, who he thought had betrayed a private confidence, in the Commons sometime that month, but apologized to him for ‘having used such strong language, especially before a third person’. According to Lord Bathurst, the idea of abolishing the lord lieutenancy of Ireland originated with Denison and Stuart Wortley, which ‘probably made Canning less indisposed to the idea’.23 He secured a week’s leave on private business, 2 Apr., but was present for Sir Thomas Lethbridge’s potentially dangerous but ultimately abortive censure motion on the 5th, when he judged, from ‘Canning’s language, that everything is going well’. Following the appointment of Canning as premier, he was astonished by the unexplained ministerial resignations, 12 Apr. 1827, when he was told by Charles Arbuthnot* that ‘this business has no more to do with the Catholic question than your hat’. On the 14th, when he learned of the ‘mighty stroke of policy’ of naming Clarence as lord high admiral, he considered that, on the return of Lord Bexley to the cabinet, ‘all excuse for treating the secession as the cause of Protestantism is taken away’, and scornfully damned the departure of ‘shoals of underlings’ as detrimental to the cause of the Protestant party.
Now considered a Canningite, Denison was summoned to Downing Street, 21 Apr., to be offered a place at the admiralty, where his interest in the American navy could be put to good account.24 He replied that he was glad to be thought useful, but
as my object is not place so much as the information that is to be obtained from official situations alone, I should have preferred anything about yourself or Mr. Huskisson, as I would rather learn my lesson from you or him, than from any other person.
However, having listened to Canning’s tentative suggestions of future promotion, possibly at the colonial office, he agreed to serve under Clarence, who soon confided to him that he had ‘conceived a very favourable opinion’ of his abilities.25 He dined with the new ministers, 30 Apr., and was present for their first stormy outing on the treasury bench, 1 May, when he considered Canning ‘quite triumphant’. The following day, on formally taking up his office, he was effusively welcomed by Clarence to the lord high admiral’s council. Of Peel, whose speech he noted in a separate memorandum, he commented that he ‘pulled off his mask, and really began a regular opposition’, 3 May, and on the 4th he recorded that there had been ‘angry skirmishes in Lords and Commons every night’.26 He presumably gave consistent support to government, but, since he made no mention in his journal of the Penryn disfranchisement bill, 28 May, it is not clear whether it was he or his namesake who spoke in that debate. The damaging defeat on an amendment to the corn bill in the Lords, 12 June, moved him to observe that he thought ‘the conduct of the duke of Wellington and his seceding colleagues in every point of view indefensible, unfair, even dishonourable’. Perhaps because of his extended family or because they did not think it a brilliant match, Portland (now lord privy seal) and his wife continued to oppose his marriage to their daughter, but at the end of May Lady Charlotte, who was now of age, put him out of his agony (he professed to being ‘very nearly dead’) by informing her father that she would accept Denison’s offer.27 The duke, who intended to provide the minimum dowry and insisted that part of Denison’s estate, then worth about £13,000 a year, should be entailed, drove a hard bargain, but a marriage settlement was signed, 13 July 1827, and the wedding took place the following day.28
Denison wrote in his journal a long account of the final illness of Canning, who died on 8 Aug. 1827, and two days later he recorded that ‘the expression of deep grief for the loss of this great man is universal, and intense beyond belief, through all classes and the whole kingdom’. He was among the chief mourners at Westminster Abbey, 16 Aug., and, as he wrote to Lady Granville at about this time, ‘attended to his grave the man I admired and loved you know how much’.29 Denison, who early that month apparently said that ‘all is temporarily arranged’, praised the conduct of Lord Lansdowne and the moderate Whigs following the succession of Lord Goderich to the premiership.30 But he had nothing but contempt for Goderich’s ‘want of judgement and conduct’ in the machinations provoked by the appointment of John Charles Herries* as chancellor of the exchequer. Probably drawing on information supplied by Huskisson, to whom he attached himself as Canning’s political heir, he left a long account in his diary of this complicated episode. During it, through his contact with Lord Carlisle, he seems to have played a small but significant part in strengthening the resolve of his new chief to appease Lansdowne, by impressing on Huskisson that the Whigs ‘had not taken and would not take any precipitate determination to resign’.31 Although he was reported to have remarked that ‘we stand upon a razor’s edge’, by 2 Sept. he could write to Edward John Littleton* that ‘everything is satisfactorily settled ... We all keep together, and the king is highly delighted’.32 In September he was offered the position of private secretary to the new governor-general of Bengal, Lord William Henry Cavendish Bentinck*, his wife’s uncle, and for the rest of that year, amid ‘feverish anxiety’ and almost farcical changes of mind, he oscillated between accepting and declining. He recognized the value of the salary and the experience the job offered, but was aware of the risks of illness, of making ‘certain preliminary sacrifices for uncertain and contingent benefits’, and of relinquishing his seat and office at a time of great political uncertainty.33 His intended departure roused Charles Tennyson* to apply for his position, while, in November, one of his decisions to forego the appointment embarrassed Sandon, who had been chosen to succeed him at the admiralty.34 Denison, who was described by Hyacinthe Littleton to Gerald Wellesley as ‘one of the rising young men of the day’, 9 Dec. 1827, was concerned but hopeful about the stability of the government that month.35He still had doubts about disrupting his political career and fears for his wife’s health by leaving England. However, in January 1828 Cavendish Bentinck, reflecting the Portlands’ concerns, expressed ‘so strong an opinion, as to amount to an interdict’, and Denison admitted he was glad that the matter had finally had been taken out of his hands.36 ‘One is sorry an amiable man should be so unsteady’, Lady Holland opined, ‘as it gives an appearance of vacillation always discreditable to a man’.37
Huskisson, who remained in office as colonial secretary under Wellington, informed the new premier, 29 Jan. 1828, that Denison ‘must have lost some ground by his vacillation, but he is clever and popular among the young men’, and urged his appointment as the ‘fittest man’ for the under-secretaryship at his department: ‘He is more repandu and popular than either of the other two candidates, and will be a very willing labourer under me’. Wellington had no objection, but Denison, who did not resume his place at the reconstituted admiralty board, although presumably sympathetic to ministers, returned to the backbenches.38 Absent from Westminster when Parliament reassembled, 29 Jan., he was nonetheless anxious to draw attention to himself and beseeched Huskisson, unsuccessfully, for a place on the proposed finance committee.39 He reported to Sandon, 6 Feb., that the Whigs ‘still do not consider themselves in direct opposition, nor is there anything like a concerted opposition formed’, so that the new session would be one ‘of much business perhaps, but of little debate’. About ten days later he added that ‘there is not much show of opposition, and very little spirit about it’.40 He divided for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and spoke and voted for Catholic relief, 12 May. He sided with ministers against inquiry into chancery administration, 24 Apr. Writing to Sandon, presumably in the wake of the Huskissonite ministers’ resignations in May 1828, Denison elaborated on Wellington’s deficiencies as premier and condemned the cabinet as united only insofar as its members were the duke’s tools.41 The following month he was listed by Lord Palmerston* (but not by Lord Colchester) among the Huskissonites, or ‘ejected liberals’. He divided in the minorities against recommitting the East Retford disfranchisement bill, 27 June, and to reduce the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July. The following day he recorded Huskisson’s admonition that it would be ‘best to be quiet this session’, but later that month he informed Smith Stanley that he, and between four and seven others, hoped to unite behind Huskisson early the following year.42 He assiduously attended the select committee on Canada, to which he had been named on 2 May, but felt unable to speak openly in the House on the cost of fortifications there and left without voting, 7 July. In the resumed debate on the 8th he pressed for financial and technical assurances from the ordnance, and urged the ‘most rigid economy’. He consulted Huskisson before meeting the Canadian deputies, but readily agreed to support their petition against the conduct of Lord Dalhousie. He did so, 14 July, recording in his journal that ‘I spoke upon it shortly, but with greater ease, and self possession, and I believe with more effect than I have yet done’. Dissatisfied with the Canada report, drafted by Thomas Frankland Lewis*, he spent time remodelling it and carried his amendments, 17 July. According to his diary, he voted for further inquiry into Baron de Bode’s claim for indemnification, 1 July, and against government in two tied divisions over an amendment to reduce East India silk import duties, 10 July; he subsequently voted in the minority against Fyler’s amendment to the Customs Acts, 14 July 1828. He spent most of the rest of the year travelling on the continent.
Denison, who Lansdowne reported to be ‘quite disposed to concur’ in the principle of active and united opposition in the new session, corresponded with Huskisson in December 1828 in order to determine the best plan of campaign.43 Having initiated a similar exchange with his Whig friend Smith Stanley, particularly over how far their respective parties could combine in opposition over the pressing issue of Catholic relief, he received an expansive reply. Responding in kind to this, 12 Jan. 1829, he wrote that
there are certain steps which must be gone through: first, there must be general disapprobation of the government as it exists; secondly, some tangible, evident and intelligible grounds of opposition. Then opposition grows, and then combinations to strengthen opposition and make it effectual are sought for ... How near are we to this stage? I think we are not very far from it. I suspect there is a general disapprobation of the government among my friends. I think the next session will afford grounds of clear and intelligible opposition. For my own part I shall not be backward to avail myself of them, for I put very little confidence in the duke of Wellington, and less in his cabinet.
He added that ‘it requires a different sort of concert to unite in opposition and to unite in government’ and that ‘after the partial cohesion of last year ... (a cohesion which only made the two parts more sore on the rupture) it will require time and management to bring them again bodily together’, but that
I have always felt that that was no substantial bar to a union of the younger Members, who only came into public life at the moment when the two parties were verging towards each other, and were sucking babes at the time when these parties were ranged in open hostility.
He promised to ‘communicate with my friends’, and ‘to try very hard to prevent the session from being frittered away in feeble ill concerted efforts, and in useless inefficient discontents’.44 Further exchanges with Grant, Labouchere, Sandon and Stuart Wortley reinforced his belief that it was essential to compel government to speak out about the Catholic question, ‘and then to act accordingly’, irrespective of the difficulties presented by Huskisson and the Whigs.45
Denison was at Westminster for the king’s speech, 5 Feb., when Peel’s volte face over the Catholic question ‘astonished me more than any single event that has happened within my memory in public life’. Peel, he averred, ‘made a pitiful exhibition’, so much so that he judged him ‘a very disgraced man’.46 Taking advantage of the sudden reduction of the political temperature, he left town in mid-February, but was back in the Commons, 4 Mar., when the emancipation bill was introduced, duly voting for it, 6, 30 Mar.47 He went to Ossington after its passage, deferring his return on learning that the East Retford question was to be postponed, but he was present to vote for transferring its seats to Birmingham, 5 May. He divided against Daniel O’Connell’s exclusion from the House for refusing to swear the oath of supremacy, 18 May, but privately recorded that he ‘could not have voted for Spring Rice’s motion for a bill to enable him to sit’, 21 May. He divided for the reduction of sugar duties, 25 May, and hemp duties, 1 June, and against the grant for the marble arch sculpture, 27 May. As a member of the previous year’s select committee on Canada, he supported the calls for inquiry into the government and condition of that country, 14 May, 5 June 1829. He spent part of that winter investigating the extent of agricultural and industrial distress, visiting Nottingham for this purpose in January 1830. He wrote to Huskisson on the 3rd that the country would be satisfied with nothing less than a parliamentary inquiry, ‘and surely it would be a very good thing, if possible, to fix men’s minds to some general approved creed, and not, as is now the case, to leave everybody to doctor for himself’. He continued to correspond that month with Huskisson, who left it up to him whether he attended at the opening of the new session, and unsuccessfully mooted a Nottinghamshire county meeting on distress.48
Denison, who was attacked by Brougham for giving Wellington all the credit for repeal of the Test Acts and Catholic emancipation, voted for Knatchbull’s amendment to the address, 4 Feb., and to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb. 1830.49 In answer to Sandon’s inquiry as to the reason for his opposition votes, he explained on the 13th that ‘a great deal has already been done by the debates of the last week to adjust people in their places, and to lay out the ground for the conduct of the session’. He had further consultations with Charles and Robert Grant*, Huskisson and Palmerston ‘on the line of conduct that it befitted us to take’, and was satisfied that
our position, as far as I was concerned in it, was not a position of opposition but of observation. That I thought it should be our object, as it would be mine, to obtain a recognized character of independence and fairness in the House of Commons. That if we opposed government on any question, this would give weight to our opposition, and if we supported them, value to our support.50
He was in minorities for information on relations with Portugal, 10 Feb., and in condemnation of the Terceira incident, 28 Apr. He divided against parliamentary reform, 18 Feb., but again for transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 Mar. He urged reductions in the North American colonial force, 22 Feb., voiced objections to the system of naval pensions, 26 Mar., and voted regularly in the opposition’s renewed campaign for economies and reduced taxation that session. He paired for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., but voted for it in person, 17 May. He divided for inquiry into the condition of Newfoundland, 11 May, and spoke and voted for an independent Canadian judiciary, 25 May. He was in the majority for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 7 June. He departed on electoral business before Brougham’s anti-slavery motion, 13 June 1830.51
Since he had to relinquish his government seat for Hastings at the general election of 1830, Denison initially offered for Nottinghamshire, although it was not clear that he was sufficiently Whiggish for the freeholders or entirely certain of Portland’s electoral backing. He called on Newcastle, an Ultra, 24 June, asking him, ‘how is any change of government to be effected if everybody who supports government is to be returned’; Newcastle, the leading local magnate, who considered that he had ‘behaved with great duplicity and art’, soon unequivocally warned him off. As neither of the sitting Members was prepared to give way, Denison recognized that there was no appetite in the county for a contest, and on 6 July informed one of them, Frank Sotheron, of his withdrawal, pending a more favourable opportunity.52 Instead, replacing Wilmot Horton, who retired, he stood for Newcastle, where he promised, if re-elected, to ‘promote trade, to check expense and to be free to act only for the people’s good’. He received some credit for his liberal opinions, but was forced to retire three days into the poll for fear of excessive expense, which he reckoned at nearly £2,500. He therefore came last, behind Borradaile and a fellow independent, but blamed his defeat on the spoiling intervention of Edmund Peel*, whose candidacy showed that he had been marked out for ministerialist reprisals as a Huskissonite.53 Later that August Denison, who was elated by the French revolution’s energizing effect on reformist public opinion, confided to John Nicholas Fazakerley* that he was sanguine about his future prospects for Nottinghamshire and that ‘my present retirement sits very lightly on my spirits’.54 Huskisson’s death in September brought him an unexpected requisition to stand for Liverpool, where it had wrongly been rumoured that he might have entered as a substitute for his ailing chief at the recent general election. John Bolton, one of the leading power brokers there, failed in his bid to impose Denison on the constituency, and, after several high profile candidates had been mentioned, a contest developed between him and a local merchant William Ewart*, an advanced Whig.55 (Had Smith Stanley ventured to stand, he might have followed Brougham’s suggestion and put up Denison for Preston on his family’s interest.)56 Although advised by Labouchere to adopt a populist approach, he remained a guardedly moderate reformer.57 As such, however, he won over John Gladstone*, another prominent figure in the borough, who reported to Peel, 2 Nov. 1830, that Denison was the more likely to succeed and that, if elected, he would ‘go into Parliament with a disposition to support His Majesty’s government, certainly not to oppose them’.58
In fact, writing to Littleton, 18 Nov. 1830, Denison approved the decision of his Huskissonite connections to join the Whig leader Lord Grey’s new administration, so long as it was ‘a government built on a broad basis (and the broader the better I think in these days)’. He knew that his own appointment to office would make him more likely to win Liverpool, but reflected that his position as its Member would limit the departments available to him; he nevertheless hankered after a seat at the board of trade, ideally as its vice-president.59 Instead, he was set down as secretary to the India board under Charles Grant, though this probable appointment was not broadcast in Liverpool.60 On the hustings, 23 Nov., in a speech which Thomas Gladstone* described as ‘sensible and to the point’, he claimed to be a free trader and declared that ‘I am prepared, in deference to the united voice of public opinion, to give my feeble aid to review and to reform the institutions of the country’. After a notoriously venal week-long poll, during which his assistant Tom Gladstone believed his conduct had been ‘admirably good’, he was defeated by only 29 out of 4,401 votes cast.61 Despite benefiting from a large subscription, his expenses, like Ewart’s, were said to amount to about £50,000, and John Croker* exclaimed that Denison was ‘himself in for £35,000’.62 His wife’s cousin Greville, the diarist, was incredulous: ‘Nobody yet knows whence the money for Denison comes ... but it will be still more remarkable if he should pay it himself, when he is poor, careful of money and was going to India the other day in order to save £12,000 or £15,000’.63 Moreover, Denison, who was perturbed by the implications of the Liverpool and Preston contests, reported to John Gladstone that the East India Company took his appointment ‘as their death warrant; they look upon me as a personification of that foul fiend - free trade’. In some embarrassment, ministers, who also considered him as a possible secretary at war, were forced to rescind his promotion. In any case, left without a seat - and none was ultimately forthcoming from government - Denison was unable even to take up the consolation prize of an ordnance clerkship.64 Tom Gladstone blamed his unfortunate situation on the blunders he had made at Liverpool, particularly in pledging himself for free trade, and in December 1830 his friends grieved at his apparent financial and political ruin.65
Denison, who was aware that the ensuing parliamentary inquiry would uncover massive electoral corruption, was wary of committing himself to standing again at Liverpool, where his support for the ministerial reform bill early the following year made him less acceptable to sponsors such as John Gladstone.66 Ewart was indeed ejected by the ensuing election committee, 28 Mar. 1831, but Denison was not seated in his place and the writ was suspended pending further investigation. When the dissolution intervened the following month, he turned his attention to canvassing Nottinghamshire, where Sotheron’s retirement and Newcastle’s inability to field an anti-reformer paved the way for his unopposed return at the general election. He had declined a requisition from Liverpool, but was nominated in his absence, and he was astounded on quitting the county hustings, where rumours of his conflicting loyalties had delayed proceedings, to discover that he had been cheaply elected for that borough, behind Ewart, but ahead of the anti-reform Member Isaac Gascoyne.67 Irresolute, not least because of a past promise to stand again for Liverpool, where he was certainly less popular or secure, Denison, whose connection with that borough probably again lost him the chance of becoming secretary to the India board, finally chose to sit for the county.68 In June he helped to negotiate the abolition of the Trent bridge tolls at Newark.69 Back in the Commons, he moved for the issue of a new Liverpool writ, 6 July, and stated on the 8th that he was not hostile to inquiry, but could see no sense in the expense and delay of an investigation when the reform bill would alter the Liverpool franchise as a matter of course; he acted as a teller for the minority in the subsequent division. He joined Ewart in refuting the imputation that bribery was currently employed by the prospective candidates for Liverpool, 14 July. Contributing to another discussion on the writ, 29 Aug., he urged the House to adhere to its decision not to hinder the passage of the reform bill by protracted discussion of petitions; but he deprecated its continued suspension as ‘at once irregular and unprecedented’, and voted for it to be issued, 5 Sept. 1831.
Denison divided for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and at least twice against adjourning proceedings on it, 12 July 1831. Thereafter he generally supported its details, but he spoke and voted against the disfranchisement of Downton and St. Germans, 21 and 26 July, and divided for giving Stoke two Members, 4 Aug. He raised difficulties over the division of manufacturing counties in terms of population and acreage, 11 Aug., and spoke and divided against granting county borough freeholders the right to vote in the surrounding county, 17 Aug. He was an advocate of the establishment of a poor law for Ireland, 12 Aug., urging the House to be guided by ‘higher considerations’ than simple expediency. On the 19th he sought clarification of the £50 tenant-at-will qualification. He asked Robert Gordon to abandon the scheduled debate on the Dublin election, 23 Aug., since ‘all the great and important business of the country is at a stand’, and sided with government in two divisions that day. He spoke and voted to restrict the franchise in towns to £10 householders, 25 Aug., as ‘persons not paying poor rates or taxes ought not to have a right to vote at all’. He divided for the passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept., when he privately remarked that ‘it will be a very near thing in the Lords on the second reading’. At that time he was optimistic, but by early October he recognized that ministers would be defeated there, which would ‘give me pleasure in the result, if it leads to a more modified and better considered measure of reform’.70 He voted for Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct., and in the wake of the reform riots was able to assure Newcastle, 17 Oct. 1831, that the ‘contagion of Nottingham’ had not penetrated the whole county.71
He voted for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and contributed to debate on some of its provisions after the Christmas recess. On 31 Jan. 1832 he defended the conduct of the special commission at Nottingham, dismissing the imputation that the rioters were denied justice as ‘absolutely unfounded and incorrect’; he made similarly strong statements, 22 June, 8 Aug. With the House clamouring for an adjournment, 2 Feb., he outlined his proposal for modification of the £10 householder clause, but readily agreed to postpone his amendment. The following day he recommended the adoption of a standard £10 rateable value as a means of avoiding disputes over the borough franchise, but was persuaded against dividing by the prospect of certain defeat. He voted with government against another amendment on this, 3 Feb., but again advocated the adoption of a fixed rateable value, 2 Mar. He was credited with having divided against the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., but he voted for the third reading of the bill, 22 Mar. He voiced the silk traders’ dissatisfaction with the composition of the select committee to inquire into their trade, 6 Mar., and cautioned the House against the modification of legislation on friendly societies, 9 Mar. He was absent from the division on Ebrington’s motion for an address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the reform bill unimpaired, 10 May. He spoke in favour of postponing the corn law debate, until the ‘all important question of reform is brought to a conclusion’, 1 June. He brought in a bill to amend the laws regulating the removal of Scottish and Irish vagrants, 13 June, but the second reading was repeatedly deferred and he subsequently pledged to bring the matter before the House in the next session. The target of local anger that month over the revelation that Southwell rather than Newark had been named as the polling centre for the Southern division of Nottinghamshire, he insisted that ‘nothing could be further from my thoughts than to take part in anything which could be considered a slight to the town’.72 However, according to Littleton, Denison had got into ‘a great scrape’ by proposing the substitution: ‘out of which I have promised to get him by changing the place back to Newark, and by taking the blame of the original change on myself’.73 His only other known votes were with government for the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July. He was returned unopposed as a Liberal for Nottinghamshire South at the general election of 1832, and continued to sit in the Commons for most of the rest of his life, serving as a well-regarded Speaker for nearly 15 years. He was created Viscount Ossington on his retirement in February 1872, and died in March 1873.74
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Authors: Simon Harratt / Stephen Farrell
- 1. Thoresby Soc. xv (1909), 251-73; xxvi (1924), 102-5.
- 2. Unhappy Reactionary ed. R.A. Gaunt (Thoroton Soc. rec. ser. xliii), 24.
- 3. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 583-4.
- 4. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Ossington mss OsC 6.
- 5. PROB 11/1630/344; IR26/817/635; G.A. Denison, Notes of My Life, 1-3, 44-45; Visct. Ossington, Notes from My Jnl. when Speaker of House of Commons, pp. vi-viii.
- 6. Add. 40357, ff. 114-16, 190A; Language, Print and Electoral Politics ed. H. Barker and D. Vincent, pp. xxiii, 272, 276-7.
- 7. Add. 40357, f. 110; 40370, f. 293; Derbys. RO, Gresley of Drakelow mss D77/36/5.
- 8. Lady Blessington at Naples ed. E. Clay, 77.
- 9. Ossington mss OsD 7.
- 10. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Newcastle mss Ne1 F1/1 167, 182; NeC 4827.
- 11. Add. 38747, ff. 104-7.
- 12. Ossington mss OsC 18, 20; Add. 51679, Russell to Lady Holland, 19 Aug. 1825.
- 13. Ossington mss OsC 25.
- 14. Unless otherwise stated, the following is based on the Denison diary, Feb. 1826-June 1830, Nottingham Univ. Lib. acc. 636 (Ossington mss Os 3 D 1).
- 15. Add. 51679.
- 16. The Times, 28 Apr.; Add. 51586, Tierney to Lady Holland, 28 Apr. 1826.
- 17. Add. 40370, f. 293; TNA 30/29/9/6/59; Language, Print and Electoral Politics, pp. xxiv, 277-8.
- 18. Notts. Archives, Tallents mss, Denison to Tallents, 12, 16 June 1826.
- 19. Cent. Kent. Stud. Camden mss U840 C257, Robinson to Camden, 10 Aug. 1826.
- 20. Ossington mss OsD 8.
- 21. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 60-61.
- 22. Lady Holland to Son, 57, 59.
- 23. Arbuthnot Corresp. 83A.
- 24. Canning’s Ministry, 138.
- 25. Ossington mss OsC 112, 113, 115.
- 26. Ibid. 148.
- 27. Lady Holland to Son, 63; Canning’s Ministry, 331.
- 28. Ossington mss Os 2 E 1.
- 29. The Times, 17 Aug.; TNA, Granville mss.
- 30. Grey mss, Ellice to Grey, 17 Aug. 1827.
- 31. Add. 38750, ff. 168, 170-2, 194.
- 32. Countess Granville Letters, i. 425; Hatherton mss.
- 33. Add. 69366, Greville to Fortescue, 15 Sept.; Lansdowne mss, Denison to Lansdowne, 17 Sept.; Harrowby mss, same to Harrowby, 23 Sept.; Sheffield Archives, Wharncliffe mss, same to Stuart Wortley, 23 Sept. 1827.
- 34. Lincs. AO, Tennyson d’Eyncourt mss H1/107-8; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 333; Hatherton mss, Wilmot to Littleton, 27 Nov. 1827.
- 35. Hatherton mss; Wharncliffe mss, Denison to Stuart Wortley [Dec. 1827].
- 36. Harewood mss WYL 250/8, Denison to Mrs. Canning, 3 Dec. 1827, Cavendish Bentinck to same [Jan.]; Harrowby mss, Denison to Sandon, 26 Jan. ; Add. 38754, ff. 225-6.
- 37. Lady Holland to Son, 75.
- 38. Add. 38754, ff. 313, 317; 40307, f. 28; Wellington mss WP1/914/35, 36; Wellington Despatches, iv. 221-2.
- 39. Add. 38755, f. 10.
- 40. Harrowby mss.
- 41. Ibid.
- 42. P. Jupp, British Politics on Eve of Reform, 266.
- 43. Lansdowne mss, Lansdowne to Rice, 26 Dec. ; Add. 38757, ff. 159-60, 164; Ossington mss OsC 62.
- 44. Derby mss 920 Der (14) 62, Denison to Smith Stanley, 28 Dec. 1828; 63, same to same, 12 Jan. 1829; Ossington mss OsC 63, 79.
- 45. Ossington mss OsC 64-67, 70, 80, 82.
- 46. Harrowby mss, Denison to Sandon, 6 Feb. .
- 47. Derby mss 63, Denison to Smith Stanley [Feb.] 1829.
- 48. Add. 38758, f. 82; Ossington mss OsC 71, 72, 83.
- 49. Grey mss, Howick jnl. 8 Feb. 1830.
- 50. Ossington mss OsC 73, 74.
- 51. St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 103, Grant to Gladstone, 21 Oct. 1830.
- 52. Unhappy Reactionary, 64-65; Newcastle mss NeC 7651, 7652; Glos. RO, Sotheron Estcourt mss D1571 F793.
- 53. Language, Print and Electoral Politics, pp. xxv, 286, 296-8, 303-5; Add. 38758, ff. 222-3; Ossington mss OsC 75, 76; Harrowby mss, Lady Wortley to Lady Harrowby, 18 Aug. 1830.
- 54. Add. 61937, f. 114.
- 55. See LIVERPOOL.
- 56. Derby mss 116/1, Brougham to Smith Stanley [?Oct. 1830].
- 57. Ossington mss OsC 78; J. A. Picton, Memorials of Liverpool, i. 490-1.
- 58. Add. 40401, f. 256.
- 59. Hatherton mss.
- 60. Harrowby mss, Sandon to Harrowby, 19, 25 Nov. 1830.
- 61. Glynne-Gladstone mss 103, Denison to J. Gladstone, 13 Nov.; 196, T. to J. Gladstone, 26 Nov., 2 Dec.; 453, Grant to T. Gladstone, 6 Dec.; The Times, 26, 29 Nov., 2, 9 Dec. 1830; Picton, i. 492-4.
- 62. Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Leigh to Salisbury, 30 Nov. 1830; Croker Pprs. ii. 80.
- 63. Greville Mems. ii. 76.
- 64. Glynne-Gladstone mss 103, Denison to J. Gladstone, 12, 13 Dec.; 243, Grant to T. Gladstone, 26 Nov.; Add. 76373, Althorp to Grey, 2 Dec.; Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 16 Dec. 1830.
- 65. Glynne-Gladstone mss 196, T. to J. Gladstone, 6, 15 Dec.; Harrowby mss, Gower to Lady Harrowby, 5 Dec., Harrowby to Sandon, 25 Dec.; Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 12 Dec. 1830.
- 66. Glynne-Gladstone mss 103, Denison to J. Gladstone, 20 Dec. 1830, 12 Mar., reply, 3 Apr. 1831.
- 67. Unhappy Reactionary, 79, 81; Newcastle mss NeC 4533, 4560; Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Leigh to Salisbury, 25, 27, 30 Apr., 2 May; Sotheron Estcourt mss, Becher to Sotheron, 26 Apr., 5, 6, 9 May; Nottingham Rev. 29 Apr., 6, 13, 27 May; The Times, 5, 7, 10, 11 May 1831.
- 68. Grey mss, Grant to Grey, 7 May; Glynne-Gladstone mss 198, T. to J. Gladstone, 8, 10 May; 244, Grant to same, 2-4 May; Derby mss 116/9, Hodgson to Smith Stanley, 9 May; Hatherton mss, Palmerston to Littleton, 14 May 1831; Unhappy Reactionary, 81; Ossington mss OsC 1554.
- 69. Tallents mss, Denison to Tallents, 11 June 1831.
- 70. Notts. Archives CP5/4/861-2.
- 71. Newcastle mss NeC 5022.
- 72. Tallents mss, Godfrey to Tallents, 11 June, Denison to same, 13 June, 7 July 1832.
- 73. Hatherton diary, 13 June 1832.
- 74. The Times, 8 Mar. 1873; Ann. Reg. (1873), Chron. p. 132; DNB; Oxford DNB.