SPENCE, George (1787-1850), of 35 Pall Mall and 2 Stone Buildings, Lincoln's Inn, Mdx.

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



1826 - 26 Mar. 1827
2 Mar. 1829 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 1787, 2nd s. of Thomas Richard Spence (d. 1818) of Hanover Square and Cranford, Mdx. and w. Frances.1 educ. privately by Rev. Robert Delafosse at Richmond, Surr.; Glasgow Univ. 1802; I. Temple 1806, called 1811. m. 1819, Anne, da. of James Kelsall, solicitor, of Chester, 2s. d. 12 Dec. 1850.

Offices Held

KC 27 Dec. 1834; bencher, I. Temple 1835, reader 1845, treas. 1846-7.


Spence’s father was a successful London dentist, who patented and marketed a brand of tooth powder and bought property at Cranford. His elder brother Thomas Richard Spence took holy orders and died at Rome in 1827; and his younger brother Henry Francis Spence (?1789-1856) entered the navy in 1803, saw action in various theatres and was paid off in 1814.2 George Spence was recalled by one of his school contemporaries as ‘an industrious and talented youth, who, by his gentleness and kindness of disposition, won the affection of his schoolfellows’. He was articled to a London solicitor, but eventually opted to train for the bar. A friend remembered that when he was making his way there he was

very eccentric in his dress and appearance. His father was strict with him in money matters, which materially influenced him in his studies, to gratify his ambition, which was then very great, to get on in his profession, and to become independent.3

On his father’s death in 1818 he inherited the Cranford property, subject to his mother’s life interest, and £10,000 in consols.4 He did well as an equity draftsman and was reputed to have had ‘at one time, the largest business ever known to have been enjoyed at the chancery bar with a stuff gown’.5

In 1826 Spence published a treatise, dedicated to lord chancellor Eldon, on the Origin of the Laws and Political Institutions of Modern Europe, which he traced to those of Imperial Rome. At the general election that year he stood on the Tory True Blue interest for Reading, with which he had no connection, against the Whig sitting Members, in conjunction with the philanthropist Edward Wakefield. In a series of verbose and bombastic written addresses, he pledged support for the Liverpool ministry while they continued to promote ‘the reduction of taxation, the improvement of our judicial institutions (a subject I have much at heart), the amelioration of the condition of all ranks of society, and the extension and establishment of liberty at home and abroad’. At the same time he laid claim to ‘the most uncompromising independence’. On the hustings he denied having raised a ‘No Popery’ cry, but justified his avowed hostility to Catholic relief on the ground that he was ‘averse to granting political power to a sect which had always abused it’. He advocated a ‘diffusion of education and of the lights of the gospel’ as the likeliest remedies for the ‘wretched condition’ of Ireland. He was at odds with the sitting Members, he said, ‘because he thought their opposition to ministers was systematic, and carried to a culpable extreme’. After an eight-day contest, which was reckoned to have cost him ‘many thousand pounds’, he edged one of them into third place by four votes.6

Spence soon showed his interest in judicial reform by speaking on Harvey’s motion for returns of business in the exchequer court, 1 Dec. 1826, when he asserted that its judges wished it to be made ‘efficient’, with ‘an active and extensive jurisdiction’. He thought the motion did not go far enough, and on 6 Dec. he moved for information on business transacted in the exchequer, rolls and vice-chancellor’s courts, with the object of demonstrating that the underutilized equity jurisdiction of the exchequer could be employed to help clear the massive arrears in chancery. In the absence of the government law officers the home secretary Peel complained that the motions exceeded the terms of their notice, and Spence reluctantly agreed to their withdrawal.7 Eldon, thanking Peel for his ‘kind interposition’, observed that Spence, ‘a very good and respectable man’, doubtless ‘means well, but it is strong measure to propose alterations in the distribution of the business in the exchequer and chancery without mention to those who preside in them, or at least to him, who presides in one of them’.8 Spence got into a procedural tangle when presenting a petition touching the disputed Denbigh election, 8 Feb. 1827. He presented a petition against Catholic relief, 19 Feb., and voted against the proposal, 6 Mar.9 On 22 Mar. 1827 he was unseated on his opponent’s petition, the inquiry having established that his majority was based on a number of illegal votes. Soon afterwards he sought an interview with Peel, leader of the Protestant interest in the Commons, ‘on the subject of the future representation’ of Reading, observing that ‘the politics of the party by whom I ... [was] returned are I believe strictly in unison with your own’.10

Spence was returned on a vacancy for Ripon in March 1829 on the interest of Miss Sophia Lawrence, whose election manager Sir Lancelot Shadwell*, vice-chancellor of England, was his personal friend. He came in explicitly as an opponent of Catholic emancipation, against which he duly voted, 6, 27, 30 Mar. 1829. He presented petitions complaining of distress in the silk manufacturing industry, 28 Apr. He denounced the grant to the Catholic seminary at Maynooth, which ‘fostered principles of the grossest idolatry’, and voted in the minority of 14 against it, 22 May. He divided in favour of the issue of a new writ for East Retford, 2 June 1829. He voted against Lord Blandford’s parliamentary reform scheme, 18 Feb., but was in the anti-government majority against the Bathurst and Dundas pensions, 26 Mar. 1830. He voted for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May and the abolition of capital punishment for forgery, 7 June. On 5 Apr. he moved for returns of the salaries and fees of chancery clerks and registrars, with a view to proposing ways of reducing the notorious delays and expenses of procedure in that court. Soon afterwards he published Reform of the Court of Chancery, in which he made detailed suggestions for improvements designed to save at least £35,000 a year. In the House, 17 June, he criticized the government’s suits in equity bill, which proposed the appointment of an additional chancery judge, and its two related pending measures for reform of the registrars’ and masters’ offices: ‘I cannot conceive that the appointment of a new judge, to send an additional number of causes to offices already encumbered, and so defective in their constitution, will prove of any advantage’. He declared that unless ministers proposed effective reform of equity jurisdiction he would take the initiative himself. The Whig lawyer Henry Brougham* thought his speech was ‘excellent’.11 Spence voted against Hume’s attempt to reduce the level of judges’ salaries as proposed in the administration of justice bill, 7 July. Thomas Frankland Lewis* later credited Spence with preparing amendments to this measure which saved Radnorshire from the loss of its assizes.12 On 22 July 1830 he acquiesced in the law officers’ temporary acceptance of an objectionable Lords’ amendment, on the understanding that they would expunge it through a separate measure next session.

After the 1830 general election, when he came in again for Ripon, ministers listed Spence among their ‘friends’, but he was absent from the division on the civil list which brought them down, 15 Nov. 1830. He voted for the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar., when he spoke briefly for it, and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. According to an obituary notice the bill

troubled the conscience of Mr. Spence. He had been returned as a Tory and sat for a close borough. He became convinced that it was his duty to vote for the bill, and he informed Miss Lawrence of his intention, resolving that if she objected he would resign his seat. She informed him that he might do as he pleased, and he voted throughout for the measure, having been again returned at the election of 1831.13

In fact, Spence was absent from the division on the second reading of the reintroduced bill, 6 July 1831, but he was present to vote for some of its details, 19, 27 July, 3, 9 Aug. Ill health, for which he took periods of leave, 12 Sept. and 7 Oct., accounted for his absence from the divisions on the passage of the bill, 21 Sept.,14 and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. 1831. He voted for the second reading of the revised bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and occasionally for its details, though he was in the minority in favour of excluding borough freeholders from the county franchise, 1 Feb. 1832. He voted for the third reading, 22 Mar., and the address asking the king to appoint only ministers who would carry it unimpaired 10 May 1832. He did not vote in any of the divisions on other party issues for which full lists have been found; and his only other known vote after 1830 was with the minority for the vestries reform bill, 23 Jan. 1832.

Spence had continued to concern himself principally with his campaign for reform of equity jurisdiction. On 9 Nov. 1830 he gave notice that after Christmas he would move a series of resolutions on the simplification and improvement of chancery practice, but on 7 Dec. he postponed them until after Easter to give the new ministers the chance to take the matter into their own hands. He renewed his motion for returns of chancery fees, which had not yet been produced, 22 Nov., and on 9 Dec. was praised by the attorney-general Denman for his ‘able statement’ in explanation of his call for further documentary evidence. On 13 Dec. 1830 he drew attention to the scandal of the three civil offices, all part of the judicial bureaucracy, from which the Rev. Thomas Thurlow derived an annual income of £9,713. In the debate on Sugden’s motion for information on chancery practice, 20 Dec. 1830, he dismissed John Williams’s notion of transferring the bulk of equity business to the common law courts. Arguing that ‘the House of Commons alone can reform the court of chancery’, which successive governments had failed to touch, he detailed the abuses of delay and expense which originated in the inefficient and hidebound registrars’ and masters’ offices. He advocated payment of the chancellor by a fixed salary rather than by fees, abolition of the six clerks office, and the creation of a new, streamlined system of record keeping, which would ‘get rid of three-fourths of the abuses’. He vowed to bring forward his own plan if ministers did not act:

I am sure ... government will not consider that it is [in] the slightest spirit of hostility to them that I had formed this resolution, but I have been grievously disappointed by trusting to other governments, and feel it necessary, therefore, to narrowly watch this government.

He sent copies of the published versions of this speech and that of 17 June 1830, together with one of his 1830 pamphlet, to Jeremy Bentham.15 He welcomed Campbell’s plan to establish a general register of deeds in England and Wales, 30 June 1831, but advised postponement of its introduction until some groundless objections to it, especially in Yorkshire, had been overcome. He supported Campbell’s fines and recoveries bill, 9 Dec. 1831, which would help to destroy ‘the mystification of the law which relates to all transactions connected with real property’. He dismissed the objections of small landowners to a general register as unfounded, 20 Jan., 2 Feb. 1832; but when he presented a Ripon petition against it, 8 Feb. 1832, he wondered if a compromise could be affected by introducing ‘a bill embracing a system of general registration, but allowing it to be conducted in counties or districts’. He was named to the select committee appointed to investigate the problem, 22 Feb. 1832. The same day he opposed Knight’s Irish master of the rolls bill.

During 1831 Spence was invited by lord chancellor Brougham to assist in carrying out his scheme of chancery reform. He was entrusted with the preparation of a bill to regulate the masters’ office, which was originally intended to be presented before Christmas, but Brougham subsequently decided that it would be preferable to embody in one bill proposals to reform all the offices connected with chancery. Thus on 15 Dec. Spence announced in the House that he was ‘authorized to state’ that measures were in train ‘for the effectual reform of the most crying of the abuses’. Yet on 6 June 1832 he had to explain the long delay, and it was not until 10 July that he moved, successfully, for leave to introduce a bill to improve equity jurisdiction in connection with the administration of testators’ estates. It was, he said, part of a general scheme of reform, and Brougham was about to introduce to the Lords an ‘extensive’ measure which would ‘so construct the court of chancery as that a system will no longer exist for the benefit of the officers and practitioners of that court, but solely for the benefit of the public’. Spence’s bill was presented and read a first time on 31 July 1832, but made no further progress before Parliament was dissolved. On 26 July he intervened in the squabble over the appointment of the chancellor’s brother James Brougham* to two chancery sinecures, assuring the House that it was purely a temporary measure and that these offices would be abolished by pending legislation. In a discussion on judges’ salaries, 30 July 1832, he replied to opposition criticism of the government’s tardiness in introducing its chancery reforms. He provoked mocking laughter with his confession that the general reform bill had not yet been presented to the Lords because he had been unable to complete the complex work of drafting an additional clause, requested by Brougham, to establish an appellate court within chancery. He concluded:

I believe I shall not have another opportunity of addressing this or any other House of Commons ... From the moment I entered this House, I have laboured most assiduously to bring about a reform in the court of chancery. I have frequently ... seen a prospect of an effectual reform being introduced, and have been in some instances most grievously disappointed ... I hope and trust, however, that there is now a prospect of an effectual reform being completed.

Spence knew that his days as Member for Ripon were numbered. In July 1832 Benjamin Disraeli†, who earlier in the year had described Mrs. Spence as being ‘very silly, trying to apologize for her husband’s ratting’, reported that Miss Lawrence had ‘turned violent Tory and chassed’ Spence and his colleague Petit, another convert to reform, from the borough.16 Brougham evidently asked the Russells if they could accommodate Spence for the next Parliament, but Lord John could only suggest an attempt on Huntingdon.17 Nothing came of this, and Spence explained to Brougham, 31 Oct. 1832, after a holiday which furnished him with ‘renovated health and renewed ardour to assist in perfecting your intended reforms’:

After much consideration I cannot but think that I shall be able to render much more effectual assistance out of Parliament than in. The distraction and consumption of time occasioned by having to attend the House together with the labour of chancery drawing leaves too small a portion of time to be devoted to so important a subject as chancery reform, especially for completing the most essential part, namely the orders and minor details.18

He accepted Brougham’s offer of the first vacancy in the chancery masterships, which would enable him to use his ‘utmost personal exertions’ to make the reforms effective. Yet in July 1833 he declined Brougham’s offer of remuneration for his ‘time and trouble’ in preparing chancery reform bills since leaving Parliament and, on being informed that a reduction in the number of masters was now in contemplation, waived his own pretensions if they would cause any ‘embarrassment’. He continued to co-operate with Brougham in the slow work of chancery reform.19 He took silk in December 1834 and hoped to try his fortune in the exchequer court if it was made an efficient part of equity jurisdiction. It was not, and as a king’s counsel Spence never commanded the volume of work which he had enjoyed as a junior.20

In 1839 he published two Addresses on chancery abuses, in which he commended Lord Lyndhurst’s scheme for the appointment of additional vice-chancellors as the only practical solution with any chance of immediate adoption. In 1842 he produced a Summary of Documents relating to the masters’ office. His later years were largely devoted to the composition of his magnum opus on The Equitable Jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery. The first volume of this pioneering work, which is still regarded as the standard authority on the subject, appeared in 1846 and the second in 1849.21 Spence began work on a third volume, but the labour involved had taken a heavy toll of his health and spirits. He also suffered a disappointment in 1847 when he failed in his bid to secure a vacant mastership in chancery, for which he asked Brougham to promote his claims with the lord chancellor.22 In the last months of 1850 he ‘slept worse and worse’ and was ‘constantly low spirited’, having ‘long been labouring under the delusion that he had a disease of the urethra or bladder’, which had killed his father. In the small hours of 10 Dec. at his then residence at 42 Hyde Park Square he inflicted severe wounds to his neck, wrists and thigh. He lingered ‘in a state of extreme depression’ for two days and died ‘from exhaustion and loss of blood’, ‘aged 63’. The inquest jury decided that he had tried to kill himself in a fit of insanity.23 ‘Alas!’, wrote one of his friends, ‘who would have thought that that life would have thus terminated, and he a man so single-minded and amiable, who knew no ill, and thought no ill?’ Spence was credited with ‘the art, or natural gift, of speaking upon abstruse and learned topics without using either abstruse or learned words’.24 He left all his property to his wife for her life, thereafter to be equally divided between his two sons.25 Both these, Henry Donald Maurice Spence (1836-1917) and Lancelot Molyneux Dalrymple Spence (1837-65), became clerks at the board of trade in 1855. Lancelot remained there until his early death, but Henry, who took the additional surname of Jones in 1904, subsequently entered the church and died as a long-serving dean of Gloucester and a prolific author of works of history and biblical commentary.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. PROB 11/1607/390. She was perhaps Frances, da. of Richard Rock of St. Martin, Ludgate, London. See Reg. St. Geo. Hanover Square, i. 256.
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1827), ii. 473; (1856), i. 666.
  • 3. Law Rev. xiii (1851), 431.
  • 4. Gent. Mag. (1818), ii. 377; PROB 11/1607/390.
  • 5. Gent. Mag. (1851), i. 435; Oxford DNB.
  • 6. Berks. Chron. 15, 22, 29 Apr., 6, 13, 20 May, 3, 10, 17, 24 June 1826.
  • 7. The Times, 2, 5, 7 Dec. 1826.
  • 8. Add. 40315, f. 270.
  • 9. The Times, 9, 20 Feb. 1827.
  • 10. Add. 40393, ff. 163, 178.
  • 11. NLS mss 24748, f. 96.
  • 12. Hereford Jnl. 18 Aug. 1830.
  • 13. Gent. Mag. (1851), i. 435.
  • 14. The Times, 23 Sept. 1831.
  • 15. See BL, C.T. 70.
  • 16. Disraeli Letters, i. 140, 205.
  • 17. Brougham mss, Russell to Brougham, 29 June [1832].
  • 18. Brougham mss.
  • 19. Ibid. Spence to Brougham, 21 July, [Nov.] 1833, 14 Jan. 1835, 2 Aug. 1840.
  • 20. Law Rev. xiii. 432.
  • 21. Oxford DNB.
  • 22. Brougham mss, Spence to Brougham, 29 Mar. 1847.
  • 23. Gent. Mag. (1851), i. 435-6; The Times, 17 Dec. 1850.
  • 24. Law Mag. xlv (1851), 131.
  • 25. PROB 11/2128/156.