VESEY FITZGERALD (formerly FITZGERALD), William (?1782-1843), of Inchicronan, co. Clare

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 Feb. 1808 - 1812
4 Jan. 1813 - 1818
1818 - June 1828
20 Mar. 1829 - 1830
1830 - 13 Dec. 1830
1831 - 3 Jan. 1832

Family and Education

b. ?1782, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of James Fitzgerald† of Inchicronan and Catherine (cr. Baroness Fitzgerald and Vesey [I] 31 July 1826), da. of Rev. Henry Vesey, warden of Galway. educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 23 Oct. 1799, aged 17; L. Inn 1799. unm. 1s. 1da. illegit. Took name of Vesey before Fitzgerald 13 Feb. 1815; suc. mother as 2nd Bar. Fitzgerald [I] 3 Jan. 1832; fa. 1835; cr. Bar. Fitzgerald [UK] 10 Jan. 1835. d. 11 May 1843.

Offices Held

Commr. of treasury [I] Dec. 1809-Aug. 1812; PC [I] 10 Feb. 1810, [UK] 13 Aug. 1812; chan. of exch. [I] Aug. 1812-July 1817; ld. of treasury [UK] Oct. 1812-Jan. 1817; envoy extraordinary to Sweden 1820-3; paymaster-gen. July 1826-July 1828; treas. of navy Feb. 1828-Dec. 1830; pres. bd. of trade June 1828-Feb. 1830; pres. bd. of control Oct. 1841-d.

Trustee, linen board [I] 1815.

Gov. co. Clare 1815, ld. lt. 1831-d.

Maj. co. Clare militia 1805, col. 1832-d.; capt. Ennis inf. 1817.

Biography

Vesey Fitzgerald, an ambitious, talented, likeable but unsteady Irishman, with a relaxed moral code, was undermined in politics by unreliable health and lack of nerve. He owed such eminence as he achieved in his chequered political career after 1820 almost entirely to his personal friendship with Robert Peel*, which was cemented during the latter’s period as Irish secretary, 1812-18. He had ceased to be chancellor of the Irish exchequer and a lord of the treasury when the two establishments were amalgamated in 1817, having refused the Irish vice-treasurership as beneath him, thereby confirming the premier Lord Liverpool’s low estimate of his judgement and temper. Beset by financial problems and keen to obtain an Irish peerage for his aged father (which had been refused him in 1815), he was bitterly disappointed at being passed over as Peel’s successor, and remained disgruntled and dissatisfied during the 1818 Parliament, though he continued his general support for the ministry.1 In October 1819 he was offered the embassy to Sweden, and after hesitating ‘for a short time’ he decided to accept it, though he was not expected to go out for some months.2 In January 1820 he thanked Charles Arbuthnot*, the patronage secretary, for his ‘anxious and active friendship’, but went on:

What may be my feelings as to the treatment I have met with from the government is I am quite aware of little moment to them. I have not deserved it, but I shall never condescend to remonstrate or to complain of it and they probably in the plenitude of their power would be very careless if I did. But I have satisfaction in knowing the interest which my friends have felt and their solicitude for me.3

At the general election two months later he was returned again unopposed for county Clare, where his family had a leading interest.4 He apparently still had doubts as to whether he would actually go to Stockholm; but in late May 1820, appeasing a disgruntled supporter concerned that he was taking his seat for granted, he explained that having agreed to serve

for a short time, it is not my intention to relinquish Parliament, but on the contrary to give up the mission ... if I find it expected that I should continue there ... I certainly do not contemplate being absent longer than for one session.5

He attended the first session of the new Parliament. As an Irish Member, he supported Holme Sumner’s motion for inquiry into agricultural distress, 30 May 1820, and he was placed on the resultant select committee next day. He claimed to be ‘averse to protecting duties’, 2 June, but sought reassurance from the chancellor, Vansittart, that the Irish linen duties were not under threat. He said that precipitate repeal of the Union duties would cause ‘serious inconvenience and injury’ in Ireland, 8 June, and on the 14th he spoke and was a teller for the majority against Parnell’s attack on them. That day he regretted government’s initial refusal to relieve the distress produced by Irish bank failures (he applauded their decision to advance £500,000 on the 16th); paid a personal tribute to the dead Henry Grattan I*, though the Whig Member Sir Mackintosh thought he did it ‘ill’,6 and opposed army reductions, warning that ‘unless some precaution was taken before the next session the force now in Ireland would be insufficient’ to maintain order in the west. On 28 June he stated that ‘the moral amelioration of its poorer inhabitants’ was ‘peculiarly necessary’ there. He approved the government’s proposal to regulate the importation of Irish spirits, 12 July. His appointment to Stockholm was officially ratified on 7 Aug. and he arrived on 19 Sept. 1820.

The principal object of the mission, which brought him £4,900 a year, was to persuade Bernadotte to repay the large sums lent by Britain during the French wars. In this Vesey Fitzgerald was unsuccessful. Still smarting over his treatment by ministers (he observed to one correspondent, 14 Sept. 1821, that ‘the long services and claims of my father, my family and myself’ were ‘so much waste paper’), he told Peel, when congratulating him on his appointment as home secretary, 24 Dec. 1821, that he had been ‘long in low spirits from many causes’, but in terms of health was ‘much better than I was a month ago’.7 He had not expected to have to endure a second Scandinavian winter and had applied for leave of absence in the autumn of 1821, but it was refused. Aggrieved and tempted to resign altogether, he reluctantly accepted his fate, but in the spring of 1822 made the most of Peel’s enhanced influence in government to obtain a furlough, ostensibly to attend Parliament, ‘particularly on the Irish questions’, and to look after his interest in Clare, ‘which would otherwise be materially prejudiced’. Yet, typically, he now complicated matters by telling Peel at the end of March that recurrent ‘fever’ and a debilitating ‘rheumatic attack’ had made him unable to undertake a long journey for several weeks. He was in any case anxious to be rid of the mission, ‘which I now see leads to nothing, and which is to me as ungrateful as any pursuit that I have followed, or any other sacrifice which I may have made’. In the event he returned to England in mid-May 1822 and never went back to Stockholm.8

Vesey Fitzgerald supported the principle of the Irish constables bill, 7 June 1822. On 17 June he pressed Goulburn, the Irish secretary, to relieve distress, for ‘the awful situation’ in Ireland ‘no longer admitted of delay’. He made a few minor contributions to debates on Irish matters in the following three weeks.9 His mission was terminated in a ‘style’ which irked him (though he was not formally replaced until April 1823) and he was ‘harassed to death’ during a visit to his constituency.10 Liverpool’s aversion to him was undiminished, and when William Huskisson* pressed for promotion from woods and forests in August the premier told him that if he vacated the office Vesey Fitzgerald would want it: if he was given it he ‘might make himself a very inconvenient personage ... by getting into relations with the king’; but if he was passed over he ‘would be furious and in opposition might become very troublesome’.11 Vesey Fitzgerald’s name cropped up in the speculations which followed Lord Londonderry’s* suicide; but the Speaker was under the impression that he ‘would prefer foreign employment to any office within reach at home’.12 Likewise, John Croker* told Peel, 25 Aug. 1822, that a false report that Vesey Fitzgerald had now accepted the Irish vice-treasurership had driven him to ‘blazing indignation’ and ‘fury’:

I am on the whole glad to find, from his own conversation, that his views are still directed to diplomacy ... [and] that he does not appear to look for something at home, because I am sure he will never, in Lord Liverpool’s time at least, get anything that he would think it right to take ... Vesey looks high as to foreign employment.13

When Huskisson was moved to the board of trade in December 1822 Peel pressed Liverpool at least to offer woods and forests to Vesey Fitzgerald, but the premier would not hear of it.14 However, prompted by Canning, who felt that Vesey Fitzgerald ‘must be soothed, if not satisfied’, he offered him the vice-presidency of the board of trade when Thomas Wallace I* resigned it in January 1823; to Liverpool’s annoyance, he rejected it.15

In the Commons, 10 Feb. 1823, Vesey Fitzgerald joined in calls for a revision of Irish tithes. He welcomed the government’s composition bill as ‘calculated to redeem all the promises which had been made’, 6 Mar. Yet he wanted it to go to a committee upstairs, 21 Apr., when he deplored Hume’s inflammatory encouragement of Irish Catholics to take up arms; and on 16 May he denounced the measure, which he now felt ‘would not relieve the distresses of the people, but would ... augment the revenues of the clergy’. He repeated this criticism, 30 May, 6 June, and voted in the hostile minority, 16 June. He defended the Irish yeomanry against Hume’s ‘most unfair and illiberal’ attack and supported the ministerial proposal to place them under military control, 11 Feb. He divided with government against inquiries into the parliamentary franchise, 20 Feb., and the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and repeal of the house tax, 10 Mar. He supported renewal of the Irish Insurrection Act, 12 May, contending that ‘the misfortunes of Ireland were to be attributed, not to the conduct of those by whom she had been governed, but to moral causes, which no government could effectively control’. Despite his pro-Catholic sympathies, he deprecated the ‘calumnies ... against the magistracy and the people’ contained in their petition for a more equitable administration of justice in Ireland, 26 June. He was named to the select committee on employment of the Irish poor, 20 June 1823. Soon afterwards he broached his wish for a senior diplomatic posting to Liverpool, ruling out the ‘odious’ embassy to the United States, which he claimed to have turned down in 1819. He made little impression, and when Peel, whom he had asked to put in a good word for him, reported that Liverpool had mentioned Portugal as spoken for but had ‘pointed at America’, he became indignant:

I see that from Lord Liverpool I am to expect nothing and I must make up my mind to my future. I must not blame Mr. Canning, on whom I have neither political or personal claim, if Lord Liverpool does not think that I am entitled even to his intervention ... I do not think my conduct towards the present government ought to have led to ... an offer which was to produce my retiring from Parliament for such a mission ... I have spoken with Lord Liverpool and Mr. Canning for the last time on these points ... They shall not again insult me ... I ought not perhaps to express what I feel towards your colleagues ... But it is hard to suppress one’s feelings for ever. When I look back on the two past years and call to mind what I have experienced, I cannot think that even you will blame me.16

At Cheltenham in August 1823 he sang the praises of the duke of Wellington’s political acumen, which he had recently discovered, to Mrs. Arbuthnot, but damned his brother Lord Wellesley’s ‘absurd pomp and assumption of all the attributes of royalty’ as Irish viceroy.17

In February 1824, through Peel, he renewed his application for an Irish peerage, this time for himself, letting it be known that it might reconcile him to the American embassy and would give him ‘an honourable exit from my representation of Clare’, which he was finding increasingly tiresome. Peel put his ‘strong claim on the justice of the government’ for acquiescing in the abolition of his office in 1817, adding that ‘considering the prominent part which Ireland is likely to bear in our discussions, it would be politic to connect with the government one who, from ability and local information, has the power of rendering so much service’. Liverpool would not have it, pointing out that a peerage would not advance his diplomatic pretensions, which were in an case inflated, and suggesting that he would ‘be as anxious for office and employment after he gets the peerage as he was before. It will not satisfy him, but rather in his opinion give additional weight to his claims’. Vesey Fitzgerald whined to Peel that ‘my prospects are as bad as possible, and hopeless as I thought them, I never looked at them with more painful feelings’.18 He was reported at this time to be ‘not in favour’ with the king, who was ‘displeased with him about ... a lease of a house in Pall Mall’.19

In the House, 10 Feb. 1824, he opposed Hume’s motion for information on non-resident Irish clergy as ‘casting a most undeserved stigma on the bishops of Ireland’. He defended the Kildare Place Association’s educational work and stated that in parts of south-west Ireland there had been ‘no partiality’ towards Protestants in the establishment of schools 9 Mar. He was named to the select committees on Irish land valuations, 10 Mar., and Irish disturbances, 11 May (and again, 17 Feb. 1825). He argued strongly against the government’s proposal to get rid of the Irish linen bounties, 18, 19, 22 Mar., and was one of a deputation of Irish Members who urged their temporary continuance on the chancellor, 8 Apr.20 He saw little merit in the bill to remove restrictions on the formation of Irish local banks, 18 May. He voted with ministers on the case of the Methodist missionary John Smith, 11 June. He spoke and voted for renewal of the Irish Insurrection Act as a necessary evil, 14 June 1824, arguing that magistrates had enforced it ‘with the least possible oppression’. His name was still being linked with the American mission, and it was formally offered to him, but he continued to agonize in the late summer of 1824, initially telling Peel that ‘it would be madness in me to think of it without a peerage’, for if he did so he would have to surrender his seat and would then

come home at the end of three years, a general election having taken place in my absence, after a wretched abode in Washington, perhaps with ruined health, to look again to the honourable feeling of a ministry who have shown me that they think no more of me than a sucked orange, to lay a claim to promotion or employment after I have in fact abandoned political life at home and in retiring from Parliament sealed that abandonment.

Having secured an assurance that his peerage claim would be favourably considered in due course, he still hesitated, fearing that going to America would not, given his past shabby treatment by Liverpool, open the door to more congenial senior European postings. On the advice of Peel, to whom he unburdened himself at great length in tortured letters, he more or less committed himself at the end of September to accepting the appointment. Yet he continued to play for time and confessed to Peel that he would ‘prefer the peerage, if I can obtain it through you, to any other object’:

I should feel that I had not been passed by in every line and for everybody. I should while in the full enjoyment of an ascendancy in my county and while every motive of retirement must be suspected get rid possibly of a representation that tires me and which ... obliges me to an hundred acquiescences, to civilities which are burdensome, applications which are odious and the approaches of Popish lawyers and others whom in the end I am sure I shall offend ... If you can accomplish it for me I would rather finish now with this object than remain perhaps seven years more, with embittered and resentful feelings ... With this object I should not object to go to America or anywhere else or to remain at home without looking for anything. In a couple of years I might go abroad to occupy myself better than I can do here in my present mortifying position.21

After a visit to Paris, where he bought paintings on Peel’s behalf, in November, he found Liverpool, who had been approached on the matter by Peel, very receptive to his wish to have the Irish peerage conferred on his mother, with remainder to himself. To get himself out of the American mission he had seized on the alarming state of Ireland, where the Catholic Association was threatening to create chaos. Liverpool did not attach much ‘importance’ to this, but Canning, to whom Vesey Fitzgerald appealed in December 1824, was more indulgent and released him from his engagement and agreed to let it be known that far from prevaricating, he had ‘relinquished a most important mission from a sense of duty’ and had not prejudiced his future claims. Feeling ‘quite light hearted’, Vesey Fitzgerald acknowledged the handsomeness of Canning’s conduct, and Peel congratulated him on such an ‘advantageous’ outcome.22

On the eve of leaving Ireland for the 1825 session Vesey Fitzgerald concluded a long report to Peel on the state of that country with the observation that ‘everything which I have seen ... confirms me in the impression ... that there is no immediate danger of insurrection or movement among the people’.23 Supporting the unlawful societies bill, 15 Feb., he argued that the Catholic Association were ‘justified in much that they had said and done’ and had been ‘instrumental to a great degree in restoring peace to Ireland’, but had thrown ‘the Protestant mind ... into a state of panic which it would be difficult to describe’. He voted again for the bill, 25 Feb., but presented a hostile petition from Clare Catholics, 1 Mar.,24 before dividing for Catholic relief. He voted for the relief bill, 21 Apr., 10 May, when he endorsed a favourable petition from Galway Protestants; he spoke briefly on a detail of the measure, 6 May. As a member of the select committee on Ireland, he quizzed Daniel O’Connell*, among other witnesses.25 He presented petitions from Sligo, 9 Mar., and Galway, 15 Mar., for the establishment of provincial banks.26 On 22 Mar. he opposed Grattan’s plan to introduce poor laws to Ireland, which would ‘perpetuate its poverty and degrade its population for ever’. He welcomed the appointment of a select committee on the linen trade, to which he was named, 14 Apr., when he concurred in Newport’s motion for leave to introduce a bill to regulate Irish pluralities and episcopal unions, though he put in a word for Wellesley’s efforts to remedy these abuses. He supported items in the Irish miscellaneous estimates, 15 Apr. On 26 Apr. he spoke for the bill to disfranchise Irish 40s. freeholders, irrespective of its connection with Catholic relief, though he would have preferred the qualification to be raised even higher; he was a teller for the majority that day. On 9 May he backed Foster’s attempt to widen its scope as ‘a measure of general reform of the system of voting in Ireland’. He shared Peel’s reservations about Newport’s proposal to prosecute the perpetrators of abuses in Irish charter schools, 9 June, but ‘should be ashamed not to give it his support’ if it was pressed to a division (which it was not). He divided with ministers for the duke of Cumberland’s grant, 30 May, 10 June 1825.

In mid-September Wellesley wrote to Liverpool enthusiastically endorsing Vesey Fitzgerald’s wish to have the Irish peerage conferred on his mother. Nothing was done in December, as Wellesey recommended, and in January 1826 Vesey Fitzgerald, who felt that the viceroy had perhaps overdone things, fretted that Liverpool, ‘the last [man] that ought to forget my family or me’, might cast him aside again. Peel persuaded him to be patient.27 He regretted Peel’s brother-in-law George Dawson’s* attack on O’Connell and Richard Sheil*, as ‘we have hitherto had the gentleman’s advantage over the Catholic Association that the personality was exclusively theirs’.28 He was not much in evidence in the House that session. He presented a petition from the Hibernian Bank Company for a bill to amend their Act, 16 Feb.29 He opposed Grattan’s amendment to the Irish church rates bill to empower vestries to assess parishes for poor relief, 27 Apr. He voted against reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 13 Apr., and Lord John Russell’s resolution condemning electoral bribery, 26 May 1826, when he presented a Clare petition against alteration of the currency.30 He gleefully accepted Liverpool’s offer of the ‘high’ and ‘gentlemanlike’ office of paymaster-general in the minor reshuffle at the dissolution, and was additionally delighted by the conferring of the Irish peerage on his mother. A few technical hitches caused him anxiety, but he came in unopposed for his county and all was settled by the end of July 1826.31

Vesey Fitzgerald justified the size of the estimates, 19 Feb. 1827. He was a teller for the ministerial majority on the Clarences’ annuity bill, 8 Mar. He voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and presented favourable Clare parish petitions, 16 Mar.32 On 15 Mar. he replied to Burdett’s attack on Peel’s jocular allusions to Peregrine Pickle and Roderick Random in the debate on Leicester corporation, whose critics, he suggested, had like Smollett ‘shown more of the novel writer and the political pamphleteer, than of the liberal and impartial narrator of events’. He presented a Clare millers’ petition for restrictions on the importation of foreign flour, 19 Mar.33 In the ministerial crisis which followed Liverpool’s stroke O’Connell tried to force Vesey Fitzgerald to side with Canning and the pro-Catholics by threatening to make a run at him in Clare if he went with Peel. After consulting his friend and pondering for a while, he accepted Canning’s offer to retain him in his office in his new coalition ministry, though it was reported in June that Canning was already keen to ditch him.34 He supported the grant for the new harbour at Dun Laoghaire, 11 May, and presented a Clare landowners’ petition for reform of the system of grand jury presentments, 23 May;35 he was named to the select committee on this, 6 June. He divided with his colleagues against the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May, and for the grant for Canadian canals, 12 June. On the Preston election bill, 14 June, he observed that the example of countries where the secret ballot was used showed that it was ‘not free from influence and by no means favourable to liberty’. After returning from Canning’s funeral, 16 Aug. 1827, Vesey Fitzgerald reflected that he had ‘died fortunately for his own fame’, before insuperable difficulties had overwhelmed him.36 He remained in office under Lord Goderich, whose situation he did ‘not envy’; and on the ignominious collapse of his administration he lamented the ‘melancholy’ state in which he had left national affairs:

God knows in these times neither office or power are much the objects of ambition. In the difficulties of the country, it would be ... to be wished perhaps that the Whigs had been tried for a couple of months. The task of their successors would be more easy.37

He stayed in under Wellington, pleased to be reunited in office with Peel, on whom he unsuccessfully urged his brother Henry the dean of Kilmore’s claims to preferment.38

On the address, 31 Jan. 1828, Vesey Fitzgerald praised Admiral Codrington for his victory at Navarino and, on Ireland, defended the new ministry’s leaving the Catholic question as an open one within the cabinet. ‘As a Protestant and proprietor of landed property’, he presented and endorsed several Irish pro-Catholic petitions, 4, 5, 7, 25 Feb., 7 May, and voted silently for relief, 12 May. He divided against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and two days later came to Peel’s defence over his premature exit from the debate. He was appointed to the finance committee, 15 Feb., and to the select committee on Irish education, 11 Mar. He acquiesced in the granting of leave for Grattan’s Irish assessment of lessors bill, 20 Mar., though he thought it would need alteration. On the East Retford issue next day he favoured sluicing the borough with the freeholders of Bassetlaw. He supported the life annuities repeal bill, 25 Mar. He spoke in favour of the Hibernian Company bill, 22, 24 Apr., when he was in the government majority against inquiry into chancery delays. On 28 Apr. he denied a radical allegation that he and other Irish Members had persuaded ministers to have the corn averages calculated at Irish ports. He deplored the ‘warmth of feeling’ which entered the debate on provision for Canning’s family, 14 May, when he praised Canning’s ‘talents ... zeal and ... earnestness’; he spoke in the same sense, 22 May. On the 16th he vindicated the finance committee in reply to Hume’s strictures. He presented and supported a petition from resident Irish aristocrats and gentry for a grant of money to employ the starving poor. He defended details of the Irish estimates, 10 June 1828.

In mid-May Lord Ellenborough, anticipating the resignation of Huskisson and his associates from the ministry, noted a view that of their possible replacements Vesey Fitzgerald was ‘the cleverest and is useful, but he is unpopular, and would rather discredit a government’.39 He was on a flying visit to Ireland to comfort his ailing father when Peel notified him, 28 May, that Wellington (who had decided against his original plan to offer him the secretaryship at war) wished him to replace the formidable Huskisson as president of the board of trade, with a seat in the cabinet. He came over and, though fearful that he would, as he told Peel, ‘disappoint you and others in such an office’, considering his ‘own little competency’ for it, decided to accept and to ‘do my best’.40 According to Lord Colchester, ‘everybody’ disapproved of the appointment, which was generally thought to be Peel’s doing.41 The Huskissonite Lord Palmerston* commented that Vesey Fitzgerald was ‘unpopular in the House of Commons and though a clever man and able speaker doers not hit the House, as Burke said, between wind and water’.42 He had to seek re-election for Clare, where O’Connell was persuaded to stand against him and, in a sensational and significant contest, easily defeated him, with the backing of the Catholic Association, the priests and a mass subscription.43 Advised by Peel not to rise to the bait of his traducers, he delivered an even tempered but occasionally tearful valedictory speech; but he told Peel that ‘no one can contemplate without alarm what is to follow in this wretched country’. In cabinet, 15 July, he ‘gave an awful account of the state of Ireland’ and argued unsuccessfully for O’Connell to be unseated for refusing to take the oaths and for legislation to declare Catholics to be ineligible to sit in Parliament.44

He was apparently offered a seat for Aldeburgh by his friend Lord Hertford; but in mid-August he found that Wellington had arranged his return for Tralee, whose sitting Member had recently died.45 However, this arrangement fell through, and he was without a seat for nine months. He was already panicking about his ability to cope with his office and asked Peel to try to secure his removal to the board of control, the business of which he would be able to do ‘respectably’:

The subjects [of trade] are so new to me, the details so difficult and complicated, the responsibility so great and my own sense of inferiority so painful when I have to communicate with the persons who represent different interests, and my consciousness, my conviction that I shall not acquit myself to my own satisfaction, to yours, or the duke’s when I come to treat these points in public, are so intense that if ... I might be transferred ... I should feel not only gratified and obliged but I should be relieved from what is at times almost an agony of mind.

After consulting Wellington, who thought it essential that the head of the board of trade should be in the Commons, Peel told him that ‘he ought to remain where he is [and] that having held the office of chancellor of the exchequer in Ireland he must be conversant with the business generally of the board of trade’.46

Vesey Fitzgerald, who considered Dawson’s pro-Catholic speech at Londonderry, 12 Aug. 1828, ‘very bold and imprudent’, but likely to have a good ‘moral effect’, was closely involved in the cabinet’s deliberations on how to deal with the crisis in Ireland and corresponded at length with Peel on the problem. Yet according to Von Neumann, he complained in November that it was ‘particularly embarrassing for the government in view of the divergence of opinion which it had produced in the cabinet’, who had already ‘allowed matters to go too far’.47 Ellenborough observed on 24 Dec. 1828 that in cabinet he ‘expresses himself well ... takes a good deal of part, and does everything in a very gentlemanlike and unassuming manner’; but a week later Mrs. Arbuthnot wrote that Wellington

can’t bear Mr. Fitzgerald who, he says, is an ill tempered, ill conditioned blackguard with whom it is quite disagreeable to him to be in society with. I think, if the consideration of the Catholic question is put off, it will be a great consolation to the duke if it frees him of Mr. Fitzgerald, who is always dissatisfied, always wanting to change his office and always talking of going. He says now he must go if the Catholics are not satisfied this session; but, when the time comes, he won’t go, I’ll answer for it.48

After Lord Anglesey’s recall as viceroy, which he blamed on his own ‘vanity’, Vesey Fitzgerald entreated Peel to urge caution on Wellington, whom he considered to be surrounded by incompetent advisers. Ellenborough found him ‘rather Irish’ in cabinet, 21 Jan. 1829, when, because he ‘hates the 40s. freeholders who ousted him’, he argued for ‘giving a pecuniary provision for the clergy’. He was one of the committee of four charged with the task of drafting a measure to control the freeholders to complement the concession of Catholic emancipation, and he did not shy away from their ‘open disfranchisement’.49 In the small hours of 7 Mar. he wrote to congratulate Peel on his speech detailing the government’s plans, which he was sure had thereby been ‘absolutely accomplished’.50 His hopes of a seat for Sandwich were dashed, but in early March Wellington persuaded the duke of Northumberland, the new Irish lord lieutenant, to bring him in for his Cornish borough of Newport for the remainder of the session.51 He was returned on the 20th, was sworn in on the 23rd and the following day, after hinting at his proposals to deal with the distressed silk trade, spoke on a detail of the Catholic relief bill. He opposed passionately and at length a Protestant attempt to try to extend the franchise bill to the Irish boroughs, deploring such vindictiveness as a threat to the stability of the settlement and disclaiming any personal resentment of his ejection from Clare, though he admitted that he had felt it ‘deeply’. Towards the close of the debate on the third reading of the relief bill, 30 Mar., he replied vigorously and effectively, witnesses thought, to the Ultra Sadler’s ‘lucubrations on the state of Ireland’.52 On 6 Apr. he presented but dissented from a petition from distressed Coventry ribbon manufacturers against any reduction in the silk duties; and on the 13th, opposing Fyler’s motion for inquiry into the trade, set out his plan to lower them. The matter had caused him anxiety in the preparation, but the Whig Member Agar Ellis thought his speech showed ‘considerable ability’.53 He pressed the measure through to its third reading, 8 May. On the 11th he dismissed the notion of re-imposing a protecting duty on foreign wool imports. He opposed reception of a petition from the inhabitants of Upper Canada against the pending administrative legislation, 14 May, when he gave an assurance that ministers contemplated no further interference with the corn laws, replied sharply to Hume’s attack over the East Indian trade monopoly and, explaining his proposals for the customs duties, lost his temper with ‘Bum’ Gordon, whom he accused of ‘pointing out to me my duty, of which I am able to judge sufficiently well myself’. He was also irritable when denying ministerial indifference to the problems of the shipping interest, 19 May. He resisted Hume’s motion for a fixed duty on corn that day, and on 2 June 1829 deplored Fyler’s apparent linking of the recent Spitalfelds weavers’ riots with the rejection of his motion for inquiry. He also refused to countenance the continuance of fishery bounties beyond the current financial year. Soon afterwards the Whig Lord Althorp*, commenting on ministerial weakness in Commons debate, observed that Vesey Fitzgerald, ‘though sharp and clever, offended everybody by his ill-temper, his violence and vulgarity’.54 His generous speeches of March had encouraged O’Connell to seek a compromise whereby if he was allowed to take his seat for Clare unimpeded he would not oppose him next time; but the House’s rejection of his claim to sit, which forced him to stand again, hardened his heart, and he made it clear that it would be ‘folly’ in Vesey Fitzgerald to contest the issue.55 It was thought in mid-May 1829 that he could be found another seat, but in the event he remained Member for Newport, with Northumberland’s blessing.56

At the close of the session Greville, noting that the ‘great want’ of the administration was ‘that of men of sufficient information and capacity to direct the complicated machinery of our trade and finances and adjust our colonial differences’, observed that Vesey Fitzgerald ‘knows nothing of the business of his office, still less of the principles of trade; he is idle but quick’.57 Curiously, the Ultra leader Sir Richard Vyvyan considered him as a potential member of a coalition ministry, but his ally Sir Edward Knatchbull scoffed at the idea, arguing that he would ‘stick to the duke’.58 So too thought Palmerston, who had ‘a very indifferent opinion of his morale, although he certainly is a clever man’.59 In early October Vesey Fitzgerald gave the cabinet ‘bad’ accounts of Ireland and the state of ‘trade generally’, and later in the month at Sudbourne talked ‘a great deal of politics’ with Mrs. Arbuthnot, apparently complaining as ‘usual’ of Peel’s ‘coldness and bad management’ of the Commons and ‘thinking of nothing but getting the Huskisson party back’; for this she deemed him ‘a most miserable coward’.60 He was by now nearing the end of his tether, and in late November, when he was ill, he begged Peel to secure if possible his ‘release from a position in which I shall disappoint and embarrass you all, as well as disparage myself’, though he expressed willingness to soldier on if necessary. Peel tried to calm him down, but in December Vesey Fitzgerald, who complained to Greville of the king’s reckless extravagance and his own wretched health, which made it almost impossible to carry on the business of an office whose remit had been increased by Huskisson, confessed that ‘I feel every day more terrified at the responsibility’. Peel advised him to attend to his diet and take regular exercise; but a week later he threw himself on Peel’s mercy:

I feel my health seriously impaired, my sight is very much affected, and ... my spirits are depressed to a degree that I am unwilling to confess ... I fall almost daily into a state of nervousness which not only incapacitates me for doing my daily duties, but which is made more distressing by the anxiety which my office imposes, and the tremendous responsibility which hangs upon me ... I am ... deeply sensible of what will be my situation when Parliament meets, and when the pressure on my brain will break me down.61

In January 1830, when he apparently suffered an ‘apoplectic seizure’, he resigned his office, despite Wellington’s attempt to make him reconsider, and, on doctor’s orders, decided to stay away from Parliament for the whole of the approaching session.62 Croker, who half suspected him of malingering, until Peel disabused him, thought that his nervous collapse had been produced by ‘a sensitive delicacy about being pitted against O’Connell’ in debate.63 The Whigs recognized his departure from the scene as a blow to the government’s debating prowess in the Commons and ‘a great loss to Peel’ in particular. Thomas Spring Rice* was generous: ‘his conduct at the board of trade was in all respects admirable, and his zeal for the interests of Ireland was equalled by a knowledge of the actual condition of that country not possessed by any other member of the cabinet’.64

The Irish secretary Lord Francis Leveson Gower reported from London, 5 Feb. 1830, that Vesey Fitzgerald’s ‘unfortunate dejection at this moment is irreparable’.65 He was in better shape by early April, when he thought ministers should take ‘a very high tone’ against Jewish emancipation.66 Next month he went to Paris (where Ellenborough thought he hankered to be British ambassador) and he was kept abreast of political developments at home by Croker.67 After the death of George IV he told Peel:

If an election takes place I suppose I ought to go over instantly, for I shall have an arrangement to make of some kind if I am not willing perhaps to be excluded from the House of Commons. At all events perhaps I ought to be over, and to pay my duty to the king. I have no ambition but I do not like being altogether on the shelf.68

Soon afterwards Ellenborough, who wished ‘he was well and could come into office again’, heard from Sir Henry Hardinge* that he ‘seems eager about politics’. He went to London in late July, when Greville found him ‘aware of the difficulties’ of the ministry ‘and the necessity of [their] acquiring more strength’.69 At the general election he found a berth for Lostwithiel on Lord Mount Edgcumbe’s interest. There was pressure on him to ‘return to office’, but his health and nerve were not up to it and he went back to France at the end of August 1830.70 He was unwell in Paris in early September when Wellington formally invited him to rejoin the cabinet, but he declined, even though he knew that he was damaging his future prospects.71 He vacated Lostwithiel at the end of 1830. A report that he would be nominated for county Clare at the by-election in late March 1831 came to nothing.72 At the general election a month later he returned himself for Ennis. He was in the House to oppose the printing of a Glasgow Protestants’ petition against the Maynooth grant, 19 July, and to present one from Galway Catholics for equal treatment with Protestants in the exercise of the local franchise, 18 Aug. He paired against the passage of the Grey ministry’s English reform bill, 21 Sept. 1831. He became the first lord lieutenant of county Clare that autumn, having ‘behaved very well about it’, as the Irish secretary Edward Smith Stanley thought.73 He was named to the select committee on Irish tithes, 15 Dec. 1831, but observed to Peel from Clare a week later that ‘the course which the government are taking makes the matter hopeless’.74 His mother’s death in January 1832 made him an Irish peer and so ineligible to continue sitting for Ennis. He did not come in elsewhere, though he was one of the Conservatives’ Irish election management committee.75

The following year, still in ‘miserable health’, Vesey Fitzgerald sought Wellington’s support for his pretensions to an Irish representative peerage, ‘now the only door which is likely to be opened for my entering either House’. The duke, who rebuked him for his almost indecipherable handwriting, eventually persuaded the leading Irish Conservatives to support him on the second vacancy, after Lord Bandon.76 He was noted by Wellington as a candidate for diplomatic office when Peel formed his ministry in December 1834. He was disappointed to be passed over (‘without any good cause’, as Peel thought, having actually turned down an offer), but was appeased with a United Kingdom peerage, two weeks before the death of his father.77 He was not initially included in Peel’s 1841 cabinet, but when Ellenborough vacated the board of control to go to India in October he was brought in. The outgoing Whig prime minister Lord Melbourne described him to Queen Victoria as

a very able public man ... if not the most able they have; but [I am] told by others, who know ... [him] better, that ... [I overrate] him. He is a very good speaker, he has not naturally much industry, and his health is bad, which will probably disable him from a very close and assiduous attention to business.78

He was poorly in the spring of 1842, recovered briefly, but fell mortally ill with ‘a liver complaint’ on 5 May 1843. He lingered in severe distress until his death at his house in Belgrave Square in the early hours of the 11th.79 His private secretary recorded his last conversation with him ‘upon public matters’ on the 10th: ‘I have no reason to be ashamed of my character, or conduct as a public man. After Lord Castlereagh I was the first Irishman who succeeded in obtaining a seat in the cabinet’.80 Greville, who noted that ‘he never ought to have taken office, for his constitution was unequal to its anxieties and fatigues, and he was too nervous, excitable, and susceptible for the wear and tear of political life’, was flattering in his assessment:

He is a great loss in all ways, and few men could be more generally regretted. He was clever, well-informed, and agreeable, fond of society, living on good terms with people of all parties, and universally popular. He was liberal in his opinions, honourable, fair, and conciliatory ... His death is a public misfortune.81

An anonymous writer took a more sober view:

[He was] considered a good man of business and was greatly esteemed in private life, but it never could be said that his talents or qualifications as a statesmen were of the highest order; still ... they were of that efficient and useful character which makes his loss as a minister, though not irreparable, much to be regretted.82

Another described him as ‘a man of accomplished understanding, graceful in manners, and intelligent in office’, and ‘a very interesting speaker upon occasions, less forcible than finished, and less declamatory than pointed’.83 His British peerage became extinct and he was succeeded in the Irish barony by his brother Henry, on whose death in 1860 it lapsed. By his will of 23 Aug. 1838 he left his estates in Clare to Henry and directed that the rents of his property in Galway should accumulate for the benefit of Henry’s eldest son. (Henry died without male issue and the ultimate beneficiaries were the families of their married sisters Lady Mahon and Letitia Foster.) He gave one Mary Ann Pineau a life annuity of £150 in addition to one of £50 which she received from his father. He left his recently purchased Croagh estate in Limerick to his bastard son William Robert Seymour Vesey Fitzgerald (1816-85), Conservative Member for Horsham, 1848, 1852-65, 1874-5, and governor of Bombay, 1866-72.84 His personalty, which William Robert shared with his illegitimate sister, was sworn under £30,000 in England and under £120,000 in Ireland.85

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher

Notes

  • 1. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 756-7; NLI mss 7857, p. 82, Vesey Fitzgerald to Vandeleur, 19 Mar. 1819.
  • 2. NLI mss 7857, p. 267, Vesey Fitzgerald to Castlereagh, 30 Oct. 1819; 7858, pp. 120, 134, Strangford to Vesey Fitzgerald, 6 Jan., Vesey Fitzgerald to Massey, 24 May 1820.
  • 3. NLI mss 7858, p. 42.
  • 4. Ibid. pp. 13, 58, 68, Vesey Fitzgerald to Massey, 15 Feb., to Egremont [Mar.], Hickman to Vesey Fitzgerald, 19 Feb. 1820.
  • 5. Ibid. p. 120, Vesey Fitzgerald to Massey, 24 May 1820.
  • 6. Add. 52444, f. 151.
  • 7. NLI mss 7859, p. 158; Add. 40322, f. 1.
  • 8. NLI mss 7859, pp. 109, 216, Vesey Fitzgerald to Wade, 25 May 1821, 28 Mar. 1822; Add. 40322, f. 8; 40345, ff. 187, 188.
  • 9. The Times, 20, 21, 28 June, 2, 3, 6 July 1822.
  • 10. Add. 40322, f. 16.
  • 11. Add. 38743, f. 192.
  • 12. Add. 40350, f. 248.
  • 13. Add. 40319, f. 57.
  • 14. Add. 40304, ff. 98, 100.
  • 15. Add. 38744, f. 21; 40304, f. 223; Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 417.
  • 16. Add. 40322, ff. 35, 37.
  • 17. Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 250, 252.
  • 18. Add. 40304, ff. 218, 223; 40322, ff. 42, 60; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 295.
  • 19. PRO NI, Wellington mss T2627/3/2/296, Wellington to Mrs. Arbuthnot, 25 Mar. 1824.
  • 20. Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 8 Apr. [1824].
  • 21. Buckingham, ii. 113; Add. 40322, ff. 46, 56, 64, 80, 86.
  • 22. Add. 40322, ff. 88, 98, 103, 111.
  • 23. Add. 40322, f. 113.
  • 24. The Times, 2 Mar. 1825.
  • 25. O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1176.
  • 26. The Times, 10, 16 Mar. 1825.
  • 27. Add. 37303, f. 239; 40322, ff. 133, 139.
  • 28. Add. 40322. f. 140.
  • 29. The Times, 17 Feb. 1826.
  • 30. Ibid. 27 May 1826.
  • 31. Add. 37304, ff. 137, 141; 40322, ff. 146, 148, 152, 158, 160, 163; Colchester Diary, iii. 436.
  • 32. The Times, 17 Mar. 1827.
  • 33. Ibid. 20 Mar. 1827.
  • 34. O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1364; Lansdowne mss, O’Connell to Knight of Kerry, 24 Apr. 1827; Add. 40322, ff. 169, 171; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 128.
  • 35. The Times, 12, 24 May 1827.
  • 36. Add. 40322, f. 181.
  • 37. Add. 40322, ff. 173, 188, 194, 197, 215, 227.
  • 38. Add. 40322, ff. 233, 235, 241.
  • 39. Ellenborough Diary, i. 107.
  • 40. Wellington mss WP1/980/30; Add. 40322, ff. 247, 249, 252; Ellenborough Diary, i. 125, 144.
  • 41. Colchester Diary, iii. 569; Creevey Pprs. ii. 160; TNA 30/29/9/5/71.
  • 42. Southampton Univ. Lib. Broadlands mss PP/GC/TE/201.
  • 43. Add. 40322, ff. 263, 265, 270; Ellenborough Diary, i. 153, 157; O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1463, 1466; Colchester Diary, iii. 577; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 196-7; The Times, 7, 9, 10 July 1828. See COUNTY CLARE.
  • 44. Add. 40322, ff. 268, 270; Clare Jnl. 7 July 1828; Wellington mss WP1/941/12; Ellenborough Diary, i. 162-3.
  • 45. Add. 40322, f. 278.
  • 46. Add. 40322, f. 278; Wellington mss WP1/948/3.
  • 47. Greville Mems. i. 219-20, 283-5; Ellenborough Diary, i. 200, 203, 230; Grey mss, Ellice to Grey [1828]; Add. 40322, ff. 303, 310, 320, 328, 329, 331, 337, 341, 378; Von Neumann Diary, i. 193-4.
  • 48. Ellenborough Diary, i. 283; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 229-30.
  • 49. Add. 40323, ff. 7, 12, 15, 31; Greville Mems. i. 231-2; Ellenborough Diary, i. 307, 347-8, 349-50, 358.
  • 50. Add. 40323, f. 38.
  • 51. Arbuthnot Corresp. 116; Wellington mss WP1/1002/18, 20; 1007/11, 12.
  • 52. Croker Pprs. ii. 12; Brougham mss, Abercromby to Brougham [31 Mar. 1829]; Dorset RO D/BKL, Bankes jnl. 166.
  • 53. Add. 40323, f. 42; Agar Ellis diary, 13 Apr. [1829].
  • 54. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 285.
  • 55. Greville Mems. i. 287; O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1474; iv. 1552, 1555a, 1569, 1577, 1584, 1586.
  • 56. Wellington mss WP1/1018/22; 1022/10.
  • 57. Greville Mems. i. 225, 228.
  • 58. Cornw. RO, Vyvyan mss, Knatchbull to Vyvyan, 26 Aug., reply, 31 Aug. 1829.
  • 59. Broadlands mss BR23AA/5/6.
  • 60. Ellenborough Diary, ii. 102, 108; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 311-12, 316.
  • 61. Add. 40323, ff. 50, 56, 58, 81, 84; Greville Mems. i. 345-6.
  • 62. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1628a; Creevey Pprs. ii. 147; Greville Mems. i. 350, 352-3; Wellington mss WP1/988/16; 1083/13, 15; 1084/20; 1087/24; 1091/12; Ellenborough Diary, ii. 158, 169; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 323-4, 328; Grey mss, Ellice to Grey [18 Jan. 1830].
  • 63. Croker Pprs. ii. 55; Add. 40320, ff. 143, 145.
  • 64. Add. 51534, T. Grenville to Holland, 14 Jan.; 51580, Carlisle to same, 7 Jan.; 51586, Tierney to Lady Holland, 5, 8 Jan. 1830; NLS mss 24770, f. 39; Torrens, Melbourne, i. 327-8.
  • 65. NAI, Leveson Gower letterbks. 23. G. 39/4.
  • 66. Add. 40323, f. 106.
  • 67. Croker Pprs. ii. 57-69; Add. 40323, ff. 115, 124, 134, 144, 153; Ellenborough Diary, ii. 259.
  • 68. Add. 40322, f. 157.