MCMAHON, John (c.1754-1817), of Carlton House and Charles Street, St. James's Square, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. c.1754, s. of John McMahon, butler to Robert Clements, 1st Earl of Leitrim [I], by 1st w., ‘one of his own station in life’. educ. in Dublin ‘as befitted his station’. m. aft. 1782, Elizabeth Ramsay of Bath, Som. (d. 2 Aug. 1815), s.p. suc. fa. 1789; cr. Bt. 19 July 1817.
Ensign, 44 Ft. 1775, lt. 1778; lt. 48 Ft. 1780, capt. 1782; capt. 30 Ft. 1784, 31 Ft. 1785, on half-pay 1786-94; lt.-col. 87 Ft. 1794, ret. 1796; capt. R. Devon and Cornw. Miners 1803.
Barrack master, Charleston, S. Carolina till 1782.
Vice-treasurer and commr. of accts. to Prince of Wales Jan. 1800-3; member of council, duchy of Cornwall 1802; sec. and keeper of the Prince’s privy purse and seal, and auditor and sec. duchy of Cornwall, Dec. 1803; principal storekeeper of Ordnance Feb. 1806-Mar. 1807; sec. extraordinary to the Prince Regent Feb. 1811-July 1817; receiver and paymaster of the royal bounty to officers’ widows Aug. 1811-Mar. 1812; keeper of the privy purse and private sec. to the Prince Regent Mar. 1812-July 1817; PC 20 Mar. 1812; receiver-general, duchy of Cornwall July 1816-1817.
According to Colonel McMahon’s obituary,
without the possession of any shining talents, or extraordinary accomplishments, either of mind or body; and although unaided by birth, alliances and family connexions, he attained not only a high rank in the state, but died possessed of no inconsiderable share of wealth, favour and honours.
His father, a native of Leitrim, was a servant in the wealthy Whig household of Robert Clements, who rewarded him with the patentee comptrollership of the port of Limerick. McMahon senior married secondly in 1771 the daughter of a Cork merchant named Stackpole by whom he had two sons, William, a lawyer, and Thomas, an army officer; both obtained baronetcies through their half-brother. McMahon himself, said to have been a kitchen boy in Dublin at nine, entered the army. By one account he volunteered for service in America and having been refused an ensigncy in the Pennsylvania rangers by Lt.-Col. James Chalmers, obtained one from the future Earl of Moira, who after McMahon had served throughout the war of independence, secured his promotion at home. Huish, the scandal-mongering early biographer of George IV, alleged in a picaresque account of him that McMahon endeared himself to Moira by procuring women for him, and that on his returning home and marrying ‘a woman at once amiable and handsome’ and settling at Ham Common, the Duke of Clarence took a great fancy to Mrs McMahon, which meant further promotion and an introduction to the Prince of Wales. McMahon is also alleged by Huish to have procured Mrs Jordan for the Duke of Clarence. Until 1792 he was a member of the Whig Club, which he had joined on 6 Mar. 1786.
In his person, he was small and devoid of beauty. His face, too, was seamed and scarred with the smallpox: but as his conversation was pleasant, and he possessed all the graces, any impression arising from a transient view, soon wore off and was obliterated.
seemed to be formed by nature for a courtier. He made a most graceful and elegant bow, which he regulated in due proportion to the rank and influence of those he addressed. His voice was exactly modulated so as to soothe and to please: for it exhibited those undertones which never disturb the nerves of the great and powerful. He also wrote a letter in the politest style possible, and with all due observance of etiquette; nor was he unacquainted with the arts of rendering himself useful on every possible occasion.
In short, as Lord Moira put it, it was McMahon’s ‘destiny to be fagged by all the world’.1
During service in Flanders in 1794, McMahon’s health broke down and he was obliged to come home. In 1796, when his regiment was destined for Irish service, he retired from the army for health reasons with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Hence he was always known as ‘Colonel McMahon’, and to the Prince’s friends simply as ‘Mac’. He was Moira’s confidant in 1797 when there was talk of his heading a new administration, and his go-between with Fox. He also acted as a kind of press and publicity manager to the Prince of Wales from 1796, attempting to safeguard the Prince’s reputation after his separation from the Princess, which involved him in unsavoury negotiations with unscrupulous editors: ‘Always dressed in the blue and buff uniform, with his hat on one side, copying the air of his master, to whom he was a prodigious foil, and ready to execute any commission’. So much was he in the Prince’s confidence—as well as in that of the Prince’s brothers—that on McMahon’s death, the Prince was anxious to secure and destroy a quantity of papers in McMahon’s possession potentially damaging to his reputation.2
In December 1800 the Prince recommended McMahon, then his vice-treasurer, to his friend the Duke of Northumberland as ‘both a friend and servant of mine’ who might be returned to Parliament by the duke at the next election. McMahon had an eye to the vacancy at Launceston which he supposed would be created by the retirement of Moira’s brother John Rawdon. The duke had already made his arrangements but, having recently recovered his lord lieutenancy, retracted his excuses and purchased a seat for McMahon for £5,000 from Crespigny, the patron of Aldeburgh, where McMahon was duly returned in 1802. His qualification was provided by Moira.3
McMahon cut no figure in Parliament, where he spoke only twice in debate, in circumstances where he could not avoid it. He and Thomas Tyrwhitt were regarded as the Prince’s ‘spaniel Members’, whose conduct was regulated in every case by their royal master, though on 29 Nov. 1802, he wrote to the Duke of Northumberland, ‘Until I may be honoured with your Grace’s pleasure and commands to the contrary, I shall keep aloof from any division, which I conceive to be the idea your Grace had the goodness to chalk out for me’. On 4 Mar. 1803 he voted with the minority for an inquiry into the Prince’s debts and on 2 Aug. for Fox’s proposal for a council of general officers which would accommodate the Prince’s military ambitions. In December he became the Prince’s secretary and keeper of his purse: incoming correspondence at every level was thenceforward addressed to him, stagnating during his annual holiday at Cheltenham. In the spring of 1804 he was engaged in obtaining Irish votes to swell the opposition to Addington; on 20 Mar. Fox wrote to the Prince to thank him for McMahon’s vote, the night before, against the volunteer consolidation bill, which ‘was of most material consequence’. He had, however, voted with government against Pitt’s defence motion of 15 Mar. and was instructed to stay away on the crucial divisions of 23 and 25 Apr. 1804. Listed among the Prince’s friends, he went on to vote against Pitt’s second ministry on the additional force bill, 8, 18 June 1804 (also voting for its repeal on 6 Mar. 1805) and against war with Spain, 12 Feb. 1805. He voted against the salt tax, 4 Mar., and for the censure and criminal prosecution of Melville, 8 Apr., 12 June 1805. Fox credited him with being ‘avery honest man’ who wished the Prince ‘to go quite straight’. In January 1806 he sent out circulars to the Prince’s friends to secure opposition to the address. When the Whigs came to power in 1806, he was awarded a place at the Ordnance. He resumed his seat on 3 Mar. and duly voted for the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. Little notice was taken of him: Creevey reported, 15 Sept.:
I have got the confidence of Mac and can know by such means the real sentiments of Prinney, for, strange to say, this poor Mac goes about the streets unheeded by a single soul ... whilst he is the only human being to whom the Prince unbosoms his whole soul.4
McMahon continued to sit for Aldeburgh at the Duke of Northumberland’s expense and in return strove to serve him in matters of patronage, as well as to placate him when the duke fell out with his friends in power in 1806. At the Prince’s request he did not support ministers when they came to grief over Catholic relief in 1807, and when he lost his Ordnance place under the new administration, the Duke of Portland wished to make amends to the Prince by finding him another: a seat at the Irish treasury was thought of, but proved impracticable. In November 1807 McMahon informed Tierney ‘that he was afraid our opposition divisions would be very small next session’: Tierney commented, ‘When he holds this language the politics of Carlton House are pretty intelligible’. He accordingly ceased to appear in the minority lists. In February 1809 Mrs Clarke threatened to expose him ‘in his true colours’ during the hearing of evidence against the Duke of York, but McMahon testified that he had no objection to publishing the three notes he had written to her. At the Prince’s request, at a time when the Prince was at loggerheads with the Queen, he was instructed to vote in favour of the duke, while the Prince’s other friends were invited to take their own line. In October 1809 Tierney reported that the Prince’s ‘neutrality’ was to be continued, ‘by which I presume he means that Tyrwhitt and McMahon are not to vote’. He seems, indeed, not to have voted, though the Whigs listed him ‘hopeful’ in March 1810. It was thought that the Prince’s friends might vote against the adjournment during the King’s illness late in 1810, but on 29 Nov. McMahon ‘went away’ before the division with the others. In the next division on 20 Dec., however, McMahon, with Tyrwhitt, was in the minority which gained a few recruits for opposition.5 He was also in the opposition majority on Lord Gower’s amendment to the Regency proposals, 1 Jan. 1811.
In February 1811 McMahon was appointed his private secretary by the Prince Regent and consequently besieged with applications. Ministers commended him for the civility and ‘perfect fairness and honour’ that marked his dealings with them on behalf of the Regent. It was McMahon that they wooed with the hope of obtaining the Prince’s friends’ support on crucial divisions, and he who represented the Regent on such occasions as the meeting of friends of government to discuss the reinstatement of the Duke of York as commander-in-chief, of which McMahon was a firm advocate. On Catholic relief, 31 May 1811, he was evidently absent without pairing. Shortly before, he had been sent down to vote with government against Whitbread’s motion in favour of John Palmer*. He and the Prince’s other friends also annoyed opposition by attending to support the gold coin bill ‘from first to last’ in the summer of 1811. Later that year, Tierney deduced that he was ‘in bad odour at Carlton House’ from ‘McMahon’s distant manner of noticing me when I see him’.6
Since the summer of 1811, the Regent had been anxious to provide a place for McMahon, who was not paid as his private secretary. Perceval, who had refused the Regent’s proposal that McMahon should receive £2,000 a year like George III’s secretary Colonel Taylor, at first consented to give him instead the paymastership of army widows’ bounties, worth about £2,700 a year, but then pointed out that this was a sinecure recommended by the finance committee for abolition. The Regent pressed Perceval to yield and McMahon to take it, despite the risk that Parliament would object to it because of his connexion with the Regent. Shortly before he was re-elected for Aldeburgh in January 1812, Creevey censured McMahon’s appointment to the place as a ‘great outrage on the House of Commons’. The motion was lost by 54 votes to 11, 9 Jan. 1812. On 22 Feb. Henry Bankes produced a strong case against McMahon’s appointment, with reference to the resolution of the House on 31 May 1810. On this occasion McMahon delivered a speech in his own defence, drawing attention to his military and public services and defending the efficiency of the place. Bankes’s amendment on the subject was defeated by 54 votes to 38, but he returned to the charge next day and was successful by 115 votes to 112, whereupon McMahon forfeited the place. ‘The House was in riotous applause on the occasion.’ According to Robert Ward*, there was ‘a great deal of violence on both sides, and a great deal of hypocritical cant on our opponents’, upon ‘the old topic of economy and corruption’. Whitbread sarcastically proposed making McMahon serjeant to the House. The country gentlemen deserted government, while owing to lack of warning, many stayed away. Canning’s friends went away, but most of the Sidmouthites and the Duke of Northumberland’s nominees, whom McMahon had reclaimed for the Prince, supported him. Wellesley Pole protested that ‘we had enough in London to have given us a good majority’, but added that the Regent had taken the loss of the question very well and had been ‘kind’ to Perceval upon it. McMahon, whose personal character had emerged unscathed, and who had wished government had won only ‘... that he might have had the grace of resigning’, informed the Duke of Northumberland that as he should have the same gauntlet to run every year (since the place was voted as part of the army estimates) and
as the prejudice of its being drawn from the vitals of the poor widows has been so universally, and so falsely planted in the minds of the common people, it becomes a matter of peace and quiet to my feelings to be so far removed from the possession of it.
He added that ‘the opposition made it an instrument for wreaking their party fury on his Royal Highness, in vengeance for their disappointment of the loaves and fishes’, but that the Regent intended to confer ‘a stronger but a safer mark of his affection and regard’ on him.7
Accordingly, in March 1812, McMahon became keeper of the privy purse and official private secretary to the Regent, as well as a privy councillor. His salary for both was to be £3,000 p.a., in addition to his duchy of Cornwall salary of £1,500; he was guaranteed a pension of £1,200 p.a., whenever he should in future earn less than £2,000 p.a., and a reversion of £800 p.a. to his wife, if she survived him. This McMahon described as ‘the consummation of my soul’s happiness’. It was not tenable with a seat in Parliament; in April he vacated, insisting from regard for the Duke of Northumberland, who had hitherto paid his election expenses, on paying Crespigny, the patron of Aldeburgh, the expenses of the ensuing by-election. McMahon tried in vain to postpone this because he came under attack in the House, Charles Williams Wynn moving that his appointment was unprecedented and unconstitutional, 14 Apr. The motion was, however, defeated by 176 votes to 100 and McMahon reported that the majority against it would have been greater had not at least 26 Members been locked out. The Prince Regent’s having charged his salary to his privy purse and not to the civil list helped to obviate a further opposition attack on him in June 1812, and led him to expect (in vain) that he would be returned for Rye for the rest of the session, being again eligible.8
In parleying with the Whigs, the Regent was reported to have asked for the treasurership of the navy for McMahon, on the understanding that Sheridan did not want it, but this was refused. At the end of May 1812, when the Regent’s hostility to the Whigs had hardened, McMahon, doubtless in a bid to promote his friend Moira’s efforts to negotiate a new administration and to be well thought of by Lord Wellesley, as well as to please his old friends the Whigs, tried to influence the Prince against ‘political exclusion’ but was rebuked for it, like the Duke of York before him. His health was deteriorating in that year. On 28 Aug. he informed the Duke of Northumberland:
I feel that nothing but the love of my very soul towards my royal master could support me another year in the arduous and anxious state of both mind and body as his Royal Highness’s private secretary, and ... he has himself suggested my retiring from that duty to the office of one of the joint paymasters of the Forces, keeping however while ever I live the situation in his family of "keeper of the privy purse", that the ineligiblity of my sitting in Parliament (which belongs entirely to the newly created office of private secretary ...) being thus taken off, I should have as much access to him as ever, and not find the duties of the pay office, and the House of Commons, by any means so much as the perpetual attendance of day and night, in my present capacity.
The duke warned him that if this transfer took place he would lose the Prince's confidence. He assured the duke that, if it came off, he would expect government to provide him with a seat, rather than appeal again to the duke's bounty, but nothing came of it. Nor did his situation become any easier after 1812; he was continually harassed by the responsibility of preventing outbursts in the press in favour of Princess Caroline, whether by currying favour with Perry of the Morning Chronicle or buying off less responsible editors or scandalmongers. In 1814 he said 'he was sick to death of the whole concern, and that he never went to bed without wishing he might never rise again'. No wonder the Queen referred to him as 'your little nervous friend' in writing to the Regent.9
As if to compensate for this, McMahon became more ambitious for himself, his family and friends and besieged government with requests which were often ill received. For his brother William he secured legal promotion in Ireland and a baronetcy in 1814. In August 1815 McMahon's wife died, surprising him by leaving him £42,000, most of it in jewels, obtained 'by parsimony and stock jobbing'. She was, to quote Knighton
an ill educated woman. She had but two objects, that of making money and the adoration of her husband. She was impetuous—very violent in her temper—very jealous of McMahon and easily excited in all that related to him. She received all sorts of people, high and low. They all came to see her for places ... I have often smiled at the adulation that was paid to this poor woman.
McMahon took to alcohol and opium; in July 1817 Knighton, his doctor, recommended his retirement to the Regent: 'I soon perceived he cared but little respecting MaMahon but he was uneasy at McMahon's situation lest there should be a disclosure of secrets which must of course have been reposed in him during so many years of confidential agency'. McMahon waited two hours to take his leave of the Prince, but he did not put in an apperance. His confidant Knighton secured his papers for the Regent and had hopes of succeeding to his situation, but it was (Sir) Benjamin Bloomfield* who did so.10 McMahon was rewarded with a baronetcy; he wished for a British peerage, but Lord Liverpool demurred, 28 Aug. 1817; nor would he hear of McMahon's waiting for peerage without accepting the baronetcy, which was to revert to MaMahon's brother Thomas. MacMahon agreed to wait for 'the completion' of his honours and in the meantime applied to the minister to find him a seat in Parliament at the next general election. In September he was dispatched to Falmouth 'to spend the remainder of his life ... free from cares of every description', but he died at Bath en route, 12 Sept. 1817, worth £90,000. This was of course thought suspicious and he was accused of jobbing and, for example, of having accepted £10,000 from Lady Beauchamp 'for getting her husband advanced from a baron to an earl'. Knighton summed him up:
McMahon was a thorough Irishman, a good heart, full of plausible professions, sensible and much more right headed than Irishmen generally are. He wrote well although his education had been no regular kind. His acquaintance was general - his manner conveyed to you that of friendship - he was a complete courtier ... McMahon, although a great courtier, was an honest man and very sincere in his friendships. His great fault was a desire to please everybody, without any enquiry into the merits of individuals. Hence he became embarrassed by the tricks and arts of wretches of the lowest description, more especially by that class of scoundrels connected with the daily press, than whom there cannot exist a more despicable set of men.11
In his will he bequeathed to the Prince Regent 'an invaluable servant'; no man, he knew, had greater need of one, to give him character.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Annual Biog. (1818), 312-17:
curiously, the 1st Mq. of Thomond described McMahon in 1813 as a ‘near relation’ (Add. 40230, f. 49); Gent. Mag. (1817), ii. 370; Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1457, 1690; Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. R. Huish, Geo IV Mems. i. 404.
- 2. Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 847; iii. 1057n, 1172, 1182, 1185, 1190, 1209, 1218, 1237, 1270, 1336; Parl. Deb. xxi. 900; Raikes Jnl. iii. 55; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1588.
- 3. Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1577, 1715; The Times, 29 July 1802.