SELWYN, George Augustus (1719-91), of Matson, Glos.
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Family and Education
b. 11 Aug. 1719, 1st surv. s. of John Selwyn, M.P., of Matson by Mary, da. of Gen. Thomas Farrington. educ. Eton; Hart Hall, Oxf. 1739; I. Temple 1737. unm. suc. fa. 1751.
Surveyor of the meltings and clerk of the irons at the mint 1740- d.; registrar of court of chancery in Barbados 1753-d.; paymaster of the Board of Works 1755-82; surveyor gen. of Crown lands 1784- d.
Selwyn inherited from his father a parliamentary interest of some importance. He could nominate to both seats at Ludgershall, and had a strong interest at Gloucester, which his father had represented from 1734 until his death in 1751. He declined an invitation to succeed immediately to his father’s seat, preferring to wait until the general election, and was then returned after a contest. The Ludgershall seats he used as a source of income, placing them at the disposal of each Administration in turn. When his interest at Gloucester collapsed in 1780, he took refuge at Ludgershall, and occupied one seat there for the rest of his life. In return for the support he gave Administration, he held three lucrative sinecures for the greater part of his life; between 1774 and 1782 he had an additional pension of £1,500.1
Selwyn took little interest in strictly political matters: during 44 years in the House of Commons he never once spoke. His attitude to politics was that of a spectator, with little feeling for the realities behind the parliamentary struggle. On 1 Jan. 1782, to demonstrate how critical affairs were, James Hare wrote to Lord Carlisle:2 ‘even George Selwyn, who has not hitherto been much alarmed by any events of the war, begins to think that Barbados has been neglected, and finds fault with ministers’. He complained often of the trouble of electioneering: Gloucester was an ‘infernal place’, and Ludgershall ‘that beggarly place’. If he consulted his own happiness, he told Lord Carlisle, 9 Aug. 1774, he would have no more to do with Parliament, ministers or boroughs. But his way of life was extravagant, and his gambling losses heavy: ‘my imprudences have been beyond conception’, he wrote to Carlisle, 28 Feb. 1768; and on 28 Jan. 1782: ‘I have been all my life on a precipice, et me voici encore.’ There was a certain insight behind his ironical remark, when his faro bank was winning in 1781: ‘I hope to be rich enough in a year or two more to be as much a patriot as I happen to choose.’ He had few ambitions. ‘I neither like to look forward or backwards’, he wrote 3 Jan. 1782, ‘but to have my present time pass with as little disquiet as possible, and in this I fancy that I am not particular.’
Yet he was capable of exerting himself on behalf of his friends. He spent many hours advising Carlisle on his finances, and on 8 Dec. 1775, when the St. Johns had persuaded him to take the chair in committee on an enclosure bill, he wrote: ‘I have gained it seems great reputation, and am at this minute reputed one of the best chairmen upon this stand.’ Normally he was roused only by threats to his own position. In 1773 (28 Dec.) he was complaining bitterly of the ‘ill-treatment’ he had received from Grafton and North; on 16 Mar. 1782 he wrote: ‘Lord North and his secretary Robinson have acted such a part by me that I should never have believed anything but a couple of attorneys of the lowest class to have done.’ During the winter of 1781 his gambling losses were particularly severe: his usual placid good-humour deserted him, and he wrote (21 Mar. 1782) in violent terms of Fox and his friends, whose victory would jeopardize his sinecures: ‘the insolence, the hard heartedness, brutality, and stuff which these people talk, altogether gives me the worst apprehensions of what they will do’. A week later, he deplored their ‘impatience to get into lucrative places’, and sneered at Fox’s friends James Hare and Richard Fitzpatrick, complaining that they were jubilant at their party’s success: ‘when people of low birth have by great good luck and a fortunate concurrence of events been able to obtain, from lively parts alone, without any acquisitions that can be useful to the public, such situations as are due only to persons of rank, weight, and character, it is surely an easy task not to be insolent’. But he prepared to shuffle into line should it be necessary: ‘if the country becomes better and safer for their conduct, it would be folly not to assist them’ (29 Mar. 1782). To the end of his life, his concern was only for his own comfort. After the general election of 1790, when he was in danger of losing control of Ludgershall, his main worry was ‘that my hopes of any emolument to be derived from it will be frustrated, because, although I have done the utmost in my power to assist his Majesty’s ministers for three and forty years, I am become quite useless to them’.3
Selwyn professed direct responsibility to the person of the King—‘my royal master’ he called him frequently. ‘I will have nothing to do with any persons who mean to act independently of the King’, he told Lord Holland, ‘for let my circumstances be what they may, I will belong to nobody else.’4 He did not like to think of himself as a borough monger, and insisted that he placed his seats at the disposal of the King. Hence, in 1782, when Lord Melbourne, whom Selwyn had returned as a Government supporter for Ludgershall, went into opposition, Selwyn denounced him (18 Mar.) for acting ‘contrary to his engagements ... as if he had bought of me a seat in Parliament, which no man living ever yet did, but the King himself’. The only Government measure Selwyn ever voted against was Fox’s East India bill, 27 Nov. 1783, to which the King had plainly shown his hostility.
Selwyn was a complex personality. ‘He has a great deal of vanity and loves to be admired and caressed’, wrote an Oxford don of him at the age of 25.5 His passion for viewing corpses, which is well authenticated, seems to have been an indulgence of his early days: later on he tried to deny these ‘foolish stories’. The little girl, Mie Mie, whom Selwyn adopted, was undoubtedly the daughter of his life-long friend the Duke of Queensberry. Lady Louisa Stuart, commenting on the suggestion that Selwyn himself was the father, dismissed it as ‘utterly absurd’ to anyone who knew him: ‘George Selwyn in love, George Selwyn gallant, were thoughts that never entered any one’s head.’6 His wit, so greatly admired in his lifetime, seems to have depended for its effect upon a mock-serious delivery: in print it appears laboured, and compares unfavourably with that of Wilkes, Fox, or North. Horace Walpole, who had known him from childhood, testified to ‘the goodness of his heart and nature’,7 and Storer wrote to Lord Auckland, after his death, that ‘a more good-natured man or a more pleasant one never, I believe, existed’.8
Selwyn died 25 Jan. 1791.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: J. A. Cannon
- 1. Fortescue, v. 469, 473, 480; Add. 37836, f. 138.
- 2. All quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from Selwyn’s letters in HMC Carlisle.
- 3. S. P. Kerr, Selwyn, 166.
- 4. Ilchester, Letters to Hen. Fox, 282.
- 5. Jesse, Selwyn, i. 93.
- 6. Notes on Jesse’s Selwyn, 6.
- 7. To Countess of Upper Ossory, 28 Jan. 1791.
- 8. Auckland Corresp. ii. 383.