TOWNSHEND, Hon. John Robert (1805-1890), of 3 New Burlington Street, Mdx.

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



1826 - 20 Jan. 1831

Family and Education

b. 9 Aug. 1805, 2nd but o. surv. s. of John Thomas Townshend†, 2nd Visct. Sydney, and 2nd w. Lady Caroline Elizabeth Letitia Clements, da. of Robert, 1st earl of Leitrim [I]. educ. Eton 1817-20; St. John’s, Camb. 1822. m. 4 Aug. 1832, Lady Emily Caroline Paget, da. of Henry William Paget†, 1st mq. of Anglesey, s.p. suc. fa. as 3rd Visct. Sydney 20 Jan. 1831; GCB 10 Mar. 1863; cr. Earl Sydney 27 Feb. 1874. d. 14 Feb. 1890.

Offices Held

Groom of bedchamber Sept. 1828-Nov. 1830; ld. of bedchamber Jan.-Apr. 1835; ld. in waiting Sept. 1841-July 1846; capt. of yeomen of the guard Dec. 1852-Mar. 1858; PC 4 Jan. 1853; ld. chamberlain of household June 1859-July 1866, Dec. 1868-Mar. 1874; first plenip. on spec. mission to king of Belgians 1866; ld. steward of household May 1880-June 1885, Feb.-Aug. 1886.

Ld. lt. Kent 1856-d.; capt. Deal Castle 1879-d.

Capt. W. Kent militia 1827, W. Kent yeomanry 1830; col. Kent artillery militia 1853.


Townshend’s father had held junior office in Pitt’s first ministry from 1784 until his succession to the peerage in 1800, when he became a courtier. He was a lord of the bedchamber until 1810 and ranger of Hyde and St. James’s Parks, with £1,732 a year, from 1807. His son with his first wife, the daughter of Lord De Clifford, who died in childbirth in 1795, did not survive infancy, and his second wife died in the act of giving birth to this Member in 1805. After a conventional education Townshend spent the winter of 1824-5 in Italy, where he became friendly with Lord Holland’s son Henry Edward Fox*, whose initial impression of him was that of a ‘good-natured youth, not likely to inflame either Thames or Tiber’.1 They went together from Rome to Naples in January 1825 when Fox, whose only reservation about him was that he lacked ‘depth of feeling’, reported:

Townshend is happy in the good cuisine ... and revels among truffles and green peas ... I delight in ... [him]. His character and disposition are thoroughly amiable and his understanding, if more cultivated, which I dare say it will be, will be very adequate to all the purposes he can wish to turn it.2

Townshend returned to Rome in April 1825 and travelled via Florence, Venice, Verona and the Tyrol to Paris, intending to witness the coronation of Charles X at Rheims. He became a favourite with Lady Granville, the wife of the British ambassador who, as he informed Fox

receives in her garden every Tuesday at two. Eating, dancing and petit jeu go on ... in the latter amusement ladies run about the garden to be caught by men. They call it le coup. George Howard must perform this feat with the fat Lady Helena Robinson who, sad to say, made a great exposure, her ladyship falling with George on her, and showing what my decency forbids to write. The French women were all delighted.

He went with the suite of the duke of Northumberland, the British ambassador extraordinary, to the coronation, which was ‘well worth seeing, though very inferior to our own’.3 On returning to England in June 1825, he spent an enjoyable five weeks in London society, where he fell in love with Lord Harrowby’s daughter Lady Georgiana Ryder. Recuperating during August at the family home at Frognal in Kent, he informed Fox, ‘I ... am now rather enjoying the dullness of a country life, after the hustle of a year’s voyage. I am getting up my history and my health by a regular and early life’. He visited the Ryders at Sandon at the end of the month, but six weeks later was chagrined to learn of Lady Georgiana’s engagement, after ‘an affair of three weeks’, to John Stuart Wortley*. He was also ‘very much annoyed’ at his favourite half-sister Mary’s marriage, at the age of 31, to George James Cholmondeley of Boxley who, at 73, was ‘13 years older than her father’.4 (This match, which provoked much gossip, the more so as Mary Townshend stood to inherit £45,000 on the death of her maternal uncle Lord De Clifford, produced a daughter ten months later.)5

Townshend went to Paris in November 1825 and, determined not ‘to marry this 8 or 10 years’, contented himself with ‘making love to married women’.6 Fox’s parents, who were also there, took to him. Lady Holland thought him ‘an excellent tempered and well conditioned young man in all respects’, with ‘a very plain understanding’, and her husband found him ‘agreeable in looks and manners and, if not brilliant, not the least deficient in conversation’.7 Mrs. Fazakerley, however, complained that ‘without meaning to be ill natured or to do harm’, he was too much the scandal-monger for his own good.8 At the end of April Townshend, who had been troubled by the recurrence of a venereal complaint which he had contracted at Naples, returned to London to go as one of the duke of Devonshire’s attachés on his special mission to the coronation of Tsar Nicholas of Russia.9 From St. Petersburg he wrote to Fox that ‘the Russian women provoke me to the highest degree. They are all very pretty, very coquettish, very civil in their own houses, and most reserved in other society’. After the ceremony, which was delayed until 3 Sept. 1826, he returned to London via Germany and France with his friend Lord Morpeth* ‘to attend our respective duties in Parliament’, having been returned in absentia, and two months under age, for the family borough at the general election that June.10

Townshend attended the opening of Parliament, where he sided with the Liverpool ministry, and later told Fox, ‘I take very kindly to Parliament, and I think it will amuse me very much’, though ‘it interferes sadly with one’s dinner’.11 In March 1827 his father expressed to the home secretary Peel his hope that ‘my son Mr. Townshend is a good attender in the House of Commons’, which he appears to have been.12 He privately welcomed the government’s proposals for adjustment of the corn laws, noting that as ‘the ultras of each party disapprove’ he was disposed to believe ‘there is something really good in the medium’.13 He voted against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827, 12 May 1828. Lord Sydney was reputedly of a mind to resign his rangership in protest at Canning’s accession to the premiership in April 1827, but he did not do so.14 Townshend was in the minority of 31 against the disfranchisement of Penryn, 7 June 1827. At the end of that year, when the Goderich ministry was tottering, he wrote to Fox of ‘the weakness of the government’ and ‘the melancholy state of the country, four millions deficiency of revenue and the probability of a war, in which if we succeed, our own interests in the Mediterranean must be destroyed’.15 On the formation of Wellington’s ministry Sydney wrote to Peel to

again beg to recommend my son ... be employed in public business. I have written to the duke of Wellington soliciting, and most earnestly, an employment at one of the public boards ... You know my political principles and those of Mr. Townshend are the same. I have looked to you as the minister of the crown, to whom I wished to attach myself in politics, and probably you have long given me credit for what I now declare.

Peel replied cordially but was unable to oblige.16 Townshend voted against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. 1828. He was in the government majority on the ordnance estimates, 4 July 1828. Two months later he was appointed a groom of the bedchamber. In Febuary 1829, when he was considered as a possible mover or seconder of the address, he was expected by Planta, the patronage secretary, to forego his previous hostility to Catholic relief and support the ministerial concession of emancipation. He voted accordingly, 6, 30 Mar. 1829, when, in his only known speech, he explained that he did so

on the ground of expediency, because I think that it is much better to run the risk of incurring a minor mischief, rather than to encounter the ... certainty of a greater ... In taking this course, I do not admit the abstract right of the Roman Catholics to those privileges which the legislature is about to confer on them ... but, I contend, that things cannot remain as they are ... I cannot blind myself to the distracted state of society in Ireland, to the utter depression of trade and commerce in that country, and to the cessation of social intercourse between man and man.

He divided against parliamentary reform, 11, 18, 23 Feb., Jewish emancipation, 17 May, and abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 7 June 1830.

At the 1830 general election he was again returned unopposed. He was one of the ‘friends’ of government who voted in their minority on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. He went out of place on the change of ministry and was removed from the Commons by his father’s death in January 1831.17 As a peer he opposed the Grey ministry’s reform bill. He held household office in both Peel’s administrations and, after initial misgivings, supported repeal of the corn laws in 1846. He subsequently gravitated with other Peelites to the Liberals and held senior household posts in all their governments between 1859 and 1886, being on particularly close terms with William Gladstone†.18 On his death without issue in February 1890, Queen Victoria observed:

He is a great loss, and was ever such a loyal devoted servant of the crown, much devoted to me personally, a man full of knowledge and experience to whom one could turn at all times.19

Lord Lansdowne, the viceroy of India, recalled him as a man with ‘much knowledge of the world’, together with ‘excellent business abilities’ and ‘sound judgment’.20 By his will his estates at Frognal and Matson, Gloucestershire passed on the death of his widow in 1893 to his nephew Robert Marsham (1834-1914), the only son of his half-sister Mary and her second husband, the 2nd earl of Romney.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: David R. Fisher / Philip Salmon


  • 1. Fox Jnl. 201.
  • 2. Ibid. 224; Add. 61937, Fox to Mrs. Fazakerley, 25 Jan. 1825.
  • 3. Add. 52017, Townsend to Fox, 4, 25 Apr., 11, 18 May: 61937, Fox to Mrs. Fazakerley, 15 Feb. 1825.
  • 4. Add. 52017, Townsend to Fox, 2, 21 June, 5 July, 1, 6, 30 Aug., 13, 30 Oct.; 52011, Mrs. Fazakerley to Fox, 29 Aug., 25 Oct. 1825.
  • 5. Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 423; Williams Wynn Corresp. 324, 338-9; Gent. Mag. (1830), ii. 567.
  • 6. Add. 52017, Townshend to Fox, 20, 29 Nov. 1825.
  • 7. Add. 51766, Lady Holland to Fox, 5 Jan. 1826; 51749, Holland to Fox, 8 Jan. 1826.
  • 8. Add. 52011, Mrs. Fazakerley to Fox, 21 Mar. 1826.
  • 9. Add. 52017, Townshend to Fox, 17 Jan. , , 30 Apr., 6 June 1826.
  • 10. Ibid. 24 June, 21 July, 10 Sept., 9 Nov. 1826.
  • 11. Add. 52017, Townshend to Fox, 22 Dec. 1826.
  • 12. Add. 40393, f. 104.
  • 13. Add. 52017, Townsend to Fox, 5 Mar., 29 July 1827.
  • 14. Canning’s Ministry, 142, 312.
  • 15. Add. 52017, Townsend to Fox, 27 Dec. 1827.
  • 16. Add. 40395, ff. 61-62.
  • 17. Add. 40398, f. 87; PROB 11/1782/114.
  • 18. Add. 40409, ff. 122, 321; 40583, ff. 286, 288; 40593, ff. 384, 388; 44318, ff. 355-511; The Times, 15, 21 Feb. 1890.
  • 19. Victoria Letters (ser. 3), i. 568.
  • 20. Ibid. 572.