LIDDELL, Henry Thomas (1797-1878).

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



1826 - 1830
1837 - 1847
9 July 1853 - 8 Mar. 1855

Family and Education

b. 10 Mar. 1797, 1st s. of Sir Thomas Henry Liddell†, 6th bt., 1st Bar. Ravensworth, of Ravensworth Castle, co. Dur. and Eslington Hall, Northumb. and Maria Susannah, da. and coh. of John Simpson of Bradley Hall, co. Dur. educ. Eton 1808; St. John’s, Camb. 1814. m. 9 Nov. 1820, Isabella Horatia, da. of Lord George Seymour†, 6s. (3 d.v.p.) 4da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. as 2nd Bar. Ravensworth 8 Mar. 1855; cr. Earl Ravensworth 2 Apr. 1874. d. 19 Mar. 1878.

Offices Held

Attaché and chargé d’affaires at Wurttemberg Mar.-June 1820; supernumerary clerk, foreign office Feb.-Apr. 1824, jun. clerk Apr. 1824-Jan. 1826; asst. priv. sec. to sec. of state for foreign affairs Nov. 1826-July 1827.


The son of a leading northern coal owner and court favourite, Liddell was heir to extensive estates in Northumberland and Durham, and the baronetcy conferred in 1642 on the royalist Thomas Liddell for his defence of Newcastle-upon-Tyne against the Scots. An excellent scholar and classicist, he was intended for a political or diplomatic career and left Cambridge without taking his degree. Overtures to the premier Lord Liverpool by his father, who represented county Durham as a Grenvillite, 1806-7, seeking treasury assistance for Liddell’s candidature in 1818 for Northumberland and in 1820 for county Durham, brought too little reassurance on which to proceed, and, lacking funds to fight independently, he had to bide his time.1 He served briefly at the Stuttgart embassy and was party to the resettlement of the Ravensworth estates in October 1820, prior to his marriage to a granddaughter of the 1st marquess of Hertford.2 At the Durham county meeting in support of Queen Caroline, 13 Dec. 1820, he boldly and ‘foolishly’ defended the king and his ministers, refused to concede the queen’s innocence and announced that he would ‘always attend’ meetings and ‘say what he thought’.3 He was appointed to the Florence legation when his father became a coronation peer in 1821 and was recalled in October 1823 to the foreign secretary Canning’s office, where he remained until 1826. He oversaw arrangements for Canning’s visit to Ireland in 1824 and corresponded closely with his private secretary Stapleton and daughter Lady Clanricarde during his illness in the summer of 1825.4 Promising to reside at his family’s subsidiary seat of Eslington Hall, near Whittingham, he declared early for Northumberland when the death of the Tory Charles Brandling created a vacancy in February 1826, but the Whig aristocracy were anxious to improve the prospects of Lord Grey’s son Lord Howick* at the general election and coalesced with the anti-Catholic Tory Matthew Bell to defeat him in a 13-day poll he had insufficient means to finance.5 He was ridiculed during it as the ‘Ravensworth puppy’, an effeminate scholar and a stranger, and caricatured as a passive and insignificant participant in his own canvass. The Whig Thomas Creevey* (Bell’s uncle by marriage) wrote that he ‘made himself the damnedest fool possible’ on the hustings, where he declared his support for Liverpool and Canning and appealed for the votes of pro and anti-Catholics.6 Fêted in defeat, he accepted a requisition to stand on subscription and entered the fray against Bell, Howick and the sitting Whig ‘madman’ Thomas Wentworth Beaumont at the ensuing general election. His canvass, a continuation of his February campaign, was fraught with allegations and recriminations between him and Bell, who challenged him to direct his opposition against Lord Grey’s son-in-law, the Whig John Lambton*, in county Durham.7 Obscuring his views on the Catholic question until his canvass was almost complete, Liddell stated at North Shields, 8 May, and again on the hustings, 13, 20 June 1826, that he would support concessions ‘on the broad basis of the national welfare only, not for the sake of the Roman Catholic church, but for the sake of the empire at large’. He conceded the necessary exclusion of Catholics from ‘certain high offices of state’, but ‘refused to make a public pledge as to his future conduct’. He declared against both slavery and its ‘precipitate’ abolition, was ‘not yet for free trade’ and advocated a ‘low and steady’ remunerating price for corn growers.8 He topped the poll and came in with Bell. According to Grey’s brother-in-law Edward Ellice*, he spent £50,000 on both elections. He refused to draw on his £4,000 subscription fund.9

Liddell returned to London and Canning’s private office in November 1826.10 Moving the address in a maiden speech ‘of considerable ability and great promise’ on the 21st, he presented himself as a ‘friend to the present administration ... pledged neither to men nor measures’.11 He justified the recent relaxation of the corn laws to ease distress in manufacturing areas, projected the end of the Burmese war and Canning’s ‘prompt and decided’ recognition of the South American republics as a boon for commerce, and advocated support for representative government in Spain and Portugal and assistance for Greece. The editor of the Durham Chronicle caustically questioned his ‘liberal’ intentions and the Whig James Abercromby* commented: ‘Liddell has plenty of words, but very few thoughts. When he has instructions to speak for any portion of his constituents, he may do it fluently and respectably, but I expect nothing beyond that’.12 He presented his constituents’ petitions for increased coroners’ fees, 30 Nov. 1826.13 His obligations to ministers, Canningites, and the agriculturists and ship owners who had secured his election made his position an extremely difficult one and placed him under considerable personal strain. He forwarded a draft scheme for ‘moderate’ protection for corn, in which he drew on the letters of Sir Claude Scott† as his ‘authority’, to Canning with an explanatory letter, 18 Jan. 1827. He lobbied for inquiry into the increased use of foreign ships in the carrying trade following relaxation of the navigation laws, in ‘language’ which the home secretary Peel felt ‘obliged’ to draw to Canning’s attention, 14 Feb., and, troubled and unwell with a venereal complaint which he asked Stapleton to pass off as a ‘violent cold and sore throat’, he joined Bell in endorsing and presenting their constituents’ petitions for protection, 21, 26, 27 Feb., 29 Mar., 3 May 1827.14 He privately suggested 64s. a quarter as an acceptable remunerating price for the grower and was also prepared to see foreign corn admitted ‘at all times on paying a duty of 32s.’, with reductions when domestic prices reached 72s., and concessions made for Canadian wheat.15 Defending government policy, 9 Mar., he claimed that he had voted silently for Canning’s resolutions based on a 60s. pivot price, because it was ‘an improvement on the existing system’; and he accused Whitmore, who sought to reduce it by 10s., of stealing and perverting Tory ideas. Although it placed him in opposition to the new Canning ministry, he had ‘no hesitation’ in seconding Gascoyne’s motion (withdrawn after Huskisson ‘turned the debate’) for the appointment of a select committee on the distressed state of shipping, 7 May. His speech, which to avoid ‘misrepresentation’ he published and dedicated to the ‘ship owners and seamen of the ports of Northumberland’, incorporated arguments from the Tyne ship owners’ petition presented by Cuthbert Ellison, 3 May, and Henry Brougham’s* Enquiry into the Colonial Policy of European Powers, and drew also on the statistics he had previously sent to Peel. He dismissed reciprocity as fanciful talk and called for protection, yet he took pains to state that he did not oppose free trade as such, but only ‘the means of going about it’.16 He voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and presented petitions from Northumberland for repeal of the Test Acts, 7 June.17 He supported and was named to the select committee on pauper lunatics, 13 June. He left Canning’s service in July 1827, a month before his death.

Speaking on the recent ministerial changes, 4 Feb. 1828, Liddell expressed qualified and conditional support for the duke of Wellington’s administration, asserted that Canning ‘alone was the main strength and stay’ of the late ministry he had adhered to and that ‘its dissolution ... was as much a relief to its friends as ... a measure of satisfaction to its opponents’.18 He deemed Wellington ‘better placed as head of the armed forces’ than as premier and welcomed Peel’s return to the home office, but not his anti-Catholic views. He expressed confidence in the Canningites Lord Palmerston* (secretary at war) and Charles Grant* (president of the board of trade), who remained in office, but not the colonial secretary Huskisson, and called for ‘conciliation and concession’ in Ireland.19 Knowing that he would be away when Lord John Russell moved for repeal of the Test Acts, 25 Feb., he declared for it when presenting favourable petitions from North Shields and Braunton, 18 Feb. (He divided for Catholic relief, 12 May 1828.) He found ‘much to agree with’ in Portman’s resolutions on the corn laws, 22 Apr., but denied that Wellington’s importation bill gave less protection to farmers than Canning’s had done, and, citing examples of corn imported at 24s. in Northumberland, he warned of the dangers of ‘unfettered importation’ in terms which Grant found difficult to contradict. Presenting a hostile petition from Newcastle, 5 May, he criticized the small notes bill as a harbinger of distress, fraught with practical problems for the Tyne ship owners and Newcastle’s ‘efficient bankers’, who stood to lose business by it to Scotland. He echoed Alexander Baring’s vain plea for inquiry into the currency, 22 May, and seconded that proposed by the Whig Sir James Graham, 5 June; but he carefully projected himself on doing so as a reluctant opponent of government, who was acting from ‘public duty’ to his constituents. He also emphasized his differences with Graham on the currency. He presented and endorsed petitions against the small notes bill from certain Derbyshire and Yorkshire iron masters and Nottinghamshire colliers, 13 June. Supporting Gascoyne in the debate on shipping, 17 June, he rejected Grant’s assumption that recent improvements in orders and employment signalled an end to the crisis and reiterated his belief that competition could not be sustained effectively without protection. He warmly praised Canning when provision was made for his family, 22 May 1828. In the Canningite lists drawn up following the resignation of the ‘rump’ from Wellington’s administration that month, he was included as a ‘probable’ by Palmerston, but omitted by Lord Colchester.

The 3rd duke of Northumberland’s ‘supposed conversion’ to the Catholic cause prompted empty speculation that Liddell would join the Wellington administration directly emancipation was conceded.20 However, he approved their address, 6 Feb., divided for emancipation, 6, 30 Mar., and criticized his constituents’ hostile petitions, 3, 4, 17 Mar., including several he presented, 4 Mar. 1829. After hoping to see the East Retford disfranchisement bill deferred, 5 May, he gave what he termed a reluctant wayward vote to transfer its seats to Birmingham, but added that he would remain a committed opponent of parliamentary reform. On 2 June 1829, a week before leaving town, he requested an interview with Wellington to discuss the electoral influence of the Greenwich Hospital estate in Northumberland, but he received no formal offer of support.21 Liddell delayed his return to London for the 1830 session and, deliberately following the example of Graham in Cumberland, he personally instigated a requisition for a county distress meeting, convened for him by his political ally Sanderson Ilderton as sheriff, 15 Feb. In the absence of the Whigs and Ultras and opposed only by the Whig renegade and former county Member Sir Charles Monck, he carried a petition for inquiry, which attributed distress to the restoration of the gold standard in 1819, compounded by the Small Notes Act, and called for retrenchment and cuts in taxes ‘most affecting the poor’. He also professed personal support for Wellington, but proclaimed himself ‘independent of all administrations’.22 In the House, 5 Mar., he endorsed the Suffolk petitioners’ call for ‘some protection’ against Irish imports. Bringing up the Northumberland distress petition, 12 Mar., he reiterated his remarks at its adoption and insisted that any inquiry into distress should include the currency and the introduction of Scottish banking practices in its remit. He presented and endorsed two petitions from Durham that day for repeal of the Small Notes Act, and paired for Graham’s critical motion on the appointment as navy treasurer of the erstwhile Canningite Thomas Frankland Lewis*. He quibbled over the estimates, 15 Mar. Contributing to the state of the nation debate, 18 Mar., he said he felt compelled by the Northumberland distress petition to support Edward Davenport; but he remained unsure how to vote and, when the debate was held over, he disclosed that he would have preferred to see the motion killed by adjournment, rather than postponed, 19 Mar. He was one of the delegation who waited on Wellington the next day to lobby for an investigative committee.23 He divided with government to retain the ‘necessary post’ of lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 29 Mar. He presented and endorsed protectionist petitions from Northumberland ship owners, 6 May, lead miners and tobacco manufacturers, 25 May. Like Graham, whose remarks he praised, he maintained that manufacturers had the same rights to protection as agriculture, 25 May. He voted to abolish the death penalty for forgery, 7 June, having presented a favourable petition from Newcastle, 3 May 1830.

Liddell reaffirmed his opposition to reform before voting to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 Mar. 1830, which concessions, he maintained, afforded the ‘best argument’ against the ‘sweeping reformers’. He said he would also have voted to enfranchise Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester (23 Feb.) had he been in London. Representing the northern coal owners, he called for inquiry into the London coal trade and was named to the committee, 11 Mar., backed the parliamentary campaign for repeal of the coastwise coal duties, 17 Mar., and brought up petitions for it, 3 May. An opponent, to his cost, of the Newcastle-Carlisle railway, he spoke, 3, 4 June, and voted, 3 June, for the Northern roads bill, which the Lowthers bitterly opposed and was now held over.24 His opposition to the sale of beer bill was confined to its provisions for on-consumption, 21 June, which he deemed suitable for remedial legislation, and he did not want to see the measure sacrificed, 1 July. Describing himself as an ‘independent county Member’ and consistent supporter of ministers, he joined in the Whig protest at the deferral of the regency question to the next Parliament, 30 June. In his canvassing address of the previous day, he defended his voting record and conduct and sought financial assistance for the anticipated contest against Bell and Beaumont. He withdrew from lack of funds, 14 July 1830.25 Disturbed by reports that Canning’s friend Lord Carlisle had backed him, the Newcastle barrister Losh complained that Liddell was ‘not a very good politician, nor likely to adhere very steadily to the principles of civil and religious liberty’.26 He was forced to deny speculation that he was to second the upstart John Hodgson* for Newcastle.27

Liddell reluctantly accepted that some reform was necessary and, projecting himself as a candidate in waiting, he delivered what the 1831-2 boundary commissioner William Henry Ord† termed a ‘sort of half speech which suited neither one side nor the other, being ... like his [parliamentary] speeches intended to suit both’ at the Newcastle meeting of 23 Dec. 1830. Speaking similarly, he again failed miserably at the Durham county meeting, 1 Feb., and in Northumberland, 9 Feb. 1831. He declared against wholesale disfranchisement, but was for transferring single Members from small, depopulated places to manufacturing towns and an extended franchise. He was unexpectedly absent from the Northumberland meeting of 16 Mar.28 Arrangements to start him as a Tory for county Durham in 1831 and as a Conservative for Northumberland North in 1832 and 1835 were abandoned, but he famously outshone Howick on the hustings at Alnwick, 16 Dec. 1832, when, with what the Conservative Newcastle Journal termed ‘his usual polished and nervous eloquence’, he claimed that satisfaction with the Reform Act would be short-lived. He also criticized the campaigns for the ballot and tithe reform, warned of the dangers of any precipitate abolition of slavery and an ‘expensive currency’ and opposed intervention in Holland and Belgium and financing war in Portugal.29 He successfully contested county Durham in 1837, resigned over protection in 1847, and, having failed at South Shields in 1852, was elected in 1853 for Liverpool, which he represented until he succeeded his father to the peerage in March 1855. An ardent protectionist opposed to church disestablishment, he was created an earl in 1874, for services to the Derby and Disraeli ministries.30 He died at Ravensworth Castle in March 1878, predeceased in 1856 by his wife, and recalled as a statesman and poet. In addition to his epic The Wizard of the North (1833) and Poems (1877), he published translations of Classical verse (The Odes of Horace (1858), Carmina (1865), Virgil’s Ænid (1872)), and several studies for Archaeologia Aeliana.31 He made provision by his will (proved in London, 21 May 1878) for his younger children, executors and trustees, and was succeeded in turn in his barony, earldom and estates by his sons Henry George Liddell (1821-1903), Lord Eslington, Conservative Member for Northumberland South, 1852-78, and Atholl Liddell (1833-1904), on whose death without issue the earldom became extinct.32

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott


  • 1. Add. 38258, f. 266; 38458, ff. 318, 320; Castle Howard mss, Lady to Lord Morpeth [1 Feb.]; Tyne Mercury, 21 Mar. 1820.
  • 2. Durham CRO, Clayton and Gibson mss D/CG16/6-9.
  • 3. The Times, 18 Dec. 1820; Sheffield Archives, Wharncliffe mss WLM/T.E24.
  • 4. W. Yorks. AS (Leeds), Stapleton mss 1/42, Liddell to Canning, 1 Nov. 1823, to Stapleton, 22 Apr. 1824-20 July 1825; 1/47, Lady Clanricarde to Stapleton, undated letters, 1824-5.
  • 5. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 11 Feb.-9 Mar.; Durham Chron. 11, 18, 25 Feb.; Fitzwilliam mss 124/5, 9; Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC17/28; The Times, 27 Feb.-10 Mar. 1826.
  • 6. Creevey mss, Creevey to Grey, 21 Feb.; The Times, 15 Mar. 1826; M.D. George, Cat. of Pol. and Personal Satires, x. 15120-2.
  • 7. Northumb. Pollbook and Election Pprs. June-July 1826 (W. Davison, Alnwick edn. 1827), 21-32, 37-39, 44-45, 48-51.
  • 8. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 9, 11 Mar.; Durham Chron. 18 Mar.; Liddell, Speech at George Tavern, N. Shields (1826).
  • 9. The Times, 23, 30 June, 19 Sept.; The Globe, 23 June 1826; Procs. and Poll, N. Dur. (1837), 8-9, 11; NLS, Ellice mss, Grey to Ellice, 7 Feb. 1827.
  • 10. Stapleton mss 1/42, Liddell to Stapleton [Aug.] 1826.
  • 11. Geo. IV Letters, ii. 1271; Dorset RO D/BKL, Bankes jnl. 158 (21 Nov.); Castle Howard mss, Morpeth to Lady Carlisle [25 Nov.] 1826.
  • 12. Castle Howard mss, Abercromby to Carlisle [22 Nov.] Durham Chron. 25 Nov., 2 Dec. 1826.
  • 13. The Times, 1 Dec. 1826.
  • 14. Stapleton mss 1/42, Liddell to Canning, 18 Jan., to Stapleton, 23 Feb.; Add. 38749, ff. 74, 76; The Times, 22, 27, 28 Feb., 30 Mar., 4 May 1827.
  • 15. Stapleton mss 1/42, Liddell to Canning, 18 Jan. 1827.
  • 16. Liddell, Speech ... for a committee to take into consideration the depressed state of shipping (1827); Nottingham Univ. Lib. Acc 636, Denison diary, 7 May 1827.
  • 17. The Times, 8 June 1827.
  • 18. A. Aspinall, ‘The Last of the Canningites’, EHR, l (1935), 650.
  • 19. Sneyd mss SC17/34.
  • 20. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Ossington mss OsC 67a, Sandon to Denison, 22 Jan. 1829.
  • 21. Wellington mss WP1/1023/15, 16.
  • 22. Ellice mss, Grey to Ellice, 24 Jan.; Newcastle Chron. 13, 20 Feb.; Durham Chron. 20 Feb. 1830.
  • 23. Add. 38758, f. 138.
  • 24. Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Howard (Corby Castle) mss D/HC/1/21, Losh to H. Howard, 13 July 1830; Wellington mss WP1/1119/11.
  • 25. Northumb. RO, Ridley (Blagdon) mss ZRI25/59, Stable to Ridley, 31 May, Donkin to same, 5 July; Newcastle Chron. 3, 10, 17, 24 July; Corresp. of James Losh ed. E. Hughes (Surtees Soc. cclxxiv), ii. 94; Add. 40401, f. 140.
  • 26. Howard (Corby Castle) mss, Losh to H. Howard, 13 July 1830.
  • 27. Ridley (Blagdon) mss 59, Stable to Ridley, 31 May; Newcastle Chron. 5, 12, 26 June 1830.
  • 28. Northumb. RO, Blackett-Ord (Whitfield) mss NRO324/A/36, W.H. Ord to fa. [23 Dec.]; Durham Chron. 25 Dec. 1830, 6 Feb. 1831; The Times, 30 Dec. 1830; Tyne Mercury, 8 Feb. 1831.
  • 29. Durham Chron. 6 Feb. 1831; Wellington mss WP1/1182/25; 1184/3; Tyne Mercury, 18 Dec.; Newcastle Jnl. 22 Dec. 1832; Greville Mems. iii. 122.
  • 30. The Times, 1, 2 Apr. 1874.
  • 31. Ibid. 20 Mar. 1878; Oxford DNB.
  • 32. The Times, 31 May 1878; Clayton and Gibson mss 16/25-39; M.H. Dodds, Hist. Northumb. xiv. 518-19.