HOBHOUSE, Benjamin (1757-1831), of Westbury College, Glos. and Cottles House, Wilts.
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Family and Education
b. 29 Mar. 1757, 2nd s. of John Hobhouse of Westbury College, Glos. by 1st w. Mary née Medley of Hereford, wid. of one Smith. educ. Bristol free g.s.; Brasenose, Oxf. 1774-81; M. Temple 1776, called 1781. m. (1) 12 Sept. 1785, Charlotte (d. 25 Nov. 1791), da. of Samuel Cam of Chantry House, Bradford, Wilts., 3s. 1da. surv.; (2) 18 Apr. 1793, Amelia, da. of Dr Joshua Parry, presbyterian divine, of Cirencester, Glos., 2s. 7da. surv. cr. Bt. 22 Dec. 1812.
Sec. to Board of Control Nov. 1803-May 1804; first commr. for Carnatic debts 1806-29; chairman of ways and means 1806-7; commr. to examine the state of Lincoln gaol 1812.
Capt. commdt. Bradford vols. 1798; capt. Wilts. yeomanry 1805; maj. 4 Wilts. militia 1811.
The younger son of a Bristol merchant, Hobhouse canvassed there for the ministerial candidates in 1780, so he informed his best friend at Oxford, Henry Addington*. He was intended for the bar and practised for a time with William Pitt on the western circuit, but gave it up in 1783 when he went to France and Italy for health reasons. His marriage on his return in 1785 opened another door: his father-in-law, a prominent Wiltshire clothier, had an interest in a bank at Bath, which accrued to Hobhouse. (The firm subscribed £10,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797.) In 1800 he further bought a £33,000 share in Whitbread’s brewery, becoming associated with Samuel Whitbread II* and Timothy Brown, ‘the radical banker’. Alliance with the Cams also influenced his religious views: they were dissenters and he an Anglican. He became attracted to unitarianism, wrote pamphlets in favour of the repeal of the Test Acts, and A treatise on heresy, praised by Fox. In 1792 he championed Dr Joseph Priestley against a trinitarian critic, at the same time emphasizing the humanity of Jesus Christ. His second marriage to the daughter of a presbyterian divine strengthened his nonconformist associations and in 1800 Lady Holland called him ‘a leading man among the dissenters’ who had ‘distinguished his own sect by the denomination of Humanitarians, not to be confounded with Unitarians’.1
According to his radical son, John Cam Hobhouse†, he twice neglected invitations to offer for Bristol on the Tory interest; by 1792 he was a convert to parliamentary reform and in 1796, when only four days before the election he was put up there, it was by a meeting of electors in the Whig interest. He was a champion of peace and, as his opponent Lord Sheffield would have it, ‘had said he should think it a greater honour to be of the French convention than in either House of Parliament’. He was ‘very rich and sturdy’, but failed to make headway. He was next prepared to pay £4,500 for a close borough, provided he was ‘entirely unshackled’. William Smith* was at first his emissary, but William Adam* procured him a seat in February 1797, when he was accommodated for £4,000 on the interest of Sir Robert Clayton*. A week later he made his maiden speech, a country banker’s attack on the stoppage of cash payments by the Bank of England, 27 Feb., in which he deplored the drain on specie of subsidies to the Continent. On 17 Mar. he was left in a minority of one against the bill indemnifying the Bank, ‘a parliamentary sanction to robbery’, and on 27 Mar. and 7 Apr. again attacked the measure. He supported Fox’s Irish motion on 23 Mar. After this confident start he went on to speak with conviction, though perhaps ‘plain and inexpert’, on a variety of subjects throughout that Parliament. During the Whig secession he was perhaps second only to Tierney as a regular opposition spokesman and teller. The Times tipped him as an under-secretary of state if the opposition took office, 22 Mar. 1798. He himself joined the Whig Club on 5 June 1798 and was befriended by the Marquess of Lansdowne.2
Hobhouse’s major speeches were against the slave trade, 15 May 1797; against the war (‘we were the aggressors’), 19 May; against the severity of measures to curb incitement to mutiny (a lone voice), 3 June; against the stamp duties, which hit the press, 14 June; against the renewal of the Bank stoppage, 22 Nov.; against the assessed taxes, 4 Dec. 1797, 4 Jan. 1798, on behalf of the ‘middling orders’; against the land tax redemption bill, 16, 23 Apr.; against the suspension of habeas corpus, 20 Apr.; against the navy manning bill, which damaged the merchant navy, 25 May; and against the newspaper regulation bill, which he successfully amended, 8 June 1798. On 4 Dec. he led the opposition to Pitt’s income tax and on 14 Feb. 1799 to the Irish union. He opposed legislation against trade unions, 10, 26 June 1799; the treason forfeiture bill, 25 June; the refusal to negotiate with France, 7 Feb. and 8 May 1800; the renewal of the suspension of habeas corpus, 19 Feb.; the Irish representation under the Union, 25 Apr.; legislative interference in Catholic institutions in England, 22 May, 11, 23, 27 June; and spoke for Western’s censure motion, 9 July 1800.
Hobhouse’s more casual contributions to debate were no less revealing. He supported Quaker relief, 6 Mar. 1797. He opposed barley export, for the sake of the poor, 3 Apr. He complained of the drain of specie in compensation for neutral cargoes seized, 8 May. He doubted the validity of a bill to prevent the forestalling of cattle: ‘the interest of the speculist and the interest of the community were the same’, 19 May. He deplored the naval mutiny, but warned against undue severity towards the offenders, 2 June. Having voted for parliamentary reform on 26 May, he deplored treating at elections, 27 Nov. 1797. He moved for statistics on tax returns, trade and expenditure, 3 Nov. 1797, 16 Feb. 1798. On 27 Apr. 1798 he opened the question of compensation for John Palmer*, which he renewed in 1799, without success. He criticized the convoy tax as a restraint on freedom of trade, 16 May 1798. He called for further honours for Nelson, whose ‘modesty and piety’ he commended, 21 Nov. 1798. He questioned the Emperor’s securities for his loan, 17 Feb. 1800. He thought voluntary alleviation of the distressed poor when grain was scarce was more effective than government interference, 18 Feb. He criticized the treatment of political prisoners, 19 Feb. On 21 Mar. he moved for accounts of public salaries for the last two years, promising annual motions to check them. He criticized the ratios selected for the commercial articles of the Irish union, 22 Apr., but refuted the Wiltshire clothiers’ lobby on the same question, 1, 5 May. He urged Pitt to take further action against the slave trade, 8 May. He denied that merchants made it their business to evade income tax, 20 May, and objected to the inquisitorial tendencies of the measure, and to its penal clause, 26 May. He led the opposition to the New Forest timber preservation bill, 2-9 July. He justified grain imports to counter famine, 12 Nov., and claimed that the census bill would be incomplete without statistics on food growing, 20 Nov. 1800.
During the first few months of Addington’s administration, Hobhouse’s opposition did not abate, despite their former intimacy. He called for a separate peace with France, 3 Feb. 1801, and on 19 Feb. criticized the budgetary proposals at length. He opposed legislative interference in the price of provisions, 2 Mar., and assailed the stamp duties, 4 Mar., and the tea duty, 12 Mar. He opposed the government’s Irish measures, 18, 19 Mar. He voted for Grey’s censure motion on 25 Mar. After approving a prize regulation bill and the bank-note forgery bill (which he thought should be extended to all banks), 29, 30 Apr., he came to Addington’s defence in debate on 6 May: the prime minister had in the previous month referred to him in debate as his ‘honourable friend’. This tendency was confirmed by the news of peace preliminaries and on 4 Nov. 1801 he turned on Addington’s critics, eulogizing ‘his tried and faithful friend from earliest youth’. Soon afterwards he was reported to have ‘signed and sealed with the new ministry, who are to bring him into Parliament and to provide a situation for him’.3 (Tierney was being weaned from opposition in the same way.) In this new situation he had little of interest to say in the House except against the coroners bill, 23 Mar., 7 Apr. 1802. On 12 Mar. he took the chair in the committee of supply, and again on 21 May: he was expected to succeed Henry Alexander as chairman of committees as soon as the latter was provided for elsewhere.4 On 14 May he gave his blessing to the Treaty of Amiens, formally differing from his former associates.
Hobhouse declined to stand for Bristol in 1802 owing to ‘mismanagement’ there, and also decided against Chippenham. He was returned (‘but not gratis’) for a borough of Sir Christopher Hawkins. By now he had ‘associated with himself the family of the Addingtons’, but without reward. On 6 and 25 May 1803 he vindicated Addington on the resumption of hostilities with France and on 3 June opposed Patten’s censure motion. Converted to a ‘just’ war, he keenly supported the volunteer movement; Addington, finding that Alexander could not be dislodged, though Hobhouse frequently deputized for him, made him secretary to Castlereagh at the Board of Control in the autumn of 1803. As such, he seconded the vote of thanks to the Marquess Wellesley, 3 May 1804. Meanwhile his only notable contribution to debate had been in defence of Addington’s volunteer consolidation bill, 8 Feb., 9 Mar. 1804. He insisted on going out of office with Addington, and, adhering to him, opposed Pitt’s additional force bill in June by speech and vote. When Addington was reconciled with Pitt in December he stipulated office for Hobhouse, in fifth place among his adherents. Pitt promised it ‘in a very short time’.5 On 8 Apr. 1805 he duly voted against the censure of Melville, but on 29 Apr. would hear nothing against St. Vincent’s conduct at the Admiralty. He was chosen for the committee on the naval commissioners’ 11th report on 27 May, and on 12 June, like his leader, voted for Melville’s criminal prosecution. He had at first favoured impeachment, but found that it was the mode preferred by Pitt as a ‘protector of corruption’. ‘A virtuous man can no longer support him’, he assured his leader.6
When his leader returned to power in 1806, Hobhouse was not awarded political office, but he was recommended by the East India Company as first commissioner for settling the debts of the nawabs of the Carnatic. This was not an office of profit as such and he did not vacate his seat, though he was to be paid ‘quantum meruit’, as he explained to the House in seeking parliamentary authorization for the commission, 16 Apr. 1806. It met with opposition and delay, but was secured on 11 July. He further became chairman of ways and means in Alexander’s place next session, also without salary, as he assured the House, 24 Dec. 1806, though the House awarded him £1,300 subsequently.
Hobhouse was returned for Hindon on the Calthorpe interest, ‘at a moderate expense’, at the election of 1806 and retained the seat for 12 years. He was one of the ‘staunch friends’ of the abolition of the slave trade, but while he was chairman of committees took little part in debate. On the dissolution of the Grenville ministry, he remained attached to Lord Sidmouth. After the first session of the Parliament of 1807 he relinquished his chairmanship: his health had broken down. He voted against the ministerial military measures, 14 Mar. 1808, but was absent ill for most of that session. He was again in opposition on the convention of Cintra, 21 Feb. 1809, and Perceval’s motion on the Duke of York’s conduct, 17 Mar., but he dropped out of the committee on East Indian affairs that session because he did not feel able to attend. He declined Perceval’s overtures in October 1809, because Sidmouth was not included in them. When on 2 Feb. 1810 William Smith* regretted that Hobhouse was no longer chairman of committees, he admitted that he would not consider being restored to that office. He followed Sidmouth’s line on the Scheldt question, voting with ministers on the address, 23 Jan., and against them on 26 Jan., 23 Feb. and 5 Mar. 1810, speaking only once. He was absent on 30 Mar., but would, if present, have voted the same way. The Whigs listed him among Sidmouth’s adherents: but he paired against sinecures, 17 May, and voted for parliamentary reform, 21 May. At the end of the month he was again reported to be voting with opposition. Had Sidmouth taken office at that point, he was not expected to remain his adherent. He was also in opposition on the Regency, 1 and 21 Jan. 1811. On 4 Feb. 1812 he voted for Morpeth’s censure motion on Ireland, and on 24 Apr. for Catholic relief. Perceval considered offering him a vacant place at the Board of Control in March and Sidmouth’s imminent return to office modified his position before the dissolution of 1812. On 7 May he was government teller; on 21 May he was in the minority against a remodelling of the government. Next day he took three weeks’ leave for militia duties. On 15 June, in his capacity as president of the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society (which he was for 12 years), he petitioned the House for a general enclosure bill. On 25 June he became a commissioner of inquiry into the state of Lincoln gaol, yet another office without prescribed profit.7 He was teller for the preservation of the peace bill, 20 July 1812.
Hobhouse was listed a Treasury supporter after the election of 1812 and achieved the ambition which Spencer Perceval’s assassination had delayed, being created a baronet. He played little part in the ensuing Parliament. He was teller for the bank-note bill, 8 Dec. 1812. On 22 Feb. 1813 he was a defaulter. He was in the majority for the sinecure regulation bill, 29 Mar. 1813. He voted for Catholic relief, 2 Mar. 1813, paired in favour on 13 May (being also absent on 24 May); paired in favour in 1815 and 1817 and so voted in 1816. He paired against the Corn Laws, 23 Feb. 1815, despite his agricultural interests. He sided with ministers on the civil list, 8 May 1815, and the Irish vice-treasurership, 14 June 1816, but was absent ill during the crucial divisions of March 1816. He paired against the salt duties, 25 Apr. 1817. Two trifling speeches of 29 Jan. 1817 and 23 Feb. 1818 were his only known contributions to debate. In 1818 he retired, leaving the field to his son John Cam Hobhouse, whose radicalism had ceased to offend him.8 He died 14 Aug. 1831.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Brian Murphy / R. G. Thorne
- 1. Sidmouth mss, Hobhouse to Addington, 4 Sept. 1780; Public Characters (1807), 101; R. Fulford, Samuel Whitbread, 94; P. Mathias, Brewing Industry in England, 301; A reply to the Rev. F. Randolph’s letter to the Rev. Dr. Priestley; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 55.
- 2. Broughton, Recollections, i. 2; N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW7/2/77/34; Felix Farley’s Bristol Jnl. 28 May 1796; Add. 34453, f. 508; 36456, ff. 3, 5; Blair Adam mss, Graham to Adam, 24 Jan., Hobhouse to ?, 30 Jan. 1797; T. Green, Diary of a Lover of Literature, 235.
- 3. Add. 48247, f. 36; Lansdowne mss, Lansdowne to Petty, 15, 22 Nov. 1801.
- 4. The Times, 27 May 1802; Add. 37308, f. 361.
- 5. Add. 34455, f. 506; 51585, Tierney to Holland, 26 Dec.; 51736, Caroline Fox to same, 15 July, 9 Aug. , 4 July; Sidmouth mss, Hobhouse to Addington, 1 Sept. 1803, 29 June, Addington to J. H. Addington, 22 Dec. 1804; The Times, 16 Nov. 1803; Colchester, i. 502; Pellew, Sidmouth, ii. 327; PRO 30/8/143, f. 66.
- 6. Sidmouth mss, Hobhouse to Sidmouth, 5 July, 7 Sept. 1805.
- 7. Horner Mems. i. 352; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to J. H. Addington, 17 Oct. 1806, to Bragge Bathurst, 6 Oct. 1809; SRO GD51/1/195/85; HMC Fortescue, ix. 353; Morning Chron. 2 Apr.; Loch mss, Abercromby to Loch, 7 June 1810; Perceval (Holland) mss 10, f. 6; Add. 40287, f. 202; 41858, f. 87.
- 8. Add. 36457, f. 33; 36458, ff. 168, 189, 212; Gent. Mag. (1831), ii. 371.