The Earl of Bessborough
Home Secretary
In office
19 July 1834 – 15 November 1834
MonarchWilliam IV
Prime MinisterThe Viscount Melbourne
Preceded byThe Viscount Melbourne
Succeeded byThe Duke of Wellington
Lord Lieutenant of Ireland
In office
8 July 1846 – 22 May 1847
Prime MinisterLord John Russell
Preceded byThe Lord Heytesbury
Succeeded byThe Earl of Clarendon
Personal details
John William Ponsonby

31 August 1781 (1781-08-31)
Died16 May 1847 (1847-05-17) (aged 65)
Political partyWhig
Spouse(s)Lady Maria Fane
Children14, including John, Frederick, Emily, Walter, and Spencer
Parent(s)Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough
Lady Henrietta Spencer
Alma materChrist Church, Oxford

John William Ponsonby, 4th Earl of Bessborough, PC (31 August 1781 – 16 May 1847), known as Viscount Duncannon from 1793 to 1844, was a British Whig politician. He was notably Home Secretary in 1834 and served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1846 and 1847, the first years of the Great Famine.

Background and education

Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough, with her sons William and John by John Hoppner (1787)

A member of the prominent Ponsonby family of Cumberland, he was the eldest son of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, and Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer, daughter of John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer. Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby and William Ponsonby, 1st Baron de Mauley, were his younger brothers, while Lady Caroline Lamb was his younger sister. Ponsonby's mother was Lord Granville's lover prior to his marriage to Lady Harriet Cavendish, the Countess of Bessborough's niece. Lord Granville fathered two illegitimate children through her: Harriette Stewart and George Stewart. Lord Bessborough was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford.

Political career

He was First Commissioner of Woods and Forests under Lord Grey (1831–1834) and served under Lord Melbourne in that office (1835–1841), briefly as Home Secretary (1834), and as Lord Privy Seal (1835–1839). Later, he served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under Lord John Russell from 1846 until his death on 16 May 1847. During his service the Great Famine (Ireland) progressed. He was made a Privy Counsellor in 1831 and in 1834, ten years before he succeeded his father, he was created Baron Duncannon, of Bessborough in the County of Kilkenny. He was Lord Lieutenant of Kilkenny from November 1838 until his death.[1]

He had a stammer, which made him a very reluctant public speaker, believing that it hampered his political career. As Lord Duncannon, he was unkindly nicknamed "Dumbcannon". In private on the other hand, he was regarded as a valued colleague in Government, due largely to his ability to keep his head in a crisis. He was one of the so-called Committee of Four who drafted the Reform Act 1832.


Bessborough House, County Kilkenny, Ireland in 1818 - the family seat of the Earls of Bessborough

John Ponsonby married Lady Maria Fane, daughter of John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, and his wife Sarah (née Child), on 16 November 1805 at Berkeley Square, London. They had eight sons and six daughters.[2][3] Their daughter Lady Emily Charlotte Mary remained unmarried but she wrote a number of novels which were published without attribution.[4] Through his daughter Lady Augusta Gore, Bessborough was the grandfather of sportsman Spencer Gore, who won the first Wimbledon singles title in 1877, and the Rt. Rev. Charles Gore, the Bishop of Oxford.[5]

Children of Lord and Lady Bessborough:[6]

The Viscountess Duncannon died in March 1834, aged 46.[2] Lord Bessborough survived her by thirteen years and died in May 1847, aged 65. He was succeeded in the earldom by his eldest son, John, and subsequently by his younger sons Frederick and Walter. Bessborough Gardens in London is named after Lord Bessborough.[3]


  1. ^ "PONSONBY, John William, Visct. Duncannon (1781-1847)".
  2. ^ a b Burke, John Bernard (1845). A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire. H. Colburn. p. 93. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  3. ^ a b The London Encyclopaedia, Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, Macmillan, 1995, ISBN 0-333-57688-8.
  4. ^ "Ponsonby, Emily Charlotte Mary" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  5. ^ "Spencer William Gore (1850–1906)". Epsom and Ewell History Explorer. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  6. ^ Debrett's Genealogical Peerage of Great Britain and Ireland. William Pickering. 1845. p. 82. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byWilliam CavendishLord John Townshend Member of Parliament for Knaresborough 1805–1806 With: Lord John Townshend Succeeded byViscount OssulstonLord John Townshend Preceded byWilliam Windham Member of Parliament for Higham Ferrers 1810–1812 Succeeded byWilliam Plumer Preceded bySir Robert DundasBryan Cooke Member of Parliament for Malton 1812–1826 With: John Ramsden Succeeded byJohn RamsdenViscount Normanby Preceded byViscount Bernard Member of Parliament for Bandon 1826 Succeeded byLord John Russell Preceded byHon. Frederick PonsonbyCharles Clarke Member of Parliament for Kilkenny County 1826–1832 With: Charles Clarke 1826–1830Earl of Ossory 1830–1832 Succeeded byPierce ButlerWilliam Finn Preceded byThomas DenmanSir Ronald Craufurd Ferguson Member of Parliament for Nottingham 1832–1834 With: Sir Ronald Craufurd Ferguson Succeeded bySir Ronald Craufurd FergusonSir John Cam Hobhouse, Bt Political offices Preceded byGeorge Agar-Ellis First Commissioner of Woods and Forests 1831–1834 Succeeded bySir John Cam Hobhouse, Bt Preceded byThe Viscount Melbourne Home Secretary 1834 Succeeded byHenry Goulburn Preceded byThe Lord Wharncliffe Lord Privy Seal 1835–1840 Succeeded byThe Earl of Clarendon Preceded byLord Granville Somerset First Commissioner of Woods and Forests 1835–1841 Succeeded byEarl of Lincoln Preceded byThe Lord Heytesbury Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1846–1847 Succeeded byThe Earl of Clarendon Honorary titles New title Lord Lieutenant of Carlow 1830–1838 Succeeded byViscount Duncannon Preceded byThe Marquess of Ormonde Lord Lieutenant of Kilkenny 1838–1847 Succeeded byWilliam Tighe Peerage of Ireland Preceded byFrederick Ponsonby Earl of Bessborough 1844–1847 Succeeded byJohn Ponsonby Viscount Duncannon 1844–1847 Baron Bessborough 1844–1847 Peerage of Great Britain Preceded byFrederick Ponsonby Baron Ponsonby of Sysonby 1844–1847 Succeeded byJohn Ponsonby Peerage of the United Kingdom New creation Baron Duncannon 1834–1847 Member of the House of Lords(1834–1847) Succeeded byJohn Ponsonby