WOOD, Robert (?1717-71), of Putney, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. ?1717, 1st s. of Rev. James1 Wood of Summerhill, co. Meath. educ. Glasgow Univ. 1732; M. Temple 1736. m. Ann, da. of Thomas Spottowe or Skottowe, 2s. 1da.
Under-sec. of state 1756-63, 1768-70; groom porter 1764-Jan. 1766.
As a young man, engrossed by the Homeric problem, Wood explored the Greek islands, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Next he spent several years in Italy, apparently acting as private secretary to Joseph Leeson (afterwards Lord Milltown),2 and in 1749 met there James Dawkins and John Bouverie, with whom in 1750 he embarked on an expedition ‘to the most remarkable places of antiquity on the coast of the Mediterranean’,3 and to Palmyra and Baalbek. Back in England in 1753, Wood published The Ruins of Palmyra, described by Horace Walpole (to Richard Bentley, 9 Dec. 1753) as ‘a noble book’, which with The Ruins of Balbec, published in 1757, established him as a scholar with a European reputation. Early in 1753 Wood again set off on his travels, as tutor to the Duke of Bridgwater, with whom he spent the next two years, writing elaborate reports to Bridgwater’s guardian the Duke of Bedford. In December 1756 when Wood, back in England, was preparing his book on Baalbek and his essay on Homer, he was appointed under-secretary by Pitt. According to Walpole, ‘his taste and ingenuity’ had recommended him to Pitt; but Rigby wrote to Fox, 9 Dec. 1756: ‘He had no acquaintance in the world with Pitt, and I guess was recommended by Dick Lyttelton.’ But ‘the observance required by Pitt, and the pride, though dormant, of Wood’ were ‘far from cementing their connexion’; and Wood himself wrote years later that the appointment fixed his whole attention ‘upon objects of so very different a nature, that it became necessary to lay Homer aside, and to reserve the further consideration of such matters for times of more leisure’.4
At the general election of 1761 Wood was returned for Bridgwater’s borough of Brackley, and henceforth naturally followed Bedford’s political lead. Still, on Pitt’s resignation in October 1761 Wood declared that he would prefer to do likewise, and wrote to Pitt on 9 Nov.:
The lowest annuity that could be thought of to my wife, for life or years, would give me more pleasure, and be more consistent with my plan of independence [and also] less conspicuous and less profitable.
But in the end he remained in office, in spite of the hostility which grew up between his new chief, Lord Egremont, and the Duke of Bedford. When on 30 Apr. 1763 Wilkes was arrested on a general warrant, it was Wood who seized his papers, for which on grounds of illegal entry he was tried in December 1763; was found guilty, and fined £1,000. After Egremont’s death in August 1763 Wood seems to have been active in the Bedfords’ attempts to bring Pitt into the Administration, and on 3 Sept. wrote to Pitt to warn him about rumours which were being spread about his extensive proscriptions.5
During the debates on general warrants in February 1764 Wood was attacked for his part in the arrest of Wilkes, and on 13 Feb. defended himself in what James West described as ‘a sensible and judicious manner’.6 Walpole wrote to Lord Hertford that Wood in that debate had ‘shone ... by great modesty, decency, and ingenuity’, but the following day
forfeited these merits a good deal by starting up (according to ministerial plan) and very arrogantly, and repeatedly ... demanding justice and a previous acquittal and telling the House he scorned to accept being merely excused; to which Mr. Pitt replied that if he disdained to be excused, he would deserve to be censured.
On the formation of the Rockingham Administration Wood went into opposition with the Bedfords; was classed by Rockingham as an opponent in July 1765; spoke against the motion for rescinding the order to print the American papers, 17 Jan. 1766; voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act, 22 Feb. 1766; and with the Opposition on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767.
In January 1768, on Weymouth becoming secretary of state for the northern department, Wood was appointed his under-secretary, and according to Walpole, when Weymouth continued his dissipated existence ‘to the total neglect of the affairs of his office, the business ... was managed, as much as it could be, by Mr. Wood’. As Wood’s influence increased rumours began to circulate that he was dabbling heavily in the stocks, and attempting to conduct foreign affairs to suit his own jobbing interests. Walpole writes that in 1769, during the altercation with France over the lowering of ships’ flags, Weymouth had been spurred into being deliberately provocative by Wood, who
was vehemently accused of bending the bow of war towards the butt of his interest. This was the more suspected as, though we had now been the aggressors, France had ... winked at the insult offered to their ship, and wished to receive no answer to their memorial, when Wood persisted in making a reply, which lowered the stocks.7
Similarly it was reported by William Knox, under-secretary in the colonial department 1770-82, that during the Falkland Islands dispute of 1770 Wood prepared instructions for the commander of the East Indies squadron,
authorizing him to commence hostilities and seize the Philippine islands. Wood thought himself so sure of war by this stroke that he sold stock for a great amount in expectation of the funds falling when the secret came out, but he was the dupe of his own policy, and lost considerably, for the instructions were rejected by the Cabinet.8
And on 6 Dec. 1770 Lord Rochford reported to the King that he had found Wood
outrageous that your Majesty’s servants would prevent Lord Weymouth, who held as he said, the pen, from the fatal blow that could be given to France by attacking them in the East Indies.
To which the King replied: ‘The conduct of Mr. Wood seems every day more unbecoming his station.’ Walpole writes in connexion with the same episode:
Wood came under bad suspicions, and I believe deservedly ... His ideas were by no means ready, though in writing he had the art of elucidating them beautifully. He was full of guile, dark and interested ... Francés [the French chargé-d’affaires] who trafficked deeply in our stocks as they fluctuated during the vicissitudes of the negotiation, discovered Wood in the same path, and playing with the transactions as it suited his moneyed views. This Francés communicated to many ... vaunting that he himself could conclude peace in a day’s time if not traversed by Wood.
When Weymouth resigned in December 1770, Wood also left office. On 5 Mar. 1771, during a debate on the Spanish convention, he declared that ‘there never was a negotiation of such material consequence so ably and so plainly carried out’.9
Walpole wrote of him after his death, on 9 Sept. 1771: ‘A man whose character was much brighter in the literary than in the political world’.10