Byng, John, fifth Viscount Torrington 1743-1813, diarist, was born 18 February 1743, the younger son (there were no daughters) of George Byng, third Viscount Torrington, of Southill, Bedfordshire, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Lyonel Daniel of Clapham, Surrey. He lost his father in 1750, his mother in 1759. He was nephew to the unfortunate Admiral John Byng [qv.], who was executed in 1757. Byng followed his brother to Westminster School, but was, as he wrote, primarily Traind up to glory, that is, to follow his grandfather, father, and uncle in some form of military or naval career. He was page of honour to George II; from January 1760 cornet of the Royal Horse Guards; from March 1762 captain of the 58th Foot (a nominal appointment, this regiment then being in America); then, from August of that year, lieutenant and captain of the 1st Foot Guards (Grenadiers). He served with both Horse and Foot in Germany during the Seven Years War, an experience to which he often subsequently referred..
     In 1776 he was made lieutenant-colonel. Not being detached for service in America, he probably spent most of the next few years in London. Financial troubles marred these years: fear of arrest for debt probably motivated his flight to the Continent in November 1777; his resignation from the army in May 1780 may likewise have been prompted by such troubles. He accepted minor administrative office under the ministry of Frederick North (Lord North), then from 1782 to 1799 served as a commissioner of stamps. He succeeded his brother as viscount on 14 December 1812, but held the title only a few weeks before his own death..
     In his lifetime an obscure figure (he was ignored by contemporary obituarists), he became known in the twentieth century through the publication of his Diaries, journals of horseback tours through England and Wales. Byng did not chronicle his earlier travels; it is from the diary of William Windham [qv.] that we learn that he and Byng toured the midlands and north in 1774. Only in 1780 was Byng first seized with this journalizing frenzy. His writings fill twenty-four manuscript volumes, spanning the years 1781 to 1794. Byng wrote partly to enhance and prolong his pleasure in tourism, but also to preserve details of the manners of our travelling, the rates of our provisions; and of castles, churches and houses. His diaries—particularly the manuscript originals, scattered with engraved prints (the picture postcards of the day)—do serve this function, but are most valuable as a record of individual sensibility. Byng pertinaciously sought out ruined castles and abbeys: relics, in his view, of an age in which spiritual and temporal lords had accepted duties of stewardship they had since abnegated. Though generally critical of his own era, Byng none the less extended qualified sympathy to developments which served ends he valued; to Methodism, inasmuch as it instilled wholesome morals, and to spreading industry, inasmuch as it provided employment, though he worried that, like religion, which had overstretchd her power...
      and was blown up..
      the cotton trade..
      may crack!
     Sometimes morose and tetchy, particularly when subjected to the formalities and longueurs of polite society, or when contemplating his reduced fortunes, Byng had yet a fund of good spirits, and endeavoured to be pleased with the world, and content with its comforts. He wrote of himself that he had a heart full of blood & quick of impression, was hasty of determination, and leaky of secrets. According to his wife, he had generally a pleased or lively look.
     In 1767 Byng married Bridget (died 1823), daughter of the deceased Commodore Arthur Forrest [qv.] and his wife Juliana, a notorious eccentric, whose company Byng shunned. The marriage produced five sons and eight daughters, one of whom died young. Three of the sons followed military or naval careers, two attaining the rank of admiral. His youngest son was known to Regency society by the sobriquet Poodle Byng. John Byng died 8 January 1813 at Tenterden Street, Hanover Square, London.

     R. W. Ketton-Cremer, The Early Life and Diaries of William Windham, 1930
     C. B. Andrews (ed.), The Torrington Diaries, 1934.

Contributor: J. M. Innes

Published: 1993