Yonge, William (DNB00)

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YONGE, Sir WILLIAM (d. 1755), baronet, politician, born at the family seat of Colyton, Devonshire, and fourth in descent from Walter Yonge [q. v.] the diarist, was the son of Sir Walter Yonge, third baronet, M.P. for Honiton and (June 1728) one of the commissioners of the customs, who died on 17 July 1731 (Hist. Reg. Chron. Diary, p. 36). His mother, Sir Walter's second wife, whom he married in 1691, was Gwen, daughter and coheiress of Sir Robert Williams, bart., of Penrhyn. William Yonge was chosen to represent Honiton on 4 Feb. 1714–15, and he served the borough in five successive parliaments; for though chosen for Ashburton in 1734 and Tiverton in 1727 and 1747, he each time preferred to sit for Honiton, and was five times re-elected there upon his accepting places. In 1754 he made way at Honiton for his son George, and sat for Tiverton. He entered the house as an official whig, his gaze being always intently fixed upon the prospect of securing office, and he soon succeeded in making himself extremely useful to Sir Robert Walpole, ‘who caressed him without loving him and employed him without trusting him.’ As Walpole's lieutenant he took an active part in preparing for the impeachment of Atterbury in May 1723, and was rewarded by a commissionership of the revenue in Ireland; while on 21 March 1724 he was appointed one of the commissioners of the treasury in Great Britain in the room of Richard Edgcumbe (ib. 1724, p. 17). On 27 May 1725, upon the re-establishment of the order of the Bath, he was the thirty-third of the thirty-six knights appointed to a stall, and he was frequently twitted thenceforth about the ostentation with which he displayed his ‘ribbons’ (ib. p. 23). During the short interregnum of Walpole's long tenure of supreme power, upon the death of George I, Yonge was turned out of his commissionership. The new king, George II, had been in the habit, as Hervey informs us, of calling him ‘Stinking Yonge,’ and had ‘conceived and expressed such an insurmountable dislike to his person and character that no interest nor influence was potent enough at this time to prevail with his majesty to continue him.’ Sir Robert advised his ‘creature’ upon this disgrace to be patient, not clamorous, to submit, not resent or oppose; to be as subservient to the court in attendance, and give the king his assistance in parliament as constantly and assiduously as if he were paid for it, telling him and all the world, what afterwards proved true, that, whatever people might imagine, Yonge was not sunk; he had only dived, and would yet get up again. This prediction was soon verified, for on 18 May 1728 Yonge was appointed, together with Byng (Lord Torrington), Norris, Wager, and others, one of the commissioners for executing the office of lord high admiral (ib. 1728, p. 28); and on 8 May 1730 he was reinstated as a commissioner of the treasury in the room of Sir Charles Turner (ib. 1730, p. 36). Early in 1731 appeared a little tract called ‘Sedition and Defamation Display'd: in a Letter to the Author of the Craftsman,’ in the ‘dedication’ to which Pulteney is attacked with insulting vigour. Pulteney assumed that the pamphlet was by John Hervey (Lord Hervey) [q. v.], who had recently ‘ratted’ from the opposition and obtained a post from Walpole, and wrote ‘A Proper Reply,’ which resulted in a duel; but there seems very good reason for believing with Coxe that the body of the tract was really written by Yonge, whose authorship was positively affirmed by Lord Hardwicke (cf. Coxe, Sir Robert Walpole, i. 363 n.; Stebbing, Verdicts of History Reviewed, 1887, p. 218; manuscript note in Brit. Mus. copy of Sedition and Defamation Display'd). Yonge did not give any sustained literary help to his chief, but his support was invaluable in the house, and Walpole is said to have been able to speak from notes taken from him and from those taken by no one else. In May 1735 he was appointed to the important post of secretary at war. He supported Walpole with undiminished energy at the period of his downfall. When, after the Christmas recess of 1741–2, Pulteney moved for a secret committee of twenty-one to inquire into the state of affairs and report to the king, Yonge made one of his greatest oratorical efforts. When the debate was over, Pulteney, who always sat on the treasury bench, cried in admiration to Sir Robert, ‘Well, nobody can do what you can.’ ‘Yes,’ replied Walpole, ‘Yonge did better.’ In his ‘Grub upon Bub’ (1741), Hanbury Williams had alluded to Yonge's capacity in answering questions and extinguishing tiresome claims.

Yonge was elected a member of the dominant whig stronghold at White's Club in 1743. He incurred the displeasure of the Bedford faction, but he had managed to conciliate the Pelhams, and he not only hung on in office, but he was in May 1746 appointed joint vice-treasurer of Ireland, the rival candidate, Lord Torrington, having been pacified with a fat pension (Walpole Corresp. i. 401). In the same year he was one of the committee for managing the impeachment of Lord Lovat. The obstructions placed by the law in the way of the prisoner's securing an adequate defence were a source of disquietude to fair-minded people, and in May 1747, amid general applause, Yonge moved that counsel should be allowed to prisoners on impeachment for high treason. ‘Thank God!’ was Horace Walpole's comment, ‘we are a better-natured age than that of William III, and have relinquished a savage privilege with a good grace.’ Yonge appeared in a different light in February 1751, when he proposed that Murray should be committed to Newgate for contempt of the house in refusing to receive a reprimand at the bar in a kneeling posture [see Murray, Alexander, d. 1777]. He was subsequently chairman of a committee appointed to draw up a report upon Murray's case. In this report, which was read on 18 Feb. 1751, he proposed with no little judgment virtually to leave the matter over for another session. On 7 Feb. 1754, when, in view of the impending general election, he moved for the repeal of the bribery act, he made what was practically his last appearance in active politics. His career as a place-hunting politician had been marked by eminent success, and was appropriately extolled by Lord Chesterfield, who wrote of him in a letter to his son as a man ‘who has by a fitness of tongue raised himself successively to the best appointments in the kingdom.’ ‘And all this,’ he adds, ‘with a most sullied, not to say blasted character.’ It was the general opinion that he would have gone much higher but for his inexplicably evil reputation. Walpole used to say of him that nothing but so bad a character could have kept down his talents, and nothing but his talents have kept up his character. Pitt, writing to George Grenville (26 April 1748), employs his name as a synonym for habitual mendacity. To what he owed such an exceptionally unsavoury reputation is (as in the case of Lord Shelburne) an enigma. The nearest approach to a solution, perhaps, is that afforded by Hervey when he says that without having done anything remarkably profligate, anything out of the common track of a ductile courtier and a parliamentary tool, his name was proverbially used to express everything pitiful, corrupt, and contemptible. ‘It is true,’ adds Hervey, ‘he was a great liar, but rather a mean than a vicious one. He had been always constant to the same party; he was good-natured and good-humoured, never offensive in company, nobody's friend, nobody's enemy. He had no wit in private conversation, but was remarkably quick in taking hints to harangue upon in parliament; he had a knack of words there that was surprising considering how little use they were to him anywhere else. He had a great command of what is called parliamentary language, and a talent of talking eloquently without a meaning, and expatiating agreeably upon nothing.’ A corroboration of the concluding touch is conveyed in the distich in the ‘State Dunces:’

    Silence, ye Senates, while enribboned Yonge
    Pours forth melodious nothings from his tongue.

Yonge was elected F.R.S. on 28 June 1748, and was created an honorary LL.D. by the university of Cambridge in 1749. During the summer vacation of 1755 he attended an anniversary meeting at Exeter (1 Aug.), a few days after which he was seized with a paralytic disorder which affected his speech. He made an apparently rapid recovery, but on 9 Aug. he had another attack, which proved fatal (Public Advertiser, 14 and 15 Aug. 1755). He died at his seat of Escott, near Honiton, on 10 Aug. ‘Sir William Yonge, who has been extinct so long, is at last dead,’ was the comment of Horace Walpole. He was buried on the 14th in the family vault beneath the chancel of Colyton church, where his coffin-plate has been preserved.

Yonge married, first, Mary, daughter of Samuel Heathcote of Hackney, from whom he was divorced by act of parliament, with permission to remarry, in 1724; and secondly, on 14 April 1729, Anne, daughter and coheiress of Thomas, lord Howard of Effingham (Hist. Reg. 1729, Chron. Diary, p. 25). By her he had issue six daughters and two sons, of whom the elder was Sir George Yonge [q. v.]

Yonge greatly cherished a reputation as a rhyming wit, which he did little to sustain, though it made him the butt of people of discernment, notably the poet Pope. In 1730 he joined with Roome and Concanen in converting the old comedy, ‘The Jovial Crew,’ by Richard Brome [q. v.], first produced in 1641, into a comic opera in three acts. The alteration was effected by curtailing the dialogue, leaving out the exceptionable parts, and adding a considerable number of songs, most of which, says Genest, are ‘vastly superior to the trash usually put into an opera.’ Most of the songs are attributed to Yonge. The piece in its new form, produced at Drury Lane on 8 Feb. 1730–1, had a great success, and was performed as late as 1791 (Ward, Engl. Dram. Lit. 1899, iii. 130 n.; cf. Genest, iii. 288). The author ‘Of Modern Wit, an Epistle to the Right Hon. Sir William Young’ (1732), can hardly have been aware of Yonge's operatic triumph, for after eulogising his oratory in the commons, which excites the unwilling admiration of Pulteney and Shippen, he goes on to deprecate that form of modern wit which ‘lies chiefly in a caper or a song.’ Dodsley was anxious in his famous ‘Collection’ to give an example of Yonge's handiwork, and in his sixth volume he rashly printed two pieces, ‘Lady M[ary] W[ortley] to Sir W[illiam] Y[onge]’ and ‘Sir W. Y.'s Answer,’ containing the couplet

    But the fruit that will fall without shaking
    Indeed is too mellow for me.

Lady Mary was highly indignant at having her name coupled in any way with a man of such a character as Yonge, and claimed the reply as her own impromptu upon some verses written by a lady (Corresp. ed. Thomas, 1898, ii. 355; Dodsley, Collection, 1758, vi. 230–1).

Conversely, Pope was annoyed at verses by Yonge being mistaken for his. In the ‘Epilogue to the Satires’ and elsewhere he connects him with Bubo (Dodington), notably in the line

    The flowers of Bubo and the flow of Young;

he classes him among the didappers, who, after diving in mud, astonish their friends by coming up in unexpected places, and in the ‘Essay on Man’ he derides him in the couplet

    To sigh for ribbons, if thou art so silly,
    Mark how they grace Lord Umbra and Sir Billy.

Three poems by Yonge are inserted in the ‘Collection’ of John Nichols (1780, vi. 255–63), where mention is also made of Yonge's verses in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1736, p. 103), ‘the subject of which renders 'em improper to be inserted here.’ Yonge nevertheless had sufficient reputation in the world of polite literature for Johnson to apply to him upon the vexed question of the pronunciation of ‘great,’ which Pope and Swift had rhymed indifferently with ‘seat’ and ‘state.’ ‘When I published my plan,’ said Johnson to Boswell, ‘Lord Chesterfield told me that the word should rhyme with state; Sir William Yonge sent me word that it should be pronounced so as to rhyme with seat, and that none but an Irishman would pronounce it grait. Now here were two men of the highest rank, the one the best speaker in the House of Lords, the other the best speaker in the House of Commons, differing entirely.’ Johnson's experience as a parliamentary reporter renders this last testimony of especial interest. In 1749 Yonge wrote the somewhat coarse epilogue to Johnson's ‘Irene.’ Murphy, overlooking the statement in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1750, p. 85), questioned the fact recorded by Boswell. Boswell accordingly added, in the second edition of his ‘Life,’ ‘as Johnson informed me.’ ‘I know not,’ he also says, ‘how his play came to be thus graced by the pen of a person then so eminent in the political world’ (Boswell, Life, ed. Croker).

[Roberts's Diary of Walter Yonge (Camd. Soc.), 1848, pp. xii, xiii; Burke's Extinct Baronetcies; Wotton's Baronetage, 1771, ii. 227; Graduati Cantabr.; Thomson's Hist. of Royal Society, App. v; Walpole's Memoirs of George II, i. 22, 24, 116, 369; Coxe's Pelham Administration, 1829; History of White's Club, 1892; Lord Hervey's Memoirs; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Works (Bohn); Suffolk Correspondence, ed. Croker; Dodsley's Collection of Poems, 1758, vi. 230; Walpole's Correspondence, ed. Cunningham, i. 98, 100, 119, 130, 218, 400, 407, ii. 22, 78, 82, 458, vi. 65, viii. 233; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, vols. iii. iv.; Grenville Corresp. i. 73–4; Mahon's Hist. of England, iii. 19, 137; Morley's Walpole, p. 238; Chesterfield's Letters, ed. Mahon; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. vii. 164.]

T. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.286
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
332 i 8-11 Yonge, Sir William: for to replace his father ... to meet on 10 May 1722, read to represent Honiton on 4 Feb. 1714-5,
l.l. for Byng, Torrington, Norris, and Wager, read Byng (Viscount Torrington), Norris, Wager, and others,