FITZHERBERT, William (1712-72), of Tissington Hall, nr. Ashbourne, Derbys.

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



1761 - Apr. 1762
5 May 1762 - 2 Jan. 1772

Family and Education

b. 1712, 1st. s. of William Fitzherbert of Tissington Hall, recorder of Derby, by Rachel, da. and h. of Thomas Bagshaw of Bakewell, Derbys. and gd.-da. and h. of Thomas Alleyne of Barbados. educ. Derby; Emmanuel, Camb. 1732; I. Temple 1732, called 1739. m. 23 June 1744, Mary, da. of Littleton Poyntz Meynell of Bradley, Derbys. sis. of Hugo Meynell, 5s. 2da. suc. fa. 1739.

Offices Held

Gent. usher of the privy chamber 1759-63; ld. of Trade July 1765- d.


The Fitzherberts and Bagshaws were important families in Derbyshire, and were closely associated with the Cavendishes. In January 1754 William Fitzherbert applied to Lord Hartington for the Cavendish interest at Derby; and, when that was given to G. V. Vernon, ‘for any other vacancy in the same place, or in any other in the manner the friends of the Government and ministry are brought in’.1 Nothing was done for him then, but in 1759 he was appointed by Devonshire to court office. On 29 Nov. 1760 Newcastle wrote to Devonshire about the forthcoming general election: ‘I have been told that Mr. Fitzherbert comes in for Derby"is it so?’; to which Devonshire replied: ‘There is no possibility of bringing in Mr. Fitzherbert for Derby, he relies upon your Grace’s assistance.’2 Newcastle arranged a seat for him at Bramber which he vacated a year later to stand for Derby, where he was returned unopposed.

Rather surprisingly he seems to have adhered to the court after Devonshire’s dismissal. He is in Fox’s list of Members favourable to the peace preliminaries, but also in one of the four lists in the Newcastle papers of those who voted against them (not, however, in the list in the History of the Late Minority, nor in that of Fox in the Bute mss). He turned against the court over Wilkes, voted in opposition on 15 Nov. 1763, and on 25 Nov. was mentioned by the King as one who had ‘gone steadily against us’ and should be dismissed.3 This was done, and henceforth Fitzherbert voted against the Grenville Administration and was classed by Newcastle as a ‘sure friend’. Though most zealous on Wilkes’s behalf, he spoke rarely in the House. James Harris noted about the debate on Wilkes’s expulsion, 19 Jan. 1764: ‘Fitzherbert made a sort of dying speech for Wilkes ... in which as in all other parts of the debate he was prompted by Lord Temple.’ Fitzherbert collected and transmitted the subscriptions given by the Opposition leaders for Wilkes’s support.

He was appointed by the Rockingham Administration to the Board of Trade, and took his duties very seriously: his average attendance works out at over 90 per cent, and in the years 1768-71 he attended all except 13 of the Board’s 235 meetings. He described his West Indian interests as ‘considerable’ and upon which ‘my family must depend in a great measure’,4 and in 1765 there was a rumour that he was to go as governor of Barbados.5In October 1766 Shelburne suggested him to Chatham for governor of Jamaica—‘I know Mr. Fitzherbert ... in general looks that way.’6 ‘Lord Chatham ... is inclined to think that upon the whole the gentleman ... may do extremely well’, was Chatham’s reply;7 but it is not known whether Fitzherbert was ever offered the appointment.

He did his best both with Rockingham and Grafton to arrange for Wilkes’s pardon and return to England. ‘I have constantly endeavoured to bring your affair to a crisis’, he wrote to Wilkes on 15 July 1766; and on 27 July: ‘If you are served I care not by whom.’8 When Wilkes did come back, without the promise of a pardon, it seems to have been against Fitzherbert’s advice; and Fitzherbert took alarm when Wilkes began to stir up the London mob.9 The strikes and riots in London in the summer of 1768 frightened him. ‘No civil magistrate could execute his warrant without the assistance of the military’, he told the House on 17 May; and on 23 Nov.: ‘Mr. Fitzherbert, speaking of the civil power, said that part of our constitution is worn out, the military is the real support of this country.’10

He did not vote on the motion to expel Wilkes, 3 Feb. 1769; but on 17 Feb., when Wilkes was declared ineligible for re-election, repudiated him and censured his conduct. He said he had told Wilkes that ‘quietness ... was the only chance of his coming in again’, and then went on:

I would have gone upon my knees for his pardon. He would not come in upon his knees but upon the people’s shoulders. I began to consider ... whether my desire to serve him or Government was to prevail ... I love him, but in the light he stands I will do as much as any man in England to oppose him.11

On 15 Apr. and 8 May Fitzherbert voted for the seating of Luttrell.

He seems to have felt the need to defend his conduct in accepting a place and abandoning Wilkes. ‘I am a private gentleman in employment’, he said in the House on 14 Dec. 1770, ‘without connexion, without hopes, without fears. I am independent from temper ... I shall never be ashamed to say what I think.’ And on 12 Mar. 1771 he described himself as ‘from disposition and temper as independent a man as any in the House’.12

There was no need for this self justification: he was liked and respected in all circles, and by political opponents as well as friends. Lord Hyde wrote to Grenville, 14 Oct. 1764, when transmitting a request for patronage:13

There are few men I would sooner oblige than Fitzherbert. His parts, his knowledge, his humanity, and utility make the foundation of my esteem. I might add his moderation notwithstanding his warmth for Wilkes which I believe was kindled by the coolness of others in seeing that unhappy man in jeopardy. I know few second-rate men that could be better employed by one in power.

Perhaps the best account of him was given by Johnson:14

There was no sparkle, no brilliancy in Fitzherbert; but I never knew a man who was so generally acceptable. He made everybody quite easy, overpowered nobody by the superiority of his talents, made no man think worse of himself by being his rival, seemed always to listen, did not oblige you to hear much from him, and did not oppose what you said. Everybody liked him; but he had no friend, as I understand the word, nobody with whom he exchanged intimate thoughts.

On 2 Jan. 1772 he committed suicide.15

He went to see the convicts executed that morning [wrote Walpole to Lady Upper Ossory, 5 Jan. 1772]; and from thence, in his boots, to his son, having sent his groom out of the way. At three, his son said, ‘Sir, you are to dine at Mr. Buller’s; it is time for you to go home and dress.’ He went to his own stable and hanged himself with a bridle. They say his circumstances were in great disorder.

But according to Johnson16 his suicide ‘was owing to imaginary difficulties in his affairs, which, had he talked with any friend, would soon have vanished’.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Fitzherbert to Vernon, 21 Jan. 1754, and to Hartington, 3 Mar. 1754, Devonshire mss.
  • 2. Add. 32915, ff. 166, 272.
  • 3. Grenville Pprs. ii. 166.
  • 4. Fitzherbert to Ld. Hyde, 12 Oct. 1764, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 5. David Garrick to Edmund Burke, 17 July 1765.
  • 6. Chatham Corresp. iii. 92.
  • 7. Chatham to Shelburne, 6 Oct. 1766, Lansdowne mss.
  • 8. Add. 30869, ff. 55, 65.
  • 9. Whateley to Grenville, 18 Apr. 1768, Grenville Pprs. iv. 271.
  • 10. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 215, ff. 73, 235.
  • 11. Ibid., Egerton 217, ff. 347-9.
  • 12. Ibid., Egerton 223, f. 270; 226, f. 36.
  • 13. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 14. Boswell, Johnson, iii. 148-9.
  • 15. Three different dates are given for his death: 1 Jan. (Walpole to Lady Upper Ossory, 5 Jan. 1772); 2 Jan. (Gent Mag. 1772, p. 46); and 3 Jan. (Mrs. Thrale, in Thraliana, i. 63).
  • 16. Boswell, ii. 228.