WRAXALL, Nathaniel William (1751-1831), of Laleham, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 8 Apr. 1751, o.s. of Nathaniel Wraxall of Bristol by Anne, da. of William Thornhill of Bristol. m. 30 Mar. 1789, Jane, da. of Peter Lascelles of Knights, Herts., 2s. cr. Bt. 21 Dec. 1813.
Writer E.I. Co. 1769; judge-advocate and paymaster of the forces in the Guzerat expedition 1771-2; lt. 3 Drag. Gds. 1777 (an honorary commission for presentation at foreign courts).
Wraxall’s father, a Bristol merchant, went bankrupt in 1756, five years after his son was born. At the age of 18 Wraxall was appointed a writer at Bombay: three years later he was in a position to retire from the service, and spent most of the next ten years touring Europe. In 1774 he visited Scandinavia, Russia, and Germany, and was involved in intrigues to assist George III’s sister, the Queen of Denmark. The following year he published Cursory Remarks made in a tour through Northern Europe, which was well received. From August 1775 until the late summer of 1776 he toured France, publishing Memoirs of the Kings of France a year later, and in 1778 and 1779 he travelled in Southern Europe with Lord Robert Manners.
Wraxall entered Parliament in 1780, purchasing a seat at Hindon from the Calthorpe family; and voted with North’s Administration. Anxious to shine, he made several long speeches in his first session, drawing on the miscellaneous stock of diplomatic and geographical knowledge he had acquired. Walpole described him (to Mason, 5 Feb. 1781) as ‘popping into every spot where he can make himself talked of, by talking of himself; but I hear he will come to an untimely beginning in the House of Commons’. This unkind prophecy seems to have been fulfilled, for he made ten speeches in his first four years as a Member, and none in the last ten. In the Rolliad he was made to complain of his fellow Members, ‘who, deaf to travelled Learning’s summons, rudely coughed whene’er I spake’.
Soon after his arrival at Westminster he succeeded in drawing the King’s attention to the services he had rendered the Queen of Denmark, and was given a thousand guineas. According to his own version, North also promised him employment, and he was considered for an under-secretaryship. At this time he was in close touch with Paul Benfield and James and John Macpherson, and afterwards acted as agent for the Nabob of Arcot. Wraxall voted with the rest of North’s followers against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, but opposed Fox’s East India bill, 27 Nov. 1783. At the general election of 1784 he came in as a supporter of Pitt for George Selwyn’s borough of Ludgershall. His expenses were paid by his patron, Lord Sackville, ‘leaving me equally free in my parliamentary capacity as he did his own son-in-law’.1 In the new Parliament Wraxall supported Administration, except for one vote against Pitt’s Irish commercial propositions, which Sackville also opposed. He bombarded Pitt with advice, requests for employment, and applications for a baronetcy. He left Parliament in 1794, and died 7 Nov. 1831.
Wraxall achieved little distinction in the House of Commons, but his memoirs have made his name well known. The first instalment, Historical Memoirs of my own Time, published in 1815, covers the period from 1772 to 1784. The book brought down a storm on its author’s head: the Edinburgh Review and Quarterly Review vied with each other in condemnation, and Wraxall was sent to prison for three months after a libel action brought by Count Woronzow. Its continuation, Posthumous Memoirs, which deals with the Parliament of 1784, was not published until 1836.
As an historian of his own time, Wraxall has been unduly disparaged. The first part of Historical Memoirs, which deals with his travels on the continent between 1772 and 1780, is full of gossip and triviality, and shows him at his worst. But the main part of his work, relating what he saw and heard in Parliament, is much more interesting and valuable. Wraxall was no Horace Walpole: apart from his intimacy with Sackville, he was never close to any of the leading statesmen of his day, and he knew few secrets. He was careless and lacked judgment, so that his work is a hotch-potch. He can repeat a story so absurd as that of John Ross Mackye’s having bribed one hundred and twenty Members of Parliament to vote for the Peace of Paris, yet he had learnt of George III’s contemplated abdication in 1783, which few of his contemporaries knew. His reports of parliamentary debates are taken from Almon and Debrett. But Wraxall was a first-class observer, his descriptions of the lesser political figures are particularly vivid, and he had a keen eye for physical detail. He recaptured the excitement of the last years of North’s Administration, and the tension of the struggle for power between Pitt and Fox: we see the Members and hear them speak, almost as spectators in the gallery. The House of Commons of these years lives again in Wraxall’s pages.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: J. A. Cannon
- 1. Mems. ed. Wheatley, iv. 212.