OWEN, Sir John, 1st bt. (1776-1861), of Orielton, Pemb.
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Family and Educationb. 1776, 1st s. of Joseph Lord of Pembroke and Corbetta, da. of Lt.-Gen. John Owen† of Bath, Som. educ. I. Temple 1794, called 1800. m. (1) 12 Dec. 1800, Charlotte (d. 1 Sept. 1829), da. of Rev. John Lewes Philipps of Llwyncrwn, Llangynin, Carm., 1s. 4da.; (2) 21 Oct. 1830, Mary Frances, da. of Edward Stephenson of Farley Hill, Berks., 3s. 2da. suc. fa. 1801; cos. Sir Hugh Owen†, 6th bt., to Orielton and took name of Owen 23 Aug. 1809; cr. bt. 12 Jan. 1813. d. 6 Feb. 1861.
Mayor, Pembroke 1813, Tenby 1821.
Gov. Haverfordwest Castle 1812, Milford Haven 1821; ld. lt. Pemb. 1823-d.
Owen, a lawyer by profession, had assumed the leadership of the Orange or Tory interest in Pembrokeshire on inheriting Sir Hugh Owen’s estates. After demonstrating Orielton’s continued superiority in Pembroke Boroughs, in 1812 he had succeeded, where his cousin had failed, in taking the prestigious county seat. To retain it unopposed, in 1816 he came to an arrangement for the next two elections with the county’s leading Blue or Whig, John Campbell†, 1st Baron Cawdor of Stackpole Court, whose nominee was to represent Pembroke Boroughs unopposed during the same period.1 The arrangement endured, but Owen’s debts and commitments were so pressing by 1820 that he had to sell the manor of Lamphrey for £35,000 and properties in the parishes of Llanstinan and Penally for another £15,245.2 His return at the general election that year (the last under the pact) was unopposed.3 Hitherto, Owen’s support for Lord Liverpool’s administration, whose patronage he requested for his many relations, had been tempered by his readiness to oppose policies contrary to his constituents’ interests, and he had acquired a reputation as a lax local Member.4
Owen, as a coal owner, had instigated the petitions against the coastwise coal duties that he presented and endorsed, 26 May, 6 June 1820.5 He was appointed to the 1820-1 select committee on the administration of justice in Wales conceded to Cawdor’s heir John Frederick Campbell, who, with their Member for Pembroke Boroughs, John Hensleigh Allen, urged the abolition of the Welsh judicature and courts of great sessions. Differing from them, and aligning with the West Wales Reds, Owen sponsored a bill to make the cost of levying fines and suffering recoveries in Wales comparable to that in the court of common pleas, which he carried through its first and second readings, 4, 5 July. Its third reading was postponed and had not taken place when the bill was mistakenly taken to and read for the first time in the Lords, 12 July. When returned to the Commons, 13 July, it was repeatedly deferred and timed out.6 His younger brother Edward Lord (b. 1781) had speculated in land in Tasmania on their behalf, and Owen wrote to Liverpool, 7 Nov. 1820, seeking a government appointment for him there, but to no avail.7 He divided with government against censuring their handling of Queen Caroline’s case, 6 Feb., and on retrenchment, 27 June 1821, and was criticized in the Welsh language periodical Seren Gomer’s review of votes cast by Welsh Members for his absence from the division on the second reading of the additional malt duty repeal bill, 3 Apr., because Pembrokeshire’s barley growers so resented the tax.8 Although absent from the division on 28 Feb. 1821, he remained staunchly anti-Catholic, opposed all concessions, 30 Apr. 1822, 30 June 1823, 1 Mar., 21, 26 Apr., 9, 10 May 1825, and brought up and endorsed hostile petitions from Pembroke, 4, 10 May 1825.9 He supported the successful Red candidate John Jones, his erstwhile nominee for Pembroke Boroughs and a vehement opponent of the Campbells, at the Carmarthen by-election in June 1821, when his opponent was Sir William Paxton†, a Whig with a substantial interest in the borough of Tenby.10 In October 1821 Owen welcomed George IV to Pembrokeshire on his return from Ireland.11 Like many Pembrokeshire landowners, he had difficulty letting land in 1821-2 on account of agricultural distress.12 He divided for the government’s relief proposals, 21 Feb., but for lower salt duties, 28 Feb. 1822.13 In May he waited on the financial secretary to the treasury Lushington, with Jones, to lobby against taxing ‘agricultural horses occasionally used to draw lime and coal’. He divided with government against inquiry into the currency, 12 June.14 On 17 Oct. 1822 he wrote to the home secretary Peel with the other Pembrokeshire Members to support the magistrates’ memorials against the proposed withdrawal of the Milford Haven-Waterford steam packet service. He did not present the petition adopted by the Pembrokeshire gentry that month for a tithe commutation scheme until 8 May 1823.15 He voted against investigating chancery arrears, 5 June. In September 1823 he failed to obtain a Welsh judgeship for his ‘cousin Sir William Owen (attorney-general on the Carmarthen circuit)’. He had informed Liverpool that he was ‘particularly anxious to please [Owen] as he has the old title of my family with a very small fortune’.16 However, in November ministers recommended him in preference to Cawdor and Richard Bulkeley Phillips Grant Philipps* for the county lord lieutenancy made vacant by Lord Milford’s death.17 Owen’s vote for the Irish insurrection bill, 14 June 1824, is the only evidence of his attendance that session. In October, John Harvey, Joseph Foster Barham’s* Pembrokeshire agent, noted that ‘Sir John Owen and the trustees of [Milford’s heir] Mr. Grant Philipps are negotiating some exchanges in Morvil parish Castlemartin, and it is expected that some part of the Llanstinan estate must come into value’; but no quick settlement was reached.18 Having received a month’s leave on urgent private business, 17 Feb. 1825, in March Owen became a director of the Pembrokeshire Slate and Iron Company, which had Jones as chairman and assets ‘of £50,000 in 2,000 £25 shares’, and caused ‘a little bustle about Narberth’. According to Harvey, ‘their principal object seems to have been the quarries on Sir John Owen’s estates’. He cautioned Foster Barham against investing in the concern without a ‘scientific survey’ and predicted that the venture would fail unless served by a new railroad to Owen’s colliery at Landshipping.19 Plans to operate the latter in conjunction with the mines of the Morgans of Tredegar featured in the marriage settlement that Owen negotiated in April 1825 for his eldest son Hugh and the Monmouthshire Member Sir Charles Morgan’s daughter.20 Owen applied again to Peel for favours,21 and in the closing months of 1825 he introduced Hugh to the corporations of Pembroke and Tenby as a prospective parliamentary candidate and encouraged gentry intervention to restore confidence in the Haverfordwest bank, Phillips and Company, which suspended payment, 21 Dec. 1825.22 Allen campaigned hard to keep his seat and the Grevilles of Castle Hall spent money at Milford, but Cawdor raised no opposition to Hugh Owen Owen’s election for Pembroke Boroughs in 1826, and Owen’s own election passed off quietly.23 When he confirmed his anti-Catholic politics at the dinner afterwards,24 according to The Times, the sheriff, Peel’s kinsman Jonathan Haworth Peel of Cotts, called for a meeting one year hence to defray Owen’s election expenses and bring him in ‘free, in the true sense of the word’. It did not take place.25
Owen commanded the Castlemartin yeomanry cavalry, last deployed during the French invasion of 1797, to suppress a corn riot in Fishguard in January 1827, when agriculture and quarrying were depressed and his own venture temporarily closed.26 He voted against Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and received a month’s leave on urgent private business, 16 Mar., after serving on an election committee. The quarry reopened, but Harvey observed that ‘few countesses [slates] are made’ and ‘I do not calculate that the produce as yet pays the expense’. Industrial disputes at the quarry persisted and his brother Edward Lord’s return from Tasmania also posed financial problems.27 Though glad to secure a commission in the dragoons for a constituent in August 1827, Owen could not hide his resentment at Cawdor’s promotion to an earldom. He wrote to Peel:
It is certainly mortifying to me to find that after opposing him for more than 15 years at a considerable sacrifice of money, ease and comfort, and after beating him out of every chance of political interest in this county, he is rewarded by his friends with more than he could reasonably have expected if by success he had done them any service, and at the same time by the elevation of my opponent in the scale of rank and consequence my difficulties in contending with him are proportionately increased. It is almost enough to induce me to give up the contest in despair, but I will nevertheless persevere in maintaining the influence of the right party in this county; hoping that by similar exertions in the other parts of the kingdom, the government will be restored to those in whom we confide and trusting that on their return to power they will not think it either wise or just to permit all the weight of permanent rank in this country to continue so exclusively on the side of their opponents.28
He offered Peel, on his return to office in January 1828, the ‘warm and steady support both of my son and myself’, and promised that he ‘would not on any account be absent from the House when any subject of consequence to the government is likely to be brought forward’. However, he remained bitter at Cawdor’s elevation.29 He presented a petition, 21 Feb., and voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., when he brought up a petition from Pembrokeshire maltsters for repeal of the 1827 Malt Act. He wrote again to Peel, 2 Mar., supporting Jones’s applications for legal preferment, but to no avail.30 As a patron of the St. David’s Benevolent Society, he brought up several petitions against the friendly societies regulation bill from small Pembrokeshire societies, 2 May.31 He presented others that day from Haverfordwest and Pembroke opposing Catholic relief (against which he voted, 12 May), and from the gentry, merchants and landowners of Tasmania for an elective assembly and trial by jury. Forwarding to Sir George Murray* Owen’s request that his brother be made registrar of the supreme court in New South Wales, 24 May, Peel added: ‘He with his son have been constant supporters of ... government in Parliament. It would be very desirable to oblige Sir John Owen when a favourable opportunity may offer’. His many nominations that summer for vacancies in the Welsh courts, whose abolition Peel had already decided on, were immediately rejected.32
In February 1829, the patronage secretary Planta expected Owen and his son to vote ‘with government’ for Catholic emancipation, but opinion in Pembrokeshire remained hostile despite Cawdor’s efforts to obtain favourable petitions.33 Owen presented unfavourable ones, 12 Mar., and delayed voting for the measure until its third reading, 30 Mar. The bells were rung at Pembroke on his return from Parliament.34 He could not attend the Pembrokeshire meeting on the proposed abolition of the Welsh judicature, 6 Oct. 1829, on account of his wife’s death, but he let it be known that he was against the proposed change although he would accede to the views of the meeting. (They adopted an unfavourable petition.)35 Presenting it, 9 Mar. 1830, he claimed that most of the gentry and freeholders were among its 1,900 signatories and that abolition would not, as others claimed, assist commerce, and would more than double legal costs. He also confirmed the Pembrokeshire magistrates’ opposition to the prospect of transferring assize business from Haverfordwest to Carmarthen and joined in the clamour (which succeeded) to postpone the bill’s committee stage to give magistrates at the spring assizes an opportunity to express their views.36 He presented further hostile petitions before the bill’s second reading, 27 Apr., and countered the attorney-general’s arguments that Wales was short of suitable persons to serve as sheriff and that the Welsh had requested the change. Opposing the bill’s recommittal as a minority teller, 18 June, he agreed that it might ‘improve the administration of justice in England [but] I do not think it is a reason why the interests and advantages of ... Wales should be sacrificed to it’. He also pointed to the numerous hostile petitions on the table of the House as more reliable testimony to the views of Wales than the evidence of ‘a few chairmen of quarter sessions and some few other individuals’ before the 1828 law commission. He voted against Lord Blandford’s reform scheme, 18 Feb., and enfranchising Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and presented a petition from Narberth that day complaining of agricultural distress. He divided against Jewish emancipation, 17 May 1830.
He encountered no opposition in Pembrokeshire at the general election in August.37 It was reported that month that he had turned down his political ally John Mirehouse of Brownslade’s offer to lease the quarry, but he was indeed short of money and ‘endeavouring to sell Llanstinan for £13,000 ... with the tithes’. He failed to do so, partly because he tried to include Cilgerran in the sale for an additional £4,000. Harvey estimated that Llanstinan, to which Hugh Owen Owen moved in November, was worth £12,000 and Cilgerran grossly overpriced.38 Ministers listed Owen among their ‘friends’, but he was absent from the division on the civil list which brought them down, 15 Nov. 1830. He presented petitions against slavery ‘from almost every church of Dissenting Christians throughout the county of Pembroke’, 9 Dec.39 He had married again in October 1830, and three daughters were wed within the year. Three weeks’ leave on urgent private business were granted to him, 11 Feb. 1831, after serving on an election committee (Perth Burghs), when his affairs were complicated by the death of Mr. Thomas, the Orielton agent.40 He divided against the Grey ministry’s reform bill at its second reading, 22 Mar., and was annoyed at not being consulted when Pembrokeshire met to petition in its favour, 5 Apr.41 On the 9th he issued a ‘long exculpatory address to his constituents’ explaining his anti-reform vote. He said that he was ‘not an advocate of corrupt practices which I have never resorted to myself’, that the census returns of 1821 had no bearing on the current population, and that the county freeholder franchise was inadequately protected. He added that he would be voting against the bill and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, as ‘I have also a decided objection to the reduction which is proposed in the number of our representatives’.42 He divided accordingly, 19 Apr. At the ensuing general election he was opposed by the reformer, Robert Fulke Greville of Castle Hall, who was backed by the Blues.43 After meeting a deputation of his Pembrokeshire friends, Owen declared in his election address, 27 Apr., that he was an ‘advocate of a real and complete reform which shall put an end to all undue influence in the representative system of the kingdom, though I cannot be the supporter of a bill which falsely assumes this character’, and hurried home to canvass.44 He already had debts of £67,000.45 Harvey wrote that his ‘attempts to show he is a true reformer [have] lost him some powerful friends whilst others are as easily satisfied with the explanations’.46 Although he was taunted as ‘a turnaround’ and a ‘true disciple of the Peel school’, Charles Poulett Thomson’s* prediction that Owen would ‘go to the wall’ proved inaccurate, and he defeated Greville in a long, costly and acrimonious contest.47 Greville petitioned, alleging partiality and misconduct by the sheriff. Owen was repeatedly criticized in the press for abuse of church patronage to procure livings for relatives and making the unpopular John Hunter Humphreys vicar of St. Mary’s, Tenby. Much was also made of his dealings with Mirehouse, who was accused of creating voters by means of verbal promissory leases, of his votes against the property tax and on Catholic relief and his absence from the division on the civil list. He was alleged to have obtained more livings from government than he had cast votes for them on major issues.48
Generally acting with Hugh, he divided for the reintroduced reform bill at its second reading, 6 July, and committal, 12 July, to enfranchise Greenwich, 3 Aug., and to combine Chatham, Rochester and Strood, 9 Aug. 1831. Milford Haven had been removed from the Haverfordwest constituency and made a contributory of Pembroke Boroughs, a decision popularly attributed to ministers’ desire to counter Owen’s influence in Pembroke and Tenby with Greville’s at Milford, and when the new groupings were considered, 10 Aug., Owen reinforced the anti-reformers’ argument that the change was politically motivated by asking why the Pembroke Boroughs had not been left alone when Pembroke and Tenby together had over 500 £10 houses. Later that day he voted against making Merthyr Tydfil, Wales’s largest town, a mere contributory of Cardiff. His amendment to give Pembrokeshire a second county Member like Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire and Glamorgan was rejected without a division, 14 Sept. He voted for the bill’s passage, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish reform bill, 23 Sept. Assisted by Charles Williams Wynn, he had successfully contrived to postpone consideration of Greville’s petition against his return to 4 Aug. He based his case on postal delays between London and Pembrokeshire. Deferring matters further, he also claimed that the sitting Member had less opportunity to prepare his case than the petitioner, and explained that the sheriff could not prepare his own defence properly until after the summer assizes. On 23 Sept. the committee voided the May election and criticized the sheriff.49 Owen’s recent pro-reform votes had been well received, but during the campaign opponents stressed his inattention to its details, and Greville alleged that he would revert to his old colours when the bill ran into difficulty in the Lords. He was again lampooned as a quondam Whig and reformer and for his pro-Catholic vote in 1829.50 Urging him to ‘march with the times’ and ‘support a reform bill similar if not more liberal than the last’, as he had promised, The Times attributed his success in October by 1,531-1,423 to the support of Tory squires and the clergy and the assessor’s decision to accept the votes of £30 leaseholders and ‘verbal promissory voters’.51 The parties accumulated debts of some £22,000, and Owen sold property in St. Mary’s and St. Martin’s, Pembroke, and Monkton for £11,000 in December 1831 and borrowed a further £12,000 in 1832.52 He had a motion criticizing the censure passed by the election committee on the sheriff and the assessors deferred, 12 Dec. He divided for the revised reform bill at its second reading, 17 Dec. 1831, steadily for its details, and for the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry it unimpaired, 10 May, and divided for the Irish reform bill at its second reading, 25 May. He was absent when party allegiance was tested on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12, 16 July, but had forwarded recent patronage requests to the colonial secretary Lord Goderich.53 He brought up petitions against the three commotes road bill, 2 Apr. 1832.
By late June 1832 Owen was back in Pembrokeshire attending to yeomanry matters and canvassing. Allen intended challenging him at the general election, but in September ministers decided that as Owen had ‘supported government as readily and constantly as any man in the House’, they could not put up a candidate against him.54 The Carmarthen Journal announced that ‘the reform bill has worked wonders in Pembrokeshire in forwarding the political interest of Sir John Owen’.55 His failure to vote for Foxwell Buxton’s motion for a select committee on colonial slavery (24 May 1832), however, rankled and the Welshman complained that he had never atoned for his failure to support the 1824 campaign on behalf of the Methodist missionary John Smith, indicted for encouraging slaves to riot in Demerara.56 Owen was returned unopposed on the Conservative interest as a ‘constitutional reformer’ favourable to agricultural protection and sat unopposed until 1841, when he made way for Cawdor’s son. At the same election, he outpolled Hugh and a third candidate to come in for Pembroke Boroughs, which in 1838 he had made available to Sir James Robert George Graham*. He retained the seat for life, but his later years were dominated by litigious financial crises, which obliged him to spend most of his time on the continent. The plate and most of the contents of Orielton were sold in 1842, and Owen moved to Taynton House, near Newent in Gloucestershire, but the 5,800-acre estate remained unsold until purchased by Mark Anthony Saurin of Cilwendeg in 1857.57 Owen’s numerous patronage requests, mainly to Peel, were rejected.58 He was given a triumphal welcome in Pembrokeshire during Hugh’s canvass for the county seat in January 1861, but soon became ‘hopelessly ill’, and he died at Taynton in early February.59 Obituarists recalled that he had confined himself to Welsh subjects in Parliament. A Tory ‘up to 1845’, he supported the Maynooth grant, repeal of the corn laws and Lord Derby’s 1852 budget. He opposed the 1859 reform bill and switched from Conservative to Liberal to retain his seat that year.60 Hugh succeeded him in the baronetcy and as Member for Pembroke Boroughs but, with most of the family property sold, there was little left to inherit. Owen’s widow eventually received an annual income of about £500.61
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Margaret Escott
- 1. NLW ms 6106 D, f. 129.
- 2. F. Jones, ‘Owen of Orielton’, Pemb. Hist. v (1974), 32.
- 3. Carmarthen Jnl. 3, 10, 17 Mar., 7 Apr. 1820.
- 4. R.D. Rees, ‘Parl. Rep. S. Wales 1790-1830’ (Univ. of Reading Ph.D. thesis, 1962), 428; R.G. Thorne, ‘Pemb. Elections of 1807 and 1812’; Pemb. Hist. vi (1979), 13; HP Commons, 1790-1820, iv. 702-3; The Times, 9 May 1831.
- 5. Carmarthen Jnl. 14, 21 Apr. 1820; CJ, lxxv. 241, 279.
- 6. The Times, 5 July 1820; CJ, lxxv. 445-7; LJ, liii. 293, 296.
- 7. Add. 38323, f. 105. For an account of the Tasmanian branch of the family see D. Miles, ‘Lord of Orielton, 1781-1852’, Jnl. Pemb. Hist. Soc. xiv (2005), 21-30.
- 8. Seren Gomer, iv (1821), 154, 252.
- 9. The Times, 5, 11 May 1825.
- 10. Carmarthen Jnl. 29 June, 6, 13 July 1821.
- 11. Ibid. 12 Oct. 1821.
- 12. NLW, Lucas mss 3083, 3086, 3087.
- 13. Seren Gomer, v (1822), 91, 124.
- 14. Carmarthen Jnl. 10 May 1822.
- 15. Add. 40352, f. 72; Carmarthen Jnl. 20 Sept. 1822; The Times, 9 May 1823.
- 16. Add. 38576, f. 10.
- 17. Add. 38297, f. 357; 38298, f. 10; 40359, ff. 100, 145, 184-6, 205.
- 18. Bodl. Clarendon dep. 372, bdle. 2, Harvey to Foster Barham, 30 Oct 1824, 18 June 1825.
- 19. Cambrian, 7 Mar. 1825; Clarendon dep. 372, bdle. 2, Harvey to Foster Barham, 25 May, 5 July 1825; 374, bdle. 2, passim.
- 20. NLW, Williams and Williams Haverfordwest mss 6133.
- 21. Add. 40383, ff. 104-6.
- 22. Ibid.; Lucas mss 1232; Cambrian, 3, 31 Dec. 1825, 7 Jan. 1826.
- 23. Cambrian, 4, 18 Feb.; Carmarthen Jnl. 9 June 1826; Rees, 303, 427.
- 24. Cambrian, 24 June 1826.
- 25. The Times, 28 June 1826.
- 26. Clarendon dep. 372, bdle. 2, Harvey to Foster Barham, c. 20 Jan. 1827; Carmarthen Jnl. 19, 25 Jan., 20 Apr. 1827.
- 27. Clarendon dep. 372, bdle. 2, Harvey to Foster Barham, 9 June, 7 July 1827; Miles, 28.
- 28. Add. 40306, f. 284; 40394, f. 225; Carmarthen Jnl. 14 Sept. 1827.
- 29. Add. 40395, ff. 92-94.
- 30. Add. 40396, f. 13.
- 31. Carmarthen Jnl. 15 Feb., 7 Mar.; Cambrian, 23 Feb. 1828.
- 32. Add. 40307, f. 135; 40397, ff. 231-5; Wellington mss WP1/943/8; 945/5; 949/30; 952/6; 958/13; M. Escott, ‘How Wales lost its judicature: the making of the 1830 Act for the Abolition of the Courts of Great Sessions’, Trans. Hon. Soc. Cymmrodorion (2006), 135-59.
- 33. Carmarthen Jnl. 6, 13, 20, 27 Mar.; Cambrian, 7, 21 Mar. 1829; NLW ms 6099 E.
- 34. Carmarthen Jnl. 26 June 1829.
- 35. Ibid. 11, 25 Sept. 8 Oct.; Cambrian, 26 Sept., 9 Oct., 6 Dec. 1829.
- 36. Carmarthen Jnl. 9 Feb. 1828, 12 Mar., 2 Apr. 1830.
- 37. Clarendon dep. 372, bdle. 5, Harvey to Foster Barham, 15 June, 10 July; Carmarthen Jnl. 9, 16, 23, 30 July 1830.
- 38. Clarendon dep. 372, bdle. 5, Harvey to Foster Barham 26, 28 Aug., 28 Sept., 8 Nov. 1830.
- 39. Carmarthen Jnl. 26 Nov. 1830.
- 40. Clarendon dep. 372, bdle.6, Harvey to Foster Barham, 26 Feb. 1831.
- 41. D. Williams, ‘Pemb. Elections of 1831’, WHR, i (1960-3), 42 and passim.; Carmarthen Jnl. 8 Apr.; Cambrian, 9 Apr. 1831.
- 42. Morning Chron. 26 Apr.; Carmarthen Jnl. 15 Apr. 1831; NLW ms 6099 E; Pemb. RO D/CT/457.
- 43. Clarendon dep. 372, bdle. 6, Harvey to Foster Barham, 23 Apr. 1831.