STAUNTON, Sir George Thomas, 2nd bt. (1781-1859), of Leigh Park, Hants and 17 Devonshire Street, Portland Place, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 26 May 1781, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Sir George Leonard Staunton, 1st bt., diplomat, of Cargin, co. Galway and Jane, da. of Benjamin Collins of Milford House, nr. Salisbury, Wilts. educ. privately; M. Temple 1796; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1797. unm. suc. fa. as 2nd bt. 14 Jan. 1801. d. 10 Aug. 1859.
Writer, E.I. Co. (Canton) 1798, supercargo 1804; interpreter 1808; chief of factory 1816; jt. commr. of embassy to Pekin 1816; res. 1819.
Staunton, a descendant of the Galway branch of the Staunton family of Nottinghamshire, was the son and protégé of the diplomat and colonial administrator George Leonard Staunton, who was awarded an Irish baronetcy in 1785. George Thomas, who, according to the dedication in Charles Butler’s Reminiscences, had the same ‘great and good qualities’ as his father, was page to Lord Macartney during his embassy to China in 1791, and subsequently visited that country several times while in the service of the East India Company.1 On his retirement to England in 1817, he largely abandoned his study of the Chinese language, in which he was proficient, but he nevertheless produced a series of works, including a translation of Too Le-Shin’s Narrative of the Chinese Embassy to the Khan of the Tourgouth Tartars (1821), and Notes of Proceedings and Occurrences during the British Embassy to Pekin (1824).2 In 1823 he helped to found the Royal Asiatic Society, of which he became a vice-president, and to which he gave 3,000 Chinese books and manuscripts.3 He was disappointed in his ambition of achieving some mark of recognition or employment from government, especially for his having been an unsalaried commissioner of embassy to Pekin in 1816. For example, in 1823 his request to Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, for membership of the privy council was refused; and in 1831 his offer to work as an unpaid member of the India board was politely declined by the Grey ministry.4 Instead, choosing not to reside at his ancestral home in Galway, he pursued the life of a country gentleman on his Hampshire estate, purchased in 1819, where he created a pleasure garden incorporating many Chinese elements.5 In 1820 he was recommended for appointment as a local magistrate, but he did not qualify for at least ten years because of various periods of absence.6 He evidently affected a Chinese manner in his conversation, as Henry Crabb Robinson, who met him at a Linnean Society dinner in 1829, commented that
he amused me much ... He has a jiffle and a jerk in his bows and salutations which give him a ludicrous air; but he is perfectly gentlemanly, and I believe in every way respectable. He is a great traveller, a bachelor and a man of letters.7
Late the following year, Maria Edgeworth described him as
grown very old and lean and chou-chouing in quick time in the oddest manner. I never saw anything as droll as his bows and I thought they would never cease at every fresh word I said on meeting him - chou! chou! - as if he had been pulled by a string and brought up again by a spring to perpendicular then churning head and whole body up and down as you might push up and down a figure of old on spiral springs jumping up on opening a snuff box. Sir G. however is very good natured.8
‘No opportunity of free election being as yet open to me’, as Staunton later recalled, he was returned unopposed for Mitchell at the 1818 and 1820 general elections by the 4th Viscount Falmouth, as ‘an affair of money’, but ‘on terms of perfect independence’.9 Not the most assiduous of attenders, his voting behaviour was slightly wayward, though he generally sided with ministers.10 He voted against them on the appointment of an additional baron of exchequer in Scotland, 15 May, but with them against economies in revenue collection, 4 July 1820. Before the Commons and Lords select committees on foreign trade, 10 May, 8 July 1820, he was examined ‘at considerable length’ on the extent of American commerce with China, and he argued against the proposal to break the East India Company’s monopoly by allowing private British merchants to trade there.11 He divided in defence of ministers’ conduct towards Queen Caroline, 6 Feb. 1821. He voted for repeal of the salt duties, 28 June 1822, against the military and naval pensions bill, 14 Apr., and for inquiry into the legal proceedings against the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr. 1823. He visited Paris in early June 1823.12 He voted for the production of information on Catholic burials, 6 Feb., to complain against the lord chancellor over an alleged breach of privilege, 1 Mar., and in condemnation of the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824. He divided for the Irish unlawful societies bill, 25 Feb., and (as he had done on 28 Feb. 1821) for Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. He voted for the duke of Cumberland’s annuity bill, 10 June 1825, and spent the summer of that year in France.13 He voted for a bill to disfranchise non-resident voters in Irish boroughs, 9 Mar., but with ministers to receive the report on the salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr. 1826. He commented that the ‘difference of opinion which existed between me and the patron of the borough’ over Catholic emancipation led to his losing his seat at the general election later that year.14
In his Memoirs, Staunton related how the
attendance and associations of a parliamentary life were, in the first instance and, I may say, for some years, highly gratifying to me, even under the disadvantage of sitting for a close borough. To hear matters of the highest and most momentous interest discussed night after night by the most splendid orators of the age, and especially the illustrious Canning, in the meridian of his glory, was an intellectual feast, not likely soon to pall upon the appetite. The opportunity also which my attendance in Parliament gave me to extend my acquaintance with public men, and generally with men eminent for their merits and talents, in all the higher walks of life, was extremely interesting and pleasant, and I readily concurred in opinion with those who pronounced the House of Commons to be (though rather an expensive one) the best club in London! Gradually, however, I became less contented with my position. I began to say to myself, with the Roman poet, ‘semper auditor tantum, numquamne reponam?’ Still, never having had any practice in public speaking, I had not self-confidence sufficient to enable me to break the ice without the stimulus of necessity, and this stimulus was never presented to a Member for a close borough. I had no constituents for whom it might have been both my right and my duty to plead, and I, therefore, naturally shrank from the ordeal of a first address to so awful an assembly, when I had no other plea than that of my own powers to amuse or instruct, for occupying its attention. I had literally nothing to do, and, therefore, I hope it will not be a very serious charge against me, that I did nothing!
He insisted, however, that he had given ‘like many others, many a silent and, I trust, honest and conscientious vote’.15 He admitted that his views had altered in response to changing circumstances, and wished merely ‘to show that my political course has not been an insulated or capricious one; but adopted in general unison with a large political party’, the liberal Tories and, later, the reformers.16 He explained how his own concerns about the working of the electoral system had gradually increased:
There is another defect in the position of a Member for a close borough, of which I soon became deeply sensible, and which it appears to me impossible to any ingenuous mind to contemplate without some degree of humiliation and pain, and which consequently appears to me very much to strengthen the argument for the abolition of those boroughs. I felt that I entered the House under false colours! I felt that I was not what I professed to be, really the representative of the borough for which I was nominally returned. I came into Parliament by means which, under the circumstances of the case I conceived to be perfectly justifiable, but which, being illegal, I could not rise up publicly in my place and avow. It may have been useful and right that a certain number of seats in Parliament should be attainable by purchase, or through the influence of certain wealthy commoners or peers; but I consider the false position in which Members for close boroughs were placed in the House, under the old system, wholly indefensible.17
Staunton, who visited the continent from September 1826 to May 1827, and in January 1829, set off on another tour in May 1830, but travelled back on hearing of the death of George IV, ‘with a view to a seat in the new Parliament’. Yet, although his return to the House at the subsequent general election, which he found ‘most agreeable’, was on ‘the same terms of perfect independence’ as before, it was for another rotten borough, Heytesbury, on Lord Heytesbury’s interest.18 He was listed by the Wellington ministry among the ‘good doubtfuls’ and as ‘a friend, where not pledged’, but he voted against them on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, principally because of the duke of Wellington’s declaration against reform. He recorded, however, that
so reluctant, indeed, was I to give a vote against the party with which I had hitherto acted, that I hesitated to the last moment; and did not, in point of fact, go out into the lobby until I saw Sir Thomas Acland do so, of whose honesty and independence I had conceived the very highest opinion.19
He made his first reported speeches, 16 Dec. 1830, when he spoke briefly in favour of a Galway petition for extending the elective franchise to local Catholics, and, having served on the election committee, called for Evesham’s disfranchisement. He argued that the newly installed Grey ministry had pledged itself
to bring forward some measure of safe, temperate and constitutional reform; I hope, therefore, that they will take the first step towards redeeming that pledge this night. I fear that our professions of a disposition in favour of reform generally, will be little valued if, when a practical case occurs, we flinch from our duty and decline to deal with it. I believe that most persons regret the half-measures which were pursued respecting East Retford in the last Parliament, and I trust we shall now set a better example. I hope that the representation of Evesham will be conferred on one of those great commercial cities whose non-representation is certainly the greatest blot in our elective system. All reformers, I conceive, of every shade and degree, must concur in that opinion. Even many of those who are against reform as a general measure, do not object to punish specific cases of delinquency.
He was appointed to the select committee on the East India Company, 4 Feb. 1831.
Staunton encapsulated his views on reform in a detailed private memorandum, dated 25 Feb. 1831, the first of a series that provides an unusual insight into the views of an ordinary backbencher during the reform crisis.20 In advocating a ‘moderate and rational’ redistribution of seats from rotten boroughs to large manufacturing towns, he acknowledged the difficulties involved in such alterations, but stated his belief that
upon the balance of conflicting arguments and considerations the result promises on the whole to be beneficial. This is all which, with our limited capacities and in our uncertain state here on earth, can be predicated of any prospective measure whatsoever.
Indeed, while the aristocracy would retain its ‘full and fair share of influence in the state’, by ‘giving the representation to the householders or middle classes the principle appears to me to be strictly conservative’, and he doubted that it would lead to further popular reform measures, such as the ballot, which he abhorred. However, since he thought it ‘safe and well to diminish the direct influence of the aristocracy by twenty or thirty votes, and yet very dangerous to do so to the extent of one hundred or more’, he was shocked by the scale of Lord John Russell’s reform proposals, 1 Mar. In notes dated 3 and 10 Mar. he expressed his admiration for much of the bill, particularly the provisions for counties, non-resident voters and unenfranchised towns, although he would have preferred a £20 borough qualification. His main objections, however, were to the ‘violent and sweeping’ nature of the disfranchisement, which he thought ‘so great a change that no man who reasons calmly and impartially will venture to predict the result’; the lack of finality in its scope, as ‘not only universal suffrage, but the ballot, short parliaments and the exclusion of placemen and pensioners from the House are now openly avowed as objects for further discussion’; and the replacement of the balance of monarchical, aristocratic and popular interests in the Commons by a republic, which ‘is not nor never was the constitution of England’. Nevertheless, he continued to steer a middle course. He presented and endorsed a reform petition from neighbouring Havant, 19 Mar., when he expressed ‘my regret that I cannot give my unqualified support to the bill as it stands at present’. He added, however, that ‘I shall vote for the second reading, with a hope that the part which I object to may be amended in the committee’. Having duly divided in its favour, 22 Mar., he reiterated, 25 Mar., that the recent division ‘appeared to me to be on the question of reform or no reform; and looking to the state of public feeling, and in deference to that, I agreed to the second reading. I trust that in the committee the measure will assume the character of a moderate reform’. He voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to preserve the relative size of the English representation, 19 Apr. 1831, ‘this being one of the modifications I required’.21
Staunton regretted that the government’s defeat meant that the discussion on reform would be curtailed, and a dissolution made inevitable. He condemned the ‘furious and unprincipled demagogues’ who dominated the ensuing general election, and found it
impossible not to fear that the Parliament now electing under the influence of the prevailing excitement will prove a revolutionary Parliament, a Parliament which will not allow the ministers to retrace their steps although anxious and willing to do so - which will fanatically persist in that which the people in their recovered senses will no longer desire.
By an address, dated 24 Apr. 1831, he declined to accept a requisition to stand for Hampshire, until the bill had passed, and he defended his last vote against a clause which was a
direct violation of the terms of those solemn compacts by which the legislative union of the three kingdoms had been effected, which, moreover left all our great colonies and vast possessions in the East and West Indies, as well as our various important commercial and funded interests, without the protection of either a virtual or a direct representation in Parliament.22
He was again returned unopposed for Heytesbury.
In a memorandum, 24 July 1831, he described Russell’s speech reintroducing the reform bill that day as ‘able and argumentative and historical’, but he was irritated by it, and detailed instances ‘of plausible and as he appears to think triumphant argument, which appeared to be decidedly false’. Although hostile to the bill, he still believed that a
beneficial reform is very conceivable in theory - but it cannot be reduced to practice because its principles, though good, would not be popular -and that which is now popular, is decidedly not good. In this case, how much to risk with the view of saving the rest, is a difficult question.
He was convinced ‘that the advocates of the measure hope and believe it would produce no effect at all’, and that its opponents feared ‘that it will not only do no good but a great deal of harm’. He was again appointed to the select committee on the East India Company, 28 June, when he spoke in defence of its monopoly of trade with China, for which he undoubtedly continued to press during its sittings.23 He abstained from the division on the second reading of the reform bill, 6 July, ‘meaning still to express approval of [the] principle of reform without sanctioning a bill which I now know from experience it is not intended to modify’. He voted in the minority in favour of hearing counsel on the Appleby petition, 12 July, ‘because admitting the principle and rule of reform, we were bound to ascertain whether it applied to this case’, but apparently against adjourning proceedings on the bill that evening.24 He voted to postpone schedule A, 13 July, because the ‘enfranchising of large towns’ was the ‘primary object of the bill’. He was ‘locked in and compelled to vote’ for Sir Robert Peel’s technical amendment, 14 July, the meaning of which he was unsure of, to ensure that the condemned boroughs were dealt with one by one. He divided in favour of an amendment to group the schedule A boroughs into single Member constituencies, 15 July, ‘because admitting the principle [of disfranchisement], the object was allowed by less violent means’. The following day he noted his approval of the forebodings expressed by Peel, whom he now called ‘the first statesman of the present age’:
The old road he admitted might be rough and even dirty, but the new he asserted was at the edge of a dangerous precipice - and although you might adopt it in defiance of his warning and escape for a time, his warning was not the less justifiable.
He was accidentally shut out, 19 July, and therefore unable to vote, as he had intended, for using the 1831 census to determine the boroughs in schedules A and B, ‘conceiving that admitting population to be the measure of disfranchisement it ought to be the actual population’. He did, however, vote against the disfranchisement of Appleby that day, considering that if the borough was extended into neighbouring parishes, its population would have warranted the retention of one seat. He divided against the disfranchisement of Downton, 21 July, ‘because it came under this rule, and the rule however good or bad, was better than no rule at all’. He voted against the disfranchisement of St. Germans, 26 July, for the same reason, and against the partial disfranchisement of Dorchester, 28 July, ‘because although the borough is within the line, the town is above it’. However, he voted to remove one of the seats from Cockermouth, 28 July, ‘because I do not object to take one Member from the small towns and because it diminishes the preponderance given by the bill to northern counties’, and from Guildford, 29 July, as the town had ‘no peculiar claims, having supported and petitioned for the bill’.25 He left the House early, 3 Aug., ‘but would have voted against the enfranchisement of the metropolitan districts, conceiving that the character of their representation would not be beneficial to the House and is not required by their peculiar interests’. He divided in favour of giving a second Member to Stoke, 4 Aug., ‘not because it has any very strong claim in my opinion to have representation at all, but because the double representation is on many accounts preferable’. He voted against the enfranchisement of Gateshead, 5 Aug., since ‘as a mere suburb of Newcastle it had no claim’. He sided with ministers over uniting Rochester with Chatham and Strood, 9 Aug., ‘because of their contiguity and the influence of Chatham being beneficial rather than otherwise’, and voted for Merthyr Tydfil to be grouped with Cardiff, 10 Aug., despite noting that it was large enough to justify having its own seat. He spoke in favour of the amendment to provide colonial representation, 16 Aug., the lack of which he considered a defect which was, ‘if not the only, at least one of the principal of the obstacles which have deprived me of the satisfaction of giving the bill in general my unqualified support’. He denied that there were insurmountable practical problems and, for the sake of consistency in promoting direct representation, he advocated the granting of two seats each to Jamaica and Calcutta. He voted for Lord Chandos’s amendment to enfranchise £50 tenants-at-will, 18 Aug. He was absent from the division on the passage of the bill, 21 Sept., and two days later he was granted five weeks’ leave on account of severe illness, so that he also missed the vote on Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. 1831.26
Staunton’s opinions changed back towards a grudging support for reform in the autumn of 1831 because of the popular unrest which followed the defeat of the bill in the Lords. ‘Unfortunately the question now is’, he wrote on 17 Nov., ‘not how shall we improve the system of our representation, but how shall we prevent a revolution’. On 10 Dec. he commented that
although I always have and always shall disapprove of the entire reform bill, thinking that it will on the whole do more harm than good, introduce or aggravate more abuses, than it will either remove or alleviate, I am by no means confident that I shall continue to resist it.
Acknowledging that there had been a major and permanent shift in public opinion and that changes were unavoidable, he judged that
if the Whigs are the immediate, the Tories are the remote cause of our present difficulties. Their pertinacity in resisting the most moderate reforms, and their dissensions on the Catholic question, has thrown the country into the hands of their enemies; and since we cannot no [sic] longer hope to prevent mischief, let us do as little as possible ... In consequence of having so long refused to do anything, we are now driven to do too much.
By 24 Dec. 1831 he was reassured that the bill would bring some advantages, for example that there would be ‘fewer very young men and mere loungers’ in the House, and he now believed that there would be little further pressure to remove the still sufficiently powerful nomination interests. He voted for going into committee on the revised bill, 20 Jan. 1832, but the following day, in another private paper, he revealed his growing frustration with its progress:
I have never entered very warmly into the merits of the details of the reform bill, especially those of the disqualification clause. Not only does the overwhelming importance of the measure put every other question connected with it in the shade; but I do not think that this question whether Malton or Calne is or is not within the line, has much to do with private justice.
He divided against the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., when he was listed among those ‘who generally vote for reform’. On 8 Mar., while pointing out that no significant changes had been made since the first bill, he observed on paper that ‘the evils and dangers if not removed are considerably mitigated’. He listed the ‘scale of houses and taxes’ instead of population, the approximate restoration of the ‘proportion between the three kingdoms’, the Chandos amendment by which ‘the legitimate influence of land is materially increased’, a hope that the Lords would reverse the enfranchisement of the metropolitan boroughs, the proviso that £10 householders ‘must also be ratepayers for a twelvemonth preceding’, and the fact that schedule B was much reduced. According to his own account, however, he absented himself from the division on the third reading, 22 Mar., and left the House before the vote on Ebrington’s motion for an address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the bill unimpaired, 10 May.27 He had apparently intended to vote against the latter, ‘because I consider the retirement of His Majesty’s ministers a subject of great anxiety, but not of deep regret’, yet he also for the first time genuinely feared an overthrow of the constitution on the model of the French Revolution: ‘Lord Grey need not have brought in such a sweeping bill - the king needed not to have sanctioned it - but having once done this, it was at once become impossible for either party to stop in their career without more or less damage’. His only other known vote in this Parliament was against the production of information on Portugal, 9 Feb. 1832.
By the summer Staunton was publicly expressing himself reconciled to the provisions of the Reform Act, by which his seat at Heytesbury was abolished. Having declined to enter for Hampshire at the by-election in June, he accepted an invitation to stand for the Southern division later that year, and in his addresses he advocated reforms of the church, the corn laws, slavery, the Bank of England, the East India Company and the public finances, as well as a pacific foreign policy. Despite his poor record of voting in favour of reform, and John Croker’s* opinion that he was ‘as little cut out for a popular knight of a shire as any man I know’, he ‘went bowing unopposed through the country like a Chinese mandarin’.28 By a ‘happy accident’, he was returned after a contest in December 1832, when he declared that
he had never blindly followed the ministers of the day, but had voted for or against them as his judgement led him to approve or disapprove of their measures. Neither he nor his family has ever received one farthing of the public money, and private interest could not, therefore, bias his votes, which he had ever given on all subjects that came before him, without personal consideration or partiality.29
He sat as a Liberal for Hampshire South for two years, and subsequently represented Portsmouth. Later in life he reviewed his political career:
From the first day that I took my seat in the House of Commons, in January 1819, down to the present hour (January 1852), I have sided with that section of our great political parties which, previous to 1830, were usually denominated the ‘Liberal Tories’, who acknowledged Mr. Canning as their leader; and who, soon after his death, seceded from the Tories of Lord Liverpool’s school, and became amalgamated with the Whigs. With them, I gave a general and independent support to Lord Liverpool’s administration. With them, I invariably opposed Lord Liverpool and the Ultra Tories upon the Catholic question. With them, I finally and entirely separated from that party, on the occasion of the duke of Wellington’s celebrated declaration of unqualified opposition to all parliamentary reform. With them, lastly, I have ever since given to the Liberal party a free and independent support.30
He retired at the dissolution in 1852 because of ill health.31 He died in August 1859, when his baronetcy became extinct, and left his Irish and English estates to be divided between the heirs of his first cousin Victoire Cormick, the wife of Mark Lynch (d. 1822) of Duras, county Galway.32
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Stephen Farrell
Based on his Mems. of Chief Incidents of Public Life of Sir G.T. Staunton (1856).
- 1. Ibid. 2-74; Sir G.T. Staunton, Mem. of Life and Fam. of Late Sir G.L. Staunton, 1-60, 145; Oxford DNB.
- 2. Mems. 1-2, 44-45, 76, 101-8.
- 3. Ibid. 173-6; Trans. R. Asiatic Soc. i (1827), 600-8.
- 4. Mems. 74-76, 176-84; Add. 38292, ff. 76, 139, 154.
- 5. Mems. 53, 169-73; J. King, Poem on Leigh Park (1829); D. Gladwyn, Leigh Park, 29-62, 119-28.
- 6. Hants RO, Malmesbury mss 9M73/G2342, FitzHarris to Sturges Bourne, 11 Oct. 1820; Wellington mss WP1/657/7/1, 4; WP4/2/1/25.
- 7. Crabb Robinson Diary, ii. 60.
- 8. Edgeworth Letters, 450.
- 9. Mems. 76, 110, 192.
- 10. Black Bk. (1823), 194; Session of Parl. 1825, p. 486; New Biog. Dict. (1825), iii. 447.
- 11. Mems. 77; PP (1821), vi. 343-9; vii. 130-5; Sir G.T. Staunton, Misc. Notes relating to China, 317-84.
- 12. Mems. 153-4.
- 13. Ibid. 154-6.
- 14. Ibid. 116.
- 15. Ibid. 117-19.
- 16. Ibid. 110-11, 114.
- 17. Ibid. 119-20.
- 18. Ibid. 116, 156-60, 190.
- 19. Ibid. 110-11, 115.
- 20. These memoranda are in Duke Univ. Lib. Staunton mss, and are extensively quoted in M. O’Neill and G. Martin, ‘A Backbencher on Parl. Reform’, HJ, xxiii (1980), 539-63, from which unattributed quotations in the following paragraphs are taken.
- 21. A memorandum in the Staunton mss, dated 18 July 1831, lists 19 of Staunton’s votes, Mar.-Aug. 1831, and gives his reasons for each of them.
- 22. Hants Chron. 2 May 1831; Wellington mss WP4/4/3/28.
- 23. Mems. 59-60, 77-78.
- 24. The Times, 1 Aug. 1831.
- 25. Ibid.
- 26. Mems. 123.
- 27. Ibid.
- 28. Salisbury Jnl. 11 June; Hants Chron. 6 Aug., 8 Oct. 1832; Add. 58772, f. 38; Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC17/182.
- 29. Mems. 121-8, 192; Hants Advertiser, 15 Dec. 1832.
- 30. Mems. 110-11.
- 31. Ibid. 220-6.
- 32. Gent. Mag. (1859), ii. 318; Burke Irish LG (1904), 354-5, 564; DNB; Oxford DNB.