SHELLEY, John (?1730-83), of Mitchelgrove, Suss.

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



24 Dec. 1751 - 1768
1768 - 1774
1774 - 1780

Family and Education

b. ?1730, o.s. of Sir John Shelley, 4th Bt., M.P., of Mitchelgrove by his 2nd w. Hon. Margaret Pelham, da. of Thomas, 1st Baron Pelham, sis. of Thomas, 1st Duke of Newcastle.  educ. Westminster, Jan. 1745; Peterhouse, Camb. 17 Sept. 1748, aged 18.  m. (1) 27 Aug. 1769, Wilhelmina (d. 21 Mar. 1772), da. of John Newnham of Maresfield Park, Suss., 1s.; (2) 14 Feb. 1775, Elizabeth, da. of Edward Woodcock of L. Inn, 3da.  suc. fa. as 5th Bt. 6 Sept. 1771.

Offices Held

Keeper of recs. in Tower of London 1755- d.; clerk of the pipe in the Exchequer 1758- d.; P.C. 3 Dec. 1766; treasurer of the Household 1766-77.


Shelley sat for East Retford on the interest of his uncle, the Duke of Newcastle, and profited from Newcastle’s tenure of office: as keeper of the records he had £500 p.a., while the office of clerk of the pipe was worth ‘from 6 to £800 p.a.’; and he also enjoyed a place in the customs held in trust for him.1 Shelley usually signed himself to Newcastle as ‘your Grace’s ever dutiful and obliged nephew’ or ‘your much obliged and most affectionate nephew’. ‘I flatter myself’, wrote Newcastle to Holdernesse on 24 June 17552 about the office of keeper of the records, ‘that ... his Majesty cannot give it to any one man in the House of Commons upon whom the King can, at all times, more certainly depend than upon my nephew Shelley ... I really think him very prudent and very honest.’

Shelley had hoped to marry into the Pelham family.

I have for these three years past [he wrote to Newcastle on 29 June 1760] been very much attached to, and in love with Miss Mary Pelham [Newcastle’s niece and Shelley’s cousin], and this morning proposed and was rejected: the consequences, as I hope, will not be desperate, but I am sure the cause will not be easily removed ... and therefore I should wish if you had an opportunity of screening me somehow by being employed, or would otherwise let me think of transporting myself to the other side of the water (I care not where) until I could recover ...

Newcastle promised to speak to Lady Katherine, Miss Pelham’s mother, but held out no hopes. Shelley wrote again on 7 July:

If I can keep pen to paper I will endeavour to scribble out to you that as I am apprized of what is most likely to happen of your conversation with Lady Katherine and the result of it, I am additionally (if possible) miserable, in thinking you are to have that trouble; I am ashamed to say the tears come into my eyes so fast, and so totally unman me, that I can hardly see what I write. The only request I have to make to you now is to attend a little to the thought of my going abroad, as I am sure that is my only subterfuge.3

Miss Pelham never married, and Shelley remained in England.

Newcastle’s going into opposition was a test of Shelley’s loyalty: he was a close friend of Lord Lincoln, Newcastle’s nephew and heir, who had left the court only with reluctance. Shelley did not vote against the peace preliminaries on 9 Dec. 1762, but next day spoke ‘incomparably well’ against them4—and suffered for his fidelity. He lost his place in the customs, and between October 1762 and October 1764 received only £360 of his salary as keeper of the records—which confirmed him in opposition and gave him a claim upon Newcastle, against whom he directed his resentment. Their relations deteriorated: on 21 Feb. 1764 Shelley described a request from Newcastle to attend the House as ‘the coldest and most formal letter from your Grace I ever saw’ and spoke of himself as ‘so much the strongest affected by ministerial oppression’. But on 3 Mar. he wrote in his usual vein, assuring Newcastle of ‘the pain and uneasiness’ it gave him that ‘the least doubt should ever be harboured in your breast of the propriety of my conduct towards you’.5

Although he was one of the tellers against Government over general warrants, 18 Feb. 1764, his opposition was always tepid, and towards the end of Grenville’s Administration his attitude was equivocal. In the committee on the Regency bill on 11 May 1765 he spoke against Lord John Cavendish’s motion to restrain the Regent from creating peerages. On 25 May he wrote to Grenville6 as ‘a known and sincere friend and well-wisher to you and all your family’, to congratulate him on his reconciliation with Temple, which gave promise of ‘future advantage’ as well as ‘present satisfaction to the public’. He had long been friendly with Temple, but it is curious that at such a time he should write like this to Grenville.

When the Rockingham Administration was formed Shelley claimed restitution, but Newcastle was by now thoroughly dissatisfied with his conduct. On 9 July 1765 Shelley wrote to the Duke:

Your Grace’s coolness towards me for some time has not only surprised but mortified me extremely; and indeed I should have wished to have had an explanation on that head in person from your Grace ... lest it should look as if I suspected your Grace’s inattention to the particular, unprecedented, persecuted situation I have for some time been in on your account.

Newcastle replied the same day:

Your letter surprises me extremely; you must think that I have neither seen or heard anything these last six months ... Notwithstanding what has passed, I shall always remember that you are the son of my sister, whom I sincerely loved, and shall endeavour to show myself your friend, who can both forget and forgive.

But the next day the Duke wrote to Rockingham:

There is another point, which I must earnestly beg of your Lordship may be immediately dispatched, the restoring poor indiscreet Jack Shelley to his place in the customs and his salary of keeper of the records, illegally, or at least cruelly, taken from him; he is starving; and I cannot see that, without feeling for him.7

Between October 1765 and October 1766 he received £1,313 salary as keeper of the records.

Shelley spoke against Grenville’s motion on American papers, 19 Dec. 1765, and voted for the repeal of the Stamp Act. During this time he and Lincoln were veering towards Pitt. Walpole describes Shelley as ‘apeing’ Pitt ‘with such impertinent importance’ that he was nicknamed ‘the little commoner’. ‘In the House of Commons he would retail, like Pitt’s parrot, half a score poly-syllables without sense or syntax, without understanding them or the question.’8 When Pitt took office the break between Shelley and Newcastle was almost complete. In November 1766 he was made treasurer of the Household in place of Lord Edgcumbe and over the head of Thomas Pelham, and the Rockinghams seized upon Edgcumbe’s dismissal as a pretext for breaking with Chatham. Newcastle felt hurt and humiliated: he had come to dislike ‘that chit Jack Shelley’ more than any other man and was encouraged by Rockingham not to re-elect him at East Retford.9 But the position there was doubtful: John White and the Duke of Portland, who knew the borough well, did not advise the measure; and Newcastle informed Shelley, through Onslow, that he would be re-elected.

Shelley voted with Administration on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and on the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768. On 13 Oct. 1767 Newcastle wrote to Rockingham about the approaching general election:10 ‘It would be a service to the cause to keep out of Parliament such a tool to power as the present treasurer of the Household is.’ But Newcastle was 74 and his friends at East Retford were turning towards Lincoln. Newcastle, wishing to avoid a public quarrel, accepted a compromise by which Shelley was returned for Newark (where in 1761 Newcastle had made over his interest to Lincoln).

Henceforth Shelley voted regularly with Administration. His speech on Wilkes’s expulsion, 3 Feb. 1769, seems to have been the last he made. He stood at New Shoreham in 1774 with Government support, and was elected after a hard contest. When a rearrangement of offices took place in 1777 Walpole noted that Shelley ‘had not lately attended Parliament’;11 but North told the King that Shelley was ‘very loath to quit his office’.12 He was given a secret service pension of £800 p.a. and did not stand at the general election of 1780.

He died 11 Sept. 1783.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Fortescue, v. 412.
  • 2. Add. 32856, ff. 167-8.
  • 3. Add. 32907, f. 437; 33067, f. 159.
  • 4. Onslow (Shelley’s bro.-in-law) to Newcastle, 10 Dec. 1762, Add. 32945, f. 264.
  • 5. Add. 32956, ff. 57, 194.
  • 6. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 7. Add. 32967, ff. 295, 297, 303.
  • 8. From an unpublished passage in his Mems. Geo. III.
  • 9. Add. 32977, ff. 415-16.
  • 10. Add. 32985 ff. 453-4.
  • 11. Last Jnls. ii. 32.
  • 12. Fortescue, iii. 453.