MASSEH LOPES (formerly LOPES), Sir Manasseh, 1st bt. (1755-1831), of Maristow House, Devon; Market Place, Westbury, Wilts. and 3 Arlington Street, Mdx.
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Family and Educationb. 27 Jan. 1755, in Jamaica, o.s. of Mordecai Rodriguez Lopes and Rebecca, da. of Manasseh Pereira of Jamaica. m. 19 Oct. 1795, Charlotte, da. of John Yeates of Mon., 2da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1796; cr. bt. 5 Oct. 1805;1 took name of Masseh before Lopes by royal lic. 15 Oct. 1805. d. 26 Mar. 1831.
Sheriff, Devon 1810-11; recorder, Westbury 1810-d.
Dir. Rock Life Assurance Office 1808-13.
Lt.-col. commdt. Roborough vols. 1803, 4 Devon militia 1808.
Masseh Lopes, an ill-fated Sephardic Jew turned Christian, was much ridiculed as the caricature of a corrupt boroughmonger, whose miserliness and naivety led to the frustration of his better intentions and the destruction of his electoral ambitions. Several versions exist of a telling anecdote, in which, moved to give financial assistance to a pauper, he was nevertheless impelled to offer to cash his own bank draft, so that, as Greville put it, ‘he gave the money, but first calculated and deducted the discount, thus at once exercising his benevolence and his avarice’.2 Having inherited his father’s Jamaican sugar fortune in 1796,3 purchased a large Devon estate two years later, and bought his first seat in Parliament in 1802, he received a baronetcy from Pitt, but never secured acceptance by the political establishment. In 1810 he acquired the borough of Westbury, where, as recorder, he subordinated the exercise of the burgage franchise to the small corporation and returned supporters of the Liverpool administration.4 Yet his interests in other constituencies were thwarted, and he was unseated from the representation of Evesham in 1808, and in 1819 from Barnstaple, where he had indulged in blatant electoral bribery. It was, however, for his notorious indiscretions at Grampound that, on 13 Nov. 1819, king’s bench handed down an exemplary sentence of two years’ imprisonment and a fine of £10,000.5 Giving details of a later legal case, brought by Masseh Lopes against a neighbouring mining company from which he drew considerable profits, The Times commented that he ‘is a baronet: he possesses immense wealth and he has acquired respect and consideration on account of his rank and property exactly in the same proportion which he has maintained the one and made proper use of the other’.6
As he had promised, Lord John Russell, who soon secured the disfranchisement of Grampound, moved for an address to the king to shorten the duration of Masseh Lopes’s sentence, 11 July 1820, arguing that his age and poor health warranted mitigation of the severity of the punishment. Walter Burrell, the Sussex Member, added that following the death of one of his daughters in 1819,7 he was ‘overwhelmed with domestic affliction, which, with his confinement, had made a deep impression on his health and constitution, and brought him near to the grave’. Several Tories objected to the proposed precedent of overturning the sentence and, after Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, had told the House that it could not interfere with the king’s prerogative of mercy, Russell followed the advice of Canning, the president of the India board, and withdrew the motion rather than prejudice the matter further. Masseh Lopes’s nephew and heir Ralph Franco* then privately asked the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, for clemency, as ‘my uncle’s is a case truly worthy of the most humane consideration’:
I do it not to create an effect when I state that, eye-witness as I have been of all his sufferings, there has been no one part more truly hurtful to himself and more painful to those around him, than the unceasing agitation of mind to which a state of suspense and uncertainty has subjected him, so that next to an actual release, the earliest possible intimation of what he may venture to expect, would be a greater relief and kindness than I can possibly describe.8
On the advice of ministers, Masseh Lopes was released in September 1820, after serving less than a year of his sentence.9 It was alleged by radicals, who condemned Whig support for his case, that he had threatened to withdraw the stopgap pro-government Members for Westbury, but had come to a deal whereby he would relinquish one of the seats to ministers in exchange for his freedom.10 He had himself returned unopposed for Westbury, with the Bristol merchant Philip John Miles, at a by-election later that year.
Not surprisingly, Masseh Lopes was inactive in the House, where he continued to give ministers his silent support.11 He was not listed as having voted on Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821. The Lords requested his attendance, 6 Apr. 1821, to give evidence on the Grampound disfranchisement bill, which passed that session, but he apparently did not do so.12 He voted against the Catholic peers bill, 30 Apr. 1822, and repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr. 1823. He divided to abolish the usury laws, 8 Feb., and was given three weeks’ leave on urgent private business, 18 Feb. 1825. He voted against Catholic relief, 21 Apr. He presumably persisted in his forlorn hopes of electoral empire building, and was prosecuted in common pleas for reneging on his promise to pay the legal expenses of the independent interest in East and West Looe, 10 Dec. 1825, when Serjeant Thomas Wilde* observed that he was
well known to the public as a Member of Parliament, and one who took a very particular interest in the affairs of certain boroughs, and supporting what were alleged to be the rights of particular persons who claimed a right of voting in those boroughs. Whether Sir M. Lopes’s interference was dictated purely by the spirit of patriotism, or whether he wished to secure the gratitude of those individuals, he would not say, but certain it was that whatever was his motive, he had shown himself very active in the affairs of the boroughs of East and West Looe.13
He voted to receive the report on the salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr. 1826. He again returned himself for Westbury, this time with the Canningite Sir George Warrender, at the general election that year. He was granted a month’s sick leave, 21 Feb. 1827. His last known vote was against the second reading of the corn bill, 2 Apr. 1827. No trace of parliamentary activity has been found for the 1828 session.
He attended the Devon Protestant county meeting, 16 Jan. 1829, but apparently stood on the pro-Catholic side.14 In February he was listed by Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary, as likely to side ‘with government’ on Catholic emancipation. Later that month he resigned his seat to accommodate Peel, the home secretary, after his defeat at Oxford University, and he proposed him at the ensuing by-election, 2 Mar. He only narrowly maintained control of his interest and had the windows of his house broken.15 A radical newspaper noted that the
populace assembled in the hope of receiving some of the worthy baronet’s money, arrested him in his progress and, though he threw among them some handfuls of silver, yet, not satisfied with this proof of his liberality, some able-bodied men in frock-smocks bore him back again to the entrance to the hall, that he might start afresh and give them a better proof of his bounty.16
Masseh Lopes was paid £7,000,17 and eventually secured a consulship for a relative from Peel, who complained to Planta, ‘what a torment this Jew is!’ Peel balked, however, at granting his request for an English peerage, though the Devizes Gazette, 26 Mar. 1829, retailed a rumour that he was be created Lord Roborough (the name of another of his Devon seats), and commented that ‘we presume this is an abbreviation of Rottenborough’.18
At the general election of 1830 Masseh Lopes returned ministerial candidates for Westbury. Early the following year he became dangerously ill with paralysis and lost the use of his faculties. He died in March 1831. An obituary notice recorded that ‘with many eccentricities in minor things, he possessed much excellence of character and benevolence of heart, and his loss will be lamented by his numerous tenantry and dependants’.19 By his will, dated 21 Nov. 1829, he made provision for his wife, who died in March 1833, and gave bequests to many of his relatives. He left the bulk of his estate, which was estimated to be worth about £800,000, including land in Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire, East India stock and South Sea annuities, and personal wealth sworn under £160,000, to Franco, who succeeded as 2nd baronet and changed his name to Lopes.20