LAMBTON, William Henry (1764-97), of Lambton, co. Dur.
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Family and Education
b. 13 Nov. 1764,1 1st s. of Gen. John Lambton† of Lambton, and bro. of Ralph John Lambton*. educ. Wandsworth 1773-8; Eton 1778-82; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1782. m. 19 June 1791, Lady Anne Barbara Frances Villiers, da. of George Bussy Villiers†, 4th Earl of Jersey, 4s. 1da. suc. fa. 1794.
The Lambtons had been settled in north Durham since at least the 12th century, but it was not until the 18th century that they emerged from the ranks of the prosperous gentry to become one of the richest commoner families in England. Their fortune was founded on the coal which lay beneath the former Hedworth estates at Harraton on the north bank of the Wear, which came into their hands through the marriage in 1696 of this Member’s grandfather, Ralph Lambton of Barnes, to Dorothy Hedworth. Ralph Lambton was succeeded in 1717 by his eldest son Henry, Member for Durham 1734-61, who came into the old family property in the parish of Lambton on the death in 1724 of his uncle William, Member for the county 1685-1702. Henry died unmarried in 1761 and his brother and successor William in 1774, when all the property was inherited by Ralph Lambton’s youngest son John, a soldier, who had succeeded Henry in the city seat.2
When General Lambton made way for his son in 1787, it was predicted that ‘young Lambton will be more violent than his father’ in opposition to Pitt’s ministry3 and so it proved. William Henry, who joined Brooks’s in 1784 and the Whig Club in 1786, was a zealous Foxite Whig, closely associated in politics with his school and university friends Charles Grey* and Samuel Whitbread II* and sharing their attachment to the cause of parliamentary reform. He was a fluent and often impassioned speaker, but his political career was disrupted by ill health, inherited from his mother.
He mustered with the Whigs in London, 11 May 1790, was returned unopposed for Durham at the general election, supported Grey’s motion on the Spanish convention, 13 Dec. 1790, and attacked the armament against Russia, 29 Mar. 1791, complaining that an unwarranted war would cause hardship to the artisan who scraped ‘a hard-earned living by the light of his farthing candle’. He voted against government on the same issue, 12 Apr. 1791 and 1 Mar. 1792. He was listed as a supporter of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in April 1791. He was called to order when seconding the motion for inquiry into alleged ministerial corruption at the 1788 Westminster election, 9 Mar. 1792, but went on to accuse Pitt of using the excise duties as an instrument of political oppression.
A founder member of the Association of the Friends of the People, Lambton chaired their meeting of 26 Apr. 1792 and signed their declaration and address in favour of parliamentary reform. He defended the Association in the House, 30 Apr., arguing the case for reform while disclaiming any ‘republican’ sympathies. He was a committee member of the Friends of the Liberty of the Press. He demanded inquiry into the Birmingham riots, 21 May, and on the proclamation against seditious societies, 25 May, charged Pitt with exploiting events in France to crush the reform movement. A teller for the Foxite rump who divided against the address, 13 Dec. 1792, he got nowhere with demands for the production of a supposed aggressive pact with Austria and Prussia, 11 Feb. 1793. He moved formally for its production the following day, but dropped the motion on being assured that the treaty did not exist. In the course of his speech, he confessed that when he addressed the House ‘he found himself in a state of trepidation, somewhat like a man half seas over’. On 13 Feb. he told a fellow Whig that although the House was strongly with Pitt in support of war, ‘the people’ were ‘generally averse’ to it and that the opposition case, ‘however unpopular or unsuccessful at present, is so founded in truth that it must ultimately prevail’.4 He spoke and voted (as a teller) against the war, 18 Feb., seconded Sheridan’s motion for the production of proof of sedition, 4 Mar., attacked the traitorous correspondence bill, 9 Apr., and argued that the commercial relief afforded by the issue of Exchequer bills would be transient if war continued, 30 Apr. On 21 Mar. he pressed Wilberforce to lower his sights to regulation of the slave trade if his abolition bill failed, and he called for an end to British involvement in the foreign trade, 14 May. He supported receipt of reform petitions, 21 Feb. and 2 May, presented petitions from Durham, 1 May, and Perthshire, 6 May, and voted for Grey’s reform motion, 7 May, but did not speak in the debate. He was in the opposition minorities on the alleged abrogation of the terms of the 1688 settlement, 31 May, and the war, 17 June.
Lambton wrote to Whitbread from Cocken, one of the family residences in Durham, 11 Nov. 1793:
I have never bestowed a single thought upon politics since I left London, and propose treating them with the same thorough contempt for the whole year ... I begin strongly to suspect they are made up of inherent villainy, rascality, duplicity and empty ambition, and that we are all, without knowing it at the time, neither more nor less than villains, rascals, knaves and fools, sacrificing our happiness and our characters to the vilest, meanest and most unprincipled purposes.
His father’s death in March 1794 made him an extremely wealthy man, said to be worth £35,000 a year.5
He resumed parliamentary attendance the following month and his name appears in all 14 surviving minority division lists between 8 Apr. 1794 (pensions and sinecures) and 6 Feb. 1795 (peace). He condemned the foreign enlistment bill, 11 Apr., and the suspension of habeas corpus, 16 and 17 May, and on the second report of the secret committee, 16 June, defended the Friends of the People, disclaiming any connexion on their part with extremist organizations, and contended that no proof had been produced of a genuine threat to social order. He decried repression, 30 Dec. 1794, and secured the return of information on foreign troops in British pay, 7 Jan. 1795. He accepted the naval augmentation the same day, as money was better spent on the navy than on foreign subsidies, but deplored the renewed suspension of habeas corpus, 15 and 23 Jan., when he spoke of ‘a corrupt administration, acting through the medium of a corrupt Parliament’, and avowed that although the Friends had temporarily suspended their agitation for reform, they remained committed to its fulfilment. He spoke for Grey’s peace motion, 6 Feb., presented a Durham peace petition, 17 Feb., and voted with Wilberforce for peace, 27 May. He was at odds with Grey on the question of financial provision for the Prince of Wales. He supported the ministerial proposal for a grant of £65,000, 14 May, and the scheme to provide for payment of his debts, 1 June, but was a teller for the minorities in favour of Fox’s motion to take the money from the civil list rather than the consolidated fund, 8 June, and the Prince’s right to arrears of duchy of Cornwall revenues, 15 June. He voted against the imperial loan, 10 June 1795.
Lambton voted against the introduction of the seditious meetings bill, 10 Nov., led the opposition to its first reading, 12 Nov., and was a teller for the minority against the second reading of the King’s safety bill, 16 Nov. 1795; but on 19 Nov. he wrote to an unknown Durham friend:
I propose returning as soon as these bills are out of our House in which I think I can have very little future business, for we are dwindling fast into a mere registering office. You would be astonished as well as indignant at the perfect apathy of most of our worthy Members to whom I believe the establishment of a bastille or the lettres de cachet would not be unacceptable. In short the game is over and all opposition totally futile.
He had ‘no personal objection to call a county meeting’, but thought it wiser to do so on ‘the question of peace which will be more generally felt’ than to risk defeat on the repressive measures.6 He approved the bounty for corn imports, 18 Nov., despite qualms about legislative interference with agriculture, strongly attacked Windham for his defence of coercion, 23 Nov., and in his last known speech in the House, 25 Nov., denounced the seditious meetings bill.
Soon afterwards Lambton’s health took a turn for the worse. On 11 Apr. 1796, when he was showing signs of recovery, he wrote in despair to Grey of the Foxites’ failure to rouse the country against repression:
The disposition of Englishmen is changed. The amor lucri absorbs every other sentiment in all ranks. Then comes the fear of losing what is got, for the protection of which a strong executive government and strong laws and a large military force are in their estimation considered as solely adequate. It is not only that the governors are corrupt. The mass of the people keeps pace with them in a proportionate corruption ... I am, like you, thoroughly sick of politics and so indifferent to Parliament that I almost long to have no more to do with it.7
In May he sought medical advice from Dr Thomas Beddoes of Bristol and Dr Erasmus Darwin of Birmingham, taking the opportunity on his travels to visit the Soho ironworks of Boulton and Watt. He retained his seat at the general election, but his health worsened and he decided to go with his family to Naples, as he explained to Grey, 5 Aug. 1796:
I could not help perceiving that the politics of the ensuing winter must ... be extremely interesting, and consequently that I could not avoid fulfilling my duty in that line to the best of my power at the risk of my health. But Beddoes and Darwin particularly warned me against an attendance in Parliament, from which late hours, a corrupt atmosphere and much anxiety to all who really feel for their country are inseparable ... disgusted at and at times more than indifferent to the subject, I know from experience how liable I am to be roused by topics arising unexpectedly and involving interests to which apathy appears criminal.8
While he was abroad Lambton, who had begun the building of Lambton Castle on the site of the old Harraton Hall and placed his affairs in the hands of trustees, continued to take a keen interest in domestic politics. In the spring of 1797 he went to Rome where his health, and with it hopes of returning to England, seemed to revive, but he fell ill again in the autumn and died of consumption at Pisa, 30 Nov. 1797.9
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Winifred Stokes / David R. Fisher
- 1. According to Gent. Mag. (1764), 545; Burke PB gives 16 Nov.; Reid, Lord Durham , i. 16 and other sources give 15 Nov.
- 2. Reid, i. 1-16; Farington, i. 319; D. Spring, ‘Earls of Durham and Great Northern Coalfield’, Canadian Hist. Rev. xxxiii. (1952), 237-53.
- 3. Northumb. RO, Blackett mss ZBL 232, Trevelyan to Blackett, 19 Feb. 1787.
- 4. Beds. RO, Antonie mss UN 570/6.
- 5. Whitbread mss W1/6192; Farington, i. 319.
- 6. Grey mss.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Reid, i. 25-28.
- 9. Reid, i. 28-36.