Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Somerville, William Meredyth

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SOMERVILLE, Sir WILLIAM MEREDYTH, Baron Atilumney in the peerage of Ireland, and Baron Meredyth in the peerage of the United Kingdom (1802–1873), statesman, born in 1802, was son of Sir Marcus Somerville, bart., by his first wife, Mary Anne, daughter and heiress of Sir Richard Meredyth, bart. The grandfather of Sir Marcus, Sir Quaile Somerville (eldest son of Sir James Somerville, knight, lord mayor of Dublin, by Elizabeth, daughter of Alderman Quaile of Dublin), was created a baronet on 14 May 1748. He was succeeded by his son, Sir James Quaile Somerville, father of Sir Marcus.

William Meredyth matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, in February 1822, but did not graduate. He succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his father in 1831, and was for a time in the diplomatic service. In January 1835 he stood unsuccessfully as a liberal candidate for Wenlock. In August 1837 he was returned for Drogheda, which he represented for fifteen years. From his second session onwards he spoke frequently on Irish questions from the point of view of a liberal landlord. In January 1840 he was chosen to second the address (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. liv. 179 seq.). On 3 June 1841, the fourth night of the debate, he made an effective speech against Peel's motion for a vote of censure on Lord Melbourne's ministry, which was carried by a majority of one and overthrew the Melbourne administration. In this speech Somerville pronounced the repeal of the corn laws to be the best cure of the slovenly system of farming in Ireland (ib. lviii. 1103–1107). On 30 March 1846 Somerville brought forward a motion opposing the postponement of Peel's Corn Bill in favour of the Protection of Life in Ireland Bill. He was seconded by William Smith O'Brien [q. v.], and Sir James Graham, O'Connell, Peel, and Cobden took part in the debate. The motion was rejected by 147 to 108 (ib. lxxxv. 288, &c.). When, on 17 April, the repressive measure was introduced, Somerville, in an earnest speech, denounced it as unnecessary and likely to be inefficacious. On 8 June he moved its rejection on the second reading, and after six nights' debate succeeded, with the aid of the protectionists, in defeating the bill and overthrowing the tory government (ib. lxxxvii. 130, &c.).

On the whigs, under Lord John Russell, taking office, Somerville became undersecretary for the home department. In July 1847 he was appointed chief secretary for Ireland and sworn of the privy council. During his term of office he had to deal with the Irish famine and the young Ireland movement. Somerville's land bill of 1848 failed before the opposition of the landlords, but in the following year the Encumbered Estates Act was passed.

When Lord John Russell's ministry fell in February 1852, Somerville ceased to be chief secretary, and at the general election in the following July lost his seat for Drogheda. After a two years' absence from parliament, he was returned at a by-election for Canterbury on 18 Aug. 1854. In 1855 he spoke in favour of the abolition of church rates, and in the following year took frequent part in the debates on the bill dealing with dwellings of Irish labourers. On 7 July 1857 he supported Roebuck's motion for the abolition of the Irish viceroyalty ‘for imperial as well as Irish reasons’ (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. cxlvi. 1670). In 1859 he brought in a bill for the purpose of removing the legal disabilities debarring Roman catholics from the Irish chancellorship. The bill received the support of leaders of both parties, but, after reference to a select committee, was withdrawn (ib. cliv. 713, clv. 249).

On 14 Dec. 1863 Somerville was created a peer of Ireland, with the title of Baron Athlumney of Somerville and Dollardstown, and on 3 May 1866 was raised to the peerage of the United Kingdom as Baron Meredyth of Dollardstown, co. Meath. In his last speech in the House of Commons (21 June 1864) he expressed his opinion against any further interference between landlord and tenant in Ireland, and in supporting in the House of Lords, where his knowledge and judgment were highly valued, Lord Clanricarde's bill of 1867 to simplify tenure of Irish land, he declared his preference for emigration over legislative interference (ib. clxxxv. 797, &c.). Nevertheless, he supported Mr. Gladstone's land bill of 1870, taking considerable part in the discussions in committee. He also gave a warm support to the Irish Church Bill. He had been an early supporter of concurrent endowment. Athlumney died at Dover on 7 Dec. 1873. He was much respected in Ireland as a resident landlord; his large estates lay in the county of Meath. His speeches in parliament were marked by candour and moderation, as well as by extensive knowledge and breadth of view.

Athlumney was twice married: first, in December 1832, to Maria Harriet, youngest daughter of Henry Conyngham, first marquis Conyngham; secondly, in October 1860, to Maria Georgiana Elizabeth, only daughter of Herbert George Jones, serjeant-at-law. By his second wife, who survived him, he had five daughters, besides James Herbert Gustavus Meredyth Somerville (b. 1865), who succeeded to the peerage.

[Lodge's Genealogy of the Peerage; G. E. C.'s Peerage; Times, 10 Dec. 1873; Illustrated London News, 20 Dec. 1873; Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. passim; R. B. O'Brien's Fifty Years of Concession to Ireland, ii. chap. v. and vi.]

G. Le G. N.