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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 12 : Chief Secretary for Ireland (1807)
Lord Wellesley declines office:
The inclusion of Lord Wellesley in the Portland cabinet would have been particularly valuable, as Hawkesbury explained to the King, ‘not only from Lord Wellesley’s acknowledged talents, but likewise from its securing to your Majesty[‘s] Government the active co-operation and exertion of all his family and connections.’ (Hawkesbury to the King, 23 March 1807, Later Correspondence of George III vol 4 p 535). By separating Wellesley from Grenville it would also strike a psychological blow at the Opposition before the real struggle began. On 21 March Wellesley was offered the Foreign Office, and appeared ready to accept, but he changed his mind on the following day. On the 23rd he said that he would accept, but only if the King commanded him to do so – but when George III obliged, Wellesley’s fine feelings of friendship for Lord Grenville proved insuperable, and he gave a final refusal, while promising to support the ministry. His vacillation did enormous damage to his reputation even among his greatest admirers. Canning concluded that ‘Lord Grenville has shaken him to pieces. In such a state of nerves it is quite as well that he has not this situation to encounter. It is as well for us too, for he might fail us at a moment of need.’ (Canning to his wife, 5 pm 27 March 1807 quoted in Later Correspondence of George III vol 4 p 537n. Canning’s letters give a blow-by-blow account of the formation of the government). The King, who was already prejudiced against Wellesley, must have resented being asked to issue a command, only for it to be disregarded. Within a few weeks Wellesley was repenting his weakness and folly and hankering after office, whatever the Grenvilles thought. But by then it was too late, the government had taken shape, and could not be recast simply to suit his convenience. (Lord Wellesley to Richard Wellesley II, 2 May 1807, Carver Papers 34)
Wellesley’s acceptance then refusal of office clearly show that he did not decline office from an exaggerated scruple that he first be cleared of Paull’s accusation, although it is possible that as well as affection for Grenville, his hesitation was fuelled by a fear that the Opposition might launch a full-blooded attack upon him if he took office.
Henry Wellesley’s appointment as Secretary to the Treasury
This seems an odd appointment, for Henry Wellesley had no experience of Parliament and did not even have a seat when he was given the position, although one was soon found for him. But in fact most patronage secretaries between 1801 and 1830 were parliamentary novices, possibly in order to prevent them using the power of the office to build up a following of their own. (Sainty ‘The Evolution of the Parliamentary and Financial Secretaryship of the Treasury’ English Historical Review vol 91 1976 p 584; see also Aspinall ‘The Cabinet Council’ p 396-8 on the role of the Treasury secretary at this time).
AW offered position of Chief Secretary of Ireland:
Portland wrote that Hawkesbury ‘will’ sound AW on taking office, so it is a reasonable assumption that this had not been done by late on the 25th, and therefore that it was done on the 26th, but the date is not absolutely certain. (Portland to the King, ‘Wednesday night’, 25 March 1807, The Later Correspondence of George III vol 4 p 542-44).
AW’s letter of explanation to Lord Wellesley:
My dear Mornington,
I shall be very much obliged to you if you will take an opportunity of explaining to Lord Grenville the reasons for which I have thought it proper to accept the Office of Secretary in Ireland which Lord Hawkesbury has offered me.
When the change of Government took place, it was obvious that you could not go into opposition in aid of those who had always treated you ill, in the House of Commons, and against those upon whom you have principally relied and must rely for your defence. The only doubt I had therefore when this offer was made, was whether I should accept a civil office, the duties of which might take me away from my profession. I have consulted the Duke of York upon this point, and he has told me that he approves of my acceptance of the office, and that he does not conceive that it ought to operate to my prejudice; and the Ministers have told me that they consider me at liberty to give up the office in Ireland whenever an opportunity of employing me professionally will offer, and that my acceptance of this office instead of being a prejudice to me in my profession will be considered as giving me an additional claim to such employment. On these grounds therefore I have not thought myself at liberty to refuse an offer made to me under circumstances highly flattering in other respects. (AW to Lord Wellesley, London, 27 March 1807, BL Add Ms 37,415 f 39-40: the second para is printed in The Later Correspondence of George III vol 4 p 543-4n)
AW, Wellesley and the Grenvilles:
Grenville wrote to AW on 29 March 1807 asking him to assure Lord Wellesley of his best wishes; regret at the current situation and hope for his happiness. Evidently an attempt to repair a quarrel, but it is interesting Grenville should do it through AW (WP 1/166/8).
Office of Chief Secretary and AW going on active service
This position was usually given to fairly junior figures, often promising young men. Castlereagh and Peel made their names in it and leapt from it to high office. At the other end of the specturm were some minor figures: Lord Glenbervie and William Elliot. More typical, perhaps, were Hobart, Charles Abbot, R.S. Dundas, Vansittart and Pole, all of whom were good steady workers, and who subsequently went into cabinet or in Abbot’s case the Speaker’s chair. None seems to have had much of a reputation in the Commons before being appointed. See Brynn Crown and Castle p 47-51, 54-55 for interesting discussion.
AW going on service: some of his predecessors were even less able or willing to give the office their undivided attention: ‘Nicholas Vansittart never came to Ireland; William Wickham was too ill to work; Sir Evan Nepean took a seat on the Admiralty while still holding Irish office’. (Brynn Crown and Castle p 49).
“I am no party man”:
This has been much quoted as a definitive statement of AW’s attitude to politics, but if one looks at the original context in which it was written, in a letter to Sir John Moore, in Portugal, in September 1808, (AW to Sir J. Moore, Lumiar, 17 Sept 1808 Diary of Sir John Moore vol 2 p 262-4), it is clear that AW was introducing himself to Moore in the hope of repairing the breach which existed between Moore and the ministers. In such a context it is obvious that he wished to play down his political side, and emphasize that he was a soldier first and foremost (after all, he might be serving under Moore in a few weeks). In one way it was accurate – he always gave priority to the profession of arms over his political career – but it is quite false to use this quote to suggest that he regarded himself as politically neutral, or as a simple servant of the crown.
Appointment of Richmond as Lord Lieutenant:
Others were offered the job first. There was talk of the Duke of Beaufort filling the post, but that came to nothing. (Malmesbury Letters and Diaries vol 4 p 375). Wellesley’s old acquaintance from Madras, Lord Clive (now Earl of Powis) was approached – he had accepted the post from Pitt in late 1805, but the government had fallen before he could take it up. He now declined the renewed offer, fearing that if he became too prominent his record in India might be made the subject of attacks similar to those made on Lord Wellesley. (Portland to the King, 28 March 1807, Later Correspondence of George III vol 4 p 547-8 and n). Portland then approached the Duke of Rutland, but was again rebuffed, (ibid) so that it must have been with some relief that he reported to the King, on 31 March, that his next choice, the Duke of Richmond, had ‘in the most becoming manner, expressed his readiness to obey your Majesty’s commands.’ (Portland to the King, 31 March 1807, Later Correspondence of George III vol 4 p 549-550).
Richmond was first thought of as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland as early as 25 March but not approached until after the others. Malmesbury Diary and Correspondence vol 4 p 377-8.
Even when there was an incumbent Lord Lieutenant he was not necessarily consulted over the appointment of his Chief Secretary – for example see Glenbervie Diary vol 1 p 29-37 detailed account of his appointment in 1794 without Westmoreland being consulted.
Karen Pigggot ‘Wellington, Ireland and the Catholic Question’ p 8 says that when Richmond was appointed he had never publicly expressed his views on the Catholic question or even voted on it.
Richmond and AW:
As soon as Wellesley was made a field marshal in 1813 Richmond pressed the government to allow him to join the army in the Peninsula, but the ministers refused, for Richmond’s seniority meant that he would still have held a very senior position (probably second-in-command), for which he was disqualified by his lack of experience. Nonetheless Richmond’s eagerness to serve under his old subordinate suggests the warmth and generosity of his feelings towards Wellesley which, mixed with genuine admiration and congenial tastes, enriched their alliance.
The Importance of Patronage
After a detailed study of the subject, Karen Robson is inclined to deny that patronage was central to the government of Ireland: there simply were not enough positions available for it have a decisive difference on election or the conduct of most MPs (Robson ‘What every “official” man seeks’ Wellington Studies II p 97-98). This is an important and useful corrective to the unthinking repetition of the assumption that Ireland was ruled entirely by jobbery and corruption. But it should not be pushed further, for clearly patronage was an important element in the day-to-day government of Ireland (and much the same could be said of the navy, for example, or many other branches of government in the early nineteenth century).
AW’s long memorandum and his correspondence show how much time and effort he was required to devote to the distribution of patronage, and the accepted though informal rules which governed it. Hence his disgust when the ministers in London forced him to favour Abercorn over Conyngham, contrary to precedent: ‘What I cannot bear in this is, that it is acting contrary to rules which are invariable in this country; but we cannot help it; we have done our best to set things right, and the wrong must be attributed to the government here.’ (AW to Richmond, London, 3 March 1808 WSD vol 5 p 354-6).
What mattered with patronage was not just the present benefits received or the prospect of future benefit, but the recognition of local standing, especially cf local rivals, and the sense that you had influence which you could call upon if you really needed it.
Irish MPs, like soldier MPs, did not uniformly or blindly support the government of the day in a crude exchange for favours; rather they had an inclination or predisposition to support the ministers of the day and expected their support to be recognised. If they were dissatisfied, or in the process of switching their allegiances from one set of ministers to another, they might simply not attend Parliament, or vote on only a few questions; while most changes of government in this period included considerable continuity, so that it was not impossible for a self-respecting MP to give his support successively to Pitt, Addington, Pitt again, the Ministry of All the Talents and then Portland, although he might take a little time to swallow the last change, if only because it was so abrupt.
AW’s memorandum on the distribution of patronage:
For a more complicated example, consider County Cork and within it the borough of Cork, both of which elected two MPs:
Cork Co: – Mr Ponsonby is in opposition. Lord Bernard is Lord Shannon’s nephew and generally supports. The patronage of the County of Cork should generally be given to Lord Shannon, but it must be recollected that Lord Kingston’s family and Lord Longueville’s will probably claim some share in it.
Cork City: – Colonel Longfield supports Government and attends well – brought in by Lord Longueville, who is offended because his relation was not made Bishop of Cork. Lord Longueville acts in Parliament with Lord Westmorland [who was Lord Privy Seal and a member of the cabinet]. He has a nephew a Commissioner of Excise. Mr C. Hutchinson – Lord Donoughmore’s brother, is in opposition, but seldom attends. The patronage of the City of Cork must be given to Lord Longueville, but an endeavour should be made to ascertain and settle with him what officers are in the County and what in the City. (Memorandum by A.W. n.d.  printed in English Historical Documents vol 11 p 265-71.).
AW resists pressure from family over patronage:
As well as enclosing three letters containing applications which she had received, Lady Mornington strongly urged AW to look after the interests of his two cousins, Charles and John Leslie, as the most pleasing thing he could do for her. In fact, Charles Leslie was an important Irish MP, a Pittite, who was quite capable of looking after his own interests, although he was more inclined to act with his Harrowby and Ryder connections than with the Wellesleys. (Anne, Countess of Mornington to AW, 22 May 1807, WP 1/168/40/1; Thorne History of Parliament vol 4 p 416-8). Lady Elizabeth Pakenham wrote asking for preferment in the church for a Mr Sherlock. This was awkward: Wellesley did not wish to give offence, but a ready compliance would only encourage more such requests, and the Pakenhams were a large family. He therefore replied promising to do what he could for Mr Sherlock ‘if a fair opportunity should offer’ but added,
you must be aware that I am in a very delicate situation in this country; and, being connected with it myself, it is my duty, and it is expected from me, to avoid pressing upon the government objects which may be referable only to my own views in favour of my own friends and connections. I acknowledge, therefore, that I should prefer to have the claims of Mr Sherlock brought forward by Lord Longford, as a mode more likely to be successful, and certainly one which would relieve me from all embarrassment in pressing the Lord Lieutenant to provide for him when there may be a fair opportunity. (AW to Lady Elizabeth Pakenham, Dublin Castle, 1 June 1807, WSD vol 5 p 69-70).
AW and William Wellesley-Pole:
It has been said (in Thorne History of Parliament vol 5 p 512-13) that AW snubbed Pole over Queen’s County patronage questions, and the following has been cited in support: ‘I have not seen Pole to talk with him…. If he acted as Mr Sutton asserts he did, all I can say is that Mr Pole is not the government; he does not guide my sentiments…’ (AW to Marquess of Ely, London, 2 Feb 1808, WSD vol 5 p 318-9). However this was not written about patronage, but rather about a petition against tithes which was being circulated (or said to be circulated) in Queen’s County, much to the embarrassment of the government; and AW was responding to the claim that Pole had lent it his support.
AW does seem to have supported Pole’s claims, but one thing leads to another and by November 1807 Pole was pressing for an appointment for one Paul Palmer, whose father Joseph ‘has a very powerful interest in the Queen’s County, while he will make mine if I provide for his son.’ At the same time Pole urged that the other applications he had made be attended to promptly, as he is ‘getting into disrepute with my Rascals for not having done anything for them since we came in.’ (William Wellesley-Pole to AW, ‘Private’, 22 November 1807, WP 1/177/70). And a few months later AW told Richmond that ‘I have had a wrangle or two with Pole about his objects, which has ended in a letter from him which I enclose, with my answer to it.’ (AW to Richmond, 23 Feb 1808, WSD vol 5 p 345). This suggests that Pole was, momentarily at least, dissatisfied and even angry with AW’s response to his claims, but that was inevitable where there was so few places available and such great demand.
AW’s unsuccessful attempt to make Gerald an Irish bishop:
Both Richmond and Wellesley were highly conscious of the need to subordinate their private interests and friendships to the political needs of the government, but they did make a few exceptions to this rule. (Robson ‘Workings of Political Patronage’ p 53). Richmond was particularly eager to advance his old friend and private secretary Dr William Busby in the Church. Busby was already a Canon of Windsor and proved reluctant to give up this comfortable office in order to become an Irish bishop. Wellesley proposed an ingenious, if not disinterested, solution: Busby could be given Gerald Wellesley’s stall at Westminster which, as he could hold it concurrently with his existing appointments, would be as good as a bishopric, while Gerald could be made the bishop. But Hawkesbury vetoed the idea, pointing out that Gerald Wellesley’s appointment would do nothing to reconcile Lord Longueville who felt that he ought to have a say in the nomination. In any case Hawkesbury was determined to limit the influence of political considerations and personal favours on the composition of the Irish bench. He had already warned Wellesley that,
It is the last branch of Patronage (except that of the judges) in which we ought to traffic. I am convinced that it is essential for the welfare of Ireland that a large proportion of the Bishops should be Englishmen, and that above all we ought to discourage the Claims to these situations from supposed parliamentary services. A few men of Rank and Family it may be proper on various accounts to promote to the Bench, but we should consider the many pretensions which any promotion of this sort unavoidably creates, and that if we do not lay down a very strict line respecting them We should soon have no Persons Bishops in Ireland but the Younger Sons or Second Brothers of Members of Parliament. (Hawkesbury to AW, 6 May 1807, WP 1/166/83).
AW’s work in the election of 1807:
A letter from Wellesley to Charles Long, one of the government’s leading election managers in England, gives the flavour:
Pennefather has promised us the refusal of Cashell; but he has not stated his terms. We shall have Athlone, I believe; but we have not yet seen Justice Day. Wynne has arranged for Sligo with Canning; I don’t know whether it is the Secretary of State or not. Lord Portarlington is in England, and the agent who settled for that borough upon the last general election was Mr Parnell. We have no chance with him, and it would be best to arrange the matter with Lord Portarlington. I heard here that he had sold the return for six years at the last election, and if that should be true, of course we shall not get it now. I have written to Roden, and have desired Henry to settle with Enniskillen. The former is in Scotland, the latter in London. (AW to Charles Long, Dublin Castle, 28 April 1807, WSD vol 5 p 17-18).
The Catholic vote in the 1807 election:
The story of John Bagwell’s defeat in Tipperary in 1807 has clear similarities to Daniel O’Connell’s success in county Clare in 1828, suggesting that the ingredients for a direct Catholic challenge to their exclusion from Parliament were created by the 1793 act giving them the vote; and that it only needed the leadership and the will to precipitate it. It is far from clear what the reaction in London to such a challenge in 1807 (or 1797 or 1817) would have been; but there is little reason to believe that a government including Castlereagh and Canning would have been any more willing to risk sparking an insurrection than were Wellington and Peel; while a wartime context would have encouraged caution and concession rather than obduracy. George III’s wishes carried more weight than those of his son, but even so, it is unlikely that the Commons was implacably opposed to Emancipation if it offered the only way of avoiding a crisis.
AW and the Irish Protestants:
AW’s attempt to dissuade the Yeomanry from celebrating their victory over the rebels at Vinegar Hill produced a fine piece of official hypocrisy with Wellesley, writing on behalf of Richmond, declaring that ‘His Grace cannot believe that those who wish to commemorate their military achievement are desirous to hurt the feelings of others, however blameable and guilty they may have been; and he does not suppose that they can wish to perpetuate the memory of the unfortunate circumstances which led to the contest in question.’ Of course, as Wellesley knew, ‘hurting the feelings’ and ‘perpetuating the memory’ lay at the very heart of Protestant triumphalism, but he was more willing to risk annoying and disgusting those who had fought to uphold the Protestant establishment than risk provoking and offending the Catholics. (AW to Brigade-Major Beevor, Dublin Castle, 1 June 1807, WSD vol 5 p 71; and, for the clergy, AW to Robert Fowler, Archdeacon of Dublin, Dublin Castle, 21 April 1807, ibid p 9-10).
Wellesley also risked causing offence at Windsor by resisting pressure from the unpopular Duke of Cumberland (one of the younger sons of George III) that his illegitimate son be made an assistant barrister in Ireland. As Wellesley explained to Charles Long,
This son is a more violent Orangeman than the Father, and very lately has conducted himself most indecently and violently in the City of Dublin, although he was apprized of the sentiments and wishes of Government. We may say what we please of our moderation; but nobody will believe us if we employ such a fellow. (AW to Charles Long, ‘Private’, Dublin Castle, 17 May 1807, WP 1/167/99 – this letter also includes a reference to Wellesley warning Giffard to moderate his language. It is printed, with these passages silently suppressed, in WSD vol 5 p 48-50).
AW’s attempts to conciliate the Irish Catholics:
Wellesley’s attempts at conciliating the Catholics included a strenuous, although ultimately unsuccessful, effort to persuade William Plunket, the Attorney General in the out-going Irish government to remain in his position. Plunket resigned with regret and in deference to the views of Lord Grenville. He had considerable reason to feel that his friends had treated him with less consideration than his opponents. (AW to Hawkesbury, 19 April and 6 May 1807, WSD vol 5 p 7-8, 27. Plunket to Wickham, 5 May 1807 in David Plunket The Life, Letters and Speeches of Lord Plunket vol 1 p 223-5; and Thorne The History of Parliament vol 4 p 837-40.
Charles Kendall Bushe, the pro-Catholic Solicitor-General did remain, although critics preferred to concentrate on the appointment of Plunket’s successor, the gifted but vehemently anti-Catholic William Saurin. (Brynn Crown and Castle p 67-8).
AW does not attempt to ‘manage’ the Catholic Party:
Wellesley did not imitate some of his predecessors who attempted to ‘manage’ the advocates of Catholic emancipation. He naturally kept a close eye on their proceedings in case some of those on the fringe were tempted to move from constitutional reform to insurrection, but he allowed the Catholics and their Whig allies to quarrel among themselves over the tactics they should adopt. He told Hawkesbury:
I am convinced that the line of conduct that we have adopted is the wisest, even if it should produce no other good consequence than that which we enjoy already, viz, to have driven from the Castle a tribe of underling intriguers, who since the Union have been employed in what they call the management of the heads of the Catholic body. (AW to Hawkesbury, 8 Jan 1808, WSD vol 5 p 292-3).
Hawkesbury entirely agreed in ‘the impolicy of giving these Dublin associations importance, character, and authority in the country, under the idea of managing the Catholic body through them. This object, whenever it has been attempted, has completely failed, and we have only been the dupes of our own credulity.’ (Hawkesbury to AW, 11 Jan 1808, WSD vol 5 p 293-4).
The Threshers and endemic rural violence:
Secondary sources differ considerably on this, both on the level and persistence of violence, and even on the counties most affected. Cormac ó Grada in the New History of Ireland vol 5 p 130-2 denies that there was any higher level of rural violence in Ireland, post 1815, than in England; but other sources are clear on the extent of the disturbances, at least during the war years. See Elliott Partners in Revolution p 341; S. J. Connolly in A New History of Ireland vol 5 p 17-18; Gash Mr Secretary Peel p 167-81 esp. 167-8 and Brynn Crown and Castle p 121-22. I think that the debate over whether these disturbances had a political element is essentially irrelevant: no one maintains that they were primarily political or, conversely, that the great bulk of the population in 1807-1808 were not disaffected from British rule.
AW’s favours gradual but not sudden or hurried reforms:
‘Ireland is not a country on which the experiment of sudden and rapid reforms of abuses can be tried. However enormous the latter may be, they are too inveterate and of too long standing to bear the sudden application of the former…’ (AW to Tighe, 25 Dec 1807, WSD vol 5 p 247).
‘The misfortune of Ireland is that the existing evils are so great and so obvious that everybody sees them; and it easy to find out how things ought to be done by adverting to England. The difficulty is to bring them from the state in which they are in this country to that in which they are in England, and I have not yet seen any practical solution for this difficulty.
‘I am convinced that all sudden and hurried reforms fail, and I think I could prove, by adverting to the history of the last twenty years of this country, that they have invariably ended by making things worse than they were. This is, however, no reason for not making a beginning to reform abuses, and I hope that we have not only made a beginning in that good work, but some effectual progress in every department of the state.’ (AW to the Lord Chancellor (Lord Manners) 14 Jan 1808 WSD vol 5 p 303-4).
Underlying problems of the Irish economy:
Modern accounts are rather less pessimistic about the Irish economy in the first half of the nineteenth century, and Cormac o Grada in the New History of Ireland (vol 5 p 108) argues forcefully against reading backwards from the Famine. He detects considerable evidence of growth and progress in the economy (p 108-57), although it is clear that his prime concern is the period c1820-1845, rather than the first two decades of the century. Even so, his comments on the low efficiency of Irish labourers (p 145) rather undermine the upbeat tone of some of the rest of his analysis.
It is quite likely that Irish poverty and backwardness have been rather exaggerated, both by contemporaries and historians: once it became the accepted view, every piece of evidence which appeared to confirm it was given great weight and every piece of contrary evidence was discounted in the usual way. But even trying to allow for this, it does seem undeniable that Ireland’s social and economic problems were real and deep-seated, and that while the economy made some progress in the postwar years, it could not keep pace with the growing population – hence large-scale emigration – and that Ireland substantially missed the growth with transformed Britain between the mid-Eighteenth and mid-Nineteenth Centuries.
Effect of the War on the Irish Economy:
Here I run directly contrary to the comments of Cormac o Grada (New History of Ireland vol 5 p 108) who views the war’s economic effects as predominantly negative, but I do not think that he takes sufficient account of the importance of the war in providing an outlet for surplus labour, so that, when peace came, a substitute had to be found in the form of large scale emigration (ibid p 119).
The 1808 Dublin Police Act:
On 23 March 1808 Sir Arthur Wellesley introduced a bill into Parliament for the reorganization and enlargement of the Dublin police. This was based in part on earlier measures and proposals (the Dublin police of 1786, and Charles Long’s scheme of 1805), and it was conceived more in the reaction to the threat of rebellion and invasion than from the need to control crime. The measures were opposed in London by some Irish MPs (including the two members for Dublin), and by the Corporation of the City of Dublin; but it passed parliament by the end of the session, and the reforms soon came to be regarded, almost universally, as very successful. Between 1808 and 1829 Dublin was more heavily, and more effectively, policed than London, and by some measures this is true even after 1829. In 1829 Peel, as Home Secretary in Wellington’s government, used the 1808 Dublin model as the starting point for his proposed reform of the London police, although there were many differences in the scheme that was finally introduced. Nonetheless it is probably significant that Wellington had personal experience of overcoming the difficulties of police reform when he threw his weight behind Peel’s proposals. (See Palmer Police & Protest in England & Ireland, 1780-1850 p 148-59, 291-3). Palmer regards the 1808 reforms as ‘Perhaps the major accomplishment of Wellesley’s service on “the old Irish treadmill”’ (p 150).
© Rory Muir