TOWNSEND, James (1737-87), of Bruce Castle, Tottenham, Mdx.

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



10 July 1767 - 1774
5 Apr. 1782 - 1 July 1787

Family and Education

bap. 8 Feb. 1737, 1st surv. s. of Chauncy Townsend.  educ. Hertford, Oxf. 1756.  m. 3 May 1763, Rosa Peregrina du Plessis, illegit. da. and h. of Henry Hare, 3rd Baron Coleraine [I], 1s. 1da.  suc. fa. 28 Mar. 1770.

Offices Held

Alderman of London 1769; sheriff 1769-70; ld. mayor 1772-3.


James Townsend did not follow his father in business or politics, and after his marriage was financially independent. His wife, heiress of her father, was an alien, born in Italy, and on Coleraine’s death in 1749 his estates in Tottenham and Norfolk escheated to the Crown. On her marriage Chauncy Townsend, through his interest with Henry Fox, secured the restoration of the estates, which was confirmed by private Act of Parliament 3 Geo. III, c. 45.1

About 1763 James Townsend became connected with Lord Shelburne. In 1765, with Shelburne’s backing, he stood at West Looe on the Trelawny interest against a Government candidate on the Buller interest. Chauncy Townsend, a supporter of Grenville’s Administration, ‘endeavoured all he could’ to prevent his son from standing.2 Townsend, who did not attend the election, was defeated through the partiality of the returning officer, a Buller supporter.3 At the by-election of 1767 and the general election of 1768 Shelburne was in office, and Townsend probably came to West Looe as a Government candidate.

He made himself conspicuous in Parliament as an advocate of Wilkes’s cause, contributed to his election expenses, and was a foundation member of the Bill of Rights Society. In 1771 he refused to pay the land tax on the ground that Middlesex was not represented in Parliament. After suffering distraint of his goods he prosecuted the receiver of the land tax in the King’s bench, but lost his case.4 He was an infrequent speaker in Parliament, and carried little weight. One speech of his was notorious, on the Brass Crosby case, 25 Mar. 1771:5

He spoke of the general discontent of the people without doors; and said that the cause of this discontent had been often glanced at, but never particularly mentioned; that it was idle to deceive ourselves any longer, it was right to speak out; and that, for his part, he thought that the Princess Dowager of Wales was the real cause of all the calamities which had befallen this country for these last ten unfortunate years, and that an inquiry should be made into her Royal Highness’s conduct.

In 1769 Townsend was concerned with Shelburne, Lauchlin Macleane, and others in the scheme to build up a fund of East India stock for splitting at the election of directors;6 and helped to meet Shelburne’s financial responsibilities when the price of stock fell. In the politics of the City of London he was the acknowledged leader of the Shelburne interest. When Wilkes began to use the funds of the Bill of Rights Society for his personal expenditure, Townsend broke with him, and, together with John Horne and Richard Oliver founded the Constitutional Society. In October 1772, though second to Wilkes on the poll of liverymen, he was chosen lord mayor by the court of aldermen. During his mayoralty he succeeded in passing through the court a motion in favour of shorter Parliaments, and prepared a bill which would have given London and Westminster an elective magistracy. In October 1773 he gave his casting vote against Wilkes in the election for lord mayor—he was, wrote Walpole, ‘as active an enemy of Wilkes as the Scotch’.7

Townsend could not expect to be returned again for West Looe in 1774, but he does not seem to have sought another constituency. He remained out of Parliament until Shelburne returned him for Calne in 1782.

His first speech after his re-entry into the House was on Pitt’s motion for a committee to consider parliamentary reform: he ‘was strongly and clearly of opinion that there must be a reform in the constitution, for that House was not in its present frame the representative of the people’. On 16 May he spoke ‘with great spirit’ for Sawbridge’s motion for annual Parliaments—which he had always supported. He voted for Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, and spoke ‘very strenuously’ against Fox’s East India bill, 8 Dec. 1783, and adhered to Pitt. In the Parliament of 1784 he occasionally voted against Pitt, e.g. on the shop tax, 23 May 1785, the bill to farm the post horse tax, 2 May 1787, and even on Richmond’s fortifications plan, 27 Feb. 1786.8

Wraxall wrote of Townsend:9

Though he seldom mingled in debate, he manifested whenever he spoke a manly mind, great facility of expression, strong sense, combined with upright principles of action.

One of his most effective speeches was one of his last. On 9 May 1787, on the report of the committee on Warren Hastings’s impeachment,10

he ... reminded the House that he had in the beginning of the business advised them by no means to think of an impeachment, and had urged the extreme impropriety of carrying articles to the House of Lords ... unsupported by proof of any sort whatsoever and incapable of being established by evidence ... What honour was there in hunting down an individual who deserved the thanks of his country for having done it the most signal and essential services?

Townsend died 1 July 1787.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Gent. Mag. 1787, p. 640.
  • 2. Grenville to Ld. Halifax, 21 Apr. 1768, Grenville letter bk.
  • 3. Dunning to Shelburne, 19 Jan. 1765, Lansdowne mss.
  • 4. Walpole, Last Jnls. i. 120-2.
  • 5. Chatham Corresp. iv. 134.
  • 6. Sutherland, E.I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 299.
  • 7. Last Jnls. i. 250.
  • 8. Debrett, vii. 139, 181-2; xii. 396-7; Stockdale, vi. 226; xi. 399.
  • 9. Mems. v. 6.
  • 10. Stockdale, xii. 53-55.