Ponsonby, John William (1781–1847), 4th earl of Bessborough , politician, landowner, and lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born 31 August 1781, eldest son of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd earl of Bessborough, and his wife, Henrietta Frances, second daughter of the 1st Earl Spencer. From 11 March 1793 he was known by the courtesy title of Viscount Duncannon until (July 1834) he was himself created Baron Duncannon and called to the house of lords; on 3 February 1844 he succeeded his father as 4th earl of Bessborough. He married (1805) Lady Maria Fane, third daughter of the 10th earl of Westmorland by his first wife, Sarah Anne (daughter and heir of Robert Child of Osterley Park, Middlesex) with whom he had eight sons and six daughters. Duncannon attended Harrow School and Oxford University (Christ Church, MA 1802).
The Ponsonbys formed an integral part of the whig political and social cousinage and Duncannon was related to many of the leading figures supporting the whig cause. During his early years in the house of commons he represented a series of English boroughs controlled by whig patrons. As, however, his father's chief residence was at Bessborough House in Co. Kilkenny and all the family's land (reckoned in the 1870s to amount to 35,440 acres with a gross annual value of £22,384) lay in Ireland, he moved in 1826 to the Kilkenny county constituency, for which he sat until 1832, though not without some (temporary) opposition from the party of Daniel O'Connell (qv) at a by-election in February 1831. From 1832 to July 1834 he was MP for Nottingham. He was lord lieutenant of Co. Carlow 1831–8 and of Co. Kilkenny 1838–47.
Although Duncannon's parliamentary activity was at first modest – and he remained a poor speaker throughout his life – his social poise and lively sense of humour soon made him a popular political figure. By 1817 his talents for efficient and unobtrusive organisation were well enough established for him to be involved in high-level discussions concerning whig tactics. Indeed, the party leadership in the commons might have been his had he not disliked debate and preferred the backstairs role of whip.
Duncannon's most important contributions fall under three main headings: his role as negotiator and manager; his membership of the committee that drew up outline reform bills in 1831; and the connecting link that he provided between the whig leadership and O'Connell's political movement in Ireland. In the 1820s and 1830s he played an active part in organising elections in England and Ireland and was notable for his willingness to concern himself with the often tedious details of selecting suitable candidates, raising money, and orchestrating local campaigns. The necessity of finding room in Grey's administration for Canningites, Huskissonites, reformers, and others meant that he obtained the comparatively poor reward of being appointed in February 1831 first commissioner of woods and forests (and also sworn of the privy council). He held this post (outside the cabinet) until Grey retired in July 1834, when Duncannon was appointed to the cabinet as home secretary by his brother-in-law, Lord Melbourne (qv). After the brief tory ministry of November 1834–April 1835 he was reappointed to the woods and forests (and was also lord privy seal until January 1840) with a seat in the cabinet, and held that post until the defeat of Melbourne's ministry in August 1841. Although he headed an important spending department for more than nine years, Duncannon's talents lay more in the area of party manoeuvring and policy formation than in administration – a fact that was to have unfortunate consequences when he was obliged in the last years of his life to play a key part in the government's handling of the great famine.
In 1831 Grey asked Durham, Russell, and Duncannon to form a committee to draw up proposals for reform bills. Duncannon probably owed his inclusion to his friendship with O'Connell (whose parliamentary support was badly needed) and to his knowledge of Irish matters generally. He fully approved of the committee's comparatively dramatic proposals, including that for the introduction of the secret ballot (though this was rejected by the cabinet). Although his draft Irish reform bill was designed to produce an electorate proportionate to that of England and Wales, it was greatly watered down by the Irish chief secretary, Edward Stanley (qv) later 14th earl of Derby, who was probably also largely responsible for the Irish reform act's poor drafting and manifold technical inadequacies.
Throughout the 1830s Duncannon belonged to that group of aristocratic whigs who supported a forward policy of reform over a wide field. As such he tended to act with men like Russell rather than with more resistant figures like Lansdowne or Melbourne himself. His talents as a negotiator were formidable and it was largely his efforts that brought about the adherence of O'Connell and his party to the Lichfield House compact of 1835, by which the Irish agreed to act with the whigs and reformers in return for concessions short of repeal of the act of union. More generally, Duncannon played the part of intermediary between O'Connell and whig administrations, an arrangement that suited all concerned: O'Connell was able to obtain second-order favours as well as hints about possible shifts in policy; the whigs were able to deal with the Irish without having to meet them directly.
After Melbourne's electoral defeat in 1841 Duncannon became less active politically. He concentrated on his estates and succeeded as 4th earl of Bessborough in 1844. In July 1846, however, Russell appointed him to the post of lord lieutenant of Ireland, the first resident Irish landlord to hold that office for very many years. Although his intentions were of the best, his efforts as viceroy were overwhelmed by the potato blight and famine, which had begun the previous year. Russell's determination to make the Irish landlords pay for relief, though utterly unrealistic, proved too great an obstacle for even a politician of Bessborough's experience who clearly saw that greater government help and intervention were required. Yet he too wobbled indecisively between the (at least theoretical) conviction that ‘it is useless to think of ordinary means’ to ‘solve’ the crisis, and a determination to confine himself to ‘such measures as may be carried with as little charge to England as possible’ (to Russell, 19 September 1846, Russell papers, PRO 30/22/5C). ‘I know all the difficulties’, he rather helplessly told Russell in early 1847, ‘that arrive when you begin to interfere with trade, but it is difficult to persuade a starving population that one class should be permitted to make 50 per cent by the sale of provisions, while they are dying in want of them’ (to Russell, 23 January 1847, Russell papers, PRO 30/22/6A).
By then Bessborough was, in any case, a sick man, and he died at Dublin castle, surrounded by seventeen members of his family, on 16 May 1847 of (according to contemporary diagnoses) hydrothorax or dropsy on the chest. Hobhouse records that Russell related Bessborough's ‘eternal farewell’ to the cabinet ‘with a faltering voice and much affected’ (Broughton diary, BL, Add. MS 43750) and Hansard took the rare step of commenting on a parliamentarian's emotional state in its report of Russell's announcement to the commons of the viceroy's death (xcii, 1053).
Bessborough's latter years had, however, despite all the retrospective encomiums, been marred by an over-fondness for alcohol and by an equally public involvement with a series of married women. Already as a young man he had disturbed his parents with a variety of flirtations; as viceroy (and by then a widower) he was constantly in the company of the novelist Catherine Charlotte Maberly (1805–75), wife of William Leader Maberly (1798–1885), joint-secretary of the GPO, whose ‘ostentatious effrontery’, Greville noted, ‘generated universal ridicule and disgust’. Yet until the end Bessborough, as Greville also observed, continued, in every respect, to be remarkable for ‘calm and unruffled temper and very good sound sense. The consequence was that he was consulted by everybody, and universally and constantly employed in the arrangement of difficulties, the adjustment of rival pretensions, and the reconciliation of differences, for which purpose some such man is indispensable and invaluable in every great political association’ (Greville memoirs, v, 447).