SHELLEY, Sir John, 6th bt. (1772-1852), of Maresfield Park, Suss.

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



21 Apr. 1806 - 1806
13 Mar. 1816 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 3 Mar. 1772, o.s. of Sir John Shelley, 5th bt., of Michelgrove, Suss. and Wilhelmina, da. of John Newnham of Maresfield. educ. Westminster; Eton 1786-9; Clare, Camb. 1789; grand tour 1789. m. 4 June 1807, Frances, da. and h. of Thomas Winckley of Brockholes, Lancs., 4s. 2da. suc. fa. as 6th bt. 11 Sept. 1783; mat. uncle in Maresfield estate 1814. d. 28 Mar. 1852.

Offices Held

Ensign 2 Ft. Gds 1790, lt. and capt. 1793; a.d.c. to duke of Sussex.

Lt. Petworth yeomanry 1797.


By 1820 marriage and advancing years had reformed Shelley’s rakish tendencies and curbed his gambling, though his passion for horse racing remained fervent. His abrasive sense of humour was also undimmed, as he demonstrated at the duke of Devonshire’s in 1823, when he told his unamused host, resplendent in an elaborate gold waistcoat, that he looked ‘like a mackerel just caught’.1 Confounding hopes that he would offer for Sussex in 1820 against the errant Sir Godfrey Webster†, he again came in for his local borough of Lewes, on this occasion unopposed.2

He continued to vote with the Whig opposition to Lord Liverpool’s ministry on certain issues, particularly for economy and retrenchment, but in other respects he was becoming increasingly unreliable. He divided against Scottish parliamentary reform, 2 June 1823. He also continued to vote against Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, 30 Apr. 1822, 1 Mar., 21 Apr. (paired), 10 May 1825. He spoke in favour of transferring Sussex elections to Lewes, 23 June 1820.3 Four days later, suffering from gout, he was excused from an election committee. Like his colleague Sir George Shiffner, he declined to be associated with the Lewes address to Queen Caroline in July 1820.4 He divided for the motion condemning the omission of the queen’s name from the liturgy, 23 Jan., and reportedly would have done so again, 26 Jan. 1821, but absented himself because of Lord Archibald Hamilton’s attack on Canning’s conduct in leaving the country.5 To ministerial threats of resignation, 3 Apr., he retorted that ‘he only wished them to resign a few of their oppressive taxes’ and thus alleviate the distress which he observed in his locality. He was a majority teller against the appointment of a select committee on the game laws, 5 Apr. He was granted ten days’ leave for urgent business, 7 May 1821. He vigorously defended the grant to his ‘friend and patron’ the duke of York, under whom he had served in Flanders, 15 Mar. 1822. He spoke against the leather tax, 1 May 1822, and declared that he had ‘all his life been an enemy to the sinking fund, and would go on voting for the repeal of taxes until he got every shilling out of it’.6 He joined in criticism of the agricultural distress committee’s recommendation that farmers be subsidized to warehouse their surplus wheat, 6 May, and three days later supported an 18s. export bounty, which would be ‘at all events better than the existing state of the corn laws’. He urged that the burden of taxation and poor rates on the landed interest must be eased, 10, 16 May,7 and acted as a minority teller for Scarlett’s bill to reform the poor laws, 31 May 1822. He advocated £2 million of further tax reductions, 6 Mar. 1823, when he was a minority teller against the sinking fund. However, he derided Hume’s proposal next day that the yeomanry should pay for their equipment as an economy measure.8 He blamed the distressed condition of the rural lower classes for widespread transgressions of the game laws, 11 Mar. He proclaimed field sports to be ‘one of the political institutions of the country’, 2 June, and expressed doubt that legalizing the sale of game would defeat poachers; he was a minority teller against this proposal next day. He paired against inquiry into arrears in chancery, 5 June 1823. In January 1824 he was reportedly ‘very ill’ and confined to his room with ‘what they call rheumatic fever - spasms in the chest, gout in his hands’.9 He recovered to pursue his chief preoccupation, the game laws, and provoked laughter with his dire warning that their relaxation would spell the end for country sports, 17 Feb. He suggested that the middle classes’ demand for game should be met by their becoming possessed of landed estates, 11 Mar., and proceeded to enthuse upon the advantages of a resident gentry. He objected to details of the game law amendment bill, 25 Mar., 12 Apr., and was a majority teller against it, 31 May. He denied that the Foot Guards, in which he had served, were any costlier than other army corps, 17 Mar. He divided against Brougham’s motion condemning the prosecution of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824. Earlier that month a horse from his stable won the Derby, netting him £500, a triumph which ‘made the last week one of the happiest of his life’.10 He was granted a week’s leave for urgent private business, 14 Apr. 1825. He pointed to the fall in the number of people gaoled under the game laws as an argument against the bill to amend them, 21 Apr., and was a minority teller against its third reading, 29 Apr. He was a majority teller against the spring guns bill, 30 June 1825. It was said of him at this time that he ‘attended frequently, and voted with the opposition’.11 He presented a Brighton petition in favour of the debtor and creditor bill, 7 Apr. 1826, his only recorded activity that session.12 At the general election that summer his radical opponent at Lewes drew unfavourable comparisons between his attendance in the Commons and that at Newmarket, but he was narrowly returned in second place.13

At the duke of York’s funeral, 20 Jan. 1827, Shelley was said to be ‘lame and hobbling’, and two days later he suffered a severe attack of gout.14 He recovered in time to divide against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. He presented petitions against alteration of the corn laws, 8, 15 Mar. He defended spring guns as a deterrent to poachers, 23 Mar., and explained that ‘he never set them up himself but ... put up a board to say he had done so’; he was a minority teller against the bill to ban them. He was a minority teller against the sale of game bill, 8 June. He was granted a week’s leave for urgent private business, having served on an election committee, 1 May. As an ‘advocate for a gradual and limited reform in parliament’, 10 May, he once more supported the Sussex election bill, to move the venue for elections to Lewes. On 28 May 1827 he voted against Canning’s ministry for the disfranchisement of Penryn and for Lord Althorp’s election expenses bill. In January 1828 he wrote to Robert Peel, the leader of the Commons in the duke of Wellington’s ministry, promising his ‘strenuous though humble support’. Lady Shelley, in penning congratulations to the duke, to whom they had long been close, noted that ‘Shelley for the future intends to be guided entirely by you’, adding that ‘this confidence we could neither of us have felt if Peel had become premier ... in spite ... of our high opinion of [his] talents ... [and] our liking for him personally’. However, Wellington declined to recommend Shelley for a peerage ‘on the score of your being a friend of mine’, observing that ‘your claims of family are excellent, but those of fortune would fail you, at all events’.15 He voted against repeal of the Test Acts, which he feared would pave the way for Catholic emancipation, 26 Feb., and divided against relief, 12 May. He announced that he would not oppose Stuart Worley’s game laws amendment bill, 13 June, but he criticized its details, 19, 26 June, and wanted to limit the trial period to two years, 10 July. He voted with government on the ordnance estimates, 4 July 1828. In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, listed him as one who was ‘opposed to the principle’ of Catholic emancipation. Mrs. Arbuthnot was sure that it would ‘vex him very much to oppose the duke’, but he presented a hostile petition from Lewes and spoke on the subject, while reporters were absent from the House, 5 Mar., and voted against emancipation the next day.16 He presented petitions against the employment of children as chimney sweeps, 11 Mar., and for protection of the wool trade, 27 May 1829. He divided against Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr. 1830. He voted to abolish the death penalty for forgery, 24 May, 7 June, and spoke warmly of the new metropolitan police, 15 June. He voted for an amendment to the beer bill to prohibit consumption on the premises, 21 June 1830. The previous month, at a meeting in Lewes, he had blamed his lapses in parliamentary attendance on the gout, and claimed that ‘when I am able to move, I go to the House at five and stay until three’. He maintained that while he belonged to no party, he gave general support to ministers, but ‘when I think they are not quite right, I oppose them’. At the general election that summer he was returned in second place, ahead of a radical, and explained that his opposition to the beer bill was motivated by a desire to ‘protect public morals’. He subsequently declared that he would ‘never go to the length of my nose ... to support radical reform’, but would ‘use my utmost endeavours to promote a moderate reform’.17

The ministry regarded him as one of their ‘friends’, and he voted with them in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830. He spoke in support of the Sussex juries bill, which proposed to divide the county for assize purposes, 9 Nov. He approved of the labourers’ wages bill, 19 Nov., arguing that low wages were the cause of the ‘Swing’ riots. He admitted that the ‘mass of crime which has prevailed in the country for years past’ was ‘in some measure to be attributed to the existing game laws’, 15 Feb. 1831, and he offered no further resistance to their reform, though he warned against exaggerated expectations of what this could achieve. Next day he spoke in favour of landowners giving allotments to the poor, observing that ‘feelings of amity and goodwill towards the higher classes’ prevailed where this had already been done. It was around this time that Shelley provoked amazement with an audacious request for the barony of Sudeley to be revived for his benefit, to which the prime minister Lord Grey bluntly responded that he had no claim.18 It is not clear whether this rebuff had any bearing on his announcement, 15 Mar., that he would oppose the government’s reform bill. He explained on 22 Mar. that he favoured granting representation to large towns, but that he could not accept the sweeping borough disfranchisements being proposed or the exclusion of poor voters. He foresaw a weakening of the landed interest and a transfer of power to the Commons, and boldly predicted that no government could last for six months in such circumstances. He acknowledged that his stance would cost him his seat at Lewes, but congratulated himself on his political consistency. He divided against the bill’s second reading that day, and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. At the ensuing dissolution hopes of a backlash against reform led him to canvass Lewes on a platform of defending the rights of poor voters, but he made little headway and retired before the poll.19

By October 1831 Shelley’s wife was noting that his ‘personal comfort’ had been greatly increased by his absence from Parliament and that he had ‘entirely lost his wish to stand any more contests’. In a subsequent eulogy on his political career, she observed with satisfaction that the rise in poaching following reform of the game laws had been predicted by him.20 He died in March 1852 after an attack of gout induced, his wife supposed, by a session of port drinking; an obituarist described him as a ‘fine specimen of an English gentleman’. He was succeeded by his eldest son, John Villiers Shelley*.21

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Howard Spencer


  • 1. Shelley Diary, i. 31-36; Bagot, Canning and Friends, ii. 171.
  • 2. Petworth House mss, bdle. 76, Ashburnham to Egremont, 22 Feb.; Suss. Advertiser, 13 Mar. 1820.
  • 3. The Times, 24 June 1820.
  • 4. Town Bk. of Lewes, 1702-1837 ed. V. Smith (Suss. Rec. Soc. lxix, 1972-3), 230.
  • 5. Castle Howard mss, G. Howard to Lady Morpeth, 28 Jan. 1821.
  • 6. The Times, 2 May 1822.
  • 7. Ibid. 11, 17 May 1822.
  • 8. Ibid. 8 Mar. 1823.
  • 9. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 27 Jan. 1824.
  • 10. TNA 30/29/6/7/54.
  • 11. Session of Parl. 1825, p. 484.
  • 12. The Times, 8 Apr. 1826.
  • 13. Brighton Herald, 20 May; Brighton Gazette, 15 June 1826.
  • 14. Shelley Diary, ii. 150; Peel Letters, 95.
  • 15. Add. 40395, f. 55; Wellington mss WP1/915/64; Shelley Diary, ii. 172.
  • 16. Shelley Diary, ii. 192; Brighton Guardian, 26 May 1830.
  • 17. Brighton Guardian, 26 May, 4 Aug.; Brighton Gazette, 17 Aug. 1830.
  • 18. Wellington mss WP1/1175/2; Creevey Pprs. ii. 222.
  • 19. Brighton Guardian, 13, 27 Apr. 1831.
  • 20. Shelley Diary, ii. 211, 217.
  • 21. Ibid. ii. 299-300; Gent. Mag. (1852), i. 516.