DENISON, William Joseph (1770-1849), of Denbies, nr. Dorking, Surr.

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



1796 - 1802
1818 - 1832
1832 - 2 Aug. 1849

Family and Education

b. May 1770, o.s. of Joseph Denison, merchant banker, of St. Mary Axe, London and Denbies and 2nd w. Elizabeth, da. and h. of William Butler, hatmaker, of Tooley Street, Southwark, Surr. unm. suc. fa. 1806. d. 2 Aug. 1849.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Yorks. 1808-9.

Lt. Mdx. vols. 1803.


Denison’s famed wealth derived from the London bank founded by his father, Joseph Denison and Company (known as Denison, Heywood, Kennard and Company after 1837), of which he became senior partner. From his father, who appears to have remained a Dissenter, he also inherited the estates of Seamer, near Scarborough in Yorkshire, and Denbies in Surrey. He extended the latter by purchases from the duke of Norfolk and the earl of Verulam, thereby enhancing his status in the county, for which he was first elected in 1818.1 Two years later his sister Lady Conyngham was installed as George IV’s mistress. According to John Croker*, Denison refused a peerage offered ‘to appease his indignant virtue’ and, by Mrs. Arbuthnot’s account, advised his sister in vain to accept nothing for her husband, ‘as by that means she would be quite independent’.2 Given the general report that he disapproved of his sister’s ménage, Charles Greville was surprised to note that Denison was ‘very well received’ at a levee in June 1820. But even such forbearance as he showed seems to have been founded on naivete. The wife of Michael Angelo Taylor* reported in 1828 that


poor Mr. Denison is broken hearted about his sister ... and his only relief, he says, is imparting his grief to me. According to his own account, he protested to her from the first against her living under the king’s roof; but that the thing, instead of getting better, has become daily worse and worse. Not that even now he can suppose that there is anything criminal between persons of their age, but that he can never go into society without hearing allusions too plain to be misunderstood; and he lives in daily fear and expectation of the subject coming before Parliament.3


His entreaty to Lady Conyngham to go abroad at this juncture fell on deaf ears. For Thomas Creevey*, ‘Denny’ became an invaluable source of gossip as a result of his unwanted Court connection; but apart from this, it had no discernible impact on his political career.4

He was returned unopposed at the general election of 1820, when he explained his opposition to the Liverpool ministry’s ‘restrictive measures’ of the previous session.5 He continued to be an assiduous attender who made fairly frequent contributions to debate and presented numerous petitions on behalf of his constituents, though he seldom delivered lengthy orations. He voted with the Whig opposition on all major issues, including parliamentary reform, 9 May 1821, 25 Apr. 1822, 20 Feb., 24 Apr., 2 June 1823, 13, 27 Apr. 1826. He divided for Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. As a supporter of existing arrangements for the regulation of turnpike trusts, he opposed the metropolis roads bill, 30 June, 3 July 1820, 6 Apr., 24 May 1821.6 At the county meeting, 2 Feb., Henry Grey Bennet* recorded that he was ‘very well received and made a short and strong speech’ in defence of Queen Caroline.7 In presenting the resulting petition (which also complained of economic distress), 8 Feb., he maintained that nineteen-twentieths of the county concurred in its prayer and defended the practice of petitioning through such assembles, then under attack from the ministerial side. That summer he was reportedly horrified by reports that Caroline had bequeathed jewels to the child of her supposed lover, Bergami.8 He asked ministers if the navy had been instructed to prevent merchant vessels carrying arms to Neapolitan patriots, 9 Feb. 1821.9 On the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ he vigorously opposed the Newington select vestry bill that session.10 He attended the county meeting, 4 Feb. 1822, when he called for economies in the army and ordnance departments, repeal of the taxes on malt, soap, candles, salt and leather, and an appropriation of part of the sinking fund. At a second meeting two weeks later, he ascribed the renewed prosperity of manufacturing to the opening of new markets in South America, which he interpreted as a mark of the efficacy of a liberal foreign policy. On the meeting’s declared topic of parliamentary reform, he detailed his support for a uniform householder franchise, the enfranchisement of large towns, curbs on election expenditure and shorter parliaments; he presented the resulting petition, 21 Feb.11 His only cavil at the proposed abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships was that both were dispensable, 13 Mar. He presented and spoke warmly in support of a petition against the leather tax, 24 Apr., and denounced the ‘odious’ salt tax, 28 June. He accepted that Peel’s Currency Act of 1819 had ‘violently disturbed’ relations between debtors and creditors, 2 May. He argued that a £2,500,000 remission of taxes would relieve all sectors of the economy, 9 May, and favoured the 20s. duty on wheat proposed by Ricardo, of whom he was apparently a supporter.12 He introduced a bill to amend the Seditious Meetings Act in order to reduce the costs of recovering damage caused by riot, 5 Mar.; it gained royal assent, 29 May (3 Geo. IV, c. 33). He spoke against a bill to give separate representation to the West Riding of Yorkshire, 7 June. He intervened on the Canada government bill to smooth a misunderstanding between the Whigs Edward Ellice and Sir James Mackintosh, 23 July 1822.13

At the county meeting, 10 Feb. 1823, Denison cited the salary of the British envoy in Washington, which exceeded that of the president of the United States, as an example of government profligacy, and blamed economic distress on the French wars and the Currency Acts of 1797 and 1819.14 In presenting the resulting petition, 26 Feb., he maintained that the Acts had produced ‘more mischief to the nation than any other cause whatever’. He endorsed the petition’s call for reform, retrenchment and repeal of the taxes on houses, windows and malt, but in response to more radical solutions declared that ‘the clergyman had as good a right to his tithe, and the fundholder to his dividend, as the nobleman to his estate’. Unlike many Whigs, he favoured a policy of non-intervention in the Franco-Spanish conflict, not wishing to become involved in another expensive war, 18 Mar. He supported the bill to reduce the costs of proceedings in the Southwark court of requests, 2 May, 11 June.15 He spoke against the introduction of a poor law system to Ireland, 9 July.16 He presented petitions for the transfer of the duty on beer to malt, 12, 23 May, but opposed the beer duties bills, 13 June 1823, 15 Mar., 24 May 1824, as an infringement of brewing interests, though he recognised that cheaper beer would curb ‘the pernicious practice of dram drinking’; this apparent capitulation to a powerful vested interest in his constituency was roundly condemned by William Cobbett†.17 He presented several petitions that session from licensed victuallers against excise license duty.18 He supported the Hammersmith Bridge bill, but also the compensation claims made by the proprietors of Fulham Bridge, 13 Apr. He defended the use of the treadmill as a prison punishment, 5 May, and exonerated Surrey magistrates from blame for the plight of debtors in Horsemonger Row gaol, 24 June 1824. On 28 Apr. 1825 he presented constituents’ petitions against imported flour and for revision of the corn laws: the difficulties attendant on representing a constituency with mixed economic interests may have made him reluctant to register his views on trade in the House, though the question he asked about the effect of revision of the navigation laws, 27 June, sounded a protectionist note.19 During the sessions of 1825 and 1826 he repeatedly spoke on behalf of William Kenrick†, a Welsh judge (and Surrey neighbour) accused of misconduct. He presented several anti-slavery petitions in February and March 1826.20 He argued that if the office of treasurer of the navy was ineffective in fraud detection, it should be abolished, 7 Apr. He defended the right of Thames watermen, ‘a meritorious body of men’, to work on Sundays, 18 Apr. Ill health apparently interfered with his attendance for the remainder of the 1826 session.21 At the general election that summer he faced a contest in Surrey, although the challenge was directed at his ministerialist colleague, Holme Sumner. He declared that he had ‘always acted’ on ‘Whig principles’ and made no attempt to conceal his support for Catholic relief, though he absolutely denied any doctrinal sympathy with Rome. He was more circumspect on the corn laws, acknowledging that they ‘required a revision’ but also accepting that ‘the agriculturist was fairly entitled to some protection’. He finished at the head of the poll after six days. In returning thanks, he pledged his support for economy, retrenchment, reform and the abolition of slavery. Calling for reduced taxation, he blamed the French Revolution on the failure of the ruling class to bear its share of this burden. With regard to the recent banking crisis, he justified his support for the government measure against small note issues by declaring his opposition to ‘the small country bank system’, whose ‘failure frequently leads to the ruin of the poor and careful industrious mechanic’.22

He voted against the Clarence annuity bill, 2 Mar., for information on the conduct of Lisburn magistrates with regard to an Orange march, 29 Mar., and to postpone the committee of supply, 30 Mar. 1827. He divided for Catholic relief, 6 Mar. He welcomed the government’s proposed alteration of the corn laws as a sensible compromise between ‘ultra consumers’ and ‘ultra growers’, and hoped that a unified system of weights and measures could be adopted, 12, 23 Mar. He voted for the spring guns bill, 23 Mar., and declared that country gentlemen who needed to resort to such devices ‘had better come up to town at once’, 26 Mar. Although, like many Whigs, he was irritated by Sir John Copley’s* elevation to the woolsack, he professed his willingness to support Canning’s ministry ‘as far as he was able’, 21 May, observing that by adopting liberal measures the government might ‘scorn the futile efforts of any opposition’. In Denison’s view, Peel and his followers were ‘at least half a century behind ... [Canning] and the rest of the world in intelligence and civilization, and all that constituted the happiness of mankind’.23 However, he divided against ministers to remove bankruptcy jurisdiction from the court of chancery, 22 May, and for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May 1827. He voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. 1828, having presented several petitions in its favour. He divided for Catholic relief, 12 May, after commending the measure as the ‘best security which can be afforded to the established church’, without which ‘there can be no concord in Ireland’. In presenting a petition from the Surrey Auxiliary Anti-Slavery Society, 5 Mar., he suggested that the time was ripe for action against slavery, noting that ‘a small additional duty on those refractory colonies would be attended with the best effects’. He opposed the duke of Wellington’s ministry by voting for a lower pivot price for the admission of foreign corn, 22 Apr., inquiry into delays in chancery, 24 Apr., to condemn the misapplication of public money for building work at Buckingham House, 23 June, and for reduction of the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July. His attempt to allay concerns over the Battersea and Wandsworth enclosure bill did not prevents its being lost on a division, 31 Mar. He advised that the currency standard should be left well alone, 5 June. He spoke against the additional churches bill, 30 June, 1 July 1828.

Describing Wellington and Peel as ‘great statesmen’, he welcomed the announcement of the government’s intention to act on the Catholic question, 27 Feb., and voted for their emancipation measure, 6, 30 Mar. 1829. He criticized the tone of the anti-Catholic campaign being waged in Surrey, 9 Mar., and clashed with his colleague Pallmer over the status of a Guildford petition. He presented friendly petitions, 13, 17 Mar., and spoke ‘fearlessly and frankly’ for emancipation at the county meeting, 21 Mar., when he goaded opponents with a flippant dismissal of the prospects for an Ultra ministry: ‘He had as great a respect as any person for the forensic abilities of Lord Eldon, but as a politician he was never suspected of any extensive or statesmanlike conduct’.24 While he admitted that he had been in the minority at the meeting, he denied that its petition represented the general opinion of the county, 26 Mar. He expressed ‘the highest degree of satisfaction’ at the emancipation bill’s passage through the Commons, 30 Mar., and regarding the evidence of popular feeling against the measure, he merely observed that inattention to the prayer of petitions was hardly confined to this question. He offered a detailed defence of the archbishop of Canterbury’s estate bill, 10 Apr., and presented but did not concur with Cobbett’s petition for the dismantling of the Irish church establishment, 1 May. He voted for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May. He presented, without comment, Cobbett’s petition congratulating the government for its restriction on the circulation of bank notes, 19 May. He supported a bill to open the vestry of St. James’s, Westminster, 21 May, on which he appears to have co-operated privately with John Cam Hobhouse.25 He answered objections to the Rotherhithe poor rates bill, 28 May 1829. Early in 1830 he was reportedly poised to disinherit his nephew Francis Conyngham, Lord Mount Charles*, after unspecified ‘folly’ had precipitated his resignation as a lord of the treasury.26 In presenting a London maltsters’ petition for tax remissions, 8 Feb., he said he saw hope for the alleviation of general distress in Wellington’s stated commitment to economy and retrenchment; his praise for the premier’s role in the enactment of Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Test Acts was too much for Henry Brougham. He thanked ministers for their proposed repeal of the beer duty, 16 Mar., and hoped they would ‘continue in another session what they have begun so well in this’. He attended the county meeting on 19 Mar. and presented the resulting petition for further retrenchment and tax reductions, 26 Mar.; he suggested that those on soap and candles should be next to go.27 Despite his words of encouragement for the government, he acted with the revived Whig opposition that session, particularly on economy and retrenchment motions. He divided for Lord Blandford’s reform motion, 18 Feb., and the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and paired for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 Mar., and Russell’s reform resolutions, 28 May. He voted for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May, and abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 24 May, 7 June. Casting an envious glance at the Scottish banking system, he emphasized the need for ‘prudence and caution’ by the Bank of England, 26 Mar., and discountenanced any further interference with the currency. He predicted ‘scenes of drunkenness and debauchery’ if the clause in the sale of beer bill allowing consumption on the premises was allowed to remain, 3 May, and he voted against this, 21 June. He supported the Newington petition against the Scottish and Irish poor removal bill, 26 May 1830. At the general election that summer he again faced a contest, though once more he was not the object of it. He declared that the government had not gone far enough with retrenchment and reiterated his commitment to parliamentary reform, professing himself ‘rather friendly’ to the ballot. He pointed to the July revolution in France as evidence of the ‘spread of liberal opinions’ and denied that he had supported the British incursion into Portugal in 1826, ‘being one of the few who were not led away by the specious eloquence of Mr. Canning’. He also condemned the East India Company’s trading monopoly. He was returned comfortably at the head of the poll after four days.28

The ministry of course listed Denison among their ‘foes’. He presented petitions from Clapham, 8 Nov., and Newington, 11 Nov. 1830, against their inclusion in the scope of the Metropolitan Police Act. While he agreed that special magisterial powers might be necessary to deal with the ‘Swing’ disturbances, 15 Nov., he warned that ‘to put an end to this spirit’ the government ‘must both retrench and reform’; he rejected imputations of disloyalty to the crown on the part of any class in Surrey. He voted against ministers in the crucial division on the civil list later that day. His own efforts to alleviate distress by reducing rents on his Yorkshire estates to 1797 levels and granting compensation to flood damaged farms were commended as a ‘noble example to the landed interest’ by a Surrey newspaper.29 He thought the seriousness of the ‘Swing’ riots justified the proposed augmentation of the army, 13 Dec., when he approved the Grey ministry’s broad declarations of intent and noted with relief that they contemplated no alteration of the currency. He supported the complaint of Westminster petitioners against self-elected vestries, 16 Dec. 1830, and presented numerous anti-slavery petitions that winter. In presenting a Godalming petition for reform, 3 Feb. 1831, he looked forward to a ‘moderate, wise and temperate’ measure from ministers, being ‘no friend of any wild and visionary scheme of annual parliaments or universal suffrage’. Presenting petitions for the ballot, 26 Feb., he denied Hunt’s suggestion that he had classed this among such wild schemes. He predicted the inevitable success of the government’s bill and reported near universal approval for it in Surrey, 7 Mar. However, his erroneous announcement of the date for the county meeting on reform appears to have affected the attendance on the appointed day, 19 Mar., and thus reduced the value of its petition, which he presented, 21 Mar.30 Next day he divided for the reform bill’s second reading. Following the government’s narrow victory, Croker made the uncorroborated allegation that Denison had bribed Mount Charles to vote for the bill by undertaking to pay his debts.31 He voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. At the ensuing general election he was returned unopposed as a supporter of reform, having offered his Utilitarian vision of a reformed Parliament in which Members ‘would go into the House, not with the view of making a display of fine speeches, but would carry with them useful information and a desire to promote the interests of their constituents’. He glossed over the government’s ill-fated plan to tax the transfer of stock as ‘a mistake’.32

He claimed that seven-eighths of his constituents supported reform, 25 June 1831. He divided for the second reading of the reintroduced bill, 6 July, and steadily for most of its details. However, he voted for the disfranchisement of Saltash (on which ministers failed to provide a lead), 26 July, the Chandos clause to enfranchise £50 tenants-at-will in the counties, 18 Aug., and the transfer of Aldborough to schedule A, 14 Sept. He declared that there existed but ‘one feeling’ in Surrey against the county’s nomination boroughs, 20 July, but led the unsuccessful opposition to the partial disfranchisement of Guildford, 29 July, while emphasizing his ‘entire and cordial concurrence’ with the rest of the bill. He showed impatience with Croker’s obstruction of the bill in committee, 12 Aug., and asked a question about the new voting qualification for counties, 19 Aug. He spoke for the reprieve of the county towns of Dorchester, Huntingdon and Guildford, 15 Sept., but denied that in general Surrey was ill served by the bill. He voted for its passage, 21 Sept, and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. At the county meeting, 4 Oct., he justified his support for the Chandos clause and, to a mixed reception, his efforts to save Guildford’s second seat; at the quarter sessions in Guildford, 20 Oct., he trusted that the borough would be better treated in a new bill.33 In the case of Robert Taylor, a blasphemer confined in Horsemonger Row gaol, Denison admitted to reservations about the sentence but assured the House that everything was being done to ‘lighten and alleviate’ his privations, 22 July, 15 Aug. He voted for O’Connell’s motion that the original 11 members of the Dublin election committee should be sworn in, 29 July. He divided for the second reading of the revised reform bill (which reprieved Guildford), 17 Dec. 1831, steadily for its details and for the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He was absent from the division on the motion for an address asking the king to appoint only ministers committed to carrying an unimpaired measure, 10 May, but resurfaced four days later to express his ‘heartfelt joy’ at intimations that Grey’s ministry was poised to return. He presented petitions for withholding supplies until the reform bill was passed, 23 May. He voted for the second reading of the Irish bill, 25 May. He called on Lord Milton to postpone his motion on the corn laws ‘in the present state of excitement’, 1 June. He divided with ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12, 16, 20 July, and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb. He voted for Alexander Baring’s privileges of Parliament bill, 27 June. He answered questions about a diarrhoea epidemic in a Surrey prison, 5 July 1832.

At the general election of 1832 Denison felt constrained to face ‘the parsons and Tories’ in the western division of Surrey, where he was returned. One observer who was less than impressed with his theatrical style was Cobbett, who wrote that he could no longer ‘suffer Denison to be clapping his hand to his head, and turning up the whites of his eyes, and think that is enough, in addition to a good breakfast that he has given the voters’.34 He occupied the seat until his death, no doubt aided by a considerable personal following. As the representative of an overwhelmingly agricultural constituency, he trimmed his sails to the protectionist wind and opposed the repeal of the corn laws in 1846.35 He was renowned for his philanthropy in the Dorking area, where he shared both his franking privilege and the grounds of his estate with his poorer neighbours and was president of the local Provident Institution, while he subscribed to civic buildings and churches elsewhere in Surrey.36 To add to the stanzas he had written on Buonoparte’s threatened invasion in 1803, he anonymously published two volumes of mawkish verse entitled Vers de Societé in the 1840s.37 He died in August 1849 and left an estate estimated to be worth £2,300,000, the bulk of which passed to his younger nephew Albert Conyngham, who was required to take Denison’s name.38


Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Howard Spencer


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1806), ii. 1181; (1849), ii. 422-3; F.G. Hilton Price, London Bankers, 82; E.W. Brayley, Surr. v. 90, 92, 112.
  • 2. Croker Pprs. i. 173; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 111.
  • 3. Greville Mems. i. 94; Creevey Pprs, ii. 148.
  • 4. Creevey Pprs. ii. 43, 105, 109, 120; Creevey’s Life and Times, 149, 185; Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 22 Feb. 1820.
  • 5. County Chron. 21 Mar. 1820.
  • 6. The Times, 1, 4 July 1820, 25 May 1821.
  • 7. The Times, 3 Feb. 1821; HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 10.
  • 8. Creevey Pprs. ii. 24.
  • 9. The Times, 10 Feb. 1821.
  • 10. Ibid. 17 Feb., 22 Mar., 10 Apr., 15, 17, 19, 25 May 1821.
  • 11. Ibid. 5, 19 Feb. 1822.
  • 12. B. Gordon, Political Economists in Parliament, 221.
  • 13. The Times, 24 July 1822.
  • 14. Ibid. 11 Feb. 1823.
  • 15. Ibid. 3 May, 12 June 1823.
  • 16. Ibid. 10 July 1823.
  • 17. Cobbett’s Pol. Reg. 5 June 1824.
  • 18. The Times, 26 Feb., 5, 12, 13 Mar. 1824.
  • 19. Ibid. 29 Apr., 28 June 1825.
  • 20. Ibid. 1, 4, 17, 23 Mar. 1826.
  • 21. Ibid. 12 June 1826.
  • 22. Baldwin’s Weekly Jnl. 17, 24 June; County Chron. 20 June; The Times, 20 June 1826.
  • 23. Canning’s Ministry, 185; The Times, 22 May 1827.
  • 24. The Times, 23 Mar. 1829.
  • 25. Add. 36464, f. 57.
  • 26. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 22 Feb. 1830.
  • 27. County Chron. 23 Mar. 1830.
  • 28. The Times, 6, 7, 10 Aug. 1830.
  • 29. County Chron. 16 Nov. 1830.
  • 30. The Times, 19 Mar. 1831.
  • 31. M. Brock, Great Reform Act, 179.
  • 32. The Times, 6 May 1831.
  • 33. Brighton Herald, 8, 22 Oct. 1831.
  • 34. Add. 51837, Denison to Holland [Dec. 1832]; Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, iii. 724.
  • 35. D. Southgate, Passing of the Whigs, 107.
  • 36. C. Holland, Dorking People, 18; Short Account of Dorking ... Provident Institution (1816); Brayley, i. 283, 383; ii. 230; iv. 455.
  • 37. Surr. Arch. Colls. xiv. 17.
  • 38. PROB 11/2100/746; IR26/1831/694; Gent. Mag. (1849), ii. 422-3.