FLEET, Sir John (1648-1712), of Allhallows Staining, London, and Battersea, Surr.
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Family and Education
bap. 18 Mar. 1648, s. of Richard Fleet of Bourton, Bucks. m. (1) 20 June 1674, Elizabeth Arnold of St. Andrew, Holborn, Mdx.; (2) aft. 1695, wid. of Thomas Newcombe, royal printer, 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 4da. Kntd. 11 Oct. 1688.1
Freeman, Coopers’ Co. 1667, asst. 1685, master 1689, transferred to Grocers’ Co. 1692, master 1693–5; alderman, London Oct. 1688–d., sheriff 1688–9, ld. mayor 1692–3; freeman, Colchester 1694.
Cttee. Old E.I. Co. 1692–1708 (with statutory intervals), gov. 1694–1708 (with statutory intervals); manager, united trade 1702; dir. E.I. Co. 1709–10, 1711–d.; asst. R. African Co. 1693–4, 1699–1702, 1704, sub.-gov. 1697–8; gov. Battersea Sch. 1700; vice-pres. Hon. Artillery Co. 1703–4, pres. 1704–8; pres. St. Bartholomew’s Hosp. 1705–12.
Commr. Greenwich Hosp. 1695, 1704, taking subscriptions to land bank 1696.2
Of humble origins, Fleet established himself in the cooping trade, enjoying ‘so early and quick an advance to such a mass of prosperity’. Diversifying into colonial commerce, he was actually described by one source as a ‘sugar baker’, and later acted as a spokesman for the sugar trade before the Treasury Board. His father, a Buckinghamshire innkeeper of possible Cheshire ancestry, had clearly played little part in securing his son’s advancement, and Fleet’s independent spirit was reflected by his subsequent political career. The sole survivor of a purge of the Coopers’ Company in October 1687, he did not emerge as one of James II’s supporters in the City, although he achieved rapid civic promotion in the final months of the reign. He even received a knighthood from King James in October 1688, but that did not secure his allegiance, prepared as he was to recognize the post-Revolution regime.3
In the early years of the reign of William and Mary, Fleet’s politics remained the subject of some debate. In March 1690 the Tory Sir Peter Rich† identified him as one of ‘the persons proper to be consulted with of our side’ over a government loan, but at the mayoral contest of Michaelmas 1691 Fleet actually stood against the ‘Church party’. Although unsuccessful on that occasion, at the succeeding mayoral election Fleet emerged triumphant, having been championed by Robert Yard* as ‘a person of known affection and firmness to the present government’. Whig pamphleteers gave testimony to his popularity within the metropolis, one citing him as a man ‘of unspotted reputation, both to the interest of the present government in general, and to the rights and liberties of this City in particular’. His favour with the London electorate was confirmed at the parliamentary by-election of February 1693, when he prevailed against his only serious challenger, the Whig Sir William Ashurst*. His readiness to stand against Ashurst may have reflected his increasingly close ties with the City Tories, Fleet having joined the East India Company in November 1691 at the behest of Sir Thomas Cooke*. He quickly assumed a prominent position within the company, and by October 1693 was willing to stand £10,000 as a surety to guarantee the company’s export of domestic manufactures.4
Entering the Commons only eight days before the end of the fourth session of the 1690 Parliament, Fleet had little chance to make any immediate impact, but in the next session he actively represented City concerns. In addition, he served on the drafting committees to the bill to relieve the London orphans, in connexion with which on 2 Mar. 1694 he presented to the House a list of the debts owed to orphans. Having been appointed governor of the East India Company, during the recess he represented the company’s fears of government regulation, warning the Duke of Shrewsbury that any change would be ‘a great blow to their reputation which is not in a position to bear it’. His close relationship with fellow East Indiaman Sir Thomas Cooke was evident in November, when Fleet became a Colchester freeman only four days prior to Cooke’s return at a by-election there. His association with Cooke was embarrassingly highlighted by the Commons’ inquiry into the East India trade in March 1695, when the House heard that Fleet had been present at the company meetings which authorized Cooke’s lavish bribes to advance their cause. However, as a Member he was not called upon to give evidence concerning such irregularities. In connexion with another scandal examined in this session, he was listed by Henry Guy* as a probable supporter.5
The London election of October 1695 proved a personal triumph for Fleet, for he topped the poll, over 2,000 votes ahead of his nearest rival. This result demonstrated the bipartisan support which he enjoyed within the City electorate, one pre-election forecast having suggested that his candidacy had been endorsed by all the competing factions. Not surprisingly, he continued to puzzle political commentators in the succeeding session, being forecast as ‘doubtful’ in January 1696 for a division concerning the proposed council of trade. More predictably, on 20 Feb. he was appointed to the committee to draft a bill for raising a new joint stock for the East India trade. Seven days later he signed the Association, and in late March opposed the ministry over its proposal to set the price of guineas at 22s. In the course of that year his prominence in the City was attested by his promotion to a colonelcy of a London militia regiment, as well as by his election to the land bank committee. During the next session he was generally inconspicuous, although he exchanged sharp words with Tory Member Thomas Blofield on 21 Jan. 1697 in the aftermath of the invasion of the House by Spitalfields weavers supporting the bill to ban the import of Indian wrought silks.6
In the third session of the 1695 Parliament Fleet was most conspicuous as the East India Company fought to maintain its existence. On 4 May 1698 he presented to the House the company’s offer to advance a £700,000 loan to the government in exchange for a 31-year extension of its monopoly, an initiative subsequently out?anked by the interlopers’ offer to raise a £2 million subscription. Fighting a rearguard action, on 9 June he submitted the company’s petition for their counsel to be heard before the second reading of the bill to settle the East India trade. On that occasion he sought to reassure the House of the company’s ‘ready dispositions’ to serve the public interest, and James Vernon I* identified him as one of the directors sympathetic to the new subscription. The next day, 10 June, Fleet actually presented the company’s proposal to raise the proposed subscription from their own stock, a move which failed to delay the committal of the East India bill. When the House was informed on 14 June that the company’s stock had been fraudulently overvalued, a defensive Fleet could only beg time to take counsel. Six days later he presented to the Commons a list of the subscribers ready to advance £200,000 as a security for the company to raise the £2 million subscription, Fleet’s name standing at its head with a personal commitment of £2,000. However, this move was again countered by the interlopers, who demonstrated that £1,350,000 of their own subscription had already been raised.7
Although unable to preserve the Old Company’s monopoly, Fleet continued to find success as a City politician, finishing first at the London election of July 1698. At the outset of the new Parliament he was identified as a likely opponent of the standing army, and another list confirmed him as a Country supporter. His principal interest remained the fate of the Old Company, for on 19 Jan. 1700 he presented a petition on its behalf and was then appointed to the committee to draft a bill to extend its charter. A parliamentary list of early 1700 duly identified him as a supporter of the Old Company, an association which clearly contributed to his failure at the London election of January 1701. Fortunately, the subsequent expulsion from the House of Gilbert Heathcote* gave him an opportunity to regain his seat, and he managed to achieve a narrow victory over Sir Thomas Stamp, his erstwhile Whig running-mate at the mayoral election of Michaelmas 1691. Having failed to make any significant contribution to Commons’ business in that Parliament, Fleet was unable to retain his seat at the second general election of 1701, finishing sixth in the poll.
The accession of Anne brought renewed confidence to the City Tories, and Fleet, in particular, benefited from the change of monarch, regaining a colonelcy in the City militia, and then emerging at the head of the London poll of July 1702. His only noteworthy contribution to Commons’ business in the whole of the ensuing Parliament rested with the presentation on 15 Dec. 1702 of a bill to encourage the consumption of malted corn. He was more prominent in East India affairs, being cited in February 1703 as a supporter of Sir Thomas Cooke amid the continuing struggles between Old and New Company factions. His commitment to the trade could not be doubted, however, after his investment in the company’s stock had more than doubled to £18,000 in the course of 1703–4. His politics remained less predictable, for although he was forecast by Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) in mid-March 1704 as a probable supporter in connexion with the Scotch Plot, in the next session he was listed on 30 Oct. 1704 as a probable opponent of the Tack. However, he clearly stood with the Tories at the London election of May 1705, albeit in a losing cause which spelt the end of his parliamentary career.8
Fleet remained a prominent figure in City politics, even though he suffered a further setback in June 1707 when he was dismissed as a militia colonel. His political outlook evidently remained volatile, Abel Boyer identifying him as ‘High Church’ after Fleet’s election to the board of the United East India Company in April 1711, only to cite him three days later as a candidate of the ‘moderate party’ at the aldermanic contest for the ward of Bridge Within. Fleet died on 6 July 1712 and was buried at Battersea, his principal residence from perhaps as early as 1689. His epitaph proclaimed him as ‘a merciful and just magistrate, constant to the Church, loyal to his prince, and true to his country’, and paid tribute to ‘a generous benefactor and a faithful friend’. Fleet’s favourite charity, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, was a major beneficiary of his will, and he did not neglect his locality, having served as one of the founding governors of the school established by Sir Walter St. John, 3rd Bt.*, at Battersea. His only surviving son, James, did not aspire to parliamentary office, but, having settled at Tewin, Hertfordshire, served in 1718 as sheriff of that county.9