WHITBREAD, William Henry (1795-1867), of Southill, nr. Biggleswade, Beds.

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



1818 - 1834

Family and Education

b. 4 Jan. 1795, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Samuel Whitbread† of Southill and Elizabeth, da. of Lt.-Gen. Sir Charles Grey of Falloden, Northumb.; bro. of Samuel Charles Whitbread*. educ. Eton 1808; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1813. m. (1) 10 June 1819, Judith (d. 25 June 1845), da. of George Pigott of Cambridge, s.p.; (2) 6 Nov. 1845, Harriet, da. of Rev. Wettenhall Sneyd of Newchurch, I.o.W., wid. of Turner Macan of Carriff, co. Armagh, s.p. suc. fa. 1815. d. 21 June 1867.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Beds. 1837-8.


As head of the family from 1815, Whitbread owned landed property, which included over 12,000 contiguous acres in Bedfordshire, worth well in excess of £20,000 a year. At the same time, he had inherited very substantial debts, which required ‘a plan’ of ‘management’ to keep under control. Shortly before he came of age in January 1816, his uncle Edward Ellice*, the Whig man of business, wrote that ‘he has an excellent heart, but like his father can be ... violent and obstinate in his opinions’.1 In 1819, when he made what apparently turned out to be an unsatisfactory marriage, he joined the controlling partnership of the London brewery on which his grandfather had founded the family’s fortunes, taking a personal capital share of £45,000.2 Always overshadowed by his younger brother, his parents’ favourite, he had none of his formidable father’s talent and energy: he was, it seems, stolid and rather dim, though he was at least free from the inner demons which had tormented his father for much of his life.3 Although he remained a staunch Whig, utterly loyal to his uncle Lord Grey, he made no significant mark in politics, which sometimes took second place to hunting and shooting. By the standards of many of his political associates, he was a poor attender of the House, where he is not known to have uttered a word in debate in this period.

He was again returned unopposed for Bedford on the long established family interest in 1820.4 At the contested county election he nominated the Whig sitting Member, Lord Tavistock, the eldest son of the 6th duke of Bedford, the Whitbreads’ ally in local politics, whose second son was the other borough Member. (There had been speculation earlier that he might himself be a candidate on the Whig interest.)5 Whitbread voted against government on the civil list, 5, 8, 15, 16 May, Wilberforce’s attempt to effect a compromise on the Queen Caroline affair, 22 June, and the barrack agreement bill, 17 July 1820. He was one of the signatories of the requisition for a county meeting in support of the queen, 14 Jan. 1821, when he seconded the resolutions.6 He voted for the restoration of her name to the liturgy, 23, 26 Jan., 13 Feb., and for the opposition censure motion, 6 Feb. He voted, as ever, for Catholic relief, 28 Feb. His only known votes for economy, retrenchment and tax reductions that session were on the army estimates, 12 Mar., the additional malt duty, 21 Mar. (he paired for their repeal, 3 Apr.), and the ordnance extraordinaries, 21 May. He voted for the disqualification of ordnance officials from voting in parliamentary elections, 12 Apr. He was one of the Whig Members caught out at dinner by the unexpected division on Lambton’s parliamentary reform motion, 18 Apr.;7 but he was present to vote for Lord John Russell’s scheme, 9 May, when he voted in condemnation of the delay in the commission of judicial inquiry. He divided for inquiries into the Peterloo massacre, 16 May, and the administration of justice in Tobago, 6 June, for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 4 June (he had paired in the same sense, 23 May), and in the minority of 28 who censured the conduct of the Holy Alliance towards independent states, 20 June 1821. Perhaps mischievously, he made a claim to be allowed to act as an almoner at the coronation of George IV in August by virtue of his ownership of one third of the barony of Bedford; he was ignored.8

Whitbread voted for the amendment to the address, 5 Feb., and more extensive tax reductions to relieve distress, 11 Feb. 1822; but his only recorded votes of the session in that line were on the salt duties, 28 Feb., the lottery tax, 1 July, and the window tax, 2 July. He divided for cuts in the army estimates, 4 Mar., the ordnance estimates, 27 Mar., and diplomatic expenditure, 15, 16 May. He voted for investigation of the alleged attack on Alderman Waithman* at the queen’s funeral, 28 Feb, remission of Henry Hunt’s* gaol sentence, 24 Apr., inquiries into the government of the Ionian Isles, 14 May, and chancery administration, 26 June, and in protest at the increasing influence of the crown, 24 June. At the Bedfordshire county reform meeting, 20 Apr. 1822, he seconded the petition moved by Bedford, and declared that

reform was absolutely necessary, for the purpose of alleviating the present great and almost intolerable distress ... If to be an advocate for a thorough ... reform was to be a radical, he ... would feel proud to be called ‘a thorough radical’ ... The present profuse expenditure ... would work its own remedy ... Ministers would no longer be able to keep up the system, when the sources of that extravagant expenditure were exhausted ... It would make any honest man’s heart ache to see the hard earnings of the industrious poor converted by a corrupt House of Commons to the use of a profligate administration.9

For all this stirring rhetoric, Whitbread evidently did not attend to support Russell’s reform motion two days later, and neither does his name appear in the surviving list of those who paired for it.

He presented a petition from Bedford tradesmen for reform of the insolvency laws, 18 Feb. 1823, and the following day paired for abolition of the post of lieutenant-general of the ordnance in peacetime.10 His only known votes that session were for repeal of the assessed taxes, 18 Mar., and of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr., inquiries into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and the cost of the coronation, 19 June, and Russell’s reform motion, 24 Apr. It is not clear whether it was he or his brother, Member for Middlesex (with whom he was a genial host of ‘a most agreeable dinner’ at the Chiswell Street brewery in May)11 who voted against ministers on the beer and malt taxes, 28 May 1823. He was in a minority of eight for a substantial reduction of manpower in the army, 23 Feb. 1824. He voted with opposition on the complaint against the lord chancellor, 1 Mar., repeal of some assessed taxes, 2 Mar., 10 May, the Scottish judicial inquiry, 30 Mar., the aliens bill, 2 Apr., the grant for building new churches, 9 Apr., and the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June. He was in the minority against proceeding with the beer duties bill, 24 May 1824. Whitbread voted against the legislation to suppress the Catholic Association, 15, 18, 21, 25 Feb. 1825. He divided for Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr.,10 May. His only other known vote that session was for a repeal of assessed taxes, 3 Mar. In 1826 he voted against going into committee on the Bank Charter Acts, 13 Feb., and the ministerial salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr., and for reform of Edinburgh’s representation and Russell’s general reform motion, 27 Apr. He handled the bill to revise the regulations governing the Harpur Charity in Bedford.12 At the general election, when he and his colleague Lord George William Russell were unopposed there, he endorsed his colleague’s hustings declarations in praise of recent liberal government policy, in support of reform and Catholic claims and in favour of adequate agricultural protection, and added the observation that ‘after so long a period of peace as this country had enjoyed, we had a right to expect a much greater diminution of the public expenditure and consequent reduction of taxation than had yet taken place’. He again did the honours for Tavistock at the county nomination.13

The duke of Bedford heard that the electors of Bedford were disgruntled that neither of their Members had attended to vote against the duke of Clarence’s grant, 16 Feb. 1827;14 but Whitbread turned up to divide against his annuity bill, 2 Mar. He voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar. He was in the majority for the spring guns bill, 23 Mar. He did not join Russell in attending the county meeting to petition the Lords to strengthen the protection afforded by the new corn bill, 23 May 1827.15 He voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., paired for Catholic relief, 12 May, and voted in condemnation of the expense of improving Buckingham House, 23 June 1828. His only known votes in 1829 were for Catholic emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. He was rather more active in the lobbies in 1830, when he voted for the amendment to the address, 4 Feb., substantial tax reductions, 15 Feb., and various measures of economy and retrenchment, 22 Feb., 1, 12, 22 Mar., 3, 13 May, 14 June. He pleaded parliamentary attendance as his reason for not attending the county meeting to petition for repeal of the malt tax, 16 Feb.16 He divided for Lord Blandford’s reform plan, 18 Feb., the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and general reform, 28 May. He was in the minority of 26 for preventing Members from voting in committee on measures in which they had a personal interest, 26 Feb. He voted for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May. On 13 May he presented a petition from Bedford property owners against the appointment of commissioners for the northern roads scheme. The following day he voted for the production of information on privy councillors’ emoluments, and he was in the opposition minorities on Irish first fruits, 18 May, and the commercial state of Ceylon, 27 May. He paired with them on the civil government of Canada, 25 May, as he did for Knatchbull’s unsuccessful attempt to prohibit on-sales under the beer bill, 21 June 1830.

At the subsequent general election Whitbread became embroiled in a contest at Bedford, where the local Tories, masquerading as independents, mounted a strong challenge to the Russell interest, which had been damaged and made vulnerable by the persistent absenteeism of Lord George William, who was dropped by Bedford for his brother Lord John. There was some talk of Whitbread’s stepping aside to avert a contest, in return for Russell support in the county, but nothing came of it.17 On the hustings, he apparently said little on politics, beyond claiming to be ‘independent’ and to have supported the sale of beer bill, except on the on-sales provision, which posed a threat to country brewers. (A hostile newspaper had earlier credited him with unusually ‘punctual attendance’ to oppose it throughout.)18 His seat was not in serious danger, and he topped the poll at the end of the bitter contest, which saw Russell beaten by one vote. He was said to have been ‘most disinterested’ and to have ‘appeared more anxious for Lord John’s success than his own’.19 The Wellington ministry of course counted him among their ‘foes’, but he was one of the nine opposition Members who were at dinner when the House divided against them on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830.20 Next day he presented a Bedford petition for the abolition of slavery. At the borough reform meeting, 17 Jan. 1831, he called for support for his uncle’s ministry, which was

composed of such men, who knew that the time is come when they have no longer to spend the public money to obtain patronage; that they are no longer to be dependent on peers of the realm; but that parliamentary reform is at hand, and all other good will follow in its train.21

He presented the meeting’s petition, 8 Feb., and others from Ledbury and Bedford, 21 Mar., in support of the ministerial reform bill, for which he voted at its second reading, 22 Mar., and on Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. At the subsequent general election he stood again for Bedford as ‘a sincere supporter’ of the measure ‘in its most extended sense’ and pledged himself ‘not to be absent one hour from my duty, till we witness the defeat of the present corrupt system of representation’. He was returned without opposition. Nominating Tavistock for the county, he urged the freeholders to ‘declare whether or not they considered a corrupt representation a bane, and whether they were anxious to be fairly represented’.22

Whitbread voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and against the adjournment, 12 July 1831. He was reasonably though not outstandingly assiduous in his attendance to support its details, and he is known to have paired for at least the divisions on Dorchester, 28 July, and Gateshead, 5 Aug. He voted for the passage of the bill, 21 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. His only known votes on the revised bill were for the second reading, 17 Dec. 1831, going into committee, 20 Jan., the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and of Gateshead, 5 Mar., and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He was initially listed as an absentee from the division on Ebrington’s motion for an address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the bill unimpaired, 10 May; but it subsequently emerged that he had taken a pair.23 He voted for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May, and paired for the Scottish measure, 1 June, and in support of government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 12, 16 July. At the Bedford dinner to celebrate the enactment of reform, 27 June 1832, he claimed to have ‘invariably supported’ the Grey ministry and denounced the ‘nonsensical opposition’ which had been raised to reform.24

Tavistock speculated in October 1832 that Whitbread might one day come in for the county, but he never did.25 At the general election that year he was returned at the head of the poll for the borough. He was, however, defeated in 1835, and again in 1841. He died at Southill in June 1867 and was succeeded in the family estates by his brother. By his will, dated 9 Oct. 1863, he devised part of his personal share in the brewery, to the tune of £50,000, to his nephew Samuel Whitbread†.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. R. Fulford, Samuel Whitbread, 88-96; D. Rapp, ‘Social Mobility in 18th Cent.’, EcHR (ser. 2), xxvii (1974), 383-4; Grey mss, Ellice to Grey, 3 Aug., 13 Sept., 27 Dec. 1815, 10, 26 Jan., 29 Aug., 8 Dec. 1816.
  • 2. Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 146; P. Mathias, Brewing Industry in England, 311-12.
  • 3. Fulford, 70-71.
  • 4. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 4, 11 Mar.; Northampton Mercury, 11 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 18 Mar. 1820; Beds. RO, Wrest mss L 30/11/20/13.
  • 6. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 6, 20 Jan. 1821.
  • 7. The Times, 19 Apr. 1821.
  • 8. VCH Beds. iii. 15; Fulford, 95-96.
  • 9. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 13, 27 Apr. 1822.
  • 10. The Times, 19, 21 Feb. 1823.
  • 11. Creevey Pprs. ii. 71.
  • 12. The Times, 24, 25 Feb. 1826.
  • 13. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 17 June, 8 July 1826.
  • 14. Russell Letters, i. 86.
  • 15. Herts Mercury, 26 May 1827.
  • 16. Ibid. 20 Feb. 1830.
  • 17. Ibid. 17 July 1830.
  • 18. R.M. Muggeridge, Hist. of Late Contest for Bedford (1830), 37; Herts Mercury, 17 July 1830.
  • 19. Russell Letters, ii. 267.
  • 20. The Times, 19 Nov.; Herts Mercury, 20 Nov. 1830.
  • 21. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 22 Jan. 1831.
  • 22. Ibid. 30 Apr., 7 May 1831.
  • 23. The Times, 14 May 1832.
  • 24. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 30 June 1832.
  • 25. Russell Letters, i. 183.