SHELLEY, John Villiers (1808-1867), of Maresfield, Suss.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1830 - 1831
1831 - 2 Aug. 1831
1852 - 1865

Family and Education

b. 18 Mar. 1808, 1st s. of Sir John Shelley, 6th bt.*, and Frances, da. and h. of Thomas Winckley of Brockholes, Lancs. educ. Charterhouse 1819-23. m. 13 Aug. 1832, Louisa, da. of Rev. Samuel Johnes Knight of Henley Hall, Salop, 1da. suc. fa. as 7th bt. 28 Mar. 1852. d. 20 Jan. 1867.

Offices Held

Ensign R. Horse Gds. 1825, lt. 1828; lt. 20 Ft. 1830; lt. (half-pay) 60 Ft. 1831; ret. 1832; lt.-col. 46 Mdx. Rifle Vols. 1861-d.


Shelley, who was the fourth successive generation of the line of Sussex baronets to sit in the Commons, appears to have inherited his father’s lack of scholarly inclination. He chose an ornamental army career in preference to university, and was described by the duke of Bedford in 1828, a propos of a rumoured marriage, as ‘no great catch, not a bit wiser than his father’. Harriet Arbuthnot was more complimentary on the occasion of his coming of age the following year, considering him to be ‘a very fine young man, very good looking and gentlemanlike’.1 At the general election of 1830 he was returned for Gatton, his distant cousin Lord Monson’s pocket borough.

The duke of Wellington’s ministry regarded him (like his father) as one of their ‘friends’, and he voted with them in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830. He was added to the select committee on the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 15 Feb. 1831 (and reappointed, 28 June 1831). Delivering his maiden speech against the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 2 Mar., he echoed his father’s warnings that the measure would form a prelude to more radical change and that it would make government impossible. He provoked uproar with his remarkable defence of the close boroughs, whose representatives he characterized as ‘the only really truly independent Members’, as they had no constituents to answer to. He added a bizarre request for a separate Member to be assigned to the Westminster parish of St. George’s, explaining that since ‘the borough which I represent was held up as the first that ought to be disfranchised it would only have been fair if the parish in which I live should have a representative’. A radical commentator ridiculed this ‘singularly absurd speech’, which was ‘even considered as such in the House’.2 He divided against the bill’s second reading, 22 Mar., and according to Thomas Creevey*, describing the scene at Crockford’s Club after the division, he did not swallow defeat with the dignity of most of his associates.3 His was the sole voice raised against the ‘great clamour’ for reform at a Sussex meeting on the issue, 7 Apr., when he objected to the abolition of close boroughs and the disfranchisement of poorer voters and alleged that the measure was being pushed by ministers as a convenient distraction from the ‘mass of blunders’ in their budget. Wellington heard ‘from the very best authority’ that the speech was ‘capital and ... gave great satisfaction to all but his opponents’; and even the radical Brighton Guardian could not but ‘admire his cool intrepidity and the talent ... he displayed’, adding prophetically that ‘he is yet young, and we hope to see him reclaimed from the ranks of corruption’.4 On the presentation of the resulting petition to the Commons, 18 Apr. 1831, he argued that Sussex contained many silent objectors and repeated his criticism of Whig fiscal policy. He voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment the next day. At the ensuing dissolution he was obliged to vacate his Gatton seat, which Monson required for another, and despite his youth he canvassed Sussex, only to abandon it for Grimsby, which was scheduled for partial disfranchisement and therefore likely to be receptive to his view of the reform bill as ‘a crude and ill digested experiment’; he was narrowly returned in second place.5 He divided against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and to use the 1831 census for the purpose of determining the disfranchisement schedules, 19 July 1831. He intervened in the discussion on Grimsby’s partial disfranchisement, 25 July, to state that far from being a nomination or decayed borough, it was ‘in a highly thriving and prosperous condition’. However, his tenure as the borough’s representative proved to be short-lived, as his election was declared void on the ground of treating, 2 Aug. 1831, a judgement which he considered ‘harsh in the extreme’ when he spoke on behalf of the new Tory candidates.6

In October 1832 Shelley’s mother reported that he was in Sussex ‘reading hard and performing his duties as a magistrate’, and a letter at this time from Charles Arbuthnot* suggests that he had to be dissuaded from offering for the eastern division of the county at the impending general election. When he finally stood a contest there in 1841, it was as a Whig, and he was soundly beaten.7 He had been estranged from his parents for some years and in 1842 his father reported to Sir Robert Peel*:

It is painful to me to mention the cruel conduct of my eldest son, particularly to his devoted mother, but though we have been silent, I fear it is too well known that from the day we signed the marriage settlement by which we made him an absolute gift of Maresfield, he has tried to fasten a quarrel upon us, with the object of avoiding the understood engagement that his home was to be our country house and home ... His determination remains unchanged never to let us enter his doors and the hope which induced us to make him independent is at last completely extinct.8

He was returned for Westminster in 1852, shortly after succeeding to his father’s title, and his second political incarnation was as a Liberal and champion of further parliamentary reform. He became involved in the ill-fated Bank of London and, according to an obituarist, was ‘never ... the same man’ after its failure in 1866. He died of gout, ‘the old enemy’, in January 1867, whereupon his brother Frederic (1809-69) succeeded to the baronetcy, while the Maresfield estate passed to his only child Blanche.9

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. Shelley Diary, ii. 128; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 255; Add. 51669, Bedford to Lady Holland, 30 June 1828.
  • 2. The Times, 3 Mar. 1831; [W.D. Carpenter], People’s Bk. 365.
  • 3. Creevey Pprs. ii. 255.
  • 4. Brighton Guardian, 13 Apr. 1831; Shelley Diary, ii. 207.
  • 5. Brighton Gazette, 14, 21, 28 Apr. 1831; Grimsby Pollbook (1831), 5-6.
  • 6. Hist. Grimsby Election (1831), 13.
  • 7. Shelley Diary, ii. 217; Add. 40617, f. 2; The Times, 7 July 1841.
  • 8. Add. 40504, f. 363.
  • 9. Gent. Mag. (1867), i. 383; Sporting Rev. (1867), lvii. 159-60.