LETHBRIDGE, Sir Thomas Buckler, 2nd bt. (1778-1849), of Sandhill Park, nr. Taunton, Som. and 20 Whitehall Place, Westminster, Mdx.
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Family and Educationb. 21 Feb. 1778, o.s. of Sir John Lethbridge, 1st bt.†, of Sandhill Park and Dorothea, da. and coh. of William Buckler of Boreham, Wilts. educ. Oriel, Oxf. 1794. m. (1) 14 May 1796, Jacintha Catherine (d. 31 Aug. 1801), da. of Thomas Hesketh of Rufford Hall, Lancs., 1s. 1da. (d.v.p.); (2) 14 May 1803, Anne, da. of Ambrose Goddard† of Swindon, Wilts., 2s. 4da. suc. fa. as 2nd bt. 15 Dec. 1815. d. 17 Oct. 1849.
Capt. 2 Som. militia 1798, maj. 1803, lt.-col. commdt. 1808, col. 1819.
Lethbridge, who was known as ‘Leatherbreeches’ by his opponents, had retired as Tory Member for Somerset in 1812 fearing disinheritance by his father, with whom he had quarrelled. The latter died intestate, having reputedly torn up his will after being reconciled to his son on his deathbed; Lethbridge and his sisters were granted administration of the estate.1 He was thereafter free to attempt to regain the county seat, and in 1818 he unsuccessfully challenged the sitting Members, William Dickinson and William Gore Langton*. The following year he was active in arousing anti-Catholic feeling among the freeholders, and he used this at the dissolution in 1820 to force Gore Langton’s retirement. He declared himself to be a ‘firm friend to our excellent constitution in church and state’, yet ‘far from ... inimical to the Dissenters’, and said he was prepared to allow Catholics ‘every possible liberty of worship’ but not to remove the restraints on their political power, ‘since whenever they possessed power they never failed to abuse it’. He was returned unopposed with Dickinson, who had shifted his ground on the Catholic question, and rested his claim for future support on his ‘independence of mind, I mean that genuine independence which, unswayed by either hopes or fears of any sort, rests upon conviction, anxiously and deliberately formed’.2
His conduct, as in the past, was unpredictable, and he often acted with the Whig opposition to Lord Liverpool’s ministry. He voted in the minority to defer the civil list report, 8 May, presented a Somerset petition for agricultural relief, 17 May,3 and was granted a month’s leave on account of family illness, 16 June 1820. He was satisfied that the Lords’ proceedings against Queen Caroline had shown her to be ‘guilty of the charges brought’, 1 Feb. 1821, and was so appalled by the reports of how money previously granted to her had been spent that, in what a radical Whig Member described as ‘an effusive, furious and ungentlemanlike speech’, he seconded Holme Sumner’s amendment to reduce the new grant from £50,000 to £30,000.4 He voted in defence of ministers’ conduct towards the queen, 6 Feb. He criticized the Whigs’ ‘vexatious’ opposition to the additional malt duties, 14 Feb., yet voted with them for repeal, 3 Apr. He presented Somerset petitions for relief from agricultural distress, 21, 26 Feb., and was named to the subsequent select committee, 7 Mar. (and again, 18 Feb. 1822).5 He divided with ministers against Maberly’s revenue motion, 6 Mar., but supported repeal of the agricultural horse tax as a ‘small boon’, 5 Apr., and voted for inquiry into the currency, 9 Apr. He divided against Catholic claims, 28 Feb. On 26 Mar. he warned that if the relief bill was carried Parliament must logically also repeal the Test Acts, ‘and then indeed there would be an end to the constitution’. He recalled ‘the evils which England had suffered under Catholic domination and trembled at the repeal of laws which provided against their recurrence’. He had no objection to Catholics being made silks, but ‘could not suffer them upon the bench’. He was confident that an inquiry into Ilchester gaol would find that it was run ‘in a most perfect manner’, 9 Mar., and argued that whatever the truth concerning the gaoler’s conduct ‘not the slightest blame could be attributed to the visiting magistrates’, 11 Apr. He introduced a charitable establishments bill allowing such foundations to alienate land by way of exchange, 15 Mar.; it was later withdrawn and a charitable lands exchange bill brought in, which received royal assent, 10 July. He believed the John Bull newspaper to be guilty of a breach of privilege, which was ‘disgraceful to the press, injurious to morality, and inconsistent with the existence of society’, 10 May 1821, and called for a general inquiry into the press, which had ‘grown up into a fearful engine of mighty mischief’.
In January 1822 he attended the Taunton meeting on agricultural distress and supported the proposed petition, while doubting whether the situation was so bad that it could not be ‘remedied by the manly character of the British nation’. He initially seemed to reject calls for reform as a remedy, but then promised to give it his ‘dispassionate attention’ as he was well aware ‘how time corrodes and impairs the most valued institutions’; even the British constitution was no exception to ‘this truth’.6 In the ensuing session he was one of the country gentlemen who, as a Tory Member put it, ‘literally seem to have run wild’.7 He found it his ‘painful duty’ to support Hume’s amendment to the address for retrenchment, 5 Feb., as he feared ministers were ‘unacquainted with the frightful ravages’ of ‘individual and collective distress’. He voted with ministers against Brougham’s motion on distress, 11 Feb., but was in the minorities for more extensive tax reductions, 21 Feb., and reduction of the salt duties, 28 Feb., when he argued that taxation ‘must be regarded as an auxiliary cause of ... distress’. He emphasized his faith in the character and general policy of ministers, who still possessed the confidence of the people, by which he meant ‘the legitimate people ... the manly yeomanry’ as distinct from ‘a certain unfortunate portion of the population which inhabited great manufacturing towns’, but he warned that if they persisted in ‘sacrificing the landed to the monied interest’ he would be obliged to withdraw his support. He divided for retrenchment, 1, 13 Mar., 2, 16 May, 3 June, and inquiry into diplomatic expenditure, 15 May. He presented numerous Somerset petitions for relief that session, and declared on 6 May that ‘nothing less than the most efficient duties upon the importation of every kind of agricultural produce could restore prosperity to the cultivators of the United Kingdom’.8 Next day he moved resolutions specifying higher duties on a wide range of agricultural commodities, including a 40s. fixed duty on corn, argued that without increased protection ‘it was in vain to expect that the agriculturists could maintain their station in society’, blamed the resumption of cash payments for the existing distress and urged Members not to be ‘led away by false speculations and the abominable theories of political economists’. He was a teller the following day when his resolutions were defeated by 243-24.9 In presenting a Somerset petition for a tax on absentees, 16 May, he pointed out that the revenue from it could be used to finance relief measures for agriculture. He admitted that the leader of the Commons, Lord Londonderry’s proposals for relief seemed on balance to be the ‘most eligible’, 24 May, but ‘clearly this was not the opinion of the country at large’. He opposed Canning’s amendment to the corn bill, allowing warehoused foreign corn to be ground for flour and exported, 3, 10 June, complaining that ‘the agriculturists had been ... completely ground already’ and that the proposal would encourage further imports. He argued that the navigation bill and other board of trade measures were ‘undigested and would produce great mischief’, 4 June, and observed that government policies were ‘now ensuring parliamentary reform’, as ‘the yeomanry were beginning to be reformers from one end of the country to the other’. He was ‘a convert to that doctrine’ and would in future support any proposition from Lord John Russell, who ‘would advocate nothing unconstitutional or dangerous’.10 He initially maintained that the radical agitator Henry Hunt* had not been improperly treated in Ilchester gaol, 8, 20 Feb., but was forced to admit that some of the revelations in the commissioner’s report ‘excite ... indignation’ and must not happen again, 27 Feb. He agreed that Hunt’s treatment provided grounds for remitting his sentence, 13 Mar. He voted for revision of the criminal code, 4 June. He thought the people were too preoccupied with their ‘own distresses’ to organize petitions against Catholic claims, but they ‘still continued decidedly hostile to the question’, 30 Apr.; he voted that day against the Catholic peers bill. He recognized that it could not be stopped in the Commons, but was thankful that ‘there were three estates of this realm’, 17 May 1822. Later that year there were local reports that Lethbridge was personally feeling the financial effects of the agricultural depression and had a large number of unlet farms.11
He attended both county meetings at Wells in January 1823. At the first, he supported the petition for agricultural relief and emphasized his desire to see ‘an equal distribution of the public burthens’ through tax cuts, which would most benefit the poor, but he was cautious about committing himself to tithe commutation. At the second meeting on reform, he acknowledged that the people must have their rights but would ‘not ask for more than the constitution granted’, adding that ‘it would first become them to correct such decays as might have crept in’ since 1688. He was willing to support a measure to increase the representation of ‘the landed interests’, but ‘could not go further’. The meeting carried Hunt’s amendment in favour of universal suffrage and the secret ballot.12 Lethbridge regretted the absence from the king’s speech of any indication of ministerial intentions regarding agricultural relief and pressed for a statement, 14 Feb., declaring that ‘the landed interest had become depressed by no fault of their own, but by the impolitic conduct of the legislature’ in allowing cheap imports and cash payments. He urged ministers to give a ‘decided negative’ to Whitmore’s plan to amend the corn laws, as a gesture of support for the agriculturists, 26 Feb. He refused to put off his intended motion, 13 Mar., as the government had failed to act. He supported West Indian petitions against misuse of the four-and-a-half per cent duties, in the belief that ‘the whole of the landed interest of this country was bound to support the colonial interests’, 19 Mar. On 21 Mar. he claimed that he had only been prevented from introducing his motion by ‘the thin attendance of Members last night’. He presented the Somerset county petition on distress, 16 Apr., but regretted that owing to Hunt’s ‘fascinating powers’ there was ‘scarcely one paragraph in it which contained opinions that he could advocate’; he brought forward more conventional petitions from Cirencester and Gloucestershire, 29 Apr.13 In presenting a petition from butchers at Leadenhall market for a higher duty on imported tallow, 12 May, he said it was ‘monstrous’ that Russian produce was being allowed to flood the British market. However, he announced that he was withdrawing his motion on the advice of ‘many able friends of the agricultural interests’, 2 June, and pointed to ‘the contrast of circumstances between the present time ... and that in which he gave notice of it’ as offering ‘hope of great alleviation’. He divided for more extensive tax reductions, 28 Feb., against the national debt reduction bill, 6, 13, 17 Mar., and for repeal of the assessed taxes, 18 Mar. He urged that ‘every measure of reduction and economy should be adopted that could be resorted to with safety’, 7 Mar., and advocated further cuts in the army estimates and public salaries; he voted against the grant for colonial agents, 24 Mar. He supported petitions against the Insolvent Debtors Act, 17, 18 Feb., but denied that he intended to act on the matter.14 He voted for inquiry into the parliamentary franchise, 20 Feb., and Russell’s reform motion, 24 Apr., which would ‘have the necessary effect of bringing into the House, through the medium of county representation, a different class ... of persons to those who now composed it’ and ‘discourage those absurd and visionary doctrines which were held out to the country by specious and designing characters’. He presented petitions complaining of Jesuit activities in Ireland, 5 Mar., and calling for inquiry into Papist establishments there, 17 Apr., when he was a minority teller against Catholic claims. He divided for inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr. He introduced a division of counties bill enabling magistrates at quarter sessions to define these more exactly, 7 Mar. 1823; it passed but did not reach the Lords.
He ‘entirely approved’ of the king’s speech, 4 Feb. 1824, finding that ‘a considerable amendment had taken place in the state of agriculture’ which he hoped would be permanent, and he urged Members to ‘give ... ministers all the support in their power’. He believed that in the field of foreign policy ‘this country stood high in the opinion of Europe and of every other part of the world’, and that ministers were right not to interfere over the French invasion of Spain. He complained of the burden on landowners of paying for the administration of criminal justice in the counties, arguing that the whole nation should share the cost, 19 Feb. He warned that petitioners for repeal of the coal duties were ignoring the consequent injury to colliers in Somerset and elsewhere, 19 Feb., and said he would prefer to see repeal of the malt or window taxes, 1 Apr.15 He presented numerous petitions that session for repeal of the assessed taxes,16 and voted against the window and leather taxes, 2 Mar., 18 May. He urged the government to reconsider its plan to remove the prohibitory duty on French silks, 5 Mar., maintaining that the industry ‘would continue to do well, so long as it was protected from that free trade on which the ministers and the House were running wild’. He presented Taunton and Shepton Mallet petitions against the proposed regulations for the industry, 11, 12 Mar.17 He explained that he had changed his mind and would oppose the wheat warehousing bill, 4 May.18 He voted against the usury laws repeal bill, 27 Feb., which he thought would ‘place borrowers at the mercy of lenders’, 31 Mar. He voted to reform Edinburgh’s representation, 26 Feb. He warned that the Cheltenham water works bill would cut off supplies to some land and mill owners in Gloucestershire, and was a minority teller against its second reading, 25 Mar. He was a majority teller for the second reading of the Bristol and Taunton canal bill, 30 Mar. He presented a petition against the use of the treadmill in prisons and asserted that ‘such a mode of punishment was unknown to the constitutional jealousy of our forefathers’, 5 May 1824.
Lethbridge congratulated ministers on their intention to suppress the Catholic Association, 4 Feb. 1825, declaring that ‘a body which trenched so much on the spirit of the constitution ought no longer to be permitted to exist’. He voted for the third reading of the unlawful societies bill, 25 Feb. He considered it was ‘high time to hold firm and strong language with respect to the demands of Roman Catholics’, 15 Feb., presented numerous petitions during the session against their claims,19 and voted accordingly, 1 Mar. In opposing the first reading of the relief bill he regretted ‘the apathy which at this moment prevailed throughout the country’, 23 Mar., but he retracted this complaint in the light of subsequent petitions, which would hopefully ‘excite a similar spirit in the House’, 18 Apr., and voted against the second reading, 21 Apr. He dismissed the evidence taken before the select committee as ‘ex parte’, 26 Apr. On the motion to go into committee, 6 May, he asked the clerk to read aloud the oath of supremacy taken by Members and denounced ‘a most vicious piece of legislation’, which ‘could never be passed without a violation of that solemn engagement which they had entered into ... with the country’; he also asserted that ‘no honourable and conscientious Catholic’ could take the proposed new oath. He divided against the third reading, 10 May, and dismissed complaints about the ‘clamour’ against it in the country, 26 May. He thought the Irish franchise bill would deprive Catholics of a more valuable privilege than that conferred by the relief bill, 22 Apr., and voted against the second reading, 26 Apr. He said it would be ‘niggardly in the extreme’ to withhold the grants to Irish charitable institutions, 18 Mar., as there was ‘nothing ... so important, in the present state of Ireland, as to provide permanent establishments for the education of the lower orders’. He divided against the usury laws repeal bill, 17 Feb. He voted for repeal of the assessed taxes, 3 Mar., and of the window tax, 17 May. He pressed ministers to take the initiative in revising the corn laws, 25 Apr., observing that ‘he never wished to see prices higher than they were at that moment, and should be happy to see the old principle of open ports and fixed duties again acted upon’. He introduced the Western ship canal bill to link Seaton Bay with the Bristol Channel, 3 Mar.; it gained royal assent, 6 July 1825. It was said of him at this time that he ‘spoke often, but more solemnly than well’.20 That summer he was at the forefront of the ‘no Popery’ campaign in Somerset, forcing the Members for Taunton, where he had substantial propertied influence, to announce their forthcoming retirements, and encouraging a similar but less successful movement at Wells, where he was a freeman. He confidently predicted to the home secretary Peel, to whom ‘the church of England and the Protestant part of the community look up’, that ‘anti-Catholic principles will ... be triumphant whenever the election comes’.21
He welcomed the government’s decision to defer action on the corn laws, 3 Feb. 1826, arguing that the currency question must first be settled and recommending the establishment of joint-stock banks. He favoured the return to a metallic circulation, which would help to ‘remove the want of confidence which prevailed in money matters’ and ‘secure to the poor man the full produce of his industry in a coin which could not be depreciated’, 14 Feb. He feared that ministers still planned to alter the corn laws, 9 Feb., and declared that while low prices were desirable ‘high prices there must be ... kept up by an import duty, amounting to an absolute prohibition, so long as the interest of the national debt was to be paid’. He doubted the political economists’ assumption that free importation of corn would create foreign demand for British manufactures, 2 Mar. He opposed the motion to go into committee on the laws, 2 May, rejecting the ‘fallacy’ that high food prices were the cause of distress and claiming that this was merely ‘a pretext for coming at the landed interest ... and destroying them at one blow’; the ‘real object was ... to get rid of the whole system of corn laws by a side wind’. He maintained that industrial labourers were ‘bred in habits of luxury and had acquired wants which they found it difficult to divest themselves of’, but they had more cause for complaint about other taxes than that on bread. He therefore moved for a select committee to inquire into the causes of distress in the manufacturing districts, which was rejected by 214-82; he was a minority teller. He saw no case for the ministerial proposal to admit foreign corn at a low duty, 5 May, dismissing the argument about possible famine as ‘a piece of reasoning contrary to common sense and real facts’, and warning that the new duty would ‘always be a precedent to the prejudice of the landed interest’. He denied that the price of labour was high because corn prices were high, insisting that the real reason was that ‘taxes were high’, 8 May, and he pledged himself to pursue ‘the most rigid economy’ if returned to the next Parliament. He voted that day against empowering the government temporarily to admit foreign corn. He wished to take the sense of the House by forcing a division against the second reading of the corn bill, 11 May, but was defeated by 189-65, acting as a minority teller. He recognized that further opposition was futile, 17 May, but was determined to register his ‘solemn protest’, which he did ‘in spite of all the intimidations he had received from quarters which he despised from the very bottom of his heart’. In February he presented several petitions from silk weavers and glovers for the restoration of protective duties.22 He voted with opposition for inquiry into the treasurership of the navy, 7 Apr., against the report on the salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr., for reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 13 Apr., and Russell’s resolutions to curb electoral bribery, 26 May 1826. At the dissolution that summer he and Dickinson joined forces to repel a challenge from Hunt. Professing ‘an inward consciousness of having done his duty to the freeholders ... [and] to his country’, he was easily returned in second place after a contest marked by semi-comic personal clashes with his radical opponent.23
Lethbridge advocated inquiry to procure ‘full and complete information’ before action was taken over the corn laws, 22 Nov. 1826. He resented Lord Milton’s ‘high tone’ on this issue, 21 Feb. 1827, protested against ‘any attempt to destroy what he must always consider the most important interest of the state’ and asserted that it would be better to encourage agricultural improvements, which would enable farmers to support ‘thousands thrown out of employment by the use of machinery’. He admitted that the proposed new duties were better than he had expected, 1 Mar., but said they still afforded ‘no protection whatever to the landed interest’ and argued that 64s. was the minimum possible duty on wheat, 8 Mar. He was grateful for modifications to the proposed duties on barley and oats, although they were still too low, 13 Mar. He vindicated the conduct of the country gentlemen, who were ‘there upon their defence’, 19 Mar. He denounced the corn bill as a measure for ‘the more effectual encouragement of speculation in the corn trade ... the more rapid diminution of the growth of grain in Great Britain and ... the better encouragement of the growth of grain in other counties’, 2 Apr. He suspected that ministers were divided on the issue and predicted a formidable opposition in the Lords; he was a minority teller against the second reading. He supported the London ship owners’ petition against the new navigation laws, which he claimed were causing their distress, 19 Mar., and added that it was ‘impossible for this highly-taxed country to follow up the system of free trade’. He divided against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. On 3 Apr., with the arrangements for a new ministry to replace Liverpool’s still unsettled, Lethbridge put down a motion calling for the formation of a government united on the main areas of policy, by which he meant the Catholic question.24 He told Lord Colchester that ‘he was tired, and the country was tired, of a see-saw government here and in Ireland’, and that he would rather have ‘any decided government than none ... even if it were Roman Catholic ... especially as a Roman Catholic government would not last six weeks’. The Whigs were deeply divided on this motion, some fearing that by supporting it they might pave the way for ‘an ultra Tory and Orange government’.25 On the advice of his fellow anti-Catholics, Sir Edward Knatchbull and Sir Thomas Gooch, who feared that the motion might offend the king, Lethbridge indicated his willingness to withdraw it, 6 Apr., but said he could only do so if Canning confirmed that a new ministry was in the process of being formed. Canning, who wanted Lethbridge to persist for the same reason that it might alienate the king, ‘answered very drily’, ridiculing his logic. He was stung into announcing that he must press the motion, but withdrew it later that evening. Canning reportedly believed that the anti-Catholics had ‘completely cut their own throats’.26 Lethbridge welcomed Peel’s decision not to join Canning’s coalition government, 1 May, believing that this would ‘lead the country to a real and just view of the great and leading public principles upon which the present administration was made up’. He trusted that the Catholic question would ‘now come before the House in a decided form’ and demanded that Canning give a plain statement of intent ‘instead of continuing to temporize’. He deplored the provisional state of the government, in which certain offices were left unfilled and no clear principles enunciated, 4 May, and thought this ‘looked like ... greediness for the loaves and fishes’. He maintained that it was desirable to have ‘two different parties in the country professing opposite principles’, and boasted that while he was ‘only a plain country gentleman’ who was ‘not able to speak well’, he ‘had the courage to do his duty’ despite the ridicule he suffered. Canning described this speech to the king as a ‘foolish and furious ebullition ... which produced nothing but laughter’, and confided that his own object was to ‘force the new opposition to come to a regular attack’.27 Lethbridge accused Canning of ‘un-Torying Toryism and un-Whigging Whiggism’, 11 May, and suspected that he had come to a private understanding with the Whigs before the demise of the previous government. He unsuccessfully pressed Canning for a reply to this charge, 18 May. According to the diary of an independent Whig, however, Lethbridge’s attacks may have had some effect: ‘Canning looking very ill, and very foolishly excited by some foolish questions of Leatherbreeches’.28 He returned to the attack, 25 May, when he argued that no supplies should be granted and prophesied that the government would ‘end in great disappointment, if not in serious injury, to the empire’. He introduced the General Turnpike Act amendment bill, 1 Mar., and ‘repelled with some warmth’ Alexander Baring’s insinuation that he was actuated by selfish motives in wanting to close an old road on his property, 27 Mar.; it received royal assent, 14 June. He applauded Lord Althorp’s plan for reforming the mode of taking polls at county elections, which would ‘open a wider door for more numerous county candidates, in the same proportion as the expense of a contest would be diminished’, 15 Mar. He voted for the Clarences’ annuity bill, 16 Mar. 1827. It appears that before the session ended Lethbridge had gone abroad, ‘disgusted ... with the perverseness of his age and country’.29
In January 1828 he wrote to Wellington and Peel expressing relief that the duke had been asked to form a government which, he trusted, would act on ‘fixed and unshaken principles ... Protestant to the full extent of that term’. He told Peel that ‘I verily believe you will be another Mr. Pitt and ... the country will support you, as they did him’. At the opening of the session, he reportedly sat on the treasury bench.30 On 6 Feb. he expressed his ‘highest respect and confidence’ in the new premier, whose foreign policy would ‘support the dignity, honour and fair fame of the British character’, unlike the ‘wholly inefficient and ... totally imbecile’ Goderich ministry. He presented petitions for repeal of the Test Acts, 20 Feb., but did not vote in the division of 26 Feb. Two days later he stated that he had come down intending to vote for repeal, ‘contrary to my own opinion’, because of the surprisingly strong feeling in its favour, but that Milton’s unconciliatory speech displaying ‘party hostility’ had caused him to change his mind. In presenting a Wells clergy petition against Catholic relief, 10 Mar., he denied that repealing the Test Acts had any bearing on the Catholic case, as the Dissenters had no divided allegiance. He presented further anti-Catholic petitions that session and voted thus, 12 May. However, on 12 June, in a vague speech possibly foreshadowing his dramatic change of opinion in the next session, he lamented that ‘the greatest misfortune this country labours under’ was having a government divided on this vital issue, when he had supposed it would be ‘formed on an united ... intelligible and ... clear principle’. While the Catholic Association deserved to be suppressed for its ‘violent and unconstitutional’ actions, he now wished ‘from the bottom of my heart that the Catholic question could be settled with satisfaction to all parties’. He noticed ‘as a circumstance of great importance’ that the issue had ‘latterly been received more favourably than ... in other times’, and though he would ‘resist intimidation’, he believed that with ‘calm temper and cool deliberation’ the matter would ‘make its way fairly to the minds and feelings of the people of England and ... will then be carried’. He declared that ‘the increase of crime’ was ‘so alarming in all parts’ of Britain that some measure to check it was ‘absolutely necessary’, 6 Mar. He presented a Chard magistrates’ petition against the low duty on cider, 28 Mar., and Wincanton and Wells petitions for licensing of cider sales, 2 June, when he noted that ‘great demoralization had already taken place in that part of the country ... in consequence of the defective state of the law’. He presented petitions against private turnpike trusts, which he argued should be controlled by responsible public boards, 17 Mar., and the excessive fees incurred in passing turnpike bills, 25 Mar. He considered the ministerial resolutions on the corn laws preferable to those of last session, although he would ideally have liked a prohibition on foreign imports and a drawback for exports, 31 Mar. He presented petitions for protection against imported wool, 17, 28 Apr., 9 June. He regretted having latterly been obliged to oppose Canning’s policies, 14 May 1828, and in what was described as a ‘very gentlemanlike speech’ supported financial provision for his family, as he would not ‘grudge to pay this tribute of respect’ to the memory of ‘one of the most eminent of statesmen’.31 The following month he assured Wellington of the country’s ’unbounded confidence’ in his government and expressed admiration for the manner in which he had received the resignations of the Huskissonite ministers.32
Early in 1829 Lethbridge reportedly offered his services to Peel as seconder of the address, under the impression that the recall of the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Anglesey, meant that the government was adhering to a Protestant line.33 He spoke at the Devon county meeting on the Catholic question, 18 Jan., when he agreed that ‘things cannot remain as they are’, but called for the suppression of the Catholic Association and of the power of the ‘Popish priests’.34 In presenting a Chew Magna petition against relief, 6 Feb., he stated this ‘his opinions were unchanged ... he would vigilantly watch and, if necessary, oppose all measures likely to infringe upon our Protestant constitution in church and state’. However, in the debate on the address later that day, he announced that he was prepared to consider the issue, now that it was a ‘recommendation from the crown’, adding that while he was determined to safeguard the interests of Protestant institutions he was also ‘aware that the settlement of this question, even if it were settled in a way contrary to my wishes ... would be a far more desirable thing than the leaving those parts of the community in the state in which they exist at the present moment’. He subsequently explained, in a published letter, that he had changed his position after arriving in London on 4 Feb. to find that ministers planned to recommend concession, and that with no alternative policy to offer he had felt obliged to support them. He wrote to Peel, 8 Feb. assuring him of his continued ‘esteem, regard and attachment’, promising to do all he could to ‘tranquillize the public disappointment, not ... irritate it’, and trusting in his ‘superior knowledge and judgement’:
Although differing from you in this measure I do most entirely confide in you on all others and rejoice that you have held your office in spite of the difficulties you must have had to contend with, for I know into what arms we must fall if you should not remain where you are. I hope and trust the country will submit to the great change that is contemplated and that you may be able to effect your objects with safety to our Protestant institutions.35
Five days later he asked the duke to recommend him for a peerage, which had been a family object since his father’s application to the Regent in 1811, resting his claim on his long parliamentary service, consistent support for the monarchy and extensive landholdings. Wellington, however, eventually replied that it was undesirable to increase the number of peers and that he could make no promises.36 Lethbridge presented numerous Somerset anti-Catholic petitions in February and March. Planta, the patronage secretary, still regarded him as ‘doubtful’ in late February, but he spoke and voted in favour of emancipation, 6 Mar. He regretted having to differ from old friends, but maintained that public opinion was now moving in favour of settling the issue and that adequate securities had been provided for the Protestant establishment, which was safe as long as Wellington and Peel were in office. He complained that ‘the privileges of Parliament have been grossly outraged by a malignant and venal press’, 23 Mar., and insisted that ‘I never gave a vote with more mental satisfaction than the one ... I gave to maintain the great and vital interests of the country’. He paired for the third reading of the relief bill, 30 Mar. He confirmed the ‘dreadful distress’ suffered by the Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire silk-throwsters, 9 Apr. 1829. He informed Wellington in June that his course on the Catholic question had so alienated his supporters in Somerset that he would retire at the next general election, and he renewed his application for a peerage so that he might continue to be politically useful, but without success.37
In February 1830 it was reported that Lethbridge had purchased the Basing Park estate in Hampshire and intended to use it as his ‘permanent residence’.38 He wrote to Wellington that month repeating his request for a peerage.39 He corroborated the claims made in a Taunton petition about the general state of distress in Somerset, 8 Mar., asserting that ‘at no previous time, within the memory of any person living, have all classes suffered more severely’, hoping that ministers would offer relief from taxation and increased protection for agriculture, and adding his personal opinion that reform of the banking system was needed, as credit was not forthcoming. He was one of a group of Members who met with Wellington, 20 Mar., to ascertain the government’s intentions regarding banking reform.40 He paired against the Jewish emancipation bill, 17 May 1830. He announced his retirement at the dissolution that summer, claiming that poor health prevented him from giving the ‘unceasing attendance ... which I have been accustomed to do’, and he again solicited Wellington for a peerage.41 In November he welcomed the duke’s anti-reform speech, declaring that this would increase the peoples’ confidence in him, and after the government’s resignation he made a final fruitless attempt to obtain a peerage through Wellington, whom he assured of his continued support whatever was decided.42 In fact, as the reform crisis unfolded, Lethbridge underwent an extraordinary political metamorphosis becoming, in the words of the Somerset parson Sydney Smith, ‘the most reforming reformer we have in these parts’.43 This new volte face was similarly connected to familial ambition, as he had applied to Lords Grey and Brougham for their support in promoting his legally tenuous claim to the extinct barony of Fitzwarine. He explained to Brougham in August 1831 that
I am the more anxious for this favour, that the remainder of my days - being now 53 only - should not be wholly useless to the country, and my eldest son having married into a family, by which his successors will in all probability derive great wealth, I feel that such an advance would be in character therewith ... Should you think proper to effect this object, you shall not find me either an indifferent or ungrateful supporter.
He renewed his application during the constitutional crises of autumn 1831 and May 1832, hopeful that he might benefit from the need for a large creation of peers, and he persisted in later years, but his wish was never granted.44 There is an unavoidable suspicion that throughout his career, private interests were a prime determinant of his erratic political course. At the general election of 1832 he nominated Charles Kemeys Tynte*, the successful Liberal candidate for the Western division of Somerset, and published a letter calling for an ‘extensive and deep-searching corrective of the abuses in the church’.45 He made an ill-judged attempt to return to Parliament as a Liberal at the Bridgwater by-election of August 1837, having been duped by a requisition organized by venal electors determined to force a contest; he received just five votes.46 In February 1846 he wrote to Peel offering his ‘heartfelt gratitude and admiration’ for his free trade policies.47 Sydney Smith thought him ‘as absurd in his political capacity as he is amiable and obliging in all the relations of private life, in which he shines’.48 He died in October 1849 and was succeeded by his eldest son, John Hesketh Lethbridge (1798-1873), who inherited most of his Somerset estates and all his properties in Devon, Dorset and Monmouthshire; certain Somerset properties and the Cornish estates went to his other sons, Ambrose and Thomas, respectively.49
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Terry Jenkins
- 1. The personalty was sworn under £60,000 (PROB 6/192/191).
- 2. Som. RO, Drake mss DD/NE/12, Lethbridge to Drake, 12 Mar., 20 Apr. 1819, 1 Feb.; Bristol Mirror, 12, 19, 26 Feb., 11, 18, 25 Mar. 1820.
- 3. The Times, 18 May 1820.
- 4. HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 9.
- 5. The Times, 22, 27 Feb. 1821.
- 6. Bristol Mirror, 19 Jan. 1822.
- 7. Colchester Diary, iii. 251.
- 8. The Times, 16 Feb., 1 Mar., 18 Apr., 3, 7 May 1822.
- 9. B. Hilton, Corn, Cash, Commerce, 152.
- 10. The Times, 5 June 1822.
- 11. Bristol Mirror, 6 July, 14 Dec. 1822.
- 12. Ibid. 25 Jan., 1 Feb. 1823.
- 13. The Times, 14, 19 Mar., 17, 30 Apr. 1823.
- 14. Ibid. 18, 19 Feb. 1823.
- 15. Ibid. 20 Feb., 2 Apr. 1824.
- 16. Ibid. 24 Feb., 13, 19 Mar., 13, 15 Apr., 5 May 1824.
- 17. Ibid. 12, 13 Mar. 1824.
- 18. Ibid. 5 May 1824.
- 19. Ibid. 26, 30 Mar., 22, 23 Apr., 5, 10 May 1825.
- 20. Session of Parl. 1825, p. 472.
- 21. Bristol Mirror, 11 June, 16, 23, 30 July 1825; Add. 40381, f. 385.
- 22. The Times, 7, 11, 16, 24 Feb. 1826.
- 23. Bristol Mirror, 10, 17, 24 June, 1 July 1826.
- 24. The Times, 4 Apr. 1827.
- 25. Colchester Diary, iii. 476; Brougham mss, Allen to Brougham, 4 Apr.; Castle Howard mss, Holland to Carlisle, [Apr. 1827]; A. Mitchell, Whigs in Opposition, 197-8.
- 26. G.I.T. Machin, Catholic Question in English Politics, 98-99; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Denison diary, 6 Apr. 1827.
- 27. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1324.
- 28. Gurney diary, 21 May 1827.
- 29. BL OIOC mss Eur. C. 247/3, R.P. to C. Smith, 13 June 1827.
- 30. Wellington mss WP1/913/22; Add. 40395, f. 50; Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC17/34.
- 31. Harewood mss, Backhouse to Lady Canning, 15 May 1828.
- 32. Wellington mss WP1/938/15.
- 33. Ellenborough Diary, i. 312.
- 34. Taunton Courier, 21 Jan. 1829.
- 35. Bristol Mirror, 21 Mar. 1829; Add. 40398, f. 206.
- 36. Wellington mss WP1/996/7, 1001/23, 1007/6; Prince of Wales Corresp. vii. 3035.
- 37. Wellington mss WP1/1024/3; Bristol Mirror, 14 Mar., 4 July, 5, 12, 19 26 Sept., 3 Oct. 1829, for the local reaction.
- 38. Bristol Mirror, 13 Feb. 1830.
- 39. Wellington mss WP1/1095/22.
- 40. Add. 38758, f. 138.
- 41. Bristol Mirror, 3 July 1830.
- 42. Wellington mss WP1/1150/10, 1152/1.
- 43. Smith Letters, ii. 623.
- 44. Brougham mss, Lethbridge to Brougham, 15 Aug., 9 Oct., 17 Nov. 1831, 8 May 1832, 7 June 1833, 6 Sept. 1834, 10 Nov. 1836.
- 45. Bristol Mirror, 1 Dec.; Taunton Courier, 19 Dec. 1832.
- 46. S.G. Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 151.
- 47. Parker, Peel, iii. 340-1.
- 48. Smith Letters, ii. 539.
- 49. PROB 11/2104/944; IR26/1844/871.