HARRIS, James Edward, Visct. FitzHarris (1778-1841), of Heron Court, Hants.

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

Constituency

Dates

1802 - 18 May 1804
10 Oct. 1804 - 1806
1807 - 1812
11 Nov. 1816 - 21 Nov. 1820

Family and Education

b. 19 Aug. 1778, at St. Petersburg, 1st s. of James Harris†, 1st earl of Malmesbury, and Harriet Maria, da. of Sir George Amyand†, 1st bt., of Carshalton, Surr. educ. Eton 1791; Christ Church, Oxf. 1796; continental tour 1799-1800. m. 17 June 1806, Harriet Susan, da. of Francis Bateman Dashwood of Well Vale, Lincs., 3s. suc. fa. as 2nd earl of Malmesbury 21 Nov. 1820. d. 10 Sept. 1841.

Offices Held

Précis writer, home office and private sec. to sec. of state for home affairs July 1801-July 1802; ld. of treasury May 1804-Feb. 1806; under-sec. of state for foreign affairs Mar.-Aug. 1807; gov. I.o.W. Aug. 1807-d.

Cornet, Woodley vol. cav. 1798-1805; maj. commdt. Loyal Henley vols. 1801; capt. 2 Wilts. militia 1803, lt.-col. 1804.

Biography

FitzHarris, a reluctant politician from the outset, had sat in the Commons almost continuously since 1802, his career owing more to the reputation of his father, the outstanding Pittite diplomat Lord Malmesbury, than to any merit of his own. He became even fonder of a life of rural retreat at Heron Court after the untimely death of his wife in 1815, although the increasingly frail health suffered by Malmesbury, the lord lieutenant, forced him to be active on Hampshire business.1 He had a pension of £1,200, in addition to his salary of £1,379 as governor of the Isle of Wight.2 In a letter full of alarm at the recent discovery of the Cato Street conspiracy, he reported to his father, 27 Feb. 1820, that his governorship precluded him from interfering at the imminent general election. However, this habitual self-effacement did not prevent him from privately expressing his support for the ministerialist candidates John Fleming* and Henry Combe Compton†, against the Whig George Purefoy Jervoise*.3 To his father’s satisfaction, he moved the formal address of condolence and congratulation to George IV at the Hampshire meeting on the eve of the county election.4 Referring to Jervoise’s expected success, the moderate Whig Lord Lansdowne commented to FitzHarris, 10 Mar., that ‘I am afraid you will see some recruits in this Parliament whom we neither of us should approve of, [as] the spirit of reform has really ... taken a root in the public mind’.5 That day, putting in an appearance at the patron Lord Pembroke’s request, he was again returned unopposed for the pocket borough of Wilton (of which he had been a burgess since 1800).6 He had taken the government whip in the previous Parliament, and the Liverpool administration would have counted on his support, when present.7 However, no further evidence of parliamentary activity has been traced, and he was granted a month’s leave on urgent private business, 19 June 1820.

Condemning ministers’ failure to stifle the explosive issue of how to deal with Queen Caroline, FitzHarris complained to Pembroke, 21 July 1820, that had they done so, ‘we should have been now enjoying (comparatively with last year) something like tranquillity, instead of being, as is my decided opinion, upon the very verge of ruin’. Explaining that ‘God knows I give no preference to either of the two parties; I don’t know which to think the worse of’, he nevertheless argued that, since the king could not enter any prosecution with ‘clean hands’, the parliamentary charges made against the queen were unjustifiable. As the leader of the House, Lord Castlereagh, had ‘notified an intention of enforcing an attendance’, FitzHarris felt obliged to inform his patron that ‘if I am called on to vote, it would be in opposition to the line of proceeding unhappily adopted by the government’, and that, as this might place him in conflict with Pembroke, he wished to vacate his seat. Pembroke, responding with equal civility, 5 Aug., urged him to defer his resolution, thinking ‘the present moment the most improper for a man to withdraw himself from either House of Parliament’, and adding that ‘I am far from supposing you to be bit by radicals and still less to be influenced by fear of them, but perhaps I may suspect you of being bit by a love of solitude which often misleads the best heads and the best hearts’. Desperately concerned that the gains recently made against the forces of radicalism had been thrown away and that bloodshed and anarchy were inevitable, FitzHarris repeated his criticisms of ministers in a letter of the 7th, but seems to have heeded Pembroke’s calming response, dated 12 Aug. 1820, in which he pointed out that FitzHarris could always abstain, that ‘never was it my wish or intention to shackle you with my opinions’, and that a secession would be liable to misinterpretation.8

FitzHarris recorded in his letterbook his astonishment at the arrival at Heron Court of Sir George Cockburn*, 30 Sept. 1820, with instructions from the king that he should immediately cross to the Isle of Wight and organize a loyal address from Newport. Obeying such a direct command, albeit against his better judgement, he informed Cockburn, 2 Oct., that he was convinced that, given ‘the present disturbed state of the public mind’, such an attempt could only be counterproductive.9 Summoned to attend Parliament on 16 Oct., he privately remarked that ‘I must be under the necessity of declining’.10 He inherited his father’s earldom in November 1820, which relieved him of this embarrassment, although the following month Pembroke recommended that he should process the necessary legal paperwork, if only to prevent ‘such an awkward circumstance as your being obliged to answer to a call of the House of Commons, should one take place previous to the issue of your writ of summons to the House of Lords’.11 He was not a total recluse thereafter, since he spoke occasionally in the Lords, where he was one of the 22 ‘stalwarts’ who voted against the third reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 4 June 1832. Yet, having put the family estates back into some kind of order, shooting and the study of nature remained his governing passions. His shooting journals, meticulously recording over 40 years of dedicated slaughter, were considered by Lord Beaconsfield as ‘the most extraordinary example of patience and a sturdy character he ever saw’; extracts were later published.12 Although eclipsed politically by his father and eldest son, who succeeded him as the 3rd earl in September 1841 and served in Derby and Beaconsfield’s cabinets, he was not without substance. His heir, who judged that ‘the insincerity of politics was little suited to his susceptible feelings of morality and honour’, later recalled that, ‘with all this devotion to sport, he read everything, ancient and modern; and, having lived with clever men and in anxious times ... his conversation was most amusing and instructive’.13

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Stephen Farrell / David R. Fisher

Notes

  • 1. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iv. 156-9; Hants RO, Malmesbury mss 9M73/195.
  • 2. Red Bk. (1821), 176.
  • 3. Malmesbury mss 330; 415, FitzHarris to Fleming, 12 Feb., to Palmerston, 27 Feb. 1820.
  • 4. Ibid. 195, p. 508; G2459, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 9, 16 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Ibid. 401.
  • 6. Ibid. G2459, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 8 Feb.; G2538, Pembroke to FitzHarris, 5 Feb., 2 Mar.; 376, acct. bk. 11 Mar. 1820; Wilts. RO, Wilton borough recs. G25/1/22, f. 242.
  • 7. Malmesbury mss 402.
  • 8. Ibid. 404; 415.
  • 9. Ibid. 415.