Bennet, Henry Grey 1777-1836, reformer, was born 2 December 1777, the second of three sons and fourth of eight children of Charles Bennet, fourth Earl of Tankerville, of Chillingham Castle, Northumberland, and his wife Emma, daughter and co-heiress of the London banker Sir James Colebrooke, first baronet, of Gatton, Surrey. Educated at Eton, he served five years in the 1st Foot Guards, entered Lincolns Inn in 1798, and Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1799 (MA, 1801). Between interludes as assistant to (Sir) William Drummond [qv.], envoy at Naples, and captain of volunteers, he was called to the bar (1803). He practised on the western circuit, where Thomas Creevey [qv.] found him most amiable, occasionally most boring, but at all times most upright and honourable.
Bennet, whose father, formerly joint postmaster-general, had abandoned politics, shared his brother Ossulstons political ambition: both belonged to Brookss Club. His election as MP for Shrewsbury in 1806 was invalidated, not before he had signalled hostility to George IIIs dismissal of the Talents administration. His advocacy of Catholic emancipation courted defeat in 1807. Before regaining his seat in 1811 he viewed the Peninsular war theatre. He faced no contest after 1812. In the Commons he joined the opposition mountain led by Samuel Whitbread [qv.], whom he revered, although his closest associates were fellow-lawyers, Thomas Creevey and Henry Brougham [qv.]. His maiden speech, ostensibly a conventional attack on placemen, was directed at the prince regent who, provoked by Bennets championship of his estranged wife, labelled him factious. Bennet shunned the constitutional opposition leaders as deviants from Foxite principles, but his bÍte noire was Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh [qv.], leader of the House, with the home secretary Henry Addington, first Viscount Sidmouth, a close second. His quest for a cheap and reformed government meant frequent tirades against army estimates, civil list extravagance, and taxes. He assailed other reactionary regimes sanctified by Napoleons final defeat, prior to which he toured the Continent. He condemned postwar curtailment of civil liberties, and support for parliamentary reform involved him in metropolitan politics, but he disappointed Whigs and Radicals alike. After the Peterloo massacre of August 1819 he sought an inquiry into the manufacturing districts plight. His outspoken defence of Queen Caroline in 1820-1 led to his portrayal among her champions in an engraving by Francis Holl after Abraham Wivell [qqv.]. The radical Black Book (1823) commended him:
Always at his post. Supports Mr [Joseph] Hume nobly. Tells the Collective Wisdom home truths. Calls for useful papers and documents. Shames the rogues..
Great.. as the labours of Mr Hume have been, it may be doubted whether all his exertions can be put in competition with the single act of Mr Bennet in obtaining an accurate return of the salaries, offices and emoluments of the honourable Members
Bennets efforts to diminish the sum of human misery adorn the history of English criminal law. No retributory institution, prison, hulk, penal colony, or penitentiary adequately combined punishment with reformation: he and his select committees exposed them, to little avail. The inquiry into metropolitan policing which he initiated, prompted by Sir Samuel Romilly [qv.], caused such a furore in 1816 that ten years elapsed before constructive legislation emerged, although Bennet, having previously piloted the abolition of gaol fees, overthrew statutory rewards for informers on felony in 1818. Other abuses that he confronted included flogging, callous capital punishments, confusion of political prisoners with felons, the despotism of colonial governors, the plight of lunatics and child chimney-sweeps, and corrupt licensing. He was sometimes taken in by unscrupulous petitioners.
The abrupt termination of Bennets public career in 1824, ascribed to the death of his only son, was followed by his exile to Italy. The threat of criminal prosecution for a sexual offence would explain his flight and his pathetic submission to criticism of his endeavours. The author of several pamphlets, and an FRS, Bennet kept a political diary from 1806, now lost, though extracts were published in the nineteenth century and one volume (for 1821) has come to light.
In 1816 he married Gertrude Frances (died 1841), daughter of Lord William Russell. They had one son and two daughters. Bennet died in Florence 29 May 1836.
R. G. Thorne (ed.), The House of Commons 1790-1820, 1986, vol. iii, pp. 178-81
L. Radzinowicz, A History of Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750, 5 vols., 1948-86
British Library, Holland House MSS, Add. MS 51749, 52017
Bennets 1821 diary in the possession of Michael Collinge, London.
Contributor: Roland Thorne