THRALE, Henry (?1728-81), of Streatham Place, and Southwark.

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



23 Dec. 1765 - 1780

Family and Education

b. ?1728, o.s. of Ralph Thrale, M.P. for Southwark 1741-7, a Southwark brewer.  educ. Univ. Coll. Oxf. 6 June 1744, aged 15; Grand Tour with W. H. Lyttelton.  m. 11 Oct. 1763, Hester Lynch, da. of John Salusbury, niece of Sir Lynch Salusbury Cotton, 4th Bt. (g.v.), 2s. d.v.p.10 da. Thrale’s sis. Anne m. 1756 John Lade, and his sis. Susanna m. (1) 1758, Arnold Nesbitt; (2) 1782, Thomas Scott.  suc. fa. 7 Apr. 1758.

Offices Held


A cousin of Thrale’s father, Anne Halsey, heiress to the Anchor Brewery at Southwark, married Richard Temple, 1st Baron Cobham, uncle of the Grenvilles and Lytteltons; he sold the brewery to Ralph Thrale for £30,000.

In May 1753 Henry Thrale was put up by his father for Abingdon where local opposition had arisen to the sitting Member, John Morton. Newcastle wrote about Thrale in his election memoranda, on 20 Mar. 1754: ‘That he is sure for Abingdon, that he will support anybody at Southwark.’ Thrale was obviously trying to gain Newcastle’s support; this he probably received against Morton whom Newcastle reckoned a Tory. But in spite of lavish expenditure Thrale was defeated.1

When in April 1759 the death of John Lade caused a vacancy at Camelford, James West wrote to Newcastle in a review of candidates who could give expert support to the Treasury: ‘Mr. Thrale has so close connections with the Grenville family, that I doubt whether his new relation [Arnold Nesbitt] can answer sufficiently for him.’

William Belchier, M.P. for Southwark, having gone bankrupt shortly before the general election of 1761, had to decline standing again, and in a letter of 20 Dec. 1760 offered to give his interest to any candidate of Newcastle’s choice. This letter Belchier placed in Thrale’s hands who wrote when forwarding it to the Duke: ‘as his interest is considerable with particular people, I flatter myself that your Grace’s good wishes to me, will induce you to return a letter to him in my favour.’ Newcastle did so, sending the letter through Thrale. But Thrale’s opponents proved apparently too strong for him, and he withdrew his candidature early in January. After that, Thrale seems to have nibbled for a while at St. Albans, where, in spite of some local connexions, he would have stood little chance.2

On a vacancy at Southwark, in September 1765, Thrale declared his candidature. George Onslow, M.P. for Surrey, wrote to West, 12 Oct. 1765: ‘Your assistance in the borough election to Mr. Thrale, the Duke of Newcastle I could tell you without having seen him would be obliged to you for; as he has taken great pains for him.’3 Thrale’s opponent, George Durant, a stranger to the borough, withdrew on 15 Oct., after a short campaign, and Thrale was returned unopposed.

In 1765-6, Thrale presumably supported the Rockingham Administration as even at the turn of 1766-7 Rockingham classed him as a ‘Whig’ (of his own brand); Charles Townshend, more correctly, put him down in January 1767 as a supporter of Government—he voted with them on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767; Newcastle placed him on 2 Mar. 1767 among the ‘doubtful or absent’. In 1768 he was returned top of the poll in a hotly contested election, during which some of his ‘advertisements’ were written by Samuel Johnson.4 It is not clear what Thrale’s relations were with his colleague Sir Joseph Mawbey and Mawbey’s radical supporters. The Annual Register for 1769 reports (pp. 78-79) a meeting of electors at the Southwark town hall on 1 Mar. which voted a series of 12 instructions to their representatives in Parliament, embodying the radical programme; ‘Sir Joseph Mawbey defended the propriety of instructions, and Henry Thrale esq. acquiesced.’ According to the Gazetteer of 3 Mar., Thrale made an apologetic declaration, for which he ‘was afterwards thanked ... but not without hissing, and many hands held up against it’. In the House, Thrale voted regularly with the Government, and on the two occasions when he voted against them, over the naval officers on half-pay, 9 Feb. 1773, and Grenville’s Election Act, 25 Feb. 1774, the mark of ‘friend’ is placed against his name in the King’s list. His only recorded speeches were delivered in this the best reported of his Parliaments, and were on matters connected with his trade as brewer: on 4 May 1772, in committee on the corn bill, he proposed, but failed to carry, a clause to regulate the export of malt; and on 18 Apr. 1774 he spoke repeatedly in support of a bill to prevent abuses in the packing of hops.5 In 1774 he had to stand another contest; Samuel Johnson again wrote for him some of his election literature; and according to his brilliant wife, who never fails to register her own, badly requited, merits, his best friends admitted that he owed his success to her efforts—‘the truth is, I have been indefatigable’.6 In this, Thrale’s last Parliament, only one vote by him is recorded: but for the period up to March 1779 only minority lists are extant; and during the last year he was a very sick man, having suffered apoplectic seizures in June and in the autumn of 1779.

On 12 Feb. 1779 he voted for the bill, brought in by his friend Philip Jennings Clerke, to exclude Government contractors from the House—he appears in Robinson’s list as ‘contra, present, friend’. On 27 Aug. 1795, Mrs. Thrale (by then Piozzi) noted in her diary having been told by Murphy, one of Thrale’s oldest friends, that Thrale and Whitbread held for three years a Government contract by virtue of which they ‘divided £23,000 a year a piece’; and on 27 Apr. 1800 she states to have found an account of the contract ‘in an old Annual Register’, and expresses her surprise at Clerke having canvassed for Thrale in 1780 while he had ‘a bill on the stocks to keep out contractors’.7 Neither Thrale nor Whitbread appears in Robinson’s list of placemen and contractors in 1774;8 the Annual Registerfor 1775 (p. 159) mentions under date of 15 Sept. that the Government had ‘contracted with Felix Calvert and Henry Thrale, Esqrs. for 5,000 butts of strong beer each’; but Thrale does not appear in Robinson’s list of contractors in 1778.9 Had he still held a Government contract in 1779, his voting for Clerke’s bill would have been at least as remarkable as Clerke’s canvassing for him in 1780, and an unsigned election advertisement on behalf of Thrale, printed in the Public Advertiser on 11 Sept. 1780, denies his having ever held ‘either pension or contract’.

In the summer of 1780 Robinson noted in his electoral survey: ‘Mr. Thrale it is hoped is secure’; but on 31 July added a postscript: ‘Although it is now said they mean to push at him.’ When Parliament was dissolved, 1 Sept. 1780, Johnson wrote for him the election address in which he claimed to have acted ‘as becomes the independent representative of independent constituents’.10 But Thrale was now in no condition for a strenuous campaign, though ‘willing to take any risks to canvass the voters’. It was impossible to hide his physical disability; he was taken very ill the day before the poll at a church crowded with voters, wrote Mrs. Thrale on 19 Sept.; ‘his friends now considered him dying, his enemies as dead’. ‘Though he resolved with unequalled spirit to show himself ... at the polling place, though he did actually come thither ... our antagonists had gained so much ground, no efforts ... could retrieve it.’ Defeated, Thrale wrote to Lord North asking him to recommend ‘some borough where I may be chosen ... at my own expense’.11 He died, after another stroke, on 4 Apr. 1781.

The Thrales, because of their connexion with Samuel Johnson, hold in English biography a place beyond their merit; but Mrs. Thrale’s writings, which are the chief source of information about them, are hardly fair to him. They were an ill-assorted couple: she, highly intelligent, with literary ambitions, hard and masculine, yet sentimental; he, matter-of-fact and unemotional though kindly, sensual and a glutton, lacking in determination: he could not be her hero, and she felt wasted on him. Still, the one letter from him to her which survives ‘reveals him’, writes Professor Clifford,12 ‘in a more amiable character than is usually ascribed to him’; it shows ‘an affectionate, appreciative Thrale, not the callous Thrale of tradition’. And ‘pride in the distinction of their friends’ whom they entertained at Streatham was one common bond between them.

That Thrale proved at times inadequate even as business man, increased her contempt. On the eve of the great financial panic of 1772, he fell a prey to an inventor who claimed to have discovered a method of brewing without malt and hops: a year’s supply of beer was destroyed, and Thrale was faced with ruin. His wife and Johnson now assumed a share in the management of the brewery, and helped to avert disaster.13 When business recovered Thrale began once more to spend extravagantly and engaged in an ambitious expansion of the brewery. Its profits in 1776 were £14,000; but when two years later he was caught ‘in a general stringency of credit, he had no reserves, to meet his obligations’. He had, moreover, stood security for his brother-in-law Nesbitt in some speculative schemes—he was ‘bound for him in a forfeiture of £220,000’;14 and when after Nesbitt’s death Thrale realised the precarious financial position he was placed in, he suffered his first stroke, from which he never quite recovered. He did not, however, at his death leave his family in want: the brewery was sold to Barclay by his executors (Johnson was one of them) for £135,000.

Johnson, according to Boswell, valued Thrale even as a scholar, and described his manners15 as those ‘of a plain independent English squire’. Against this passage Mrs. Thrale wrote: ‘No, no! Mr. Thrale’s manners presented the character of a gay man of the town: ... he abhorred the country and everything in it.’16 She transferred her dislike of him, perhaps unconsciously, to other merchant Members of Parliament: and, for example, her account in Thraliana of John Cator, George Colebrooke, John Major, or Arnold Nesbitt can be used, if at all, only with the utmost caution. That this was not sheer snobbery is best shown by her subsequent marriage with Piozzi.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Oxf. Jnl. 5, 12 May 1753; G. B. Hill, Johnsonian Misc. i. 293 n; Add. 32995, f. 104.
  • 2. Add. 32916, ff. 238, 240, 242, 244; 34735, f. 150; London Chron. 6-8 Jan. 1761; N. & Q. cxciii. 15; Boswell, Life of Johnson, i. 491 n1.
  • 3. Add. 34728, f. 105.
  • 4. Ex inf. Prof. Jas. L. Clifford, to whom we are also indebted for some of the newspaper paragraphs.
  • 5. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 241, pp. 203-4; 255, pp. 151-65.
  • 6. J. L. Clifford, Hester Lynch Piozzi, 116.
  • 7. Thraliana, ed. Balderston, 939, 1004, 1010.
  • 8. Laprade, 14-17.
  • 9. Chatham mss.
  • 10. Life, iii. 440.
  • 11. Clifford, 190.
  • 12. Ibid. 163.
  • 13. Ibid. 92-97.
  • 14. Thraliana, 803.
  • 15. Life, i. 494.
  • 16. Ibid. n. 1.