AISLABIE, John (1670-1742), of Studley Royal, nr. Ripon, Yorks.
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Family and Education
b. 4 Dec. 1670, 4th s. of George Aislabie, registrar to the abp. of York, by Mary, da. of Sir John Mallory, from whom she inherited the estate of Studley Royal in 1666. educ. Mr. Tomlinson’s, York; St. John’s, Camb. 1687; Trinity Hall, Camb. 1692. m. (1) 1694, Anne (d. 17 Jan. 1700), da. of Sir William Rawlinson of Hendon, 1s. 2da.; (2) lic. 25 Apr. 1713, Judith, da. of Sir Thomas Vernon, M.P., wid. of Stephen Waller, (her s. Edmund Waller, m. Mary, da. of John Aislabie). suc. bro. George 1699.
Dep.lt. Yorks. W.R. 1700, N.R. 1701; mayor, Ripon 1702-3; ld. of Admiralty 1710-Apr. 1714; treasurer of the navy Oct. 1714-18; P.C. 12 July 1716-21; chancellor of the Exchequer 1718-21.
Speaker Onslow gives the following account of John Aislabie’s early career:
Mr. Aislabie was a gentleman of Yorkshire, of a good estate there, by descent from the ancient family of Mallory. He began the world among the Tories, but left them at the latter end of the Queen’s reign whilst they were in full power and he in employment. This ingratiated him very much with the Whigs, and at the late King’s accession upon the merit of that behaviour he was made treasurer of the navy.1
During the proceedings against the late Tory ministers in 1715, Aislabie was entrusted with the impeachment of Strafford and took a prominent part in the proceedings against Oxford. On the split in the Whig party he adhered to Sunderland, who promoted him chancellor of the Exchequer in 1718. In this capacity he negotiated the agreement between the Government and the South Sea Company which led to the South Sea bubble, took the leading part in persuading the House of Commons to accept it, and introduced the bill giving effect to it in April 1720.
When the bubble burst in September Aislabie showed himself incapable of handling the crisis. He resigned on 23 Jan. 1721, after securing the reversion of a great Exchequer sinecure for his son, William.2 On 26 Feb. the committee appointed by the Commons to investigate the South Sea scandal presented a report accusing him of speculating heavily in South Sea stock before the passing of the South Sea Act, and of receiving £20,000 South Sea stock from the Company without paying for it. In his defence before the Commons on 8 Mar. he denied the second charge; but to that ‘of having great dealings in stock (pending the bill) he said nothing, otherwise than by insinuation that doing so with his own money he hoped would not be criminal’. Earlier in the proceedings ‘an incident happened which gave great disgust to the House’. The committee’s report had referred to great dealings in stock between Aislabie and his broker, Hawes, who under examination had told the committee that in November 1720
Mr. Aislabie insisted on having Mr. Hawes’s book (of which he had a duplicate) delivered to him, that no one might see it, which was done accordingly, upon his giving Hawes a general release. On Tuesday [7 Mar.] a motion was made for his laying that book before the House as yesterday [i.e. on 8 Mar.], which he [Aislabie] opposed, as what the House could not demand, for that it related only to his private account with Hawes, but was overruled by the House, and ordered to bring in the book; wherewith not complying notice was taken of it in the House. He then desired Mr. Hawes might be examined, who said at the bar that when he delivered up the book both that and the duplicate (in Mr. Aislabie’s hand) were burnt, of which Mr. Hawes made no mention when examined by the committee, nor did Mr. Aislabie on Tuesday; from whence ’twas concluded that this was an after thought and the books burnt (if at all) ex post facto.
This was regarded as so clear a proof of guilt that the Commons passed without a division, Walpole and the other government representatives sitting ‘mute as fishes’, a series of resolutions declaring Aislabie guilty of ‘most notorious, infamous, and dangerous corruption’; expelling him from the House; committing him to the Tower; and ordering a bill to be prepared for the valuation and freezing of his assets pending a decision as to how much of them should be confiscated for the benefit of the sufferers from the South Sea crash. In the end, thanks to Walpole’s efforts on his behalf, he was allowed to keep all that he possessed before he became chancellor of the Exchequer, i.e. £119,000 out of a total of £164,000. He was also declared by the Act to be incapable of sitting in Parliament or holding office.3
Simultaneously with these events Aislabie was involved in another unpleasant affair, which he describes in the following memorandum, written for his own justification some time during the next reign:
In obedience to his late Majesty’s commands by Mr. Secretary Craggs, twenty thousand pounds was subscribed and paid to the South Sea Company to the first subscription.
A little before he went to Hanover 1720, I thought it my duty to wait upon his Majesty to give him an account of that affair, and to receive his further directions about it; acquainting him that if his Majesty thought fit to continue that subscription, it would require £40,000 more to make good the other two payments to the company; which could not be well spared out of the civil list at that time by reason of the great debt upon it. His Majesty was pleased to command me to send for the subscription receipts and to bring them to him, which was done, and he was pleased to give me a receipt for the same.
The next day his Majesty sent for me and ordered me to sell those receipts for him and to bring him the money as soon as it was possible.
Accordingly the receipts were sold, and I waited upon his Majesty with the money the next day, which amounted in all to the sum of £106,400 as will appear by the account sent to Hanover.
About two or three days after, 15th June 1720, his Majesty sent for me again, and told me he would have the whole sum laid out again in the purchase of South Sea stock and subscriptions.
I used my endeavours to divert his Majesty from this resolution, for that the stock was carried up to an exorbitant height by the madness of people, and that it was impossible it could stand, but must fall before he could return from Hanover and therefore desired it might be laid out in land tax tallies. His Majesty was pleased to tell me that I had the character of a timorous man, and that he was assured the stock would rise to 1500 per cent. and positively commanded me to lay it out in the purchase of stock and subscriptions.
The memorandum goes on to say that in the end £36,950 of the £106,400 was put into land tax tallies, £25,000 into the 3rd South Sea subscription, and £45,450 into £6,000 South Sea stock at 760;
and an account thereof sent to Hanover in a letter dated the 18th August 1720 o.s. At which time South Sea stock was 800 per cent. In which letter I acquainted him with my apprehensions of the sudden fall of the stock, and desired his Majesty’s further orders about it.
On the 29th of Sept. 1720 I received a letter from the Duchess of Kendal wherein she acknowledges the receipt of my letter with the account enclosed, which she says the King had seen, and was very well satisfied with the manner I had placed it, but would have me dispose of the stock the first opportunity. The price of stock, the day I received this letter, was 300 per cent. or under. But so great was the confusion, and so difficult and uncertain were all contracts at that time, and the eyes of all people so intent upon me, especially after the contract with the bank, that I could not dispose of them without increasing the public clamour upon myself, or without prejudice to the King’s affairs; and so the stock remained unsold till the King’s return.
Upon his Majesty’s return, I acquainted him with the state of this affair, and paid him the produce of the land tax tallies, amounting to the sum of £36,558 8s. 0d. ... As to the sum of £25,000 paid to the 3rd subscription, I believe it was turned into stock for the King’s use, and if it remains there yet, it will amount (as the stock is now valued) with all the dividends since to the sum of £39,000 and the value of the £6,000 South Sea stock with all the dividends upon it as it was paid to Sir Robert Walpole about the 30th Feb. 1722 amounted to £9,746. All which sums make £65,304— so that the loss upon the stock and subscriptions was £41,096. But the gain upon the whole transaction was £45,304 clear of all deductions.
Aislabie then refers to objections which had been taken to the account of these transactions which he had sent to Hanover and denies allegations that he had sold the King’s stock ‘when it was high and replaced it when it was low’. He continues:
As to any objection the late King might have to this account, I do not know of it, any farther, than when I was in the Tower, I was told that some person had suggested something to his Majesty in prejudice to this account. Upon which I presumed to write to his Majesty, humbly beseeching him to appoint some persons to examine it in what manner he thought fit. Upon which my Lord Sunderland and Lord Carteret came to me in the Tower, when my Lord Sunderland assured me from the King, that he was well satisfied with the account, and had given him orders to tell me so; and with that he would give me that £6,000 South Sea stock in consideration of my sufferings. And the same Lords sometime after I was released from the Tower did me the honour to visit me at my house and gave me the same assurances there.
But notwithstanding all this, it was insisted upon sometime afterwards, that I should pay it, which I did accordingly, though I was forced to borrow the money till the stock could be sold, the books being at that time shut; which might proceed perhaps, from some misinformation given to his Majesty, but I never was acquainted with it.
As this was a very nice affair into which I was drawn much against my inclination, and purely in obedience to the King’s pleasure, so I took care to discharge the trust with the greatest caution and fidelity, and as much to the advantage of his Majesty, as the misfortunes of the times would admit, abhorring the thoughts of defrauding any man and betraying a private trust, especially in the case of my sovereign, to whom I had so many obligations.
The memorandum does not give the whole of George I’s reply through the Duchess of Kendal to Aislabie’s request for instructions as to what he should do when South Sea stock had begun to fall. Aislabie was told by the Duchess that
the person whose money is committed to your care ... doth not know what makes you ask any further orders, since the whole has been left to your own judgement to sell or buy as you would think it the most profitable and convenient, for it cannot be pretended that at such a distance as we are a good and positive resolution could be taken in the right time, since those matters are every moment subject to great alterations; and therefore I am to tell you that if the best occasion is missed you will be pleased to make use of those that shall offer themselves for the future without expecting any new advices.4
Nor is his attitude of injured innocence in the last paragraphs of the memorandum consistent with the tone of his letter to Walpole of 2 Feb. 1723 reporting that he had made arrangements to repay to George I the current value of his £6,000 South Sea stock, with accrued dividends, i.e. £9,746:
I am extremely sensible of your generosity, and am more ashamed of my own follies and mistakes than any severe treatment I might deserve at your hands could make me. Since you have been so good to promise to forget what is passed, I shall not put you in mind of it any further than to return you my most hearty thanks.5
Aislabie spent the rest of his life in retirement, occupying himself with building and landscape gardening at Studley Royal. In 1735, when he participated in an opposition campaign against Walpole’s handling of the South Sea crisis, he was attacked in the ministerial press for insulting ‘a plundered nation by erecting palaces and extending parks, with a profusion of expense, manifesting most prodigious rapine’. On Walpole’s fall a move for his rehabilitation seems to have received some support from certain members of the new Government, but nothing came of it. From the fact that soon after his death his son, William, arranged for a copy of the above memorandum to be transmitted to the King, in order ‘that his present Majesty should be convinced of his integrity’, it looks as if the obstacle had been George II’s belief that Aislabie had defrauded George I of over £40,000.6
Aislabie died 18 June 1742. Onslow, in the reminiscences already quoted, thus sums up his character and career:
He was a man of good understanding, no ill speaker in Parliament, and very capable of business; but dark, and of a cunning that rendered him suspected and low in all men’s opinion. His great employments did not even raise any regard to his person. He was much set upon increasing his fortune and did that, and to obtain a peerage, which it is said he was promised, but missed, by the troubles he fell into for his South Sea transactions. Upon my Lord Sunderland’s coming into the Treasury he was made chancellor of the Exchequer, but although he understood the business of the revenue better than any other person then employed, he was of a very little weight even in those matters, in the House of Commons at least, notwithstanding his station gave him the management of them there, and any business of that kind in that place was always better done by other hands. He was so little respected that he fell almost unpitied by anybody. It was thought he was given up at court, by way of composition, to save my Lord Sunderland, and he, chiefly against Sir Robert Walpole, resented it accordingly, as long as he lived.7
Ref Volumes: 1715-1754
Author: Romney R. Sedgwick
- 1. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 510.
- 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. and Pprs. 1735-8, p. 394.
- 3. Coxe, Walpole, ii. 209-11.
- 4. Royal archives, 52838-40.
- 5. Coxe, ii. 219.
- 6. Ibid. i. 157-8; Gent. Mag. 1735, p. 488; Wm. Aislabie to Hardwicke, 31 Aug. 1742, Add. 35587, f. 58; Wm. Aislabie to ? Carteret, 23 Aug. 1742, Royal archives, 52837.
- 7. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 510-11.