COFFIN, Sir Isaac, 1st bt. (1759-1839), of Titley Court, Herefs. and 123 Pall Mall, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Constituency

Dates

1818 - 1826

Family and Education

b. 16 May 1759 in Boston, Mass., 4th s. of Nathaniel Coffin, paymaster of the customs (later of Bristol), and Elizabeth, da. of Henry Barnes, merchant, of Boston. educ. Boston. m. 4 Apr. 1811,1 Elizabeth Browne, da. and h. of William Greenly of Titley, s.p. cr. bt. 19 May 1804; GCH 1832. Took additional name of Greenly by royal lic. 6 Apr. 1811, but relinquished it 13 Mar. 1813. d. 23 July 1839.

Offices Held

Entered RN 1773, lt. 1778, cdr. 1781, capt. 1782, paid off 1783; in France 1783-6, dismissed 1788; vol. in Brabant 1788-9; reinstated 1789, paid off 1791; in Scandinavia and Russia 1792-3; left active service 1794; regulating capt. at Leith 1795; commr. resident at Ajaccio, Corsica 1795-9, Sheerness 1799-1804; supt. Porsmouth harbour 1804-8; r.-adm. 1804, v.-adm. 1808, adm. 1814.

Biography

Coffin, a ‘strange old madcap’,2 whose chequered naval career had been terminated by a crippling rupture in 1794, often amused the House but could be a trial to those close to him. He treated his accomplished Welsh-speaking wife abominably and was estranged from her for most of their nominal union.3 At the general election of 1820 he was again returned for Ilchester, after a contest, on Lord Darlington’s interest.4 He continued to act generally with the Whig opposition to Lord Liverpool’s ministry on major issues, including parliamentary reform, 18 Apr. 1821, 25 Apr. 1822, 24 Apr. 1823, 26 Feb. 1824, 27 Apr. 1826. He supported Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. However, he never joined Brooks’s Club and frequently took his own robust line, particularly on naval issues. Early in the new Parliament he showed an obsession with the fraudulent importation of American timber as Canadian produce, raising the subject, 2, 5, 6 June 1820.5 In what he described as ‘a ministerial speech’ on the navy estimates, 9 June, he acknowledged that government had ‘neglected nothing which could contribute to the happiness and security of the navy’. As an ‘enemy to all jobs’, he opposed the Cork harbour bill, 12 June. He supported the offences at sea bill, ‘one of the best ever introduced’, 10, 13 July 1820.6

He again aired his grievance over American timber imports, 9, 14 Feb., and when supporting a British merchants’ petition for redress, 27 Mar. 1821, he wished Canada at the bottom of the sea. He opposed the timber duties bill, 19 Apr.7 On the question of agricultural distress, 20 Feb., he joked that farmers had discarded their smocks to become gentlemen and gentlemen had turned to farming.8 Dismissing a petition against the poor law amendment bill, 4 June, he maintained that no country on earth was ‘happier or more free from stress than ... Britain’.9 He testified to the ‘humanity and good conduct’ of the gaoler at Ilchester, 9 Mar., but having learned from a pamphlet that the gaoler had been ‘represented ... as having played cards there and got drunk’, he acquiesced in an inquiry, 11 Apr. He spoke briefly in favour of Catholic claims, 16, 23 Mar.10 He objected to Yorke’s attack on the lords of the admiralty, 4 May, and opposed Hume’s demand for inquiry into the cost of Sheerness dockyard improvements, 7 May. On a call for judicial reform in Newfoundland, 28 May, he claimed that he ‘never saw any law there but the cat-o’-nine-tails’. Opposing Maxwell’s slaves removal bill, 1 June, he reckoned that they ‘would rather have their throats cut than be removed to Demerara’, and he believed that nothing short of a declaration of war against every guilty nation would put an end to the foreign slave trade, 13 June.11 He opposed investigation of Maitland’s regime in the Ionian Islands, 7 June. In voting against the omission of arrears from the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June, he admitted that he was ‘personally indebted’ to him ‘for almost everything he possessed’. His further comment on this subject, 29 June 1821, escaped the reporters, but according to Henry Grey Bennet* he was commissioned by Clarence to inform the House that the same award had been refused in 1818 on ministerial advice.12

On 8 Feb. 1822 Coffin explained that when he had previously praised the gaoler at Ilchester he had not ‘the slightest suspicion that thumb-screws were employed’. At the request of his constituents he supported a petition against the ‘illegality and severity’ of Henry Hunt’s* treatment, 4 Mar.13 He argued that Sir Robert Wilson* had deserved to be dismissed from the army, 13 Feb. On parliamentary reform, 15 Feb., he observed that ‘the best qualification [for a Member] consists in the possession of talents and property ... the sooner the House is weeded of those who, like myself, have neither one nor the other, the better’. He urged the importance of maintaining the marine corps at as high a level as possible, 22 Feb., and complained that Hume set himself up as ‘the oracle of Delphos’. He defended the grant for naval ordnance and opposed any reduction of the lords of the admiralty, who were ‘necessary to the public service’, 1 Mar. He warned that the House would come to regret these economies and objected to reform of the Royal Naval College, 18 Mar.14 He supported gradual reduction of the salt tax, 28 Feb., observing that ‘salt was found all over the world for the use of man and he ought not to be deprived of it by excessive taxation’; he demanded total repeal, 6 Mar., 11 June.15 He advocated repeal of the tobacco duty to curb smuggling, 10 May.16 He deplored Bennet’s ‘injudicious’ attempt to revive the Queen Caroline case, 6 Mar. On 12 Mar. he defended his relative Lyne, who had been attacked by Hume for taking a £500 retirement pension on leaving the St. Kitts revenue establishment, pointing out that he had been blinded in the public service; he was ‘in the habit of hearing ... [Hume] night after night and looked upon him as no better than a forestaller’. He delivered another diatribe against Canada, 13 Mar., contending that its governor should be recalled and its assembly sent packing. He raised a laugh by remarking, 15 Mar., that countless foreigners had been drowned because their ships’ commanders would not put into English ports for fear of harbour duties. He defended governorships of garrisons, which were ‘essential to the crown as the rewards of merit’, 22 Mar. On the agricultural distress report, 8 May, he maintained that ‘the nobility, gentry, clergy and yeomanry of England were better off than those of any country in the world’. On the alehouses licensing bill, 14 May, he complained that ‘the poor man was cheated by the publican in the way of bad measure’. He dismissed the notion of a tax on absentees, 16 May, and defended the levy on sailors for the benefit of Greenwich Hospital, 4 June 1822.

He had no truck with an attack on the admiralty over piracy in the West Indies, 4 Mar. 1823, asserting that ‘no board had done so much for the country’. Supporting the navy estimates, 14 Mar., he complained that ‘of late years every attempt had been made to grind the British navy to dust’. He warned that heavy duties were damaging the West Indian trade, ‘a nursery for seamen’, 19 Mar.,17 and approved the merchant vessels apprenticeship bill as ‘calculated to maintain the naval strength of the country’, 24 Mar., 18 Apr. He denied Hobhouse’s allegations of excessive whipping on naval ships, 30 Apr. He claimed that Jews routinely cheated seamen over prize money, 17 June.18 He defended the system of naval promotion, which had ‘enabled us single-handed to fight the world’, 19 June, and the victualling board on the matter of Cochrane’s accounts, 24 June. He thought calls for the abolition of slavery were unrealistic, 12 May, and warned that if distress in the West Indies were not dealt with the country would sustain ‘a very serious injury’, 27 May.19 On the presentation of a petition for universal suffrage, annual parliaments and the ballot to cure distress, 19 June 1823, he remarked that ‘he never saw in any other country so many fat, sleek, well-clad and contented looking people’. He welcomed reports that the salt tax was soon to be abolished, 23 Feb., and pressed ministers to get rid of it, 31 Mar. 1824.20 He thought they had ‘shown great liberality towards the West India interests’ by making concessions on the sugar duties, 8 Mar. He condemned export bounties, 19 Mar. He presented a petition for the adoption of a new method of surveying non-contract ships, 26 Feb., again praised the ‘steady loyalty’ of the marines, 27 Feb., and said it was ‘useless’ to waste money on Port Patrick harbour, 1 Mar.21 He stated that the new break-water at Plymouth, which was under attack from the penny-pinchers, had transformed ‘one of the most unsafe anchorages’ into ‘a perfect millpond’, 1 Apr. He insisted that naval impressment was essential, 4, 10 June.22 As ‘an orthodox churchman’ he supported the grant for new church building, 12 Apr., and noted the ‘lamentable increase of those devil-killers, called Methodists’, who ‘must eventually undermine the church of England’. They were ‘such rooting fellows, that let them once get into your house ... and the inevitable consequences among servants were prostitution and dishonesty’. He spoke to the same effect, 7 May, 4 June. In response to a petition condemning the prosecution of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 10 June, he remarked that ‘the blacks were contented and happy as long as they were left alone and without having their heads stuffed with nonsense’. He suggested that the corporation of London, who petitioned for parliamentary reform, should first put their own house in order, 17 May. He believed that Cape Breton Island had benefited from its annexation to Newfoundland, 18 June 1824.

He approved the substitution of tea for a portion of the naval rum ration and reiterated his view that a war could not be fought without impressment, 14 Feb. 1825.23 He dismissed out of hand Hume’s motion to end flogging in the navy, 9 June. He was granted one week’s leave on account of illness, 18 Feb. According to Thomas Creevey*, he was criticized at dinner that evening by Darlington’s daughter Lady Augusta Millbank, who

opened a fire upon ... Coffin, one of my Lord or rather my Lady’s Members, saying he was a very shabby voter and in his heart a Tory. This was addressed to Lady Darlington as well as to me, and she took it very well. She had before shown me part of a note from Coffin with a cursed rum account of the preceding evening [the division on the Irish unlawful societies bill on the 15th] ... Beginning ‘My Dearest Countess’, he croaked about being beat by an ‘overwhelming majority’, which I told her was utterly untrue; the minority in point of numbers was quite miraculously great, which she quite acceded to and told me at dinner she had written to him, and given it him well for his meanness.24

He again advocated lower tobacco duties, 29 Apr.,25 saw no reason to suppose that the warehoused corn bill would allow American corn to be fraudulently introduced, 13 May, and praised the ‘very good’ West India Company bill, 16 May. On the quarantine bill, 19 May, he argued forcefully that despite what ‘some hyperborean philosopher with a hide like a rhinoceros’ had recently said, the plague was highly contagious and might easily be brought to Britain in Egyptian cotton. He spoke briefly in favour of Catholic relief, 6 May.26 He warned that intervention against suttee would be ‘the readiest way to lose India’, 6 June. He called for the adoption of a rule to allow only Members who attended all sittings to vote in private bill committees, 7 June 1825. He rejected an allegation that many merchant ships were ‘rotten and unfit for service’, 7 Feb., and advocated abolition of the tax on naval officers going abroad, 17 Feb. 1826.27 He pointed out that the treasurership of the navy was ‘no sinecure’, 7 Apr. He seconded a wrecking amendment to the Liverpool and Manchester railway bill, ‘one of the most flagrant impositions ever known’, 6 Apr. He scoffed at the notion of slavery abolition, 18 Apr. 1826, and impugned the physical courage of the ‘Saints and Quakers’ who were its principal champions.28 He retired from Parliament at the dissolution that summer.

Coffin almost immediately went to America, where he spent much of the remainder of his life. One of his American kinsmen remarked in 1830 that as a result ‘his fair fame and character will be much clouded on the other side of the water’.29 He was eager to have his baronetcy settled on one of his nephews, but both the Goderich and Wellington ministries refused to set such a ‘very dangerous precedent’.30 It was claimed that he would have become earl of Magdalen had it been necessary to create peers to carry the reform bill through the Lords in 1832.31 His wife, who had dropped the name of Coffin soon after he paid his last, fleeting visit to Titley in 1835, died as Lady Greenly in January 1839;32 he died at Cheltenham that July. He bequeathed the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, granted to him in recognition of his services in the American war in 1787, to his nephew Captain John Townsend Coffin, RN (1789-1882), the son of his elder brother John of New Brunswick. He directed that when his property at Boston, Massachusetts, currently worth £11,500, had increased by investment to £20,000, the interest should be paid to his nephew and the principal given to John’s son Isaac Tristram Coffin. The interest on his funded property was left to John, as he had been unable to make a distribution of his holdings because of obstacles created by his late wife’s trustees. His personalty was sworn under £25,000, but the heavy annotation of the estate duty register suggests that administration of his estate was far from simple.33

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: David R. Fisher / Terry Jenkins

Notes

See his Life by T.C. Amory (Boston, 1886)

  • 1. IGI (Herefs.).
  • 2. Add. 51655, Mackintosh to Lady Holland, 26 July 1827.
  • 3. M. Fraser, ‘Lady Llanover and her Circle’, Trans. Cymr. Soc. (1968), ii. 172-5.
  • 4. Western Flying Post, 6 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. The Times, 7 June 1820.
  • 6. Ibid. 11, 14 July 1820.
  • 7. Ibid. 15 Feb., 28 Mar., 20 Apr. 1821.
  • 8. Ibid. 21 Feb. 1821.
  • 9. Ibid. 5 June 1821.
  • 10. Ibid. 17, 24 Mar. 1821.
  • 11. Ibid. 14 June 1821.
  • 12. Ibid. 30 June 1821; HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 113.
  • 13. The Times, 5 Mar. 1822.
  • 14. Ibid. 23 Feb., 2, 19 Mar. 1822.
  • 15. Ibid. 7 Mar., 12 June 1822.
  • 16. Ibid. 11 May 1822.
  • 17. Ib