POWLETT (formerly VANE), Hon. William John Frederick (1792-1864), of Langton Grange, co. Dur.; Somerby, Leics. and 19 Curzon Street, Mdx.

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



1812 - 10 July 1815
1 Aug. 1815 - 1831
21 July 1846 - 1852
1852 - 1857

Family and Education

b. 3 Apr. 1792, 2nd s. of William Harry Vane†, 3rd earl of Darlington (d. 1842), and 1st w. Lady Catherine Margaret Powlett, da. and coh. of Harry Powlett†, 6th duke of Bolton; bro. of Henry Vane, Visct. Barnard* and Hon. Harry George Vane†. educ. Brasenose, Oxf. 1809. m. 3 July 1815, Lady Grace Caroline Lowther, da. of William Lowther†, 1st earl of Lonsdale, s.p. styled Lord William John Frederick Powlett 1827-64; took name of Powlett by royal lic. 20 Apr. 1813 in compliance with the will of his maternal grandmother Katherine, dowager duchess of Bolton (d. 21 Mar. 1809); suc. bro. Henry as 3rd duke of Cleveland 18 Jan. 1864 and resumed name of Vane by royal lic. 4 Mar. 1864. d. 6 Sept. 1864.

Offices Held


Returned by his father Lord Darlington for Winchelsea in 1812, Powlett had in 1815 been substituted for his elder brother Lord Barnard as Member for county Durham, where he was only occasionally resident. He had generally followed Darlington’s Whig, pro-Catholic line, shared his reservations on parliamentary reform and had shunned public meetings. As directed by him, he voted for the repressive legislation introduced by Lord Liverpool’s administration after the Peterloo massacre. Powlett’s return for county Durham was severely compromised in 1820 by the Tory challenge to his Whig colleague John George Lambton*, who afterwards claimed the credit for ensuring that he was not defeated at the poll.1 Drawing on this experience, in May 1821 Powlett ordered a thorough revision of the Durham land tax returns.2 He shared his family’s love of the chase and Turf and relied heavily on the social skills of his wife. Mrs. Arburthnot, writing in 1828, described her as ‘very good hearted and amiable’ and a ‘clever agreeable person, very ugly, with red hair and a beautiful foot and leg, which she takes every opportunity of displaying’.3 Powlett adhered with Darlington to the main Whig opposition in the 1820 Parliament. He was said to have ‘attended regularly and voted with the opposition’, but he spoke only occasionally and served on no major committees.4 He supported the parliamentary campaign on behalf of Queen Caroline in 1821, when the death on 8 Jan. of his sister Louisa kept him away at the start of the session.5 He divided for reform, 18 Apr. 1821, 25 Apr. 1822, 24 Apr., 2 June 1823, and in condemnation of electoral bribery, 26 May 1826. He voted for Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. Supporting humanitarian reforms urged by the Whig opposition, he paired for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 21 May 1821, presented and endorsed petitions for criminal law reform, 4 May 1821, 3 May 1822, and repeal of the Insolvent Debtors Act, 21 May 1823, and voted to end military flogging, 5 Mar. 1824.6

Although Powlett was a West India proprietor, he voted in condemnation of the indictment in Demerara of the Methodist missionary John Smith, 11 June 1824, and of the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar. 1826, and voiced support for Canning’s 1823 resolutions when presenting abolitionist petitions, 4 Mar., 25 May 1824, 18, 20 Apr. 1826.7 He qualified his vote for large tax remissions to assist the depressed farmers and landowners by stating that he meant it to apply only to ‘taxes which it was practicable to reduce’, 8 May 1822. He opposed inquiry into the currency, 12 June, and government expenditure on London Bridge, 16, 20 June 1823. Praising its instigator Lord Suffield, he spoke for the spring guns bill, 4 Mar. 1825. (He supported a similar measure, 23 Mar. 1827.)8 He presented petitions for (25 Apr.) and against (28 Apr. 1825) corn law revision.9 Darlington’s electoral arrangements took up much of his time at the general election of 1826, when his return for county Durham was unopposed.10 On the hustings he declared for Catholic relief and against slavery, denied that the distress of the Sunderland ship owners derived from the relaxation of the navigation laws, praised the foreign secretary Canning for granting diplomatic recognition to the South American states and defended his recent (unreported) votes for the government’s corn importation bill.11

Powlett was abroad in the summer of 1826 when reports first circulated of the failure of John Wilks II’s* ‘bubble’ Cornwall and Devon Mining Company, of which he was a director. Keen to avoid seeing his name ‘dragged before the public on a subject which I admit was a pecuniary investment’, he sought advice from the Whig lawyer Henry Brougham, whom his father’s had returned for Winchelsea. Acting on it, he delivered a robust defence of his conduct which was loudly cheered, when he was implicated with his fellow director Lord Palmerston* in a hostile petition from the company’s shareholders, 9 Apr. 1827.12 He divided for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and inquiry into the allegations against Leicester corporation, 15 Mar., and presented petitions for corn law revision, 21 Feb., protection for shipping, 13 Mar., Catholic relief, 10 Apr., and repeal of the Test Acts, 30 May, 6 June 1827.13 He had gone over to government with Darlington when Canning succeeded Lord Liverpool as premier and was expected to support the administration of Lord Goderich, to whom Darlington owed his promotion to the marquessate of Cleveland in October 1827. Like his father and elder brother, he refused to join the county in marking Wellington’s visit that month; but, according to Thomas Creevey*, he defied Cleveland by insisting on exercising his right as county Member to attend the bishop of Durham’s dinner for the duke.14

Commenting to Brougham on the incoming Wellington ministry, to which the Huskissonites adhered, 11 Jan. 1828, Powlett conceded the impossibility of forming an exclusively Whig government:

Huskisson is essential to an administration and if his system and principles can be maintained I hope most devoutly we shall not be split. For a good strong government is so very desirable in the present state of things and with energy and firmness I have no doubt we shall conquer all our difficulties. I am only fearful Peel will be placed at the head, and then however fair and plausible his conduct may appear, we must know Ireland cannot be tranquillized.15

Toeing the family line, he refrained from deliberate hostility to ministers in 1828 and, according to their secretary at war, Sir Henry Hardinge*, he ‘gave in a general adhesion’ to them at the close of the session.16 He presented favourable petitions, 19 Feb., 17 Mar., and voted to repeal the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and divided for Catholic relief, 12 May. He thought that East Retford deserved disfranchisement, and his votes against sluicing its franchise were reluctant ones, 21 Mar., 19 May. He expressed support for the division of counties bill (as a member of the select committee), 27 Feb., and for Stuart Wortley’s abortive game bill, 13, 26 June. He presented petitions against the promissory notes bill, 20 May, 3, 13 June, and supported inquiry into the circulation of small bank notes, 3 June. Alluding to his 1825 vote for funding new churches, he endorsed the ‘principle’ but opposed the details of the additional churches bill, 30 June. He voted against the proposed government expenditure on the Royal Cork Institution that day, but divided in their majority against ordnance reductions, 4 July 1828.

Most constituency business devolved on Powlett after the Whig William Russell, whose candidature Cleveland had approved, became his colleague following Lambton’s elevation to the peerage in February 1828 (as Lord Durham).17 Representing the interests of the Aire and Calder Canal Company, he seconded and was a majority teller for the amendment by which the Wakefield and Ferrybridge canal bill was killed, 3 Mar. He presented petitions for the Tees navigation bill, 26 Mar., and secured its passage when the Lords returned it amended, 2 June. Despite his continued professions of support for free trade, he pressed for government intervention to assist the depressed lead mining areas, which Huskisson refused, 28 Mar. He repeated his demand when presenting further petitions, 28 Apr., and, finding that the returns he ordered, 20 May 1828, 17 Feb. 1830, confirmed the petitioners’ claims, he vainly took up their cause, 16 Feb., 19 Mar., 4, 25, 26 May 1830. He opposed the Llanelli docks and railway bill, which was perceived as a threat to the North-East and Somerset coal trade, 26 Mar. 1828, and defended the Tyne coal owners against allegations of monopoly and price fixing, 9 May. He joined Huskisson in urging Isaac Gascoyne to withdraw his motion for inquiry into the depressed shipping trade, 17 June 1828.

As the patronage secretary Planta predicted, Powlett divided ‘with government’ for Catholic emancipation, 6, 30 Mar., and he commended its concession on introducing a favourable petition from Sunderland, 9 Mar. 1829. He voted to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May 1829 (and again, 11 Feb. 1830); and when this was rejected he opposed the new writ and declared for sluicing, 7 May 1829.18 He defended the crew of the Sunderland coal brig Rosanna, denied compensation by the admiralty after being sunk by a naval vessel, 22 May, and presented petitions for corn law revision and a tax on machinery to alleviate distress, 28 May, and against renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 4 May 1829, 15 Mar. 1830. On 1 June 1829 he endeavoured to persuade Lord Grey to approve the ministry to whom, like Cleveland, he confirmed his adhesion, 17 Jan. 1830.19 Asserting his independence, he voted to enfranchise Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., having first confirmed his opposition to any general undefined reform scheme and the disfranchisement of boroughs solely on population grounds. He added that he considered the enfranchisement of large towns ‘constitutional’ and the allocation of two Members to Gatton and Old Sarum ‘monstrous’. He voted against Lord Blandford’s reform scheme, 18 Feb., but for Lord John Russell’s moderate resolution, 28 May. He cast a wayward vote against the Bathurst and Dundas pensions, 26 Mar. He presented petitions, 18 Mar., and voted to abolish capital punishment for forgery, 7 May, and divided for Jewish emancipation, 17 May. He presented petitions against the coastal coal duty, 24 May, and opposed the northern roads bill with the Lowthers, 5 June. He voted for the grant for South American missions, 7 June, and was instrumental on the 17th in securing the withdrawal, pending inquiry, of the bill abolishing the Greenwich Hospital levy, having presented and endorsed a favourable petition from Sunderland, 12 May. He voted against increasing securities under the libel law amendment bill, 6 July, and spoke and voted against Hume’s amendment to reduce judges’ salaries under the administration of justice bill, 7 July 1830. A belated attempt to force a contest for county Durham at the general election in August failed, and he was returned as a professed supporter of the ministry, ‘but not a blind adherent to them’.20 On the hustings he commiserated with those affected by the depression in the lead and shipping trades, defended his voting record and repeated that although he favoured enfranchising Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, his support for reform ‘went no farther’.21

Ministers included Powlett among the ‘good doubtfuls’ and he divided in their minority on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. He presented numerous anti-slavery petitions, 11, 15, 17, 23 Nov., and several for repeal of the coal duties, 16 Nov. 1830, criminal law reform, 9 Feb., and against the register of deeds bill, 9 Feb. 1831. He endorsed one from the Sunderland ship owners for amending the timber duties, 14 Mar., and reiterated their case for continued protection for the Canada trade, 15 Mar. Cleveland had declared for the new Grey administration in December 1830, and Powlett, as requested, signed the requisition for and attended the county Durham reform meeting, 1 Feb. However, like Thomas Henry Liddell, the former Canningite Member for Northumberland, with whom he had travelled there, he spoke against wholesale disfranchisement and for transferring single Members from small depopulated places to manufacturing towns and an extended franchise. He promised to present and endorse petitions from Durham and the county requesting the ballot, although his views were ‘at variance with those of many other reformers’, and did so, 9 Feb.22 Presenting a Sunderland reform petition, 2 Mar., he said he welcomed its proposed enfranchisement under the ministerial bill, but not the disfranchisement of 60 boroughs ‘at one blow’ and the loss of 62 Members. He added that ‘with the proposition for extending the elective franchise I entirely concur, and so far ... [government] may rest assured of my support’. He divided for the bill at its second reading, 22 Mar., brought up a favourable petition, 28 Mar., but voted with his brother Lord Darlington for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, by which it was lost, 19 Apr. Unseated by his furious father, he resigned at the dissolution, 23 Apr. 1831, before the reformers’ resolutions to turn him out at the ensuing general election could be effected.23 His retirement notice warned of the danger of a precipitate reform introduced when the country was in an inflammatory state and he explained that he was ‘not prepared to abandon’ opinions ‘recently declared in the face of the county’.24

He settled at the Powlett (Bayning) estate of Downham Hall, Norfolk, and unlike Darlington, who came in for Shropshire South as a Conservative in 1832, he did not stand for Parliament again in the lifetime of his father, whom Grey rewarded with a dukedom in January 1833. He came in for St. Ives as a Liberal Conservative in 1846 and Ludlow in 1852 on the interest of his brother, now 2nd duke, to whose titles and entailed estates he succeeded in January 1864. He died eight months later, recalled as a ‘kind hearted man’ much ‘respected in racing circles’.25 His will, which was proved in London, 29 Oct. 1864, provided for his widow (d. 1883), sister Caroline Vane Russell, nephews, nieces and servants. Most family property, including the Powlett estates worth £25,000 a year, had already been made over to his younger brother and successor as 4th (and last) duke, Harry George Vane (1803-91), Liberal Member for Durham South, 1841-59, and Hastings, 1859-64, and to their nephew Sir Morgan Vane (1809-86), whose son Sir Harry de Vere Vane (1854-1918) inherited the estates with the barony of Barnard when the dukedom was extinguished in 1891.26

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott


  • 1. Pprs. of Sir William Chaytor, 1771-1847 ed. M.Y. Ashcroft (N. Yorks. Co. RO Publications l (1993 edn.)) [hereafter Chaytor Pprs.], 34-35; Durham CRO, Strathmore mss D/St X/1/4/37, 41, 43; Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 1, 11 Mar.; NLS, Ellice mss, Grey to Ellice, 20 Mar.; Durham Co. Advertiser, 25 Mar. 1820.
  • 2. Chaytor Pprs. 47.
  • 3. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 25, 26 Dec. 1823; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 201.
  • 4. Session of Parl. 1825, p. 481.
  • 5. Grey mss, Darlington to Grey, 16 Jan. 1821.
  • 6. The Times, 5 May 1821, 4 May 1822, 22 May 1823.
  • 7. Ibid. 5 Mar., 26 May 1824, 17, 19 Apr. 1826.
  • 8. Ibid. 5 Mar. 1825.
  • 9. Ibid. 26, 29 Apr. 1825.
  • 10. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 29 Apr.; The Times, 30 May; Durham Chron. 3 June 1826.
  • 11. Durham Co. Advertiser, 17 June; Durham Chron. 17 June 1826.
  • 12. Brougham mss, Powlett to Brougham, 2 Feb. 1827.
  • 13. The Times, 22 Feb., 13 Mar., 11 Apr., 31 May, 7 June 1827.
  • 14. Aberdeen Univ. Lib. Arbuthnot mss, Hardinge to Mrs. Arbuthnot, 6 Oct. 1827; Creevey Pprs. ii. 131; Durham Co. Advertiser, 6 Oct. 1828.
  • 15. Brougham mss.
  • 16. Durham CRO, Londonderry mss D/Lo/C83/24.
  • 17. Brougham mss, Cleveland to Brougham, 8 Jan. 1828.
  • 18. The Times, 15 Feb. 1830.
  • 19. Creevey Pprs. ii. 201; Grey mss, Howick jnl. 2 June 1829, Durham to Grey, 20 Jan. 1830; Wellington mss WP1/1086/5; 1090/40.
  • 20. Lincs. AO, Tennyson d’Eyncourt mss 2Td’E H89/9, Russell to Tennyson, 6 Aug., C. to G. Tennyson, 12 Aug.; Grey mss, Durham to Grey, 17 Aug. 1830.
  • 21. Durham Chron. 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 22. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 12 Dec. 1830; Brougham mss, Cleveland to Brougham, 24 Jan.; Durham Co. Advertiser, 21 Jan., 4 Feb. 1831.
  • 23. St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 198, T. to J. Gladstone, 20 Apr.; Stair mss (History of Parliament Aspinall transcripts), Murray to Dalrymple, 24 Apr.; Durham Chron. 29 Apr. 1831; Ashcroft, 158.
  • 24. Durham Co. Advertiser, 29 Apr. 1831.
  • 25. VCH Salop. iii. 338; The Times, 8, 14 Sept.; Gent. Mag. (1864), ii. 516-17.
  • 26. The Times, 8 Feb., 14 Mar. 1864.