Spencer, Sir George John 2nd Earl Spencer

Male 1758 - 1834  (76 years)

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  • Name Spencer, George John 
    Prefix Sir 
    Suffix 2nd Earl Spencer 
    Born 1 Sep 1758  Wimbledon London England Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Male 
    Died 10 Nov 1834  Althorp Brington, Northamptonshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Person ID I11086  GrangerMusgrave
    Last Modified 3 Sep 2010 

    Father Spencer, John 1st Earl Spencer,   b. 19 Dec 1734, Althorp Brington, Northamptonshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 31 Oct 1783, Bath, Avon, Somerset, England Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 48 years) 
    Mother Poyntz, Margaret Georgiana,   b. 27 Apr 1737,   d. 18 Mar 1814  (Age 76 years) 
    Married 20 Dec 1755  Althorp Brington, Northamptonshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Family ID F7715  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family Bingham, Lady Lavinia,   b. 27 Jul 1762, Castlebar Co Mayo Ireland Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 8 Jun 1831, Spencer House St. Jame’s Place London England Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 68 years) 
    Married 6 Mar 1781  Charles St. Mayfair London England Find all individuals with events at this location 
     1. Spencer, Lady Sarah,   b. 29 Jul 1787, Althorp Brington, Northamptonshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 13 Apr 1870, Hagley Worcestershire England Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 82 years)
     2. Spencer, Vice-Admiral Sir Frederick 4th Earl Spencer,   b. 14 Apr 1798, Admiralty Building, Whitehall, London, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 27 Dec 1857, Althorp Brington, Northamptonshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 59 years)
    Last Modified 3 Sep 2010 
    Family ID F7716  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Photos
    George John Spencer
    George John Spencer

  • Notes 
    • Spencer George John second Earl Spencer (1758–1834) politician and book collector was born at Wimbledon Park in Surrey on 1 September 1758 the only son of John Spencer first Earl Spencer (1734–1783) politician and landowner and his wife (Margaret) Georgiana Spencer (1737–1814) the daughter of Stephen Poyntz of Midgham in Berkshire. When his father was elevated to an earldom in 1765 Spencer took the courtesy title Viscount Althorp.

      From 1765 to 1770 Althorp was privately tutored by the orientalist Sir William Jones who instilled in him a love of the Greek and Roman classics and an appreciation of fine books that he retained until the end of his life. In 1770 he entered Harrow School where he remained until 1775. Having been admitted in 1776 to Trinity College Cambridge he proceeded to a nobleman's MA degree in 1778. He then went on the grand tour of Europe for nearly two years. Tall and athletic but gentle and reserved in demeanour he had neither the bearing nor the scintillating personality of his elder sister Georgiana Cavendish duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806) nor the vivacity of his younger sister Henrietta Ponsonby countess of Bessborough (1761–1821). He was however agreeable polished in manners and temperate in conduct. His intellectual acuity was recognized when on Sir William Jones's recommendation he was welcomed in 1778 as an active member of Johnson's Literary Club and in 1780 he became a fellow of the Royal Society. The University of Oxford awarded him the honorary degree of DCL in 1793.

      Althorp married on 6 March 1782 Lady Lavinia Bingham (1762–1831) the eldest daughter of Charles Bingham first earl of Lucan and his wife Margaret Bingham née Smith (c.1740–1814) a miniature painter. Lavinia Spencer was a strong-minded and strong-willed woman of great erudition and charm and was perhaps the pre-eminent hostess in London society. Both at Althorp and Spencer House in London the Spencers delighted in entertaining the foremost intellectual and political leaders of their time. Of their eight children four sons and two daughters reached maturity: John Charles Spencer Viscount Althorp and third Earl Spencer politician; Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer and Frederick Spencer fourth Earl Spencer [see under Spencer Sir Robert Cavendish] who were both naval officers; the Revd George Spencer; Sarah Lyttelton Lady Lyttelton governess to Queen Victoria's children; and Lady Georgiana Charlotte Quin.

      Althorp's family connection was staunchly whig and in that tradition he began his political career. He was returned to parliament on the family interest for Northampton borough in 1780. After vacating that seat in 1782 he was then returned for Surrey. Never an impressive speaker he seldom spoke in the Commons but diligently attended to his parliamentary duties. He supported Rockingham's attack on North's government in 1782 and served as a junior lord of the Treasury in the Rockingham administration. Having declined to serve under Shelburne he supported the Fox–North coalition in 1783 but refused the offer to become lord lieutenant of Ireland. On his father's death on 31 October 1783 he succeeded to the earldom. He also became high steward of St Albans where he managed his family's borough interest as well as at Northampton and Okehampton in Devon. The management of his vast estates especially the renovation by Henry Holland of his ancestral seat at Althorp in Northamptonshire and the rebuilding of the Spencer villa at Wimbledon Park diverted his attention from politics. His involvement in political management was also diminished by its demands on his time and the resources of his heavily encumbered estate. The repercussions of the French Revolution on British politics however stirred his sense of public duty and with the duke of Portland and other whig leaders Spencer broke with Fox and Grey and joined the government of William Pitt in 1794. He was sworn of the privy council and became lord keeper of the privy seal on 11 July 1794. Shortly thereafter he was sent as ambassador-extraordinary to Vienna in a futile effort to persuade the Austrians to increase their efforts in the war against France. On his return from Vienna Pitt shifted his ineffective and lethargic brother the earl of Chatham from the Admiralty to the office of privy seal and on 17 December 1794 made Spencer first lord.

      Without any administrative experience or knowledge of the navy Spencer considered his appointment a patriotic duty for the public benefit. Despite his youth and inexperience he required his subordinates especially the professional navy men serving as lords commissioners to recognize the prerogatives and civilian authority of his office. Finding the office routine of the Admiralty in disarray he immediately restored order and set an example by being punctual and methodical in the conduct of business. He maintained that in the shaping of overall strategy the views of the first lord be considered by the foreign secretary and the secretary of state for war and the colonies. Strongly opposed to misdirected colonial expeditions he urged that naval strength be concentrated in European waters. His influence was decisive in appointing capable commanders in major theatres such as Jervis to the Mediterranean command in 1795 and to the channel in 1800 Duncan to the North Sea in 1795 and Nelson to an independent command that won the battle of the Nile in 1798. For all naval officers Spencer sought an improved system of promotion and recognition by merit. He was quick to recognize outstanding service and he recommended Jervis for a peerage in 1797 because of the efficiency and good order of his command. He also demonstrated magnanimity and deference to senior officers who had rendered many years of distinguished service by postponing in 1797 for two years his acceptance of the Garter for himself in favour of Lord Howe. While he and Lady Spencer always sought to maintain cordial social relations with naval officers and their wives he did not hesitate to reprimand Nelson in 1800 for dallying too long with Lady Hamilton at Naples.

      Aware of the corruption and waste in the navy Spencer was unable in time of war to effect significant reform though some progress was made in improving dockyard efficiency. He was interested in Samuel Bentham's innovations in the dockyards and his support of Bentham's work as inspector-general of navy works laid the foundations for reform in later years. Always attracted to any scientific endeavour especially if it could be made applicable to the dockyards Spencer was an early patron of the engineer Marc Isambard Brunel. In the naval mutinies of 1797 he acted promptly decisively and fairly. By going himself to Spithead and by enlisting the aid of Lord Howe he succeeded in persuading the seamen to return to their duty by promising increase in pay and improvement in the conditions of service. At the Nore he was compelled to act with greater severity in quelling the mutiny because he recognized that there was evidence of political incendiarism that had not been present at Spithead. Spencer's six-year tenure at the Admiralty was unprecedented not only in length but in having been entirely during wartime; during his period there the three great naval victories at St Vincent Camperdown and the Nile were won. After leaving the Admiralty when Pitt went out of office in February 1801 he remained interested in the Royal Navy and its personnel especially the welfare of destitute seamen. Two of his sons became naval officers with his blessing and a grandson the fifth Earl Spencer served as first lord of the Admiralty at the end of the nineteenth century.

      Although out of office Spencer continued to voice his opinion on public affairs in the House of Lords and in 1802 he was one of sixteen peers speaking and voting against the peace of Amiens. He renewed his ties with Fox and Grey and in 1806 was home secretary in the coalition ministry of Grenville and Fox. While in that office he served as a member of the special commission investigating the conduct of Caroline princess of Wales. When the ministry resigned in 1807 Spencer retired from national politics though he regularly attended the House of Lords; when his health did not permit attendance he gave Lord Grey his proxy. By 1807 the Spencer family interest at Northampton Okehampton and St Albans had ended and Spencer relinquished his political role to his heir Viscount Althorp.

      From 1807 until the end of his life Spencer devoted his time mainly to local affairs in Northamptonshire and to his literary philanthropic and scientific interests. For more than thirty years he served as chairman of quarter sessions and as colonel of the Northamptonshire regiment of yeomanry. He supported the establishment of a savings bank in Northampton helped to found an institution for deaf mute people and promoted the building of the Northampton Infirmary and an asylum for the insane. From 1820 he was a patron of the peasant poet of Northamptonshire John Clare to whom he provided an annuity; the latter was continued after Spencer's death by his son. As a governor of the Charterhouse and as president of the Royal Institution he promoted education and the advancement of scientific knowledge. He was interested in the improvement and safety of navigation and served as an elder brother of Trinity House and as master from 1806 to 1807. A fellow of the Society of Antiquaries his concern to preserve the national heritage led to his appointment in 1831 as a commissioner of the public records. Spencer was a staunch Anglican and a patron and officer in several evangelical societies such as the British and Foreign Bible Society. He favoured Catholic emancipation and when much to his displeasure his youngest son became a Roman Catholic priest he nevertheless provided financial support for him.

      Spencer's chief interest after retiring from public life and perhaps his pre-eminent achievement was collecting the greatest private library in Europe. By 1834 the collection consisted of upwards of 40000 volumes valued at more than £60000. It was sold in 1892 for £250000 to become the principal collection of the John Rylands Library at Manchester. The nucleus of the collection was the small ancestral library at Althorp but the purchase of the Hungarian Count Reviczky's library in 1790 was the first of many valuable acquisitions that Spencer continued to make until about 1830. The library was especially important for books that illustrated the evolution of the art of printing during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The incunabula in the collection especially books printed by Aldus Manutius William Caxton and Christopher Valdarfer equalled the collections of the greatest public libraries at that time. As the foremost bibliophile of his era it was fitting that Spencer was one of the founders and the first president of the Roxburghe Club the first of the great bibliophilic societies.

      Spencer died on 10 November 1834 at Althorp Park and was buried on 19 November in the Spencer chapel in the church of St Mary the Virgin at Great Brington. Ever faithful to his responsibilities as a privileged aristocrat he willingly performed the duties of public office both locally and nationally as a public trust. First lord of the Admiralty at a critical time he rendered distinguished service to his country as an organizer of naval victory. A philanthropist patron of arts and letters and bibliophile he left his mark on English culture.

      Malcolm Lester

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