PLUMER, Sir Thomas (1753-1824), of Canons Park, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 10 Oct. 1753, 2nd s. of Thomas Plumer, London wine merchant, of Lilling Hall, Yorks., by Anne, da. of John Thompson of Kirby Hall, Yorks. educ. Eton 1763-71; Univ. Coll. Oxf. 1771, BA 1775, MA 1778, Fellow 1780, BCL 1783; L. Inn 1775, called 1778. m. 27 Aug. 1794, Marianne, da. of John Turton of Sugnall, Staffs., 5s. 2da. Kntd. 15 Apr. 1807.
Commr. of bankrupts 1781-93; serjt.-at-law, duchy of Lancaster 1785-1813; KC 7 Feb. 1793; bencher, L. Inn 1793, treasurer 1800; second justice of N. Wales circuit 1805-12; solicitor-gen. Apr. 1807-June 1812, attorney-gen. June 1812-Apr. 1813; v.-chancellor 10 Apr. 1813-Jan. 1818; PC 20 May 1813; master of rolls Jan. 1818-d.
Capt. Bloomsbury and Inns of Court vols. 1798.
After a distinguished academic career at Oxford, Plumer practised as a barrister on the Oxford and South Wales circuit and also in the Exchequer court. He made his reputation by his defence of Sir Thomas Rumbold before the House of Commons in 1783 and as one of the counsel for Warren Hastings, 1787-94. He was an investor in East India Company stock. In 1796 he defended John Reeves against a charge of seditious libel and in 1798 James O’Coigley and Arthur O’Connor against a charge of treason. He had subscribed £2,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797. He was subsequently crown counsel at the trials of Governor Wall in 1802 and Colonel Despard in 1803. In 1806 his defence of Lord Melville and his part in that of the Princess of Wales against the charges of misconduct brought against her in the ‘Delicate Investigation’, brought him into considerable prominence. In this he collaborated with Spencer Perceval. The Duke of Portland made him solicitor-general in April 1807 and he was returned for Downton on the 2nd Earl of Radnor’s interest. They had been friends at Oxford and Plumer, ‘perhaps better acquainted with the law as applied to elections than any other person in the kingdom’, had been Radnor’s legal adviser in the struggle for the borough of Downton. As a mark of appreciation, Radnor had offered to return him there in June 1803, but he did not then wish to be in Parliament.1
Described as ‘lively, shrewd, coaxing, but vulgar and savouring of the inns of court’, Plumer had frequented both Houses as counsel for petitioners in the past, but he did not succeed as a House of Commons orator: he was, or at least became, ‘a languid, confused, and inefficient speaker’, not helped by an ailing constitution. On taking his seat, he was to have seconded the Speaker’s re-election, but was prevented by illness.2 In his maiden speech, 24 July 1807, he defended the Irish insurrection bill and in his first long speech, 11 Mar. 1808, the orders in council. Like Perceval, he always opposed the claims of John Palmer* on government: but his own ‘gullibility’ was illustrated by the fraud practised on him by Benjamin Walsh*. He cross-examined witnesses in the Duke of York’s case and pleaded for leniency for him, to Perceval’s great satisfaction, 13 Mar. 1809.3 He defended Curwen’s reform bill, as revised by Perceval, against its critics, 6, 9, 12 June. As an adherent of Perceval when he came to power in September 1809, he advised him to have the House analysed by experts before he resorted to overtures to the opposition. He was one of the managers of Eldon’s unsuccessful bid to become chancellor of the university of Oxford.4 He stood by Perceval in the session of 1810, defending his remodelling of the finance committee, 31 Jan., and stating the case for the Earl of Chatham as to his conduct over the Scheldt expedition, 23 Feb. and 5 Mar. He opposed the motions for the discharge of the radical Gale Jones, 12 Mar. and 16 Apr., and took Perceval’s part against Sir Francis Burdett, 7, 18 May, and against Charles Williams Wynn, 8 June. He voted against sinecure reform, 17 May, parliamentary reform, 21 May, and on 1 June 1810 spoke at length against Catholic relief, which he opposed thereafter. He advocated procedure by bill on the Regency, 20 Dec. 1811, and helped to bring the bill in. He voted against the repeal of McMahon’s sinecure, 24 Feb., and against the motion for a more efficient administration, 21 May 1812.
Plumer was a routine speaker on professional matters. On 18 May 1808 he opposed in limine Romilly’s bid to reform the criminal law and promised opposition to the bill in committee, 15 June. He remained intensely conservative and further opposed Romilly’s efforts on 9 Feb., 1 May, 5 June 1810, 21 Feb. 1811 and 26 Mar. 1813. He also opposed efforts to regulate the Admiralty court, 14 June 1808, and shielded Perceval’s brother Lord Arden from attempts to deprive him of his emoluments as registrar, 14 June 1810, 19 June 1812. He refused to be a member of the committee of inquiry into Lincoln gaol, 25 June 1812. That month he became attorney-general. On 5 Mar. 1813 he refused to be drawn to the defence of the Princess of Wales: his critics complained that he ‘had only to plead professional secrecy as an excuse for not disclosing or vindicating the advice he had given to [her]’.5 He opposed the attempts to reform the borough of Weymouth, 1 Apr. 1813, and those to revise the treason laws, 5, 9 Apr.
On 31 Mar. 1813 Plumer was recommended to the Prince Regent by Lord Chancellor Eldon for the new appointment of vice-chancellor, intended to relieve Eldon’s load of work. Romilly thought ‘a worse appointment could hardly have been made’:
He knows nothing of the law of real property, nothing of the law of bankruptcy and nothing of the doctrines peculiar to courts of equity. His appointment to this office is the more extraordinary, as the chancellor is fully aware of his incapacity to discharge the duties of it ... The Regent certainly cannot have made it a point to have Plumer promoted, since he is one of the avowed authors of the Princess of Wales’s defence ... The only explanation of all this is, that with the rest of the ministry Plumer has a very strong interest.
The fact was that Perceval’s death had ended his political career: one of his last speeches in the House (17 Mar. 1813) was in defence of Perceval’s reputation. He now went out of Parliament. Had his patron not returned him again for Downton in 1812 he would have looked to the Earl of Powis for a seat, offered to him at the previous election.6
Plumer’s indolence, which was perhaps due mainly to ill-health, made him a doubtful asset to the lord chancellor. When in 1818 he became master of the rolls, Romilly noted that he had ‘great anxiety to do the duties of his office to the satisfaction of every one, but they are duties which he is wholly incapable of discharging’.7 He died 24 Mar. 1824.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. DNB; Romilly, Mems. ii. 171; J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1808), 193; Wilts. RO, Radnor mss 490/1373, Plumer to Radnor, 29 June 1803.
- 2. Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 129; Brydges, Autobiog. i. 302; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3483.
- 3. HMC Fortescue, x. 185; Geo. III Corresp. v. 3832.
- 4. Perceval (Holland) mss 2, f. 17; HMC Fortescue, ix. 391.
- 5. Romilly, ii. 246, 250, 310, 322, 338; iii. 95; Fortescue mss, Williams Wynn to Grenville, 6 Mar. 1813.
- 6. Geo. IV Letters, i. 259; Romilly, iii. 102; Powis mss, Plumer to Powis, 23, 28 Sept. 1812.
- 7. Farington, vii. 3; viii. 109; Add. 51644, Lady Holland to Horner, 20 Jan. 1817; Romilly, iii. 186, 325.