GURNEY, Hudson (1775-1864), of Keswick, Norf.

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



1812 - 19 Feb. 1813
3 June 1816 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 19 Jan 1775, 1st s. of Richard Gurney, banker and brewer, of Keswick and North Repps, Norf. and 1st w. Agatha, da. and h. of David Barclay of Youngsbury, Herts.; half-bro. of Richard Hanbury Gurney*. educ. at Youngsbury by Dr. Thomas Young and John Hodgkin. m. 27 Sept. 1809, Margaret, da. of Robert Barclay† of Urie, Kincardine, s.p. suc. fa. 1811. d. 9 Nov. 1864.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Norf. 1835-6


Gurney was the nominal head of a Norfolk banking family, but preferred the languid society of literary London to business.1 He was brought up a Quaker, but disowned in 1803, when, after a narrow escape from internment in France, he contributed to a government war chest.2 A renowned antiquarian and bibliophile, who claimed to have read all 15,000 volumes in his library, he was a fellow of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries from 1818 and a vice-president of the latter, 1824-46.3 Among his own verse works were the free translations Cupid and Psyche (1798) and The Orlando Furioso (1808), and the classically inspired Heads of Ancient History (1814). His Observations on the Bayeux Tapestry (1817) put the case for the authenticity of its subject. All his grander literary plans fell victim to his guilt-wracked indolence. In August 1832 his cousin Amelia Opie reported a typical scene, in which he bemoaned ‘his uselessness, and how he had thrown away, and was throwing away life’. She provided an illustrative recollection of the occasion when ‘his uncle Joseph said to him when the clock struck twelve one day and he had thought it was only eleven, "Ah, Hudson, with thee it will always be the eleventh hour!"’.4 Yet for all his self-proclaimed underachievement, he managed to accumulate a large fortune through his partnerships in his family’s Norwich bank and the brewing concern of Barclay, Perkins and Company.5

In Parliament Gurney was an independent, whose disposition to side with the Whig opposition to the Liverpool ministry generally weakened as the period wore on. He was noted as a pundit on fiscal matters, with a reputation as an awkward customer, which, he once insisted, stemmed only from a tendency to see both sides of every question. Nonetheless, much of his fundamental thinking was at odds with the rationalist zeitgeist: for example, his avowed preference for first impressions over second thoughts. For the doctrines of Jeremy Bentham and his philosophic radical associates he reserved the utmost contempt:

The greatest enjoyment of the greatest number, the slang of the Benthamites, this is nonsense. It is the well-being of the whole community, the greatest advancement of the species with the least injustice to the less fortunate. Otherwise, supposing warm human flesh to be the greatest of luxuries, twelve men being round a table, the eleven would have the right to cut the twelfth into collops, and eat him raw.6

His diaries show him to have been an assiduous attender of debates, to which he made regular contributions. Being susceptible to colds which rendered him virtually inaudible, he was not the most forceful of speakers and was frequently critical of his own performances, which, he once lamented, too often meandered towards anti-climax.7 Before the 1820 dissolution he entertained doubts as to whether he even wished to continue as a Member, but in the event he was returned again on the interest of Sir Fitzwilliam Barrington for Newtown. As he observed to his friend and fellow antiquary Dawson Turner, 22 Mar., the arrangement was made, ‘as that market goes, not unfairly, and in its manner peculiarly handsomely’. He went on:

I was always as you know extremely anxious to see Parliament. I have seen it and I also now see that whoever goes there as a free man must dig deeply into his own fortune, that is to say, he will be 20 or 30 [thousand pounds] the worse man for it after 10 or fifteen years. I shall go on whilst I can afford it and sit ... for some time longer perhaps, but I shall now quit at any time without much regret, for it has answered my object. My part in the drama of life is mainly that of spectator. Less and less I ambition turmoil, and rejoice in being a quiet man.8

Writing to his half-sister Anna, 17 Mar., Gurney reckoned that the returns had augmented the number of neutrals like himself.9 Yet as he informed Turner, 11 Apr. 1820, he was quite decided that ‘a change of administration is a thing infinitely to be desired’, as the incumbents were so tainted by association with the post-war economic depression ‘that they never can get the country out of the horrible state into which it has fallen’. In such circumstances, his dilemma was

that every motion comes forward on a specific allegation ... [which] ... is nine times out of ten disproved. Then let the effect of the division be what it may, how can I vote against my opinion on the thing before me? If any man would move straightforward an address to the king to change his ministers I would vote with him, but I still feel that I should be compelled to vote with any administration whether I liked them or not oftener than against them, because government must be oftenest right in detail, and ‘tis the detail that is generally before the House of Commons.10

Gurney, who privately deplored the ‘vile innovations’ of the new throne and crown used by the king at the opening of Parliament, voted for investigation of new sources of revenue for the civil list, 5 May, and was present for the debates on the budget and the Queen Caroline affair in June 1820. Events conspired to prevent him from delivering an intended speech on the corrupt borough of Grampound, 28 June, and on 5 July he missed a Norwich petition on account of unexpected visitors, with a complaint that so far, ‘this whole session has been to me very unprofitable’.11 He recommended clemency for Henry Swann*, the former Member convicted of electoral corruption with Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes*, 11 July, and thought that refusal to print an individual’s reform petition, even though it was not a ‘sensible composition’, would set a dangerous precedent, 25 July. He supported a motion for the liberation of one Franklin, incarcerated for the distribution of seditious placards, 17 Oct. On 16 Sept. he had offered Turner a diagnosis of the nation’s ills, which he ascribed to the abolition of the property tax, overprotective corn laws, commercial restrictions and the reversion to a gold standard in 1819. But he perceived a vital bulwark against revolutionary chaos in the fact that ‘no country in the world ever had so great a proportion of persons with something to lose’. On the Queen Caroline affair, 8 Oct., he marvelled that everyone seemed prepared ‘to go to loggerheads for a madman and a bitch’, yet was sanguine as to the outcome, ‘if she be whitewashed, which I suppose she must be’.12 By 25 Oct. 1820 he was convinced that ‘the bill [of pains and penalties] must stop’, having witnessed a popular demonstration of support for the queen of such decorum as did ‘more credit to the English nation that can be weighed down by an ass of a king, a b-d of a queen and fools of ministers’.13

On 2 Feb. 1821 Gurney complained to Turner of the superficial nature of much parliamentary debate and, noting the lack of oratorical power on the treasury bench, remarked: ‘I think they must be hooted out, if not out voted’.14 He joined the Whig opposition’s campaign in support of the queen during the early part of the session, though by 6 Feb., when he voted for their censure motion, he regarded them as a spent force, and he only paired for the restoration of her name to the liturgy, 13 Feb. He voted to condemn the revocation of the liberal constitution of Naples by the Holy Alliance, 21 Feb. On 28 Feb. he braved the ‘tremendous cold’ to vote for Catholic relief. He did not divide for repeal of the additional malt duty on 21 Mar., which he felt would ‘take off enough money to embarrass the finances, and not enough to give any sensible relief’.15 He spoke in favour of transferring Grampound’s seats to Yorkshire, 12 Feb., 2, 5 Mar., and privately expressed delight that the principle of granting Members to unrepresented towns had apparently gained broad acceptance.16 He praised the British Museum and its staff, 16 Feb., 11 Apr. Although Gurney opined to Turner, 17 Mar. 1821, that the general extent of agricultural distress had been ‘greatly exaggerated’, he admitted its impact in Norfolk and Suffolk. For this he blamed the 1819 Bank Act, from which he had foretold these consequences as a witness before the committee which had recommended it.17 Yet he supported ministerial proposals for a swifter implementation of its provisions, 19 Mar. He was, as he boasted to Turner, among the mixed bag of ‘27 malcontents’ who voted for an inquiry into the currency, 9 Apr., when he supported Alexander Baring’s prescription of a bimetallic standard, allied to a revaluation of the sovereign at 21s.18 On 17 May he informed Turner of his intention, despite some qualms, to vote for the second reading of the usury laws repeal bill. He continued to divide for the proposal in subsequent sessions of the Parliament, though in a letter to his cousin and banking partner Joseph John Gurney in February 1822 he indicated a wish to retain certain safeguards against exploitative interest rates.19 Gurney voted for mitigation of the punishment for forgery, 23 May, and inquiry into the government of the Ionian Isles, 7 June 1821, 14 May 1822. He expressed his ‘cordial, entire and universal abhorrence’ of Scarlett’s proposals to reform the poor laws, in which he detected the unwelcome influence of Malthusian theories, and defended existing arrangements on practical and moral grounds, 8 June, 2 July 1821.20 His vehemence on the latter occasion brought calls for explanation, which he gratified only to the extent of disclaiming personal hostility.21 He supported investigation of Robert Owen’s social experiment at New Lanark, though he believed that it ‘tended to destroy all individuality’, 26 June. He voted for the omission of arrears from the grant to the duke of Clarence, 18 June, 2 July. At one time he had been an enthusiast for the French Revolution, and he was distressed by intelligence of the death of Buonaparte, 4 July, noting that ‘the littleness of our insults to him after he fell into our hands, in denying him his rank, etc., etc., disgraces this county for ever’.22 During the summer recess he suffered something akin to existential angst, telling Turner, 28 Aug. 1821, ‘I lie in bed in the morning and do nothing ... go to the bank and do nothing, and come home, and sit up late because I am used to it, doing nothing’. His state of mind was not improved by failing eyesight.23

Gurney thought the king’s speech to be ‘poor, worn out, commonplace’, and the subsequent exchanges even less inspiring, 5 Feb. 1822. By his own account, he voted against the Irish insurrection bill and the suspension of habeas corpus, 7 Feb., and for Sir Robert Wilson’s protest against his removal from the army, 13 Feb. 1822, after being persuaded by his ‘perfect’ defence.24 (On 16 Oct. 1820 he had been baited by his lifelong friend Lord Aberdeen for seeming to take Wilson seriously.)25 He told Turner that the government’s package of measures to relieve agricultural distress amounted to ‘utter delusion’, 13 Feb., yet was listed in the ministerial majority on the issue, 21 Feb. 1822, though his diary records that he left the House without voting.26 According to other entries he was in the majority against reduction of the salt duty, 28 Feb., and was purposely absent from the division on its repeal, 28 June. Although he voted against ministers for a reduction in the number of junior lords of the admiralty, 1 Mar., he admitted to himself that while the measure might be expedient, it was not justified ‘on a large view of things’.27 He expressed private doubts as to the sanity of David Ricardo*, the leading political economist, 1 Mar., and pointedly told the House that the Bank of England experienced difficulties only when ‘interfered with by theorist and speculators’, 8 Mar.28 His punchy speech in support of abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar., suggests that his inclusion by one source in a list of those who opposed it was an almost certainly an error. Nor, it appears, did he vote as listed in the majority against the renewed motion, 2 May, when he noted that he left the House without voting. Conversely, his intervention on behalf of the brewers in a debate on the malt duty, 20 Mar. 1822, was apparently noticed only by himself.29

Having finally caught the Speaker’s eye on 3 Apr. 1822, Gurney pronounced that agricultural distress was ‘entirely’ a product of the Bank Act.30 For relief, he rejected a large remission of taxes as financially irresponsible, but suggested the replacement of selected duties with a property tax, 8 May. To Turner, he compared the ministerial relief package to ideas propounded by William Cobbett†, noting that the ‘drift’ of their policy was ‘to increase the circulation and thereby raise prices and float things generally, still holding the Bank to pay in gold, which I do not see to be possible’.31 He voted for inquiry into the resumption of cash payments, 12 June, when he observed that while the alteration of a circulating currency might not conform to the soundest fiscal principles, it had been adopted in many countries with no ill effects, and made brief interjections on the small bank notes bill, 20 June, 8 July.32 On 17 Apr. and 12 May he spoke in support of a bill for the recognition of Unitarian marriages. He intentionally abstained on a motion for parliamentary reform, 25 Apr.,33 and paired in favour of the Catholic peers bill, 30 Apr. On 16 May he opposed a tax on absentee landlords on the same libertarian principles on which he based his objections to the cruelty to animals bill the same day.34 He spoke against government plans to fund military and naval pensions, 1 May, 24 May, when he was amused to find himself in a minority with Hume and Ricardo, though it was his Whiggish half-brother Richard who was named in the published list.35 That day he spoke against remission of the Irish window tax. He opposed protective measures for its butter trade, 20 June, and supported the introduction of an Irish poor law, 24 July. Although he voted steadily against the renewal of the Aliens Act, he complained of opposition exaggerations of its effects, 1 July. Sir James Mackintosh, his principal target, recorded that he ‘disclaimed voting’ that day, but this does not tally with Gurney’s own account, nor with the published lists.36 He denounced the proposed national monument in Scotland as ‘a bald, meagre and miserable imitation of the Parthenon’ and a thorough waste of money, 5, 16 July. On 11 July he was privately concerned that he might have been considered ‘somewhat forward ... as though I make no long speeches I have had something either to attack or defend almost every day for the last week or two’.37 He quizzed Peel, the home secretary, on arrangements for obtaining passports, 19 July, and defended the work of the record commission, 24 July. With a notable lack of foresight, he told Turner that Canning was a ‘great ass’ for declining the governor-generalship of India, ‘for the sake of three years in the House of Commons’, and predicted that he would ‘die a beggar and be forgotten in ten’, 17 Aug. 1822.38

Although Gurney was assured by Aberdeen of the government’s determination to maintain a neutral stance over the Franco-Spanish conflict, he dreaded the effect of a popular outcry and was dismayed by the bellicose tone of many speeches at the opening of Parliament, 4 Feb. 1823, telling Turner that ‘our going to war about their quarrels appears downright madness, unless we are willing to face a bankruptcy’. While he thought the conduct of the French amounted to ‘madness and wickedness’, he nevertheless opposed repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr.39 He drew attention to the privations of the regular soldier in a debate on the mutiny bill, 14 Mar. He again aired his concerns about the investments used to fund military and naval pensions, 18 Apr., and absented himself from a debate on parliamentary reform, 23 Apr., though he did vote for reform of the Scottish representative system, 2 June.40 He denigrated a Norfolk petition for reform as the work of Cobbett and as having emanated from ‘a very good humoured meeting: everybody was laughing’, 24 Apr. Cobbett must have brooded on this insult, for he referred to this episode over two years later and to Gurney as ‘the Hickory Quaker’.41 Although he agreed that whipping was overused as a punishment in prisons, he did not vote against it, 30 Apr.42 He argued that legislation was unnecessary to render Quaker affirmations admissible in a criminal court, 8 May, and suggested that a simple alteration in the wording of the Act of Supremacy would allow Catholics to conform and thereby remove their disabilities at a stroke, 28 May. He argued for the formal enfranchisement of Catholics, 30 June. He spoke against an increase in barilla duties, 5, 13 June, and opposed the silk manufacture bill as an interference in labour relations, 11 June, 18 July. He welcomed a grant to the British Museum to house the library of George III, 20 June, 1 July.43 On the latter date he was in a minority for the reception of a petition alleging corruption against James Crosbie, Member for Kerry. He proposed an amendment effectively exonerating O’Grady, the Irish chief baron, from similar charges, but did not press it, 9 July. He spoke and voted for the introduction of trial by jury to New South Wales, 7 July 1823. Earlier that month he had commented that Robinson’s first budget statement as chancellor of the exchequer was ‘very encouraging’ and the ‘improvement from Vansittart inconceivable’, and by the autumn of 1823 he believed that if the country remained at peace, as far as commerce was concerned, ‘we seem to see our way before us’.44

Early in 1824 Gurney moved his London residence from Gloucester Place, Marylebone, to the ‘much more convenient situation’ of St. James’s Square.45 On 2 Mar. he informed Joseph John Gurney of his ‘almost daily attendance’ on the select committee on artisans and machinery, to which he had been added, 18 Feb., and observed:

The people examined ... render it very interesting. We had a little touch from the lord mayor of Dublin today, which convinces me there is more cruelty as well as oppression in Ireland than in the West Indies.46

With a degree of prescience, he urged the Bank to issue figures for its notes in circulation and so reduce the chance of public alarm triggering financial panic, 19 Feb. In private, he hoped that ministers would stand firm for freer trade against the vested interests of the silk industry, 5 Mar.47 Either he or his half-brother voted for repeal of the window tax, 2 Mar. Having evidently overcome his earlier doubts, he spoke for remission of the remaining salt duties, 6 Apr. He contributed briefly to a debate on the British Museum, 29 Mar.,48 and queried details of the marine insurance bill, 28 May, and the new churches bill, 4 June. He voted to end flogging in the military services, 15 Mar., and for inquiry into the Irish church establishment, 6 May, and paired for inquiry into the trial of John Smith, the Methodist missionary accused of inciting rebellion among slaves in Demerara, 11 June 1824. He divided against the Irish unlawful societies bill, 11 Feb., and voted for Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825, though it was his private belief that ‘the Catholics are in a worse position as to getting what they want than they have been for years’.49 He confessed himself ‘puzzled’ by the accompanying measure to disfranchise Irish 40s. freeholders and did not vote on it, 26 Apr.50 Likewise, he left the House before a division on Members’ rights of voting on bills in which they had a pecuniary interest, 10 Mar., but not before he had cited the experience of his half-brother with an unnamed railway company as an illustration of the attempts of speculators to buy parliamentary influence.51 He deprecated the clamour for re-enactment of the combination laws which, he insisted, had been shown not to work, 29 Mar., 4 May. He would countenance only a limited relaxation of the quarantine regulations, 30 Mar., and in a hit at fashionable anti-contagionist theories of disease, observed that it was ‘curious to see how extremes meet; and that the ultra-philosophers of Westminster have at last arrived at the wisdom of the Turk’. Either he or his half-brother voted for a revision of the corn laws, 28 Apr. He defended the grant to the duke of Cumberland for the education of Prince George, 30 May. He spoke and voted for a prohibition on spring guns, 21 June. He defended country bankers against a petition complaining of the non-redemption of notes, but gave a portentous warning that ‘the immense mass of paper engagements’ created a real danger that ‘any domestic alarm, founded or unfounded’ could precipitate a run on the banks, 27 June 1825.

By the time Parliament reassembled in 1826 such an event had indeed occurred and the survival of Gurney’s own house was, according to its historian, partly thanks to his prudent avoidance of any overissue of notes.52 In debate after the crash, he agreed that some change to currency regulation was necessary, 2, 9 Feb. He ‘somewhat doubtingly’ joined Baring’s minority against the government proposals, 13 Feb., but he spoke strongly against the inclusion of the Bank in the proposed ban on the circulation of small notes and moved its exemption, which was lost by 66-7.53 Convinced that without a replacement for the lost circulation commercial operations would grind to a ‘standstill’, he tried again the following day, when his motion was negatived without a division. On 17 Feb. ministers agreed to a nine-month delay in the implementation of the legislation, apparently after a delegation of Norwich bankers had threatened a £500,000 run on the Bank. Gurney, who was heavily implicated in this manoeuvre by John Hobhouse* and Greville,54 welcomed this concession, 22 Feb., when, as he admitted to his uncle Joseph Gurney, he was greeted with considerable hostility, not least from Robinson, even though he insisted that ministers had not been held to ransom. Four days later he reported that there were still ‘anxious faces’ in the City, for which he could discover no definite cause.55 He opposed an attempt to make the instant payment of notes in gold a legal obligation and argued that the publication of circulation figures, however desirable, should remain voluntary, 21, 24, 27 Feb., 7 Mar. He deprecated interference in the Scottish banking system, 14, 16 Mar., and counselled against modelling the Bank’s new charter on its counterpart in Ireland, 14 Apr. He dismissed a petition complaining of the non-payment of country banknotes (including those of his own concern) as another production of Cobbett, 2 May. Baffled by Hume’s 41 resolutions on finance, 4 May, he fled the House.56 On 26 May he revived the notion of a bimetallic standard and suggested augmenting the circulation with ‘government paper’, by which a subsequent diary entry suggests he probably meant exchequer bills.57 He presented a Norwich petition for revision of the corn laws, 2 Mar., and paired accordingly, 18 Apr.58 He spoke in favour of a separate ministerial salary for the president of the board of trade ‘for the sake of a fling at the Whigs’, 7 Apr., and reckoned himself the only independent Member to vote with government on this three days later. His personal wish for John Copley’s* appointment as lord chancellor, which he privately believed would be ‘a greater reform than Lord John Russell’s’, 9 Apr., further illustrated his move away from the Whig opposition, as did his attendance at a ministerial dinner, 7 May.59 He called for financial remuneration for the Westminster high constable and displaced settlers in Cape Province, 19 May. On 26 May 1826 he caused a stir by opposing Russell’s resolutions against electoral bribery with the assertion that ‘there was not a Member in the House who did not pay for his seat, either in meal or malt’. To demands for an explanation, he answered that he had merely intended to highlight the practical absurdity of the existing law.

At the 1826 general election he was returned again for Newtown, as he informed his sister, Agatha Hanbury, ‘without demur on either side, and whilst I can go on and do not break’.60 That November he was irked to be named to an appeals committee.61 He repeated his calls for an overhaul of the regulations governing joint-stock company partnerships, 5 Dec. 1826, 15 May 1827. On 6 Dec. 1826 he failed to get a hearing in a debate on the export of machinery, when he was seemingly disturbed to detect a reaction against free trade.62 He supported inquiries into the electoral activities of the corporations of Northampton, 21 Feb., and Leicester, 15 Mar. 1827. He voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., the defeat of which he ascribed to a divided cabinet, though on 13 Feb. he had recorded his strong suspicion that ‘this is a very bad House of Commons, raw boys and fools’. To add to his despondency, he was appointed to the Dublin election committee, ‘the worst in the whole session’, 21 Mar.63 He voted to ban spring guns, 23 Mar. Following the formation of Canning’s ministry, he commented, 13 Apr., ‘it comes to a total split, the two old parties again ... Canning and Peel, for Pitt and Fox. I am sorry for it. But our men are worth a thousand of the old two’. Retrospectively, he considered Canning to have been ‘the greatest man of my time’ (12 Mar. 1831), but on 3 May 1827 he referred to his supporters as ‘an ill-assorted, ungainly multitude’, though he was equally scathing about their Tory opponents.64 He presented a petition for deletion of the declaration against transubstantiation from the parliamentary oaths, 9 May. He spoke against a bill to extend the jurisdiction of Warwickshire magistrates to Coventry, 22 May, 1, 8 June. He opposed measures to curb fraudulent votes and expenditure at elections on the grounds that similar legislation had failed in Ireland, 23, 28 May. That day he abstained from the division on the fate of the corrupt borough of Penryn, as he approved neither of its disfranchisement nor its enlargement.65 He spoke against a petition from Norwich weavers for Parliament to set wage levels, 30 May, when he urged that a proposal to sanction Unitarian marriages be extended to all Dissenters. He opposed the use of criminals’ bodies for dissection, 20 June, and called for information on the case of an alleged lunatic detained in Cold Bath Fields prison, 2 July 1827.

On 8 Feb. 1828 Gurney recorded a conspiracy theory propounded by Wilson, that John Herries*, as chancellor of the exchequer, had plotted the collapse of the Goderich ministry at the instigation of the Court, to which he added his own speculation on the existence of a ‘stockjobbing connection’ involving the royal household. At a Lords debate three days later, he noted the oratorical inexperience of the duke of Wellington, the new premier, and the ‘pompous speechifying fashion of delivery’ in general use.66 In the Commons he made short interventions on the undermanning of naval vessels, 12 Feb., and the life annuities repeal bill, 25 Mar. He paired for repeal of the Test Acts, 28 Feb., and complained of changes in the oath made by a Lords’ amendment, 2 May. On 12 May he paired for Catholic relief, thereby, as he told his half-sister Anna, avoiding ‘three tremendously crowded and boring nights’, though ‘here my good luck ends, as I shall have to sit through the committee as there pairing is impossible’.67 He argued against the appointment of a select committee on the reintroduction of small notes, believing that it would now serve no purpose, 3 June, but objected to a ban on the circulation of Scottish notes in England as detrimental to cross-border trade, 16, 27 June. He opposed compulsory returns of note issues, as country bankers had ‘already enough to dispirit them in the way of their business’, 26 June, and was concerned at the possibility of runs on the new savings banks, 10 July. On 20 June he supported a legislative assembly for New South Wales. He spoke against a voters’ registration bill, 19 June, and the disfranchisement of named electors in the corrupt borough of East Retford, 24, 27 June, but welcomed a bill to prevent the misappropriation of corporate funds for electoral purposes 8, 10 July, and promised to reintroduce it if ministers failed to adopt it, 17, 18, 19 July 1828. (On 29 June 1829 he reported having received ‘remonstrances’ for his failure so to do, but would undertake only to ensure that the matter was not forgotten.) He was in the ministerial majority against ordnance reductions, 4 July, and presented a petition from 500 government clerks against cuts in their superannuation allowances, 14 July 1828.

Gurney was absent from the opening of the 1829 session, but reckoned that the announcement of the government’s decision to concede Catholic emancipation had given ‘general satisfaction’. He considered that the decision of Peel, again home secretary, to resign his seat for Oxford University reflected ‘greatly to his honour’, 8 Feb., and mused on the irony that Wellington had turned out to be ‘the most pacific minister we ever had’.68 He spoke against an anti-Catholic petition from Norwich, 19 Feb., and alleged that many such ‘had been got up by misrepresentations and culpable delusions practised on timid, unthinking people’, 10 Mar. He was unimpressed by the case made in the House by opponents of emancipation, for which he voted, 6, 30 Mar.69 He spoke for the issue of the writ for East Retford, saying that the borough had been punished enough by its lengthy trial, 10 Apr., 7 May, but was listed in the minority for the transfer of its seats to Birmingham, 5 May, which he apparently preferred to extension into the hundred. He was sceptical of Hobhouse’s attempt to reform select vestries and warned him by letter that ‘people being accustomed to old grievances and old abuses do not much care for them, but are sorely annoyed when they are travelled in a new place’.70 In debate, he cast doubt on the accuracy of allegations in some anti-slavery pamphlets, 3 June. Next day he denounced the prayer of a petition for reductions in taxation and government expenditure as a recipe for national bankruptcy. His opposition to the Currency Act surfaced once more, though he declared that if a paper currency was again to be issued, it should not be in the hands of private banks. In December 1829 Aberdeen, now foreign secretary, jokingly upbraided Gurney for his ‘grumbling and croaking’ about public affairs.71 The following month he was reported by Joseph John Gurney to be ‘in a rather morbid and irritable state’ as a result of his half-brother’s siring of an illegitimate child.72 He abstained from voting on the address, 4 Feb., but privately expressed unease at government complacency over economic distress.73 This he informed the House, 19 Mar., was ‘very great’, though he felt unable to support the reflationary measures proposed by Western and fell back on his familiar call for an alteration in the currency.74 In view of the king’s grave illness, he regarded cavils at the cost of Windsor Castle repairs as distasteful, 3 May. He divided for Jewish emancipation, 17 May. On 7 June he divided for the grant for South American missions and spoke and voted in favour of ending the death penalty for forgery. He was in the minorities for restrictions to the provisions of the sale of beer bill, 21 June, 1 July. He was content to leave the law governing the payment of wages in kind as it stood, 12 June, 1, 5, 9 July, but was more receptive to the measure of reform introduced in the next Parliament, 15 Dec. 1830.

Addressing his sister Agatha in plaintive mode, 4 June 1830, Gurney remarked, ‘I go on in much the old way, attending the H. of C. to no purpose and not doing anything to any purpose. I believe my going on in Parliament is now a foolish thing, and that it would be better to retire’.75 At the 1830 general election he was again returned unopposed for Newtown. Ministers listed him among their ‘foes’, with the endorsement ‘doubtful’, and he was absent from the crucial division on the civil list, 15 Nov. He was bitterly critical of the reluctance of ‘the opulent among the Irish’ to shoulder a share of the tax burden, 23 Nov., but opposed a call for a return of bankrupt Irish magistrates, 15 Dec. 1830. On 18 Feb. 1831 he presented an Isle of Wight petition for parliamentary reform. When the Grey ministry’s scheme of reform was introduced on 1 Mar. he was privately unhappy with the proposed reduction in the Members for the Island, for which, despite representing a pocket borough, he clearly regarded himself as a spokesman. His other immediate objections to the bill were the additional representation it gave to Ireland and to the metropolitan districts, which he feared would ‘return the worst of representatives ... radicals, knowing nothing, and representing no interest whatsoever’.76 Yet the Whig Denis Le Marchant† reported hearing him say that it was ‘an honour to the age for any administration to propose a measure like this, but there is no chance of their getting the House to pass it. No one but Cromwell could ever have done that’.77 Gurney afterwards adopted a quirky stance of opposition to the bill that led one contemporary radical publication to describe him as ‘a strange, unintelligible kind of person’.78 Many of his votes on the measure are uncertain, probably as a result of hostility to the collusion of Members in the reporting of proceedings, which he made clear in a complaint of breach of privilege on 7 Sept. Plagued by a cold, he failed to get a turn in debate before the division on the second reading, 22 Mar., on which, according to the published lists, he abstained.79 Yet two days later he indicated in debate that he had actually voted in favour, in order to permit further discussion of the bill, but with no commitment to support it any further. He cast doubt on the prerogative right of the crown to disenfranchise any borough, 30 Mar., but, in redemption of his earlier pledge, welcomed the provisions to prevent the abuse of corporate funds, 14 Apr. Taken as a whole he assessed the bill as ‘a radical reform which threatens to sap and undermine all the institutions of the country’, 15 Apr., and it seems clear that he voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, either in person or as a pair, 19 Apr. 1831.

He had negotiated an unfettered return with his patron before the ensuing general election, though again he expressed a readiness to give up.80 ‘I am become old and effete’, he told his half-sister Anna, 16 Mar.:

I think it is quite right for me to retire from the arena of strife, where I can join with no party. I am not strong enough to make fight for moderate compromises. In short, ineffective to argue and bawl.

Two days before, however, his thoughts had taken a different turn:

The House of Commons closes all my time to very occasional and infrequent purpose, but it is living in a very stimulant and amusing society under the pretence of business and giving an interest in interesting oneself in a world of things from day to day which otherwise one’s attention would not be called to. If I were a wise man, or an industrious, I should be much better out of it, but as I am neither, I do not feel sure whether I shall employ myself much more profitably.81

He was concerned at the storm that might be provoked by a last-ditch opposition to the bill, and at a meeting of the Royal Society in May, expressed satisfaction that the elections had at least provided a positive indication of public opinion. He replied to an attack by the duke of Sussex and privately derided his assumption that the bill would mark the end of aristocratic influence in the Commons.82 He left the House before the vote on the second reading of the reintroduced bill, 6 July, when the Commons was ‘hot beyond human endurance, Wetherell bothering beyond human sufferance’.83 He was listed in the majority against an adjournment, 12 July, but expressed his hope that the House would carefully attend to the claims of individual boroughs for reprieve the following day. He spoke up for Aldeburgh, 14 July, Appleby, 19 July, and his own borough, whose burgage franchise could not, he argued, be taken away on the score of its tiny population, 22 July. Although he opposed total disfranchisements, he did not carry out his threat to move for all boroughs to retain one Member, 14 July. In debate the following day he held Bentham responsible for the extra-parliamentary campaign in favour of the bill. The approval of schedules A and B caused Gurney to rethink his opposition to the enfranchisement of the metropolitan districts, and he voted to give two Members to Greenwich, 3 Aug., when he repeated his warning concerning their probable character. He was unable to present a petition for an extra Member for the Isle of Wight owing to the loss of his voice, 12 Aug, but did so four days later.84 He wished the boundary commissioners to be vested with wide powers of investigation, 1 Sept., and defended their actions, 21 Sept. He injected a note of levity with an anecdote about a peer’s attempt to vote at a Kent election, 6 Sept., and spoke against the disfranchisement of crown officers, 14 Sept. Regarding allegations of improper patronal interference at Hertford, he offered the all-purpose remedy of ‘an improved state of the morals of the people’, 21 Sept. The same day, to no great effect, he quoted a statute of Richard II in support of his claim that the schedule A disfranchisements were unconstitutional. Sources disagree as to whether he then voted against the passage of the bill, or absented himself from the division. On other matters, he welcomed proposals for a new road north from Waterloo Bridge and called for similar improvements in other parts of the capital, 23 June, 11 July. He supported the issue of the Liverpool writ, 8 July, and voted against a motion condemning the borough for gross bribery, 6 Sept. In November 1831 he welcomed the establishment of a museum in Norwich as an indication of ‘the spread of scientific inquiry ... which one much wants to balance the unsettlement and fury of political ignorance’.85 A letter from Aberdeen the following month indicates that he was in trepidation of another crisis in the banking system.86

Gurney apparently abstained on the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831. He deemed the allocation of a separate Member to the Isle of Wight to be the minimum requirement, 1 Feb., and divided in favour of the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., but considered that despite such improvements as the retention of freemen’s rights, the new bill still contained ‘most of the injustice of the former’, 20 Mar. 1832. That day he added a warning that ‘the nearer you approach to universal suffrage, the more you place the numerical majority of persons working to acquire property in power over the minority who possess it’. He was absent from the divisions on the third reading of the bill, 22 Mar., and the motion calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry it unimpaired, 10 May. He was in the minority against the malt drawback bill, 2 Apr., but he paired with ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 12, 16 July, and voted with them, 20 July. He thought an inquiry into non-resident clergy was unnecessary, 8 May, and deemed a bill to reduce sheriffs’ expenses ‘a most ridiculous piece of legislation’, 20 July. On the bribery at elections bill, he warned of the need for great care in framing definitions and oaths, 30 July, 9 Aug. He was sarcastic about its provision for the disfranchisement of errant boroughs, even ‘though our next Parliament is to be so pure and honest’, 6 Aug. The same day he used the attempts of English liberals to frame a constitution for Greece as an opportunity for another glance at Bentham and his acolytes. He admitted that a reformed Parliament was likely to be more competent than ‘this self-condemned one’ to judge demands for modifications to the Reform Act contained in a Westminster petition, 11 Aug. 1832. The same day he stood by the government’s insistence on the secrecy of proceedings in the Bank’s charter committee.

On 25 Dec. 1832 Gurney was reported by Amelia Opie to be ‘cheered’ on the subject of general politics.87 However, he did not seek a replacement for his abolished seat either at the elections then taking place or subsequently, having long before announced his unsuitability to represent a populous place. He contented himself with the observation that

no person hates party more than I do. Perhaps my time in the House of Commons ... was the precise period in which neutrality was easiest, and the moment of my leaving ... that in which neutrality was to become next to impossible. I have during the time I have been there lived well with everybody. It is very possible in these times that I may live better with everybody for being out.88

At the same time he resigned his partnership in the Gurneys’ bank, a step he had meditated for a decade. His lack of appetite for business apparently coincided with the social prejudices of his wife ‘Mag’, though he was sensible enough of its lucrative benefits, observing on one occasion that during all but the most severe social upheavals, ‘the banker holds the bag to those who have something to put in it’.89 He evidently felt the loss of his two greatest concerns, noting in his diary, 2 Jan. 1833, ‘I am too old for balls. I am too blind to know people, too deaf to hear them, and too husky in the throat to make them hear me’. But he found suitable occupation in the rebuilding of Keswick in 1838 and in literary and antiquarian pursuits. In 1831 he had published a Memoir of the Life of Thomas Young, as an introduction to his late tutor’s Egyptian dictionary, and in 1847 he added Letter to Dawson Turner, on Norwich and the Venta Icenorum, which endeavoured to prove that the city had been the headquarters of the Iceni tribe. The task of editing the remainder of his voluminous notes for publication was too much for his well-ingrained habits of procrastination. He seldom rose before midday, a habit acquired from parliamentary sittings which he never broke.90 In 1835 he was apparently involved in his half-brother’s vain election bid for East Norfolk and he remained abreast of political developments.91 He was untroubled by Chartist agitation in May 1839, being convinced that ‘the mass of the people are very sick of reforms and movements’; but his tirade against sections of the anti-slavery lobby in August that year upset his kinswoman Anna Gurney, who commented that ‘with all Hudson Gurney’s kindness it is odd that he should allow prejudice to becloud his benevolence and good sense’.92 In 1843 he was struck down by serious illness, from which he never fully recovered. Aberdeen attempted to rally him, 14 Feb. 1844, observing that ‘your views of men and things are never very sanguine, and I hope that in your own case you have taken rather too gloomy a prospect’.93 When Gurney wrote to Brougham on 14 July 1850 he had been ‘almost confined for seven years’, though his subsequent remarks indicate that his capacity for reflective self-denigration was undiminished:

During a very useless and sole life I have been either reading or dreaming over history, in some shape or other, and I have lived to see everything happen which was impossible, and everything in the world’s story which had been supposed to have passed, proved to have been all wrong, so that I am arrived at my second childhood, in the comfortable conviction that I can comprehend nothing, and that the march of intellect and of discovery should appear to have involved everything, in every direction, in inextricable confusion.94

In August 1862 he ventured far enough outdoors to check the progress of the harvest, but ‘had great difficulty in getting back again’.95 He died at Keswick in November 1864, having outlived his wife by nine years.96 By his will, dated 6 June 1860 with six codicils, his entire landed estate passed to John Henry Gurney (1819-90), the son of his cousin and banking partner Joseph John Gurney, Liberal Member for King’s Lynn, 1854-65. Out of his personalty, which was sworn under £1,100,000, Gurney left £120,000 to his first cousin Daniel Gurney (1791-1880) of North Runcton, Norfolk, the family historian, about whose scholarship he had often been churlish.97 He bequeathed the same sum, for investment in land, to John Gurney (1845-87), later of Sprowston Hall, Norfolk, the grandson of Samuel Gurney, another first cousin. Smaller sums were distributed among his many cousins in the Barclay and Gurney families and to deserving causes in his Norfolk locality. Gurney had once written: ‘I am not aware of having ever in my life taken advantage of any man, or of having persecuted anyone. I have been very guarded of individually injuring anyone, or of standing in anyone’s way’. The impressive attendance at his funeral at Intwood, and the warm tributes to his philanthropic humanity in obituary notices, suggest that in this respect at least, he had gone some way towards meeting his own expectations.98

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Howard Spencer / Philip Salmon


  • 1. W.H. Bidwell, Annals of an East Anglian Bank, 55.
  • 2. Soc. of Friends Lib. ‘Dict. of Quaker Biog.’; Bidwell, 69.
  • 3. Gent Mag. (1865), i. 108.
  • 4. Soc. of Friends Lib. Gurney mss 2/36.
  • 5. Bidwell 58-59, Norf. RO, Gurney mss RQG 520.
  • 6. Oxford DNB; Bidwell, 147-9.
  • 7. Gurney diary (in the possession of D. Q. Gurney, Esq. of Bawdeswell Hall, Norf.), 1 July. 1821 and passim.
  • 8. Trinity Coll. Lib. Camb. Dawson Turner mss DT2/K1/30.
  • 9. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 401/158.
  • 10. Dawson Turner mss K1/31.
  • 11. Gurney diary.
  • 12. Dawson Turner mss K1/32, 34.
  • 13. Gurney diary.
  • 14. Dawson Turner mss K2/1.
  • 15. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 401/121, 122, 161.
  • 16. The Times, 5 Mar. 1821; Dawson Turner mss K2/2.
  • 17. Dawson Turner mss K2/3; B. Gordon, Political Economy in Parl. 37, 42.
  • 18. Dawson Turner mss K2/4, 5.
  • 19. Ibid. K2/8; Bidwell, 158-9.
  • 20. The Times, 9 June, 3 July 1821.
  • 21. Gurney diary.
  • 22. Ibid.; V. Anderson, Friends and Relations, 237.
  • 23. Dawson Turner mss K2/12, 15.
  • 24. Gurney diary.
  • 25. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 334/48.
  • 26. Dawson Turner mss K3/3.
  • 27. Gurney diary.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Dawson Turner mss K3/6.
  • 32. The Times, 21 June 1822.
  • 33. Gurney diary.
  • 34. The Times, 17 May 1822.
  • 35. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 402/10.
  • 36. Add. 52445, f. 90; Gurney diary.
  • 37. Dawson Turner mss K3/9.
  • 38. Ibid. K3/10.
  • 39. Ibid. K3/13,14; K4/3; Gurney diary.
  • 40. Gurney diary.
  • 41. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, i. 327.
  • 42. The Times, 1 May 1823; Gurney diary.
  • 43. The Times, 2 July 1823.
  • 44. Gurney diary; Dawson Turner mss K4/9.
  • 45. Soc. of Friends Lib. Gurney mss 2/1, Anna Gurney to her uncle, 14 Jan. 1824.
  • 46. Ibid. 2/102.
  • 47. Gurney diary.
  • 48. The Times, 30 Mar. 1824.
  • 49. Gurney diary, 15 Feb., 14 Mar. 1825
  • 50. Ibid.
  • 51. Ibid.
  • 52. Bidwell, 152-3.
  • 53. Gurney diary.
  • 54. Broughton, Recollections, iii. 126. In Greville Mems. i. 156-7, the editors, apparently incorrectly, identify the chief protagonist as Samuel Gurney. See F. W. Fetter, Development of British Monetary Orthodoxy, 133.
  • 55. Bidwell, 154-7, 185.
  • 56. Gurney diary.
  • 57. Bidwell, 105-6.
  • 58. The Times, 3 Mar. 1826
  • 59. Gurney diary.
  • 60. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 574/3.
  • 61. Gurney diary.
  • 62. Ibid.
  • 63. Ibid.
  • 64. Ibid.
  • 65. Ibid.
  • 66. Ibid.
  • 67. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 402/57.
  • 68. Gurney diary.
  • 69. Ibid.
  • 70. Add. 36465, f. 110.
  • 71. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 334/61.
  • 72. Soc. of Friends Lib. Gurney mss 3/520.
  • 73. Gurney diary.
  • 74. B. Gordon, Economic Doctrine and Tory Liberalism, 132.
  • 75. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 576/5.
  • 76. Gurney diary.
  • 77. Three Diaries, 14.
  • 78. [W. Carpenter], People’s Bk. (1831), 271-2
  • 79. Gurney diary.
  • 80. Ibid. 2 Apr. 1831.
  • 81. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 402/87; 576/16.
  • 82. Gurney diary, 24 Apr., 5 May 1831.
  • 83. Ibid.
  • 84. Ibid. 12 Aug. 1831.
  • 85. Add. 46126, f. 351.
  • 86. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 334/63.
  • 87. Soc. of Friends Lib. Gurney mss 1/350.
  • 88. Bidwell, 146-7.
  • 89. Ibid. 173-4, 181-5; Anderson, 283.
  • 90. Bidwell, 197, 223; Add. 37966, f. 110.
  • 91. Norf. RO, Gurney mss 334/78.
  • 92. Soc. of Friends Lib. Gurney mss 2/105, 3/95.
  • 93. Bidwell, 221; Norf. RO, Gurney mss 334/109.
  • 94. Brougham mss.
  • 95. Soc. of Friends Lib. Gurney mss 2/108.
  • 96. Gent. Mag. (1865), i. 108-10.
  • 97. Anderson, 288, 291.
  • 98. Bidwell, 225, 247-9; Gent. Mag. (1865), ii. 108-10; The Times, 11 Nov. 1864.