WALPOLE, Hon. Thomas (1727-1803), of Carshalton, Surr.

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



1754 - 1761
1761 - 1768
1768 - 1784

Family and Education

b. 25 Oct. 1727, 2nd s. of Horatio Walpole (d. 1757) of Wolterton, and bro. of Hon. Horatio (d. 1809) and Hon. Richard Walpole.  educ. Eton 1741; L. Inn 1741.  m. (1) 26 May 1750, Elizabeth (d. 1 June 1760), da. of Sir Joshua Vannek, 1st Bt., 2s. 2da.; (a) Jeanne Marguerite Bataille de Montval, Comtesse de Villegagnon, s.p.

Offices Held

Director, E.I. Co. 1753-4.


Thomas Walpole, son of ‘Old Horace’, Sir Robert’s younger brother, was cousin to Horace Walpole, author of the Memoirs. At the age of 22 his marriage to the daughter of Sir Joshua Vanneck, described at his death as ‘one of the richest merchants in Europe’,1 gave him a footing in the London business world. Two years later, with Merrick Burrell and Zachary Fonnereau, he signed a contract for victualling 3,000 men at Gibraltar.2 In 1753 he was elected a director of the East India Company.

Before the general election of 1754, Pelham suggested that he should contest Sudbury, a borough so venal that the previous ministerial candidate had retired in dismay. To the Duke of Grafton, who had some interest there, Pelham wrote, 4 Oct. 1753:3

Upon this I had an immediate conference with young Walpole, Vanneck’s son. He very roundly engages his person and his purse ... I have acquainted our master with this scheme who very highly approves of it. He laughed when I told him a son of Horace’s offered an unlimited purse, and would do more so if he knew we have nothing promised by our father-in-law.

Walpole was at once despatched to Sudbury, where a week later he was, according to his opponent Rigby, ‘throwing away money as if the land tax was still at four shillings in the pound’.4 Old Horace was far from happy at his son being made use of in this way. To Pelham he complained, 13 Oct. 1753:5

This is a most hazardous, riotous, and must be a very expensive undertaking. Since my son was chose a director of the East India Company, I could have wished that he had for some years stuck closely to the business in Leadenhall Street, that by his proficiency there he might have appeared in Parliament with greater weight, credit, and service to the public and himself.

Rigby declined before the poll, and Walpole was returned with Thomas Fonnereau.

Once in Parliament he began to press for some return for his trouble. In 1755 his father-in-law applied for him to have a share in remitting to Russia. When this application failed, Vanneck wrote, 9 Aug. 1756, asking for an extension of the Gibraltar contract: his son-in-law, he complained, had ‘thought himself obliged to undertake a very costly election’ and was ‘scarce repaid of his expense by the contract’. This, too, Newcastle was obliged to refuse, much to Vanneck’s indignation. Nevertheless, Walpole was expanding his business interests in many directions. Though he went out of the East India direction in 1754, he took an active part in the affairs of the Company. He was a partner in the bank of Walpole and Ellison; with Vanneck he acquired the contract for supplying the French tobacco monopoly; he had connexions with a banking house at Lisbon; and when war broke out he shared with Joseph Mellish and Samuel Touchet the contract for remitting money to Germany. By 1760 he was one of the leading men in the city: when the London merchants resolved to present a congratulatory address to the new king, Walpole was on the management committee.6

At the general election of 1761 he was obliged to leave Sudbury, since his fellow Member, Fonnereau, who had the chief interest, suspected that he was trying to supplant him. He stood at Ashburton, on the interest of his relative Lady Orford, and was returned after a contest. When Newcastle left office, Walpole followed him into opposition, and in December 1762 was deprived of his Government contracts. To Samuel Martin’s letter notifying him that the Gibraltar contract was to cease, Walpole replied, I Jan. 1763:

I reflect with the utmost satisfaction that during the 10 years I have been concerned in this contract not a single complaint has been made against the conduct of it. And I beg leave to assure their Lordships that neither servility nor favour shall ever make me vary from those principles of public conduct which I think most consistent with the liberty and prosperity of this country.

Newcastle, to whom Walpole proudly showed this reply, assured him that it was ‘a very proper and spirited answer’. Newcastle found him invaluable as a sounding-board for city opinion. On 12 Dec. 1762 the Duke wrote: ‘I hope you will endeavour to quiet our City friends, if there are any of them who are uneasy’, and on 4 Jan. 1763:

Pray let me know, by safe conveyance ... how our friends in the City stand at present; and [the] effect these late violences have upon them. And particularly what they have done to you. I dare say Burton continues right; and, by what I hear, I should hope Sir George Colebrooke and Nesbitt. The Fonnereaus I give over; and Major and Henniker; I suppose some of them are to have your contract.

Throughout the next two years the Duke leaned heavily upon him for advice and comfort.7

In the course of 1764, however, Newcastle began to complain of Walpole’s ‘reservedness’.8 One cause of friction was the promotion of George Hay. But the deeper explanation seems to have been that Walpole was falling more and more under Pitt’s influence. His early opinion of Pitt had been unflattering: in October 1761 he was reported to have said that Pitt’s resignation ‘might have an effect on a lord mayor’s show, but nothing else’.9 Later he had paid several visits to Pitt on Newcastle’s behalf: on 21 Sept. 1763 he wrote to Newcastle:10

It was impossible to expect a more courteous reception, nor more communication for upwards of two hours, partly spent in a conversation on the state of France, in the course of which I discovered in him the precipitation of great genius’s, concluding quickly upon very imperfect information.

In November 1765, when Walpole purchased Pitt’s estate at Hayes, Pitt wrote:11

About to part with a place, endeared to me by many interesting circumstances, I assure you that I have a real pleasure that it is to pass into your hands, and am not a little proud, that its future master has the goodness to allow me to think that he will not like it the less for the sake of its old possessor.

By July 1766 Camden could write that Walpole was ‘as likely to be entrusted by the great man as anybody’.12

The sequel to Walpole’s purchase of Hayes was ludicrous. No sooner had Pitt moved to Burton Pynsent than he began to pine for Hayes again. Eventually, in May 1767, Lady Chatham was obliged to write to Walpole that nothing but the re-purchase of the estate could restore her husband to health. This request wrung from Walpole an unwonted display of emotion:

Hayes is become part of myself. It is the support of my life and of that spirit which enables me to seek from an independent industry the advancement of my family.

Nevertheless he was finally persuaded to part with it, less than two years after moving in, and in the middle of extensive rebuilding: ‘No person but Lord Chatham and no situation but his could have induced me to take the part I have done’, he assured Lady Chatham. He was understandably indignant when on 6 Apr. 1772 Chatham informed him that he was putting Hayes on the market once more.13

In Newcastle’s plan for a new Administration (30 June 1765), Walpole was among the contractors to be reinstated. During the Rockingham ministry he laboured to bring Pitt and Newcastle together: on a visit to Pitt he assured him ‘how much he had been misinformed with regard to the Duke of Newcastle’s conduct towards him’.14 When the Chatham Administration was formed Walpole at once declared his support.15 On 9 Sept. 1766 he wrote to Chatham urging that the Government should take responsibility for the territories of the East India Company:16

The annual choice of directors may very well serve the temporary purposes of trade ... But such a floating and uncertain authority can never be equivalent to a steady system of government over distant countries, where those trusted with the executive parts are doubtful how long their authority may last, and only intent on the speediest methods of enriching themselves.

At the general election of 1768 Walpole moved to King’s Lynn, to take over his cousin’s seat, and came top of the poll in a hard-fought contest with Sir John Turner and Crisp Molineux. He continued to support Administration throughout the whole of this Parliament. His interventions in debate were rare—he was ‘little practised to speak in public’ he told the House; and he confined himself chiefly to economic and financial matters. His speeches were blunt: he prided himself on being a direct, forthright man. He was much concerned about the position of the East India Company. In February 1769 he thought the ministry were driving too hard a bargain in demanding £400,000 p.a., and doubted whether the Company had adequate reserves. He was a member of the secret committee set up by North in November 1772 to examine the Company’s books. On 15 June 1773, in debate on the loan bill, he thought the Company’s attitude in rejecting the ministry’s offer was ‘nothing but lunacy ... I would take the government out of their hands till the next election.’17

Much of his time was now devoted to the affairs of the Grand Ohio Company, sometimes known as the Vandalia Company or the Walpole Company. This he formed in 1769 in partnership with Samuel Wharton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Pownall, Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh, and others, to buy from the Crown a large area on the borders of Virginia, recently ceded by the Six Nations. For some years his plans were frustrated by Lord Hillsborough, the secretary of state for the American department. In August 1772 there was a showdown:

The news here is that Lord Hillsborough has resigned and Lord Dartmouth has succeeded him. The reason is that he will not sign the warrant to the great seal for the grant of the lands on the Ohio to Messrs. Walpole, etc., thinking it as I hear a subject for an impeachment. Words run high at the Council between his Lordship and Mr. Walpole approaching nearly to the direct negative on both sides.18

The new secretary was more accommodating, but the whole scheme was shattered by the outbreak of war.

Walpole’s career was now approaching the catastrophe from which it never recovered. His ventures were on the grand scale. In 1770 he was rumoured to have bought £150,000 of stock in one coup.19 The beginning of his downfall was the failure of Alexander Fordyce, the banker, in June 1772. This caused a general collapse of credit, and the firm of William Alexander of Edinburgh, for whom Walpole and Ellison had accepted bills worth £93,000, was in imminent danger. Walpole’s assistance enabled them to survive for the time being, but he was forced to pledge certain estates in Grenada and Tobago to the Bank of England as security. In 1774 Alexander defaulted, and the rest of Walpole’s life was spent in dealing with the consequences.

Misfortunes now began to crowd upon him. The tobacco contract with the French farmers-general had always constituted a considerable part of his business. On 5 May 1765 Horace Walpole, reporting (to Hertford) a rumour that the ministry were attempting to deprive him of it, added: ‘If Mr. Walpole loses this vast branch of trade, he and Sir Joshua Vanneck must shut up shop.’ In 1767 Walpole had taken complete responsibility for the contract. The following year a determined attempt was made to undermine his position: he was accused of gross overcharging, and spent several months in Paris re-establishing himself. When the attack was resumed in 1771 Robert Herries was able to deprive him of the Scottish contract, and in 1774 he lost the London contract as well. Walpole was already in difficulties when the outbreak of war with America disrupted his trading connexions.

In the autumn of 1775 Walpole followed his friend Grafton into opposition. On 1 Dec. 1775 he denounced the American prohibitory bill as ‘violent and impolitic’:

My sentiments have been so rarely delivered in this House that some gentlemen consider me as one of those who have lately changed their opinions respecting America. Had I indeed formerly approved the measures of government towards the colonies, the ill success which has resulted and which is likely to result from them would now convince me of the expediency of changing the system of our conduct. My sentiments, however, have been confirmed, not altered, by our late unsuccessful experiments in America; as I have constantly disapproved every Act for imposing taxes on the colonies.

To Grafton he wrote, 13 Jan. 1776:

Surely, my Lord Duke, it is exceedingly imprudent for ministers, both with respect to themselves and their country, to push things to an extremity whence it will be impossible to bring them back, except by such means as must lay a foundation of division and animosity in the nation for many years to come.

His excellent contacts with France allowed him to ply Grafton with information about the progress of negotiations between the French and the Americans. It was news from Walpole, passed on by Grafton, that enabled Fox to bring off a sensational coup in debate on 17 Feb. 1778. Horace Walpole wrote:

As soon as Lord North had opened his two bills, Charles Fox rose and ... astonished his Lordship with asking him whether a commercial treaty with France had not been signed by the American agents at Paris within the last ten days. Lord North was thunderstruck and would not rise.

On 10 Apr. 1778 Walpole had a busy day in the House, first intervening in the debate on the marriage of the Duke of Gloucester, and then following the Chatham line in speaking against Powys’s motion that the commissioners to treat with America should be permitted to concede complete independence.20

In the meantime his own affairs were increasingly complicated. When the Alexanders defaulted, Walpole began an action against them to gain possession of the estates in Grenada and Tobago. This dragged on in Chancery until 1779, in which year the French captured Tobago. The Alexanders then fled to France, claiming French citizenship, and Walpole was forced to begin actions in the French courts to establish his claim. He was himself being pressed by the Bank of England. In 1778 it was rumoured that ‘Walpole had contracted a debt of near £100,000 on West India projects, which money he had lost, and that, if his debts were called in, he would be worth nothing’.21 In fact his debt to the Bank was £160,000. In July 1780 he went to Paris to take direct charge of his affairs, and was there for the next nine years, constantly negotiating for a settlement. Re-elected at King’s Lynn in 1780, he did not set foot in England during that Parliament.

Now that his business affairs were crippled he entertained hopes of diplomatic employment. Before he left for Paris in 1780 he asked North if he could be of service. North demurred, explaining to the King:

Lord North, expecting little good from such a negotiation, and less from such a negotiator, eluded the discourse, and civilly declined accepting of Mr. Walpole’s offer of service.

The King was in complete agreement:

I cannot give any sanction to any negotiation, besides Mr. Walpole’s political conduct cannot make me think him a safe conveyance or an impartial one.22

Despite North’s damping reply, Walpole wrote again on 2 Oct. 1780, insisting that there were real hopes of peace.23

I did not propose giving your Lordship any further trouble in a matter of so great national importance, imagining that you thought it above my small abilities, or that you had other private and more politic reasons for not entrusting me with your sentiments on a business of such delicacy; nevertheless I have overcome all those apprehensions from having this moment the most authentic assurances that if your Lordship will do me the honour to authorize me to open a treaty negotiation here upon the ground of a truce, such a proposition will meet with the most favourable reception.

North replied evasively. The King commented, 31 Oct. 1780:24

Undoubtedly there appeared some difficulty in getting quit of Mr. Walpole’s offer without an absolute refusal of all propositions of a pacific nature; but Lord North has so cautiously and ably drawn his answer to that gentleman that he has certainly overcome it; I own if Mr. Walpole was not an avowed enemy to the present Administration, I should not think him the possessor of those qualities which are essential in a prudent and able negotiator; I shall only add one reflection that whilst the House of Bourbon makes American independency an article of their propositions no event can ever make me a sharer in such a negotiation.

Walpole’s hopes rose again when his friends came into power. On 9 Apr. 1782 Fox assured him that ‘none of the prejudices which prevented the late ministry from employing you in this business can in the least affect you with the present’. Next Fox informed him that the ministers were convinced that a general peace was essential, and asked him to put out feelers, but on 1 May 1782 he was suddenly instructed that the negotiations had been taken out of his hands and entrusted to Thomas Grenville. To his son, Walpole complained, 3 May 1782:

A man must have been inured to the most cruel disappointments as much as I have been of late not to lose all temper on this occasion.

Camden explained, 20 May, that the Cabinet had felt unable to employ him as he was on bad terms with his former partner, Franklin, the American negotiator.25

Walpole differed from Camden and Grafton in approving the Coalition. Of Fox’s East India bill he wrote, 16 Jan. 1784:26

As for the East India Company and their charter—it is a rotten company supported by a broken charter, and with regard to the refined reasoning of the influence of the ministers overbearing that of the Crown and the public, it is quite unintelligible to me. I see nothing but that the King, being convinced that a session of Parliament conducted by the ablest in the country would establish their administration, whose persons he most disliked, beyond the power of his private cabal, and therefore the first opportunity was to be taken in all hazards to obstruct their progress and success.

His personal difficulties were still dragging on. As soon as the cause against the Alexanders was decided in his favour, he had approached the Bank, asking that the estates should be accepted in payment of his debts.27 The Bank’s refusal, in February 1782, he considered ‘a sentence of banishment’. In April 1783 he thought of offering the dispute to arbitration, ‘but I would readily renounce all pretensions rather than remain another year in my present situation which grows intolerable to my thinking faculties’.28 He was forced to sell his houses at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Carshalton. In December 1783 the Bank agreed to allow him £800 p.a. pending a settlement, but final agreement was not reached until 1789. He returned home in October 1789 and began appealing, through his old friend Camden, for some place or pension.

He died 21 Mar. 1803.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Gent. Mag. 1777, p. 147.
  • 2. T29/34/34.
  • 3. Grafton mss.
  • 4. Bedford Corresp. ii. 133.
  • 5. Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
  • 6. Add. 32861, f. 177; 32866, f. 393; 33039, f. 369.
  • 7. Add. 38200, f. 197; 32946 ff. 19, 21; 32945, f. 285.
  • 8. Add. 32959, f. 393.
  • 9. Duke of Devonshire’s diary, 6 Oct. 1761, Devonshire mss.
  • 10. Add. 32951, f. 126.
  • 11. Chatham Corresp. ii. 328.
  • 12. 13 July 1766, Grafton mss.
  • 13. 13 May, 5 Dec. 1767, Chatham mss.
  • 14. Add. 32974, f. 417.
  • 15. 15 July 1766, Chatham mss.
  • 16. Chatham Corresp. iii. 61.
  • 17. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 231, f. 19; 218, f. 110; 250, f. 318; Walpole, Last Jnls. i. 161.
  • 18. John Ley to John Hatsell, 14 Aug. 1772, Ley mss.
  • 19. Chas. Lloyd to Grenville, 2 Oct. 1770, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 20. Almon, iii. 237; Grafton mss; Walpole, Last Jnls. ii. 117, 167; Parl. Hist. xix. 1068.
  • 21. 25 Apr. 1778, Malmesbury mss.
  • 22. Fortescue, v. 122-3.
  • 23. T. Walpole mss in the possession of David Holland Esq.
  • 24. Fortescue, v. 144.
  • 25. T. Walpole mss.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. 20 Oct. 1781, letter (now in pamphlet form) from Walpole to the governor of the Bank.
  • 28. Walpole to his son, 3 Mar. 1782, 28 Apr. 1783, T. Walpole mss.