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The 4th Duke of Portland began his education in Ealing, at the school run by Dr Samuel Goodenough (later Bishop of Carlisle). He later went on to attend Westminster School and then Oxford University, though he spent only a brief amount of time at the latter after his father, the 3rd Duke, decided to send him to complete his education at The Hague.
William was an active politician. In 1790 he became M.P. for Petersfield, and in 1791 he was elected for Buckinghamshire - a seat which he then held for five successive parliaments without ever being opposed. Between 1794 and 1842 he held the position of Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. In 1806 he rejected an offer from Lord Grenville to enter the House of Lords through the family barony of Ogle, because he differed with the administration on a number of issues. Shortly afterwards, a new government was formed headed by his father, the 3rd Duke, and William was appointed a junior Lord of the Treasury, but he held the post for only a few months.
In terms of his political beliefs, the 4th Duke became more and more liberal as time went on, and after his succession to the dukedom developed a close association with George Canning. When Canning formed a government in 1827, the 4th Duke accepted the office of Lord Privy Seal. He later held the post of Lord President in Viscount Goderich's short-lived administration. He had no real desire for political office, however, and after his period as Lord President ended he took little further part in national political life. He did, though, take an active interest in political affairs through the activities of his son, Lord George Bentinck.
From his position outside the government, the 4th Duke continued to follow politics closely. He was a supporter of the Reform Bill and a prominent supporter of agricultural protection. As a result, he used his political influence to oppose the Earl of Lincoln in the bitter battle for the South Nottinghamshire constituency in 1846.
The 4th Duke was heavily involved in the management of the family estates, and, after finding them burdened with debts when he inherited, was highly successful in reversing the financial situation. He was particularly interested in farming methods and techniques and undertook several drainage schemes, gaining a reputation as an agricultural improver. He was also central to the development of Troon Harbour in Ayrshire, Scotland, and to the construction of the railway which linked to it.
Other interests included the study of shipbuilding and naval design. He arranged a number of trials with the Admiralty, in which his own and other private yachts competed with some of the fastest ships in the navy. The duke was also a keen devotee of horse racing. He was a tenant of the Jockey Club at Newmarket, and was responsible for many improvements there, including the turf, the gallops and the building of the Portland stand.
In 1795 he married Henrietta Scott (d 1844) of Balcomie, Fife, by whom he had 9 children:
- William Henry (1796-1824), Marquess of Titchfield
- William John (1800-1879), Marquess of Titchfield from 1824 and later 5th Duke of Portland
- [William] George Frederick (1802-1848), politician
- [William] Henry (1804-1870), M.P.
- Margaret Harriet (1798-1882),
- Caroline (d 1828)
- Charlotte (1806-1889), m John Evelyn Denison, later Viscount Ossington in 1827
- Lucy (1808-1899), m Charles Augustus, Baron Howard de Walden in 1828
- Mary (1810-1874), m Sir William Topham in 1874
- The 4th Duke's papers are part of the Portland (Welbeck) Collection held in Manuscripts and Special Collections and include extensive personal, political and estate correspondence
- The Portland (London) Collection, also held in Manuscripts and Special Collections, contains papers relating to the estate business of the 4th Duke
- The Portland Estate Papers held at Nottinghamshire Archives also contain items relating to the 4th Duke's properties
- Details of collections held elsewhere are available through the National Register of Archives.
Though there are no published biographies exclusively dedicated to the 4th Duke of Portland, his biographical details feature in the following:
- Turberville, A.S., A History of Welbeck Abbey and its Owners, Volume 2, Chapters 15, 16 and 17 (London, 1938)