HOUBLON, Sir James (1629-1700), of Winchester Street, London, and Leyton, Essex
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Family and Education
bap. 26 July 1629, 2nd s. of James Houblon, merchant, of St. Mary Woolchurch, London by Mary, da. of John Du Quesne of London, and Canterbury, Kent. m. 11 May 1658, Sarah, da. of Charles Wynne of St. Benet Paul’s Wharf, London, 2s. 4da. Kntd. 29 Oct. 1692.1
Freeman, Dyers’ Co. 1654, asst. bef. 1687; common councilman, London 1675–83, 1688–90, 1691–2, alderman 1692–d.2
Cttee. E. I. Co. 1667–74, 1675–7, 1678–9, 1680–1; asst. Levant Co. 1684–5, 1692–3; dir. Bank of Eng. 1694–d.3
Commr. public accts. 1694–5, taking subscriptions to Bank of Eng. 1694, Greenwich Hosp. 1695.4
Houblon was of Huguenot origin, his great-grandfather having fled from Flanders to England in 1567 to escape persecution from the Duke of Alva. The family had found immediate prosperity under Elizabeth I, earning a professional reputation that was further consolidated by Houblon’s father, an elder of the French Church at Threadneedle Street. Described by John Evelyn as ‘a rich and genteel French merchant’, Houblon rose quickly in City circles, investing heavily in the East India and Levant trades, and becoming particularly prominent in the Iberian trade. Four of his brothers emulated his success, Houblon’s close friend Samuel Pepys† citing them all as ‘industrious merchants’. Pepys paid tribute to Houblon’s trading experience by using him as one of his principal sources for information on maritime affairs.5
Their correspondence also reveals that Houblon was keenly aware of his Huguenot heritage, accustomed as he was to condemn Catholic persecution abroad. Such views naturally inclined him to the Whigs during the reign of Charles II, although his essential moderation was recognized by a Tory observer, who in 1682 cited him as ‘the only man of that name that is tolerable’. Endorsing this opinion, Houblon confided to Pepys in the wake of the Rye House Plot that his real hope was for ‘the peace of this kingdom and the reconciling of parties’. However, although he gained royal favour in 1687 when restored to his place as an assistant in the Dyers’ Company, the King’s promotion of Catholicism forced him into active opposition. In early December 1688 he featured as one of the 12 City figures who petitioned the lord mayor concerning the number of Catholics taking refuge in the capital, and was appointed on 11 Dec. 1688 to the City committee to address the Prince of Orange. He subsequently demonstrated his support for the Revolution by making several loans to the government, and provided further aid as an adviser on Iberian affairs.6
Houblon was first touted as a parliamentary candidate prior to the London election of March 1690, when his son eagerly canvassed Pepys, informing him that ‘some gentlemen’ were resolved ‘to set my father up’. Significantly, the young Houblon excused his forwardness by alluding to ‘my father’s supineness in matters of this kind’, and it is thus of little surprise that Houblon’s name did not feature at the poll. Pepys supported his candidacy, but such backing was clearly insufficient to overcome Houblon’s political reticence, particularly in the face of a strong Tory challenge. Although reluctant to stand, in the second session of the ensuing Parliament Houblon successfully opposed the passage of a bill to ban the export of bullion. Alongside his brother Sir John, he twice spoke at the bar of the Upper House, on 6 and 10 Dec. 1690, arguing ‘for the merchants’ that the bill was unworkable, a claim disputed by the goldsmiths. In September 1692 he was elected an alderman, and received a knighthood the following month when the King attended the Lord Mayor’s Day celebrations.7
Only days before the London by-election of February 1693, Houblon was again mentioned as a probable candidate but failed to contest the poll. Later that year he shared the City’s dismay at the Smyrna disaster, declaring that ‘I will yet never forgive our ministers for their ignorance, malice or carelessness’. He was soon provided with an opportunity to take the administration to task, gaining election in April 1694 as one of the commissioners of accounts. The Speaker’s vote was required to return him ahead of John Pascall on 12 Apr., but the appointment only enhanced his reputation as a ‘sage et modère’ merchant. Although a former critic of the ministry, his Whiggish outlook increasingly endeared him to the Court, and he continued to supply ministers with information concerning Mediterranean affairs. Most significantly, his family’s prominent role in the establishment of the Bank ensured a close working relationship with the government. His brother Sir John was clearly the most influential of the Houblons in Bank affairs, finishing ahead of Sir James in the first election for governor. However, Sir James had been appointed as a commissioner to take the first Bank subscription and subsequently gained a seat on the founding board of directors.8
In March 1695 Houblon’s reputation as a public-spirited City figure was severely questioned by a parliamentary inquiry into the London corporation’s campaign to pass an orphans’ relief bill during the 1693–4 session. On 12 Mar. the Commons heard that Houblon had been a prominent sponsor of the measure, the corporation having appointed him in January 1694 to the committee to consider ways to settle the City’s debts to the orphans. However, he strenuously denied any involvement with the City committee’s decision to pay 1,000 guineas to the Speaker, Sir John Trevor, to aid the passage of the bill. Houblon’s position was particularly suspicious as he had accompanied Sir Robert Clayton* on 22 June 1694 when payment was made to Trevor, and on the same day had also witnessed the passing of a bill for 100 guineas to a clerk of the House for the same purpose. Although Houblon received no direct censure from the Commons, the inquiry’s findings may well have contributed to his removal the following month from the commission of accounts.9
The orphans scandal did not have any obvious impact on Houblon’s City standing, and he was directed in May 1695 to travel to Antwerp in an abortive attempt to establish a bank there for the payment of English forces abroad. Later that year he declined to contest the City poll, perhaps in deference to his brother Sir John, who himself only withdrew as a candidate at the last moment. Although his interest in the Bank tied him to the ministry, Sir James revealed his independence by voicing concern for the financing of the war, warning the Treasury in March 1696 that the Bank’s credit overseas ‘is so absolutely damned at present as that the King’s interposition will not set it upon foot again’. Fellow directors quickly disassociated themselves from such sentiments, and only five days later he was prepared to moderate his tone, informing the Treasury that the Bank’s leaders would continue to supply the government’s needs ‘as far as they are able’. Such prominence evidently led Edward Clarke I* to seek his advice the following month concerning a proposed bill to use silver bars as currency, although Houblon modestly requested that his own draft bill receive further amendment, ‘this not being my province’. For the rest of the year Houblon remained on uneasy terms with the ministry, even though it was to his house that several ministers repaired in August to celebrate the Bank’s agreement to advance the government £200,000. However, in December the Houblons were cited as the principal obstacle to Charles Montagu’s* engrafting scheme, an opposition reportedly stemming from fears for their considerable Bank holdings. The Houblon interest was accordingly described as ‘very prevalent’ at the Bank elections of July 1697, one source suggesting that two-thirds of the board were in their camp. However, other reports indicated that their supremacy was ‘much opposed’, and Sir James gathered few votes in his attempt to secure the governorship.10
Houblon’s standing received a considerable boost the following November when his country retreat at Leyton was chosen as a possible resting-place for the King before his entry into London at the end of the war. However, William actually landed at Greenwich, thereby robbing Houblon of the opportunity to entertain the court. He met with no such disappointment at the London election of July 1698, where he finished a comfortable third. Past differences with the ministry were perhaps reflected by the contrasting assessments made of his political allegiance soon afterwards, one observer listing him as a probable opponent of the standing army, while another cited him as a Court supporter. In the ensuing session he banished some doubts by speaking on 18 Jan. 1699 against the disbanding bill. He subsequently revealed his customary interest in maritime affairs, speaking on 3 Feb. in a debate concerning the naval estimates, and on 16 Feb. directing the House’s attention to the savings to be made in provisioning. However, he appeared to recognize the dangers of neglecting defence, employing his knowledge of the Portuguese colonies to warn on 4 Mar. against forcing overseas planters to contribute to the expense of garrisoning.11
By the beginning of the second session of the 1698 Parliament Houblon was already struggling with terminal illness, undergoing treatment in October 1699 at the hands of Dr John Radcliffe*. He accordingly made little impact on the business of the House, his absence perhaps reflected by the failure of a parliamentary list of early 1700 to apportion him to any political interest. Although ill, Houblon was solicited by Pepys in early October to use his aldermanic vote in favour of the Tory (Sir) Charles Duncombe* in the contest for the mayoralty. Pepys also hoped that Sir James would persuade his brother Sir John to do the same, but Duncombe’s campaign proved unsuccessful. Within a few weeks Houblon was dead, the first report of his demise coming on 26 Oct. Although buried at St. Benet Paul’s Wharf, he had evidently not forgotten his Huguenot roots, since he donated £50 to the poor of the Threadneedle Street congregation. Other beneficiaries of his will included Christ’s Hospital and the poor of the parishes of his residences in London and Essex, the latter of which was quickly sold by his heirs to (Sir) Gilbert Heathcote*. His son James subsequently gained public appointment as one of the commissioners for the Equivalent, but neither he nor his other son, Wynne, sought to enter Parliament. His own brother Sir John continued to figure prominently in City affairs, standing unsuccessfully for the City in November 1701, but the next relation to emulate Houblon’s parliamentary success was his great-nephew Jacob†, a Member for Colchester and Hertfordshire after 1735.12
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Perry Gauci
- 1. A. A. Houblon, Houblon Fam. i. 200, 364–5; Evelyn Diary, iv. 306; IGI, London; J. R. Woodhead, Rulers of London (London and Mdx. Arch. Soc.), 93; Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiv), 633; PCC 160 Noel.
- 2. Guildhall Lib. ms 8168/1; Beaven, Aldermen, ii. 118.
- 3. Info. from Prof. H. G. Horwitz.
- 4. NLS, Advocates’ mss, Bank of Eng. pprs. 31.1.7; Add. 10120, ff. 232–6.
- 5. Houblon, i. 364–5; Hug. Soc. Publs. liv. 10; Evelyn Diary, iv. 306; Pepys Diary ed. Latham and Mathews, vii. 38–39; Further Corresp. of Pepys ed. Tanner, 317–18.
- 6. Life, Jnls. and Corresp. of Pepys ed. Smith, i. 190–1, 330, ii. 1–4; SP 29/418/199; info. from Dr M. J. Knights; R. Beddard, Kingdom without a King, 31, 171; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 1974, 1976, 2006; CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 418.
- 7. Bodl. Rawl. A.170, ff. 7, 118; HMC Lords, iii. 180–2, iv. 50; London Gazette, 27–31 Oct. 1692.
- 8. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Mellish mss Me 150/89/2, H. Saunderson to E. Mellish, 14 Feb. 1693; Private Corresp. and Misc. Pprs. of Pepys ed. Tanner, i. 69; Add. 17677 OO, ff. 234, 295; HMC Buccleuch, ii. 102–3, 507–8; Vernon–Shrewsbury Corresp. i. 176–7, ii. 121.
- 9. Debates and Procs. 1694–5, pp. 11–13, 15.
- 10. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 473, 503; Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 1441, 1443; Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF 3842, Houblon to Clarke, 22 Apr. 1696; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 182, 188; Vernon–Shrewsbury Corresp. i. 176–7; CSP Dom. 1697, pp. 265, 269; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1466, James Vernon I* to Ld. Portland, 16 July 1697.
- 11. CSP Dom. 1697, p. 455; Vernon–Shrewsbury Corresp. ii. 253; Cam. Misc. xxix. 387, 394–5, 400.
- 12. Private Corresp. and Misc. Pprs. of Pepys, i. 208, ii. 78–80; Luttrell, iv. 701; Le Neve’s Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 440; PCC 160 Noel; VCH Essex, vi. 189; Houblon, i. 316–17, 349–54.