BENNET, Hon. Henry Grey (1777-1836), of Chillingham, Northumb.
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Family and Education
b. 2 Dec. 1777, 2nd s. of Charles, 4th Earl of Tankerville, and bro. of Charles Augustus Bennet, Lord Ossulston*. educ. Eton 1788-92; Peterhouse, Camb. 1799-1801; L. Inn 1798, called 1803. m. 16 May 1816, Gertrude Frances, da. of Lord William Russell*, 1s. d.v.p. 2da. suc. uncle Sir John Aubrey, 6th Bt.*, to Chilton, Bucks. estate 1826.
Ensign 1 Ft. Gds. 1793, lt. and capt. 1794, ret. 1796; capt. Glendale vols. 1803.
Bennet gave up his career in the Guards and became a barrister practising on the western circuit: Creevey described him in 1805 as ‘most amiable, occasionally most boring, but at all times most upright and honourable’. The son of a Lansdowne Whig who ‘lived at one time in the heart of political leaders’, but had withdrawn from public life disillusioned, he also wished to be ‘trained in the knowledge of public business’: on 3 Oct. 1806 he wrote to Viscount Howick, asking if he might accompany (Sir) William Drummond* to Sicily as secretary of embassy, having ‘been with him before in Sicily’. He added that he ‘could not accept an inferior appointment’ and though he evidently wished to be in Parliament (had his elder brother vacated Steyning the seat was engaged to him for the remainder of that Parliament), he thought there was ‘little chance of a dissolution’.
He was wrong: a dissolution ensued and he contested Shrewsbury, where he had offered himself on a vacancy in the previous year, but had withdrawn to avoid a contest. His connexion with Shropshire arose from his grandfather’s marriage to the daughter of Sir John Astley, MP for Shrewsbury 1727-34 and for the county 1734-71, by which the Astley estates passed to the Tankervilles. A friend of the Whig administration and described as the author of a pamphlet on the Catholic claims, he was run very hard by Thomas Jones, who vied with him for the popular interest, but, after a violent contest, just successful: Jones proceeded to unseat him on petition, 24 Apr. 1807, on the grounds of his disqualification. The delay in determining this petition, against which Bennet protested in the House, enabled him to give a silent support to the ministry, and to vote for Brand’s motion against their successors, 9 Apr. 1807. The by-election was merged in the general election of 1807 at which Bennet, who was hard pressed at the hustings on his qualified support for Catholic relief, was narrowly defeated. He and Francis Horner* wrote a pamphlet in justification of the achievements of the outgoing government.
Bennet was then out of Parliament until on Jones’s death in 1811 he regained his seat unopposed, having travelled in the meantime to Spain to view the theatre of war. He consorted with the Whigs of the ‘Mountain’. He headed the poll with ease at the election of 1812 and another radical Whig was nearly returned in second place, of which he commented to his friend Brougham, ‘who would have thought that the Mountain could have lifted so high its head?’. On the other side, Lord Liverpool’s brother wrote, 29 Oct., ‘I am very sorry that there was no means of kicking Bennet out of Shrewsbury; except him and Cotes ... I do not believe we have an insecure vote in this county’.1
Bennet’s first speech, 28 Jan. 1812, was an attack on the influence of the crown in the House through placemen, in which he seconded Brougham, a fellow lawyer with whom he frequently acted and whose reputation he several times defended. His proposal that royal household office-holders be disqualified from sitting in the House was rejected, 31 Jan., but on 22 Feb. he returned to the attack with a demand for the abolition of the sinecure of paymaster of widows’ pensions, held by the Prince Regent’s protégé John McMahon*. He had no sympathy for the Prince and on 23 Mar. asked why the Princess of Wales was not included in the proposed grant to the royal princesses. It was such conduct that caused the Regent to label him in July 1814 as one of the ‘factious opposition’.2 In the Parliaments of 1812 and 1818 Bennet was an assiduous spokesman for the Whig ‘Mountain’ and, sitting ‘on the second bench’,3 frequently their teller. ‘Cocky’ Bennet, as his friend Creevey called him, finding him rather ‘pert’ on occasion, though ‘an incomparable fellow’, was an ‘idolator’ of Whitbread, whom he regarded as his political chief: they got on ‘most agreeably’ and Bennet described him after his death as ‘by far the most honest public and private man I ever knew’. He did not get on with Grey, observing in 1813 ‘Lord Grey and the principles of Mr Fox have long parted company’; and he wished ‘to have nothing to do with the Grenvilles’ (20 July 1818). He shared the distaste of his group for Ponsonby’s leadership of the Whigs and complained to Creevey, to whom he described the tactics of the ‘Mountain’ while the latter was living at Brussels, 21 July 1816, ‘though the government are hated, we are not loved’. A year before, he had cursed ‘that damned place, the House of Commons, where we spend our time, health and fortunes’, but he could not resist it, even when on his marriage in May 1816 his father settled £1,500 a year on him, and his wife, to Brougham’s disgust, ‘would not allow him to remain later than six any night’. In 1818 Bennet accepted Tierney’s leadership, for want of better, thinking ‘the good old lady’ could be ‘kept in order’. He was encouraged by the result of the general election and wrote to Creevey, 20 July, ‘The country is everywhere with us, and they will have a cheap and reformed government ... I fear our combatants will once more differ upon principles.’4
After ‘an alarming illness’, Bennet attended in support of Catholic relief (as always) in the session of 1813 and voted both against the East India Company trade monopoly and against Christian missions to India. He twice moved the adjournment, 4 and 5 Mar. 1813, when government cleared the gallery for Cochrane Johnstone’s motion on the Princess of Wales. In April 1814 he queried the appropriation of part of the droits of Admiralty to pay the Regent’s debts. He described the thatched cottage the Regent was building at Windsor, 13 July 1814, as ‘The craz’d creation of distemper’d brains’. On 14 Apr. 1815 he criticized the royal establishment, in defending Tierney’s motion for a civil list committee. He was prominent in the attack on the Duke of Cumberland’s marriage grant in June 1815, thinking him the least worthy of the royal family to receive one, and regarded its defeat as a ‘triumph’. In May and June 1814 he assisted Whitbread in his espousal of the cause of the Princess of Wales, being commended for his ‘invaluable labour’; he wrote a report on the subject for the Whig Morning Chronicle: after Whitbread’s death, his enthusiasm for the Princess waned, though he informed Creevey at that time that he still hoped to ‘amend our system at home, and damage royalty, and badger Prinny’.5 He abstained on the question of the Corn Laws.
Bennet was a consistent advocate of government economy, disposed ‘to have a fight for every shilling’, and a foe of additional taxation. On 26 June 1812, he seconded Althorp’s motion against the leather tax. On 8 Mar. 1813 he criticized the army estimates and this became an annual exercise on his part. He objected to any increase in patronage for the commander-in-chief, 11 July 1814. On 13 Mar. 1815 he asked government to put itself ‘upon short allowance’ rather than impose fresh taxes, and opposed the renewal of the property tax, 19 Apr., as ‘the first step to war’. He found the peacetime military establishment exorbitant. On 24 Apr. he moved the call of the House to discuss the property tax. The expense and ‘military tone’ of the college at Sandhurst, 2 June, and the cost of ordnance establishments, 9 June, further irritated him. He attacked the renewal of the property tax in March 1816. On 1 Apr. he unsuccessfully moved that the salary of the treasurer of the navy should be halved and on 8 May 1817 that compensation awarded to John Charles Herries on the loss of his place be reduced. He opposed the equalization of coal duties, 20 May 1819. Attacking the budget, 9 June 1819, he claimed that government promises of economy had simply not been kept and that it was unjust to burden the people with new taxes: he had earlier accused the chancellor of the Exchequer of thinking ‘that revenue was the first duty of government’.
Bennet, who had been disposed to criticize Wellington as a general, but found that the allied cause was so successful by the autumn of 1813 that ‘we grumblers can have nothing to say’, advocated a more liberal foreign policy: he opposed the support given by an English army to the king against the people in Sicily, 11 July 1814, and likewise in Spain, 17 Feb. 1815. He regretted the government’s reluctance to support the independence of her South American colonies against Spain, 13 Mar. 1815, and espoused the cause of Spanish and Portuguese Liberals under persecution, as well as that of foreign Liberal refugees being hounded out of England under the Aliens Act, 24 Apr. On 5 June he attacked King Ferdinand of Spain personally as a reactionary monarch and hoped, 28 June, that government would not support him against his rebellious colonies. That summer he visited the Continent and brought back ‘materials, tending to illustrate the degree to which [Castlereagh] has been duped and is now ridiculed by all the allies’. He was a scathing critic of the ‘Holy Alliance’, 9 Feb. 1816, and attacked Castlereagh’s acquiescence in it: ‘professions of religion and justice were employed as a disguise for real injustice, oppression and bad faith’. He described Russia as a threat to the liberties of mankind. Privately, he had regarded the defeat of Buonaparte in 1814 as ‘a triumph for sound doctrines of freedom’ and did not share his Holland House acquaintances’ regrets for him, but on Buonaparte’s return, he wrote, 3 Apr. 1815, ‘If I was a Frenchman, I should be all for Napoleon’; and he was opposed to the resumption of hostilities, hoping that the Grenvillite Whigs, who were not, would ‘part company’ with the ‘Mountain’ on this issue. He disliked the Bourbon restoration in France as elsewhere and wrote after Waterloo, ‘we are all for Napoleon II, against the legitimate monarch’.6 In the House he deplored alliance with the Bourbons, 26 May 1815.
Bennet supported parliamentary reform, now that peace was restored, 18 June 1816: on 10 Feb. 1817 he presented a petition in its favour from Kilmarnock, which stated that ‘seats in the House of Commons were bought and sold like tickets for the opera’, and on 25 Feb. another from Church Stretton, Salop, apropos of which he stated that he could not support annual Parliaments and universal suffrage. He preferred triennial Parliaments and a suffrage ‘as extensive as in Westminster’. The Duke of Bedford ‘would rather see Bennet Member’ for Westminster than one of his own sons, so he informed Lord Holland in 1818: though he thought Bennet’s standing probably ‘out of the question’, he wished to see a Whig, not ‘an ultra reformer’ returned. Bennet supported Burdett’s reform motion, 20 May 1817, and, by pair, on 1 July 1819. He voted for the repeal of the Septennial Act, 19 May 1818. He was for burgh reform and attacked corrupt boroughs, such as Barnstaple, 10 May 1819: but his sponsorship of the Westminster hustings bill, February 1819, was resented by the radicals.7
On 26 Feb. 1817 Bennet led the opposition to the suspension of habeas corpus, denouncing the report of the secret committee which had recommended it as ‘trash’ and criticizing Ponsonby the Whig leader for sitting on it. He reserved his venom for Castlereagh, who had become his bête noire, and whom he accused of conniving at ‘criminal cruelties’ during the Irish rebellion. On the third reading, 27 June, he claimed that unrest was due to want of food and work and was not political: government informers had fomented rumours of political conspiracies. Supporting Brougham’s motion on the state of the nation, 11 July, he again attacked Castlereagh personally and resumed his vendetta with the informers. He repeated his allegations against them during the debate on the address, 27 Jan. 1818, and in a long denunciation of them, 11 Feb. described them as ‘edge tools’. Throughout February he presented petitions from men suffering under the suspension of habeas corpus and supported an inquiry into their activities, 5 Mar. Lord Sidmouth, the Home secretary, he characterized, 19 May, as ‘the greatest dupe that had ever belonged to any administration’. He tried unsuccessfully to secure a committee on the imprisonment of three booksellers for selling so-called ‘political’ books, 21 May, and regretted that ‘one of the last acts of the present House of Commons was, to refuse inquiry into a case which was manifestly one of gross oppression’. In the debate on the address, 24 Nov. 1819, he defended the meeting at Manchester on 16 Aug. which had ended in disaster and pleaded for better parliamentary representation for Lancashire: ‘there was a degree of intellect now in the country, which rendered it necessary that the House should look into the state of the representation’; having been there to investigate, he went on to present a Manchester petition for an inquiry into the ‘massacre’ signed by over 6,000, and another one on 30 Nov. On 9 Dec. he failed to secure a committee of inquiry into the state of the manufacturing districts: he wished to see the House ‘the living image of the people’. On 14 Dec. he proposed, unsuccessfully, an amendment to the seizure of arms bill, thinking it a gross violation of liberty which traduced the northern counties, and on 20 Dec. he attacked the newspaper stamp duties bill: he had begged the government to postpone the introduction of these punitive bills.
Unlike Castlereagh, who thought that ‘the House as a body, could not act on a principle of humanity alone’, 2 Apr. 1819, Bennet thought ‘they ought to feel some degree of charity and tenderness’, 9 Dec. 1819. He was prepared ‘to attempt, so far as in the short life of man could be attempted to diminish the sum of human misery’, 26 Jan. 1819. Flogging as a punishment in the army was a practice he constantly deplored and sought to have abolished: he flattered himself that it diminished as a result of the publicity he gave it. He asked for a reform of courtsmartial to this end. He wished to improve other aspects of army life too, opposing the dismissal of officers without a hearing and pleading for better pay and conditions for artillery drivers.8
The deplorable conditions in the gaols, ‘scenes of wretchedness and the schools of vice’, though they should be ‘schools for reform’, which he investigated on a ‘pretty extensive tour’, also exercised him; familiar with the state of Newgate,9 he advocated the reform of the London prisons10 and in 1814 and 1815 attempted to secure the abolition of gaol fees throughout the country.11 He presented many petitions from hapless prisoners and deplored delays in trials, and particularly in the execution of death sentences and in the release of prisoners detained for contempt of court.12 Those in prison for debt also engaged his sympathy. He decried the conditions in the hulks, detested transportation as a mode of punishment, especially for female convicts, and moved for an inquiry into the subject, 18 Feb. 1819. (He also addressed a pamphlet on it to the Home secretary.) He was opposed to capital punishment except for murder, 17 Feb. 1817. On 3 Apr. 1816, encouraged by Romilly, he moved for a committee of inquiry into the metropolitan police.13 Bennet, as chairman, attempted to secure the implementation of its report, in the fields of stricter licensing of public houses, abolition of ‘blood money’, the reward for criminal information doled out in countless ‘flash houses’ which he characterized as ‘dens of thieves’, and in better regulations for the London prisons. He was not particularly successful at first, but he made his points with increasing force, obliging Castlereagh to institute an inquiry into prisons in March 1819, and was undoubtedly one of the parliamentary pioneers of modern penology. He deplored the non-classification of prisoners in crowded prisons, as well as solitary imprisonment.14 He wished for better conditions in mental asylums and hospitals.15 He attempted to regulate the employment of young chimney sweeps, belonging to a Society for Climbing Boys; two bills were brought in by him for this purpose in 1817 and 1819.16 Abuses of power by colonial governors17 and the carrying on of the slave trade by the Bourbon monarchies18 were also painful to him—anything that he thought ‘a disgrace to England’ (an echo of his brother Ossulston’s language) he pounced upon and exposed.
In January 1819 Bennet, who had ‘sworn especial allegiance to Tierney’ as Whig leader and had been spoken of as a possible Whig candidate (but refused to budge from Shrewsbury), became embroiled in the Westminster by-election. He was harassed by the Burdettites for urging the candidature of a moderate reformer, Whitbread’s son, after previously engaging to support the radical candidate.19 Brougham wrote to Lambton, 2 Jan.:
The adventures of Bennet would fill a volume—on this occasion it would be a melancholy one for his friends to read—but it is impossible not to be amused with the infinite variety and the deepness of the scrapes he is in hourly and by the minute. Indeed how he is to get out I can’t divine—except by washing his hands of the whole business and doing nothing—which his vanity (amounting as near as possible to madness) won’t let him do.20
He subsequently became involved in verbal and pamphlet warfare with his radical critics. He continued to cry scandal and to get into scrapes. He kept a ‘minute, voluminous diary’ of his parliamentary attendance, ‘in some half dozen portly volumes’, now lost except for a few extracts: it covered ‘nearly 20 years’, included much ‘secret history’ and ended with his retirement from Parliament in 1826, when he was grief stricken at the loss of his only son.21 He died at Florence, 29 May 1836.22
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 36; Grey mss; Alnwick mss 63, ff. 8-9; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 4), xii. 245; Salopian Jnl. 29 Apr. 1807; Parl. Deb. xxi. 1249; Brougham mss 32131; Add. 38250, f. 38.
- 2. Letters of Princess Charlotte, 134.
- 3. Parl. Deb. xxxix. 750.
- 4. Creevey Pprs. i. 185, 210, 217, 241, 257, 264; Creevey’s Life and Times, 64, 74, 81; Whitbread mss W1/414; HMC Fortescue, x. 413.
- 5. Whitbread mss W1/387; Creevey’s Life and Times, 82, 103; Brougham mss 10355; Creevey mss, Whitbread to Creevey, 4 June 1814, Bennet to same, July 1815; Creevey Pprs. i. 240.
- 6. Brougham mss, Brougham to Grey [?Dec. 1815]; Creevey Pprs. i. 185, 191, 213, 215, 217; Creevey’s Life and Times, 82; Creevey mss, Bennet to Creevey, 31 May 1815.
- 7. Add. 51662, Bedford to Holland, n.d. ; 56540, ff. 24, 52.
- 8. Parl. Deb. xxi. 1280; xxii. 374, 1049; xxviii. 131, 261; xxx. 47; xxxi. 831, 918; xxxvii. 1280, 1283; xxxviii. 13, 414.
- 9. Letter to the Common Council ... on the abuses existing in Newgate, 1818.
- 10. Parl. Deb. xxviii. 83, 531, 674; xxx. 39; xxxi. 1040; xxxii. 326, 329; xxxiv. 1262; xxxvii. 261, 502, 602.
- 11. Ibid. xxviii. 90; xxix. 738, 955, 1045.
- 12. Ibid. xxxiii. 417; xxxiv. 1099; xxxv. 404, 503; xxxvi. 158; xxxviii. 284; xl. 1076.
- 13. Romilly, Mems. iii. 239.
- 14. Parl. Deb. xxxiii. 1281; xxxv. 499; xxxvi. 107, 249, 910, 1298, 1304; xxxvii. 690; xxxviii. 18, 507, 1061, 1264; xxxix. 755.
- 15. Ibid. xxxiv. 426; xxxviii. 291, 834.
- 16. Ibid. xxxvi. 890, 1155; xxxvii. 216, 506; xxxix. 426, 436, 449, 454, 550, 1269.
- 17. Ibid. xxxviii. 162, 329; xxxix. 1137; xl. 1367.
- 18. Ibid. xxiv. 199; xxxvii. 256.
- 19. Grey mss, Lambton to Grey, 11 Nov. 1818; Add. 56540, ff. 24-37; NLW, Coedymaen mss 1, f. 36.
- 20. Brougham mss 344.
- 21. P. H. Fitzgerald, Lives of the Sheridans, ii. 103; Life of Geo. IV, i. 407; M. Roberts, The Whig Party 1807-1812, p. 420.
- 22. There are several errors in the Gent. Mag. obit. (1836), ii. 558.