FORTESCUE, Hon. George Mathew (1791-1877).

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



1826 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 21 May 1791, 2nd s. of Hugh Fortescue†, 1st Earl Fortescue (d. 1841), and Hester, da. of George Grenville† of Wotton, Bucks.; bro. of Hugh Fortescue, Visct. Ebrington*. educ. Eton 1805. m. 19 Feb. 1833, Lady Louisa Elizabeth Ryder, da. of Dudley Ryder†, 1st earl of Harrowby, 4s. (2 d.v.p.) 4da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. aunt Lady Grenville to Boconnoc, Cornw. and Dropmore Lodge, Bucks. 1864. d. 24 Jan. 1877.

Offices Held

Ensign 14 Drag. 1809, cornet 1809, lt. 1810; lt. 21 Drag. 1811; lt. 8 Drag. 1812; capt. 66 Ft. 1812; capt. 25 Drag. 1813; half-pay 1816-57.


Hugh Fortescue was briefly Member for Beaumaris before becoming 3rd Baron Fortescue in 1785, when he succeeded to Castle Hill, near Barnstaple, and large family estates in Devon. He received an earldom from Pitt in 1789, but followed the line of his wife’s family, the Grenvilles, in politics, as did, at least initially, his sons Lord Ebrington and George Matthew Fortescue. The latter, although a sickly child, who was educated at Eton (and possibly Edinburgh University)1, hankered after a career in the army, and his mother’s brother Lord Grenville obliged by finding him a place in Lord Bridgwater’s regiment in 1809. Later that year, however, Grenville wrote to Lord Fortescue that

I had entertained very sanguine hopes that regular exercise might at his exact time of life possibly develop the latent powers of his constitution and give him a degree of growth and strength necessary for what he has engaged in. [But this having failed] the great embarrassment certainly is how to occupy a mind so little disposed to study, and a body so unsuited to exercise - because we must not forget (with all the excellence of his nature and disposition) that idleness ever was the mother of all vice. Universities are out of the question - your own house, though so admirable in all he will see there of example, is not in other respects suited to give him that manliness of character and manners in which he is so deficient, and I see no recourse but travel, and even that by public events is greatly limited.

Although his ‘radical weakness’ and ‘the unfortunate backwardness of his literary progress’ might have curtailed his ambitions, Fortescue persisted with his military career. He exchanged regiments several times, mainly in order to avoid being sent on active service, but he seems to have visited India with the 8th Dragoons, and in 1816 his mother advised him that his health was not good enough to risk returning there.2 After the war he undertook various travels in Europe, and embarked on a number of unfortunate love affairs. Henry Edward Fox* commented that he ‘has a good deal of affectation, but I do not mind that much if he is otherwise agreeable’; and Maria Edgeworth wished that he ‘were a lover of any of my friends - he is so agreeable melancholy and gentlemanlike’.3

Fortescue was elected to Brooks’s, 7 May 1816, on the general admission of the Grenvilles. When, following a breach with the 2nd marquess of Buckingham, Ebrington retired from Buckingham borough in 1817, the seat was offered to Fortescue, who declined it. Buckingham’s brother, Lord Nugent*, who sat as his nominee at Aylesbury, wrote to Ebrington, 30 May:

I cannot but be glad that you are exempted from a worry which you know I should be most glad to be exempted from myself, I mean the worry of filling the seat of a man as the representative of his interest in Parliament, while you differ with him in views and opinions in almost every vote you give. I cannot but say that I am equally glad on George’s account that he has had the manliness and proper feeling toward you and towards himself to forego the offer that was made, which, under the circumstances, might have been so alluring and so advantageous to him. It seems however to have been done, on all sides, handsomely and kindly.4

The duke of Bedford suggested his name to Lord Holland, 17 Aug. 1825, as a possible candidate for Exeter after the expected dissolution, but nothing came of it.5 There may have been other attempts to have him returned to the Commons, but he had to wait until the general election of 1826, when an acquaintance of his,6 the Whig Lord Grosvenor, brought him in for the seat which he had recently acquired at Hindon.

Fortescue divided against the duke of Clarence’s annuity, 16 Feb., and for Catholic claims, 6 Mar. 1827. He voted to make 50s. not 60s. the import price for corn, 9 Mar., and against increased protection for barley, 12 Mar. He presented a South Molton petition in favour of the establishment of a mail to Ilfracombe, 29 Mar.,7 when he voted for the production of information on the Irish government’s handling of the Lisburn Orange procession of 1825. The following day he voted to postpone the committee of supply. Like the staunch Whig Ebrington, in April he strongly favoured a junction between the new prime minister, George Canning, and the leader of the moderate Whigs, Lord Lansdowne, to whom he submitted his allegiance ‘as a very unimportant member of the party’.8 Ebrington agreed with his brother, in a letter of 12 Dec. 1827, that the Goderich ministry ‘cannot go on without men [of] energy and unity of purpose among thems[elves] to oppose to the extravagant pretensions and personal slights and indifference if not dislike which they have to encounter from the king’.9 Fortescue, who attended the House, 6 Feb. 1828, informed his friend Ralph Sneyd the following day of his doubts about Huskisson, who had ‘almost convinced me that he has acted honestly by his firmness in taking office under those who so bitterly hate both him and his departed friend’, and how the duke of Wellington, the new prime minister, had denied that he had given him any ‘pledges and stipulations’. By the following month, despite admitting to being ‘so well reconciled’ to his retirement from society that ‘I bear with complacency the being uninvited even to Devonshire House, which ancient habit and Whig feeling would, were I asked, still incline me to go’, he had decided that

the duke’s government will stand better than any other, in the present most strange and unmanageable state of both Houses; and I wish it may - for I believe that notwithstanding his education, and his character, formed on his long despotic rule, he is inclined to listen to and be guided by public opinion.10

He voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and against extending East Retford into the hundred of Bassetlaw, 21 Mar. He voted for a pivot price for corn of 60s. not 64s., 22 Apr., and on 28 Apr., in his only reported speech in the House (and despite his earlier vote on the subject), he observed that

much is said about the influence of the currency in favour of farmers, but the currency has no influence upon the poor rates or tithes. I trust that government will acquiesce in the proposed increase of [the protecting] duty [on barley], or the agriculturist must inevitably suffer.

He presented several pro-Catholic petitions, 1 May, and again voted for relief, 12 May. He divided for the second reading of the usury bill, 19 June, against the misapplication of public money on Buckingham House, 23 June, and for reducing the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July 1828.

That summer he visited the Channel Islands and attended the Cowes regatta, and in November 1828 he noted, in relation to Ireland, that ‘though we may not approve all the acts of the [Catholic] Association, we must attach less blame to them than to their opponents’.11 From Castle Hill, Fortescue reported to Sneyd, 3 Jan. 1829, that the ‘thick-headed parsons and squires of these parts’ had got up an anti-Catholic requisition, and condemned the prevailing ‘deep-rooted, ignorant bigotry on this Catholic question’. He attended the subsequent county meeting, 16 Jan., and was disgusted by the Ultra attacks on the county Member Acland, which he thought would help secure him his seat at the next election. The following month he asserted that, contrary to reports in the press, the duke of Cumberland ‘will vote against the [relief] bill, but will not join the violent opponents to it’, and would then immediately return to Berlin, which he termed an ‘act of peace’.12 He was listed by Planta, the patronage secretary, among those ‘opposed to securities’ but otherwise ‘pro’ emancipation, and he duly sided with them on it, 6, 30 Mar. He divided in the minority in favour of allowing Daniel O’Connell to take his seat without swearing the oath of supremacy, 18 May. He voted against the grant for the marble arch sculpture , 25 May, and for a reduction in the hemp duties, 1 June 1829.

Fortescue, who in late 1829 was fearful about the ‘stormy prospect’ ahead, wrote to Sneyd, 11 Jan. 1830, to ask:

Is the duke to snub us with the face he had when he prorogued us? If so, why did he defer any measure of importance to this session? His colleagues have learnt little wisdom in the interval and, Heaven knows, the difficulties of the country have not diminished. There was a notion among us Whigs of organizing ourselves into a party, to act under the joint leadership of Althorp and Brougham, but difficulties have arisen, as they were quite sure to do, and for the present the plan is abandoned. So we shall, I suppose, continue to support the government without sharing its responsibility, with the satisfaction of feeling that at any moment the very existence of the ministry is at our mercy.13

He voted for transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham and against the East Retford bribery prevention bill, 11 Feb., paired in the same sense, 5 Mar., and divided against the third reading of the disfranchisement bill, 15 Mar. He voted for parliamentary reform, 18 Feb., 28 May, and the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. He may have been the ‘Mr. Fortescue’ who told Mrs. Arbuthnot, 17 Mar., that ‘having people who were so entirely without the power of expressing themselves in Parliament did the government the utmost harm, and provoked those who were not in office but wishing to be so and who felt their own superiority’.14 He voted for restricting the grant for the army to six months, 19 Feb., inquiry into a revision of taxation, 25 Mar., and deducting the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance from the estimates, 29 Mar. He divided for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May. He paired in favour of opposition resolutions relating to the affair at Terceira, 28 Apr., and for reducing the salary of the assistant secretary of the treasury, 10 May. He voted against grants for the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, 30 Apr., and the South American missions, 7 June, and in favour of a return of privy councillors’ emoluments, 14 May. He voted against capital punishment for forgery, 24 May, 7 June, and increasing recognizances for libel, 9 July 1830.

At the ensuing general election, Fortescue’s mother wrote to him that

I had so completely satisfied my mind that you would represent Hindon again that I fear I am not as grateful as I ought for being certified of it. But the truth is that not having heard from you so long I had half hoped that you had stood for another election where I should have been still more gratified by your success.15

He joined the rest of the family in urging Ebrington not to attempt another contest in Devon, but once he had chosen to offer, he accompanied him at the nomination meeting, 7 Aug., stood in for him on the hustings for three days, and presided at his subsequent celebration dinner.16 On 14 Aug. he defended the conduct of the East India Company, saying that

he had been in those parts, and knew something of the practical bearings of the subject; and he was quite sure, that the government of the East had much better be conducted as it now was, with some amendments, than to be thrown entirely into the hands of the ministers of the crown, to increase the extravagant patronage which they already possessed, and of which he feared they did not always make the purest use.

He spoke on several other occasions in the county, and made clear his belief in the need for religious toleration, parliamentary reform, changes in chancery administration, the abolition of slavery, alteration of the duties on foreign timber and alliance with the free states of Europe.17 As he informed Lady Grenville, 27 Sept., the

Devonshire election, of which the consequences, in the form of public dinners, etc., have been occupying a large part of the last six weeks, I was as little prepared for when I left London, as I was to take the prominent part in it that I found myself obliged to fill. Its result however has been so satisfactory - the indulgence with which I was listened to, and the attention I have since received, so very flattering that I feel bound to devote myself more than I have hitherto done to county business.18

He was to have led the projected South Molton and Castle Hill troop of yeoman cavalry that was nearly raised during the rural disturbances of late 1830.19

Although, as Robert Grosvenor* reported to Fortescue, 20 Sept. 1830, his patron Grosvenor intended to rally to Wellington’s administration if an amendment was moved to the address, Fortescue was listed by ministers among their ‘foes’, and he voted against them in the division on the civil list, 15 Nov., which brought about their resignation.20 He presented an anti-slavery petition from the Dissenters of Bideford, 25 Nov. 1830, and was added to the select committee on the East India Company’s affairs, 17 Feb. 1831. It may have been in this year that on 19 Feb. his mother expressed her hope that he would ‘serve your country and yourself by pairing’.21 In mid-March he attended on a private bill, but complained that the Commons had ‘left me so little strength’.22 He divided for the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar., and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. He retired at the ensuing general election, when he was present in Devon to see his brother re-elected.23

He sought seclusion at Weare Giffard, near Bideford, from where he wrote to Sneyd:

Will you believe it, that at this moment, 10 pm on Sunday [9 Oct. 1831] I am totally ignorant of the fate of the reform bill! For aught I know London may be in flames, the House of Lords abolished, the king’s [?]ministers suspended and the affairs of the country conducted by a committee of public safety. Ebrington’s zealous, forward and efficient support of the government and their measure may save our house in town - but for that I sometimes think that I might spare myself the trouble and expense of putting bookcases in my library here, my books being still in London, within reach of H.M. the Mob. The prominent part that Ebrington is taking, conscientiously taking, is matter of no small vexation to me, for differing as I do from him in all but one point, a desire that the bill should pass the Lords - not for the sake of its enactments, but for the peace of the country - we are obliged to observe an entire silence on the subject.

He also revealed that, although refusing to take any part in the recent Devon county meeting, he had attended it

because I could conveniently say that in the dilemma in which the government has placed us, the least evil would result from passing the bill, believing, as I do, that somehow or other, its provisions will be the law of the land.

In the midst of the disturbances that followed the bill’s defeat, he attended a local meeting to preach peace. He also expressed his relief at being out of the Commons and that ‘the opinions I entertain secure me I hope from a peerage’.24 Sneyd, who teased him on his ‘be-Devonment’, disagreed with him over the actions of the Lords, but consoled him on his personal differences with his previously intimate brother.25 Fortescue wrote to Lady Grenville from Castle Hill, 10 Mar. 1832:

I have nothing to take me to town, and I enjoy the prospect of passing the whole of the half of this spring as I passed the half of the last in this county, instead of abusing it in endeavouring to revolutionize the country in Parliament. How sincerely do I thank my stars that I am out of Parliament and therefore I have nothing to do with politics.26

Though confessing his hostility to the extent of reform, and his regret that there were not more moderate men in power, he approved of the sizeable majority in favour of the bill on its second reading in the Lords in May, which was

selon moi, the best thing that could have happened. If no peers are made (and I confess I am astonished after the reckless pace Lord Grey has been going, that none have been made), a bill may be formed out of the old one, such as even the old Parliament might have carried, had either temper or wisdom been shown by the ministers, and such as may preserve for a time some parts of the old constitution.27

In early 1833, after what he called a ‘strange’ affair, he married the youngest sister of Ebrington’s late wife; and as Lady Dover noted

it seems to me sans rime ni raison, and the strangest end to all his sentimentality ... I suppose he thinks her youth makes it a fine thing to do, but then where there is youth without charm it ceases to have an advantage. I am glad for Lady Harrowby, who must like this sort of son-in-law.28

After the death of Lord Grenville in 1834, he settled at the former Pitt family estate of Boconnoc, which had been inherited by Lady Grenville. From there Sneyd reported to Lady Harrowby, 3 Nov. 1835, that

G. is in better condition physically and morally than I have seen him for long years. His settled prospects and the occupation and amusement present and future which the possession of this place opens to him, added to the influences of a happy home, seem effectually to have dispelled those wayward clouds that used to gather over his mind and weigh down his spirits.29

Fortescue, who took a minor interest in local affairs,30 seconded the nomination of the Tory Lord Eliot for Cornwall East at the general election of 1837. He was given a very hostile hearing when he declared that

I voted for the reform bill - I was a reformer when no place, no honours, nor advantages were to be had - and I am a reformer now - not perhaps, in the sense in which many of you hold that word; not certainly in the sense in which the honourable baronet holds it, who has with such talent addressed you, but a reformer, a conservator of all those institutions of our country which have placed us where we are.31

He also proposed Eliot for Cornwall East at the elections in July and September 1841.32 He was himself solicited to stand on a possible vacancy for the county in 1843, but did not do so, and apparently never had ambitions to enter the House again, although he continued to be involved in local elections.33 By the will of his father, who died in 1841, he gained a rent charge of £1,000 a year, in addition to his portion of £10,000.34 On the death in June 1864 of Lady Grenville, whose will was proved in London, 4 Aug., he inherited her Cornwall and Buckinghamshire estates, personal wealth valued under £25,000, and a large collection of papers, which, like others in his possession, were partially published by the Historical Manuscripts Commission and later deposited in the British Library.35 He revisited Holland House in 1855, when the 4th Lord Holland (as Fox now was) recalled that

Fortescue was in my youth an habitué of this house, very handsome, and then an exquisite and dandy of that time, neither empty nor insolent. He was universally popular and justly so. I have not seen him for many years. Time has whitened his bushy hair, but otherwise, notwithstanding much illness, he is little altered.36

He died after a few days’ sickness in January 1877, ‘much and deservedly respected’, his estate being inherited in turn by his two surviving sons, Cyril Dudley (1847-90), and John Bevill (1850-1938).37

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. The Times, 29 Jan. 1877.
  • 2. Add. 69046, ff. 94-98, 102-22; 69364, Lady Fortescue to son, 31 July [1816]; HMC Fortescue, x. 188, 304.
  • 3. Add. 69050; 69364; Fox Jnl. 87, 181; Edgeworth Letters, 285.
  • 4. Devon RO, Earl Fortescue mss 1262 M/FC 32; J.J. Sack, The Grenvillites, 174.
  • 5. Add. 51663.
  • 6. Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC10/81.
  • 7. The Times, 30 Mar. 1827.
  • 8. Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 26 Apr.; Lansdowne mss, Ebrington and Fortescue to Lansdowne, 27 Apr. 1827.
  • 9. Add. 69364.
  • 10. Sneyd mss SC10/83, 84.
  • 11. Ibid. SC10/85, 86.
  • 12. Ibid. SC10/87-89; G. I.T. Machin, Catholic Question in English Politics, 142-3; Western Times, 17 Jan. 1829.
  • 13. Sneyd mss SC10/90, 91.
  • 14. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 345.
  • 15. Add. 69362.
  • 16. Ibid. Lady Fortescue to son, 20 July; Western Times, 7, 14, 21 Aug.; The Times, 12, 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 17. Western Times, 21 Aug., 4, 11, 25 Sept., 30 Oct. 1830.
  • 18. Add. 69050, f. 146.
  • 19. Earl Fortescue, Yeomanry of Devon, 42.
  • 20. Add. 69366.
  • 21. Add. 69362.
  • 22. Add. 69050, ff. 150, 152.
  • 23. Western Times, 14 May 1831.
  • 24. Sneyd mss SC10/101, 102.
  • 25. Add 69364, Sneyd to Fortescue, 22 Oct., 6 Dec. 1831, 7 Jan. 1832.
  • 26. Add. 69050, f. 160.
  • 27. Sneyd mss SC10/103, 104.
  • 28. Ibid. SC10/107, 108; Howard Sisters, 255.
  • 29. Fortescue mss FC 39/78.
  • 30. For example, see Barclay Fox’s Jnl. ed. R.L. Brett, 167.
  • 31. West Briton, 11 Aug. 1837.
  • 32. The Times, 9 July, 24 Sept. 1841.
  • 33. Add. 69366, Cholmondeley to Fortescue, 5 June 1843; 69367; Devon RO, Acland mss 1148 M/C/8/4.
  • 34. PROB 11/1952/673; IR26/1576/646; The Times, 19 Oct. 1841, 4 July 1842.
  • 35. HMC 2nd Rep. app. p. 49; 13th Rep. app. iii; 14th Rep. app. v; HMC Fortescue, vols. iii.-x.
  • 36. Lord Ilchester, Chrons. of Holland House, 410.
  • 37. Lord Clement, Hist. Fam. of Fortescue (1880), 137; The Times, 29 Jan. 1877.