BROUGHAM, William (1795-1886), of 12 Old Buildings, Lincoln's Inn, Mdx.

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



1831 - 1834

Family and Education

b. 26 Sept. 1795, 5th s. of Henry Brougham (d. 1810) and Eleanor, da. of Rev. James Syme, minister of Alloa, Clackmannan; bro. of Henry Peter Brougham* and James Brougham*. educ. Jesus, Camb. 1815, fellow 1821-34; L. Inn, 1820, called 1823. m. 12 Aug. 1834, Emily Frances, da. of Sir Charles William Taylor, 1st bt., of Hollycombe, Suss., 3s. 3da. suc. bro. Henry as 2nd Bar. Brougham and Vaux 7 May 1868. d. 3 Jan. 1886.

Offices Held

Master in chancery 1831-1852.

Maj. Cumb. rifle vols. 1860, lt.-col. 1863.


Brougham’s public career followed in the slipstream of his eldest brother Henry, who was 17 years his senior; both combined legal business with literary and journalistic work. Between 1819 and 1829 he contributed articles to the Edinburgh Review on a range of topics that rivalled the famed versatility of his brother, for whom he acted as a messenger and informant during the trial of Queen Caroline in 1820.1 He showed other family traits as well: after a dinner in November 1822 Lady Holland described his brother’s nervous afflictions and his own ‘incipient jerks and distortions’.2 A parliamentary career was open to him, but early in 1823 Henry declined the offer of a seat from Lord Darlington on his behalf, explaining that ‘William was busy with the court of chancery’. It appears that in 1827 Henry also refused an office for William in Lord Goderich’s ministry.3 However, he took pains to advance William’s legal career, and sought Thomas Creevey’s* support for his employment as counsel against the Liverpool and Manchester railway bill in March 1825, declaring that ‘he really is a very clever person and an excellent man of business, and not without experience, being in two other committees’. Henry alleged that only ‘gross and outrageous jobbing’ had prevented William’s prior engagement, though the ever-faithful Creevey, passing on the contents of the letter, damned the youngest Brougham as a ‘stripling’.4 William echoed his brother’s complaint in March 1830 when, with reference to alleged chicanery in appointments pertaining to the St. Giles vestry bill, he observed that ‘there is no standing against this sort of thing, except by jobbing too, which is excessively unpleasant’. The drudgery of the Commons business that did come his way caused him to wonder if he might aspire to take silk in a new court envisaged by lord chancellor Lyndhurst, although this ambition did not prevent him from deriding Lyndhurst’s proposals for law reform as ill conceived.5 In fact, the political upheaval of the next few months overtook these plans and eventually propelled him into Parliament.

He had played a prominent part in Henry’s 1826 election campaign in Westmorland and had been mentioned by an incredulous Lord Lowther* in connection with vacancies at Carlisle in 1827 and 1829.6 At the general election of 1830 Henry, contemplating success in his contest for Yorkshire, wanted William as a locum for his fall-back seat at Knaresborough, and recommended his brother to the patron, the duke of Devonshire, as a ‘stout Whig and a very clever lawyer’, who would ‘certainly distinguish himself’; the duke was not persuaded.7 In November 1830 Henry sounded William and their brother James about his acceptance of office in Lord Grey’s ministry. Both initially supported his wish to be master of the rolls, but William subsequently warned that insistence on this could jeopardize the formation of the government. This advice, though unwelcome, was accepted by Henry, whose reliance on his brother’s counsel in the face of attempts to marginalize him was plain to see. Once his elevation to the woolsack was settled, William strongly urged on Henry the importance of making his own appointment to the principal secretaryship, and successfully recommended his friend and contemporary Denis Le Marchant†. He resisted suggestions that Henry’s barony of Brougham and Vaux be devised to him in remainder, ‘on the ground of insufficient fortune to endow the title’.8 His fraternal ties inevitably drew him towards the centre of government affairs, and he was privy to cabinet deliberations over the budget in early 1831, notably the controversial plan to tax transfers of stock. He had written occasional leaders for The Times since 1822, and his name was cited by Creevey as evidence for the lord chancellor’s attacks on Grey in that paper, which also predictably defended his appointment to a vacant mastership in chancery in March 1831.9 He was returned for Southwark at the general election that spring, after the sitting Member, Sir Robert Wilson, had been forced to retire on account of his vote for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the ministry’s reform bill. His well-wishers, who included Lord John Russell*, commended him to the electors almost exclusively on the strength of his name, while his published address cited his relationship to the lord chancellor as a guarantee that he would support reform ‘to the fullest extent’. On the hustings, he derided anti-reformers for naked self-interest, and with sarcasm worthy of his brother, referred to the House of Lords as ‘hereditary legislators ... who not only inherit wisdom ... by descent, but who are bona fide the representatives and heirs of the "wisdom of our ancestors"’. Despite murmurings against him as a stooge, he was returned unopposed. He afterwards travelled to poll for Cambridge University, and also interested himself in the Westmorland election.10

Brougham was no stranger to the Commons, having attended previous debates on reform as a spectator.11 He divided for the second reading of the reintroduced bill, 6 July 1831, when he delivered his maiden speech in support of the measure. Employing historical allusion, he denied that it constituted a first step towards republican government and defended ministers for their dealings with the political unions. He voted steadily for its details, and spoke in favour of the proposed boundary change to Southwark, 9 Aug. He paired for the bill’s passage, 21 Sept., and divided for the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. He voted for printing the Waterford petition calling for the disarmament of the Irish yeomanry, 11 Aug. He divided for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and assiduously for its details, speaking in favour of the disfranchisement of Appleby, 21 Feb. 1832. He voted for the third reading, 22 Mar. He showed a certain lack of prescience when he agreed with Le Marchant that ‘the government were never more firmly established in their seats and never had a better prospect of permanence’, 7 May, the day the loss of a critical vote in the Lords precipitated their resignation. During the ensuing crisis he appeared at a London reform meeting to contradict a report that his brother would be prepared to continue as lord chancellor in a new administration.12 He voted for the motion for an address asking the king to appoint only ministers committed to carrying an unimpaired bill, 10 May. He divided for the second reading of the Irish bill, 25 May, and against the Conservative amendment for increased Scottish county representation, 1 June. He voted with ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 20 Jan., 12, 16, 20 July, and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb. He presented a petition from two inmates of the Fleet prison, incarcerated for contempt of court nine months earlier, 20 Jan. Three days later he introduced a contempts in equity bill, to restrict the power of courts to make such summary commitments, and he assured Members that its provisions were uncontroversial, 31 Jan.; it gained royal assent, 23 June (2 Gul. IV, c. 58). He voted in the minority for the Vestry Act amendment bill, 23 Jan. According to Le Marchant, he ‘never was more shocked’ than by the Evangelical Spencer Perceval’s deranged Commons performance on the designated fast day, 21 Mar.13 He secured the appointment of a committee of inquiry into the conduct of the East India Company over a debt owed to the estate of one John Hutchinson and expatiated on the history of the case, 10 Apr. In presenting a petition for lifting all legal restrictions on theatrical performances in the metropolitan area, 31 May, he observed that ‘by granting to the lower orders a sufficient number of theatres, we shall be affording them an opportunity of obtaining intellectual and rational amusement’. He voted to make coroners’ inquests public, 20 June. In defending the lord chancellor from the charge of nepotism, 26, 27 July, he protested that the appointment of his brother James to a chancery sinecure was merely an interim measure. He warned that the bribery at elections bill carried the danger of punishing the innocent along with the guilty, 30 July 1832. That summer he discussed with Thomas Macaulay* the foundation of a political club, ‘for Members of the ... Commons in place under the present government’, which was supposed to meet weekly at Grillions; evidently the idea did not flower.14

Ill health prevented Brougham from canvassing for Southwark at the general election of 1832, and his campaign was conducted by a committee who reportedly acted ‘entirely without remuneration ... from respect [for] his character and principles’. After being returned at the head of the poll, he promised to ‘pursue the straightforward path, regardless of the frowns of an oligarchy on the one hand, and ... equally fearless of the threats of a wild democracy on the other’.15 His subsequent voting record did not satisfy the radicals of Southwark, and his position was further weakened by the lord chancellor’s falling stock. He declined to contest the seat at the general election of 1835, but was nominated for Leeds in his absence. By the time he arrived there, his cause was hopeless, and he did not seek election thereafter.16 Like his eldest brother, Brougham appears to have been plagued in later years with real or imagined bouts of ill health.17 He succeeded to Henry’s title in 1868, by virtue of a special patent dated 22 Mar. 1860, having evidently overcome his previous objections, but he subsequently lived a retired a life at Brougham, Westmorland. He died in January 1886 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Henry Charles Brougham (1836-1927).18

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Howard Spencer


  • 1. C. New, Brougham, 239, 246; Brougham mss, W. to J. Brougham, June (1872).
  • 2. Lady Holland to Son, 14.
  • 3. Bessborough mss, H. Brougham to Duncannon, 4 Mar. 1823; Chatsworth mss, H. Brougham to Devonshire, 20 Aug. 1827.
  • 4. Creevey mss, H. Brougham to Creevey, n.d., Creevey to Miss Ord, 10 Mar. 1825.
  • 5. Brougham mss, W. to H. Brougham, 27 Mar. 1830.
  • 6. Ibid. W. Brougham to Atkinson, 1, 5, 8 June 1826; Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 30 July 1827, 4 Feb. 1829.
  • 7. Chatsworth mss 6 DD/1960, H. Brougham to Devonshire, 24 July 1830.
  • 8. Brougham mss, W. Brougham, ‘Notes of what took place at No. 5, Hill Street, in Nov. 1830’; Three Diaries, p. vii.
  • 9. Three Diaries, 8-9; Creevey Pprs. ii. 220; Hist. of ‘The Times’, i. 278; The Times, 26 Mar. 1831.
  • 10. The Times, 26, 27, 30 Apr. 1831; Brougham mss, W. Brougham to Atkinson [May 1831].
  • 11. The Times, 26 Apr. 1831.
  • 12. Three Diaries, 241; A. Aspinall, Brougham and Whig Party, 191.
  • 13. Three Diaries, 211-12.
  • 14. Macaulay Letters, ii. 183.
  • 15. Three Diaries, 286; Brougham mss, W. Brougham, ‘To Electors of Southwark’, 12 Dec. 1832.
  • 16. Brougham mss, W. to Lord Brougham, 1 Dec. 1834, 9 Feb.; The Times, 7, 10 Jan. 1835.
  • 17. Brougham mss, W. Brougham’s letters to Lord Brougham, 1840-1.
  • 18. The Times, 5 Jan. 1886.