Grenville, Thomas 1755-1846, statesman and book collector, third son of George Grenville (1712-1770) [qv.], by Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Wyndham, was born 31 Dec. 1755. He entered Christ Church, Oxford, as a gentleman-commoner, and matriculated 9 Dec. 1771. On 18 May 1778 he was appointed ensign in the Coldstream guards, and in October 1779 was gazetted as lieutenant in the regiment of foot afterwards known as the 80th or the Rutland regiment. These appointments he was ultimately driven to resign. North was attacked for the political bias shown in military appointments. Grenville, who was elected in 1780 as member for Buckinghamshire, was called upon by Fox in the following session to detail to the house the ill-treatment he had received in this capacity, and made a statement which was very damaging to the ministry. Grenville joined the Fox party, and subsequently became a warm friend of Fox. This choice placed him in antagonism to the politics of his family, and the estrangement continued until the period of the French revolution, though the warm affection existing between himself and his brothers was never impaired. Grenville was prepossessing in person and a good speaker. Pitt sought his alliance; Fox had a high opinion of his abilities, and if the India Bill had passed meant to appoint him governor-general.
In 1782 Grenville was entrusted by Rockingham and Fox with the task of arranging the terms of the treaty with the United States. Grenville went to Paris and made some progress with his mission, when he was suddenly recalled by the death of Lord Rockingham. He adhered to Fox, and supported the coalition ministry. After the dissolution of 1784 he lost his seat, but was returned for Aldborough in 1790. In 1791 Grenville brought forward a motion against the increased naval force known as the Russian armament, but his resolution was defeated by 208 to 114. While member for Aldborough, Grenville joined the old whigs, and gave a general support to Pitt. In 1793 Grenville supported the Alien Bill and other government measures; and in the following year he was sent with Earl Spencer as minister extraordinary to the court of Vienna. At the elections of 1796 Grenville was returned for the town of Buckingham, which he continued to represent until his retirement from parliament. In 1798 he was created a privy councillor.
In 1799 Grenville accepted the post of ambassador to Berlin, to propose an alliance against France. The ship in which he sailed was driven back by ice, and the Proserpine, to which he transferred himself, was wrecked off the Newerke Island, and several of the crew perished. Grenville escaped with difficulty, losing everything but his despatches. The English ambassador's enforced delay had enabled the French directory to despatch Siéyès to Berlin, and Grenville's design was frustrated. The king of Prussia having been persuaded by the French to adhere to his neutrality, the British mission returned to England.
In 1800 Grenville received the sinecure office of chief justice in eyre south of Trent, with a salary of 2,000l. Grenville was the last to be appointed to this office, which was abolished in 1817.
Grenville opposed the Addington administration and the Treaty of Amiens, against which he voted in the small minority of twenty with Windham. In 1805 he voted for the prosecution of Lord Melville. He now drifted away from the tory party, and looked forward to a union with Fox, which took place in February 1806, but Grenville was left without office, although his brother was premier. In the following July he became president of the board of control on the appointment of Lord Minto to the viceroyalty of India. After the death of Fox, Grenville was appointed first lord of the admiralty. On the fall of the Grenville administration at the close of March 1807 he practically withdrew from public life. He only voted three times afterwards, viz. in favour of catholic emancipation, of the repeal of the income tax, and for his nephew, C. Williams Wynn, when a candidate for the speakership. He retired from parliament in 1818, and from that time until his death lived in the society of his friends and his books, and devoted himself to the formation of his splendid library.
When Lord Glastonbury died in 1825 he left Grenville all his landed and funded property for life, with remainder to the Rev. Dr. Neville, dean of Windsor. Grenville immediately gave up the landed property to Dr. Neville. His pursuit of book-collecting began early in life, and he was wont to say that when in the guards he bid at a sale against a whole bench of bishops for some scarce edition of the Bible. He was appointed a trustee of the British Museum.
Grenville died at Hamilton Place, Piccadilly, 17 Dec. 1846. His large charities became known after his death. He had originally bequeathed his library to the Duke of Buckingham, but revoked this bequest in a codicil, stating that as his books had been in great part acquired from a sinecure office, he felt it right to leave them to the British Museum, only leaving certain manuscripts to the duke. The British Museum thus received upwards of twenty thousand volumes, valued at more than 50,000l. The collection consisted chiefly of printed books. The most valuable classes of the collection were—first, the Homers; secondly, the Æsops, of which there were also some manuscripts; thirdly, the Ariostos; fourthly, early voyages and travels; fifthly, works on Ireland; sixthly, classics, both Greek and Latin; and seventhly, old Italian and Spanish literature. They included also a fine copy of the first folio of Shakespeare, and other old English books. A catalogue of the library by H. J. Payne and H. Foss was published under the title Bibliotheca Grenvilliana between 1842 and 1848 (3 vols. London, 8vo).
A portrait of Grenville, by Hoppner, has been engraved in folio by Say, and also by Dean in octavo, with Grenville's autograph, for Fisher's National Portrait Gallery; there is another portrait by Phillips at Althorp, and a miniature by C. Manzini is in the National Portrait Gallery. There is a bust in the British Museum.
Ann. Register, 1846
Gent. Mag. 1847, pt. i. 197-201
Hansard's Parliamentary Debates
Brit. Mus. Cat.
Contributor: G. B. S. [George Barnett Smith]