PLUMER, William (1736-1822), of Gilston Park and Blakesware, Herts.
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Family and Education
b. 24 May 1736, 2nd but o. surv. s. of William Plumer† of Blakesware by Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Byde of Ware Park. educ. Pembroke, Camb. 1752. m. (1) 12 July 1760, Hon. Frances Dorothy Cary (d. 3 Dec. 1761), da. of Lucius Charles, 7th Visct. Falkland [S], s.p.; (2) 9 Aug. 1791, his cos. Jane, da. and coh. of Rev. the Hon. George Hamilton, canon of Windsor, s.p. suc. fa. 1767.
Thanks to his family’s long association with county politics and the probity of his own conduct as county Member for over 20 years, Plumer headed the poll, as ever, in 1790, 1796 and 1802. Conceded an unopposed return in 1806, when his life was said to be ‘very precarious’, he retired at the next election, on a plea of ‘advancing age’, though he informed Lord William Henry Cavendish Bentinck* that he did not stand again ‘because he thought it possible he might be turned out’. ‘Certainly’, Lord William added in his journal (8 Feb. 1808), ‘no such danger existed, he was too careful of his reputation. He had too much vanity. He evidently regrets the loss of occupation.’ So, at the age of 76, Plumer accepted a close borough seat from his friend Earl Fitzwilliam. Studiously polite to the electors despite their impotence, he held it until his death, by which time he had devoted 54 years to the service of the House.1
Plumer, a member of Brooks’s Club since 1764 and an enthusiast for field sports, ‘formed one of that constellation of which Fox was the leading star’ and ‘passed the maturity of his life in the society of the first men of the age’. He joined the Whig Club on 6 Dec. 1784. Described as ‘too quick in his apprehension and words to be distinguished as a parliamentary speaker’ and ‘too independent to listen for a moment to the intrigues of ministerial or court influence’, he was ‘pre-eminent’ in committee business and ‘steady to his vote’. Thus, between 1790 and 1796 and again between 1796 and 1801 he had a not far from perfect record in voting with the Foxite opposition. He seldom had much to say in debate. On 21 Dec. 1790 he opposed the additional duty on malt, which he said would prove ‘essentially detrimental to the morals of the people’; at the committee stage the following day he particularly objected to the taxing of stocks of malt in hand. He spoke on the offenders bill, 9 Feb., and presented a petition against some clauses of the corn bill, 11 Feb. 1791. He was listed favourable to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland that session. On 26 Feb. 1794 he welcomed exemptions to the attorneys tax bill. He could not be drawn from Fox and subscribed to pay his debts. In 1794 he quarrelled with the Duke of Portland over the latter’s junction with administration. His next speech was about the validity of the counter-petition from Carlisle against a hasty peace, 22 Jan. 1795, and he defended and was commended for his ‘temperate conduct’ in expressing opposition to a loyal address from the county to the King, 16 Nov. 1795. On 30 Apr. 1795 he said that the bill to grant relief to innkeepers on whom billeting was imposed, ‘should continue in force for a year after the war’. On 21 Mar. 1796 he was for delaying the millers’ toll regulation bill. On 19 Oct. he also wished to postpone Pitt’s supplementary militia bill, but was overruled. He was a member of the committee on the Bank of England, 1 Mar. 1797. Opposing the tax on horses and carriages on 4 Dec., he said the owners had been given no choice in the matter; the whole business indicated the need for peace and afterwards for parliamentary reform, ‘without which, he did not think the country could be saved’. Fox believed that Plumer had been averse to a Whig secession from the start and remained so.2
On 18 Dec. 1797 Plumer opposed on principle, in committee, the proposals for increasing the assessed taxes; he succeeded in having one clause, which was loosely worded, amended (28 Dec.). On 14 Feb. 1798 he asked why his connexion Vice-Admiral Onslow was not honoured by the nation’s gratitude as well as Admirals Duncan and St. Vincent and was informed that it was because of his rank. Opposing the address on 25 Sept. 1799, he asked for a call of the House on the reduction of the militia, which he favoured, but thought the justification for it required the sanction of the whole House. He clashed with Pitt in the course of this debate, claiming that he was no seceder—he came regularly to the House ‘to do his duty to his constituents, and the public at large, and not as a politician’—and that Pitt had the habit of ‘lumping us all together, who do not vote with him’. His proposal was rejected by 93 votes to four. On 16 June 1800 he objected to the monopoly proposed in granting a charter to a London Incorporated Society for the manufacture of flour, bread, etc.; on 5 July he objected to the third reading of this bill.
Plumer, who was to have seconded his re-election as Speaker, wrote to Addington, 7 Jan. 1801, regretting that he would miss the opening of the session owing to gout. He had soon afterwards to compliment the Speaker on his becoming premier, but was privately dismayed.3 He was next in the minority on 19 Mar. when he opposed the Irish master of the rolls bill and on 25 Mar. voted for Grey’s censure motion. On 30 Apr. he obtained three weeks’ leave to recover his health. On 5 June he was in the minority against indemnity for those involved in the detection of subversion since 1793; on 31 Mar. 1802, after serving on the select committee, on the Prince of Wales’s finances; on 13 Apr. on the beer duty bill; likewise on 3 May 1803 on the Nottingham election bill and (breaking into a month’s leave of absence) on 24 May on the King’s message about relations with France. On 24 June he tried to secure a reduction of the malt duty. He was one of the Whigs who would not vote for Pitt’s navy motion, 15 Mar. 1804, but voted for the defence motions of Fox and Pitt (23, 25 Apr.), which led to the fall of Addington’s administration. He then took another month’s leave. He had written to Lord William Bentinck, 26 May 1802:
I think it is below the dignity of a House of Parliament to employ itself in many of the bills which I have seen brought forward there of late years—no one bill less important, in my opinion, than that respecting bull-baiting [he added that if he had been there he would have voted for its abolition].4
He had also become a less frequent speaker, though on 6 Dec. 1803 he was indulgent to the Prince of Wales’s grant and was placed on the civil list committee, 2 Feb. 1804.
On the return to power of Pitt in 1804, Plumer was listed ‘Foxite’ and in July 1805 ‘Opposition’; his voting conduct tallied with this, though he took leaves of absence every session. He opposed the duty on agricultural horses, 12 Mar. 1805, as being hard on the landed interest; on 25 Apr. he called Canning to order. On 20 May he presented a county petition approving the censure of Melville, in which he concurred. On 3 June 1806, as a supporter of the Grenville administration, he called Perceval to order and in February 1807 spoke in favour of the abolition of the slave trade, which he had always supported and said he would vote freely for, without any pledge being given to his constituents or demanded by them. Before the bill was committed, he fell ill.5 On 24 Mar. 1807 he gave his ‘hearty assent’ to the offices in reversion bill: ‘I wish this measure had been brought forward forty years ago’. He added that he had heard that Portland’s administration intended to give Spencer Perceval an appointment for life to tempt him to join them:
Upon this I may observe that if men of great abilities are not satisfied with the rewards attached to the situations which his Majesty chooses to appoint them to hold in the government of their country, if they do not think the usual compensation sufficient, they ought not to accept of office at all [loud cries of "hear, hear"]. I do however at all events enter my protest most solemnly against the measure of giving a man a situation for life, in order to entice him to occupy another, which may be more fleeting and temporary.
Next day, when the rumour was confirmed, Plumer repeated his objection, which was upheld by the House. He voted for Brand's motion following the dismissal of the Grenville ministry, 9 Apr. He favoured an amendment of the Poor Laws, 17 Apr., conceding the need for some provision of popular education, but asserting that better administration of the Laws was needed rather than repeal.
Plumer's return to the House in 1812 was greeted sarcastically by young Whigs in quest of seats as a symptom of his patron's aversion to reform. In fact, he still liked to be considered 'a Reformist' and paired in favour of Burdett's reform motion of 20 May 1817. He continued to act, or, more often, to pair with opposition, but silently. He seems to have cast his votes in person on 11 Feb. 1813, 28 Apr. 1815 (against the renewal of war), 5, 8, 25 May, 3 July 1815, 9 May 1816 and 2 June 1817. He was too ill to attend early in 1816 and thought of retiring; but he ventured to Higham Ferrers for his re-election in 1818 and the young Whigs again gnashed their teeth. He signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the Whigs after the election, but took three leaves of absence and paired during the next session. He assured Bentinck that he was 'decidely hostile' to the foreign enlistment bill, 11 June 1819. Afflicted by deafness, rheumatism and gout, he allegedly never stayed in the House later than six o'clock after 1815.6
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Grey mss, Whitbread to Howick, 7 Nov. 1806; Letters at Welbeck Abbey, 20-29; Gent. Mag. (1822), i. 376; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F83a, Plumer to Fitzwilliam, 7, 14 Aug. 1812; Fitzwilliam mss, box 92, same to same, 3 June 1818.
- 2. Gent. Mag. (1822), i. 376; Add. 34448, f. 296; Fitzwilliam mss, box 45, Bedford to Fitzwilliam [?8 Dec. 1793]; Stirling, Coke of Norfolk (1912), 260; Portland mss PwF237-9; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1329; Add. 47581, f. 171.
- 3. Add, 35701, f. 1; Sidmouth mss; Colchester, i. 230.
- 4. Add. 41856, f. 153; Letters at Welbeck Abbey, 74.
- 5. Wickham mss 5/64, Plumer to Wickham, 1 Mar. 1807.
- 6. Add. 52178, Brougham to Allen, Wed. [28 Oct. 1812]; Fitzwilliam mss, box 84, Plumer to Fitzwilliam, 9 Aug. 1816; Creevey mss, Bennet to Creevey, 20 July 1818; Letters at Welbeck Abbey, 90, 96, 100; Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 27 Jan. 1821.
- 7. Gent. Mag. (1822), i. 376.