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John Ponsonby, 4th Earl of Bessborough

John William Ponsonby, 4th Earl of Bessborough, PC (31 August 1781 – 16 May 1847), known as Viscount Duncannon from 1793 to 1844, was a British Whig politician. He was notably Home Secretary in 1834 and served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1846 and 1847, the first years of the Great Famine.

The Earl of Bessborough

Home Secretary
In office
19 July 1834 – 15 November 1834
MonarchWilliam IV
Prime MinisterThe Viscount Melbourne
Preceded byThe Viscount Melbourne
Succeeded byThe Duke of Wellington
Lord Lieutenant of Ireland
In office
8 July 1846 – 22 May 1847
Prime MinisterLord John Russell
Preceded byThe Lord Heytesbury
Succeeded byThe Earl of Clarendon
Personal details
John William Ponsonby

31 August 1781 (1781-08-31)
Died16 May 1847 (1847-05-17) (aged 65)
Political partyWhig
Spouse(s)Lady Maria Fane
Children14, including John, Frederick, Emily, Walter, and Spencer
ParentsFrederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough
Lady Henrietta Frances
Alma materChrist Church, Oxford

Background and educationEdit

A member of the prominent Ponsonby family of Cumberland, he was the eldest son of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, and Lady Henrietta Frances, daughter of John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer. Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby and William Ponsonby, 1st Baron de Mauley, were his younger brothers, while Lady Caroline Lamb was his younger sister. Ponsonby's mother was Lord Granville's lover prior to his marriage to Lady Harriet Cavendish, the Countess of Bessborough's niece. Lord Granville fathered two illegitimate children through her: Harriette Stewart and George Stewart. Lord Bessborough was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford.

Political careerEdit

He was First Commissioner of Woods and Forests under Lord Grey (1831–1834) and served under Lord Melbourne in that office (1835–1841), briefly as Home Secretary (1834), and as Lord Privy Seal (1835–1839). Later, he served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under Lord John Russell from 1846 until his death on 16 May 1847. He was made a Privy Counsellor in 1831 and in 1834, ten years before he succeeded his father, he was created Baron Duncannon, of Bessborough in the County of Kilkenny. He was Lord Lieutenant of Kilkenny from November 1838 until his death.

His political career was hampered by a noted stammer, which made him a very reluctant public speaker: as Lord Duncannon he was unkindly nicknamed "Dumbcannon". In private on the other hand he was regarded as a valued colleague in Government, due largely to his ability to keep his head in a crisis. He was one of the so-called Committee of Four who drafted the Reform Act 1832.


Bessborough House, County Kilkenny, Ireland in 1818 - the family seat of the Earls of Bessborough

John Ponsonby married Lady Maria Fane, daughter of John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, and Sarah Anne Child, on 16 November 1805 at Berkeley Square, London. They had eight sons and six daughters.[1][2] Their daughter Lady Emily Charlotte Mary remained unmarried but she wrote a number of novels which were published without attribution.[3] Through his daughter Lady Augusta Gore, Bessborough was the grandfather of sportsman Spencer Gore, who won the first Wimbledon singles title in 1877, and the Rt. Rev. Charles Gore, the Bishop of Oxford.[4]

Children of Lord and Lady Bessborough:[5]

The Viscountess Duncannon died in March 1834, aged 46.[1] Lord Bessborough survived her by thirteen years and died in May 1847, aged 65. He was succeeded in the earldom by his eldest son, John, and subsequently by his younger sons Frederick and Walter. Bessborough Gardens in London is named after Lord Bessborough.[2]

Styles of addressEdit

  • 1781–1793: The Honourable John Ponsonby
  • 1793–1802: Viscount Duncannon
  • 1802–1805: Viscount Duncannon MA
  • 1805–1806: Viscount Duncannon MA MP
  • 1806–1810: Viscount Duncannon MA
  • 1810–1831: Viscount Duncannon MA MP
  • 1831–1834: The Right Honourable Viscount Duncannon MA MP
  • 1834–1844: The Right Honourable The Lord Duncannon PC MA
  • 1844–1847: The Right Honourable The Earl of Bessborough PC MA
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
William Cavendish
Lord John Townshend
Member of Parliament for Knaresborough
With: Lord John Townshend
Succeeded by
Viscount Ossulston
Lord John Townshend
Preceded by
William Windham
Member of Parliament for Higham Ferrers
Succeeded by
William Plumer
Preceded by
Sir Robert Dundas
Bryan Cooke
Member of Parliament for Malton
With: John Ramsden
Succeeded by
John Ramsden
Viscount Normanby
Preceded by
James Bernard, Viscount Bernard
Member of Parliament for Bandon
Succeeded by
Lord John Russell
Preceded by
Hon. Frederick Ponsonby
Charles Clarke
Member of Parliament for Kilkenny County
With: Charles Clarke 1826–1830
Earl of Ossory 1830–1832
Succeeded by
Pierce Butler
William Finn
Preceded by
Thomas Denman
Sir Ronald Craufurd Ferguson
Member of Parliament for Nottingham
With: Sir Ronald Craufurd Ferguson
Succeeded by
Sir Ronald Craufurd Ferguson
Sir John Cam Hobhouse, Bt
Political offices
Preceded by
George James Welbore Agar Ellis
First Commissioner of Woods and Forests
Succeeded by
Sir John Cam Hobhouse
Preceded by
The Viscount Melbourne
Home Secretary
Succeeded by
Henry Goulburn
Preceded by
The Lord Wharncliffe
Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by
The Earl of Clarendon
Preceded by
The Lord Granville Somerset
First Commissioner of Woods and Forests
Succeeded by
Earl of Lincoln
Preceded by
The Lord Heytesbury
Lord Lieutenant of Ireland
Succeeded by
The Earl of Clarendon
Honorary titles
New title Lord Lieutenant of Carlow
Succeeded by
Viscount Duncannon
Preceded by
The Marquess of Ormonde
Lord Lieutenant of Kilkenny
Succeeded by
William Tighe
Peerage of Ireland
Preceded by
Frederick Ponsonby
Earl of Bessborough
Succeeded by
John Ponsonby
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baron Duncannon
Succeeded by
John Ponsonby


  1. ^ a b Burke, John Bernard (1845). A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire. H. Colburn. p. 93. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  2. ^ a b The London Encyclopaedia, Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, Macmillan, 1995, ISBN 0-333-57688-8.
  3. ^ "Ponsonby, Emily Charlotte Mary" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  4. ^ "Spencer William Gore (1850–1906)". Epsom and Ewell History Explorer. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  5. ^ Debrett's Genealogical Peerage of Great Britain and Ireland. William Pickering. 1845. p. 82. Retrieved 15 October 2016.


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