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Edward John Littleton, first Baron Hatherton (1791-1863)

This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and was published in 1892

Edward John Littleton, first Baron Hatherton, was born on 18 March 1791. He was the only son of Moreton Walhouse of Hatherton in the parish of Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, by his wife, Anne Craycroft, daughter of A. Portal. He entered Rugby School at midsummer 1806, and matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford, on 27 January 1809, and was created D.C.L. on 18 June 1817. He was admitted a student of Lincoln's Inn on 17 November 1810, but took his name off the books of that society on 6 November 1812. In compliance with the will of his grand-uncle, Sir Edward Littleton, bart. (a lineal descendant of Sir Thomas Littleton, K.B., author of the Treatise of Tenures), he assumed the surname of Littleton in lieu of Walhouse on 23 July 1812 and on attaining the age of twenty-four succeeded to the family estates in Worcestershire and Staffordshire.

At a by-election in June 1812, occasioned by his grand-uncle's death in the previous month, he was returned to the House of Commons for Staffordshire, and continued to represent that constituency until the dissolution in December 1832. Littleton appears to have spoken for the first time in the house on 19 February 1816 during the debate upon the address, when he supported the government and their conduct of the war. On 2 June 1817 he seconded the nomination of Charles Manners Sutton to the speakership. He supported Sir James Mackintosh's motion for a select committee on the criminal laws on 2 March 1819, and was subsequently appointed a member of the committee.

On 22 April 1825 Littleton, who had always been in favour of Roman catholic emancipation, introduced his Elective Franchise in Ireland Bill, which was read a second time on 26 April following by 233 to 185 votes but was subsequently abandoned upon the rejection of the Relief Bill. Littleton's bill and the Roman Catholic Clergy Support Bill, introduced by Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, were known as ‘the wings’ of Burdett's Roman Catholic Relief Bill. In 1828 he became a convert to the principles of parliamentary reform, and in 1831 was appointed, with Captain Beaufort, R.N., and Lieutenant T. Drummond, R.E., to superintend and report upon the inquiries of the boundary commissioners. Owing to Littleton's persistence an act was passed in 1831 prohibiting the truck system in various trades (1 & 2 Will. IV, cap. 37).

At the general election in December 1832 Littleton was returned to the first reformed parliament as one of the members for South Staffordshire. Annoyed at the decision of the cabinet in favour of Manners Sutton's continuance in office, the radicals nominated Littleton as a candidate for the speakership. He was proposed by Joseph Hume and seconded by O'Connell. Littleton, however, declared himself to be an ‘unwilling candidate,’ and the motion was lost by 241 to 31 votes . In May 1833 Littleton accepted the office of chief secretary to the lord-lieutenant of Ireland (the Marquis Wellesley), and was re-elected in the following month for South Staffordshire after ‘a short but not inexpensive contest’ with Lord Ingestre, whom he defeated by a majority of 433 votes. He was sworn a member of the privy council on 12 June 1833. At his suggestion the ministry asked parliament to advance £1,000,000 to the Irish tithe-owners on the security of the arrears. Having carried a resolution to that effect in the House of Commons on 5 August 1833, Littleton introduced the Irish Tithe Arrears Bill, which was quickly passed through both houses.

On 13 February 1834 Littleton, taken by surprise, consented to support O'Connell's motion for a select committee to inquire into the conduct of Baron Smith. Though opposed by Graham and Spring Rice, the motion was carried by a large majority but the debate seriously damaged the government, and eight days afterwards Sir Edward Knatchbull's motion to reverse the vote was carried. On 20 February Littleton carried his resolution for the commutation of the existing composition for tithes in Ireland into a land tax payable to the state. He opposed O'Connell's motion for the repeal of the union in a speech of considerable length on 24 April, and asserted that, since the passing of the Roman Catholic Emancipation Bill, O'Connell ‘had proved a most unfortunate obstacle to the social happiness of Ireland and her progressive improvement’. When he moved the second reading of his Tithe Bill on 2 May, O'Connell declared that such was his opinion of it ‘that he would take the sense of the house upon every question referring to it put by the chair’; it was read, however, a second time on 6 June by a majority of 196. The many changes which were made in the Tithe Bill in order to propitiate O'Connell led to Stanley's charge against Littleton of ‘thimbleshifting’.

In view of the vexed question of ‘appropriation’ the cabinet, at Littleton's suggestion, agreed to the appointment of a commission to ascertain ‘the state of religious and other instruction’ in Ireland, leaving it to him to prescribe the duties of the commission and to select the commissioners. Meantime it had become necessary to consider the question of renewing the Coercion Act of the previous year. Littleton had been desired by Wellesley to consult Brougham. They agreed that in order to smooth the course for the Tithe Bill ‘the meeting clauses’ should be omitted from the new Coercion Bill, and both wrote in this sense to Wellesley. Wellesley, though he had hitherto advised the government to the contrary, wrote on 21 June to Lord Grey recommending the omission of the objectionable clauses. On the 23rd Littleton, with Lord Althorp's concurrence, had an interview with O'Connell, whom he cautioned ‘against any unnecessary excitation of the people of Ireland until he should have seen the new Coercion Bill, which would be renewed, but with certain limitations’ and indiscreetly admitted that ‘Althorp's sentiments upon the proposed modifications for the Coercion Bill corresponded with’ his own. The account which Brougham gives of these transactions is both misleading and inaccurate. He ignores the fact that the proposal to induce Wellesley to consent to the omission of the meeting clauses originated with himself, and his statement that ‘the letter which Littleton had written to Lord Wellesley, and which produced Lord Wellesley's letter to Grey of 21 June, was concocted, as Grey entirely believed, by Edward Ellice,’ is inconsistent with the true state of the case. Misled by Littleton's assurances O'Connell urged his friends to support the whig candidate for the vacancy at Wexford. Grey had, however, written to Wellesley ‘a strong representation.’ Though Wellesley in his reply to Grey maintained the position taken in his letter of the 21st, he assured Littleton that he should ‘certainly be satisfied with whatever course the cabinet chooses to adopt’.

A meeting of the cabinet (of which Littleton was not a member) was held on the 29th, when Wellesley's two letters were read, and Grey having ‘declared that nothing should shake his resolve not to propose any renewal which did not embrace the provisions respecting meetings, his colleagues yielded the point’. On hearing the result of the cabinet council Littleton communicated to O'Connell the failure of his expectations, and on 1 July the Coercion Bill was introduced by Lord Grey, who quoted a letter from Lord Wellesley of 18 April, expressing ‘his most anxious desire that the act might be renewed,’ but made no reference to the letter of 21 June. Enraged at the apparent duplicity of the government, O'Connell, breaking the promise of secrecy which he had given, on 3 July disclosed in the House of Commons his conversation with Littleton, who admitted in his reply that he had ‘committed a gross indiscretion,’ but denied any intention of deceiving O'Connell.

On the following day, during the debate on the second reading of the Coercion Bill, Lord Grey in the House of Lords disavowed any knowledge of the communication with O'Connell, and allowed it to be understood that the question was settled when Littleton had represented it to be unsettled. In consequence of this misunderstanding Littleton on 5 July sent in his resignation to Lord Grey, who refused to accept it , and on the 7th Althorp, at Littleton's request, stated in the House of Commons that Littleton had good grounds for informing O'Connell that the clauses were still under consideration. A motion having been threatened for the production of the private correspondence between the members of the English and Irish governments, Althorp determined to resign, and Grey, seizing the opportunity, announced his own resignation on 9 July.

Having learnt from Lord Ebrington that there was a general feeling among Grey's friends that he ought to retire, Littleton on 16 July, after acknowledging that he had been ‘the main cause of Lord Grey's retirement,’ placed his resignation in Lord Melbourne's hands. Althorp, who had withdrawn his resignation, however, declared that as they were both in the same position, it was impossible for him to continue in the government unless Littleton continued also. Littleton thereupon consented to remain in office, and on 18 July supported the introduction of the new Coercion Bill, from which the court-martial and the meeting clauses were omitted. His Tithe Bill passed through the commons, but was thrown out by the House of Lords on the second reading. He resigned office with the rest of his colleagues upon Lord Melbourne's dismissal in November 1834. At the general election in January 1835 he was again returned for South Staffordshire, but his hopes of the speakership were dispelled by the selection of Abercromby as the whig candidate.

He was created Baron Hatherton of Hatherton on 11 May 1835, and took his seat in the House of Lords on 1 June following. In his maiden speech there on the following day he gave rise to a short but excited discussion by applying the phrase ‘sectarian’ to the established church in Ireland. Hatherton never received any other political office. He voted for the repeal of the corn laws in 1846, and was appointed lord-lieutenant of Staffordshire on 8 June 1854. He spoke for the last time in the House of Lords on 23 May 1862. He died on 4 May 1863, aged 72, at Teddesley, near Penkridge, Staffordshire, and was buried in Penkridge Church on the 12th.

Hatherton was a man of moderate abilities and unimpeachable character. He began his political career as a member of the independent country party and ended it as a whig. He gained a certain reputation in the House of Commons as an authority on matters of parliamentary procedure. Greville, who seems to have cherished a special contempt for him, erroneously asserts that he ‘volunteered his services’ to Lord Grey as chief secretary for Ireland. The appointment was made by Lord Grey upon the advice of Lord John Russell, who confessed afterwards that he had made a mistake. His want of tact unfitted him for such a post, but though he seems to have distrusted his own ability, he is reported to have said, when warned against O'Connell, ‘Oh! leave me to manage Dan’.

He married first, on 21 December 1812, Hyacinthe Mary, natural daughter of Richard, marquis Wellesley, by whom he had one son, Edward Richard, who succeeded as second baron Hatherton, and three daughters. His first wife died on 4 January 1849, and on 11 February 1852 he married secondly Caroline Anne, widow of Edward Davies Davenport of Capesthorne, Macclesfield, and daughter of Richard Hurt of Wirksworth, Derbyshire, by whom he had no issue.

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