Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Foster, John (1740-1828)

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1043790Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 20 — Foster, John (1740-1828)1889George Fisher Russell Barker

FOSTER, JOHN, Lord Oriel (1740–1828), last speaker of the Irish House of Commons, eldest son of Anthony Foster of Collon, Louth, lord chief baron of the exchequer in Ireland, by his first wife, Elizabeth, younger daughter of William Burgh of Dublin, was born in September 1740, the date of his baptism being 28 Sept., and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1761 he was returned to the Irish parliament for the borough of Dunleer, and in Michaelmas term 1766 was called to the Irish bar. In 1769, being returned for the county of Louth as well as for the boroughs of Navan and Dunleer, Foster elected to sit for the county, which thenceforth he continued to represent until his elevation to the peerage in 1821. In parliament he devoted his attention more particularly to the financial and commercial affairs of the country. He became the chairman of the committee of supply and of the committee of ways and means, and was admitted a member of the Irish privy council. In a letter to Lord Sidney, dated 20 Feb. 1784, Lord Northampton, the retiring lord-lieutenant, while recommending Foster for the office of chancellor of the exchequer, stated that ‘Mr. Foster has for several sessions of parliament conducted the business of government in matters of finance with distinguished ability; his knowledge in that branch and in commercial subjects is universally admitted; he is a strong friend to his majesty's government, and his character is highly respectable’ (Grattan, Life, iii. 187). Shortly afterwards William Gerard Hamilton resigned, and Foster was appointed chancellor of the exchequer in Ireland on 23 April 1784. In this year his memorable corn law, ‘granting large bounties on the exportation of corn and imposing heavy duties on its importation,’ was passed. ‘This law is one of the capital facts in Irish history. In a few years it changed the face of the land and made Ireland to a great extent an arable instead of a pasture country’ (Lecky, History of England, vi. 354). Foster did not, however, long retain the office of chancellor of the exchequer, for on 15 Aug. 1785 he was unanimously elected speaker of the House of Commons in the place of Edward Sexten Pery (Journals of the Irish House of Commons, vol. xi. pt. i. pp. 478–9), and on 6 Sept. in the following year was sworn a member of the English privy council. On 2 July 1790 he was again chosen speaker, though not without opposition, William Brabazon Ponsonby being proposed by Conolly, but Foster was elected by 145 votes to 105 (ib. xiv. 9). On 27 Feb. 1793 Foster, in committee on the Roman Catholic Bill, warmly opposed the measure, being of opinion that ‘the overthrow of the protestant establishment, the dethronement of the House of Hanover, and a total separation from Great Britain’ would be the inevitable consequences of passing the bill. He was for the third time elected speaker on 9 Jan. 1798 (ib. vol. xvii. pt. i. p. 191). Hitherto Foster had invariably supported the English government in their measures, but no sooner were the intentions of the ministry known on the question of the union than he immediately put himself at the head of the anti-unionists. On 11 April 1799 Foster, during committee on the Regency Bill, delivered a very able speech against the union, lasting three hours. He replied to the answers which Pitt had made to his own speeches on the commercial propositions in 1785, and, going minutely into the history of the trade and commerce of Ireland, showed the rapid progress which the country had made since 1782. He maintained the finality of the settlement of 1782, and declared that though he looked upon Pitt as the greatest finance minister that ever lived, ‘in this fatal project of a union I do not scruple to say he is the worst minister Ireland ever met.’ When Burrowes proposed that the principal Roman catholics should meet the leaders of the parliamentary opposition in order that they might act in concert against the union, Foster, unable to sink his religious prejudices, refused to join them, and the negotiations had to be broken off. When too late he seems to have changed his mind on the point, and to have said, in a conversation with Plunket, ‘if the crisis demanded it, he would even go the length of calling in the aid of the catholics’ (Grattan, v. 69). On 17 Feb. 1800, while the house was in committee on the lord-lieutenant's message respecting the union, Foster once more spoke strongly against the proposal, and on 19 March following he again opposed the bill, declaring that the ‘noble lord's union will not amend anything but will make everything worse.’ On 7 June he had the mortification of putting the final question from the chair on the third reading of the bill and of declaring that the ayes had it. The house met for the last time on 2 Aug. 1800. Foster refused to surrender the mace, declaring that ‘until the body that entrusted it to his keeping demanded it, he would preserve it for them.’ It is preserved by his descendants, together with the speaker's chair, at Antrim Castle. Foster was one of the few anti-unionists who obtained seats in the united parliament. He appears to have taken part in the debates of the house for the first time on 16 March 1802 (Parl. Hist. xxxvi. 362–3). On 7 May following he supported Nicholls's motion for an address, thanking the king for the removal of Pitt, and broadly asserted that the union had been carried by corrupt means (ib. p. 652). Foster, however, subsequently became reconciled to Pitt, and in July 1804 was appointed chancellor of the Irish exchequer in the place of Isaac Corry. Though not officially appointed, Foster had brought in the Irish budget in the preceding month, and had acted on several other occasions in the house as if he had been formally installed in office. A debate was raised by Francis upon the informality of these proceedings (Parl. Debates, ii. 1001–10), and Foster, having subsequently vacated his seat for the county of Louth on his appointment, was duly re-elected in the month of August. On 14 May 1805 he made a vigorous speech against Fox's motion for a committee on the Roman catholic petition (ib. iv. 999–1006). In consequence of some differences of opinion which had arisen among the ministry during this session on his Irish financial measures, Foster proffered his resignation, but Pitt refused to accept it. Upon the formation of the ministry of All the Talents in 1806, Foster was succeeded by Sir John Newport, but on 30 April 1807 he was reappointed to his old office, which he continued thenceforth to hold until 1811, when he was succeeded by William Wellesley Pole, afterwards Lord Maryborough. It is asserted by the author of Grattan's ‘Life’ (v. 422) that in the debate on the Irish Tobacco Duties Bill in May 1811, Foster, roused by an assertion of Bankes that Ireland was becoming a burden to England, exclaimed with great indignation, ‘Take back your union! take back your union!’ The debate is, however, differently reported in ‘Hansard’ (Parl. Debates, xx. 311). After his retirement from office Foster rarely spoke in the House of Commons, and on 17 July 1821 he was created a peer of the United Kingdom by the title of Baron Oriel of Ferrard in the county of Louth. He does not seem to have taken any part in the debates in the House of Lords. He died at his seat at Collon in the county of Louth on 23 Aug. 1828, in his eighty-eighth year.

Foster married, on 14 Dec. 1764, Margaret, the eldest daughter of Thomas Burgh of Bert in the county of Kildare. She was created Baroness Oriel of Collon, county Louth, in the peerage of Ireland, on 3 June 1790, and Viscountess Ferrard, in the same peerage, on 7 Nov. 1797, with remainder to her male issue, and died on 20 Jan. 1824. Their younger son, Thomas Henry Foster, who succeeded to the two Irish titles on the death of his mother and to the English barony of Oriel on the death of his father, assumed, by royal license, dated 8 Jan. 1817, the surname and arms of Skeffington only, having previously married Lady Harriet Skeffington, in her own right Viscountess Massereene and Baroness Loughneagh. The present Viscount Massereene and Ferrard is the great-grandson of the last speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Though not an eloquent speaker Foster had a clear and forcible delivery. His four speeches in the Irish House of Commons previously referred to were all published, and had a wide circulation. ‘Memory’ Woodfall described him as ‘one of the readiest and most clear-headed men of business’ he had ever met with (Correspondence of William, Lord Auckland, 1861, i. 80), while his unimpeachable character and wide financial knowledge were everywhere recognised. Foster was admitted a student of the Middle Temple, but was never called to the English bar. He was elected a bencher of the King's Inns, Dublin, on 22 May 1784, and twice served as a lord justice in the absence of the lord-lieutenant, viz. in 1787 and 1789. A mezzotint engraving, by C. H. Hodges, of a portrait of Foster, by C. G. Stuart, was published in 1792.

[Plowden's Historical Review of the State of Ireland, 1803; Plowden's History of Ireland, 1801–10 (1811); Memoirs of Henry Grattan, 1839–46, vols. iii. iv. v.; Lecky's History of England, vi. 353–8, 360, 373–4, 444; Gent. Mag. 1828, vol. xcviii. pt. ii. pp. 271–2, 290; Ann. Reg. 1828, App. to Chron. pp. 255–7; Biog. Dict. of Living Authors, 1816, p. 119; Foster's Peerage, 1883, pp. 474–5; Haydn's Book of Dignities, 1851, pp. 135–6, 444, 451–2; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. v. 86, 132, 7th ser. iv. 169, 278, 356, 455; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 214, 228, 240, 256, 271, 283, 298, 666, 670, 671, 675, 680, 684, 689; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.