PENNINGTON, Sir John, 5th Bt. 1st Baron Muncaster [I] (1741-1813), of Muncaster Castle, Ravenglass, Cumb.

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



4 Dec. 1781 - 1796
1796 - 1802
1806 - 8 Oct. 1813

Family and Education

bap. 22 May 1741, 1st s. of Sir Joseph Pennington, 4th Bt., of Muncaster Castle by Sarah, da. and h. of John Moore, apothecary, of Bath, Som.; nephew of Sir John Pennington, 3rd Bt. educ. Winchester 1754-6. m. 26 Sept. 1778, Penelope, da. and h. of James Compton of New York, gt.-gds. of Spencer, 2nd Earl of Northampton, 1s. d.v.p. 2da. (1 surv.). cr. Baron Muncaster [I] 21 Oct. 1783; suc. fa. as 5th Bt. 3 Feb. 1793.

Offices Held

Ensign, 3 Ft. 1756, capt. 1762; maj. 2 Ft. 1765; lt.-col. 37 Ft. 1773; ret. 1775; col. Muncaster mountaineers 1803.

Member, board of agriculture 1801.


Muncaster, ‘an early political friend of Mr Pitt’, was disappointed in his two chief ambitions in public life, to be Member for Cumberland and to take public office. The first, thwarted in 1780, remained so, though his hopes revived in 1789, when Lord Lonsdale’s temporary desertion of Pitt on the Regency left him, so he thought, the only friend of government of consequence in the county, and he erected a pyramid at Muncaster to fete the King’s recovery from his illness. On 23 May 1798 he poured out his frustration to Pitt at being prevented by his kinsmen the Lowthers from coming forward as he would wish on his home ground, and put in his claim for the lord lieutenancy of Cumberland. He had come into Parliament as a paying guest of the Medlycott family for Milborne Port: by 1791, the arrangement was undermined by the encroachment of Lord Uxbridge on the management of the borough, or rather by Muncaster’s failure to be civil or grateful to him, and in 1796 he had to look elsewhere. As to public office, his Irish peerage in 1783 had been intended to obliterate his claims and an application to Pitt in 1785 for public employment had not succeeded.1

In his last known speech in Parliament, 14 Dec. 1790, Muncaster congratulated Pitt on the Spanish convention and castigated the opposition. He was listed hostile to the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in 1791. On 27 May 1791 he was a government teller. His chief interest henceforward became the abolition of the slave trade, which made him a special friend of William Wilberforce, who claimed, in the course of a long correspondence, that they were ‘tuned in the same key’. Muncaster’s Historical Sketches of the slave trade was a recognized source book for the abolitionists. Although no speech of his is reported on the subject, he voted or acted as teller for the motions for abolition in 1791, 1794 and 1796. On 10 Apr. 1796 he thanked Charles Abbot ‘in the name of the country gentlemen’, for the trouble he had taken with Sir John Sinclair’s enclosure bill.2

Muncaster appeared on the Treasury list of persons in quest of seats in 1796. At first he was thought of for Beverley with his friend Denison, but he settled for Colchester as second string to Robert Thornton, whose family was connected with Wilberforce. He could not have afforded an expensive contest at a time when he was rebuilding Muncaster as a Gothic castle. On 3 Nov. 1796 he took six weeks’ leave of absence from the House, but reappeared as a government teller, 16 May 1797. Thereafter he seems to have relied on Wilberforce or the newspapers for his political information and by November 1800 Wilberforce was warning him that his absence from Westminster was not calculated to please his constituents. Regarding Pitt as ‘the General’, he was well disposed to Addington’s ministry while it had Pitt’s blessing and wrote of his approval of the peace preliminaries in November 1801.3

Muncaster appreciated that he would not be welcome at Colchester in 1802 and toyed with the idea of offering himself at York. He issued an address there, 18 May, but withdrew a few days later, without being taken seriously. His next opportunity came in September 1804 when the Earl of Carlisle’s heir, Lord Morpeth, made known his ambition to become Member for Cumberland on a likely vacancy. Muncaster was violently opposed to this and, wishing to stake his own claims, still more to the prospect of John Christian Curwen* standing, when Viscount Lowther informed him of what was afoot; but informing him was not the same as encouraging him and Muncaster found that Lowther would not commit himself to support him. Warned that Muncaster would be regarded as his candidate if he stood, Lowther roundly informed the bishop of Carlisle that Muncaster must stand on his own feet, as members of his family had previously done, and soon saw his advantage in coming to terms with the Earl of Carlisle—Muncaster had little to offer him in return for support and yielded reluctantly to this ‘higher ground’. Soon after Pitt’s death he wrote to George Rose, 27 Mar. 1806, thanking him for defending Pitt’s reputation in the House against

those foul aspersions and calumnies, so flagrantly attempted to be cast upon it on every occasion by those who with all their preposterous boastfulness of combining all the talents and abilities of the country seem already to be confessing themselves as it were unequal to keep in movement their vast and preponderous machine, which his single and capacious mind gave more than direction to and guided for above twenty years.

The postcript ran, ‘Alas, alas that the name of Pitt and Grenville ever were so opposed to each other, aye and alas that Fox’s and Windham’s ever were disjoined’.4 One of the ‘Talents’, Francis Horner, described Muncaster as ‘a half saint—half debauchee and whole raft’. It might have been mortifying for the ‘old Pittite’ to find himself sponsored by Lord Lowther for Westmorland at the ensuing election with an assurance of some support extracted by the Grenville ministry as the price of discouraging any opposition for that county. But his feelings were numbed by the accidental death of his wife while canvassing for him. Wilberforce regarded it as greatly to his credit that ‘poor Muncaster came up’ to vote for the abolition of the slave trade in February 1807.5

In April 1807 Muncaster, who had leave of absence, was solicited by Spencer Perceval to come up and oppose Brand’s motion. When present (he took long leaves of absence in 1808), he supported the Portland and Perceval administrations. He voted with the latter on the address and the Scheldt expedition, 23, 26 Jan. 1810, but then absented himself until 30 Mar., though the ministerialists solicited his attendance and the Whigs listed him ‘against the Opposition’. On 16 Mar. 1810 Viscount Lowther complained:

He seldom voted the last time he was in London and that was, I believe, by the persuasion of Mr Wilberforce. But I think if he was told it was the last effort of ministers to support the King he would probably come to London ...

On 1 Jan. 1811, breaking into a month’s leave of absence, he ‘came 500 miles to vote for the [Regency] restrictions’. He

was scarce out of his chaise before he was told that Lord Lonsdale and all his friends had gone over to the Prince ... this alarmed Lord Muncaster who said if so, I must go out of town again, I certainly will not oppose Lord Lonsdale, but if these are his politics, I cannot support him.

Muncaster had been misinformed and he duly voted for the restrictions that day. On 25 Jan. 1812 he let the Treasury know that his attendance would temporarily be prevented by his daughter’s illness, which had kept him away the year before.6 He was present on 21 May 1812, when he voted against the motion for a stronger administration with the other Lowther Members.

Muncaster was listed a Treasury supporter after the election of 1812. An absentee Irish landowner, he voted against Catholic relief throughout the ensuing session and died 8 Oct. 1813. To Wilberforce he left 100 guineas as a token of appreciation of long friendship ‘in this vale of tears and sorrowing’.7

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


J. R. E. Borron, ‘John Pennington, 1st Ld. Muncaster’, Trans. Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. lxvi. 347-68; DNB.

  • 1. Colchester, i. 44; Wilberforce Corresp. i. 71; PRO 30/8/162, f. 139; John Rylands Lib. Haigh mss, Uxbridge to Muncaster, 29 June 1791, cited by Borron; Geo. III Corresp. i. 647.
  • 2. Life of Wilberforce (1838), i. 68 and passim; Colchester, i. 52.
  • 3. PRO 30/8/197, f. 98; 234, f. 267; Farington Diary (Yale ed.), ii. 550; Jefferson, Cumb. ii. 214; Wilberforce Corresp. i. 217-18; Life of Wilberforce, ii. 242; iii. 161; Colchester, i. 379.
  • 4. The Times, 23 Apr. 1802; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F 35/83, 85-7, 91, 92; Lonsdale mss, bp. of Carlisle to Lowther, 10 Sept., Sunday night [16 Sept.], replies 17, 23 Sept. 1804, Muncaster to Lowther, 23 Oct. 1806; Carlisle mss, bp. of Carlisle to Morpeth, 21 Sept. 1804; Add. 42774, f. 188.
  • 5. Horner mss 3, ff. 58, 62; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 30 May; Harrowby mss, Bathurst to Harrowby, 2 June 1806; Life of Wilberforce, iii. 299.
  • 6. Lonsdale mss, Long to Lowther, 4 Apr. [1807], to Lonsdale, 21 Mar., Ward to same, 3 Feb., Lowther to same, 16 Mar. 1810; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 305; T.64/260, Muncaster to Arbuthnot, 25 Jan. 1812.
  • 7. Life of Wilberforce, iv. 145; PCC 28 Bridport.