YORKE, Sir Joseph Sydney (1768-1831), of Sydney Lodge, nr. Southampton, Hants.

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



1790 - 1806
1806 - 16 Apr. 1810
17 Jan. 1812 - 1812
1812 - 1818
1818 - 5 May 1831

Family and Education

b. 6 June 1768, 3rd s. of Charles Yorke† (d. 1770) of Tittenhanger, Herts. and 2nd w. Agneta, da. and coh. of Henry Johnston of Great Berkhampstead, Herts. educ. Harrow 1779-80. m. (1) 29 Mar. 1798, Elizabeth Weake (d. 29 Jan. 1812), da. of James Rattray of Atherston, Perth., 4s. 1da.; (2) 22 May 1813, Lady Urania Anne Paulet, da. of George Paulet†, 12th mq. of Winchester, wid. of Henry, 1st mq. of Clanricarde [I], and of Col. Peter Kingston, s.p. kntd. 21 Apr. 1805; KCB 2 Jan. 1815. d. 5 May 1831.

Offices Held

Midshipman RN 1780, lt. 1789, cdr. 1790, capt. 1793, r.-adm. 1810, v.-adm. 1814, half-pay 1818, adm. 1830.

Ld. of admiralty July 1810-Apr. 1818.

Dir. Greenwich Hosp. 1818.


Yorke was again returned for Reigate in 1820 on the interest of his half-brother, the 3rd earl of Hardwicke. He was a fairly regular attender who continued to profess his support for Lord Liverpool’s ministry, but, being under no obligation to them since his swift exit from the admiralty in 1818, he displayed a marked streak of independence, particularly in his often irreverent interventions in debate. His chief concerns were for cost-effective naval defences, on which he freely offered ministers advice, and for general public economies. A naval biography of 1828, which was frank enough to admit that there were ‘differences of opinion’ about his professional worth, noted that while

his parliamentary speeches have not been remarkable either for length or profundity, they have been for a vein of facetiousness which has almost invariably run through them ... Though his speeches are generally off hand, he has the merit of seizing a strong point in debate, and placing it in so clear a light as to bring conviction to the plainest understanding.1

His threat of a hostile vote on the civil list, 5 May 1820, proved to be an empty one. He tempered his ‘opposition speech’ for naval economies, 9 June, with praise for the comptroller of the service, Sir Thomas Byam Martin*. With a sneer at Elizabeth Fry, he condemned the penitentiary system and recommended transportation instead, 16 June; three days later he opposed the grant for the Millbank establishment. Though apparently favourable to mitigation of the penal code for shoplifters, 30 June, he wanted punishments to be specified. He denied that punishments at sea were unduly harsh, 13 July.2 On the move to remit Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes’s* prison sentence for electoral corruption, 11 July 1820, he cited the case of Henry Swann* as a more deserving one. His distaste for lawyers was evident in his opposition to allowing defendants the right of counsel in all capital cases, 30 Mar. 1821. He divided with ministers against repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr. His vote for admiralty economies, 4 May, was accompanied with a warning that ‘the great ships Britannia, Caledonia and Hibernia, if ... not completely waterlogged, had at least six feet [of] water in their holds’. Dismissing the admiralty secretary Croker’s accusation of disloyalty, he advocated a reduction of the junior lords from seven to five. He made more suggestions for savings, notably in ship repairs, 7 May, but defended the grant for Sheerness dockyard, in the development of which he took an active interest.3 He voted against the grant for ordnance repairs at Barbados, 21 May, and to reduce that for the medical establishment, 21 May, and queried the army estimates, 25 May. He spoke, 8 June, and voted, 18 June 1821, for the omission of arrears from the duke of Clarence’s grant, and was insistent that no provision should yet be made for Princess Victoria, as the duke and duchess were not too old for ‘procreation’. He divided against more extensive tax reductions, 11 Feb. 1822. He had harsh words for Hume’s proposed naval economies, 18 Feb., but produced his own list of detailed queries when the estimates were discussed, 18, 22 Mar.4 He spoke and voted for abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar. He doubted that brewers would pass on the saving arising from repeal of the malt duty, 15 Mar.5 He welcomed the reduction in the salt duties, 28 June 1822, but said he did not believe in remitting taxes by halves and therefore voted for their repeal.6

At the opening of the next session, 4 Feb. 1823, he initiated his practice of commenting on the address. He applauded ministers for adopting a neutral stance on the burgeoning conflict between France and Spain, but recognized that intervention might become inevitable. He was granted a fortnight’s leave for urgent private business, 12 Feb. His observations on the naval estimates were chiefly in their defence, 14 Mar., though he strongly disputed an assertion that the service was underfunded.7 He voted to deduct a grant for colonial agents from the army estimates, 24 Mar., and against the military and naval pensions bill, 14, 18 Apr. He regarded repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act as a step prejudicial to British neutrality and a danger to naval recruitment, 16 Apr. He was a minority teller against the second reading of the Southwark court of requests bill, 2 May. He recommended abandonment of the inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 27 May, and made a suggestion for the display of the Elgin marbles, 1 July 1823. He concurred in calls for the reduction of duties on malt, coals and candles, 25 Mar., and spoke and voted for repeal of the leather tax, 18 May 1824, though he wondered if the benefits would reach the public. He presented a petition against the beer bill, which he quipped had caused ‘a fermentation throughout the country’, 11 May.8 He was a minority teller against the second reading of the St. Katharine’s Docks bill, 2 Apr. He advised against following the caprices of architectural fashion in the alterations to Windsor Castle, 5 Apr., and supported Sir John Soane’s petition protesting at changes made to his design for the law courts, 21 May. While urging ministers to ignore protests at the salary reductions meted out to clerks in government offices, 13 May,9 he thought abolition of the public officers’ superannuation fund was too trifling a saving to be concerned with, 21 June. He spoke and voted in condemnation of the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824, describing Canning’s speech on this occasion as a ‘mere brilliant apology’. In the course of his regular scrutiny of the navy estimates, 14, 24 Feb. 1825, he questioned the reduction in sailors’ grog allowances and appeared contrite at his earlier advocacy of the removal of two admiralty lords, given the negligible savings achieved in other areas.10 He thought the proposed western ship canal would be prejudicial to the coastal trade, ‘a nursery for seamen’, 3, 11 Mar.11 Observing that Ireland ‘would never be quiet until it had been 24 hours under water’, he promised to support the suppression of the Catholic Association, 18 Feb., and he divided against Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May. His general hostility to ‘speculations’ was evident in his scorn for Trench’s plan for the Thames quay, 18 Feb., and in his opposition to docks bills, 22 Feb., 23 Mar. He presented an anti-slavery petition, 10 Apr. 1825.12 He maintained that he would ‘rather at once cut away the dead-weight, of which he formed himself a distinguished part’, than ‘diminish ... one single effective man of the army or navy’, 6 Mar. 1826. He subsequently suffered from illness, which restricted his activity for the remainder of that session. On 21 May he informed Hardwicke that he hoped to return to London, ‘to resume my usual habits and occupations, without fear of relapse’.13 He voted against Russell’s resolutions to curb electoral bribery, 26 May 1826. He was again returned for Reigate at the general election that summer.

In welcoming the re-election of the speaker, Manners Sutton, 14 Nov., Yorke apparently made an unreported charge that James Brogden had used his position as chairman of ways and means to further his business interest; this was strongly denied, 21 Nov. 1826. That day he said he had hoped to find more ‘earnests of economy’ in the king’s speech, but Canning noted that he was one of those who voted against an amendment to it.14 He maintained that the navy estimates were ‘as low as was consistent with the honour and safety of the country’, 12 Feb. 1827, and expressed the hope that impressment could be abandoned. He was granted ten days’ leave for urgent business, 26 Feb. He betrayed hostility to the East India Company when supporting inquiry into the Barrackpoor mutiny, 22 Mar., and he supported the vote of thanks to the army in India, 8 May. On the formation of Canning’s ministry he joined Peel on the opposition benches, but he hinted at a softening of his attitude towards Catholic relief, 11 May; Canning thought this intimation of qualified support worthy of mention to the king.15 He voiced doubts about Huskisson’s free trade doctrines when urging an inquiry into the shipping interest, 7 May. Four days later he replied to an attack on Soane’s buildings by George Bankes, the design of whose Dorset residence he derided as ‘the very worst he had ever seen’.16 He spoke against the grant for the national vaccine establishment, 14 May, and presented petitions from the Royal College of Surgeons to facilitate a supply of bodies for dissection, 20 June 1827. He was indignant at the abrupt end of the ministry of his cousin Lord Goderich, ‘so happy a mixture of Whigs and Tories’, 28 Jan. 1828, and disapproved of the tone of the address regarding the battle of Navarino, being marginally pro-Turkish. He dissented from the view that the duke of Wellington’s military background suited him for the premiership, believing rather the opposite, 4 Feb. He made plain his disgust at the recriminations following the demise of Goderich’s administration, 21 Feb. However, four days later, when pressing for a thorough scrutiny of the navy estimates, he assured Wellington’s ministry that ‘they have not a more sincere friend, nor a more faithful servant’. His jibes at Goulburn, the chancellor of the exchequer, were taken in good humour, 24 Mar., when he supported Hume’s proposal to divide the finance committee. However, his bluff manner did not find favour with Huskisson, who took offence at what were intended to be supportive comments following his resignation from the government, 24 June. He divided against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and Catholic relief, 12 May, but his speech on the latter issue, 12 June, appeared to be favourable, although he dwelt on the need for securities. He proclaimed his commitment to a ‘moderate and practical’ reform of Parliament, 24 Mar., and favoured the transfer of Penryn’s seats to an unrepresented town. He questioned the size of the food allowance in prisons, 14 May, but reckoned that as Millbank penitentiary was ‘now built and paid for we had better make the best of it’, 23 May. He scorned proposals to cut expenditure on the coast blockade, 16 May, and pointed to the shipbuilding programme as his preferred candidate for economies, 19 May. He wanted the Longitude Acts to remain in place as an incentive for further exploration of uncharted waters, 28 June. He thought the ordnance survey a waste of money, 7 July, but could not swallow Hume’s proposed reduction of ordnance spending to 1822 levels; his own suggestion to finance military expenditure by cutting fundholders’ dividends was so outlandish as to suggest to several listeners that he was drunk. He advocated repeal of the glass duty, 12 June, and spoke and voted against the archbishop of Canterbury’s bill, 16 June. He disavowed any personal interest in the discussion on London water companies, 30 June 1828, declaring that he was ‘no joint-stock baronet’ and that he had ‘only one little share in Waterloo Bridge’.

Yorke’s speech directly after the seconding of the address, 5 Feb. 1829, though dismissed as buffoonery by John Cam Hobhouse*, was important for its announcement that he would support Catholic emancipation.17 He defended Peel, the leader of the Commons, against accusations of inconsistency, 9 Feb., and indicated next day that he would support measures to suppress the Catholic Association. He divided for emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. As a director of Greenwich Hospital, he objected to the bill brought in for its better management, 9 Apr., 4 May, but could find no reply to the glaring examples of maladministration cited. He thought the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham ‘a judicious reform’, 5 May. Linking the proposed increase in Scottish judges’ salaries to the revision of the sugar duties, 21 May, he likened Peel (who viewed his comment indulgently) to ‘the man who stopped up the spiggot, and let the liquor run out at the bung hole’. He voted against the grant for the sculpture of the marble arch, 25 May, when he questioned the integrity of John Nash. He opposed the development of Hampstead Heath, 19 June 1829. In welcoming the address, 5 Feb. 1830, he ridiculed the lurid depictions of economic distress by some opposition Members. He was granted two weeks’ leave on account of ill health, 1 Mar. He presented, but dissented from, a petition for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 27 Apr., and aligned himself with Peel against this measure, 24 May. He supported plans for a new feeder road for Waterloo Bridge, 6, 10 May (he was chairman of the Bridge Company at the time of his death)18. He spoke and voted for abolition of the Irish lord lieutenancy, 11 May. He also divided against ministers for a return of privy councillors’ emoluments, 14 May, and reduction of the grant for South American missions, 7 June. He voted against Jewish emancipation, 17 May. He raised the question of compensation for slave owners, 20 July 1830. Prior to the dissolution that summer it was suggested that he might offer for Cambridgeshire, where his half-brother was a major landowner, but Hardwicke found he was ‘not very keen on the subject ... says he is just turned of 62, is very comfortable at Reigate and desires nothing better’; his wish was granted.19

In the autumn of 1830 the ministry listed him as one of the ‘good doubtfuls’. He had words of praise for the Speaker, 26 Oct. In lending his support to the address, 2 Nov., he described Lord Blandford’s amendment as ‘a tough and long yarn’ and turned his sarcasm on Wellington’s profligate nephew, William Pole Tylney Long Wellesley, while also warning of the possibility of revived French expansionism. One observer thought Yorke’s reply to these Members was ‘most complete’.20 Yet he was absent from the crucial division on the civil list, 15 Nov. He pointed to the outgoing ministry’s failure to deal with venal boroughs, 22 Nov., and, while regretting that Lord Grey’s government included no members of the old cabinet, he promised his support if they acted as pledged. On 13 Dec. 1830, however, he confessed himself ‘lamentably disappointed’ with their initial measures of retrenchment, although in the context of the ‘Swing’ disturbances he believed Hume’s proposals for military economies made him ‘a candidate for a straight waistcoat’. He opposed Hunt’s call for a general amnesty for the rioters, 8 Feb. 1831, and boldly predicted his imminent conversion to high Toryism; a vision which inspired the satirists.21 He welcomed the withdrawal of Lord Althorp’s budget proposal to tax transfers of stock, 14 Feb., but expressed concern at the extent of the tax reductions planned. He bashfully added that he hoped he had ‘not said anything which is offensive’, as he was ‘anxious, if I can’, to support the government. When calling for the maintenance of military expenditure, at a time of continental instability, 18 Feb., he was again supportive of ministers. Nevertheless, he could not stomach their ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unjust’ reform bill, 8 Mar., despite his professed antipathy to the aristocracy’s domination of the Commons. He specifically objected to the arbitrary means used to determine the sweeping borough disfranchisements, and amused the House by quoting another Member’s aside that, had he been allowed nine month’s notice of his borough’s demise, he could have made good the shortfall in population. Set to lose his own seat, he divided against the bill’s second reading, 22 Mar. To his eldest son, he glumly predicted that the family’s metier could be as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’, if the measure passed as it stood. He contended that

it cannot be denied that it must give a preponderating bias to that class, namely the £10 householder, which are by far the most numerous, active and republican class; who by living in towns, can be collected for any political purpose at a moment’s notice; who are shopkeepers, citizens, manufacturers, possessing great intelligence and spirit, and whose business it will be to have the chief government, and bring down the interests of the funds. This will, of course, straiten most severely all those who at present derive any income therefrom ... It will totally ruin a great many.

He was optimistic that the bill would be ‘greatly modified’, but continued to worry about the influence of the recent French revolution in all parts of Europe.22 He expressed concern that increased Irish representation in a reformed Parliament would give undue weight to Catholic interests, 18 Apr. He did not vote on Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment the next day. He welcomed the changes made in the means for coastal defence, 25 Mar. 1831, and made suggestions for naval economies, which he regarded as preferable to Hume’s proposal to contract out services.

Yorke was returned again for Reigate at the subsequent general election, but did not live to take his seat. On 5 May 1831 he was aboard a small pleasure craft which sank with all hands in Southampton Water, off Netley Abbey, apparently after being struck by lightning. His sudden death was widely lamented: one obituarist, writing from an anti-reform perspective, mourned the passing of ‘a valuable ally to the cause of national freedom, and the menaced institutions of his native land’, while the Whig duke of Bedford observed that ‘he was, though eccentric and "rude in speech", a very good man’.23 His personal estate, which was sworn under £40,000, was divided equally between his five children. Sydney Lodge passed to his widow and then to his eldest son, Charles Philip Yorke, who also succeeded to his parliamentary seat.24 Another son, Eliot Thomas Yorke (1805-85), was Conservative Member for Cambridgeshire, 1835-65.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Howard Spencer


  • 1. J. Ralfe, Naval Biog. iii. 108-13.
  • 2. The Times, 14 July 1820.
  • 3. Ibid. 8 May 1821; Add. 45046, f. 22.
  • 4. The Times, 19 Mar. 1822.
  • 5. Ibid. 16 Mar. 1822.
  • 6. Ibid. 29 June 1822.
  • 7. Ibid. 15 Mar. 1823.
  • 8. Ibid. 12 May 1824.
  • 9. Ibid. 14 May 1824.
  • 10. Ibid. 25 Feb. 1825.
  • 11. Ibid. 4, 12 Mar. 1825.
  • 12. Ibid. 11 Apr. 1825.
  • 13. Add. 35395, f. 342.
  • 14. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1271.
  • 15. Ibid. iii. 1238.
  • 16. The Times, 12 May 1827.
  • 17. Broughton, Recollections, iii. 301-2.
  • 18. Gent. Mag. (1831), i. 561.
  • 19. Herts. Archives, Caledon mss D/E Cd/E167, Hardwicke to Parkinson, 23 June 1830.
  • 20. Hopetoun mss 167, f. 177.
  • 21. M.D. George, Cat. of Pol. and Personal Satires, xi. 16579.
  • 22. E.P. Biddulph, Mem. 4th earl of Hardwicke, 154-6.
  • 23. Gent. Mag. (1831), i. 477, 559-61; Victoria Letters (ser. 1), i. 483; Add. 51670, Bedford to Lady Holland, 12 May 1831.
  • 24. PROB 11/1787/373; IR26/1276/237.