WAGER, Sir Charles (c.1666-1743), of Kilmenath, nr. West Looe, Cornw. and Parson's Green, London.
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Family and Education
b. c.1666, nr. West Looe,1 posth. s. of Charles Wager of Deal, Kent, capt. R.N., by Prudence, da. of William Goodsonn of Ratcliffe, Mdx., v.-adm. in Cromwell’s navy. m. (lic. 8 Dec. 1691) Martha, da. of Anthony Earning, capt. in Cromwell’s navy, of Limehouse, Mdx., s.p. suc. fa. at birth. Kntd. 8 Dec. 1709.
Lt. R.N. by 1690, capt. 1692; freeman, West Looe 1699; r.-adm. 1708, v.-adm. 1716, adm. 1731; v.-adm. Great Britain 1742; comptroller of the navy Feb. 1715-18; ld. of Admiralty Mar. 1718-33, 1st ld. Jan. 1733-Mar. 1742; P.C. 25 Jan. 1733; treasurer of the navy Dec. 1742-d.
The son of a captain in Cromwell’s navy, described by Pepys as one of the bravest officers he ever knew, Wager was said by the 1st Lord Onslow to have been
of the most gentle and humane disposition I ever knew, and spent almost the whole he got in the most generous acts of charity and compassion ... His father ... dying when his son was young, and the mother marrying a quaker, he was bred up among that people; by which he acquired the simplicity of his manners, and had much of their fashion in his speech as well as carriage. And all this, with his particular roughness of countenance, made the softness of his nature still more pleasing, because unexpected at his first appearance.2
He served in the Mediterranean in 1703-4 with Sir George Byng (q.v.), later Lord Torrington, under Sir Clowdisley Shovel. In May 1708 he intercepted the Spanish treasure fleet off Cartagena, capturing a galleon ‘worth 200,000 pieces of eight’ (about £50,000) in ‘coined and uncoined gold and silver’,3 a large share of which he retained as prize-money. Returning to England a wealthy man, he acquired an estate near his birth place, West Looe, which he represented as a Whig in the 1713 Parliament. Transferring to Portsmouth on the Admiralty interest in 1715, he became a lord of the Admiralty in 1718, making a ‘very short unintelligible’ speech in a debate on the South Sea Company in June 1721.4 Sent with a squadron to the Baltic to prevent a war in the north, he accomplished his mission so successfully that Townshend wrote to him:
His Majesty has commanded me to let you know from him that he was before persuaded you was a very good admiral, but he now sees that you are likewise an able minister.5
His next assignment was to command a fleet off the Spanish coast during the siege of Gibraltar in 1727. Returning to England in April 1728, he took part on 6 May in a debate on a bill for encouraging naval recruitment, in which he opposed proposals of his former subordinate, Edward Vernon (q.v.), for improving the living conditions of seamen, saying ‘it was impossible better care could be taken than was’. On 12 Mar. 1729 he defended the conduct of the Administration in a debate on the Spanish depredations, observing
that the merchants might be mistaken in some things in their complaints, for what was said yesterday at the bar [of the House] was impossible to be true, and as they were not on oath they might say what they pleased.6
He spoke against a proposal for ending the monopoly of the East India Company on 26 Feb. 1730, and next day in a debate on Dunkirk, which he seemed, to the 1st Lord Egmont (q.v.), to treat ‘as a thing of too little consequence’. In a debate on a pension bill on 17 Feb. 1731, he
said he was against all disqualifying bills, that the Act which obliged every member to have an estate at least of three hundred pounds a year in land had disqualified ninety-nine persons of a hundred in the kingdom ... he did not know why gentlemen who had served their country well should be discouraged from sitting in the House; in all other countries they met with regard, but here as soon as the benefit was reaped from their services, they were looked on as the vilest of men.7
At the Admiralty, he was already carrying out the duties of first lord, for
though Lord Torrington had the name and the appearance of it, Sir Charles, by giving way in some things not essential, and by suggesting matters in such a way that the other imagined the first thought was his own, kept all in order, without ever having any squabble.
On 12 July 1731 Wager wrote to Walpole:
You are sensible that our chief at the Admiralty can last but a little time longer, and I believe you are sensible that we shall not like to have a man put over us that must be instructed in what he must say when he goes to court; and what mistakes he may make would fall upon us. There are two objections against my being at the head of the Admiralty, if I should chance to outlive the present head; one is that it is necessary the head should be a lord (not an Irish lord) for which ... I may without much vanity, look upon myself as well qualified as some of them ... Indeed I have no estate suitable to that dignity; but a man that is an officer does not like to have anybody put over his head, and if that can be prevented I shall be very well content.8
So as ‘to be able to say’ that he was ‘not altogether an upstart, but descended from an ancient family, though they never had but a small estate’, he claimed kinship with the heiress of the Wagers of Charlton Kings, Gloucestershire, who, suitably plied with presents, was ready to acknowledge the relationship, even consulting him on family matters.9 Thus equipped with a pedigree, he succeeded Torrington as first lord, though he was not given a peerage. A year later, in a debate on the navy, Vernon, censuring English subservience to France, referred to him as
a gentleman ... whose consummate courage, conduct, and generosity had rendered him the darling and glory of his country; what vexation must he have felt in his breast to be forced to submit to those dishonourable orders he received to idle away his time at Spithead in doing nothing for his country’s service but feasting and keeping a Bartholomew fair on board.10
In the winter of 1736, in spite of being ‘very much decayed’ by a recent illness, Wager conveyed George II back to England from Hanover. It was reported that, the weather being bad,
the King had declared if Sir Charles Wager would not sail, his Majesty would go in a packet-boat, that he had told Sir Charles go; and that Sir Charles, in his laconic Spartan style, had told him he could not; that the King had said: ‘let it be what weather it will, I am not afraid’; and that Sir Charles Wager had replied, ‘if you are not, I am’; that his Majesty had sworn he had rather be twelve hours in a storm than twenty-four more at Helvoetsluys; upon which Sir Charles had told him he need not wish for twelve, for four would do his business; and that, when the King by the force of importunity, had obliged Sir Charles Wager to sail, Sir Charles had told him: ‘well, Sir, you can oblige me to go, but I can make you come back again’.11.
Appointed one of the plenipotentiaries to adjust differences with Spain in February 1739, he defended the Spanish convention in March.12 After the declaration of war against Spain, in order to relieve the chronic shortage of seamen, he introduced on 5 Feb. 1740 a bill establishing a register of seamen on the French model, which was dropped in face of bitter opposition, but passed next year in a modified form.13 He was beginning to show his age, 74: at a meeting of the cabinet on 28 Apr. 1740 to decide the future destination of the fleet, Hervey describes him as muttering something
most of it so inarticulately, that it seemed like sounds without words, and where the articulation was plain, it seemed words without sense.14
In 1741 Wager stood for Westminster, which he had represented since 1734.
Two days before the election [he wrote to Vernon] ... when Lord Sundon (q.v.) and I dreamed of no opposition, you and Mr. Edwin [Charles, q.v.] were set up ... and, at the election, a poll demanded for you both which continued six days, with such mobs and riots as never were seen before ... I had the good fortune to be obliged to attend the King to Holland the three last days, and returned in five days when the poll was closed, and Lord Sundon and I declared to be duly elected.
Pulteney, writing to Vernon of the ‘most scandalous practices and violent acts of power’ made use of by the Administration there, added:
Your friend Sir Charles Wager, had nothing to do in this, which I am heartily glad of, because I esteem him much, and know him to be a very valuable man, extremely amiable in his character of private life, and a well wisher to his country in his public capacity.15
Unseated in one of the critical divisions on election petitions before the fall of Walpole, he took his seat for West Looe, for which he had also been returned. Subsequently the secret committee appointed to inquire into Walpole’s Administration investigated the payment of £1,500 of secret service money by Wager to the high bailiff of Westminster as compensation for being taken into custody of the House and other losses.16 In January 1742 he had an audience with the King during which he ‘begged he might quit his employment, finding age and infirmities had impaired his faculties, to which the King replied, I don’t see that, and you shall serve me on’. He resigned with Walpole on 11 Feb., although he seems to have been the only member of the Admiralty board for whose dismissal the Opposition had not pressed.17 According to Horace Walpole, he refused an invitation to return to the Admiralty a fortnight later,18 but he accepted the treasurership of the navy at the end of the year. He died 24 May 1743, leaving his fortune to his wife.19
Ref Volumes: 1715-1754
Author: Eveline Cruickshanks
- 1. Hist. Surv. Cornw. i. 38; Burnet, Hist. of his own Time (1833 ed.), v. 390 n.
- 2. Diary, ed. Wheatley, v. 126; vii. 355.
- 3. Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708-14, p. 79.
- 4. Coxe, Walpole, ii. 218.
- 5. J. F. Chance, Alliance of Hanover, 343.
- 6. Knatchbull Diary.
- 7. HMC Egmont Diary, i. 68, 73, 140.
- 8. Coxe, iii. 128, 116-17.
- 9. Glos. N. and Q. i. 35-36, 119-20.
- 10. HMC Egmont Diary, ii. 17.
- 11. Hervey, Mems. 637.
- 12. HMC Egmont Diary, iii. 18; Coxe, iii. 517.
- 13. 14 Geo. II. c.38.
- 14. Mems. 927.
- 15. Original Letters to an Honest Sailor (1746), pp. 38, 43.
- 16. CJ, xxiv. 331.
- 17. HMC Egmont Diary, iii. 236; Vaucher, Walpole et la Politique de Fleury, 428.
- 18. To Mann, 25 Feb. 1742.
- 19. PCC 184 Boycott.