Biography

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Thomas Slingsby Duncombe (1796-1861)

This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and was published in 1888


Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, M.P. for Finsbury, was the eldest son of Thomas Duncombe of Copgrove, near Boroughbridge, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, by his wife Emma, eldest daughter of John Hinchliffe, bishop of Peterborough, and nephew of Charles, first Baron Feversham. He was born in 1796, and was sent to Harrow School in 1808, where he remained until Christmas 1811. Shortly before leaving school he was gazetted an ensign in the Coldstream guards, and in November 1813 he embarked with part of his regiment for Holland, and during the latter portion of the campaign acted as aide-de-camp to General Ferguson. Returning to England he took no part in the battle of Waterloo, and being raised to the rank of lieutenant on 23 November 1815 retired from the army on 17 November 1819.

Duncombe unsuccessfully contested Pontefract in 1820. and Hertford in 1823, as a whig candidate. At the general election in June 1826, however, he was returned for the latter borough, defeating Henry Lytton Bulwer by a majority of ninety-two. Duncombe's first speech which attracted the attention of the house was made in the debate on the ministerial explanations on 18 February 1828. He was again returned for Hertford at the general elections of 1830 and 1831, but lost his seat at the general election in December 1832. The Marquis of Salisbury, whose influence was predominant in the borough, had employed every means to oppose Duncombe's return; but the election was afterwards declared void on the ground of bribery, and both writs were suspended during the rest of the parliament. Duncombe's five contests for the borough are computed to have cost him no less than £40,000. After his defeat at Hertford, Duncombe became more advanced in his political views, and threw in his lot with the radicals.

On 1 July 1834 he was returned for the newly created borough of Finsbury in the place of Robert Grant, who had been appointed governor of Bombay, and from this date until his death Duncombe continued to sit for that borough. The incidents arising out of some remarks upon his character appeared in Fraser's Magazine for September 1834. Being always ready to undertake the cause of the unfortunate, without regard to the opinions they might hold, Duncombe, on 30 May 1836, moved that an address be presented to the king asking his intercession with Louis-Philippe for the liberation of Prince Polignac and the other imprisoned ministers at Ham. In the summer of 1838 he visited Canada, and upon his return to England exerted himself in the defence of his friend Lord Durham, the late governor-general.

In 1840 he took up the case of the imprisoned chartists, and in March spoke in favour of an address to the queen for the free pardon of Frost, Jones, and Williams. This action, however, only received the support of seven members, one of whom was Benjamin Disraeli, and was negatived by a majority of sixty-three; but Duncombe's motion in the following year for the merciful consideration of all political offenders then imprisoned in England and Wales was more successful, and was only lost by the casting vote of the speaker.

On 2 May 1842 he presented the people's petition praying for the six points of the charter. This monster petition was said to have been signed by 3,315,752 persons, and ‘its bulk was so great that the doors were not wide enough to admit it, and it was necessary to unroll it to carry it into the house. When unrolled it spread over a great part of the floor, and rose above the level of the table’. His motion on the following day, that the petitioners should ‘be heard by themselves or their counsel at the bar of the house,’ was defeated by a majority of 236. On 14 June 1844 he presented a petition from Mazzini and others, complaining that their letters had been opened by the post office and was the means of raising a storm of popular indignation against Sir James Graham, the home secretary, who acknowledged that he had issued a warrant for the opening of the letters of one of the petitioners.

According to his biographer Duncombe took part in the plot which led to Prince Louis Napoleon's escape from Ham in May 1846. In the same year he presented the petition of Charles, duke of Brunswick, to the House of Commons. Though unsuccessful in his attempt to induce parliament to interfere, Duncombe continued to interest himself in the affairs of the duke, who in December 1846 made an extraordinary will in his favour, the contents of which are given at length in Duncombe's ‘Life’. Subsequently Duncombe for some years employed his secretary in running to and fro between England and France on secret missions to the duke and the emperor of the French. His father died on 7 December 1847, but owing to Duncombe's financial embarrassments the Yorkshire estate which he inherited had to be immediately sold for the benefit of his numerous creditors.

Though Duncombe had to a great extent identified himself with the chartists, he entirely discountenanced their idea of an appeal to physical force, and in 1848 did his best to restrain them from the demonstration of 10 April. In 1851, at the request of Mazzini, he became a member of the council of the ‘Friends of Italy.’ On 9 February 1858 he defended the emperor, Louis Napoleon, from the attack which had been made upon him in the debate on the motion for leave to bring in the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, and, for once deserting the radical party, took no part in the division. In 1861 he interested himself on behalf of Kossuth in the question of the Hungarian notes.

In spite of his ill-health, which for many years before his death prevented his regular attendance in the house, a number of his reported speeches will be found in the Parliamentary Debates of this session. He died on 13 November 1861 at South House, Lancing, Sussex, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery on the 21st.

Duncombe was a good-looking and agreeable man, popular alike in society and in his constituency of Finsbury. He had the reputation of being the best-dressed man in the house, and was a fluent, though eccentric, speaker. His speeches, without being actually witty, always raised a laugh, and he has been described by an acute observer as being ‘just the man for saying at the right moment what everybody wished to be said and nobody had the, courage to say.’ Though rather a clever man of fashion than a man of great political mark in the house, Duncombe, as an advocate of radical views, had a considerable following in the country. He commenced a work on The Jews of England, their History and Wrongs, but only the preface and ninety-four pages seem to have been printed, and nothing was published. According to his biographer his ‘published pamphlets would fill a volume;’ but none of these appear under his name in the Brit. Mus. Cat.


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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