PONSONBY, Hon. Frederick Cavendish (1783-1837).

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



1806 - 1826
1826 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 6 July 1783, 2nd s. of Frederick Ponsonby†, 3rd earl of Bessborough [I] and 3rd Bar. Ponsonby [GB] (d. 1844), and Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer, da. of John Spencer†, 1st Earl Spencer; bro. of John William Ponsonby, Visct. Duncannon* and Hon. William Francis Spencer Ponsonby*. educ. Harrow 1792-9. m. 16 Mar. 1825, Lady Emily Charlotte Bathurst, da. of Henry Bathurst†, 3rd Earl Bathurst, 3s. 3da. GCMG 5 Nov. 1828; KCB 13 Sept 1831; KCH 1831. d. 11 Jan. 1837.

Offices Held

Cornet 10 Drag. Jan. 1800, lt. June 1800, capt. 1803; capt. 60 Ft. and a.d.c. to ld. lt. [I] 1806; maj. 23 Drag. 1807, lt.-col. 1810; lt.-col. 12 Drag. 1811; brevet col. and a.d.c. to prince regent 1814; half-pay 1820; inspecting field officer, Ionian isles 1824; maj.-gen. 1825; lt.-gen. 1831; col. 86 Ft. 1835, R. Drag. 1836-d.

Lt.-gov. Malta Dec. 1826-May 1835.


Ponsonby was a veteran of the Peninsula and Waterloo, where he was seriously wounded. Pierced by lance and sabre, ridden over by Prussian cavalry and left for dead on the battlefield, where he was twice plundered, he owed his recovery, according to Raikes, ‘to the extreme tranquillity of his character, which was never ruffled by irritation or discontent’.1 After convalescence, he resumed his parliamentary and military careers, despite paralysing injuries to his right arm which obliged him to mount a horse, according to a fellow officer, ‘by an active spring which showed the accomplished cavalier’.2 At the general election of 1820 he was again returned unopposed for county Kilkenny on the family interest. As a consequence of his vote for Denis Browne*, the corporation candidate for the borough, he was roughly treated by a mob during an attempted chairing.3 There had been a notion of his being replaced by his younger brother William Ponsonby, but county opinion was apparently against this, which Lord Clare considered ‘strange, for [George Agar] Ellis* is quite right in asserting that though an amiable man, Fred Ponsonby is the worst of all representatives, never going near his constituents or the House of Commons’.4 When present Ponsonby, whose poor record of attendance was exacerbated by two postings to the Mediterranean during this period, continued to vote with the Whig opposition to the Liverpool ministry on most major issues, including economy, retrenchment and reduced taxation.5 Unlike his elder brother Lord Duncannon, a rising star of opposition, he is not known to have spoken in debate. He warned Harriet Arbuthnot that ‘the Whigs in a body would vote strongly’ against a royal divorce, 9 Feb. 1820, and joined in the attacks on ministers over their conduct towards Queen Caroline early the following year.6 During the subsequent civil unrest he was a witness to Lord Exmouth’s armed defence of his house from a mob.7 He divided for Catholic claims, 28 Feb. 1821, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. His pair for repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr. 1821, was his last recorded vote for almost four years, during which time he was abroad. The trigger for this was the death of his mother on 14 Nov. 1821 in Florence, whence he wrote to his sister, Lady Caroline Lamb, 24 Jan. 1822, and thereafter he travelled in Italy and sailed to Malta and the Ionian Islands.8 The need to remain abroad stemmed from his gambling debts, in settlement of which the duke of Wellington, who had taken an interest in his welfare since Waterloo, wrote on 21 Mar. 1822 to advise him to take a post in the Mediterranean ‘at present, and to look to go to India hereafter when you will be a major-general’, which will enable ‘you in a few years to return with means to pay your debts’:

I cannot conclude this letter without urgently entreating you to recollect what it is that has obliged you to separate yourself from your family and friends, and to quit the most advantageous and agreeable position that ever fell to the lot of any man in England. I am afraid that you can go to no part of the world whether near or distant in which you will not find means and opportunities of getting into similar scrapes; and you may rely on it that their only result will be to occasion fresh and increased regret to yourself and sorrow to your family and friends and to none more than ... [myself].9

On 4 Dec. 1821 Wellington had written in similar terms to Duncannon, opining that in Ponsonby’s case an immediate posting to India would resemble ‘a species of banishment, and I am anxious to avoid it if we can tie him up from play. This last object was at one time effected, and I should think we might attain it again’. The signs were encouraging. On 22 July 1822 Ponsonby replied from the Ionian Islands that he had

received the very kind letter you wrote to me about my coming to these Islands in preference to my going to India. I do not think I am very likely to get any employment, but I have been so kindly received by Sir T. Maitland, and my expenses are likely to be so very trifling, that I think the plan is likely to succeed, especially as I am sure, if anything can be done for me by him, it will. With respect to play, I am afraid few people would believe me when I say that I have quite given it up, but I feel I can speak confidently on the subject, and if there is any faith in man, I promise that your advice shall not be forgotten.10

With the assistance of Wellington, who exerted himself in settling the prior claims of more senior officers, Ponsonby eventually secured an appointment as inspecting officer of the Ionian Islands, 24 Jan. 1824.11 In November 1822 he wrote from Corfu to William Ord* to ask for news of the funds and the prospects for parliamentary reform, adding that the ‘people in these islands are peaceable and satisfied in the highest degree, and good reason they have for everything is improved and improving under British protection’, but that he was ‘sorry to see the Russells humbugged as they are by the Greek patriots as they call themselves, fellows who would be stoned to death by the people here if they were to venture here unprotected by the government which they calumniate’.12 An enthusiastic field sportsman, in a letter thanking Wellington for his forthcoming appointment he boasted of killing seventy birds in three days, 25 Nov. 1823, but admitted that he would enjoy a day’s shooting at Stratfield Saye.13

On 24 Sept. 1824 Harriet Arbuthnot reported that Ponsonby ‘is just returned from Corfu after three years’ absence and is, as usual, delightful’.14 In November he exchanged views on cavalry manoeuvres with Wellington, who, according to Captain Gronow, had specifically exempted his regimental tactics from general criticism during the Peninsular war.15 Back in the Commons he voted, 15 Feb., and paired, 25 Feb. 1825, against suppression of the Catholic Association. He presented a Kilkenny petition for Catholic relief, 10 Mar.16 In February 1825 he had announced his engagement to a daughter of Lord Bathurst, the colonial secretary. Lady Holland, who suspected Henry Greville of having been the matchmaker, informed her son Henry Fox*, 7 Feb., that

Ponsonby marries wretchedly. When he wrote to me to announce it, I could only say I knew he had met with good temper, and that was the most valuable ingredient for happiness. When Lord Bathurst was asked by the Bessborough family for the name of his solicitor he said he had forgot it. Shabby man, he will do nothing. She has only £4,000 in the world ... They will have with places and appointments about £1,400 per annum.

To Lady Holland’s glee, the wedding featured an embarrassing hitch:

At the altar he could not find the ring. After 20! minutes search, it was at the bottom of his pantaloon pocket. They were to dine on the road, and reach Cirencester for the hymeneal rites.17

The couple’s finances were partly secured by a loan of £1,000 from Wellington, which was later repaid.18 Duncannon also gave assistance, though he was anxious not to prejudice his own children’s inheritance, reminding his wife that ‘we know many people who have married on £1,500’. A more generous benefactor was Ponsonby’s brother William, who, as Lady Holland recalled, at the instigation of his wife gave ‘up his own fortune, saying they had enough, to poor Fred Ponsonby, who was deeply in debt’.19 According to Raikes, Ponsonby had previously been bailed out by the 5th duke of Devonshire, his maternal uncle by marriage.20

The demands of Ponsonby’s Mediterranean command prompted his retirement from Kilkenny at the dissolution in 1826.21 His place was taken by Duncannon, for whom the 2nd Earl Fitzwilliam had already reserved a seat at Higham Ferrers, which was now offered to Ponsonby. He was returned in absentia, Duncannon reporting that he had ‘decided not to come to England’. It was ‘thought that he would be willing to retire’ in favour of the seatless Lord John Russell, but this proved unnecessary.22 Before the new Parliament assembled Ponsonby obtained, through Bathurst and the evident assistance of Wellington, an appointment as lieutenant-governor of Malta, despite the disapproval of the duke of York, who, according to a letter from Sir Herbert Taylor* to Wellington, 15 Dec., had no personal objection to Ponsonby, but felt slighted by Bathurst’s having written directly to the king the previous day, saying that ‘the interests of a dear daughter are at stake’ and recommending his son-in-law as ‘an individual highly distinguished by birth’, whose ‘liberality was known to have involved him in such insuperable difficulties, as not to allow him to live in England’. To ease the way for Ponsonby Bathurst had suggested that the post be downgraded from a full governorship, and the appointment was duly gazetted as a lieutenant-governorship, 22 Dec. 1826.23 Before leaving for Malta Ponsonby voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827.

Judging from his Maltese letterbook he was in post on 19 Mar. 1827, and it is therefore highly unlikely that he cast many of the votes attributed to him in the remainder of the Parliament, which were almost certainly those of William.24 He appears to have divided for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May 1827, but he was certainly back in Malta by September. He could not have voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. 1828, as he wrote a letter from Malta concerning its defence that day.25 It is possible that he voted for ordnance reductions, 4 July 1828. He was present to vote for Catholic emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. 1829, when he presented favourable petitions from several places in Ireland and one from Higham Ferrers for the Warwick and Napton canal bill. Referring to the government’s concession, King Leopold of Belgium observed to Ponsonby in a letter of 5 Mar. that he must have been ‘very interested in the important events which have taken place in England’, but it is curious that his subsequent letters to his uncle Earl Spencer made no reference to domestic politics.26 He could not have divided for allowing Daniel O’Connell to take his seat unhindered, 18 May 1829, as he had written from Malta only the previous day.27 For similar reasons it seems unlikely that he cast many of the opposition votes credited to him during the 1830 session, although he may have divided for Jewish emancipation, 17 May, making Irish first fruits nominal, 18 May, reductions in the civil government of Canada, 25 May, parliamentary reform, 28 May, and the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 7 June. It beggars belief that he was in the majority to abolish the civil list pensions paid to the son of Lord Melville and his brother-in-law William Lennox Bathurst†, 26 Mar. 1830. He retired from Parliament at the dissolution.

At Malta Ponsonby threw himself into his administrative work with gusto, but the only major incident of his posting was the destruction of the Turkish fleet at the battle of Navarino in October 1827, following which he wrote to congratulate the commander, Sir Edward Codrington, on ‘the success of your late operations, which could not have succeeded except by the greatest decision in most critical circumstances’.28 Codrington was criticised in some quarters for exceeding his remit, and in his defence cited Ponsonby among those who had shared his bellicose interpretation of government instructions.29 Ponsonby’s lieutenant-governorship was also marked by a long-running dispute with the kingdom of the Two Sicilies over the right of nomination to the vacant Catholic see of Malta, an issue on which the government stood firm.30 On learning of his appointment Ponsonby had promised Wellington to ‘not be as grand’ as his profligate predecessor Lord Hastings and to live within his means, and had despaired of the likely opportunities for shooting.31 Fox, who visited him in April 1829, found him living unpretentiously in a small house with a single servant, and was gratified that his host ‘has acquired by his rapid rise no humbug and pomp of office, but is just as free and open as I remember him fifteen years ago’:

He is one of the simplest, most manly, unaffected men that I know, with very good sterling sense, a sweet temper, and with the manners and experience of a man that has seen much of the world and has profited by what he has seen. The extreme, patient good humour with which he submitted to all his sufferings during the battle of Waterloo and in his very slow recovery afterwards, are said to have been the means of carrying him through ... Since that day he has been unable to use the fingers of his right hand and now writes with his left; but he contrives with singular ingenuity to wield a racket or indeed clench anything with it. Lady Emily is just as she was before her marriage, very good-humoured, but with a silly giggling manner which often offends, though only meant to do so occasionally.32

According to Gronow, it was during his Maltese stint that Ponsonby met Baron de Laussat, a deputy from the Pyrenees and the French field officer, who, it transpired, had saved his life at Waterloo by plying him with brandy.33 Another visitor was Benjamin Disraeli†, who, having heard from his travelling companion William Meredith that Ponsonby was ‘a very nonchalant personage and exceedingly exclusive in his conduct to his subjects’, boasted of how his wit had ‘made our nonchalant governor roll off the sofa from his risible convulsions’ at their first meeting in August 1830. He ‘is a most charming fellow’, he wrote to his sister, but ‘his wife is very ugly and not very popular’. A monumental pillar, since destroyed in a storm, was later erected on the island in his memory.34

Ponsonby retired from Malta in October 1836, citing ill health.35 His sudden death in January 1837 occurred at the Wellesley Arms, Murrell Green, near Basingstoke, as he was sitting down to a meal.36 Raikes reported that ‘the physicians long ago pronounced that the action of his heart was disordered, that he might live on for years, but that when the crisis came, he would die suddenly, as if by a pistol shot’.37 His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine tellingly made no reference to his parliamentary career and quoted a tribute from an unnamed friend:

I have seen him in sickness, in danger, in difficulties, in prosperity, in society, alone with myself ... and I never knew his beautiful disposition vary from that perfect state in which his gentle and noble mind had fixed it.38

By the terms of his brief will, dated 20 May 1834 with a codicil of 19 May 1835, he left all his property to his wife, the sole executrix, to whom administration was granted. His will referred to £10,000 in the keeping of his brother William and another, unspecified, capital sum in the hands of his bankers, but Raikes reported that he had left his family only ‘slender means of support’.39 Wellington subsequently took an interest in furthering the army career of his son Henry Frederick (1825-95), who achieved prominence as private secretary to Queen Victoria.40 His second son Arthur Edward Vallette (1827-68) also went into the army, while his third son Frederick John (1837-94), born posthumously, was champion tennis player at Oxford and entered the church. His widow died in a grace-and-favour apartment in Hampton Court, 1 Feb. 1877.41

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Philip Salmon


  • 1. Gronow Reminiscences, i. 204; Raikes Jnl. iii. 104.
  • 2. P.M. Collins, ‘Col. the Hon. Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby’, Jnl. of Soc. for Army Hist. Research, xlvi (1968), 1-5.
  • 3. Ramsey’s Waterford Chron. 28 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss, Clare to Sneyd, 25 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Black Bk. (1823), 185; Session of Parl. 1825, p. 481.
  • 6. Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 1-2.
  • 7. Greville Mems. i. 95.
  • 8. Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle ed. Lord Bessborough, 276.
  • 9. Wellington mss WP1/703/13.
  • 10. Lady Bessborough, 272-3, 279.
  • 11. Wellington mss WP1/769/17; 770/3, 9.
  • 12. Northumb. RO, Blackett Ord mss NRO 324/A/28.
  • 13. Wellington mss WP1/776/7.
  • 14. Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 341.
  • 15. Wellington mss WP1/804/1, 3, 6; Gronow Reminiscences, ii. 3.
  • 16. The Times, 11 Mar. 1825.
  • 17. Lady Holland to Son, 38, 40.
  • 18. Wellington mss WP1/1009/23; 1014/20.
  • 19. D. Howell-Thomas, Duncannon, 106; Lady Holland to Son, 217.
  • 20. Raikes Jnl. iii. 104.
  • 21. Wexford Evening Post, 2 May 1826.
  • 22. Add. 51724, Duncannon to Lady Holland, 10 Apr. [1826]; Walpole, Russell, i. 132.
  • 23. Wellington mss WP1/867/25; 879/31; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1272.
  • 24. Bodl. (Rhodes House) MSS Medit S 19, on which the following deductions about his votes are based.
  • 25. Ibid. f. 42.
  • 26. J. Ponsonby, Ponsonby Fam. 266; BL, Althorp mss, Ponsonby to Spencer, 4 Feb., 8 Mar., 30 May, 22 June, 16 Nov. 1831.
  • 27. Rhodes House MSS Medit S 19, f. 113.
  • 28. Ibid., f. 20.
  • 29. Greville Mems. i. 261.
  • 30. Rhodes House MSS Medit S 19, ff. 6, 23, 120, 139; Wellington mss WP1/1037/11, 1042/6, 1080/1.
  • 31. Wellington mss WP1/879/31.
  • 32. Fox Jnl. 334-5.
  • 33. Gronow Reminiscences, i. 204-5.
  • 34. Ponsonby, 123-4; Disraeli Letters, i. 97-99.
  • 35. Ponsonby, 227.
  • 36. The Times, 16, 17, 18 Jan. 1837.
  • 37. Raikes Jnl. iii. 106.
  • 38. Gent. Mag. (1837), i. 545.
  • 39. PROB 8/230; PROB 11/1873/111; Raikes Jnl. iii. 104.
  • 40. Howell-Thomas, 260.
  • 41. Ponsonby, 125.