PLEYDELL BOUVERIE, William, Visct. Folkestone (1779-1869), of Coleshill House, nr. Highworth, Berks.

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

Constituency

Dates

25 Mar. 1801 - 1802
1802 - 27 Jan. 1828

Family and Education

b. 11 May 1779, 1st s. of Jacob Pleydell Bouverie†, 2nd earl of Radnor, and Hon. Anne Duncombe, da. of Anthony Duncombe†, 1st Bar. Feversham; bro. of Hon. Duncombe Pleydell Bouverie* and Hon. Philip Pleydell Bouverie*. educ. Paris 1789; Edinburgh Univ. 1794; Brasenose, Oxf. 1795; continental tour 1797. m. (1) 2 Oct. 1800, Catherine (d. 17 May 1804), da. and h. of Henry Fiennes Pelham Clinton, earl of Lincoln†, s. of Henry, 2nd duke of Newcastle, 2da. (1 d.v.p.); (2) 24 May 1814, Anne Judith, da. of Sir Henry Paulet St. John Mildmay†, 3rd bt., of Dogmersfield, Hants, 2s. 3da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. as 3rd earl of Radnor 27 Jan. 1828. d. 9 Apr. 1869.

Offices Held

Chairman, q. sess. Wilts. (Salisbury) 1815-35; recorder, Salisbury 1828-36.

Capt. Berks. militia 1803, Berks. vol. cav. 1805; lt.-col. R. Berks. militia 1812, res. 1817.

Biography

The political principles of Folkestone, a leading member of the extreme wing of opposition in the Commons, conformed more to those of an advanced Whig than to the radicalism with which he was usually identified. Originally returned for Downton on the interest of his father, the 2nd earl of Radnor, he came to prominence with his attacks on the Addington ministry’s peace preliminaries. But it was as a member of the ‘Mountain’, in close connection with Samuel Whitbread†, Sir Francis Burdett* and the radical political writer William Cobbett†, that he made his reputation. An inveterate opponent of corruption, he played a major part in the campaigns against Lord Melville, Lord Wellesley and the duke of York, and was active in resisting the power of the crown and defending the liberty of the subject. Yet he was content to vote with the Whigs on a wide range of issues, notably for economies and tax reductions, and this practice he continued into the 1820s. His excoriating attacks on government stemmed not from a desire to see it remodelled, but from a wish to have it restored, by means of ameliorative reforms, to the purity it had attained in 1689. He saw himself as an exemplar of the type of enlightened and disinterested aristocratic leadership which, with the support of public opinion, validated by county meetings, could effect such alterations.1 Thus, he was in favour of annual parliaments, but only in order to ensure the good behaviour of Members, and he opposed all other political reforms (though by 1818 there was already evidence that his views were becoming more advanced in this area).2 That he was depicted as a radical was not surprising considering that he eschewed any close co-operation with the Whigs, whom he thought ‘just a few shades better than the Tories’, and preferred to call himself a ‘radical reformer’ or ‘ultra-liberal’.3 It also arose from the novelty of an heir to a peerage denouncing the system of influence which had promoted his own family’s interests, and the originality of his character. Intelligent and well informed, he could be rash in debate and stubborn in his opinions; his views on the currency question, for example, were typically brilliant and idiosyncratic. In addition, his high-minded moral stance had been considerably tainted by the revelation of his liaison with York’s mistress, Mary Ann Clarke. Folkestone’s behaviour made for an uneasy relationship with Radnor, a convinced Tory. Dismayed by his misfortunes, Folkestone had been willing to withdraw from politics at the general election of 1812, but was persuaded against it by Radnor’s reproachful response that it would mean the end of the family’s control over one seat at Salisbury, which Folkestone had occupied since 1802.4 Sensitive to his father’s position, his conduct in Parliament was sometimes muted, but he did, for instance, vote several times in favour of Catholic relief. Despite the unpopularity which this caused him in Salisbury, a corporation borough, and the threat of an opposition, he was returned at the general election of 1818 without having to stand a poll. He plumped for the Whigs Robert Gordon* for Cricklade and Paul Methuen† for Wiltshire that year, and for John Dugdale Astley* at the county by-election in 1819.5 Following the Peterloo massacre, he emerged from a period of comparative obscurity to join in the opposition to the subsequent repressive legislation. Speaking in Salisbury at the following general election, 9 Mar. 1820, when he was again returned unopposed, he said that his actions had been ‘completely justified by the effects which those measures had produced’.6 He was admitted a burgess of Nottingham, by gift, 28 Aug. 1820.7

Folkestone spoke for printing George Dawson’s petition against his ill treatment in Ilchester gaol, 31 May, the East India Company’s volunteers bill, 19 June, and a petition from the freeholders of Hungerford and Newbury for shortening the duration of polls, which he presented, 27 June 1820.8 He divided against Wilberforce’s compromise motion on Queen Caroline, 22 June, and the appointment of a secret committee, 26 June, and criticized ministers’ handling of the affair, 17 Oct. He was present in the crowd to witness the queen’s return to London, 29 Nov. 1820, and was involved in the extra-parliamentary campaign on her behalf, including by signing requisitions for county meetings in Kent and Wiltshire.9 As usual, he was particularly active in Berkshire, where he resided on his father’s Coleshill estate, and, distanced from immediate paternal disapproval, was perhaps more at liberty to express his own opinions. He got up a requisition, and, permission having been refused, organized a meeting of freeholders, 8 Jan. 1821. These attempts to stir up respectable opinion did not entirely gain the approval of the Whigs, even of such an ‘intimate friend’ as Lord Althorp*. But he successfully moved his resolutions, in a speech which again roundly condemned the proceedings against Caroline, and also signalled a development in his thinking on reform:

Unless the House of Commons were made to act in unison with the general feeling of the people, it were vain for the country to look for a redress of grievances by any change which merely embraced the substitution of one set of men for another in the affairs of the country. A reform in the representation of the people was therefore indispensable.10

Although his intended attack on ministers for closing the previous session without a speech from the throne was ‘knocked on the head’ by the discovery that there were precedents, Folkestone referred to it in speaking against the address, 23 Jan., when he complained about agricultural distress, the currency and the poor laws.11 He also denounced government for failing to take notice of the expressions of public opinion in the queen’s favour, and, dividing consistently against government on this issue, called for further inquiry, 24, 31 Jan. He moved for an account of official salaries, 15 Feb., acted as a teller for the minority for production of the ordnance estimates in detail the following day, and divided steadily in favour of retrenchment and lower taxation that session.12 He spoke against an unconvertible paper currency, 19 Mar., but his statement that there should have been an alteration in the standard before any return to cash payments had been agreed was condemned by the minister Huskisson as amounting to a breach of faith with the public creditor. If so, it was a breach which Folkestone, defending his position, 21 Mar., 3 Apr., argued might be justified in certain circumstances. He stated that repeal of the additional malt duty would provide relief, 21 Mar. He voted to make Leeds a scot and lot borough if it received Grampound’s seats, 2 Mar., and for parliamentary reform, 18 Apr., 9 May, and to secure the independence of Parliament, 31 May. Among other opposition votes that session, he of course divided in favour of repealing the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act, 8 May, and for inquiry into Peterloo, 16 May 1821.

Folkestone, who voted against the introduction of a bill to suspend habeas corpus in Ireland, 7 Feb. 1822, condemned this and the insurrection bill the following day, on the grounds that no evidence had been produced to prove their necessity and that they concentrated too much power in the hands of Wellesley, the lord lieutenant. He was a teller for the minority against going into committee on the former bill and divided against ministers several times in the committee on the latter, 8 Feb. When Creevey moved to curtail the powers of government, 27 Feb., he apparently sat beside him on the front bench.13 He presented his brother Philip’s petition concerning navy half per cent stock, 7 Mar.14 He continued to side frequently with opposition, including for remitting the remainder of Henry Hunt’s* gaol sentence, 24 Apr. Making what he called his first speech on reform, 25 Apr., he revealed that, prompted by the House’s support for the recent coercive legislation, he had become persuaded that it was the only way of saving the country. He stressed that ‘the reform he should advocate was not framed so as to establish a democracy; it was not meant to destroy the throne, but to support it’. Taking Canning to task, he denied that the people were happy under the present system, argued that the Commons had gained too much weight in the tripartite constitution, and pointed out that the electoral influence of the peerage had greatly increased. He made no specific recommendations, but praised Bentham’s idea of ‘annuality of election’. George Agar Ellis* commented that he spoke ‘tediously’ and Mrs. Arbuthnot recorded that it was a ‘dull speech of two hours’, while Charles Williams Wynn* noted that the House was ‘extremely clamorous and inattentive to Folkestone (so much that he was obliged repeatedly to stop, in order to procure silence)’.15 Ministers became restless when, employing tortuous logic, he asserted that they really wanted to create a republic, and Canning later answered his criticisms in detail. He attended the Kent county meeting on distress, 11 June.16 He spoke and acted as a teller for the minority of four against the second reading of the small notes bill, 2 July 1822, when he complained about the renewal of the Irish Insurrection Act.

In late 1822 he participated in the campaign for promoting county meetings to petition the Commons, and took a lead in preparing the requisition for one in Berkshire. He attended the meeting at Abingdon, 27 Jan. 1823, when he congratulated the freeholders on having ‘traced the depression of agriculture to its true source, the corrupt state of the representation of the people’, and advocated extensive reform, which, contrary to what was said by the new foreign secretary Canning (‘that great apostle of anti-reformers’), would prevent, not encourage, revolution.17 He voted for parliamentary reform, 20 Feb., 24 Apr., and alteration of the Scottish representative system, 2 June. He presented a petition from Charles Andrew Thomson complaining of losses arising from changes in the value of money, 21 Feb., when he also criticized the budget for failing to address the problems of distress and the currency. He seconded Althorp’s motion for repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr., and was a teller with him for the minority. His speech, which Agar Ellis termed ‘violent and rather eloquent’, was a lengthy attack on Canning’s policy of non-intervention over the French invasion of Spain, which drew from the foreign secretary the stinging retort that ‘never before did I behold so complete a personification of the character which I have somewhere seen described as "exhibiting the contortions of the Sybil without her inspiration"!’, and the assertion that ‘however I may have "truckled" to France, I shall never "truckle" to the noble lord’. The following day Brougham forced up Canning again by employing the term ‘truckling’ in another context, and Creevey reported that ‘the House generally was decidedly against Canning, as it had been the night before upon his passion and low-lived tirade against Folkestone’.18 Despite acknowledging his anger on that occasion, Folkestone returned to his theme, 30 Apr., describing the failure to defend Spain as a blow to the cause of freedom and a diminution of Britain’s security and reputation abroad. He voted for inquiries into the legal proceedings against the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and the state of Ireland prior to renewal of the Insurrection Act, 12 May. Having touched on the question of the currency in relation to Irish tithes, 30 May, he emphasized the need for the equitable adjustment of contracts affected by its alteration, 12 June 1823. Without a division, it was agreed to add this suggestion as an amendment to his colleague Western’s motion for a select committee on cash payments, and he voted in the minority for this that day.

Although, as usual, he presented several Salisbury petitions, Folkestone was surprisingly inactive during the following session, when his only recorded vote was for repeal of the assessed taxes, 10 May 1824. Nor was he greatly involved in public business the following year, though he did divide for the usury bill, 8 Feb. 1825, and steadily against the Irish repressive legislation, as well as for Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May. He raised difficulties concerning the exchange of country bank notes for gold, 27 June, and the poor returns, 1 July 1825.19 He complained about the lack of notice on going into committee on the Bank Charter and Promissory Notes Act, 10 Feb. 1826, when he stated that ‘the existing evils arose, in great measure, from the immense quantity of paper money which was in circulation’, and criticized the proposed financial changes because they would bring back distress and increase the sufferings of the poor. John Evelyn Denison* thought it a ‘long and stupid speech’ and Sir James Mackintosh* deemed him ‘unseasonably acrimonious’, but Agar Ellis reported that he ‘spoke well, in the plain country gentleman style, and was worth hearing upon the subject of the past and present state of the lower orders’.20 On 20 Feb. he presented and endorsed a petition from Cobbett (‘who, he should make no scruple in saying was, in his opinion, one of the ablest men in the country’) complaining of fluctuations in the currency, and objected to the clause in the promissory notes bill which allowed the Bank to continue to issue small notes in certain circumstances. He was involved in an argument over an account of the issue of small notes, 26 Apr.21 He voted for parliamentary reform, 27 Apr., and to curb electoral bribery, 26 May. He was probably the ‘my lord’ depicted helping Cobbett to attack ‘fraudulent paper money’ in a cartoon dated 2 June 1826.22 He apparently subscribed £50 to the fund for electing Cobbett for Preston at the general election later that year, when he was again quietly returned for Salisbury, despite differing in politics with some of the corporators.23

Creevey, who noted that ‘Folky has been but a shabby fellow considering all our past hospitalities to him’, praised him for his speech on 1 Dec. 1826, in which he belaboured ministers ‘for calling Parliament together and then not telling the people what they meant to do’.24 He brought up petitions from Folkestone and Blackburn for free trade in corn, 21 Feb. 1827. The latter called, among other things, for annual parliaments and universal suffrage, and he remarked that ‘they were, he knew, heretical doctrines in that House; nevertheless he was happy to find they were gaining ground throughout the country’.25 The following day he charged ministers with being supine in their handling of the currency. He voted against the grant for the duke of Clarence, 2, 16 Mar., for an import price for corn of 50s. not 60s., 9 Mar., and to reduce this by 10s. by 1833, 27 Mar. He divided for Catholic relief, 6 Mar. His last recorded votes were for inquiry into the allegations against the corporation of Leicester, 15 Mar., and with the majority in favour of the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May. In expectation of his father’s death, Folkestone had prepared a letter to the members of the corporation of Salisbury, 31 July 1827, assuring them of his wish to maintain the cordial relations between them and his family. By then, Radnor being in failing health, Folkestone had managed his affairs for some time.26 He succeeded him as 3rd earl in January 1828, just before the opening of the new session of Parliament. He inherited personal wealth sworn under £80,000 and several estates, including Longford Castle, the continuing alterations to which he hated and had promised to tear down.27

He brought in his brother Duncombe to replace him at Salisbury, where his interest proved to be short-lived, and returned other reformers for Downton from 1830 until its disfranchisement two years later. He was, of course, active in support of the Grey ministry’s reform measures both outside Parliament and in the Lords, where, as a liberal Evangelical Whig, he unsuccessfully introduced bills to reform the universities in 1835 and 1837.28 According to James Grant, he displayed there the ‘ultra liberalism of his opinions’ and was ‘the nearest approach to a perfect radical in the House’. He added that Cobbett had said that he ‘was the only nobleman who understood the first principles of politics, and that his were the only speeches in the Upper House worth a moment’s attention’.29 Another commentator remarked on how his zeal often outweighed his discretion:

At those times, or when he is pursuing his favourite theme of repeal of the corn laws, he pours forth an interminable flood of talk, a strange mixture of assertion, one sided reasoning and shrewd illustration, in which every now and then you hear an argument of singular sense and applicability or an idea of striking originality, but overwhelmed in a mass of what, without wishing to use an offensive term, we fear can only be described as twaddle.30

He never held public office. An earnest agricultural improver, he retired to Coleshill, where he died in April 1869. He left the bulk of his estate to his elder son Jacob (1815-89), who succeeded him as 4th earl of Radnor. His younger son, Edward Pleydell Bouverie (1818-89), was Member for the Kilmarnock District, 1844-74, and held office in several Liberal administrations.31

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell

Notes

R.K. Huch, The Radical Lord Radnor (Minnesota Monographs in the Humanities vol. 10, 1977), the only biography, is thin and unreliable.

  • 1. Ibid. 4-5, 8, 14-15, 20-21, 36-37, 41, 102, 166-9. Huch, wishing to have it both ways, states that this essentially Whiggish outlook nevertheless made Folkestone ‘a radical by the standards of the time’ (ibid. 8). See also Oxford DNB.
  • 2. Huch, 50-53, 92-93; Bentham Corresp. ix. 158; D. Miles, Francis Place, 120-1.
  • 3. Huch, 4, 15-16.
  • 4. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iv. 826-32; Berks. RO, Pleydell Bouverie mss D/EPb O28, Radnor to Folkestone, 18 Aug. 1812.
  • 5. Pleydell Bouverie mss O11; Wilts. Pollbook (1819), 68.
  • 6. Salisbury Jnl. 13 Mar. 1820.
  • 7. Pleydell Bouverie mss O38.