PONSONBY, John George Brabazon (1809-1880).

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



1831 - July 1831
6 Oct. 1831 - 1832
1835 - 16 May 1847

Family and Education

b. 14 Oct. 1809, 1st s. of John William Ponsonby, Visct. Duncannon*, and Lady Maria Fane, da. of John, 10th earl of Westmorland. educ. Charterhouse 1822-6. m. (1) 8 Sept. 1835, Lady Frances Charlotte Lambton (d. 18 Dec. 1835), da. of John George Lambton*, 1st earl of Durham, s.p.; (2) 4 Oct. 1849, Lady Caroline Amelia Gordon Lennox, da. of Charles Lennox†, 5th duke of Richmond, s.p. styled Visct. Duncannon 1844-7. suc. fa. as 5th earl of Bessborough [I] and 5th Bar. Ponsonby [GB] 16 May 1847. d. 28 Jan. 1880.

Offices Held

Précis writer, foreign office May 1833-Nov. 1834; master of the buckhounds May 1848-Feb. 1852, Dec. 1852-Feb. 1858, June 1859-Jan. 1866; PC 27 June 1848; ld. steward of household Jan.-July 1866, Dec. 1868-Mar. 1874.

Sheriff, co. Carlow 1838-9, ld. lt. 1838-d.


Ponsonby was born into the charmed Whig circle, although his mother, who bore 13 children in a little over 20 years, came from a resolutely Tory family. As he grew up he accompanied his authoritarian father Lord Duncannon, the opposition whip and organizer, on his frequent absences from the ancestral home in county Kilkenny. He apparently gave Duncannon some clerical assistance in his role in the drafting of the Grey ministry’s reform bill in early 1831.1 At that year’s general election precipitated by the defeat of the measure Ponsonby was returned unopposed for Bletchingley on the Russell interest. He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced bill, 6 July, and at least twice against the adjournment, 12 July 1831, before vacating his seat to accommodate the secretary to the board of control. Three months later his father’s cousin Lord Milton*, son of Earl Fitzwilliam, brought him in on a vacancy for Higham Ferrers. He was absent from the majority for Lord Ebrington’s motion of confidence in the ministry, 10 Oct. 1831. He voted for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, gave steady support to its details, and divided for the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He voted with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb., but was in the minority for printing a petition for the abolition of Irish tithes, 16 Feb. He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry reform unimpaired, 10 May, and the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May. He paired against a Conservative amendment to the Scottish measure, 1 June. Ponsonby, who is not known to have spoken in debate in this period, was added to the select committee on the East India Company, 1 Feb. 1832.

Higham Ferrers was disfranchised by the Reform Act and he did not find a seat at the 1832 general election. Overwork under Lord Palmerston’s* punishing regime at the foreign office, where he laboured for 18 months as a précis writer from May 1833, and delayed reaction to his mother’s untimely death in March 1834, contributed to his bizarre nervous breakdown when standing for Derby as a Liberal at the 1835 general election. He was nevertheless returned in second place, as he was again in 1837 and 1841.2 He was devastated by the loss of his first wife to consumption after only 16 weeks of marriage in 1835.3 He remarried 14 years later after succeeding his father to the earldom of Bessborough, but according to the family historian he lost the sight of one eye in the process

by putting his head out of the train window on his honeymoon. Some people have said the accident was caused by his having suddenly turned round to embrace his bride, who, not expecting this sudden advance, was shielding her face with her small ... parasol, when most unluckily the point ... penetrated her husband’s eye. This accident had the effect of making his lordship rather sharp-tempered, and he was held in much awe by the younger members of his family.4

As a peer he held household places in the Russell, Aberdeen and Palmerston administrations. He spent almost 16 years as master of the buckhounds and was reputed to have said, in a discussion of where to place ‘a certain peer ... not overburdened with brains’, that ‘the buckhounds is the job for him!’ Yet Benjamin Disraeli†, no sufferer of fools, commended his ‘excellent sense and tact’.5 He died childless at Bessborough in January 1880. He was succeeded as earl of Bessborough by his brothers Frederick George (1815-95) and Walter William (1821-1906), a clergyman.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Philip Salmon / David R. Fisher


  • 1. D. Howell-Thomas, Duncannon: Reformer and Reconciler, 80, 83-84, 189.
  • 2. K. Bourne, Palmerston, 428; Howell-Thomas, 184-5, 187-9; P. Mandler, Aristocratic Government in Age of Reform, 75.
  • 3. Reid, Lord Durham, i. 65; ii. 20-22, 27; Lieven-Palmerston Corresp. 113; Howell-Thomas, 190-2.
  • 4. Sir J. Ponsonby, Ponsonby Fam. (1929), 151.
  • 5. Ibid.; Disraeli Letters, v. 2216.