ARBUTHNOT, Charles George James (1801-1870).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1831 - 16 Feb. 1832

Family and Education

b. 10 Dec. 1801,1 1st s. of Charles Arbuthnot* and 1st w. Marcia Mary Anne, da. and coh. of William Clapcott Lisle of Upway, Dorset. educ. Westminster 1811-15. m. 14 Aug. 1833, Charlotte Eliza, da. of Sir Richard Hussey Vivian*, 1st bt., 2s. 3da.. suc. fa. 1850. d. 21 Oct. 1870.

Offices Held

Ensign and lt. 1 Ft. Gds. 1816; lt. 11 Drag. 1818; capt. 28 Ft. 1820; maj. army (half-pay) 1823; maj. 63 Ft. 1824; lt.-col. army (half-pay) 1825; lt.-col. 72 Ft. 1826; lt.-col. 90 Ft. 1831; lt.-col. 72 Ft. 1838; col. army 1838; lt.-col. (half-pay) 1843; maj.-gen. 1851; col. 89 Ft. 1857; lt.-gen. 1858; gen. 1864; col. 91 Ft. 1864; col. 72 Ft. Aug. 1870-d.

Page of honour 1812-16; equerry in ordinary Sept. 1841-July 1846.


Arbuthnot was born on board the ship carrying his parents home from Lisbon, where his father had been chargé d’affaires. While still at school he became something of a favourite with the prince regent.2 He evidently derived little benefit from his years at Westminster, and in 1816 was under the tuition of a Mr. Smith at Upton Grey, near Basingstoke. His father, a deeply affectionate but demanding and fussy parent, strongly influenced by his Christian faith, was not prepared to use his own political clout to advance his sons at the public expense. He chided Charles for allowing his thoughts to stray to ‘dogs and horses’:

If you were well read in history; if you were a quick mathematician; if rapidly you could write good language; and if above all I saw an eagerness in you to make up for lost time and to acquire knowledge, I should not be so urgent with you … Your mind has never as yet been fixed intensely upon those thoughts and studies from which your real advantage in life is to be derived, whether that advantage is to consist in your advancement or in obtaining honour and reputation among men. Don’t think me censorious or severe in saying this to you; but now the hour of reflection is I trust and believe come upon you, do for a moment consider what pains, what anxiety and what sums of money have been expended on your education, and then proceed to think, my dearest boy, whether as yet I have reaped the fruit of all my exertions.

He went on to reproach Charles with the example of a labourer’s son for whom he had found civil employment, and whose superiority in handwriting and mathematics had caused him ‘humiliation’ and ‘misery’. Casting aside for the moment the fond hopes he had entertained of seeing his son ‘thirsting after knowledge and higher attainments’, he lowered his sights and exhorted him to acquire at least such rudimentary literary skills as were ‘absolutely indispensable’ for success in his chosen career as an army officer:

I am horror struck at the idea of your entering the army without such a strong foundation as may enable you to perfect your education hereafter … you have not one hour to lose … I should think that in my own mind I was dwelling too much on your present deficiencies, had I not from time to time seen the letters which you receive from friends of your own standing. I declare seriously that when you are with me I am in agony when I see you take pen in hand, and that I literally perspire at every pore lest those who see your language in writing should be saying to themselves how cruelly has this amiable boy been neglected … I have but one aim - your good. But yet it is so distressing to me always to appear preaching that I would hold my tongue, and pray for your success in silence, if I had not been forcibly struck with that vis inertiae which was so inherent in you. That must be shaken off, a new direction must be given to your thoughts.

As for the army, he wished to know whether Charles preferred the Blues or the Guards: while the latter would ‘better teach you your profession’ and ‘give you better society’, the regent had offered an opening in the former. In the event Arbuthnot opted for the Grenadiers, in which a commission was bought for him in December 1816.3

In February 1819, when Arbuthnot, now in the 11th Hussars, was using a leave of absence to study French, German and ‘other literary pursuits’ under a ‘pastor’ in France, and was about to move to Hanover, his father complimented him on his ‘greatly improved style’. Both the regent and the duke of Wellington, his beautiful stepmother’s close friend, were keen to get him back into the Grenadiers (they never did); but his father cautioned him not to ‘buoy yourself up with expectations of a company so very soon as you seem to imagine, for though I will strive my utmost, you must be aware it is a work of time’.4 He was provided with a company in the 28th Foot by purchase in March 1820. Soon afterwards he went to the Ionian Islands on the staff of Colonel Charles Napier. His father, ‘in raptures’ at glowing reports from his superiors, and inordinately proud of him, urged him to take care of his health, to practise ‘rigid economy, for your own sake chiefly, but for mine also’ and to continue ‘the cultivation of your mind and foreign languages’. He was instructed to take advantage of the library at Corfu: ‘Don’t merely read light books, but study history, and make yourself a good linguist, I mean grammatically so’. He was lectured on the correct use of full stops, which he was inclined to dispense with in favour of semi-colons. He returned to England with dispatches in July 1822. According to his stepmother he did so with the ‘highest character for good conduct and steadiness from all his superior officers’.5

When objections were raised to the appointment of his father, who was in financial difficulty after his move from the treasury to woods and forests in 1823, as agent for Ceylon in December of that year, there was talk of giving the sinecure to Arbuthnot; but nothing came of it.6 Arbuthnot, whose sickly younger brother Henry had followed him into the army in 1820, but was subsequently provided by Lord Liverpool with a more congenial place as a commissioner of audit, arrived from Vienna with dispatches and a confidential letter from Metternich to Wellington in February 1824, when he secured a regimental majority. Later that year he went with the 63rd to Ireland. His father slapped his wrist for talking indiscreetly and prematurely about the pending removal of the senior major, which did not in fact take place until 1825, when Arbuthnot was still in Ireland.7 He got a regimental lieutenant-colonelcy in September 1826 and was on service in Ireland a year later, when his father reflected that ‘you never would have got one if it had not been done before I went out of office’.8 Pleased with his creditable standing in the profession, his father indulgently told him that ‘I never have anxiety about you, as from the day of your birth you have given me nothing but delight and never pain’.9 Arbuthnot arrived with his regiment at the Cape of Good Hope in late September 1828. Two months later he learned of the death of his grandmother Hester Lisle, by whose will he received a legacy of £2,000 and a share in her residual estate which amounted to about £9,000. She had entailed her property at Englefield Green, Surrey on Henry Arbuthnot and his issue. Her scattered Dorset estates at Upway and Winterbourne were to go to Arbuthnot after his father’s life interest. Attached to them was a sum of about £5,000 in three per cent consols, of which £1,700 had been lent to Arbuthnot for the purchase of his majority.10 It was decided to sell the Dorset property in order to buy back and expand the Northamptonshire estate at Woodford, most of which Arbuthnot’s father had been compelled to sell ‘to pay debts and to set free my younger children’s fortunes’. In addition, Arbuthnot agreed to lend his father from the Lisle inheritance a sufficient sum to pay off his outstanding debts, secured on an insurance policy for £10,000 on his life. Arbuthnot senior reckoned that with his regimental pay, his personal allowance, the interest on this loan and on whatever ‘further sum’ he might receive as an agent for the Deccan prize money (of which he was a trustee), Charles should have ‘a very comfortable income’:

When my incumbrances are all removed, as they will be now, I will make any addition to your income, in the event of your marrying, which you and I upon talking it over may think desirable. My object is that all my children should be as happy as I can make them, and that my behaviour to them should be such as to make it their interest, as I know it is their earnest anxiety, that I should live long with them … It would distress me beyond all thought or measure to see my children make improvident marriages … I want not greatness in wealth or station for my children; but I want that if they marry it should be into respectable families and to worthy objects. In this I have set them the example; and if you want to see the value of a good wife, read the last chapter in the Proverbs. Whenever you do marry, it will be my object to make you as comfortable as I can, as far as income goes. The choice must depend upon yourself.11

After an initial hitch, the Winterbourne estate was sold for £22,000 late in 1829, when Arbuthnot’s father applied for him to be given leave of absence, on the pretext that ‘it is essentially necessary for you to be in England to perform your duties as prize agent for the Deccan’.12

Arbuthnot duly returned in May 1830 and his stepmother wrote that ‘he is so amiable and so good, it is the greatest possible happiness to us to have him back’. Whether he carried out his plan to spend the summer in Hanover polishing his rusty French and German is not clear.13 At the end of November he accompanied his father, with ‘two servants, four soldiers and arms and ammunition in abundance’, to defend Woodford against a threat of machine-breaking. When his father returned to London, he held the fort there for a fortnight, helping to organize the neighbouring farmers into a defensive association and enrolling recruits for the yeomanry. Coached by his father, he wrote such disturbing accounts of the local situation as persuaded the military authorities to maintain a presence of regular troops in the area until tranquillity had been restored. In late January 1831 his father, sending one of his letters to Wellington, felt obliged to correct his erroneous use of adjectives for adverbs: ‘You write exceedingly well, [but] a few things of this sort require attention’.14

At the general election of 1831 Arbuthnot stood for Tregony on the interest of James Adam Gordon* and was returned after a contest. On their way back to London he and his colleague James Mackillop paused at Devonport to consider the possibility of standing for Saltash, where there was ‘decidedly an anti-reform feeling’; but nothing came of the notion.15 Soon afterwards Arbuthnot became lieutenant-colonel of the 90th regiment. He evidently passed a critical comment on it, for which he received another paternal lecture:

I have no fear whatever of the 90th. To say the truth I fear it may be got into order too easily. I want you to have some disappointments and some hardships. It is the good will of God that this should happen to all men, and I hope it will happen to you in the way that will the least injure your real happiness, and be the most efficacious in disciplining your mind and understanding to take the right measure of things (neither too high nor too low) and to view them through a true medium precisely as they are. You have the best of hearts. You have great energy, great ambition, great means of succeeding in what you resolve upon. But from the goodness of your heart kind words lead you astray, and you use a glass to look through which dims the object from magnifying too much. There you are, painted to the life. Be persevering; be sober minded; be indefatigable in study so as to know and to see to the bottom of things as well as their surfaces; and under the blessing of God you will prosper and go (as I wish you) far beyond what I have done.16

Arbuthnot, who is not known to have spoken in debate, voted against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reintroduced reform bill, 6 July 1831. He was in the opposition minorities on the case for using the 1831 census, 19 July, and the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July; but he voted for the division of counties, 11 Aug., after informing his father of the ‘animated’ debate on Irish unrest, ‘the effect of which has shown how dreadfully weak the present government is’. He also thought that ‘in foreign politics they certainly make but a sorry appearance’, and he rated the secretary Lord Palmerston’s abilities very low.17 He voted against the passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish measure, 23 Sept. Soon afterwards he was sent with his regiment to Edinburgh, where disturbances were anticipated if the reform bill was rejected by the Lords. To the gratification of his father and stepmother, he was able to report that ‘all was quiet’ and that ‘the people of Edinburgh only desire to be let alone’, being ‘evidently tired’ of ‘the infernal bill’.18 He clearly made no secret of his views in his professional circles, but in this instance his father, who was horrified by the bill, condoned his outspokenness in reply to a letter, ‘more prudent than high-minded’, from General John Macdonald, adjutant-general at the horse guards:

A vast deal … was an exhortation to me to be on intimate terms with Lord Althorp*, Lord Duncannon*, etc.; and then he goes on to say that you and he exactly agree on all these points of cautious and liberal feeling towards public men, and that he had often urged this upon you as tending to your success in your profession. I replied to him that I had no personal enmity to those he named, but that … between them and me there could be no common feeling. I said that I never tried to control or influence your opinions, but that I rejoiced you had the same as me; and that I would rather see you injured in your profession than have you pretend to have public principles other than your real ones. I added that I had been chiefly pleased at your being in the House of Commons as it had enabled you to show the world what your principles are.19

Arbuthnot returned to London to vote against the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831. He was in Glasgow in mid-January,20 but attended to divide against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan. 1832. He had been returned for Tregony as a locum for Gordon, who now claimed the seat. His father, having been given some hope in the autumn by Holmes, the opposition whip, that Charles might be able to keep it for the duration of the Parliament, was far more disappointed than he was himself:

We are both of us very sorry that you leave Parliament, but the moment that Mr. Gordon wished you to do so there was not a word on our part to be said. We deeply regret your being out as it will remove you more, and much more, from us … We are also very sorry because we both feel strongly that it was good for you to be in. I know you always guide your will by mine, but I am aware that you do not feel as we do that it was useful to you for your advancement in life. If you were to go out it would have been wiser of Mr. Gordon to have had it done during the recess. He has taken the exact moment when it will produce the worst effect.21

Arbuthnot, who had a ‘providential escape’ when the steamboat returning him to Scotland in February 1832 ran aground, urged his father to ‘shake off’ his ‘despondency’ at the state of public affairs.22 The immediate threat of a posting with his regiment to Ireland, which he did not want, was averted, but he served there in 1833-4.23 In July 1833, shortly before his marriage, his father urged him not to boycott the United Services Club:

It is true that I aided and perhaps got for you all your promotion, but you got for yourself the character you have in your profession … I never see the duke in roaring spirits but when his old military associates are around him, and it is your military associates whom I would wish you to cultivate.24

On his stepmother’s sudden death in August 1834 his devastated father, who took up residence with Wellington at Apsley House, handed over Woodford to him and made him the sole beneficiary and executor of his will, as ‘an act of justice which I owe to him’.25 In January 1836 he went to Ceylon, whence he returned in July 1838, having secured the lieutenant-colonelcy of his former regiment.26 Stationed at Windsor in 1841, he attracted the attention of Queen Victoria, whose equerry he was appointed on Peel’s accession to power in September. The outgoing prime minister, Lord Melbourne, observed that the appointment ‘will of course be very agreeable to the duke of Wellington’. ‘The Arbuthnots’, he went on, ‘are quiet, demure people before others; but they are not without depth of purpose, and they are very bitter at bottom’.27 Arbuthnot’s cousin Sir Alexander Arbuthnot recalled that as an equerry he ‘went by the name of "Carlo Dolce" and was noted for his courtier-like manners’.28 He was with the queen when an attempt was made on her life in May 1842. In August he commanded his regiment at Blackburn to help quell an outbreak of disorder among the factory hands.29 He was led to believe that he was dismissed from the household on Peel’s fall in 1846 not because of ‘any feeling of dislike towards me’ on the part of the queen and Prince Albert, but because his was ‘considered a political appointment’. Yet Greville claimed to know that the queen had long wished to get rid of him and that, having done so, she tried to shift ‘all the odium thereof’ onto the incoming Liberal ministers.30 Arbuthnot commanded the Midland district, with headquarters at Birmingham, during the period of Chartist unrest in the late 1840s. When he was almost 46 years old his father, irked by his diffidence and desperate that he should become ‘a very superior officer’, expressed to a third party his wish that he could be posted ‘somewhere that will oblige him to judge for himself; as without the means of exercising personal responsibility he will always be like a child in leading strings’.31 Released from his father’s scrutiny in 1850, he remained active in the army until his death at Folkestone in October 1870. By his will, dated 4 Dec. 1867 and proved under £14,000, 5 Dec. 1870, he left everything to his wife. He was succeeded in the Woodford estate by his elder son Arthur Arbuthnot (1843-87).

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Aberdeen Univ. Lib. Arbuthnot mss 3029/1/2/23.
  • 2. Geo. IV Letters, ii. 525.
  • 3. Arbuthnot mss 3029/1/2/1.
  • 4. Ibid. 3029/1/2/2.
  • 5. Ibid. 3029/1/2/3-6; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 174-5.
  • 6. HMC Bathurst, 552, 557-8; Huskisson Pprs. 168-74; Arbuthnot Corresp. 58.
  • 7. Add. 40340, f. 252; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 287, 411; Arbuthnot mss 3029/1/2/7.
  • 8. Arbuthnot mss 3029/1/2/9.
  • 9. Ibid. 3029/1/2/11.
  • 10. PROB 11/1750/28; IR26/1200/10; Arbuthnot mss 3029/1/2/13; 2/2/1.
  • 11. Arbuthnot mss 3029/1/2/14.
  • 12. Ibid. 3029/1/2/15, 16.
  • 13. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 353; Arbuthnot mss 3029/3/2/1.
  • 14. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 406; Arbuthnot mss 3029/1/2/22-26, 29; 3/2/2.
  • 15. Arbuthnot mss 3029/3/1/1.
  • 16. Ibid. 3029/1/2/30.
  • 17. Ibid. 3029/3/1/2.
  • 18. Ibid. 3029/1/2/33, 34, 36; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 432.
  • 19. Arbuthnot mss 3029/1/2/35.
  • 20. Ibid. 3029/1/2/39, 40.
  • 21. Ibid. 3029/1/2/30, 41.
  • 22. Ibid. 3029/1/2/42, 43.
  • 23. Ibid. 3029/1/2/44, 45; 2/2/3; 3/1/3-12.
  • 24. Arbuthnot Corresp. 184.
  • 25. Ibid. p. xvii; PROB 11/2123/868.
  • 26. Arbuthnot mss 3029/3/1/26-49; Arbuthnot Corresp. 205.
  • 27. Add. 40484, ff. 18, 30, 40; 40486, f. 192; Victoria Letters (ser. 1), i. 395.
  • 28. Sir A. Arbuthnot, Mems. Rugby and India, 8.
  • 29. Von Neumann Diary, ii. 186; Add. 40484, ff. 122, 124.
  • 30. Add. 40595, ff. 275, 276; Greville Mems. v. 334-5.
  • 31. Arbuthnot mss 3029/1/3; 3/1/73-80; Add. 40603, f. 19.