Appendix XIX: Rogues, madmen, bankrupts and suicides

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Rogues, madmen, bankrupts and suicides

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries political rhetoric often embodied an ethical imperative. Members and electors became obsessed with the idea that the moral fibre of the nation had become dangerously weak, and often cited, as justification for their jeremiads, the notorious public and private behaviour of political figures. Yet, to judge from the evidence contained in the biographies, the House of Commons in this period seems to have contained surprisingly few incorrigible rogues. The joint comptroller of the Mint, and subsequently receiver of transports, Charles Mason, was an archetypal corrupt official, a serial embezzler who defrauded individual creditors as well as the crown, and in private life cynically repudiated a bogus offer of marriage to the daughter of an electoral partner as soon as he had achieved his real objective, securing his return to the House. Sir Alexander Rigby’s systematic malpractice as a Scottish customs commissioner would put him on much the same level, but in this respect the palm must go to Hon. James Brydges, the future Duke of Chandos, who made a huge fortune from the office of paymaster of the forces, by foul means as well as fair, and who was involved, together with other friends and dependants of the Duke of Marlborough, in exploiting to the full the manifold opportunities for profit which the administration of the Spanish Succession War laid open. Among businessmen, Sir Humphrey Mackworth stands out as much for his hypocrisy as his deviousness, covering his swindles with evangelical piety and recruiting gullible investors by appealing to their philanthropic impulses. Others renowned for sharp practice in business matters were the property developer Nicholas Barbon, ‘Old Horace’ Walpole (Horatio I), and the London merchant John Ward IV. Of course any successful City figure would inspire envy and tittle-tattle, and both Sir Robert Clayton and Sir Stephen Fox were accused of accumulating at least some of their wealth by exploiting the weaknesses of character of spendthrift young aristocrats and encouraging the reckless mortgaging of great estates. Sir Cleave More, 2nd Bt., fraudulently obtained a commission of lunacy against his father-in-law in order to obtain control of the family estates; Sir Thomas Travell, having tried once to deprive his mother- and sister-in-law of their jointures, had to be compelled by legal means to pay his wife ‘a separate maintenance’; Thomas Tipping married his ward to his own mistress; the atrocious Sir Hopton Williams, 1st Bt., successively beat his wife, abandoned her, and then made repeated sorties to seize her property, before divorce released her from his grip; and Robert Harley’s son-in-law Lord Dupplin (George Hay*) treated Lady Dupplin and the children so badly that one family friend declared that he was ‘fit to be left to die in a ditch’. The Hon. James Campbell, James Halyburton, and William Thompson I were all convicted of participating in the abduction and forced marriage of heiresses. At least ten Members, possibly more, had committed murder. Lord Bellomont (Richard Coote), Sir Jonathan Jennings, Roger Kirby, and the Master of Sinclair (John St. Clair), each killed their opponent in a duel, and it was rumoured that Sir William Williams, 6th Bt., had once done the same. Lord Brandon (Charles Gerard) had murdered a footboy while in drink, William Dowdeswell killed a servant who tried to rob him on the Grand Tour, and George Pitt despatched a man with whom he had quarrelled in a tavern. Both Brandon and Pitt were pardoned, as was Sir Gilbert Eliott, 3rd Bt., for the murder of John Stewart*, and Henry St. John I and Edmund Richmond Webb for their part in the killing of Sir William Estcourt+ in a brawl in 1683. Three Members were charged with murder or manslaughter but acquitted: the naval officer George St. Loe after a death in Tangier in 1681; Spencer Cowper for the rape and murder of a Quaker girl (who probably committed suicide in despair at her unrequited love for him); and Hon. George Douglas, on dubious grounds of self-defence.

Sir John Bolles, 4th Bt., was the only Member whose mental imbalance was visible to his colleagues while he was still in the House. Later he suffered periods of confinement, and was diagnosed by Sir Hans Sloane as ‘much disordered in his understanding’. In 1709 he was made subject to a lunacy Act. The secret ‘autobiography’ of Hon. Goodwin Wharton reveals a man who saw ‘visions’ and believed in fairies, and who shared this enhanced consciousness of the supernatural world with his friend and fellow seeker after fairy gold, Sir Thomas Travell. But in the Commons neither appeared in any way unusual. The extreme possessiveness displayed by Alexander Murray of Stanhope towards his wife, Lady Grisell, did indeed persuade some at home in Scotland in 1712 that he was ‘not quite right in the head’, though so far as we know this opinion did not become widespread till long after Murray had ceased to be an M.P in 1713. Three Members became insane after 1715, while still in the House, Murray’s compatriot, Alexander Grant of Grant (who was sent to Bedlam), Francis Annesley and Thomas Frankland II; three others after they had left Parliament; in most cases towards the very end of their lives,m wioth senility the obvious diagnosis: John Dolben, James Hayes, Richard Hele, Richard Norton II, and Sir Richard Reynell, 1st Bt.

Ten Members went bankrupt: the Norfolk gentleman Richard Berney, John Burridge (temporarily in 1717), the former packet-boat proprietor Edmund Dummer, the financiers (Sir) Stephen Evance, Sir Bartholomew Gracedieu, and John Ward IV, the wine-merchant Sir Basil Firebrace, and James Medlycott. Before his descent into madness Alexander Grant suffered the equivalent of a bankruptcy when a number of creditors came together to establish a commission to take the direction of his affairs into their own hands. In addition, Abraham Blackmore and William Wallis died within the rules of the Fleet, and Sir Rowland Gwynne within King’s Bench.

Both madness or bankruptcy could result in suicide. At least six, and possibly as many as 10, Members took their own lives in this period; three others (Abraham Blackmore, Humphry Morice and Hon. Richard Lumley) long afterwards. Sir John Brownlow, 3rd Bt., shot himself when he could no longer bear the pain of gout, John Child and John Lamotte Honywood hanged themselves, John Mountsteven cut his throat, and George Newland jumped out of a window. (Sir) Stephen Evance either hanged or shot himself, depending on which source one believes. In addition, James Craggs I was rumoured to have administered to himself a fatal dose of opium, Peter Gott may have hanged himself, and Hon. Henry Herbert may also have died by his own hand. The demise of Thomas Price, on the Grand Tour in Genoa in 1706, was a subject of much contemporary speculation. The versions approved by friends and family, that he had been poisoned by a jilted lover, or shot by her aggrieved husband, do not quite fit the facts of the case, which point towards another explanation(though not conclusively): suicide, after the contraction of syphilis.

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton

End Notes