Verney, Harry (DNB00)

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VERNEY, Sir HARRY (1801–1894), second baronet, country gentleman and member of parliament, whose surname was originally Calvert, was son of General Sir Harry Calvert [q. v.], by his wife Caroline (d. 1806), daughter of Thomas Hammersley. Born on 8 Sept. 1801, he was educated at Harrow, and when he was fifteen went on to the military college lately founded at Sandhurst, where he was one of the earliest cadets (1818–19).

He received his commission in the 31st foot, and was sent to Stuttgardt at seventeen as attaché to Sir Brook Taylor's mission, with introductions to the old king's daughters, the queen of Würtemberg and the electress of Hesse Homburg, who entertained him kindly, as did King John of Saxony at Dresden. While abroad he perfected himself in French and German, and studied Italian. On his return in 1820 he joined the 7th fusiliers at Londonderry; served also with the 72nd and 52nd regiments, and then entered the grenadier guards, where he became adjutant; he acted for a time as Sir Herbert Taylor's private secretary at the Horse Guards.

With the zeal to acquire knowledge which distinguished him throughout life, he put himself to school again when he could obtain leave of absence from his military duties. In 1822 he studied with John Marriott (1780–1825) [q. v.], curate in charge of Broadclyst, to whom he became deeply attached; and while in Devonshire he laid the foundation of a lifelong friendship with Sir Thomas Acland and his family.

On the death of his cousin, Mrs. Verney of Claydon House, Buckinghamshire, he assumed the surname of Verney in place of that of Calvert by royal license, dated 23 March 1827. He found himself owner of an estate heavily burdened and long neglected, at a period of agricultural distress and widespread discontent. Giving up his hopes of distinction as a soldier, he prepared to learn the new duties he had assumed with the name of Verney. Before he could settle down, however, as a country squire, his father's old friend, Lord William Cavendish Bentinck [q. v.], was made governor-general of India, and Sir Harry accepted his offer to accompany him as military secretary; but, falling ill on the voyage out, he was left behind at Rio Janeiro, and never rejoined his chief. He recruited his health by hunting with the Indians and riding wild horses on the Pampas; he made a perilous journey across the snow-covered Andes, collected birds and insects, learnt Spanish, and threw himself into the politics and wars of the small South American states, narrowly escaping death while helping to put down an insurrection at Santiago. At one time he took part in resisting some fresh claims of the papacy which an Italian mission had been sent to assert. Years afterwards he was received at the Vatican by the once obscure young priest—by that time pope of Rome—who had been employed in the business, but Pius IX would tolerate no reference to the circumstances of their former meeting. After a year of romantic adventures, extending to Chili, Sir Harry sailed round Cape Horn in the Volage, commanded by (Sir) Michael Seymour (1802–1887) [q. v.], and returned to Claydon in 1829.

Sir Harry proved himself a model landlord. He drained and reclaimed the land, built and repaired cottages, founded schools, planted trees, and, by taking a much more active share in poor-law work and county business than was usual at that time among the country squires, raised the tone of quarter sessions, and helped to give greater regularity and publicity to the proceedings. He knew George Stephenson, made himself personally acquainted with the working of the new system of railroads, and, with more foresight than his neighbours, he welcomed railways on his estate when other landowners were ordering their gamekeepers to warn off the surveyors or to put an end to their operations by force.

When in 1832 cholera broke out among the duck-breeders of Aylesbury and a panic spread through the town, Sir Harry rendered energetic and fearless service to the sick and dying; later in the same year (1832) he was at Paris during a far more terrible outbreak of cholera, and visited the hospitals. After these experiences he worked arduously to collect funds for a county hospital, the establishment of which at Aylesbury he considered one of the happiest events of his life. During a part of these busy years (1831, 1832, and 1833) Sir Harry was studying at the university of Cambridge as a fellow commoner of Downing College. Being older than the other undergraduates, he lived chiefly with the fellows and tutors, and enjoyed the friendship of Adam Sedgwick [q. v.] and William Whewell [q. v.]

On 10 Dec. 1832 Sir Harry was returned for Buckingham to the House of Commons, in which he sat (with two short interruptions) for fifty-two years. A liberal in politics, he supported with ardour the abolition of the slave trade and the repeal of the corn laws; he voted for factory legislation, the amendment of the criminal law, the abolition of university tests, of Jewish disabilities, and of the paper duties; in later years he supported the disestablishment of the Irish church, the education act, the abolition of army purchase, and the successive measures for the extension of the franchise. He promoted the social reforms of Lord Shaftesbury, his old school-fellow at Harrow and intimate friend; he was an active member of the Bible Society, the Church Missionary Society, and the Evangelical Alliance, and was able to render good service to the foreign protestant churches and pasteurs whom he loved to visit. In religious opinion he was of the old evangelical school, but his sympathies were broad.

An early member of the Royal Geographical Society, Verney had a remarkable knowledge of geography and a keen interest in every fresh discovery; he attended the conference at Brussels in 1876, when King Leopold gave him his portrait, and afterwards kept up the acquaintance by correspondence. Sir Harry was one of the founders of the Royal Agricultural Society; he attended its jubilee in 1888, when he was welcomed by the Prince of Wales as the ‘father’ of the society.

His own political jubilee was celebrated at Buckingham in 1883 amid the congratulations of members on both sides of the House of Commons, in which the borough or the shire of Buckingham had been represented by the Verneys of Claydon since the reign of Edward VI. Two years later the long political connection between Buckingham and its member, described by the Duke of Argyll as ‘a rare example of the soundest and best kind of relationship between those who represent and those who are represented in parliament,’ came to an end by the disfranchisement of the borough in the Reform Bill of 1885. Sir Harry was then made a privy councillor. He spoke at the Oxford diocesan conference in 1893, and rode his grey pony within a week of his death on 12 Feb. 1894, in the ninety-third year of his age.

Sir Harry married, first, in 1835, Eliza, daughter of Admiral Sir George Hope, one of Nelson's captains at Trafalgar, and sister of Sir James Hope [q. v.], admiral of the fleet; and secondly, in 1858, Frances Parthenope, elder daughter of William Edward Nightingale. By his first wife he had four sons and three daughters. From the date of his second marriage it was Sir Harry's greatest interest and delight to promote the work of his sister-in-law, Florence Nightingale, and he took a leading part in the national aid to the sick and wounded during the Franco-German war in 1870.

He published the ‘Journals and Correspondence of General Sir Harry Calvert, Bart.,’ London, 1853, besides sundry pamphlets.

A portrait in oils, by George Richmond, R.A., is in the Aylesbury Infirmary, and a replica at Claydon House. A three-quarter length in oils, by Sir William Richmond, R.A., is at Claydon House, together with a head by Sir G. Hayter, a study for a picture of the House of Commons in 1834. There is a bust, in white marble, by Williamson, and a bronze bas-relief, by H. A. Pegram, is in Middle Claydon church.

[Harrow Reg.; Times, 13 Feb. 1894; Record, 16 Feb. 1894; Burke's Peerage and Baronetage; manuscript letters and journals at Claydon House.]

M. M. V.