PRATT, Charles (1714-94), of Camden Place, Kent
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
bap. 21 Mar. 1714, 4th surv. s. of Sir John Pratt, l. c. j. King’s bench 1717-25, of Wildernesse, Kent by his 2nd w. Elizabeth, da. of Rev. Hugh Wilson, canon of Bangor; gd.-s. of John Pratt, M.P. educ. Eton 1725-31; King’s, Camb. 1731, fellow 1734; I. Temple 1728, called 1738. m. 4 Oct. 1749, Elizabeth, da. and eventually h. of Nicholas Jeffreys of Brecon Priory, Brec., 2s. 4da. His sis. Jane m. 1738 Nicholas Hardinge. Kntd. 28 Dec. 1761; cr. Baron Camden 17 July 1765, Earl Camden 13 May 1786.
K.C. 1755; attorney-gen. to Prince of Wales 1756-7; attorney-gen. July 1757-Jan. 1762; recorder, Bath 1759- d.; l. c. j. common pleas Jan. 1762-July 1766; P.C. 15 Feb. 1762; ld. chancellor July 1766-Jan. 1770; ld. president Mar. 1782-Mar. 1783 and Dec. 1784- d.
Pratt’s House of Commons career was short and on the whole politically uneventful. By 1755 he was a favourite lawyer at the parliamentary bar, and he acted as counsel for the petitioners over the Mitchell election;1 and Legge, anticipating his appointment as attorney-general to the Prince of Wales, wrote to Pitt on 16 June 17562 that with him Leicester House ‘shall out-lawyer’ the court. Meantime Newcastle, who in the Minorca crisis was about to lose William Murray from the House of Commons, was looking round for new supporters.
The more I think of Mr. Pratt’s character and manner of speaking [he wrote to Hardwicke on 28 Aug.] the more I think he would be of use to us, and especially to me in the present conjuncture, when I shall have no particular friend to plead my cause ... Mr. Pratt is a known Whig stock, and that would be of great service to me.
But as Pratt was a potential rival to Charles Yorke, Newcastle asked for the concurrence of Hardwicke who, replying the next day, adhered to his previous view—‘I love the man, and have been very much his friend’, but both for his and Newcastle’s sake advised against bringing him into Parliament just then (it would have looked like an attempt to detach him from his friends). ‘The difference of time can be of no ill consequence to him, nor can your Grace expect any immediate use of so new a Member.’3
On 5 Oct. Newcastle was again pressing Hardwicke on the subject:4
Have you done anything about Mr. Pratt? We shall certainly lose him, and it is thought by those who know him that he would be a great loss, and we have not friends to spare. I wish you would come to some determination as to my bringing him into Parliament.
Hardwick repeated his objections to the timing. But if Pratt was made second judge of Chester, he would be in the King’s service, which would ‘appear to be a natural reason for bringing him into the House of Commons’. Pratt, however, declined the appointment (15 Oct.).5
By this time an approach to Pitt was expected; and Thomas Potter wrote to him on the 17th:6
If anything should take place, think on Pratt for attorney. If you have the lead in the House of Commons ‘tis fit you should have at your elbow a lawyer of your own. He may be brought into Parliament in the room of the present attorney, or for Lord Feversham’s borough of Downton.
Pratt’s appointment was considered;7 but Henley and Charles Yorke were retained as attorney—and solicitor—general. However, in the negotiations of June 1757 for a new Administration Pitt insisted on Pratt being appointed attorney-general—‘that must be now done’, wrote Newcastle to Hardwicke, ‘or all is certainly undone’.8 Thus Pratt was placed above Charles Yorke. He was returned to Parliament for Downton, James Hayes having vacated the seat for him (in 1761 they were returned together unopposed).
The most important measure introduced by Pratt as attorney-general was a bill for explaining and extending the habeas corpus, and ascertaining its full operation. On the second reading, 16 Mar. 1758, the bill was opposed by Charles Yorke and other lawyers but strongly supported by Pitt. It passed the House without a division; similarly on 24 Apr. It was, however, rejected by the Lords where Mansfield and Hardwicke severely criticized it.9
Pitt’s resignation in October 1761 placed Pratt in an awkward position. He did not resign, and apparently Bute desired him to continue.10 The question was re-opened by the death on 15 Dec. of Sir John Willes, lord chief justice of the common pleas.
The attorney-general’s name [wrote Sir Anthony Abdy to the Duke of Devonshire11] is in everybody’s mouth but a friend of his told me this morning that he would not accept of it, his attachment to Mr. Pitt at this time as he said required his most anxious attendance upon him and his interest, and he would by no means desert him.
Still, when sounded through Samuel Martin, Pratt gave a reply interpreted by Martin as acceptance: ‘that he would tell Mr. P. what had passed, and was sure of his consent’;12 while Pratt, in a talk with Bute on 19 Dec.,13 claimed to have said ‘he could not give a positive answer till he had consulted his friends’. Moreover he now declared ‘a repugnancy’ to the office,
that it was a life he could not think of without shuddering ... that all he now said was foreign entirely to the House of Commons, politics, etc... . that he would upon no account keep [the office of attorney-general] to oppose the Crown, and his not instantly resigning it was a proof he had no such intention: this was the sum of a long discourse, spoken with great agitation.
Bute answered that ‘the whole town were acquainted’ with his acceptance, and his fluctuating ‘might be interpreted as an intention in Mr. Pitt to keep him in the House of Commons for Opposition’.
Hardwicke, replying to Bute the same night,14 did not doubt that after Pratt’s ‘present agitation is subsided, he will finally accept’—‘I remember a certain lady once writ me word that she could not answer my letter, till her nerves were unfermented.’ After some further flustered correspondence with Bute on 22 Dec.,15 Pratt accepted the chief justiceship, once more assuring Bute that his fluctuations had sprung singly from the disinclination he felt ‘against assuming a judicial character’.
Yet it was as chief justice that he achieved his most lasting distinction by his decisions in the Wilkes case, May and December 1763. Created Lord Camden by the Rockinghams to propitiate Pitt, he re-entered politics under Pitt’s wing; with high hopes took office as lord chancellor in his Administration; and after Chatham’s collapse, carried on as trustee for him jointly with Grafton. When Chatham resigned, 14 Oct. 1768, Camden did not follow him, and spent another unhappy year in office; but when on 9 Jan. 1770 Chatham attacked the Administration on the Address, Camden joined him, and was dismissed.
After Chatham’s death, Camden wrote on 12 May 1778 to his son-in-law Robert Stewart (later 1st Lord Londonderry) in a despondent, self-depreciatory mood:16
As to myself I am now a mere insignificant individual. With Lord Chatham I was something as his shadow; but now my substance being none I am nothing, too big to borrow protection elsewhere and not big enough to give it.
He was still to hold office for nearly ten years under Chatham’s son, and died 18 Apr. 1794.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Sir Lewis Namier
- 1. Add. 32853, f. 113.
- 2. Chatham Corresp. i. 166-8.
- 3. Add. 32867, ff. 120, 147.
- 4. Add. 35416, f. 65.
- 5. Add. 35416, f. 84; 32868, f. 203; 35594, ff. 262, 285; Yorke, Hardwicke, ii. 315-18.
- 6. Chatham Corresp. i. 178-9.
- 7. Ibid. 193.
- 8. Add. 35416, f. 234; 35423, f. 188.
- 9. Yorke, Hardwicke, iii. 1-19; Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, iii. 100-4, 112-21; Add. 35878, f. 33; 32879, f. 276.
- 10. Pratt to Bute, 22 Dec. 1761, Bute mss.
- 11. 15 Dec., Devonshire mss.
- 12. Martin to Bute, 20 Dec., Bute mss.
- 13. Add. 35423, f. 274.
- 14. Bute mss.
- 15. Two letters from Pratt and one from Bute, Bute mss.
- 16. Camden mss at Bayham.