MACKRETH, Robert (?1725-1819), of Ewhurst, Hants.
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Family and Education
b. ?1725.1 m. 22 Oct. 1761, Mary, da. and h. of Robert Arthur, s.p. Kntd. 8 May 1795.
Mackreth started as waiter and billiard-marker at Arthur’s coffee house, where White’s Club was established; he became its manager, and factotum to members.2 Robert Arthur died 6 June 1761, leaving his property to his daughter, already engaged to be married to Mackreth, who in Arthur’s will is described as ‘of St. James’s Street, vintner’. On 5 Apr. 1763 Mackreth sent a circular to members of White’s: ‘Having quitted business entirely and letting house to the Cherubim, who is my nearest relation, I humbly beg leave ... to recommend him to your patronage.’3 Mackreth now set up as financier (more correctly usurer) and dealer in landed estates—two branches of business that often interlocked.4 About 1763 he purchased Ewhurst, which became his country seat.
In 1774 Lord Orford, recently recovered from insanity, returned Mackreth to Parliament. It was assumed that Orford was heavily in debt to Mackreth, and his own disingenuous excuse—‘he supposed Mackreth had lent his mother money’5—pointed that way. But at Orford’s death his debt to Mackreth was a mere £6,000 in nearly £87,000 of mortgage debts;6 and Mackreth, appointed executor under a codicil of 4 Dec. 1776 to Orford’s will, wrote to a co-executor in 1797:7
I ... lent our revered friend the Earl of Orford in the lifetime of his mother £6000—the interest of which sum was not to be paid till her Ladyship’s death, but his Lordship was to give me a bond for interest (£300) every year to bear an interest at 5 per cent, however this his Lordship never did, consequently I lost the interest upon the accumulating interest for near thirteen years which amounted to a very large sum.
It is not clear which 13 years are meant, up to Lady Orford’s death in 1781, or Orford’s in 1791. But at the market-price of seats Mackreth should have paid Orford about double that sum for his four elections 1774-90; if he did not Mackreth, so far from sustaining a loss, had made a good bargain. Ruthless, shrewd, and grasping, endowed with super-abundant energy and conceit, Mackreth probably took advantage of the whimsical and mentally unstable Orford, who may moreover have enjoyed the prank of returning the ex-waiter to Parliament.
On 24 Nov. 1774 Walpole wrote to Mann: ‘The interlude of Mackreth has given so much offence, that, after having run the gauntlet, he has been persuaded to be modest and give up his seat.’ But in a postscript: ‘Mackreth ... is determined to continue a Member, like the rest of the world.’ Mackreth is not known to have spoken in the House, and he generally voted with North’s Administration. When before the general election of 1780 Orford was being difficult over Callington, Mackreth was used by Sandwich as intermediary; and as a Hampshire squire (and one of Rodney’s creditors) he told Sandwich that ‘Sir George Rodney would do best for Hampshire’.8 In August 1780, in Sir George Macartney’s canvassing lists of East India proprietors, the name of Rigby is placed against Mackreth;9 and similarly in Robinson’s parliamentary list of March 1783. Both voted for Shelburne’s peace preliminaries; but while Rigby voted for Fox’s East India bill, Mackreth voted against it. In December 1783 Orford and Mackreth attached themselves to Pitt, and from now on he again regularly voted with Government.
A remarkable feature of Mackreth’s usury was the sources from which he derived additional capital: Rigby, as paymaster general, lent him money; and Sir James Lowther, one of the richest men in the country, was partner in some of his deals. Over one performance Mackreth came down badly. In 1786 James Fox Lane, nephew and heir to George Fox Lane, pleaded before the master of the rolls that Mackreth, who ‘supplied young persons of rank and fortune, or expectation of fortune, with money when in distress’, had defrauded him of his patrimony, worth £1,300 a year, in transactions begun while he was still a minor. The verdict against Mackreth for restitution, requiring him to pay in the region of £20,000, was confirmed by the lord chancellor, and next by the House of Lords who ‘imposed the highest costs ever given in a similar case’.10 Mackreth also failed to recover ‘the auction duty paid by him’ for the sale of Fox Lane’s Yorkshire estate, cancelled by decree of Chancery, having ‘refused to produce evidence upon oath as is usual in such cases’.11
I detest the Law [wrote Mackreth to Hamond, 27 Mar. 1792]. I had rather be in the prison of an Inquisition, than have anything to do in the Court of Chancery. As the Law is now administered it is a pest to society and the ruin of three parts of the Kingdom. If three thirds of the men of the Law were sent to Botany Bay, it would be the greatest blessing that providence could bestow upon mankind. The Law is become what the Church was four or five centuries ago—a curse to the country.12
In November 1792, meeting in Lincoln’s Inn Fields Sir John Scott, afterwards Lord Eldon, who had been counsel for Fox Lane, Mackreth accosted him, ‘called him a liar and a scoundrel’, and finished by challenging him to a duel. Scott preferred an indictment against Mackreth, who was fined £100 and sent to prison for six weeks.13
In 1787 Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu, having visited Ewhurst, wrote:14
Mr. Mackreth was not at home, but we took a view of the place, which had been improved by Mr. Brown’s best élève, Mr. Richmond. There is a very noble piece of water and a great deal of wood; with two such features no place can be ugly. The house is very comfortable ... He is a pleasant agreeable man, and though his acquisitions have been as considerable, and as sudden as a nabob’s, he has not the luxury nor the languor which generally characterises the Asiatic plunderers ... I suppose his riches have not arisen from the purest sources, but he lives handsomely, and is charitable and generous. I presume he must have joined with the Jews in lending money to gamblers.
‘Mackreth’s great ambition’, wrote Jeremy Bentham,15 ‘was to be considered a gentleman and to be admitted among the quality, but he often was disappointed.’ Some ‘among the quality’ kept up with him, perhaps when they had to—e.g. Lord Clinton, one of Lord Orford’s heirs. But Mackreth, always after gain, was not trusted: this appears from the correspondence of his co-executors—it was difficult to make him part with trust money in his hands. But in his will, dated 12 Dec. 1818, Mackreth wrote: ‘conscious that I have always endeavoured to act the honest and upright part through life ...’ Besides Ewhurst he left an estate in Westmorland, house property in London, and a share in a plantation in Grenada. He died in February or March 1819.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Sir Lewis Namier
- 1. Mackreth to Anthony Hamond, 6 Feb. 1818, mss in the possession of Capt. Anthony Hamond of Norwich.
- 2. Hist. White’s, i. 117.
- 3. Add. 32948, f. 26; Jesse, Selwyn, i. 217. For the identification of ‘the Cherubim’ see N. Q. (ser. 3), ii. 127.
- 4. VCH Hants, iv. 201; Manning Bray, Surr. ii. 395, iii. 31; VCH Berks. iii. 419.
- 5. Walpole to Mann, 22 Oct. 1774.
- 6. List in Hamond mss.
- 7. To E. Rolfe, 28 Mar. 1797, ibid.
- 8. Jenkinson to Robinson, 24 Aug. 1780, Abergavenny mss.
- 9. Macartney mss, Belfast RO.
- 10. C12/584/28, C38/753, C79/243, C107/212; LJ, xxxix. 69 and documents under 14 Mar. 1791; Sporting Mag. (1793), i. 337.
- 11. T29/58/201, 240, 398.
- 12. Hamond mss.
- 13. Annual Register 1793, p. 22.
- 14. R. Blunt, Mrs. Montagu, ii. 214. 1
- 15. J. Bowring, Mems. of Bentham, x. 48-50.