TOPHAM, Richard (1671-1730), of New Windsor, Berks.
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Family and Education
bap. 5 Dec. 1671, ?2nd but 1st surv. s. of John Topham, serjeant-at-arms, of New Windsor by Joan, da. of ?George Stoughton of Pirton, Herts. educ. Eton 1685–9; Trinity, Oxf. 1689; ?Thavies Inn; L. Inn 1691. unm. suc. fa. 1692.1
Freeman, New Windsor 1698.2
Trustee, Abp. Laud’s gift, New Windsor 1701.3
Keeper of recs. Tower 1707–d.4
Topham’s father must have felt at home in the palace of Westminster, since he attended the Commons as serjeant-at-arms from 1678 until his death in 1692. It was in this capacity that Lord Ailesbury (Thomas Bruce†) described him as ‘a good fellow and a loyal man, but ill natured and covetous’, a comment no doubt on his commercial prowess in maximizing profit from his prisoners. Topham snr. was also a significant figure in New Windsor, having been sworn a freeman in March 1685 and named as an alderman in the new charter of that year. He was still acting as a poll tax commissioner for the borough at the time of his death. He certainly possessed the funds to send his son to Eton and Oxford (the John Topham who entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1676 and Gray’s Inn in 1680 is conjectured to be his elder brother), and possibly to Thavies Inn and Lincoln’s Inn. However, he must not be confused with Richard Topham of St. Margaret’s, Westminster (d. 1699) who was engaged in the conveyance of Lady Orkney’s Irish grant in the mid-1690s, and who was probably the Richard Topham who had served the Duke of Grafton since the mid-1680s and who acted as a trustee for him in 1697. If Topham was set on a legal career it was cut short by the death of his father. Topham’s first important act after his father’s death was to contest with Sir William Bishop for the right to nominate a new serjeant-at-arms, probably without success. In September 1693 he renewed several of his father’s leases with New Windsor corporation. The next few years saw him extend his interest in the borough through a judicious mix of grants, purchases and exchanges with the crown. Thus, in 1696 he extended his lease to 31 years on a tenement; exchanged lands in May 1698 to facilitate improvements to the royal park; and by 1700 had purchased the fee-farm rents. Topham’s amenability to royal wishes on local estate matters was a sensible ploy given that the ‘castle’ interest exerted considerable influence on parliamentary elections. By the 1698 election his efforts to build up his interest in the town had borne fruit as he succeeded in defeating Sir William Scawen*.5
That Topham was not a Court nominee seems clear from his political stance in the Commons. On a comparative analysis of the old and new Parliaments of about September 1698 he was classed as a Country supporter. His predilection for Country measures may explain his appointment to a committee to prepare a bill stipulating the qualifications necessary for justices and deputy-lieutenants, which he presented to the House on 21 Mar. 1699. The bill’s failure to progress beyond its first reading may have been due to Topham’s ill-health for which he received leave of absence on 2 Mar. (for three weeks) and again on 31 Mar. In the following session, he was again named to draft a qualification bill for j.p.s, which he presented on 4 Jan. 1700. Even after he had spent two sessions in the Commons, at least one commentator had difficulty in assigning him to any parliamentary ‘interest’, marking his name with a query on a list from 1700.
Topham was more active in the Parliament elected in January 1701. He was named to draft three bills, including another for qualifying j.p.s. His main legislative achievement, however, was to manage the militia bill through all its stages in the Commons. In February his name appeared on a list of those Members willing to support the Court over the ‘Great Mortgage’. Topham’s known interest in books no doubt explains why the House chose him on 28 May to present a message of thanks to Sir John Cotton for his gift to the public of what was to become the Cotton Library. On more obvious political matters, he acted as teller twice on the Whig side in election cases: East Retford (15 Apr.) and Nottingham (10 June). He also told on 13 May against a motion that the serjeant-at-arms deliver four of the Kentish Petitioners to the Gatehouse prison, and on 7 June 1701 in favour of an unsuccessful amendment to a supply bill which sought to ensure that ecclesiastical livings devoted to the cure of souls would be taxed only if worth over £40 p.a.
On 29 Nov. 1701 the corporation of Windsor attended William III with his congratulations on his safe return from the Continent and to make several points in thanking him for the Act of Settlement. They ended by remarking that they had chosen two Members who would serve the royal interest in the approaching Parliament. One of these was Topham, who was listed as a Whig on Robert Harley’s* analysis of the new Parliament. His main task appears to have been the management through the Commons of a bill to enable the dean and canons of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, to exchange land with the crown in order to extend the royal park. Topham presented the bill on 5 Feb. 1702 and, although he did not report it, he carried it up to the Lords on 13 Apr. He was also in action on 2 Apr., the last day before the Easter adjournment, when he proposed that committees might be permitted to sit during the recess, a move successfully opposed by Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, and Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt.*6
After securing re-election in 1702, Topham piloted another private bill through the Commons in November and December, on behalf of Charles Aldworth*. His usefulness to Windsor corporation can be gauged by his successful application to the Treasury in January 1703 for £100 due to the poor of the borough and £30 rent for the town’s mills. Later in the session, on 13 Feb., he voted for agreeing with the Lords’ amendments to the bill enlarging the time for taking the abjuration oath. In the following session, Topham’s main activity was to chair the committee of the whole on the bill for further explaining and regulating parliamentary privilege in relation to the holders of public offices, which he reported to the Commons on 25 Feb. 1704. By May Topham had retired to Windsor where he penned a letter to the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) requesting the loan of several works by Sophocles. On the major question of the 1704–5 parliamentary session, he was forecast on 30 Oct. as a probable opponent of the Tack, and did not vote for it on 28 Nov. He was also named to draft a place bill.7
Topham was returned unopposed at the 1705 election, being classed as a ‘Churchman’ on an analysis of the new Parliament. In fact, in terms of politics he seems to have edged closer to the Court during this Parliament, a move assisted no doubt by his residence in Windsor which made him accessible to increasingly influential Whig courtiers like Sunderland, as well as enabling him to perform useful services for the crown relating to local property. In November 1706, for example, he was described as having been ‘very kind and serviceable’ in buying and then selling some tenements, which, had they been developed, would have blighted the Queen’s ‘Little House and Garden’. Three years later, the surveyor-general of crown lands was specifically referred to Topham for a true valuation of some houses in Windsor which the crown sought to purchase. He voted on 25 Oct. 1705 for the Court candidate as Speaker, and during the course of the session he managed several bills of great importance to the Court and the ministry, albeit ones which faced little overt opposition. Thus, when on 30 Nov. the Commons dealt with the second and third readings of the Lords’ bill naturalizing the Electress Sophia of Hanover, it was Topham who delivered the bill back to the Upper Chamber. On 15 Dec. he took the chair of the committee of the whole on the Lords’ bill repealing several clauses in the Act passed in the wake of the Scottish act of security. On 16 and 19 Feb. 1706 he chaired committee proceedings on a bill for encouraging and increasing the number of seamen, a bill subsequently taken over by one of the Pulteneys. Meanwhile, on 18 Feb., he had supported the Court on the place clauses of the regency bill.8
In the following session of 1706–7 he managed two bills: on 10 Feb. 1707 he chaired a committee of the whole on a bill from the Lords for securing the Church of England as by law established, reporting it on the 11th; and on 26 Feb. he was one of four Members ordered to prepare a bill for the protection of copyright, which he duly presented two days later, and reported from committee on 18 Mar., although no further action was taken on it. In March 1707 it was reported that Topham had persuaded the ailing keeper of the records in the Tower, William Pettyt, to resign the post to him. Topham also seems to have enjoyed a fairly close connexion with the Marlboroughs, as in May 1707 the Duke (John Churchill†) informed him via Viscount Rialton (Francis Godolphin*) that he might make a bargain for an estate in Oxfordshire. Rialton would be named (in 1729) a trustee under Topham’s will. In the 1707–8 session of Parliament Topham was heavily involved in one particular piece of legislation. On 16 and 20 Jan. 1708 he chaired a committee of the whole to consider the more effectual recruiting of men for the army and marines, reporting on the 21st a resolution for a bill to raise troops from among those lacking any lawful calling or employment. When the House concurred, Topham was named to the committee to prepare the legislation, which he duly presented on the 27th. On 10 Feb. there was a dispute over which Member should chair the committee of the whole on the bill, which was resolved in favour of Topham. He reported on 12 Feb., and, after the bill passed the Commons on the 13th, carried it to the Upper House. His one tellership during the session, on 23 Mar. 1708, was against committing the bill imposing a further duty on imported woollen and worsted yarn to the committee of the whole considering another supply bill. Instead, the bill was referred to a separate committee.9
The conjunction of Topham’s interest at Windsor with that of the Court, as evidenced by the extremely favourable address to Queen Anne on the completion of the union with Scotland, resulted in his uncontested return at the 1708 election. Before the new Parliament met, Topham was on hand to smooth over a dispute between the Duchess of Marlborough, in her capacity as ranger of parks at Windsor, and the land tax commissioners, who wished to rate the parks at £170. By ‘great importunity and by laying the inconveniences before her’, Topham persuaded her to pay up before the commissioners brought the matter before Parliament. In appealing to the Duchess, he had the advantage of being able to speak to a political ally, for Topham was classed as a Whig on an analysis of early 1708, and on another completed after the election. Topham’s main legislative involvement in this session concerned the bill punishing mutiny, desertion and false musters and for the better payment of the army. He acted as chair of the committee of the whole on this bill, and, when he made his report on 17 Mar., acted as a teller against an amendment aimed at alleviating the hardship faced by single townships when army officers failed to pay constables the full value for the carriage of goods by placing the burden on the whole county. An insight into his pro-Court outlook is afforded by his decision on 28 Jan. 1709 to oppose the successful attempt by the Whigs to unseat (Sir) Simon Harcourt I*. This may have been due to Harcourt’s connexion with the Duke of Marlborough as steward of Woodstock, or because he may have objected to the blatant partisanship shown by the Whigs on this occasion. February and March 1709 saw Topham support the naturalization of the Palatines. In April 1709 he managed another bill on behalf of the dean of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, this time to transfer the rectory of Haseley in Oxfordshire to the deanery of Windsor and to ensure that the dean and canons could nominate to the rectory of North Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire. Topham continued to play a significant role as a link between Windsor’s residents and the crown: thus in November 1709 he recommended various inhabitants of the Treasury as fit objects of charity, namely those people whose houses had been demolished after the crown had purchased the freehold. In the 1709–10 session he voted for the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell.10
Despite the swing to the Tories in the general election of 1710, including the loss of one Whig seat at Windsor, Topham was himself returned. However, he made no attempt to swim with the tide of Toryism which swept the Commons, being noted as a Whig on the ‘Hanover list’ of the 1710 Parliament and voting on 7 Dec. 1711 for the motion demanding ‘No Peace without Spain’. In the 1713 session he was listed as a Whig who had voted on 18 June against the French commerce bill.
Topham did not stand at the general election of 1713, no doubt discouraged by the derisory vote given to his favourite nephew Topham Foote at the Windsor by-election of January 1712. Also, perhaps, with the Marlboroughs abroad, he felt the tide to be running too strongly in favour of the Tories. If that was the case his interest eventually revived with the help of the Beauclerk family, and in particular Lord Sidney Beauclerk†, whom Topham seems to have adopted after the death of his own nephew. After 1713 Topham lived in political retirement, accumulating a large collection of books, prints and drawings, the fate of which much preoccupied him in the years before his death on 7 Sept. 1730. In his will he insisted that the collection be maintained as a whole, with proper access being allowed to scholars, and it was therefore left to Eton College, though this bequest was cancelled in a codicil. However, Topham’s executors eventually housed the collection there. His landed estates went firstly to his sister, Arabella (the wife of Samuel Foote, and then of Lord Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Reeve). After her death the ultimate beneficiary was Lord Sidney Beauclerk. Topham also made bequests of a more philanthropic nature at Windsor, including £20 to the poor, £100 to the charity school and £500 for a workhouse so ‘that industry among the honest and industrious poor may be encouraged and the lazy and vicious restrained from their ill habits and become useful to their country’. The virtuous but non-alms-claiming poor were rewarded with a rent charge of £8 p.a. Finally, he ordered a monument to be erected to his ‘late dear nephew’ Topham Foote. Contemporary assessments of Topham varied between light-hearted verse at his expense from the pen of Arthur Maynwaring*, to detailed comments by the Jacobite scholar, Thomas Hearne. Hearne’s views of him varied from being broadly favourable in 1707 – ‘a lover of learning, and a collector of good and curious books’ – to deeply hostile in 1713, when Topham was described as ‘not at all, at least but very meanly, qualified for the place’ of keeper of the records in the Tower. After Topham’s death, Hearne was more generous: ‘he was a man very curious in classical learning, and being a bachelor and very rich, he made a very fine collection of books and prints, but was very little versed in our records’. The 18th-century historian of Windsor, Pote, recalled him in 1749 as ‘a gentleman of extensive learning, and fine taste’, who had procured his collection ‘at a great expense, and uncommon application’, many of the items being acquired from Italy.11