VANSITTART, Nicholas (1766-1851), of 10 Downing Street, Whitehall, Mdx.

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



1796 - 1802
1802 - May 1812
8 June 1812 - 1812
1812 - 4 Feb. 1823

Family and Education

b. 29 Apr. 1766, 5th s. of Henry Vansittart (d.?1770) of Foxley, Berks., gov. Bengal, and Emilia, da. of Nicholas Morse, gov. Madras. educ. Gilpin’s sch. Cheam; Christ Church, Oxf. 1784; I. Temple 1786; L. Inn 1788, called 1791. m. 22 July 1806, Hon. Catharine Isabella Eden, da. of William Eden†, 1st Bar. Auckland, s.p. cr. Bar. Bexley 1 Mar. 1823. d. 8 Feb. 1851.

Offices Held

Envoy to Denmark Feb.-Mar. 1801; sec. to treasury Apr. 1801-May 1804, Feb. 1806-Apr. 1807; chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] Jan.-Sept. 1805; PC 14 Jan. 1805; chan. of exch. May 1812-Jan. 1823; chan. of duchy of Lancaster Feb. 1823-Jan. 1828.

Lt. Westminster vols. 1795-8, (dismounted) capt. 1798; lt.-col. St. Margaret’s and St. John’s vols. 1803.

Bencher, L. Inn 1812; commr. for building new churches 1818.

High steward, Harwich.


George Canning* likened the ‘pious and demure looking’ Vansittart to ‘the honest attorney who brings in the real will at the end of the play’; and John Mallet described him as ‘indefatigable at his pen’ and ‘made to be an actuary to an insurance office’.1 His mumbling delivery rendered him largely useless in Commons debate, where he was propped up by Lord Castlereagh. (When the witty ‘Bobus’ Smith* saw a letter from Vansittart asking Edward Littleton to postpone a question on the circulation until he could ‘speak distinctly and positively’ on the subject, he remarked, ‘Why, damn him, we may wait to all eternity, if we are to wait till then!’)2 By the death of his mother in August 1819 Vansittart, as her residuary legatee, inherited something in the region of £100,000;3 and it was this windfall which made his cabinet colleague William Wellesley Pole* wonder in January 1820 whether he ‘might probably not be anxious to remain’ in harness. When Robert Ward* observed that ‘Vansittart’s heart and pleasure seemed to be in office’, Wellesley Pole replied that ‘he was afraid he was doing ill, and was not much approved by the moneyed interest’.4 Indeed, Vansittart seemed a fixture at the exchequer, notwithstanding the derision with which his post-war financial expedients, propounded with a benign complacency maddening to his critics, were regarded by many pundits. He was nothing if not diligent and, above all, still enjoyed the confidence of Lord Liverpool. Yet by 1820 his position had been weakened by his defeat over the resumption of cash payments and the related success of the Canningite William Huskisson* in persuading the premier that there must be an efficient sinking fund, based on real surplus revenue.5

After coming in again for the treasury borough of Harwich, Vansitart answered opposition questions on the civil list, 27, 28 Apr., when he told Lord Archibald Hamilton that to encourage the Scottish poor to emigrate to America would be to ‘transport them to poverty on a foreign shore’.6 He refused to amend the Scottish malt duty, 1 May, and parried criticism of the civil list, as he did again, 2, 3 May. Opposing inquiry into the droits of the crown, 5 May, he boasted of a saving of over £238,000 since 1816. In reply to Maberly’s call for exchequer bill accounts, 11 May, he declined to divulge his financial plans, but defended his policy in general terms. He was willing to receive the Oldham petition complaining of military outrages, 12 May; but when Hamilton attacked the Scottish representative system, 25 May, he warned the gullible against concluding that it ‘must necessarily be defective, because it differed from that of England’. He opposed repeal of the tax on foreign wool, 26 May, and explained the contract for the funding of £7,000,000 of exchequer bills, 31 May. On 1 June he endorsed the government amendment to the proposed inquiry into the Welsh judicature. Later that day he climbed down from his resistance to consideration of the linen bounties when Frederick Robinson, president of the board of trade, explained that he had promised the mover, Maberly, that he would not be opposed. He replied tartly to Creevey’s attack on the pensions charged on the Barbados defence fund, 2 June. It fell to him to move the adjournment when news arrived of Queen Caroline’s arrival in England, 5 June 1820.7

Vansittart moved resolutions to continue the Irish Union duties for a limited period, 8 June, and defeated a motion for their immediate repeal, 14 June. After stating the terms of the loan contracted for raising £5,000,000 by annuities, 9 June, he replied to Ricardo’s general criticism of his system of public borrowing. He said government could not intervene to alleviate the distress caused by Irish bank failures, 14 June, but two days later announced a loan of £500,000 by way of relief. He also defended the increase in barrack expenditure, which had been forced on government by the ‘agitated state of the country’. Vansittart made his budget statement to a House still restless after Castlereagh’s presentation of papers concerning the queen, 19 June. To meet the requirements of expenditure he proposed to borrow £12,000,000 from the sinking fund, in addition to the £12,000,000 already raised in loans. He predicted a surplus of £3,500,000, short of the £5,000,000 deemed requisite the previous year, and the result of a sluggish economy.8 He defended the modest expense of the coronation, which would stimulate employment, 3 July, and accused Dr. Lushington of encouraging the people to indulge in ‘extremities and outrage’. He opposed Hume’s call for economies in revenue collection and persuaded him to drop his motion for information on the value of the late king’s private property, 4 July. When Hamilton moved for restoration of the differential Scottish malt duty, 5 July, Vansittart offered a partial concession, but it failed to appease Hamilton, whose motion was defeated by 53-43. He explained modifications to the lottery bill, 6 July, disclaimed responsibility for the finance committee’s alleged suppression of its findings on the audit office, 7 July, but reluctantly acquiesced in the production of papers, 12 July, and defended the barrack agreement, 10, 11, 13, 17 July.9 He sought to justify the clause of the spirits bill which would allow the import of Irish raw spirits under certain conditions, 12 July, but abandoned it when even Castlereagh denounced it as ‘nugatory’. He outlined plans for the future regulation of Irish distillation, 14 July, and blocked inquiry into the subject, 18 July.10 Vansittart, who featured prominently in the collective discomfort of the government front bench as the furore over the queen unfolded, denied that ministers had left her short of legal aid, 18 Sept., and, speaking for the longer adjournment, 17 Oct., defended lord chancellor Eldon against Whig attacks. He privately thought the bill of pains and penalties ‘wisely given up’ and welcomed the prorogation, which would allow ‘spirits to cool’. Ministers, he told Ward, ‘were bound in honour, at whatever expense of struggle and courage, to stand by the king as long as he was firm to them’.11 On Canning’s resignation from the India board in November 1820 Vansittart ‘very handsomely offered’ to move there if the exchequer was required to accommodate Robert Peel.12

Vansittart spoke briefly against restoration of the queen’s name to the liturgy, 23 Jan. 1821. Creevey claimed that when he condemned the duke of Wellington’s recent reference to the ‘farce’ of public meetings in her support, 26 Jan., ‘Mouldy’, as he called Vansittart, tried ‘to punish me, but was instantly smothered in universal derision’.13 He refused to commit government to repeal of the agricultural horse tax and said it was not possible to appropriate civil list money to provide for the queen, 13 Jan. He did not oppose Maberly’s motion for an account of the deficiency on the consolidated fund, 1 Feb., but boasted that the country ‘had arrived at a period, when it might bid adieu either to loans or new taxes’. He argued that trade was improving, repudiated Grenfell’s attack on the ‘dilapidated’ sinking fund, and hoped for an increase of revenue. He defended the navy estimates, 2, 6 Feb., and, in the face of Creevey’s calls for economies to relieve distress, 9 Feb., promised a reduction of at least £1,000,000 in the year’s estimates. In the absence of Castlereagh, he denied knowledge of British and Allied intervention in Naples, 9, 12 Feb.14 He again resisted repeal of the Union duties, 16 Feb., agreed to streamline the procedure for presenting the annual estimates, 19 Feb.,15 and opposed receipt of Davison’s petition against Justice William Best†, 23 Feb. Vansittart, who voted as usual against Catholic relief, 28 Feb., spoke against Curwen’s attempts to repeal the agricultural horse tax and to impose a duty on stock transfers, 5 Mar.: the latter would ‘bring down destruction upon public faith’. Replying to Maberly’s motion for repeal of the house and window taxes, 6 Mar., he argued that the promotion of capital circulation and the maintenance of public credit would do more to mitigate distress than the fanciful nostrums peddled by ‘political charlatans’. He outlined the bill to advance the resumption of cash payments, 19 Mar. His denial of Wilson’s suggestion that he had two years earlier encouraged the manufacture of coffee substitute from wheat, 12 Mar., led to angry words, private explanations and a public apology from Vansittart, 14 Mar.16 After speaking against the financial claims of American loyalists, he vainly opposed repeal of the additional malt duty, 21 Mar. As an amendment to Hume’s motion for abolition of revenue offices, 22 Mar., he offered and carried a select committee of inquiry.17 He spoke against Hume’s motions for a revision of public salaries, 30 Mar. and 6 Apr., when he insisted that the government had made ‘reductions to a considerable extent’, with more in the offing. He repented his hostility to repeal of the husbandry horse tax, 5 Apr.,18 and opposed inquiry into the possibility of establishing a dual currency standard, 9 Apr. He carried by 56-17 his proposal to refer petitions against the Scottish malt duty to a select committee, 12 Apr., and accepted an amendment to the cash payments bill, 13 Apr. On 17 Apr. Lambton, opening his speech in support of parliamentary reform, mocked the emptiness of the treasury bench, where there sat only Vansittart and Charles Bathurst, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, ‘those right honourable twins, so lovingly united in affection, in principle, and in representation of the oyster-dredgers of Harwich’. Vansittart, opposing the motion, denied that majority opinion in the country was for reform and extolled the ‘degree of practical liberty’ enjoyed under the existing constitution. He deflected Parnell’s motion for inquiry into trade with Ireland, 19 Apr. At about this time the Canningite John William Ward*, who considered ‘Van’s anti-arithmetical propositions’ of finance `a disgrace to Parliament’, marvelled at his ‘cool intrepidity’ in the face of economic adversity, though he reflected that ‘Van’s courage may be the result of short-sightedness and phlegm’.19 The ministry’s continued weakness in Commons debate, now exacerbated by the loss of Canning, had already tempted Liverpool to consider taking advantage of Vansittart’s offer of the previous December in order to bring in Peel, but the scheme foundered, largely on Castlereagh’s fear of Peel as a dangerous rival in the potentially powerful office of chancellor. Lord Melville, who was to have replaced Lord Sidmouth at the home office, thus vacating the admiralty for Canning, endorsed Liverpool’s reconsidered view that he

knew from experience that he could go on perfectly well with Van as his chancellor, but that at best it would be an experiment with Mr. Peel and, if it failed, his position would be an extremely unpleasant one; and, as there was no fault to be found with Van in his financial capacity, that it would be a pity to run such a risk.

By early May 1821 there was no immediate threat to Vansittart’s place.20

In reply to Hume’s carping on the army estimates, 2 May 1821, he said that it was ‘well known’ that his own post ‘was not overpaid’. (It was worth about £5,300 a year plus, in Vansittart’s case, the Downing Street house.) He vindicated the preference given to West over East Indian sugar, 4 May, defended the bill authorizing a loan of £500,000 from the Bank of Ireland in return for allowing it to extend its capital, 9, 10 May, and opposed repeal of the Irish window tax, 16 May, and a call for stringent economy, 18 May.21 He announced that there would be no need for an additional vote of money for the coronation, 21 May, defended the extraordinary civil list grant, 28 May, and defeated by 64-31 Maberly’s motion for equalization of the interest to be paid on Irish treasury and exchequer bills, 30 May. In his financial statement, 1 June, he claimed a reduction in expenditure from 1820 of £1,771,888, promised continued efforts to economize, admitted that a clear sinking fund surplus of £5,000,000 had not yet been attained, but said that £4,000,000 was within reach. Boasting of the large reduction in the unfunded debt in the last three years, he painted a rosy picture of the country’s ‘immense inherent resources’ and ‘solid means’.22 He again refused further compensation for American loyalists, 6 June, denied an assertion that the country was deeper in debt than at the end of the war, 8 June, and opposed as unnecessary Newport’s bid to spell out the right of Catholics to become Irish Bank directors, 13 June. The following day he had the humiliation of seeing Curwen’s motion for repeal of the agricultural horse tax carried against his defence of the government record on economy by 141-113.23 His implied threat to overturn the verdict when the bill came in provoked an outcry; and on 18 June he backed down, in deference to ‘the sense of the country’. He professed to be shocked by a Whig’s reference to the coronation as an ‘absurd and expensive ... pageant’, 21 June, when his ‘very angry’ retort that no one else in the country shared that view provoked ‘a loud laugh and shout’ from the opposition benches.24 Next day, in another climb-down, he announced the provision of £60,000 for loyalists. He would not be drawn on Hume’s allegation of partiality in government patronage of Irish newspapers, 28 June, and opposed repeal of a vexatious clause of the Beer Duties Act, 29 June.25 He had to admit that there were after all additional, though small coronation expenses, 30 June, and promised to do what he could to relieve Scottish brewers of genuine hardship, 10 July 1821.26 He was in the minority of six who opposed a reduction in the compensation to General Desfourneaux.27

In that month the Grenvillite William Fremantle* claimed that Wellington agreed with him that Vansittart and Bathurst were ‘perfect cyphers’ in the Commons. In their negotiations with Liverpool during the recess the Grenvillites made a dead set at Vansittart: Charles Williams Wynn*, for example, wrote in early October that his ‘retirement from the exchequer is indispensable’.28 In a discussion with Liverpool, 30 Nov., Lord Buckingham, though generally happy with the terms offered, tried to have Vansittart replaced by the pro-Catholic Huskisson:

I stated ... that the real ground of the weakness of the government was Mr. Vansittart’s inadequacy to his task in the House of Commons ... that Lord Liverpool must know ... that his own friends and the country gentlemen in particular were loud in disapprobation of the manner in which the chancellor ... conducted his business in the House ... that the proposition of a junction would come much stronger recommended if we could see any prospect of a change in that department, without injury to Mr. Vansittart’s fair claims.

Liverpool retorted that

the first lord of the treasury in the House of Lords could not carry on the government without his chancellor of the exchequer being wholly, exclusively and entirely in his confidence, that it would not do to have a chancellor ... in any way independent of the first lord ... or belonging to another party in the government ... That he knew Lord Londonderry’s [Castlereagh] wish was not to have anyone else in that situation ... That he was quite aware of Vansittart’s faults, that he was no orator, that he had an ungracious and undecided way of doing business, but that the consideration he had stated more than counterbalanced those inconveniences.

Buckingham, who stood to gain a dukedom, was ready to acquiesce in Vansittart’s retention, but his uncle Lord Grenville, nominal head of the group, still thought he deserved no mercy. Londonderry intervened to impress on Buckingham, among other considerations, the folly of insisting on Vansittart’s removal as a sine qua non. He pointed out that if Peel or another ‘man of considerable talent’ and Protestant views was at the exchequer, which in normal circumstances carried with it the lead in the Commons, his own supremacy and the success of the Catholic question would be endangered. He added that

no one could act with Lord Liverpool at all times, and under all circumstances, like Van; that Lord Liverpool was accustomed to his odd ways and Vansittart’s to Lord Liverpool’s; that at all moments of sulk, indisposition or worry Vansittart could get Lord Liverpool to do business when no one else could.

Moreover he, like Wellington, hinted that Vansittart might soon depart voluntarily, having ‘come to a certain time of life ... wound up his revenue ... tided through all the difficulties attending the return from war to peace ... [and] concluded his retrenchments’. The Grenvillites duly joined the ministry with Vansittart still in place.29 He was said to be predicting, more accurately than perhaps he realized, ‘constant botheration on economy’ in the forthcoming session.30

In cabinet Vansittart advocated the provision of cheaper credit as the most effective remedy for agricultural distress. He wished to convert the five per cents into four, in order to reduce the charge on the debt, leave scope for tax remissions and encourage interest rates to fall. He planned to borrow £3,000,000 from the Bank for the year’s supply and advance £4,000,000 to the landed interest in exchequer bills; but the latter plan ran into difficulties when the banks refused to lend because farmers could not offer adequate security. It was therefore decided to make a loan of £4,000,000 at three per cent to parishes, on the security of their rates.31 When Hume moved an amendment to the address calling for extensive tax reductions, 5 Feb. 1822, he handed Vansittart a copy of his detailed statement of the national finances. Vansittart, as one unimpressed backbencher saw it, ‘stammered a short answer’, in which he said the best remedy for distress was ‘an extension of the currency’, promised modest tax reductions, paid lip service to the value of the alliance with the Grenvillites, and argued that Hume’s scheme would destroy the sinking fund and public credit. The Whig Member Sir James Mackintosh thought that Vansittart ‘spoke very intemperately and injudiciously’.32 It was Londonderry who detailed the government’s proposals for the relief of distress, 15 Feb.; and at the close of the debate on Lord Althorp’s critical resolution, 21 Feb., Vansittart again insisted that the sinking fund must be ‘religiously guarded and properly applied to redeem the debt’. He pointed to the ‘improving’ condition of trade and manufacturing and declared that a large reduction of taxes, which ‘did not appear a matter of indispensable necessity’, would be ‘dearly purchased by any interference with the delicate subject of public credit’. The following day he was given an uncomfortable time over apparent discrepancies in the public accounts, on which subject he agreed under pressure to appoint a select committee. He also announced that he would not repeal the Irish window tax, but that he would extend to Ireland remission of the malt duty, though he subsequently admitted, 28 Mar., that it would do little good.33 On 25 Feb. he laid before the House his plan to convert the five per cents, which would effect an annual saving of £1,230,000. Londonderry told the king that its terms had been ‘very generally approved’ and, less convincingly, that Vansittart had given ‘very clear and satisfactory answers’ to the various queries which were raised. This, Vansittart’s most successful financial stroke, eventually realized a saving of £1,140,000 at the cost of an addition of £7,000,000 to the capital debt.34 He directly opposed gradual reduction of the salt duties, 28 Feb., when Maria Edgeworth, a spectator in the ventilator, noted that of all the speakers, he used ‘the best language and most correct English, though there is little in what he says’. (The Speaker, she was told, once said that Vansittart ‘never makes a mistake in grammar’.)35 He repeated his promise to instigate inquiry into the means of simplifying the public accounts, 1 Mar.,36 but when he made the proposal, 18 Apr., he refused to enlarge its scope as Maberly and others wished. He defended the payment of a fee to the Bank for managing the stock conversion, 4 Mar. He opposed reduction of the Scottish house tax, 28 Mar.37 He tried to justify the size of John Herries’s* salary as Irish commissary, 29 Mar., announced that he would mitigate the tax on mortgage transfers to help agriculture, 1 Apr., promised ‘considerable reductions’ in the allowances of stamp distributors, 17 Apr., and denied that the leather tax was oppressive and expressed reluctance to interfere with extents in aid, 24 Apr.38 He voted against Canning’s bill to relieve Catholic peers, 30 Apr. 1822.

On 11 Mar. 1822 Vansittart outlined his measure to lessen the expense of public salaries by making deductions to create a general superannuation fund. Fremantle commented that the bill (which became law as 3 Geo. IV, c. 113) would ‘create a great deal of discussion’, which Vansittart ‘will not mend by his explanations’.39 On 1 May he explained the associated scheme to relieve the immediate burden of naval and military pensions by granting contractors a fixed annuity of 45 years. Although Ricardo and others exposed it as a blatant ‘invasion’ of the sinking fund, the House accepted Vansittart’s resolutions. The plan was soon in trouble, however, for no contractors were willing to take the risk. Buckingham thought that

nobody but such a blockhead as Van would have thought of submitting his plan to the City just at the moment when the government was loudly proclaiming everywhere, that its existence was to depend upon the next division, and when the opposition was boasting and betting you would [be] beat [on the joint-postmastership, 2 May]. The eve of failure is not the day when a man borrows money to the greatest advantage.40

Accordingly Vansittart announced, 24 May, a modification of the scheme, whereby trustees were to manage a fund raised by exchequer bills on the sale of annuities. He claimed that this new debt would not trench on the sinking fund, and proposed compensatory remissions of the taxes on leather and salt, and repeal of the Irish window tax and the tonnage duty.41 His plea that the post office was under investigation by a commission failed to prevent the success of Lord Normanby’s motion for abolition of one of the postmasterships, 2 May. The same day he denied allegations that he had not given due notice of negotiations for renewal of the Bank’s charter. He dismissed Wyvill’s ‘revolutionary’ proposal for the repeal of £20,000,000 in taxes, 8 May, and opposed as impractical the notion of a tax on absentees, 16 May. To much jeering from the opposition benches, he signified his acquiescence in Grenfell’s suggestion that the national debt commissioners be allowed to apply their funds to the purchase of the naval and military pension annuities, 3 June. Later that day he opposed total repeal of the salt tax. He did so again, 5, 11 June, but on 14 June he announced a modification of his original proposals.42 He expressed sympathy with the grievances of Irish tanners against the leather tax, 19 June,43 but threatened to abandon its proposed reduction if the House voted to repeal the salt tax, 28 June. In his budget statement, 1 July, he predicted a surplus of £5,000,000 for the sinking fund and claimed that the success of the stock conversion demonstrated the ‘solid foundation of British credit’. The following day he opposed repeal of the house and window taxes, while indicating that the latter would be reviewed in future, and boasted that ‘in no other country of Europe had so large a remission of taxation been made’ since 1815. He successfully resisted an attempt to repeal the 1821 Beer Duties Act, 9 July, and insisted that ministers had been more than fair in their financial dealings with the late queen, 24 July.44 He easily got rid of Hume’s alternative budget, 25 July. When Canning attacked the superannuation bill, 26 July, Vansittart was assisted in his defence of it by Londonderry. On its third reading, 29 July, he carried amendments which his opponents deemed unintelligible. He reiterated the government’s refusal to settle the queen’s debts, 31 July 1822.45 Vansittart’s political credibility had been irreparably damaged by the ineptitude and evasiveness of his performance in the 1822 session. Yet when Huskisson described him, just after Londonderry’s suicide, which increased his vulnerability, as ‘the real blot and sin of the government’, John Croker*, secretary to the admiralty, replied that ‘Van, though not a very creditable chancellor ... was a very useful one’, if only, to take a cynical view, because his willingness to eat his words had helped to keep the ministry in office. Croker subsequently reflected that however much Huskisson might covet his place, Vansittart was at least ‘as safe and as work-withable a chancellor’, and that ‘the general opinion seems to leave Van in the quiet possession of his dead weight and his small remnant of sinking fund’; but Canning’s acceptance of the foreign secretaryship with the lead in the Commons prompted renewed speculation about Vansittart’s future at the exchequer, where his days seemed to be numbered.46

Canning, frustrated by Buckingham in his initial bid to remove Williams Wynn from the India board and replace him with Huskisson, turned his attention to Vansittart in early October 1822 when, to his ‘infinite surprise’, he drew from Liverpool an admission that he was ‘not immovable’. Liverpool, who conceded that Vansittart was ‘absurd, ridiculed and deserted by everybody’, said he would ‘get him out’ if a satisfactory arrangement could be reached. He was quite sure that Vansittart would never voluntarily surrender the exchequer to Huskisson, as Canning’s man, and felt the India board would be ‘the surest lure’ to him. Canning was aware that ‘all chance of success with Van depends upon ... [Liverpool] not appearing to make his approaches at anyone’s instigation, or as a matter of compact’. (‘It was of the utmost importance’ he later wrote, ‘that my cloven foot should not appear in the scheme’.) He persuaded Huskisson to settle for the board of trade in succession to Robinson for whom, as Londonderry’s favourite, Vansittart would have no qualms about vacating the exchequer to go to the India board.47 It proved impossible, however, to shift Williams Wynn and, to create a suitable niche for Vansittart, Canning next aimed to secure the retirement of Bathurst from the duchy of Lancaster. By early December Bathurst, after negotiations conducted through his brother-in-law Lord Sidmouth, now a cabinet minister without office, had agreed to stand down from both place and Parliament.48 On 14 Dec. 1822 Liverpool informed Vansittart of this development and, reminding him of his offer of two years earlier to move aside for Peel, offered him the duchy, which was

a situation ... highly honourable in itself, and which may save you from some of those eventual embarrassments which nearly always grow out of so great a change in the government as has unavoidably arisen in consequence of the death of ... Londonderry.

He informed Vansittart of the plans for Robinson and Huskisson, and invited him to consult Sidmouth, still his closest political associate. (There is no truth in the spiteful story recorded by Lord Colchester that Liverpool’s letter was ‘not even written in his own hand’.)49 Vansittart, who had recently bought a Kent estate at Foot’s Cray, near Bromley, where he was having a house built for his eventual retirement (when not in Downing Street he lived with his spinster sister Sophia in the Blackheath house which she had inherited from their mother) asked for time to consider. He approved the idea of Robinson as his successor, but hinted at reluctance to take the duchy with a seat in the Commons:

I have long felt myself growing unequal to the labour of the House of Commons; and ... I think nothing could reconcile me to enter upon another Parliament. My inclination therefore would rather lean to a total retreat, if it could be managed without the appearance either of public or private difference: but this it might not be so easy to avoid.50

After consulting Sidmouth he told Liverpool, 16 Dec., that having pondered whether ‘this is a time when I can voluntarily relinquish active employment with credit’, and whether ‘the mode proposed to me [is] an honourable one’, he had concluded that ‘the opportunity, though not peculiarly eligible, is at least not discreditable’, and that the arrangement was ‘not less honourable than a simple retirement, though less agreeable to myself’. Anxious, in the first instance, to ensure that no one but Robinson succeeded him, he urged Liverpool to put the offer to him.51 When Liverpool told him of Robinson’s acceptance, 21 Dec., Vansittart, who was to meet the premier on the 26th to discuss his own destination, indicated that ‘I have by no means made up my mind to accept the duchy’, as there were ‘several considerations on both sides’. The following day he explained his ‘considerable objections’ to Sidmouth, who was keen for him to accept. Its only merit from a personal standpoint was its being ‘a disguised pension’, though inferior, ‘from its precariousness’, to what he was entitled to under the Act of 1817, which he would have claimed in preference had financial provision been ‘decidedly essential to my future conduct’. As against this, acceptance would ‘keep continually hanging over my head a second resignation and final retirement’. Above all, he jibbed at the prospect of remaining in the Commons as a superannuated minister with little to do and shorn of ‘all consideration and importance’, which must be the consequence if he was to ‘obtain any material relief’ from the drudgery and strain of constant attendance:

Any minister in the House of Commons who would not be utterly insignificant, is in a situation very unfavourable to health and comfort, especially as in addition to the evening labour, I should always be obliged to pass the mornings in committees, of which the burden and vexation has been continually increasing of late.52

Nor could he believe that Liverpool attached ‘any real importance’ to his remaining in the cabinet. Before leaving London he unburdened himself obliquely but clearly enough, to Arbuthnot, secretary to the treasury, who, doubtless as Vansittart intended, immediately notified Liverpool of what it was he really wanted:

He more than once said that had he been a peer he could have had no hesitation in accepting the duchy ... He is anxious to quit the House of Commons altogether, and it would ... delight him if you were to propose to him a peerage with the duchy of Lancaster for immediate possession, and to have the warrant for his pension signed so that he might as a thing of course come into the receipt of it whenever he shall be deprived of the duchy.

Liverpool, aware of the king’s aversion to multiplying peerages and dubious of Vansittart’s fitness in status and wealth to sustain one, hoped Sidmouth would be able to talk him out of it, but Vansittart dug in his heels. At their meeting on 26 Dec. 1822 Liverpool ‘not very willingly’ agreed to recommend the peerage to the king, though he absolutely refused to attach to it ‘any collateral remainders’, consoling himself with the reflection that it would almost certainly expire with the childless Vansittart, a widower for 12 years and now approaching 57 years of age. Vansittart who, Arbuthnot commented, ‘rates his financial merits very high’, was slightly miffed, but settled readily enough for what, in all the circumstances, was an excellent personal bargain. The king sanctioned the whole arrangement, which had been kept largely secret, on 2 Jan. 1823.53

Canning was delighted with himself for having engineered ‘poor V’s euthanasia’.54 Lord Bathurst, the colonial secretary, welcomed the settlement, which had spared his old friend the humiliation of being forced out of the exchequer: nor was it any more than Vansittart deserved, for ‘the public do not do justice to the real energy of his character and the fertility of his resources’. Lord Harrowby thought that ‘Van’s retreat is most handsomely covered’, though he did ‘not expect much assistance from his eloquence in our House’.55 Sir Watkin Williams Wynn* observed that it would be ‘a great relief to the House of Commons not to have poor Van’s croaking any more’.56 According to Canning, who had great difficulty in reconciling Huskisson to his exclusion from the cabinet, Vansittart talked to him ‘with perfect good humour’ of what had passed, but made it plain that to have stood aside for Huskisson would have been ‘a disgrace to which he could never have submitted’.57 Once the news was out, many a joke was made on the subject of Vansittart’s title. Charles Williams Wynn, who believed ‘he trusts still to his own loins to perpetuate the peerage’, though ‘Old Nick ought to be Viscount Van, for alliteration sake’.58 Henry Fox* recorded that the Whig wags

talk of Ld. Caravan, Ld. Woold and Coold, which is the way he pronounces would and could, and which is meant to be a parody on Saye and Sele. The best, however, is that he cannot take the name of his birthplace, Maidenhead.59

Canning put it about that ‘Van is to be Ld. Cockermouth’.60 Sidmouth noted that he received the congratulations of his friends with his customary ‘great complacency’, but a farewell cabinet dinner, planned for 28 Jan., had to be cancelled because he was ‘very unwell and confined to his bed’.61 As soon as Parliament met he and Charles Bathurst vacated their Harwich seats for Canning, who was tired of sitting for Liverpool, and Herries, the new financial secretary to the treasury. According to Hobhouse of the home office, Vansittart scotched Canning’s bid to secure 10 Downing Street for his own use and relegate Robinson to a smaller house.62 His peerage, with the prosaic title of Bexley, was conferred on 1 Mar. 1823. Two weeks later Sidmouth reported that he ‘still bears the marks of his illness’ and could surely ‘not have stood the service of another session in the House of Commons’.63 Vansittart moved back into his London house at 31 Great George Street (let since 1812) and set himself up at Foot’s Cray Place when rebuilding was completed in 1824.64 Peel made fun of him, 24 Aug. 1823, when he told his wife of a social call from him: ‘You may judge what a desert London must be when a visit from Van is thus recorded’.65

He took an occasional but not important part in Lords debates. On the collapse of the Liverpool ministry in 1827 he enhanced his reputation as ‘a twaddle’ by first agreeing to continue in office under Canning, then tendering his resignation, and finally being ‘silly enough’ to agree, under pressure from Canning and the king, to stay on. He remained in office under Lord Goderich, would have resigned had Lord Holland been admitted to the cabinet, and was ditched by Wellington in January 1828, when the blow was softened by the grant of his ‘first class’ pension of £3,000 a year.66 He continued his active promotion of Evangelical Christianity and related good works, and became president of the British and Foreign Bible Mission.67 An unrepentant opponent of Catholic relief, he attended the Kent county meeting, 24 Oct. 1828, but did not try to make his feeble voice heard. Instead, he published an Address to the Freeholders, which put the case against concessions and created a minor stir.68 He spoke and voted against emancipation in 1829. He opposed the Grey ministry’s reform bills, and was one of the 22 diehards who voted against the third reading of the final English bill, 4 June 1832.

Vansittart, whose sister died intestate and worth £60,000 in 1836,69 died at Foot’s Cray in February 1851, when his peerage became extinct. By his will, dated 26 July 1848, he devised his London house to his nieces Emilia and Selina Parry, who also received an annuity of £1,000 for their joint lives. He left his Kent estate and property at Upton St. Leonards, Gloucestershire, to his cousin Arthur Vansittart (1807-59) of Shottesbrook, Berkshire, who was succeeded by his son Coleraine Robert Vansittart (1833-86). The residue of his personal estate was divided equally between his Parry nieces and their sister Eliza, wife of John Thornton of Clapham.70 A sour obituary acknowledged his ‘perpetual good-nature’ and ‘the primitive simplicity of his manner’, which had ‘obtained for him many friends’, but marvelled that he should have risen so high in politics ‘with no very conspicuous exercise of talents, knowledge or energy’. As for his oratorical abilities, ‘not one man in a hundred understood him’.71

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. B. Hilton, Corn, Cash, Currency, 165.
  • 2. Hatherton mss, Vansittart to Littleton, 1 Apr. 1822; Hatherton diary, 17 Mar. 1836.
  • 3. PROB 11/1619/401; IR26/807/693.
  • 4. Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. ii. 47.
  • 5. Hilton, 33-35, 39-40, 42, 46, 48, 65, 87.
  • 6. The Times, 28 Apr., 1 May 1820.
  • 7. Williams Wynn Corresp. 247.
  • 8. Gurney diary, 19 June [1820]; J.E. Cookson, Lord Liverpool’s Administration, 228.
  • 9. The Times, 8, 12, 13 July 1820.
  • 10. Ibid. 19 July 1820.
  • 11. Phipps, ii. 96, 97, 101.
  • 12. Hobhouse Diary, 45; NLW, Coedyman mss 595.
  • 13. Creevey Pprs. ii. 9.
  • 14. The Times, 7, 10, 13 Feb. 1821.
  • 15. Ibid. 20 Feb. 1821.
  • 16. Ibid. 13, 15 Mar. 1820; Add. 30115, ff. 20, 22.
  • 17. HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 42.
  • 18. The Times, 6 Apr. 1821.
  • 19. Ward, Llandaff Letters, 281, 284.
  • 20. Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 82, 94; Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 142, 163; Hobhouse Diary, 62; Cookson, 308-9, 311-12.
  • 21. The Times, 10, 17 May 1821.
  • 22. Grey Bennet diary, 94.
  • 23. The Times, 9, 14, 15 June 1821; Grey Bennet diary, 100.
  • 24. The Times, 22 June 1821; Grey Bennet diary, 104.
  • 25. The Times, 23, 29, 30 June 1821.
  • 26. Ibid. 2, 11 July 1821.
  • 27. Coedymaen mss 609; Grey Bennet diary, 111.
  • 28. Buckingham, i. 173, 210, 229; Cookson, 335; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 133; Coedymaen mss 946.
  • 29. BL, Fortescue mss, Buckingham to Grenville, 30 Nov., 3 Dec., memo. 30 Nov.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 11 Dec. 1821.
  • 30. Bagot, Canning and Friends, ii. 123.
  • 31. Cookson, 346-50; Hilton, 157.
  • 32. Gurney diary, 5 Feb. [1822]; Add. 52445, f. 35.
  • 33. The Times, 23, 29 Mar. 1822.
  • 34. Geo. IV Letters, ii. 1004.
  • 35. Edgeworth Letters, 370.
  • 36. The Times, 2 Mar. 1822.
  • 37. Ibid. 29 Mar. 1822.
  • 38. Ibid. 2, 18, 25 Apr. 1822.
  • 39. Buckingham, i. 297.
  • 40. Bucks. RO, Fremantle mss, Buckingham to Fremantle, 19 May 1822.
  • 41. Oxford DNB.
  • 42. The Times, 6, 12, 15 June 1822.
  • 43. Ibid. 20 June 1822.
  • 44. Ibid. 10, 25 July 1822.
  • 45. Ibid. 30 July, 1 Aug. 1822.
  • 46. Croker Pprs. i. 228-9, 230, 232; Colchester Diary, iii. 259; Buckingham, i. 372-3, 374, 375; Wellington Despatches, i. 261-2, 263-4; Hobhouse Diary, 95; Cookson, 365-6; Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 12 Jan. [1832].
  • 47. Cookson, 378-81; Add. 37843, ff. 217, 224, 227.
  • 48. Cookson, 382-4; Arbuthnot Corresp. 32; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 194, 198-200.
  • 49. C.D. Yonge, Life and Administration of Lord Liverpool, 111, 208; Add. 31232, f. 294; Colchester Diary, i. 272.
  • 50. Add. 31232, f. 290; 38291, f. 205.
  • 51. Add. 31232, f. 297; 38193, f. 171; 38291, ff. 211, 218.
  • 52. Add. 31232, f.303; Sidmouth mss, Vansittart to Sidmouth, 22, 23 Dec. 1822.
  • 53. Add. 31232, f. 299; 38291, ff. 237, 264, 272, 293; 40862, f. 83; Arbuthnot Corresp. 32.
  • 54. Bagot, ii. 154-6, 159.
  • 55. HMC Bathurst, 537-8.
  • 56. Williams Wynn Corresp. 299.
  • 57. Add. 38193, f. 171.
  • 58. Buckingham, i. 410.
  • 59. Fox Jnl. 154.
  • 60. Bagot, ii. 159.
  • 61. Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to C. Bathurst, 22, 28 Feb. 1823.
  • 62. Hobhouse Diary, 102-3.
  • 63. Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Bathurst, 18 Mar. 1823.
  • 64. Add. 38298, f. 257.
  • 65. Peel Letters, 49.
  • 66. Canning’s Ministry, 84, 85, 88, 89, 95, 98, 104, 124, 130; Hobhouse Diary, 130; Bagot, ii. 387, 392; Palmerston-Sulivan Letters, 187, 247; Hilton, 244; HMC Bathurst, 650; Wellington Despatches, iv. 202-3; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1463; Von Neumann Diary, i. 18; Colchester Diary, iii. 482.
  • 67. Oxford DNB.
  • 68. The Times, 25 Oct., 1 Nov. 1828.
  • 69. PROB 6/212.
  • 70. PROB 11/2126/96; IR26/1889/93.
  • 71. The Times, 12 Feb. 1851.