HOLFORD, George Peter (1767-1839), of 15 Bolton Street, Mdx. and Weston Birt, Glos.

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

Constituency

Dates

12 Jan. 1803 - 1806
1807 - 1812
1812 - 1818
1818 - 1820
1820 - 1826

Family and Education

b. 1767,1 2nd s. of Peter Holford, master in chancery, of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Mdx. and Weston Birt and Anne, da. of William Nutt of Buxted, Suss. educ. Harrow 1780; St. John’s, Camb. 1784; L. Inn 1788, called 1791. m. 1802,2 Anne, da. of Rev. Averill Daniell of Lifford, co. Donegal, 1s. surv. 3da. suc. fa. to Weston Birt 1804. d. 30 Apr. 1839.

Offices Held

Sec. to bd. of control May 1804-Feb. 1806, Apr. 1807-Jan. 1810.

Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1798-1800.

Biography

Holford, a ministerialist lawyer and active philanthropist, who could not be accommodated at Hastings at the general election of 1820, was mentioned by the premier Lord Liverpool to Lord Bath, 29 Feb. 1820, as

the person I should have been most disposed to recommend to your lordship if you had had an opening ... He is one of the oldest friends I have in the world, has been nearly 20 years in Parliament and is particularly useful in the House of Commons from the attention that he gives to all business which is connected with public charities and institutions ... [He] is one of the Members in whom the respectable part of the House have most confidence in matters of this nature, and this consideration is of the more importance as he is a steady friend to the established church.3

In the event he was returned for the ordnance borough of Queenborough and continued steadfastly to support the ministry, appearing in almost all surviving government division lists. After the suicide in August 1822 of his close friend Lord Londonderry*, whose executor he was, he opined to his heir, 29 Oct., that ‘we who are attached to your brother, should avoid anything like an expression of hostile feelings towards his successor’, and, in a bid to mollify him towards the new foreign secretary, stated that his own line would be

to support Canning as the head of the government in the House of Commons, so long as I shall continue to have a seat in the House, a period which however is not likely to extend beyond the present Parliament.4

In December 1822 Londonderry, who counted Holford as a placeholder, doubted that he would abandon government to join his putative third party.5

Holford voted against the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 23 May 1821. He divided against the Catholic peers bill, 30 Apr. 1822, and Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. He was a teller for the minority against the ill-treatment of cattle bill, 24 May, and complained of the vagueness of its provisions, 10 June 1822. He joined in requests for Henry Grey Bennet to withdraw his alehouses licensing bill, 27 June 1822.6 When Lord Eldon, the lord chancellor, mentioned Holford in 1824 as a possible candidate for an undisclosed office, the home secretary Peel replied that he ‘would not be of much service. At least, his uniform support of the government would detract from his weight’.7 After incurring a fine for non-attendance on a jury during a parliamentary session he asked if exemption was not an automatic right for Members, 20 Feb. 1826, and was satisfied the following day, when the committee of privileges reported that it was. He introduced a bill to regulate the Indigent Blind School, 24 Feb., which passed into law on 5 May 1826.8

Holford’s main interest was in prisons, particularly the recently built penitentiary at Millbank, of which he was a governor. He described it as an essential alternative to transportation for short-term prisoners, replied to attacks on its cost and rejected the notion that it should be open for public inspection, 16 June 1820. He defended additional grants for it, 19 June 1820, 28, 31 May 1821; on the last occasion he ‘spoke in high terms of the order and discipline of this establishment’.9 In 1821 he published his Thoughts on the Criminal Prisons of this Country, which advocated the separation of different categories of offenders and an increased role for prison chaplains, in the belief that ‘religion is the most powerful engine that can be applied to the human mind’. This, like subsequent pamphlets, was published by the Philanthropic Society, of which he was a vice-president. In the Edinburgh Review Sydney Smith praised Holford’s ‘good sense’ but criticized his lapse into ‘the usual nonsense about "the tide of blasphemy and sedition"’. Maria Edgeworth commented that

Mr Holford’s connections with Lord Londonderry he alludes to as if Mr. Holford were a sycophant flattering for patronage for some nephew or son. Nothing can be more false. Mr. Holford is a man of large fortune who uses it for benevolent purposes and wants no patronage for any creature.10

He was named to select committees on gaols, 16 Mar. 1821, prison laws, 5 Mar. 1822, 18 Mar. 1824, the metropolis police, 14 Mar. 1822, and Scottish prisons, 14 Apr. 1826. In 1822 he published A Short Vindication of the General Penitentiary at Millbank, which refuted allegations that its regime was lax. He moved a successful amendment to the bill for consolidating prison laws, 21 June 1822, to prevent justices from compelling prisoners who took the county food allowance to work before trial. In his speech, published as a pamphlet in 1824, he condemned the original clause as a ‘monstrous injustice ... departing from the broad distinction between punishment and safe custody’, which ran counter to ‘the humane presumption of English law in favour of innocence’.11 He also denied the right of authority to subject a prisoner to educational or moral improvement without his consent, an argument apparently inconsistent with his reply to Sir John Newport’s criticism of compulsory attendance at Anglican service for prisoners and the practice of employing only Anglican prison officers, 24 Mar. 1823: ‘It was thought fit that the officers should set an example to prisoners in attendance upon divine service, and that they could not do so unless they were members of the English church’.12

Holford, who was appointed to select committees on Millbank penitentiary, 14 May 1823, 1 Mar. 1824, defended the conduct of its management committee when information was demanded regarding an outbreak of disease among the inmates and cuts in their diet, 28 Apr. 1823. He subsequently admitted, in his second Vindication (1825), which denied that the regime was too harsh, that the committee had been wrong in bowing to outside pressure to reduce the diet. During further discussions on the Millbank epidemic, 9 July, he denied allegations that the prison’s riverside location was responsible for the outbreak, a view he elaborated in his third Vindication (1825).13 On 10 July 1823 he moved that extracts from the committee’s minutes be placed before the House to illustrate the adequacy of the allowance for a prisoner on bread and water. He supported a grant to defray the cost of moving officers and prisoners from the penitentiary because of the epidemic, 1 Mar. 1824. His 1825 pamphlet The Convict’s Complaint in 1815 and the Thanks of the Convict in 1825 consisted of two pieces of verse, one bemoaning conditions aboard a hulk, the other eulogizing the healthy discipline of the penitentiary. An apparent dilemma for Holford surfaced in the preface, where he claimed that at Millbank ‘punishment of the offender is subservient to his amendment’, whereas in Thoughts on the Criminal Prisons he had written that ‘punishments are instituted not for the reformation of offenders (although [that] is certainly desirable ...) but for the protection of the public and to deter others’. When approving another grant, 10 Mar. 1826, he denied a charge of excessive use of solitary confinement and enthused over the health and general condition of the prisoners.14 His 1826 critique, Statements and Observations Concerning the Hulks, focused mainly on the necessity of separating prisoners.

As anticipated, Holford retired from the House at the dissolution in 1826. He spent some time in his wife’s native Ireland in late 1828, an experience which confirmed him in his heartfelt opposition to Catholic relief and his belief in the need for a policy of repression. An alarmist, he held similarly reactionary views on parliamentary reform which, he informed Lord Bristol two years later, would ‘probably have no other effect than to make the House of Commons, which is already too popular, still more of a bear garden’.15 In 1828 he published An Account of the General Penitentiary at Millbank and in 1830 a Letter to the Editor of the Quarterly Review, in which he denied that the penitentiary had been a failure and complained of the lack of government support. As he explained to Bristol, to whom he described the Commons as ‘the great coffee house of the nation’:

My letter, though addressed to the editor of the Review, is in part intended as a brief for such Members of Parliament as may be inclined to protect the penitentiary from unmerited abuse in the ensuing discussion upon the miscellaneous estimates, an occasion in which we are regularly assailed by the gentlemen who think imprisonment a mere question of pounds, shillings and pence ... and weakly defended, or rather attacked in another way, by the government, for we have no friends in the ... [home] office, being considered there as rivals not auxiliaries.16

A valetudinarian, he hoped that Gloucestershire would not be disturbed at the general election of 1830, but confessed that if it was, ‘I shall leave the battle to those who are younger than I am, and have more landed property to make it proper to them to take a part in struggles for county representation, than has fallen to my lot’.17 He died in April 1839.18<