COLEBROOKE, George (1729-1809), of Gatton, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. 14 June 1729, 3rd s. of James Colebrooke, London banker; bro. of Robert and James Colebrooke. educ. Leyden Univ. 1747-9. m. 23 July 1754, Mary, da. and h. of Peter Gayner of Antigua, 3s. 3da. suc. bro. James as 2nd Bt. 10 May 1761.
Director, E. I. Co. 1767-71, 1772-3, dep. chairman 1768-9, chairman 1769-71, 1772-3.
George Colebrooke entered his father’s bank, and after the death of his father and his brother James was left in sole control; he also inherited a large fortune from them. The family came from Arundel, and by 1754 had built up sufficient influence in the borough for George to be returned in a contested election. From 1761 to 1774 he effectively controlled both seats, while Gatton manor, which he inherited from his brother James, carried with it control of one seat at Gatton.
In 1754 George Colebrooke, like his two brothers, was listed by Dupplin as an Opposition Whig, and on 13 Nov. 1755 spoke, and probably voted, against the Address.1 But four months later James Colebrooke was assuring Newcastle of his own and George’s zealous support; and they were rewarded first with contracts, and next with a baronetcy for James with special remainder to George. But on 25 Feb. 1760 George Colebrooke, together with two other Government supporters, Baker and Amyand, voted against a proposed duty on spirits.2
In 1762, when Newcastle fell, Colebrooke held two contracts, one with Thomlinson, Nesbitt, and Hanbury for remitting money for the forces in America, the other with Nesbitt and Franks for victualling them. Though during the debate on the peace preliminaries, 10 Dec. 1762, he and Nesbitt ‘were both in the House and went away to avoid voting’,3 he lost the first of these contracts shortly afterwards, and the second was not renewed when it expired in 1765.4 When the Rockinghams took office in July 1765, compensation was considered due to him,5 but he showed little enthusiasm when Newcastle spoke of contracts,6 and on 10 Mar. 1766 accepted the place of chirographer to the court of common pleas with reversion to his sons. In the succeeding years he was brought from time to time into touch with Government by his outside interests, in particular those in East India House where he did not adhere to the Rockinghams, although he continued to support them in Parliament. Between January and May 1769 he voted with the Opposition in every one of the six divisions on Wilkes and the Middlesex election for which lists are extant; and attended the Opposition dinner at the end of the session (9 May). Between January 1770 and February 1771 his name again appears in every one of the four extant minority lists; over the royal marriage bill in March 1772 he was listed by Robinson as ‘contra, present’; and he seconded an Opposition amendment to the bill on the 20th.7 On 6 Feb. 1772 he voted for the petition asking for relief from subscription to the 39 Articles.
Colebrooke was not prominent in the House, though he sometimes spoke on commercial affairs and in East India debates between 1767 and 1772. Outside the House he was conspicuous by his wealth and ostentation, and the ambitious and speculative nature of his financial activities. In 1770 he was reported to be anxious to buy land in Scotland to the value of £140,000 ‘if estates could be found there such as would be an inducement to dispose of a very considerable land property in England, with a view either of getting better immediate returns, or getting estates capable by force of money of being greatly improved’.8 In 1771 he bought large estates in Lanarkshire, including the lead mines of Leadhall. In 1773 his disastrous speculations in alum led to his taking over a number of alum mines in Yorkshire and Lancashire.9 He also concerned himself in the purchase of colonial lands: added to his wife’s plantations in Antigua, made large purchases in Grenada (valued in 1774 at £50,000) and Dominica,10 and was one of the syndicate who projected the Vandalia settlement in the Ohio Valley in 1768.11 He looked after the interests of the settlers in Dominica at the Board of Trade, and in 1769 was appointed agent by the assembly;12 but the council vetoed the nomination.13
An active dealer in Government funds between 1762-4,14 and a speculator in East India stock from c.1766 until 1772 on the London and Amsterdam markets, he received the subscriptions of jobbers and brokers for building the first London Stock Exchange in 1772.15 In 1764 he became a partner with Nesbitt in a bank in Dublin which, after a chequered career, closed its doors in 1773.16 He was chiefly notable, however, for his part in the affairs of the East India Company during their most troubled period, and for his ambitious speculations in raw materials.
He first concerned himself in the Company’s affairs in 1764 in support of the Clive faction,17 took a prominent part on the Company’s side in negotiations with Government in 1767-8, and was one of their chief spokesmen in the House.
In 1767 he was elected a director of the Company, deputy chairman in 1768, and chairman in 1769, 1770 and 1772—after 1770 in a coalition with Laurence Sulivan engineered by Lord North. He was thus at the helm when the Company ran into the financial difficulties which led to the Regulating Act of 1773, and his last year of office was turbulent and unfortunate. His management of the Company’s affairs was impugned; he was accused, with some justification, of jobbing its stock when in office; and he suffered severe financial loss over arrangements for procuring votes in the Company’s elections, and by unsuccessful speculation. He was left a creditor of Lauchlin Macleane, and heavily in debt, among others, to Laurence Sulivan and Mary, sister and agent of Richard Barwell. He did not seek re-election to the direction in 1773, and ceased to be actively concerned in the Company’s affairs.
The major cause of his downfall was, however, his speculations in raw materials18 (hemp, flax, logwood, etc.). When in 1771 he had lost £190,000 on a speculation in hemp, he admitted that it would be improper for him as a banker to be suspected of having any further concern in ventures of this kind; yet he became so deeply involved in an attempt to corner the world supply of alum that the financial crisis of 1772 entangled him in hopeless difficulties. Though assistance from the Bank of England and private individuals (including Sir Thomas Rumbold) enabled him to survive the first months of the crisis, his bank closed its doors on 31 Mar. 1773. On 5 May his creditors permitted him to resume business under the control of trustees, but on 7 Aug. 1776 he finally stopped payment, and on 21 Jan. 1777 a commission of bankruptcy was taken out against him. In 1774 much of his property, including Gatton Park, was sold, and consequently he did not stand again for Parliament.
After his bankruptcy he retired to Boulogne, so poor that in 1778 the East India Company voted him a pension of £200 p.a.19 In 1781 he was appointed a senior merchant in their service, but did not take up the post.20 In 1783 he applied unsuccessfully to the Duke of Portland for employment in the foreign service.21 By 1789, however, he was back in Bath, in moderate but comfortable circumstances; part at least of his property was finally salvaged for his family, and his descendants claimed that his creditors were ultimately paid in full.22 Mrs. Thrale, who called him ‘a pretty little dapper man when at his best’,23 was scathing in her judgment of him at the time of his fall, but when she saw him in 1789 in Bath, admitted that ‘no philosopher ever bore ... vicissitudes with less loss of health, spirits and general animation than little Sir George Colebrooke’.24 He died 5 Aug. 1809.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Lucy S. Sutherland
- 1. For his speech see J. West to Newcastle, 13 Nov. 1755, Add. 32860, f. 471; for his vote see AMYAND, G.
- 2. J. West to Newcastle, 25 Feb. 1760, Add. 32902, f. 400.
- 3. Notes in Henry Fox’s hand, Add. 40758, f. 279.
- 4. Colebrooke to Newcastle, 15 July 1765, Add. 32967, ff. 434-6.
- 5. Fortescue, i. 178.
- 6. See n. 4 above.
- 7. Walpole, Last Jnls. i. 64.
- 8. A. Stewart to Mure, 11 Sept. 1770, Caldwell Pprs. ii(2), p. 175.
- 9. L. S. Sutherland, ‘Sir Geo. Colebrooke’s World Corner in Alum, 1771-3’, Econ. Jnl. Econ. Hist. Supp. Feb. 1936, p. 255.
- 10. PRO, Col. 106/9, f. 10; Memorandum by James Harris, 9 May 1763, Malmesbury mss.
- 11. APC Col. v. 210. See also FETHERSTONHAUGH, M.
- 12. Ibid. v. 12.
- 13. L. Penson, Colonial Agents of the West Indies, 112.
- 14. Bank of England recs.
- 15. St. James’s Chronicle, 19 Feb. 1771.
- 16. M. Dillon, Hist. Development of Banking in Ireland.
- 17. L. S. Sutherland, E. I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics.
- 18. For this and following see Sutherland, ‘Sir Geo. Colebrooke’s World Corner in Alum, 1771-3’, loc. cit.
- 19. E. I. Co. Court Bks. 86, p. 605.
- 20. Ibid. 90, p. 104, and 91, p. 76.
- 21. G. Colebrooke to Portland, 27 May 1783, Portland mss.
- 22. T. E. Colebrooke, Life of H. T. Colebrooke, 3-4.
- 23. Thraliana. ed. Balderston, i. 334-5.
- 24. Ibid. ii. 764.