FITZGERALD, John (1775-1852), of Wherstead Lodge, nr. Ipswich, Suff. and Millburgh, Seaford, Suss.

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



1826 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 25 Dec. 1775, 1st s. of John Purcell, MD, of Richmond Hill, Dublin and Eleanor, da. of John Fitzgerald of Little Island, co. Waterford. educ. Trinity, Dublin 1790; M. Temple 1792; King’s Inns 1793, called [I] 1796. m. 16 May 1801, his cos. Mary Frances, da. and h. of John Fitzgerald of Little Island, Pendleton, Lancs. and Gayton, Staffs., 3s. 5da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1806. Took name of Fitzgerald by royal lic. 3 Oct. 1818 following d. of fa.-in-law. d. 18 Mar. 1852.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Suff. 1824-5, co. Waterford 1838-9.

Lt.-col. E. Suff. vols.


The Purcells came to England at the Conquest and were settled in Ireland by 1172. John Purcell (?1740-1806), the father of this Member, studied medicine at Leyden and Edinburgh and had a successful practice as a physician in Dublin. In 1774 he married Eleanor Fitzgerald, whose family were descended from the 4th earl of Kildare and whose grandfather Edward (d. 1736) was the half-brother of Nicholas Fitzgerald, a prominent supporter of James II killed at the Boyne. They had five sons, John, Charles, Edward, Peter and Edward Carlton. Eleanor Purcell’s brother, John Fitzgerald (1760-1818) not only inherited the family’s Irish property from his father in 1784, but came into estates at Pendleton, near Manchester, and Gayton, near Stafford, through the will of his kinsman Richard Fitzgerald. With his wife Mary, daughter of Keane Fitzgerald of Totteridge, Hertfordshire, he had a son, John Charles, born in 1781, and a daughter, Mary Frances, born in 1779. Her first cousin John Purcell was called to the Irish bar in 1796, but never practised. He married Mary Frances Fitzgerald in 1801 and they made their home at the White House, Bredfield, near Woodbridge, Suffolk. (Mary’s father had bought the neighbouring property of Boulge for them, but the widow of the previous owner continued to occupy the hall on a life interest and did not die until 1835.) The death without issue of Mary’s brother in 1807 left her sole heiress to her father’s great wealth in money and land; and she added to her assets in 1810 when she inherited the best part of her great-aunt Jane Joyce’s estate of £700,000, plus the 3,000-acre manor of Naseby Wooleys, Northamptonshire.1

The couple had eight children in nine years, but they were ill-matched and came to lead largely separate lives. Purcell, an absent-minded, genial and gullible man, was fond of country life and pursuits. He was overshadowed and cowed by his domineering wife, whose trustees were careful to restrict his access to her money. Mary, a ‘fine broad woman’, who was reputed to have turned down an offer of marriage from Arthur Wellesley*, was bored by children and Suffolk society. She eventually spent much of her time in London, playing the grande dame, giving opulent dinners at the family house at 39 Portland Place, mixing with painters, poets and actors and making ostentatious appearances at the opera. These developments lay mostly in the future when the Purcells went en famille to France in 1816 and took a house at St. Germain. Yet even then, while Purcell and the children returned to Bredfield for the summer Mary went on a European tour. They reassembled in Paris in 1817 and lived in the Rue d’Angoulême until the death of old John Fitzgerald, 6 Sept. 1818, brought them back to England. Mary, already worth an estimated £750,000, inherited a large fortune.2 Purcell, who received £1,000 by his father-in-law’s will, changed the family name to Fitzgerald, though he was under no legal obligation to do so.3

In 1823 the Fitzgeralds erected an obelisk at Naseby to mark the site of the Civil War battlefield. (It was in fact a mile away from the actual location and subsequently misled and infuriated Carlyle.)4 While his wife spent increasing amounts of time in London and Brighton, travelling in an eye-catching yellow carriage pulled by black horses, Fitzgerald continued his life as a Suffolk squire. He served as sheriff in 1824-5, and at the end of his term of office moved the family home to another rented house at Wherstead, near Ipswich, previously occupied by the 1st Viscount Granville.5 To realize his parliamentary ambitions he had already bought property at Seaford, including town houses and the adjacent Corsica Hall, which he rebuilt and named Millburgh.6 At the general election of 1826 he was returned for the borough in conjunction with the son of Granville’s friend and fellow Canningite Charles Ellis, the other patron, who was raised to the peerage as Lord Seaford. An unexpected opposition from two Norfolk Whigs was no more than an irritant.7

Fitzgerald presented a petition from Welford, Suffolk against any alteration of the corn laws, 20 Feb. 1827.8 He voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and in the largely Whig minority for the production of papers on the Orange procession at Lisburn, 29 Mar. When Seaford’s son vacated his seat to accommodate Canning on his appointment as prime minister in April, Fitzgerald represented him at the election formalities and declared that ‘it would be his pride, most cordially, yet disinterestedly, to support’ his ministry; but he voted against it for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May 1827.9 In January 1828 Huskisson, explaining to Seaford his decision to take office under the duke of Wellington, said that Fitzgerald had behaved ‘well’ over it, unlike some other Canningites.10 Seaford credited him with a good understanding of ‘the whole subject of the poor laws’, but he did not give the House the benefit of it in debate.11 He voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and Catholic relief, 12 May. After the resignation of Huskisson from the government Fitzgerald was one of the ‘ejected liberals’ who mustered in the House, 3 June 1828. In February 1829 the patronage secretary Planta numbered him among those Members ‘opposed to securities’ who would ‘probably support’ them rather than endanger the passage of Catholic emancipation, for which he duly divided, 6, 30 Mar. He voted to allow O’Connell to take his seat unimpeded, 18 Mar. 1829. His only other known vote in this Parliament was for Jewish emancipation, 17 May 1830.

At the general election that summer he and Augustus Ellis, who had resumed his seat on Canning’s death, were challenged at Seaford by two wealthy strangers. While their watchword was ‘independence’ from Lord Seaford’s electoral domination, their intrusion was seen as part of the Wellington ministry’s assault on the Canningite remnant. Attacked for failing to support the sale of beer bill, which ‘brings relief to the poor man’, Fitzgerald insisted that he had ‘voted with ministers on the three readings’ (even though the first and third were in fact uncontested); and claimed that ‘unconnected with ministers, or with any party, I have generally supported the king’s government, and feel myself as independent in Parliament as I do now in soliciting your suffrages’. One of his leading supporters made much of his ‘liberality and benevolence’ to the borough, where he had founded and endowed a free school and provided relief during recent outbreaks of fever. After topping the poll Fitzgerald slightly modified his explanation of his conduct on the beer bill, now claiming to have voted for the first and second readings, but to have taken a pair for the third: ‘he always voted for the people, and wished ever to do so’.12 On 7 Sept. 1830 he entertained ‘nearly 200 persons of distinction’ with food, fireworks and dancing at Wherstead, and the next day the parish poor were invited to dine there.13

Ministers listed him as one of ‘the Huskisson party’, and he was absent from the division on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. Of his attitude to the reform bill, his youngest son Edward Fitzgerald wrote, 15 Mar. 1831:

My father set out against it at first, but is coming over, I think. The question with him, is not whether the bill is a good one, for he thinks it is; but whether he ought to vote for the disfranchisement of his own borough: wherein he certainly would not be its representative, because no borough would ever wish to be disfranchised.14

Fitzgerald paired against the second reading, 22 Mar., and voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. At the ensuing general election he was returned unopposed, having ‘stated his belief that some reform, and an extensive reform too, was necessary, but [that] he did not approve of the disfranchisement of any borough, unless some corruption was proved to have taken place’.15 He abstained from the division on the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July 1831. A week later he presented and endorsed the Seaford electors’ petition complaining of ‘the injustice of their proposed disfranchisement’:

I am not opposed to reform and ... I shall not oppose the reform bill further than it may go to affect the interests of my constituents ... While I admit that this bill will be considered a great boon to the nation at large, I must ... say that it will be a bill of pains and penalties to my constituents and others.

Accordingly, he absented himself from all the major divisions on the reform bills. He was granted a fortnight’s leave to attend to ‘urgent business’, 15 Sept., and was a defaulter, 10 Oct., the day of the motion of confidence in the Grey ministry. His only known vote in the 1831 Parliament was for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May 1832. In January that year he asked Seaford to use his influence with Lord Ripon, a member of the cabinet, to have him recommended to the premier for a baronetcy, of which he had had hopes as a supporter of the Canning and Goderich ministries in 1827: ‘You will ... vouch for my principles being friendly to the present government, and that whatever interest I can command in either country is at its disposal’.16

In June 1832 Fitzgerald, who had been a prominent supporter of the reformer Sir Henry Bunbury* at the 1831 Suffolk election,17 announced his candidature for the Eastern division of the county at the first election under the Reform Act:

My politics are and ever have been those of an independent Whig. Unconnected with any government since the death of ... Canning, I have uniformly ... forwarded ... every measure the object of which was to remove civil or religious disabilities, to lighten the burthens or to better the conditions of my fellow subjects, especially by steadily upholding the agricultural interest, the basis of our national prosperity.18

Among the local reformers his credentials were highly suspect, and he was regarded as the creature of Sir Thomas Gooch* and the county Tories.19 Attacked in the press for his failure to support reform, he claimed to have done so not only on the case of Penryn, but on those of East Retford and the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester; no evidence has been found to suggest that he was telling the truth. He said that he had opposed the first reform bill because it had proposed to reduce the number of English Members and explained that while he had approved of the final bill and ‘never voted against a clause of it’, he had been prevented from actively supporting it by his oath as a jurat of Seaford to defend the borough’s chartered rights. He professed support for agricultural protection, economy and retrenchment, the government’s pacific foreign policy and the abolition of slavery ‘as soon as circumstances will permit’. In further public letters he denied having paired with the Wellington ministry on the civil list and stressed his anxiety to ‘uphold the great agricultural interest’ by resisting free trade and seeking a reduction of taxes.20 Fitzgerald, who attended the first annual meeting of the East Suffolk Agricultural Association, 21 Sept., lay low for two months, perhaps expecting to walk over, and confirmed his candidature in late November 1832. When two Conservatives started on a platform of agricultural protection, he initially stood his ground, denying that Grey’s ministry was ‘inimical to the landed interest’ and praising the premier as ‘the most liberal and enlightened statesman of the present day’. It soon became obvious that he had no chance, and four days before the election he withdrew, advising his supporters to plump for the reformer Robert Newton Shawe, who had also been in the field since June.21 Shawe was returned in second place; and at his celebration dinner Fitzgerald, whose campaign had typified his ineptitude and unworldliness, admitted his own ‘disappointment’, but rejoiced in ‘the triumphant victory of political consistency and political principle over a confederated Tory aristocracy’.22

In the late 1820s he had begun to mine coal on the Pendleton estate, perhaps in a bid to assert and prove himself. The superintendent of operations was Robert Stephenson, the brother of George, whom Fitzgerald congratulated, 25 Sept. 1832, on receiving ‘the joyful intelligence of you having reached the four foot seam’. The following year the colliery manager absconded with a quantity of money, as had the Naseby estate agent ‘with something above £5,000’ in 1830. Undeterred, Fitzgerald extended the enterprise in 1835 (the year he moved into Boulge Hall) by forming the Pendleton Colliery Company, which had the right to mine on adjacent land leased from the duchy of Lancaster. The undertaking, of which George Stephenson was a director, was expected to produce profits of £14,000 a year; but underground water was a persistent problem, and in August 1843 a flood wrecked the new mine. Edward Fitzgerald told Carlyle:

My father, after spending £100,000 on a colliery, besides losses by everlasting rogues, runaway agents, etc., has just been drowned out of it ... So end the hopes of eighteen years; and he is near seventy, left without his only hobby! He may perhaps be able to let it out to a company at a low rent, that they may pump out the water. But he is come to the end of his purse. Naseby might have had many a draining tile but for that d----d colliery.23

Fitzgerald, whose son-in-law John Kerrich and friend Squire Jenney, investors in the company, were ruined by the flood, struggled on until 1848, when he filed for a petition of bankruptcy. His debts were put at over £130,000, and he proposed to pay £6,000 a year to his creditors, who included his wife and all seven of his surviving children, to the tune of £10,000 each. He was given protection under the Act.24 As the case proceeded it emerged that his debts totalled £198,000, but that £138,000 of this was owed within the family, including a mortgage of £61,000 on the Pendleton works held by his wife’s trustees. Her fortune was largely unscathed and, although the furnishings of Boulge had to be sold, the house itself was retained as part of her trust. By April 1849 she had formally separated from Fitzgerald, who was reputed to have kept a mistress in London. She took a house at Ham, Surrey, and initiated restoration work on the decrepit castle on Little Island (in the River Suir, two miles below Waterford). Fitzgerald stayed for a while at 39 Portland Place before moving to Regent’s Park Terrace, Camden Town.25 His affairs were close to settlement by late 1850, but the eventual outcome is not clear.26 A broken man, plagued by recurrent bladder trouble, he died in March 1852, ‘like’, as Edward Fitzgerald told a friend as an afterthought three months later, ‘poor old Sedley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, all his coal schemes at an end’: ‘He died ... saying, "that engine works well" (meaning one of his colliery steam engines) as he lay in the stupor of death’.27 Mary Frances Fitzgerald died at Brighton, 30 Jan. 1855, supposedly worth £1,000,000, though the personal estate devised in her will was sworn under £10,000.28 The family estates, including Fitzgerald’s Seaford property, passed to their eldest son John (1803-79), a highly eccentric and grossly fat lay preacher, who took the additional name of Purcell in 1858 and lived much at Castle Irwell on the Pendleton estate.29 The second son, Peter Slingsby Fitzgerald (1807-75), became a Catholic, while Edward found fame, if not happiness, as the translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. N and Q (ser. 8), iv. 462-3; VCH Lancs. iv. 392-3; W.A. Copinger, Suff. Manors, vii. 239; R.B. Martin, With Friends Possessed. A Life of Edward Fitzgerald, 22, 26-27, 31.
  • 2. Letters of Edward Fitzgerald ed. A. M. and A.B. Terhune, i. 13-14; Martin, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31-34, 36-40; A.M. Terhune, Life of Edward Fitzgerald, 2-3, 6-7, 10-12.
  • 3. PROB 11/1608/409; IR26/743/632.
  • 4. T. Wright, Life of Edward Fitzgerald, i. 62-63; Northants. P and P, iv. 168; Fitzgerald Letters, i. 92.
  • 5. Martin, 32, 45; Oakes Diaries ed. J. Fiske (Suff. Recs. Soc. xxxiii), i. 291, 297; Constable’s Corresp. ed. R. B. Beckett (Suff. Recs. Soc. x), iv. 70.
  • 6. Martin, 41; M. A. Lower, ‘Mems. Seaford’, Suss. Arch.Coll. vii (1854),144-6.
  • 7. W.D. Cooper, Parl. Hist. Suss. 48; Brighton Herald, 27 May, 3, 10, 17 June 1826.
  • 8. The Times, 21 Feb. 1827.
  • 9. Courier, 23 Apr. 1827.
  • 10. Add. 38754, f. 234.
  • 11. Add. 38755, f. 207.
  • 12. Brighton Guardian, 7, 14, 21, 28 July, 4 Aug.; Brighton Herald, 17 July, 21 Aug. 1830.
  • 13. Bury and Norwich Post, 15 Sept. 1830.
  • 14. Fitzgerald Letters, i. 93.
  • 15. Suss. Advertiser, 2 May 1831.
  • 16. Add. 40878, f. 568.
  • 17. Ipswich Jnl. 14 May; Bury and Norwich Post, 18 May 1831.
  • 18. Bury and Norwich Post, 13, 27 June 1832.
  • 19. CUL, Arcedeckne mss 1/5, Wood to Arcedeckne, 8 June, White to same, 11 June, Harland to same, 11 July 1832.
  • 20. Suff. Chron. 30 June, 7, 14, 21 July, 4 Aug. 1832.
  • 21. Ibid. 22 Sept., 24 Nov., 1, 8 Dec.; Bury and Norwich Post, 28 Nov., 5, 12 Dec. 1832.
  • 22. The Times, 17, 20 Dec.; Bury and Norwich Post, 19, 26 Dec. 1832.
  • 23. Add. 38781, ff. 45, 59, 70, 109, 116; Terhune, 178-80; Martin, 93, 133-4; Fitzgerald Letters, i. 92, 93, 398, 402; W. Axon, Annals of Manchester, 222.
  • 24. Martin, 150; Fitzgerald Letters, i. 609, 612-13, 615-17; The Times, 5 Sept., 28 Dec. 1848.
  • 25. Martin, 150-3; Fitzgerald Letters, i. 635-6; The Times, 3, 18 Jan., 27 Apr., 24 May, 22 June 1849.
  • 26. Fitzgerald Letters, i. 671, 684; Martin, 161.
  • 27. Gent. Mag. (1852), i. 531; Martin, 170; Fitzgerald Letters, ii. 57; iv. 193.
  • 28. Fitzgerald Letters, i. 155; Martin, 189; PROB 11/2208/210; IR26/2028/137.
  • 29. Suff. Farming in Nineteenth Cent. ed. J. Thirsk and J.Imray (Suff. Recs. Soc. i), 148; Axon, 372.