Viscount Melbourne, 1779–1848: biography

UPDATE: Since this post appeared I have written an expanded biography of Viscount Melbourne.

This biography first appeared in the Dictionary of Liberal Biography, produced by the Liberal Democrat History Group.

Right from his London birth on 15 March 1779, at Melbourne House in Piccadilly, William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne, was at the centre of Whig social circles. The second son of Peniston Lamb, first Viscount Melbourne, he followed a normal early life for sons of Whig magnates – Eton, Cambridge University, and education for a legal profession. Politics came naturally into his life, but was not his only interest. As Cecil put it in his biography, ‘he had learnt to play the political game with practised skill; but like a grown-up person playing hide-and-seek with children, he never entered completely into the spirit of the thing. His thought moved from a different centre and on different lines.’

He married Lady Caroline Ponsonby in 1805, and the following year was elected MP for Leominster. Although an MP for many years, he regularly moved constituency, sitting at various times for Portalington, Northampton, Hertfordshire and Newport (Isle of Wight). His political views also moved around in these early years, from strong opposition to the war with France to keen support of war and a strong interest in the campaigns in Spain and Portugal. A moderate Whig, he supported some repressive domestic measures, such as the Six Acts, but was also willing to argue for Catholic emancipation.

He became increasingly close to Canning and on the latter’s ascension to Prime Minister in 1827 became Irish Secretary. Though popular, he made little impact in the post. He, along with the other Canningites, continued in office under Lord Goderich and then Wellington. However, they resigned en masse over the East Retford Bill (1828), believing the government was not willing to go far enough in tacking excessive electoral corruption. Although he personally had supported the Bill, he felt that loyalty to his colleagues was sufficiently important to override this, and resigned with them.

Both his wife, from whom he had separated in 1825, and his father, had died earlier that year. His father’s death meant he became Lord Melbourne, with a seat in the House of Lords. Although his wife’s death ended such public scandals as her relationship with Byron, his private life continued to draw public attention. He twice appeared as the co-respondent in divorce cases (1829 and 1836). In 1829 the case was not continued – there was little evidence against Melbourne other than that he had sent a woman some grapes and pineapples – and in 1836 the verdict exonerated him.

Under Charles Grey’s premiership, Melbourne became Home Secretary in 1830. During this time he came under much attack from radicals for his firm line against protesters, even those supporting electoral reform (which the government was pursuing).

However, he did not insist on introducing any special measures, preferring to stick to the normal rule of law. His desire to do what was necessary, but no more, was also reflected in his views on electoral reform – willing to support it, as something that was inevitable, but not keen for it to be far-reaching. Likewise, over Ireland, he took the firm line he saw as necessary, but was also willing to try to strike a deal with the Irish radicals led by O’Connell. His success in ensuring that neither Irish issues nor unrest in England spiralled out of control allowed the rest of the government to stick to its main task of passing electoral reform.

On Grey’s resignation in 1834, Melbourne succeeded him as Prime Minister. With the government disintegrating over personality conflicts, disagreement over Ireland and tensions between reformers and more conservative supporters, the King took the opportunity later in the year to sack his ministers. The Tories now had a brief chance in power. Starting in a minority, they made some gains in the 1834 general election, but not enough. They were soon defeated, and Melbourne returned as Prime Minister.
His administration limped on for several years, split over many issues, frequently in conflict with the House of Lords and facing a hostile King. Its only consistent policy was a series of moderate reforms to the Church of England, on which a working relationship was struck with Peel. Some other items of major reform were also passed, most notably to local government, with the Municipal Corporations Act, but they were the exception. As with many later Liberal governments, trouble in Ireland consumed much time and passion, and engendered many splits.

William IV’s death brought the young Victoria to the throne and Melbourne successfully acted as her political adviser and counsellor, bringing her into her political role. In 1839 she ensured that Melbourne stayed in power when, after defeats over Ireland forced his resignation, she refused to meet Peel’s demands and stopped him from forming an administration.

By 1841, however, nothing could save the government and, after a further defeat brought on an election, Peel swept into power. A paralysis attack the following year meant Melbourne spent much of the rest of his life out of politics, though he was surprised at not being offered office when the Tories fell in 1846. He died two years later, on 24 November 1848. He only had one child, a mentally handicapped son, who died in 1836.

As Prime Minister, Melbourne had a thankless task, leading a collection of factions during a period of Tory revival. That his period in office lasted so long, and that he successfully brought Queen Victoria into public life, were redeeming marks of success.

The standard biography for many years has been D. Cecil, The Young Melbourne (1939) and Lord Melbourne (1954). Also useful is P. Ziegler, Melbourne (Collins, 1976). A more recent biography is L. G. Mitchell, Lord Melbourne 1779–1848 (OUP, 1997); arguably this book, with its comprehensive coverage of many of the aspects of Melbourne’s life, is now the standard work.

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