SPENCER STANHOPE (formerly STANHOPE), Walter (1750-1821), of Cannon Hall, nr. Barnsley and Horsforth, nr. Leeds, Yorks.

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



31 May 1775 - 1780
12 Dec. 1780 - 1784
14 June 1784 - 1790
29 Dec. 1800 - 1802
1802 - 1812

Family and Education

b. 15 Feb. 1750, o. surv. s. of Walter Stanhope (at one time a Leeds merchant), by 2nd w. Ann, da. of William Spencer of Cannon Hall. educ. Bradford; Univ. Coll. Oxf. 1766-9; M. Temple 1769; Grand Tour 1769-70. m. 21 Oct. 1783, Mary Winifred, da. and h. of Thomas Babington Pulleine of Carlton Hall, nr. Richmond, 8s. 7da. suc. fa. 1759; uncle John Stanhope at Horsforth 1769; uncle John Spencer at Cannon Hall 1775; took name of Spencer before Stanhope 1776.

Offices Held

Capt. W. Riding militia 1778, 1 regt. 1792, W. Riding yeomanry 1794.


Stanhope, who derived from a family of north country lawyers and merchants and whose grandmother was a daughter of Sir William Lowther (d.1705), of Swillington, had been provided with seats by Sir James Lowther, 5th Bt., (afterwards Earl of Lonsdale) until 1784, when his friend Wilberforce secured his election for the seat he vacated at Hull. After Stanhope had paid an unhappy visit to the town, Joseph Beckett wrote to Earl Fitzwilliam, 11 Nov. 1788:

Stanhope avows his journey here was to learn how the town stood and accordingly he has pressed the leading people to declare themselves; they have uniformly given him for answer—it is time enough yet. The truth is they do not mean to elect him, he was distasteful to them when he came in, he has continued so and his behaviour now is by no means conciliatory ... he stands ill with both gentle and simple and declares he will hazard no money.

Under the circumstances there is no doubt of bringing in Lord Burford.1

Nevertheless Burford, whose marriage to a Hull heiress Stanhope had helped to negotiate, and his wife’s uncle and former guardian, Sir Henry Etherington, were friends of his and their doubts and embarrassments allowed him to persist in his candidature, until Burford eventually decided to stand at the general election, which was enough to prevent Stanhope from going to a poll. He recorded in his diary on 12 June 1790: ‘canvassing from 6 in the morning till 11 at night, fatigued and ill ...’; on 13 June: ‘Got no sleep ... found some ... falling from me and lukewarm, whom I had expected to be otherwise’; on 14 June: ‘Did not sleep a wink the whole night, very unwell. I determined to give up’; and on 15 June: ‘Left Hull before 5 in the morning’.

His experience in 1790 did not deter him from standing in 1796, when with the support of government and Wilberforce, and having run up expenses of £3,415, he was narrowly defeated, but declined to petition against the return in case he unseated his friend and former colleague, Samuel Thornton. His ‘vanity’ had led him to aspire to the county, but he was not regarded as a serious contender.2 Despite the offer on 29 Nov. 1796 from John Smyth* of ‘a very comfortable seat ... for 4,000 guineas’, he still maintained an interest in Hull, Thornton assuring him, 19 Nov. 1797: ‘You have behaved very generously to the Hull freemen and are in high estimation with all the considerate and grateful people of the place’. By 1800 he had evidently withdrawn as he was approached on 15 Dec. by the election agent John Monckton Hale:

Having heard it mentioned that you did not intend offering for Hull at the general election, I take the liberty of stating I can procure an invitation in your favour from a body (nearly one half) of the electors of a borough where you are not unknown—the number not 300—and all residents. There is likewise a gentleman willing to join by which means the expense would be inconsiderable.

In a second letter of 25 Dec. Hale estimated ‘the expense of two Members quietly seated at £7,100’. The borough not mentioned by name by Hale was almost certainly Great Grimsby. In any case Stanhope was not in need of it as he was returned in the same month by Lonsdale who now had a vacancy for him at Cockermouth, where he had to spend only £54. At three subsequent general elections he held the Lowther seat at Carlisle without the expense of a contest.

Despite his friendship with Wilberforce and his evangelical turn of mind in matters of religion, Stanhope was never a ‘Saint’ in politics and in the House displayed the attitudes of a Pittite country gentleman, although his involvement in local industrial concerns gave him an experience wider than that of the average landowner. He spoke critically, 4 May 1802, of administration’s intention to accept of any services offered by existing yeomanry and volunteer corps, thinking such an armed force in peacetime ‘alike unnecessary as unconstitutional’. If the intention were to combat jacobinism, he did not wish to ‘dragoon the people in this way with sword and helmet’; if the force were to be used in time of scarcity, he objected to the yeomanry protecting the farmer against the manufacturer ‘and thereby inadvertently protecting his monopoly’. On 18 May he opposed a proposal that factory visitors to be appointed under Peel’s apprentice bill should be drawn exclusively from the Church of England as this discriminated against the many dissenters who owned factories, and on 5 May 1804 agreed with Addington in doubting the necessity for stricter residential qualifications for clergymen. He appeared in only two of seven lists as a supporter of Pitt’s question for the orders of the day, 3 June 1803, and in one list as a supporter of Pitt’s navy motion, 15 Mar. 1804; but he opposed Addington’s Irish militia proposals, 10 and 11 Apr., and supported the crucial motions of Fox and Pitt, 23 and 25 Apr. 1804, leading to Addington’s fall. An enthusiastic volunteer after the renewal of war, he criticized the defence preparations in the West Riding on 9 Mar. 1804 and supported Pitt’s additional force bill, 15 June, after an outburst against opposition tactics on the second reading of amendments, for which he was called to order. Classed ‘Pitt’ in September 1804 and July 1805, he was still capable of offering a robust criticism of government’s financial measures. On 3 July 1804 he opposed the proposed increase in stamp duties, complaining that the law was ‘being rendered almost inaccessible to the lower classes of society, by the expenses which attended lawsuits on account of stamps’. He also opposed, 22 Mar. 1805, the legacy duty bill:

It was peculiarly directed against the ill-favoured, and against the ancient maiden, against the diseased, the lame, and the blind. These were more objects of pity, than of taxation. If the tax were to be imposed, the two first years of the income of it ought to be laid out in hospitals and nunneries, that the objects of it might be permitted to starve decently.

He voted against the censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805, and on 29 Apr., with government support, successfully moved for the institution of a civil suit against Melville and Trotter for the recovery of any profits made on public money. Melville he considered ‘had already been sufficiently punished, unless he was convicted of wilful participation in the illicit profits’.

The two sesssions during which the Grenville ministry was in office were the most active of Stanhope’s career. Appalled by inappropriate appointments of Ellenborough, Erskine and Grey, he had written to Viscount Lowther on 4 Feb. 1806:

Is not all this cast of parts like forcing Mrs Siddons into a comic, and Mrs Jordan into a tragic character. I feel very differently now from what I did at Cottesmore last week; I then hoped that Lord Grenville would have selected the fittest men for the higher departments from all parties, and by forming a strong and popular administration, and it cannot be the one without being the other, have afforded the best chance to save the state: as it is, God send us a good deliverance. To go into opposition now would only insure our destruction, but I see no ground for confidence and much for most gloomy prognostic.3

And on 9 Feb. Stanhope’s wife wrote to their son:

Your father does not wish to go directly into opposition, but from the present state of his mind I expect he will not be four-and-twenty hours in the House without speaking what he thinks. He has already in private conversation told some of them what is his opinion; but it is the fashion to be open, even those coming in talk of the great jobs of their colleagues.4

On 3 Mar. Stanhope proposed a motion critical of Ellenborough’s seat in the cabinet, for which he had some difficulty in finding a seconder.5 He confessed that, in spite of his long career and constant attendance in the House, he was placed in ‘a situation novel and embarrassing to himself’, bent over backwards to deny that he was indulging in ‘an opposition to an administration which had not yet had time to do any one act’, and chose to see his motion as ‘much more of the nature of an election petition, denying the eligibility of the lord chief justice of England to a seat in the cabinet’. His motion, prior to which there had been almost no concert among opponents of the ministry, secured only 64 votes.

Stanhope’s dislike of the concept of deliberate opposition did not prevent him from voting against Grenville’s government in all but one of the divisions for which lists survive, nor from criticizing them frequently in debate. He objected to the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806, and thought Windham’s alternative plan tampered ‘with the whole of the existing military establishment’. The increase in the property tax he predicted, 15 May, would ‘raise a discontent in the country almost equal to disaffection’. He feared the tax on private brewers would operate unequally in the country where hospitality was more generous than in London, although he recognized it could help to reduce the number of contested elections (he had approved Tierney’s election treating bill earlier in the session for similar reasons). During the debate on the army estimates, 21 May, he had called for higher contributions to the volunteers and he opposed the training bill, ‘this plan of starving out the volunteers’, 24 June, because of its expense and its failure to place leadership in the hands of ‘gentlemen of landed property’ and because it sanctioned ‘the reprobated principles of ballot, fine, and substitution’. On 27 Feb. 1807, supporting Turton’s motion for Carnatic papers, he complained of ‘a radical defect in the present state of government in India’. He was in sympathy with the aims of Whitbread’s Poor Law bill, 19 Feb. and 24 Apr. 1807, but was not sure that it provided an adequate remedy: ‘the expense of the plan was certain, and the benefit very uncertain’. Listed by Lord Holland as a ‘staunch’ supporter of the abolition of the slave trade, he nevertheless wished compensation to be clarified before the bill passed, 20 Feb. 1807, and was teller for the minority on the timing of the third reading, 10 Mar.

After the resignation of Lord Grenville, Stanhope’s activity in the House immediately declined. He spoke against the parochial schools bill, 14 July 1807, as impracticable, offered minor objections to the assessed taxes bill, 1 Apr., and the local militia bill, 18, 30 May 1808. He called for fuller discussion of Curwen’s reform bill, to which he was opposed, 26 May 1809. Classed ‘against the Opposition’ by the Whigs in 1810, his only known votes were in support of administration on the address, 23 Jan., on the Scheldt expedition, 26 Jan., 23 Feb. 1810 (he was absent on 30 Mar.), and on the Regency, 1 Jan. 1811. On the latter question he was one of the managers of the conference with the Lords. He paired against Brougham’s motion against the orders in council, 3 Mar. 1812. On 10 June 1812 he asked Castlereagh what the attitude of the Liverpool administration towards Catholic relief would be and was informed of its neutrality. On his retirement from the House in 1812 Wilberforce commented: ‘I fear his stamina are suspected to be more affected than I had imagined’;6 and his son received the news with pleasure, as ‘London did not agree with you’. He died 10 Apr. 1821.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: J. M. Collinge


  • 1. Fitzwilliam mss, box 39.
  • 2. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F34/198.
  • 3. HMS Lonsdale, 163-4.
  • 4. Stirling, ii. 295.
  • 5. Add. 37883, f. 136.
  • 6. Life of Wilberforce (1838), iv. 77.