BARRINGTON, William Wildman, 2nd Visct. Barrington [I] (1717-93), of Beckett, Berks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



13 Mar. 1740 - 1754
1754 - 24 May 1778

Family and Education

b. 15 Jan. 1717, 1st s. of John, 1st Visct. Barrington [I], M.P., of Beckett by Anne, da. and coh. of William Daines, M.P. educ. under James Graham,1 schoolmaster at Dalston, Mdx.; Geneva 1735-8. m. 16 Sept. 1740, Mary, da. and coh. of Henry Lovell of Northampton, wid. of Hon. Samuel Grimston, s.p.s. suc. fa. 14 Dec. 1734.

Offices Held

Ld. of Admiralty Feb. 1746-Apr. 1754; master of the great wardrobe Apr. 1754-Oct. 1755; P.C. 11 Mar. 1755; sec. at war Oct. 1755-Mar. 1761; chancellor of the Exchequer Mar. 1761-May 1762; treasurer of navy June 1762-July 1765; sec. at war July 1765-Dec. 1778; jt. postmaster gen. Jan.-Apr. 1782.


In spite of ‘a lisp and a tedious precision that prejudiced one against him’, Horace Walpole named Barrington in 1755 among the 28 best speakers in the Commons,2 and Newcastle among the half-dozen of the ‘good second rank’ on the Government side.3 In March 1754, ‘in return for eight years of laborious and useful service both in office and in Parliament’,4 he applied to Newcastle for a place at the Treasury, but when told that the King had destined him for master of the great wardrobe, said ‘that he got more than he had solicited, expected, or deserved; and should never ask for any other employment’. He kept to this resolution: hardly another office-holder accepted with such good humour whatever was offered him; and he is almost unique among men of his rank during this period in never asking for a British peerage.

At Berwick Barrington was at loggerheads with Thomas Watson, the Government manager; and after a good deal of strenuous ‘parliamenteering’, in October 1753 he ‘gauged wisely to give up with them’.5 Next he tried Bristol, which his father-in-law had represented and where Barrington had influential kinsmen ‘powerfully seconded by the mob’;6 again, however, he found it advisable to decline. He then applied for an Admiralty borough, but when assigned Saltash,7 wrote to Pelham that he would ‘rather be chosen at Plymouth’ as it was ‘the cheapest, a consideration of some weight to a man who has already spent more to lose, than it ever cost him to carry, an election; and whose estate is under settlement, and burthened with jointures’. Moreover,

Plymouth affords business to its representative, and requires some nicety in the management of it; though I have been unfortunate at Berwick, I have still the vanity to think, that few sea officers understand the management of an interest in a corporation so well as myself.

When Barrington was moved from the Admiralty to the great wardrobe, one of his chief Plymouth supporters wrote to him, 2 Apr. 1754:

I congratulate you on the high dignity conferred by his Majesty on your Lordship and am sensible how much it will be in your power, both as to the corporation as well as particulars to favour them.
It will make no variation to our sentiments, as the borough is truly loyal, and from our knowledge of your Lordship, as well as the interest we have always espoused of the Admiralty.8

His election was unopposed, and so were all his re-elections. Masses of correspondence among his papers testify to his exertions on behalf of the borough and its electors (‘Things done for people at Plymouth’); and so does a rebuke from Sandwich in 1774: ‘I cannot acquiesce in their [the corporation] recommending to all employments that fall vacant at Plymouth ... I must be allowed to be the proper judge what proportion of that favour is due to them.’9 Barrington’s sailor brother Samuel wrote to him from Plymouth, 9 Aug. 1771: ‘I need not tell you what you already know, how much your constituents adore you.’

In September 1755 Newcastle picked Barrington, ‘the most declared friend of mine’, for the War Office, without Cumberland being consulted.10 But Barrington gradually gained the favour of Cumberland who on 11 July 1762 signs himself in a letter to him ‘your very affectionate friend’.11

When the Devonshire-Pitt Government was being formed, Temple wrote to Pitt, 9 Nov. 1756: ‘Ellis the King will not make secretary at war, preferring Barrington.’12 There followed years of extreme application to departmental duties: a competent executive, and self-confident within a comparatively narrow range but also acutely conscious of his own limitations, and no longer ambitious, Barrington shunned prominence. Not a strong personality, certainly no leader, he became submerged in his work. Still, though rather colourless and well-nigh anonymous, he was not ‘flimsy and contemptible’, fawning and servile, or ‘little minded’, descriptions attached to him by Horace Walpole and Fox. He repeatedly declared the principle on which he acted (more consonant with the avowed ideas of the period than party): he thought ‘support of Government a duty, while an honest man could support it’.13 From loyalty to his father he had attacked his father’s enemy; but he was not cut out for opposition: by nature and choice he was a civil servant rather than a politician. He served the King and did his work; he was loyal and attentive to his friends, and much concerned never to lose one; and he looked after the interests of those in his charge, showing sympathy for officers without money or patrons to secure them promotion—‘the poor, though deserving officer, should always find at the War Office a constant assertor of his rights, and a faithful guardian of his interests’.14 He would not accept recommendations of army surgeons from colonels, or even from the commander-in-chief or Newcastle—‘None but medical men’, he wrote to H. S. Conway on 8 June 1759, ‘can judge of medical men; and, in my opinion, it would be as preposterous to take the character of a surgeon from a colonel, as of an officer from the hospital board.’15 He carefully scrutinized the financial demands of influential colonels—‘You threaten me with the House of Commons’, he wrote to Burgoyne on 27 Oct. 1759, ‘... This is not the way to influence me, and I am ready to give an account of my conduct, where ever any man has a right to question it.’16 He put an absolute negative to Peter Taylor, a crook employed by Fox and favoured by Calcraft, when the Duke of Marlborough wanted to take him as commissary of stores on the expedition against Cherbourg and St. Malo. During his eighteen years at the War Office he struggled against the worst abuses of the prevailing system. When refusing a request of Lt.-Gen. Elliott on behalf of his son, he wrote on 25 Nov. 1767:17

... what is once done innocently, will be often repeated inconveniently; especially in a country like this, with some hundred unreasonable Parliament men, supported by unreasonable but powerful patrons. Many years of my life have been spent in warfare against these gentlemen: and whenever I have success, it arises entirely from an invariable adherence to good general rules, without admitting one single exception.

When in 1776 he begged the King’s leave to retire from the service, he stated as one of his reasons that ‘conversation and correspondence with persons unreasonably soliciting military favours’ had become too great a strain on his ‘temper and civility’. It was the care which Barrington gave to the interests of the army that probably made George II and George III give preference to him when choosing a secretary at war.

By 1759 Charles Townshend was a claimant to the War Office. On 14 Dec. 1760 Newcastle, fearing lest Bute, to secure Townshend, should sacrifice Barrington, wrote in his notes for a conference with Bute:18 ‘Lord Barrington is undoubtedly in all respects the best secretary at war that ever was, and a most steady and useful friend of mine in that office, and of great service to my friends.’ Barrington, when shifted to the Exchequer, wrote to Andrew Mitchell, 23 Mar. 1761: ‘my reason tells me it would have been more proper to have given me an employment of less consequence’; but his ‘invariable rule’ was ‘to ask nothing, to refuse nothing, to let others place me, and to do my best wherever I am placed’.19 On Pitt’s resignation in October 1761, Barrington wrote to him,20 as he did to other friends on their leaving office; Pitt replied, after five years’ close co-operation with him in wartime:21

I should certainly have had a particular pleasure in embracing you in a moment, when meeting as private friends only, I wished to renew to your Lordship the sincere assurances of esteem and affectionate regard for one I have known so long, and whose candour and honourable proceeding in all situations I truly value and applaud.

When Newcastle resigned in May 1762, his request to his friends to remain at court enabled Barrington to accept the treasurership of the navy, and combine attendance at Bute’s levees with frequent visits to Claremont. But when after Devonshire’s dismissal Newcastle was calling on his friends to resign, and Bute, pressed by Fox,22 summoned Barrington (4 Nov.)23 in order to inquire about his ‘present way of thinking’, Barrington replied that both his principles and inclinations induced him to support Government—

which I had invariably done for seventeen years, ever since I had been in office, though I had sometimes disliked particular men and measures. That early in life I set out in opposition; but left it being sensible of the public mischiefs which it occasioned. That I did not say I would never oppose; but that I never would without very strong reason, and without resigning my employment.

Nor would he resign ‘merely because others did, for that was faction’. Catechized on the subject of Newcastle, he declared he would defend him against all persons, and bear testimony to his ‘disinterested zeal for his King and country’, but felt not obliged to follow him when wrong.

From Bute Barrington went to Newcastle, who did not at first take kindly to the line adopted by Barrington; but assurances that where he was personally concerned Barrington ‘would ever defend him to the utmost against all men, at all times’ no doubt favourably affected Newcastle’s anxious mind;24 and Barrington kept his promise.25 ‘I never doubted your support and assistance whenever the measures should be attacked whether in your time, or before’, wrote Newcastle to him on 12 Oct. 1763.26‘The Duke of Newcastle continues to treat me with friendship and kindness’, Barrington wrote to Lord Buckinghamshire on 17 Dec. 1762.27 And on 9 May 1764:28 ‘My old patron and friend the Duke of Newcastle ... I have seen ... often this last winter, and Abdiel as I am, have always been kindly received.’

After the crisis of August 1763 Halifax told Barrington that he had been proscribed by Pitt but that the King would not have him removed. Barrington thereupon wrote a letter on 1 Sept. ‘to be delivered by Lord Halifax to the King’29 begging him ‘to deem the treasurership vacant’ for his disposal.

What I would not resign at the summons of faction, I can most cheerfully give up at the call of duty. I am not tired of being in your Majesty’s service, of which I am extremely proud: I am not disgusted with office, which is very agreeable, and though not necessary, convenient to me ... While your conveniency permits, I am happy to continue your servant; when it requires that my office should be in other hands, I should be miserable if it remained in mine.

The King replied that ‘he should never see it with the same pleasure in any other hands’.30 There is a great deal of selfconscious virtue in Barrington’s letters or declarations—which does not prove them insincere: the eighteenth century revelled in tears of self-approbation.

When the Rockingham Administration ‘was forming’, in July 1765, Barrington went out of London—‘that I might not appear more solicitous about remaining in office than ... I really am’;31 did not return till the 17th when things were settled; and went to the King’s levee without knowing what was intended for him; again declared that he was devoted solely and personally to the King, and, in or out of office, would support any Administration he chose to appoint; and begged the King to dispose of his place if this would help to accommodate matters. But the King wanted Barrington ‘again about his person, as secretary at war’. Barrington replied that he had ‘not the least objection to return to the War Office’, ‘never preferred one employment to another’, and would do his duty wherever placed; but would not accept anything ‘which did not come directly from his Majesty and was not held solely under him’.

Next Barrington entreated the King not to believe reports to his disadvantage—

that if he heard I frequented men under his displeasure, and possibly hereafter in opposition, he would hear truth for I should never give up intimacies with men I had loved from my early youth because they were out of employment; but I entreated him never to believe any conclusions drawn from thence of my being in political concert or connexion with them. In like manner, that he would discredit all reports of another kind that I was in any cabals of his court because I frequented old friends of mine who were now come there, and with whom I had always lived in amity even while they were in an opposition I had disapproved. I assured the King that I detested faction equally in and out of court, and would never have anything to do with it.

He kissed hands on the 19th, and only after that communicated with Newcastle and Rockingham.

One curious feature of the transaction is that while an Administration was being formed for the King by Cumberland, the War Office was hardly mentioned.  A question to Rockingham on 12 July32—‘Pray, does my Lord Barrington accept the secretary at war?’—is all that appears about it in Newcastle’s voluminous documentation of those weeks. Probably Barrington, by whomever suggested, was readily accepted: a civil service rather than a political appointment. Under the Rockinghams, however, he for once voted against the Government on a major issue: over the repeal of the Stamp Act, 22 Feb. 1766; and yet this provoked no indignant discussions among the ministers, but presumably was accepted as the conscientious vote of an individual. For Barrington held strong views on America, as seen, e.g., in his ‘Plan for the West’, of 10 May 1766.33 He proposed withdrawing a number of military outposts—‘is it proper that this nation should be at such charge for that purpose, when the Americans contribute nothing to the maintenance ...?’ The country westward ‘was intended to be a desert for the Indians to hunt in and inhabit’; they fight only when wronged; ‘we find no opposition there except from our own subjects’; which could best be countered by concentrating most of the troops in Nova Scotia: ‘probably the insolence of their conduct last year proceeded from a knowledge that it was impossible to assemble such a force as might constrain them to duty and obedience.’

When Chatham replaced the Rockinghams, Barrington in a letter to him welcomed ‘the happy prospect now opening’.34 ‘Barrington they say is to stay by virtue of his pliability’, wrote John Yorke to Hardwicke on 24 July 1766.35 So he did: again apparently without discussion or controversy.36

When, on the death of Charles Townshend, North at first refused the Exchequer, Grafton offered it to Barrington, who felt hesitant

because I think I am not equal to the station. The office part of the business I have done when it was much more laborious, comprehensive and difficult; but to the parliamentary part (now much more important and nice ...) I am not equal.

Still, if it was necessary for the King’s service he would accept—

having no political connexion with any man, being determined never to form one, and conceiving that in this age the country and its constitution is best served by an unbiased attachment to the Crown, I shall not ... make any terms ... for exchanging a situation which I may reasonably think permanent enough, for one the most precarious in the kingdom.

He could hardly have expressed more clearly his ‘civil service’ conception of his own position. And here is another definition given by him in the Commons on 9 Dec. 1770:37

A secretary at war must obey the King’s orders signified by a secretary of state or resign. The secretary at war is not a Cabinet councillor. He is only a ministerial officer. He is not a proper judge of the propriety of a measure.

Barrington’s extensive correspondence with the King is almost entirely about military matters. But there are two significant letters, 27 and 28 Jan. 1770, in which the King, ‘knowing the opinion Lord North has of your judgment’, asks Barrington to go to North and encourage him to accept the Treasury.

In the House Barrington continued a fairly frequent speaker: during the years covered by James Harris’s reports, November 1761 till April 1766, 34 speeches of his are noted, 109 in the Parliament of 1768-74 (the most fully reported), and 30 from 1774 to 1778. Most of them deal with departmental business (except during the Grenville Administration when he was in less active employment). While at the War Office he increasingly confined himself to the military field; in 1771 he strongly opposed the bill to assist the East India Company in raising military forces; but in 1773 defended the behaviour of its military officers including Clive; as also the military management of the St. Vincent expedition. Even his interventions in debates on America were usually concerned with military matters. He never spoke during the lengthy proceedings on the printers’ case in 1771, and only once on the royal marriage bill in 1772. He took, however, a prominent part in the debates on Wilkes in 1769, and on 3 Feb. proposed the motion for his expulsion, which naturally made Barrington a target for attacks. Altogether, in spite of his caution and courtesy, at times he exposed himself by too frankly stating his views. Thus early in his official career: ‘The Tories all attacked Lord Barrington’, wrote Rigby to the Duke of Bedford, 23 Dec. 1756, ‘for an imprudent and violent abuse of his yesterday of the addresses and instructions [against the Hessians] which he lumped with newspapers and pamphlets and said were full of falsehood and malice.’38 Or again, when in 1768 he defended his own conduct and the behaviour of the military in St. George’s Fields. In December 1770 he showed too openly what he thought of British commanders; here is his own account of the incident in a letter to Lord Albemarle, on 20 Dec.:39

I find my dear Lord that you have been informed, though not accurately, of something I said in the House of Commons the last day of the session: I will shortly state that matter to you. Barré lamented the death of Lord Granby and talked much of the necessity of a commander-in-chief at this juncture. I said I had always thought there should be one at all times ... but I fairly confessed that so many requisites went to the appointment of a commander-in-chief and so many different circumstances must concur to make a man proper for such an office, that I did not know any man who could at present be proposed for it; though we had many excellent general officers ... Neither General Conway or any other man took the least notice of this; but it was next day reported all over London I had said we had no general who could command an army. I believe no misrepresentation ever had less foundation or colour.

The fact remains that in 1771 he urged on Lord North ‘the expediency of employing Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, especially if there should be a war with any European power’; which advice he renewed in a letter to the King on 28 Mar. 1778.40

Although not a ‘Cabinet councillor’, in the absence of a commander-in-chief Barrington had to speak for the army, and his views came to differ from those of the Cabinet about measures to be adopted in America: in a letter to Lord Dartmouth, 12 Nov. 1774,41 he reverts to the basic idea of his memorandum of 10 May 1766, and advises to remove the troops from Massachusetts to ‘places not far distant’ where they ‘may remain in safety with convenience ... till a proper juncture should offer for their return’; and meantime employ naval forces to ‘reduce the colony to submission’. And again on 24 Dec.:42 ‘the contest in America will cost us more than we can ever gain by the success’; taxes cannot be levied ‘against an universal opinion prevailing there’; ‘our present contest is about the point of honour only’; troops in America might gain pitched battles but cannot subdue the country; naval action is preferable; the troops should be withdrawn to Canada, Nova Scotia, and East Florida.

When three out of four taxes were repealed in the Duke of Grafton’s ministry, I proposed in the House of Commons to repeal them all, where they had not been resisted, and to repeal none of them where they had been. I mentioned somewhat similar last year to a meeting at Lord North’s ...
Pardon, my dear Lord, this liberty. I have accustomed myself for near thirty years, to lay my opinions before ministers; and as this was the only trouble I gave them, they took it in good part.

In January 1776 he warned against denuding this country of soldiers, because of danger of domestic trouble:43

London is of all places in the island the most attentively to be watched, on account of the many actively desperate and ill-affected people who are in it. I need not say how little the magistracy of the city is to be trusted, or how much to be feared ...
If an insurrection in London should be attended with the least success, or even to continue unquelled for any time ... it is highly probable, there would also be risings in many parts of the kingdom. The present apparent quiet should not make it [be] forgotten, that there is a very levelling spirit among the people.

In October 1775 he expressed to the King his desire to leave Parliament ‘which had been growing more and more disagreeable to me’;44 but he left the time for it to the King’s determination. He raised the matter once more on 7 June 1776, at the end of the session: ‘in the 60th year of my age, and the 31st of my service of the Crown’, he begged to be relieved of a burden which was becoming distressful to him—but again left the King ‘master of the time of my dismission’. He reverted to the subject in September, but the King said ‘that he found ... much difficulty in fixing on a proper successor’, and asked Barrington to stay on ‘sometime longer’. Barrington replied that he would obey the King’s commands, but that his difficulties ‘in respect to the House of Commons were of the most serious kind’: having to vote there contrary to opinions he had given to ministers in regard to the disputes with America. ‘Why should you not remain for the present in the War Office, and quit the House of Commons ...?’ asked the King (he, too, taking the ‘civil service’ view of Barrington’s position). Barrington replied he thought this feasible, and would ‘open the matter to Lord North’. But North considered that ‘a secretary at war must be in Parliament’. The question of Barrington’s retirement was again discussed in January-February and June 1777, but with North’s dilatoriness, Barrington’s ‘pliability’, and the King’s unwillingness to part with him, nothing was done. On 29 Oct., Barrington, from his ‘great dislike of the House of Commons’, again asked North for the Chiltern Hundreds though prepared to stay at the War Office as long as required. But when on 3 Dec. the news arrived of Burgoyne’s surrender, he himself felt that this was not the time for withdrawing from business. Still, in March and May 1778 he again pressed to be released from Parliament: and on 21 May told the King ‘that things were come to such a pass, that I could no longer reconcile my conduct in Parliament to my honour and duty. That disapproving many of the measures of Administration, I could not support them with a good conscience, or oppose them without affecting my honour.’ On 24 May he was given the Chiltern Hundreds, but remained at the War Office till the middle of December, Rigby, as paymaster, acting for the department in the Commons; and the King in a letter of 16 Dec., thanking Barrington for his services, settled on him, ‘unsolicited by him’, a pension of £2,000 ‘until he shall be appointed to some other employment’. ‘I flatter myself’, wrote Barrington to a friend, ‘that no man ever died a more quiet, decent, or edifying politicaldeath.’45 From January to April 1782 he was joint postmaster general; and when he lost the place on the fall of the North Administration, the previous pension was ‘renewed and continued’ to him.46

Barrington died 1 Feb. 1793.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. See Pol. Life of Wm. Wildman Visct. Barrington, compiled by his bro. Shute, bp. of Durham, 2.
  • 2. Mems. Geo. II, ii. 143-4.
  • 3. Newcastle to Wm. Murray, 28 Sept. 1754, Add. 32736, ff. 591-4.
  • 4. Add. 32735, f. 229; Barrington to Grenville, 18 Mar. 1754, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 5. T. Cockburn to Sir John Hall of Dunglass, Dunglass Pprs., SRO.
  • 6. Robt. Nugent to Edw. Eliot, 27 Dec. 1753, Eliot mss.
  • 7. Add. 32995, f. 63.
  • 8. Barrington mss.
  • 9. Ibid. 27 Dec. 1774.
  • 10. Newcastle to Hardwicke, 26 Sept. 1755, Add. 32859, ff. 219-21.
  • 11. Barrington mss; Ilchester, Letters to Hen. Fox, 116.
  • 12. Chatham Corresp. i. 188. See also Symmer to And. Mitchell, 17 Dec. 1756, Add. 6839, ff. 26-27.
  • 13. To And. Mitchell, 5 Dec. 1762, ibid. ff. 41-42.
  • 14. See letter to Chas. Gould, adv. gen., 8 Feb. 1766, Life, 131-7.
  • 15. Ibid. 48-50; see further letter to Lord Granby, 17 June 1760, ibid. 58-62.
  • 16. Ibid. 57.
  • 17. Ibid. 122-4.
  • 18. Add. 32916, ff. 49-55.
  • 19. Chatham Corresp. ii. 99.
  • 20. 6 Oct. 1761, Chatham mss.
  • 21. Barrington mss.
  • 22. Shelburne to Bute, 2 Nov. 1762, Bute mss.
  • 23. The following account is from a paper written by Barrington at the time, printed Life, 73-85.
  • 24. Besides Barrington’s account, see his letters to Newcastle, 4 and 5 Nov. 1762, Add. 32944, ff. 233 and 287.
  • 25. Thus on 9 Dec. 1762 (Harris); 22 Feb. 1763 (Chas. Jenkinson’s report in the Bodl. North mss); and 30 Mar. 1764 (Harris).
  • 26. Barrington mss.
  • 27. HMC Lothian, 245-6.
  • 28. Ibid. 250.
  • 29. Life, 91-93. There are two copies of it in the Barrington mss: one of the letter itself; and the other in an account of the transaction.
  • 30. Halifax to Barrington, 5 Sept.; Barrington mss and Life , 94-95.
  • 31. In a letter to Halifax, from Beckett, 12 July; for Barrington’s account of the audience with the King, Life , 95-100. The quotations as given below are corrected from the original in the Barrington mss.
  • 32. Add. 32967, f. 349.
  • 33. Printed from a copy in the Lansdowne mss at the Clements Lib. by Alvord and Carter, The New Regime 1765-7, pp. 234-45; and from a copy in the Royal archives, Windsor by Fortescue, i. 432-41. Barrington was a friend and relation by marriage of Gov. Francis Bernard; see Barrington-Bernard Corresp. ed. Channing Coolidge.
  • 34. 26 July 1766, Chatham mss.
  • 35. Add. 35374, f. 303.
  • 36. See also Barrington to Sam. Martin, 24 July 1766, Add. 41354, f. 104.
  • 37. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 38. Bedford mss. 32, f. 119.
  • 39. Albemarle mss.
  • 40. Quoted from a memorandum in Barrington’s own hand, Life, 186-8.
  • 41. Life, 140-2; see also the King to North, Fortescue, iii. 250.
  • 42. Life, 142-8.
  • 43. Ibid. 153-7.
  • 44. This, and the account that follows, is taken from a memorandum by Barrington, written after his retirement in December 1778. The letter of October 1775 is neither in the Royal archives, Windsor nor among the Barrington mss.
  • 45. Life, 184.
  • 46. Rockingham to Barrington, 21 Apr. 1782, Rockingham mss.