NORTH, John Henry (?1788-1831), of 31 Merrion Square, Dublin

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



11 Mar. 1824 - 1826
9 July 1827 - 1830
1830 - 30 Sept. 1831

Family and Education

b. ?1788, o.s. of Richard North of Guilford House, Tyrellspass, co. Westmeath and w. Lucinda Gouldsbury. educ. Trinity, Dublin 6 June 1803, aged 15; King’s Inns 1805; M. Temple 1808, called [I] 1809. m. 28 Nov. 1818,1 Letitia Dorothy, da. of Rt. Rev. William Foster, bp. of Clogher, s.p. d. 30 Sept. 1831.

Offices Held

KC [I] 1824; judge of ct. of admiralty [I] 1830-d.


North, whose father, the brother of Ulysses North of Newcastle, Westmeath, died soon after his birth, received his early education under the supervision of his maternal uncle Ponsonby Gouldsbury, the ‘wealthy and exemplary’ vicar of Tullamore, Meath. He gained a reputation for brilliance at Dublin University and rose rapidly at the Irish bar as ‘an eloquent pleader’, enhancing his standing with a speech, 5 Feb. 1823, on behalf of two of the defendants charged by ex-officio information with conspiracy to murder the Irish viceroy. Lord Lansdowne was ‘much pleased’ to meet him in Dublin later that year, and found him ‘as modest and sensible in private as he is said to be eloquent and spirited in public’.2 He admitted about this time that ‘the acquisition of a seat in Parliament’ had ‘been long a favourite object’. In 1819, having married into the prominent Protestant Foster family, who had an interest at Drogheda, he had expressed to his wife’s cousin Thomas Skeffington a wish to stand for that borough at the next opportunity. Skeffington advised against this, because of the heavy expense involved, and North made no move in 1820. On a vacancy two years later, however, he was persuaded to make a bid for the borough by his wife and her impetuous sister Harriet, Countess de Salis, to whom he had apparently given ‘carte blanche’ to act for him. He possessed the means to finance the election thanks to ‘the generosity of a kind relative’. Unfortunately, Skeffington was already committed to another candidate and North had to withdraw amid some embarrassment. His brother-in-law John Leslie Foster* commented that the women ‘seem really to have taken leave of their senses’.3 Late in 1823 the foreign secretary Canning regretted that he had not presently the means of bringing North into the Commons, but three months later he was returned for Plympton Erle on the 2nd earl of Mount Edgcumbe’s interest.4

He took his seat on the ministerial side of the House and delivered his eagerly anticipated maiden speech, 29 Mar. 1824, when he defended the Kildare Place Society for the education of the Irish poor, of which he was a founder member, and criticized the Irish Catholic clergy for obstructing its work. The backbencher Hudson Gurney described ‘North’s debut’ as ‘fluent, and in the main with a very sensible view of things, but very set and got up. We shall see whether he will be ready for occasion and whether he can drop fine flowers and quotations’. The junior minister Wilmot Horton thought the speech was

very Irish, partaking in voice of Rice and young Grattan, much animation, antithesis, great ease, fluency, and power of expression; no shade of the lawyer, and a speech of promise, wanting perhaps the deep earnest tone that tells so much in Parliament when it can be adequately sustained, and which is the great characteristic of Plunket’s eloquence.5

Despite this success the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, and Canning chose Leslie Foster in preference to North for membership of the commission on Irish education.6 North opposed the proposal to allow defence counsel in felony cases to address the jury on evidence, 6 Apr., arguing that it would ‘change the sober floor of a court of justice into an arena for two ingenious combatants to display their strength and agility’. He voted for the usury laws repeal bill, 8 Apr. He spoke at length against the opposition’s call for inquiry into the state of Ireland, 11 May, urging ministers to take steps to ensure that the Catholic clergy were ‘very much raised in the scale of society’, and commending their initiatives on tithes, petty sessions and free trade. In a peroration which was loudly applauded, he appealed to the Irish gentry to ‘banish all those invidious distinctions of party by which Ireland had been so long degraded, impoverished and debased’, but also called for English bigotry to be set aside. Lord Grenville considered the speech to be ‘one of great ability’, adding that ‘certainly a part of its use will be still further to open men’s minds on what is passing in Ireland’.7 North divided against the motion condemning the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824. He had attached himself to Canning, who was ‘quite pleased to see him’ in London for the opening of the 1825 session.8 He voted for the usury laws repeal bill, 8 Feb. That day he condemned the attitude of the Catholic Association towards an alleged violation of the Marriage Acts, which was ‘of a piece with the whole of their conduct’. Canning wanted him to speak in the debate on the bill to suppress the Association, 11 Feb.,9 but the chance did not arise until the resumed proceedings on 14 Feb., when, as a ‘friend to the Catholics of Ireland’, he welcomed the bill, which would relieve them from ‘the odium which they might incur by the violence and folly’ of the Association. One Member, hearing him for the first time, noted that ‘he went through the whole subject and with a very considerable eloquence and perspicuity’.10 At Canning’s request he gave up the Cavan assizes and stayed in London for the postponed debate on Catholic relief, 1 Mar.,11 but in the event gave only a silent vote for it. Of his speech in favour of the relief bill, 19 Apr., Daniel O’Connell*, who resented his attack on the Association and was jealous of his professional success, remarked that it was ‘in itself rather a good one, but it made no impression on the House and in fact was a total failure. He is gone as a public speaker in the House. Both parties equally disregard him’.12 He divided for the bill, 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. He voted against the motion condemning the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar., and spoke in defence of the Irish chief justice Lord Norbury, 5 May 1826. Two months before the dissolution he canvassed Dublin University on reports that the sitting Member Plunket was about to become Irish chancellor, provoking Croker, the secretary to the admiralty, who had long coveted the seat, to follow suit. In fact, Plunket was not elevated and came in unopposed at the general election that summer, while North failed to find a berth.13

On the formation of Canning’s ministry in April 1827 there was speculation that North would be made Irish solicitor-general, but nothing came of it. Plunket resigned his seat in anticipation of a peerage and Croker immediately offered for the vacancy. Canning tried to deflect North with the offer of Bletchingley, ‘without contest or expense’, but he declined and insisted on opposing Croker. They were joined by an Orange candidate in what proved to be a turbulent contest, ending in victory for Croker.14 Two months later North was returned for Milborne Port by the 1st marquess of Anglesey, a cabinet minister, who told the Whig Lord Holland that he was ‘glad to hear ... you approve of North’s being brought in. If it does not alarm the king, which it need not, I dare say some good will be gained by it. At all events don’t fear my want of forbearance’.15 North took his seat, 7 Feb. 1828. On 25 Feb. he defended the recently passed Irish Landlord and Tenant Act which, if modified as he suggested, would end ‘the minute subdivision of property’ in Ireland, ‘the grand evil by which that country had been so long afflicted’. He was absent from the division on repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. He voted with the Wellington ministry against inquiry into delays in chancery, 24 Apr., but had qualms about details of the home secretary Peel’s offences against the person bill, 5 May. In voting for Catholic relief, 12 May, he detected ‘something in the state of party as it at present exists, that would cause this measure to be now viewed most peculiarly as one of grace and favour ... not as the triumph off one party over another, but as the triumph of truth over error’. He opposed Grattan’s assessment of lessors bill, 12 June, voted for the usury laws amendment bill, 19 June, and objected to the attempted reduction of the grant for the Royal Cork Institution, 20 June 1828. Curiously, in February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, listed him among the ‘doubtfuls’ on Catholic emancipation, when in fact he was being consulted by senior ministers in their deliberations on the details of their proposed settlement of the question. His objections to the prohibition of the assumption of titles by Catholic bishops were overruled.16 He made a set speech in support of emancipation, which he believed would ‘give security, general content and satisfaction to all who care for the protection of our institutions ... complete the hitherto imperfect union with Ireland’ and insert ‘the key-stone of the great arch of the policy of the empire’, 6 Mar. George Agar Ellis* thought this was ‘a good speech’ in an otherwise dull debate.17 He spoke briefly in favour of the measure, 13, 23 Mar., and voted for it, 30 Mar. He divided for the Irish franchise bill, 26 Mar. 1829. Later that session, when he applied for some military patronage, the Irish secretary Leveson Gower endorsed his claim, knowing him to be an ‘excellent man’ who ‘during our late difficulties ... has rendered service in the ... Commons to an extent which would render him worthy of any favourable attention’.18 Surprisingly, that autumn Sir Richard Vyvyan* listed him among those supporters of emancipation whose sentiments were ‘unknown’ regarding a putative Ultra administration. He divided against proposals for parliamentary reform, 11, 18, 23 Feb. 1830. He justified recent ex-officio prosecutions for libels on Wellington, 2 Mar., and called for delay in proceeding with the Irish Subletting Act amendment bill, 5 Mar. He was granted a month’s leave for urgent private business in Dublin, 12 Mar. At this time Leveson Gower pressed for his appointment to the vacant place of Irish third serjeant, arguing that he had ‘a superior claim ... over all other candidates’, both in terms of ‘undoubted professional fitness’ and his ‘great sacrifice and ... eminent service to government, incident to parliamentary attendance’. In the event, North was unwilling to take the post, for reasons ‘founded on his present tenure of his seat’ (Anglesey had gone over to the Whigs), but Leveson Gower nevertheless made him ‘a complimentary offer of the serjeantcy’ and secured his appointment to the Irish ecclesiastical commission of inquiry.19 He defended Galway corporation against charges that they were obstructing Catholics from claiming the vote, 29 Apr., and opposed the Galway franchise bill as an infraction of municipal rights, 25 May. He clashed with O’Connell over the Irish vestry laws, 29 Apr., but welcomed his proposal that Irish Catholic priests should be permitted to solemnize mixed marriages, 4 May. On 12 May he responded to O’Connell’s accusation that government had suppressed evidence in the trial of the Doneraile conspirators by declaring that a ‘manly, kind and generous feeling’ was ‘springing up in Ireland’, thanks to the ‘wise legislative measure adopted last year’, and that it would ‘soon be out of the power of any man to heat the national atmosphere to the temperature of a furnace, merely that a political salamander may find his proper element to breath in’. He voted against Jewish emancipation, 17 May 1830. Soon afterwards, being obliged to vacate Milborne Port at the dissolution ‘from his connection with government’, North made ‘a furious canvass’ of the College against Croker. Ministers were powerless to stop him but assured Croker of their ‘exclusive support’. As the general election approached it became clear that while North had no chance, his persistence in ‘the vanity of standing’ was likely to let in the Orangeman Lefroy. In what was presumably an attempt to buy him off, he was appointed to the vacant judgeship of the Irish admiralty court just after the dissolution in July. He then ostensibly withdrew from the university contest and offered for Drogheda, where he was opposed by O’Connell’s son. He stressed his steady support for Catholic relief, claiming that this was not inconsistent with his opposition to the Galway franchise bill, and deplored ‘agitation’, whose ‘season is no more’. However, in a move which Croker and Peel found ‘inexplicable’ and ‘perfectly unaccountable’, and for which he himself furnished no convincing justification, he appeared at Trinity College on election day and went to a poll. He finished bottom, but his intervention dished Croker, who lost to Lefroy by three votes. He returned to Drogheda, where he easily beat O’Connell after a contest that reputedly cost him between £5,000 and £10,000.20 His opponents petitioned against his return alleging, among other illegalities, that he was disqualified by his judgeship and his wife’s possession of a crown pension (of which no confirmation has been found), but he survived the challenge.21

Ministers of course listed North among their ‘friends’, but he was absent from the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830; he later said he would have supported them had he been present.22 He objected to the increasing expense of printing petitions, 25 Nov. He obtained leave to introduce a bill to extend the provisions of the Act of 1780 abolishing sacramentary tests to Protestants of the Irish church, 2 Dec. 1830, but never did so. He prophesied practical difficulties in the revaluation of Irish church property liable to the first fruits levy, 14 Mar. 1831. He promised ‘strenuous opposition’ to the Galway franchise bill, 3 Feb., and secured returns to bolster his case against it, 9 Feb. That day he objected to Hunt’s allegation that Irish juries were sometimes packed, but agreed with him next day that the regulation of Fisherton gaol, which permitted the governor to intercept a prisoner’s written defence, was a breach of solicitors’ confidentiality. He urged Lord Grey’s ministry to drop their proposed tax on steamboat passengers, which would hit the Irish poor, 14 Feb., and claimed that they had abandoned their plan to tax transfers of funded property ‘on the distinct ground of its being a violation of the national faith’. He voiced fears over some ministerial pronouncements on Ireland, which seemed to encourage violence and threaten the Union, 18 Feb., when he strongly objected to Sugden’s proposals to extend the 1736 Mortmain Act to Ireland. On 7 Mar. he delivered a prepared attack on the government’s reform scheme, a ‘malignant measure’ which, as far as Ireland was concerned, would overturn the 1829 settlement safeguarding the Protestant establishment. Of the plan as a whole he warned that ‘it will not be a final measure’ but ‘only the first of those steps which will lead us day after day in our progress from our ancient institutions’; it was ‘the first abyss in the revolutionary hell that is yawning for us’. The Whigs Lord Durham and William Ord* thought the speech ‘very Irish’ and ‘without much effect’, and its apocalyptic tone amused the cartoonists.23 On the other hand, Hudson Gurney considered it the ‘best speech’ of the night, Henry Bankes* described it as ‘very brilliant’ and ‘delivered with much spirit and animation’, Thomas Gladstone* thought it ‘extremely eloquent, but he went much too far’, and Maria Edgeworth judged it ‘the best and plainest speech he ever made’, though he was much inferior in ‘power’ to Thomas Macaulay* as an orator.24 He divided against the English bill’s second reading, 22 Mar., condemned the potential destruction of ‘Protestant interests in Ireland’, 29 Mar., and spoke and voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831, when he predicted that reform would ensure the mass return of Irish borough Members ‘deeply involved in the principles of agitation’. At the ensuing dissolution the Irish administration were ‘greatly in hopes of being able to spring a mine to blow up North for Drogheda’, where he was opposed by the ‘whole bill’ sitting Member Thomas Wallace. Claiming to support ‘temperate and constitutional’ reform of ‘existing abuses’, he stood by his declared hostility to the bill and defied expectations by defeating Wallace after a bitter contest. In returning thanks, he rejoiced in the ‘triumph ... of reason over rashness, of sound principles over doctrines dangerous and pernicious, of our ancient laws and glorious constitution over revolutionary madness and Jacobin innovation’. He denied Wallace’s allegation that he had once been an advocate of reform, declaring that he had been ‘bred as a politician in the school of Mr. Burke’ and had entered Parliament on the invitation of Canning, whose ‘confidence’ in him had rested largely on ‘our agreement ... on this very subject’. His victory, which owed much to the Protestant clergy and non-resident voters, was subsidized to the tune of £3,000 from the opposition election fund.25

They did not, as it turned out, get their full money’s worth. North voted against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, to use the 1831 census for the purpose of scheduling boroughs, 19 July, and to postpone consideration of Chippenham’s inclusion in schedule B, 27 July 1831. It was surely not he, but the reformer Frederick North, who voted for Sudbury’s partial disfranchisement, 2 Aug. Two days later he explained that he had ‘taken no part’ in the debates on the bill because he regarded it as ‘a mere temporary measure’, which would ‘only last until displaced by the constitution of 1832 or 1833’. He voiced doubts about the proposed registration machinery, 2, 3 Sept., but ministers ignored his suggested improvements. He divided against the third reading, 19 Sept., and the bill’s passage, 21 Sept. He defended the Irish attorney-general against O’Connell’s attack over the Castle Pollard incident, 11 July. He agreed with O’Connell in calling for repeal, rather than modification, of the Irish Subletting Act, 5 Aug. He gave credit to the Irish administration for their vigorous enforcement of the rule of law, 10 Aug., but wished they would introduce ‘some system of well-digested poor laws’ rather than the reform bill. He voted against them on the Dublin election controversy, 23 Aug., when he replied to O’Connell’s strictures on recent appointments of Irish crown prosecutors. On the Irish education grant, 9 Sept., he sketched the history of the Kildare Place Society, which had been better off when unsupported by government, and confessed that ‘the interest I once felt on the subject of national education has died away’. When O’Connell called for lay appropriation of Irish church property, 14 Sept., North deplored the emptiness of the government front bench and promised a ‘manly, persevering and honourable struggle’ by the Irish Protestants against such spoliation. He welcomed in principle the government’s bill to make the Irish penal code less sanguinary and promised his ‘humble assistance in ... committee’ to render it ‘as perfect as possible’, 22 Sept. He voted against the sugar and truck bills, 12 Sept. 1831.

North died at the end of September 1831 from ‘violent inflammation of the lungs’, after ‘a very few days illness’. It was said that ‘the extraordinary fatigue of parliamentary duty’ had ‘preyed upon a constitution weakened by the studious labours of his life’. One admiring obituarist wrote that he had been

enough before the public during the last year, to give proof of what his splendid talents might have effected had he been longer spared ... His oratory was copious, brilliant and, best of all, correct; his speeches resembled high-wrought academic effusions, stately, orderly and chaste; with little of that ardour and impetuosity of passion characteristic of the Irish school. His intellect was singularly sound and clear; vigorous, cautious and comprehensive. The power of attention was under his absolute control; and whatever was capable of demonstration, was within his grasp.

A memorial inscription in St. Mary’s, Harrow-on-the-Hill, probably composed by his wife, lamented that he had ‘sunk beneath the efforts of a mind too great for his earthly frame, in opposing the revolutionary invasion of the religion and constitution of England’. According to The Times, however, his opposition to reform came ‘as much from gratitude [to Wellington], perhaps, as from conviction’, and his parliamentary career had ‘not [been] of so splendid a nature as his friends had anticipated’.26

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: David R. Fisher / Terry Jenkins


  • 1. IGI (Dublin).
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1830), ii. 378; (1831), ii. 466; Rev. R.J. M’Ghee, Sermon on death of J.H. North (Dublin, 1831), 9; J.H. North, Speech in King’s Bench, 5 Feb. 1823 (Dublin, 1823); W.H. Curran, Sketches of Irish Bar, i. 208-33; Add. 51687, Lansdowne to Holland, 10 Aug. 1823.
  • 3. PRO NI, Foster mss D562/3404, 4616-22.
  • 4. Canning Official Corresp. i. 131-3, ii. 364-5.
  • 5. Gurney diary, 29 Mar. 1824; TNA 30/29/9/6/18.
  • 6. Add. 40304, f. 240.
  • 7. NLW, Coedymaen mss 403.
  • 8. Foster mss D207/73/118.
  • 9. Ibid. 73/119.
  • 10. Merthyr Mawr mss F/2/8, Nicholl diary, 14 Feb. 1825.
  • 11. Foster mss D207/73/121.
  • 12. O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1168, 1205.
  • 13. Add. 37304, f. 115; 40319, f. 171; The Times, 3 Apr., 31 May 1826.
  • 14. Canning’s Ministry, 213; Croker Pprs. i. 372; Lincs. AO, Tennyson mss H1/85, Herries to Tennyson, 30 Apr.; Dublin Evening Post, 24 Apr., 3, 15 May 1827.
  • 15. Add. 51567, Anglesey to Holland, 25 July 1827.
  • 16. Ellenborough Diary, i. 348-50, 374-5, 385.
  • 17. Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 6 Mar. 1829.
  • 18. NAI, Leveson Gower letterbks., Leveson Gower to Somerset, 14 May 1829.
  • 19. Ibid. Leveson Gower to Scarlett, 5 Mar., to Singleton, 5, 13, 16 Mar. 1830.
  • 20. Ibid. Leveson Gower to Singleton, 15 June, 30 July; Add. 40320, ff. 154, 156, 161, 163, 166, 168, 170, 172; 51813, Phillimore to Holland, 14 July; Dublin Morning Post, 8 July, 3, 4, 6 Aug.; Drogheda Jnl. 31 July, 7, 14 Aug.; The Times, 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 21. Dublin Morning Post, 17 Aug. 1830; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1702.
  • 22. Drogheda Jnl. 7 May 1831.
  • 23. Grey mss, Durham to Grey, 7 Mar.; Add. 51569, Ord to Lady Holland, 7 Mar. 1831; M.D. George, Cat. of Pol. and Personal Satires, xi. 16608.
  • 24. Gurney diary, 7 Mar.; Dorset RO D/BKL, Bankes’s jnl. 173, (7 Mar.); St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 197, T. to J. Gladstone, 8 Mar. 1831; Edgeworth Letters, 488.
  • 25. PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/28C, Anglesey to Grey, 30 Apr.; Drogheda Jnl. 7, 10, 14 May 1831; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1800; Three Diaries, 138.
  • 26. Gent. Mag. (1831), ii. 466-7; The Times, 1 Oct.; Drogheda Jnl. 4 Oct. 1831.