RIGBY, Sir Alexander (c.1663-1717), of Layton, nr. Liverpool, Lancs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Dec. 1701 - 1702

Family and Education

b. c.1663, 3rd but 1st surv. s. of Alexander Rigby of Layton Hall and Burgh, Cumb. by Anne, da. of Thomas Birch of Birch Hall, nr. Manchester, Lancs.  educ. Padua 1684; travelled abroad (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Turkey) bef. 1688.  m. 6 Feb. 1690, Susanna, da. of Peter Calvert of Nine Ashes, Hunsdon, Herts., 3da. ?1s. illegit.  Kntd. 29 Mar. 1696; suc. fa. 1698.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Preston 1682; sheriff, Lancs. 1690–1; burgess, Wigan 1695; clerk of the crown at Lancaster 1697–1702, 1706–1710; burgess, Ayr, Dunbar 1708.2

Commr. Greenwich Hosp. 1695.3

Commr. customs [S] 1707–13.4


Rigby’s family had been settled at Layton since 1592, and his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all active Royalists in the 1640s. In his youth Rigby travelled extensively in Europe and the Near East, in the 1680s establishing a trading partnership with Sir Lambert Blackwell* at Leghorn. It was later alleged that Rigby had financed this venture by persuading his father to vest all his property in his name in return for an annual income from Rigby’s business, but had failed to fulfil his obligations, leading to legal action against him by his father. In November 1690 Rigby entered into another partnership at Leghorn with William Shephard and William Plowman, each partner contributing £3,000, with Rigby managing the London end of the firm. They exported woollens, fish and tin from England to Turkey, and, with the help of a fortunate marriage, Rigby later claimed to have earned £20,000 in profits by 1695.5

In 1693 Rigby showed an interest in the Wigan by-election caused by the death of Sir Richard Standish, 1st Bt., and put himself forward at the 1695 election. He allied himself with the leading Lancashire Whig Lord Macclesfield (Charles Gerard*), though taking the precaution to approach the Earl of Derby for his support, and asking for the interest of his Tory cousin Roger Kenyon* on the grounds that ‘I do not set up on any particular party. I will always be true to the Church and my country.’ Although Rigby was supported by the most prominent Lancashire Whigs, he was unable to defeat Peter Shakerley*. However, he petitioned against the return, alleging that Shakerley had written treasonous letters and uttered seditious words. These allegations wrung from Shakerley an agreement not to stand at Wigan at the following general election if Rigby withdrew his petition. No doubt thinking that he had removed the most substantial obstacle obstructing his election at Wigan, Rigby continued to nurse his interest in the borough. When, for example, both Wigan Members, Shakerley and Sir Roger Bradshaigh, 3rd Bt.*, initially refused the Association, Rigby, introduced by Macclesfield, presented the borough’s Association rolls to the King on 29 Mar. 1696, and was knighted.6

It was during the late 1690s that Rigby’s business fortunes suffered a reverse from which they were never to recover, despite his strenuous efforts to obtain redress. The trading house at Leghorn had proved highly profitable to him in the early 1690s. In 1695 Rigby and Shephard decided to end their partnership with Plowman, but when in 1697 Plowman was imprisoned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany for piracy, Rigby was drawn into the resulting controversy. Although a letter from William III was sent to the Grand Duke demanding Plowman’s immediate release, he was kept in confinement for nearly three years, and was only released when he confessed to the charge of piracy, and after he had signed over to the French consul at Leghorn all the goods belonging to Rigby, Shephard and himself.7

Rigby’s business problems did not, however, cause him to give up his interest at Wigan. In 1697–8 he involved himself in the dispute over the appointment of the borough’s recorder, joining with Macclesfield to support the claim that Bertie Entwistle had been removed from the post merely because of his refusal to support the Bradshaigh interest in the borough and his keenness to expose disaffected members of the corporation. Rigby’s and Macclesfield’s failure in this controversy was to prove an unfortunate omen for Rigby’s candidature at Wigan later that year. His attempts to gain control of the corporation failed, as did a bid to force Bradshaigh to stand on a joint interest with him, and despite the continued support of Macclesfield, Rigby could only finish third in the poll. On 12 Dec. 1698 he presented a petition against the return of Orlando Bridgeman, alleging corruption and malpractice, which he renewed the following session. His cause got nowhere, however, and on 13 Jan. 1700 was thrown out by the House when it was discovered that his second petition differed materially from the first.8

Although Rigby did not put himself forward for Wigan in the first election of 1701 he still received 39 votes. When he did stand for the borough in November, in alliance with Bradshaigh, he defeated Bridgeman, his victory being accounted a Whig ‘gain’ by Lord Spencer (Charles*). By this time Rigby’s life was dominated by his efforts to obtain redress for the seizure of his goods by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Once Plowman had returned to England, Rigby and his erstwhile partners vigorously pursued with the ministry their grievance against the Grand Duke, claiming compensation of £40,000 from the Grand Duke. A petition for redress had been presented to King William in August 1701, supported by a number of prominent London merchants. As a result the King ordered his envoy at Florence, Rigby’s former partner Sir Lambert Blackwell, to demand reparation. Rigby’s concern on this issue was possibly the prime motive behind his sole recorded parliamentary speech. In a debate of 6 May 1702 on a petition complaining of the conduct of the governor of Jamaica, Rigby ‘in a long set foolish speech commended the commissioners of trade’, possibly in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the board. The campaign of Rigby and his partners was, however, strenuously opposed by merchants still trading in Leghorn who described Rigby, Shephard and Plowman as ‘merely disturbers of the government and ruiners of the trade of the nation’, and their attempts to obtain redress remained unsatisfied.9

In 1702, faced by a strong opposition at Wigan organized by the Tory Bridgeman and including the Tory chancellor of the duchy, Sir John Leveson Gower, 5th Bt.*, Rigby was defeated, and despite rumours that he would come in on the duchy interest at Preston in the 1706 by-election he did not stand for election again. Defeat did not prevent the continuation of his attempts to obtain financial compensation from the Tuscan Grand Duke. After an appeal in 1702 to the secretary of state, the Earl of Nottingham (Daniel Finch†), Blackwell was ordered to demand ‘just reparation’ from the Grand Duke, and when this proved to be ineffective the three wronged merchants petitioned Queen Anne in March 1703. Rigby also approached the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) for support against the attacks of the Leghorn merchants on his claim, and through Marlborough lobbied Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†). Robert Harley’s* appointment as secretary of state in 1704 opened another avenue for Rigby’s appeals, and he solicited Harley’s support claiming that a failure to obtain redress would undermine the position of all innocent English merchants; only by gaining reparation for himself and his partners would ‘the most dangerous method for ruining our establishments abroad . . . be confounded’. The opposition of the Leghorn merchants continued, and despite Rigby’s constant lobbying of the ministry, his claims for reparation were ignored by the Grand Duke, leaving him with losses which he claimed were incalculable.10

Rigby’s financial difficulties were somewhat alleviated by his appointment, at a salary of £400 p.a., to the Scottish commission of customs after the Union, possibly as recompense for the ministry’s inability to obtain redress for him. The selection of Rigby caused some misgivings in Scotland. From the moment he arrived he ‘assumed the manner of a satrap’, making great play with the fact that he had been first named in the commission, and boasting of his great influence at court. Rigby’s behaviour soon turned his fellow commissioners against him, and in 1709 they sent to London a detailed indictment of his actions as commissioner. It was claimed that he had dismissed able customs officers in order to appoint friends, cronies and other ‘most unqualified persons’, and that he acted in an arbitrary manner when dealing with other members of the board. His fellow commissioners also complained that pursuit by Rigby’s creditors of the £15,000 he was said to owe had led him into attempts to satisfy creditors at the expense of the service, so that ‘merchants complain they have a tax put upon them to pay off his debts’. They alleged, too, that Rigby conducted seizures in an arbitrary manner that had created uproar in Scotland, and that he had on occasion allowed illegal imports from France from which he profited. These allegations were supplemented by claims that Rigby had interfered in the Scottish elections of peers and commoners in 1708, and that on several occasions when tired and emotional he had threatened Scotland with ‘eight or ten thousand men, down to curb them’. It was also suggested that Rigby had suspended fellow commissioner James Isaacson* for his immorality in fathering an illegitimate child, only for it to be alleged that Rigby was in fact the father. Serious though these allegations were, Rigby survived. In letters to the ministry he had portrayed the seizures of illegal goods which his enemies described as causing much disquiet in Scotland as valiant efforts on his part to deal with a disaffected, lawless country. Clearly, Rigby’s defence was effective and his political influence undiminished as in June 1709 it was Rigby’s enemies who were removed from the customs board.11

Despite this success, Rigby continued to experience problems in Scotland. In December 1709 it was said ‘this country must in a short time be too warm’ for him, and he appears to have concurred in this judgment as later that month he appealed to Godolphin for an English place, claiming that his vigorous pursuit of his duty had led to threats against his life, and to Scottish merchants bringing his creditors down upon him. Despite Godolphin’s ‘great regard for the zeal you [Rigby] have shown her Majesty’s service’, he was not prepared to comply with Rigby’s request. Rumours circulated in December 1710 that Rigby was to be replaced, but he remained a commissioner of customs until 1713, when he was removed ‘because he had ceased to be of service’. That financial difficulties continued to plague him while in Scotland is clear from the fact that on 23 Feb. 1712 he had to petition the House of Lords for an estate bill, and, now deprived of the income from this place, was forced to seek permission from Lord Treasurer Oxford in March 1714 to petition the Queen for relief. This appears to have been ineffectual as his creditors had him placed in the Fleet prison that year. On 18 Aug. 1715 he petitioned unsuccessfully for a clause to be added to a bill for the relief of sea and land officers to ease his own position, and in 1716 gained leave to introduce a bill for his own relief to the Commons. Despite opposition from creditors unwilling to see any Act passed that did not guarantee them 2s. 6d. in the pound, a bill was enacted providing for the sale of all Rigby’s goods save his ‘wearing apparel’, and for vesting the proceeds of this sale in trustees to discharge his debts. However, it probably failed to come into effect, for on 20 Apr. 1717 Rigby died, still incarcerated in the Fleet, and his estates were sold in 1720 to settle his debts.12

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison


  • 1. H. Fishwick, Hist. Bispham (Chetham Soc. ser. 2, x), 94–105; Vis. Lancs. (Chetham Soc. ser. 1, lxxxviii), 244; HMC Downshire, i. 288–9.
  • 2. Preston Guild Rolls (Lancs. and Cheshire Rec. Soc. ix), 193; Wigan RO, Wigan bor. recs. AB/MR/10; Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster Official Lists, 105; Carnegie Lib. Ayr, Ayr bor. recs. B6/18/8; SRO, Dunbar burgh recs. B18/13/2, f. 248, council mins. 27 Sept. 1708.
  • 3. Add. 10120, ff. 232–6.
  • 4. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxi. 259.
  • 5. VCH Lancs. vii. 249; Fishwick, 97–101; Case of Sir Alexander Rigby, William Shephard and William Plowman (1701), 1; An Humble Apology to the Queen on Behalf of the Merchants-Petitioners and Trustees for the Factory at Leghorn (1704), 145–7.
  • 6. Lancs. RO, Kenyon mss DDKe 9/66/21, Rigby to Kenyon, 12 Dec. 1693; DDKe/66, ‘brief for Mr Shakerley’, 1695; DDKe 9/69/12, Shakerley to Kenyon, 8 Feb. 1695–6; HMC Kenyon, 384; Liverpool RO, 920MD 174 Sir Willoughby Aston diaries, 7 Nov. 1695.
  • 7. CSP Dom. 1696, pp. 187, 189–90; 1697, pp. 257–8, 261; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/6, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope, 9 Feb. 1696–7; HMC Lords, n.s. ii. 350–2.
  • 8. Lancs. Association Oath Rolls ed. Gandy, 98–99; NLS, Crawford mss 47/3/5, petition, 13 Jan. 1697[–8]; 47/3/181, petition, July 1698; Kenyon mss DDKe 9/99/20, 21, Shakerley to George Kenyon*, 30 June, 1 July 1698; DDKe/66, case of Wigan corp. Dec. 1698; Yale Univ. Beinecke Lib. Blathwayt mss box 20, Yard to William Blathwayt*, 9 Aug. 1698.
  • 9. 920MD 174 Aston diaries, 17 Jan. 1701; Bull. IHR, liv. 54–58; Case of Sir Alexander Rigby; Add. 61699 C; CSP Dom. 1702–3, pp. 244–6.
  • 10. Add. 2889, f. 19; 61699 C; 61303, ff. 170, 172; 70205, Rigby to Harley, 17 May 1704, 5 Apr. 1705; 70307, same to same, 24 June 1705; 70162, same to same, 27 June 1705; Cheshire RO, Arderne mss DAR/F/33, Samuel Daniell to [–], 31 July 1702; Staffs RO, Sutherland mss D.593/P/13/10, Henry Fleetwood* to Ld. Gower, 18 May 1706; Case of Sir Alexander Rigby; CSP Dom. 1702–3, pp. 87, 244–6, 636–8; Humble Apology to the Queen; HMC Buccleuch, ii. 654, 694–5; HMC Portland, viii. 123.
  • 11. P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 45, 49, 54–55, 131–4; HMC Portland, iv. 417–8; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, pp. 77, 108–9, 115; Add. 30229.
  • 12. Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, pp. 147–8; Cal. Treas. Bks. xiii. 481; Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 26, f. 39; Riley, 199; SRO, Morton mss GD 150/3461/14, George Douglas to Earl of Morton, 16 Oct. 1713; Add. 70205, Rigby to Oxford, 22 Mar. 1714; Fishwick, 103–5.