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William George Frederic Cavendish Bentinck (1802-1848)

This article was written by William Hunt and it was published in 1885

Lord George BentinckWilliam George Frederic Cavendish Bentinck, commonly called Lord George Bentink , fifth child and second surviving son of the fourth duke of Portland, by Henrietta, daughter of Major-general Scott, of Balcomie, co. Fife, was born at Welbeck Abbey on 27 February Although it has been frequently asserted that he was sent to Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, his name does not appear in the lists of either the college or the house. He seems to have been educated at home, and to have entered the 10th hussars as cornet as early as 1819.

Although he was a younger son, the great wealth of the house of Bentinck, augmented as it was by the marriage of his father, made him a rich man. His mother's sister was the wife of Mr. Canning; and when, in 1822, that statesman accepted the office of governor-general of Bengal, Lord George Bentinck exchanged into the 41st regiment, intending to accompany him as his military secretary. The sudden death of Lord Londonderry, however, gave Mr. Canning the post of foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons. For three years Lord George Bentinck was the private secretary of his uncle, and a strong attachment existed between them. During this period he seems to have been on half-pay.

Tall and well-made, both in face and figure a model of manly beauty, quick of eye and of action, he was distinguished by his skill in every kind of sport. It was said of him that ‘he had the best of every game he played, and yet he played it fairly.’ A bold rider, and shooting in true sportsmanlike fashion with his dogs, he loved to hunt, and not merely to gallop, and to shoot for sport rather than for a bag. He was also good as a cricketer and as an oarsman. It was, however, on the turf that he chiefly excelled. Inheriting a taste for racing, he inherited with that taste a fine sense of honour which made his patronage of the sport a benefit to racing society. He rode his first public match at Goodwood in 1824, winning it on Mr. Pointz's Clive after two dead heats and a severe struggle in the deciding heat. After this he occasionally appeared ‘in silk’ up to 1845. After some three years' work for Mr. Canning he again joined the army. As he chanced, in 1825, to ride off Newmarket Heath with the Duke of York, the duke, who keenly loved racing, offered him an unattached majority which happened to be vacant. Lord George accepted the offer, and joined the 2nd life guards.

From 1828 (in succession to his brother, appointed governor-general of India) until his death he was M.P. for Lynn. He soon withdrew from any active pursuit of his profession, though his name remained in the army list for some years. He now gave himself up to racing, and pursued the fortunes of the turf ‘on a scale that perhaps has never been equalled’ (Disraeli). He was well fitted for the pursuit. ‘I don't pretend to know much,’ he once said, ‘but I can judge of men and horses.’ Beginning with a small and well-selected stud, he gradually increased the number of his ‘string’ until in 1844 he had no less than forty horses running in public, and about a hundred altogether. Although never fortunate enough to win the Derby, he is said to have made considerable profits on the turf. He betted heavily and with good judgment. His trainer was old John Day, and young John, his trainer's son, rode for him. He gained a great success when, in 1836, his nomination, Lord Lichfield's Elis, won the Leger. The next year he won the Thousand Guineas with Chapeau d'Espagne, and in 1838 the Two Thousand with Grey Momus. His most remarkable successes were gained for him by his famous mare Crucifix (by Priam), who, in 1840, won the Oaks, the Thousand, and the Two Thousand Guineas. In 1842 he again won the Thousand Guineas with Firebrand.

More important than these successes are the reforms worked by Lord George Bentinck in the practices of the turf. Among other improvements in management he introduced the method of ‘vanning’ racers. He insisted that all stewards, trainers, and jockeys should be strictly punctual; he heralded by numbers the names of the ‘field’ about to start for each race, and introduced the custom of saddling and parading horses before the stands. The Goodwood meeting, at which, in 1825, the whole amount of public money was only £300, was raised to its present importance chiefly by his exertions. He dealt sternly with every man whom he believed to be dishonest, and insisted on the rigid exclusion of every defaulter. One such man who owed him a bet of £4,000 tried to tempt him to pass over his defalcations by offering him half the money. Lord George indignantly refused the offer, and declared the man excluded until he should pay all his debts in full. He was peremptory both in his words and actions. At one Newmarket Craven meeting the famous ‘Squire’ Osbaldeston claimed a bet from him. ‘Lord George,’ he said, ‘I want £400 I won of you at Heaton Park.’ ‘You want £400 you swindled me of at Heaton Park,’ Lord George answered. A duel followed. Lord George fired first and missed. Perfectly unmoved he called out, ‘Now, Squire, it's two to one in your favour.’ ‘Why, then, the bet's off,’ Osbaldeston answered, and fired in the air. In 1842 he sued one Connop for £150. Both parties in this often-quoted case were engaged in a race in which the stakes were made up by payments of £50 for each horse entered. Connop entered three horses, and, when Lord George as winner claimed the stakes, refused to pay under the plea that, by an act of 16 Car. II, it was provided that no stakes should exceed £100. The case was heard by Lord Denman, C.J., who decided that it came within the meaning of the act.

As the chief man on the turf, Lord George was much harassed by threats of legal proceedings, called qui tam actions, which, by an interpretation of 9 Anne, c. 14, were held to apply to bets on horse-races. As the informer received a large reward on conviction, these actions were looked on as an easy means of gaining money. By a return made by order of parliament it was found that no fewer than thirty-four writs had been issued against Lord George Bentinck between 1 July and 31 December 1843, at the instance of one attorney named Russell. In order to put an end to this disgraceful trade, parliament, after some discussion in which Lord George Bentinck took part, passed the Gaming Acts Suspension Continuation Bill. As, however, this bill had no retrospective force, an action, Russell and others v. Lord G. Bentinck, came on for trial, and was heard at Guildford before Baron Parke and a jury. By this action £12,000 was claimed of Lord George. Of this sum £3,000 was a bet won by him of John Day, which formed the ground of the action, the remainder being the penalty consisting of three times the amount betted. Baron Parke considered that the action could scarcely lie in the face of the recent act to stay proceedings. Lord George, however, waived that question, as he was anxious for the sake of others to have the case decided on its merits, and his success in this trial put an end to actions of a like nature.

In 1844 he took an active part in detecting a daring attempt at imposition. On 22 May the Derby was won by a horse called Running Rein, which was said to be over age, and the stakes were accordingly claimed by General Peel, whose horse Orlando came in second. Lord George did good service to public morality by the skill and energy he devoted to discovering the truth in this difficult case. The trial took place on 1 July before Baron Alderson and a special jury, and, chiefly owing to the exertions of Lord George, the solicitor-general was able to prove that the horse was not Running Rein, but a four-year-old horse originally called Maccabeus (by Gladiator), and entered for certain stakes under that name. In recognition of the part Lord George had taken in this case, and of the good work he had done in raising the tone of the racing community, it was proposed on the night after the trial to present him with a testimonial, and £2,100 was subscribed for that purpose. At his request this sum was made the nucleus of the Bentinck Benevolent and Provident Fund for trainers and jockeys.

During these years Lord George was not a regular attendant of the house, though he might be counted on for a party division. He loved hunting, and sometimes came to the house straight from a run, with his scarlet coat not wholly hidden by a white overcoat, the last to appear in parliament in ‘pink.’ In his class feelings, his jealousy of court influence, his love of religious liberty, and his confidence in the people, he was, as became his birth, a whig of the Revolution era. His admiration for Canning exercised considerable influence on his political career. When, in 1828, Mr. Huskisson and the other Canningites left the administration of the Duke of Wellington, Lord George ceased to support the government. He voted for the Catholic Emancipation Bill, the cause for which Canning had manfully contended. On the accession of Lord Grey's ministry he refused to accept office, and gave the government an independent support. Upholding the general principle of the Reform Bill, he nevertheless opposed some of its details. He voted against the metropolitan members' clause, and joined the anti-reformers in carrying the amendment of the Marquis of Chandos giving an occupation franchise to farmers renting at not less than £50 a year. He also refused to vote for Lord Ebrington's resolution in 1832.

When, in 1834, Mr. Stanley (Lord Derby) and others seceded from the ministry on the question of the appropriation of the funds of the church in Ireland to secular purposes, Lord George, who had a strong personal as well as political attachment to Mr. Stanley, ceased to support the whigs, and soon became a member of the conservative opposition. On the overthrow of the Melbourne administration in 1841, he was again offered an administrative post, and, in order to make the offer especially acceptable, Sir R. Peel caused it to be conveyed to him through his friend Lord Stanley. Lord George, however, declined the offer, because he was unwilling to spare the time he devoted to the turf. Up to the end of the session of 1845 he warmly upheld the ministry of Sir R. Peel.

In the last weeks of 1845 Lord George Bentinck entered on a new life. The proposal of Sir R. Peel to meet the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, and the danger of an insufficient supply of corn in this country, by an order in council suspending the restrictions placed upon the importation of corn, and the avowal of his opinion that after such a suspension it would be inexpedient to re-enact the existing laws, the secession of Lord Stanley from the cabinet, and the ministerial crisis which followed Lord J. Russell's Edinburgh letter, deeply moved him. Believing that Sir R. Peel was basely betraying the confidence placed in him, Lord George resolved to make a fight for the maintenance of protective duties. His indignation at finding his party betrayed, as he thought, by the leader he once used to follow, had at least as much effect in first rousing him to active opposition as any well-founded political convictions. As he walked from the house one night in company with a member of the league, his companion said that he wondered that he was afraid of the consequences of free trade. ‘Well,’ he returned, ‘I keep horses in three counties, and they tell me that I shall save £1,500 a year by free trade. I don't care for that. What I cannot bear is ‘being sold’.

The answer exhibits somewhat of the same spirit that led him to sue Connop. Unskilled as he was in party tactics, he had an able adviser in Mr. Disraeli; and though there was little likeness between the characters of Lord George and of his ally and future panegyrist, each supplied the other with what he lacked, and the connection between them was not without its influence on the career of the more famous statesman. If Lord George took up the cause of protection lightly, he did so honestly, believing that the ministerial policy would injure the country. He worked diligently at the materials for his case, applying to economic statistics those mental powers which had done him good service in the calculations of the turf. Early in the next year he took an active share in organising the protectionists as a third political party. For a while it was a party without a head. Lord George had no desire to accept the leadership. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘we have had enough of leaders; it is not my way; I shall remain the last of the rank and file.’ So far was he from wishing to put himself forward, that he tried to prevail on a barrister to become a member of the house in order to speak for him, using the materials he had put together. It was advisable for party purposes to prolong the debate on the order, read 9 February, for going into committee on the corn laws, and on 27 February Lord George for the first time addressed the house in a great debate. Although before this he had taken little part in public business, his personal qualities, his family, and, not least, his preeminence in sport, gave him considerable influence in the house.

His early manner of speaking was unattractive, his voice was forced, his action was overdone, and his sentences were often repeated; and, though he succeeded to some extent in improving his style, he did not become a first-rate speaker. If, however, his speeches sometimes sounded ill, they were excellent when read. Full of figures and calculations, given out, as we are assured by his biographer Lord Beaconsfield, without the help of notes, his arguments needed to be read rather than to be heard, and therefore appealed to the country rather than to the house. He was strong in adverse criticism, in the power of making ‘damaging speeches.’ In this his first great speech, he astonished the house by a calculation of the extent to which the agricultural productions of the country might be increased. He also reproached Sir R. Peel with the presence of Prince Albert in the house on the first night of the discussion. It was no small encouragement to him to find on the close of the debate that as many as 242 out of 581 voted with him — ‘proud,’ as he said, ‘in the chastity of their honour.’ By every means in their power Lord George and the protectionists delayed the further progress of the bill. The disturbed state of Ireland seemed to promise the success of their policy of obstruction, as it necessitated the introduction of a Coercion Bill. Lord George saw the advantage to be gained from this measure. If the ministers pressed their Coercion Bill, they would be forced to relax their efforts to pass the Corn Bill. If, on the other hand, they made the free-trade question of the first importance, then, he argued, they would show that they believed that Irish affairs were not urgent, and would declare by their own conduct that their Coercion Bill was needless.

On behalf of his party he agreed with the secretary of the treasury that he would support the new bill on the understanding that the repeal of the corn laws should be put off until after Easter. Sir R. Peel disavowed this compact, and refused to give up the attempt to advance both bills before the holidays. Lord George protested against the connection established by the government between the question of the corn laws and the Irish outrages, and, as he opposed the Corn Bill and the Irish members the Coercion Bill, business was for some time brought to what Sir Robert called ‘a dead lock.’ On 1 May, however, the first reading of the Coercion Bill passed, Lord George and a large number of protectionists voting for it. During the Easter recess Lord George accepted the leadership of the protectionist party on condition that he should relinquish it whenever he discovered a better man for the post, and that he should be free to act as he thought right on religious questions. When parliament reassembled, Sir R. Peel devoted all his strength to pressing on the repeal of the corn laws. Lord George, however, was still able to delay for a while the final decision of the commons. Warning the house on 4 May against believing that English free trade would be met by reciprocity, and quoting the opinion of M. Guizot against our new policy, he declared that there was at that time no potato famine in Ireland, and that no reason existed for doing away with protective duties. The next night he moved the omission of the word ‘oats’ from the bill, on the ground that 558,000 Irish occupiers were engaged in growing oats, and that the removal of protective duty from that species of grain would ‘undo the work of Mr. Pitt and Mr. Burke,’ that it would be ‘to cast off Ireland and practically preclude her from our markets.’

The third reading of the bill was carried on 15 May. Even before that day Lord George made a fresh attack on the government on the subject of the effect of the new commercial policy on our relations with Canada, laying down the axioms that excise duties should be remitted before customs, and that our commercial policy should be regulated by reciprocity. The position of Sir R. Peel was weakened by repeated attacks, and, though their defeat was complete, the protectionists hoped for vengeance. Any schemes for a new cabinet on a broad basis were rendered futile by the refusal of Lord J. Russell to retreat from the Edinburgh letter, and of Lord George Bentinck to enter a government pledged to free trade in corn. Nor was it easy to find a common basis for attack. At last Lord George decided on joining the whigs in opposing the second reading of the Coercion Bill. On the motion, made on 8 June, that the bill be read a second time, he explained his opposition by declaring that if the government had thought the bill really necessary, they would not have postponed the second reading, and compared their slackness in this matter with the earnestness with which they had pressed on the Corn Bill.

From this defence of the change in his own conduct he passed to a violent attack on Sir Robert Peel. He taunted him with being ‘a minister on sufferance, supported by none but his forty paid janissaries and seventy other renegades.’ And then, probably inspired by those near both to himself and to Mr. Canning, he accused Sir Robert of having ‘chased and hunted his illustrious relative to death,’ because he had, in 1827, refused to join Mr. Canning's cabinet on the ground of the part it would take in the catholic question, although in 1829 he declared in a letter to Lord Liverpool that he had changed his mind on the question as early as 1825. On the 19th Sir Robert was able triumphantly to rebut this charge, which was founded on an incorrect report of one of his speeches. Nevertheless the coalition was triumphant, and the ministry was defeated.

The new minister, Lord J. Russell, lost no time in bringing forward a proposal to do away with the protective duty on sugar. On 27 July Lord George met this proposal by an amendment condemning the proposed reduction as impolitic and calculated to check the advance of the production of sugar by British free labour in favour of foreign slave-grown sugar. This amendment was lost by 130 votes. For the second time in this session Lord George, without having previously ascertained the rights of the case, indulged in a personal attack, charging Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst with an abuse of patronage in an appointment fully justified by the circumstances attending it. During the recess he attended various protectionist banquets at King's Lynn, in North Warwickshire, and in Leicestershire, and took some much-needed rest at Welbeck. At this time, determined to let nothing come between him and the public service, Lord George sold the whole of his magnificent stud for, it is said, £10,000, at the very time when his chances of success on the turf both appeared to be, and, as it turned out, really were, brighter than they had ever been before.

In February 1847 Lord George Bentinck, disapproving of the policy pursued by government with respect to the Irish famine, proposed a scheme for lending £16,000,000 for the construction of Irish railways at 3¾ per cent., every £100 satisfactorily expended being met by £200 from government, the whole loan with interest being repaid at the end of thirty-seven years after the opening of each new line. Calculating that this scheme would lead to the construction of 1,500 miles of railways, he held forth the prospect of employing 110,000 labourers on really productive works, and thus supplying 550,000 persons with bread. The ministry threatened to resign if the house accepted this scheme, and Lord George, speaking for his party, declared that ‘his friends were not appalled at the prospect.’ Although his proposal was received with some favour, various circumstances, and especially a heavy fall in the price of consols, led to its rejection by 332 to 118. Considering the nature of the country, it is probable that Lord George overestimated the number of labourers required for the work. Even if his estimate was correct, his scheme would have been inadequate to meet the prevailing distress, while, at the same time, the works proposed were thought to be larger than the country needed, and the employment of public money on so vast a scale would have checked private enterprise and have lowered the public credit. Shortly afterwards, however, the government adopted the principle advocated by Lord George Bentinck, of lending money on interest to be employed in reproductive works in Ireland.

The condition of public credit, which had much to do with the rejection of Lord George's bill, led him in the course of this session to attack the Bank Act of 1844, and the monetary panic of October having caused the suspension of the Act, he renewed his criticisms of it in the short autumn session held to approve the suspension. He was, however, prevented by illness from pursuing the subject. In spite of the zeal and ability with which Lord George upheld the cause of protection, his unswerving adherence to the principles of religious liberty prevented the existence of perfect accord between him and the party he led. He occasioned some offence by expressing in an address to his constituents his opinion that the catholic priesthood of Ireland should be endowed out of the land; and the divergency between him and his party culminated when he spoke and voted in favour of the resolution carried by Lord J. Russell on 17 December for the admission of Jews into parliament. Owing to these differences he announced, by a letter written to Mr. Banks, 23 December 1847, his resignation of the protectionist leadership. It was not without reason that he said to Mr. Disraeli that he had ‘shaken his constitution in the cause.’ The violent change in his mode of life and his intense application to business injured his health. He also tried his constitution by long periods of abstinence from food, taking little breakfast and for some time not eating again until the house broke up, often at an hour past midnight.

Although Lord George Bentinck resigned the leadership of the protectionist party, he nevertheless remained the foremost upholder of the cause of protection, and on 3 February moved for and obtained a committee to inquire into the interests of the sugar and coffee planters. As chairman of this famous committee he advocated the maintenance of a protective duty on foreign sugar, and was deeply mortified at the rejection of his resolutions. On 24 May, a few days after his defeat in committee, Lord Clifden's Surplice, bred out of Lord George's favourite mare Crucifix, and sold by him with the rest of his stud, won the Derby. ‘All my life,’ he said next day to Mr. Disraeli, ‘have I been trying for this, and for what have I sacrificed it?’ His friend in vain tried to comfort him. ‘You do not know what the Derby is,’ he answered. The final resolutions of the committee, however, were satisfactory to him; and Lord J. Russell, though he did not follow the recommendations of the report, brought in a scheme for reducing the duty on colonial sugar, and for protecting British-grown sugar by a differential duty for a certain number of years. During the debate on this proposition Lord George charged the colonial office with suppressing a despatch from the governor of Jamaica with reference to the real state of that colony. Lord J. Russell, replying to this charge on 23 June, said that ‘these mean frauds, these extremely dishonourable tricks, which the noble lord imputes to them, are not the faults and characteristics of men high in public office in this country. They are the characteristics of men who are engaged in pursuits which the noble lord long followed.’ This remark having called forth loud expressions of disapprobation, he went on to speak of ‘the quickness of apprehension’ exhibited by Lord George in detecting the Running Rein fraud. Mr. Disraeli expressed the feeling of the house in his reply to these remarks, stating that Lord George had brought ‘the same high spirit that will not be bullied either in the ring or in the House of Commons, the same acuteness, the same vigilance, into the investigation of the manner in which our colonial affairs are carried on.’

During the whole session Lord George vigorously upheld what he believed to be advantageous to the colonial and commercial interests of the country, and took an active part in the resistance which compelled the government to abandon their contemplated repeal of the navigation laws. He went down to Welbeck on 11 September, and on the 13th was much delighted at seeing Surplice win the Leger. On the afternoon of the 21st he set out from Welbeck to walk to Thoresby, the seat of Lord Manvers, a distance of some six miles. He did not arrive at Thoresby, and on search being made for him his body was found lying lifeless about a mile from Welbeck Abbey. His death was pronounced to have been caused by a sudden attack of spasm of the heart. He was buried without state in the old parish church of Marylebone, the burying-place of his house. Though his funeral was private, all British merchant ships in ports where the tidings of his death had come hoisted their flags half-mast high.

Lord George Bentinck was never married.

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