KEENE, Whitshed (c.1731-1822), of Hawthorn Hill, Berks.

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



16 Nov. 1768 - Jan. 1774
22 Jan. 1774 - 30 Sept. 1774

Family and Education

b. c.1731, in Ireland, o.s. of Capt. Gilbert Keene by Alice, da. of Thomas Whitshed of Dublin, serjeant-at-law.  educ. Trinity, Dublin, B.A. 1750.  m. 1 Aug. 1771, Elizabeth Legge, da. of George, Visct. Lewisham, and sis. of William, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth.

Offices Held

Lt. 5 Ft. 1754, capt. 1756; maj. 1762, to serve as lt.-col., later as col., in Portuguese army; retd. 1768.

Sec. to ld. chamberlain 1772-Mar. 1782; ld. of Trade Jan. 1774-June 1777; surveyor gen. of the Board of Works, Jan. 1779-Mar. 1782; sec. to ld. chamberlain and ld. of Admiralty Apr.-Dec. 1783.


Horace Walpole, in his Last Journals (i. 382), thus sums up Keene’s career and character:

Col. James Whitshed Keene [the Christian name of James here given to him appears nowhere else] was an Irish officer of no fortune, and had served in Portugal. He then went to Paris, and attached himself to Stephen Fox, but soon became acquainted with Lord Hertford, then ambassador, became his master of the horse, by degrees his intimate dependant, and was made by him secretary to the lord chamberlain. He married a homely maiden-sister of Lord Dartmouth, and, by the marriage of their father and mother, a kind of sister to Lord North. He had very little sense, but was a great politician and, by no bashfulness in asking questions, screwed himself into being trusted by Lord North, which hurt them both in the estimation of mankind, though Col. Keene’s faults were owing to his head, not his heart.

Other contemporary accounts bear out Walpole’s. Thus George Selwyn to Lord Carlisle, 1 Apr. 1782:

Poor Keene is a good-natured, friendly man, with better qualities par l’endroit du coeur than many others who are of better rank, and have had a better education. He talks and moves in the way and manner he has been brought up, that is as a dependant, and has no proper tact.

And William Eden, in July 1780:

Mr. Keene ... maintains a daily access to the minister, and is graciously pleased to tell me ...
Keene was exceedingly intent to get a conversation on ... Ireland ... but had it all to himself; I conjecture he is a very good specimen of an Irish questioner, and it is indeed very difficult to avoid answering him without impertinence and ill-humour.1

The story of how Keene first entered Parliament is largely a matter of conjecture. Wareham was controlled by John Calcraft, in November 1768 a supporter of Administration; and it seems probable that Keene was recommended to Calcraft by the Duke of Grafton, first lord of the Treasury. Calcraft died in 1772, and in his will desired his executors to return Philip Francis for Wareham on the first vacancy.2 Keene’s seat was vacated by his appointment to the Board of Trade; and on 23 Jan. 1774 Francis wrote at the foot of a note from Lord North offering to ‘see him in Downing Street’:3

Received the strongest assurances from Lord North that, in Mr. Keene’s negotiation with Mr. de Grey about exchanging his seat at Wareham for Ludgershall, care had been [taken] not to prejudice my interest at Wareham.

The reasons for Keene’s transfer to Ludgershall do not appear from Selwyn’s correspondence. At the general election of 1774 Keene was returned unopposed on the Powis interest at Montgomery—the origin of that connexion is not known, but it proved remarkably enduring: Keene was returned there for a total of 44 years by three representatives of the Powis-Clive family in succession. Whatever else may be said of Keene, he was loyal to his friends and they to him. In the House he was l’âme damnée of North, and the break in his tenure of office was unintended—in June 1777 Keene lost his place ‘by a mistake’: he was removed from the Board of Trade to succeed Thomas Worsley at the Board of Works when on 5 June it was believed that Worsley could ‘scarcely outlive the day’; but Worsley lived till 13 Dec. 1778—‘Lord North’, wrote the King that same day, ‘... will in consequence of his former application I suppose recommend Mr. Keene.’4 And early in 1779 Keene was paid £2,000 from secret service funds, ‘for his loss of salary etc. of the Board of Trade and election expenses’.5

In 1780 an opposition to Keene was intended at Montgomery, and an address to its burgesses6 described him as knowing even less of them than they knew of him, and therefore unable to protect their interests—

you are insulted in having a Member offered you, whose principles you cannot approve, whose sentiments you cannot influence, and whose person you cannot approach.

But the neighbouring country gentleman whom they were advised to return never materialized, and Keene’s election was once more unopposed.

On the fall of North, entailing that of Hertford, Keene lost both his places, and talked of ‘going to live in Ireland’.7 But he was re-appointed secretary to the lord chamberlain and made a lord of the Admiralty in the Coalition Government, April 1783, and again lost both places on their dismissal in December. Robinson now wondered whether Keene could not be discarded at the ensuing general election—‘Lady Powis having a pension makes it easier to converse with Lord Powis’.8 But perhaps the combination in Keene of good nature and obtuseness made it difficult to turn him out. In the House he remained one of the small and dwindling group which, after the disaster of 1784, still adhered to North, completely played out politically.

Keene seems never to have spoken in the Parliament of 1768-74. In fact, his speech of 28 Apr. 1780 is the first on record: he ‘was on his legs three quarters of an hour, giving a full account of the Board of Works, and a detail of works done by it’.9 The few interventions by him, 1784-90, all refer to the work of that Board or of the lord chamberlain’s office.

He died 27 Feb. 1822.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. HMC Carlisle, 440, 621.
  • 2. Parkes Merivale, Mems. Francis, i. 220, 317.
  • 3. Ibid. i. 342-3.
  • 4. Fortescue, iii. 452; iv. 158, 232.
  • 5. Robinson’s secret service accounts, Royal archives, Windsor.
  • 6. Pentperthog ms 1035, NLW.
  • 7. Selwyn to Carlisle, 26 Mar. 1782, HMC Carlisle, 607.
  • 8. Laprade, 97.
  • 9. Almon, xvii. 601.