JEKYLL, Joseph (1754-1837), of 6 King's Bench Walk, Mdx.

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



20 Aug. 1787 - Feb. 1816

Family and Education

b. 1 Jan. 1754, o.s. of Capt. Edward Jekyll, RN, of Haverfordwest, Pemb. by Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Walter of Killiver, Carm., wid. of John Williams of Ponthywel, Carm. educ. Westminster 1766-70; Christ Church, Oxf. 1771-4; Blois 1775-6; L. Inn 1769, called 1778. m. 20 Aug. 1801, Maria, da. of Hans Sloane* of South Stoneham, Hants, 2s. 1da. suc. fa. 1776.

Offices Held

Commr. of bankrupts and lunatics 1784-1806; KC 21 Feb. 1805; bencher, I. Temple (to which he migrated in 1795) 1805, reader 1814, treasurer 1816; solicitor-gen. to Prince of Wales and member of council, duchy of Cornwall Feb. 1806-July 1812; attorney-gen. to the Prince July 1812-Feb. 1816; master in Chancery June 1815-Mar. 1823.


Jekyll the wag of law, the scribbler’s pride
Calne to the Senate sent, when Townsend died;
So Lansdowne willed, the hoarse old rook at rest,
A jackdaw phoenix chatters from his nest.

Joseph Richardson* was not alone in thus mocking the Marquess of Lansdowne’s choice of the wit of the western circuit. Jeremy Bentham dubbed him ‘the talebearer of the household’ at Bowood, and Lady Holland noted, in 1799,

He is never so pleasant where Lord Lansdowne is as elsewhere; he aims at being the grave senator, and becomes pompous, didactic and with his merry little figure, one may add, ridiculous.

In the House, too, his merits were questionable. Sir Gilbert Elliot wrote on his first coming in:

He is a professional wit in company, and in his speeches at the bar mixes quaintness with jesting, but that sort of thing does not always take in the House of Commons. He is, however, clever enough to adapt his manner to the taste of his audiences.

Charles Abbot thought he did not succeed there:

positively without weight even in his own party, rancorous in language, feeble in argument, and empty of ideas: few people applaud his rising and everybody is glad when he sits down.1

In his first Parliament Jekyll, a former colleague of Pitt’s at the bar and early supporter of his, voted with Pitt’s administration; it was not until 1792, when his patron went into opposition, that he followed suit. Thus he was a scathing critic of John Horne Tooke’s petition against the Westminster election, 9 Dec. 1790, but was beginning to distance himself from the ministry as early as 13 Dec. 1790, when he pressed for particulars of the convention with Spain. On 14 Feb. 1791 he objected violently to Henry Dundas’s proposal to curtail the trial of Warren Hastings. As he later described the majority favouring Pitt’s armament against Russia as ‘execrable’, he was unlikely to have been one of it. He concurred with Fox’s motion for a committee on the law of libel, 20 May 1791. In the same session he was a champion of penitentiaries for offenders, as opposed to transportation, 3, 9 Feb., was listed ‘doubtful’ on the question of Test Act repeal in April, and favoured inquiry into imprisonment for debt, 12 May. He opposed the early prorogation of Parliament in view of the threat of war with Russia, 2 June. He had visited Paris in the summer of 1790 and may have done so again a year later: he was credited with influencing French politicians to aim at a constitution on the English model.2

Jekyll emerged with his patron’s blessing as a fully-fledged opposition spokesman on 13 Dec. 1792, when he questioned the premature meeting of Parliament. Thenceforward he voted with the minority. Four days later he supported Grey’s motion for the prosecution of the author of an anti-dissenting pamphlet. On 18 Feb. 1793 he joined opposition to war against France, describing it as ‘unjust and calamitous’. On 29 Apr. he blamed the war for the scarcity of commercial credit and next day complained of the inadequacy of the current coinage. He called for an increase in the amount of Exchequer bills funded, 1 May. On 7 May he voted for parliamentary reform. He tried to secure the printing of the report on emoluments in public offices, 17 June. The same day he spoke ‘in a manner which did him credit and pleased everybody’, according to his patron’s son,3 in support of Fox’s motion against the war. On 6 Feb. 1794 he complained that the French property bill offered security to French creditors of this country. He criticized the conduct of ‘this artificial war’, 10 Apr., and supported Sheridan’s amendment to the émigré enlistment bill, 16 Apr. On 16 May he opposed the suspension of habeas corpus and the alarmism that inspired it; on 30 Dec. and 23 Jan. 1795 he opposed its renewal, deploring the employment of spies by government. He was critical of subsidies to the King of Prussia, 7 July 1794, 5 Jan. 1795, a subject on which he harassed Pitt, 7 Jan., and seconded Sheridan’s critical motion, 5 Feb.

When Sir John Sinclair moved in the House ... in 1795 for a reward of £1,000 to be granted to Mr Elkington whom he stated to be the best artist for draining the country, Mr Jekyll, who sat next to him whispered in his ear ‘You forget the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Germany: who have shown themselves infinitely more successful artists for draining the country and have already been much better paid for it’.4

He was a spokesman on behalf of Sir John Jervis* and Sir Charles Grey when their conduct in Martinique was questioned, 4 May 1795. He queried the reasons for the high price of provisions which hit the poor, 8 May, and reminded the House of this on 9 Dec. 1796 when a measure to regulate wages was under discussion. On 19 May 1795 he moved for inquiry into the recall of Earl Fitzwilliam as viceroy of Ireland, but was frustrated by 188 votes to 49. He called for the application of the duchy of Cornwall revenues to the Prince of Wales’s debts, 5 June. He opposed the two bills to curb sedition, in November and December 1795, when he was also a prominent critic of John Reeves’s reactionary Thoughts on the English Government, and complained (14 Dec.) that ‘there was somewhere a wish to protect Mr Reeves’. On 29 Feb. 1796 he introduced four resolutions critical of Pitt’s partiality to Walter Boyd* in the floating of ‘fictitious’ bills of exchange. It was a subject on which Pitt had challenged him to do his worst in clashes in debate on 30 Oct. and again on 7 Dec. 1795, when Jekyll noted the preference given to Boyd in contracting the public loan. He had at first foreborne to take up the challenge on the advice of his colleague Sir Francis Baring*.5 His resolutions were negatived by large majorities. He criticized Pitt’s tax proposals, 8 Dec. 1795, 5 May 1796, and on 12 May twitted him upon the superfluity of the subsidy to Sardinia.

Jekyll was never as active again in the House as in the Parliament of 1790, but in that of 1796 he was far from being a negligible factor in opposition. He drew the House’s attention to the encroachment of the military on a magistrates’ session in Northamptonshire in December 1796, and the same month advocated more humane treatment of General Lafayette. On 3 May 1797 he produced a motion critical of loans made to the Emperor of Austria. He voted for Grey’s motion for parliamentary reform, 26 May. He opposed the newspaper duties as a blow against the liberty of the press, 19 June. He criticized Pitt’s assessed taxes at length, 3 Jan. 1798, and was teller against them. It was in the same debate that he retorted to Richard Ellison, a Member who boasted of his independence, that there were four topics

on which a man might publicly dilate, though totally uncredited by all his hearers, without stigmatising himself in society for a want of veracity: a man might parade his prowess in love, his triumphs in drinking, his exploits in hunting, or his independency as a Member of Parliament.

On 14 Feb. 1798 he complained of the delay in awarding a public pension to Lord St. Vincent, a former Lansdowne Member. He himself insisted that he had ‘never been a party man’, 11 Dec. 1798, though he was prepared to act as a go-between for his patron and Fox, when the latter sought to draw Lansdowne closer to him.6 Had they come to power, according to The Times (22 Mar. 1798), Jekyll might expect to be attorney-general. He obtained leave of absence in the spring to go the western circuit throughout his parliamentary career and occasionally had his say on legal questions. He was, for instance, a resolute opponent of attempts to pass a bill for the recovery of small debts in London, 22 June 1795, 12 Feb., 25 Apr. 1796, 20 June 1800. He supported a review of the trial of Arthur O’Connor, 11 June 1798. He opposed the prosecution of English newspaper proprietors who cited anglophobic passages in the French press, 13 June. On 20 June he provoked the clearing of the gallery when he began to find justification for the Irish rebellion; but also made a fool of himself by believing a false report of the failure of the expedition to Ostend. This produced the Gillray caricature of ‘Opposition Telegraphs, or the little second-sighted lawyer’. On 11 Dec. he deplored the confusion of war aims, preferring to steer clear of ‘the ocean of continental politics’. He voted against union with Ireland. He was a champion of the claims on government of John Palmer*, 31 May 1799. He deflected the attack on Sunday newspapers, 11 June. He called for a cessation of subsidies to the Continent, 24 June 1800. He deplored conditions in Coldbath Fields prison where political prisoners were detained, 15 Dec. 1800, and three days later stated that nothing had changed his hostility to the suspension of habeas corpus. He characterized Pitt as slinking out of office in a speech in favour of inquiry into the Ferrol expedition, 19 Feb. 1801, and strongly opposed the habeas corpus indemnity bill, 5 June. On 7 May 1802 he voted his approval of the removal of Pitt from office. Had Sir Francis Baring not found a seat at the ensuing election, his patron might have dispensed with Jekyll.7

Jekyll described Addington’s ministry, ‘formed out of the dregs of the old one and leaving Pitt out’, as ‘like getting up the Beggar’s Opera without the character of Macheath’. He would not put his views of the ministry in verse, because it was already inverse.8 In fact, he seldom voiced his opinion in the House henceforward. During the peace, he visited France. On 19 May 1803 he complained that not enough copies of the papers on the recent negotiation with Buonaparte were available to Members. On the resumption of war, he voted against Addington, 24 May 1803. He complained of the shortage of specie in the debate on the Bank restriction bill, 30 Nov. He supported Fox’s motion on the Middlesex election, 2 Feb. 1804. He joined the opposition minorities of 23 and 25 Apr. 1804 that heralded Addington’s fall.

On Pitt’s return to power, Jekyll was listed one of the Prince’s friends. The Prince of Wales certainly cultivated him, but Jekyll appeared hitherto to have avoided voting on questions in which the Prince’s affairs featured. In February 1805 he took silk as solicitor-general to the Prince. An occasional contributor to the Whig newspapers, he was enlisted to write propaganda on behalf of the opposition to Pitt: his ‘Tears of the Cruets’, against the salt tax (against which he voted on 4 Mar. 1805) was the only obvious result.9 He spoke and voted against the additional force bill in June 1804 and was listed ‘Fox and Grenville’ in September. He appeared in the minorities of 8 and 12 Feb. and 1 Mar. 1805, and in the majorities against Melville, 8 Apr., 12 June. He favoured the exclusion of Castlereagh from the committee on the naval commissioners’ 11th report, 30 Apr., and was appointed a manager of Melville’s impeachment, 26 June. In the ensuing month he was prepared to act as go-between in feelers for a junction between Fox and Pitt.

When his friends came to power in 1806, he was expected to be promoted attorney-general to the Prince in place of William Garrow*, but no change then took place. He voted for the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. In the summer the Prince and Lord Erskine favoured his ambition of becoming a master in Chancery—again premature.10 He was listed a staunch friend of the abolition of the slave trade, and on 9 and 15 Apr. 1807 voted for Brand’s and Lyttelton’s motions against his friends’ successors in power. Thereupon his new patron the 2nd Marquess of Lansdowne, influenced as Jekyll supposed by his wife, proposed displacing him, but, on the point of martyrdom, he was rescued by a rebellion of most of the corporation of Calne in his favour, which induced the marquess to change his mind.11 The succession of the 3rd Marquess in 1809 secured his position.

Jekyll had little to say in the Parliament of 1807. He could no longer stomach late sessions. He continued, when present, to vote with opposition, who listed him one of their reliable supporters in 1810. He was one of the moderates who met to endorse George Ponsonby’s leadership, 18 Jan. 1809, but had appeared in the more advanced minority in favour of inquiry into places and pensions, 7 July 1807. He had reservations about Ponsonby which Lord Henry Petty attempted to dissipate12 and went on, nevertheless, to vote for Madocks’s as well as Hamilton’s motion on ministerial corruption, 25 Apr., 11 May 1809. He approved the bill against cruelty to animals, promoted by his friend Lord Erskine and discussed by them for several years, 13 June 1809. He voted for the discharge of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr. 1810, but the joke was on Jekyll when he tried to tell the House that Burdett’s conduct was a serious problem, 7 May: by a reflex action for which he had trained his hearers they laughed. He voted for sinecure and parliamentary reform, 17 and 21 May 1810, and rallied to opposition on the Regency. He voted once against the legalization of bank-notes, 9 July 1811, on which question the Prince’s other friends voted the other way throughout.13 He voted for Catholic relief, 24 Apr. 1812, for the sinecure bill, 4 May, and for a remodelling of the government, 21 May. On 17 June he came to Sheridan’s rescue when he broke down in explaining his conduct to the House, by securing an adjournment. On 21 May 1811 and 22 June 1812 he returned to the vindication of John Palmer’s claims.

Jekyll disappointed the hopes of younger Whigs that he would retire at the dissolution of 1812 on his appointment as attorney-general to the Prince, but his patron stood by him. His parliamentary activity continued to dwindle. No further speech is known. He was in the minority on Burdett’s Regency motion, 23 Feb. 1813, but absent on Catholic relief (pairing in favour) for the rest of that session. The Regent encouraged him to look for one of the legal plums. In November 1813 he was tipped to succeed Richard Richards* as a Welsh judge, but nothing came of it.14 In 1815 he reappeared briefly to oppose the resumption of hostilities and of continental subsidies, 25 and 26 May, but on 3 July he was in the government minority on the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment. This was an acknowledgment of the Regent’s favour, which had just procured him a mastership in Chancery. Lord Chancellor Eldon resisted the appointment as long as he decently could and recalled that the Regent bearded him in his bed, refusing to leave the room until Jekyll was assured the appointment. Despite protests at his unsuitability (he had never been out of a common law court), he ‘executed his office very reasonably well’, as Eldon admitted. It ended his parliamentary career, though for his patron’s convenience he did not vacate until February 1816.15 It was then that he resigned as attorney-general to the Prince, with the compliment of being retained on his privy council. He commented:

I have satisfied myself for I was heartily tired of Parliament and my own particular situation. My political friends are satisfied and I am sure the Regent is too. And it seldom happens that such a step satisfies so many discordant parties. No man wonders at it, and most men think it a sensible act. Perhaps it is a refinement but I think he who holds a quasi judicial character should have no public party politics.16

He was doubtless right in supposing that his retreat would lengthen his life; his appetite for society and its foibles was undiminished, as his published correspondence with his sister-in-law Lady Gertrude Stanley attests. His addiction to punning has dated his mots, but nobody else’s were as frequently circulated in his lifetime. One of his more sober statements, made in 1812, cannot yet be discounted: ‘there had never been an English minister who had any sense or feeling of the fine arts’.17 He died 8 Mar. 1837.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. [Richardson] The Jekyll (1788); Bentham Corresp. iv. 164; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 24; Minto, i. 172; Colchester, i. 24.
  • 2. Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 10 Sept. 1790; Twiss, Eldon, i. 352.
  • 3. Lansdowne mss, Wycombe to Lansdowne, 18 June 1793.
  • 4. Gent. Mag. (1820), i. 150.
  • 5. Lansdowne mss, Jekyll to Lansdowne, 14 Nov. [1795].
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid. Lansdowne to Petty, 26 Feb. 1802.
  • 8. Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 129; Minto, iii. 201.
  • 9. Horner Mems. i. 255; N. and Q. (ser. 1), x. 172; (ser. 4), viii. 300; Aspinall, Politics and the Press 1780-1850, p. 283; Add. 52178, Brougham to Allen, Mon. [1 June 1807].
  • 10. Lansdowne mss, Fox to Petty, [n.d., endorsed July 1805]; Add. 47569, f. 234; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2123; Bond mss, Jekyll to Bond, 15 July 1806; Brougham, Life and Times, i. 375.
  • 11. Add. 51594, Jekyll to Holland, 24 Apr. 1807; see CALNE.
  • 12. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 26, 28 Dec. 1807; Bond mss, Jekyll to Bond, 23 Apr. 1808.
  • 13. Brougham mss, Brougham to Grey, Tues. [23 July 1811].
  • 14. See CALNE; Bond mss, Jekyll to Bond, 22 May, 19 June, 20, 25 Nov., 13 Dec. [1813]; Add. 34458, f. 609.
  • 15. Bond mss, Jekyll to Bond, 7, 19, 21, 28 June 1815; Twiss, ii. 266-9; Romilly, Mems. iii. 187.
  • 16. Bond mss, Jekyll to Bond, 12, 15 Feb. [1816].
  • 17. Ibid. same to same, 4 Mar. [1816]; Gent. Mag. (1837), ii. 208; DNB; Farington, vii. 86.