FIREBRACE, Sir Basil (1652-1724), of London and Enfield, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 1652, 2nd s. of Sir Henry Firebrace of Whitehall, Westminster and the Old Hall, Stoke Golding, Leics., page of the bedchamber, yeoman of the robes and clerk of the kitchen to Charles I 1647–9, clerk of the kitchen, clerk comptroller and second clerk of the Bd. of Green Cloth to Charles II and James II 1660–89, by his 1st w. Elizabeth, da. of Daniel Dowell of Stoke Golding. m. 7 Sept. 1671, Mary, da. of Thomas Hough, milliner, of St. Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, 6s. (4 d.v.p.) 2da. (1 d.v.p.). Kntd. 2 Aug. 1687; cr. Bt. 28 July 1698.1
Yeoman purveyor of French wines to the Household 1673–85; jt. ranger of Enfield chase by 1694–1714.2
Sheriff, London and Mdx. 1687–8; alderman, London 1687–Oct. 1688, freeman Oct. 1688; freeman, Cambridge 1693.3
Cttee. E.I. Co. 1694–5.4
Firebrace’s father was ‘Honest Harry’, who had attended Charles I after his surrender to the Scots in 1646, had thereafter assisted the King in several abortive escape plans and had been rewarded at the Restoration with a secure Household office. Sir Henry set up his second son as a vintner, a trade his own brother had prospered in. Basil was even more successful than his uncle, privileged as he was with the monopoly of supplying French wines to Charles II’s court, an advantage he exploited unscrupulously. He was said to have made
£14,000 in one year besides what he got in other years when French wines were prohibited, by carrying [the wine] down to Whitehall in a barge with a file of musketeers to a cellar of his own that he had provided there, under pretence of carrying it there for the King’s own use.
Discovered in this fraud in 1681 he secured a pardon by ‘making interest . . . with the Duchess of Cleveland’. A loyal supporter of James II, he was nominated an alderman of London by royal commission in 1681 without ever having been admitted a freeman, and in September 1688 was recommended with Sir John Parsons* as a Court candidate for Reigate in the projected parliamentary election. Despite their close connexions with James’s court, Firebrace and his father did not suffer unduly at the Revolution: Sir Henry, accepting the new regime, retired voluntarily from the Green Cloth with a pension, and Basil, though he had been superseded as an alderman of London by the restoration of the old charter in October 1688, was still an active and prosperous merchant. One of a group of Tory citizens considered likely to ‘put . . . forward’ a proposed loan in March 1690, he personally lent some £5,000 to the crown between 1690 and 1692. Successful at a by-election for Chippenham in December 1690 against another City figure, the Dissenter Sir Humphrey Edwin, Firebrace was unseated on petition a year later, when the House found both candidates guilty of bribery and declared the election void. During this period he was not recorded as having spoken in Parliament. He was listed in December 1690 as among those likely to support Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) in the event of a parliamentary attack against him, and he was named in Robert Harley’s* list of April 1691 as a Court supporter. At the ensuing by-election he again defeated a Whig, Hon. Thomas Tollemache*, and was again ejected on petition, after wholesale bribery and treating had been proved. The Tories tried in vain to prevent this resolution being printed, because, as they put it, ‘the gentleman, being a citizen, this vote would much reflect on him and blast his reputation’. Firebrace survived inclusion in Robert Young’s ‘sham plot’ of 1692, aimed principally at Bishop Sprat and the Earl of Marlborough (John Churchill†), and was confirmed in 1694 in the half-share in the rangership of Enfield chase that he had already acquired from Viscount Lisburne. In the same year he made a final effort at Chippenham, in a third by-election. This time, however, he was defeated, and his own petition was dismissed in January 1695, without a division, in committee or in the House.5
Firebrace’s subsequent career was shadowed by scandal and a descent into penury. In April 1695 his part in the alleged corruption surrounding the grant of a new charter to the East India Company late in 1693 and the launching of a new subscription was exposed by the joint investigative committee established by the two Houses. It transpired that Firebrace, who although once an investor in the company, was now a member of the interloping syndicate, had been bought off by Sir Thomas Cooke* in the autumn of 1692 and in return for a sizable stake in the company had agreed to act on its behalf in soliciting a new charter and in persuading ex-colleagues among the interlopers to abandon their proceedings and come into the company’s terms, an agreement at first kept secret though later discovered: he admitted having been ‘turned off by the interlopers’ when they began to suspect him. In particular it was shown that he had received at least £10,000 for himself and a further £30,000 to distribute to opponents, including Members of Parliament. In disclosing part of his activities to the company, who promised to ‘indemnify him’, he may have encountered difficulties: early in April, at a general court, there were ‘heats’, and Firebrace and another man ‘passed from words to blows’. His first evidence to the parliamentary committee, on 24 Apr. 1695, was as discreet as possible in the circumstances, but he returned two days later at his own request (having excused himself one day to ‘take physic’) to make specific allegations against prominent Parliamentarians. While exonerating his ‘intimate’ friend Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, he accused Henry Guy* and Sir John Trevor* of accepting ‘presents’, and the Duke of Leeds (formerly Carmarthen) of taking 5,500 guineas via an intermediary, one Charles Bates. These charges formed the basis of an impeachment against Leeds, who angrily denounced Firebrace. He said that he had all along considered Firebrace ‘a very ill man’ and had warned Bates against him. Now, he claimed, Firebrace had been put up to incriminate him. Firebrace had been ‘treated with to discover only this part, and so he should be excused from any other discovery’, or even ‘excused’ altogether for what he had done. Certainly the committee agreed to ‘commute with’ him ‘for a confession of what he was not charged with’, and the Commons appeared to be favouring him: they amended the emergency bill, designed to retain Cooke, Firebrace and two others in custody during the parliamentary recess, so that it applied solely to Cooke. When the Lords disagreed, however, the point was not pressed, and the bill passed. As a result Firebrace remained in prison for a year, unable to dispose of any part of his estate, except for the £20,000 he had already agreed on as a portion for his daughter. Despite this he emerged from confinement relatively unscathed, in a material sense: he was able personally to subscribe £3,000 of the Old East India Company’s advance loan of £200,000 in 1698, and in July of that year was created a baronet. His reputation, on the other hand, was permanently stained. In 1697 he was accused of profiteering over the sale of timber from Enfield chase, while Ned Ward’s The London Spy directed its readers’ attention to a tavern which had ‘ruined almost as many vintners as Sir Base’ill fiery-face’. Evidently it was Firebrace’s practice to set up young vintners in business and whenever defaults occurred to take execution against them immediately. The rangership of Enfield led him into various disputes, all reflecting his enmity to Lord Stamford, the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster: in 1699 he ‘fell into a feud’ with Sir Henry Belasyse* over a dog belonging to Belasyse that was killed in the chase; in 1700 he was cleared of a breach of privilege in ordering the arrest of a servant of Christopher Lister*; and last, in May 1701, he gave evidence to the Commons against Stamford, who was accused of neglecting his duties at Enfield. In 1701 Firebrace was granted a considerable financial opportunity on being appointed ‘broker’ for the Old East India Company in the negotiations with the New, for which he was promised £20,000. He discharged the commission but was forced to sue for his fee, settling for £10,000 worth of stock in 1703 but reopening his case a year later with a claim for £100,000 more, which he lost. Eventually in June 1705 a general court voted him £22,500. It was too late, if ever paid, for by now Firebrace was almost ruined. He still functioned as a wine shipper, but his debts mounted, despite a loan of £6,000 from the Earl of Portland. He was rumoured in January 1705 to have gone bankrupt, and within 18 months rumour had become fact. Thomas Hearne reported:
Sir Basil Firebrace, a noted old sinner of London, has shot himself, but ’tis thought ’twill not prove mortal, as some perhaps could wish, whom he had cheated by odd tricks and shams, from whence he grew rich . . . but notwithstanding he decayed, through crosses and being reduced to some unexpected extremities, was the cause of this violence on himself.
Another contemporary reported that Firebrace had in fact stabbed himself. Still a Tory, Firebrace polled for the Tory candidates in the London election of 1713, and at the accession of George I he sold his half-share in the Enfield rangership. In 1720 he was gaoled briefly after stabbing a half-pay officer who had come to his lodging to demand money.6
Firebrace died on 7 May 1724 and was buried at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. His elder surviving son having restored the family fortunes by an advantageous marriage, his grandson, Sir Cordell Firebrace, 3rd Bt., sat for Suffolk as a Tory from 1735 to 1759.
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: D. W. Hayton
- 1. J. R. Woodhead, Rulers of London (London and Mdx. Arch. Soc.), 69; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter 25 June 1695; BL, Lothian mss, ‘Abstract of the Case of Sir Basil Firebrace . . .’; C. W. Firebrace, Honest Harry, 29, 141–2, 201, 204, 217–18, 220, 224, 226, 229–31, 240, 245; DNB (Firebrace, Sir Henry).
- 2. Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster Official Lists, 209–10.
- 3. Beaven, Aldermen, i. 31; Cambs. RO (Cambridge), Cambridge bor. recs. common day bk. 1681–1722, p. 221.
- 4. Add. 38871 (unfol.).
- 5. Firebrace, 217, 230, 232–3; CSP Dom. 1680–1, p. 539; 1687–9, p. 274; 1691–2, pp. 279, 300; Ailesbury Mems. i. 227; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 1636, 1742, 2002; Dorset RO, Fox-Strangways mss, Sir Peter Rich† to Sir Stephen Fox*, 17 Mar. 1690; Luttrell Diary, 149–50; Parl. Hist. v. 739; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 415–16.
- 6. CJ, xi. 268–9, 288, 317–18, 320–7, 329–32; xii. 321; xiii. 176, 571–2; P. G. M. Dickson, Financial Revol. 491; Add. 22185, f. 12; Bodl. Rawl. C.449 (12 Oct. 1691); HMC Lords, n.s. i. 554–62; Newdigate newsletter 2 Apr. 1695; CSP Dom. 1695, p. 320; Lexington Pprs. 84; Chandler, ii. 465, 468, 470; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. v. 935, 938–9; BL, Althorp mss, Halifax pprs. box 10, Ld. Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†) to Halifax (William Savile†, Ld. Eland), 27 Apr. 1695; Luttrell, iii. 466; iv. 51; v. 43, 284, 487, 566; Debates and Procs. 1694–5, pp. 61–62; VCH Mdx. v. 236; Firebrace, 234–6; Ned Ward, The London Spy ed. Hayward, 238; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 47/201, James Vernon I* to the Duke of Shrewsbury, 22 June 1699; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1497, Vernon to Portland, 4 July 1699; Cocks Diary, 149; W. R. Scott, Jt.-Stock Cos. ii. 168–9; PRO, C110/28, John Dolben* to Thomas Pitt I*, 19 July 1701; Add. 22852, f. 74; Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 298; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1702–7, p. 388; Cal. Treas. Bks. xx. 184, 472; Verney Letters 18th Cent. i. 221; Hearne Colls. ii. 18–19; Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP F32, pp. 67–8; London Rec. Soc. xvii. 85.