MILBANKE, Ralph (1747-1825), of Seaham Hall, co. Dur. and Halnaby Hall, Yorks.

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



1790 - 1812

Family and Education

b. 28 July 1747,1 1st s. of Sir Ralph Milbanke, 5th Bt., of Halnaby by Elizabeth, da. and coh. of John Hedworth of Chester Deanery, co. Dur. educ. Westminster 1764; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1765. m. 9 Jan. 1777, Hon. Judith Noel, da. of Edward, 1st Visct. Wentworth, 1da. suc. fa. as 6th Bt. 8 Jan. 1798. Took name of Noel by royal lic. 29 May 1815, in compliance with will of bro.-in-law Thomas Noel, 2nd Visct. Wentworth.

Offices Held

Capt. Yorks. (N. Riding) militia 1777, lt.-col. 1778; lt.-col. commdt. Sunderland vols. 1803.


Milbanke’s family originated in Scotland, but made their mark in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the mid 17th century when Mark Milbanke, twice mayor of Newcastle and father of the first baronet, acquired the Yorkshire estate of Halnaby, near the border with Durham, and property in Durham and Northumberland, which was augmented by his descendants’ marriages. On Milbanke’s marriage in 1777 to Judith Noel, whose portion was £8,000, his father settled Halnaby and Moulton Hall, near Richmond, on him for life and provided him with an annual income, estimated at £1,560, from the Hedworth properties at Chester-le-Street and Seaham, which included collieries as well as agricultural land. In the 1790s he built a family house at Seaham, which remained his principal residence even after he succeeded his father to Halnaby in 1798.2

His uncle John Milbanke was married to a sister of the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, while his sister Elizabeth was the celebrated Whig hostess Lady Melbourne, whose notorious immorality earned the thorough disapproval of Milbanke’s devoted but domineering and scheming wife. After Rockingham’s death he adopted Fox as his political leader and he was elected to Brooks’s, sponsored by Earl Fitzwilliam, in 1788. By then he was well placed to challenge for one of the Durham county seats at the next election, having been a contender since 1779, when his wife reported that he had ‘a great inclination to be a Parliament man’. Though frustrated in 1780 and 1784, he had built up a powerful body of support among the leading Whig families. He canvassed hard in 1789, offered himself at the general election in 1790 and was returned in second place after a fierce contest. His kinsman James Bland Burges remarked that he had, if reports were true, ‘spent £15,000 to obtain what will be of no use to him’. While his father probably paid a share of the expenses, he had to raise money by taking out mortgages on his property, which was already burdened by encumbrances arising out of his sister’s marriage settlement. Nor did his collieries provide a reliable source of income, for their failure for two successive years had already necessitated a period of economy in 1785. Fortunately for him, he did not have to face another contest in Durham until 1807.3

Milbanke, who joined the Whig Club on 7 June 1791, voted against government on Oczakov, 12 Apr. 1791 and 1 Mar. 1792. He was listed a supporter of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in 1791. A staunch supporter of slave trade abolition, he made his maiden speech in its support, 2 Apr. 1792, when his brother-in-law Lord Wentworth was told that the speech was ‘short and good’.4 He was a founder member of the Association of the Friends of the People, but did not vote for Fox’s amendment to the address, 13 Dec. 1792, and was listed among Members ‘supposed attached’ to the Duke of Portland, though his inclusion was queried. Nor did he vote against the war in February 1793, when he was thought of but subsequently ruled out as a possible recruit for the ‘third party’. He had reservations about Sinclair’s scheme to establish a board of agriculture, 17 May 1793. He voted for Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 7 May 1793, and divided consistently with the Foxite opposition thereafter, but was not one of their dedicated attenders. He voted for peace negotiations, 21 Jan., 30 May and 30 Dec., but approved the Sardinian treaty, 31 Jan. 1794, spoke5 and voted against the suspension of habeas corpus, 17 May, and supported its repeal, 5 Jan. 1795. He voted for peace, 26 Jan. and 27 May, against the imperial loan, 5 Feb., and spoke in favour of a generous financial provision for the Prince of Wales, 5 June 1795. He opposed the government’s repressive measures, 10, 17 and 25 Nov., 10 Dec. 1795, and spoke strongly, 7 Mar., and voted, 15 Mar. 1796, for slave trade abolition.

On 31 Oct. 1796 Milbanke challenged Pitt to reconcile his boast that the finances were flourishing with the fact that navy bills were at a 16 per cent discount. He got no answer. He voted to defer the committee of supply, 8 Dec., and against foreign loans, 14 Dec. 1796; spoke in favour of corn exportation, 3 Apr., and voted to censure ministers over the delay in paying seamen’s pay rises, 10 May, and for parliamentary reform, as ‘the best means of destroying that implicit confidence in ministers, which had led to so many evils’, 26 May 1797. He joined in the Foxite secession, but attended to speak for slave trade abolition, 1 Mar. 1799, and against the adultery punishment bill, 10 June 1800. Although he was in the small minorities on the state of the nation, 27 Nov., and peace negotiations, 1 Dec. 1800, his name does not appear in any of the surviving opposition division lists of 1801. He spoke and voted in favour of the Prince of Wales’s financial claims, 31 Mar. 1802, and again on 23 Feb. and 4 Mar. 1803; criticized the trade duties bill as injurious to the shipping interest, 27 Apr. 1802, and was in the Foxite minority on the resumption of hostilities, 24 May 1803.

The economic dislocation caused by the return of war affected Milbanke’s coal trade interests, and in 1804, after failing to raise further mortgages on his estates, he was forced to sell Northumberland property when land values were at their lowest.6 He voted against Addington in the decisive divisions of 16, 23 and 25 Apr. 1804. According to a fellow guest at a Carlton House dinner, 29 May, when the Prince advocated a union of parties, Milbanke broke the ensuing silence with ‘the true eloquence of a country gentleman’.7 He presented a Sunderland petition against suspension of the navigation laws, 6 June, spoke for slave trade abolition,7 June, and later in the month opposed Pitt’s additional force bill. He voted for its repeal, 6 Mar., for the censure of Melville, 8 Apr., paired in favour of his impeachment, 12 June, and opposed the carriage of coal to London by canal, 6 June 1805.

Milbanke supported his friends in office. He voted for the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr., seconded Fox’s motion on the slave trade, 10 June, and commended Windham’s defence plans, 11 July, but ‘with reluctance’, as he had ‘the greatest confidence in their integrity and talents’, stated his hostility to the government’s iron duty bill, 9 May 1806. He spoke for the abolition bill, 27 Feb., voted for Brand’s motion condemning the ministerial pledge, 9 Apr., and welcomed Whitbread’s scheme for Poor Law reform, 17 Apr. 1807. At the general election he encountered a ‘No Popery’ cry, which prompted him to issue a statement affirming his attachment to the Protestant establishment. On the hustings he defended the ‘Talents’ and their Catholic bill and eulogized Fox, with whom he classed himself as ‘the friend of the people and the enemy of taxation’.8 He topped the poll in the ensuing contest.

Milbanke mustered with the Whigs before the opening of Parliament and voted against government on the address, 26 June; the state of the nation, 6 July; places and pensions, 7 July 1807, and the Copenhagen expedition, 3 and 8 Feb. 1808. He voted for Whitbread’s third peace resolution, 29 Feb.; spoke and voted against the mutiny bill, 14 Mar.; approved, unlike some Whigs, the stipendiary curates bill, 12 Apr.; voted on the pro-Catholic side in the divisions of 11 and 30 May and supported Romilly’s criminal law reform bill, 15 June 1808. By 1809, when his only recorded votes were on Cintra, 21 Feb., the Duke of York scandal, 15 Mar., and the alleged electoral malpractice by Castlereagh, 25 Apr., chronic ill health was seriously interfering with his attendance.9 He was well enough to vote against government on the address, 23 Jan., and the Scheldt inquiry, 26 Jan., 23 Feb., 5 and 30 Mar. 1810, but his only other recorded votes in that session were for the release of John Gale Jones, 16 Apr., for Romilly’s stealing bill, 1 May, and for parliamentary reform, 21 May, in fulfilment of his pledge made in the debate on Curwen’s reform bill, 26 May 1809. The last and by far the longest speech of his career was made in support of Catholic relief, 1 June 1810. He voted with opposition on the Regency, 29 Nov. 1810, 1 and 21 June 1811, but illness kept him away from London for over a year, though he was able to chair a local Fox birthday dinner on 24 Jan. 1812.10 He voted against the leather tax, 1 July 1812. A contest threatened for Durham at the next election and reports circulated that even though Milbanke seemed likely to be defeated, was on the verge of financial ruin and had ‘one foot in the grave’, his wife had ‘persuaded, or rather forced’ him to stand, but at the dissolution he decided to retire, giving ill health as his reason.11

Milbanke’s financial problems, increased by provision for his only child on her marriage to Lord Byron and by the subsequent expense of extricating her from the disastrous match, were only partially relieved by his wife’s inheritance of her brother’s Leicestershire estates in 1815. A tolerant, good-natured and waggish character, he ‘could not’, his daughter wrote, ‘deal with men, though he could gain their love’. The Duchess of Devonshire dubbed him ‘old twaddle Ralph’, and Byron’s friend Hobhouse described him as ‘an honest, red faced spirit, a little prosy, but by no means devoid of humour’. Byron wrote to Tom Moore from Seaham, 2 Feb. 1815:

My papa Sir Ralpho has recently made a speech at a Durham tax-meeting; and not only at Durham, but here, several times since after dinner. He is now, I believe, speaking it to himself (I left him in the middle) over various decanters, which can neither interrupt him nor fall asleep—as might possibly have been the case with some of his audience.12

He died 19 Mar. 1825.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. M. Elwin, Noels and Milbankes, 216.
  • 2. Ibid. 57-60, 386; Elwin, Byron’s Wife, 45.
  • 3. Noels and Milbankes, 137-40, 215-17, 223, 231, 234-5, 251, 258, 279-82, 311, 337-47, 352, 374, 376-80; Byron’s Wife, 46, 49-50; Add. 34432, f. 102.
  • 4. Noels and Milbankes, 413-27, 420, 424.
  • 5. Senator, x. 1207. Debrett, xxxviii. 282 gives ‘Mr Millar’.
  • 6. Byron’s Wife, 76.
  • 7. HMC Bathurst, 42.
  • 8. Newcastle Chron. 9, 23 May 1807.
  • 9. Byron’s Wife, 85.
  • 10. Ibid. 98-99, 108, 113; Losh Diaries (Surtees Soc. clxxi), i. 8.
  • 11. Two Duchesses ed. V. Foster, 353-4, 369; Add. 34460, f. 336; Byron’s Wife, 118, 148; Morning Chron. 28 Sept. 1812.
  • 12. E. Mayne, Lady Byron, 10; Two Duchesses, 367; Broughton, Recollections, i. 193; Byron Works ed. Prothero, iii. 176.