HOLMES, William (1779-1851), of 10 Grafton Street, New Bond Street, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



17 Mar. 1808 - 1812
1812 - 1818
1818 - 1820
1820 - 1830
1830 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 1779, 5th s. of Thomas Holmes, brewer, of Farnhill, co. Sligo by Anne, da. of Harloe Phibbs of co. Sligo. educ. Trinity, Dublin 6 Apr. 1795, aged 17. m. 24 Oct. 1807, Helen, da. of John Tew of Dublin, wid. of Rev. Sir James Stronge, 1st Bt., 1s.

Offices Held

Lt. 4 Ft. 1799, 69 Ft. 1800; capt. 3 W.I. Regt. 1803-7.

Treasurer of Ordnance 1818-30.

Agent for Demerara 1820-33.


‘Black Billy’ Holmes was the son of a well-to-do Irish brewer. He entered the army and served in the West Indies, acting as military secretary to Sir Thomas Hislop. He left the army in 1807 and in March 1808 contested Grampound on the interest of Basil Cochrane. He was defeated, but obtained the seat on petition. On 21 Oct. 1808 Huskisson informed Spencer Perceval that Holmes was a ‘sworn friend’ of Charles Palmer*.1 On 17 Mar. 1809 he voted against Perceval’s motion on the Duke of York’s conduct and on 25 Apr., like his colleague Cochrane, was in the minority against alleged ministerial corruption. After Perceval came to power, his line was modified. He voted with ministers on the address, 23 Jan., and against the Scheldt inquiry, 26 Jan. and 23 Feb. 1810, but with the opposition majority of 5 Mar. before rallying to government on 30 Mar. The Whigs had been ‘doubtful’ about him. On 21 May 1810 he was in the majority against parliamentary reform.

Subsequently Holmes was a reliable supporter of Perceval’s administration. In January 1811 he was a dining friend of the premier’s and about that time obtained a place in Jamaica worth £2,400 p.a. for one of his brothers. He could be counted on to oppose sinecure reform, 21, 24 Feb., 4 May, and voted against a stronger administration after Perceval’s assassination, 21 May 1812. He was a go-between in the bid to bring Canning into Liverpool’s cabinet in July 1812. At the ensuing election he stood no chance at Grampound, but was returned after a contest at Tregony, where the Treasury and Lord Yarmouth assisted him against Lord Darlington. According to Andrew James Cochrane Johnstone*, Holmes’s disgruntled running partner at Grampound, they received no government assistance and did not solicit it: and he denied the Prince Regent’s assertion, put about by his secretary McMahon, that they had. He claimed that ‘McMahon did everything to encourage a rupture between Arbuthnot and Holmes, but Arbuthnot has most completely exonerated himself from all blame, and has fixed the lie where it originated’. Arbuthnot (secretary to the Treasury) was very embarrassed: he had assured the Regent that Johnstone and Holmes were friendly to government, but he now declared that ‘the loss of men like them will never materially injure any government’ and affected to be ‘very amused’ to learn that Holmes was his first cousin: ‘till I got acquainted with him in the House of Commons I did not know of his existence, and having always thought him a very vulgar low sort of man, it has been my unwearying endeavour to stand aloof from him’. On 8 Nov. George Rose wrote to Arbuthnot after a scrutiny of the list of new Members, ‘Holmes is marked pro in the last Parliament and con in this, for which I suppose you have good reason’. Next day Canning wrote of Holmes that he was brought in by Lord Yarmouth ‘but he will be with me as far as he dares’.2 Nevertheless he appeared on the Treasury list of supporters after the election.

Holmes lacked the audacity with which Canning credited him. He voted against Catholic relief, 2 Mar., 11 and 24 May 1813, and again in 1816 and 1817. (He opposed it to the end.) The Irish secretary paid him this compliment, 26 May 1813: ‘He knew the House perfectly well and the manner in which almost every man in it would vote— indeed I may [say] every man of those that did vote or paired off’.3 He voted for Christian missions to India, 22 June, 12 July 1813. He was no debater. On 21 and 22 June 1813 he pleaded for the discharge of a Cornish election offender, claiming that the lot of Cornish electors was hard: 98 of his own supporters at Tregony had been evicted by their angry patron. The ‘almost ruinous’ expense of his election and of fighting the petition against his return induced him to hope for a place. His hopes were dashed when Lushington was appointed joint secretary to the Treasury, so he informed the Regent, 18 Dec. 1813, and he claimed that he would have to retire, when his only wish was to ‘give daily proofs of my devoted attachment to your ... person and government’. Next day he applied to be made a commissioner for the Carnatic. The following summer Arbuthnot recalled his giving ‘to the recommendation of Holmes the very best place then at our disposal in the West Indies’. On 24 June and 19 July 1814 Holmes maintained the innocence of Thomas Cochrane*, Lord Cochrane, in the House. In 1815 he obtained the collectorship of Sligo for his brother Richard. He could be relied on to muster for government in all critical divisions for the remainder of that Parliament and in 1816 came to the rescue of John Wilson Croker*, in a flap about the navy estimates, by paper-chasing for him.4 In June 1816 he carried the gas light bill. On 3 Apr. 1818 he obtained leave for a bill to authorize the transfer of slaves from one colony to another, with particular reference to Demerara, for which he subsequently became agent.

At the dissolution of 1818 Holmes was awarded the treasurership of the Ordnance, Lord Mulgrave being informed that a Member of the House was wanted for the place. He then came in for Totnes, probably on the Farwell interest, though Aldeburgh was also thought of for him. His duty henceforward was to act as Treasury whip: Henry Bankes* described him in May 1819 as ‘our great calculator upon relative numbers’. For this he was well qualified, as he ‘seemed to know every collateral relationship in blood and politics of those he had to whip up’.5 John Cam Hobhouse, the radical, thought him ‘a notorious scoundrel’, who could describe himself, at his own table, as ‘a ministerial hack’ (18 Sept. 1819). Holmes admitted in an application to Lord Liverpool on behalf of his late brother’s family, 10 Aug. 1819, that his claims on the ministry must be long exhausted. He was eventually conceded the status of a Tory by conviction.6 He died 26 Jan. 1851.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: P. A. Symonds / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. A. Aspinall, Three Early 19th Cent. Diaries, 1; Gent. Mag. (1851), i. 315; Perceval (Holland) mss 14, f. 6.
  • 2. NLS mss 2264, f. 162; Geo. IV Letters, i. 132, 183; Beckford mss, Cochrane Johnstore to Arbuthnot (copy), 23 Oct., to Beckford, 24 Oct.; T.64/261; Bagot mss, Canning to Bagot, 9 Nov. 1812.
  • 3. Add. 40283, f. 70.
  • 4. Geo. IV Letters, i. 371, 373; ii. 525; Add. 40245, f. 36; 40288, f.199; Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, i. 83.
  • 5. Add. 38272, f. 94; Colchester, iii. 76; Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, 2nd ed. (1858), iii. 240.
  • 6. Add. 38279, f. 51; 56540, ff. 31, 99; Redding, loc. cit; Gent. Mag. loc. cit.