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William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, PC, FRS (15 March 1779 – 24 November 1848) was a Britishmarker Whig statesman who served as Home Secretary (1830–1834) and Prime Minister (1834 and 1835–1841), and was a mentor of Queen Victoria. The city of Melbournemarker in Australia was named after him.


Born in Londonmarker to an aristocratic Whig family and educated at Etonmarker and Trinity College, Cambridgemarker, he fell in with a group of Romantic Radicals that included Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. In 1805 he succeeded his elder brother as heir to his father's title and he married Lady Caroline Ponsonby. The next year he was elected to the British House of Commonsmarker as the Whig MP for Leominstermarker.

He first came to general notice for reasons he would rather have avoided: his wife had a public affair with Lord Byron — she coined the famous characterisation of him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". The resulting scandal was the talk of Britain in 1812. Eventually the two reconciled and though they separated in 1825, her death (1828) affected him considerably.

Lamb's hallmark was finding the middle ground. Though a Whig, he accepted the post of Irish Secretary (1827) in the moderate Tory governments of George Canning and Lord Goderich. Upon the death of his father in 1828 and his becoming Viscount Melbourne, he moved to the House of Lordsmarker, but when the Whigs came to power under Lord Grey in November 1830 he became Home Secretary in the new government. One of his first acts was to insist on harsh punishments for the impoverished agricultural labourers involved in the machine-breaking Swing Riots. Sentences of hanging, transportation and imprisonment followed.

Wrongful execution of Dic Penderyn

After the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the British government, led by Lord Melbourne, was determined that at least one rebel should die as an example. A 23 year-old miner named Dic Penderyn was accused of stabbing a soldier in the leg with a seized bayonet. The people of Merthyr Tydfilmarker were convinced that he was innocent, and 11,000 signed a petition demanding his release. The government refused, and Penderyn was hanged at Cardiffmarker market on 13 August 1831. In 1874 it was discovered that another man named Ianto Parker, not Dic Penderyn, had stabbed the soldier and then fled to America fearing capture by the authorities, and also that witness James Abbott, who had testified at Penderyn's trial, admitted that he had lied under oath, under the orders of Lord Melbourne, in order to secure a conviction.

Political philosophy

Compromise was the key to many of Melbourne's actions. He was opposed in theory to the radical governmental reforms proposed by the Whigs, but reluctantly accepted that they were necessary to forestall the threat of revolution. While he was less radical than many, when Lord Grey resigned (July 1834), Melbourne was widely seen as the most acceptable replacement among the Whig leaders, and became Prime Minister.

King William IV's opposition to the Whigs' reforming ways led him to dismiss Melbourne in November. He then gave the Tories under Robert Peel an opportunity to form a government. Peel's failure to win a House of Commons majority in the resulting general election (January 1835) made it impossible for him to govern, and the Whigs returned to power under Melbourne in April 1835. This was the last time a British monarch attempted to dismiss a prime minister.

The next year, Melbourne was once again involved in a sex scandal. This time he was the victim of attempted blackmail from the husband of a close friend, society beauty and author Caroline Norton. The husband demanded £1400, and when he was turned down he accused Melbourne of having an affair with his wife. In the early 19th century even one sexual scandal (like the one two decades earlier involving Lord Byron) would be enough to finish off the career of most men, so it is a measure of the respect contemporaries had for his integrity that Melbourne's government did not fall. After Mr. Norton was unable to produce any evidence of an affair, the scandal died away.

Nonetheless, as a recent historian records, "it is irrefutable that Melbourne's personal life was problematic":

Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity ....

Melbourne was Prime Minister when Queen Victoria came to the throne (June 1837). Barely eighteen, she was only just breaking free from the domineering influence of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her mother's advisor, John Conroy. Over the next four years Melbourne trained her in the art of politics and the two became friends: Victoria was quoted as saying she considered him like a father (her own had died when she was only eight months old), and Melbourne's daughter had died at a young age. Melbourne was given a private apartment at Windsor Castlemarker, and unfounded rumours circulated for a time that Victoria would marry Melbourne, forty years her senior.

In May 1839 the Bedchamber Crisis occurred when Melbourne tried to resign and Victoria rejected the request of prospective Tory prime minister Robert Peel that she dismiss some of the wives and daughters of Whig MPs who made up her personal entourage. As monarch she was expected to avoid any hint of favouritism to a party out of power, so her action (which was supported by the Whigs) led to Peel's refusal to form a new government. Melbourne was eventually persuaded to stay on as Prime Minister. On 25 February 1841, he was admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Even after Melbourne resigned permanently in August 1841, Victoria continued writing to him. This too was forbidden, however, for the same reasons as before, and eventually the correspondence was forced to an end. Melbourne's role faded away as Victoria came to rely on her new husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha as well as on herself.

Melbourne left a considerable list of reforming legislation - not as long as that of Lord Grey, but worthy nonetheless. Among his administration's acts were a reduction in the number of capital offences, and reforms of local government. The reform of the Poor laws, however was a severely reactionary measure, restricting the terms on which the poor were allowed relief and establishing compulsory admission to workhouses for the impoverished poor.

Melbourne's most visible memorial is the city of Melbournemarker, Australia, which was named after him in 1837.

Another lasting memorial is his favourite, and most famous, dictum in politics: "Why not leave it alone?", quoted by those who object to change for change's sake.


The city of Melbournemarker, Australia, was named in his honour in March 1837, as he was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time. (For further information see Melbournemarker)

Melbourne's Governments


  1. Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846 (Oxford 2006).

  • Ziegler, Philip Melbourne: A Life of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1976), 410p.

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