TOWNSHEND, Thomas (1733-1800), of Frognal, Kent

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



1754 - 6 Mar. 1783

Family and Education

b. 24 Feb. 1733, 1st s. of Hon. Thomas Townshend, and bro. of Henry Townshend.  educ. Eton 1748; Clare, Camb. 1750.  m. 19 May 1760, Elizabeth, da. and coh. of Richard Powys of Hintlesham, Suff., 6s. 6da.  suc. fa. 21 May 1780; cr. Baron Sydney 6 Mar. 1783; Visct. Sydney 11 June 1789.

Offices Held

Clerk of the household to Prince of Wales 1756-60; clerk of the Green Cloth 1760-Dec. 1762; ld. of Treasury July 1765-Dec. 1767; P.C. 23 Dec. 1767; jt. paymaster gen. Dec. 1767-June 1768; sec. at war Mar.-July 1782; Home sec. July 1782-Apr. 1783, Dec. 8-June 1789; c.j. in eyre south of Trent June 1789- d.


‘Tommy Townshend’ or ‘young Tommy Townshend’, as he was usually known to contemporaries, sat at Whitchurch on the interest of the Selwyn family, to whose estates he was heir of entail after his uncle George Augustus Selwyn. A Whig by family tradition and a great-nephew of the Duke of Newcastle, he entered Parliament at the first general election after coming of age and was soon given a place. On the accession of George III he was taken into the King’s Household, and his salary increased to £1,000 per annum.

Townshend remained faithful to Newcastle, spoke in the debate on the peace preliminaries, 10 Dec. 1762, and was a teller on the division. One of the first victims of Fox’s purge, he pressed for a vigorous Opposition and looked to Pitt as its leader. In the debates over Wilkes and general warrants he was a frequent speaker. He also opposed Grenville’s Stamp Act—it was ‘treating the Americans with levity and insult’, he said on 27 Feb. 1765; and on 30 Apr. he fought the committee stage of the American mutiny bill clause by clause.1 He was prominent in opposition to the Regency bill, and on 7 May seconded Lord John Cavendish’s motion to name the Regent.

Townshend attended the meeting of Newcastle’s friends at Claremont on 30 June 1765,2 and was one of those who were against taking office without Pitt. Yet he accepted a seat at the Treasury Board under Rockingham. In January 1766 he was sent by Administration to consult Pitt at Bath about American policy, and to sound him about taking office. ‘It was thought that no one could undertake the commission and talk with Mr. Pitt on the present important matter who would execute it better than young Thomas Townshend’, wrote Rockingham to Newcastle on 2 Jan.3 On 14 Jan. Townshend seconded the Address, and he was a leading speaker for Administration on the repeal of the Stamp Act.

Townshend remained in office under the Chatham Administration, even after Rockingham had broken with Chatham. Newcastle wrote to Portland on 24 Nov. 1766:4 ‘I am told ... that old Tommy Townshend will not suffer his son to resign, if he was disposed to do it.’ Townshend voted with Administration on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768; and supported their American policy. Subsequently he defended Charles Townshend’s duties in the House:5

It was not the opinion solely of one man, but of many, that some plan of taxation ought to be adopted, and that opinion had so pervaded the nation at large that it was absolutely necessary to do something. [Charles Townshend] was anxious to impose taxes that would be acceptable to the Americans, but in these hopes he was misled by the Americans themselves ... A chancellor of the Exchequer who at that time had not attempted something of the kind would have been looked upon as blameable.

In December 1767 Townshend took a step upwards in the ministerial hierarchy, and achieved the dignity of the Privy Council. He attended the meeting of Government men of business on 25 Apr. 1768, and made no objection to the proposed expulsion of Wilkes.6

In June 1768 George Cooke, Townshend’s colleague in the pay office, died; and Grafton, in fulfilment of a promise made when the Bedfords took office, appointed Rigby sole paymaster general. Townshend knew nothing of this arrangement until he was ordered to kiss hands for Rigby’s place of joint vice-treasurer of Ireland.7 Offended at the discourtesy shown him, he resigned. Camden, sent to try and bring him round, wrote to Grafton on 9 June:8

The motives of his resolution as far as I could collect them were these, that in the first place that the measure was denounced to him on Wednesday in an abrupt manner, without any previous communication. This complaint was branched out into a variety of particulars ... declaring at the same time that if your Grace had represented to him ... the necessity you lay under of making this arrangement, he should have yielded to it with facility. The second objection was that he could not bring himself to yield place to Mr. Rigby, and in this part of his complaint, which was purely political, I drew him into a declaration that the Bedford party was preferred, and so far as he could judge, meant to take the lead again and give law to the whole Administration.

Townshend was supported in his resolution by his father, who is said to have made him a present of £10,000.9

Rockingham wrote to Dowdeswell on 11 Aug. 1768 about Townshend’s resignation:

He certainly never quite liked nor was quite happy in the manner in which things had gone on at Lord Chatham’s coming in and since. ... I saw him for a few minutes soon after the event, and he was in exceeding good spirits and well satisfied with what he had done. I suppose he will try to appear moderate when the session begins, but I don’t think he will continue so. There were some circumstances in his staying when we were all gone which made me always think much better of him than of some others who had no such reason for their conduct.

Rockingham’s forecast of Townshend’s political conduct proved correct. When the Wilkes case came before the House he at first took a detached and judicial attitude, but in the divisions of 27 Jan. and 2 Feb. 1769 on Wilkes’s petition and of 3 Feb. on Wilkes’s expulsion he voted against Administration. He was a teller for the Opposition in the division of 15 Apr. on the seating of Luttrell: ‘This is doing the very thing Mr. Wilkes wishes to have done’, he told the House.10 ‘It will connect his cause with the cause of every freeholder in Britain.’ By the end of the session he was confirmed in opposition, where he remained until 1782.

Throughout this period he stood aloof from close party connexion, inclined more to Chatham than to Rockingham, yet on good terms with both. In the autumn of 1769 Chatham employed him to attempt a reconciliation with Rockingham; and Rockingham, in the account he gave to Burke, referred to Townshend as ‘our friend’.11 On 22 Jan. 1770 he was proposed for Speaker by Lord John Cavendish.

I had not the least knowledge or expectation of being proposed for the vacant chair [he told the House12]. I most sincerely thank my friend for so flattering a testimony of his partiality in my favour, but I am equally unfit for the duties and unworthy of the honour of such a situation.

In February 1771, when the long-suppressed animosity between Chatham and Rockingham broke out into an open quarrel over Dowdeswell’s jury bill, Townshend was reported by Richmond ‘to lean towards Lord Chatham’;13 and in the debate (7 Mar.) he took Chatham’s line that the bill should be made declaratory.14 After Chatham’s death he seconded Barré’s motion that he should be given a state funeral, and moved an address for a provision for his family.15

From 1770 to about 1775 Townshend’s strongest political connexion was with Lord George Germain. In December 1770 he was Germain’s second in his duel with George Johnstone.16 In December 1772 he refrained from opposing the Government’s East India policy.17 Burke wrote about him to Rockingham on 10 Jan. 1773:

I cannot but lament that every now and then he is disposed to a great deference to the opinions of those who are at most but allies to that body which I am sure he loves by far the best. Latterly he became a great admirer of George Grenville. Since then Lord George Germain has more weight with him than anybody else.

Possibly his attitude towards North’s American legislation of 1774 owed something to Germain’s influence. He said about the Boston port bill, as Mar. 1774:18 ‘I don’t look upon this law so much as a punishment as ... a very necessary step to be taken from the exigency of the case. We must protect our people and our trade.’ He also supported the bills to re-model the government and judicial system of Massachusetts Bay. But he wished for a conciliatory gesture from Britain: ‘Let America see we do not want a quarrel with them on a punctilio’, he said on 15 Apr.; and he supported the repeal of the tea duty, which he described as ‘frivolous and unnecessary’.19

By the beginning of the next session Townshend had turned completely against Government. He saw that war was imminent, opposed any further attempt to coerce America.20 In the opposition to North’s Administration he was second only to Fox and Burke in the number of his speeches, which dealt with almost every topic of Opposition. Wraxall wrote of him:21

His abilities, though respectable, scarcely rose above mediocrity. Yet as he always spoke with facility, sometimes with energy and was never embarrassed by any degree of timidity, he maintained a conspicuous place in the front ranks of Opposition.

Burke had written of him in 1769:22 ‘Had there been fuel enough of matter to feed that man’s fire, it would make a dreadful conflagration. But there wants a sufficient staple in his mind.’ During the American war there was no lack of material, and he habitually reproached Government in the harshest language. On 21 June 1779:

He said the progressive periods of the war had been so many steps from bad to worse, and that it was impossible, giving the ministers the fullest credit for their possessing more ignorance, more weakness, more folly, more absurdity, than any other men in the kingdom, that so accomplished and so complete a scene of misfortune and national ruin as distinguished this country at present could have owed its origin to mere incapacity and want of sense ... there was treachery and corruption in the case.

In calmer moments he could be very sensible. On 26 May 1777 he said:

He had always voted for the bill for regulating the East India Co. and he always should. He thought them competent to manage their trading business, but not to govern large territories independent of the Parliament of Great Britain.

And on 77 Dec. 1779:

he declared himself of opinion that while France and Spain were unattached upon the continent they would always have it in their power to be superior to us at sea.23

In the second Rockingham Administration Townshend was appointed secretary at war. ‘This was what he hoped for’, wrote Selwyn to Carlisle on 27 Mar.; but on 1 Apr.: ‘Whatever he may pretend, he is not, I am sure, satisfied.’24 On the resignation of Fox and his friends, the King wrote to Shelburne:25 ‘Mr. Townshend reprobates the idea of quitting if measures are right, because they cannot fill offices to their pleasure.’ He joined the Shelburne Cabinet as Home secretary and chief Government spokesman in the Commons.

As such he led the debate for the Government on the peace preliminaries, 17-18 Feb. 1783. Of his speech on this occasion Wraxall wrote:26

Mr. Townshend ... excelled himself in his defence of the peace, and may really be said to have in some measure earned on that night the peerage which he soon afterwards obtained. I never saw him display so much animation, nor heard him manifest such ability.

The peace, he said, was ‘as good as we had a right to expect, and a peace that promised to be permanent’.27 He belittled the importance of the territories ceded to France and Spain, and defended the concessions to the United States: ‘he hoped ... that we should continue to consider the Americans as our brethren, and give them as little reason as possible to feel that they were not British subjects.’ The article respecting the loyalists, the most vulnerable part of the treaty,

gave him as much concern as it could do any other gentleman, but it had been impossible to avoid it, the commissioners on the part of America having again and again declared that they were instructed to insist on it.

He concluded by telling North

that if there was anything particularly disadvantageous in any of the treaties he ought to be the last Member of the House who should complain, as the peace was in fact of his own making, all the difficulties and unpleasant circumstances attending it having arisen from his maladministration of public affairs.

One of Shelburne’s last requests before leaving office was a peerage for Townshend. He had passed the zenith of his political career. He was not of the inner circle in Pitt’s Administration, and in 1789 exchanged his Cabinet office for a sinecure and a step in the peerage.

He died 30 June 1800.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 2. Add. 33003, ff. 30-31 (printed Rockingham Mems. i. 218-19), where he appears as ‘Charles Townshend jun.’
  • 3. Add. 32973, ff. 11-13.
  • 4. Add. 32978, f. 52.
  • 5. 8 Feb. 1769, Cavendish’s Debates, i. 213.
  • 6. Bradshaw to Grafton, 25 Apr. 1768, Grafton mss.
  • 7. Rockingham to Dowdeswell, 11 Aug. 1768, Rockingham mss.
  • 8. Grafton mss.
  • 9. Hen. Strachey to Clive, 14 June 1768, Clive mss.
  • 10. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 373.
  • 11. Rockingham to Burke, 15 Oct. 1769.
  • 12. Parlty. Hist. xvi. 740.
  • 13. Richmond to Rockingham, 1 Feb. 1771.
  • 14. Cavendish’s Debates, ii. 367.
  • 15. Stockdale, viii. 285-6, 332.
  • 16. Townshend to Rockingham, 19 Dec. 1770, Rockingham mss.
  • 17. Dowdeswell to Rockingham, 20 Dec. 1772, Rockingham mss.
  • 18. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 19. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 255, pp. 128-9; Fortescue, iii. 102; Brickdale’s ‘Debates’, 19 Apr. 1774.
  • 20. Almon, i. 26, 293.
  • 21. Mems. ii. 45.
  • 22. To O’Hara, 31 May 1769.
  • 23. Almon, xiii. 474; vii. 227; xvii. 201.
  • 24. HMC Carlisle, 608, 621.
  • 25. Fortescue, vi. 75.
  • 26. Mems. ii. 424-5.
  • 27. Debrett, ix. 258-62.