JOLLIFFE, William (1745-1802), of Petersfield, Hants.

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



1768 - 20 Feb. 1802

Family and Education

b. 16 Apr. 1745, 1st s. of John Jolliffe, and bro. of Thomas Samuel Jolliffe.  educ. Winchester; B.N.C. Oxf. 1764.  m. 28 Aug. 1769, Eleanor, da. and h. of Sir Richard Hylton, 5th Bt., of Hayton Castle, Cumb., 5s. 6da.

Offices Held

Ld. of Trade Feb. 1772-June 1779; ld. of the Admiralty Apr.-Dec. 1783.


Jolliffe writes in an autobiographical memorandum: ‘On my first coming into Parliament, by the advice of my father I supported the then Administration of the Duke of Grafton, and on his soon quitting the office of first minister I continued my support of Lord North.’1 No speech or vote by him on Wilkes and the Middlesex election is recorded, but on 12 Dec. 1770, in a debate on the land tax, he declared that, though ‘very independent’ and under no obligation to Government, he generally voted with them.2 On 27 Mar. he spoke and voted for committing the lord mayor to the Tower; and in February 1772 was appointed to the Board of Trade. On the death of Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh (18 Mar. 1774), he thought of standing for Portsmouth with ‘no other view but ambition to represent the borough’,3 but he failed to secure the support of the corporation. In 1774, at Lord North’s recommendation, he nominated for his colleague Sir Abraham Hume, and they were returned on a poll, the only one at Petersfield 1754-90.

Speaking on 6 Feb. 1775 on Lord North’s motion for enforcing obedience in the Colonies, Jolliffe strongly pleaded for conciliation;4 argued that if successful Britain’s gain would merely be ‘an abject submission of the Colonies through fear’ which ‘must end in rebellion’; and that America must soon rise above any apprehensions of Britain’s power; but he did not even feel confident of short-term success. Later on he supported the Government over America, speaking on their side on 26 Oct. 1775 and 29 Feb. 1776.5‘I have been thought inconsistent,’ he said on 23 Feb. 1778, ‘in giving my support to the continuance of what I had disapproved in the commencement.’ But though in favour of conciliation before hostilities were commenced, once independence was declared, he rallied to the Government which could not have ‘pursued any other line but that of vigorous hostility’.

In questions of small importance, if every man was to follow his own caprice, no government could last a day, the business of this empire would be anarchy and confusion; but when the fate of thousands is at stake, when millions may be wasted, and an empire lost, he ill deserves to sit here, who can from any motive sacrifice his opinion. It is not in the power of the Crown to bribe a man of property on such occasions.

Vigour having failed, ‘peace on almost any terms must now be obtained’; and whatever concessions are to be made, should be made immediately. ‘Instead of suspending the obnoxious Acts ... repeal them ... We are not in a condition to haggle: we have lost an empire; it is an humiliating consideration; but we are in the state of suppliants ... I trust we are not an undone people; but our greatness is vanity; that vanity has been our ruin.’ Mere suspension ‘wears the face of insidiousness’. He called on Parliament ‘to be open and liberal’ and to remember ‘that the fate of the empire depends on this Act’.

This, and his speech of 19 Mar. on Burgoyne’s expedition and surrender, hardly seem to justify the description given in a character sketch of him in the English Chronicle of 9 Apr. 1781: ‘He sometimes speaks in the House, but there is a disgusting stiffness in his orations, as well as in every other part of his character, that deprives them of the small merit they might inherently possess, and him of all attention from the House.’ Yet there was unconscious self-criticism in his own remarks on a man who follows ‘his own caprice’. And here is another self-revealing passage from that speech:

Sir, I am sorry on this, as on other occasions, to observe, the noble Lord [North] so blends every proposition with much that I like, and something that I dislike, that although he gains my assent, I am unable to give him my hearty support. As at the commencement of the war, the address was such a mixture that it deprived me of giving my vote; so at this period, though I approve what is intended to be done, I disapprove the mode of doing it.

Whimsical and cantankerous, he quarrelled with his relatives; with his superiors in the militia—Gibbon writes about ‘his extravagant behaviour, which was much worse than anything you saw in the papers’;6 with his neighbours at Petersfield. ‘They asked more than I could grant; alleging that my house was undertaxed, I made bread at home, bought groceries in London, in short, was not so devoted as they expected ... Every trifling object of mine was opposed, I was not suffered to plant some trees in the churchyard, and I was opposed in building a wall near my own garden.’7 He finished by buying the Merstham estate near Gatton, and pulling down ‘his father’s fine house at Petersfield’ (but none the less retained his electoral hold on the borough).

In June 1779 he resigned his place at the Board of Trade. Answering some obscure innuendoes in the English Chronicle he wrote: ‘I have ever considered an employment in the service of my country, as honourable, and not disgraceful. I therefore accepted a seat at the Board of Trade in the early part of my life, and I quitted it, as you truly state, because I did not care a farthing for it, in competition with my parliamentary independence.’ But the concrete meaning of this phrase is not clear. In his autobiographical fragment he says that Wedderburn was pressing North to give an appointment to Gibbon, and ‘to accomplish that arrangement I resigned but acted as before in support of Government’. In divisions on pensions and economical reform (21 Feb. and 8 and 13 Mar. 1780) he voted with the Government; and speaking on the bill for regulating the King’s civil list revenue, 26 Feb., he is stated to have said ‘that his constituents, he believed, were unanimously against the bill, and for that reason he should vote against it’ (a flight of imagination on his part or on that of the reporter?). On the re-arrangement of offices before the general election of 1780 he was considered for a place at the Board of Admiralty.8

Robinson, having marked in his survey in July 1780 that Jolliffe and his brother would be returned for Petersfield, wrote: ‘Mr. Jolliffe has very handsomely supported since his being out of the Board of Trade, it is hoped that he will continue to do the like and that his brother will be a friend’; to which he added later on: ‘as he has an object and to him a great one, to attain’. To have the abeyance of the barony of Hylton determined in favour of his wife now became his ambition. He hoped to achieve it through Lord North, whom he supported in the crucial divisions of 1781—March 1782. But after North’s fall Jolliffe continued to support him; voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783; and adhered to the Coalition; was placed by them at the Admiralty Board; voted for Fox’s East India bill; and continued his support of them after their dismissal in spite of offers from Pitt.9 ‘Much will depend upon the appearance of the House on the 12th of this month’, wrote North to Jolliffe on 2 Jan. 1784. ‘... We are sending all over the kingdom to ask our friends to give us their attendance.’10 And in his memorandum Jolliffe writes: ‘On my arrival in London Mr. Robinson earnestly requested me to avoid going to the House, and I have no doubt was authorized to give me full assurances of the attainment of my wishes ... I went immediately and gave my vote ... with the Opposition.’ He returned himself and his brother for Petersfield in 1784, and besides joined Lord Verney in a hopeless attempt at Wendover.

In the new Parliament he continued to support the Opposition, speaking frequently on their side; and when by 1788 North’s following was reduced to a mere 17 Members, Jolliffe was one of them.

He died 20 Feb. 1802.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. H. G. H. Jolliffe, Jolliffes of Staffs. 55.
  • 2. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 3. To John Carter, 24 Mar. 1774, Jolliffe mss.
  • 4. There is only a very short summary of it in Almon’s report on that debate (i. 153) but Jolliffe himself sums it up in his speech of 23 Feb. 1778 (Almon, viii. 394-5) from where the above is taken.
  • 5. Almon, iii. 44, 353.
  • 6. To his stepmother, 29 Sept. 1778.
  • 7. Jolliffe, 59-60.
  • 8. Fortescue, v. 114-15.
  • 9. Jolliffe, 56.
  • 10. Jolliffe mss.