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John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp and third Earl Spencer (1782-1845)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1897

AlthorpJohn Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp and third Earl Spencer was the eldest son of George John, second earl Spencer by his wife Lavinia, eldest daughter of Charles Bingham, first earl of Lucan. Althorp was born on 30 May 1782 at Spencer House, St. James's. Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer was his brother. He inherited none of his mother's brilliance and attractiveness. Owing to his father's political and his mother's social engagements, he was in his early years left much to the care of servants. It was a Swiss footman of his mother who taught him to read, and when, at the age of eight, he was first sent to school at Harrow, he was a shy, awkward, and ill-grounded boy, though fairly intelligent, and a lover of animal and country life. He was placed in Dr. Bromley's house, and passed through the different forms, popular but undistinguished. His schoolfellows included Frederick John Robinson (afterwards Lord Ripon), Byron, Viscount Duncannon (afterwards Lord Bessborough), William Ponsonby (afterwards Lord de Mauley), and Charles Pepys (afterwards Lord Cottenham).

In 1798, in spite of his own desire to enter the navy, it was decided that he should go to Cambridge, and, having wasted some two years with a private tutor, he went up to Trinity College in January 1800. A great deal of time and still more money he spent in hunting and racing, but, thanks to his mother's entreaty and the teaching of his tutor, Allen (afterwards bishop of Ely), he managed to figure more than creditably in his college examinations - he was first in June 1801 - and gained a self-confidence, a habit of industry and exactness, and a command over figures which afterwards proved of the utmost value to him. None the less, he always lamented his early removal from the university and his imperfect literary education. He went down in June 1802, graduating M.A. in the same year. His debts embarrassed his father, and his own clumsy manners and want of accomplishments made him feel himself out of place at Spencer House. The opportunity of the peace of Amiens was taken to send him to Italy and France; but he refused to go into foreign society, was bored by works of art, and came home no more polished than he went, and unable even to speak French.

Thus equipped he entered public life, coming into parliament for Okehampton in April 1804 as one of the supporters of Pitt. For some time he rarely voted and never spoke. On Pitt's death in 1806, urged on by his father, he stood for the vacant seat for the university of Cambridge against Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, third marquis of Lansdowne, chancellor of the exchequer, and Lord Palmerston. He was second at the poll. Thereupon he was elected for St. Albans, and sat for that place till the general election of November 1806, when he contested Northamptonshire. Returned at the head of the poll, he held the seat till he succeeded to the earldom twenty-eight years later. In compliment to his father, who joined Lord Grenville as home secretary, he was appointed a lord of the treasury in 1806, but he only held the office thirteen months, rarely performed any of its duties, and resided at Althorp as much as possible. When obliged to attend the House of Commons, he hired relays of horses for the return journey to Northamptonshir and would gallop all night after a sitting of the House of Commons to hunt with the Pytchley next day.

On the fall of the Whig government in 1807 he retired for two years without regret to his country amusements. He attended prize fights and race meetings, and devoted himself to the management of the Pytchley hunt. He boxed well, but shot and rode, though incessantly, not so well. He had a loose seat in the saddle, met with constant falls in the hunting field, and repeatedly put his shoulder out. So devoted was he to the Pytchley, with which he was connected from 1805, that he spent on it over £4,000 a year, to his great embarrassment in after life. He introduced with success a lighter and quicker build of hounds, and kept minute hunting journals, which are still preserved at Althorp.

His maiden speech was not made till 1809. Though he had been brought up a Tory, Cambridge friendships, especially with Lord Henry Petty and Lord Ebrington, had inclined him early to the Whigs. From the personal acquaintance he had formed with Fox about 1806, he contracted a strong admiration for him, and after Fox's death he began to incline to the more forward party represented by Romilly and Whitbread. Breaking away from most of his political connections, he joined in the condemnation of the Duke of York's complicity in the scandalous sales of commissions in the army. The duke was brought to resign, and the more prudent radicals then thought that enough had been done. Althorp was accordingly selected by Whitbread to move a resolution recording the resignation and shelving further inquiry; this was carried. Thereupon, in spite of his father's disappointment, he decided formally to join the advanced party. He regularly voted with Whitbread, but did not speak again in the session of 1809, and only rarely in 1810. In 1812 he supported Lord Milton's vote of censure on the government for the re-appointment of the Duke of York to the commandership-in-chief, and replied to Perceval, but ineffectively. The shoemakers of Northampton placed their interests in his hands with regard to the proposed leather tax in 1812, and he seconded Brougham's motion for its rejection on 26 June, dwelling characteristically on its hardships to the artisan and labouring classes. The tax was none the less imposed. During 1812 and 1813, except in supporting Grattan's Roman catholic emancipation bill, the part he took in business and debate was very small. His time was mainly spent in country pursuits. On his marriage in 1814 he began farming, planting, and breeding, at Wiseton, and was little seen for a year or two outside his county.

When the war was concluded in 1815, Althorp formed a very strong opinion of the grievances of the working classes and of the necessity for reducing taxation and reforming the parliamentary representation. He opposed the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act and the increase of magistrates' summary powers, voting with Sir James Mackintosh, Romilly, and Brougham, and speaking in opposition to the ministerial policy. So deeply did he feel on these matters that he constantly attended the debates. On practical topics, especially on taxation, he spoke often and with knowledge and good sense; but Lady Althorp's death in childbirth, on 11 June 1818, withdrew him from public affairs and from society for a considerable time. At the general election his seat was left uncontested, but for years he was a broken man, and lived in retirement.

It was with difficulty that he brought himself to resume his place in parliament. He raised a privilege question in March 1819, served on and eventually presided over a committee on the working of the Insolvent Debtors' Act. A bill, founded on the report of the committee, he conducted through the House of Commons, but it was rejected in the House of Lords. As a ministerial bill it passed in the year following. He devoted much time to reading the Parliamentary Debates and works on political economy, trade and law, of which last he had gained a knowledge as chairman of quarter sessions. Accordingly in 1821, 1823, and 1824, he introduced bills for establishing local courts for the recovery of small debts, and brought one to a second and another to a third reading, but was compelled to withdraw them all; they were, however, the germ out of which the county-court system subsequently developed. When the committee on the corn laws was appointed in 1821, he served upon it, and followed the lead of Huskisson in resisting further protective duties; and in February 1822 he introduced a plan of his own for the relief of the country from taxation. He moved for a committee on the state of Ireland in 1824, and the ministry conceded an inquiry, but in a limited form. It was to Lord Althorp that Lord John Russell, when defeated in his contest for Huntingdonshire in 1826, entrusted in the new parliament the bribery bill which he had introduced in the last session of the old one.

To the idea of a coalition of the Whigs with Canning, whom he distrusted, Althorp was at first openly hostile. But when Canning formed a government in April 1827 he yielded to the widespread feeling of his party, and consented to give a general support to the new administration. There was some question of his joining the cabinet, but to this the king, whose grants Althorp had more than once opposed, was expected to object. For a short time he was chairman of the finance committee nominated to inquire into the condition of the revenue. His appointment gave the occasion for the quarrel between Herries and Huskisson which broke up the Goderich administration which followed the death of Canning. He supported the efforts of his friend Joseph Hume towards greater public economy, and voted for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and for catholic emancipation. At a meeting held at his rooms in 1830 it was resolved to raise the question of the public expenditure, and Charles Edward Poulet Thompson (afterwards Lord Sydenham) introduced a motion accordingly on 25 March 1830, when Lord Althorp declared himself a supporter of an income-tax, though the less advanced whigs were against it. In the same session he introduced a game bill of a liberal character, which was lost for the time being owing to the dissolution, but became law in 1831 as 1 and 2 William IV, c. 32.

In general, Althorp, though in opposition, was not unfriendly to the Duke of Wellington's ministry, which lasted from October 1828 until November 1830, and during that period moderated the hostility of some friends of extreme views. His placable course was the choice of his individual judgment, for the Whigs at the time had hardly any party coherence in the House of Commons, and, except for occasional gatherings at Althorp's rooms in the Albany, no party system was maintained. At length, in 1830, their condition became so patently disorganised that a movement arose for placing the party under regular leadership, and Althorp, who had treated a similar suggestion with modest ridicule in 1827, was chosen leader on 6 March. His high character united in his support such dissimilar and independent members as Brougham, Graham, and Hume; meetings of the party were regularly held and a daily criticism of the ministerial proposals was entered upon. These steps at once showed Peel that he had now to deal with a serious and organised opposition. At the general election of 1830 Althorp was returned unopposed. At a meeting held at his chambers the Whig leaders resolved to support as a party the cause of parliamentary reform, and on the first night of the new session, 2 November, Lord Grey in the House of Lords and Althorp in the House of Commons made declarations accordingly. Ministers were defeated on the 15th, and the Duke of Wellington resigned.

Althorp was most reluctant to assume the burden of office with Lord Grey; he absolutely refused Lord Grey's suggestion that he should form and head the ministry, and only consented to join it on Lord Grey's assurance that on no other terms would he attempt to form one at all. Having consented to be a member, he then selected for himself, to Grey's surprise, the post of chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons, as being, in spite of his inexperience, the position in which he could be of the greatest use. He stipulated, however, that he should not be asked in the event of Grey's death or resignation to take the vacant place. His appointment was not at first popular with his party, but before long not only the Whigs but the house at large recognised in this shy, unambitious, and almost tongue-tied man a person of rare integrity and ability. ‘He became the very best leader of the House of Commons that any party ever had.’

His difficulties began with the new session, and arose from the extravagant expectations formed by his party of the possibility of great reductions of public expenditure, when in fact the previous administration had not been improvident. On 7 Feb. 1831 he introduced his plan for the settlement of the civil list. To please the new king it was necessary to offend the Whigs; few reductions were made, and George IV's pensions were spared. The insecurity of affairs on the continent at the same time prevented reductions in the estimates. His budget, introduced on 11 February in a somewhat confused speech, was chiefly remarkable for its proposal of duties on transfers of real and funded property to compensate for numerous remissions on imported commodities. The vigorous attacks of Peel and Goulburn compelled the cabinet, in spite of Althorp's threat of resignation, to withdraw the duties. He was consequently obliged to give up his remission of the duties on glass and tobacco, carried his proposals as to the wine duties only after a struggle, and was defeated on those as to the timber duties. The defeat mortified him deeply, yet he met with little sympathy. What else, it was said, was to be expected when ‘a respectable country gentleman - is all of a sudden made leader in the House of Commons, without being able to speak, and chancellor of the exchequer without any knowledge, theoretical or practical, of finance?’. Yet the budget was sound in itself, and might have been saved in the hands of a more adroit manager.

But for his zeal for the Reform Bill Althorp would have quitted office. Time, however, improved him fast. Greville, who writes of him in February as ‘wretched’ and doing ‘a great deal of harm,’ ‘leading the House of Commons without the slightest acquaintance with the various subjects that came under discussion’ - a highly unjust remark - recorded in September, ‘as a proof of what practice and a pretty good understanding can do,’ that he ‘now appears to be an excellent leader, and contrives to speak decently upon all subjects’. He was not a member of the committee of ministers which drafted the Reform Bill, though he showed as complete a mastery of its provisions during the subsequent debates as if he had been its author. In the cabinet he urged the complete abolition of pocket boroughs, and he was in favour of a £15 or £20 franchise coupled with the ballot. Having been defeated on Gascoigne's amendment to the Reform Bill, he successfully urged on his colleagues an immediate dissolution.

At the general election, which gave the government a largely increased majority, Althorp was after a contest returned at the head of the poll for Northamptonshire. In the following session, all interest being absorbed in the Reform Bill, his place as leader of the house was almost usurped by Lord John Russell, who was in charge of the bill; but, in spite of this and of difference of opinion as to its provisions, Althorp and Russell continued close and almost inseparable allies and friends throughout. Althorp spoke sensibly on the second reading, and profited by the diversion of attention to pass his estimates with little trouble. When Russell was exhausted, the whole management of the Reform Bill in committee devolved upon him, and from 10 August was formally handed over to him. The necessity for constant speeches in reply to objections greatly improved his efficiency as a debater, and his moderation gradually gained the outspoken respect even of his opponents. But repugnance to the life of the House of Commons, to which he wrote that he went down ‘as if I was going to execution,’ and a desire to quit office, grew steadily on him. His work was hard. Obstructive tactics were employed against the committee stage of the bill, and only his long-sustained firmness and good temper foiled them. ‘Lord Althorp has the temper of Lord North with the principles of Romilly,’ wrote Macaulay in September 1831. To him the cabinet left the task of making the one speech made by ministers in the House of Commons upon Lord Ebrington's motion for a vote of confidence, which was the Whig reply to the rejection of the Reform Bill by the House of Lords (8 October). It was perhaps his best, for it gave the greatest scope to his peculiar power of combining thoroughness with moderation. He rallied his followers without embittering the conflict with the upper house.

At the end of November 1831 the government had to deal with the serious danger to be apprehended from the meeting to organise a strike against payment of taxes, to which the Birmingham union, exasperated by the House of Lords' rejection of the Reform Bill, had summoned its supporters to come in arms. Differences of opinion with regard to a treatment of the question began to appear between Lord Grey and Lord Durham. Althorp took the responsibility of extricating the government from the necessity of either tolerating a riot or offending its supporters by privately sending to Thomas Attwood, through Joseph Parkes, an urgent message to postpone the meeting. In this he was successful.

In conjunction with Lord Grey he modified a number of provisions of the Reform Bill to conciliate the House of Lords, and, in opposition to him, pressed for an early commencement of the following session in order that the bill might be reintroduced at once. To any large addition to the House of Lords he and Grey were opposed, but he strongly urged that, when the bill should again have passed the commons, authority should be obtained from the king to create, in case of need, a sufficient number of peers to carry it through the lords; and with difficulty he and Lord Grey brought their colleagues to approve of a creation of ten. On 26 January 1832 he barely escaped a defeat in the House of Commons upon the payment of the Russian-Dutch loan, due in part to his own reluctance to allow his supporters to be whipped up against their will until it was almost too late. In committee on the reintroduced Reform Bill he was again night after night in close debate with the leading Tory lawyers, and distinguished himself by his aptitude for discussing and framing the legal machinery of the bill. His blunt good sense defeated Sheil's motion on 21 February to disfranchise Petersfield, which had been made expressly to increase the opposition of the lords in case it succeeded. With difficulty he kept in check the Irish members, who were irritated at Lord Grey's censure on the Irish tithe agitation, and throughout he was made to feel that he might lose their support at any moment.

The session, though hard was, however, something of a personal triumph to him. ‘It was Althorp carried the bill,’ said Sir Henry Hardinge; ‘his fine temper did it.’ Once, in answer to a most able and argumentative speech of Croker, he merely rose and observed ‘that he had made some calculations which he considered entirely conclusive in refutation of his arguments, but unfortunately he had mislaid them, so that he could only say that, if the house would be guided by his advice, they would reject the amendment,’ which they did accordingly. There was no standing against his influence. Such was his value that Lord Grey pressed on him a peerage in March 1832, that he might take charge of the bill in the House of Lords, after it had left the commons. This he refused. He again pressed for a creation of peers before the bill came on for second reading in the upper house, but, after threatening to resign, allowed himself to be overruled. When Lord Lyndhurst carried in the House of Lords against the ministry his motion postponing the consideration of the disfranchisement clauses of the bill, Althorp and his colleagues resigned (7 May 1832).

Althorp prepared characteristically as he said to ‘expiate the great fault of my life, having ever entered into politics;’ he spent some hours in a nursery garden buying plants for Althorp and drawing plans for a new garden there. In a few days, however, the Whigs returned to office, and the Tory peers, impressed by the failure of the attempt to form a tory administration, at length allowed the bill to pass (4 June). After an uneventful budget parliament was prorogued. The threat of an opposition to his return for Northamptonshire after the dissolution (January 1833) made Althorp seriously entertain a proposal to stand for the Tower Hamlets, to avoid the extravagant outlay of the county election. At the same time he urged Lord Grey to permit him to retire from public life altogether, but was prevailed upon not to resign, and was ultimately returned unopposed for Northamptonshire. Nevertheless political life became increasingly distasteful to him; the state of Ireland and the tone of the debates upon it in the session of 1833 alike depressed him. He was at variance with Stanley on his Irish policy, and although both measures as originally drawn were modified in order to induce him to continue in office, still, what satisfaction he felt in the Irish Church Bill was destroyed by the fact of having to introduce a Peace Preservation Act. His support of the latter measure was based on the consideration that the more stringent its provisions, the more certain it was to be repealed at an early date; but even so, he introduced it in a manner so lukewarm that only Stanley's brilliant speech late at night on 27 February averted a disaster.

He met with a check in March, when, having, in order to please O'Connell, pressed on the Church Temporalities Bill, in spite of Peel's remonstrances, he was obliged when it came on for the second reading on 14 March to admit that he had overlooked and failed to comply with the rules of the house and to ask to postpone the bill. His own weariness of conflict kept him frequently silent in debate, and while Peel's authority steadily grew, his was visibly waning. His labour as chancellor of the exchequer, too, was very heavy, especially in connection with the bank and East India charters. By his act, 3 and 4 William IV, c. 98, the charter of the Bank of England was renewed till 1855, and the periodical publication of accounts was provided for; and he contributed the part relating to the bank charter to the pamphlet, The Reform Ministry and the Reform Parliament, edited by Le Marchant, which was published in 1834, and soon ran through nine editions. The budget of 1833 provided for considerable remission of taxation, but he was obliged to resist the proposal for a reduction of the newspaper duty, and the ministry was beaten, on 26 April, on a motion by Sir William Ingilby for a reduction of the malt duties. The vote was afterwards, on 30 April, indirectly reversed, thanks to a powerful speech from Althorp and the clear determination of the ministry to resign if beaten again. Still the budget was very unpopular; riots took place, and a repeal of the house duty had to be promised, at the cost of imperilling the prospect of a surplus for 1834.

Next year Althorp met with further rebuffs. In the beginning of the session with needless candour and imprudence he acknowledged, in answer to O'Connell, the authenticity of his allegation that various Irish members who had publicly spoken against the Coercion Act of 1833 had privately approved of it. A sharp conflict followed between Althorp and Richard Lalor Sheil, against whom the accusation was aimed; eventually Althorp withdrew and apologised for the charge against Sheil. He further suffered in parliamentary credit by too hastily assenting to O'Connell's demand for an inquiry into the judicial conduct of Baron Sir William Cusac Smith, which he was afterwards obliged to cancel. The budget was popular, for its surplus was principally devoted to reducing the house and window duties, and the 4 per cent funds were also successfully converted into a 3¾ per cent stock. To his disappointment his Tithe Bill and Church-rate Bill, both promising measures, had to be withdrawn in order to facilitate the passing of the Poor-law Bill, to the preparation of which he had given great attention.

When Stanley and Graham resigned, rather than support such a reduction of the revenues of the Irish church as the Tithe Bill threatened (27 May), Althorp was of opinion that the ministry could not go on, and would do better to resign too; and the remaining events of the session showed that he was probably right. The Whigs were lukewarm and the king cold, while the tithe and coercion bills excited the steady opposition of the Irish members. The secret negotiation which Edward John Littleton (afterwards Lord Hatherton), the Irish secretary, opened with O'Connell further embittered matters, and Althorp did not escape personal censure. He sanctioned Littleton's proposal to see O'Connell in June in order to find out what the Irish members really wanted, and authorised him to say, as was the fact, that the clauses in the Coercion Bill prohibiting public meetings were still under discussion, but not to commit the government and himself. He had afterwards to bear his share of the blame when O'Connell broke the pledge of secrecy under which the interview took place.

Personally he was opposed to the prohibition of public meetings, but had been overruled by the majority of his colleagues, though he carried his opposition to the verge of resignation; but when O'Connell declared on 3 July in the House of Commons that Littleton, in order to gain time to carry a by-election at Wexford, had given him Althorp's assurance that the prohibition of the meetings was to be abandoned, both he and the ministry were made to appear either to have played O'Connell false or to have introduced a bill which ran counter to their convictions. In fact no such assurance had been authorised, or perhaps in any such form given, and Littleton had kept to himself the fact that he had given any assurance at all. On 7 July Althorp spoke in defence of Littleton, and cleared him from the charge of having duped O'Connell; but when the opposition threatened to move for correspondence between the Irish and the home government, he tendered his resignation to Lord Grey. As he was indispensable to the ministry, Lord Grey resigned too, on 9 July. Grey's place was taken by Lord Melbourne. But on 11 July two hundred and six liberal members sent Althorp an address deprecating his retirement. At the entreaty of Melbourne and Grey, Althorp, though his personal wish was that the king should send for Peel, consented to refer the question of his return to office to his three friends, Lord Ebrington, Lord Tavistock, and Mr. Bonham Carter. Their decision was that on the understanding that the ministry would drop ‘the meeting clauses’ from the new Coercion Bill, he should resume office, and, after adding a stipulation that Littleton should be reinstated also, Althorp acquiesced.

On 10 November, by the death of his father, he succeeded to the earldom, and his friends at once began to entreat him not to abandon public life on quitting the House of Commons. The king, who had been unfavourably disposed to the Whig ministry, seized the pretext of the loss of Lord Althorp to dismiss Lord Melbourne. Though chagrined that he should have given the king the opportunity of declaring his dislike of his ministers, Lord Spencer withdrew with satisfaction alike from politics and from the court, and devoted the rest of his life to those country pursuits to which he had always been warmly attached. Office, he said, was misery to him. In vain Lord Melbourne, on the defeat of Peel (April 1835), entreated Spencer to hold an office without duties in a new administration.

On examining his father's affairs he found them so embarrassed, and the estates so heavily mortgaged, that, as he said, he ‘could only regard himself as the nominal owner of his patrimony.’ He devoted himself to frugality and farming, broke up the Althorp establishment, let the gardens and park, sold most of his property about London, virtually closed Spencer House, and lived on his wife's property at Wiseton, where his sole extravagance was farming at a loss of £3,000. In November 1838 he declined Lord Melbourne's offers of the lord-lieutenancy of Ireland and of the governorship of Canada. His influence was privately employed in 1840 to dissuade the ministry from adopting an aggressive policy towards France, but publicly he only emerged from his retirement to defend his former colleagues in the House of Lords after their fall in 1841, and to pronounce in favour of the repeal of the corn laws in a speech at Northampton in December 1843. His blunt statement that protection was unnecessary and reciprocity a fallacy, coming from a man of his character for honesty and for knowledge of the practical needs of agriculture, produced a great impression in the country. In 1844 he received an unofficial warning that he might be called on to form a ministry, but nothing came of it. His last speech in the House of Lords was in support of the second reading of the Maynooth College Bill in June 1845. In the following autumn he was for the first time a steward of Doncaster races, and was taken dangerously ill there during the Doncaster week. Though it was found possible to remove him from Doncaster to Wiseton, he became rapidly worse, calmly arranged his business affairs, and died on 1 October. His health had been for some time impaired by his habit of eating too little food from a fear of gout. He left no issue, and was succeeded in the title by his brother.

Althorp's position among English statesmen is certainly unique. With moderate abilities he won absolute trust from friends and opponents alike, thanks entirely to his perfect truthfulness and to his single-minded desire to do only what was honourable and right. He stepped at one stride to the leadership of the House of Commons and the chancellorship of the exchequer, and yet never had a single feeling of personal ambition, or, indeed, any personal desire of any kind, except to quit office and public life together at the earliest opportunity. Greville, who, contrary to his habit, panegyrised him on his death, credited him with ‘one talent, and that is a thorough knowledge of the House of Commons’. Lord Holland described him to Lord John Russell as ‘a man who acts on all matters with a scrupulous, deliberate, and inflexible regard to his public duty and private conscience’. In manner he was simple and somewhat blundering. ‘There is something,’ said Jeffrey, ‘to me quite delightful in his calm, clumsy, courageous, immutable probity and well-meaning, and it seems to have a charm with everybody’. He was nervous and silent even among his own guests, a hesitating speaker, and much dependent on written notes, though in the debates on the Reform Bill his extraordinary knowledge took away his nervousness; and Brougham told Bishop Wilberforce that ‘his readiness was wonderful’.

His real passion was for country life and country sport. It is related that once only was Lord Althorp heard to speak on any subject with eagerness and enthusiasm, and that was in praise of prize-fighting. His services to English agriculture in all departments were constant and considerable. He was one of the founders of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, and in 1825 accepted the presidency of the Smithfield Club, then in extreme difficulties; thanks to his excellent business abilities and his heartfelt zeal, he thoroughly re-established it in a few years. He retained this presidency till his death, and it is said would work all day in his shirt-sleeves getting beasts into their stalls on the day before one of its shows. It was at the annual dinner of this club at the Freemasons' Tavern, London, on 11 December 1837, that he first publicly suggested the formation of the society, afterwards established, with the assistance of the Duke of Richmond, Philip Pusey, and other agriculturists, as the English Agricultural Society in May 1838, and two years later called the Royal Agricultural Society of England. He was its first president, and took the chair at the country meetings held at Oxford in 1839 and Southampton in 1844. The show at Shrewsbury in 1845 was the last that he attended. He gave great assistance in the foundation of the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester in 1844, and contributed papers to the society's Journal on such subjects as the comparative feeding properties of mangel-wurzel and Swedish turnips, and on the gestation of cows. The ‘Wiseton’ herd of shorthorns, which he began in 1818 with the purchase of the bull Regent and several cows at the famous Colling sale at Barmpton, ultimately became one of the largest and best in England, and at his death included one hundred and fifty head. No breeder introduced more improvements into farm cattle than Lord Althorp, and even when he was engrossed with ministerial work his interest in his cattle and sheep was incessant, and calculations and gossip about them were his favourite and most trusted refreshment in Downing Street. He also in later life corresponded with Lord Brougham on questions of physical science, and was long a member of the committee of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

Wiseton Hall

Wiseton Hall (1771-1960)

The romance of Althorp's life was his devotion to his wife. She was a Miss Esther Acklom of Wiseton Hall, North Nottinghamshire, a stout and somewhat plain lady of considerable intelligence, who is said to have fallen in love with him when she was twenty-two and he ten years older, and to have made the fact so plain to him that, although he had not intended to marry, he proposed to her. They were married on 14 April 1814, and resided on her estate of Wiseton, consisting of some two thousand acres. While she lived he was devoted to her; when she died in 1818 he was inconsolable, and from the time of her death always wore black, then the evening dress only of clergymen and persons in mourning. He left no issue, and was succeeded by his brother Frederick, fourth earl Spencer.

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