POLHILL, Frederick (1798-1848), of Howbury Hall, nr. Bedford and Burwash, nr. Battle, Suss.

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



1830 - 1832
1835 - 1847

Family and Education

b. 2 July 1798,1 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of Capt. John Polhill (d. 1828) of 52 Harley Street, Mdx. and Mary, da. of James Bennett of Walthamstow, Essex. m. 6 Jan. 1824,2 Frances Margaretta, da. of Osmond Deakin (Dakeyne) of Old Hall, East Bridgeford, Notts., 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 2da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. bro. Thomas Polhill to family estates 1828. d. 20 Sept. 1848.

Offices Held

Lt. 4 Drag. Gds. 1814; lt. 1 Drag. Gds. 1815, capt. 1823, ret. 1829.


Polhill was descended from a family, possibly a branch of the Cornish Polwheles, long settled in Kent and Sussex. His grandfather, Nathaniel Polhill (1723-82), the son of William Polhill (1689-1765) of Burwash, prospered as a tobacconist at 35 Borough High Street, Southwark, which he represented in Parliament as a Wilkite from 1774 until his death, and as a partner in the London bank of Langston, Polhill, Towgood and Amery at 29 Clement’s Lane.3 The year before his death he bought the Becher property of Renhold manor, which included Howbury Hall, about three miles north-east of Bedford.4 On his death his property in Bedfordshire, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex and the tobacconist’s business passed to his eldest son Nathaniel, who followed him to the grave within three months. The settled estates then went to his infant son, another Nathaniel, while he left the Southwark business to his younger brothers Edward and Robert Polhill. (It was styled Polhill and Jones by 1821, and seems to have ceased trading by 1832.)5 The young Nathaniel Polhill of Howbury did not live to come into formal possession of his handsome inheritance, for he died, ‘aged 19’, unmarried and intestate, 19 Apr. 1802, having apparently been ‘confined for near six months to a bed of sickness ... and doomed, by the loss of a limb, to purchase the precarious chance of surviving a little longer’. Administration of his effects, which included personalty sworn under £60,000, was granted to his mother Ursula, who was by then married to one James Warre.6 The entailed estates reverted to his uncle John Polhill, the younger son of the purchaser of Howbury and the father of this Member.

John Polhill entered the army in 1780 and attained the rank of captain in the 15th Hussars before his retirement in about 1793. With his wife Mary Bennett he had three sons: Thomas, baptized in January 1795, Charles, baptized a year later, and Frederick. Charles died in 1813.7 The following year Frederick obtained a commission in a fashionable cavalry regiment. He joined his father and elder brother in signing the Bedfordshire loyal address to the king adopted to counter the local campaign in support of Queen Caroline, 15 Jan. 1821.8 John Polhill, a subscriber of £500 to the election fund of the beaten Tory Sir John Osborn* in the 1820 county contest, and a supporter of the successful Macqueen in 1826,9 died 3 Sept. 1828, when the family estates passed to Thomas. By his father’s will of 14 June 1826 Frederick became entitled to the residue of his personal estate, which in total was sworn under £30,000. A trust fund of £2,000 was created for his wife, and the children of his marriage were given an interest in the proceeds of the eventual sale of John Polhill’s London House in Cavendish Square, which was to take place after his widow’s death.10 When Thomas Polhill died, aged 33, at Bath, 15 Oct. 1828, only six weeks after his father, Frederick succeeded to all the family property, promptly retired from the army and threw himself into his new role as squire of Howbury.11 At the county meeting called to petition for repeal of the malt tax and other remedial measures for agricultural distress in February 1830, he seconded the main resolutions, testified to the extent of distress from his personal experience as a magistrate, and observed that the recent king’s speech suggested that the Wellington ministry neither knew nor cared much about it.12 At the general election six months later he stood for Bedford, where the local independents, mostly Tories, challenged the interest of the Russell family of Woburn Abbey who, backed by a subservient corporation, had engrossed the representation with their fellow Whigs, the Whitbreads, for 40 years. They were now vulnerable, partly as a result of the blatant neglect of his parliamentary and constituency duties by Lord George William Russell, a son of the 6th duke of Bedford, who had sat there since 1812. He was ditched by the duke, and replaced by his brother Lord John Russell, the leading Whig advocate of parliamentary reform in the Commons. If the reports are to be believed, Polhill uttered barely a word on politics throughout the bitter contest, which occupied eight days at the polling booths and another three before the assessor. He dealt in the commonplaces of independence, promised to do all he could to encourage the local lace industry and claimed to be a friend of religious toleration and the advocate of tax reductions ‘to all practical limits’. In the end, boasting that almost two thirds of his votes were plumpers, he beat Russell into third place by one.13

Ministers listed him as one of their ‘friends’, and he voted with them on the civil list, 15 Nov., though it was thought at first that he had been an absentee.14 He presented a Stourport petition for the abolition of slavery, 10 Nov. 1830. At the Bedford reform meeting, 17 Jan. 1831, when opinion was unanimous for change, he pledged himself to support its petition, and observed:

The present administration are Whigs, honest Whigs, and as such they shall have my support so long as they advocate the cause of the people; but should they forsake them, then I will forsake the ministry.15

On 22 Mar. he declared his support for the second reading of their reform bill, for which he voted later that day, though he complained that the proposed £10 borough voting qualification would disfranchise many poor electors, and said that one of £5 would be ‘more useful and more just’. He voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. He was returned unopposed for Bedford at the ensuing general election, when he again criticized the £10 proposal and stated his objection to the increase in the number of Irish Members, but ‘cordially approved’ of ‘the bill in general’: ‘he was an advocate for reform, and that a reform was necessary, all must allow’.16

Polhill voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and at least twice against adjournment, 12 July 1831. He voted, so he claimed, against the disfranchisement of Downton, 21 July,17 and also went against government on the partial disfranchisement of Guildford, 29 July, and an attempt to preserve the voting rights of freemen, 30 Aug; but he was in the ministerial majorities in the divisions on St. Germans, 26 July, Chippenham, 27 July, Greenwich, 3 Aug., Gateshead, 5 Aug., Rochester, 9 Aug., and the rights of borough freeholders and copyholders to vote in counties, 17, 20 Aug. On 26 July he gave notice of a motion for the adoption of voting qualifications, based on rates rather than rents, of £5 in boroughs in which the old franchise was in the inhabitant householders, of £10 in close boroughs and of £20 in the newly enfranchised schedule C boroughs. By the time he proposed this scheme, 24 Aug., he had abandoned the second part, but he argued for the creation of a separate schedule of 46 boroughs with a £5 qualification, citing the example of Bedford as a constituency in which the standard £10 franchise would disfranchise many electors, and boasting of the ‘glorious event’ of its liberation from Russell domination. Lack of support forced him to withdraw his amendment; and that for a £20 franchise in the new boroughs, which he supported with the comment that imposing a uniform qualification was ‘pursuing the same plan as that of a man who wears the same clothing in China as he would in Russia’, was negatived without a division. Polhill voted for the passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept., but not for the motion of confidence in the Grey ministry after its defeat in the Lords, 10 Oct. He voted against them in favour of proceeding with the Dublin election committee, 29 July. His only known votes on the revised reform bill were for the second reading, 17 Dec. 1831, against the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and for the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He was reported to have been one of the four supporters of the measure who voted against the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the bill unimpaired, 10 May.18 He voted against the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May. He divided against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., and paired the same way, 12 July. He presented a petition from the archdeaconry of Bedford against the proposed new system of education in Ireland, 17 July 1832. Reverting to his true colours, he stood for Bedford at the 1832 general election as a Conservative, but lost his seat to a Liberal by three votes and failed with a petition.

During the next few years Polhill, whom Bedford denounced as ‘a profligate, unprincipled fellow’, and Le Marchant described as ‘very dissolute and ill conditioned’, was assailed by financial and personal problems, as he went a long way towards squandering his inheritance.19 In 1830 he had become a lessee of the Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres, a speculation which soon involved him in heavy financial losses. In December 1834, after the failure of an experimental reduction in admission prices, he made over his interest to the former manager Alfred Bunn, a lessee since the spring of 1833, though he remained responsible for the rent of the two establishments. While the statement of his enemy J.R. Planche that he admitted to having lost £50,000 in the venture was perhaps an exaggeration, he was being pursued in the courts for arrears of rent to the tune of £2,500 by 1836, as well as owing Bunn £600 for tradesmen’s bills contracted before the transfer. One aspect of the compromise which his legal adviser sought to secure was his making over to the proprietors of the theatres a quarter of his half-share in the scurrilous Tory newspaper, the Age, which he had bought for £4,000 in about 1834, but was now reckoned to be worth no more than £2,800.20 In a post-nuptial agreement of 28 July 1834 Polhill, who claimed to be worth £158,000, settled his various properties, which were mortgaged to the tune of £23,000, on his wife and children.21 In 1835 he won back his Bedford seat, which he retained at the next two elections, in company with another Conservative. He formally separated from his wife in April 1836, preferring the attractions of one Mary Ann Jeans.22 His financial problems continued.23 On Peel’s accession to power in 1841 Polhill, who reflected that he had ‘always been more in the habit of granting favours than asking them’, applied for employment, claiming to have been ‘the chief instrument’ in liberating Bedford from the Whigs and in subsequently securing the return of two Conservatives both there and for the county: ‘the different struggles I have been engaged in, have materially crippled my means, and ... I am not the rich man I was’. Peel brushed him off, as he did on at least three subsequent occasions during his ministry, when Polhill’s aspirations included the governorship of Van Dieman’s Land and an ordnance place.24 He did, however, stay loyal to Peel on the repeal of the corn laws. His Commons career ended with his defeat at the 1847 general election. He died at Ramsgate in September 1848.25 By his will, dated 18 June 1848, he left household goods, railway shares and a life annuity of £100 to Mary Ann Jeans, with whom he was then living at 55 Stamford Street, Southwark. He gave legacies of £500 each to his illegitimate children with her, James Frederick Charles, Alexander Thomas and Victorine. These and the annuity were to be paid from a trust fund of £4,000 recently created by a mortgage on the Howbury estate in the name of his only surviving legitimate son, Frederick Charles Polhill (1826-81), the residuary legatee. Polhill’s personalty, which in fact yielded no residue, was sworn under a meagre £1,500.26 His son and successor, who took the additional name of Turner in 1853, sat as a Conservative for Bedford in the 1874 Parliament.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ex. inf. Stephen Lees.
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1824), i. 176.
  • 3. Top. and Gen. i. 180, 187-92; F.G. Hilton Price, London Bankers (1890-1), 124; HP Commons, 1754-1790, iii. 306.
  • 4. VCH Beds. iii. 203, 215; Pubs. Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc. v (1920), 158; J. Godber, Hist. Beds. 397.
  • 5. Top. and Gen. i. 191-2; PROB 11/1095/464; 1098/603.
  • 6. Gent. Mag. (1802), i. 381; PROB 6/178 (12 May 1802).
  • 7. IGI (London); Top. and Gen. i. 192-3.
  • 8. Northampton Mercury, 20 Jan. 1821.
  • 9. Beds. RO, Wrest mss L 30/11/204/9; Herts Mercury, 5, 19 Aug. 1826.
  • 10. Gent. Mag. (1828), ii. 283; PROB 11/1748/668; IR26/1175/702.
  • 11. Gent. Mag. (1828), ii. 381; PROB 6/204/256; Herts Mercury, 10 Jan., 31 Oct. 1829, 2 Jan. 1830.
  • 12. Herts Mercury, 20 Feb. 1830.
  • 13. Russell Letters, i. 141-2; ii. 261, 267; R.M. Muggeridge, Hist. Late Contest for Bedford (1830), 11, 15-16, 39, 55, 58-59, 80-81; Oakley Hunt ed. J. Godber (Pubs. Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc. xliv), 52.
  • 14. Herts Mercury, 27 Nov. 1830; Russell Letters, i. 162.
  • 15. Northampton Free Press, 25 Jan. 1831.
  • 16. Ibid. 3 May 1831.
  • 17. The Times, 22 July 1831.
  • 18. Ibid. 14 May 1832.
  • 19. Russell Letters, i. 158-9; Three Diaries, 287.
  • 20. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 4 June 1831; H.S. Wyndham, Annals of Covent Garden Theatre, ii. 80-81, 89-90; Macready’s Rems. ed. F. Pollock, i. 337, 444; C.E. Price, Madame Vestris and her Times, 156, 183-4; A. Bunn, The Stage: both before and behind the curtain, i. 10, 55, 103, 108, 212-14, 221-3; J.R. Planche, Recollections (1872), i. 178, 191, 237; Beds. RO GA 2777, 2778.
  • 21. Beds. RO GA 2773.
  • 22. Ibid. 2776; PROB 11/2090/217.
  • 23. Beds. RO GA 2779, 2785, 2787, 2791-8.
  • 24. Add. 40487, ff. 127, 129; 40516, ff. 162-6; 40532, ff. 336, 338; 40571, ff. 155-61.
  • 25. Gent. Mag. (1848), ii. 545.
  • 26. PROB 11/2090/217; IR26 1845/144.