ROBERTS, John (c.1711-72).
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Family and Education
b. c.1711, s. of Edward Roberts, dep. registrar of Chester, by his w. Elizabeth. educ. Westminster 1723; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1728. unm.
Dep. paymaster, Gibraltar 1743-61; inspector of the out ports in the custom house Aug. 1746-Dec. 1762; receiver of quit rents in Virginia for life 1748; pension of £800 p.a. on Irish establishment 1754;1 ld. of Trade Oct. 1761-Nov. 1762, July 1765- d.
A monumental inscription in Westminster Abbey commemorates Roberts as ‘the very faithful secretary’ of Henry Pelham: his life hinged on this connexion. After leaving Oxford Roberts studied medicine till appointed domestic tutor to Pelham’s son; when the boy died, he was retained as secretary, and Pelham, when first lord of the Treasury, obtained the King’s leave to admit him ‘into a full and unreserved confidence in all his most secret affairs’.2 ‘From this time therefore Mr. Roberts saw all the papers’, even such as ‘were laid before but very few of his Majesty’s ministers. All the internal secrets of Government whatever, not proper to be specified [i.e. the secret service disbursements], came under his knowledge’; and he was sometimes sent ‘upon very private messages to the King’. The day Pelham died, 6 Mar. 1754, Roberts wrote to Hardwicke3 that by order of ‘his late good master’ he had taken all Pelham’s papers into his custody; and that ‘the private papers belonging to his Majesty’ [the secret service accounts] he was to deliver to the King. He saw the King who, according to Roberts’s account, offered to bring him into Parliament, and to grant him any employment he would name, but insisted ‘that he should give information to the Duke of Newcastle in whatever might be useful for his Majesty’s service’.
During the next few weeks Roberts, together with West and Lord Dupplin, assisted Newcastle in carrying through Pelham’s arrangements for the general election;4 and during Newcastle’s first term at the Treasury (March 1754-November 1756) was in charge of secret service money. He continued to look after Treasury interests in boroughs; retained till 1762 the complete management of Harwich and Orford; and was employed by Newcastle in preparations for the general election of 1761.5 Still, their relations were never cordial or even smooth. With dull persistency Roberts would harp on the relation in which he had stood to his late master; try to cash in on it with the help of Pelham’s formidable widow, Lady Katherine, and her tiresome son-in-law, Lord Lincoln (Newcastle’s nephew and heir); and quote Pelham as the model to follow. Thus once, when criticized by Newcastle to others, he protested against the ‘disgrace and mortification’—during 20 years with Pelham ‘I have never received so severe a reprimand from him nor ever to my knowledge deserved it’.6
In February 1761 Roberts wrote to Newcastle: ‘It is well known in Mr. Pelham’s family, that it was his intention, had he lived, to have brought me into Parliament, as soon as my employments have been exchanged’ [i.e. those not tenable with a seat in Parliament]. But his name does not appear in Pelham’s lists for the general election of 1754, and only when it was over a friend inquired if Newcastle had ‘the same view of bringing Mr. Roberts into Parliament, Mr. Pelham had’. This, Roberts claimed, was done without his ‘desire or even knowledge’—when asked by the King he had said that he ‘was very indifferent’ about Parliament, unless it was thought he ‘could be of any use there’. Similarly Lady Katherine, who was plaguing Newcastle about a pension for Roberts: as to Parliament, he seems ‘very indifferent whether he is ever in it at all’—which seems hardly credible in view of what followed.7
Both at Harwich, where Roberts had acquired property, and at Orford he was building up a parliamentary interest of his own. On a vacancy at Harwich during Devonshire’s term at the Treasury, Griffith Davies, the local manager closely associated with Roberts, wrote to the Duke on 30 Nov. 1756 ‘that the wishes of a great number of your faithful friends and servants are, that your Grace would please to recommend to them to be elected ... Mr. Roberts’; while Lord Leicester, who as postmaster-general had a competing interest in the borough, on the 29th warned Devonshire against ‘that puppy Roberts who waited on Mr. Pelham’s children, and was afterwards his secretary’, and got Harwich into his management to ‘bring himself in’—‘so I hope you won’t fix on him’.8 Frustrated, Roberts held on to his claims and ambitions. On the next vacancy at Harwich, he wrote to Newcastle, 14 July 1758, for permission to exchange his Gibraltar post with William Sloper, a lord of Trade, and to resign his office in the customs to his cousin, John Hughson, with a view to being brought into Parliament. And Lady Katherine: ‘you can’t ... wonder that I wish him to fill up the vacancy’. Newcastle tried but could not. A year later a vacancy occurred at Orford; again Newcastle had to pass him over—in favour of Charles Fitzroy, Grafton’s brother. ‘Since your Grace is pleased to assure me’, wrote Roberts on 7 Dec., ‘of your kind intentions of bringing me into Parliament, may I entreat you to apprize Colonel Fitzroy now, that, if you do not place me elsewhere, you have destined me for a seat at Orford, at the general election?’9
On 26 July 1760, in Newcastle’s list of ‘Persons to be brought into Parliament at the next election’,10 Roberts’s name appears with the word ‘absolutely’ against it. He was to exchange places with Sloper and stand for Harwich—‘the constituents, most of them have been consulted’, claimed Roberts, and they promised to vote for him.11 But George III wanted the seat at Harwich for Charles Townshend, and Hardwicke that at the Board of Trade for his son John. When Newcastle sent a message about it to Roberts, the part about Harwich ‘seemed to strike him to the heart’, wrote a friend on 4 Feb. 1761; ‘and he said with great emotion he now plainly perceived he was never to receive a mark of your Grace’s favour or friendship’. Next day Newcastle wrote to Lady Katherine:
Your letter is ... cruel. I admit every word of it to be true. But what can I do? ... My Lord Hardwicke has told me that he cannot and will not give up his son. You don’t consider, there is a new King, with whom I don’t pretend to have any credit.
Was he to break with Hardwicke or resign ‘upon Mr. Roberts’s account’? In an otherwise satisfactory talk with Bute,
the chief disagreeable thing was the point of Mr. Roberts. Lord Bute said, the King had promised to bring Mr. Charles Townshend into Harwich. I disputed it, combated it, and opposed it ... I did not prevail; but yet I don’t despair but I shall at last be able to get Mr. Roberts in at Harwich.
And on 6 Feb. Newcastle noted in a memorandum: ‘Mr. Roberts could choose himself at Harwich: the great stress my Lady Katherine and my Lord Lincoln lay upon it’. Roberts was returned for Harwich together with Townshend, but for the Board of Trade had to wait till October, with consequent re-election in December.12
When Newcastle resigned, 26 May 1762, he asked his friends to continue in office, a command more readily obeyed than his call for resignations half a year later. ‘I never saw man so hurt as Lord Lincoln’, wrote the King to Bute on 19 Nov., ‘he declares that the D. of N. alone could have drove him to this step.’ And the next day: ‘Roberts’s resignation I look on as certain, Lord Lincoln having set him the example.’ But on 23 Dec.: ‘Roberts’s letter is very handsome, I know him to be an honest and honourable man, but I feel the situation of things made it necessary to make his vacancy, otherwise he never was a creature of the D. of N.—on the contrary that D. never would have any connection with him.’13 The letter is not extant but is referred to in one from Griffith Davies to Jenkinson, 18 Jan. 1763: Roberts had written ‘to my Lord Bute concerning the borough of Orford’, and offered to ‘wait on him after the holidays to explain something relating to it’.14 He was obviously trying to curry favour with Bute. But when invited by Newcastle to Claremont, the faithful sufferer averred how much he rejoiced ‘having acted honourably and honestly’—his ‘disgrace’ and the resentment he had incurred, he claimed, proved how much he was attached to Newcastle.15
When at last, on 5 Feb. Roberts avowed to Newcastle his dealings with Bute, he claimed to have gone to Bute by order from Lincoln:16
The subject was principally the borough of Orford. In the conversation I introduced some particular circumstances relating to myself, which he heard patiently enough, but said little; except general expressions of the honourable manner, in which he was pleased to say, I had behaved with relation to Harwich and Orford, and a declaration that he would do me the justice to represent them in a higher place.
Newcastle felt indignant.17
I did not imagine that any advice, or consideration could have carried you to my Lord Bute, after the injuries and indignities which his Lordship has put upon me, all my brother’s friends, and indeed personally upon yourself. ... I cannot think any friend of mine after this treatment, in any ways obliged to fling Orford or Harwich into his Lordship’s hands.
Roberts in turn expressed surprise that ‘after having stood with firmness the late fiery trial’, he should receive such a letter: the two boroughs as constituted belonged to the Treasury; men adhering to him would have lost their places; he could not insist on their sharing his fate; and it would have served no purpose.
Roberts remained as yet with Newcastle: he had voted against the peace preliminaries; voted with Opposition over Wilkes and general warrants; belonged to Wildman’s Club; and on the advent of the Rockinghams was reinstated at the Board of Trade. When consulted by Newcastle in October 1765 on America and the Stamp Act riots, he hoped
His Majesty’s ministers would ... manifest a firm resolution to maintain the Act of Parliament and the laws, and at the same time to proceed against the present delinquents with the utmost temper and moderation, wishing rather to reform and bring them back by gentle means to a sense of their duty than to punish them,
yet making examples of some of the worst rioters.18 After which he undoubtedly voted for the repeal of the Stamp Act. He was fond of giving statesmanlike opinions which never rose above the commonplace, and instructing younger men on how things were done in Pelham’s days.19 On the fall of the Rockingham Administration Roberts remained at the Board of Trade, and together with Lincoln deserted Newcastle for Chatham. He voted with Administration over the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, did not vote on the nullum tempus bill, nor does his name appear in any of the three lists of Government supporters in divisions on Wilkes and the Middlesex election, Feb., 15 Apr., and 8 May 1769. Nor is he known to have spoken in the House. At meetings of the Board of Trade he had an attendance of about 50%.
He died 13 July 1772.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Sir Lewis Namier
- 1. T14/13/147-8; Add. 32920, f. 21.
- 2. See paper which Roberts wrote for Bute early in 1763, during the rout of Newcastle’s dependants, Bute mss.
- 3. Add. 35423, ff. 167-8.
- 4. Namier, Structure, 197-202.
- 5. Add. 35420, f. 118.
- 6. Add. 32854, f. 489.
- 7. Add. 32918, ff. 407-8; 32735, ff. 184, 205-6.
- 8. Devonshire mss.
- 9. Add. 32881, f. 319; 32899, f. 366.
- 10. Add. 32999, ff. 19-20.
- 11. Add. 32918, ff. 407-8.
- 12. Add. 32918, ff. 275, 279-80, 310-11.
- 13. Sedgwick, 163-4, 176.
- 14. Bute mss.
- 15. Add. 32946, f. 224.
- 16. Add. 32946, f. 319; the autobiographical sketch telling how he had earned his post and sinecures, was presumably written in connexion with this interview.
- 17. Ibid. f. 333.
- 18. Add. 32970, ff. 302-3.
- 19. Add. 32967, ff. 204-7; J. E. Tyler, ‘John Roberts, M.P. and the first Rockingham Administration’, EHR, Oct. 1952.