Lamb, William (1779–1848), 2nd Viscount Melbourne , chief secretary for Ireland and British prime minister, was born 15 March 1779 at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, the second son of Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne, and his wife, Elizabeth Lamb (née Milbanke). Because of his mother's infidelity there is much doubt about William's parentage, and it was suspected by contemporaries that Lord Egremont was his natural father. Educated at Eton, Trinity College, Cambridge, and Glasgow university, he also studied law at Lincoln's Inn. He was called to the bar in 1804, but decided to pursue a political career: he entered parliament as MP for Leominster (1806–12). After losing his seat in the 1812 election over his support for catholic emancipation, he returned to the commons four years later as MP for Northampton (1816–19) and then served as MP for Hertfordshire (1819–27).
With the formation of George Canning's ministry in 1827 he was appointed chief secretary for Ireland on 29 April, and became MP for Bletchingley (1827–9). His time in Ireland was brief – twelve months – but, although he was not very active, his stylish approach made an immediate impact and he was regarded highly for his manners and ideas. His chief weakness was his disorganised writing style, and Canning pleaded with him to number his letters to give the appearance of method. Although a supporter of emancipation, he was critical of the methods of the Catholic Association and had little regard for Daniel O'Connell (qv), considering him a braggart; however, recognising O'Connell's importance, he worked hard to reconcile him to the administration. Lamb's willingness to open offices to catholics won respect in some quarters, but deep suspicion from the protestant ascendancy. After the sudden death of Canning in August 1827, Lamb's position was in doubt, but he remained in Ireland during the premierships of Goderich and then of the duke of Wellington (qv), who appointed Lord Anglesey (qv) lord lieutenant. After January 1828 he spent most of his time in London, and in April he resigned as secretary when William Huskisson, his closest political ally, retired over a policy dispute; acting with notable integrity and honour, Lamb insisted that one must always support one's friends, especially when they were wrong.
On the death of his father in February 1829 he succeeded as 2nd Viscount Melbourne and took his seat in the house of lords. A supporter of the whigs, he was a very successful home secretary in Lord Grey's ministry (1830–34), where he had responsibility for Ireland. Wanting his Irish policy to be ‘firm but fair’, he made several efforts to reduce through constructive measures the popularity of repeal of the union. He attempted to cultivate O'Connell's support, even offering to make him master of the rolls, but as their relationship deteriorated he supported his arrest and the suppression of repeal meetings. After the collapse of the ministry in July 1834, he was prime minister in a short-lived administration. He was dismissed by the king in November, but the following April was invited to lead a second ministry, which was more enduring (1835–41).
In February and March 1835 whigs and repealers had met at Lichfield House, London, to discuss combining against Peel's tory administration. O'Connell agreed to support Melbourne's minority whig government in return for reform in Ireland. The Irish Poor Law Act (1838) extended the English poor law to Ireland and the Tithe Rentcharge Act (1838) converted tithe into a charge payable by landlords rather than occupiers, but most of the other reforms introduced were relatively modest: municipal reform legislation (1840), for example, was severely watered-down. However, Ireland was administered in a more liberal and even-handed spirit under the new lord lieutenant, the earl of Mulgrave (qv), his chief secretary Viscount Morpeth (qv), and the reforming under secretary, Thomas Drummond (qv).
On Irish affairs Melbourne occasionally displayed remarkable insensitivity and ignorance; his dismissive comment about evicted peasants who were starving was that ‘they ate too much’ (Ziegler, 262). His relationship with the young Queen Victoria was one of the most important aspects of his ministry. He had a major influence on her thinking, and instructed her on the role of a constitutional monarch. After defeat in the general election he resigned on 30 August 1841. Having returned to opposition, he suffered a stroke on 23 October 1842 and withdrew gradually from politics. With the outbreak of the great famine in 1845 his fading judgement was evident; he rejected the stories of hardship as propaganda. Becoming increasingly withdrawn and depressed, he suffered a further stroke in April 1848 and died 24 November.
He married 3 June 1805 Lady Caroline Ponsonby, daughter of the 3rd earl of Bessborough. The marriage was a stormy one, and gave rise to much scandal, especially after her notorious affair with Lord Byron; Lamb never lost his composure throughout the affair and continued to treat his wife with kindness. The couple had no children and separated in 1825. Lamb later had a number of relationships and was named in a divorce case in April 1836; the verdict was given in his favour.
A cautious and conservative politician, he preferred to postpone making a decision on an issue until it became unavoidable, or until the results could be predicted with accuracy. Even his great admirer, Queen Victoria, criticised him for not being ‘a good or firm minister’ (Ziegler, p. 364). These traits were especially evident in his Irish policies. Although he was respected for his apparent normality and honourable character, it is possible that his repressed nature contributed to many of his professional shortcomings. His papers are in the Royal Archives, Windsor.