DAWSON, George Robert (1790-1856), of Castledawson, co. Londonderry and 16 Upper Grosvenor Street, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



7 Aug. 1815 - 1830
1830 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 24 Dec. 1790, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Arthur Dawson, MP [I], of Castledawson and Catherine, da. of George Paul Monck, MP [I], of Bath, Som. educ. Harrow 1801; Christ Church, Oxf. 1807; L. Inn 1812. m. 9 Jan. 1816, Mary, da. of Sir Robert Peel†, 1st bt., of Drayton Manor, Staffs., 5s. (1 at least d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1822. d. 3 Apr. 1856.

Offices Held

Private sec. to chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] 1812-15; under-sec. of state for home affairs Jan. 1822-Apr. 1827; sec. to treasury Jan. 1828-Nov. 1830; PC 22 Nov. 1830; sec. to admiralty Dec. 1834-Apr. 1835.

Trustee, linen board [I] 1818-28; dir. Alliance Insurance Co. 1830; commr. of customs 1841, dep. chairman 1846-d.


Three of Dawson’s ancestors, who had lived in county Londonderry since the early seventeenth century, were Members of the Irish Parliament, including his father, who consecutively represented four boroughs between 1775 and 1800.1 Dawson served under his school and college friend Robert Peel in the Irish administration from 1812 to 1815, when he come in for his native county on the interest of his father’s first cousin, the 2nd marquess of Waterford. Through Peel, whose sister he married the following year, he became a firm, although not very active, supporter of the Liverpool administration, from whom he secured one of the sought-after trusteeships of the linen board.2 A stout Protestant, he served at least once on the committee of the Grand Orange Lodge.3 As in 1818, he was returned unopposed for his county, from which he frequently lodged petitions, at the general election of 1820. It was noticed that he, like William Peel and William Bagwell, voted with opposition against the appointment of an additional baron of exchequer in Scotland, 15 May, although this was a mistake for James Hewitt Massy (Dawson), the new Member for Clonmel, whose name appears on the minority list.4 He objected to Brougham’s motion on education taking priority over the Irish insurrection bill, 28 June 1820, when, although expressing general support for government, he urged inquiry into recent Irish disturbances.5 He argued that Catholics were not greatly disadvantaged and that conceding their claims would not improve the situation in Ireland, 28 Feb. 1821, when he was teller for the minority against relief. He commented that ministers should reduce military expenditure during periods of distress, 12 Mar., and two days later unsuccessfully moved an amendment to reduce the army by 5,000 men, which occasioned some surprise.6 He and Huskisson provoked Lambton with the broad ‘smiles’ with which they greeted his return to the chamber after the underhand defeat of his parliamentary reform motion, 18 Apr. He complained of the import duties on Irish cattle, 19 Apr., and linen, 15 June, and condemned as a waste of money the placing of advertisements in the Irish press, 28 June.7 He voted against omitting the arrears from the grant to the duke of Clarence, 18 June, and Hume’s motion for economy and retrenchment, 27 June 1821.

To the chagrin of their father, Peel chose not his brother William Peel* but Dawson as his under-secretary on replacing Lord Sidmouth at the home office in January 1822.8 Already one of Peel’s correspondents, from that time Dawson regularly sent him letters on departmental business and general political gossip.9 In the Commons, where he was active on domestic and Irish matters, he was appointed to numerous select committees, especially those dealing with Irish or home affairs. He, of course, invariably divided with his ministerial colleagues (regularly serving as a teller), which led one radical source to observe that he, ‘in the Wilberforce manner, used to speechify one way and vote another, but having obtained an office is now consistent’.10 Defending Peel, he insisted government was taking into consideration the state of Ireland, 7 Feb., and he commented on Irish tithes, 15 May, 13 June, grand juries, 21 May, and provision for the poor, 24 July.11 He voted against the Catholic peers bill, 30 Apr. That autumn he stood aside to allow his friend Sir George Hill, the Londonderry Member, to succeed to the command of the local militia, though he would probably have received the lieutenant-colonelcy if his county colleague, Alexander Stewart, had not finally accepted it the following year.12 After the death of his father, 6 Dec. 1822, he succeeded to property in Cavan, Dublin and Londonderry which brought in £4,440 a year in rent, and he considered himself as ‘perfectly independent’ financially, although there remained debts that had to be discharged on his undeveloped estates.13

Informing Peel, 26 Dec. 1822, that he had ‘taken every opportunity of showing attention and respect to the lord lieutenant’, Lord Wellesley, Dawson commented that ‘much as Ireland has been distracted by party spirit for years, at no time since the Union has it prevailed to such a degree as it does at present’.14 In the House, he defended the Irish yeomanry, 24 Feb., 10 Mar. 1823,15 and warmly vindicated the conduct of the Orangemen in defence of the Protestant constitution, 5 Mar., when he was effectively answered by the knight of Kerry, who accused him of saying that ‘not to be an Orangeman was to be a rebel’.16 Charles Williams Wynn*, who noted that the home secretary had great difficulty in preventing Dawson from resigning over the Catholic question, wrote of Peel’s speech on this occasion, that ‘I find, pretty generally, the idea that he was acting on compulsion, which the Purple (Orange is not an epithet strong enough) speech of his brother-in-law strongly confirmed’.17 He was among the ‘violent Orangeists’ who on 15 Apr., and at least one other occasion, attended a meeting to concert their actions on Plunket’s pro-Catholic motion. Having divided in the minority against inquiry into the legal proceedings against the Dublin theatre rioters, 22 Apr., he was involved in questioning witnesses, 2, 8, 26 May.18 He condemned Hume’s motion for inquiry into the office of lord lieutenant, 25 June 1823. He defended the Protestant clergy in Ireland, 16 Feb., 5 Mar., commented on the state of education there, 9 Mar., and justified the grant to the linen board, 19 Mar. 1824. He condemned Orange outrages, which led Daniel O’Connell* to observe that ‘the Orangemen are getting afraid’, 30 Mar., and helped to defeat Hume’s motion for inquiry into the Irish Church, 6 May.19 He declared that he would vote for the motion by Charles Brownlow, the like-minded Member for county Armagh, to refer the Irish freeholders’ petition against the Catholic Association to the committee on the state of Ireland, 10 June. Writing to Peel on his return from Ireland, 20 Sept. 1824, he reported that

in a country which has hitherto been so miserable, it is pleasing to see any thing like even the slightest sign of prosperity and I really do begin to have some hopes of it. In the North, if party spirit could be extinguished, the country would advance with its comparative ratio with the rest of the empire.20

Dawson, who endorsed the anti-Catholic stance of the county Londonderry Protestants, 8, 10 Feb., condemned the revolutionary intentions of the Catholic Association, 14 Feb. 1825. Sir John Nicholl* thought him ‘too acrimonious though not beyond the truth against the Catholic clergy’; and O’Connell reflected that ‘nothing could be more indecent than Brownlow, Dawson and the rest of the gang’.21 He was appointed to the select committee on the state of Ireland, as Peel’s representative, 17 Feb.22 He voted against Catholic relief, 1 Mar., and criticized the franchise bill as irrelevant, 28 Mar. It was privately recorded by O’Connell and Wellington that Dawson, like Brownlow, had changed his views towards the Catholics, but, as the former put it, he on 19 Apr. ‘made a virulent speech against us, fresh from Mr. Peel’s office’, in which he argued that granting their claims would not necessarily improve, and might well worsen, sectarian strife.23 He acted as teller for the minority against the relief bill’s second reading, 21 Apr., and divided against the third reading, 10 May. He voted against the franchise bill, 26 Apr., and insisted on a higher qualification of £20, 9 May. Giving Peel an account of the continuing Protestant unrest in the North in July 1825, he added that ‘I cannot help blushing for my Orange friends; their perverseness and obstinacy is lamentable, but it really seems that there is something in an Irishman’s head which prevents him from distinguishing right from wrong’.24

In December 1825 Peel approached Liverpool for a promotion for Dawson, stating that

he is capable of greater exertion than any which is now called for from him. He is most anxious to exert himself, but I find it very difficult to transfer to any one any portion of the business of my office which is to be transacted in the House of Commons. I prefer doing the whole of it myself.

Nothing came of this, and his intended replacement, William Peel, soon secured a position elsewhere.25 At one of the annual Protestant ceremonies in Londonderry, 18 Dec., and a dinner held there in his honour, 28 Dec. 1825, Dawson urged continued resistance to the Catholic claims, leading William Vesey Fitzgerald* to complain to Peel that Dawson had ‘raised the inflamme of the church in the North’ and included passages which he ‘had rather had been omitted’.26 Dawson explained that he had so spoken in order to bolster the confidence of the Protestants, but Peel replied in January 1826 that

I have never sought to control the opinions of others, but I have felt very anxious, on account of the official relation in which you stand to me, that when you express your opinions upon Irish affairs, you should make it clearly understood that you are speaking exclusively in your individual capacity.27

He objected to inquiry into Irish first fruits revenues, 21 Mar., defended the Irish church rates bill, 27 Apr., and disputed a petition complaining of mistreatment of Irish Catholics, 28 Apr. 1826.

No doubt because of his Protestant credentials, Dawson, who had earlier in the year been touted as a possible candidate for Oxford University, was hurried into nominating George Moore* for Dublin at the general election of 1826. His speech, which James Abercromby* described as ‘abusive and violent’, galvanised Catholic anger into electoral activity elsewhere.28 Given his Dublin property, Peel absolved him from any blame in his involvement there. Yet in his own return for county Londonderry, where an expected Catholic attack did not materialize, Dawson carefully followed Peel’s advice ‘to lessen the ill will that exclusion is but too apt to generate’. Thus, although glorying in his Orange title of ‘Derry’ Dawson, he praised the priesthood for not meddling in the election.29 Dawson, who despite his ministerial position was considered a potential manager of the Beresford interest after Waterford’s death that year, privately feared that since there was no going back on the concessions already made, emancipation was inevitable.30 Nevertheless, in December 1826 he urged ministers to use the recently passed emergency legislation to suppress the Catholic Association, which he termed ‘a wild, irresponsible and seditious assembly’, whose continued existence was chiefly responsible for keeping up the agitation for change and gave government the appearance of pusillanimity. The following month the duke of Wellington suggested he publish a pamphlet outlining the influence of Catholic priests in the recent elections.31

Unless it was Alexander Dawson, Member for Louth, he brought up Athlone and Roscommon petitions relating to Irish corporations, 24 Nov. 1826, and intervened on the Denbigh Boroughs election, 8, 13 Feb., 16, 19 Mar. 1827.32 Having signed the anti-Catholic petition from the Irish noblemen and gentlemen, he presented and endorsed several hostile petitions, including those from counties Londonderry and Wicklow, 2 Mar.33 Drawing attention to the electoral role of the Catholic clergy in the Beresford stronghold of county Waterford, he made a powerful, but well answered, speech against relief, 5 Mar., and was one of the tellers for the majority of four against concession the following day.34 He vindicated the conduct of Londonderry magistrates relative to Orange outrages, 11 Apr.35 Fully supporting Peel and Wellington’s stance on the Catholic question, to which he seems to have been privy, he left office with them on Canning’s appointment as prime minister that month, and continued to sit close to Peel in the Commons.36 In what Evelyn Denison* called a ‘violent, foolish, vulgar speech’, 1 May, he attacked the new administration as ‘a base coalition formed for party purposes’. Two days later he interrupted Gascoyne’s motion on shipping to ask Canning whether arrangements were being made to fill up the mastership of the mint and other minor offices; on receiving the exasperated reply, ‘Yes!’, he moved (but did not push to a division) an address to the king to furnish papers, employing what George Agar Ellis* termed ‘angry questions, in frantic language’.37 Hudson Gurney*, who thought him the temporary head of the newly-formed ‘regular High Church Protestant Oxford Tory opposition’, recorded that ‘Dawson’s personal abuse of Canning for unprincipled ambition was bitter, and I think he will be very soon a good opposition leader’.38 He adverted to the scale of distress in Ireland, 25 May, and secured a select committee on Irish grand jury presentments, to which he was named, 6 June.39 He voted against the Coventry magistracy bill, 18 June 1827. While in London that winter he deputized for Sir Henry Hardinge* as supervisor of the opposition Tory newspaper, the Standard.40

When Wellington formed his ministry at the start of 1828, Dawson refused the vice-presidency of the board of trade and, apparently in order to avoid a by-election in Londonderry, instead replaced Thomas Frankland Lewis* as the junior or financial secretary to the treasury.41 According to Charles Percy’s* letter to Ralph Sneyd, 11 Feb., Agar Ellis remarked that ‘the country bankers who saw the duke, [the chancellor Henry] Goulburn and Dawson, came away astounded at the total ignorance they displayed on finance - it is possible’.42 Dawson, who played a minor role in formulating government policy, continued to be named to several select committees each session and made innumerable minor interventions in the Commons on treasury and Irish business, especially in carrying through the estimates and supervising departmental legislation.43 He was a teller for the minorities against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and Catholic relief, 12 May. He supported the grant for Canning’s family (having missed the vote on this the previous day), 14 May, but on 5 June stated that he could hold out no hope of financial intervention to relieve distress in Ireland, where, as he commented a week later, grand juries were already overburdened by administrative responsibilities. Privately anxious to assist the poor and moderate religious tensions, in July 1828 he took pleasure in subscribing £20 to the Catholic cathedral and school in London.44

In the late summer of 1828 Dawson sparked off an outburst of Irish Protestant anger, which, coming on top of O’Connell’s victory in the Clare by-election in the summer, led to a major political crisis.45 Speaking at the dinner in Londonderry, 12 Aug., to celebrate the raising of the siege in 1689, he declared his attachment to the Protestant constitution as a bulwark against the Catholics, whom he called a ‘foreign foe and domestic enemy’, but, to a growing chorus of hisses, went on to express his sympathy with their past sufferings and even invoked the name of Patrick Sarsfield. The meeting erupted with resentment at this provocation, and his audience became further inflamed by his argument that, it being impossible for the old penal laws to be reintroduced or the existing religious settlement to continue, the only option was to make additional concessions.46 Condemnation was immediate and universal in Ireland,47 and in the words of a correspondent to The Times on 20 Aug.:

The avowal of Mr. George Dawson - for it amounts to this - in favour of emancipation, has produced an explosion of what they call the ‘Protestant’ opinion in Dublin, as well as in the country, greater by far than that created by Mr. Brownlow’s adhesion to the Liberal side [in 1825].

Although most commentators acknowledged that his diagnosis of the state of Ireland was accurate, his remarks also created a sensation among the political establishment in England.48 Greville, who noted that ‘I thought from what he said to me just before he went to Ireland that he had changed his own opinion, and now many people say they knew this’, observed that ‘the rage and fury of the Orangemen there and of the Orange press here are boundless’.49 John Lewis Mallet, who recorded that ‘William Peel says that his friends here were not the least aware of his intentions and were as much amazed as any part of the public’, similarly recounted that ‘nothing can exceed the bitterness of the Standard and other Tory prints; there are no hard names in the Newgate Calendar which have not been applied to him and Judas Brownlow’.50 He was depicted in one Orange satire as an apologetic vagabond in the pillory, bleating, ‘Accursed is he who listens to the wily tongue of the Jesuit’.51

For Catholics like O’Connell, who hailed his speech at a dinner in Clonmel on 26 Aug. 1828, Dawson’s apparent apostasy foretold the imminent collapse of the Protestant ascendancy.52 Even those with Catholic sympathies were stunned by it and although, for example, Vesey Fitzgerald was ‘glad of it, as it must assist the cause’, he feared that it ‘hurries on the question too rapidly’.53 Given Dawson’s position as one of Wellington’s subordinates at the treasury and his family connection with Peel, many Protestants interpreted his speech as a crafty piece of kite-flying and, like Hill for instance, were in private prepared to try to make the best of an impossible situation by accepting limited relief.54 However, the Orange wing of the establishment, wrongly believing that he was acting under orders from government, assumed that ministers had already changed their policy and wished to vent the predictable outburst of Protestant hostility before Parliament reconvened, exploiting the row, as Hardinge put it, ‘as if they were ready to concede everything in a fright’. One newspaper, labouring under the opposite misapprehension, even speculated that Dawson, having learnt of his colleagues’ intentions, actually wanted to tip off his fellow Orangemen so that the resulting furore would kill the plan at the outset.55 Writing in explanation to Peel and Wellington, neither of whom deigned to reply, Dawson was largely unrepentant. He argued that the meeting had been hijacked by a vocal, but unrepresentative, minority of extremists, whose views he had felt it essential to contradict:

Several things combined to stir up a strong feeling against any moderate declaration of opinion, but which rendered it necessary at the same time for men who know more of public feeling than is to be found in such a remote district as Derry to endeavour to open the eyes of the public to the real situation of Ireland.56

Hill, attempting to mediate on behalf of his friend, likewise informed ministers that Dawson had not said anything new and that Ulster Protestant anger was instead largely due to fear of the revived Catholic Association and the rumour that the yeomanry would be disbanded.57 Dawson, who pointedly made a £20 donation to the memorial to the Protestant hero George Walker, publicly insisted that he would not change his vote when the Catholic question returned to the Commons, perhaps by then knowing that government’s change of tack would make his pledge irrelevant.58

The debacle actually derived not from any hidden motive on Dawson’s behalf, but from a mixture of stupidity and bad luck. Unlike the similarly placed Hill, who had warned Dawson beforehand of the dangers of being misunderstood, he failed to heed Peel’s earlier instruction to make clear he was speaking only in a personal capacity, and he was guilty of extraordinary naivety in speaking as he did. It was, however, very unfortunate that the speech came at such a sensitive time for leading ministers, who had secretly begun a delicate negotiation to settle the Catholic claims. In privately expressing their unbounded anger, the tone was set by Peel (‘It is very singular that a man could blunder in everything with such sinister dexterity’) and Wellington (‘Surely a man who does such things ought to be put in a strait waistcoat!’), and was echoed by Goulburn (‘I did not think that he had been so utterly deficient in discretion or consistency’), William Peel (‘Good God! What can Dawson be about? I know no plea but insanity which can justify his conduct’) and John Croker* (‘I lament everything connected with Dawson’s speech - substance, season, causes, consequences; but my regret is even less than my wonder’).59 Peel, who professed that ‘nothing ever provoked my disgust more than the conduct of Dawson’ and avowed himself ‘astonished and hurt at the unfairness, the folly, and indecency of his late exhibition’, blamed him for his inconsistency, for not waiting (as he had apparently promised) until the following session to announce his conversion and for putting ‘his change of opinion on the worst possible grounds - the yielding to menace, for it amounts to that’.60 Ministers’ embarrassment, however, arose mostly from the reaction of George IV, who, like his Orangeman brother the duke of Cumberland, described Dawson as mad and believed that he had been used to prepare the North of Ireland to accept emancipation.61 According to the diary of his cabinet colleague Lord Ellenborough, 6 Sept. 1828, Wellington ‘complains very much of Dawson’s speech, which has thrown him back with the king, and he is now no further advanced than he was the week after he opened the subject to His Majesty’; and Vesey Fitzgerald later told Greville that ‘Dawson’s speech at Derry very nearly overturned the whole design’.62 Although Dawson’s continued presence in office obviously gave credence to the view that ministers would yield to the pressure for emancipation, it was evidently felt impossible to discipline him on the eve of just such a change of policy, so he was allowed quietly to retain his position, despite rumours to the contrary.63

Dawson underwent a period of self-imposed exile in Ireland, during which, as Thomas Potter Macqueen* wrote to Lord Salisbury, 11 Sept. 1828, he was ‘laughed at by the Catholics and reviled in the bitterest terms by the "Brunswickers",’ with whom he had little to do.64 By his waywardness he had forfeited the protection of the Beresford interest in Londonderry, where his conduct was attacked at a Protestant county meeting in December 1828, and in January 1829 he privately acknowledged that in making his ‘fair and manly’ declaration he had suffered ‘a great sacrifice’, having ‘quarrelled with Peel, with his family and with all his old political friends and associates’.65 He was of course listed by his treasury colleague Planta as likely to be ‘with government’ in favour of its policy of emancipation, of which he gave early notice to Archbishop Beresford of Armagh, stressing the importance of the proposed securities.66 He was a member of the small committee of Irishmen who assisted Vesey Fitzgerald in deciding the details of the related franchise measure, though he had to give up his preferred £20 qualification.67 In what Huskisson called ‘one of the neatest speeches he had ever heard’ and Lord Howick* termed ‘excellent’, he spoke for the address, 6 Feb., when his attempted vindication of his Londonderry speech and his promise to vote for emancipation drew him into acrimonious correspondence with some of his constituents.68 He assisted Peel during his unsuccessful bid for re-election at Oxford University that month, commenting that ‘I never felt less proud of having been a member of the university and cannot but think the honour of representing it most overrated’.69 Having called for calm discussion of the issue, 3 Mar., he insisted that the majority of electors supported emancipation in his old university, 4 Mar., and his county, 16 Mar., when in Goulburn’s absence he presented the hostile petition of the archbishop and clergy of Armagh. He was a teller for emancipation, 6, 18, 27, 30 Mar., and brought up petitions in its favour, including those from counties Londonderry and Tyrone, 24, 31 Mar. Continuing to be active on financial issues, he boasted that government had made as many reductions as possible to the miscellaneous estimates, 13 Mar., and justified abolition of the Irish linen board as a hindrance to trade, 2 Apr. As he so often did, he spoke against the introduction of a system of poor laws to Ireland, 7 May 1829.

Fear of his unpopularity in county Londonderry led the Beresfords, who had heard that he might find a borough elsewhere, to consider abandoning an increasingly resentful and desperate Dawson as their candidate in the summer of 1829, despite Hill’s analysis of their strength on the registers and his repeated arguments in his favour.70 He was given a dinner with Hill by the corporation of Londonderry in August, but was reported to be disappointed by the poor results of his canvassing in September, his constituents disapproving of what they saw as his wilful and arrogant conduct on emancipation.71 However, he received Wellington’s assurance that, as a member of government, he could count on its support in any future contest, and it was even reported that ‘if the Tory party would bear with Dawson, he would not be over fastidious’ of accepting minor office in the putative Ultra ministry that was planned later that year.72 Yet the Beresfords, who saw the prime minister’s intervention as a further attempt by Dawson to assert his independent authority over one of the county seats, finally quarrelled with him about local patronage and his pro-Catholic votes. Nothing came of attempts to reach a compromise and after the failure of an initiative to seek mediation by Peel, the breach became irrevocable, with Dawson being deprived of the Beresford interest in county Londonderry and its two boroughs.73 Dawson gave his side of the story and appealed for independent support at the next election in a long address, 18 Oct. 1829, which was privately answered by one of the Beresfords’ supporters.74

Despite rumours that he would move to the board of trade at the start of the 1830 session, he remained at the treasury. He acted as a teller against amendments to the address, 4, 5 Feb., and regularly thereafter against opposition motions for reduced expenditure, lower taxation and parliamentary reform.75 On Graham’s motion on official salaries, 12 Feb., he produced an amendment which outdid opposition by calling for higher reductions and was therefore agreed without a division.76 It was probably after this defeat that Dawson told Portman, Member for Dorset, that ‘you are a mere bundle of sticks, and will always be beaten’, a taunt which led to the Whigs choosing a new Commons leader, Lord Althorp.77 It was noticed that he abstained on Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., Goulburn complaining to Peel that in order to obtain ‘temporary applause’, he ‘withdrew at the moment of division and returned into the House immediately afterwards’; but he divided against it, 17 May.78 He presented county Londonderry petitions against increased Irish stamp duties and complaining of Irish manor courts, 8 June, and objected to Huskisson raising the question of West Indian spirit duties when most Irish Members were absent, 5 July 1830. Initially determined to stand a contest on his own interest, Dawson eventually withdrew from county Londonderry at the general election of 1830, when he looked bound to suffer a costly defeat at the hands of the inoffensive local gentleman Sir Robert Bateson and Captain Theobald Jones, who had the Beresfords’ support.79 The family had again refused Wellington’s request for a compromise, partly because of the insensitivity shown by Dawson, who, in a reference to county Waterford, had stated in his address that the Beresfords ‘wish to be Protestants in the North and Catholics in the South’.80 They later complained vehemently to the prime minister about the vindictive assistance he gave to the Irish Society in its attempt to overthrow their control of Coleraine borough.81 Dawson turned his attention to Dublin, where he was assured of success with the backing of the Irish administration, but offering too late to make any headway and finding himself unpopular, he again had to bow out; Tom Macaulay* crowed that he ‘had had two beatings, or rather ran away twice without fighting’.82 At the instigation of Wellington, who believed his conduct was alienating government’s friends, he was found a berth at the treasury borough of Harwich, and was returned unopposed with Herries, the president of the board of trade.83

Dawson condemned anti-Union agitation, 9 Nov. 1830, and on being baited by O’Connell as the ‘ex-Member for Londonderry’, he irately pointed out that he had lost his seat because of his support for the Catholics; he was called to order for telling his antagonist that he ‘dared not have vomited forth one-tenth part of the calumnious aspersions he has thrown out against me, if he were not enabled to cover himself with a mantle of a very disgraceful indemnity’.84 He was a teller for the government minority against inquiry into the civil list, 15 Nov., and subsequently left office with his colleagues, being at Peel’s request created a privy councillor on the day that Lord Grey took over as prime minister.85 Having again complained about O’Connell’s conduct on the Union, 19 Nov., and intervened on the county Galway election, 30 Nov., he defended the Tories’ record of economies, 6 Dec., and criticized the removal of the Irish lord chancellor Hart, 7, 9 Dec. A leading figure in the new opposition, he made what William Ord* described as ‘a sharp and most rancorous attack’ on the changes made to the Irish administration, 20 Dec. 1830.86 He justified his own conduct at the treasury in relation to the barilla duties, 7 Feb., public offices, 16 Feb., and the army estimates, 18 Feb., and denied that economic distress in Ireland could be relieved by means of direct grants, 18 Mar. 1831. That month his complaints about the inaccuracy of the parliamentary reports in The Times led to a correspondence in its columns.87 Ellenborough recorded on 2 Mar. that ‘I rather gather from Dawson’s conversation ... that the opponents of reform are thrown aback by the extent of the [ministry’s] proposed change, and alarmed’.88 He condemned the radical aspirations of O’Connell, 19 Mar., and Hunt, 24 Mar., ridiculed John Calcraft’s reconversion to the Whigs, 23 Mar., and, as attacks on Lords Durham and Lansdowne, queried the intended representation of county Durham and Calne, 25 Mar., 15 Apr. He voted against the second reading of the reform bill, 22 Mar., when (as on 18 Apr.) he said that reform was unpopular in Ireland, and he claimed that ‘the Protestant interests in that country will be completely destroyed by it’, 29 Mar. He returned to the subject of economies, 28 Mar., when he presented various anti-slavery petitions, and justified the granting of compensation to Sir Abraham King, 30 Mar., when he conceded that there was a case for introducing a modified form of poor laws for Ireland. He divided for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the reform bill, 19 Apr. 1831, and Ellenborough noted that he was ‘in high spirits, and thought if the ministers did not go out, the bill was lost’.89 At the ensuing general election, when nothing came of a report that he would stand for Dublin, he gave his support to the sitting Members for county Londonderry against the government reform candidate.90 Despite a challenge by the reformers, some of whom stoned his carriage during canvassing, he was again returned unopposed for Harwich, where he declared that the reform bill would lead to ‘anarchy and confusion, to atheism, to infidelity and to oppression’.91

Dawson attacked ministers sharply, especially about the recent dissolution and continuing Irish distress, on the address, 21 June 1831.92 He was active during the session, asking procedural questions, intervening on financial matters and promoting Northern Irish and Dublin legislation. He was also involved in the Tories’ opposition to reform, telling Greville that

they had 270 people in the House of Commons, if they could command their attendance; that he did not mean to say no reform bill would pass, but that the details of this had never yet been discussed and, when they were, it would be so clearly shown that it is impracticable, that this identical bill never could pass.93

He vindicated the record of the previous government on Wood’s motion for reducing official salaries, 30 June, when Littleton recorded that he and Goulburn ‘very shabbily walked away, without voting, after having spoken violently, because they would not swell the ministerial majority’.94 He defended his decision in favour of King’s compensation, 30 June, 8, 11, 18 July, denying ever having been an Orangeman. He voted against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, for using the 1831 census to determine the boroughs in schedules A and B, 19 July, and to postpone consideration of the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July, and he was teller for the minority for preserving the voting rights of corporations, 30 Aug. He accused ministers of inconsistency in their treatment of East Looe, 22 July, when he announced that he would oppose the Irish public works bill in all its stages, and he reiterated his objections to this, 16 Sept. ‘Without the slightest necessity’, as Peel informed his wife, Dawson volunteered on 26 Aug. to ‘get up in the House of Commons and charge twenty Irishmen as hot-headed and as passionate as himself with being a cabal, a set of men who intended to brow-beat the government and so on’. His speech that day, which alleged that government had yielded to Irish disapproval of the yeomanry’s role in recent disturbances, led to him being called out by James Grattan*. Fortunately the matter was settled by his second, the Tory whip Holmes, and Peel opined that ‘I hope this affair will be a serious warning to him’.95 He defended Hill’s conduct as vice-treasurer of Ireland, 31 Aug. He divided against the passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept. He was teller for the minority against the vestries bill, 5 Oct., and spoke in support of the Irish clergy’s right to their tithes, 6 Oct., and against the Scottish exchequer and bankruptcy court bills, 7, 17 Oct. 1831. He absented himself from the coronation by staying with the Peels at Drayton, where later that year he was described by Dyott as ‘agreeable and most truly Hibernian’.96

Speaking against the address, 7 Dec. 1831, Dawson condemned ministers for concentrating on reform and thereby neglecting economic distress and the interests of the Irish church. On the presentation of the revised reform bill, 12 Dec., he told Thomas Spring Rice* that, compared to previous bills and Tory alternatives, it was ‘a damned deal the worst of all of them’.97 The praise which he and Peel offered the Irish secretary Smith Stanley’s statement on Irish tithes, 15 Dec. 1831, was seen as a cynical attempt to sow dissension between government and the Catholics.98 He voted against the second reading of the reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and its committal, 20 Jan. 1832. He raised complaints about the renewal of Irish commissions of the peace, 17, 24 Jan., and acted as a minority teller for information on Portugal, 9 Feb. Having divided against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 24 Jan., he condemned it, 6 Feb., accusing ministers of extravagance in comparison with their predecessors, in a speech which Rice that day described to Lady Holland as ‘very abusive and intemperate’.99 He supported the Chelmsford petition asking to have its own representatives, 23 Feb., but voted against the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and was a teller against the third reading of the reform bill, 22 Mar. 1832. A founder member of the Carlton Club that month, he sat on the Irish election committee that was formed at the Conservative headquarters in Charles Street.100

He complained about the appointment of joint private secretaries to the Irish lord chancellor Lord Plunket, 6 Mar. 1832, which, according to Goulburn, got him and his party into a ‘scrape’: ‘It is a singular circumstance that an Irishman never enquires whether the facts on which he builds his accusations are true or false, and thus uniformly gives his opponent the advantage of a direct contradiction’.101 He made a long speech in support of government on Irish tithes, seeing the issue as vital to the established church, 28 Mar., but he disapproved of their total abolition, 2 Apr. He objected to Sir John Abercrombie’s pension, 10 Apr., and opposed the anatomy bill as impracticable, 11 Apr. In one of the many contributions to debate in which he alluded to the ‘levity and disrespect’ with which he was heard, he taunted Smith Stanley about O’Connell’s wayward conduct in support of government and criticized the Irish reform bill, 25 May, when he was a teller for the minority against its second reading. He concurred in the appointment of a select committee on Irish outrages, to which he was named, 31 May. He spoke in defence of Londonderry corporation, 1 June, and brought up a motion for papers, 29 June, and a petition, 18 July, for using the salary of the vacant governorship of Londonderry to fund the rebuilding of the bridge there. He called for a higher property qualification in Irish counties, 25, 29 June, and was listed in the majority for excluding insolvent debtors from Parliament, 27 June. His ‘furious’ intervention in denunciation of Smith Stanley’s failed policy on tithes, 13 July, was deplored on both sides of the House.102 His last recorded vote was with opposition against the Russian-Dutch loan, 12 July, and during the discussion on this, 20 July 1832, he was described by Macaulay as sitting ‘red with ire as if his face was smeared with berries’.103

When in August 1831 Dawson had attempted to gauge public opinion in county Londonderry, one paper had noted that it was said ‘he imagines, his lapse may be pardoned - let him not lay the flattering unction to his soul that ever this can be the case’.104 He was similarly attacked as an apostate in June 1832 on appearing as a candidate for the borough, which he felt was his best hope given that Harwich would no longer be available to him.105 He persisted in canvassing, despite illness, and in a long address he called for lower Irish taxation, alteration of the grand jury and vestry laws, a modified form of English poor laws and a moderate reform of the church.106 He told Peel that ‘you have no idea of the difficulty in which I am placed from the conflicting character of the parties here’, and that ‘I might as well have stayed away, if I had not made come concession’ on taxes and tithes; but, as the press commented sarcastically on his changed views, ‘he has only to cry out "repail", and he will be a man after O’Connell’s own heart’.107 The sitting Liberal Member Sir Robert Ferguson was thought to have the better chance, and Sir Matthew Barrington noted that ‘it is hard to say after some late speeches what are the politics of the other candidate’.108 Dawson, who spoke in favour of both Conservative candidates at the county election in December 1832, eventually lost a severe contest for the city against Ferguson, and his petition was unsuccessful.109 According to his own accounts, his expenses amounted to about £3,000.110 Early in 1833 he was considered for his former office in the planned Peel administration, and it was probably for this reason that an opening was offered to him at Hertford, from which he soon had to withdraw, however, because of differences between the Tory patrons, Lords Salisbury and Dimsdale.111

Dawson, who had been involved with Peel in the Oxford University cancellarial election in 1834, later that year supported his brother-in-law’s administration, in which he served as secretary to the admiralty.112 Eschewing Londonderry, he offered for the new treasury borough of Devonport at the general election in December 1834, when he confided to Peel that he hoped to be returned on the side of the ‘Conservative churchmen, moderate Dissenters and government’ and ‘for the sake of the men of property and respectability here’. After a violent contest, during which he received a blow on his face from a stone and incurred expenses of £1,344, he was defeated by the two popular Liberal Members.113 At the general election of 1837, when he declined openings at Hull and Weymouth, he again tried his luck at Londonderry, where he believed he would have the support of the Catholics against Ferguson.114 Yet, despite his overt apology to the unforgiving Orangemen and his desperately extensive canvassing, he was beaten by a substantial margin.115 He attributed his defeat, a ‘disgusting scene of treachery and corruption’, to O’Connell’s having instructed the Catholics to turn against him;116 and he ended his diary of the contest by observing that

the events of this election are a severe blow to me, and have completely put an end to all my prospects in political life. In fact I shall think no more of it. The mortification and disappointment are extreme on every account, but I have constantly addressed myself to that Beneficent Being who rules all things, to give me strength of mind to receive his dispensations with resignation and to be satisfied, that whatever he orders, is ordered for my good.117

Dawson did, however, return to the fray, offering again for Devonport at the by-election in January 1840, when the Liberal candidate was narrowly victorious, with government support.118 At the general election of 1841, when nothing came of a possible opening for Kinsale, he again suffered an embarrassing defeat at Devonport, after fighting a pugnacious campaign in which he expressed guarded support for alteration of the corn laws.119 Peel, who resumed the premiership, was unable to bring him into the Commons and later refused him an honour, but found him an office in the customs that year.120 As this was incompatible with a seat in Parliament, he wrote a parting address to the electors of Devonport, in which he reiterated his long-held (but delusory) expectation that the borough would soon fall to the Conservatives.121 An effective Irish bruiser of a politician, Dawson’s early advancement owed most to Peel, but he could not resuscitate his own reputation in the North of Ireland after his disastrous speech in 1828, and even his brother-in-law could not rescue him from the political and electoral disappointments of his subsequent career. He died, after a long illness, in April 1856, being succeeded by his eldest son Robert Peel Dawson (1818-77), Member for county Londonderry, 1859-74.122

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. C.C. Dawson, Dawson Fam. Recs. (1874), 7; Hist. Irish Parl. 19-21, 25-7.
  • 2. Add. 40296, f. 16; HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 578-9.
  • 3. PRO NI, Leslie mss MIC606/3/J/7/21/4.
  • 4. Williams Wynn Corresp. 243; A. Mitchell, Whigs in Opposition, 142.
  • 5. The Times, 29 June 1820.
  • 6. Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 132.
  • 7. The Times, 16, 29 June 1821.
  • 8. Add. 40605, f. 121; N. Gash, Secretary Peel, 297.
  • 9. For example, Add. 40351-2, passim.
  • 10. Black Bk. (1823), 151.
  • 11. The Times, 22 May 1822.
  • 12. Add. 40304, f. 86; PRO NI, Hill mss D642/202; Wellington mss WP1/767/11.
  • 13. Add. 40357, f. 292; 40605, f. 134.
  • 14. Add. 40353, f. 226.
  • 15. The Times, 25 Feb. 1823.
  • 16. O’Connell Corresp. ii. 1006.
  • 17. Buckingham, i. 442, 448.
  • 18. Ibid. i. 451; Gash, 411.
  • 19. O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1121; The Times, 5, 18 June 1824.
  • 20. Add. 40368, f. 234.
  • 21. Merthyr Mawr mss F/2/8; O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1168.
  • 22. Add. 40373, f. 177.
  • 23. O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1180, 1184, 1205; Wellington mss WP1/817/1.
  • 24. Add. 40380, f. 184.
  • 25. Add. 40305, ff. 156, 159; Gash, 404.
  • 26. Belfast Commercial Chron. 2 Jan. 1826; Add. 40322, f. 139.
  • 27. Add. 40385, ff. 67, 70; Parker, Peel, i. 391-2.
  • 28. TCD, Jebb mss 6396/246; Brougham mss, Abercromby to Brougham, 12 July 1826.
  • 29. Add. 40387, ff. 98, 100, 212, 300; Parker, i. 412; Belfast Commercial Chron. 24 June 1826.
  • 30. PRO NI, Pack-Beresford mss D664/A/24; Hill mss 208.
  • 31. Add. 40390, f. 281; Wellington mss WP1/881/2.
  • 32. The Times, 25 Nov. 1826, 9, 14 Feb., 17, 20 Mar. 1827.
  • 33. Add. 40392, f. 5.
  • 34. Nottingham Univ. Lib. acc. 636, Denison diary; Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary.
  • 35. The Times, 12 Apr. 1827.
  • 36. Add. 40393, f. 227; 50258, C.R. to H.E. Fox, 13 May 1827; Unrepentant Tory ed. R.A. Gaunt, 7.
  • 37. Denison diary; Agar Ellis diary; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 115-16; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1323.
  • 38. Gurney diary.
  • 39. The Times, 26 May 1827.
  • 40. Arbuthnot Corresp. 95; A. Aspinall, Politics and the Press, 328.
  • 41. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale [Feb. 1828]; Add. 59406, f. 14; Wellington mss WP1/915/46; Gash, 456.
  • 42. Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC12/85.
  • 43. P. Jupp, British Politics on Eve of Reform, 118, 126, 137, 170.
  • 44. PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/32A/3/1/123.
  • 45. Creevey Pprs. ii. 167. For this episode see Gash, 533-4; W. Hinde, Catholic Emancipation, 96-97; J. A. Reynolds, Catholic Emancipation Crisis in Ireland, 105-6; G.I.T. Machin, Catholic Question in English Politics, 126-7.
  • 46. Belfast News Letter, 15 Aug. 1828; Ann. Reg. (1828), 130-2; Wellington mss WP1/947/25; Wellington Despatches, iv. 604-10.
  • 47. Belfast News Letter, 19 Aug. 1828; Gent. Mag. (1828), ii. 167; Add. 40334, f. 243.
  • 48. Add. 38757, f. 44; Russell Letters, ii. 139; Ellenborough Diary, i. 199; Arbuthnot Corresp. 108.
  • 49. Greville Mems. i. 217, 284-5.
  • 50. Baring Jnls. i. 59.
  • 51. M.D. George, Cat. of Pol. and Personal Satires, xi. 15550.
  • 52. O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1485.
  • 53. Greville Mems. i. 220; Ellenborough Diary, i. 199-200, 203.
  • 54. Buckingham, ii. 380; Gash, 534.
  • 55. Belfast Guardian, 26, 29 Aug., 19 Sept. 1828; Unrepentant Tory, 59; Arbuthnot Corresp. 110.
  • 56. Add. 40397, f. 244; Wellington Despatches, iv. 633-4.
  • 57. Add. 40397, f. 238; Wellington mss WP1/947/24; Wellington Despatches, iv. 602-4.
  • 58. Add. 38757, f. 91; Belfast News Letter, 19 Sept. 1828.
  • 59. Add. 40320, f. 76; 40397, f. 157; Parker, ii. 53; Wellington mss WP1/948/43; 951/25, 32, 41; Wellington Despatches, iv. 650-1, 653, 656, 662-3, 666; Greville Mems. i. 218.
  • 60. Add. 40334, f. 238; Wellington mss WP1/948/8.
  • 61. Wellington mss WP1/949/1; 953/29; 958/36; 959/16; 981/25; Wellington Despatches, iv. 663-4; v. 77-79, 114-16, 298; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1531, 1533, 1540.
  • 62. Ellenborough Diary, i. 209; Greville Mems. i. 284.
  • 63. Wellington mss WP1/954/3; Add. 30115, f. 87; A. Aspinall, Lord Brougham and Whig Party, 168; Smith Letters, i. 480; Colchester Diary, iii. 587.
  • 64. Wellington mss WP1/956/27; Wellington Despatches, v. 28-29; Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen.
  • 65. Wellington mss WP1/953/14; Wellington Despatches, v. 51-52; Belfast News Letter, 12, 16 Dec. 1828; Greville Mems. i. 244.
  • 66. PRO NI, Primate Beresford mss D3279/A/4/3.
  • 67. Add. 40323, f. 31; Gash, 552; Ellenborough Diary, i. 350-1.
  • 68. Greville Mems. i. 250; Grey mss, Howick jnl.; Belfast Guardian, 20 Feb.; Belfast News Letter, 6 Mar. 1829.
  • 69. N. Gash, Pillars of Government, 75-76.
  • 70. Primate Beresford mss A/4/8, 10, 12-14, 22, 24, 28, 30-32, 36-38; Pack-Beresford mss A/97; Hill mss 209, 210, 213.
  • 71. Londonderry Chron. 26 Aug.; Londonderry Sentinel, 26 Sept., 12 Dec. 1829.
  • 72. Wellington mss WP1/1042/11; Pack-Beresford mss A/87; Cornw. RO, Vyvyan mss, Vyvyan to Knatchbull, 31 Aug. 1829.
  • 73. Wellington mss WP1/1050/14; 1051/17; 1054/27; 1060/7; 1065/5; Primate Beresford mss A/4/39-44; Pack-Beresford mss A/88-90, 92, 94, 98-101, 103-5, 111-14; PRO NI, Carr Beresford mss T3396, H.B. to Lord Beresford, 20 Aug., 13 Sept., 4 Nov. 1829; Hill mss 214-22, 228-38, 241, 244-9.
  • 74. Pack-Beresford mss A/115, 115G.
  • 75. Ellenborough Diary, ii. 158; Greville Mems. i. 352.
  • 76. Agar Ellis diary; Greville Mems. i. 373.
  • 77. Le Marchant, Althorp, 243.
  • 78. Add. 40333, f. 88; Wellington mss WP1/1111/9.
  • 79. Belfast News Letter, 8 June, 20 July, 20 Aug. 1830; Wellington mss WP1/1124/13; 1125/34; Pack-Beresford mss A/169, 190.
  • 80. Wellington mss WP1/1123/33; 1127/1; 1128/3; 1130/5; 1131/25, 35; 1132/19; Pack-Beresford mss A/209-14; Carr Beresford mss T3396, address.
  • 81. Pack-Beresford mss A/162, 167, 174, 175, 184, 187, 189, 196, 200, 202; Wellington mss WP1/1149/20; Carr Beresford mss T3396, H.B. to Lord Beresford, 4 Oct. 1830.
  • 82. Add. 40327, ff. 189, 194; Wellington mss WP1/1128/2; Pack-Beresford mss A/164, 174; Macaulay Letters, i. 286.
  • 83. Wellington mss WP1/1131/19; Colchester Gazette, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 84. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1725; Greville Mems. ii. 55.
  • 85. Greville Mems. ii. 69; Gash, Secretary Peel, 654.
  • 86. Add. 51534, Grenville to Lady Holland, 21 Dec.; 51569, Ord to same, 21 Dec. 1830.
  • 87. The Times, 28, 30 Mar. 1831.
  • 88. Three Diaries, 62.
  • 89. Ibid. 82.
  • 90. Derby mss 920 Der (14) 121/2, Gosset to Smith Stanley, 24 Apr. 1831; Pack-Beresford mss A/239.
  • 91. Colchester Gazette, 30 Apr., 7 May; The Times, 5 May 1831.
  • 92. Baring Jnls. i. 88.
  • 93. Greville Mems. ii. 152-3.
  • 94. Hatherton diary.
  • 95. Peel Letters, 137.
  • 96. Hatherton diary, 8 Sept. 1831; Dyott’s Diary, ii. 118-19.
  • 97. Three Diaries, 169.
  • 98. Hatherton diary; Holland House Diaries, 96.
  • 99. Add. 51573.
  • 100. Three Diaries, 266.
  • 101. Surr. Hist. Cent. Goulburn mss Acc. 304/67B.
  • 102. Greville Mems. ii. 309.
  • 103. Macaulay Letters, ii. 155.
  • 104. Belfast Guardian, 8 Aug. 1831.
  • 105. Newry Examiner, 30 June 1832; Add. 40403, f. 71.
  • 106. Londonderry Sentinel, 4 Aug., 8 Sept., 13 Oct., 10 Nov. 1832.
  • 107. Add. 40403, f. 101; Northern Whig, 12 Nov. 1832.
  • 108. Derby mss 125/4, Barrington to Smith Stanley, 16 Nov. 1832.
  • 109. Londonderry Sentinel, 15, 22, 29 Dec. 1832, 13 Apr. 1833.
  • 110. PRO NI, Dawson mss T1048/4.
  • 111. Three Diaries, 311; Wellington Pol. Corresp. i. 160, 187, 195-7; V. Rowe, ‘Hertford Borough Bill of 1834’, PH, xi (1992), 91-92.
  • 112. Gash, Pillars of Government, 95-96; Add. 40404, f. 245; Parker, ii. 260-1.
  • 113. Add. 40408, f. 32; 40409, ff. 186, 218; 40411, f. 160; Devonport Telegraph and Plymouth Chron. 20, 27 Dec. 1834, 3, 10 Jan. 1835; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 132, 335, 446, 447.
  • 114. Add. 40424, f. 71; O’Connell Corresp. vi. 2428.
  • 115. Northern Whig, 10 Aug. 1837; Dawson mss T874/1; K.T. Hoppen, Elections, Politics, and Society in Ireland, 49, 54, 64, 79, 81.
  • 116. Add. 40424, f. 71; R.B. McDowell, Public Opinion and Government Policy in Ireland, 138.
  • 117. Dawson mss T874/1.
  • 118. Add. 40617, f. 79; Devonport Telegraph and Plymouth Chron. 23, 30 Nov. 1839, 4, 11, 18, 25 Jan. 1840; Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 121, 447-8.
  • 119. Add. 40485, ff. 34, 151, 153; Devonport Telegraph and Plymouth Chron. 19, 26 June, 3 July 1841; Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 448-9.
  • 120. Parker, ii. 483; iii. 431-2.
  • 121. The Times, 14 Jan. 1842.
  • 122. Ibid. 5 Apr.; Londonderry Sentinel, 11 Apr. 1856; Gent. Mag. (1856), i. 516.