PONSONBY, John William, Visct. Duncannon (1781-1847).

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



25 Mar. 1805 - 1806
15 June 1810 - 1812
1812 - 1826
1826 - 1832
1832 - July 1834

Family and Education

b. 31 Aug. 1781, 1st s. of Frederick Ponsonby*, 3rd Earl of Bessborough [I] and 3rd Baron Ponsonby [GB], and bro. of Hon. Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby*. educ. Harrow 1790-8; Christ Church, Oxf. 1799; continental tour 1800, 1802-3. m. 16 Nov. 1805, Lady Maria Fane, da. of John, 10th Earl of Westmorland, 7s. 6da. cr. Baron Duncannon 19 July 1834; suc. fa. as 4th Earl of Bessborough [I] and 4th Baron Ponsonby [GB] 3 Feb. 1844.

Offices Held

PC 23 Feb. 1831; first commr. of woods, forests and land revenues Feb. 1831-July 1834, May 1835-Sept. 1841; sec. of state for Home affairs July-Nov. 1834; ld. privy seal Apr. 1835-Jan. 1840; ld. lt. [I] July 1846-d.

Ld. lt. co. Carlow 1831-8, co. Kilkenny 1838-d.

Lt.-col. commdt. Marylebone vols. 1803; vice-pres. County Fire Office 1816.


Duncannon ‘with a phlegmatic temperament, great taciturnity, and a slowness of utterance almost amounting to a natural impediment’, developed tardily as a politician. He had travelled on the Continent in 1800 and in December 1802 his parents, alarmed by his entanglement with Lady Elizabeth Villiers and thinking him ‘too young and too boyish for his age to marry’, took him with them to Paris. When they returned home the following February, Duncannon remained behind, intending to proceed on his travels. On the outbreak of hostilities he narrowly escaped detention. It seems that the intercession of Charles James Fox secured his release, and on 10 Nov. 1803 Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby was able to report to Lady Holland: ‘My brother, who, but a few months ago was confined at Fréjus in France, and whom nobody expected to see till the end of the war, is the colonel of the Marylebone Volunteers.’1 At home he continued to disturb his parents with a variety of flirtations. His cousin Lady Harriet Cavendish, whom his family would have liked to match with Duncannon, wrote of him on 29 Nov.:

I think him uncommonly handsome, good tempered and affectionate and feeling in his heart and manners to everything that belongs to him, but I do not think him clever and I do think him trifling, inconsistent and inconsequent to the greatest, most dreadful, and even unparalleled degree.

His eventual marriage outside the close Whig circle did not delight his family, but his father consoled himself with the hope that his future daughter-in-law’s fortune would ‘remove some incumbrances off my estate and enable me to add to your income enough to make you comfortable though not in affluent circumstances’.2

Duncannon, admitted to Brooks’s Club on 22 Nov. 1803, began to show an interest in politics during Burdett’s Middlesex campaign in July 1804. On one occasion he acted as chairman at a Crown and Anchor meeting and on 21 Aug. his brother told Lady Holland that he

seemed excessively interested about it. This you will think rather extraordinary as he did not appear to be very fond of any thing in that way. The Oracle was very severe on him. It said that it was an extraordinary thing that a young nobleman who was just returned from Paris should enter into so active a canvass for Sir Francis. It might lead people to form a very unfavourable idea of his connexions.3

Duncannon’s own election for Knaresborough on the Devonshire interest for the seat vacated by the election of William Cavendish for Aylesbury had been prevented by riot in July. Lord Braybrooke had written to Lord Glastonbury on 2 July that ‘The party of Fox and Cavendish want Lord Duncannon for Knaresborough much as the Grenvilles want the accession to their force of Ebrington’,4 but after his election in March 1805, he does not appear to have played an active part in the House. He was classed ‘Opposition’ in July 1805, having voted for both the censure and criminal prosecution of Melville, 8 Apr. and 12 June, and he supported the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806, but is not known to have been considered for office by the Grenville ministry.

Shortly before the dissolution of 1806, Devonshire announced his intention of returning the impecunious Lord Ossulston instead of Duncannon for Knaresborough, believing that Duncannon could make use of his own family’s seat for Kilkenny. The decision caused some controversy in Whig circles and Devonshire’s daughter, Lady Morpeth, wrote to her husband on 19 Oct.:

Papa sees strongly that it is of more consequence to one than to the other and thinks it will be a good thing for D[uncannon] to go to Ireland, but those on the other side say that Frederick [Cavendish Ponsonby] might represent Kilkenny which would give Ld. B[essborough] two Members instead of one.

Duncannon, however, convinced that he would soon tire of the close attention to his constituents which he believed the constituency demanded, declined to stand and informed his mother:

I should be very sorry if you had asked the duke to alter his purpose about Knaresborough, tho’ I think it rather hard, that so long as a dissolution has been talked of, he should not have mentioned it before, and more particularly as he said when I came in that it was only supposing Wm. Cavendish to lose Aylesbury that I was to retire. At present the notice is rather short for a decision of some consequence, but I believe, that even had I had a longer time, I should have done the same. I wish you to consider that decision, not as a wish to save myself the trouble of two or three journeys to Ireland, but as my opinion of the most certain way to ensure my father’s interest in the county of Kilkenny, only excepting the other mode, which would be very unpleasant for me, of binding myself to continue to sit for that county and to live for some time every year in Ireland.

Duncannon was thus left without a seat. Holland unsuccessfully suggested to Howick that he should run as a Whig candidate for Middlesex— ‘would not the great guns furnish some ammunition for his battle—Dukes of Bedford, Devonshire—Lords Thanet, Jersey, Fitzwilliam etc.’. A hope that Devonshire might return him for Dungarvan fell through and Bedford, feeling that he was ‘not to be pitied’ because of his refusal of Kilkenny, did not respond to suggestions that he should return him for Camelford.5

In 1807 he stood on the interest of his maternal uncle Earl Spencer at St. Albans where he was abused as ‘Dumbcannon’ and narrowly defeated, the ‘No Popery’ cry being raised against the Spencer interest. There was again talk at Holland House of his contesting Middlesex, but Lady Morpeth reported that ‘he would not hear of it’. He did not contest a by-election at St. Albans in January 1809, Lady Spencer informing his mother on 6 Dec. 1808 that ‘tho’ it would give me great pleasure to offer dear Duncannon a seat in Parliament, if I could command one, I would not for the world subject him to another disappointment, or indeed stand another contest’.6 It was not until the end of the 1810 session that he was returned for Higham Ferrers by Earl Fitzwilliam, for whose constituencies he continued to sit until 1826.

When the Whigs were ministry making in 1811 Duncannon was a candidate for office, and on 27 Jan. his father wrote to Grey: ‘I was sure if you could do it, you would think of my family. I certainly shall be very happy at Duncannon’s being a lord of the Admiralty under your auspices.’7 Even now he did not take a prominent part in Whig politics. He voted with the Whigs on the Regency, 29 Nov. 1810 and 1 Jan. 1811, only once more in the 1811 session, for Grattan’s motion on the Catholic petitions, 31 May, and on most major issues in 1812. He continued to support the opposition and Catholic relief in the ensuing Parliament. He opposed Christian missions to India, 22 June, 1 July 1813. He did not again appear in an opposition minority until 28 Feb. 1815. Thereafter he voted regularly and opposed the renewal of war. It was about this time that he began to perform the duties of Whig whip. Ponsonby had been looking for a successor to James Macdonald* in January 1815 and Duncannon had certainly assumed the position by May. On 7 Jan. 1816 Tierney informed Lady Holland that he had ‘written to Duncannon begging he will send letters to such of our friends as are at a great distance to let them know they will probably be wanted at the opening of the session’, although on 29 Jan. he had to tell Grey that Duncannon ‘had contrived to get shot in the foot at Althorp, and, in his absence, I and Abercromby must tomorrow morning write and send out the notes for our meeting on Wednesday night’.8

Before the 1817 session he was involved in discussions as to tactics. On 12 Dec. 1816 Tierney wrote to Grey: ‘Duncannon is all for an immediate attack’; on 19 Dec.: ‘I have written to Duncannon to state how necessary it is that all our friends should be summoned to attend. I have told him how impossible it is, however, to undertake for a division on the address’; and on 26 Dec.: ‘Duncannon is hard at work to procure an attendance’. With no official leader of the party, arrangements for the 1818 session caused some difficulty as Lady Spencer informed her husband on 27 Jan.:

Do you know it was a puzzling case how to write the letters to call up the Members to town at the meeting. There is no avowed leader of opposition, and therefore in whose name ought these letters to be written? The gentlemen in town to the gentlemen in the country? But that was too ridiculous, so at last Duncannon, in his own name, wrote to his friends, and Tierney in his and so on, but I insist upon it that after all, Duncannon has been forced to proclaim himself the leader by this very measure.

In the summer of 1818 Duncannon helped to remove these difficulties by organizing those members of the party who wished to see Tierney elected leader and by urging Tierney to take the post once he had gathered signatures to the circular letter offering it to him.9 As whip Duncannon was naturally a very regular voter and his only significant absences from divisions before 1820 were on motions for parliamentary reform: indeed he voted against Burdett’s motion of 20 May 1817.

Although Duncannon made no reported speech in the House before 1829, his talent for organization established his reputation. His career was, as Greville enthusiastically recorded

a remarkable example of the success which may be obtained by qualities of a superior description, without great talents, without knowledge and information, and without any power of speaking in Parliament ... he seemed to have found the place exactly adapted to his capacity and disposition when he became the Whig whipper-in of the House of Commons; he was gradually initiated in all the secrets of that party, and he soon became a very important member of it from his various intimacies and the personal influence he was enabled to exercise. He had a remarkably calm and unruffled temper and very good sound sense. The consequence was that he was consulted by everybody, and usually and constantly employed in the arrangement of difficulties, the adjustment of rival pretensions, and the reconciliation of differences, for which purposes some such man is indispensable and invaluable in every great political association. He continued to acquire fresh weight and influence, and at length nothing could be done without Duncannon.10

He died 16 May 1847.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: J. M. Collinge


  • 1. Le Marchant, Althorp, 46; Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, 116, 119-21; Leveson Gower, i. 359, 362, 364, 365; Blair Adam mss, Ferguson to Adam, 23 July 1803; Add. 51724.
  • 2. Letters of Lady Harriet Cavendish, 86; Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, 138.
  • 3. The Times, 31 July 1804; Add. 51724.
  • 4. Berks. RO, Braybrooke mss D/EZ 6C1.
  • 5. Carlisle mss; Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, 152; Add. 51544, Holland to Howick [1 Nov.]; 51661, Bedford to Holland, 13 Nov. 1806; Leveson Gower, ii. 226.
  • 6. Carlisle mss, Lady to Ld. Morpeth [5], 14 May 1807; see ST. ALBANS; Spencer mss.
  • 7. Grey mss.
  • 8. Add. 51585; Grey mss, Ld. J. Townshend to Grey, 21 May 1815, Tierney to same, 29 Jan. 1816.
  • 9. Grey mss; Spencer mss; Hants RO, Tierney mss 23a-c.
  • 10. Greville Mems. ed. Strachey and Fulford, vi. 447.