PONSONBY, Hon. William Francis Spencer (1787-1855), of Canford House, nr. Poole, Dorset and 20 St. James's Square, Mdx.

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



1826 - 26 Sept. 1831
28 June 1832 - 1832
1832 - 1837

Family and Education

b. 31 July 1787, 3rd s. of Frederick Ponsonby†, 3rd earl of Bessborough [I] and 3rd Bar. Ponsonby [GB] (d. 1844), and Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer, da. of John Spencer†, 1st Earl Spencer; bro. of Hon. Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby* and John William Ponsonby, Visct. Duncannon*. educ. Harrow 1795. m. 8 Aug. 1814, Lady Barbara Ashley Cooper, da. of Anthony, 5th earl of Shaftesbury, 4s. (2 d.v.p.) 1da. cr. Bar. de Mauley 10 July 1838. d. 16 May 1855.

Offices Held

Lt. Marylebone vols. ?1803; maj. commdt. R. Putney and Roehampton vols. 1806.


‘Willy’ Ponsonby was delicate as a child and became a curiously feckless young man, with a touch of his sister Caroline’s tempestuous character. Aged six, on one of several childhood visits to the continent, his father reported that he was ‘very entertaining and has mighty odd expressions. His great rage is at the present to go into a nunnery to see the nuns. He says he understands after he is seven they will not let him in’.1 He attended Harrow, and according to Denis Le Marchant† ‘was amiable and well-looking, and is remembered among his contemporaries for the fluency with which he could speak French’. He left to spend a short period in the navy, and in July 1800 travelled on board the ship of Lord St. Vincent, the commander-in-chief in the Channel, to have an opportunity of ‘seeing service’.2 In late 1804 he went to Russia as attaché to the ambassador, Lord Granville Leveson Gower†, his mother’s lover. He wrote to Lady Bessborough, 3 May 1805, that Ponsonby, who was making good progress with his studies, was

a nice and amiable boy; he has a degree of prudence and discretion of which I never saw the parallel, but he is very shy and reserved: I have the greatest difficulty in persuading him to go into society ... In point of health I think he is really better than when he left England, he looks stouter and more manly, and if he would but go to bed earlier and not get up so late, I doubt not but that his cheeks would become blooming. Upon this subject I have repeatedly talked to him ... I fear, however, not with much effect.3

On his return to England in late 1805, he was said to be ‘in every way as much improved as possible’ by his cousin Harriet Cavendish (who in fact became Leveson Gower’s wife a few years later). She so far tolerated Ponsonby’s boyish and ill advised attentions that her servant thought they would be married, the more so as she allowed Ponsonby ‘to dangle after her wherever she went’. Harriet confided to her sister Lady Morpeth in November 1807 that ‘I really do not know what to do about William, as he certainly dangles after me ... more than ever, yet so childishly that I cannot see any way of stopping it without an appearance of affectation and prudery’, especially as ‘he is so particularly touchy about anything he imagines to be an affront that I cannot change my manner to him in the least without his immediately taking it as an egregious offence’. Yet the following month she wrote of her relief, the difficulty ‘having ended happily in exactly the difference of our manière d’être that I wished to accomplish, without quarrelling, arguing or going one step out of the common way to effect it’. Though she thought he was ‘just as childish and "sans conséquence" in his manner as ever’, she noted a conversation with Lady Sarah Spencer, in which the latter began ‘the old story that he seemed quite a fool, and I my old defence that few people are so much the contrary’.4 Though doted on by the family, he continued to be scorned as ‘that object of everybody’s compassion’ by Lady Sarah Spencer, who commented in 1809 that ‘I never saw so fine a lesson as he is to warn one against idleness’, and called him ‘a monument of empty languor’.5

Ponsonby, who had been a lieutenant in his eldest brother Lord Duncannon’s Marylebone volunteers in 1803, succeeded his father to the command of the Royal Putney and Roehampton volunteers in November 1806.6 In mid-1809 he travelled as a civilian in Spain, where he suffered sick headaches.7 In 1811 Bessborough forlornly hoped that the appointment of the prince of Wales as regent would be the means of obtaining a diplomatic posting for his son.8 Ponsonby was persuaded to travel with Harriet’s brother, the 6th duke of Devonshire, to Ireland in 1812, and he assisted at the election for county Kilkenny of his ineffectual brother Frederick, who was abroad. Devonshire, who had wanted to bring him into Parliament for county Waterford, had to fall back on Youghal. Ponsonby duly issued an address, in which he stressed his family’s Irish connections, but he was defeated by Sir John Keane, whom he failed to unseat on petition.9 He may have been the ‘young William Ponsonby’ whose chances of succeeding to the county Londonderry vacancy were scuppered three years later.10 In 1814 he married the 5th earl of Shaftesbury’s only daughter and heiress, who according to Lord Alvanley was ‘as stupid as a post’.11 Caroline, now the wife of William Lamb*, wrote to Duncannon:

I hope he is kind to her. She certainly suffers. Her situation is, I think, rather unpleasant, but I dislike saying all this in a letter, and indeed I never more will speak openly if you breathe this again, as I am convinced a spark might raise a flame.12

Even though his wife was Catholic, the freeholders of Kilkenny would not countenance his replacing his brother there at the general election of 1820.13 Late the following year, during another prolonged family sojourn on the continent, he lost his infant son Henry, and shortly afterwards, to his immense grief, his mother, after which he took over much of the responsibility for the family’s affairs.14 Nothing came of the suggestion that he fill the vacancy created at Higham Ferrers in early 1822.15 He took Caroline’s side in her violent quarrels with her husband, and once wrote Lamb an abusive and interfering letter, after which his sister, Lady Cowper, recorded that Ponsonby was ‘reckoned an ass and a jackanapes by everybody’. He was present at his sister’s death in 1828, and was reconciled with Lamb.16

Among the properties left to his wife by her maternal grandfather Sir John Webb, in a trust over which Ponsonby took control, was the estate at Canford. He settled there in the mid-1820s, constructed a new mansion and contributed to several local improvements.17 Exploiting his local influence, he canvassed the nearby borough of Poole in late 1824, when the Member John Dent was in poor health, and again a year later, when there were rumours of an imminent dissolution.18 The leading Whigs wanted to bring him into Parliament, but he declined Lord Fitzwilliam’s offer of the seat at Malton which Duncannon was planning to vacate.19 At the general election of 1826, when Dent retired, Ponsonby told the electors that ‘from my early habits and connections, and from my own sentiments, I am attached to the opposition’. He was elected in second place, behind the corporation’s Member, Benjamin Lester Lester, and ahead of his wife’s first cousin, the Tory local gentleman Henry Charles Sturt*.20 He was made a free burgess of Poole, 5 July 1826.21

Ponsonby divided against the grant for the duke of Clarence, 16 Feb., 2 Mar. 1827. He reported to Caroline Lamb, 20 Feb., that ‘everything continues in an extraordinary state’, and doubted Canning’s ability to succeed the stricken Liverpool as prime minister.22 Since his brother Frederick was absent in Malta, the votes attributed to him during this Parliament were probably those of this Member, including for inquiry into allegations against the corporation of Leicester, 15 Mar., information on the Orange procession and Lisburn magistrates, 29 Mar., and Tierney’s amendment to postpone the committee of supply, 30 Mar. He certainly voted for a select committee on the Irish miscellaneous estimates and information on chancery administration, 5 Apr. In late April he thought that Lord Lansdowne and the moderate Whigs would join Canning, behind whom, and beside Tierney and Burdett, he was found seated in the House by Mackintosh on 1 May.23 He voted to consider separating bankruptcy jurisdiction from chancery (as ‘Hon. F. Ponsonby’), 22 May, and for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May. He wrote to Devonshire, 10 Aug., of the good effect on Canning of the ‘unbending integrity and constitutional principles’ of the Whigs, and opined that ‘our good honest Whigs have been [too] long unconnected with the details of office’.24 He reported to Lord Holland, 15 Dec. 1827, that

we are all rather in dudgeon, at the gloomy view which ministers take of the Navarino business, and their desponding language generally, and complete submission to higher powers; if they do not pluck up a little spirit, it will go hard with them.25

He voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. 1828. He divided against extending the franchise of East Retford to the freeholders of the hundred of Bassetlaw, 21 Mar. As ‘Hon. F. Ponsonby’, he voted to make 60s. not 64s. the pivot price of corn, 22 Apr., and to impose a duty on corn of 15s., reducing to 10s. by 1834, 29 Apr. Unless it was Frederick, he again voted in condemnation of chancery administration, 24 Apr. He sided with opposition against the misapplication of public money on Buckingham House, 23 June, and for reduction of the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July. He was in the minority against Fyler’s amendment in the committee on the Customs Acts, which was carried with government support, 14 July 1828. As he had on 6 Mar. 1827 and 12 May 1828, he voted for Catholic emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. 1829. He objected to Hobhouse’s St. James’s (Westminster) vestry bill in a letter to him, 26 Apr., and repeated his main criticism, that the matter would be better dealt with by a general bill, in the House, 21 May, when he successfully moved to have it thrown out.26 He voted for allowing Daniel O’Connell to take his seat without swearing the oath of supremacy, 18 May, and reduction of the hemp duties, 1 June 1829. He divided for the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., parliamentary reform, 28 May, and (as ‘Hon. F. Ponsonby’) to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 Mar. 1830. He joined in the opposition campaign for economies and retrenchment during that session, including no doubt on several occasions when such votes were credited to Frederick. He divided for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May. Unless it was his brother, he voted for O’Connell’s Irish vestries bill, 27 Apr.; it was certainly he who sided with opposition on Newfoundland, 11 May, and Canada, 25 May. He divided for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 24 May, 7 June 1830.

As no opponent was willing to go to a poll, Ponsonby was returned unopposed for Poole at the general election of 1830, when he was given a hostile reception on the hustings. In September he agreed to pay for the building of a new library there, and he attended a dinner in honour of the members of the enlarged corporation.27 Listed by ministers among their ‘foes’, he was absent from the division on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, which led to their resignation. During the debate on the Grey ministry’s reform bill, Charles Arbuthnot* reported to Peel, the Tory Commons leader, 3 Mar. 1831, that Ponsonby had just told him ministers would say nothing until Peel had spoken, and

that they expected to carry their measure, but that what he has seen in the House makes him doubt it. He told me that if the measure were not carried they were to go out. He owned to me that the measure alarmed him very much, but of course he will vote for it ... He asked me what was to happen if the measure were lost, for the mere broaching of it would render it impossible for any other set of men to govern the country.28

He duly divided in favour of the second reading of the bill, 22 Mar., and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr., which precipitated a dissolution. He was thanked for his reform vote at a meeting in Poole, 7 Apr., when he spoke in support of the unfranchised commonalty and the bill. Having pledged to continue to vote for it, he was returned unopposed at the general election.29 He regretted differing with the Bankes family, but explained privately to them that his opposition to them in the county was caused by the overriding importance of the reform question.30 He attended the Dorset nomination meeting, 6 May, when his band of supporters was involved in an affray with a party of Henry Bankes’s* anti-reformers. He split for the successful candidates Portman and Calcraft and presided at a dinner in their honour at Blandford, 23 May 1831, when he declared that the bill was based on principles which ‘were not built upon any theoretic speculations, and still less upon any feelings of animosity or dislike to our present institutions, but upon an anxious desire for their preservation’.31

He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, at least twice against adjourning proceedings on it, 12 July 1831, and steadily for its details. Calcraft’s suicide, 11 Sept., created a vacancy for the county which Ponsonby instantly moved to fill, issuing a pro-reform address to the freeholders on the 13th, though, anticipating a contest, he soon evinced a desire to withdrew in favour of a stronger candidate.32 On the same day he made a farewell address to his supportive constituents, in which he explained his decision, the invitation to stand for Dorset

not merely holding out an object of justifiable ambition to me, but as involving a question of public duty; considering that I am called upon to take a lead in that party, which has so recently asserted its power, and redeemed the character of the county [sic] from the charge of being backwards in the independent spirits of the times.33

He returned to the House, and, having presumably been shut out with Burdett on the third reading, 19 Sept., he divided in favour of the passage of the bill, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept. 1831; he resigned his seat on the 26th.

Supported by ministers, who were concerned that the victory of an anti-reformer would further weaken their prospects of carrying the bill in the Lords, he was expected to be returned unopposed, especially as Bankes declined to offer. But the late entry of Lord Ashley*, another of his wife’s cousins, turned the election into a ferocious contest, in which Ponsonby was branded an Irish Catholic interloper, castigated for voting against Lord Chandos’s clause to enfranchise £50 tenants-at-will and repeatedly outperformed by Ashley on the hustings. Although he rebutted the allegations against him, urged the cause of the people against an oppressive aristocracy and continually exhorted his supporters to even greater efforts, he trailed on most of the 15 days of the poll. He eventually lost by only 36 votes, though he complained that he had a majority of the votes tendered, and promised to petition on the ground of excessive delay in the processing of the disputed votes.34 He commented to a supporter that, despite his disappointment, ‘a feeling of satisfaction predominates both at the kindness which I have personally experienced, and my conviction that such a power as we have brought into the field cannot be suppressed’; he was, of course, included in the prospective membership of the planned Dorset Whig Club that winter.35 Nothing came of rumours that Ashley would capitulate, or that the Tories would allow Ponsonby to be returned unopposed for the other seat if Portman persisted in his intention to resign, and in any case he ruled out such a possibility.36 On 19 Mar. 1832 the committee, perhaps riled by his time-wasting tactics, decided against Ponsonby, who issued an address asserting that the anti-reformers had won a merely nominal victory.37 His enormous expenses, possibly as high as £30,000, were presumably largely met by subscription, but he admitted to being ‘pretty well cleaned out’ by the affair.38 There was a newspaper report that Ponsonby would be returned for Chester,39 but he was in fact out of the House until June, when Devonshire brought him in on a vacancy for Knaresborough. He voted for the Irish tithes bill, 13 July, and with ministers for the Russian-Dutch loan, 20 July. On 28 July 1832, he told Tom Moore that ‘the metropolitan elections, instead of taking the turn that he and others dreaded they would, were likely to be, if any thing, too aristocratical’.40

Although thanked for his pro-reform conduct at a meeting in Poole, 9 June 1832, he became unpopular there once it was known that the enlargement of the borough would effectively give him control over at least one seat, and he was charged with using his interest to secure the re-election of his replacement, Sir John Byng. He was himself invited to stand for the three Member county of Dorset, and despite his reluctance to risk another contest and his absence because of injuries sustained in a fall from his horse, he was elected unopposed as a Liberal, behind Ashley and William John Bankes*, at the general election in December 1832.41 He sat until 1837, when he became a member of Brooks’s Club. The following year he was awarded a coronation peerage, taking his title from a barony which had been in abeyance since 1415, and to which his wife was one of the heiresses. She died, 7 June 1844, three weeks after his father, and Lady Holland commented that

whilst herself, she was a generous, sober minded soul; witness her making ... [Ponsonby] give up his own fortune, saying they had enough, to poor Fred Ponsonby, who was deeply in debt; then sheltering for upwards of 20 years Lord Bessborough, really reversing the position of parent and child.42

Ponsonby died in May 1855, ‘a cultivated man and a perfect gentleman’, who ‘had even more than the usual kindly nature of his family’. Although he had had to sell Canford in the 1840s, he was remembered in Poole for his ‘private kindnesses and public benefits’.43 He left his estate to be divided between his three surviving children: Charles Frederick Ashley (1815-96), Liberal Member for Poole, 1837-47, and Dungarvan, 1851-2, who succeeded him as 2nd Baron de Mauley; Ashley George John (1831-98), who was Liberal Member for Cirencester, 1852-7 and 1859-65, and Frances Anna Georgiana (1817-1910), wife of the 9th Lord Kinnaird.44

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle ed. Lord Bessborough, 99-103.
  • 2. Ibid. 116; Le Marchant, Althorp, 53.
  • 3. Leveson Gower Corresp. i. 469; ii. 77, 79, 100, 115, 427-8.
  • 4. Letters of Lady Harriet Cavendish, 168, 169, 171, 217, 220, 230-1, 249-50, 254-5, 263-4, 269, 273, 283.
  • 5. Lady Bessborough, 168; Lady Lyttelton Corresp. 74-75, 103-4.
  • 6. D. Howell-Thomas, Duncannon, 50-51; Lady Bessborough, 150.
  • 7. Lady Bessborough, 187; B. Jenkins, Goulburn, 25-31.
  • 8. Howell-Thomas, 89.
  • 9. Lady Bessborough, 227-8; Add. 40222, f. 35.
  • 10. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 670.
  • 11. CP, iv. 176.
  • 12. Lady Bessborough, 240, 253-4.
  • 13. Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss, Clare to Sneyd, 25 Mar. 1820.
  • 14. Lady Bessborough, 16, 261, 265, 267-72, 277; Howell-Thomas, 103, 106-7.
  • 15. Bessborough mss, Brougham to Bessborough [17 Jan.]; Lansdowne mss, Holland to Lansdowne, 18 Jan. 1822.
  • 16. Lady Bessborough, 285-6, 291; M. Villiers, Grand Whiggery, 366-8, 376-7, 379; P. Ziegler, Melbourne, 81.
  • 17. Lady Bessborough, 285; J. Sydenham, Hist. Poole, 58-60; Dorset Co. Chron. 10 Nov. 1825, 3 Jan. 1828; Add. 51724, Ponsonby to Holland, 16 Jan. 1827.
  • 18. Dorset RO, Lester-Garland mss D/LEG F23, f. 113; The Times, 9 Oct. 1824; Dorset Co. Chron. 22, 29 Sept. 1825.
  • 19. Grey mss, Grey to Holland, 4 Sept. 1825; Fitzwilliam mss 125/1, Ponsonby to Fitzwilliam, 12 June [1826].
  • 20. Dorset Co. Chron. 1, 8, 15 June 1826.
  • 21. Dorset RO, Poole borough recs. DC/PL CLA45.
  • 22. Lady Bessborough, 287.
  • 23. Canning’s Ministry, 196; Add. 52447, f. 61.
  • 24. P. Mandler, Aristocratic Government in Age of Reform, 61.
  • 25. Add. 51724.
  • 26. Add. 36465, f. 117.
  • 27. Dorset Co. Chron. 8, 15 July, 5 Aug., 9, 30 Sept., 14 Oct. 1830.
  • 28. Parker, Peel, ii. 176.
  • 29. Dorset Co. Chron. 14 Apr., 5 May 1831.
  • 30. Dorset RO, Bankes mss D/BKL, Ponsonby to G. Bankes, 4 May, to H. Bankes, 15 May 1831.
  • 31. Dorset Co. Chron. 12, 26 May 1831; Dorset Pollbook (1831), 66.
  • 32. Bankes mss, Ponsonby to Bankes, 13 Sept.; The Times, 17 Sept. 1831; Three Diaries, 136.
  • 33. Dorset Co. Chron. 15, 22 Sept. 1831.
  • 34. Ibid. 15, 22, 29 Sept., 6, 13, 20, 27 Oct.; The Times, 1, 19 Oct.; Salisbury Jnl. 24 Oct. 1831.
  • 35. Dorset RO, Fox-Strangways mss D/FSI 332, Ponsonby to Ilchester, 26 Oct. 1831, Parry Okeden to same, 14 Jan. 1832.
  • 36. Add. 51601, Lady Cowper to Lady Holland [Mar.]; Western Flying Post, 2 Apr. 1832.
  • 37. Dorset Co. Chron. 22 Mar. 1832.
  • 38. Dorset RO D793/1; D1379/1, 2; Beds. RO, Russell mss R766, Ponsonby to Russell, 22 Oct. [1831]; Sherborne Jnl. 19 Jan. 1832.
  • 39. Southampton Univ. Lib. Broadlands mss SHA/PC/128; Dorset Co. Chron. 10 May 1832.
  • 40. Moore Jnl. iv. 1479.
  • 41. Dorset Co. Chron. 23 Feb., 14 June, 5 July, 23 Aug., 22 Nov., 20 Dec. 1832, 3 Jan. 1833; Western Flying Post, 20 Aug., 5 Nov. 1832.
  • 42. Lady Holland to Son, 217.
  • 43. CP, iv. 176; The Times, 19 May; Poole and South-Western Herald, 24 May 1855; Gent. Mag. (1855), ii. 92.
  • 44. PROB 11/2215/597; J. Ponsonby, Ponsonby Fam. 180-1.