POULETT THOMSON, Charles Edward (1799-1841), of 11 Suffolk Street, Pall Mall, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1826 - 1832
1832 - Aug. 1839

Family and Education

b. 13 Sept. 1799, 3rd s. of John Thomson (afterwards Buncombe Poulett Thomson), Russia merchant (d. 1839), of 7 Austin Friars, London and Roehampton and Waverley Abbey, nr. Farnham, Surr. and Charlotte, da. of John Jacob, MD, of Salisbury, Wilts.; bro. of George Poulett Scrope†. educ. Hanwell, Mdx. (Rev. Hannington) 1806; private tutors 1809-15. unm. cr. Bar. Sydenham 19 Aug. 1840; GCB 19 Aug. 1841. d. 19 Sept. 1841.

Offices Held

Vice-pres. bd. of trade Nov. 1830-June 1834, pres. June-Dec. 1834, Apr. 1835-Aug. 1839; PC 22 Nov. 1830; treas. of navy Dec. 1830-Dec. 1834.

Gov.-gen. Canada 1839-d.


Poulett Thomson’s great-grandfather John Thomson (d.1746) was an Edinburgh banker. His only son Andrew Thomson entered the Russian trade and by 1755 was established in London at 7 Austin Friars. His firm, which had other premises at 32 Old Bethlem and an office in St. Petersburg, was styled Thomson and Peters by 1763, and Thomson, Peters, Bonar and Thomson by 1791. His principal partner in his later years was his nephew and son-in-law Thomas Bonar (the son of his sister Agnes and Andrew Bonar, who married his daughter Anne in 1779). He acquired property at Roehampton, fathered several illegitimate children, including the merchant, philanthropist and art collector John Julius Angerstein, and died, ‘in his 84th year’, 11 Feb. 1795.1 By his will, dated 2 June 1790, he devised £13,000 to Bonar, £8,000 to his son-in-law Sir Joshua Vanneck, £4,500 between the sons of his daughter Elizabeth and John Hankey, and a life annuity of £300 to his daughter Agnes Ibbetson, plus £5,000 for any future husband and £3,000 for her children. In a codicil of 14 Feb. 1792 he left £15,000 to be invested for the equal benefit of the then six children of his only legitimate son John Thomson, his residuary legatee and active head of the business.2 John Thomson, who bought the Waverley estate in about 1796, took the additional names of Buncombe and Poulett in 1814 as the heir and representative, through his mother Harriet Buncombe, of those Somerset families.3 He had three sons and six daughters. His eldest son Andrew Henry, born in 1786, was a director of the Bank of England, 1824-33, as well as the eventual head of the firm, which, as Thomson, Bonar and Company, was operating from 10 New Broad Street Mews by 1811, 51 Old Broad Street by 1816, and 7 Austin Friars, again, from 1821 onwards. The second son George Julius (1797-1876) was educated at Harrow, Cambridge and Oxford, took the name of Scrope in 1821, made a name for himself as ‘Pamphlet’ Scrope, author of many tracts on geology and political economy, and was Liberal Member for Stroud, 1833-67.4

Their brother Charles Edward, John Thomson’s youngest child, had a ‘constitutional weakness’ from birth and was always prey to ‘continued and harassing infirmities’. He was a pretty boy and a favourite of George III, to whom the family were introduced at Weymouth in 1803: his brother claimed to recall the king forcing Pitt, to his immense embarrassment, to dandle and kiss the child before an audience of smirking courtiers. After a private education he was sent in 1815 to St. Petersburg to be trained for the family business, currently under the direction of his brother Andrew. He was introduced to high Russian society and acquired the ‘peculiar charm of manner’ and ‘polished tone’ for which he became noted. After recovering from a long illness he returned to England in the autumn of 1817 and then accompanied his doting mother and two youngest sisters on a tour of northern Italy and Switzerland. In the summer of 1818 he took the waters at Valdagno and Recora, before rejoining his family and wintering in Naples. The following summer he travelled home with his brother George, who had joined him in Italy, and spent the winter in the London counting house. Irked by this drudgery, and being fluent in French, German, Italian and Russian, he nurtured diplomatic ambitions, but all attempts to place him failed. He went back to St. Petersburg in April 1821, now entrusted with a share in the conduct and profits of the business. He visited Moscow and central Russia the following year, and in August 1823 went on a tour of the south-east which took him to Vienna for the winter. He went from there in the spring of 1824 to Paris to attend his dying mother. He subsequently returned to London and played his part in the business, which he took charge of when Andrew was away.5

Poulett Thomson, who had his fingers slightly burnt as a result of some South American mining speculations in the financial panic of 1825-6, developed ‘strong opinions of a liberal character’, in contrast to the Tory views of his father. He made the acquaintance of the leading Utilitarians and philosophic radicals, attended meetings of the Political Economy Club, where he became friendly with Lord Althorp* and took lessons in economics from John McCulloch.6 He aimed at a parliamentary career, and was introduced by Bentham’s confidant John Bowring, who later credited him with ‘considerable sharpness and sagacity’, to the radical Member Joseph Hume.7 Hume put him in touch with a group of Dover voters resident in London who wished to remove the sitting Members. In September 1825, when a dissolution was expected, he canvassed the borough in coalition with James Morrison*, a wealthy London silk merchant, as ‘professed friends to economy and retrenchment’, whose object was ‘to produce the greatest sum of happiness to our fellow men’. They disclaimed ‘any party attachments’ and expressed approval of ‘the liberal commercial changes, and other political ameliorations’ recently introduced by the Liverpool ministry.8 By the time of the dissolution in 1826 Morrison had dropped out, but Poulett Thomson, disregarding the remonstrances of his father and brother, who feared both the cost of a contest and his distraction from the family business, stood his ground. He boasted of his ability to serve local maritime interests through his commercial connections, and at the nomination advocated parliamentary reform, including shorter parliaments, ‘removal’ of the corn laws and retrenchment. In response to the strong ‘No Popery’ cry which was raised against him, he proclaimed himself ‘favourable to civil and religious liberty’ and ‘hostile in every case to the prostration of intellect, of Protestant or Catholic, to either a lord warden or a town clerk’. After an eight-day contest, which cost him rather more (at least £3,000) than he had led his brother to expect, he was returned in second place.9 At a celebration dinner he attacked the government on the national debt, foreign policy and, retrospectively, post-war repression. He said that he was ‘no rash innovator, no theoretical reformer’, but an advocate of ‘constitutional reform’, who believed that ‘it were better there were no representation at all, than that the shadow of it should be purchased by so much corruption, perjury, and iniquity of every kind’.10

Poulett Thomson voted in the minority of 24 for Hume’s amendment to the address, 21 Nov. 1826. He divided against the duke of Clarence’s annuity, 16 Feb., 2 Mar., and the garrisons grant, 20 Feb. 1827. He presented a Dover petition against the corn laws, 26 Feb., and voted to relax them, 9, 27 Mar.11 He observed that prohibitory customs duties only encouraged smuggling, 13 Mar., and called for rationalization of the system of measuring quantities of grain, 23 Mar. He voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., inquiry into the electoral activities of Leicester corporation, 15 Mar., and the spring guns bill, 23 Mar., and to postpone going into committee of supply in view of the current political uncertainty, 30 Mar. He divided for inquiries into the Irish miscellaneous estimates and chancery delays, 5 Apr., and next day objected ‘most strongly’ to the clause of the corn bill sanctioning the prohibition of imports from countries which imposed high duties on British goods. As he put it, 9 Apr., when he seconded Warburton’s wrecking amendment, it ‘re-enacted the old system of prohibition’.12 His first major speech was in opposition to Gascoyne’s motion for inquiry into the British shipping interest, 7 May, which he construed as an attack on the ‘liberal principles of policy’ in commercial matters espoused by Huskisson, president of the board of trade, and other ministers. The speech, which his friend John Hobhouse* thought ‘excellent’, was a success, and drew ‘loud applause from both sides of the House’. Later in the debate Huskisson complimented Poulett Thomson on his ‘acuteness and knowledge’.13 The Tory backbencher Henry Bankes noted that Poulett Thomson ‘surprised the House’ with his ‘very able, detailed and argumentative speech’, and the Canningite Member John Denison considered it ‘very good’.14 Poulett Thomson voted for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May, presented a Dover petition for repeal of the Test Acts, 31 May, supported the introduction of the East Retford disfranchisement bill, 11 June, and, on the Preston election bill, 14 June, endorsed Hume’s advocacy of the ballot.15 He was in the Canning ministry’s majority for the improvement of water communications in Canada, 12 June. On 2 June 1827 he was admitted to Brooks’s Club, sponsored by Althorp and Lord Duncannon*.

On the Wellington administration’s budget statement, 12 Feb. 1828, he tried to exploit apparently contradictory statements by Huskisson and Peel on the scope of the finance committee, and went on:

Ministers, he had no doubt, did not wish to keep up large military establishments, but they were in a great measure controlled by the aristocracy ... who returned a majority of the Members of that House, and who urged them to many measures to which they would otherwise be repugnant.

He had more to say on this theme, 22 Feb., though he was reluctant to support Hume’s call for extensive reductions in the armed forces. He presented petitions for repeal of the Test Acts, 18, 21, 26 Feb., 17 Mar., and took pleasure in voting in the ‘wholly unexpected’ majority for it, 26 Feb. Two days later he wrote to his brother:

Thanks for your congratulations on what you are pleased to call my success in Parliament. I wish it were greater, but still, if I am permitted to proceed, I trust I may improve upon it. To the justice of every one of your maxims I entirely subscribe. The speech which I made last year, which gained me what little credit I have, is the best illustration of the principal one. A man who tells the House facts with which the majority are unacquainted, is sure to be listened to, and a reputation for doing so will procure him attention upon other points on which he, perhaps, does not deserve it. But a parliamentary reputation is like a woman’s. It must be exposed as little as possible. And I am so sensible of this, that I would willingly abstain from opening my mouth more than once or twice in a session. I have latterly been obliged to infringe this rule more than I wish, but it has only been in committees, which are parliamentarily sans consequence. I hope to have one or two occasions for a splash, but I shall not go out of my way for them. This, to be sure, is all sad manoeuvring. But still, it is a means to being useful hereafter and therefore must be submitted to ... Now and then it occurs to me that some ten or fifteen years hence, when I am broken in health, in constitution and in spirits, and disappointed in both fortune and ambition ... I shall envy your position, and regret the useless waste of time, health, and money of the present day.16

Poulett Thomson, who voted for the disfranchisement of East Retford, 21 Mar., and for relaxation of the corn laws, 22, 29 Apr., continued to build up his reputation as a proponent of Ricardian economics. He was unhappy with the passengers regulation bill, 18, 24 Mar., objected to protection of the British lead industry, 1 Apr., advocated free trade in corn and silk and opposed wage regulation, 21 Apr., and supported reform of the laws governing friendly societies, 22 Apr. He moved for inquiry into the Hibernian Joint-Stock Company, 24 Apr., but gave up the motion a week later. He was against inquiry into the wool trade, 28 Apr., and called for a speedy settlement of the problem of protection against foreign wool, 1 May. He presented petitions for Catholic relief, 5 May, and voted for it, 12 May. He opposed the provision for Canning’s family on ‘constitutional’ grounds, 13 May, and was in the minority of 14 against it, 22 May. He voted for a return of civil list pensions, 20 May, and paired for Hume’s motion for their reduction, 10 June. On 20 May he spoke at some length in support of his motion for leave to introduce a bill to amend the usury laws which, he said, impeded fair competition and contributed to commercial distress, crime and misery. He brought it in, 5 June, and saw it through a second reading by 52-40, 19 June, but was forced by the strength of hostile feeling to abandon it.17 He voted against the archbishop of Canterbury’s bill, 16 June, and later that day, admitting that he had voted with government against inquiry into the circulation of small notes, 3 June, he opposed the bill to restrict the circulation of Scottish notes in England. On 17 June, opposing Gascoyne’s renewed attempt to secure inquiry into the shipping interest, he expressed dismay at the apparent willingness of Vesey Fitzgerald and Courtenay, the new heads of the board of trade, to turn back the clock on commercial policy:

If those great questions ... are to be subjected to the clumsy examinations of those who do not understand them ... where ... are we to look for an end of their inquiries? Under such a system, the country must become the scene of the most ruinous fluctuations and changes ... The course of policy has been taken, from which there is no return.

He voted for various economies, 20, 23 June, 4, 7 July, inquiry into abuses in the Irish church and against throwing East Retford into the hundreds, 24 June, against the additional churches bill, 30 June, and for the corporate funds bill, 10 July. He exhorted ministers not to increase the duty on foreign gloves, 26 June, and tobacco, 30 June, and supported repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act on commercial grounds, 3 July. He welcomed that aspect of the pilotage bill which safeguarded the rights of Cinque Port pilots wishing to work west of Gravesend, 10 July, when his motion to reduce the duty on Indian manufactured silk goods was carried by the casting vote of the chairman. He defended the alteration against the attacks of spokesmen for the silk industry, 14 July, but could not prevent its reversal by 37-34. He complained next day that he had been beaten by a resort to ‘brushing in votes’, and on 16 July made a bid to reinstate his amendment, but was beaten by 48-31. He quizzed the chancellor, Goulburn, on his budget statement and advocated reduced taxation and free trade, 11 July, and on the national debt bill, 17 July, called for a limitation on the surplus applicable to the sinking fund. In September 1828 he apparently refused an offer of office from the Wellington ministry.18 The following month Edward Davies Davenport* asked Lord Holland if he thought Poulett Thomson might legitimately attend the Kent county meeting called to petition against Catholic relief as Member for and a freeman of Dover. Holland reckoned that his presence to support those hostile to the petition would be ‘most useful’ and that he could get away with it; but he does not seem to have turned up.19 Reviewing possible Commons leaders for the Whig opposition in November 1828, Davenport commented that Poulett Thomson, ‘with talents little inferior [to Althorp and Edward Smith Stanley] has every recommendation that candour and integrity can give him, but I suppose it would be said that he has not station’. Their notion of forming a dining club of Members keen to ‘reform the abuses and economize the revenues of the state’ came to nothing, partly because, as Davenport recalled, when Parliament met Poulett Thomson ‘was always engaged when I proposed to bring our resolves into operation’.20

Poulett Thomson, just back from a stay in France, dismissed a Dover petition against Catholic claims presented by his colleague Trant as unrepresentative and presented favourable ones, 3 Mar. 1829. He spoke and voted for emancipation, 6, 16, 19, 20 Mar., but he differed from many of his political associates by approving the relief bill’s suppression of Jesuit and other Catholic monastic institutions, which he felt would destroy ‘the nucleus of that resisting power to the principles of civil liberty, of which we have seen so much, of late, in Europe’. He could not, however, go along with Vyvyan’s attempt to deprive Jesuits of their privileges under the Act of 1791. He opposed the West India dock bill, 14 Apr., and objected to that company’s proposed purchase of the city canal, 16 Apr., because it was ‘of the highest importance to discourage monopolies of all descriptions’. He applauded Vesey Fitzgerald’s resistance to Fyler’s motion for inquiry into the silk trade, 14 Apr.:

I am no rash theorist, I am not desirous of carrying a favourite principle into operation at the expense of existing interests; but I maintain that your only course is a gradual, a progressive, but a steady approach to a free system; and ... that the very essence of commercial and manufacturing industry, is freedom from legislative interference and legislative protection.

He supported, with minor reservations, the silk trade bill, 1, 7 May. He denounced the corn laws as ‘a tax which was laid on the people in general for the benefit of a particular class’, 7 May, and was in the minority of 12 for a fixed duty on corn, 19 May. Yet, as he privately indicated to a friend who pressed him to take a parliamentary initiative on free trade, he was conscious of the restraints on action:

I like your doctrine very well, but you fall into the line of which my friends the Utilitarians are but too justly accused, and with which you, as with them, will go further to defeat the extension of your principles, than your reasoning will go to establish them. You, like them, begin every discussion by telling those who differ from you that they are d--­d fools, not exactly the way to put them in an humour for cool argument. You seem besides to have formed a most erroneous judgment of the facility with which any improvement can be carried into effect. To propose, to legislate, and to act on your law, you seem to think follow one another as glibly as cause and effect. Why, God bless you, the majority of the House of Commons, ay, 600 of the 650 senators, are opposed upon principle to any change, be it what it may; and a whole session could be readily spent by them in considering whether they had better consider.21

(Denis Le Marchant† thought Poulett Thomson’s lack of a conventional education, by depriving him of ‘social intercourse with young men of the class and position amongst which he now found himself’, caused him to rate their abilities ‘too low’.)22 He voted for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May, and for Lord Blandford’s parliamentary reform resolutions and the issue of a new writ for East Retford, 2 June. He condemned the ‘absurdity’ of raising exchequer bills to reduce the unfunded debt, 8, 11, 14 May. He wanted an assurance that no more money would be demanded for the completion of Buckingham Palace, and was in the minority in the subsequent division, 25 May. His attempt to reduce the hemp duties, 1 June, was beaten by 60-40. He called for better protection of Spitalfields silk manufacturers against the depredations of disgruntled weavers, 2 June, presented a petition for a commutation of tithes, 4 June, and denied that there was serious distress in the shipping industry, 12 June 1829. He spent part of the winter in Paris, where he extended his contacts with the leading French free traders and corresponded with the junior minister Robert Wilmot Horton* on the subject of subsidized emigration.23

Poulett Thomson had been assured by Huskisson in October 1829 that reports of distress in the north of England were ‘grossly exaggerated’;24 but he voted for the Ultra Knatchbull’s amendment to the address, 4 Feb. 1830, after deploring the government’s apparent indifference to distress. Yet on the appointment of the select committee on the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, to which he was named, 9 Feb., he defended ministers against Bright’s charge of procrastination. Later that day he clashed with Attwood, whose call for currency reform he dismissed as ‘nothing less than a fraud on all the creditors in the country’. He attributed distress to a combination of bad harvests and inept legislation and advocated ‘a better distribution of the taxes’ as a solution. On 16 Feb. he gave notice of a motion on this subject. He voted for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., 5, 15 Mar., Blandford’s reform scheme, 18 Feb., and the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. He presented a radical reform petition from Dover, 26 Feb., and on 1 Mar. presented and proposed inquiry into the Newark petition accusing the duke of Newcastle of electoral malpractice as crown lessee; he was beaten by 194-61. When O’Connell moved to insert voting by ballot in the provisions of the East Retford bill, 5 Mar., Poulett Thomson, ‘friend as I am to the system of ballot’, pressed him to withdraw the proposal and reintroduce it as a substantive motion. He voted against government on the Bombay judicature, 8 Mar., British interference in Portugal, 10 Mar., and the treasurer of the navy’s ministerial salary, 12 Mar. At the meetings of the reviving Whig opposition in early March he not only recommended a property tax to offset tax reductions, but even suggested a legacy duty. Both notions met with opposition, and a meeting on 16 Mar. decided not to endorse a property tax but to back Poulett Thomson’s planned motion for inquiry into a revision of taxation. He brought it on, 25 Mar., despite having been ‘for some days past so indisposed, as to be rendered scarcely able justly to treat the matter’. He detailed proposals for reductions of duties on raw materials and articles of common consumption amounting to about £7,000,000, at an estimated cost to the treasury of £1,000,000. His motion was beaten by 167-78, a disappointing outcome which some blamed on Althorp’s advocacy of a property tax during the debate.25 Le Marchant recalled Poulett Thomson’s performance on this occasion:

He was ... clever, and thoroughly conversant with business; as he proved ... by the comprehensive view he took of the fiscal policy of the country, and his exposure of the vicious character of many of the existing duties ... He wanted the fullness and depth, and, it must be admitted, the modesty of Mr. Huskisson, for he had a dogmatism of tone and manner ill-suited to his youthful appearance; but in a ready flow of words, an animated diction, and the advantage of voice and delivery, he was incomparably the superior.26

Lord Grey’s son Lord Howick* thought the speech was ‘very good’, but Bankes deemed it ‘tedious’ and delivered ‘in the tone and manner of a whining Methodist preacher’.27 The ‘ostentation of doctrine in his reasoning’, not to mention his background and active involvement in trade, made him suspect in the snobbish eyes of many leading Whigs, including Brougham and Grey, who privately dismissed his financial plans as ‘the height of infatuation and folly’.28 In April 1830 there was speculation that ministers were anxious to recruit him in order to strengthen themselves in commons debates.29 Poulett Thomson, who told Howick that he did not subscribe to the theory that absenteeism impoverished a country,30 joined in the ensuing opposition campaign for economy, retrenchment and reduced taxation. He questioned the need for so many clerks in the office of the surveyor-general of the ordnance, 2 Apr., and criticized the cost of treasury messengers, 14 May. He objected to Spring Rice’s motion for repeal of the Irish coal duties as ‘partial’, 13 May, but was listed in the minority for it, though Howick thought he had ‘voted against us’.31 The scorn which he heaped on a Northumberland miners’ petition for an increased duty on lead, 25 May, drew a rebuke from Sir James Graham, its Whig presenter, who observed that Poulett Thomson ‘must be made of most inflammatory materials, since he warms so easily upon such a subject’; but he cordially supported Graham’s motion to reduce the cost of South American missions, 11 June, when he observed:

I am ready to allow ... government some credit for a disposition to economy, although that disposition has probably been stimulated by the prayers and petitions of the people; but it is too much to see them take to themselves the infinite credit which they do on the subject.

He spoke against inquiry into the shipping interest, 6 May, opposed a return to a silver standard, 8 June, and denounced government’s proposals on the sugar duties as ‘injurious to the country’, 21 June. He was called to order for renewing his attack on them when there was no question before the House, 23 June, and he supported Lord Chandos’s attempt to reduce the duty on West Indian sugar, 30 June. He voted for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May, abolition of the Irish lord lieutenancy, 11 May, inquiries into Newfoundland, 11 May, the civil government of Canada, 25 May, and the commerce of Ceylon, 27 May, and parliamentary reform, 28 May. He reintroduced his usury laws amendment bill, 6 Apr., carried its second reading by 50-21, 26 Apr., and saw it through committee, where he accepted various amendments to it, but it never received a third reading. He presented petitions against the Dover improvement bill, 3, 6 May. He called for a simplification of bankruptcy procedure, 14 May, voted for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 24 May, 7 June, and spoke and voted against an increase in the recognizances required under the libel law bill, 9 July 1830.

At the general election that summer Poulett Thomson, having declined an invitation to stand for London, offered again for Dover. He had damaged himself in some quarters by supporting Catholic emancipation, and when he was quizzed at a meeting of London voters, 2 July, he expended so much nervous energy in defending himself that he collapsed and had to be assisted from the overheated room. He was returned easily enough after a rowdy contest.32 He told John Fazakerley* that ‘in vexation and annoyance the cost had been so high, that I really don’t think a seat for 20 years would make me consent to undertake it again’. Yet a week later he informed Althorp that although he had ‘paid dearly in fatigue, trouble and illness’, he had the consolation of knowing that ‘nothing can touch my seat ... as long as I choose to retain it’. Of events in France he wrote:

What a glorious revolution! Does it not raise your admiration of the state of the public mind there and demonstrate the fruits of the complete change of feeling, of education, and of prejudice which has been brought about by the first great change of `89? ... As for interference by our government, that must certainly be out of the question, but surely these events cannot pass so near us without producing positive good. The day is gone by when people’s fears can be excited as in ’92 and ’93 ... and if so, reform of our institutions will be called for too loudly for the duke or any government to refuse it.

His only anxiety, expressed earlier to Fazakerley, was that Althorp’s diffidence might prevent him from doing justice to the question of ‘a general reform’ in the House, where he was the man best equipped to take it up.33 Poulett Thomson went to Paris in October, but was in the House to give notice of his intention of moving for a reduction of the newspaper stamp duty after Christmas, 12 Nov., and to help to vote ministers out of office on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830.34 Thanks to Althorp (who reluctantly took the exchequer and, as a financial greenhorn, probably wanted an experienced man of business at his elbow), he was made vice-president of the board of trade in the Grey ministry, under Lord Auckland, an amiable nonentity with no practical expertise.35 According to Greville, who thought him ‘very good-humoured, pleasing, and intelligent, but the greatest coxcomb I ever saw, and the vainest dog, though his vanity is not offensive or arrogant’, Poulett Thomson told him five years later that

when Lord Grey’s government was formed ... he was averse to take office, but Althorp declared he would not come in unless Thomson did also, and that, knowing the importance of Althorp’s accession to the government, he sacrificed a large income and took the board of trade; that when this was offered to him, he was asked whether he cared if he was president or vice-president, as they wished to make Lord Auckland president if he (Poulett Thomson) had no objection. He said, provided the president was not in the cabinet, he did not care; and accordingly he condescended to be vice-president, knowing that all the business must be done in the House of Commons, and that he must be (as in fact he said he was) the virtual head of the office. All this was told with a good-natured and smiling complacency, which made me laugh internally.36

Poulett Thomson’s ‘sudden’ elevation excited considerable surprise and no little alarm, for he was known as ‘a radical merchant’ of doctrinaire views. Greville described him, curiously, as ‘an ultra political communist’; and Edward Littleton* observed that ‘although a clever man’, he ‘is a merchant, and the greatest of purists and political economists, and at whose names every Tory turns red or pale, as rage or fever predominates’.37 Le Marchant, who called him an ‘attenuated muscadin’, noted that ‘the City people were violently opposed’ to his appointment, which was ‘very injurious to the government’, for ‘his manners and his love of great society had made him very unpopular in the mercantile circles’.38 Lord chancellor Brougham, who many years later unfairly dismissed him as ‘a City fop or dandy who wanted to dine in good society’ and was ‘absolutely worse than useless in debate’, admitted early in 1831 that his appointment was ‘most unpopular’: ‘people will not draw nice distinctions, and a City man told me ... his ... name is still on tallow and timber bills in the market and then they go to him as a minister on such questions’.39 At the same time, the Tory Thomas Gladstone* thought his merchant father would ‘approve’ of Poulett Thomson’s appointment.40 He gave up his involvement in the family business, but when the writ was moved for Dover, where his re-election was untroubled, 22 Nov. 1830, Lord Lowther made a point of asking, to ‘a loud and general cheer’, for confirmation of his withdrawal, ‘in consequence of the sensation which this ... appointment has created out of doors’.41

As a minister Poulett Thomson, whose appointment advanced the development of the board of trade along Benthamite and Ricardian lines, rarely spoke on anything but departmental business.42 He uttered not a syllable in debate on the ministerial reform bills, for which he voted steadily, though he did present favourable petitions, 7 Feb., 18 Mar., 15 Apr. 1831. His return for Dover at the general election of 1831 was unopposed, but, according to a hostile press report, he was ‘severely reprehended’ by some London voters over the proposed disfranchisement of non-resident freemen.43 He supported Littleton’s bill to end the truck system, 14 Dec. 1830, because ‘it is our duty to endeavour to confer the greatest possible benefit upon the people for whom we are called upon to legislate’; but he annoyed Littleton by forcing through an amendment allowing factory masters to provide cooked food on their premises, 12 Apr. 1831. He acknowledged the force of objections to the colonial trade bill, 17 Dec. 1830, and promised to modify it. Later that day he remarked that ‘remonstrance and fair dealing’ were more likely to effect a relaxation of American protectionism than harangues like that just delivered by Herries. He confirmed that it was intended to reduce the duty on barilla, 20 Dec. 1830, but on 7 Feb. 1831 had to admit under ‘severe’ Tory harassment that through ‘hasty zeal’ he had erred in issuing the order to do so without first notifying the House.44 He was credited with ‘the great part’ of Althorp’s ill-starred budget proposals, particularly the plan for a one and a half per cent tax on transfers of funded and landed property, which provoked ‘uproar’ in the City. It was reported that his brother Andrew said to him, ‘Brother or no brother, we are foes in future’; and there was a malicious story that the removal of the duty on candles was ‘a job for Tallow Thomson’.45 On the other hand, his brother George later claimed that he had ‘remonstrated’ against the transfer duty in ministerial discussions.46 Whatever the truth, there can be no doubt of McCulloch’s intellectual influence on Poulett Thomson, and it is hard to believe that he did not have an important part in the framing of the budget.47 According to Le Marchant, he was ready and willing to reply to Goulburn’s attack on it, 11 Feb., but Althorp, expecting backbench support which did not materialize, stayed his hand.48 When he did speak, 14 Feb., he deplored the enforced abandonment of the transfer duty, which had necessarily limited the scope for tax reductions; but he argued that even so ‘we shall have a mutation of taxation’ which would ‘materially add to the comfort of the consumer, and to the increase of the revenue’. He moved the previous question against Waithman’s motion for inquiry into commercial distress, 15 Feb., when Gladstone reckoned that ‘he appeared to be perfectly at home on all the subjects before the House’ and was said to have ‘raised himself from a very low station’. Yet he subsequently observed that Poulett Thomson’s ‘manner’ of speaking was ‘very affected and petulant’ and ‘operates unfavourably upon his matter’.49 He defended the budget proposals on the coal duties, 16, 17 Feb., and printed calicoes, 28 Feb. On 21 Feb. Chandos, proposing a reduction of the West Indian sugar duties, claimed the votes of Poulett Thomson and Charles Grant, president of the board of control, on the strength of their utterances in opposition. Poulett Thomson ‘blustered through’, as Lord Ellenborough put it, and opposed the motion, but Grant expressed his support in principle for the proposition.50 The episode made Poulett Thomson even more anxious, as he told Althorp, to obtain ‘the formal authority of cabinet’ for his proposed amendment to the colonial trade bill, which Grant had intimated he would oppose.51 He evidently secured this sanction, and he defended the amendment, 11 Mar., as ‘a great improvement’ which would relieve the West Indies while increasing protection for Canada. Ellenborough noted a malevolent tale, 24 Feb., that Poulett Thomson would ‘probably be obliged to leave his office’ because he ‘finds he cannot have the mercantile profits in the house accumulate as he wished till his release’, as ‘the Petersburgh partner objects’.52 In the House next day he sought to vindicate his holding the treasurership of the navy jointly with his principal office. Greville thought his speech in defence of the timber duties, 18 Mar. 1831, was ‘very good ... clear and satisfactory’. Smarting after the ministerial defeat, he alleged that their opponents had planned a similar measure before they fell from power.53

Poulett Thomson, who in mid-May 1831 perceived ‘a more promising aspect’ in the money markets, was privately mocked by Macaulay for his ‘ludicrous sort of flirtation’ with Mrs. Marcet, a political economist 30 years his senior.54 He secured the appointment of a select committee on the expediency of permitting the use of molasses in brewing and distilling as a means of relieving the West India interest, 30 June. He supported Althorp in debate on the customs duties, 1, 11 July. He expressed grave doubts about Hobhouse’s cotton factories apprentices bill, 18 July, and in consultations with Littleton he again insisted on the inclusion in his truck bill of provision for cooked food to be given in part payment of wages.55 Greville noted in June 1831 that as ‘a trader’, he was ‘very much disgusted’ with the measures for containing cholera by quarantine in which he was ‘obliged to concur’ as a privy councillor; he answered questions on the subject in the House, 18, 19 Oct.56 He was in the government majority against the Irish union of parishes bill, 19 Aug., but four days later got himself into a scrape by ostentatiously remaining in the Commons library with Howick during the first division on the Dublin election controversy. Although they evidently mustered for the second, on the opposition censure motion, Brougham, ‘almost frantic on the subject’, demanded Poulett Thomson’s ‘head on a charger’. He was eventually mollified by Grey’s intercession and ‘promises of amendment’.57 Poulett Thomson defended the government’s treatment of the West Indian colonies and opposed Burge’s motion for inquiry into the proposed renewal of the Sugar Refinery Act, 12 Sept. He did so again, 28 Sept., when, dismissing as specious the argument that it would encourage the foreign slave trade, he argued that ‘we must be just before we are generous’. In view of the narrow defeats of these motions, however, he conceded an inquiry into the commercial state of the colonies, 6 Oct., though he held out scant hope of its hitting on a handy remedy for distress. Next day he offered, if the West Indians would drop their opposition to the Act, to renew it for six months only, with the promise of a review in the light of the committee’s findings. On 12 Oct. 1831 he introduced a bill to permit the temporary importation of American flour to Barbados and St. Vincent in the aftermath of recent hurricane devastation.

Poulett Thomson, who was of course in the government majority on Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct., went to Paris on 2 Nov. 1831, partly with the intention of seeing if ‘something may be brought to bear upon their commercial system’. In consultation with the French authorities he conceived the idea of setting up a joint commission to investigate commercial relations between the two countries and, by exposing ‘the absurdities of the present system’, to prepare the way for a thorough revision of the tariffs. He got permission from London to prolong his stay in order to set it on foot, but a hitch arose over his wish to make Bowring, who was on the spot compiling a report on French public accounts, one of the commissioners. Lord Palmerston*, the foreign secretary, was particularly hostile to the employment of Bowring, ‘a theorist, and a jobber’; but Poulett Thomson threatened to wash his hands of the scheme rather than see it ‘marred’ and eventually got his way. Bowring was joined by George Villiers, a commissioner of customs, and Poulett Thomson left Paris on 3 Dec. 1831, having seen the first session of the commission, which in truth accomplished little, fairly under way.58 In his letters to Althorp from Paris he expressed surprise and disappointment at the renewed outbreak of cholera. On the reform crisis, he wrote:

I cannot believe that you will consent to retrograde. If you do, you are lost. Not you of the government only but the country, for if you lose the confidence of the people, which you must do unless you take measures, and those directly, for making sure of the reform bill, the battle will be between the Tories and the people, and chaos must ensue. Depend upon it, there must be in these times no faltering.

He admitted that

the unions are indeed awkward things, but they are the necessary consequences of the folly of the Tories, and you can only check them by passing the bill or showing that you have the means and the determination to do it. Here you see we have made a batch of 36 peers in order to destroy the peerage. Cannot you make as many to save it?59

It was at this time that Greville, at a loss ‘to understand the enormous unpopularity’ of Poulett Thomson, who ‘appears civil, well-bred, intelligent, and agreeable (only rather a coxcomb)’, had it explained to him by ‘a person who knows him well’:

He was originally a merchant, and had a quantity of counting-house knowledge. He became a member of a club of political economists ... [in which] there were some obscure but very able men, and by them he got crammed with the principles of commerce and political economy, and from his mercantile connections he got facts. He possessed great industry and sufficient ability to work up the materials he thus acquired into a very plausible exhibition of knowledge upon these subjects; and having opportunities of preparing himself for every particular question, and the advantage of addressing an audience the greater part of which is profoundly ignorant, he passed for a young man of extraordinary ability and profound knowledge, and amongst the greatest of his admirers was Althorp, who, when the Whigs came in, promoted him to his present situation. Since he has been there he has not had the same opportunities of learning his lesson from others behind the curtain, and the envy which always attends success has delighted to pull down his reputation, so that he now appears something like the jackdaw stripped of the peacock’s feathers.60

On 15 Dec. 1831 Poulett Thomson moved the reappointment of the West Indian committee, acquiesced in the introduction of Sadler’s bill to regulate the employment of children in factories and explained the precautions taken against cholera. Opposing Davies’s motion for inquiry into the glove trade, 31 Jan. 1832, he admitted the existence of distress, but denied that it was caused by French imports. In a debate on the budget, 6 Feb., he replied ‘admirably’, as Thomas Spring Rice* thought, to opposition attacks on the government’s handling of the economy. As Littleton saw it, he ‘carried the war into the enemy’s quarter’ and ‘wrung Peel’s withers’ by pointing out his failure to support in opposition the same liberal commercial policies which he had espoused in power.61 Poulett Thomson was much concerned with the cholera prevention bill in the following weeks: he argued that it would be folly to end quarantine on the strength of a fashionable but unproven theory that the disease was not contagious, 23 Feb. He conceded an inquiry, suitably circumscribed, into the silk industry, 1 Mar., but warned that duties, far from being increased, would probably have to be lowered. He opposed reduction of the West Indian sugar duties, 7 Mar., and a renewed bid to obtain inquiry into the glove trade, 3 Apr. He naturally voted for the address asking the king to appoint only ministers who would carry undiluted reform, 10 May, though he was reported on their restoration to power to believe that ‘they could not last three weeks’.62 He ridiculed Robinson’s protectionist motion for inquiry into trade, 22 May, and made a detailed defence of the liberalization of commercial policy since 1822, concluding that ‘free trade has no existence in this country - it is a mere delusion to tell the people that it is the cause of distress’. He brusquely opposed Waithman’s similar resolutions, 3 July. Poulett Thomson, who successfully contested a law suit brought against him by a former supporter, alienated by his pro-Catholic views, for alleged non-payment of expenses incurred at the 1826 Dover election, was busy with the customs duties bill and attendance on select committees during the last weeks of the 1831 Parliament.63 The work took toll of his health, as he noted on 28 July:

A week of the hardest possible labour. I have not returned from the House any day till three o’clock ... It is impossible to stand this. I find my body quite exhausted, and my mind equally worn out. All this week I have alternated between the bank and silk committees, and then the House. On ... [25 July] I carried my bill through the committee; was at it from five till two in the morning, nine mortal hours! ... I passed my bill today, thank God!

He resisted attempts to have daily returns of cholera cases published, 21, 26 July. He supported the forgery punishment bill, claiming that City opinion strongly favoured abolition of the death penalty, which made juries reluctant to convict, 31 July 1832.

At the close of the session he went on a two-month tour of the manufacturing districts of Derbyshire, Lancashire and Scotland.64 He successfully contested both Dover and Manchester (where he did not canvass) at the general election of 1832 and opted to sit for the latter, which gave him an influential platform for promoting his free trade views. He became president of the board of trade and a member of the cabinet under Lord Melbourne, but the exchequer eluded him. His father died early in 1839, and in April that year his brother Andrew was accidentally drowned in the Thames near his residence at Great Marlow. (His personalty was sworn under £50,000, and the provisions of his will included an annuity of £50 for one Mrs. Maria White, née Black, of 45 Portman Place.)65 Soon afterwards Poulett Thomson took on the governor-generalship of Canada. His appointment raised many eyebrows, not least in his own party, but he made a considerable success of the job, exhibiting a vitality and ruthlessness which enabled him to force through the contentious union of the two provinces.66 His rewards were a peerage, long coveted, and a red ribbon. By the summer of 1841 he was ‘almost done up, and very like an old foundered horse’; and, having sent in his formal resignation in July, he anticipated returning to Britain in mid-October. On learning of the Liberal defeat at the general election he wrote to Lord John Russell:

I am too much broken in health to take much more than the interest of a spectator in the political struggle ... next session, and I shall not be at all sorry for the opportunity of trying by quiet and amusement to save the remains of my constitution; but I cannot but feel deeply anxious about the country and I am very gloomy about its prospects. The evil which ten years ago I predicted, if we did not liberalize our commercial policy, has fallen on it.67

On 4 Sept. 1841 he was thrown from his horse and sustained a severe injury to his right leg. Gangrene set in, and after lingering in agony for several days he died, ‘just as his most sanguine dreams of ambition had been gratified’.68 By his will, dictated to his secretary the day before, he bequeathed all his property to his surviving brother. He left legacies amounting to £2,600, including £500 for Russell, and devised an annuity of £800 for their joint lives to his ‘housekeeper Amy Washer and to the child with which she is now big or of which she has lately been delivered’. (A note in the death duty register indicated that she, who became Amy Diamond and died in 1908, in fact had ‘no child’.) The will was proved in Canada on 13 Oct. 1841 and in London on 1 Mar. 1842, when the personalty was sworn under £25,000. It was re-sworn at £30,000 the following year.69

Ironically, in view of the praise heaped on him by Poulett Thomson in 1831, Bowring wrote very sourly in 1853 of one of the men ‘whom I have been instrumental in bringing into the field of politics’:

He was by no means a man of high capacity, or of remarkable steadfastness and soundness of opinion. Happily the tide of his interests rolled in the current of his knowledge ... His connection with that free-trade citadel [Manchester] ... gave Thomson an influential status in the government, in Parliament, and in the country. Yet he was not the man to conceive, and still less to undertake, anything essentially grand. His free trade schemes were puny, hesitating, and imperfect ... He was ever querulous, impatient, and unteachable when anything was suggested of a more comprehensive and embracing character than a policy founded on an instinct of self-preservation appeared to warrant ... He ... died at an age which might have opened to him very bright prospects, but perhaps he was not winged with strength for a higher flight than that to which he reached.70

On the other hand Greville, who had no dogmatic axe to grind, wrote a year after Poulett Thomson’s death that he had been ‘underrated’, as his performance in Canada had proved him to be

a man of first-rate capacity, with great ability, discrimination, judgement, firmness and dexterity ... He was always known as a man of extraordinary industry, but nobody knew that he had such a knowledge of human nature and such a power of acquiring influence over others as he evinced when he went to Canada ... This is something very like greatness; these are the materials of which greatness is made - indefatigable industry, great penetration, powers of persuasion, confidence in himself, boldness, firmness, and all those jumbled up with a finikin manner, and a dangling after an old London harridan.71

The 3rd earl of Malmesbury remembered him as ‘a remarkably agreeable man’.72 Davenport noted laconically that he ‘got office, went asleep, got made a lord and died of an accident’.73

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


See Mem. of Life of Lord Sydenham ed. his bro. George Poulett Scrope (1843); Oxford DNB.

  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1795), i. 256; Glenbervie Diaries, i.238; Farington Diary, ii. 400, 645, 647.
  • 2. PROB 11/1258/216.
  • 3. VCH Surr. ii. 625.
  • 4. Oxford DNB.
  • 5. Mem. Sydenham, 1-11.
  • 6. Ibid. 12-14; L. Brown, Board of Trade, 16-17; E.A. Wasson, Whig Renaissance, 106, 109-10; Greville Mems. ii. 75, 225-6.
  • 7. Bowring, Autobiog. Recollections, 301.
  • 8. Mem. Sydenham, 14-15; Kentish Chron. 9, 23, 30 Sept., 4 Oct. 1825.
  • 9. Mem. Sydenham, 16-17; Kentish Chron. 28 Apr, 6 June; Kentish Gazette, 13, 20 June 1826.
  • 10. Kentish Chron. 30 June 1826.
  • 11. The Times, 27 Feb. 1827.
  • 12. Mem. Sydenham, 17-18.
  • 13. Ibid. 18-19; Add. 56550, f. 170.
  • 14. Dorset RO D/BKL, Bankes jnl. 160; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Denison diary, 7 May [1827].
  • 15. The Times, 1, 12 June 1827.
  • 16. Mem. Sydenham, 20-21.
  • 17. Ibid. 21-22.
  • 18. Palmerston-Sulivan Letters, 214, 215; Duke Univ. Lib. Fazakerley mss, Abercromby to Fazakerley, 16 Oct. 1828.
  • 19. Add. 51834, Davenport to Holland,18 Oct.; JRL, Bromley Davenport mss, reply, 20 Oct.1828.
  • 20. Add. 51834, Davenport to Holland, 18 Nov. [1828]; Bromley Davenport mss, memo. [1832].
  • 21. Mem. Sydenham, 35-36.
  • 22. Le Marchant, Althorp, 237.
  • 23. Mem. Sydenham. 36-37; R. Wilmot Horton, Causes and Remedies of Pauperism (1830).
  • 24. Grey mss, Ellice to Grey [7 Oct. 1829].
  • 25. Mem. Sydenham, 37-38; Wasson, 169-70; Brown, 13; A. Mitchell, Whigs in Opposition, 227-8; Le Marchant, 238.
  • 26. Le Marchant, 237-8.
  • 27. Grey mss, Howick jnl. 28 Mar.; Bankes jnl. 169 (25 Mar. 1830).
  • 28. Le Marchant, 237; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 345.
  • 29. Grey mss, Ellice to Grey, Monday [Apr. 1830].
  • 30. Howick jnl. 2 May 1830.
  • 31. Ibid. 13 May [1830].
  • 32. Althorp Letters, 152; Kent Herald, 8 July, 5 Aug. 1830.
  • 33. Add. 61937, f. 116; 76381, Poulett Thomson to Althorp, 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 34. Mem. Sydenham, 40.
  • 35. Brown, 17-18; P. Mandler, Aristocratic Government in Age of Reform, 112; Wasson, 188; Le Marchant, 263-4; Mem. Sydenham. 41; Three Diaries, 6, 21; Greville Mems. ii. 75.
  • 36. Greville Mems. iii. 272-3.
  • 37. Ibid. ii. 75, 263; Hatherton mss, Littleton to Wellesley, 19 Nov. 1830.
  • 38. Three Diaries, 6.
  • 39. Brougham mss, autobiog. fragment; Add. 76371, Brougham to Althorp, Friday [Feb. 1831].
  • 40. St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 196, T. to J. Gladstone, 22 Nov. 1830.
  • 41. Mem. Sydenham, 42; Kentish Gazette, 26, 30 Nov. 1830; Croker Pprs. ii. 78.
  • 42. Brown, 17-18.
  • 43. Kentish Gazette, 29 Apr. 1831.
  • 44. Glynne-Gladstone mss 197, T. to J. Gladstone, 7, 8 Feb. 1831.
  • 45. Baring Jnls. i. 81; Greville Mems. ii. 116-17, 119; Three Diaries, 9, 50.
  • 46. Mem. Sydenham. 44.
  • 47. Brown, 46-47.
  • 48. Le Marchant, 282.
  • 49. Glynne-Gladstone mss 197, T. to J. Gladstone, 16-18 Feb. 1831.
  • 50. Three Diaries, 56; Glynne-Gladstone mss 197, T. to J. Gladstone, 22 Feb. 1831.
  • 51. Add. 76382, Poulett Thomson to Althorp, 22 Feb. 1831.
  • 52. Three Diaries, 58.
  • 53. Greville Mems. ii. 132.
  • 54. Add. 76382, Poulett Thomson to Althorp, 11, 18, 21 May 1831; Macaulay Letters, ii. 39.
  • 55. Hatherton diary, 25 July [1831].
  • 56. Greville Mems. ii. 155, 157.
  • 57. Three Diaries, 122; Holland House Diaries, 39.
  • 58. Add. 76382, Poulett Thomson to Althorp, [1], 7, 18, 21, 28 Nov., 2 Dec. 1831; Brown, 121; Mandler, 113; Mem. Sydenham, 47-48; Maxwell, Clarendon, i. 62-3.
  • 59. Add. 76382, Poulett Thomson to Althorp, 11, 18, 21 Nov. 1831.
  • 60. Greville Mems. ii. 222-3.
  • 61. Add. 51573, Rice to Lady Holland, 6 Feb.; Hatherton diary, 6 Feb. 1832.
  • 62. Arbuthnot Corresp. 167.
  • 63. The Times, 16 July 1832.
  • 64. Mem. Sydenham, 49-52.
  • 65. Gent. Mag. (1839), i. 432, 667; ii. 670; PROB 11/1912/399.
  • 66. Mem. Sydenham, 97-218. See A. Shortt, Lord Sydenham (1926), 59-363; P. A. Buckner, ‘Thomson, Charles Edward Poulett’ in Dict. Canadian Biog. vii.; P.A. Buckner, Transition to Responsible Government (1985); Oxford DNB.
  • 67. Letters from Lord Sydenham to Lord John Russell ed. P. Knaplund, 19, 55- 59, 68-69, 79-80, 87, 92, 137, 144, 151-4, 160-4.
  • 68. Mem. Sydenham, 259-65; Raikes Jnl. iv. 177-9.
  • 69. PROB 11/1960/205; IR26/1623/170.
  • 70. Bowring, 301-2.
  • 71. Greville Mems. v. 46-47.
  • 72. Malmesbury, Mems. of an Ex-Minister, i. 135.
  • 73. Bromley Davenport mss, memo. [1832, 1842].