LENNOX, Lord William Pitt (1799-1881), of Regent Street, 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

1831 - 1834

Family and Education

b. 20 Sept. 1799, 4th s. of Charles Lennox†, 4th duke of Richmond (d. 1819), and Lady Charlotte Gordon, da. of Alexander, 4th duke of Gordon [S]; bro. of Lord Arthur Lennox* and Lord John George Lennox*. educ. Westminster 1808-13; privately by Rev. James Knollis of Littlewick Green, Maidenhead Thicket, Berks. 1813-14. m. (1) 7 May 1824, Mary Anne (div. 26 Feb. 1831), da. of George Paton, schoolmaster, of Edinburgh, 1da. d.v.p.;1 (2) 1854, Ellen (d. 3 Nov. 1859), da. of John Smith, 1s.; (3) 17 Nov. 1863, Maria Jane, da. of Rev. Capel Molyneux, incumbent of St. Paul’s, Onslow Square, Mdx. s.p. d. 18 Feb. 1881.

Offices Held

Cornet R. Horse Gds. 1813, lt. 1814, capt. 1822, out of service 1829.

Biography

Although Lennox never achieved the political eminence of the godfather after whom he was named, he emerges from his published memoirs as the most colourful of the three brothers of the 5th duke of Richmond who sat in the Commons in this period. His early education, ‘neither systematic nor strict’, took place near the family seat of Goodwood, Sussex, and with holidays at Phoenix Park, Dublin, where his father lived as lord lieutenant of Ireland, it inspired his interest in horse riding and the theatre.2 A semi-autobiographical work entitled Percy Hamilton (1851) documents his experiences of Westminster School, which he left (after playing truant to see a stage performance) to be coached for the army, the usual career of his family.3 After Buonaparte’s first defeat he accompanied the duke of Wellington as an aide-de-camp to Paris, the Netherlands and the Congress of Vienna. He was similarly attached to General Sir Peregrine Maitland at Waterloo, but he missed the battle owing to a freak riding accident, which cost him the sight of an eye.4 He subsequently rejoined Wellington’s staff in England before linking up with his father, then governor-general of Canada, in 1818. On the latter’s untimely death from hydrophobia the following year he returned to his regiment, then quartered at Windsor.5 Off duty he acquired a reputation as a fashionable young man-about-town, a ‘strange, wild thing’ whose ‘quickness and drollery’ impressed Henry Edward Fox* when he met him in 1822. He owned and rode racehorses, frequented gambling houses and, though he later claimed never to have fallen into debt, he was, like many peers’ younger sons, perennially short of money.6

Lennox’s love of the stage brought him into the society of Mary Anne Paton, a celebrated singer. An unkind contemporary biographer wondered if her ‘brilliant eye, fair complexion and ... fine figure may offer an apology for the disproportioned size of that mouth from which such enchanting notes have often pleased the ear’.7 She initially spurned his advances, but accepted his proposal after he pursued her to Edinburgh, where they were discreetly married, despite opposition from both families. Thereafter Lady William continued her stage career under her maiden name, an arrangement which, though apparently made at her own insistence, must have suited her husband, as ‘the profits of her benefit amounted to more, by a third, than his annual income’.8 Newspapers and cartoonists were quick to censure this, and to query the validity of the marriage, particularly after the birth of a child early in 1825.9 Their spotlight again fell on Lennox in August 1826 when, finding himself suspected of contributing to Westmacott’s scurrilous newspaper The Age, he asked the 2nd earl of Glengall to investigate these allegations. Glengall declined to exonerate Lennox, who made the affair a matter of honour, and they fought a bloodless duel at Cowes.10 The original accusation later featured in Disraeli’s Vivian Grey (1827), in which Lennox appears as Lord Prima Donna.11

The disintegration of his marriage, occasioned by his wife’s desertion in May 1830, prompted much prurient interest and comment.12 Reports stated that they had been ‘living together very unamiably’ for some time, and blamed Lennox for ‘looseness of habits and indifference to the pleasures and comforts of a domestic life’. The coverage highlighted the disparity of the couple’s backgrounds and incomes, which The Times concluded ‘almost necessarily led to catastrophe’. The paper recounted a public exchange in Covent Garden, in which Lennox’s reference to his wife’s indebtedness to him for ‘rank’ prompted the riposte, ‘When I knew you, you had not a decent coat to your back’. The commentators’ tone changed when it emerged that Lady William had eloped with her leading man, the ‘bewitchingly handsome’ singer Joseph Wood, with whom she fled to Dublin. Details were published of her numerous premarital affairs, and it was alleged that she had initiated and carried on the liaison with Wood for some time before the separation.13 Lennox (dubbed ‘Blinking Billy’ by the cartoonists) failed to effect a reconciliation, and consented to a divorce. To provide the evidence of adultery necessary to dissolve a Scottish marriage, Lennox, it was later claimed, spent three nights in an Edinburgh brothel where, ‘having made up his mind to go through with the business, he did in Rome as Rome does and frolicked and whisked about ... like any other wanton bacchanal’. He stated that he had acquiesced in the arrangement ‘from a feeling that this course is the best for Lady William’s interest’, but financial motives and a desire to avoid publicity lay closer to his heart.14 The Scottish lord ordinary dissolved the marriage, 26 Feb. 1831, but, contrary to assertions made in Burke’s Peerage and elsewhere, the judgement was never ratified by Act of Parliament. This had implications for the validity of the divorce if (as one source claims) the couple went through a second marriage ceremony in England in 1828, and may explain why details of Lennox’s re-marriage in 1854 remain obscure.15 Lady William and Joseph Wood were married on 3 Mar. 1831.16

Lennox was reputed to have sold his commission for £8,000 in 1829 on a hint from Wellington concerning the incompatibility of his army rank with his wife’s occupation, but, as with all matters pertaining to his marriage, this is glossed over in his memoirs, which ascribe his decision to frustration at lack of promotion opportunities and his wish to embark on a political career.17 He had always been politically at odds with his Tory family, displaying liberal, even radical, tendencies. Byron was a hero of his youth, he had canvassed for John Cam Hobhouse* at the Westminster election of 1820 and was on friendly terms with the bête noire of the Sussex landed interest, Sir Godfrey Webster†.18 He later recollected ‘chaffing’ over politics with his brother Richmond, although by 1831 they were united in support of the Grey ministry’s reform bill.19 On 7 Apr. Lennox issued a ringing denunciation of the unreformed system at the Sussex county meeting, where he seconded a pro-reform petition to the Lords.20 Two days later Richmond, the Grey ministry’s postmaster-general, hoped that Lennox, who he predicted would ‘distinguish himself in Parliament’, might take his brother John George’s seat at Chichester if the latter was elected for Sussex.21 In the event, at the general election that month he was delighted to come in for King’s Lynn as a reformer with Richmond’s racing colleague and friend Lord George Cavendish Bentinck.22

Lennox prefaced his vote for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July 1831, with what Thomas Spring Rice* called a ‘pointed and effective’ maiden speech that countered the chief arguments of the anti-reformers.23 It was too pointed for one of them, Charles Waldo Sibthorp, who according to Lennox took offence at his injunction to him ‘not to use the House as a foundling hospital for his illegitimate theories’ (which he may have misheard) and demanded an apology via John Cheesement Severn. This was delivered later in the debate, and its acceptance rendered ‘a call to arms’ unnecessary.24 Lennox divided fairly steadily for the bill’s details in committee, and joined Cavendish Bentinck in pressing for Brighton to be awarded two Members, 5 Aug. He wrote to The Times, 3 Sept., to explain that contrary to the published list, he had not voted in the ministerial majority against the preservation of freemen’s voting rights, 30 Aug., adding that ‘if present’ he would have supported the amendment, for he regretted that this class of electors ‘will not be enabled to hand down to their posterity the right they have so disinterestedly exercised’. He divided for the bill’s passage, 21 Sept., the second reading of the Scottish measure, 23 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. A borough meeting at King’s Lynn, 1 Oct., commended his parliamentary conduct, and addressing them, he urged the bill’s passage in the country’s interest and praised the schedule A disfranchisements.25 He voted for the revised bill at its second reading, 17 Dec. 1831, having previously deplored the Lords’ rejection of the bill and condemned its opponents for their apocalyptic vision of its consequences: ‘The ... Commons is a safety valve through which complaints and grievances find vent; its enlargement will assuredly prevent explosion’. He voted to proceed with it in committee, 20 Jan. gave its details steady but silent support, and divided for its third reading, 22 Mar., and the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry it unimpaired, 10 May 1832. The following day he expressed indifference as to the composition of a new ministry, as ‘no government could exist unpledged to the measure’, but he deprecated a call for non-payment of taxes until the bill was passed. He reiterated his support for ministers and an ‘unmutilated’ reform bill when attempting to present his constituents’ petition in this vein, 18 May, and again when he succeeded in doing so on the 22nd.26 He would hear no excuse for those who had cheered false reports of Wellington’s assassination, though he confessed to relief that he had not returned to office, 23 May. He paired for the Irish reform bill at its second reading, 25 May, and presented the Flintshire petition for withdrawal of supplies pending the reform bill’s passage, 30 May.27 He voted against a Conservative amendment to the Scottish measure, 1 June, and to go into committee on the privileges of Parliament bill, which sought to remove Members’ immunity from prosecution for debt, 27 June 1832. He divided in the minority for appointing 11 of its original members to the reconstituted Dublin election committee, 29 July, but with ministers against censuring the Irish government for electoral interference, 23 Aug. 1831. He voted with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July, and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb., but he was listed (with his brother John George) in the minority for printing the radical Woollen Grange petition for the abolition of Irish tithes, 16 Feb., and divided against the government amendment to Buxton’s motion for a select committee on colonial slavery, 24 May. A growing rift between the brothers over Lennox’s parliamentary conduct caused him to write to Richmond, 14 June 1832:

I was greatly annoyed to hear last night from George Bentinck ‘that you were much displeased at many of my votes’ and that it was a breach of honour and faith towards you to vote against the government. Now my inclination is to support the present government, and had I not been disposed so to do, questions during the reform bill and the ‘Russian loan’ would have afforded me ample grounds to go against them. On the West India question [Buxton’s motion, 24 May] I own I voted according to the best of my judgement, and this is the only vote I think you can find fault with. It is my wish to be guided by your better judgements, and on every occasion to follow your wishes. But I wish to acquit myself of having acted dishonourably towards you, and I only trust that in future you will yourself communicate to me your sentiments.28

As requested by the corporation of King’s Lynn, Lennox called for the removal of quarantine duties, 6 Sept. 1831.29 He opposed the anatomy bill, because he did not believe it would curb body-snatching, 27 Feb., 27 Mar., 11 Apr., 11 May 1832, when he complained that its rushed passage constituted ‘an additional proof that the feelings of the lower orders are never consulted when they come into contact with the interests of the higher’. He spoke in favour of Lord John George’s bill to secure compensation for owners of threshing machines destroyed in rural unrest, 1 Mar., and for abolition of the merchant seamen’s contribution to Greenwich Hospital, in which his constituents had a vested interest, 8 Mar. His fine words in support of Sadler’s factory regulation bill, 16 Mar. - ‘whilst we all wish to ameliorate the state of the foreign slave, we should not be wholly unmindful of the condition of our ones’ - irritated the brewer John Kearsley, whose reply, that Lennox knew ‘nothing whatever about cotton mills, nor indeed about anything else’, surprisingly drew no rebuke from the Speaker. As a member of the select committee on postal communications between Britain and Ireland (17 Mar.), he gave assurances on the continuance of the Liverpool-Dublin packet, 4 Apr., and he defended Richmond when arrangements for newspaper conveyancing, 11 Apr., and his public conduct were criticized, 30 July. Later he recalled how he had accompanied his brother to the general post office ‘two or three times a week’ to qualify him to make an informed response.30 He voted for the Liverpool disfranchisement bill at its second reading, 23 May, and spoke the same day against transferring the Norfolk assizes from Thetford to Norwich. As requested, he presented petitions from King’s Lynn in favour of the Maynooth grant and against the general register bill, 30 May, and against the Irish and Scottish vagrants removal bill, 13 July, and military flogging, 30 July 1832.31

Fraternal relations worsened after the 1832 general election, when, standing as a Liberal, Lennox was again returned for King’s Lynn.32 On 22 Apr. 1833 he angrily denied Richmond’s charge that he had leagued with radicals in ‘repeatedly and factiously opposing the government’, but, after facing similar complaints at King’s Lynn, he retired at the dissolution in 1834.33 Expressing a hope that their quarrel was now at an end, he wrote forlornly to Richmond, 19 Dec. 1834:

If you ever wish me to come into Parliament and like to bring me in, I will pledge myself, and guarantee the fulfilment of my promise by a bond of £4,000 to vote according to your wishes. I mention this confidentially and wish no answer to it, as I am aware that nothing but dire necessity would make you wish to have me in.34

He did not stand for Parliament again. An obituarist wrote that he ‘preferred the easy life of a man about town’ to the duties of a Member.35 Financial necessity propelled him into the secondary careers of miscellaneous writer and paid lecturer. He contributed to several periodicals and edited The Review in 1858, while the first of several ‘feeble novels’ was published in 1841.36 Pride and disappointed ambition marked his recollection of his parliamentary career:

I took my fair share of duty in the House of Commons and out of it. I neither professed too much, nor promised too largely. I contributed as far as I was able to the great success the Whigs achieved when they ousted their rivals from place and power, but I cannot say that I profited materially by their success.

Anxious to stress that he had been no radical, he noted that ‘I put forward no extravagant propositions and steadily opposed mischievous legislation’. He remembered the chamber itself as ‘small and ill-ventilated, and the coffee room abominable’. Speeches were ‘often long and tedious’, though this observation did not deter him from quoting the Parliamentary Debates record of his own efforts in full.37 Lennox died in February 1881, leaving two-thirds of his personal estate to his third wife (d. 1916), and the remainder to his son William Robert Lennox (1855-1907), who unsuccessfully contested the will three years later. In response to the plaintiff’s claims to the contrary, it was stated that Lennox had been in full possession of his mental faculties until days before his death, and had dictated an article for the Court Journal on 10 Feb. 1881.38

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Howard Spencer / Margaret Escott

Notes

  • 1. A report in The Times, 2 June 1830, alleged that she bore Lennox three children and was pregnant with their fourth child at the time of their separation.
  • 2. Lord W.P. Lennox, 50 Years of Biographical Reminiscences, i. 83, Drafts upon my Memory (1866), i. 9 and My Recollections (1874), i. 33, 47, 151.
  • 3. Biog. Reminiscences, i. 83, 123-6; Drafts upon my Memory, i. 9; My Recollections, i. 33, 47, 151.
  • 4. My Recollections, i. 55; Drafts upon my Memory, i. 76; Biog. Reminiscences, i. 222-6.
  • 5. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iv. 414-5; Drafts upon my Memory, i. 59; Biog. Reminiscences, ii. 5, 69-73, 117-8.
  • 6. Drafts upon my Memory, i. 60; Biog. Reminiscences, ii. 129; Fox Jnl. 131, 147-8; Creevey Pprs. ii. 75; Gronow Reminiscences, i. 134.
  • 7. Highly Interesting Life of Lady William Lennox [BL 1203. k. 6(3).].
  • 8. Authentic Mems. of Mr. and Mrs. Wood (1843), 23-47.
  • 9. The Times, 16 May 1826; M.D. George, Cat. of Pol. and Personal Satires, x. 14872-3, 15170.
  • 10. The Times, 15 Aug. 1826; Lady Holland to Son, 48, 52.
  • 11. Oxford DNB.
  • 12. Hopetoun mss 167 f. 142.