MILNES, Robert Pemberton (1784-1858), of Fryston Hall, Yorks.

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



1806 - 1818

Family and Education

b. 28 May 1784, 1st s. of Richard Slater Milnes*. educ. Hackney; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1801. m. 22 Aug. 1808, Hon. Henrietta Maria Monckton Arundell, da. of Robert Monckton Arundell*, 4th Visct. Galway [I], 1s. 1da. suc. fa. 1804.

Offices Held

Cornet, S. W. Yorks. yeomanry 1803, lt. 1803, capt. 1804.


Milnes was a by-word for blighted promise in public life. Three days after his father’s death he joined Brooks’s Club, sponsored by Earl Fitzwilliam. In 1806 he headed the poll at Pontefract, relying on Fitzwilliam’s encouragement and, more particularly, on the interest of his Whig connexion by marriage, Viscount Galway, whose daughter he married two years later. He was listed among the ‘staunch friends’ of the abolition of the slave trade, but on 3 Mar. 1807 he took three weeks’ sick leave and distanced himself from the dismissed Grenville ministry in the maiden speech that made his reputation as ‘Orator’ or ‘Single Speech’ Milnes. This was against Lyttelton’s motion on 15 Apr. 1807. William Lamb reported:

The order of the day was moved by Mr Milnes, the Member for Pontefract, a young man of only two-and-twenty years, in a speech of great fluency, facility, and dexterity, but more remarkable in my opinion, who disagree with him, for a manner and tone so perfectly parliamentary as to be surprising in so young a speaker than for depth or force of argument. The greatest blemish of it was that it wanted that which is the nerve and soul and marrow of a speech—real truth and integrity; and one short sentence, in which he said he was at heart a warm friend to Catholic concession, took away the whole foundation from under the superstructure which the rest of his speech was labouring to erect. This effort, however, caused a great sensation both in the House and with the public, and the greatest hopes are naturally conceived of the author of it.1

The gist of Milnes’s argument was that those who disapproved the measure that led to the Grenville ministry’s dismissal were entitled to overlook their concurrence with its previous measures, of which he remarked in passing, that the credit for the abolition of the slave trade belonged rather to Wilberforce than to ministers and that their other measures were open to question. In an apologia to a would-be Whig mentor, Rev. Christopher Wyvill, he wrote, 17 Apr.:

on coming into Parliament I did not find myself so zealous for the late government, as you might imagine me. I certainly was inclined to prefer a feeble administration, which by having you can control, than one so powerful as the last, when no check could have been given to the doctrines of Lord Grenville and Mr Windham many of which I think highly detrimental as well as likely to be realized.

You will not however I am sure imagine that I in any way surrender myself to the present men when I tell you that I express myself in the fullest friendly to peace, toleration and reform. I however hope that even under them these great objects are as probable or rather not less improbable than under Lord Grenville.

The line I took on Wednesday was this, as it was impossible you should collect it from any newspaper account. I certainly said that in many points the measures of the late ministers in my mind did not come up to their professions and particularly lamented the injury which I indeed conceive the Catholic question itself has sustained in their hands, and deprecated the general doctrine of reviving a former decision of the House, in the shape of the motion then before it and which Mr Lyttelton himself said was intended only to revive it.

Spencer Perceval, on the other side, assured the King, 16 Apr.:

The most remarkable circumstance in the debate was a speech of most distinguished ability from Mr Milnes ... Mr Perceval never remembers to have heard so very promising and complete a performance in the first speech of any Member of Parliament.

On 30 May Milnes informed Wyvill:

In one word I profess myself most cordially attached to the present government ... The re-establishment of the volunteer system, a seeming disposition to prosecute the war with vigour ... and I sincerely believe not the slightest ministerial interference unduly exercised in the elections now over our heads have served to confirm me in this opinion.

He added:

I am sure you will congratulate me on my escape from the shipwreck of my own election. Several circumstances conspired to make the struggle more difficult than I believe it will be again and I feel a little proud that my success may be solely attributed to the part I took in the House of Commons.2

On 6 July 1807 Milnes struck again, in reply to Whitbread’s motion, with a plea for national unity. Richard Sharp was delighted to report to his Whig friends that ‘Milnes has not fulfilled the House’s expectation’, but Perceval informed the King that he ‘made his second speech maintaining the character of ability which he acquired by his first speech in the former session’. Perceval had been content to place him on the finance committee and he was granted ‘confidential access’ to the Foreign Office under Canning’s aegis, to put him on the high road to office. The latter was not impressed:

Young Milnes is too young and unsteady. Besides I am not quite sure that he turns out all that I expected. He has been here reading and working—but I do not take to him quite as much as I thought I should.

Yet when Milnes gave ‘unqualified support’ to the address, 21 Jan. 1808, Perceval informed the King that he ‘spoke at considerable length and with great powers and ingenuity’. As his remarks in defence of the Copenhagen expedition and against the illusion of Russian mediation for an armistice showed, he had not wasted his time in Canning’s office. On 3 Feb., in reply to opposition arguments against the Copenhagen expedition, he spoke, Perceval conceded, ‘very well, but not at so much length or perhaps with quite so much effect as before’. The Whigs were jubilant: Lady Holland thought him ‘quite extinguished; it was the first occasion on which he had attempted to speak without previously writing his speech, so he is completely given up by all and laughed at by his own party’. The degree of his discouragement may be gauged against his friend John Spencer Stanhope’s description of his personality:

Milnes was a wild, unstable creature, at one time devoting his days and nights to reading; at another giving them up to play; at another engrossed entirely with shooting; always agreeable, clever, sarcastic, he was everything by fits and nothing long, yet always dearly loved by his friends and companions, always a straightforward man, full of high feeling and honour.3

For three years, Milnes was silent in debate; he was dropped from the finance committee (for one session), 24 Jan. 1809, and he apparently even voted against Perceval’s resolution exonerating the Duke of York, 17 Mar. 1809.

What followed in October 1809 must be seen against Henry Brougham’s setting of the political scene:

But I have lived to see Pitt and Fox and Burke in their graves, and the country occupied with discussing whether Milnes is to support the ministry and the removal of Petty to the House of Lords regarded as a national calamity.

Also to the point are two anecdotes about Milnes.

Soon after he left Cambridge, Milnes made a bet of £300 to £500 with Kit Wilson, then a great character on the Turf ... that before seven years were over he should be chancellor of the Exchequer.

According to the other,

this offer was so much anticipated at the time that, when Milnes was walking down the House after the division, Jack Fuller, the buffoon of those days, walked before him roaring out ‘Make way for the chancellor of the Exchequer!’4

Perceval, proposing to divest himself of the Exchequer, did indeed propose it to Milnes (not his first choice), with the alternative of the secretaryship at war outside the cabinet, if Milnes was shy of the first, though Lord Bathurst warned the premier that Milnes was ‘too volatile for the War Office, which required great sobriety of conduct’. Milnes came up to town and consulted Canning on 21 Oct. and was apparently unconvinced by Canning’s arguments against Perceval’s taking the helm—he ceased to be regarded as Canning’s élève. After further reflection, he declined both offers. Perceval who anticipated this outcome informed his brother, 24 Oct.:

But he declined them in the most friendly way, upon a feeling of modesty that I could not overcome, but with the express determination of constant attendance and exertion in the House, during the next session, and if he succeeds to his own satisfaction in his exertions he will then, should there be an opening for him, have no objection to accept office. He desired me to tell the King that his refusal was so far from proceeding from any indisposition to support his government that his fear of disappointing us, and doing us harm was his great objection.

The credit for his refusal to gratify his vanity was in one quarter awarded to his kinsman Samuel Thornton*, who had apparently recommended him for inclusion in the ministry in the first place. He himself was sure that had he accepted, ‘with my temperament I should be dead in a year’. Lord Palmerston, who accepted the War Office, soon corrected his first impression that Canning had governed Milnes’s decision. In his view (27 Oct. 1809),

He seems much steadier than he used to be, and I should not be surprised if he were to fag very hard in Parliament; and then, if he acquires, as he will, a certain confidence in himself, and Perceval still keeps the office open for him, it is not improbable that he may take it before the session is over.

Brougham thought Milnes had ‘a very well grounded fear of taking an office and being forced to speak’, while Wilberforce described him as ‘evidently a disappointed man—of great talents; yet not quite equal to scaling the walls and trampling on opposition’.5

Milnes spoilt his prospects. Listed a particular friend of Perceval’s by the Whigs, he voted for the address, 23 Jan. 1810, but did not vote on Porchester’s motion for inquiry into the Scheldt expedition, 26 Jan. He voted with ministers on Lord Chatham’s conduct, 23 Feb., 5 Mar., but on 30 Mar., to quote Robert Ward*, writing to Lord Lonsdale next day:

The phenomenon of the evening was Milnes, who has for ever forfeited all reputation for consistency at least, to say nothing more. Your lordship knows how warmly from the beginning to end he sided with government in its very formation, knowing that its existence depended upon this very question. He was in Perceval’s confidence upon it all the way through, attended the meeting that was to decide upon our course, and during the evening itself was called upon [by] Perceval to come forward in the debate which, as P. told me (expressing his surprise on his conduct) he seemed not unwilling to do. With all this he shirked the question on Lord Porchester’s motion, and voted against General Crawford’s amendment. There is an end of him in all our opinions as a public man.

According to a subsequent newspaper report however, he was shut in with the minority by mistake.6 He went on to vote with ministers against the discharge of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr., and against sinecure reform, 17 May 1810.

On 12 Feb. 1811 Milnes was given an opportunity to rehabilitate himself by moving the address. Robert Ward thought that it had never been better moved, though ‘under very great embarrassment all through’, but Whitbread assured Grey that Milnes’s ‘second start has convinced me he will never run’ and he was right. Out of the blue, he came to the defence of the bank-note bill, 15 July 1811. His only known votes during the remainder of that Parliament were against Stuart Wortley’s motion for a more efficient administration, 21 May, and against Catholic relief, 22 June 1812. This earned him the doubtful accolade of being the only Protestant dissenter to be thanked by his constituents for supporting intolerance.7

Milnes headed the poll at Pontefract in 1812. Nothing had come of a scheme two years earlier that he should offer himself for York, his brother Rhodes stepping into his shoes.8 He was listed a Treasury supporter, but played little part in that Parliament. After absence on compassionate leave, he returned to speak in favour of inquiry into the Palace court, 12 May, and to vote against Catholic relief in the crucial division, 24 May 1813. In the spring of 1814 he proceeded to France, he and Viscount Lowther being the first Englishmen to land after the armistice. He voted against the expulsion of Lord Cochrane, 5 July 1814. On 31 May 1815 he was in the ministerial majority against inquiry into the Regent’s expenditure. After Waterloo he visited Brussels and Paris. Subsequently he disappeared from view at Westminster, settling in Yorkshire as an agricultural improver. In 1818 he retired ‘into private life and rarely took part in political questions’.9

His grounds in 1856 for refusing Palmerston’s offer of a peerage (intended, in any case, as a compliment to his son) were interesting:

Although after the termination of the last war, I could go on no longer with an old Tory party when it refused emancipation and the enfranchisement of our large towns (in so far showing I have no very illiberal instincts) yet, after the reform bill, I deemed it right to rejoin the party, and there I have since remained ... with no disrespect to the House of Lords, I consider there is no position higher than that of an English country gentleman.10

So he died, 9 Nov. 1858.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Winifred Stokes / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. T. Wemyss Reid, Lord Houghton, i. 8, 17; Surr. RO, Goulburn mss 4/6, Goulburn’s autobiog.; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. E210, Milnes to Fitzwilliam, 18 Oct. 1806; Lord Melbourne’s Pprs. 39.
  • 2. N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW 7/2/224/1, 3; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3444.
  • 3. Add. 51593, Sharp to Holland [6 July 1807]; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3591; v. 3590, 3594; Sheffield City Lib. Spencer Stanhope mss, Milnes to Spencer Stanhope, 29 July; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 6 Aug. 1807; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 240; Letter-Bag of Lady Elizabeth Spencer-Stanhope, i. 119.
  • 4. Add. 52178, Brougham to Allen, 26 Dec. 1809; Letter-Bag of Lady Elizabeth Spencer-Stanhope, i. 183; cf. Wemyss Reid, i. 11; Broughton, Recollections, v. 204.
  • 5. Geo. III Corresp. v. 3998, 4002, 4007; Perceval (Holland) mss 5, f. 3; Spencer Stanhope mss, Milnes to Spencer Stanhope, 23 Oct.; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 21, 23 Oct., Lowther to same, 22 [Oct.], Long to same, 1 Nov.; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 23 Oct. 1809; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 272, 360; Add. 49188, f. 55; Rose Diaries, ii. 402; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Bragge Bathurst, 4 Dec. 1809; Wemyss Reid, i. 13; Bulwer, Palmerston, i. 90-104; Malmesbury Letters, ii. 156, 174, 198; Brougham, Life and Times, i. 468; Life of Wilberforce (1838), iii. 434.
  • 6. Lonsdale mss; Morning Chron. 4 Apr. 1810.
  • 7. Phipps, i. 386; Grey mss, Whitbread to Grey, 15 Feb. 1811; Globe, 6 July 1812.
  • 8. Lonsdale mss, Armytage to Lonsdale, 17 Sept. 1810.
  • 9. Broughton, i. 116; Wemyss Reid, i. 21, 24, 30; Gent. Mag. (1858), ii. 639.
  • 10. Wemyss Reid, i. 40-2.