LAMB, Hon. George (1784-1834), of Whitehall Yard, Westminster.
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Family and Education
b. 11 July 1784, 4th s. of Sir Peniston Lamb*, 2nd Bt., 1st Visct. Melbourne [I], by Elizabeth, da. of Sir Ralph Milbanke†, 5th Bt., of Halnaby Hall, Yorks.; bro. of Hon. Peniston Lamb* and Hon. William Lamb*. educ. Eton 1796-1802; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1802-5; L. Inn 1805, called 1809. m. 17 May 1809, Caroline Rosalie Adelaide St. Jules, illegit. da. of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (by his future w. Lady Elizabeth Foster), s.p.
Under-sec. of state for Home affairs Nov. 1830-d.
Capt. 1 Herts. vols. 1803.
Lamb, a burly, red-haired, boisterous individual, once knocked down Byron’s friend Scrope Davies for calling his mother a whore; and one product of the 1819 Westminster by-election was the following piece of doggerel:
My good Mr Lamb,
We all know your dam;
But what we desire
Is to know more of your sire.
The tattlers attributed his paternity to the Prince of Wales and Lord Minto noted the resemblance when he met Lamb, then ‘merely a good-natured lad’, in 1805. Whatever the truth may be, the Prince was certainly his godfather.1
Lamb moved in Whig high society, joined the Whig Club on 5 May 1807, and was thought of by Lord Holland, with whom he was always a favourite, as a possible contributor to the current opposition press campaign. The abiding passion of his life was the theatre. He was a talented actor and his comic opera Whistle for it was produced at Covent Garden in 1807. He sat for a time with Byron and Douglas Kinnaird* on the management committee of Drury Lane and wrote the prologues to the revivals of old English plays. After his call to the bar in 1809 he practised on the northern circuit, but as his sister Lady Cowper wrote in 1821, when he abandoned the law for literary pursuits, ‘his heart is in Drury Lane, and he thinks of nothing but plays and epilogues and prologues’. His marriage presumably lessened his financial dependence on the law, for with remarkable generosity the Duke of Devonshire gave Mrs Lamb a marriage portion of £20,000, together with an annuity of £500 for her and Lamb’s joint lives.2
On 6 Aug. 1809 he wrote to Lady Holland from the circuit, where he had earned £20 in five months:
The state of parties is so melancholy, and the opposition so split and dislocated, that if it were possible in a country so frantic with politics, one should wish totally to forget all about them. If the Burdettites were not such mountebanks, there would be no withholding the highest share of approbation from them, for they are the only people now like to obtain any remedies for the abuses we have all been ... decrying for 40 years past, or indeed who seem to remember that there are any abuses which require a remedy.3
His political views remained in advance of those of his brother William, whose Whiggism was markedly conservative, and he was to prove himself a more combative party politician. On 27 Feb. 1813 Lord Cowper sponsored his admission to Brooks’s. In 1816 his wife left him and went to Italy where, it was rumoured, she had an affair with his fellow Whig barrister Henry Brougham*; but she returned the following year and the couple were reconciled. At the general election of 1818 he stood for Cockermouth in a futile attack, not of his own devising and which he regarded as hopeless from the outset, on the Lonsdale interest.4
When the Whigs decided on the day before the nomination to start a man for Westminster against John Cam Hobhouse†, the candidate of (Sir) Francis Burdett*, Francis Place and the Westminster committee, at the by-election of February 1819, their choice, directed by Holland, fell on Lamb. He ‘agreed to rough it’ and in an interview before the Whig managing committee disclaimed his brother’s politics. John George Lambton* candidly told Lord Grey that Lamb was ‘not of sufficient consequence in the party to make his failure a party disgrace’; but James Abercromby*, explaining the decision to Lamb’s brother-in-law, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, listed his assets:
[He] has a popular manner, is bold and distinct in his opinions, had made himself known by canvassing during the last election, is sure to do well, and if he fails he will be a gainer by establishing a claim on his party by engaging in this arduous service. He is well connected and in no respect obnoxious to the Tories.
The Duke of Bedford, who would have preferred one of Whitbread’s sons to be put up, commented:
If he succeeds, there cannot be a greater proof of the popularity of Whig principles in Westminster, for I suppose they could scarcely have pitched by accident on a worse candidate ... Nothing popular in his name, his father a lord of the bedchamber, his elder brother God knows what, his next brother [Frederick] a foreign minister, and himself known only as a briefless barrister, an alterer of plays, and a discarded manager of a theatre. His address, however, as well as his speech, are manly and direct, and I heartily wish he may succeed.
Byron later remarked maliciously to Hobhouse that it was ‘the first time that George Lamb ever stood for anything’.5
On the hustings Lamb ‘gloried in the name of Whig’, professed adherence to the principles of Sir Samuel Romilly, whose death had caused the by-election, and declared his support for ‘the more equal representation of the people’ and ‘the shorter duration of Parliaments’. It was of little account that he was shouted down almost every time he attempted to speak—though he was said to have taken all the ‘hootings and insults’ with ‘the greatest coolness’—for the Whig campaign was essentially negative. Hobhouse and Burdett were left to make the verbal running in the hope that the increasing extremism of their language would rally the propertied and respectable to the Whig side. Lamb topped the poll by over 600 votes. While his success represented a signal victory for the Whigs over the radicals, it owed much to the support of ministerial and conservative elements; and, as his sister-in-law Lady Morpeth commented, he could not ‘at present be called the Man of the People’, for at the close of the poll an angry mob attacked his committee rooms, forcing him to make a hasty exit from the rear and lie low until the evening.6
It was important from a party viewpoint that Lamb should make a showing in the House: his own intention, according to Lady Morpeth, was ‘to begin gently without aiming at too much, but to speak upon questions of business that may be interesting to his constituents’.7 He made his maiden speech six days after his election, calling for a modification of the Debtors Act which would do equal justice to the honest creditor and the hapless debtor. He voted regularly with his fellow Whigs, spoke against the poor settlement bill, 10 May, the foreign enlistment bill, 13 May and 21 June, and the budget, 9 June, when he deplored an increase in taxation until ‘every source of economy and retrenchment was exhausted’, and condemned the malt tax on behalf of his beer-drinking constituents. He voted for inquiry into Scottish burgh reform, 1 Apr. and 6 May, was in the minority of 15 on the question of bribery at Camelford, 8 Apr., and supported Wilson’s attempt to kill the Barnstaple bribery bill with a view to transferring its seats to Leeds, 17 May, when he argued that the measure was not one of parliamentary reform but of law enforcement and did not go far enough. He supported the Penryn bribery bill, 23 June. On 1 July, speaking from Fox’s old seat, he seconded Burdett’s motion for inquiry into parliamentary reform: he declared his support for a purge of corrupt boroughs, enfranchisement of unrepresented centres of population and triennial parliaments; but disclaimed the ‘absurdities’ of Burdett and the radicals, accused them of retarding reform by their extremism and repudiated Burdett’s notion ‘that reform was the grand panacea for all evils’. The malevolent Hobhouse dismissed it as a ‘vulgar, bantering speech’ and claimed, on his brother’s testimony, that ‘nobody listened and the House thinned as he spoke’.8
Reports in October 1819 that Lamb shared his brother’s hostility to Whig promotion of Peterloo protest meetings had some foundation, but were exaggerated, to judge from his letter to Grey on the 7th, when he admitted his initial misgivings but was ‘now inclined to believe that favourably conducted and a distinct line preserved they will do good’. He would be ‘glad if any opportunity offers for me to declare my sentiments’, but was not qualified by property to address the planned Middlesex meeting and doubted ‘whether it would be well taken by Westminster to attend any meeting except one of its inhabitants, not having been at the one in Palace Yard’ called by Burdett on 2 Sept. (Brougham censured him ‘for not running up’ to this meeting ‘by the mail coach the moment it was summoned’.)9
Lamb voted for the amendment to the address, 24 Nov., and two days later demanded inquiry into the Peterloo massacre, which personal inquiries at the scene shortly afterwards had inclined him to regard as an unprovoked attack, and advocated a measure of reform to restore the country’s lost confidence in the House. On 30 Nov. he voted for inquiry into the state of the nation after condemning the proposed coercive measures and attacking the use of ex officio informations. One of the diehard opponents of the repressive legislation, he spoke against the seditious meetings bill, 7 and 8 Dec., the newspaper stamp duties bill, 22 Dec., and the blasphemous libels bill, 23 Dec. On 17 Dec. he welcomed the limitation on ex officio informations inserted in the misdemeanours bill, which he hoped would be the only permanent measure of the package. He attended the Westminster protest meeting, 8 Dec., and strongly attacked ministers, but in his reply to a vote of thanks for his parliamentary conduct opposed the radicals’ resolution calling on the opposition in both Houses to secede. Even Hobhouse admitted that Lamb’s first speech was ‘very handsomely received’ and on 25 Dec. 1819, when Lamb was preparing to go to the sessions ‘as he says he has some retainers which he cannot find in his heart to give up’, his sister wrote:
Ld. H[olland] says he likes him so much, that he is such a fine, indiscreet fellow—I think that such a good account of him. He really is just that, and I think his speech at the Westminster meeting and one or two of his parliamentary ones quite partook of that character; for the first he was run away with by this delight of being applauded.10
Lamb stood again for Westminster at the 1820 general election, but lost his seat to Hobhouse. Two years later the Duke of Devonshire returned him for his Irish pocket borough. He went on to hold office in the Whig reform ministry, but did not live to see his brother become prime minister, dying 2 Jan. 1834.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Arthur Aspinall / David R. Fisher
- 1. Letters of Lady Palmerston, 12; NLW mss 2792, Lady to H. Williams Wynn [Feb. 1819]; Minto, iii. 361.
- 2. Brougham mss 34191; Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, 140, 184; Leveson Gower, ii. 151; Prince of Wales Corresp. vi. 2560.
- 3. Add. 51847.
- 4. Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 22 Oct., 6 Dec. 1816; Carlisle mss, Mrs Lamb to Lady Morpeth, 14 Oct. , Lady to Ld. Morpeth, 15, 16, 20 June 1818.
- 5. Grey mss, Lambton to Grey, 12, 13 Feb.; Chatsworth mss, Abercromby to Devonshire, 16 Feb.; Add. 51666, Bedford to Holland [14 Feb.] 1819; Byron: A Self Portrait ed. Quennell, ii. 441.
- 6. Grey mss, Lambton to Grey mss, Lambton to Grey [18 Feb.]; Chatsworth mss, Lady Morpeth to Devonshire, 4 Mar. ; Diary of Lady Shelley, ii. 29-30.
- 7. Chatsworth mss, Lady Morpeth to Devonshire, 16 Mar. 1819.
- 8. Add. 56540, Hobhouse diary, 2 July 1819.
- 9. Add. 38574, f. 140; Grey mss; Add. 51561, Brougham to Holland, Fri. [Oct. 1819].
- 10. Add. 56540, Hobhouse diary, 7, 8 Dec.; The Times, 9 Dec. 1819; Letters of Lady Palmerston, 22-23.