LEWIS, Thomas (1690-1777), of Harpton Court, nr. Radnor
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Family and Education
b. 18 Oct. 1690, 1st s. of Col. Thomas Lewis by Margaret, da. and coh. of William Howes of Greenham, Berks.; uncle of John Lewis. educ. Wadham, Oxf. 1709. m. 12 Feb. 1743, Ann, da. and h. of Sir Nathan Wright, 3rd Bt., of Cranham Hall, Essex, s.p. suc. fa. 1724.
Recorder New Radnor 1731, 1766, bailiff 1740, 1750, 1752.
Lewis’s long political career, which earned for him locally the affectionate title of the ‘Old Burgess’, was marked by stalwart support of Administration, regular parliamentary attendance, and steady opposition to the ambitions of the Harley family in Radnor. On 11 July 1758 he wrote to Newcastle1 that he had ‘constantly for above forty years attended every great question during that time, declined many applications in very critical times, and never yet had the least mark of favour’. But if this, and similar hints,2 failed to gain him preferment, he had at least enjoyed considerable Government support in his local struggle with the Harleys. In 1746 his brother Henry had been appointed steward of the King’s manors in Radnorshire, which gave Lewis control over the creation of burgesses in three of the boroughs which made up the New Radnor constituency.
The election of 1754 was uncontested, but new difficulties arose in 1761. Chase Price, whose father had opposed Lewis for some forty years,3 and whose interest in Knighton, one of the contributory boroughs, was considerable, encouraged Edward Lewis, a London merchant, to contest New Radnor; and in addition Lewis found himself embroiled in the struggle for the county representation between Lord Carnarvon, supported by Lord Oxford, and Howell Gwynne. For the possession of the stewardship gave him a significant interest also in the county, and this Carnarvon tried to secure through Newcastle, otherwise threatening to retaliate by supporting the opposition to Lewis in his borough. Newcastle did his best to accommodate both sides, but agreement was rendered difficult by Carnarvon’s claiming also the lieutenancy of Radnorshire and the stewardship of the King’s manors. When at last it was concluded in February-March 1761, Carnarvon and Lewis engaged to support each other in county and borough; Carnarvon also agreed that the stewardship should remain in Lewis’s hands—but a ‘secret article’ stipulated: ‘Mr. Lewis agrees to hold the courts as long and to resign them to the Earl of Oxford at the same time and upon the same terms as Mr. Gwynne continues and parts with the lieutenancy’ [i.e. at the end of five years].
Carnarvon, however, realized that it might prove impossible for him to stop the opposition in the borough—‘The canvass has begun absolutely against my advice’, he wrote to Bute on 2 Mar., ‘[I] doubt much being able to stop it.’ And next: ‘I have done all I can towards stopping the opposition in the borough of Radnor but find it impracticable; but I shall act in it consistent to the treaty.’ It was Chase Price who continued the contest. Lord Powis wrote to Carnarvon, 2 Mar.: ‘In support and execution of the treaty, your Lordship will find it absolutely necessary to repeat your commands to Mr. Price of Knighton and his family, in favour of Mr. Lewis; which will be obeyed by them (though perhaps with reluctance) undoubtedly.’4 The contest was not stopped, and the election resulted in a double return; and when in November 1761 it came before the House of Commons, Lewis withdrew for technical reasons, as he hinted to Newcastle in 1767:
The gentleman who now very accidentally serves, totally a stranger to both town and country, owes it entirely to the inattention of the borough, in respect of the stamp duties, which advantage being taken of laid me under a necessity for the preservation of my friends to give way to at that time.5
Lewis’s parliamentary career was over, but his interest in Radnorship politics continued, and he was determined to regain the borough for his nephew, John Lewis. For this purpose the retention of the stewardship was essential and when, in 1765, his rival Oxford applied to Rockingham for this office, Lewis hastened to protest to Newcastle that to take it from his brother would be ‘a very sensible mark upon me likewise, who for 47 years have served in Parliament upon my own expense and interest ... never varying but constant in the support of his Majesty’s and the Whig interest’.6
Newcastle’s intervention gained Lewis a reprieve; while in the autumn of 1766 Chase Price’s scheme for the stewardship was defeated by Chatham’s unwillingness to let the first lord of the Treasury engage in it. But when on 18 Jan. 1768 Henry Lewis died, Lord Oxford was appointed to this vital office, a mere seven weeks before the general election.
In the county Oxford’s having declared for Gwynne sufficed to make Lewis support his own former rival Chase Price against him. Nor would he admit defeat in the borough, where in 1768 and 1774 his nephew John Lewis, having the returning officer on his side, was declared elected, only to be unseated on petition. New Radnor had become a pocket borough of the Harleys.
Thomas Lewis died 5 Apr. 1777. The inscription on his monument in Old Radnor church reads: ‘He was blessed with a clear understanding and sound judgment, which being accompanied with an habitual elegance of manners, rendered his conversation at once pleasing and instructive.’ The verdict of Chase Price7 is more severe, but it was written three years before Lewis gave him his political support:
This man is the only man in Wales who, without any other merit than a single vote in Parliament, has accumulated an ample fortune; it was said of him that he was never even whimsical; he lived in those fortunate times when feeling ran high, when an individual Member of Parliament was of very great consequence; he saw his ground and kept it—and at the same time showed his understanding; in every other part of his character a rascal of the first water ... In private life he is avaricious, abject, and oppressive; his house is the scene of the meanest economy; and his temper and disposition of the lowest revenge.
I write this gentleman’s character upon a Sunday morning; I would not be supposed capable of telling an untruth at any time, much less upon such a day. It is fortunate for any one to call him an enemy and it has been my good fortune to do it from my cradle.