PELHAM, Hon. Thomas (1756-1826), of Stanmer, nr. Lewes, Suss.

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



1780 - 29 June 1801

Family and Education

b. 28 Apr. 1756, 1st s. of Thomas Pelham, and Baron Pelham, and bro. of Hon. Henry Pelham*. educ. Westminster 1766; Clare, Camb. 1773; Grand Tour (Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria) 1775-8. m. 16 July 1801, Lady Mary Henrietta Juliana Osborne, da. of Francis Godolphin Osborne, 5th Duke of Leeds, 4s. 6da. summ. to the Lords in his fa.’s barony as Lord Pelham 29 June 1801; suc. fa. as 2nd Earl of Chichester 8 Jan. 1805.

Offices Held

MP [I] 1783-90, 1795-9.

Surveyor-gen. of Ordnance Apr. 1782-Apr. 1783; chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] Aug. 1783-Feb. 1784, Mar. 1795-Nov. 1798; PC [I] 13 Sept. 1783, [GB] 11 Mar. 1795; sec. of state [I] June 1796-June 1801; commr. Board of Control May 1801-July 1802; sec. of state for Home affairs July 1801-Aug. 1803; chancellor of duchy of Lancaster Nov. 1803-June 1804; capt. yeomen of the guard 1804; jt. postmaster-gen. May 1807-Nov. 1823, postmaster-gen. Nov. 1823-d.

Lt.-col. Suss. militia until 1793, 1794-1803; lt.-col. commdt. Pevensey regt. 1810.


Pelham, who had joined Brooks’s in 1780 and the Whig Club in 1786, sat undisturbed on the family interest in East Sussex for the remainder of his career in the Commons. His engaging manner and equable temperament had gained him the friendship of opposition leaders and his reputation for intelligence and reliability gave him a position of some weight in the second rank of the Whig hierarchy; but he was neither a confident nor accomplished speaker and made no major contribution to debate in this period.

He seconded Grey’s motion for papers concerning the Spanish convention, 13 Dec.; opposed the additional malt duty, 21 Dec. 1790; was appointed a manager of Hastings’s impeachment, 14 Feb. 1791; spoke in favour of agricultural protection, 4 Apr.; was listed favourable to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland at that time; voted for Grey’s resolutions on the Oczakov crisis, 12 Apr., and seconded Grenville’s motion on the same subject, 25 May 1791. Before departing for France shortly afterwards, he was entrusted by Fox with letters to Barnarve and Lafayette requesting guarantees for the safety of the French royal family. He prudently burnt them. At this juncture he was favourably disposed towards ‘the friends to liberty’ in France and Burke, who reckoned him an ‘ardent admirer of the French system’, complained in January 1792 that Pelham was ‘still acting the part of a runner to the French revolution; and endeavouring everywhere by various rumours and idle expectations to reconcile the minds of people to it’.1

Pelham voted for Whitbread’s motion on the armament against Russia, 1 Mar. 1792, but ill health restricted his parliamentary activities for the rest of the session. The formation of the Association of the Friends of the People caused him ‘some anxiety’, but, finding Fox ‘in the temper and disposition I could wish’, he hoped that ‘we shall be able to put an end to a scheme so very injurious to us as a party, and at this time so peculiarly improper for the country’. Though unable to attend the meeting of opposition leaders to consider Pitt’s request for their support of the proposed proclamation, he was in the House for the debate of 25 May:

I was very desirous of speaking if the House had not been so hot that I could not bear to remain in it more than ten minutes at a time, and indeed there was no very fair opportunity for I had the good fortune of agreeing with Fox though Adam, he and I were the only three of the same sentiments. We disapproved of the proclamation because it spread unnecessary alarm, and we disapproved of the Association as ill timed and improper in every respect.

Convinced that Fox was blameless for the excesses of the Associators, deeply suspicious of Pitt and anxious above all to preserve the unity of the party, Pelham remained immune to the serious alarm felt by some leading conservative Whigs. Although he felt obliged to oppose the loyalist address in Sussex, he sought Fox’s approval and, accepting the latter’s earnest of good intentions, agreed not to muster active opposition to it.2


From July 1792 to August 1793 Pelham travelled on the Continent. He resisted calls for his return at the turn of the year, when he was listed, with a query, among the Portland Whigs, pleading poor health, anxiety for the welfare of Lady Webster (the future Lady Holland), with whom he wintered in Italy, and a wish to stay uncommitted in the intensifying debate within the Whig party. At the same time his political views underwent a decisive transformation. The progress of the French revolution began to dismay him in the autumn of 1792 and by December he suspected ‘French agents’ of fomenting a subversive spirit in England. On reading of the exchanges between Fox and Windham in the debate on the address, 13 Dec. 1792, he wrote to his father:

informed as I am at present my opinion is with Windham. It is the first time in my life that I read a speech of Fox’s in which I thought that verbiage had taken the place of argument and that I was not convinced of the truth of some principles in it though the general argument might be contrary to my opinion ... how Fox ... can doubt of the bad intentions and hostile intrigues of the French against us is perfectly incomprehensible.

He nevertheless remained anxious to avoid a permanent breach with Fox and admitted that despite his ‘abhorrence of the licentious tyranny that exists in France at this moment’, he would be ‘equally an advocate for the revolutionists if the old government was to be re-established’. While he approved, as a temporary expedient, the repressive action taken by government and the formation of loyalist associations, he trusted that the former would ‘bring to light some of those wicked designs they have announced’ and that the latter would be dissolved when calm was restored.3


On his return to England Pelham became one of the trustees of the subscription fund to assist Fox, but found himself in political agreement with the leading Portland Whigs, whose sentiments he expressed in his observation that ‘at this moment it is better to support the war without taking office than by any more intimate connexion with administration’. He dined with Pitt in the company of Windham, the Burkes, Anstruther and Elliot on 7 Dec. 1793 but, while acknowledging that Pitt was ‘improved in his manners since I left his society’, he clearly retained his personal dislike of the prime minister. On 19 Dec. a report was current that Pelham was to become Irish secretary and the following day he was sounded by Sir John Macpherson* on the possibility of his going to Florence in a diplomatic capacity. He refused, not only from reluctance to embarrass the newly appointed envoy, but because he ‘was not satisfied with the intentions of administration with regard to Europe, nor gave them sufficient credit for ability to risk any responsibility with them, though I was determined to support the war fairly and completely’. Pelham, Windham and Tom Grenville styled themselves the ‘Virtuous Triumvirate’, who were ‘determined not to take office, from the idea that they could more effectually serve the government by convincing the public that they quitted opposition merely from a conviction of the wisdom of maintaining the measures of administration than from the inducement of holding a place’. In December 1793 he sent a message via Lady Webster and Lord Malmesbury to the Duke of York, a personal friend, ‘to say that he would obey his instructions in Parliament, what to say about Dunkirk, etc.’ The duke ordered Malmesbury to instruct Pelham not to defend him at the expense of government.4

He could not attend a gathering at Burlington House on 17 Jan. 1794 but, after reluctantly and amicably separating from Fox three days later, he was present at a meeting of Portland Whigs in the evening, when he argued against the idea of supporting a call for inquiry into the conduct of the war. One of the group of Portland Whigs who met regularly during the 1794 session, he worked closely with Windham in flattering and encouraging émigré leaders, whom he believed to have been imprudently neglected by government. While he continued to support the prosecution of the war Pelham, who favoured immediate recognition of the French regent and energetic co-operation with the royalists in Brittany and La Vendée to restore the monarchy, constantly lamented in private the ‘too strong symptoms of neglect and indifference in the chiefs or of corruption in lower departments of administration’.5

For all this activity, he suffered bouts of severe depression, as he complained on 13 Feb. 1794 to Lady Webster, whose absence in Italy contributed in large measure to his melancholia:

I have no solid comfort or constant attachment; politics occasionally animate me ... and somehow or other I am as much occupied as ever I was in my life. But if I once come to a stop and look round for a friend or a real companion to go through the vicissitudes of this life, my spirits sink at once and I loathe my existence.6

A sharp attack of illness in March and a natural diffidence about his oratorical talents further reduced his appetite for parliamentary exertion. He voted against Grey’s motion condemning the employment of foreign troops, 10 Feb., and when the subject was raised again in March, he intended to speak ‘if my nerves are in good tone’, but was too unwell to attend. For his failure to come forward on that occasion, Pelham wrote, Tom Grenville ‘scarcely forgives me’. He attended the House on 8 Apr. ‘with a disposition and a half engagement to speak’ for the bill to enlist Frenchmen in the military service of the crown, but remained silent and was ‘almost sure’ that he would never speak again. Windham and Grenville were ‘seriously uneasy’ at his silence, which was ‘construed into a want of zeal and earnestness in the cause’.7 He was ‘not averse’ to Malmesbury’s suggestion in May 1794 that he should succeed him as ambassador to Berlin and he assured Portland, 30 May, that, in the event of a junction with government, he was ready to accept a responsible post; but, when arrangements for the coalition were almost complete, he confided to Lady Webster that although he approved the measure, he was ‘unwilling to mark my approbation by taking any part’.8

Pelham declined a proposal from government that he should take charge of affairs in the West Indies and, hearing reports that he was to go to Ireland as secretary to Earl Fitzwilliam, resolved on no account to do so. In September 1794 he accompanied Windham on a brief mission to the Duke of York at headquarters on the Continent, but in January 1795 turned down the duke’s request that, in the event of his becoming commander-in-chief, he should act as ‘his secretary and representative in Parliament’ and claimed to be bent on retirement at the next dissolution.9

On the recall of Fitzwilliam, however, Pelham, pressed by Portland ‘in a manner that drove me to the alternative of accepting the situation or forfeiting all claim to public estimation, or to any advantages to my family’, grudgingly agreed to go to Ireland as Lord Camden’s secretary, with the firm stipulation that his tenure must end in the summer. He arrived in Dublin in March 1795 and, after being returned to the Irish parliament for Clogher, made an early mark with his successful speech against the Catholic relief bill in May. In August 1795 he wrote to his friend Lord Sheffield:

My opinion of this country is the same as when I left England, and I think I have done all that either I engaged to do or I was expected to perform. The quiet and peace of the country is only to be established by a very long and uniform system of government, under which the country may be civilised.10

He returned to England determined to retire and nettled by government’s distribution of revenue patronage to the opponents of his electoral interest at Seaford. The following month he refused the offer of a mission to Vienna. His resolve gradually crumbled under constant and not entirely scrupulous pressure from Portland, who persistently pleaded the difficulties, real or imaginary, of finding an acceptable successor and demolished his final excuse, anxiety over the state of his father’s health, by presenting him with a favourable medical opinion. Feeling ‘compelled to resume my station’, he returned reluctantly to Ireland in February 1796.11

Although Pelham spent lengthy periods in England, he dealt assiduously and capably with the routine details of administration when in Dublin. He enjoyed excellent relations with Camden and most of his colleagues on the Castle staff and his pleasant and open manner made him a popular secretary, even with the Irish opposition. Sir Jonah Barrington, though admittedly prejudiced in Pelham’s favour by his detestation of Castlereagh, wrote that ‘a fair and candid secretary was a great treat’ to the Irish people ‘and Mr Pelham was making full way in public estimation’, when forced to retire. Earl Wycombe*, Lord Lansdowne’s unruly son and no friend to the Irish establishment, recorded the following verdict on him:

he is a better man and a less childish politician, for statesman I cannot call him, than the gentle Castlereagh. But his mind was not equal to an enlarged view of things and I question whether he ever considered himself in any other light here than that of the plenipotentiary of Mr Pitt ... He did a little good and a great deal of mischief. He had the virtues of an old woman and the vice of a tool of power ... There is this to be said for him; that where he did good, he acted from himself. Where he did evil he was the servant of others.12

Pelham made no striking impact on the direction of Irish affairs, was never intimately in Pitt’s confidence and became increasingly exasperated with Portland’s attitude towards him. When Sir Robert Abercromby, the commander-in-chief, issued his notorious pronouncement in February 1798 condemning the Irish military, Pelham defended him in the Irish House of Commons, before being struck down with a near fatal illness. On his partial recovery he drafted, but never sent, a bitter letter of complaint to Portland, protesting that in disowning Abercomby the British cabinet had shown marked lack of confidence in Camden and himself, evidently preferring to base their policies on unauthorized reports from a ‘cabal’ within the Irish administration, who had taken advantage of his illness to turn on Abercromby, and that he himself had been ‘swindled’ by Pitt and Portland into resuming his office in 1796, conduct which ‘I have never forgotten’ and ‘never shall’. He recuperated in England in the summer of 1798, and although he had intended to return to Ireland under Cornwallis he eventually decided to retire and was formally replaced by Castlereagh in November.13

He claimed not to expect ‘any situation in England at present’ and in May 1799 declined Lord Grenville’s offer of a diplomatic mission to Vienna. A year later, astonished at a report that Pitt believed he did not desire office and ‘excessively vexed’ at another that Portland had said he had relinquished all personal pretensions for the sake of those of his relatives, he saw Pitt and refuted Portland’s interpretation of his conduct and sentiments, pointing out that no benefits to his family had in fact materialized, and explained:

I certainly never had been very anxious or impatient about office; that I had given him full credit for wishing to promote me when he could, and therefore I had not troubled him, but that I must own my income was so limited that office would be very convenient to me, and that I certainly was not above asking for it if there was any particular one that I wished for, and also there were some which my health would not allow me to undertake.

He expressed an interest in the reversion of Lord Liverpool’s office of clerk of the pells in Ireland, but government were unable to accommodate him.14

In February 1801 he twice refused offers of a cabinet place from Addington (the second coupled with a proposal that he should be called up to take the lead in the Lords) largely on the ground that most of his closest associates were to leave office with Pitt, but at the same time gave ‘the strongest assurances of concurrence and support’. When informed that the King, who claimed to have discovered that ‘it was Lord Camden that expressly advised him to decline’, was keen to see him in office, he submitted to a third approach and anticipated becoming secretary for War with the lead in the Lords. A few days later he was curtly told by Portland that, Lord Hobart having installed himself as secretary for War, ‘it is impossible at present to place you where you particularly ought to be, and that it is almost impossible for you not to go to the Board of Control’. He refused the latter and subsequently asked Addington to postpone his elevation to the Lords. Arrangements were made for Pelham, who chaired the secret committee of inquiry into disaffection, presented its reports to the House, 13 Apr. and 15 May, and introduced the habeas corpus suspension bill, 14 Apr. 1801, to succeed Portland as Home secretary; and he refused to be deflected from this goal by Addington’s suggestion that he undertake a mission to Russia to congratulate the new emperor and open general negotiations. Although Portland clung tenaciously to his office to the last, Pelham, having been called to the Upper House in his father’s barony on the latter’s promotion to an earldom, replaced him in July 1801.15

Assessed by Lord Holland as ‘somewhat time-serving’, but ‘a good-natured and prudent man’,16 he held office of some description in each successive administration, apart from that of the ‘Talents’, until his death on 4 July 1826.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Add. 33129, f. 35; 51705, Pelham to Lady Webster, 13 June 1791; Malmesbury Diaries, ii. 454; Burke Corresp. vi. 452; vii. 30.
  • 2. Add. 51705, Pelham to Lady Webster, 27 Apr., 28 May, 15 June 1792; Minto, ii. 56.
  • 3. Add. 33101, ff. 129, 131; 33129, ff. 85, 103, 128, 131, 136, 141, 143, 145, 149.
  • 4. Add. 33629, ff. 5, 26; 42058, f. 126; 51706, Pelham to Lady Webster, 7 Dec. 1793; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 104, 118-19; Malmesbury Diaries, iii. 23-25.
  • 5. Add. 33629, ff. 13, 30; 33630, ff. 3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 32; 33631, ff. 1, 5; 51706, Pelham to Lady Webster, 4, 20, [27] Feb., 7 Apr. 1794.
  • 6. Add. 51706.
  • 7. Add. 33630, f. 23; 33631, f. 10; 51706, Pelham to Lady Webster, 27 Feb., 26 Mar., 7, [8], 10 Apr. 1794.
  • 8. Malmesbury Diaries, iii. 96; Portland mss PwF7417; Add. 51706, Pelham to Lady Webster, 15 June 1794.
  • 9. Add. 51706, same to same [July 1794], 15, 26, 29 Jan. 1795.
  • 10. Ibid. same to same, 10 Mar. 1795; PRO NI, Sheffield mss T2965/115, 117, 118, 123.
  • 11. Add. 33101, ff. 356, 364, 368, 376; 33129, ff. 324, 330, 332; Portland mss PwF7424-9.
  • 12. Barrington, Personal Sketches, i. 328; Add. 51682, Wycombe to Lady Holland, 21 June 1798.
  • 13. Add. 33106, ff. 70, 94, 98, 282; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 1701, 1759, 1820; Castlereagh Corresp. i. 325, 344, 375, 378, 391, 411, 416, 419.
  • 14. NLS mss 11052, f. 88; 11139, f. 141; HMC Fortescue, v. 70, 80; Add. 33130, f. 173; PRO 30/8/327, f. 51.
  • 15. Add. 33107, ff. 23, 31, 37, 42; 33130, ff. 203, 205, 210; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 2350, 2357.
  • 16. Mems. Whig Party, i. 112.