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Sir Francis Robert Bonham, (1785-1863)

This article was written by Professor Norman Gash in 1993

Francis Robert Bonham, Conservative party agent, was born in London on 6 September 1785, he and an older sister Susan being the only surviving children (two sons and a daughter having died in infancy) of Francis Warren Bonham, landowner of Ballintaggart, county Kildare, who later settled in England, and his second wife Dorothea Sophia Herbert of Muckross, county Kerry. After private tutoring he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he took his BA in 1807. In 1808 he entered Lincoln's Inn and was called to the bar in 1814 though he never practised.

In 1830 he was elected for the government borough of Rye and the following year was active as Tory assistant whip. Though defeated at Rye in 1831 he took part in the management of the 1832 general election. When Sir Robert Peel formed his first ministry in 1834 he appointed Bonham storekeeper of the ordnance. He sat in the 1835-7 Parliament as member for Harwich and assistant whip, losing his seat at the next general election. From 1832 he replaced William Holmes, who was out of the House of Commons from 1832 to 1837, as the Conservative party’s chief electoral expert. Though making no attempt to stand for Parliament in 1841, he was again appointed storekeeper of the ordnance in Peel’s second ministry. He resigned this post in 1845 as a result of a parliamentary enquiry into alleged improper acquisition of railway shares. He continued nevertheless to act as unpaid organizer and adviser to the Peelites up to 1852. In 1853, through the good offices of W. E. Gladstone and other Peelites in the ministry of G. H. Gordon, fourth Earl of Aberdeen, he was rescued from penury by an appointment as commissioner of income tax, retiring through ill health some time before his death.

Bonham was a founder-member of the Carlton Club from where he carried out most of his work. His detailed and systematic accumulation of electoral information provided him with an unsurpassed knowledge of constituencies and candidates and greatly contributed to the efficient Conservative organization which triumphed in 1841. Modest, discreet, industrious, and loyal, Bonham enjoyed the friendship, affection, and trust not only of Peel but of many other leading members of the party. His career marks an important stage in the development of party management in the post-1832 era, when legal registration of voters constituted a new factor in electoral calculations.

He died unmarried 26 April 1863 in the Knightsbridge home he shared with his sister. His voluminous political correspondence was purchased from her by Peel’s literary executors, the fifth Earl Stanhope and Edward, Viscount Cardwell, and destroyed except for the two volumes incorporated in the Peel papers, now in the British Library, and letters of his own retained by Lord Stanhope.

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30 June, 2014