TOWNSHEND, Lord John (1757-1833), of Balls Park, Herts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



4 Aug. 1788 - 1790
30 Mar. 1793 - 1818

Family and Education

b. 19 Jan. 1757, 2nd s. of George Townshend, 1st Mq. Townshend, and bro. of Lord Charles Patrick Townshend*; half-bro. of Lord James Nugent Bernardo Boyle Townshend*. educ. Eton 1763-72; St. John’s, Camb. 1773; L. Inn 1774. m. 10 Apr. 1787, Georgiana Anne, da. of William Poyntz of Midgham, Berks., div. w. of William Fawkener, clerk of the Council, 3s. 3da.

Offices Held

Ld. of Admiralty Apr.-July 1782, Apr.-Dec. 1783; PC 7 Feb. 1806; jt. paymaster-gen. Feb. 1806-Mar. 1807.


Townshend was often bracketed with Richard Fitzpatrick and Lord Robert Spencer in a triumvirate of Fox’s oldest friends, but he was never as close to Fox as were the other two and was very much the political lightweight of the trio. After his marriage, the culmination of a year of adultery, to ‘Jockey’ Poyntz, he tended, as Glenbervie later noted, to live ‘in great retirement, chiefly in the country, except that his attendance in Parliament on great Whig questions sometimes calls him to town’. An accomplished mimic, he could be entertaining company, but, like his father, he was tetchy and excitable. His brother Frederick was certainly mad, his brother Charles possibly so, and John himself may have been intermittently unstable. His wife’s cousin Lady Bessborough, who nicknamed him ‘Spite’, wrote in 1798 that after being ‘seized with a strange fit’, when he ‘fancied he was beset by devils’, he feared for his sanity, but on recovering was satisfied with the medical diagnosis of ‘gout in his head’. In July 1803 she reported that he ‘goes about everywhere in his uniform, saying he longs for the French to come, and hopes to be in the thickest of the battle’. He was, she went on, ‘as mad on this subject as he is on some others’, which included Sheridan’s flirtation with Addington, both of whom he wished to see tossed in a blanket. Lady Harriet Cavendish commented in 1806 that the ‘agitation’ of the Westminster election ‘does not make him agreeable; he seems verging upon madness and gets so bewildered in his accounts, that it is difficult to gain any information from him’. Lady Bessborough had reason to disparage Townshend, her ‘constant bane’, who pestered her with amorous advances between 1799 and 1802 (though he was not the only Foxite Whig who thought her fair game); but Lady Holland, while describing him as ‘one of the wittiest men there is’, also reckoned him ‘mad; never enough to be confined, but often very flighty’.1

Electorally ‘martyred’ in 1784, and the Foxite figurehead in the celebrated Westminster by-election of 1788, Townshend did not find a seat in 1790, when a truce was called in Westminster, but he was returned for Knaresborough by the 5th Duke of Devonshire on a vacancy in March 1793. He voted neither for receipt of the Sheffield reform petition, 2 May, nor for Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 7 May, but divided for Fox’s motion against the war, 17 June 1793. Although his loyalty to Fox was complete, he was clearly a lax attender, for his name appears in only 16 of the minority division lists which have been found for the remainder of the 1790 Parliament. He was slightly more active in the first session of the 1796 Parliament and voted for Grey’s reform motion, 26 May 1797, but fully participated in the Foxite secession, during which his only known votes were against the triple assessment, 4 Jan., for inquiry into the Irish rebellion, 22 June 1798, and against the address vindicating the refusal of peace negotiations, 3 Feb. 1800. As one of ‘Fox’s old friends, the staunch ones’, he took umbrage at Grey’s summons to attend when the opposition was revamped late in 1800, ‘replying that no good could be done if Fox abstained from coming’,2 but he turned up, with Fox, to vote for Grey’s motion on the state of the nation, 25 Mar. 1801. He later claimed that he had sided with Grey against Fox on the issue of the Prince of Wales’s debts, but it is not clear to which occasion he was referring: Grey voted against inquiry into the Prince’s claims to the duchy of Cornwall revenues, 31 Mar. 1802, but Townshend is listed in the minority who divided with Fox; and, while he evidently did not vote with opposition when the subject was raised again on 4 Mar. 1803, Grey was out of town on that occasion.3 He may have been referring to the division of 14 May 1795, for which no lists survive. His only other known votes against the Addington administration before the opposition groups coalesced in 1804 were on the civil list arrears, 29 Mar., and the renewal of war, 24 May 1803. He acted as Fox’s emissary to Windham in an attempt to concert tactics on the question of national defence in August 1803 and shortly afterwards regaled a company of Foxites with his rendering, sung in an imitation of the ‘Doctor’s’ cracked voice, of his parody of ‘Coming through the Rye’:

If a body place a body in the Speaker’s chair, Need a body keep a body fixed for ever there? If a statesman spy a statesman sink in royal grace, Can a statesman blame a statesman’s stepping in his place?4

During the combined attack on Addington he voted, so far as is known, only in the divisions of 7 Mar., 23 and 25 Apr., and, after opposing Pitt’s additional force bill in June 1804, he was evidently little more assiduous in his attendance in 1805, though he did appear for the votes against Melville, 8 Apr. and 12 June. In September 1805 he relayed to Sidmouth Fox’s assurances that, contrary to current reports, he had no intention of responding to any overtures from Pitt.5

When the Whigs came to power in 1806, Fox’s friendship was a sufficient passport to office for ‘Jack Idleton’, as Mrs Sheridan called him, notwithstanding his notoriously poor record of attendance and deteriorating health. As joint paymaster he seems to have been largely a cypher and his presentation of the army accounts, 22 May 1806, was his only known contribution to debate in this period. Fox’s death was a severe blow to him, but he played a minor part in organizing the Whig effort in the Westminster elections of 1806 and returned to London from Bath, where illness had confined him for some time, for the contested general election.6

He voted for Brand’s motion condemning the ministerial pledge, 9 Apr., and in the two major attacks on the Portland government, 26 June and 6 July 1807, but was little more than a token Member of the 1807 Parliament thereafter. His only known votes were on the Duke of York scandal, 15 and 17 Mar. 1809; the address, 23 Jan.; the Scheldt expedition, 26 Jan. and 30 Mar.; against the committal of Burdett, 5 Apr., and for Brand’s reform motion, 21 May 1810; the Regency bill, 1 and 21 Jan. 1811, and in favour of Roman Catholic claims, 24 Apr. 1812. On 27 Mar. 1808 he informed William Adam that ‘Whitbread’s negligence’ in failing to warn him that his month’s leave was due to expire had landed him in a ‘scrape about non-attendance’, as he was ordered to attend, but by writing to the Speaker he secured a further fortnight’s leave on the ground of ill health. On 3 Mar. 1812 he told Grey that, regretfully, he had ‘not the health to attend the House at this interesting time’, although he had been ‘lucky enough’ to arrange to pair for the divisions on the state of the nation, 24 Feb., and the orders in council that day.7

Nevertheless Townshend, who helped Adam from time to time in organizing subscriptions for party loyalists down on their luck,8 was in the running for office when the Whigs were cabinet making early in 1811. While Grey felt compelled, with younger men clamouring for advancement, to pass over the ailing Fitzpatrick, he entreated Lord Grenville to allow him to offer the joint paymastership to Townshend, even though he could ‘give us no assistance in Parliament’, as the ‘claim of his old connection with Fox’ would be ‘very generally acknowledged, and his appointment would create less jealousy amongst our young friends than either of those we had at first proposed’. Fitzpatrick also generously urged Townshend’s inclusion. From his sick room at Brighton, Townshend wrote to Adam of his fears that, as there was likely to be only one paymaster, his former colleague Lord Temple, Grenville’s nephew, would get the preference; but failing to see ‘why I should leave him at full swing, without attempting something’, he asked Devonshire to intercede with Grey. The duke had already done so, but the Prince’s decision to make no change put an end to the business and Townshend does not seem to have been considered for office during the crisis of 1812.9

In September 1812 George Tierney, with no prospect of a seat at the general election, applied for assistance to the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who had succeeded his father in July 1811, but, as he had surmised, the new duke felt unable to force retirement on Townshend, who showed no disposition to volunteer it. Three weeks after his return he was still languishing at Bath, ‘so reduced ... both in health and spirits that as soon as I am able to put my nose out of doors, I must ... go somewhere for the mere purpose of recovering my crippled joints’.10 He remained a virtual cypher in Parliament. He paired for Catholic relief, 2 Mar., and voted for the relief bill, 13 and 24 May 1813, but his only known vote between then and 1816 was in the minority on Charles Palmer’s* complaint against Colonel Quentin, 17 Nov. 1814. Too ill to attend for the division on the renewal of war, 25 May 1815, he agreed with Grey that ‘the wilful absence of one of Fox’s oldest personal friends would be terrible’, but was sure that he was ‘too old and steady a Foxite to fear the possibility of any misconstruction’.11 He managed to arrange to pair in favour of inquiry into the Regent’s expenditure, 31 May 1815. Ironically, he was one of the 23 Members who were in the House to divide against the address in the Whig fiasco of 1 Feb. 1816; and, in an uncharacteristic spasm of activity, he went on to vote against the peace settlement, 20 Feb.; the army estimates, 8 Mar.; the property tax, 18 Mar., and in a handful of other divisions in favour of economy and retrenchment. His last known votes were against the address, 29 Jan., and for Admiralty economies, 25 Feb., though he paired against the suspension of habeas corpus, 26, 28 Feb. and 23 June 1817. Illness forced him to leave the House before the division on the Speakership, 2 June 1817.12

Townshend had become increasingly wrapped up in the career and prospects of his eldest son, Charles Fox, a sickly youth who made a splash at Cambridge and for whom his doting father had grandiose plans as a future Member for the University and, it was said, an eventual leader of the Whigs in the Commons. In 1814 he brusquely warned off another Whig aspirant, John Cam Hobhouse, and sought support for his son from party grandees. Grey’s ‘qualified encouragement’ of the project fell short of Townshend’s expectations. On a premature report of the young man’s death in December 1815, Tierney commented that his father ‘would be driven out of his senses’; and when he did die, aged 21, on 2 Apr. 1817, after a long illness (the result, it was whispered, of his having encouraged ‘his father’s infatuation so far as to be induced to take his degree in the cold Senate House during very severe weather ... with a view of qualifying himself for his seat in Parliament’) Townshend was a broken man. On 11 Jan. 1818 he asked Devonshire to replace him with a more active Member, as ‘the state of my health and spirits is such as to make it highly improbable that I shall have it in my power to perform my parliamentary duties next session’, but it was not until the dissolution that he formally retired.13

Townshend lived to see his Whig friends in office and the Reform Act passed and when his will was opened after his death, 25 Feb. 1833, a paper was found bearing his chosen epitaph:

For a period little short of thirty years he was the friend and companion of that illustrious patriot and statesman Mr Fox, a distinction which was the pride of his life and the only one he was anxious might be recorded after his death.14

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Glenbervie Jnls. 196; Leveson Gower, i. 196, 250, 284, 286-7, 351, 352, 426, 428; Letters of Countess Granville, i. 156; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 238.
  • 2. Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 139.
  • 3. Grey mss, Townshend to Grey, 4 Aug. [1809].
  • 4. Fitzwilliam mss, box 63, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 11 Aug. 1803; Leveson Gower, i. 429.
  • 5. Sidmouth mss, Sargent to Sidmouth, 20 Sept. 1805.
  • 6. W. Sichel, Sheridan, i. 17; HMC Fortescue, viii. 15-16; Whitbread mss W1/1987; Add. 51570, Townshend to Holland, 6 Oct., [3 Nov.] 1806.
  • 7. Blair Adam mss; CJ, lxiii. 219; Grey mss.
  • 8. Add. 51570, Townshend to Holland, 13 Nov. 1809; 51595, Adam to same, 16 Dec. 1805, 20 Oct. 1809.
  • 9. HMC Fortescue, x. 106-7; Add. 51799, Fitzpatrick to Holland [28 Jan.]; Blair Adam mss, Townshend to Adam, 1, 11 Feb. 1811.
  • 10. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 6 Sept. 1812; Hants RO, Tierney mss 21a; PRO 30/29/6/8, f. 1442.
  • 11. Grey mss, Townshend to Grey, 21 May [1815].
  • 12. Morning Chron. 5 June 1817.
  • 13. Add. 51570, Townshend to Holland, 7 Mar., 3 July; Grey mss, Townshend to Grey, 3 July 1814, 12 Mar., Tierney to Grey, 9 Dec. 1815; Teignmouth, Reminiscences, i. 51-53; Chatsworth mss.
  • 14. Add. 51570, Townshend to Holland, 7 Mar. 1833.