HEBER, Richard (1774-1833), of Hodnet, Salop; Marton, Yorks. and Pimlico Lodge, Mdx.

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

Constituency

Dates

24 Aug. 1821 - Feb. 1826

Family and Education

b. 5 Jan. 1774, 1st s. of Rev. Reginald Heber of Hodnet, rect. of Malpas, Cheshire, and 1st w. Mary, da. and coh. of Rev. Martin Baylie, rect. of Wrentham, Suff. educ. Dr. Glasse’s sch. Greenford, Mdx. 1783-90; Brasenose, Oxf. 1790. unm. suc. fa. to Hodnet and Marton 1804. d. 4 Oct. 1833.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Salop 1821-2.

Capt. Hodnet vols. 1803; col. Craven Legion 1804.

Biography

Heber’s father, who was ordained in 1753, was a fellow of Brasenose until 1766, when he succeeded his elder brother to Hodnet and became a rural clergyman. Marton, the family’s original property, did not come into his possession until the death of his brother’s widow in 1803. His first wife died soon after Richard Heber’s birth and he married again in 1782: the first child of this union was Reginald Heber (1783-1826), later bishop of Calcutta. Richard Heber’s bibliomania, which became the mainspring of his life, manifested itself during his schooldays, when his father, frequently irked by his ‘debts contracted with booksellers’, tried to curb it:

I cannot say I rejoice in the importation of the cargo of books you mention from abroad, we had before enough and too many, ten times more than were ever read or even looked into. Of multiplying books ... there is neither end nor use. The cacoethes of collecting books draws men into ruinous extravagancies. It is an itch which grows by indulgence and should be nipped in the bud.1

At Oxford Heber refined his literary tastes, continued to collect books and earned some reputation as a scholar and littérateur. He was a frequent attender at debates in Parliament in the 1790s. He toured Scotland in 1799 and the West of England in 1800, when he formed a lasting friendship with Walter Scott, whose literary circle he joined: he was later a member of the Roxburghe Club and a contributor to the Quarterly Review. He visited France in 1802 and returned before war broke out to busy himself with the volunteers. His father’s death in 1804 brought him a handsome inheritance which gave him full rein to indulge his bibliomania.2 He was a notably generous lender of books to his wide circle of friends.

Heber first appeared as a candidate for Oxford University in the premature canvass of 1805. He went to the poll in 1806 but came a poor third. He was involved in another abortive canvass in 1814, when he was handicapped by doubts as to his firmness on the Catholic question. Suspicions were aroused by his silence on the issue and memories of his support for Lord Grenville in the contest for the chancellorship in 1809. He satisfied his former tutor, who catechized him on the subject, that he was a ‘true and steady church and kingman’.3 The same difficulty arose in the summer of 1821, when he disputed a vacancy with Sir John Nicholl*, a leading opponent of Catholic relief. Heber enjoyed some Whig support, while the premier Lord Liverpool and the home secretary Lord Sidmouth were reported to be ‘very favourable’ to his pretensions. On the other hand, the assets of his ‘popular manners, his great library, his genuine Toryism and his assiduous canvass of near 15 years’ were offset by the ‘great cry’ raised against him by ‘the high churchmen’, who were said to ‘accuse him of travelling in stage coaches, of living at a brewery, of associating with the opposition, and of being favourably disposed towards the Catholics’.4 Heber assured one correspondent that he was ‘no emancipator’, his half-brother, though personally in favour of relief, publicized Richard’s ‘determined hostility’ to it, and his committees issued a statement to the same effect, which quelled the doubts and enabled him to establish a decisive lead.5 The Tory Sir Thomas Fremantle† thought he would ‘make a very good Member’; and the Canningite John William Ward* commented that Heber, ‘a gentleman and a scholar’, was ‘likely to act honestly and independently’:

His own notions, for I take him to be a Tory, will naturally lead him to support the government of the day; but he will be content to consider the honour the University has done him as the end, and not as a mere stepping-stone to selfish objects of a lower order; he will not sell piecemeal a mark of confidence so honourably and freely conferred upon him.6

Despite his reputation for wit and wisdom, Heber signally failed to distinguish himself in the Commons, where his performance was ‘by no means answerable to the expectations of many of his constituents’.7 He divided with government against more extensive tax reductions to relieve distress, 21 Feb., but voted for relaxation of the salt duties, 28 Feb., and admiralty economies, 1 Mar. 1822. It was rumoured in Oxford that he was to make his début on Canning’s motion to relieve Catholic peers, 30 Apr., but he settled for a silent hostile vote.8 He voted against the salt duties, 28 June, but for the aliens bill, 19 July. On the Irish estimates, 22 July, he voted against the grant for glebe houses but in favour of that for the publication of government proclamations. When speculating which way Canning would jump after Lord Londonderry’s death, John Wilson Croker* included Heber among Members ‘inclined’ to him who would probably follow him if he went into opposition. Heber wrote a congratulatory letter to Canning when he became foreign secretary.9 In 1823 he divided more regularly with ministers: against inquiry into the borough franchise, 20 Feb., for the sinking fund, 3, 13 Mar., and against repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr., inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and reform of the Scottish county representation, 2 June. His only known wayward votes were for the recommittal of the silk bill, 9 June, and to incorporate jury trial in the New South Wales bill, 7 July. His only recorded vote in 1824 was against the production of a list of Catholic office-holders in Ireland, 19 Feb., and he was confined with a sprained ankle in March.10 Next month, in correspondence with the home secretary Peel, his fellow Member for the university, he suggested the addition to the county courts bill of a clause to safeguard the ancient privileges of Oxford and Cambridge.11 On 14 May 1824 he presented a Magdalen College petition against the St. Katharine’s Dock bill.12

Heber was an habitué of Holland House, and Lady Holland had this to say of him in 1822: ‘His memory is quite remarkable, and his ready application of verses and stories smart and brisk. He is a valuable inmate to help on conversation’.13 In 1823 her son Henry Edward Fox* wrote:

He is good-natured and has acquired a good deal with all his book-collecting and reading, but is rather in the Oxford style of humbug, which is so very odious. I rather like him. He is very much given to drinking and eating, which his friends!!! say has deadened his understanding.14

Heber was a founder member of the Athenaeum Club and, early in 1825, Lady Holland noted:

This activity has done him harm at Oxford, as they complain of his drawing off members from the University Club - indeed I fear Heber is not popular at Oxford, as he keeps no house nor has spoken in Parliament.15

This was true. In May 1825 the provost of Oriel encouraged Heber to allay the growing dissatisfaction with his anonymity in the House by the ‘trifling sacrifice’ of giving ‘some public evidence of attention to the political feelings of the University’; but he merely cast silent votes against the Catholic relief bill, 1 Mar., 10 May. He also voted for the bill to suppress the Catholic Association, 25 Feb., and against regulation of the Irish franchise, 26 Apr. On 28 July 1825 he left for the continent, and the following month he informed his half-sister Mrs. Cholmondeley that he had decided to resign his seat:

Towards this I have been turning onward for some time and the impending dissolution seemed the proper moment to decide. Not taking an active part in its proceedings, I found the House somewhat of a fag and a bore and the time it took up unprofitably spent. All things considered, I do not think I shall repent my resolution.16

The true reason for Heber’s precipitate retreat from English public life was less innocent. At some time in 1825, probably in July, he made sexual advances at the Athenaeum to two young men, including the son of his agent, one Fisher, who threatened to bring charges against him. The affair was brought to Peel’s notice by Robert Wilmot Horton*, a close friend of Heber’s half-brother, who had ‘the strongest suspicions’ that Reginald Heber had gone to India in 1823 ‘in consequence of his having obtained some sort of knowledge’ of Richard’s moral laxity. Heber’s friend, Henry Hobhouse, Peel’s under-secretary, was enlisted in their attempt to prevent the episode from bringing ‘irretrievable ruin’ on Heber and in the process ‘leaving an almost ineffaceable stain upon his own caste in society’. Heber had at first protested his innocence and determination ‘to abide the result’; but eventually he ‘admitted enough’ for Hobhouse to advise him to leave the country and take steps to vacate his seat at the dissolution (which was expected in the autumn). He reluctantly complied and by 4 Aug. 1825 was at Calais, whence he wrote to Hobhouse, promising to deal with the matter of his seat, but asking whether he might return for a short while to settle some private business. Hobhouse’s reply gave him nothing for his comfort:

I think the object of those with whom I have recently communicated respecting you is to prevent your retaining the place you have filled in English society; and that if that object can be attained without recourse to legal proceedings, there is no disposition to take those steps, to which they would otherwise recur. Under these circumstances you must judge for yourself of the prudence of visiting England, taking into the account that since your departure the facts have (I believe) been imparted to Mr. F[isher] ... If you resolve on running the risk, there are cogent reasons, why I should neither be party nor privy to the fact of your being here.

He promised not to return ‘at present’, but still prevaricated about his seat. Hobhouse believed he would do nothing about it unless forced to, but was disinclined to exert himself further in the affair. Peel persuaded Hobhouse to reconsider and, agreeing that ‘a man who has so disgraced himself’ ought to leave Parliament ‘both for the sake of himself and the public’, he pressed Heber to act. Heber, who was now in Antwerp, ‘submitted to the self-abasement suggested to him’ and sent letters of resignation, to be forwarded to the Oxford authorities when a dissolution was announced, which ascribed his retreat to ‘tedium and a wish to be able to devote his time more exclusively to literary pursuits’. Hobhouse was evidently able to use them to avert a renewed threat, presumably from Fisher, to expose the truth.17

The dissolution was postponed, and Heber’s resignation was formally submitted in January 1826, when it became ‘the topic and wonder’ of the moment. Peel, replying to his former tutor’s inquiries, blandly replied that ‘Heber was so listless last session, and appeared to have such a horror of anything which might by possibility call him up in the House of Commons, that I am hardly surprised at his resignation’.18 Although there were those who surmised that there was something ‘not pleasant’ behind it, and Lady Holland had some knowledge of ‘Heber’s scandalous life’, his resignation was generally put down to his awareness of the increasing dissatisfaction in Oxford with his ineptitude as a Member.19 Lord Dudley (as Ward had become) assured Lord Aberdeen that ‘the history of it is simply this, that he could not muster nerves for a single anti-Catholic speech, and was forced by his inconceivable want of moral courage to sacrifice a seat which had cost him 20 years’ canvass’.20 A further convenient blind to the truth was provided by the recent bankruptcy of the leading London bookseller Thomas Thorpe, with whom Heber was thought to have had ‘very expensive speculations’ which might have caused him ‘pecuniary embarrassment’.21 In May 1826 speculation about the reason’s for Heber’s flight and retirement was intensified by the publication by Edward Shackell, the owner and editor of John Bull, of observations that Heber would not return to England for some time, ‘the backwardness of a foreign climate being found more congenial at this season of the year’ (7 May); and that the ‘complaint, for which ... [he] remains on the continent, is stated to be occasioned by an over-addiction to Hartsthorn’. This was a clear insinuation that Heber’s suspiciously close relationship since 1821 with Charles Henry Hartsthorne, a clergyman’s son who was 29 years his junior, was a homosexual one and lay behind his withdrawal. Heber himself shrugged off the innuendo, but Hartsthorne, who was also abroad, was summoned home by friends in August 1826 and advised to bring a criminal charge of libel against Shackell. Heber declined Hartsthorne’s request to come home to refute the slur, but offered financial aid for the suit. In king’s bench, 18 and 28 Nov. 1826, a rule absolute was given against Shackell. The libel action was heard on 20 Oct. 1827, when Shackell, despite his contrition and admission that he had not verified the original story, was found guilty. On 27 Nov. 1827 he was fined £500 for his libel.22 In the immediate aftermath of the appearance of the insinuations in John Bull, Scott was shocked to be told that Heber’s retirement was as a result of ‘his having been detected in unnatural practices’:

God, God, whom shall we trust? Here is earning, wit, gaiety of temper, high station in society and complete reception everywhere all at once debased and lost by such a degrading bestiality.

Soon afterwards Scott got wind of the intervention of Hobhouse, who had ‘detected a warrant for ... [Heber’s] trial passing through the [home] office’: ‘the fairest outsides so often cover the foulest vices’.23 Later in 1826 Lady Spencer told her husband:

Abercromby told me yesterday an anecdote about Heber which ... I think proves him to be mad. During the Fonthill sale he was invited to reside at Mr. Bennet’s ... and one night after a supper, where he had drunk immoderately, he ... found his way to Miss Bennet’s room, and actually assaulted this very pretty young woman so that on her running for protection to her mother’s apartment, it was judged fitting to turn him out of doors the next morning.24

There was speculation that Heber would ‘take orders and slip himself into his own living’, but he did not return to England until 1831 and even then, according to an obituary notice, ‘not into the society which he had left; for rumours had been in circulation degrading to his moral character’.25 His health and spirit were wrecked and he lived in exclusion at Pimlico, though to the last he indulged his passion for book collection, which did eventually enmesh him in some financial difficulties. His friend Thomas Dibdin was shocked by ‘the emaciated frame, flurried discourse, and uncertain movements of his later years’, in contrast to the charm and gaiety of his heyday, when Scott had called him ‘Heber the magnificent’.26 He died at Pimlico in October 1833. Alexander Dyce wrote that he breathed his last ‘without a friend to close his eyes, and ... broken-hearted’.27 His will, hidden on a bookshelf, was not found for three months. It was proved under £60,000 on 13 Jan. 1834 by his sole executrix Mrs. Cholmondeley, who received a life interest in all Heber’s estate, reckoned to be worth £200,000. The will made no provision for his books, which filled to bursting eight houses in England and Europe. They were disposed of in a series of sales in London, Paris and Ghent, 1834-7, which realized slightly less than £67,000.28

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher

Notes

  • 1. Heber Letters, 25, 33, 52.
  • 2. Ibid. 53, 55, 79, 87, 91, 99, 113-31, 137-41, 158.
  • 3. Ibid. 213-15, 244-5; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 329.
  • 4. Althorp Letters, 115; Add. 51659, Whishaw to Lady Holland, 16 July 1821.
  • 5. Heber Letters, 288-91; Add. 52011, J. Stuart Wortley to H.E. Fox, 25 July 1821; A. Heber, Life of Reginald Heber, ii. 47.
  • 6. Bucks. RO, Fremantle mss D/FR, Sir T. to W.H. Fremantle, 2 Sept. 1821; Ward, Llandaff Letters, 289.
  • 7. Gent. Mag. (1834), i. 107.
  • 8. Heber Letters, 301.
  • 9. Add. 40319, f. 66; Harewood mss, Heber to Canning, 16 Sept. 1822.
  • 10. Add. 40363, f. 34.
  • 11. Add. 40364, f. 179.
  • 12. The Times, 15 May 1824.
  • 13. Lord Ilchester, Chrons. of Holland House, 31.
  • 14. Fox Jnl. 154.
  • 15. Ilchester, 56.
  • 16. Heber Letters, 328-31.
  • 17. Add. 40380, ff. 227-31, 234-6, 257, 258, 315; 40381, ff. 166, 169, 220, 284, 310. This episode is overlooked in Oxford DNB. It is coyly hinted at by A. Aspinall in Parl. Affairs, xiv (1960-1), xiv. 396, 446-50. See also L. Crompton, Byron and Greek Love, 46, 357.
  • 18. Add. 40342, ff. 297, 303.
  • 19. Williams Wynn Corresp. 341, 343; Add. 51586, Tierney to Lady Holland, 3 Mar.; 51659, Whishaw to same, 26 Jan.; Castle Howard mss, Abercromby to Carlisle, 26 Jan. 1826.
  • 20. Add. 43231, f. 171.
  • 21. Add. 51749, Holland to H.E. Fox, 8 Feb. 1826; Hopetoun mss 167, f. 12.
  • 22. The Times, 20, 29 Nov. 1826, 22 Oct., 23 Nov. 1827; Oxford DNB.
  • 23. Scott Jnl. 162, 170-1.
  • 24. Add.75938, Lady to Lord Spencer, 8 Nov. 1826.
  • 25. Williams Wynn Corresp. 343; Ann. Reg. (1830), App. to Chron. p. 246.