POTTER, Christopher (d.1817), of Colchester, Essex
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Family and Education
‘The early part of the life of Mr. Potter’, says an obituary notice,1 ‘appears to be lost in obscurity.’ No details of his birth, education, or marriage have been found. He is sometimes said to have been a London merchant, but he does not appear in the trade directories between 1780 and 1817. Lord North in 1778 described him as ‘a gentleman of business and of very fair character in the City, and a good friend to Government upon all occasions’.2 ‘Without being a baker by trade’, continues his obituary, ‘he contrived to acquire a considerable fortune by manufacturing bread for the army.’ When he entered Parliament he held a Government contract (dated 6 Feb. 1781) to victual 1,000 men in the Leeward Islands.3
He contested Cambridge at the general election of 1780, but was bottom of the poll. William Cole, the Cambridge antiquary, wrote about this election:
It is my firm belief that Potter, an agreeable man in person, eloquent to a great degree, of a most captivating conversation and behaviour, had he started a month sooner, would have carried his election; but he deferred it to the last of August.4
At Colchester in 1781 he opposed Edmund Affleck, who was financed by Government. ‘Would it not be possible’, wrote North to Robinson on 1 Oct.,5 ‘to prevent Potter from embarking in such an expense as to distress Affleck? He is a contractor ... receives now, and may expect more from our favour. Has he no friend ... to deter him from prosecuting such a ruinous plan of disobliging us and hurting himself?’ But Potter stood the poll and was elected. A petition was presented against him, alleging, amongst other things, that he did not possess the necessary qualification.
On 5 Dec. 1781, in the committee of supply on the naval estimates, he made his maiden speech:6
Mr. Potter defended the Admiralty, and said, from his own connexions in business with it, he was convinced the Admiralty Board was zealously inclined to promote the true interests of their country; that they did all in their power to put that intention in practice, and that no criminality was imputable to them.
Yet on 12 Dec. he voted for Lowther’s motion against the American war—which did not prevent him from getting a share in an even larger contract (signed 19 Jan. 1782) to victual 10,000 men in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.7 He did not vote on Fox’s motion of censure against the Admiralty, 20 Feb. 1782, probably out of delicacy towards Sandwich; but in the division list is marked among the absentees as one who generally voted with Opposition. On 27 Feb. he voted for Conway’s motion against the war, and on 4 Mar. was unseated.
At Colchester in 1784 he was supported by Richard Rigby, the leader of the opposition to him in 1780, who was hoping to turn out Sir Robert Smyth, one of the sitting Members. ‘To be sure Potter is not a very creditable representative even for that blackguard town’, wrote Rigby to John Strutt on 8 Apr.,8 ‘but the very best man to turn out Sir Robert.’ Potter narrowly beat Smyth for the second seat, and Smyth petitioned. In William Adam’s list of the Parliament, Potter was classed ‘doubtful’, and no division lists exist for the short period during which he sat. The Duke of Rutland, who had ‘old obligations’ towards Potter, supported him when the petition came to be tried; and John Mortlock, Potter’s nominee on the committee which tried his election, ‘engaged ... that Potter should always vote for Pitt’.9 The election was declared void and a new one ordered, and this time Smyth had 653 votes against Potter’s 382. Potter petitioned, but on 15 Mar. 1785 Smyth was declared duly elected.
In 1791 Potter was living in France, and on 16 Jan. presented a petition to the National Assembly begging a patent for a new process of manufacturing glass and pottery: it would provide employment for over 500 people and ensure France the lead in those manufactures, while Potter promised a quarter of his profits ‘en don patriotique’.10 He set up his factory at Chantilly: ‘the china produced under his inspection and superintendence exhibited an extraordinary portion of beauty, taste, and elegance’, and he ‘was supposed to clear £6,000 a year’.11 A police report of 8 Mar. 1796 thus denounced him:12
Potter ... was deep in debt two years ago, but ... has now paid up, and is worth more than two millions. He was twice arrested under the revolutionary government ... There is no doubt that he is in France the secret agent of Pitt, with whom he has been closely connected since the Revolution.
In 1796 and 1797 Barras used Potter as a go-between with the British Government. In 1800 Potter was a first class medallist at the Paris industrial exhibition. He probably remained in France until 1814. He died in England, 18 Nov. 1817. His ‘opportunities and abilities’, writes an obituary,13 ‘should have fixed him at the summit of wealth’, but he was ‘too eccentric and speculative to hoard a fortune’.