SHIFFNER, Henry (1721-95), of Pontrylas, Herefs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1761 - 1768

Family and Education

b. at St. Petersburg 1721, 1st s. of Matthew Shiffner, Russia merchant, by his w. Agnata Brewer, gouvernante to Anne, Duchess of Courland, niece of Peter the Great.1  educ. sent to England aged three, and at seven ‘put to a public school’.2  m. (1) 9 Aug. 1749, Ann Bronsdon (d. c.1757) of Blackheath, s.p.; (2) 10 Mar. 1759, Mary, da. and h. of John Jackson (at his d. in Feb. 1748, second in council of Bengal), 5s. 1da.  suc. fa. Dec. 1756.

Offices Held


In 1742, and again in 1754, when Shiffner took counsel’s opinion on his status as British subject, it was stated that his father, ‘a Protestant born in Russia’, was naturalized in this country, 8 Oct. 1711,

and after residing some years in England returned to Russia, married there (after he was naturalized) to a Russia lady, and had several children born in Russia, whom he sent over under the care of his partner the late Mr. Holden3 to be educated in England, where his children have resided ever since.

From the business records of Samuel Holden4 and of Thomas Wale5 it appears that Matthew Shiffner was a big importer of Russian iron and hemp. Henry must have joined the firm by 1742 when he applied for membership of the Russia Company; paid several visits to Russia; still had a house in Petersburg in 1757; and was partner in the Petersburg firm of Shiffner, Coole and Watsone.6

In 1754, when H. F. Luttrell was trying to sell Minehead manor which carried considerable influence in the borough, and while ‘by far the greatest part of the voters ... still disengaged’, impatiently awaited ‘the coming of more candidates’,7Shiffner on 26 Feb. applied to Luttrell:

I beg leave to presume upon the introduction of Mr. Cholwich to entreat your interest at Minehead where I have been encouraged to offer myself a candidate at the next general election. As I have not the honour of your acquaintance, I must hope Mr. Cholwich’s recommendation will have its weight.

But Luttrell saw no reason to lay himself under obligations to the Minehead people on account of a stranger, and reserved his support to ‘a purchaser [of the manor] or a particular friend’. Even when informed on 8 Mar. that some of his Minehead friends had found it expedient to put up Shiffner, and ‘had met with great encouragement’, he would not engage absolutely, but only if no purchaser should offer, and provided Shiffner stood ‘upon the country interest’, and did not join either Charles Whitworth or Lord Egremont’s candidate, Daniel Boone.8 Finally, on 19 Mar., Luttrell declared for Shiffner in a letter sent to 181 electors.9 But the opponents, backed by Government, were returned.10 Shiffner petitioned against Boone, the weaker of the two, and pressed his case with fussy zeal and utmost perseverance. On 3 May he called on Newcastle; in the levee chamber made his errand ‘the subject of conversation’ among the distinguished people there assembled; next, told the Duke that it gave him ‘great concern’ to find himself and his friends ‘were thought and declared to be Jacobites’; quoted Newcastle’s letter to Whitworth directing him to support Boone ‘for that the person who opposed him and the people that supported him were Enemies to the Government. I expatiated on the cruelty of such an insinuation’.11

This is but one of a series of long letters from Shiffner eagerly descanting upon his endeavours and chances, and asking for Luttrell’s assistance—‘I am fighting your cause as well as my own’. He approached Henry Fox and waxed naïvely indignant when Fox, an old friend of Egremont’s, owned he wished ‘that justice may be on the side of Mr. Boone and Lord Egremont’.12 He was hurt when Tynte, Member for Somerset, refused to present his petition for fear of injuring his own interest in the county by disobliging Egremont. It was presented by Sir Richard Bampfylde, Member for Devon. ‘You will think me a very obstinate struggling genius’, wrote Shiffner to Luttrell, 14 Dec., ‘but Sir, so it is, and I am trying all weapons before I quit the field.’ He was disappointed by the ineffectiveness of the Tory club, the Cocoa Tree, who claimed 90 Members.

Attendance is promised, notice is given of the day, and all goes swimmingly till the critical minute; then one is out of town, another at home, a great many at the bottle, and hardly any at the place of action ... This was the very fact on the night that my petition was committed, Ld. Egremont’s friends assembled in a body, and Sir Richard Bampfylde hardly found any of his friends in the House to second his motion.

Shiffner’s petition, after having been presented on 26 Nov. 1754, disappears from the Journals; and in time even the prosecutions he had started in the law-courts against some of Boone’s agents were dropped. By April 1756 Shiffner was on friendly terms with Egremont, and the negotiations between Luttrell and Egremont, which at the end of 1757 resulted in an agreement to share the borough, seem to have been conducted through Shiffner.13 He remained Luttrell’s candidate, contributing to the expense of nursing the borough.

When in June 1754 a vacancy occurred at Taunton, Shiffner was invited to stand: probably against Egremont’s interest. He declined, and on 22 June wrote to Luttrell: ‘I am not yet so Parliament mad as to catch at every baited hook’, and would not wish to obtain a seat ‘at the expense of honour and character’—presumably to stand elsewhere would have implied abandoning his claim to Minehead. The offer to him was made through Joseph Sweeting who, when elected mayor of Taunton in August 1754, was described by Newcastle’s agent Manley as ‘zealously attached to the Whig interest’.14

Soon Shiffner himself was to profess such attachment. He wrote to Newcastle, 10 Apr. 1756,15 asking for his recommendation should a vacancy occur at Dover: he was impelled by ‘the ambition I have long had to serve my country in Parliament as well as to manifest the high opinion which I entertain of his Majesty’s Administration’. He claimed to have ‘some real interest in Dover by means of Sir George Oxenden’s family and the many acquaintances I have in the place’; but would not stand without the Duke’s approval; and promised if returned to adhere to him. ‘If my late opposition to my Lord Egremont’s interest at Minehead should have left any bad impression ... Lord Egremont himself ... I doubt not will do me the justice to clear up that matter to your Grace’s satisfaction.’ He did not obtain Newcastle’s nomination but continued to court him. In October 1760 he submitted to the Duke a scheme for raising the next year’s supply and offered to support it ‘by furnishing one million on your Grace’s early assurance of my having that sum’16—this at a time when Shiffner’s financial position was rapidly deteriorating. But before the crash occurred Shiffner was returned for Minehead on Luttrell’s interest without serious opposition.

In 1754 Shiffner had entered into partnership with his brother John; at first the profits he drew averaged £2,500 a year, and in 1758 rose to £4,500; but a decline set in from March 1759; and the firm stopped payments on 16 Oct. 1761.17 The next day Shiffner wrote to Newcastle:18

By the imprudence or rather infatuation of my brother I am brought under such circumstances as to be obliged to desire time for the adjustment of my affairs. I hope, my Lord, so to settle them as to have my seat in Parliament unattacked, and that I may yet have opportunities of shewing my devotion and attachment to your Grace on every occasion, for though unfortunate I thank God my character and integrity is unimpeachable.

And on 31 Oct.: ‘I hope in eight days to settle all matters; my separate estate and qualifications for sitting in Parliament remaining vested in myself.’19 Inspectors appointed at a general meeting of creditors on 22 Oct. reported a deficit of £28,472; but what followed was an insolvency dealt with voluntarily: the creditors took over the partnership; appointed trustees, accepted a dividend, and released the Shiffners of further liability; and the trustees, who included George Amyand and Nicholas Linwood, and John Thornton, the leading Russia merchant, co-opted Henry Shiffner, to take advantage of his knowledge of the business. Shiffner never quite recovered from the blow: ‘Reduced by misfortunes since he was chosen’, is the note against him in Bute’s list. And a friend of the Holden family wrote on 12 Nov. 1761: ‘I can’t say I was at all surprised that this should be the end of Shiffner’s vanity and extravagance, who you know lived more like a lord than a merchant.’20

Newcastle, on 13 Nov. 1762, still classed Shiffner as a friend; Bute’s list marked him as ‘Government’; and he is in Fox’s list of Members favourable to the peace preliminaries. He spoke on 9 Dec. 1762;21 and henceforth was a regular supporter of the Bute and Grenville Administrations. Over the cider tax alone, as a Somerset Member and through his wife a Herefordshire landowner, he spoke and voted against them: 11 Mar. 1763, and again on 7 Feb. 1764, when Harris describes his speech as ‘a long preface to a proposition which he never gave us’. Some time between October 1763 and April 1764 he received a secret service pension of £500 p.a.22 A speech of his on general warrants, 17 Feb. 1764, is mentioned by Harris, Newdigate, and William Strahan,23 but not a word of it is reported. On 21 Mar. 1765 he moved ‘a bill for regulating the ports for importing Irish wool ... ’twas rejected unanimously’.24 Shiffner followed Grenville into opposition; was listed by Rockingham in the summer of 1765 as ‘doubtful’; on 18 Dec. supported Rigby’s motion for American papers,25 and acted as teller; opposed Conway’s motion, 17 Jan. 1766, to rescind the order to print them;26 and on 21 Feb. both spoke and voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act27—‘not a syllable attended to’, wrote an unknown reporter.28 Classed by Rockingham as ‘doubtful’ and by Newcastle, wrongly, as ‘Administration’, he voted with Opposition over the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768.

Towards the end of 1766 Luttrell, intending to stand for Minehead at the next general election, wrote to its vicar, the Rev. Leonard Herring, that he would communicate his scheme soon to Shiffner, so ‘that he may look out for some other borough’;29 for he could give no support to Shiffner, having promised the Minehead electors to leave them the free choice of the other Member. ‘I offer myself unconnected with Mr. Shiffner and every other person’, he wrote in an address to them, 14 Mar. 1767.30 And Herring to Luttrell, 21 Mar. 1767: ‘I should be glad if Mr. Shiffner would drop all thoughts of coming to Minehead and go with me into Cornwall, where I am well assured he will meet with a most agreeable reception.’ But Shiffner persisted, and made a futile bid to place himself under the wing of Lord Clive. On 17 Dec. 1767 he wrote to George Clive31 that he had heard Luttrell intended to sell his manor, and added:

The more Luttrell feels himself pushed at his election the more he will incline to treat about the disposal, and I know its contiguous situation to his house at Dunster Castle, only 2 miles, makes him sweat not a little at the freedom taken by electors. I am sporting every engine to keep him awake, and if Lord Clive wishes to have the borough, I shall be glad if I can be the means of throwing it into his hands.

In the election which Shiffner fought against Whitworth without Luttrell’s support, he suffered defeat; after which he did not stand again for Parliament. He also noted in his accounts: ‘Having done with all business, I have omitted striking yearly balances from this year 1768.’

He retired to Pontrylas in Herefordshire, and lived there a rather self-conscious country gentleman. In letters to his son, sent for education to Holland (1777-80), he wrote about rural pursuits; and when opposing the petitioning movement at a meeting at Hereford, 11 Mar. 1780, he referred to ‘us poor uninformed farmers’. His American politics remained unchanged: ‘I hope the stubborn neck of rebellion will be totally broke and subdued’;32 and at the meeting he defended the North Administration ‘who found America in rebellion, from the conduct of former Administrations’. To his son he preached moderation: would allow him everything to make him comfortable, so far as his own limited circumstances would permit, but warned him ‘that a prudent economy in matters of money is a most necessary ingredient for the comfortable enjoyment of life, in whatever situation you may find yourself’.

Shiffner died 30 May 1795.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Ex inf. Shiffner fam.
  • 2. Jas. Sheer to H. F. Luttrell, 28 Dec. 1754, Luttrell mss at Dunster Castle.
  • 3. Gov. of Russia Co., director of the Bank, M.P., a leading Dissenter, d. 13 June 1740.
  • 4. Among Jolliffe mss at Amerdown.
  • 5. H. J. Wale, My Grandfather’s Pocket Bk. 78-79.
  • 6. Wale, 103; Shiffner mss.
  • 7. H. F. Luttrell to Cholwich, 26 Feb. 1754, Luttrell mss.
  • 8. Copies of letters to C. Prowse, Cholwich, and Shiffner, all three dated 8 Mar., Luttrell mss.
  • 9. H. C. Maxwell Lyte, Hist. Dunster, i. 238.
  • 10. Maxwell Lyte, i. 236-9; Namier, Structure, 419-21.
  • 11. Shiffner to Luttrell, 4 May, Luttrell mss.
  • 12. Corresp. between them reproduced in Shiffner’s letter to Luttrell, 23 May.
  • 13. Shiffner to Luttrell, 15 Nov. 1757.
  • 14. Add. 32736, f. 361.
  • 15. Add. 32864, f. 214.
  • 16. Add. 32912, f. 360; 32913, f. 306.
  • 17. From accounts computed in Mar. 1763, Shiffner mss.
  • 18. Add. 32929, f. 354.
  • 19. Add. 32930, f. 246.
  • 20. Reg. Heber to Wm. Jolliffe, Jolliffe mss.
  • 21. Newdigate alone mentions that speech.
  • 22. He does not appear in the list of ‘private salaries or pensions’ in the King’s handwriting, compiled before Oct. 1763, but does in Jenkinson’s list compiled after Apr. 1764. Both lists are in the Royal archives, Windsor.
  • 23. Peach, Life and Times of Ralph Allen, 202.
  • 24. Harris’s ‘Debates’; Burke to Hen. Flood, 18 May 1765.
  • 25. Conway to the King, 18 Dec. 1765, enclosure, Royal archives, Windsor.
  • 26. Fortescue, i. 236; Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 27. Fortescue, i. 274.
  • 28. Add. 37682, f. 240.
  • 29. Maxwell Lyte, i. 245.
  • 30. Ibid. 247.
  • 31. Clive mss.
  • 32. To his son, 30 Nov. 1777.