DOLBEN, Sir William, 3rd Bt. (1727-1814), of Finedon, Northants.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



3 Feb. - 11 Mar. 1768
1768 - 1774

Family and Education

b. 12 Jan. 1727, o.s. of Rev. Sir John Dolben, and Bt., rector of Burton Latimer and vicar of Finedon, by Elizabeth, da. of William, 5th Baron Digby [I]. educ. Westminster 1734; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1744. m. (1) 17 May 1758, Judith (d. 1771), da. and h. of Somerset English, 1s. 1da.; (2) 14 Sept. 1789, his cos. Charlotte, da. of Gilbert Affleck, M.P., of Dalham Hall, Suff., and wid. of John Scotchmer, banker of Bury, s.p. suc. fa. 20 Nov. 1756.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Northants. 1760-1.


Some months before the general election of 1768 Dolben was nominated for Northamptonshire on the ‘Tory’ or country interest. Meanwhile, in February 1768 he was returned for Oxford University as a stop-gap on the old Tory interest. His only reported vote during the few weeks of this Parliament was with Opposition on nullum tempus, 17 Feb. 1768. At the general election Dolben was returned unopposed for Northamptonshire. Though essentially independent, his inclination was to support Administration, and he voted regularly with the Grafton and North ministries, but appears in the King’s list of friends who voted with Opposition over the naval captains’ petition, 26 Apr. 1773. He spoke several times during this Parliament; in the debate of 25 Feb. 1774 on the motion to perpetuate Grenville’s Election Act he declared that though he was ‘a great favourer’ of the Act he believed it should not be perpetuated so soon and therefore would vote against the motion.1

Dolben did not stand in 1774. At the general election of 1780, and again in 1784, he was returned unopposed for Oxford University. On 28 Feb. 1781, in his first recorded speech after his re-election, he opposed Burke’s bill for regulating the civil list revenue, declaring:

If it were right to destroy the influence by which Members were returned to that House, it did not go far enough, for it ought also to have destroyed the influence of the aristocracy and of wealthy individuals as well as the influence of the Crown; and he said he should have no objection to a general and fair plan of reform that went to the reduction of influence on both sides.

Though he considered that Lowther’s motions of 12 Dec. 1781 against the war were ‘moderate, temperate, and senatorial’, he accepted North’s assurances that the Government would no longer prosecute the war; otherwise ‘he should certainly have voted for the motions, for he was heartily tired of the American war’. Speaking of the naval inquiry demanded by the Opposition, Dolben declared, 20 Dec. 1781, that not being ‘one of those credulous men that were supposed on all occasions to vote with Administrations be the business what it might ... when the examination they were now talking about should take place ... he should endeavour to make it a sound one’. But on 20 Feb. 1782 he said that though he agreed mismanagement had been proved, he refused to support the demand for Sandwich’s dismissal and trial; if the Opposition were to press it he would vote with the Administration on the whole question, and in fact did so. On 22 Feb. he voted with Opposition on Conway’s motion against the war, but on the virtually identical motion of 27 Feb. he explained that he had decided to vote with Administration because he understood that a bill for a truce with America was to be introduced by the ministry, ‘which in his opinion was by far the best mode offered’. He again voted with Administration on Cavendish’s censure motion of 8 Mar. 1782, and Rous’s of 15 Mar., when he said he hoped there would be a coalition between North and the Opposition leaders: ‘the noble lord was an able minister, though he believed that conducting a war was not his forte; but in negotiations for peace, he was convinced would be found to have great abilities’. Opposition to American independence swayed his attitude to the war, and on 19 Dec. 1782, during the debate on negotiations for peace, he declared that ‘a vigorous war with the house of Bourbon, crowned with success, would soon compel America to return to her duty’. During the debates of February and March 1783 on the peace preliminaries he complained incessantly that there was no authorization for granting American independence, and he naturally voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783. He voted for parliamentary reform, 7 May 1783, and for Fox’s East India bill, 27 Nov. 1783. On 19 Dec. 1783 he called for a coalition between Fox and Pitt, but he disliked the Opposition’s attempts to force the King to dismiss Pitt, and on 18 Feb. 1784 complained that ‘the whole of the late conduct and proceedings of the House tended to abridge the prerogative of the Crown ... He objected to all this violence ... and hoped he should see the House returned again to moderation.’ Henceforth he regularly supported Pitt.2

Dolben voted for Pitt’s parliamentary reform proposals, 18 Apr. 1785; urged the abolition of pressing, 12 May 1786, and supported the debtors’ relief bill, 11 Mar. 1788. During the trial of Warren Hastings he wrote, 8 Feb. 1787, that having heard Sheridan’s ‘brilliant and affecting’ accusation, ‘I dared not trust myself, under such a state of captivation to decide criminally against any man much less against one who undoubtedly had very great public merits, and therefore ... I moved to adjourn’.3 Convinced of the ‘crying-evil’ of the slave trade, Dolben on 21 May 1788 introduced a bill to improve the conditions of negroes being transported to the West Indies,4 and by his vigorous efforts secured its passage through the House.

He died 20 Mar. 1814.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Mary M. Drummond


  • 1. Brickdale, ‘Debates’.
  • 2. Debrett, ii. 41; v. 139, 221; vi. 258-9, 328, 462-3; ix. 129; xiii. 158.
  • 3. Dolben mss, Northants RO.
  • 4. Stockdale, xv. 69-70, 71, 72, 75, 76.