SWANN, Henry (c.1760-1824), of Ufford Hall, Northants. and Esher, Surr.

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



1 Oct. 1803 - Feb. 1804
1806 - 26 Feb. 1819
1820 - 24 Apr. 1824

Family and Education

b. c.1760, 1st s. of John Swann, merchant, of Wansford, Hunts. by w. Mary (d. 25 July 1798, aged 62). educ. I. Temple 1787, called 1792. m. 21 Jan. 1785, Katherine, da. and h. of Robert Symes of Esher, Surr., 5s. 2da. suc. fa. 1797.

Offices Held


Swann’s father was referred to in an obituary as ‘a gentleman who with a small fortune, assisted by a strong understanding and an excellent wife, has brought up a large family with great respectability’. Swann married the heiress of the Oxford plantation in Jamaica and was called to the bar. He was at that time a Whig, having applied through Earl Fitzwilliam to become a commissioner of bankrupts, 3 Feb. 1789, if his friends came to power. He thought that he stood no chance of obtaining it from Pitt’s ministry through his refusal of his ‘trifling interest in Huntingdonshire and Buckinghamshire’ to them, and regarded the appointment he wished for as ‘introductory to business at Westminster Hall’. In 1792 he was a Friend of the People. In 1795 he applied to Fitzwilliam for a place for his brother in Ireland.1 He subscribed £1,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797. He appeared in the law lists as a barrister on the Norfolk circuit by 1805, and in 1812 as an equity draftsman, practising at the Buckinghamshire sessions.

In 1802 at the instigation of Lord Moira he was a candidate for Penryn, joining with John Milford of Exeter in an attack on the De Dunstanville interest which nearly succeeded; petitioning against the return, Swann and his friend managed to recover their expenses after a compromise which gave Swann a foothold in the borough. Meanwhile, he was returned for Yarmouth on the interest of Lord Holmes, probably by purchase. He vacated the seat a few months later, without having drawn attention to himself in the House. In 1806 he returned to the fray at Penryn and, joining with Sir Christopher Hawkins, defeated De Dunstanville’s nominees: he was not implicated in the allegations of bribery and corruption against his colleague but in a parliamentary speech, 22 Apr. 1807, was greeted with ironical laughter when he denied any knowledge of irregularities and attempted to clear the characters of the electors.

In the House he gave a general support to every administration, the Whigs being ‘doubtful’ of him in 1810. In November 1807 there was a report that he meant to resign his seat. There was a rumour in October 1809 that he was to ‘succeed Huskisson’. It seems, however, that Swann

expressed his discontent that Mr Croker was preferred to the secretary of the Admiralty when he (Mr Swann) wished to have been promoted to the situation. Upon this coming to Mr Perceval’s ears, he was foolish enough to write to Mr Swann and tell him that if he had signified his wishes sooner they should have been attended to. This letter ... is at present handed about by Mr Swann to the great dismay of all Mr Perceval’s friends who have one grain of common sense left...

Canning, who had procured a place for Swann’s brother, described him, 21 Mar. 1810, as being ‘in the confidence of the Treasury— but vehement for my coming in, to save the government’; it was on the authority of ‘Swim-Swann’ that he learnt that Perceval would ‘rather let in all the Talents, than submit to the conditions which had been proposed to him’. Canning commented, ‘Can Perceval have made such a declaration? and to such a confidant?’ On 1 Apr. Canning reported Swann as ‘determined’ to vote with him two days before: this being with government, as Swann had consistently voted on the Scheldt question. He also appeared in their minority on the Regency question, 1 Jan. 1811. He was described by Lord de Dunstanville in 1811 as ‘the most forward impudent fellow I ever met with and it is impossible to get away from him without absolute rudeness’.2 He voted with government against sinecure reform, 7, 21, 24 Feb. 1812. On 31 May 1810, ‘Lawyer’ Swann or ‘Black Swann’ as he was dubbed, had presented a petition from some Gloucestershire freeholders doubting the legitimacy of William Berkeley, Viscount Dursley*. Swann did not know the freeholders, denied he had any personal interest and declared his unwillingness to propose any motion based on the allegation: he had been advised not to present the petition, but had done so from a sense of duty. It was rejected, amid some very scathing remarks abut Swann’s conduct, 5 June, Tierney claiming that ‘the House did not want any set of men in the county of Gloucester or elsewhere, to lay before them the life, parentage and education of any of their members’.


Swann was evidently hopeful of a place as a reward for his steady support of the Portland and Perceval administrations, but when the Liverpool administration was formed on Perceval’s death he was in favour of Wellesley (whose brother had gratified Swann’s wishes by placing his son on his staff in the Peninsula) and the Canningites acceding to it, though he ‘never entered into any agreement’ to give his ‘humble support to Mr Canning, as opposed to administration’. He accordingly supported Stuart Wortley’s motion for a stronger administration, 21 May 1812. When this move failed he supported the government, as appears from the Treasury list. It seems that the Treasury at first listed him ‘doubtful’, but this was contradicted by George Rose. Canning certainly thought Swann should be ‘put under another head[ing]’ than his, ‘if at all’. As if to illustrate this, he declined to vote on Catholic relief in 1813, though on 9 May 1817 he voted against it. In March 1813 he wrote to Liverpool on behalf of his brother in the church and received a civil reply; emboldened by this, he wrote again a few months later requesting public employment ‘at home or abroad’ and referring to his claims on the two previous administrations. He repeated the request twice before hearing from the minister that there was no prospect of a place for him, and that Liverpool could neither feel himself bound by promises made by his predecessors nor overlook Swann’s conduct over Stuart Wortley’s motion. He sought to exonerate himself by pointing out that others had behaved like himself at that time and not been denied office (for instance Sir George Warrender) and added that he would continue his ‘feeble support ... notwithstanding the ungracious treatment’ he had experienced. Canning took it upon himself a year later to inform Liverpool of his ‘anxious wish that if I entered for anything into the estrangement between Mr Swann and the Treasury, that estrangement might cease’. He was assured that it was no fault of his.3

Swann caused sufficient embarrassment to government, in any case, by his support for his former ally Sir Christopher Hawkins’s petition alleging corruption at Helston by its patron the Duke of Leeds. On 14 June 1813 he announced that he would move the prosecution of the duke and introduce a bill to purify elections there: the motion against the duke failed narrowly on 21 June and on 30 June Swann spoke in favour of the disfranchisement of Helston, Grampound and Tregony, the seats to go to Yorkshire, or alternatively for the nomination of the returning officer at Helston by the sheriff of Cornwall, as the only way to avoid corruption. He did not himself bring in the first bill to reform Helston, but when it failed he brought in another, 23 Nov. 1814, which also failed; when he brought in a third, on 14 Mar. 1816, he claimed that he had lost interest in the bill, but was nominated by the committee to introduce it. At the second reading, 3 Apr. 1816, he showed more enthusiasm for the reform of the borough and made a distinction between the proprietor and the patron of a borough: ‘The proprietor influenced his tenants’ votes. The patron might be quite unconnected as to property with the borough; but he did certain acts to secure the return of the Members.’

Swann voted against the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment, 29 and 30 June 1815, but for the army estimates, 6, 8 Mar. 1816. Other subjects which engaged his attention were a Rutland petition presented by Sir Gilbert Heathcote against the property tax, 6 Mar. 1816, which he claimed did not contain any reputable signatures (he voted for the tax on 18 Mar.); loans by the Bank to the government, which he thought the latter fortunate to obtain at 4 per cent interest (14 Mar.), and the coroners bill (25 Mar.), which he supported. He voted against the agricultural horse tax, 14 June 1816, but for the Irish vice-treasurership, 20 June. He voted with ministers on the composition of the finance committee, 7 Feb. 1817, and on Croker’s salary at the Admiralty, 17 Feb., but against them on 25 Feb. on the salaries of the lords of Admiralty. He objected to the informality of some petitions for parliamentary reform, 3 Mar. He was a commissioner for poor relief that year. He voted with the opposition majority, 15 Apr. 1818, against the Duke of Clarence’s marriage grant, though he had sided with ministers on the consequences of the suspension of habeas corpus, 10, 11 Feb. 1818.

After a contest in 1818, Swann was returned in conjunction with Sir Christopher Hawkins, but unseated on petition on grounds of bribery and corruption (no new writ was issued for Penryn before the dissolution): his discomfiture caused some jubilation among those who regarded him as a humbug and William Henry Fremantle noted with glee that that ‘invaluable senator ... the virtuous Swann’ was ‘likely to go to Newgate’.4

At his trial at Bodmin, 11 Aug. 1819, Swann conducted his own defence, though in such a manner as to provoke from Mr Justice Best the tart reminder, ‘you have left the bar for some time and may not be aware of the consequence of your present mode of examination’. Witnesses were produced to show that he had bestowed £35 on electors, or rather their wives, for he believed ‘any woman could overcome her husband: for his wife overcame him’. He told the story of his connexion with Penryn, stating that as he was the Member supporting administration, he had been in charge of patronage there and had always inquired into the circumstances and sought to remedy the distress of the electors. He thought it preposterous that he should be prosecuted for £35, when ‘bribery in the lump’, i.e. the payment of £4,000 or so for a Treasury seat, was condoned. He was found guilty on two out of six counts and confined in the Marshalsea for a year. Before the trial he had written to Liverpool, 24 June:

after 17 years parliamentary duties I have been deprived of my seat, I hope, in a manner when more fully investigated that cannot attach discredit or disqualification as I have always strenuously opposed corruption and by so doing excited a foul conspiracy against me.

He went on to ask for the appointment of registrar under the slave registry bill ‘now before Parliament ... the duties of which must be very laborious’, explaining that his 30 years’ connexion with West Indian concerns made him feel qualified for it. Lord Liverpool replied that the post was not in his patronage, but in that of the colonial secretary Lord Bathurst (who gave it to somebody else). Swann was able to return to the fray at Penryn in 1820, ‘the most popular candidate’, according to an opponent.5 He died Member for Penryn, 24 Apr. 1824.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1797), ii. 806; PCC admon. act bk. 6 Mar. 1798; 320 Erskine; Caribbeana, iv. 328; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F27/147, F66/6.
  • 2. Sidmouth mss, De Dunstanville to Sidmouth, 29 Nov. 1807, 5 Nov. 1811; Hants RO, Tierney mss 33n; Spencer mss, Rev. Allen to Spencer, 8 Nov. 1809, Lady Spencer to same, 31 May 1810; Canning and his Friends, i. 350; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 11 Aug. 1809, 21 Mar., 1 Apr. 1810.
  • 3. T.64/261, Rose to ?Arbuthnot, 8 Nov.; Bagot mss, Canning to Bagot, 9 Nov. 1812; Add. 38255, ff. 41, 67, 85; 38739, f. 275.
  • 4. Gent. Mag. i. 549; Buckingham, Regency, ii. 309, 321.
  • 5. Oldfield, Key (1820), 129; Add. 38278, ff. 17, 18, 277; Fortescue mss, Grenfell to Grenville, 23 Feb. 1820.