COKE, Thomas William I (1754-1842), of Holkham, Norf.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

8 May 1776 - 1784
1790 - 19 Feb. 1807
26 Feb. 1807 - 1807
1807 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 6 May 1754, 1st s. of Wenman Coke, and bro. of Edward Coke*. educ. Eton 1765-71; Grand Tour 1771-4. m. (1) 5 Oct. 1775, Jane (d. 2 June 1800), da. of James Lennox Dutton of Loughcrew, co. Meath, 3da.; (2) 26 Feb. 1822, Lady Anne Amelia Keppel, da. of William Charles, 4th Earl of Albemarle, 5s. 1da. suc. fa. 1776; cr. Earl of Leicester, 12 Aug. 1837.

Offices Held

Member, board of agriculture 1793.

Maj. commdt. Holkham yeomanry 1798, capt. 1803; lt.-col. W. Norf. yeoman cav. 1804.

Biography

‘Coke of Norfolk’ or ‘King Tom’, as he was known locally, was obliged to decline a peerage six times to remain ‘the first commoner of England’ until he succumbed in 1837. His hostility to Pitt was nevertheless alleged to have been determined by the award of the earldom of Leicester, formerly in the Coke family, to the Townshends.1 The archetypal Whig country gentleman, he was a devoted admirer of Fox, who in turn called him ‘one of the brightest ornaments of England’. He was the youngest Member of the House when he entered Westminster and its ‘father’ when he retired in 1832. One of ‘Fox’s martyrs’ in 1784, when he joined the Whig Club, he took up that systematic improvement of his estates which made his reputation as a prince of landlords: ‘the peaceful pursuit of agriculture has always been much more my happiness than the turbulence of politics’, he claimed. Nevertheless, he was bent on regaining the county seat and after a careful canvass came in unopposed in 1790, though the Member he ousted, Sir Edward Astley, had by then deserted Pitt’s administration. He ‘could not call Pitt a great man, for he thought him a little one in all the actions of his life’.2

Coke was a frequent but not a regular attender of the House, if always sensitive to a summons from Fox. He spoke infrequently but expected the more attention to be paid to the observations of ‘an honest man representing a great and important county’, especially on agricultural subjects, for ‘he never knew a minister who in the least regarded the landed interest of the country’.3 On 21 Dec. 1790, opposing the malt duties, he approved the suggestion of a tax on dogs and at the same time deprecated Pitt’s claims for his convention with Spain. He opposed the armament against Russia, amending the subsidy, 29 Mar. 1791, as follows:

that they did not understand that the possessions of this kingdom, or its allies, were in any way threatened; and that they should not do their duty to their constituents, if they were to load them with the additional burdens, for the maintenance of interests which were neither explained nor understood by that House.

The amendment was defeated by 228 votes to 135. He was listed favourable to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in April 1791. He refused to sign a loyal address in favour of the royal proclamation against sedition, 21 May 1792. In December 1792 he was listed a Portland Whig and did not join the Foxites in town; but on 18 Feb. 1793 he voted against war with revolutionary France and continued to do so when present thereafter. He could not be won over to Windham’s ‘third party’. Holkham was now a Whig rallying point: Fox wrote from there, ‘The master of this house, the Duke of Bedford, Guilford and Derby and some others with myself make undoubtedly a small basis; but then how glorious it would be from such small beginnings to grow into a real strong party such as we once were’.4 Coke seconded Harrison’s motion of 8 Apr. 1794 to tax placemen and pensioners:

the county which he had the honour to represent were very dissatisfied with the war, and the great and opulent city of Norwich had severely felt its effects; the poor rates, which in no other war exceeded more than £17,000, this year amounted to the enormous sum of £21,000.

He was not to be weaned from opposition by the bait of a peerage from the Duke of Portland, now in office. He was ‘an advocate for peace’, on Grey’s motion, 26 Jan. 1795, and

every man in this country he believed to be so, except the immediate connexions and dependants of ministers, contractors and jobbers, who profited by the war ... all the people in the county of Norfolk felt the danger to which the coast was exposed by the French getting possession of Holland, and wished for peace. If it should fail, the consequence would be uniting the heart and hand of every Englishman for a vigorous prosecution of the war. The day was not far distant when [Fox] would be called upon by the public voice to save the nation from the calamities which the misconduct of others threatened to bring upon it.

On 5 Feb. 1795 he defended the Norwich petition for peace. He voted against repressive legislation and defended the Yarmouth petition against it, 25 Nov. 1795. There is no record of his attendance between 16 Feb. 1796 (when he shepherded in a bill to amend the Game Laws, fixing a later start to the game shooting season to enable farmers to get their corn in) and the dissolution.

No ministerial candidate could be found to challenge Coke at the election of 1796 and when Sir John Wodehouse, who had ousted him in 1784, accepted a peerage soon afterwards, Coke obtained his revenge by securing the return of another Member inclined to opposition. Hence the accusation that he was turning the county into a borough; if so, it was an expensive one. In a lifetime, he was supposed to have spent half a million on electioneering. In the Bank crisis of 1797 he came to the assistance of Gurney’s bank at Norwich. In the House, 1 Mar., he said that he

had found no reason to approve of any part of [Pitt’s] general political conduct since the year 1784, nor of those who had lately leagued with him, but who were formerly among the warmest of his opponents ... I was brought up to attach myself to my friends and to disregard my enemies and not to betray those who had placed confidence in me by bargain and sale.

He tried to secure leave for export of barley under the corn bill, 31 Mar., 3, 7, Apr. 1797, but gave it up, 19 May. After voting reluctantly for parliamentary reform, 26 May, since he thought the motion ill-timed, Coke seceded with Fox, returning only to vote against the assessed taxes, 14 Dec. 1797, 4 Jan. 1798, to vote and speak against the land tax redemption, 23 Apr., 18 May, and to vote against the misgovernment of Ireland, 14, 22 June 1798. At this time he raised cavalry in Norfolk.5 On 25 Feb. 1799 he tried to prevent a bid to repeal his bill of 1796 for a later start to the game shooting season. On 25 Mar. 1801 he reappeared to support Grey’s censure motion. He voted against Addington’s continuation of restrictions on civil liberty, 14, 20 Apr. 1801. He welcomed the advent of peace. He was in the minority on the civil list arrears, 29 Mar. 1802. On the death of the Duke of Bedford he made Holkham the venue of the annual sheep-shearing which had attracted the Whig landed gentry to Woburn.

Coke was hard put to it to retain his protégé Astley as colleague in the contest for Norfolk in 1802. He voted for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s finances, 4 Mar. 1803, and against the ministry on the resumption of hostilities, 24 May. Subsequently his relations with Fox were made uneasy by his dislike of co-operation with Pitt in opposition to Addington. He was one of those Whigs who went away rather than vote for Pitt’s motion for a naval inquiry, 15 Mar. 1804.6 He relented and was in the opposition minorities of 19 Mar., 16 and 23 Apr. 1804 against ministerial defence measures, but did not vote for Pitt’s motion of 25 Apr. that brought down Addington. He readily resumed opposition to Pitt in office, though the minister co-operated with him over the corn bill in June 1804: Coke had reproached Addington for neglect of the landed interest in their wish for free exportation of grain, 12 May 1803. On 12 Mar. 1805 he reproached Pitt’s administration for the tax on agricultural horses. On 11 Apr. he went (‘undressed’) to St. James’s with the address to the King in censure of Melville and on 2 May supported the vote of thanks to the commissioners of naval inquiry. He opposed altering the corn bill of the year before, 10 May. In June he warned Fox against coming to terms with Pitt, lest the ‘revolting compact’ of 1783 be repeated. He had recently been reconciled with William Windham*. He was not to be pacified by the lure of a peerage: he would retire rather than swallow it.7 He refused to accept one, even when Fox took office in 1806: ‘he felt he could serve his country better as a commoner than as a peer’. His son-in-law obtained a viscountcy and he was complimented on his ‘dignity of mind above all heraldry’. His friends in office disappointed him, at least in abandoning their proposed tax on private brewers, 6 June 1806, and he told them so in the House. On Fox’s death he remarked: ‘I do not only mourn him as an individual, but as the greatest man in Europe, who might have saved this country from impending ruin and the shedding of torrents of human blood’.

The election of 1806 joined Coke with William Windham in the contest for Norfolk. He had lost, in Fox, ‘his principal inducement to an active parliamentary career’, but he was concerned about county politics: ‘I could not bear to see Norfolk represented by one Whig and one Tory, and I have always said—rather than be so misrepresented, if you can’t get two Whigs, take two Tories, who will fleece you well’. An election prank cost him and Windham their seats, on petition; and he exchanged seats with his brother Edward until the dissolution of 1807. He was regarded as a staunch friend of the abolition of the slave trade. He voted for Brand’s motion against the successors to their friends in office, 9 Apr. At the ensuing election he was returned unopposed for Norfolk, with Astley as his colleague.

Coke voted against the Portland ministry on the address, 26 June 1807, and concurred in Ponsonby’s leadership of the opposition in the Commons later that year, but in the next two sessions his attendance was limited. He was in the minority against the anti-Catholic Duigenan’s appointment to the Irish privy council, 11 May 1808, and was the leading spokesman for the agricultural interest against the West India sugar planters on the question of distillation, 18, 19, 23, 27 May, 3 June 1808, 12 Mar., 3 Apr. 1811. He was spurred into activity by Wardle’s charges against the Duke of York. He assured Wardle ‘that in the course of three and thirty years he had not met with so honest a man and that he would leave his rubber at whist at any time to come and show his respect for him’. His speech calling the duke to account, 14 Mar. 1809, was hailed by William Cobbett as ‘the best of all’. Canning poured scorn on it next day: Coke did not stay in town for the conclusion of the question. He voted for Folkestone’s motion for inquiry into abuses, 17 Apr., and against alleged ministerial corruption, 25 Apr. 1809. He was invited to the London livery reform dinner, 22 Apr., and was consulted by Curwen on (and teller for) his bill for parliamentary reform that session. He was critical of the lack of initiative of the Whig leaders but approved their rejection of overtures from Perceval in the autumn of 1809.8 Coke attended the pre-sessional meeting at Ponsonby’s house, 22 Jan. 1810. He then voted against ministers on the Walcheren expedition. Though a critic of Burdett’s stand against the House, he visited him in prison and patronized the public dinner on Burdett’s behalf. He voted for reform on Brand’s motion, 21 May 1810; was a steward of the Friends of Parliamentary Reform and was a welcome recruit to the Hampden Club, June 1811.9 He joined opposition to the Regency proposals, 1 and 21 Jan. 1811. If the Whigs took office, he was vehemently opposed to their coming to terms with Canning and led the Whig country gentlemen who vetoed any such step: he also expressed their dislike of Brougham’s ‘presuming consequence’. When the Prince Regent deserted the Whigs, he ceased to be invited to Holkham, his place being enthusiastically taken by the Duke of Sussex. Coke voted against the reinstatement of the Duke of York as c.-in-c., 6 June 1811. In the ensuing session, he supported Morpeth’s and Turton’s critical motions of 4 and 27 Feb. and voted against the orders in council, 3 Mar. He voted for Catholic relief, 24 Apr., and for a stronger administration, 21 May 1812; but he still disliked a junction with Canning.10

Apart from supporting Catholic relief throughout in 1813, Coke was at first inconspicuous in that Parliament. The Corn Law proposals had caused him some embarrassment as a protectionist member of the select committee; he fell foul of George Rose in the House, 16 May 1814, and on 6 June presented a county petition in favour. On this account, he was mobbed at Norwich in March 1815, when addressing a meeting in favour of public retrenchment. He commented, 14 Mar.: ‘I have the comfort of thinking I have never neglected the interests of the people in any vote I have ever given since I have had a seat in the House of Commons’. He voted and spoke against the resumption of hostilities, 7, 28 Apr., 25 May 1815, and against the civil list and the Regent’s extravagance, 8, 13 May. On the address, 1 Feb. 1816, he vouched for the agricultural distress and spoke against the renewal of the property tax and wartime malt taxes. The property tax he characterized as ‘inquisitorial ... mischievous, wicked and immoral’, 1 Mar. He was in the majority against it, 18 Mar., as well as for reduction of army and navy expenditure, 6, 11, 20 Mar. He welcomed the abandonment of the wartime malt tax, 20 Mar. He voted against the civil list, 6 May, next day voted for inquiry into retrenchment and on 13 May against the unconstitutional use of the military. He expressed alarm at the growth of militarism and his preference for ‘constitutional’ forces, such as the yeomanry, 28 Feb. 1817. He opposed government that session on the address, 29 Jan., on Admiralty salaries, 25 Feb., on the third secretaryship of state, 29 Apr., on the choice of Speaker, 2 June, and on the suspension of habeas corpus, 26, 28 Feb., 18, 23 June. On 28 Feb. he championed the Norwich Union Society for parliamentary reform against charges of sedition. He failed to carry a Whig protégé in the county by-election in May. On 17 Feb. 1818 he voted critically on government’s conduct during the suspension. He opposed the ducal marriage grants by speech and vote, 13, 15 Apr. 1818, complimenting Brougham on the occasion.

Coke signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the opposition after the election of 1818. He recovered from ‘a serious indisposition’ in time to oppose the Windsor establishment, 22, 25 Feb. 1819.11 On 25 Feb. he could not agree with a petition he presented from Norfolk for further protection of corn growers, and took three weeks’ leave of absence for illness next day. After voting with opposition on 18 and 19 Mar., and speaking in favour of softening the Game Laws on the latter day, he took three more weeks’ leave. He paired in favour of Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May. On 9 June he opposed the budget, calling for retrenchment in place of fresh taxation. Opposing the new malt tax on 18 June, he claimed

this was a corrupt House, from which no good could be expected! Ministers had nothing to do but summon their troops and they had a majority instantly at their command; it was in fact a joke upon the country. He trusted that the day was not far distant when triennial Parliaments would be established: for ministers would not have dared to have proposed these taxes last year. As the time approached when Members were to meet their constituents, they behaved a great deal better.

He attended the later session of 1819 in support of opposition to repressive measures. He had defiantly accepted an invitation to join the Union Club for reform at Liverpool and carried a county meeting against ministers. Had he not done so, it was his wish to retire.12 On 2 Dec. he commented adversely on the conduct of the lord lieutenant of Norfolk who had, until Coke appealed to the Lord Chancellor, resisted nominations of his for the county magistracy. The matter cropped up again on 7 and 9 Dec.: on the former day he criticized the opera