HOLMES, William (?1777-1851), of 10 Grafton Street; New Bond Street and Vine Cottage, Fulham, Mdx.

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



17 Mar. 1808 - 1812
1812 - 1818
1818 - 1820
1820 - 1830
1830 - 1832

Family and Education

b. ?1777, 5th s. of Thomas Holmes, brewer, of Farnhill, co. Sligo and Anne, da. of Harloe Phibbs of co. Sligo. educ. Trinity, Dublin 6 Apr. 1795, aged 17. m. 24 Oct. 1807,1 Helen, da. and coh. of John Tew of Dublin, wid. of Rev. Sir James Stronge, 1st bt., rect. of Tynan, co. Armagh, 1s. d. 26 Jan. 1851.

Offices Held

Lt. 4 Ft. 1799, 69 Ft. 1800; capt. 3 W.I. Regt. 1803-7.

Treas. of ordnance June 1818-Nov. 1830.

Agent, Demerara 1818-33.


By 1820 ’Black Billy’ Holmes, a coarse, foul-mouthed Irishman and self-confessed ‘ministerial hack’, was firmly established as the chief government whip.2 Unusually, he had no direct connection with the treasury, having been installed in 1818 in the place of treasurer of the ordnance, worth £1,200 a year. He had, by his own admission, done well for his family out of the spoils system, and he owned property in Demerara, for which he was colonial agent.3 Although he performed his functions efficiently enough to retain the confidence and friendship of leading Tory ministers in this period, he was, as two men who knew him well put it, noted for ‘his habitual irregularity’ and ‘a certain carelessness in his habits’: the minor errors and omissions which litter his letters are sufficient testimony to this shortcoming.4 He was, too, notoriously indiscreet and garrulous, surprisingly so for a man in his position, and there was about him an unmistakable impression of rascality, or worse. At the general election of 1820 he was ‘supplanted’ at Totnes by John Bent and was initially reported to be at a loss for a seat.5 In the event he stood for Bishop’s Castle on the Clive interest, which had lost one seat to a radical at a by-election the previous year. He told Arbuthnot, the patronage secretary, 21 Feb., that the Clives’ opponent was so well entrenched that ‘at present I have scarcely a hope’ of success; but he and his colleague were involved in a double return, the inquiry into which confirmed them in their seats and re-established the Clive interest.6 Holmes was a government teller in the divisions on the Barbados pension fund, 25 Mar. 1822, and the beer duties bill, 17 June 1823. He made no known contributions to debate in the 1820 Parliament, but he presented petitions from Bishop’s Castle against the beer retail bill, 22 May, and from Dingwall for the abolition of slavery, 21 June 1824.7

Holmes voted against Catholic claims, 28 Feb. 1821, but, aware from his calculations that the relief bill would pass the Commons, was reported by a friend of the measure to have become ‘quite indefatigable in the use of every means, fair and foul, to induce Members to vote against us’. It was said that Lord Castlereagh, the government leader in the House, ‘promised to insist on checking’ this ‘activity’.8 He voted against Canning’s bill to relieve Catholic peers, 30 Apr. 1822, and Catholic claims, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825, though the pro-Catholic Edward Littleton* seized on his private admission that ‘he begins to think the cause [of resistance] must be abandoned’.9 He was a teller for the minority against the bill to disfranchise Irish 40s. freeholders, 26 Apr. 1825. In June 1821 he held out to the Grenvillites the prospect of the government reshuffle which brought them into office six months later.10 He advised Canning on the choice of a mover and seconder of the address on the eve of the 1823 session.11 He was an occasional attender at meetings of the committee of West India planters and merchants in this period.12 He was returned unopposed for Bishop’s Castle at the general election of 1826.13

As expectations rose that the Catholic question would be carried in the new Parliament, Charles Long* told Lord Lonsdale, an opponent of their claims, in February 1827 that he had ‘desired Holmes to be upon the alert. He says he has to ascertain the intentions of about 130 who are quite new to the question’. Holmes duly voted against relief, 6 Mar. 1827, when Lord Binning* complained that ‘that Irish rascal Black Holmes’ was helping to propagate the notion that if the motion was successful the stricken Liverpool ministry would collapse.14 He retained his place and his whipping duties under Canning, apparently after consulting Lord Powis, his electoral patron, who encouraged him to believe of the new ministry that ‘their reign will be as ephemeral as their projects will be evanescent’.15 He voted against the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May, and the Coventry magistracy bill, 18 June 1827. The following month he relayed to Arbuthnot, for the edification of Peel and the other seceding ministers, tales of the tensions and disagreements between Canning and his Whig colleagues, and in particular let it be known that Whig backbench supporters of the ministry had ‘refused to receive treasury notes, and that they never would attend unless they were summoned by Lord Duncannon*’.16 During the ministerial turmoil which followed Canning’s death he kept Wellington and Peel fully apprised of developments, though some of his information, such as his report that Lord Lansdowne had never tendered his resignation and that the king had vetoed Lord Holland’s admission to the government, was inaccurate.17 Keen to see the restoration of a thoroughgoing Tory government, he rejoiced in Wellington’s appointment as commander-in-chief; but to Mrs. Arbuthnot in early September he expressed reservations, which he was not alone in harbouring, about Peel’s fitness as a party leader:

My own opinion is that the government will blow up on some point of government or principle long before Parliament meets. The Portuguese, Greek and army reduction measures afford a fine prospect of difference of opinion, and if the Tories will only take up a position on the neutral territory, and form a corps of observation without (in the first instance) going into decided opposition, they will soon overthrow these people. A regular Tory opposition cannot be formed, because there is no leader. Peel, though able, honest and high-minded, is too selfish, too proud and haughty in his manners to have a personal following, and he is disliked by the king ... You may rely upon it, that whenever this government drops, the duke of Wellington will be sent for and not Peel.18

Yet according to the junior Lansdowne Whig minister Spring Rice, Holmes spoke in late October ‘with the utmost confidence of [ministerial] parliamentary strength next year’.19 Peel suspected that Holmes had been kept on by Lord Goderich purely to ‘obtain a majority in the House of Commons against the Roman Catholic question’, which he and his senior colleagues ‘professed to support’.20 At the turn of the year Holmes, who was said to be ‘very much in the confidence’ of lord chancellor Lyndhurst and Herries, the chancellor of the exchequer, kept the Arbuthnots abreast of the disintegration of the ministry: he was openly scathing of their ‘total want of principle and their unblushing rapacity and jobs’.21

Anticipating the formation of Wellington’s ministry, in which he remained in situ, Holmes, though uncertain as to whether the Huskissonites would join it, was sure, as he told Powis, that ‘the Whigs have no chance under any circumstances’.22 He voted against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. 1828, and the following day presented a Bishop’s Castle petition for repeal of the Malt Act. He was in the government majorities against inquiry into chancery delays, 24 Apr., and ordnance economies, 4 July. On 6 Mar. 1828, while going from the House to dine in the company of his wife and Croker, he ‘caught a pickpocket with his hand in his pocket’ in Cockspur Street, but ‘let him off’ after his show of penitence.23 On a more serious note, he ‘bitterly’ complained to Mrs. Arbuthnot later that month of Peel’s priggish ‘conduct which, he says, disgusts the Tories in the House to such a degree that they will not stay and vote’. He also told her that on being shown by Planta, the patronage secretary, an ‘impudent’ note from four aristocratic backbenchers protesting against over zealous whipping, he urged him to ‘send the note back with a list of the sums pocketed by the families of these four gentlemen’, but that the ‘good natured’ Planta preferred to ignore it.24 Although he voted against Catholic relief, 12 May 1828, he admitted to Powis that ‘some settlement must be come to on this subject as things cannot rest where they now are, and we Protestants are clean beat after a fair stand-up fight in the Commons’. He was glad to see the back of the Huskissonites at the end of the month: ‘I trust in God we never shall have any more of these cursed new light people in power. The duke of Wellington is firm, and says he will carry on his government with clerks and appeal to the country if necessary.’25 He was clearly discomfited by the government’s decision to concede Catholic emancipation in 1829. Croker suspected that he had ‘feigned illness’ to avoid the dinner at Peel’s to hear the king’s speech, 4 Feb.; and his friend Lord Lowther* reported later in the month that he was ‘so dejected and melancholy, he has been but twice in the House of Commons and swears he will not go again until after all this business is passed’.26 On 1 Mar. he went to Westbury to enforce the arrangement by which Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes made way for Peel, just ousted from Oxford University. Informing Planta of Peel’s election and a narrow escape from an embarrassing Ultra Protestant challenge the following day, he moaned that he had to endure the ‘cursed bore’ of dinner with Lopes in his draughty house before he could escape back to London.27 He cast no known vote on emancipation,28 but doubts persisted as to his attitude to the issue, as Lord Althorp* explained to Brougham, 10 Mar.:

I ... told Arbuthnot that Holmes was using very dangerous language, saying to Phillimore, for instance, that he had compared his list with Chandos, and made out they [the anti-Catholics] would divide 180 on the second reading. He answered me it was impossible, for that Holmes was with us, and that not an hour before he had been with the duke, and him as eager for carrying the measure as they were. I told him that Phillimore was undoubtedly a credible witness, and that I could not doubt that he had quoted Holmes correctly. He said, ‘I will take care of him, then’.29

Holmes was a teller for the majority for the anatomy regulation bill, 18 May 1829.

At the end of the session he visited Ireland, but Wellington’s letter of 2 July 1829 asking him to intercede in the Cork by-election on behalf of Colonel Hodder reached him in Dublin too late. On his return to London he gave Peel ‘an account of Ireland satisfactory as far as the upper classes are concerned’.30 In November 1829 the Ultra leader, Sir Richard Vyvyan*, speculating on the possibility of forming a coalition government, observed that Holmes would have no difficulty in serving in it, as he was ‘always faithful to the ministry for the time being’; and Holmes was the conduit for the duke of Buckingham’s invitation to Wellington to visit him at Stowe that month.31 He was with Planta at his Sussex home at Fairlight in January 1830, when the company were hugely amused by a report in the Standard of a change of government.32 According to Greville, Holmes and the other whips feared ‘for a long time’ that government would be beaten on Knatchbull’s amendment to the address, 4 Feb. 1830, and were mightily relieved when two dozen Whigs rescued them. A week later, however, he and Planta told Lord Ellenborough that ‘the temper of the country gentlemen is much improved’, and they were ‘quite in spirits again’ as a result.33 Holmes voted against Lord Blandford’s reform motion, 18 Feb., and the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. After Peel’s excellent speech on the question of the treasurership of the navy, 12 Mar., Holmes and Sir Henry Hardinge* told Mrs. Arbuthnot that although his ‘odious’ manners were still a problem, if he continued in his recent ‘spirited’ fashion, they ‘should soon have a good stout party’.34 Holmes found himself in a scrape when Robert Grant’s motion for leave to introduce a Jewish emancipation bill was carried by 18 votes, 5 Apr. Goulburn, the chancellor of the exchequer, accused him of leaving the House ‘some time before the division’, thereby helping to create an impression among the government’s customary supporters that ministers were indifferent about the outcome. It emerged that Holmes had in fact ‘paired off early in the day’ - the first time he had done so for five years - because, as he explained to an angry Planta in his own defence, he had ‘a sore throat’; but he claimed to have remained on the scene until after midnight, ‘giving you all the assistance in my power’. He attributed the defeat to the poor showing put up in debate by Goulburn and other opponents of the measure, and to the question having been unexpectedly brought on in Peel’s absence. At the same time, he admitted a failure by the party managers, in which he implicated Planta, to make clear at an early stage ‘the determination of government to oppose the measure’: ‘I shall never pair off as long as I live again, and on the second reading we shall get rid of it. I am very very sorry I was absent last night’. Mrs. Arbuthnot, who was inclined to blame Holmes alone for the fiasco, believed that he had been ‘spoiled by the duke and has got his head turned’; and she advised Wellington that ‘he would do him immense mischief if he was not set down’: ‘The duke, who was very angry about the Jews, promised to remonstrate with him’.35 The bill was duly thrown out on its second reading, 17 May, when Holmes, who at the beginning of the month had told Ellenborough that ‘the friends of government were rather more disposed to come down, and he could on any great question get 300’, voted in person against it.36 He presented a petition from Bishop’s Castle publicans against the sale of beer bill, 24 May, and voted for the grant to South American missions and against abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 7 June 1830.

On the dissolution the following month Holmes’s only son, Thomas Knox Holmes, who had recently come of age, was encouraged by Lord Chandos* to stand for Wendover; but when the patron, Lord Carrington, announced his adhesion to government, Holmes went in pursuit of his son and intercepted him before he could enter the borough. His stepson Sir James Stronge got nowhere in a reconnaissance of county Tyrone.37 Holmes was returned for Haslemere on the interest of the 1st earl of Lonsdale, whose son Lowther recommended the arrangement partly because Holmes would be able to assist him with local private bills and obtain preferment for some of the electors.38 He also stood with Sir Philip Durham† for Queenborough on the interests of the ordnance and the corporation against the independent sitting Member, John Capel, and his colleague Thomas Gladstone, and apparently deployed every available device of electoral chicanery. Holmes topped the poll, but Durham and Capel were tied in a double return for the second seat. Although Holmes was constantly expected to vacate to exercise his option on Haslemere, he did not do so, to the annoyance of Gladstone, who at one point commented, ‘How inveterate a liar he is’. When the joint petition of Capel and Gladstone was considered under the auspices of the new Grey government, Holmes and Durham offered no defence, and the independents were seated.39

Holmes, who had been standing next to Spencer Perceval† when he was assassinated in the lobby of the Commons in 1812, was the closest person to Huskisson when he had his fatal accident on the Liverpool and Manchester railway, 15 Sept. 1830.40 He was at Drayton with Wellington, Lord Aberdeen, Goulburn and the Arbuthnots a week later, when he passed on Lord Clive’s* hint that Lord Palmerston* semed keen to rejoin the government.41 It fell to Holmes, who had admitted that he ‘knew nothing at all about’ some 100 Members when Parliament met, to interrupt Wellington’s dinner party to inform him of the ministry’s defeat in the Commons, which he had apparently seen coming, on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. He was of course in the minority. It was said that he was ‘thunderstruck’ when the duke, having assumed that government had won by 28, ‘began by complaining of the smallness of the majority’. Greville heard that he ‘implored’ Wellington to resign immediately. He went out with him, and, writing to Powis a few days later, claimed that ‘relieved from office, and poor as I am’, he felt happier than he had done since the break-up of the Liverpool ministry, though he hoped that the new government would be short-lived, and believed that the opposition ‘should still have equal numbers in the House of Common’42 As for his poverty, he was the recipient of a civil list pension of £500 a year, controversially given to him by Wellington on 16 Nov., ‘after he virtually was out’. The duke was satisfied that he had ‘well defended’ the grant when it was criticized in the Lords, 13 Dec.; but it is not clear whether its being nominally conferred on Holmes’s son was a response to the continued carping which it provoked.43 Holmes was one of the ex-ministers who in the week immediately after Wellington’s fall formed a committee - the Charles Street gang, as it became known - to organize and direct the operations of the Tory opposition to the Grey ministry. They also concerned themselves with management of the press, and Holmes introduced to them and vouched for the honour and reliability of a plausible Irishman, George McEntaggart, for whom he had secured ministerial work earlier in the year in his capacity as editor of the Courier and a self-styled press agent. In doing so, he unwittingly stored up a peck of future troubles for himself and the committee.44

In early January 1831 Holmes was the ‘standard bearer’ at Apethorpe of a pledge of support from Buckingham to Lonsdale if the latter would put himself at the head of the opposition, and later in the month he was Peel’s guest at Drayton.45 He shared in the ‘high spirits’ of the leading Tories who thought ministers had ‘damaged themselves very much’ with their civil list proposals, and in mid-February was boasting, with Herries, that ‘they will beat the government out of all their taxes’. He ‘very discreetly’ and effectively intervened with the West India committee to have the sting taken out of the effects of Peel’s resistance to Chandos’s motion of 21 Feb. for increased protection for colonial sugar producers.46 After the introduction of the ministerial reform bill, which he had at one point predicted would never materialize, he was busy with Planta and Francis Bonham* counting heads: early calculations of a majority of 40 or more against the measure proved to be well wide of the mark.47 Holmes voted in the minority against the second reading, 22 Mar. A fortnight later he had ‘recovered his spirits’, as Ellenborough perceived, and, in bullish mood, advised Peel, who consulted him on the point, not to risk defeat on the motion to go into committee on the bill, but to throw everything into Gascoyne’s amendment against any reduction in the number of English Members, for which he was rightly confident of securing a good attendance. He duly voted for the amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. Returned unopposed for Haslemere at the ensuing general election (though there were apparently men at Sandwich willing to support him if Wellington gave him his blessing), he went to Cumberland to assist Lowther in his unsuccessful contest there.48

Holmes, who sent out 266 notes for attendance at the Commons in early June 1831, was present at the meeting of opposition leaders and organizers which resolved to rent Planta’s former house in Charles Street as a permanent party headquarters. He took over management of the general fund, which now included the press fund.49 He voted against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July. His only known vote in committee was for use of the 1831 census in determining the borough disfranchisement schedules, 19 July, and he is known to have taken a pair on the 27th, when the fate of Chippenham was voted on; but he told Mrs. Arbuthnot in late August, when he was busy organizing the annual opposition fish dinner at Greenwich and predicting that ‘we shall yet damage the bill most seriously in our House’ (while remaining utterly confident of its defeat in the Lords), that

wherever I am, our young ones run away. I had hoped that with the loss of my office I should have had some rest, but in the whole course of my parliamentary life I have never fagged as hard as I have done in the last six months.

He expressed a devout wish that the cholera would sweep through Downing Street, but had the decency not to vote for the motion condemning the Irish government’s ‘shameful and open’ interference in the Dublin election, 23 Aug., ‘as, God knows, I have done twice as much in that way as Lord Anglesey did, but not in so bungling a manner’.50 He voted against the issue of the Liverpool writ, 5 Sept., and for inquiry into the effects of the Sugar Refinery Acts on West Indian producers, 12 Sept. He was livid at the abortive division against the third reading of the reform bill, in which he voted, 19 Sept: Littleton met him ‘immediately afterwards, swearing and abusing everybody in a manner that rendered it dangerous to speak to him’. He wrote to Mrs. Arbuthnot in pique:

I am still suffering from violent cramps in my left leg. I scarcely get any sleep from it, and I cannot lay up for a few days. I go every morning to Charles Street, where I am obliged to answer one hundred foolish questions put to me daily, and at four I go to the House, where I remain till two o’clock the next morning.

He was satisfied with the opposition showing of 236 against the passage of the bill, 21 Sept., when he was ‘thirteen hours in the House, and never, I believe, sat down. I remained in the lobby and kept our people well together’.51 He voted against the second reading of the Scottish reform bill, 23 Sept. He assisted in calculating numbers for the clash in the Lords, where he predicted a majority of 40 against the bill (it was in fact 41). Through Edward Ellice*, the patronage secretary, he made sure that the state of play in the Upper House was brought in advance to the attention of Lord Grey, perceiving that the likely size of the hostile majority would deter him from seeking a creation of peers to carry the bill. Holmes was also busy with the demands of the crop of by-elections which occurred in the autumn of 1831, and went in person to Cambridge in late October to liaise with Lowther in organizing the Tory campaign for the county, which ended in a rare defeat. He had earlier told Mrs. Arbuthnot: ‘I wish I was out of this vortex of hurry and confusion. I am tired to death, and nothing enables me to go on but the certain conviction that the Lords will do their duty well’.52 On 13 Oct. 1831 he presented a petition from some Staffordshire farmers calling for the county franchise under the reform bill to be extended to non-freeholders who were rated at the same level as borough householders, and one from Wigtownshire against the use of molasses in brewing. The next day he secured an adjournment of proceedings on the Wallingford election petition, so that the defeated Tory candidate could change his surety.

Holmes, who was detained in London in November 1831 by his son’s illness, mistakenly told Wellington, who passed on the information to ministers, that steps were being taken in London to provide the Birmingham Political Union with arms.53 He reported that the government had ‘taken fright’ at the unions and that there was ‘not that general cordiality of sentiments in the cabinet which existed some time ago’. He feared and warned Peel that ministers would ‘humbug’ the ‘Waverer’, Lord Wharncliffe, whom he saw after his discussions with them on the possibility of reaching a compromise; and, with Herries, he indicated the bulk of the party’s approval of Peel’s discouraging response to Wharncliffe’s feelers.54 Towards the end of the month he was put to work to muster the opposition for the fullest possible attendance in both Houses at the meeting of Parliament on 6 Dec. He informed Mrs. Arbuthnot, 23 Nov: ‘I have enough to do, and I believe I am destined never to enjoy another day’s shooting. I have received this morning 22 letters from persons begging me to pair them off’. It was primarily at the suggestion of Holmes, who, as well as thinking that ‘nothing more can be done with the press at present’, considered the Charles Street house too cramped for a party headquarters, that the committee decided at the turn of the year to seek ‘a much larger house and turn it into a sort of club’: the outcome was the formation of the Carlton Club the following spring.55 He voted against the second reading of the revised reform bill, on which opposition divided only 162 to 324, 17 Dec. 1831.

An attack of gout prevented him from visiting Drayton in early January 1832, but his close contacts with Ellice enabled him to keep Peel informed of developments on ministers’ negotiations with the king at Brighton for a possible creation of peers to carry the reform bill, which he was eventually inclined to believe had not gone well. He wrote to Mrs. Arbuthnot, 11 Jan.:

I have this day received 26 letters from MPs, most of whom write to ask, will not the 1st of February do as well as the 20th of January?, and I have to answer all these stupid inquiries, or they will not come ... I never am able to finish my letters before seven o’clock. I am very anxious to have a good attendance at the meeting of Parliament, because I am convinced that there never was any period, since these people came into power, in which they felt themselves so embarrassed as they do at this moment, and particularly from what has taken place at Brighton.

The following day he had to remonstrate with Peel, who was not disposed to come up until the last minute:

Your letter has alarmed me beyond measure ... I have been working hard for the last month to endeavour to procure an attendance of our friends for the 20th ... and I shall not be prepared to tell our friends what course we are to take, unless I hear from you ... They all look up to you, and if you are not here to guide us I shall be obliged to run out of town on the 17th to avoid the questions and angry looks of those I have summoned to town when they find that their chief is not here.56

He was in the opposition minority of 99 against going into committee on the bill, 20 Jan. Three days later he voted in the majority against reform of select vestries. He voted against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., when they had a majority of only 24; but he was furious with the Tory peer Lord Wynford for raising the issue in the Lords, 2 Feb., when Lord Brougham gave him such a drubbing that his motion had to be humiliatingly withdrawn: according to Denis Le Marchant†, he loudly denounced Wynford in the lobby of the Lords as ‘a dotard and asked whether anything could have been more egregiously silly after the success they had had in the Commons to court a battle in the very place where the superiority of their enemies lay’.57 Soon afterwards Raikes recorded the story of a so-called ‘joke’ by Holmes: when James Morrison, Member for Ipswich, a wealthy silk merchant, ‘asked him if he could get him a pair for the evening, "Of what", said Holmes, "gloves or stockings?"’58 Holmes voted against the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and the third reading of the reform bill, 22 Mar. On 2 Apr. he voted against the malt drawback bill, and next day he dismissed Hume’s objections to details of the Highbury Place road bill and was twice a teller for minorities against his amendments. He presented a petition from subscribers to the London and Birmingham railway project who wished to pull out of their commitment, 4 Apr. He was in the minority of 13 against Crampton’s amendment to the Irish arrears of tithes bill, 9 Apr. Holmes, who expected that peers would ‘eventually be made’, counted on a government majority of five for the second reading of the reform bill in the Lords, and an opposition one of about 25 in committee: he rather underestimated the opposition strength in both cases.59 In mid-April Ellenborough noted that the treasury had ‘called upon Holmes to pay a sum of £1,000 lost by the peculation of his nephew’, Alexander Erskine Holmes, a junior clerk to the secretary to the ordnance board, and that opposition leaders intended to raise the sum for him out of their own pockets. The following month it emerged that Holmes’s son was one of the investors in the unsuccessful Albion newspaper who were losing money hand over fist; and Arbuthnot was concerned that Holmes might well have ‘cause to be angry’ at Wellington’s refusal to help bale it out.60 Holmes, who had by this time become a hanger-on of the duke of Cumberland, joined Goulburn in convincing Croker of the futility of his attempt to persuade Peel to set aside his objections to forming a government after the dismissal of the reform ministry. On their reinstatement, he referred ‘aptly enough’ to recent events as ‘the interlude of the duke of Wellington’. He was a member of the committee formed by the opposition in late May to manage the forthcoming English elections.61 He voted against the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May. He was named to the select committee on the abolition of slavery, 30 May. He divided against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 12 July, and was in the minority of 17 against the Irish education grant, 23 July. He was a teller for the minority against going into committee on the crown colonies relief bill, 3 Aug. 1832.

Holmes, who was at Walmer Castle and Drayton in October 1832, harboured some misplaced optimism about Conservative prospects in the English and Irish elections. For himself, Haslemere was disfranchised, and he told Peel, 17 Nov., that

I have abandoned all hopes of coming into Parliament, unless something unexpected turns up at the eleventh hour. The fact is, I am not able to encounter the expense of a contest; but you may rest assured that whatever assistance an individual out of Parliament can give to a party will be constantly at your command.62

Peel seems to have taken little interest in Holmes’s personal fate or his electoral management activities, which were apparently being engrossed by Bonham. Writing to the latter for an intimation of his ‘hopes for future returns’, 4 Oct., Arbuthnot urged him not to tell Holmes ‘that I have asked you the question as he would fancy that I have doubted him’.63 On the other hand, Hardinge thought it was desirable that he should be found a seat on account of ‘the great importance of his services and abilities’.64 The wretched McEntaggart had been obtaining money from Herries to help him out of financial difficulties during the earlier part of the year, and in November 1832 he revealed himself in his true colours by threatening to expose the activities of the Charles Street committee unless he was paid money which he claimed he was owed for services rendered. Holmes suddenly proved to be very elusive to both McEntaggart and Herries, who was baffled and irritated by his conduct; and it was not until February 1833 that he was brought to broker a meeting between the two men.65 It is tempting to believe that the following veiled reference by Arbuthnot in a letter to Herries, 30 Dec. 1832, was to Holmes, although the internal evidence is not conclusive:

It is no new thing that our friend gains nothing by his communications with the enemy, and that he gives a great deal for that nothing. He is garrulous in the extreme. He has a great notion of his own savoir faire; and I was quite aware that he had received great personal obligations. I could not help talking to the duke [of Wellington] about him. The duke said that he was so aware of his not being safe that he made a point of saying nothing to him that there could be harm in repeating ... You see therefore that you are not single in your opinion about our friend ... I certainly do not, any more than you, accuse our friend of treachery, but he is very loose. I hope he does not learn more than the duke fancies.

Certainly Holmes’s notorious intimacy with Ellice raised doubts about his reliability, though Ellice himself reckoned that the Conservatives had not ‘the slightest reason’ for such suspicions.66

Without a seat in the first reformed Parliament, Holmes, who became increasingly intimate with Cumberland, without being blinded to his deficiencies as a politician, nevertheless remained involved in party management.67 However, he was enmeshed in financial difficulties, and he steadily fell out of favour with the Conservatives. He did himself great damage in the continuing saga of McEntaggart, whose claims went to legal arbitration in March 1834. Despite much previous bluster about his intention to expose McEntaggart as a liar and ‘smash’ him, he testified against his own side, to the effect that he had from the start encouraged McEntaggart to expect remuneration for his services, though he admitted that he had done so without the sanction of Herries or any other member of the committee. As a result, the arbitrator awarded McEntaggart £333 and costs, to the disgust of Herries, who thought that there had all along been ‘something mysterious and unaccountable in ... [Holmes’s] conduct about this man’, apparently because he had a blackmailer’s hold over him and members of his family.68 According to Greville, who considered Holmes to be ‘a low blackguard, and, however shrewd and active, a bad confidant and fidus Achates for the duke [of Wellington] to have taken up’, he colluded with ministers to deprive Peel and Wellington of the opportunity of forming a government on Grey’s retirement in July 1834. Seven months later Greville wrote of Holmes, who found no seat at the general election of 1835 under the auspices of a Conservative government, that ‘though I hear of him sometimes as a volunteer correcting lists and interesting himself about their affairs, he no longer runs about the offices like a tame cat, nor is domesticated at Apsley House as formerly’.69 In January 1836 Arbuthnot wrote to Peel:

With regard to Holmes, the duke, talking to me privately about him, said that he was the most difficult person to deal with he knew; that he took good care not to tell him anything which ought to be secret; but that he would continue somehow or other to get into the house, to question the secretary, or if that would not do he would examine the servants. I mention this to you, because I remember once telling you how much the duke was on his guard in respect to him, and you see that he continues to be so.70

Holmes tried his luck at a by-election for Berwick in May 1835, but found ‘the ground ... too strongly occupied before I arrived there to give me any hope of success except by means that might (if I had succeeded) have also sent me to Newgate’, and he was defeated with another Conservative at Ipswich the following month.71 He successfully contested Berwick at the 1837 general election at an estimated cost of about £1,200, which was partly defrayed by a subscription got up by Lowther, to which Peel contributed £50. As Sir George Clerk*, the chief whip, and his assistants Charles Ross* and Bonham were not returned to the new Parliament, Holmes was ostensibly well placed to resume his former position; but senior Conservatives lost no time in advising Peel, who probably needed no telling, that his appointment as whip would be unacceptable to all the party except the Lowther set. He was passed over for Sir Thomas Fremantle*, who had Henry Bingham Baring* and George Cecil Weld Forester* as his assistants, though Holmes, who remained on personally friendly term with Peel, may have acted as an unofficial third, and he continued to do electoral work.72 Defeat at Stafford at the 1841 general election ended his parliamentary career.

Holmes died at his London house in Grafton Street, January 1851. In his very brief will of 13 Aug. 1822 he had left the house and his property at Fulham to his wife, conferred £100 on Louisa Talbot, ‘the child who has lived in my house’, and made his son, then under age, his residuary legatee. A memorandum drawn up by his attorney on 1 July 1849, which was produced for purposes of probate, 12 June, and proved as his last will and testament, 9 Sept. 1851, recorded that he had confirmed the devise of the London house to his wife, whose jointure from her first husband would ‘enable her to maintain a sufficient establishment’, and who was to continue living there with a Miss Bennett as her companion. He had intended to provide the latter with a life annuity of £50, together with an additional like sum while she lived with Lady Stronge. Holmes’s personal estate was sworn under £3,000.73 Cyrus Redding, a political outsider and innocent, recalled him as ‘a much-abused man by many’, but paid tribute to his political consistency and commented:

I always found him, though differing in politics, a good-natured man, of talents peculiarly fitted for the office he undertook, and, I believe, that in every relation in life, without great abilities, he was strictly honourable.74

Yet on hearing of his death Cumberland, with whom he had fallen out, observed that ‘at last that vagabond and ungrateful fellow, Billy Holmes, is gone: his conduct towards myself was incomprehensible and inexplicable, but, De mortuis nil nisi bonum’.75

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1807), ii. 977.
  • 2. Colchester Diary, iii. 76; Le Marchant, Althorp, 48; Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, ii. 133; Add. 40383, f. 304; 56540, ff. 31, 99.
  • 3. Add. 38279, ff. 51, 53.
  • 4. Add. 57371, f. 22; 57404, f. 48.
  • 5. NLI, Vesey Fitzgerald mss 7858, p. 170.
  • 6. TNA T64/261; Salopian Jnl. 1, 8, 15 Mar., 17 May, 7, 21 June 1820.
  • 7. The Times, 22 May, 22 June 1824.
  • 8. Buckingham, i. 142-3; Hobhouse Diary, 54.
  • 9. TNA 30/29/6/3/93.
  • 10. Bucks. RO, Fremantle mss D/FR/46/12/28.
  • 11. Wellington mss WP1/754/26.
  • 12. Inst. of Commonwealth Stud. M915/3/4; 4/1.
  • 13. Salopian Jnl. 7, 14 June 1826.
  • 14. Lonsdale mss; Canning’s Ministry, 42.
  • 15. Croker Pprs. i. 373; NLW, Powis mss, Holmes to Powis [c. 17 Nov. 1830].
  • 16. Canning’s Ministry, 340; Arbuthnot Corresp. 83.
  • 17. Wellington Despatches, iv. 77-79, 90-91, 93, 94-95, 96; Arbuthnot Corresp. 85.
  • 18. Add. 40340, ff. 185, 191; Arbuthnot Corresp. 89; N. Gash, Secretary Peel, 663.
  • 19. Lansdowne mss, Rice to Lansdowne, 25 Oct. 1827.
  • 20. Colchester Diary, iii. 527; R. Stewart, Foundation of Conservative Party, 37-38.
  • 21. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 148, 153-5; Wellington and Friends, 80; Wellington Despatches, iv. 171; Arbuthnot Corresp. 97; Aberdeen Univ. Lib. Arbuthnot mss, Holmes to Arbuthnot [8 Jan. 1828].
  • 22. Powis mss, Holmes to Powis, 17 Jan. 1828.
  • 23. Croker Pprs. i. 409.
  • 24. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 176.
  • 25. Powis mss (History of Parliament Aspinall transcripts), Holmes to Powis [17], 27 May 1828.
  • 26. Croker Pprs. ii. 7; Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 19 Feb. [1829].
  • 27. W.G. Hoskins and H.P.R. Finsberg, Devon Stud. 414-16; Gash, Secretary Peel, 565; Add. 40399, f. 25.
  • 28. The assertion in Oxford DNB, apparently based on the statement in Gent. Mag. (1851), i. 315, that Holmes was given permission by Wellington to vote against emancipation is erroneous. So is the suggestion by A. Aspinall, in ‘English Party Organization’, EHR, xli (1926), 397, that he was allowed to keep his place after doing so because of Wellington’s fear of further enraging the king.
  • 29. Add. 76369.
  • 30. Wellington mss WP1/1030/24; 1031/17; 1032/14; 1034/22; 1035/5, 22.
  • 31. Cornw. RO, Vyvyan mss, Vyvyan to Knatchbull, 31 Aug. 1829; Wellington mss WP1/1057/15.
  • 32. Wellington Despatches, vi. 395.
  • 33. Greville Mems.; Ellenborough Diary, ii. 193.
  • 34. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 344-5.
  • 35. Add. 40333, f. 88; 40400, f. 154; Wellington mss WP1/1111/9; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 349.
  • 36. Ellenborough Diary, ii. 234.
  • 37. Wellington mss WP1/1124/21; 1125/5; 1130/30, 33.
  • 38. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 22 July [1830].
  • 39. St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 195, T. to J. Gladstone, 1 Oct. 1830. See QUEENBOROUGH.
  • 40. Creevey Pprs. i. 213; Gash, Secretary Peel, 642-3.
  • 41. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 389.
  • 42. Hopetoun mss 167, f. 189; Three Diaries, 1, 20; Greville Mems. ii. 61, 63; Powis mss, Holmes to Powis [c. 17 Nov. 1830].
  • 43. Croker Pprs. ii. 80; Wellington mss WP1/1137/44; 1186/21; Three Diaries, 34; PP (1831), xiii. 403.
  • 44. Stewart, 68-69; Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 345-6; Aspinall, Politics and the Press, 329-31; Three Diaries, p. lxi; Add. 57404, f. 3; 57405, f. 39.
  • 45. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 7 Jan. 1831; Gash, Sir Robert Peel, 7.
  • 46. Three Diaries, 45, 46, 57; Arbuthnot Corresp. 143.
  • 47. Glynne-Gladstone mss 197, T. to J. Gladstone, 21 Feb., 14 Mar. 1831; Three Diaries, 62; Creevey Pprs. ii. 221; Macaulay Letters, ii. 6.
  • 48. Three Diaries, 76, 83, 90; Croker Pprs. ii. 114; Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Price to Salisbury, 23 Apr. 1831.
  • 49. Arbuthnot Corresp. 146; Three Diaries, pp. xlviii-l, 93; Aspinall, Politics and the Press, 467-8.
  • 50. Hatherton diary, 27 July [1831]; Arbuthnot Corresp. 146, 148.
  • 51. Hatherton diary, 19 Sept. [1831]; Arbuthnot Corresp. 150.
  • 52. Arbuthnot Corresp. 150; Three Diaries, 134, 135, 137; Wellington mss WP1/1199/13.
  • 53. Wellington Despatches, viii. 56-57, 61, 75, 113; Grey-Wellington Corresp. i. 413-22.
  • 54. Arbuthnot mss, Holmes to Mrs. Arbuthnot, 18 Nov. 1831; Add. 40402, ff. 118, 138, 159; Parker, Peel, ii. 191-2, 195; Gash, Sir Robert Peel, 25.
  • 55. Arbuthnot Corresp. 154, 155; Add. 40402, ff. 138, 159; Powis mss, Holmes to Powis, 25 Nov.; Arbuthnot mss, Arbuthnot to wife, 15 Dec. 1831; Gash, Sir Robert Peel, 25 and Politics in Age of Peel, 395-6;; Aspinall, Politics and the Press, 335, 337; Stewart, 72; Three Diaries, pp. lii-liv.
  • 56. Add. 40402, ff. 2, 50, 175, 181, 183; Gash, Sir Robert Peel, 27; Arbuthnot Corresp. 160.
  • 57. Three Diaries, 180, 198; Holland House Diaries, 123.
  • 58. Raikes Jnl. i. 11-12.
  • 59. Glynne-Gladstone mss 199, T. to J. Gladstone, 16 Mar. 1832; Three Diaries, 222, 231, 232.
  • 60. Three Diaries, 233, 269; Add. 57370, f. 87.
  • 61. Three Diaries, 238, 257, 266; Croker Pprs. ii. 159; Holland House Diaries, 180.
  • 62. Shelley Diary, ii. 219; Gash, Sir Robert Peel, 36; Raikes Jnl. i. 110; Add. 40403, f. 98; 57370, f. 94.
  • 63. Gash, Pillars of Government, 120 and ‘F.R. Bonham’, EHR, lxiii (1948), 510; Add. 40617, f. 2.
  • 64. Durham CRO, Londonderry mss D/Lo/C 83 (204)
  • 65. Three Diaries, pp. lxii-lxiii; Add. 57404, ff. 48-76, 127, 156.
  • 66. Add. 51587, Ellice to Holland [Sept. 1833]; 57370, f. 102; Three Diaries, 307.
  • 67. A. Bird, Damnable Duke of Cumberland, 273; Wellington Pol. Corresp. i. 46, 63, 73-74, 100, 200-1, 394, 397; Three Diaries, 321-2, 340, 361, 365; Arbuthnot Corresp. 185; Greville Mems. ii. 400; iii. 158-9; Add. 40420, f. 141; 40421, ff. 23, 25, 37, 40, 46, 52.
  • 68. Aspinall, Politics and the Press, 461; Three Diaries, pp. lxiii-lxv; Add. 57371, ff. 9, 19, 20, 26, 66, 68, 70; 57404, f. 46; 57405, ff. 25-26, 39-40; 57420, ff. 145, 149, 164, 167; 57421, f. 5.
  • 69. Greville Mems. iii. 95-96, 163.
  • 70. Add. 40341, f. 1.
  • 71. Add. 40420, f. 141.
  • 72. Gash, ‘Influence of Crown’, EHR, liv (1939), 660 and Sir Robert Peel, 196; Stewart, 120, 140; Add. 40333, f. 372; 40423, ff. 285, 310; 40424, ff. 1, 27, 47, 213; 40427, ff. 129, 131, 228.
  • 73. PROB 11/2139/731; IR26/1903/673.
  • 74. C. Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, iii. 248-9.
  • 75. Hanover Letters ed. C. Whibley, 219.