GOULBURN, Henry (1784-1856), of Betchworth, Surr.

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



26 Feb. 1808 - 1812
1812 - 1818
1818 - 1826
1826 - 1831
1831 - 12 Jan. 1856

Family and Education

b. 19 Mar. 1784, 1st s. of Munbee Goulburn of Amity Hall, Jamaica and Portland Place, Mdx. by Hon. Susannah Chetwynd, da. of William Chetwynd, 4th Visct. Chetwynd. educ. by Dr Moore at Sunbury, Mdx. c.1791-3; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1801. m. 20 Dec. 1811, Jane, da. of Matthew Montagu*, 3s. 1da. suc. fa. 1793.

Offices Held

Under-sec. of state for Home affairs Feb. 1810-Aug. 1812; under-sec. of state for War and Colonies Aug. 1812-Dec. 1821; plenip. for negotiating peace with USA July 1814; PC 10 Dec. 1821; chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] Dec. 1821-Apr. 1827; chancellor of Exchequer Jan. 1828-Nov. 1830, Sept. 1841-July 1846; sec. of state for Home affairs Dec. 1834-Apr. 1835.

Capt. Duke of Gloucester’s vol. inf. 1803-7.


Goulburn’s ancestors left Cheshire for the West Indies in the 17th century and amassed a ‘considerable property’ in Jamaica. His father, heir to the Amity Hall estate, was educated at Eton and Oxford and gained ‘a qualified admission into the outer court’ of fashionable English society, which was completed by a marriage of mutual convenience to the daughter of the impoverished Viscount Chetwynd. Goulburn himself subsequently hinted that the marriage had not been happy; and Horace Walpole believed that Munbee Goulburn ‘used his wife very ill, and that they were on the point of parting’ at the time of his sudden death in 1793.1 He had incurred heavy debts, his marriage settlement proved to be a nullity and, as he died intestate, the family affairs were thrown into Chancery. Through her friendship with the Pittite Matthew Montagu*, Goulburn’s mother received free legal advice from Spencer Perceval*, and both men, especially Montagu, took a keen interest in young Henry, whose education was disrupted by the crisis. Shortly after he went to Cambridge in 1801 the Chancery decision brought matters to a head: Mrs Goulburn was granted a jointure of £800 per annum, but was left a debtor ‘to a large amount’ on the Jamaican estate. A loan from an aunt and a period of pinched existence in Hampstead enabled her to meet the most pressing demands. On coming of age in 1805 Goulburn inherited the Amity Hall property which, while it proved to be worth ‘only’ £20,000, far less than anticipated, provided a comfortable income which allowed him to settle outstanding debts and to enjoy a ‘life of innocent but profitless dissipation’ in the upper ranks of society.

He had the chance of a seat in 1806 but, so he later claimed, ‘as it was coupled with the condition of support to Lord Grenville’s government I declined it as inconsistent with my views of public policy’, which had been decisively influenced by Montagu’s hero-worship of Pitt. Goulburn applied through Montagu to Perceval, now chancellor of the Exchequer, for a seat at the dissolution of 1807. He was offered and accepted the opportunity to contest Horsham on the Irwin interest and, though defeated at the poll, was seated on petition in February 1808. The seat cost him £4,200. His impatience to enter the ‘new field’ open to him involved him in a farcical episode:

I was eager to take my seat and rode down to the House on the following day for the purpose. But I found myself stopped at the door by the intimation that being in boots and not a county Member I could not be sworn ... I was embarrassed and annoyed but Mr Thornton the Member for Surrey being at the door of the House offered me his shoes and having taken off my own boots and donned his shoes I was at once qualified admitted and sworn and returned to the door to resume my own and restore to Mr Thornton his habiliments and my thanks.

Goulburn immediately began to vote with government, but soon abandoned his earnest intention of recording privately the reasons for each vote he cast—‘the great defect of my character’, he later wrote, ‘has been an unwillingness otherwise than under the stimulus of public duty or public observation to make any continuous exertion’—and contented himself with assiduous attendance. In the House he fell in with Cambridge contemporaries, notably Frederick Robinson, Lord Palmerston and Charles Manners Sutton and other young supporters of government, including Croker and William Fitzgerald. Shortly afterwards he formed the close personal and political friendship with Robert Peel which was broken only by the latter’s death 40 years later. The group ‘lived very much together’, usually ‘dined together at the Alfred on a Wednesday’ and ‘formed a society intimately united in political sentiment and literary tastes’.

Goulburn’s maiden speech, against Ponsonby’s call for inquiry into the conduct of the military campaign in Spain, 24 Feb. 1809, was a fiercely partisan effort which Perceval considered to hold out ‘very good promise’:2

The accusation of failure ... came with a very bad grace from individuals whose administration was a succession of failures. That administration had attempted to bring about a peace, and the attempt had ended in a more rancorous war; they had carried on war in a manner even worse than they had conducted their negotiation.

He recalled that, although in his nervousness he left out ‘the best part’ of his argument, the speech was ‘well received’. He also reflected on his good fortune ‘in having caught the Speaker’s eye so early as immediately after I had concluded Drury Lane was discovered to be on fire and the whole House was in a state of agitation’ which ‘would have been fatal to a young performer’.

In July 1809 Goulburn undertook a tour of the theatre of war in the Peninsula. He had already decided to return for the meeting of Parliament when he heard of the ministerial upheavals which had brought Perceval to the head of the government. This news, the receipt of a letter from the new prime minister requesting his support and the clear prospect of political advancement made him all the keener to get home, but a series of difficulties delayed his arrival until mid February 1810.3 He was immediately appointed to an under-secretaryship at the Home Office, and thereby began a 20-year span of official life interrupted only by an interval of a few months in 1827. The Whig list of 1810 acknowledged Goulburn’s close relationship with Perceval by classing him as one of 12 personal followers of the prime minister. His province was militia business but with his chief, Richard Ryder, in the Commons, he was not required to take much part in debate and his only known speeches during the remainder of the 1807 Parliament were against Parnell’s proposal to give Irish Catholic militiamen legal security for the free exercise of their religion when serving in England, 30 May 1811; against Burdett’s amendment to the local militia bill, 16 Mar. 1812, designed to prevent punishment by flogging in the militia when acting as a regular army, and two minor interventions, 23 and 26 June 1812.

In August 1812 Goulburn succeeded Peel as under-secretary for War and Colonies in the Liverpool ministry. At the subsequent general election he was brought in on the Eliot interest for St. Germans in place of Montagu, now his father-in-law. In 1818 he was returned on the Buller interest at West Looe. In 1814 he steered the colonial offices bill through the Commons: most of his speeches were on official business. As a West India proprietor he found the problem of colonial slavery, on which he was frequently pressed in 1818, occasionally embarrassing, but he was later satisfied that he had done all in his power to ameliorate the lot of the slaves. He replied to Tierney’s motions for the abolition of the colonial secretaryship, 3 Apr. 1816 and 29 Apr. 1817, and in a debate on the army estimates, 10 May 1819, defended the commercial principles underlying the maintenance of large colonial establishments. He was regularly a government teller in 1819. He was one of the plenipotentiaries sent to Ghent in the summer of 1814 to negotiate a peace treaty with America. The business was concluded at the end of the year and on 11 Apr. 1815 he replied vigorously to Ponsonby’s criticism of ministers’ handling of the negotiation and of the resultant treaty. At the end of the Napoleonic war he entrusted direct management of the Jamaican estate to his brother Frederick, whose incompetence rapidly rendered it ‘nearly unproductive’. He was ill in the spring of 1816 but the tranquillity of his happy domestic life at Betchworth, purchased in the same year, helped restore his health and appetite for work; he later claimed that between 1815 and 1821 he was never absent from the office for more than seven consecutive days.

Goulburn was uncompromisingly hostile to Roman Catholic claims: in 1821 Mrs Arbuthnot, while conceding that he was ‘very clever’, denigrated him as ‘the most furious Protestant ever’. He declined an offer of the Irish secretaryship in 1817 but was again strongly urged to take the post by Liverpool and Peel when the latter retired in 1818. Reluctance to leave the familiar surroundings of the Colonial Office, a fear that his reduced private means would prevent him from matching the lavish establishment kept up by Peel and concern for the health of his invalid mother, who died later in the year, induced him once more to turn down the promotion.4

By the end of this period Goulburn, a reliable, honest and able man of business, highly regarded by his superiors, was in the first rank of the coming generation of ministerial politicians. Indeed, Littleton reckoned him, with Peel, Croker and Fitzgerald, among the most prominent of the ‘young men’ who ‘have been educated in politics by the present ministry’, who ‘now feel themselves competent and entitled to fill higher and more responsible offices’ and were consequently, in his view, ‘discontented’ with the government’s general conduct.5 Reserved, earnest and unimaginative, though with a lively sense of the ridiculous, he was held in great affection by Peel, whose intimate friendships were few and who confided to his future wife in March 1820 that ‘of all the men with whom I was ever acquainted, he approaches the nearest to perfection’.6

Goulburn, whose pronounced squint in the right eye was the result, according to his memoirs, of being accidentally sat on by his nurse when a baby, died 12 Jan. 1856.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


This biography draws on Goulburn’s upublished memoir (Surr. RO, Goulburn mss 4/6), written towards the end of his life, which is the source of all quotations, unless otherwise indicated.

  • 1. Horace Walpole Corresp. (Yale ed.), xii. 79-80.
  • 2. Geo. III. Corresp. v. 3824.
  • 3. Goulburn mss 3/6, Goulburn to his mother, 30 Oct., 11, 27 Nov., 4 Dec. 1809, 12 Jan., 12 Feb. 1810.
  • 4. Jnl. of Mrs Arbuthnot, i. 129; HMC Fortescue, x. 429; Add. 38272, ff. 34, 159.
  • 5. Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 24 [Jan. 1819].
  • 6. Peel, Private Letters, 32.