Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Townshend, Thomas
TOWNSHEND, THOMAS, first Viscount Sydney (1733–1800), born on 24 Feb. 1733, was the only son of Thomas Townshend (1701–1780) [see under Townshend, Charles, second Viscount], by his wife Albinia, daughter of John Selwyn of Matson, Gloucestershire, and Chislehurst, Kent. Charles Townshend [q. v.], the chancellor of the exchequer, and George Townshend, first marquis Townshend [q. v.], were his first cousins, and George Augustus Selwyn (1719–1791) [q. v.], the wit, was his maternal uncle. Thomas was educated, like many members of the family, at Clare College, Cambridge, whence he graduated M.A. in 1753 (Grad. Cantabr. p. 476). On 17 April 1754, when barely of age, he was returned to parliament for Whitchurch, Hampshire, which he represented without interruption until his elevation to the peerage in 1783. Townshend was from his family connections inevitably a whig, and about 1755 he was appointed clerk of the household to George, prince of Wales, afterwards George III. In 1760 the elder Pitt made him clerk of the board of green cloth; but his conduct did not satisfy the ‘king's friends,’ and in 1762 he was summarily dismissed, with others of Pitt's adherents (Walpole, Memoirs of George III, ed. Barker, i. 185). He continued in opposition during Grenville's ministry, and in April 1765, when Grenville justified his American mutiny bill by quoting Scots law, Townshend ‘spoke well and warmly against making Scotch law our precedent’ (ib. ii. 65). In the same session he took an active part in the discussion of the regency bill. Rockingham's advent to power in July brought Townshend into office as a lord of the treasury, and in January 1766 he moved the address to the throne in the House of Commons. He continued in that office when Pitt formed a government under the nominal headship of the Duke of Grafton in August 1766; and on 23 Dec. 1767, when the ministry was remodelled on Chatham's retirement, Townshend became joint-paymaster of the forces and was sworn of the privy council. In June 1768 Grafton wished to gratify Richard Rigby [q. v.] with this post, and offered Townshend the vice-treasurership of Ireland. Townshend refused ‘to be turned backwards and forwards every six months,’ and resigned office in disgust (ib. iii. 152; Rigby to Bedford in Bedford Corresp. iii. 401). He remained in opposition throughout the remainder of Grafton's and the whole of Lord North's administrations, making steady progress in the opinion of the house and country. He possessed, says Wraxall, ‘a very independent fortune and considerable parliamentary interest—two circumstances which greatly contributed to his personal, no less than to his political, elevation; for his abilities, though respectable, scarcely rose above mediocrity. Yet, as he always spoke with facility, sometimes with energy, and was never embarrassed by any degree of timidity, he maintained a conspicuous place in the front ranks of the opposition’ (Memoirs of the Reign of George III, ii. 45). In February 1769, according to Walpole, he strongly opposed the unseating of Wilkes by the House of Commons, and threatened ‘that the freeholders of Middlesex would in a body petition the king to dissolve parliament,’ a threat which Lord North as ‘the most punishable’ breach of privilege recorded in the history of the house (Walpole, Memoirs, iii. 224; Parliamentary Debates, i. 229, where, however, Cavendish attributes the speech to James Townshend). In 1770 Townshend was proposed as speaker in opposition to Sir Fletcher Norton [q. v.], but declined to stand for election and himself voted for Norton. On 11 April 1771 he made a speech, which Walpole says was much admired, against the ‘king's friends,’ declaring that they had no right to that title, but should rather be called les serviteurs des évènemens. Later on he denounced Lord North for the levity of his conduct amid the disasters of the American war; ‘happen what will,’ he said, ‘the noble lord is ready with his joke’ (Wraxall, i. 365).
When at length North was forced to resign, Townshend reaped the reward of his persistent opposition, and on 27 March 1782 became secretary at war in Rockingham's second administration. The death of Rockingham four months later led to the schism of his followers into two sections, one headed by Shelburne and the other by Fox. Townshend threw in his lot with the former, succeeding Shelburne at the home office when Shelburne became prime minister. In this capacity he was nominally leader of the House of Commons from July 1782 to April 1783, but the real burden of the defence of the ministry fell upon the younger Pitt (Stanhope, Life of Pitt, i. 51, 80). On 17 Feb., however, Townshend made an excellent defence of the peace concluded with the American colonies, and ‘may really be said to have in some measure earned on that night the peerage which he soon afterwards obtained’ (Wraxall, ii. 424). It failed to save the government, which a few hours later was defeated by the combined votes of the followers of Fox and North. The king recognised Townshend's services by creating him Baron Sydney of Chislehurst on 6 March following.
While in opposition Sydney on 30 June 1783 protested in the lords against the rejection of a bill which Pitt had carried through the commons to check abuses in public offices (Rogers, Lords' Protests, ii. 213); and when in December George III entrusted Pitt with the task of ridding him of the hated coalition, Sydney became Pitt's secretary of state for the home department (23 Dec.). In the House of Lords, however, Sydney lost much of his vigour and reputation, and ‘seemed to have sunk into an ordinary man.’ Wraxall suggests that he owed his continuance in office to the fact that his daughter had married Pitt's elder brother, Lord Chatham; and Lord Rosebery says that he is ‘now chiefly remembered by Goldsmith's famous line’ (Pitt, p. 46), where in the ‘Retaliation’ he speaks of Burke: ‘Though fraught with all learning, yet straining his throat To persuade Tommy Townshend to lend him a vote.’ Sydney's tenure of the home department, with which the colonies were then united, was, however, marked by an episode that has given his name wider celebrity than Goldsmith's line. As early as 1785 a proposal had been under consideration for forming a settlement in New South Wales (Sir G. Young, Facsimile of a Proposal for a Settlement on the Coast of New South Wales in 1785, Sydney, 1888). The object was mainly to provide an outlet for the convicts who had previously been sent to America, and then after the war to the west coast of Africa, until it was found that that was almost always equivalent to a sentence of death. But a hope was also entertained from the first that the convict element when reformed would become the nucleus of a colony (LANG, Hist. of New South Wales, 4th edit. i. 12). Active preparations were begun in 1786, and the organisation and command of the expedition were entrusted to Arthur Phillip [q. v.] He sailed in May 1787, and on 26 Jan. 1788 founded a town in Port Jackson which was named Sydney in honour of the secretary of state (cf. Gent. Mag. 1791, i. 276; Geographical, Commercial, and Political Essays, 1813, pp. 193–5 et seqq.; Therry, New South Wales; Barton, New South Wales, 1892; Rusden, History of Australia; ‘The Making of Sydney’ in United Service Mag. viii. 336).
A year later Sydney ceased to be secretary of state. He had disagreed with Pitt's India bill of 1784; in 1787 he spoke, but did not vote, against his slave regulation bill, and Pitt was said to be anxious for more subservient colleagues. On 5 June 1789 he was succeeded as secretary by Grenville; his retirement was, however, solaced by his creation as Viscount Sydney and the grant of the chief-justiceship in eyre of forests north of the Trent, worth 2,500l. a year (Stanhope, Life of Pitt, ii. 33; Cornwallis Corresp. ii. 5). He was a governor of the Charterhouse, and from 1793 deputy-lieutenant of Kent, but henceforth took little part in politics. He died of apoplexy at Chislehurst on 30 June 1800. A portrait, engraved after G. Stuart, is given in Doyle.
Sydney married, on 19 May 1760, Elizabeth (d. 1 May 1826), eldest daughter and coheir of Richard Powys; by her he had issue two sons and four daughters, of whom the second, Mary Elizabeth, married in 1783 John Pitt, second Earl of Chatham; and the fourth, Harriet Katherine, married in 1795 Charles William Scott, fourth duke of Buccleuch [see under Scott, Henry, third Duke]. The eldest son, John Thomas Townshend (1764–1831), was under-secretary of state for the home department under his father from 1783 to 1789; was a lord of the admiralty from 1789 to May 1793; and a lord of the treasury from 1793 to June 1800, when he succeeded his father as second Viscount Sydney. He was lord of the bedchamber to George III from 1800 to 1810, and died on 30 Jan. 1831. He was succeeded as third viscount by his son, John Robert Townshend (1805–1890), who was lord of the bedchamber to William IV in 1835, lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria from 1841 to 1846, lord chamberlain of the household in Gladstone's first administration from 1868 to 1874, and was created Earl Sydney of Seadbury on 27 Feb. 1874. He was lord steward of the household in Gladstone's second and third administrations (1880–5 and 1886), and died without issue on 14 Feb. 1890, when the title became extinct.[Burke, Doyle, and G. E. C[okayne]'s Peerages; Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George III, ed. Barker, and Letters, ed. Cunningham; Wraxall's Posthumous Memoirs, ed. Wheatley; Bedford Correspondence, ed. Russell, iii. 401; Jesse's George Selwyn and his Contemporaries, passim; Jesse's Mem. of the Life and Reign of George III, i. 407; Forster's Goldsmith; Cavendish's Parliamentary Debates; Annual Reg. 1800, p. 62; Gent. Mag. 1800, ii. 695; Stanhope's Hist. of England, and Life of Pitt; Lecky's History of England, 1892, v. 169, 240, 303.]