SEBRIGHT, Sir John Saunders, 7th Bt. (1767-1846), of Beechwood, Herts. and Besford, Worcs.
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Family and Education
b. 23 May 1767, 1st s. of Sir John Sebrightt, 6th Bt., of Beechwood, Herts. by Sarah, da. of Edward Knight of Wolverley, Worcs. educ. Westminster 1778. m. 6 Aug. 1793, Harriet, da. and h. of Richard Croftes† of West Harling, Norf., 1s. 8da. suc. fa. as 7th Bt. 23 Feb. 1794.
Ensign, 1 Ft. Gds. 1785, lt. and capt. 1792, ret. 1794; capt. Herts. yeoman cav. 1798.
Sheriff, Herts. 1797-8.
Sebright, whose father had been Member for Bath until 1780, was prepared to stand for election there, Lord Bayham assuring Pitt that he would prove a steady friend to administration if supported, 28 July 1789. Nothing came of this. Sebright gave up his military career on succeeding to the paternal estate in three counties in 1794 and devoted himself to agricultural improvements. In 1805 he was a conspicuous supporter of William Baker in the Hertfordshire by-election. His uncle had represented the county. On Baker’s retirement in 1807, Sebright replaced him unopposed, though it may have been in anticipation of a contest that he sold his fine library that year. Soliciting Lord Spencer’s support, 26 Apr. 1807, he wrote: ‘I am not devoted to any party, but shall always consider myself at liberty to act as I may think proper. I have not nor will I ever ask the support of any administration lest it should be considered as a pledge of my future conduct.’1
He was as good as his word: but his peculiar line of conduct gave him a reputation for unsteadiness. His friend Nicolson Calvert’s* wife wrote of him:2 ‘He has some good qualities, and also a great many disagreeable ones. He has a violent temper, and is very odd and strange. At times he is entertaining, but much oftener tiresome, a great egoist and an incessant talker.’ In his maiden speech, a moderate defence of Cochrane’s motion for inquiry into places and pensions held by Members, he again disclaimed party connexion, while professing ‘high respect’ for ministers, 7 July 1807. He supported Bankes’s offices in reversion bill, 10 Aug. On 11 May 1808, he voted in protest against the appointment of the anti-Catholic Patrick Duigenan* to the Irish privy council. Illness in March having prevented him from taking a lead in the question, he expressed his hostility to a prohibition on distilling from grain as damaging to the agricultural interest, 18, 27 May 1808, again on 8 Mar. 1811. He failed to secure election to the finance committee next session. On 21 Feb. 1809 he joined the minority against the convention of Cintra and in March was hostile throughout to the Duke of York, whose resignation as commander-in-chief of the army he welcomed, 20 Mar.
In January 1810 Sebright was invited by Perceval to move the address: he declined, intending to support the amendment. He did so and charged ministers with incompetence, disunity and hypocrisy, 25 Jan. A critic of their conduct of the war, he voted against them throughout on the Scheldt expedition, so that the Whigs were ‘hopeful’ of him, though, as he put it, ‘every one knew that he was of no party’, and he looked for a leader who appreciated the importance of economy and tax relief. To snub him, Perceval had forced a vote on his nomination to the Scheldt committee on 5 Feb. and secured his replacement by Yorke by 196 votes to 128. Although he voted against Burdett’s committal to the Tower, 5 Apr., he became an alarmist in the next few days, personally assured Perceval of his support, deplored Burdett’s demagogic utterances, 10 Apr., and voted against the release of Gale Jones, 16 Apr. He supported his colleague Brand’s motion for parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810, but eschewed the extra-parliamentary meeting of Friends of Constitutional Reform in 1811. He voted for Tierney’s motion critical of the droits of Admiralty, 30 May 1810. He voted with opposition on two of the Regency divisions, 29 Nov. 1810 (the second division) and 1 Jan. 1811. Yet on 4 Jan. he complimented the chancellor of the Exchequer on his budgeting for the armed forces, and he supported government (though he came down intending to vote against them) on Ponsonby’s motion on Irish affairs, 7 Mar. 1811. Robert Ward quoted him as saying of opposition, ‘they certainly will not have me with them; nor will it raise them in my esteem’.3
Wilberforce, who dined with him at this time, described him in his journal as ‘a man of much energy in the pursuits he engages in and many right dispositions, feelings and opinions—very upright as a Member of Parliament. I tried to introduce some religious conversation but I knew not well how.’ On Catholic relief Sebright was then open-minded; the Irish secretary’s speech induced him not to support Morpeth’s motion, 4 Feb. 1812, and he said relief should be granted, as a boon and not a right, when the Catholics adopted a less ‘menacing posture’.4 Nevertheless he invariably voted for relief thereafter. He was named to the civil list committee, 10 Feb., and supported Bankes’s campaign against offices in reversion and sinecures, 7, 21, 24 Feb., 4 May 1812. He objected to McMahon’s appointment as private secretary to the Regent, 14 Apr. He opposed the introduction of foreigners into English regiments, 10 Mar. On 7 May he voted for his colleague Brand’s amendment on the Exchequer tellerships. While he deplored the fate of Perceval, he opposed the extravagant compensation to his family, 13 May, and on 21 May was in the majority for a stronger government. He complained of the delay in forming a new government, 5 June 1812. He expected a contest for his seat at that time, but the ministerial contender withdrew before the election.
Sebright’s support was not looked for by Lord Liverpool’s administration in the Parliament of 1812. Apart from his pro-Catholic votes and membership of the civil list committee, he was inactive in the first two sessions, until on 20 May 1814 he indicated his dislike of a committee on the Corn Laws. On 1 Mar. 1815 (following a visit to Paris), he said that he would not support agricultural protection if he thought bread prices would go up, but he doubted this. He deprecated the Westminster petition against the Corn Laws, assuring Burdett that the electors of Westminster were not the people of England, 10 Mar. In other respects he veered towards opposition again, voting against the continuation of the militia, 28 Feb., against the transfer of Genoa, 27 Apr., against the resumption of war, 28 Apr., 25 May, and for economy, 5, 8 and 31 May 1815. He opposed the Duke of Cumberland’s marriage grant a month later. In the session of 1816 he voted against treaties with the continental powers, 20 Feb., and proceeded to vote steadily and sometimes speak in favour of retrenchment and against the continuation of the property tax, 18 Mar. He remained favourable to parliamentary reform, voting for Burdett’s motion, 9 May 1817, but had objected to the insulting tone of the Manchester petition for it, 6 Feb. 1817. He had also declined nomination to the finance committee, 7 Feb., claiming that the civil list committee on which he had been placed by ministers (10 Feb. 1812) had proved a ‘gross delusion upon the public’: he would not be duped again. He further objected to Lord Binning’s being of the committee. He was duped into voting for the suspension of habeas corpus, 23 June 1817, although he had voted against the secret committee on sedition, 5 June, and for particulars of political prisoners, 11 June. His vote of 25 June 1817 and his speech of 5 Feb. 1818 indicated that he had been deceived as to the necessity for ministerial measures. Henry Brougham had foreseen this: ‘There will be an avowal I trust by Jack Gabble (Sebright) that he is ashamed of himself more and more daily for having let them dupe him with the alarm. If he does, we shall coax him into moving for the committee.’5
On questions of retrenchment Sebright continued to act with opposition. He was for inquiry into resumption of cash payments by the Bank, 1 May 1818 and 2 Feb., and welcomed the government concession on the subject, 24 May 1819. Tierney, the opposition leader, put him (with another Member Sir John Shelley) in a category of his own, not to be counted on for support, but part of the sum of opposition. He was on the ministerial side on the case of Wyndham Quin*, 29 Mar. 1819, but voted for Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May. He voted for burgh reform, 1 Apr., 6 May, and for the extension of the franchise at Penryn, 22 June. He also favoured reform of the Game Laws, 14 May. He voted against the foreign establishment bill, 3 June, but supported the budget proposals except for the coal duties, 20 May, and the malt duty, 9 June. On 24 Nov. 1819, he expressed his sympathy for reform but opposed inquiry into the Manchester disturbances. He appeared in the subsequent minorities only against the seizure of arms bill, 14 Dec. Described loosely in 1821 as ‘an opposition man’, he became gradually committed to acting with the Whigs. He died 15 Apr. 1846. famous for his eccentricities, his bevy of plain daughters, his performing dogs and his expertise in hawking.6
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. PRO 30/8/119, f. 172; DNB; Gent. Mag. (1846), ii, 93; Spencer mss.
- 2. Warrenne Blake, Irish Beauty, 20.
- 3. Add. 34458, f. 12; 35648, f. 279; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 9 Apr. 1810; NLI, Richmond mss 65/747; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 403.
- 4. Life of Wilberforce (1838), iii. 496; Richmond mss 67/987.
- 5. Brougham mss, Brougham to Lambton, Sat. .
- 6. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 18 Feb.; Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 25 Nov. 1819; Colchester, iii. 340; E. Inglis-Jones, Peacocks in Paradise, 179.