BARBON, Nicholas (c.1637-98), of Crane Court, Fleet Street, London and Osterley Park, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. c.1637, s. of Praisegod Barbon or Barebone†, Leatherseller, of Fleet Street, London by his w. Sarah ?Fenn. educ. ?Exeter Coll. Oxf. matric. 1656, BA 1659; Leyden 2 July 1661, aged 24; Utrecht 1661, MD 1661. m. lic. 26 Jan. 1670 aged 28, Margaret Hayes of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, 1s. d.v.p. suc. fa. 1680.1
Fellow, College of Physicians 1664.2
Commr. taking subscriptions to land bank 1696.3
Barbon was said by Roger North† to be the son of the well-known Dissenting preacher, Praisegod Barbon, and there seems no reason to doubt his parentage. Parish registers show he must have been one of several children, but his early years remain obscure. He may have attended Oxford, and certainly went into medicine, attending the universities of Leyden and Utrecht. The choice of university was undoubtedly influenced by his father’s difficult position in England after the Restoration, which saw him imprisoned in the Tower from November 1661 to July 1662. On his return to England Barbon set up in practice, but lack of success led him to abandon the pursuit of medicine for speculative building. The fire of 1666 gave him his chance and he soon established himself as one of the leading builders and property developers in London. He bought and cleared land, often demolishing properties in the process, and built in their stead large numbers of small houses and shops. He developed Mincing Lane, bought Essex House in the Strand to convert into small houses and tenements for shops, taverns and cookshops, built Red Lion Square, which provoked a riot between his workmen and the gentlemen of Gray’s Inn, developed Chancery Lane and parts of Lincoln’s Inn and began to rebuild the Temple (but failed to complete the work). He rebuilt a house in Crane Court in Fleet Street, where he ‘lived as lord of the manor’. Despite the scale of his building enterprises, he always operated in an atmosphere of financial risk. According to North, Barbon would stave off his creditors until legal action was taken against him, at which time he compounded at 4 or 5 per cent.4
In addition to his activities as a developer, Barbon set up a fire insurance company in 1667, probably the first in London. At first he ran it as a purely personal business, but in 1680 it merged into a new joint-stock company, called the Fire Office. Among his partners in the new venture were Samuel Vincent, Sir John Parsons* and later, Felix Calvert*, the two latter Tory MPs. The company worked on the principle of making fixed payments in the event of loss, for fixed annual premiums, and it employed men in various parts of London to fight fires. Although the corporation of the city of London proposed to establish its own fire insurance company in 1681, it was not until 1684 that this rival, called the Friendly Society, was formed.5
Barbon had first considered entering Parliament in 1680, largely in order to avoid his creditors. He is reputed to have told Sir Thomas Draper, from whom he had leased land in Blackfriars, that ‘he was likely to be a Member of Parliament and did intend to pay no rent’. He did not follow up his plan until 1690 when he entered Parliament for Bramber, where he had bought a number of burgages. Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) classed him as a Whig in a list of the new Parliament, but the Journals record no significant activity in this session. However, in 1690 he published his best-known work, A Discourse of Trade, in which he argued that the value of things was determined by use and quantity and the market was the best judge of value. He further maintained that money only represents produce, having no inherent value of its own.6
In the next session, in December 1690, Carmarthen listed Barbon as a probable supporter in case of an attack in the Commons on his position as chief minister. Barbon’s motives for entering Parliament still seem to have been primarily concerned with promoting business projects and avoiding actions for debt. A few months after his election he and Parsons successfully claimed privilege in a case brought against them by other trustees of the fire insurance company for failing to build in Well Close, a site bought by Barbon from the crown, which buildings were to be security for the funds of the company. The suit was then dropped. In April 1691, Robert Harley* classed Barbon as a Court supporter.7
In the next session, it was appropriate that Barbon with his experience in building and property development should have reported on 9 Jan. 1692 from a committee on the 18th concerned with the condition of the roof of the chamber. He was named to a further committee on the 18th to inspect the building structure of the whole House. On 12 Feb. he acted as a teller in favour of allowing Quakers in Ireland to affirm instead of taking the oath and on 9 Jan. 1693 he told in favour of allowing the King to appoint commissioners of assessment for any county where an insufficient number had been nominated. In the spring of 1693 his name appeared on Grascome’s list of placemen, not because he held an office, but because his ‘privileges are worth to him £1,000 p.a.’. How useful his parliamentary privilege was to him was further shown when in May 1693 the inhabitants of Chancery Lane and Fickets Field presented a bill of indictment against him for obstructing their light and right of way by his building in Fickets Field (New Square, Lincoln’s Inn). Barbon refused to answer, insisting on his privilege, and continued building as before. Classified as a Court supporter in another list from the spring of 1693, he gave qualified support to the ministry on 5 Dec. over the army estimates.8
In the 1694–5 session, Barbon was similarly inactive. On 18 Dec. 1694 in the committee of ways and means he proposed a chimney tax as an alternative to the tax on leather desired by the Court. One satire which attacked Barbon’s endless building projects and his avoidance of his creditors by entering Parliament mentions this proposal: Barbon would
Revive damned chimney money and impose,
Gabels on children’s warming hands and toes.
By 1694 Barbon had sold his interest in the Fire Office, possibly because of disputes with the other trustees over the buildings in Well Close. He started a new insurance scheme in order to exploit a patent he had obtained in December 1694 to develop an engine for raising water from the Thames to provide drinking water for the inhabitants of London. The patent was assigned to trustees to set up a company, including several MPs, Hon. Thomas Newport, Sir Edward Hussey, Thomas Foley and Robert Harley, but the plan came to nothing. In 1695 Barbon established a land bank in partnership with an enterprising lawyer, John Asgill*, one of four such ventures launched in 1695 and 1696. At first the bank flourished and numbered among its trustees Edward Harley* and Mordecai Abbot, a commissioner of the Bank of England.9
Having been returned again for Bramber in 1695, one of Barbon’s first parliamentary actions was to promote a bill to have his Red Lion Square development made into a separate parish. A petition to this effect from the inhabitants was presented to the Commons on 13 Dec. 1695, whereupon Barbon was named to a drafting committee for a bill, which he presented on 11 Feb. 1696, but which fell at the committal stage. He had been forecast as a probable opponent of the Court in the divisions on 31 Jan. 1696 over the proposed council of trade, but signed the Association immediately. On 10 Feb. the House approved the unification of Barbon’s bank with John Briscoe’s land bank, to advance the money needed to establish a national land bank. An Act of Parliament (7 and 8 Gul. III, c.31) was passed, authorizing the establishment of the bank to raise a government loan of £2,564,000 at 5 per cent interest. Subscribers were to be incorporated as stockholders, lending money on the security of bonds to be vested in the bank. Commissioners were appointed and on 21 May 1696 a committee of 21, including Barbon, and with Asgill as legal adviser, was chosen to negotiate with the Treasury. The scheme collapsed because the 5 per cent interest offered was too low to attract sufficient subscriptions. At the beginning of July the committee tried to renegotiate terms with the Treasury, asking for a £300,000 discount on the £2,564,000. When this was refused the scheme was abandoned. Despite the failure, Barbon’s own land bank continued to function separately, but with decreasing success, until it too was wound up in 1700. In the meantime Barbon was contributing to the debate about the recoinage. His pamphlet, Coining the New Money Lighter (1696), supported William Lowndes* against John Locke, arguing that because the metal content of money had no effect on its value, it was perfectly legitimate for it to be valued above the price of the metal it contained and that the government should fix this price as merchants did on their goods. He suggested increasing the price of silver and lowering that of the guinea. Not surprisingly he voted with the Court for fixing the price of guineas at 22s. in March 1696.10
In the 1696–7 session, on 29 Dec. 1696, Barbon presented a written proposal to the House for reforming the administration of tallies and increasing their value by setting up a transfer office to deal with them. The proposal received favourable attention and was ordered to lie on the table, but nothing further came of it. On 3 Feb. 1697 Barbon acted as a teller against a move to enlarge the Bank of England by a new subscription. He spoke against the standing army on 8 Jan. 1698 and on 13 Jan. brought in a bill to lower the rate of interest. In April he became so ill that several writers, including Narcissus Luttrell*, reported his death. In fact he recovered, but in other respects was less fortunate. His debts continued to mount and on 2 May he yet again invoked his parliamentary privilege against the seizure of his house and goods by the bailiffs. On the same day he was first-named to a second-reading committee for a bill to explain the Recoinage Acts.11
Barbon intended to fight the next election at Bramber and it was reported that he had been met on the way by the bailiffs and had been obliged to withdraw. In fact he had died, at the end of July 1698, before the election took place. His opposition to the army probably explains his classification as a Country supporter in a comparative list of the old and new Parliaments of September 1698 The story that he ordered his executor, Asgill, not to pay his debts, is contradicted by the explicit provision in his will that all his assets be used to pay creditors. In February 1698 one writer had estimated that Barbon had invested ‘not less than £200,000’ in building; for which . . . he deserves more of the public than any subject in England’. Others, however, were not so laudatory about his business activities and a rather more sceptical portrait of him comes from the pen of Roger North:
He judged well of what he undertook, and had an inexpugnable pertinacity of pressing it through. He never proposed to tempt men to give way or join but by their interest, laid plainly before them . . . And he would endure all manner of affronts and be as tame as a lamb . . . He never failed to satisfy everyone in treaty and discourse, and if he had performed as well, had been a truly great man. His fault was that he knowingly overtraded his stock, and that he could not go through with undertakings without great disappointments to the concerned, especially in point of time. This exposed him to great and clamorous debts, and consequently to arrests and suits, wherein he would fence with much dexterity, with dilatories and injunctions.12
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Authors: Paula Watson / Sonya Wynne
- 1. Lives of the Norths ed. Jessop, iii. 53–54; Guildhall Lib. St. Bride’s, Fleet Street par. reg. 26 Nov. 1670; CSP Dom. 1661–2, p. 447; PCC 137 Hoare; Mar. Lic. Vicar-Gen. (Harl. Soc. xxiii), 174.
- 2. Monk, R. Coll. of Physicians, i. 345.
- 3. CJ, xii. 508.
- 4. North, 53–60; St. Bride’s, Fleet Street par. reg. 9 Dec. 1634, 4 Oct. 1636; J. T. Squire, Regs. Par. of Wandsworth, Surr. 306; Cal. Treas. Bks. vii. 35, 360, 362, 375, 381, 389, 398, 406; Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 309–10; ii. 403; F. B. Relton, Fire Insurance Cos. 19–20.
- 5. Relton, 20–22, 27–47, 432; Luttrell, i. 135; CSP Dom. 1687–9, p. 137; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 819; Sel. Charters, 207–12.
- 6. R. D. Richards, Early Hist. Banking in Eng. 116–17; Palgrave, Dictionary of Pol. Econ. i. 119–21.
- 7. C 8/238/19; C 10/337/19; info. from A. F. Kelsall.
- 8. C 8/352/47; Grey, x. 340.
- 9. Add. 46527, f. 32; 54496, patent 338; Poems on Affairs of State ed. Cameron, v. 495; info. from A. F. Kelsall; CSP Dom. 1693, pp. 150, 207; C54/4776/20; Richards, 116–19; Luttrell, iii. 512.
- 10. H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm III, 167; Richards, 119; Add. 70155, jnl. of commrs. for land bank, 20 May–7 July 1696.
- 11. A. E. Monroe, Monetary Theory before Adam Smith, 80, 82–83, 86, 115, 135, 142; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/5, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope, 29 Dec. 1696; Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF/4512, A Proposal for Raising the Public Credit, by Setting up an Office for Transferring and Discounting Tallies; Cam. Misc. xxix. 360; Post Boy, 5–7 Apr., 30 July–2 Aug. 1698; Luttrell, iv. 364; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 35.
- 12. Yale Univ. Beinecke Lib. Osborne coll. Biscoe-Maunsell newsletters 30 July 1698; Luttrell, iv. 409; N. and Q. ser. 1, vi. 3; PCC 19 Pott; Lowther Corresp. ed. Hainsworth, 510–11; North, 53–54.