SAUNDERSON, Alexander (1783-1857), of Castle Saunderson, co. Cavan

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



1826 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 22 July 1783, 1st s. of Francis Saunderson†, MP [I], of Castle Saunderson and Anne Bassett, da. of Stephen White of Miskin, Glam. m. 18 Mar. 1828, Sarah Juliana, da. of Rev. Henry Maxwell (later 6th Bar. Farnham [I]), vic. of Templemichael, co. Longford, 5s. (1 d.v.p.) 2da. suc. fa. 1827. d. 28 Nov. 1857.

Offices Held

Sheriff, co. Cavan 1818-19.

Col. co. Cavan militia 1838.


Saunderson’s father Francis, whose great-great-grandfather Robert Sanderson (as the name was then spelt) had sat for the same county about a century earlier, was Member for Cavan at Dublin and London from 1788 to 1806, when he withdrew after falling out with the Maxwells, whose dominant interest was headed by Lord Farnham.1 Despite being an opposition Whig, he was firmly anti-Catholic, and it is supposed by the family’s historian that he had an eldest son, William de Bedick Saunderson, whom he apparently disinherited for marrying the Catholic daughter of one of the lodge keepers at Castle Saunderson.2 Whatever the truth of this, it was Alexander who was groomed to emulate him in Cavan, where he was sheriff during the 1818 election. He offered on his father’s principles at the general election two years later, but withdrew after receiving insufficient support and backed the sitting Members on the hustings, where he was claimed as a sympathizer to the Catholic cause.3 He was considered a potential candidate on a vacancy in the summer of 1823, but he supported the 5th Baron Farnham’s nephew Henry Maxwell*.4 Yet by October 1824 he was canvassing on the basis that his father ‘has enabled me to promise to stand should I be so fortunate as to have a good prospect of success’, and some credence seemed to have been given to his supposed pro-Catholic views by his controversially refusing to drink the toast to William III at a dinner.5

He duly offered in place of the anti-Catholic Nathaniel Sneyd at the general election of 1826, when he at first courted the independent interest. But, amid allegations that he had bartered his suspected views for a seat, he united with Maxwell on a staunchly anti-Catholic ticket, which secured him the votes of many hitherto sceptical country gentlemen. The target of a vitriolic Catholic campaign, he was shouted down on nomination day, when his father walked out of the hall in disgust, and, having received a blow on the head from a stone during the week-long poll, was too overcome by emotion and exhaustion to speak on being declared elected in second place behind Maxwell.6 He attended the Cavan dinner in honour of the defeated Protestant Member for county Waterford Lord George Beresford, 30 Aug. 1826, but was careful to maintain an ambiguous stance, suggesting that relief was impracticable rather than undesirable as such, and at the county meeting on 25 Jan. 1827 he insisted that he would reserve his own opinion for the Commons.7 However, he presented the ensuing hostile petition from Cavan, 2 Mar., and voted against relief, 6 Mar.8 He objected to the spring guns bill, 23 Mar. He voted with Canning, the prime minister, against the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May, but divided in the Tory minorities against the third readings of the Penryn bill, 7 June, and the Coventry magistracy bill, 18 June 1827.

Saunderson succeeded to the family estates on the death of his senile father that year and early in 1828 he married Maxwell’s sternly pious sister Sarah, whose father was an absentee clergyman.9 Assuring Peel, the home secretary, that ‘I feel it a duty I am most anxious to perform, to give every support in my power to the [Wellington] administration of which you are a member’, he informally sought permission to absent himself on account of his nuptials.10 Apart from again dividing against Catholic relief, 12 May, his only other known votes that session were against inquiry into chancery administration, 24 Apr., and reduction of the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July. At the Cavan meeting to establish a Brunswick Club, 13 Oct., he stated that he had always wished to treat the Catholics sympathetically, but would follow the revered memory of his Orangeman father and give the Protestants his backing. Elected president of the Belturbet branch, he attended the first meeting of the Brunswick Club of Ireland in Dublin, 4 Nov. 1828, when he admitted that he had hesitated to join, but had been persuaded to do so by the extremism of the Catholics.11 Yet Saunderson, hiding behind the notion that Members should be allowed to go to Parliament unpledged, again made an equivocal speech at the Protestant county meeting, 21 Jan. 1829.12 Although he was listed by Planta, the patronage secretary, as ‘opposed to the principle’ of the emancipation bill, he voted for it, 6 Mar., and explained on the 9th that he did so only because ministers had become persuaded that it was essential, though he added that they would need to accompany it with a higher franchise. Having been careful that day to sympathize with his Protestant constituents’ righteous indignation, he brought up (but dissented from) their hostile petition, 11 Mar. He divided for raising the qualification from £10 to £20, 26 Mar., but for the third reading of the bill, 30 Mar. Unusually, in May Peel accepted a request for ecclesiastical patronage from Saunderson, who ‘gave us his cordial support and has incurred the displeasure of many of his constituents and of Lord Farnham in particular’.13 He accepted the need for the temporary renewal of the Irish Arms Act, but argued that emancipation had already calmed the turbulent Catholic population, 2 June 1829. Later that year the Ultra leader Sir Richard Vyvyan* listed him among ‘those who voted in favour of the third reading but whose sentiments’ towards a putative coalition ministry were ‘unknown’.

Saunderson took a month’s leave to attend the assizes, 8 Mar. 1830. He voted against Jewish emancipation, 17 May, the Galway franchise bill, 25 May, and (unless this was Richard Sanderson, Member for Colchester) reduction of the grant for South American missions, 7 June. Assured of government support, he was again returned at the general election that summer, when, despite having ‘ratted’, he was backed by those Protestant gentlemen who valued him above the interloper Sir William Young, and by the liberal electors, whose candidates withdrew before the contest.14 So concerned was he about disturbances in Cavan that autumn that he contemplated raising a sort of yeomanry force among his own tenants for their mutual protection.15 He was listed by ministers among their ‘friends’, but having been granted leave because of illness in his family, 15 Nov. 1830, he was absent from the division on the civil list that day. He again obtained leave for three weeks to attend the assizes, 4 Mar., and paired for the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar. 1831. He presented a petition from Cavan borough requesting that it be granted its own Member, 12 Apr., and divided against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. Fatigued by his parliamentary duties, he announced his retirement at the ensuing dissolution, when he nominated the reformer Robert Henry Southwell, explaining that his pro-reform views were unwelcome to his main supporters.16 He signed the reform declaration in county Cavan late that year, but declined the invitation to stand at the general election of 1832 and never sat in Parliament again.17

A conscientious landlord, Saunderson shut up the Castle and remitted his tenants’ rents during the Famine, declaring in March 1847 that ‘I feel as part of a crew of a sinking ship’. By that time, devastated by the death of his eldest son Francis and incapacitated by the loss of a leg, which had to be amputated after a riding accident, he moved abroad and lived as a recluse.18 Remembered on his estates as ‘the Old Colonel’, he died at Nice in November 1857. Latterly under the influence of his strong-willed wife, he had disinherited their crippled son Alexander and his rebellious brother Somerset, so the bulk of the property passed to their fourth son Colonel Edward James Saunderson (1837-1906), Member for Cavan, 1865-74, and North Armagh, 1885-1906, who led the Liberal Unionist resistance to Gladstone’s home rule bill.19

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Hist. Irish Parl. vi. 244-7; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 631; v. 96-97.
  • 2. H. Saunderson, Saundersons of Castle Saunderson, 53-55.
  • 3. Dublin Evening Post, 26 Feb., 9 Mar.; Enniskillen Chron. 6 Apr. 1820.
  • 4. NLI, Farnham mss 18602 (1), Clements to Farnham, 30 July; (2), Saunderson to same, 19 Aug. 1823.
  • 5. PRO NI, Richardson mss D2002/C/27/1; PRO NI, Morley mss T3530/2/12/47, 49.
  • 6. Dublin Evening Post, 10, 20 June, 1, 4 July; Impartial Reporter, 15, 29 June, 3 July; Farnham mss 18602 (22), Irvine to Maxwell, 16 June, Chambers to same, 17 June; (24), Saunderson to same, 19 June; (28), to same, 30 June 1826; Rev. T. P. Cunningham, ‘1826 General Election in Co. Cavan’, Breifne, ii (1962), 16-17, 22-23, 27, 30.
  • 7. Westmeath Jnl. 7 Sept. 1826; Enniskillen Chron. 1 Feb. 1827; Cunningham, 38-39.
  • 8. The Times, 3 Mar. 1827.
  • 9. Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 8 Dec. 1827; Saunderson, 52, 56-58.
  • 10. Add. 40395, f. 188.
  • 11. Impartial Reporter, 23, 30 Oct., 6, 13 Nov. 1828.
  • 12. Enniskillen Chron. 29 Jan. 1829.
  • 13. Add. 40336, f. 275.
  • 14. NAI, Leveson Gower letter bks. M738, Leveson Gower to Planta, 11 July; Enniskillen Chron. 29 July, 5, 19 Aug.; Impartial Reporter, 19 Aug.; Farnham mss 18602 (41), Southwell to Maxwell, 12 Aug., Saunderson to same, 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 15. Add. 40313, f. 114.
  • 16. Dublin Evening Post, 26, 28 Apr.; Enniskillen Chron. 19 May 1831.
  • 17. Enniskillen Chron. 1 Dec. 1831; Cunningham, 39.
  • 18. Saunderson, 58-59; A. Jackson, Col. Edward Saunderson, 168-9, 174-7, 183, 185-6.
  • 19. Dublin Evening Post, 5 Dec. 1857; Saunderson, 56, 58-60; Jackson, 27-28, 177-8.