William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough


William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough

William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, PC (1704 – 11 March 1793) was a British Whig politician, known as Viscount Duncannon from 1739 to 1758.

Ponsonby was the second but first surviving son of Brabazon Ponsonby, 1st Earl of Bessborough (1679–1758) and his first wife, Sarah (died 1733). Ponsonby was educated privately at home and undertook the Grand Tour to France, Italy and Constantinople. Little is known of Ponsonby's life until his marriage on 5 July 1739 to Lady Caroline Cavendish (1719–1760), eldest daughter of William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire (1698–1755), and his appointment in the same year as private secretary to his father-in-law who was then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Membership of the Privy Council of Ireland followed within two years and Ponsonby began to consolidate the foundations laid by his father of the power base which would soon make the Ponsonbys one of the principal parliamentary families 18th century Ireland.

Ponsonby's earliest actions as adviser to Devonshire indicate that he had inherited the family's strong protestant streak: an attempt was made by the Irish Roman Catholics both to testify to their continuing loyalty at a time of approaching war with Spain, and to bring their sense of grievance at the penal laws to the attention of the lord lieutenant. This was met, partly at Ponsonby's instigation, with a determined repudiation and a decision to continue the long-held policy of disarming Catholics for the duration of the war. Devonshire in fact was a viceroy who was easily circumvented and sometimes embarrassed by the ambitious Ponsonbys. He quickly became dependent on the advice of his son-in-law, whom he appointed as his Chief Secretary in 1741. Both Devonshire and Ponsonby survived the fall of Walpole. Ponsonby must have watched with satisfaction as his brother John Ponsonby (1713–1789) was married in 1743 to his wife's sister and Devonshire's younger daughter, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. John had already been appointed secretary to the Irish Revenue Board. Ponsonby would also eventually be the heir to an assemblage of electoral interests in constituencies which spanned the length and breadth of Ireland. When Carteret, Walpole's successor, fell from power in London he took Devonshire with him, and Ponsonby resigned also.

Ponsonby's connections, both marital and political, with the Devonshire family meant that he had many English party interests also. As well as holding Irish seats as Member of Parliament for Newtownards (1725-27) and Kilkenny (1727–58), he later sat in the British House of Commons for constituencies in Derby (1742–54), and later still in Saltash (1754–6) and Harwich (1756–8). Most of his life and virtually all of his political career thereafter was spent in England. In the aftermath of his departure from the Irish chief secretaryship, his father-in-law's influence assisted him in becoming commissioner of the Admiralty and Admiral of Munster, positions which he held until 1756. While he was no longer personally at the forefront of Irish parliamentary politics, his new position in the higher echelons of naval administration was a prominent one. For the most part the Admiralty in Ponsonby's period of office had a relatively minor role in the advancement of naval policy and discipline and a more prominent part to play in co-ordinating the activities of other government offices.

Whether through lack of seamanship or, more likely, the fact that the position was but a stepping-stone to higher office, Ponsonby seems not to have made any particular mark during his time at the Board of Admiralty. At the beginning of the Seven Years' War, a moment when the role of the Admiralty took on a particular prominence, he was promoted to the Treasury board, where he sat, again apparently without notable achievement, until 1759. His father, of course, was still politically active. It seems probable that William Ponsonby, by mutual agreement as much as by his own inclinations, was deputed to look after the family's political interests in London while old Brabazon dealt with politics in the Irish parliament. It was indeed the Ponsonby element who acted as firm supporters of the Irish government during the great money bill dispute of 1753. William's younger brother John became Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in 1756, a position he retained for some sixteen years.

On his father's death on 4 July 1758 from 'a surfeit of fruit', Ponsonby succeeded to the English House of Lords as second Baron Ponsonby, as well as to the Irish Earldom of Bessborough. He was then appointed joint Postmaster General, an office he held until 1762. At this point he resigned in protest at the enforced removal of his brother-in-law, the Duke of Devonshire, from the office of Lord Chamberlain. Ponsonby's family connections and his powerful political links in Ireland compelled the government to reinstate him. A year later he was sworn of the British Privy Council, but he was growing disillusioned with the art of politics. In 1766 he relinquished the Post Office following a failed attempt on his part to have himself replaced by Lord Edgcumbe, who had recently been relieved of his treasurership. Ponsonby was one of those who protested loudly and successfully against the proposed Irish absentee tax of 1773, the abandonment of which marked a significant victory for the Rockingham faction with whom he continued to associate.

While he could not be said to have retired altogether from active politics, Ponsonby's lifelong interest in the arts began to take precedence. He was elected a trustee of the British Museum in 1768, a position he held until his death. One of the original adherents of the Society of Dilettanti, he was also an enthusiastic freemason, and as a young man had been Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. He was also a member of the Accademia di Desegno at Florence. He died on 11 March 1793, aged eighty-eight, and was buried in the Devonshire family vault at All Saints' Church, Derby, on 22 March.

Ponsonby having spent most of his life in England, it was said that the family's Irish seat at Bessborough remained unoccupied for many years after the death of his father in 1758. It was, nevertheless, a profitable estate: at the time of Ponsonby's own death in 1793 his gross Irish rental was estimated at £11,660. Infant mortality deprived him of all but one of his five sons. Frederick, born 24 January 1758, succeeded to the earldom and would later be remembered for his skill and assiduity in the cultivation of his Irish estate. Likewise, only two of Ponsonby's six daughters survived childhood: Lady Catharine (1742-1789) who married Aubrey Beauclerk, 5th Duke of St Albans and Lady Charlotte (1747-1822) who married William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam.

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