RUMBOLD, Thomas (1736-91), of Woodhall, Herts.
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Family and Education
b. 15 Jan. 1736, 3rd s. of William Rumbold of the East India Co.’s naval service, by Dorothy, da. of Richard Cheney of Hackney. m. (1) 22 June 1756, Frances (d. 22 Aug. 1764), da. of James Berriman of Madras, 2s. 1da.; (2) 2 May 1772, Joanna, da. of Dr. Edmund Law, bp. of Carlisle, 3s. 3da. cr. Bt. 23 Mar. 1779.
Director, E.I. Co. 1772, 1775-7; gov. Madras June 1777-Apr. 1780.
In 1752 Rumbold, whose family had strong East India connexions, entered the Company’s service as a writer at Madras, but shortly after transferred to its military service, and in 1757 was Clive’s aide-de-camp at Plassey. Reverting to the civil service in 1763, he became chief at Patna, and in 1766 a member of the council of Bengal. In 1769 he returned to England, and on 25 Dec. 1769 Richard Barwell wrote to his father1that as Rumbold would
be strongly supported and may possibly come out governor, a close connection with him may prove extremely beneficial. He carries home a large fortune—I believe two and three hundred thousands—and is determined to expend a part to accomplish what he has in view.
The establishment of an influence in the company at home was one of Rumbold’s aims, and he acquired large holdings in East India stock. He was likewise determined to enter Parliament and canvassed the notoriously corrupt and expensive borough of New Shoreham; having outbid several rivals, he was adopted by the so-called Christian Society which ran the borough. Though Rumbold received a majority of votes, the returning officer rejected many on grounds of bribery, and returned Rumbold’s opponent; but Rumbold was seated on petition.
Rumbold seems at first to have voted with the Opposition, and in Robinson’s surveys of March 1772 on the royal marriage bill he was classed as ‘contra, present’. On 30 Mar. 1772 he spoke in favour of an inquiry into the affairs of the East India Company, declaring that he was anxious to distinguish the wrongdoers from the rest. But when in 1773 the select committee launched its attack in the House, Rumbold seems to have joined Clive and Francis Sykes, now on the Administration side. On 21 May 1773 he made a long speech in support of Clive.2 Rumbold’s only recorded vote during this Parliament was with Administration on Grenville’s Election Act, 25 Feb. 1774.
At the general election of 1774 Rumbold was returned for Shaftesbury on Lord Ilchester’s interest (with Francis Sykes as his colleague) after an expensive contest, but was unseated for bribery. The offence was so flagrant that the House ordered the attorney-general to prosecute Rumbold and his associates, but later agreed it had been precipitate, and on petitions from Rumbold and Sykes discharged the order.
Rumbold, having been unable to remit a very considerable sum home from India, was anxious to return in order to do so.3 He was mentioned as a possible governor of Bengal in 1771 when Hastings was appointed;4 and when in 1775 the governor of Madras was recalled, Rumbold eagerly canvassed to take his place, but though his candidature was supported by the directors and by Administration, he was narrowly defeated by Lord Pigot at the meeting of the general court. After Pigot’s death Rumbold was at last appointed, and in February 1778 arrived in Madras where the disputes before Pigot’s death had left great confusion. Rumbold informed Hastings on 23 Mar. 1778 that his difficulties had been increased by ‘the intrigues of the Company’s servants ... whose interest it is to cover their enormities under as thick a veil as possible’.5 But when reporting the capture of Pondicherry to North on 31 Oct. 1778, he declared that having taken over the government when it was in a very troublesome and unsettled state, he had had the ‘happiness to succeed in fulfilling the wishes of his Majesty’s ministers’, and asked for a suitable reward.6
Nevertheless reports continued to circulate of the dangerous situation at Madras. Philip Francis noted in his journal, on 1 Apr. 1780: ‘Strange reports of mischief and confusion’ in Madras.7 And Rumbold seems to have been thoroughly distrusted at Fort St. George: ‘Never was man so universally disliked’ wrote Thomas Palk, a member of the Madras civil service; Rumbold, he declared on 30 Jan. 1780, was ‘blind and deaf to every consideration but that of establishing a strong interest at home’.8 After Pondicherry Rumbold embarked on negotiations with the Nizam of the Deccan and with Hyder Ali, which were followed by the outbreak of war in the Carnatic.
Before matters had reached this crisis Rumbold had left India for reasons of health. He arrived in England in January 1781 to face a storm of criticism which culminated in the demand for a parliamentary inquiry. Though he had again been returned for Shaftesbury in his absence, presumably with the assistance of Francis Sykes, once more his fellow Member, he was unseated on petition in April 1781. But determined to re-enter Parliament at all costs before his case was brought before the House, he bought a seat at Yarmouth from Edward Rushworth. Rumbold’s main interest in Parliament now was to defend his conduct in India, and when on 30 Apr. 1781 North proposed a commission of secrecy to inquire into the causes of the war in the Carnatic, Rumbold, after agreeing to the necessity for an inquiry, because ‘the more the matter was probed, the more evident it would appear that his conduct in India was justifiable in every part of it’, added that it would be ‘in his power to lead the committee to such papers as would vindicate his character’—
He would readily declare there never was a moment at which he so much desired or could desire, to have a seat in that House as the present. ... He was anxious to meet inquiry from the conviction that a man could always explain his own case himself, especially when it was full of the intricacies that his must necessarily be.
On 4 Dec. he complained
that though the committee ... was called a committee of secrecy, their proceedings had not been so secret but that they had found their way to public view and were handed about with comments highly injurious to his character. It was another cause of complaint to him that from the first moment the committee had met to the present hour he had not had an opportunity to say a syllable in his own vindication.
Rumbold was anxious that the conduct of the directors at home should not escape examination: ‘and if it should be found that the directors had not attended to the advices sent to them from India ... that then the committee should be as severe upon them in their report to Parliament as against any of the persons employed abroad by the company’. During the debates that followed Rumbold spoke repeatedly; was distressed that he had not been called upon to give evidence; and declared that his letters to the directors ‘and many other papers which would convey the strongest testimony of his innocence were totally omitted in several reports of the committee’. On 29 Apr. the committee’s resolutions condemning Rumbold’s conduct were agreed to by the House, and a bill for inflicting pains and penalties on Rumbold and restraining him from leaving the kingdom was moved by the chairman of the committee, Henry Dundas, who also moved for a clause to compel Rumbold to deliver upon oath the amount of his property. To this Rumbold objected that it ‘might well be called a punishment ... and yet he had not been permitted to make any defence to avert it ... he could not call that justice, which inflicted punishment on a man who had not been heard in his defence’. Discussion of Rumbold’s case dragged on for the rest of the session, and on 13 June 1782, during the second reading of the bill of pains and penalties, Dundas proposed to postpone the business to prevent the session from being too protracted. Rumbold at once declared that as he was ready to present his defence the delay was ‘a grievance to a man who, conscious of his own innocence was prepared for the charge’.9 The postponement was repeated by Dundas the following year and yet again till finally the case against Rumbold was abandoned. As early as 28 Jan. 1782 Rumbold’s successor, George Macartney, had written to Laurence Sulivan from Fort St. George that though there was ‘not a man in the settlement, white or black, who does not firmly believe and even tell you he believes all the stories you have heard of Sir Thomas Rumbold, yet I don’t think it possible to obtain evidence to any one of the facts he is charged with’.10 Fox, reporting the previous day’s debate to the King on 10 May 1782 wrote: ‘If a judgment were to be formed from yesterday, it must be that there was real tenderness for the person accused, which if it be the real temper of the House at large must make it impossible to carry on the prosecution with effect.’11 Previously, in April 1782, John Scott had opined to Hastings that Dundas had been ‘softened with regard to Sir Thomas Rumbold, or rather, I should say bribed’.12 And according to Wraxall, Rumbold had come to an arrangement with Rigby (then involved in pecuniary difficulties):13
It was supposed that ... the East India governor advanced to his friend such a sum as greatly facilitated those payments of public money which he was necessitated to furnish without delay ... Rigby still possessed great capacities of being useful ... above all, his intimate friendship with Dundas ... might enable Rigby to find means and opportunities of diminishing those prejudices or softening those impressions that operated most severely against the accused person ... the public being in possession of certain facts, and observing that the proceedings so vigorously begun in Parliament seemed unaccountably to languish, and eventually expire towards the close of the session of 1783 ... inferred perhaps very unjustly, that there must exist some latent cause which had blunted the edge of the weapon. Rumbold it is certain was finally extricated.
‘Sir Thomas has now totally got rid of the business’ wrote W. Reynolds to John Strutt on 19 Dec. 1783. ‘I never saw a man in such ecstasy of joy.’14
Rumbold, who had voted regularly in support of Administration till the fall of North, did not vote on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, nor on Fox’s East India bill, 27 Nov. 1783. Robinson’s list of January 1784 classed him as ‘doubtful’; Stockdale’s of 19 March and Adam’s of May as ‘Opposition’. At the general election he unsuccessfully contested Shaftesbury but was returned unopposed for Weymouth. No vote by him is recorded during this Parliament, though on 28 Feb. 1785 he spoke in support of Fox’s motion to lay the papers of the Nabob of Arcot before the House15—his only reported speech during this Parliament.
He died 11 Nov. 1791.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Mary M. Drummond
- 1. Bengal Past & Present, x. 245.
- 2. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 239, ff. 189-97; 248, ff. 216-23.
- 3. Reports of Commons Committees, vii. 413.
- 4. HMC Palk, 157.
- 5. Add. 29140, f. 219.
- 6. Abergavenny mss.
- 7. Parkes Merivale, Mems. of Francis, ii. 188.
- 8. HMC Palk, 327, 329.
- 9. Debrett, iii. 181-4; v. 80; vii. 35, 109, 213.
- 10. Corresp. Lord Macartney (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, lxxvii), 181.
- 11. Fortescue, vi. 13.
- 12. Add. 29154, f. 15 b.
- 13. Mems. ii. 377-8.
- 14. Strutt mss.
- 15. Debrett, xvii. 312.