CAVENDISH, William (1808-1891), of 10 Belgrave Square, Mdx.

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



18 June 1829 - 1831
13 July 1831 - Sept. 1831
22 Sept. 1831 - 1832
1832 - 4 May 1834

Family and Education

b. 27 Apr. 1808, 1st s. of Maj. William Cavendish† of Savile Row and Hon. Louisa O’Callaghan, da. of Cornelius O’Callaghan, MP [I], 1st Bar. Lismore [I]. educ. Eton 1820; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1825. m. 6 Aug. 1829, Lady Blanche Georgina Howard, da. of George Howard†, 6th earl of Carlisle, 4s. (3 d.v.p.) 1da. Styled Lord Cavendish 1831-4. suc. fa. 1812; gdfa. Lord George Augustus Henry Cavendish* as 2nd earl of Burlington 9 May 1834; cos. William George Spencer Cavendish as 7th duke of Devonshire 18 Jan. 1858; KG 25 Mar. 1858. d. 21 Dec. 1891.

Offices Held

PC 26 Mar. 1878.

Chan. London Univ. 1836-56, Camb. Univ. 1861-d., Victoria Univ. of Manchester 1880-d.; pres. British Assoc. 1837, Iron and Steel Institute 1868, R. Agric. Soc. 1870; chairman, commissions on railway charges (1865) and scientific instruction (1870); trustee, British Museum 1871-85.

Ld. lt. Lancs. 1857-8, Derbys. 1858-d.

High steward, Cambridge 1860.


Cavendish’s father, the eldest son of Lord George Cavendish (the younger brother of the 5th duke of Devonshire) was an officer in the Derbyshire militia and an undistinguished Member of Parliament from 1804 until his accidental death, at the age of 29, in January 1812. His will, dated 25 Dec. 1810, was proved under £150,000, and the residue of his estate calculated for duty at £49,277.1 William Cavendish, who had younger brothers George Henry (1810-80) and Richard (1812-73), now became heir presumptive to his father’s first cousin, the Whig 6th duke of Devonshire, who had succeeded to the peerage the previous year. Devonshire, a charming, benign, but lonely man, isolated by deafness, who spent lavishly on rebuilding and furnishing Chatsworth and his other properties, remained a bachelor, though he kept a succession of mistresses. Cavendish was miserable at Eton, where he was bullied. In May 1826 he was one of Devonshire’s entourage on his costly special mission to Russia to represent the British government at the coronation of Tsar Nicholas.2 At Cambridge, he revealed a first rate intellect, a scholastic bent, an interest in science and mathematical talents of a high order. When Caroline Lascelles encountered him at Bolton Abbey with his tutor in September 1827, she found him ‘quite wonderfully improved since I last saw him’; while at the end of the year Richard Monckton Milnes†, a freshman at Trinity, reported that ‘Cavendish reads like a dragon, and is very good natured’, though he doubted whether he would ever be as popular as his ‘dancing’ cousin.3 Lady Holland commented in December 1828 that he was ‘the admiration of Cambridge for his mathematics and classical attainments and also remarkable for his skill in all field sports. Besides he is handsome, but too taciturn and reserved’.4 In fact Cavendish, an ostentatiously pious low churchman in religion, suffered throughout his life from painful shyness, from which he took refuge in silence and reticence.5 In January 1829 he did ‘superbly’ in the tripos, finishing as second wrangler and eighth classic, and taking the Smith’s prize. Lady Holland, applauding his ‘great mathematical genius’, thought it ‘perhaps as well he was not first, as it might make him too devoted to that branch; though he has great talents besides and is a good scholar’. In early March Devonshire brought Cavendish to see her:

He is very well looking, like his poor father, only with more intelligence in his countenance, modest, but not awkwardly shy. He is to stay in London and see the world. They say his pursuits are chiefly scientific and classical, and his pleasures shooting. He seems perfectly good humoured, and has, I doubt not, much of the sterling family sense.6

Four months after Cavendish’s triumph in the tripos a vacancy occurred in the representation of the university. Edward Alderson, the senior wrangler of 1809 and now a distinguished barrister, offered, as did George Bankes, who had resigned his place at the India board to oppose Catholic emancipation but had subsequently resumed it. There was a strong feeling within the university, especially in senior scientific circles, in favour of Cavendish; but Devonshire who, as he told Mrs. Arbuthnot, ‘wanted him for other purposes’, namely to come in eventually for the Derbyshire seat currently occupied by the 75-year-old Lord George, would not at first allow him to be nominated. He ‘felt obliged to give way’ when the strength of support for Cavendish was made clear in a public declaration signed by ten professors and three dozen fellows; and he reckoned that Cavendish would ‘not be bound in the same way to the university when brought forward as if he had offered himself’.7 Alderson made way for Cavendish who, supported not only by Whigs but by many liberal Tories and those who saw in his return on a long-term basis a means of ending the bitter conflicts which had marked recent university politics, comfortably beat Bankes, despite the backing the latter received from some members of the Wellington government. It was reported that at a celebration dinner in Trinity Cavendish, whose politics had largely to be inferred from his family connections, uttered a few sentences which, for all his obvious nervousness, showed ‘great good sense and good feeling’.8 James Abercromby*, Devonshire’s auditor, who had advised against allowing him to stand, was ‘very hopeful’ that he had ‘an useful improvable understanding’, but feared that his new status might tax him ‘greatly beyond his spirit, and certainly beyond his knowledge of things that are practical and useful’; while George Lamb*, enumerating the ‘benefits’ of his victory to a still sceptical Devonshire, observed that ‘mathematics have done all they can for him, and it is much to be desired that he should never look to any book of that sort again’.9

Joining his grandfather and two uncles in the House, Cavendish was sworn in on 22 June 1829, two days before the session closed. Devonshire had recently been encouraging him to court his favourite niece, 17-year-old Lady Blanche Howard (‘Blanket’ in her family circle), a marriage with whom would unite the two senior branches of the family. When their engagement was announced soon after Cavendish’s election the witty Sydney Smith commented, ‘Euclid leads Blanche to the altar - a strange choice for him as she has not an angle about her’. Their marriage, though dynastically convenient, was emphatically a love-match; and Lady Blanche, to whom a doting Cavendish was in the habit of reading theological works after dinner, acted as a softening agent on his sometimes awkward relationship with Devonshire.10 Early in 1830 Lady Blanche’s sister Lady Gower found Cavendish ‘very well and clear and happy’, though he and his wife seemed ‘so young that one [kept] expecting their papa or mama to come in’. Soon afterwards another Howard sister, Georgiana Ellis, reporting that Blanche was ‘in a state of rapture at his appearance’ in formal dress after the Speaker’s dinner, reflected:

They do seem (as far as one can judge) the happiest people possible, sufficiently engrossed with each other and their pursuits to prevent them from wishing for anything beyond, and sufficiently satisfied to prevent them having any anxieties or soucis. She appears to me perfectly right as to worldly matters: very ready to go out and enjoy herself, but without thinking or caring much about the matter.11

It was said of Cavendish after his death that ‘his oratorical qualifications were not of a high order’;12 and certainly he did not distinguish himself as a debater in the House, where he seldom opened his mouth. He was, however, a fairly assiduous attender and a generally reliable voter with the Whig opposition. He voted for the amendment to the address, 4 Feb. 1830. He divided for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., paired for it, 5 Mar., and voted against the third reading of the bill throwing the borough into the hundred of Bassetlaw, 15 Mar. He was appointed to the East India select committee, 9 Feb. On 14 Feb. he was admitted to Brooks’s, sponsored by Lords Althorp* and Duncannon*. He voted for a reduction of taxes, 15 Feb., and cuts in the army estimates, 19 and (as one of a minority of 38), 22 Feb. He did not vote for Lord Blandford’s parliamentary reform scheme, 18 Feb., but divided for the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., inquiry into the petition alleging improper electoral interference by the duke of Newcastle at Newark, 1 Mar., and for Russell’s reform motion, 28 May. He was in the opposition minorities on British relations with Portugal, 10 Mar., 28 Apr. He voted in most of the major divisions in the reviving opposition’s campaign for economy, retrenchment and reduced taxation. He divided for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., and to abolish the death penalty for forgery offences, 24 May, 7 June. He was in O’Connell’s minority of 47 for amendment of the Irish Vestry Acts, 27 Apr., and Hume’s of 32 on the four and a half per cent duties, 21 May 1830. Cavendish and his wife ‘made themselves very agreeable’ on a preliminary electioneering visit to Cambridge in early June 1830.13 After the king’s death he canvassed in earnest, not sure, like his colleague Lord Palmerston, whether the threatened Tory opposition would materialize. Palmerston reported that ‘some people have taken umbrage at his name being found in some small O’Connell minorities and they magnify the matter and accuse him of radicalism’; while Cavendish himself told his wife, 5 July:

I am heartily tired of this place. I have been making calls all the morning and getting introduced to new voters ... I am very doubtful if there is ... [a contest] whether I shall get in or not, and I should be very glad for my own part to have nothing to say at Cambridge any more, for they are all venomous Tories I believe, and if I get in this time, I do not think I should be able to keep it ever again. I really should be very glad to throw it away at once, for I know they disapprove of many of my votes already, and it will only get worse and worse. There is one they particularly dislike, on a motion of O’Connell’s about the vestry laws in Ireland.

In the event there was no opposition.14

Cavendish, whom ministers of course listed as one of their ‘foes’, accompanied several Yorkshire Whigs to a dinner in Sheffield to celebrate the return of Brougham and Lord Morpeth for the county, 27 Sept. 1830. He was, so he confessed to his mother, ‘in a very considerable fright’ before he replied to the toast to Devonshire and the Whigs of Derbyshire. He declared his wish

to obtain for the people of this country their just share in the choice of their representatives; to remedy those defects in our representation which the progress of time has produced; and to promote, as widely as possible, the extension of civil and religious liberty.

Later, responding to his own health, he stated his anxiety ‘to aid by every exertion in his power the diffusion of general education’.15 On 5 Nov. 1830 he presented four Yorkshire petitions for the abolition of slavery. According to one of his sisters-in-law, he was ‘talked of’ to second Brougham’s planned motion for parliamentary reform, but it was ‘not decided’ before the division on the civil list which brought down the Wellington ministry, 15 Nov., when he was in the opposition majority.16 Devonshire was appointed lord chamberlain by the Grey administration. On 10 July 1830 Abercromby had told Cavendish’s mother-in-law that as what he had heard of him was ‘very good and in the direction that was to be expected’, he felt ‘increased confidence that his character will in time develop itself, and give him the personal weight and consideration to which he will be entitled’. He observed to Lord Carlisle, 30 Dec. 1830:

I hope that William Cavendish will not allow the session to pass over without making a little trial of his strength. It is not so easy when with as when against government, but surely it ought to be done.17

Writing to his mother from Holker, his grandfather’s north Lancashire residence, 23 Jan 1831, Cavendish noted that ‘things seem to be in a bad way in Ireland’. Expecting ‘sharp work this session’, but not yet sure whether he would be named to the renewed East India committee (he was, 4 Feb. 1831), he slightly delayed his return to London and so missed the first few days of the session.18 On 22 Mar., the last day of the debate on the second reading of the reform bill, he admitted in a preliminary discussion provoked by Bankes that he was ‘well aware’ that the Cambridge University Senate had carried a petition ‘against certain provisions of the bill’. In the debate itself, he declared his ‘unqualified support’ for the measure, notwithstanding the hostility or reservations of many of his constituents. He argued that the ‘evils’ of the ‘nomination system’, which had ‘not had the good effect of placing in strong light before the people the disinterested nature of the upper classes’, required ‘immediate attention’; and called on the aristocracy to make a partial concession of power which would obtain for them ‘the solid security of the affections of the people’:

Without the confidence of the people ... the government of the country cannot go on ... As long as the House is constituted as it now is, as long as it is in the power of coalitions of interests to rule the business of the House, so long the public dissatisfaction will go on increasing. If measures are not taken to satisfy the public demands, the discontent of the people, though it may be smothered for the present, will, on a favourable opportunity, burst out with redoubled fury.

He duly voted for the bill. When Palmerston eventually presented the embarrassing university petition, 30 Mar., Cavendish tried to play it down, denying that it ‘can be considered as directed against the general bill’. He voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831.

A month before the dissolution Cavendish, who was said by a political opponent to have ‘a profound knowledge of nothing but fluxions’, and Palmerston knew that they would be opposed at the next election by two Tories professing willingness to support moderate reform, but uncompromisingly hostile to the ministerial scheme. Initially Cavendish was reasonably hopeful, though he expected ‘a very sharp run’; but after the first day’s polling he realized that ‘we have very little chance’, and after the second admitted to his ‘dearest darling Blanche’ that ‘we are beat as hollow as anything can possibly be’. He eventually finished over 170 votes behind the anti-reformers in third place.19 He was brought in on a vacancy for Malton by Lord Fitzwilliam in July. According to a hostile newspaper report, he favoured his new constituents with only the briefest of speeches, in which he confirmed his support for the reintroduced reform bill and called for the abolition of slavery.20 He voted with ministers against using the 1831 census as a basis for disfranchisement, 19 July. He voted steadily for the details of the bill, though he was in the minority against Guildford’s loss of one Member, 29 July. He divided with government on the Dublin election controversy, 23 Aug., and voted to suspend the Liverpool writ, 5 Sept. Almost immediately afterwards, when his grandfather was created earl of Burlington and he became Lord Cavendish, he started for the vacant Derbyshire seat on the family interest.21 There was not the slightest hint of opposition, but the demands of the canvass kept the lovesick Cavendish away from his ‘darling little woman’, who was now well advanced in pregnancy, for 13 days: ‘I want to have you on my knee very much indeed, and kiss you all over’, he wrote; and, ‘I am always looking at your picture. How I will kiss you when I get back to London’.22 On hearing of the suicide of Calcraft, Member for Dorset, he wrote to Blanche:

I should think that if the anti-reformers gain Dorsetshire, it will do infinite harm to the bill in the Lords. To say the truth, some people here think the feeling in favour of reform has subsided very much among some classes, but I should not think that it extends to any important number. Don’t talk about this.23

It was evidently suggested to him through his wife that he might care to interrupt his campaign to return to London to vote for the third reading of the reform bill. He would have none of this, ‘the most stupid, absurd plan I ever heard of’, not least because ‘I don’t know whether I am still in Parliament and it would be very ridiculous to go all that way and not have a vote at last’. (The new writ for Malton was not issued until 19 Sept. 1831, the day of the third reading.)24 Although he received some coaching from Abercromby, who disapproved of his grandfather’s peerage and thought Devonshire ought to resign as soon as the reform bill was passed, Cavendish was ‘a good deal frightened’ at the prospect of the speech he would have to give on the hustings at Derby. When he did so, 22 Sept., he reiterated his ‘cordial’ and ‘entire support’ for the measure and suggested that ministers might resign in the ‘disastrous’ event of its rejection by the Lords.25 He returned thankfully to London next day but, to his irritation, had to go back to Derbyshire a week later to attend a music festival and ball. Worse still, he was selected to move the first resolution at the county reform meeting to petition the Lords in favour of the bill, 1 Oct. Though ‘extremely frit about it, for fear I should think of nothing to say’, he appealed to the peers to show that ‘they are not afraid to trust their countrymen’.26 He voted for the motion of confidence in the ministry, 10 Oct., and presented a petition from the freeholders of Stokesley against the general register bill, 13 Oct. 1831. He was a member of the London committee formed to support the reformer Townley* in the Cambridgeshire by-election.27

When Cavendish was chosen to move the address at the opening of the new session, Thomas Creevey* commented that ‘a more promising looking young undertaker I never saw’.28 In his speech, 6 Dec. 1831, he urged a speedy settlement of the reform question, deplored the Bristol riots, welcomed plans to strengthen the police, curb the ‘extremely injurious’ political unions and reform Irish tithes, and pronounced the state of foreign affairs to be satisfactory. Very soon afterwards his wife gave birth to a son. They were both ‘very rayonnant’ about it, though Cavendish was ‘rather nervous, which showed itself by laughing in the most hearty manner when he first came out of the room’, and Blanche subsequently developed a ‘very uncomfortable’ fever.29 Cavendish voted for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, was a reliable supporter of its details and divided for the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He presented more petitions against the register bill, 24 Jan., 29 Feb., when he also brought up petitions in favour of the factories regulation bill. He voted with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb.; but he was one of the minority of 51 who voted for reception of a petition for the abolition of Irish tithes, 16 Feb. He was appointed to the renewed East India committee, 27 Jan. He voted for the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr., when Greville recorded that he was among those ‘already fixed upon’ if peerage creations proved necessary to get the reform bill through the Lords.30 A week later he visited his grandfather at Compton Place, near Eastbourne, whence he wrote to Blanche:

I have ... been thinking a great deal of you, and little Fatty Canny [his son]. I hope you do not neglect him, now I am out of the way, but I am afraid he will get but half fed, and you will not drink your porter; but I hope I shall find him doubled in point of fat.31

He voted for Lord Ebrington’s motion calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the reform bill unimpaired, 10 May. He was named to the committee of secrecy on the Bank of England, 22 May, presented a Derby petition supporting the factories bill, 23 May, and the following day voted against government for inquiry into colonial slavery. He was, however, in their majorities on the Irish and Scottish reform bills, 25 May, 1 June, and the Russian-Dutch loan, 12, 16, 20 July 1832.

Cavendish topped the poll for Derbyshire North at the 1832 general election, when he declared his support for ‘extensive’ church reform and ‘had to sit through all the chairing with my hat off in the rain’.32 His grandfather’s death in May 1834 removed him from the Commons and gave him possession of the Lancashire and Sussex estates. Nine days later his first son died, but the three born between 1833 and 1838, whom he educated himself, survived into manhood. The death of his wife, 27 Apr. 1840 (his 32nd birthday), devastated him and the rest of the family; he mourned her to his dying day. As a peer Cavendish, who succeeded to the dukedom in 1858, took virtually no part in politics or the London social round. Combining a life of public usefulness with one of private reclusiveness and gloomy introspection, he subsidized and promoted education, especially in the sciences: the Cavendish Laboratory was his gift to Cambridge University. On his own estates, which were heavily encumbered, he developed Buxton and Eastbourne as resorts and, above all, transformed Barrow-in-Furness from an insignificant village into a large industrial town by investing heavily in local railways, iron mining, steel manufacturing and shipbuilding. Although it was initially successful in rehabilitating the family’s finances, this expansive and expensive policy eventually ran into severe difficulties and was reversed by Cavendish’s successors, to whom he bequeathed debts of over £2,000,0003334 The assassination of his second surviving son, Lord Frederick Cavendish (1836-82), a few hours after his arrival in Dublin to take up his duties as Irish secretary, was another savage blow for Cavendish, whose third son Edward (1838-91) also predeceased him. He died at Holker, his favourite residence, in December 1891. He was succeeded by his only surviving son, Spencer Compton Cavendish, marquess of Hartington (1833-1908), a major figure in Victorian high politics.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1812), i. 93; PROB 11/1531/113; IR26/539/110.
  • 2. V.R. Markham, Paxton and Bachelor Duke, 307-8; Add. 52017, Townshend to H.E. Fox [29 Apr. 1826].
  • 3. Howard Sisters, 92, 94; Reid, Monckton Milnes, i. 53.
  • 4. Lady Holland to Son, 91.
  • 5. B. Holland, 8th Duke of Devonshire, i. 10; J. Pearson, Stags and Serpents, 147; NLS mss 24770, f. 35.
  • 6. Reid, i. 62; The Times, 27 Jan. 1829; Lady Holland to Son, 94, 98-99.
  • 7. Fitzwilliam mss, Upton to Milton [2 June]; Add. 56554, f. 20; Greville Mems. i. 295; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 286; Chatsworth mss, G. Lamb to Devonshire, 25 June; Cambridge Chron. 5 June; Grey mss, Howick jnl, 2 June [1829]. P. Mandler, Aristocratic Government in Age of Reform, 53, incorrectly states that ‘Devonshire was so anxious to have a representative in the Commons that he stampeded Burlington [sic] into a contest for Cambridge University within weeks of his coming of age in 1829’.
  • 8. Cambridge Chron. 12, 19 June 1829.
  • 9. Add. 51574, Abercromby to Holland, 14 June; Chatsworth mss, Lamb to Devonshire, 25 June 1829.
  • 10. Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 22 May [1829]; Lady Holland to Son, 90; Countess Granville Letters, i. 41; Smith Letters, ii. 494-5; Howard Sisters, 115-16, 172; Markham, 116, 306; Pearson, 130, 147.
  • 11. Howard Sisters, 119-20.
  • 12. The Times, 22 Dec.1891.
  • 13. Add. 51659, Whishaw to Lady Holland, 12 June [1830].
  • 14. Palmerston-Sulivan Letters, 240; Chatsworth mss 6DD/GP1/1951; Cambridge Chron. 9, 30 July, 6 Aug. 1830.
  • 15. Chatsworth mss 6DD/GP1/2030; Sheffield Independent, 2 Oct. 1830.
  • 16. Howard Sisters, 164.
  • 17. Castle Howard mss.
  • 18. Chatsworth mss 6DD/GP1/2154-6.
  • 19. Hopetoun mss 167, f. 253; Cambridge Chron. 25 Mar., 29 Apr., 6, 13 May 1831; Chatsworth mss 6DD/GP1/2213, 2215, 2233, 2234, 2236, 2239, 2240, 2242, 2243.
  • 20. Yorks. Gazette, 16 July 1831.
  • 21. Derby Mercury, 21 Sept. 1831.
  • 22. Chatsworth mss 6DD/GP1/2327, 2329, 2330, 2334, 2335.
  • 23. Ibid. 2337.
  • 24. Ibid. 2344.
  • 25. Ibid. 2339, 2344, 2348, 2350, 2353; Derby Mercury, 28 Sept. 1831.
  • 26. Chatsworth mss 6DD/GP1/2360, 2361; Derby Mercury, 5 Oct. 1831.
  • 27. Beds. RO, Russell mss R766, Russell to Haedy [19 Oct. 1831].
  • 28. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 6 Dec. 1831.
  • 29. Howard Sisters, 225, 226-30, 232.
  • 30. Greville Mems. ii. 283.
  • 31. Chatsworth mss 6DD/GP1/2485.
  • 32. The Times, 20 Dec. 1832; Chatsworth mss 6DD/GP1/2684.
  • 33.
  • 34. Markham, 117, 306-7; Pearson, 147-56; D. Cannadine, ‘Landowner as Millionaire’, Agric. Hist. Rev. xxv (1977), 77-97 and Lords and Landlords, 229-388; S. Pollard, ‘Barrow-in-Furness and duke of Devonshire’, Ec.HR (ser. 2), vii (1955-6), 213-21; Oxford DNB.