CARTWRIGHT, William Ralph (1771-1847), of Aynho, Northants.

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



2 Aug. 1797 - 1831
1832 - 7 Feb. 1846

Family and Education

b. 30 Mar. 1771, o.s. of Thomas Cartwright of Aynho and Mary Catherine, da. of Maj.-Gen. Thomas Desaguilliers of Little Baddow, Essex. educ. Eton 1784-8; Christ Church, Oxf. 1789-91; continental tour 1791-3. m. (1) 12 Apr. 1794, Hon. Emma Maude (d. 11 Mar. 1808), da. of Cornwallis, 1st. Visct. Hawarden [I], 5s. 3da.; (2) 29 May 1810, Julia Frances, da. of Col. Richard Aubrey, 3s. 2da. suc. fa. 1772. d. 4 Jan. 1847.

Offices Held

Lt. Northants. yeomanry 1793, maj. 1794; lt.-col. commdt. Brackley vols. 1803.


Cartwright, an archetypal country squire, was, as William Huskisson* noted in 1822, one of the Liverpool ministry’s ‘staunchest supporters’.1 At the 1820 general election he offered for his native county for the seventh time, citing his ‘unshaken attachment to our invaluable constitution’. On the hustings he condemned the recent popular unrest, ‘which he trusted would soon cease’, and, contrasting the national situation with that of Northamptonshire, boasted that ‘it is our lot to live in an enlightened county, free from the abuses and contagion of a mischievous and licentious press’. He was returned unopposed with the Whig Lord Althorp, with whom he had amicably shared the representation since 1806.2 Prior to the election he had seconded the Northamptonshire address of condolence to the king ‘in language the most appropriate and eloquent’.3 Despite their political differences, he had come to Althorp’s aid at the quarter sessions earlier in the year, when his chairmanship was challenged by some of the other Tory magistrates in protest at his attendance at the Westminster meeting called to discuss the Peterloo massacre. Cartwright defended Althorp’s position and proposed that he should again take the chair. Althorp informed his father Earl Spencer, 17 Jan. 1820, that ‘Cartwright behaved very handsomely, and stood forward with great decision and manliness’.4

A frequent attender, he generally supported government, but in order to mollify his constituents took an independent line on some issues, notably repeal of the leather tax.5 He presented three petitions for relief from distress from Northamptonshire landowners, 17 May 1820, but said he would reserve his comments until the matter came ‘fully before the House’.6 He was a majority teller for the third reading of the Market Harborough road bill, 27 June, and voted against Hume’s motion for economies in revenue collection, 4 July 1820. At the end of that year his views on the Queen Caroline affair were sought by the patronage secretary Charles Arbuthnot*, who reported to John Herries* that Cartwright had expressed himself ‘breast high with us’.7 He attended the Northamptonshire county meeting to vote a loyal address to the king, 12 Jan., and voted in defence of ministers’ conduct, 6 Feb. 1821.8 He divided against Catholic claims, 28 Feb. 1821, and against relieving Catholic peers of their disabilities, 30 Apr. 1822. He presented 12 petitions from Northamptonshire landowners for relief from distress, 5 Mar. 1821.9 He made some unreported comments on the establishment of a select committee on the vagrancy laws, 14 Mar.10 On 3 Apr. he presented a Northamptonshire petition for repeal of the additional malt duty, but added that compliance with their wishes would ‘embarrass the finances of the government without benefiting the agriculturists’.11 He did not vote in the division on the repeal bill later that day. He divided against parliamentary reform, 9 May 1821, inquiry into the borough franchise, 20 Feb., and reform of the Scottish representative system, 2 June 1823, and Edinburgh’s representation, 26 Feb. 1824. He voted for the inclusion of arrears in the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June 1821. He divided for the government’s proposed tax reductions, 21 Feb., and against a gradual reduction in the salt duties, 28 Feb. 1822. Commenting on a petition for their repeal, he declared that ‘it would be better ... to defer for the present the remission in favour of the leather tax’, 11 June.12 Next day he dissented from a Northamptonshire petition presented by Althorp blaming agricultural distress on high taxation, observing that the taxes had been raised to carry on the late ‘just and necessary war’ and that while he had no objection to their repeal, over the previous year government had remitted them to a value of £4,000,000 ‘without, he feared, much benefiting the people’. This provoked an angry response from Coke, Whig Member for Norfolk, who hoped that the Northamptonshire freeholders would reject him at the next opportunity, to which Cartwright replied that he had ‘pursued as independent a line of conduct [as Coke], and should not be afraid to meet his constituents’.13 He voted against inquiry into the conduct of the lord advocate towards the Scottish press, 25 June. He was a minority teller against the third reading of the alehouses licensing bill, 27 June 1822.

Cartwright presented an Oundle petition objecting to the insolvent debtors bill, 17 Feb 1823.14 He voted against repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr. He presented a petition from the Peterborough clergy against Catholic relief, 17 Apr., and voted against inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr.15 He was a majority teller for amendments made at the report stage of the Kettering road bill, 2 May, when he unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to the Bedford and Newport Pagnell road bill.16 He voted against inquiry into chancery delays, 5 June 1823. He presented a petition from the curriers and shoemakers of Wellingborough against the leather tax, 23 Feb., and voted for its repeal, 18 May.17 He presented a Rushden petition for the abolition of slavery, 4 Mar.18 Seconding Wodehouse’s motion to continue the salt duty, 13 May, he argued that its remittance would bring little benefit to the people and urged ministers to find an alternative way of giving relief. However, Robinson, the chancellor of the exchequer, said that he intended to repeal the tax if Wodehouse and Cartwright consented to withdraw their motion, which they did. Cartwright welcomed the principle of the game laws amendment bill, but thought it would be expedient to withdraw it ‘for the present ... [as] he was quite convinced from the opposition it had encountered, that it would be impossible to carry it in the course of the session’, 31 May 1824. He presented a Towcester petition for the county courts bill, 25 Feb. 1825.19 Commenting on his vote against Catholic relief, 1 Mar., Edward Littleton* informed Lord Granville that ‘Cartwright told me that he was satisfied, but that his constituents were not’.20 He presented hostile petitions from Peterborough, Northampton, Wellingborough and Weltenham, 18 Apr., Daventry, 25 Apr., Rushden, 5 May, and Staverton, 10 May, and divided against the relief bill, 21 Apr., 10 May.21 He presented and sympathized with a petition from the boot and shoe manufacturers of Northampton complaining of the difficulties they had experienced since the relaxation of the combination laws, 3 May, and asked Huskisson, president of the board of trade, whether he contemplated any action. Huskisson promised to deal with the matter as soon as an efficient means of protecting both master and workman could be found. He voted for the duke of Cumberland’s annuity bill, 2 June 1825. He presented an Oundle petition for the abolition of slavery, 6 Mar., and one from Northamptonshire’s coroners for an increase in their fees, 17 Apr. 1826.22

At the 1826 general election Cartwright offered again for Northamptonshire, citing his long service. On the hustings, to Althorp’s irritation, he ‘stated all his opinions, but without any detailed argument’, promising ‘to uphold our inestimable constitution, in church and state, and to preserve it unimpaired for the enjoyment of ourselves and our descendants’. He was returned unopposed.23 On 1 Feb. 1827 he spoke at a county meeting to vote an address of condolence following the death of the duke of York, and according to Althorp ‘approached forbidden ground very nearly, but not enough to provoke any discussion’.24 He presented a Northampton petition against free trade, 26 Feb., and a county petition against the proposed reform of the corn laws, 12 Mar.25 His only recorded vote of 1827 was against Catholic claims, 6 Mar., and he brought up a hostile constituency petition, 15 May.26 He presented petitions from Northampton against the importation of foreign wool, 28 May 1827, and from Oundle maltsters against the Malt Act, 10 Mar. 1828.27 He complained that the opposition to the Battersea enclosure bill was unjust and asked ‘why were not the same objections applied to other enclosures and other improvements?’, 31 Mar. On 28 Apr. he presented and defended petitions from the archdeaconry of Northampton and the diocese of Peterborough against Catholic relief, saying that ‘the clergy were perfectly right in coming forward and ... using every exertion against those who are both politically and spiritually hostile to them’. He pointed out that the signatories did not oppose repeal of the Test Acts, but added, ‘I am myself not favourable to it, although my feeling is not very strong against it; however, seeing the liberality of the House upon the subject, I am disposed to go along with the sense of the majority’. It was probably John Carter, Whig Member for Portsmouth, and not Cartwright, as the Mirror of Parliament states, who on 30 Apr. presented a Gosport petition for Catholic relief, against which Cartwright voted, 12 May. At the inauguration dinner of the new mayor of Northampton he proposed a toast to ‘the Protestant ascendancy’, on which ‘depended the salvation of the kingdom’, 29 Sept.28 Next month he was invited to assist in the formation of a Brunswick Club in Northampton, but evidently declined; Lord Westmorland, the lord lieutenant, informed the duke of Wellington, the premier, 12 Oct. 1828, that ‘as far as I could shortly collect from Cartwright, he would not encourage the embarking in clubs’.29 Commenting on the ministry’s plans to concede emancipation, 12 Feb. 1829, he defended the conduct of Wellington and Peel, in whom he had ‘every confidence’, and declared:

I have ever been adverse to the concession of the claims of the Roman Catholics on general principles. But when I hear the subject recommended from the throne to our consideration and inquiry, as it has been, I think the suggestion of ministers, who conceive there is a way of settling this question without danger to the Protestant institutions of this country, is deserving our attention.

Planta, the patronage secretary, predicted that he would vote ‘with government’ on the issue and he divided accordingly, 6, 30 Mar., though he presented several hostile petitions, 17 Feb., 2, 9, 13, 18 Mar. He presented an Aynho petition for the Warwick and Napton canal bill, 27 Mar., and two against the Oxford canal bill from local landowners, 3 Apr. That day he successfully proposed the adoption of Lords’ amendments to the North Elmham enclosure bill. He endorsed a graziers’ petition against having to pay the costs of the work proposed by the Smithfield market improvement bill, saying that their case deserved the consideration of the House because the City, which would also benefit from the improvements, was to bear no expense at all, 5 May 1829. He voted against the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., Lord Blandford’s parliamentary reform scheme, 18 Feb., and a motion to enfranchise Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. 1830. Prompted by his colleague’s presentation of Northamptonshire petitions complaining of distress, Cartwright called on ministers to ‘retrench in every possible way’ and contended that ‘by altering the scale of assessed taxes, great relief might be given to the small tradesman, who suffers by the present system’, 16 Feb. He endorsed a Kettering petition in similar terms, urging ministers to declare what action they had decided on, 2 Mar., and another from Northamptonshire’s magistrates for repeal of the laws obliging parishes to support Irish vagrants, 9 Mar. On the 16th he welcomed the measures that ministers had announced to deal with distress. Next month Lord Clifden advised George Agar Ellis* that Cartwright was one of those ‘friendly to government and not willing to exaggerate the evils of the time’.30 He voted against Jewish emancipation, 17 May. He divided against a reduction in the grant for South American missions, 7 June, but was in the minority to reduce that for consular services, 11 June 1830.

At the 1830 general election he offered again, dispelling rumours that he would retire on account of his volte face on Catholic claims, which, according to Althorp, had been started by ‘Gates, the clerk to the dean and chapter at Peterborough’. ‘They are looking out for a candidate to turn out Cartwright’, Althorp informed his father, 16 July, adding, ‘I think they can find no one who will come forward in cold blood, but the violence against Cartwright is very great’.31 Aware that his position was under threat, Cartwright issued a forthright address acknowledging the ‘importance of the period which has recently elapsed’, but claiming never to have ‘lost sight of those principles I first avowed’. Defending his pro-Catholic votes on the hustings, he explained:

Though I had always resisted their claims, I was not insensible to the difficulties ... of the question, and brought forward as it was for the first time by government as a measure designed especially to the safety and tranquillity of the empire, I did think the safest course was to support it, and I did think it particularly desirable if the question was ever to be carried, to have it settled and adjusted by men who were well known to be attached to the Protestant constitution ... than to have it forced upon us at some future time unconstitutionally ... With respect to the Test Acts, I did not vote for it, because I did not think it any serious grievance ... but I have no hesitation in declaring, now that it is passed, that I think it a very good measure.32

Talk of an opposition came to nothing and he was returned unopposed.33 A supporter, the Rev. Harrison of Covent Garden, later informed him of having spread a rumour that ‘you was prepared, if necessary, to spend £20,000’, and added, ‘your services will be wanted, if money can be found to make a railroad from London to Birmingham’.34

Ministers of course numbered him among their ‘friends’ and he was listed in their minority on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. When news of his vote reached Northampton, his effigy was paraded around town, 22 Nov., and burnt the following evening. On 27 Nov., however, the Northampton Mercury asserted that he ‘did not vote on this question as before stated, but was prevented from attending by severe indisposition’.35 He presented several Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire petitions for the abolition of slavery, 17 Nov.36 He was granted two weeks’ leave on account of ill health, 30 Nov. 1830. He presented a Kettering petition for repeal of the malt tax and one from Northampton against the general register bill, 19 Mar. 1831. On 21 Mar. he seconded Sir Richard Vyvyan’s motion to throw out the Grey ministry’s reform bill at its second reading, saying, ‘I was prepared to agree to a measure which would have remedied some of the defects in our representative system, but I cannot agree to a plan by which all the constitution is so completely swept away’. After denouncing their proposed use of the 1821 census, he concluded:

The government must have been aware that, when so great a change was proposed, vast public excitement would be the consequence, and upon them rests the responsibility of proposing a change which it is impossible we should agree to. This measure will introduce too great a share of democracy, and I hope that it will not pass.

He voted accordingly next day. He attended the Northamptonshire reform meeting at the shire hall in Northampton, 13 Apr., but when, after a two-hour delay caused by a tumultuous crowd, the sheriff adjourned the meeting to the market place, he joined Sir Robert Gunning, Tory Member for Northampton, in complaining that the move outside was unprecedented and leaving to draw up a letter of protest.37 Althorp presented the resulting reform petition, 19 Apr. 1831, when Cartwright conceded that the meeting had been the largest he could recall, but insisted that there had been sufficient room in the hall and attacked the biased nature of the subsequent proceedings. That day he voted in the majority for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the reform bill.

At the ensuing general election he offered again, expecting to be returned with Althorp, from whom he had received assurances that ‘none of my people will stir’ against their sharing the representation.38 William Hanbury, the former Whig Member for Northampton, told Lord Milton*, 24 Apr., ‘I should like to see Cartwright turned out, but I dare not attempt it. You can have no idea of the excitement of the Tories, they are now at their last gasp and they will use all their exertions to return their favourite Cartwright’.39 There were no other candidates at the nomination, 4 May, but when the proceedings continued two days later Charles Hill, a local Whig and solicitor to Lord Fitzwilliam’s family, nominated Milton, despite his absence, whereupon the Tories put up a second candidate, Sir Charles Knightley. ‘The sharpest contest’ then ensued. Cartwright, aided by the local Tory Lord Brudenell*, poured scorn on the Whigs and accused them of duplicity throughout the 14-day contest, telling the electors that the issue was whether or not they wanted the county to be independent or to ‘become the mere borough of two noble peers’. On 16 May John Campbell II* told his brother that ‘it is said there is to be a duel arising out of the Northamptonshire election, between Lord Althorp and Cartwright’, but nothing came of this. Placed third to Althorp and Milton throughout the contest, Cartwright steadily gained on Milton but narrowly failed to overhaul him, being defeated by only 116 votes. He claimed a moral victory, as he had not been prepared for a poll, and the small difference between the opposing sides meant that ‘no one would have a right to consider it as any great triumph for reform’.40 Cartwright’s eldest son Thomas, a diplomat, told him, 7 June, ‘I do not think that the result is at all annoying. On the contrary ... you have found yourself very strong and at another election will infallibly succeed’.41 His accounts show that a subscription covered most of his expenses, to which he only had to contribute £1,500.42 At a dinner in his honour at Oundle in early July 1831, he made ‘a furious speech against the [reform] bill, and attacked Milton violently’.43 Soon afterwards, when the failing health of Althorp’s father created the prospect of a vacancy, Arbuthnot told Wellington that he had ‘let Cartwright know that he shall be aided if Lord Spencer dies’.44 Although Spencer rallied, Cartwright was not out of the House for long. Anticipating the 1832 general election, he was already canvassing for the new Southern division of Northamptonshire by May 1832, and at the election that December he was returned unopposed.45 He sat until 1846, when failing health forced him to retire.

Carwright died in January 1847, having been ‘ill for many months’. He had evidently managed his Aynho estate incompetently, for his heir Thomas warned his own son, 4 Apr. 1844, that it would need ‘a little nursing’. He blamed the rebuilding of the house, 1800-5, his many election contests, and added, ‘My father had debts of about £50,000 on the estate, or personally to him, £35,000 he paid off, and £16,000 still remains upon the property’.46 Cartwright’s will, dated 5 Mar. 1845, was proved under £20,000, 21 May 1847, but resworn under £9,485, 31 Mar. 1849, when his bequests were declared void as his estate had insufficient funds to pay them.47 ‘Such was [his] kindness of heart and rectitude of mind’, noted an obituarist, ‘that even his most zealous opponents, at times when party spirit ran the highest, did willing homage to his personal worth and his political integrity’.48

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Martin Casey / Philip Salmon


  • 1. Add. 38743, f. 233.
  • 2. Northants. RO, Cartwright mss C (A) 8170, copy of election speech, 1820.
  • 3. Northampton Mercury, 4, 18 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. Althorp Letters, 99.
  • 5. Black Bk. (1823), 145; Session of Parl. 1825, p. 455.
  • 6. The Times, 18 May 1820.
  • 7. Cartwright mss 8275; Add. 57370, f. 23.
  • 8. Northampton Mercury, 13 Jan. 1821.
  • 9. The Times, 6 Mar. 1821.
  • 10. Ibid. 15 Mar. 1821.
  • 11. Ibid. 4 Apr. 1821.
  • 12. Ibid. 12 June 1822.
  • 13. Ibid. 13 June 1822.
  • 14. Ibid. 18 Feb. 1823.
  • 15. Ibid. 18 Apr. 1823.
  • 16. Ibid. 3 May 1823.
  • 17. Ibid. 24 Feb. 1824.
  • 18. Ibid. 5 Mar. 1824.
  • 19. Ibid. 26 Feb. 1825.
  • 20. TNA 30/29, Littleton to Granville, 7 Mar. 1825.
  • 21. The Times, 19, 26 Apr., 6, 11 May 1825.
  • 22. Ibid. 7 Mar., 18 Apr. 1826.
  • 23. Althorp Letters, 129; Northampton Mercury, 17 June 1826.
  • 24. Northampton Mercury, 3 Feb. 1827; Althorp Letters, 135.
  • 25. The Times, 27 Feb., 13 Mar. 1827.
  • 26. Ibid. 16 May 1827.
  • 27. Ibid. 29 May 1827.
  • 28. Northampton Mercury, 4 Oct. 1828.
  • 29. Wellington mss WP1/960/12.
  • 30. Castle Howard mss, Clifden to Agar Ellis, 3 Apr. 1830.
  • 31. Althorp Letters, 152-3.
  • 32. Cartwright mss 8171, copy of election speech, 1830.
  • 33. Northampton Mercury, 31 July, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 34. Cartwright mss 8173.
  • 35. Parl. Deb. (ser. 3), i. 550 and The Times, 19 Nov. 1830 suggest otherwise.
  • 36. Northampton Mercury, 20 Nov. 1830.
  • 37. Ibid. 19 Apr. 1831.
  • 38. Northampton Mercury, 14 May 1831; Althorpiana, or, a few facts relative to the late Northants. election (1831), 7.
  • 39. Fitzwilliam mss.
  • 40. Northants. Election (Cordeux, 1831); Greville Mems. ii. 147; Northampton Free Press, 10, 17, 24 May 1831; Life of Campbell, i. 514.
  • 41. Cartwright mss 8183.
  • 42. Ibid. 8191, 8194.
  • 43. Le Marchant, Althorp, 328.
  • 44. Wellington mss.
  • 45. Northants. RO, Gotch mss GK 347, Milton to Gotch, 14 May 1832.
  • 46. N. Carter, Aynho, 216-21.
  • 47. PROB 11/2055/394; IR26/1766/429.
  • 48. Gent. Mag. (1847), i. 428.