SHELLEY, Sir John, 6th Bt. (1772-1852), of Maresfield, Suss.

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



21 Apr. 1806 - 1806
13 Mar. 1816 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 3 Mar. 1772, o.s. of Sir John Shelley, 5th Bt., of Michelgrove by Wilhelmina, da. of John Newnham of Maresfield Park. educ. Winchester; Eton 1786-9; Clare, Camb. 1789; Grand Tour 1789. m. 4 June 1807 Frances, da. and h. of Thomas Winckley of Brockholes, Lancs., 4s. 2da. suc. fa. as 6th Bt. 11 Sept. 1783; mat. uncle in Maresfield estate 1814.

Offices Held

Ensign, 2 Ft. Gds. 1790, lt. and capt. 1793; a.d.c. to Duke of Sussex; lt. Petworth yeomanry 1797.


At 11 years of age Shelley became head of the senior branch of an ancient Sussex family. His father having spent ‘vastly’ on elections and (not expecting his sickly son to live) sunk all his non-entailed property in an annuity, Shelley was compelled to sell Michelgrove when he came of age to disencumber the estate. On 7 Feb. 1792 he joined Brooks’s Club, and after service with the Duke of York in the Flanders campaign, associated with a fast set in fashionable society heavily involved in the Turf, in pugilism and in gambling. The Prince of Wales was said to tolerate, from Shelley, pranks ‘which would have caused others to be tabooed for life’. Lady Bessborough reported in April 1805 how he

got into a bad scrape—winning 8,000 one night of Mr Mellish when he was drunk, and ... making him deal every time at two handed commerce. I hope this is not so; he seems a good natured fool, and I should think any man like a gentleman incapable of such downright cheating.1

In 1797 Thomas Pelham, who was prepared to contemplate Shelley’s nomination on the Pelham interest at Lewes, reported that Shelley was interested in sitting for Shoreham (like his father). It was not until 1806 that he made a serious effort to find a seat, which he was prepared to purchase. In February, Fox, who clearly relied on his support, suggested that he should pay £2,000 for a seat until the dissolution and a further £2,000 to continue in it at the ensuing general election. In the event, at the instigation of Sheridan and the Prince of Wales, he paid £5,000 (covering two instalments) to (Sir) Christopher Hawkins* on this understanding, with a guarantee of four years’ tenure. As Member for Helston he supported his friends in office silently, voting for the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act a few days after taking his seat. His patron did not fulfil the second part of the bargain and he was left without a seat at the general election of 1806 after only three months in the House. His hope that the Prince would redress Hawkins’s ‘scandalous breach of faith’ by transferring him to another patron, Sir William Manners*, who might return him for Ilchester, was also disappointed. In June 1807 he married a wealthy heiress and besieged the Prince’s secretary for compensation for his disappointment. He needed to recoup his losses at Newmarket and furnish a house in Norfolk, he explained. On the arbitration of Viscount Howick, ‘a very moderate compensation’ of £1,500 was awarded him, though he had to wait until 30 Apr. 1808 to receive it.2

Shelley’s wife attempted to reform him and curtailed his gambling, though he retained his racing stable, winning the Derby in 1811 and 1824. His mother’s brother left him Maresfield in 1814, and his wife, who spent £70,000 on improving it, claimed that ‘it gave him a good position in the county’. In 1816 he was invited to contest a by-election at Lewes against James Scarlett, whose pretensions he had previously supported. The most obvious difference between them was on Catholic relief, which Shelley invariably opposed, as had the retiring Member, Scarlett’s brother-in-law. After a narrow victory, Shelley further irritated the Whigs by renewing his friendship with the Prince Regent, which had been broken. Nevertheless he voted with opposition on the state of Ireland, 26 Apr. 1816; for retrenchment on public offices, 7 May; against the leather tax, 9 May; for a review of the civil list, 24 May; on Sir Thomas Thompson’s* seat in the House, 12 June, and on the Irish vice-treasurership, 20 June. Next, he and Lady Shelley, repeating their exploit of the summer before, ‘ran after’ the Duke of Wellington at Paris ‘in a very disgusting manner’, before proceeding via Vienna to Italy for the winter. Returning home in April 1817, Shelley was in the minority on the third secretaryship of state, 29 Apr., and on the choice of Speaker, 2 June. He paired against the suspension of habeas corpus, 23 June, having become seriously ill. Lady Shelley had every reason to be anxious:

Mon mari était content de reprendre ses anciennes habitudes des clubs et du Parlement ... Quant à l’argent, jamais nous ne nous étions trouvés si gênés. L’élection avait absorbée les fonds destinés aux nouvelles bâtisses à Maresfield. Mon mari avait fait des pertes considerables à Newmarket. Notre maison démontée avait besoin d’’tre renouvelée.

Shelley resurfaced on 11 Mar. 1818 when he voted against the indemnity bill, but he was one of eight Members who refused to leave Newmarket to oppose the Duke of Clarence’s marriage grant on 15 Apr.3 As if to make up for this he opposed the Duke of Kent’s grant on 15 May, having also supported the resumption of cash payments by the Bank, 1 May. On 3 June he supported Brougham’s motion for inquiry into popular education.

Shelley headed the poll at Lewes in 1818, in coalition with a ministerialist against a Whig. His opposition leanings gained him a number of votes split with the latter. He did not sign the requisition to Tierney to lead the opposition and Tierney wrote of him as an unreliable ally, though he supported his motion for a committee on the Bank, 2 Feb. 1819. Tierney was justified, for as Lady Shelley reported, 22 Feb.:

We are just arrived in London, having come up for the question of the Windsor establishment. Shelley has voted in favour of the Duke of York having his £10,000 a year out of the public funds. This is contrary to public feeling. But, as the Duke of York is determined not to take the allowance from the privy purse—which he regards as his father’s private property—it is difficult to see what else can be done; especially as the Duke of York makes it a personal question.4

Shelley made his only reported speeches against the reform of the Game Laws, 9, 19 Mar. and 14 May 1819, criticizing Brand’s theoretical proposals, which would increase poaching and make ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. On the last occasion he succeeded in thwarting the measure. He paired in favour of the reduction of the Admiralty board, 18 Mar., and, after ten days’ leave, supported burgh reform, 6 May. On 10 May he took four days’ leave for bereavement. His last known vote in that Parliament was against the navy estimates, 2 June 1819. There was disappointment in some quarters that he did not aspire to the county seat in 1820, especially as it might have proved less expensive to him than Lewes,5 but he clung to the seat until 1831, when he came out against the reform bill.

Shelley died 28 Mar. 1852, having become increasingly conservative in his later years.6

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: M. H. Port


  • 1. Diary of Lady Shelley, i. 35, 36; Leveson Gower, ii. 59.
  • 2. Add. 33130, f. 65; Sheridan Letters ed. Price, ii. 284; A. C. Todd, Beyond the Blaze, 46; Cornw. RO, Johnstone mss DDJ 2122, ff. 166-7; Leveson Gower, ii. 220, 223; Prince of Wales Corresp. vi. 2415, 2431, 2457, 2478, 2679.
  • 3. Diary of Lady Shelley, i. 23-32, 36, 205; ii. 2, 31; Suss. Weekly Advertiser, 4, 11 Mar. 1816; Morning Chron. 2, 5, 23 Mar. 1816; Letters of Countess Granville, i. 62, 67; Grey mss, Lambton to Grey, 17 Apr. 1818.
  • 4. Add. 33112, f. 370; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 18 Feb. 1819; Diary of Lady Shelley, ii. 28.
  • 5. Petworth House mss, Ashburnham to Egremont, 22 Feb. 1820.
  • 6. Gent. Mag. (1852), i. 517.