Biography

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John William Ponsonby, fourth Earl of Bessborough (1781-1847)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1896


John William Ponsonby, fourth Earl of Bessborough, was the eldest son of Frederick, the third earl, by his wife, Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer, second daughter of John, first earl Spencer, and grandson of William Ponsonby, second earl of Bessborough. He was born on 31 August 1781. In early life he bore the courtesy title of Lord Duncannon. He matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford on 14 October 1799, and was created M.A. on 23 June 1802.

In 1805 he entered parliament in the whig interest for Knaresborough, one of the Duke of Devonshire's seats; he then sat for Higham Ferrers in 1806 and 1807, and for Malton from 1812 to 1826, both the latter boroughs belonging to Earl Fitzwilliam. In 1826 he contested Kilkenny, and, after a hard struggle with his opponent, Colonel Butler, he was returned, in spite of O'Connell's opposition. At the election of 1831 he again won the seat by the narrow majority of sixty-one, Bishop Doyle, by the exercise of his episcopal authority, having prevented the Roman catholic priests from opposing him. Such a victory was equivalent to a defeat, and he did not risk another contest. He stood at the next election for Nottingham, and was returned by a very large majority. A warm supporter of catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform, he acted as chief whip of the whig party, and shared in its councils by virtue of his shrewdness, though he was an unready speaker, and held aloof from debate.

With Lord Durham, Lord John Russell, and Sir James Graham, he prepared the first Reform Bill in 1830. In February 1831 he was appointed by Lord Grey first commissioner of woods and forests, and was sworn of the privy council. After a very successful tenure of that office he was transferred to the home office, when Lord Melbourne, his brother-in-law, succeeded Lord Grey as premier in August 1834. This appointment was made to conciliate O'Connell, now a friend of Lord Duncannon. Duncannon had introduced O'Connell on taking his seat for co. Clare in 1829, when O'Connell refused to take the oath.

Duncannon was called up to the House of Lords on 18 July 1834 as Baron Duncannon of Bessborough, and retired from office with his colleagues when Peel became premier in December 1834. He returned to the woods and forests on 18 April 1835, when Melbourne resumed the premiership, and held also the office of lord privy seal till 1839. As first commissioner, Bessborough was officially responsible for the design of the new houses of parliament, and took an active part in the improvement of the metropolis .

He succeeded to the earldom of Bessborough in February 1844, and in July 1846 was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, the first resident Irish landlord who had held that office for a generation. His good relations with O'Connell recommended him for the post. Though he held it only two years, he was active and successful in coping with disaffection. He died on 16 May 1847 at Dublin Castle of hydrothorax, and was privately buried in the family vault at Bessborough. He was married in London, on 11 November 1805, to Lady Maria Fane, third daughter of John, tenth earl of Westmorland, by whom he had eight sons and six daughters. His second son was Frederick George Brabazon, sixth earl of Bessborough, and his daughter was Lady Emily Charlotte Mary Ponsonby.

Bessborough was held in general esteem for his high principle, easy manners, management of men, good sense, accurate information, and industry. In an elaborate estimate of his character, his friend Charles Greville says of him, ‘He had a remarkably calm and unruffled temper, and very good sound sense. The consequence was that he was consulted by everybody, and usually and constantly employed in the arrangement of difficulties, the adjustment of rival pretensions, and the reconciliation of differences. ... In his administration, adverse and unhappy as the times were, he displayed great industry, firmness, and knowledge of the character and circumstances of the Irish people, and he conciliated the goodwill of those to whom he had been all his life opposed.’


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