WICKHAM, William (1761-1840), of Cookham Elms, Berks. and Binsted Wyck, Hants.

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



22 Feb. 1802 - 1802
1802 - 1806
1806 - 1807

Family and Education

bap. 11 Nov. 1761, 1st s. of Lt.-Col. Henry Wickham of Cottingley, Yorks. by Elizabeth, da. and h. of Rev. William Lamplugh of Dewsbury, Yorks. educ. Winchester 1773-6; Harrow 1776; Christ Church, Oxf. 1779; Geneva Univ. 1782; L. Inn 1782, called 1786. m. 10 Aug. 1788, Eléonore Madeline, da. of Prof. Louis Bertrand of Geneva, 1s. suc. fa. 1804.

Offices Held

Commr. of bankrupts 1790-4; police magistrate, Whitechapel 1792; supt. of aliens July-Dec. 1794; secret mission to Switzerland 1794, chargé d’affaires 1795, minister July 1795-Nov. 1797; under-sec. of state for Home affairs Jan. 1798-Jan. 1801; envoy to Switzerland June 1799, commissary-gen. to the allied armies 1800-1; chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] Feb. 1802-Jan. 1804; PC 13 Jan. 1802; member of Board of Trade Feb. 1802; commr. treasury [I] 1803-4; ld. of Treasury 1806-7.

Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1801-6.


Wickham was descended from an Elizabethan bishop of Winchester and his family had long been settled in Yorkshire. At Oxford he became a friend of William Wyndham Grenville* and Charles Abbot*, with decisive effect on his subsequent public career. His connexions with Switzerland through legal education and marriage moulded it, for when he seemed all set to be a plodding barrister the state of his health caused him to give that up in 1791, and the outbreak of war with France made his services desirable to Lord Grenville as a foreign agent. He was employed as a secret foreign correspondent, August 1793, and made superintendent of aliens in the following year, with a view to sounding out French royalist resistance. As such he impressed the Duke of Portland by his ‘prudence and judgment’.1

In October 1794 he was sent on a secret mission to Switzerland, which, being frowned on when it became known, led to his official replacement of Lord Robert Stephen Fitzgerald* as minister there. He undertook this as a public duty, despite his preference for home service and Portland’s keeping warm for him an under-secretaryship at the Home Office. Wickham was involved both in abortive peace feelers and in counter-revolutionary strategy. The Directoire regarded him as England’s leading spy on the Continent and secured his withdrawal in November 1797. In January 1798 he returned home, declining a pension and duly joining John King as under-secretary to Portland at the Home Office. He resumed his aliens office role as a watchdog against Jacobinism at home, as well as being the recipient of Castlereagh’s and Cornwallis’s reports on the Irish rebellion, which he thought should not be divulged. Of the department’s affairs, only colonial matters did not concern him. In June 1799, without relinquishing his Home Office appointment, he further served Lord Grenville’s designs for the allied coalition by acting as envoy to the Swiss and commissary general to the allied armies. It was ‘the devil of a mission’ and Wickham, efficient if unimaginative, strained his health to no avail, but Grenville considered his services ‘inestimable’.2

Wickham was at Vienna when Grenville resigned in February 1801 and flattered by the rumour that he was to have the government of Malta, which he was prepared to accept if his chief concurred; but the news of the change of ministry dismayed him and turned his thoughts to ‘a mark of royal favour’ for his services abroad, though he hinted that he was prepared to stay put pro tem. and Addington was prepared to employ him, though not at home. Lord Hawkesbury, the new Foreign secretary, found that there was no question of making Wickham minister at Vienna in place of Lord Minto, as the Austrians had no wish for him: he informed Grenville that only America or Russia remained and rightly guessed that Wickham preferred the latter. On his return home in the autumn, however, Wickham found that Berlin was the only opening and, while disliking such a ‘tardy nomination’, he opted for a privy councillorship, rather than a red ribband, as his reward. He declined a pension for himself or his wife, though his mission had been ‘one of the most extensive, the most confidential; and of the most unlimited powers pecuniary as well as political that ever was given’ and ‘complicated, difficult and laborious beyond example’, so he informed Addington. The privy councillorship had this practical advantage, that if Wickham did go to Berlin to negotiate a commercial treaty, he might sit on the committee for trade beforehand. But he was persona non grata at Berlin too. There was the additional embarrassment that Grenville, Wickham’s mentor, opposed Addington’s peace preliminaries which Pitt favoured, and Wickham’s bid to reconcile their views in October 1801 failed. ‘Extremely sensible and extremely conciliatory in all his ideas’, he was both anxious to preserve Pitt’s leadership and tactful about the peace, as he must look to Addington for his diplomatic promotion.3

When in January 1802 his friend Abbot vacated the Irish chief secretaryship for the Speaker’s chair, Wickham, who was second choice, succeeded him on Abbot’s and his other schoolfellow Charles Yorke’s recommendation, the latter singing his praises to his brother the viceroy, Lord Hardwicke. He was returned for Heytesbury, a seat reserved for Abbot by the Duke of Marlborough, but conveniently transferred to him on this occasion. Briefed by Abbot, Wickham had also the advantage of the goodwill of Redesdale, the Irish lord chancellor, with whom he had combated Jacobinism at home.4 There were snags: Wickham had no parliamentary experience and he inherited his predecessor’s feud with Lord Pelham at the Home Office. The latter, who shared Portland’s view that the power of the lieutenancy in Ireland should be diminished, was campaigning for the suppression of the Irish Office in London, and now, when Wickham wished to succeed Abbot to the honorary title of secretary of state in Ireland, went to the King to prevent it, suggesting that the office be abolished as a meaningless one. Wickham appealed to Addington to get his title confirmed, as a token of his unpensioned diplomatic service: it carried no emolument, but was a place of rank. Nor did he mind dissociating himself from Portland, who had given him up. He contrived to induce Pelham to yield the point, but in the event the title was discontinued.5

Wickham was prevented from going to Ireland until towards the end of the parliamentary session. In view of his inexperience, he had been promised that his own parliamentary business would at first be minimal, but the illness of Isaac Corry, the Irish chancellor of the exchequer, and the opposition of John Foster* obliged him to take some part, assisted at first by Castlereagh. Sitting among the Irish Members to encourage them, he was able to retain their support for administration. The only contentious business arose out of the Irish linen bill, 21 May 1802, when Wickham, differing on reflection from Corry’s proposal that imported flax seed should be inspected by linen board inspectors and not by government officials, was guided by Castlereagh to a compromise securing inspection by both. In mid June he was able to leave the Irish militia debates to Corry and supervise the Irish elections. Addington thought that he had conducted himself with ‘great propriety and judgment’, particularly in keeping Foster at bay.6

Wickham’s reception in Ireland in August 1802 was favourable. No English borough being readily available, he had been given precedence for an Irish borough seat, for Cashel. In reply to a ‘monitorial’ letter from Abbot, he replied with feeling, 16 Sept.:

I have had almost every one of your battles to fight over again collectively and individually. I have temporized more than you did for obvious reasons. But the result will in every case be the same. Hear and believe once and for all. I don’t yet see a shade of difference between us. But whenever, if ever I do, I shall state it to you stoutly and distinctly. In the meantime all is going on correctly and comfortably.

Wickham continued Abbot’s purge of jobbers in the Irish revenue departments, but by December became aware that reform in Ireland was a full-time employment and lamented to Abbot that he would have to put in an appearance at Westminster as, the moment his back was turned, anything might happen at Dublin.7

In February and March 1803 Wickham resumed the management of Irish business at Westminster, though prepared to set out for Ireland ‘at a moment’s warning’. With war imminent, he was anxious to see Pitt join Addington in government and offered up his office to ease an arrangement between them in April 1803, though it transpired that Pitt, while thinking Wickham ‘overrated’, did not mean to reshuffle Irish offices. The failure of the negotiation dismayed Wickham, but he remained staunch to Addington, hoping that no Foxite recruits to government would be obtained. The investigation of Emmet’s rebellion in Ireland in July 1803, which Wickham insisted was precipitated by government’s foreknowledge of it, called forth all his pristine skill and was acknowledged to be masterly: but it precluded reforms, strained his health and, together with the ‘deadly incubus’ of unfulfilled union arrangements conducive to differences with Hardwicke, undermined his nerves. This condition was exacerbated by an injury to his knee, and by December 1803 his anxiety was all-pervasive. On Christmas Day he drafted a letter to Addington, but sent one to the Speaker instead, to the effect that Lord Cathcart, who had assumed the military command in Ireland, was ignoring Hardwicke altogether:

I say that no person whatever has a right to give instructions at all to any of the King’s servants in Ireland but through the lord lieutenant. The King himself cannot do it, so complete and entire is the delegation of the royal authority.

Rather than be overriden by Cathcart, he thought Hardwicke should resign, though that prospect dismayed him; besides, ‘with the enemy at our gates, we ought not to be fighting among ourselves’. On 29 Dec. 1803 he informed Abbot that he was resigning on medical advice: ‘I certainly am a victim to my late exertions’. He hoped that a temporary retreat would restore his health.8

On 2 Jan. 1804 Wickham penned his resignation to Addington. Hardwicke and Redesdale were agreed that he would be difficult to replace. The latter, who thought he himself must ‘retire, in a considerable degree, with Wickham’, believed that, except in Parliament, Wickham was

really more of the statesman than the other persons employed in Irish business, and this he has acquired by habit of business under the direction of able men, who had habits of business ... He distinguishes little things from great, and considers consequences before he acts.

An Irish view, expressed by John Beresford*, was that ‘he has behaved like a gentleman ... and certainly was not impertinent; he was just getting some knowledge of the country, and might have been of use to both England and Ireland’. There was some talk at the time of Wickham’s resuming the chief secretaryship from his successor Sir Evan Nepean later, but nothing came of it.9

On his return to London, Wickham submitted to a convalescent regime which reduced him to a ‘mere vegetable’, so as to secure ‘total rest of body and mind’. He accordingly kept his tongue when Wrottesley’s motion censuring the Irish government for negligence at the time of Emmet’s rebellion was debated, though he expressed his views privately. He became a mere witness of politics, though planning by May 1804 to attend the Board of Trade and so qualify himself for re-employment. He suffered a setback when he fell downstairs and ‘greater mortification’ when he became involved in an unseemly wrangle about his pension, which he now claimed: instead of £1,800, or even £1,500, he had to be content with £1,200 p.a., together with a provision for his wife.10

Wickham was confounded by the circumstances of Pitt’s return to power, in which his patron Grenville refused to participate. Worse was to come: in June 1804 Pitt wished to have Wickham’s seat in Parliament to bestow on Viscount FitzHarris. Wickham did not learn this until 30 July, when he received a peremptory demand for it from Nepean, who claimed that Wickham’s illness made him an absentee and that Pitt had been assured, by himself a month before and since by Hardwicke, that the seat was available, being held ex officio. Wickham prepared to resist this demand, implying that his was but a ‘temporary retreat’ and that he must consult his friends. To them he complained bitterly, and vowed that, though Pitt was surrounded by persons who would not let him have a hearing, he would get through to the minister. This gave ‘a considerable degree of umbrage’, but the demand was not then pursued. Wickham later hinted that Pitt might have had the seat if he had asked more politely for it. Wickham’s rating on the political lists compiled for ministers fell: in the autumn of 1804, initially ‘Irish Pitt’, he became ‘doubtful Fox and Grenville’ and in July 1805 ‘nil’.11

On 28 June 1805 Fox presented a petition from William Todd Jones, an Irish conspirator of 1803, complaining of unwarranted arrest and detention in Cork gaol at the instance of Wickham. It was a substitute for the failure of the opposition to secure a general inquiry into the treatment of Irish political prisoners, and Wickham, who was resolved to answer the charges, did not impeach Fox of malice. On 8 July he limped into the House and, given leave to sit, exculpated himself to the satisfaction of impartial observers. He was not fit enough to attend the next session, and in October 1805 ‘after fifteen months of silence and neglect’, Pitt made another bid for his seat for the new Irish secretary, Charles Long. Wickham consulted Grenville, who could not suppose him ignorant of the political implications of doing so, but assured him that he might refuse so ‘cavalier’ a demand: the seat had been bestowed on him by Addington (now again in opposition) and Wickham’s right to it was secure. When Long claimed that the seat was in the gift of the lord lieutenant, Wickham appealed to Addington to ratify his gift of the seat in writing. His view was supported privately by Speaker Abbot, who replied to those who castigated Wickham for joining opposition that it was hardly surprising that he had attached himself to his ‘oldest and steadiest political friend’ (Lord Grenville).12

Despite his alleged ‘connection with opposition’, Wickham could assure the Speaker, 5 Jan. 1806, that he did not welcome Pitt’s prospective overthrow, precipitated by a rash war. His own line was clear to him: a seat on the Council board and his pension to support him, within Parliament if possible, where he might be useful, even if too late in life to shine as a speaker. If this was impossible, he should ‘not be much disappointed’. He had no wish for office, only for public service, and although his attachment to Grenville prescribed his politics he had no taste for the political hurly burly, ‘unless people choose to show their teeth at me’. On 21 Jan. 1806, ready to resume attendance at Westminster, he complained to Redesdale: ‘Our factions and parties are tearing us assunder ... What is needed is a government of strength and talent.’ He admitted that the Grenvilles were ‘not over-popular’, but had no compunction about accepting Grenville’s offer of a seat on the Treasury board when he came to power in February. His re-election for Cashel on the occasion, for which he applied to Hardwicke, was the only possible snag and that was overcome with Grenville’s help, Wickham emphasizing the fact that, in taking office under Addington, he had had Pitt’s and Grenville’s concurrence. Charles Long and Lord Hawkesbury were morally outraged. At the Treasury board he was to be the permanent attender or ‘board lord’, like Bond and Long before him, assisting Grenville, Lord Henry Petty and Vansittart.13

Grenville respected Wickham’s health (but for which Earl Spencer supposed he might have had the Exchequer) and he was not expected to take part in debate. He was, according to Lord Buckingham, Grenville’s only friend in office apart from Lord Temple. When on 12 June he defended himself on an accusation of George Rose’s relating to past expenditure on the foreign corps, he was allowed to speak sitting down. Rose noted this appearance of Wickham in the House to endorse Lord Henry Petty’s plan for auditing the public accounts as his first for some months. Grenville, doubtless more correctly, stated that Wickham had been absent that session (since entering office) till 12 June, except once ‘in support of Lord Wellesley’. Wickham had taken his seat on 22 Apr. It was clear by now that Pitt’s particular friends were prepared to conduct a kind of vendetta against Grenville’s lame duck. Yet Wickham freely regretted that his chief had been unable to incorporate them into the government. Grenville’s comment to the bishop of Lincoln was this:

The personal attack on Mr Wickham (known only as my confidential friend) was no compliment to Mr Pitt’s memory—because if instead of meriting the highest praise on the point on which he was attacked Mr Wickham had deserved blame, a very large share indeed of that blame must have attached both on Mr Pitt and on me.14

A seat for Wickham at the general election of 1806 was hard to find. Grenville had wished him to retain Cashel, but this was not feasible: Wickham’s Pittite enemies, at Canning’s instigation, were anxious to prevent it. Lord Sidmouth proved unable to secure his return for Harwich since Wickham could not hobble there, and in the end he came in for one of Lord Clinton’s seats for Callington disposed of to government, dispensing with attendance at the election. He was returned under the same circumstances for Midhurst, but chose not to sit for it. Before he resigned office Grenville, who had been asked through Abbot to adjust Wickham’s pension, bestowed on his only son the receivership-general of Gibraltar. On 9 Apr. 1807 Wickham voted with his late colleagues in office for Brand’s motion. On 20 Apr. he went so far as to move for and obtain a select committee on the restoration of Irish churches and parsonages, which had been objects of his motion in June 1803, but had remained unacted upon. This final outburst had no sequel: Wickham was left without a seat at the dissolution of 1807, despite Grenville’s wish to gratify him with one.15 He was consequently unable to reply to insinuations about his son’s place at Gibraltar or any other manifestations of ‘personal animosity’ displayed by the Pittite coterie. He remained, however, ‘more in Lord Grenville’s confidence than anybody’, often residing at Dropmore until he purchased his Hampshire estate in 1815. He played an important part in securing Grenville’s election as chancellor of Oxford University in 1809.16 In 1818 he congratulated Grenville on the growth of the spirit of inquiry in the country, but he harked back in preference to his days as Scarlet Pimpernel of State.17 Wickham died 22 Oct. 1840.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Genealogist (n.s.), xi. 220; PRO 30/9/15, Wickham to Abbot, 29 Dec. 1803; Corresp. Rt. Hon. W. Wickham ed. Wickham (1870, 2 vv.); Harvey Mitchell, Underground War against Revolutionary France, The Missions of W. Wickham 1794-1800 (1965); Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1184.
  • 2. HMC Fortescue, iii. 70; Wickham, i. 7, 39, 87; Wickham mss 1/40, Portland to Wickham, 25 Feb. 1796, Wickham to Portland, 26 July 1795, 23 Nov. 1796; Castlereagh Corresp. i. ii., passim; PRO 30/8/189, f. 123; HMC Fortescue, vi. pp. xxxv, 120, 123, 150, 163, 195, 258, 269.
  • 3. HMC Fortescue, vi. 447, 451, 464, 465, 474; vii. 52, 71; Colchester, i. 228, 386; Sidmouth mss, Wickham to Addington, 14 Dec. 1801; Camden mss C134/2, 4.
  • 4. PRO 30/9/33, f. 14, Abbot diary, 2 Feb. 1802; Colchester, i. 284; HMC Fortescue, vii. 77; Add. 35701, f. 231; 35707, f. 235; 35712, f. 88.
  • 5. PRO 30/9/1, pt. 3/6, Wickham to Abbot, 10 Feb. 1802; HMC Fortescue, vii. 86; Add. 35701, f. 237; 35713, ff. 6, 21, 32, 65.
  • 6. Add. 35713, ff. 14, 19, 26, 38, 65, 67, 72, 136; Sidmouth mss, Wickham to Addington, 30 Apr.; Glos. RO, Redesdale mss X15, Addington to Redesdale, 29 June 1802.
  • 7. Add. 35713, f. 141; Sidmouth mss, Redesdale to Addington, 26 Aug.; PRO 30/9/12/3, Wickham to Abbot, 16 Sept., 15 Dec. 1802.
  • 8. Add. 35714, ff. 37, 48, 62, 68; 35772, f. 160; 45037, f. 46; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 4/93; Colchester, i. 438, 444, 454, 457; Pellew, Sidmouth, ii. 213; PRO 30/8/328, f. 99; 30/9/15; 30/9/33; Wickham mss 1/48.
  • 9. Sidmouth mss, Redesdale to Addington, 28 Oct. 1803, 1 Jan. 1804, Wickham to same, 2 Jan. 1803 [recte 1804]; Add. 34456, f. 47; 35704, f. 250; PRO 30/9/33, Abbot diary, 7 Jan. 1804.
  • 10. Redesdale mss X13, Wickham to Redesdale, 21 Mar., 4 May 1804; Colchester, i. 515; PRO 30/9/15, Wickham to Abbot, 21 May; 30/9/33, Abbot diary 12, 17 May 1804; Parl. Deb. ii. App. 1.
  • 11. Add. 35715, ff. 101, 122, 125; 35751, f. 200; PRO 30/9/15, Wickham to Abbot, 30 July 1804; Redesdale mss X13, Wickham to Redesdale, 5 Feb. 1806.
  • 12. PRO 30/9/15, Wickham to Abbot, 1 July, 1 Oct., Grenville to Wickham, 24 Oct., Abbot to same, 26 Dec.; Sidmouth mss, Wickham to Sidmouth, 25 Nov., 28 Dec. 1805; Redesdale mss X13, Wickham to Redesdale, 5 Feb. 1806.
  • 13. PRO 30/9/15; Redesdale mss X13, Wickham to Redesdale, 21 Jan., 5 Feb. 1806; Add. 35716, f. 189; 35765, f. 76; Dublin SPO 531/229/2.
  • 14. HMC Fortescue, viii. 22, 24; Parl. Deb. vi. 840; HMC Lonsdale, 192-5; PRO 30/9/15, Wickham to Abbot, 23 Sept.; Kent AO, Stanhope mss 729/4, Grenville to bp. of Lincoln, 27 Dec. 1806.
  • 15. HMC Fortescue, viii. 115, 127; Add. 42773, f. 135; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to J. H. Addington, 17, 21 Oct. 1806; PRO 30/9/15, Wickham to Abbot, 19 Oct. 1806; 30/9/34, Abbot diary, 1 Jan. 1807; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3411; Debrett (ser. 4), ii. 35; J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1806), 577; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 150, 186.
  • 16. Fortescue mss, Williams Wynn to Grenville, 30 Mar.; PRO 30/9/15, Wickham to Abbot, Sunday [?28 June]; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 21 Dec. 1807, 26 Oct. 1810; PRO 30/9/35, Abbot diary, 28 June 1815; HMC Fortescue, ix. 381-98.
  • 17. Fortescue mss, Wickham to Grenville, 8 Nov. 1818.