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Thomas Spring-Rice, first Baron Monteagle of Brandon in Kerry (1790-1866)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1897

Thomas Spring-Rice, elder son of Stephen Edward Rice of Mount Trenchard, co. Limerick, by Catherine, heiress of Thomas Spring of Ballycrispin, Kerry, was born at Limerick on 8 February 1790. Sir Stephen Rice was his ancestor. He was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1811. He afterwards studied law, but was never called to the bar. In 1820 he was elected, in the whig interest, member of parliament for Limerick. He represented that place till 1832, when he was elected member for the town of Cambridge. The latter seat he only resigned on his elevation to the peerage in 1839.

Throughout his parliamentary career he was a warm and steady supporter of the whigs. During his early years in parliament he gained a reputation by his great knowledge of Irish affairs, while his geniality of demeanour made him personally popular in the house. On 16 July 1827, when the Marquis of Lansdowne became home secretary, Spring-Rice was appointed under-secretary for the home department (which directed Irish administration) in Canning's government. His appointment was regarded as a pledge of a change in home policy, for ‘his intimate acquaintance with Irish business and great facility in debate had rendered him one of the most trusted and influential members of his party’. Most of the reforms in Irish administration which Canning's government adopted were due to Spring-Rice's initiation.

In January 1828, when the Duke of Wellington became prime minister, Spring-Rice quitted office, and was invited by Lord William Bentinck to accompany him to India in a confidential capacity; but his political friends were reluctant to lose his services, and at their instance he remained at home. He continued an active member of the opposition until he took office again as secretary to the treasury in Lord Grey's administration. In this post, which he held from November 1830 to June 1834, he displayed considerable ability in debate and a great command of business. He usually championed his party in opposing O'Connell, and an exhaustive speech on repeal, which he delivered in the session of 1834, was long regarded as an authoritative statement of the ‘unionist’ case. For a few months in the summer of 1834 he was secretary of state for war and the colonies in Lord Melbourne's first ministry in succession to Edward Geoffrey Smith Stanley (afterwards fourteenth Earl of Derby).

His re-election at Cambridge on his entering the cabinet was opposed by Edward Burtenshaw Sugden (afterwards Lord St. Leonards) and he secured a majority of only twenty-five votes. In February 1835, when, at the opening of the new parliament, the question came up of filling the speakership with a ministerial candidate, Spring-Rice was put forward by the whigs against James Abercromby (afterwards Baron Dunfermline), the choice of the more advanced liberals; the latter was ultimately adopted and elected. Spring-Rice became, however, chancellor of the exchequer in April 1835 in Lord Melbourne's second administration, not without some reluctance. He held the office till September 1839. The post was a somewhat thankless one. Through no fault of the chancellor there was a succession of deficits in the budget, with which the smallness of the government's majority gave him no opportunity of dealing effectively.

Spring-Rice was still ambitious of nomination as government candidate for the speakership when the office should next fall vacant, and the government was not indisposed to meet his wishes. But he lost while in office much of the personal popularity which attended the early stages of his public career. By his ‘genuine though indiscriminating cordiality of temper’ he seems involuntarily to have raised in many quarters hopes of preferment which it was not in his power to satisfy. At the same time his political views failed to progress at the rate which the radical section of his party desired. Consequently, when Abercromby retired from the speaker's chair in 1838, the distrust with which Spring-Rice had inspired some of his older associates combined with the hostility of the radicals to render his nomination impracticable. Though disappointed, he loyally co-operated in promoting the election of the rival government candidate, Charles Shaw-Lefevre. In May 1839 he wrote that he was anxious to quit the House of Commons as soon as possible, in consequence of the ‘humiliation arising out of the hate of the radicals for the manner in which I have discharged my public duty’. But he was prevailed on to keep his seat and his office till the close of the session, and on 5 July introduced the penny-postage scheme. He was created Baron Monteagle in the peerage of the United Kingdom on 5 September1839, and received the vacant comptrollership of the exchequer, in spite of Lord Howick's strenuous opposition to the maintenance of the office.

From the time of his elevation to the peerage Monteagle retired almost entirely from public life, and, although in the House of Lords he was an occasional speaker, particularly on financial, legal, and Irish questions, it was only once in his later years— namely, when he attacked the removal of the duties on paper, on 21 May 1860 — that he prominently attracted public attention. He was a commissioner of the state paper office, a trustee of the National Gallery, a member of the senate of the university of London and of the Queen's University in Ireland, and F.R.S. and F.G.S. He died on 7 February 1866 at his seat, Mount Trenchard, near Limerick.

Spring-Rice was a capable man of business, and effective as a member of parliament in opposition; but as a minister in high office he failed to realise the expectations of his friends. Lord Melbourne speaks of him as a man too much given to details and possessed of no broad views. To a certain extent he was made the scapegoat of an administration whose very visible defects somewhat obscured its real achievement in the eyes of its disappointed followers. Short in stature, he was on that and other grounds a constant subject of the H. B. caricatures. Henry (afterwards Sir Henry) Taylor described him in 1834 as ‘a light-hearted, warm-hearted man, with a mind not powerful certainly, but acute and active, accomplished, and versed in literature and poetry as well as equal to business.’ He was a contributor to the Edinburgh Review, and several of his letters and speeches were published separately. One of them attracted the hostility of Croker.

Spring-Rice was twice married: first, on 11 July 1811 to Theodosia, second daughter of Edmund Henry Pery, first earl of Limerick; she died on 10 December 1839. He married secondly, on 13 April 1841, Marianne, eldest daughter of John Marshall of Hallsteads, Cumberland; she died on 11 April 1889, aged 89. By his first wife he had issue five sons and three daughters. His eldest son, Stephen Edmund (1814-1865), deputy chairman of the board of customs, predeceased him, and he was succeeded in the peerage by his grandson, Thomas Spring-Rice. The youngest daughter, Theodosia Alicia, married in 1839 Sir Henry Taylor.

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2 August, 2014