CARTWRIGHT, William Ralph (1771-1847), of Aynho, Northants.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



2 Aug. 1797 - 1831
1832 - Feb. 1846

Family and Education

b. 30 Mar. 1771, o.s. of Thomas Cartwright of Aynho by Mary Catherine, da. of Maj.-Gen. Thomas Desaguilliers of Little Baddow, Essex. educ. Eton 1784-8; Christ Church, Oxf. 1789-91; continental tour 1791-3. m. (1) 12 Apr. 1794, Hon. Emma Maude (d. 11 Mar. 1808), da. of Cornwallis, 1st Visct. Hawarden [I] 5s. 3da.; (2) 29 May 1810, Julia Frances, da. of Col. Richard Aubrey, 3s. 2da. suc. fa. 1772.

Offices Held

Lt. Northants. yeomanry 1793, maj. 1794; lt.-col. commdt. Brackley vols. 1803.


Both Cartwright’s grandfather and his great-grandfather had represented the county. His father died in his infancy and his upbringing was carefully supervised by his stepfather Sir Stephen Cottrell.1 At Oxford he belonged to Canning’s set; Lord Granville Leveson Gower described him, when they were on the continent together in 1792, as ‘the most good-humoured creature in the world’. He hastened home anxious to make a voluntary contribution towards the war effort, and the militia became one of his strong interests.2 He was returned unopposed for the county on a vacancy in 1797. He held the seat, surviving one contest in 1806, until he was defeated in 1831, subsequently regaining it.

Cartwright was described in 1806 as having been ‘during the whole of his parliamentary career steadily attached to Mr Pitt’. He rallied to Pitt’s assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798, as ‘the best measure possible’, although he voted for Buxton’s amendment to the land tax redemption bill on 18 May.3 Addington could not win him over, though he was placed on the East India judicature committee, 9 Dec. 1801. In his first known speech, 7 May 1802, he seconded Mildmay’s amendment to the censure of Pitt’s policy, praising him as the saviour of his country. He was a steward at Pitt’s birthday dinner on 28 May. On 23 Nov. 1802 he opposed reductions in the military establishment and asked for more defence measures. Described at this time as one of ‘Canning’s country gentlemen’, he warmly defended Canning, 8 Dec., against the charge of having ‘views to office’ in his attacks on Addington; but voted for the estimates as ‘he could not consider it as a matter of reproach, that those who may think his Majestys ministers unequal to their situation, should yet be unwilling to resign their country into the hands of France’. He voted for an inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s finances, 4 Mar. 1803. On 14 Mar. he launched a bill to regulate chimney sweepers. On 3 June, still acting with the Canningites, he voted for Patten’s censure motion.4 He also voted for Sir John Wrottesley’s on 7 Mar. 1804. After giving a conditional support to the volunteer consolidation bill in the same month, he joined in Pitt’s opposition to Addington’s defence measures in the divisions of 15 and 19 Mar. and 16, 23 and 25 Apr.

He was listed as a friend to Pitt’s second administration. He defended Pitt’s additional force bill, June 1804, and opposed the unseasonable airing of Catholic relief, 25 Mar. 1805: he was to remain an opponent of the measure until 1829. He voted against the proceedings against Melville, 8 Apr. 1805, and spoke in the same sense, 11 June. He was one of the select committee on the naval commissioners’ tenth report (as seven notebooks among his papers attest). On Pitt’s death he moved the payment of his debts, 3 Feb. 1806, and was subsequently a member of the Pitt Club. He absented himself on the first critical division under the new ministry, 3 Mar. 1806. At the contested election of 1806 he was criticized, as a county Member, for his ‘marked line of conduct’ in supporting Pitt, but easily survived a contest which he could ill afford.5 He was not a friend of the Grenville ministry and voted against them on the Hampshire petition, 13 Feb. 1807, but he supported the ensuing administration. On 25 Mar. 1807 he was teller for the minority in favour of a place for life for Spencer Perceval.

In 1809 Cartwright preferred resolution to address as a mode of proceeding in the inquiry into the Duke of York’s conduct of army patronage, 17 Mar., but found that the duke’s resignation made any further action at present unnecessary and carried his point by 235 votes to 112, 20 Mar. Soon afterwards he was reported to be loud in his criticism of government ‘insufficiency’ and he voted against them on 25 Apr., but he opposed Madocks’s charge of Treasury corruption, 11 May, and ‘took the lead’ in condemning parliamentary reform.6 (As he explained on 8 May 1812, in his view the House had ‘sufficient democracy’, representing ‘property of all kinds’. He therefore opposed Brand’s motion then, as he had done on 21 May 1810.) Perceval was anxious to conciliate him in September 1809 when Canning left the government, feeling, so he informed him, ‘how much more natural your connexion is with Canning than with any other member of the government’.7 In this he partly succeeded: Cartwright came up to vote with ministers on the address and on the Scheldt expedition, 23 Jan. and 23 Feb. 1810, and was listed ‘Government’ by the Whigs. He intended to vote with them again on 30 Mar., though there was some doubt whether he in fact did so. Lord Boringdon, who thought Cartwright ‘a good hearted man’, feared that he had

always been too much the humble servant of the existing administration of the day. When any minister has ever upon a pressing point in the House of commons wanted a speech from a county Member, he has been always able to ensure one from Cartwright.8

In June 1812, Cartwright, who afterwards helped to raise the subscription for a public monument in memory of Perceval, defended the Prince Regent’s conduct in the formation of the new ministry, only regretting that Canning was not included. At Castlereagh’s request, he seconded the endorsement of Charles Abbot as Speaker in the Parliament of 1812 and was listed as one of their supporters by the Treasury.9 So he proved. In March 1813 he deplored the publicity given to the affairs of the Princess of Wales, and he invariably voted with ministers on civil list questions.

Cartwright supported the corn bill in March 1815 and deprecated the agitation over it. He opposed his county’s petition against the property tax in February 1816 and ranked himself with a ‘respectable minority’, criticizing the endless reading of such petitions in the House. He voted for the tax, Mar. To please his constituents he opposed the leather tax and was teller against it, 9 May 1816: ‘though no friend to the doctrine of instructions, yet where local interests were concerned, he thought they ought to be attended to’, he added that, in supporting the property tax, he had envisaged the repeal of such indirect taxes. He voted for the suspension of habeas corpus, 23 June 1817. Ministers could again count on his support in the Parliament of 1818. He was placed on the finance committee, 8 Feb. 1819, and next day on the Poor Law committee, this being his third session on each of them. On 8 Dec. 1819 he opposed any territorial limitation of the seditious meetings bill. He died 4 Jan. 1847.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Northants. RO, Cartwright mss, letters of Sir Stephen Cottrell to Cartwright, 1788-99.
  • 2. Leveson Gower, i. 42; PRO 30/29/6/5, f. 843; Cartwright mss, Cottrell to Cartwright, 27 Oct. 1795.
  • 3. Buccleuch mss, Huskisson to Melville, 29 Aug. 1806; Add. 51570, Hamilton to Holland [18 Dec. 1797].
  • 4. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 4 Dec. 1802; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 20, 21 May 1803.
  • 5. HMC Lonsdale, 172; Remarks on the procs. at the late contest for the co. of Northampton (1806), 11; Spencer mss, Isted to Spencer, 2 Nov. 1806; E. G. Forrester, Northants. Elections, 118.
  • 6. Spencer mss, Grenville to Spencer, 28 Apr. 1809; Geo. III Corresp. v. 3876.
  • 7. Cartwright mss, Perceval to Cartwright, 16 Sept. 1809.
  • 8. Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville, 2.30 a.m. [27 Feb.]; Morning Chron. 4 Apr. 1810; Add. 48244, f. 131.
  • 9. Cartwright mss, Castlereagh to Cartwright, 4 Nov. 1812.