NUGENT, Robert (1709-88), of Gosfield, Essex

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

Constituency

Dates

1741 - 1754
1754 - 1774
1774 - June 1784

Family and Education

b. 1709,1 o. surv. s. of Michael Nugent of Carlanstown, co. Meath by Mary, da. of Robert Barnewall, 9th Baron Trimlestown [I].  educ. Fagan’s acad. Dublin.  m.(1) 14 July 1730, Lady Emilia Plunkett (d. 16 Aug. 1731), da. of Peter, 4th Earl of Fingall [I], 1s. d.v.p.; (2) 23 Mar. 1737, Anne (d. 22 Nov. 1756), da. and h. of James Craggs (postmaster gen. 1715-21), sis. and coh. of Rt. Hon. James Craggs (secretary of state 1718-21), wid. of (i) John Newsham of Chadshunt, Warws. (ii) John Knight of Gosfield, Essex, s.p.; Nugent took name of Craggs before Nugent; (3) 2 Jan. 1757, Elizabeth, da. of Henry Drax of Ellerton Abbey, Yorks., wid. of Augustus, 4th Earl of Berkeley, 1da. (she m. 1775 George Grenville jun.; a 2nd da. was not recognized by Nugent).  suc. fa. 13 May 1739; cr. Visct. Clare [I] 19 Jan. 1767; Earl Nugent [I] 21 July 1776.

Offices Held

Comptroller of the Household to Prince of Wales 1747-51; ld. of Treasury Apr. 1754-Dec. 1759; P.C. 15 Dec. 1759; jt. vice-treasurer [I] Jan. 1760-July 1765; first ld. of Trade Dec. 1766-Jan. 1768; jt. vice-treasurer [I] July 1768-Mar. 1782.

Biography

Nugent came of an old-established Irish Roman Catholic family, kinsmen to the earls of Westmeath. As a young man he settled in England,2 renounced Roman Catholicism, and joined the Church of England. His second marriage, to the heiress of the Craggs family, brought him a fortune, a country estate in Essex, and control over one seat at St. Mawes. He was a friend of Pope; a patron of Goldsmith; and author of an Ode to William Pulteney, which was admired by Horace Walpole, quoted by Gibbon, and is now forgotten. For over forty years Nugent was one of the most prominent of the second-rank figures in the House of Commons, and contemporary correspondence is full of references to him. Smollett described him as ‘an orator of middling abilities, who harangued upon all subjects indiscriminately, and supplied with confidence what he wanted in capacity’;3 and Wraxall:4

a man of very considerable natural abilities, though not of a very cultivated mind ... he spoke fluently, as well as with energy and force, was accounted an able debater, and possessed a species of eloquence altogether unembarrassed by any false modesty or timidity.

In Parliament Nugent became a follower of the Prince of Wales; and after the Prince’s death attached himself to Henry Pelham.5 He was a frequent speaker in the House, and ‘was heard with peculiar pleasure and attention when speaking on his favourite topics of trade and navigation’. He had particularly commended himself to the merchants of Bristol by his successful opposition to a bill permitting the importation of French wine in foreign bottles, and by his advocacy of the out-ports, ‘when their own Members remained silent, [he] never failing to oppose the monopolizing schemes of the city of London’. At the general election of 1754 he was invited by the Whigs to stand at Bristol, but was asked to contribute ‘a very large sum of money towards defraying the expenses of the contest’.6 Nugent replied that he had also been asked to stand at Liverpool, and in any case had a borough of his own; and the Bristol Whigs then offered to indemnify him ‘against all the expenses of his election ... to the sum of £10,000’.7 But before accepting, Nugent stipulated with Newcastle for a place. Newcastle noted on 16 Mar.: ‘Mr. Nugent has a letter to produce that he was promised to be the next man after Lord Dupplin and H. Vane—that he looked upon himself as next to H. Fox, and before Lyttelton, Grenville, and Barrington.’ On 19 Mar.: ‘declines undertaking Bristol unless he can have such employment before the election’; and on 21 Mar.: ‘desires to be in the Treasury or something equivalent.’8 He was appointed a lord of the Treasury; and, after a hard contest at Bristol, was returned head of the poll.

During the next three years, a difficult time for Newcastle, Nugent was one of his most faithful supporters. In the debate on the army, 27 Nov. 1754, he said ‘that there did not exist an honester man than the Duke of Newcastle’; on 5 Dec. 1755 ‘replied to Pitt that he thought the Administration wise and honest’; and on 12 May 1756 ‘added his usual panegyric on the honesty of the Duke of Newcastle’.9 He seems indeed to have liked and respected Newcastle; and to have seen, as few of his contemporaries did, that the Duke, despite all his weaknesses, was fundamentally honest and honourable. ‘God never made a better man than the late Duke of Newcastle’, Nugent said in the House on 2 Feb. 1780.10 He retained his seat at the Treasury Board in the Pitt-Devonshire Administration, but defended Newcastle and Fox on the Minorca inquiry.

In the Parliament of 1761 there was a group of four Members (Edward Nugent, Edward Eliot, T. E. Drax and J. E. Colleton) all connected with Nugent by blood or marriage, with whom he acted as liaison with Administration. These followers or quasi-followers enhanced his stature in the House, and in 1760 he was promoted to the lucrative sinecure of joint vice-treasurer of Ireland. In the new reign Nugent transferred his allegiance to Bute, yet tried to avoid giving offence to Newcastle. In a letter to Barrington of 5 June 176211 he praised Newcastle’s conduct since his resignation, and affected to believe that the rumours of his being discontented were untrue. ‘That the King may never want such a servant’, he wrote, ‘and that our friend may find in retirement and self-approbation an ample recompense for the loss of power, is all that is now left for you and me to wish for with regard to both.’ But when Newcastle went into opposition, Nugent remained connected with the Bute and Grenville Administrations; and the friendly relations with his old chief were broken. He gained a reputation for time-serving, which was not altogether just. ‘Nobody can depend upon his attachment’, wrote Lord George Sackville to General Irwin on 5 Sept. 1764.12 ‘His great aim is to keep his present employment, and upon the least appearance of ministerial jumbles he is in violent agitation till he has found a safe harbour.’ Yet Nugent at no time hesitated to speak his mind or incur ministerial displeasure.

On the formation of the Rockingham Administration, Rockingham wrote in a list of suggested changes:13 ‘Mr. Nugent—Query—if this part of the vice-treasurership of Ireland might not be better disposed of.’ But Nugent solved the question by resignation. He wrote to Newcastle on 24 July 1765:14

My dear Lord,
I have now resigned the post which I owed to your Grace’s friendship. I may therefore without awkwardness assure you there is not a man living who is and who has been with more sincerity,
Your Grace’s faithful and most obedient servant,
R. Nugent.

With Grenville and Temple he made a merit of his resignation, and professed himself their follower; and took their line during the debates on America in the session 1765-6. On 14 Jan. 1766 he made ‘a very proper and spirited speech’ in favour of enforcing the Stamp Act;15 on 5 Feb. proposed a motion requiring the colonial assemblies to compensate the sufferers in the Stamp Act riots; and on 21 Feb. spoke against repeal. He opposed the repeal of the cider tax (17 Mar.), and on 18 Apr. spoke against Dowdeswell’s window tax. He ‘ably and eloquently set forth the hard case of the labourers and the country gentlemen’, wrote Harris. Compassion for the poor was one of the best traits in Nugent’s character, for which he rarely received recognition from contemporaries. One Government measure he did support enthusiastically: the free port in Dominica. On 21 Apr. he proposed a tax on weights and measures, and reverted to a suggestion he had made in 1763 that ‘lower and more equal duties of customs are the most effectual and the most constitutional means of increasing the public revenue and with it the trade of this nation’.16

Grenville’s diary for 11 Nov. 1766 contains the entry:

Mr. Nugent came to Mr. Grenville in the morning holding a language so different and seeming in opinions so contrary to Mr. Grenville’s, that he did not communicate to him the motions that were intended to be made relating to the Address in the House of Commons that day.

On 4 Dec. Nugent wrote to Grenville: ‘I have this day accepted his Majesty’s gracious offer of being made first lord of Trade ... I flatter myself with hopes that a change of situation will produce no abatement of that friendship with which you have honoured me.’ 17 Henceforth, until the resignation of North in March 1782, he was a constant supporter of Administration. In January 1768, when Hillsborough was made secretary of state for the colonies, Nugent surrendered to him the Board of Trade, on a promise of the first suitable office that became vacant. Six months later he reverted to his old place of joint vice-treasurer of Ireland. In 1775 an unsuccessful attempt was made to induce him to surrender it to Henry Flood.18

Nugent was returned unopposed for Bristol in 1761 and 1768. In all the important questions in the Parliament of 1768-74 he took a leading part. There is no evidence to suggest that he was ever in the inner ring of Government servants, and on many points he voiced opinions of his own. Thus, he said on 4 Mar. 1771, in the debate on the East India recruiting bill:19

I hope the words ‘allowing the right of the Company to the territorial possessions’ will not remain in the bill, as it is my conviction that, being acquired by regiments sent from hence to the assistance of the Company, they belong to the public ... If other countries had not possessions in the East Indies, and if the necessary consequence of our abandoning what we have acquired there would be laying the trade open to the world ... I for one should wish we had not a foot of ground belonging to us in that quarter.

And on 2 Mar. 1774, on a bill to prevent vexatious removals of the poor:20

If we do not alter our laws of settlement we shall depopulate this country. This country could contain and maintain twice the number that is in it. The quantity of executions at Tyburn owe part of their origin to our poor laws. There are more executions in our capital than in the capitals of all other kingdoms.

His ideas about relieving the poor contrast favourably with those of Burke, as expressed in the same debate.

Nugent never trimmed his views to suit his constituents. In 1769 probably the majority of Bristol merchants favoured the total repeal of the Townshend duties, but Nugent wrote to the Society of Merchant Venturers on 1 Feb. 1769:21

Those of the late taxes laid upon America which affect our manufactures and trade should, no doubt, be repealed, upon every sound principle, mercantile and political: upon these principles I was against them. Such as are only objected to because they are laid for the purpose of raising a revenue stand upon other ground and depend upon other reasons. These I shall certainly attend to and be directed by them in my conduct.

Throughout his career he tried to relieve Ireland from the restraints upon trade, imposed to prevent competition with Great Britain. The following extracts from Harris’s ‘Debates’ show some of his attempts over a period of two years:22 29 Mar. 1764, ‘the beaver bill was reported—Nugent attempted his clause in favour of Ireland’; 10 Jan. 1765, ‘Nugent moved his bill for Irish beef, bacon, etc.’; 8 May 1765, ‘Nugent proposed a clause to exempt Ireland from paying the duty on gum Senegal’ used in their linen manufacture. In the Parliament 1768-74 he was equally persistent; which did not please the Bristol merchants, whose interests would have been affected by the removal of restraints. Nugent seems also to have lost touch with his constituency, and between his re-election in June 1768 and the dissolution in 1774 is not known to have visited Bristol. He lost popularity with the Bristol Whigs because of his views on America and his support of the agreement under which one seat was conceded to the Tories. At the general election of 1774 he was forced to withdraw at the close of the first day’s poll, and took refuge in his borough of St. Mawes.

At the beginning of the American crisis Nugent stood out for strong measures. ‘A patient continuance of forbearance under the late American outrages would be dangerous’, he declared on 19 Apr. 1774; and on 28 Apr. he treated the House to a specious comparison of the state of America with that of Scotland during the ‘45. On 23 Jan. 1775: ‘Lord Clare was for not submitting to the Americans in the least, and ridiculed the opinion of those who said we had a right to tax America yet ought not to exercise it.’ He met the disaster of Saratoga firmly, and tried to rouse Parliament to a more vigorous effort:

The contest now was not whether America should be dependent on the British Parliament, but whether Great Britain or America should be independent. Both could not be so, for such would be the power of that vast continent across the Atlantic that was her independence established this island must expect to be made a dependent province.

In 1778 and 1779 he made some very sensible speeches about the service squabbles which then agitated Parliament: thus he told the House on 29 Apr. 1779 that Parliament was incompetent to inquire into the conduct of military operations in America, and that the demand of the Howe brothers for an inquiry was not justified since no accusation was made against them. He was probably the first man on the Government side openly to admit that America was lost. He said during the debate on Dunning’s motion, 6 Apr. 1780:

The American war proved a wrong measure. He supported the war. He was not ashamed to own that he was wrong himself. He did not mean to say that it was wrong in principle, for in a similar situation he should adhere to his former conduct; but what he wished to convey to his auditors was that from a succession of untoward accidents, unexpected events, and a want of success, that it was wrong because the event proved unfortunate.

On 24 May 1780 he welcomed Pownall’s bill to enable the King to make peace with America, ‘for when they once knew his Majesty had that power there was little doubt of their coming to us with terms, and such as we might close with’.23

Speeches like these, from a placeman, were disconcerting to Government; as was also his attempt to secure a revision of the Irish trade laws. He moved for a committee to consider the trade of Ireland on 2 Apr. 1778; and during the next two sessions persistently brought up the subject, despite the tepidity of the Government and the opposition of English commercial interests. The common people of Ireland, he said on 16 Dec. 1778, were ‘suffering every species of misery and distress human nature was capable of bearing’; and on 29 Apr. 1779: ‘the Irish ... were now ripe for any revolution, as they could not possibly change their masters to a disadvantage’. His arguments were always sensible and humane. ‘Give Ireland everything she can ask’, he said on 6 Dec. 1779, ‘which may promise to produce substantial benefit to that country, but which will not touch or materially affect the interest of this.’24

Nugent was an out-and-out opponent of the movement to reduce the influence of the Crown, which he denied had increased. ‘There was an itch for reformation present’, he said on 21 Mar. 1781, that was ‘exceedingly reprehensible’. The contractors bill he likened to the old place bills: ‘They never had nor never would produce any good to this country’; and he described Crewe’s bill to disfranchise revenue officers as a monster ‘begotten by a desire of independence on the de-flowering of property’.25

‘He was not for despondency’, he said in the House on 27 Nov. 1781,

but as to the American war he confessed ... he thought things grew worse and worse, and he was come to think that it would be more advisable even to acknowledge their independency than to go on playing the same losing game against them.

And on 14 Dec., after the news of Yorktown had reached England, he ‘expressed his surprise that any man should now hesitate to grant the independence of America’. Yet on 12 Dec. he had voted against Lowther’s motion to end the war; and in all the critical divisions of the last weeks of North’s Administration he either voted, or was paired, on the Government side. He would abide by North in adversity, he said on 8 Mar., as he had supported him when in power.26

Nugent did not speak or vote on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries or Fox’s East India bill (probably the only two subjects of consequence, in over forty years’ membership of the House, in the discussion of which he did not take part). He was classed by Robinson in March 1783 as a follower of Shelburne, and his connexion with the Grenville family inclined him to support Pitt. In the debate of 29 Jan. 1784 he praised Fox’s abilities, but attacked his conduct: ‘he for one did not believe that a majority of that House was ready to subscribe to the administration of a dictator, and to receive again into the public service the author of the East India bill’. He poured scorn on the idea of ‘secret influence’: ‘men knew that it was the mere expedient of a party’; and praised Pitt’s Administration, yet ‘had determined to keep himself for the future perfectly detached from men and attached only to measures’. On 3 Feb. he was much less severe towards Fox, whom he compared to Julius Caesar; and spoke in favour of a union between Fox and Pitt. On 20 Feb. he again ‘recommended conciliation’, but said that ‘the attempts to turn out the present minister by force was not the way to conciliate’. It was his last reported speech in the House.27

Nugent refused the order of St. Patrick, to which he was recommended by his son-in-law Lord Temple,28 and also the offer of ‘an office of emolument’ from Pitt.29 He was returned at the general election of 1784, but within three months took the Chiltern Hundreds. He died in Dublin on 14 Oct. 1788,30 having reverted to the Roman Catholic Church,31 leaving the bulk of his property to his daughter.32

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke

Notes

  • 1. Almon, xvii. 516; Debrett, xii. 463.
  • 2. For the story of his seduction of his cousin, Clare, and his subsequent offer to marry her, see C. Nugent, Mem. Earl Nugent, 6-9.
  • 3. Hist. England, iv. 4.
  • 4. Mems. i. 91.
  • 5. Nugent, 252-6.
  • 6. Jos. Tucker, Review of Visct. Clare’s Conduct.
  • 7. Newcastle to the King, 6 Apr. 1754, Add. 32735, ff. 48-49.
  • 8. Add. 32995, ff. 97, 102, 113.
  • 9. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 412; ii. 92, 193.
  • 10. Almon, xvii. 70.
  • 11. Add. 32939, f. 339.
  • 12. HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 95.
  • 13. Rockingham mss.
  • 14. Add. 32968, f. 230.
  • 15. Harris’s ‘Debates’; Ryder’s ‘Debates’.
  • 16. Nugent to the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol, 30 Mar. 1763, quoted P. T. Underdown, ‘Parlty. Hist. Bristol, 1750-90’ (Bristol Univ. M.A. thesis), 112.
  • 17. Grenville Pprs. iii. 349, 382.
  • 18. HMC Charlemont, i. 331.
  • 19. Cavendish’s Debates, ii. 351.
  • 20. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 21. Quoted Underdown, 155-6.
  • 22. See also West to Newcastle, 23 May 1758, Add. 32880, f. 202.
  • 23. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’; Almon, i. 108; viii. 29-30; xii. 355-7; xvii. 455-9, 716.
  • 24. Stockdale, viii. 185; Almon, xi. 176-7; xii. 355-7; xvi. 114.
  • 25. Almon, xvii. 91, 195, 377, 455-9, 515-17; Debrett, ii. 286; vii. 50.
  • 26. Debrett, v. 41, 179; vi. 396.
  • 27. Ibid. xiii. 22-24, 62, 176-8.
  • 28. W. W. Grenville to Ld. Temple, 7 Jan. 1783, Courts Cabinets Geo. III, i. 116.
  • 29. HMC Rutland, iii. 158.
  • 30. HMC Fortescue, i. 358.
  • 31. Nugent, 29.