ABBOT, Charles (1757-1829), of Kidbrook, Suss.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 14 Oct. 1757, 2nd s. of John Abbot, DD, rector of All Saints, Colchester, Essex by Sarah, da. of Jonathan Farr, draper, of Moorfields, London. educ. Westminster 1763; Christ Church, Oxf. 1775-8, Vinerian scholar 1781, fellow 1786-92, BCL 1783, DCL 1793; Geneva (DCL) 1778-9; M. Temple 1768, called 1783; L. Inn 1785. m. 29 Dec. 1796, Elizabeth, da. of Sir Philip Gibbes, 1st Bt., of Spring Head, Barbados, 2s. cr. Baron Colchester 3 June 1817.
Clerk of the rules, KB 1794-1801; chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] 13 Feb. 1801-Feb. 1802; PC 21 May 1801; sec. of state [I] June 1801-Feb. 1802; keeper of the privy seal [I] May 1801-d.; commr. for building new churches 1818.
Dep. recorder, Oxford May 1800, recorder May 1801-Oct. 1806; bencher M. Temple 1802, reader 1805; lt.-col. East Grinstead vols. 1803.
Speaker of House of Commons 11 Feb. 1802-30 May 1817.
Abbot was considered by contemporaries to be an upstart: he believed himself to be descended from Sir Maurice Abbot, MP for London, a brother of Archbishop Abbot. His father, an ‘uncommonly learned’ clergyman, who kept a school at Abingdon, died when he was three, and his mother, by her remarriage, became stepmother to Jeremy Bentham. Abbot carried off all the prizes at Oxford, where he fell under Dean Jackson’s spell and, as a predestined barrister, practised in King’s bench and on the Oxford and Chester circuits. He was the author of The Practice of the Chester Circuit (1795) which advocated the reform of the Welsh judicature. He combined his practice with a university fellowship, which he gave up in 1792 on transferring to equity. In 1794 he had just applied for a mastership in Chancery when his elder brother died. He succeeded him in the undemanding office of clerk of the rules in the King’s bench, worth £2,700 a year, giving up a toilsome practice worth over £1,500 a year. This security liberated him, but characteristically he had no thought of treating the place as a sinecure. He found in it sufficient scope for his passion for administrative overhaul and it gave him an abiding interest in the preservation and publication of historical records, in which he made his debut in 1795 with the Rules and Orders on the Plea Side of King’s Bench.1
Thanks to his school acquaintance with the 5th Duke of Leeds, Abbot had been one of the duke’s candidates at Helston in 1790, involved in a double return which was decided against Leeds in the first instance. At the next vacancy in 1795, Leeds being once more in control, Abbot was returned, without ‘one syllable upon politics’. He claimed his freedom of action at once by voting for the address, 29 Oct. 1795, despite a hint to the contrary from his patron: he meant to be no man’s ‘blackamoor’ and intended in general to support the minister, ‘be he Pitt or Fox’, as an independent Member. He voted accordingly for the seditious meetings bill, 10 Nov., and on 3 Dec. defended it against Fox, despite a hostile petition from Helston and in a manner that gained the approbation of Pitt, George III and Addington and the embarrassed acquiescence of his patron, who remained opposed to the measure.2 On 15 Mar. 1796, Abbot was in the minority for the abolition of the slave trade, this time meeting his constituents’ wishes. After marrying a planter’s daughter later that year, he took no further part on the subject, but was listed ‘friendly’ to abolition in 1806.
From the start Abbot showed an absorbed interest in the business of legislation, particularly in its rationalization, which appealed to his methodical mind. Under Speaker Addington’s aegis, he chaired a committee on the revision of expired and expiring legislation, suggested by him on 14 Mar. 1796 and moved on 12 Apr. Its report in June regulated the business once and for all and the annual reports were subsequently vetted by Abbot. In April he made himself useful in the waste lands committee, gaining Pitt’s commendation. He tried resourcefully to have the resulting bill printed ‘with the clauses numbered, and marginal notes added to each clause in explanation of its contents’: but this in novation was then countermanded. From 2 Nov. 1796, after the Speaker had secured official support for him, he presided over a committee to regulate the promulgation of statutes: the toil and the credit were his when its report, which saved £14,000 of public money, was in due course adopted as a standing order.3 Abbot’s scheme for a more rational style for statutes fell on deaf ears.
Before the general election of 1796, Abbot had received an invitation to stand for his native Abingdon, sponsored by the corporation, but with freedom of action.4 He was also courted by the Duke of Marlborough, who wished him to become deputy recorder to his friend Francis Burton at Oxford, and eventually succeed him in a seat for the city. Abbot retained his seat for Helston, satisfied with the knowledge that if he thought it necessary to vacate it, he had an opening elsewhere. On 17 Oct. 1796 he seconded Adair’s Quaker relief bill, having been on the committee in April, and helped to prepare it. A month later when a puisne judgeship fell vacant, he had his last hankering for a step in his profession: he had become a recruit to the public service. Pitt asked for his assistance in framing his poor bill, January 1797, and on 13 Mar. named him for the select committee on finance. He came second on the ballot and was next day placed in the chair. He acquitted himself of this crucial test of his abilities with great credit, undertaking the reports on the customs, the Bank and Exchequer audit alone and several others in collaboration. Twenty-two reports were presented in July 1797; in the ensuing session, he defended them against their critics and was reappointed to the chair of the revived committee, 21 Feb. 1798. Fourteen more reports, three compiled by Abbot alone and others by him in collaboration, were presented at the end of that session. Abbot remarked, ‘No sort of commendation was bestowed upon the committee or its labours from any quarter—nor any phrase of approbation—except that Mr Pitt when he moved for the reappointment spoke of them as diligent and of their reports as voluminous’. He added that ‘many people in and out of the House showed ... ill will in consequence of our inquiries’: he had to enlist Pitt’s assistance to overcome the resistance of the judiciary. In submitting the second batch of reports to the Speaker, he had hoped they would lead to redress of administrative anomalies, showing that the constitution was capable at a critical juncture of repairing its own defects.5 In practice the only consequences were the abolition of patent offices in the customs and the establishment of a superannuation fund; the transfer of the salt revenue to the excise; and an abortive bill to compel personal attendance of employees in the public service; in addition to two Treasury reports on their proceedings on the recommendations made by the committee and one from the Admiralty, elicited by Abbot in the House. Even so, in November 1798, when Sir John Sinclair proposed a committee on the country’s finances since 1783, Pitt insisted that it was unnecessary, as the finance committee of the last two sessions ‘had everything to recommend it ... for industry, judgment and talents’.
Abbot, who had also carried a resolution making the printing of private bills optional, 22 Nov. 1797, assisted Pitt with the assessed taxes bill in December. This led to a showdown with his parliamentary patron, who wished him to oppose the bill. Abbot refused and, explicitly preferring the present government to opposition, offered to resign his seat: whereupon Leeds retracted, promising to trouble his nominee no more on political subjects, while Abbot volunteered to resign at his patron’s convenience. He went on to make a voluntary contribution to the war effort which, with tax, accounted for a fifth of his disposable income. On 31 Dec. 1798 he was a prominent spokesman for Pitt’s income tax bill. In January 1799 he moved for the production of the annual finance accounts of the Treasury: they were presented in seven sets between then and June, ‘not without much soreness and ill-will on the part of the secretaries of the Treasury’. Thereafter these accounts, which Abbot thought ‘exceed in compass and perspicuity all the parliamentary accounts hitherto in use’, were produced annually at his instigation. Apart from the compilation of two reports on expiring statutes in March and September 1799 and carrying six bills in connexion with them, as well as the perpetuation of the Treason Forfeiture Act, May-June 1799, he was also active on the copper trade and London docks committee, for whom he drew up a report that led to the establishment of the Wapping docks and the plan for rebuilding London Bridge.
On 18 Feb. 1800, encouraged as always by Speaker Addington, Abbot moved for a committee of inquiry into the preservation and publication of the public records and was to be the leading spirit of the Record Commission for many years, though his unavoidable absence in its formative years handicapped it. In May he carried a bill for charging public accountants with interest, the statutory effects of which were acknowledged by the committee of public expenditure ten years later. In November he was responsible for another innovation of public utility, the population bill, which provided for a national census, to be followed by a statistical digest of births, deaths and marriages. While the prevailing food scarcity was its pretext, it was conceived by Abbot as a contribution to defence planning, an aid to government in assessing the country’s manpower.6 ‘Not a word passed’ against it in the Commons, but after a setback in the Lords, Abbot carried an amended bill in December. On 18 Dec. he carried the renewal until 1807 of the army and navy sedition bills. In the previous month, he had been prepared to move the address at short notice, if Sir John Wrottesley had not, after all, been able to do so, and he had meant to speak on the address on 2 Feb. 1801. He had no sympathy, however, for Pitt’s views on Catholic relief.
When Addington, who had groomed him for responsible public office, became premier in February 1801, he disappointed Abbot by suggesting a place on the Treasury Board for him. The truth was that Abbot regarded the Speaker’s chair as the ideal place from which to display his flair for regulating public business and supervising schemes of public utility. He had mastered the forms of the House and had, in Lord Hardwicke’s words, ‘done more than any private Member of Parliament had ever effected ... before he was employed in any office’.7 He flattered himself that his pretensions to the Chair were acknowledged on all sides and tried to promote a reshuffle in the judicial arrangements which would enable John Mitford, the reluctant Speaker-elect, to make way for him. Failing this, he was urged by Addington to accept the Irish chief secretaryship, with Pitt’s approbation, ‘to render the nominal union a real union’. Abbot, who had drafted but never delivered a speech in favour of the Union in 1799, jibbed at the ‘banishment’ and the sacrifice—for he must needs give up his King’s bench place, which he refused to retain as a sinecure—and stipulated for a compensatory legal office if he were to undertake it, 9 Feb. On 12 Feb. Addington failed to persuade Abbot to become secretary to the Treasury under Vansittart or consider a seat at the Treasury Board, or even to sit with ministers till he was ‘in’. Next day, after pressing for a decision, he was appointed Irish secretary and a privy councillor, guaranteed £5,000 p.a. clear, with reversionary provision, intended at first to be derived from the clerkship of the pells, but subsequently settled as that of keeper of the signet in Ireland, a place resigned by Castlereagh in his favour. Meanwhile Thomas Pelham resigned the nominal office of secretary of state in Ireland, which Abbot regarded as at least a theoretical threat to his position. Abbot secured the services of the new lord lieutenant Hardwicke for Addington, and the government’s instructions to Hardwicke were drawn up in May ‘according to my proposal, with some slight variations’, as Abbot noted. His own duties were as follows:
I must be in England during the session, and do the parliamentary business of Ireland, that I should have an office for the purpose to attend to [the Irish Office opened by Castlereagh in Great George Street]; and after each session I should go over to Ireland and make that my country house.
Another self-appointed duty dictated the extension to Ireland of the benefits of his administrative reforms.
Abbot was re-elected for Helston on taking office, though he had meanwhile switched his patron, the Duke of Marlborough having engaged to bring him in for one of his boroughs at the next vacancy but one, either for Oxford, for which purpose he had secured Abbot’s election successively as deputy recorder and as recorder, or for Heytesbury, Lord Mendip not being expected to live. On resuming his seat Abbot, who had been of the Irish secret committee in April, commenced his official career creditably. Charles Yorke informed Hardwicke, 29 May 1801:
He has moved for the continuance of the martial law bill, the Irish placemen’s bill, and that for regulating contested elections, in a manner that did him honour, in the opinion of everybody.
Addington did not support him adequately when the severity of the martial law bill came under fire, overruling him in favour of a limited period, 10 June 1801, but when Abbot made his passage to Ireland in July, Yorke assured Hardwicke that in Abbot he would ‘possess a treasure, that few if any lord lieutenants before you have ever done’.8
Frustrated to some extent in his endeavours to reform the public service at home, Abbot found his Augean stables in Ireland. ‘The little minister’ soon provoked the hostility of vested interests there by being ‘a little too active for a minister and stirring subjects before he knows the consequences’. So thought Edward Cooke, Castlereagh’s under-secretary at Dublin, who was ousted in favour of Marsden. The Irish lord chancellor, Clare, objected to Abbot’s ‘very dictatorial’ manner. Undeterred and unhampered by directives from London, Abbot supervised the administration of martial law and defence preparations against invasion in Ireland, accompanying Hardwicke on a tour of inspection, and undertook the reform of the Irish revenue departments on the English model, which soon became his favourite project. It was carried on, according to his critics, ‘in the most offensive way possible’.9 In August 1801, Hardwicke, abetted by Abbot, threatened to resign when government at first set aside Lord Charleville’s claims to a representative peerage and denied Hardwicke Irish military patronage. Abbot believed the lord lieutenancy was at stake in this question: to quote Yorke:
he is warm and high; and rather too fond of carrying a point that he is set upon, coûte que coûte. The latter defect naturally arises from the perseverance and determination which form so brilliant a feature of his character.
When the rumour reached England that Hardwicke meant to resign, the reason assigned was
that Mr Abbot who is a busy restless man and whose passion is correcting abuses and setting everybody and everything to rights without much judgement or discretion had made himself so obnoxious to everybody there, and particularly had had such a difference with Lord Clare, that they would not suffer him any longer, and that Lord Hardwicke who is as persevering as anybody said that if Mr Abbot was recalled he would not stay.10
The King himself admitted to Lord Pelham that it seemed ‘but too probable that the inclination of Mr Abbot to innovation in the mode of conducting business in this country has accompanied him to Ireland’, and that he should be ‘decidedly prevented from continuing that career before it becomes more detrimental to the public service’.11 Abbot gained his point about Charleville, but there was a move in London to prevent his pushing matters so far in future: Yorke wrote, ‘There must in future be concert with the government at home’ and hinted to Hardwicke that Abbot must be weaned from ‘the ambition of doing everything by himself and from himself’.12 When it became clear to Abbot in October that Pelham, as Home secretary, was attempting to take over the control of Irish policy, reducing the lord lieutenancy to ‘a pageant’, and contemplating the abolition of the Irish Office in London (where he had planted his friend Legge to facilitate its organization for his service) he counteracted it by drafting a protest in Hardwicke’s name and by having the military under-secretary at Dublin, Littlehales, sent over to discourage Addington from falling in with Pelham’s intentions. Hardwicke stood by Abbot, who believed that he had preserved the character of the lord lieutenancy.
Abbot was encouraged by Addington to remain in Ireland when Parliament met in November 1801 and came over to render his account to Addington at the end of January 1802. Meanwhile the death of Clare, while it removed a chief obstacle to Abbot’s ambitions in Ireland, also, ironically, removed him thence for ever, as he was offered the Speaker’s chair when Mitford accepted the Irish seals. In realizing his ambition, he chose to ignore any implication that he was being sacked. He had ‘only remained long enough to incur the odium of reform, without having carried it into full effect’, as Hardwicke later observed, and although his successor in Irish office, William Wickham, was his own choice, who like subsequent secretaries paid lip-service to Abbot’s reforming endeavours, the same energy was not displayed afterwards.13 Abbot had his admirers: Edward Lee, an Irish Member, wrote to deplore Abbot’s promotion to the Chair: ‘when I consider that in the short time you were minister here, you have done more service to the country, than was done in the last century: every honest man in Ireland is your friend, and every dishonest man who lived upon the plunder of the state is your enemy’.14
The choice of a pugnacious dwarf as Speaker of the House of Commons, endorsed with only a token opposition in public, 10 Feb. 1802, was the subject of much private criticism. George Tierney maintained that there was ‘very general disgust’ and that ‘Addington could hardly have found a man in the whole House so unpopular’, while Lord Minto thought that Abbot’s manner was ‘rather pert than dignified, and he has the tournure of a clerk, which he was, rather than of a Speaker’. The King hoped Abbot would ‘not attempt novelties, which seldom succeed in the transaction of public business’.15
The business of Abbot’s first session as Speaker was not taxing and he was able to occupy himself with securing improvements in the Speaker’s house. In September 1802 he purchased Kidbrook as his private residence. At the general election, having given up all thought of Oxford city because of the keen contest there, he came in on Marlborough’s interest for Woodstock. In view of an unexpected contest there, he was also returned on the same interest for Heytesbury in case of failure. He might have come in for Heytesbury earlier, on Mendip’s death, but it was then inconvenient to give up Helston. On 16 Nov. 1802 he was unanimously reelected to the Chair, Thomas Grenville, a possible rival contender, staying away to avoid embarrassing him. His private secretary John Rickman, an admirer of Abbot’s capacity for ‘detail’ and of ‘the heap of business he is fond of getting into’, thought he was re-elected ‘with the good-will of all, except the idle half of the clerks and officers about the House of Commons. People that dislike activity in their duty, seldom are very fond of him.’ He added that ‘I am very glad to see the Speaker so fond of his daily occupations, though I am at a loss to comprehend how he, formerly the life of all House of Commons business, the chairman of all difficult committees, can be so happy in being excluded from everything in the House of Commons, except in the Speaker’s chair’.16
Now firmly in the saddle, Abbot devoted the session of 1802-3 to improving the administration of Commons business; to a shorter mode of printing the votes; to a mode of printing all public bills with the contents of each clause epitomized in the margin; to an improvement in the entitling of Acts by shortening them and indicating whether they were general or local; to an annual review of expiring Acts on Lady Day, so as to renew or perpetuate them as thought fit; to a reprinting of earlier Commons Journals and continuation of the separate series of Commons Reports; to the arrangement and printing henceforward of sessional papers in four volumes for the use of the House and of government departments; to the reprinting of old parliamentary papers, and the propagation of the reports on finance drawn up under his direction, and their distribution to the public offices. In the Chair, he asserted his authority by regulating the attendance of reporters in the gallery, May 1803, and by objecting to Pitt’s ‘instruction’ to the committee on the income duty bill as irregular, 13 July. Despite this, Abbot was assured, Pitt had no intention of looking for another Speaker if he returned to power. Some unfavourable comment was transmitted from Ireland as to Abbot’s tendency to interfere in Irish affairs, swaying English government views on them. It was characteristic of him never to lose interest in a subject in which he had been involved: it was of Abbot that Spencer Perceval in this context remarked: ‘ubi plura nitent non ego paucis offendar maculis’. He had also to contend with criticism of his Irish keepsake, the signet office; but as he never drew the salary while Speaker and it was his compensation for waiving the clerkship of the pells in favour of Addington’s son, the critics were gagged.17
In the session of 1804 Abbot saved public money by compressing the Commons votes and journals. He supervised the refurnishing of the House, providing the beginnings of a library for the use of Members. He gave official dinners every week in the spring: in 1804, 358 out of 430 Members invited attended them. His capacity for business was exercised in a number of trusts undertaken by him ex officio, such as the Record Commission, the Highland Roads and Bridges, the Caledonian Canal and the British Museum; while invasion threatened, he was as ready to engage himself in the training of the North Pevensey volunteers in Sussex. Pitt’s return to power did not affect his position, though the minister took no more than a polite interest in Abbot’s efforts ‘towards introducing a better legislative style into our bills’. On 11 Mar. 1805 he exerted the House’s privileges by sending the sheriffs of Middlesex to Newgate for their misconduct at the county election. On 8 Apr. 1805 his casting vote carried Whitbread’s censure motion against Melville; in his justificatory speech Abbot, ‘white as a sheet’, refused to pre-judge the allegation that Melville had himself been involved in irregularities, but pointed to the violation of an Act of Parliament and the connivance at Trotter’s irregularities as meriting the censure. Pitt admitted the propriety of his conduct and so even did Melville’s son, while Melville’s critics were effusive in their praise of his vote. Sir John Sinclair commented:
In regard to the Speaker’s casting vote, he gave it contrary to the usual practice in similar cases. It is a rule on all such occasions that the Speaker should give the House time for farther deliberation, as a vote once passed cannot be undone, but he probably saw that the tide was turning; he thought that it would raise his character in the public estimation, and however injurious it has been to a private individual, it has certainly proved on the whole a popular decision and has given a hint to ministers that they may be made responsible for their conduct.18
Abbot was, however, firmly opposed to Whitbread’s notion of continuing the committee to draw up articles of impeachment against Melville during the recess, an irregularity that he scotched on 10 July. On that day he secured Pitt’s assurance of support for his re-election as Speaker if he vacated Woodstock for Oxford University, where he was assured of support if Sir William Dolben retired at the dissolution.
Abbot had too commonplace a mind not to be critical of Pitt’s blemishes as a man of business, but he showed a proper awareness of the nation’s loss in moving the memorial vote of 27 Jan. 1806, which he did
in a slow and solemn manner, but when he came to the name paused for some time, and in a lowered and faltering voice pronounced it. The silence was death like, and several of the hardiest oppositionists said it was like an electrical shock upon the House, and that they could hardly breathe.19
His relations with the Grenville administration, in the formation of which he did not meddle, were somewhat embarrassed: Fox had to be lectured by him on the necessity for maintaining ‘the modern practice’ by giving notice of his motions in the House, 3 Feb. 1806, and Lord Grenville to be denied the assurance of his support if he stood for the chancellorship of the University of Oxford, which shared Abbot’s views on the subject of Catholic relief. Nor did Abbot take kindly to hints that the Chair was wanted for Tierney: he refused in May 1806 to be ‘accessory to my own deposition’, even for a pension, and objected to sub rosa communications on the subject. When in July Dolben privately agreed to make way for him, Abbot became the Christ Church candidate for his university. His election proved highly embarrassing. True, he obtained Grenville’s assurance that government would support his re-election to the Chair once it was clear that Thomas Grenville was out of the question, and that the premier personally wished him well for the university election, but he found his old friend Richard Richards set up against him, with the good wishes of Charles Williams Wynn, Grenville’s nephew and another possible contender for the Chair, and in competition with him for the good wishes of government. Grenville reassured him and Richards withdrew, enabling Abbot to defeat his anticipated competitor, Heber, with ease; but he was then threatened with a petition against his return on the grounds of disqualification, by his tenure of the recordership of Oxford. This he hastily resigned and the petition was discouraged by Heber, but Abbot had meanwhile been obliged to secure the services of his reluctant erstwhile patron Marlborough in bringing him in for Heytesbury, just in case he failed at Oxford, the Treasury being unable to find another seat for him.20 Despite previous rumours to the contrary, he was re-elected to the Chair unopposed on 15 Dec. 1806 and Wilberforce, seconding, credited him with being a ‘perfect model’ as a Speaker, with particular reference to his unseen attention to private business.
On 1 Jan. 1807 the House approved Abbot’s bill to limit the reception of private bills; within the time provided, 247 private bills were presented, of which 107 were committed: Abbot subsequently, April 1811, provided regulations to expedite the work of private bill committees and set up the Private Bill Office. He also expedited the dispatch of election petitions—37 out of the 43 presented were decided before Easter. The volume of public business, which he estimated to have trebled between 1760 and 1801, was to increase by two-thirds of its total amount between 1801 and 1813, by which time it was thus five times as great as in 1760.
Abbot was committed to Oxford University to voice his objections to the Catholic relief measure which brought down the Grenville ministry. On the formation of the Portland ministry, ‘high office’ was predicted for him, but he was unanimously reelected to the Chair after the general election, 22 June 1807. He at first found Perceval, who had been eloquent in his praise, a sympathetic leader of the government in the House and was to have headed a commission on English schools proposed by Perceval in July 1807 but subsequently dropped. He went so far as to invite Charles Yorke, then out of office at Hardwicke’s command, to his ministerial dinner in January 1808, but went no further in political intrigue.21 On procedural matters, however, he was adamant in his impartiality: despite an unpleasant brush with Tierney, who was thought to have coveted the Chair, on 16 Mar. 1808, when Tierney accused him of silencing him arbitrarily, Abbot upheld Tierney’s objection to Henry Bankes’s bringing on the reversion bill on 5 Apr., despite the fact that he had given every encouragement to his old school friend’s chairmanship of the select committee on public offices the previous year, and despite the knowledge that Perceval was anxious to have the bill debated that day. Moreover, although he intensely disliked Perceval’s handling of John Palmer’s* compensation claims and advised him not to tolerate the Lords’ rejection of the bill, he confined himself, in committee, to procedural questions on the subject.22 On 1 Feb. 1808 he delivered the first of many speeches expressive of the thanks of the House to army and navy officers for their successes in the war against Buonaparte, which were regarded as models of their kind and subsequently published together.
Abbot was consulted by Perceval on the address he designed to mitigate the charges against the Duke of York, February 1809, but did not meddle with the charges of corruption against Perceval and Castlereagh brought in that session. He nevertheless showed a keen interest in Curwen’s reform bill, drafting clauses for it, and on 1 June, in committee, he made ‘a very able and impressive speech upon the subject, agreeing in the principle of the bill, though he objected to Mr Curwen’s provisions’, so Perceval informed the King. According to Romilly, although ministers were hostile to the bill—and Perceval certainly indicated as much to Abbot —‘after the Speaker had in the committee made a speech of very great effect in favour of the bill, they found it inclispensably necessary, that some such bill should be passed’.23 In September, when the Portland administration collapsed, its residual legatee Perceval invited Abbot to serve under him as secretary of state, 12 Sept. He declined, preferring to remain where he was. On 14 Oct. he wrote in his diary:
completed my 52nd year of a life of great and undeserved happiness and prosperity—blessed with a wife and children to my heart’s delight; my health not much impaired by my professional or official habits of life—a course before me of plain and easy duties to perform in my public station and with no wish unsatisfied, but that of providing a more adequate maintenance for those who may survive me.
Abbot’s most trying experiences in the Chair were yet to come, and the session of 1810 shook his health. At its opening he was obliged to shout the Princess of Wales out of the gallery when it was cleared for the division. The Scheldt inquiry did not perturb him and he upheld the House’s right to compel disclosures from a privy councillor (Sir David Dundas) on 2 Feb. and gave his opinion confidently on Lord Chatham’s justificatory narrative on 19 Feb. On 27 Feb. John Fuller ran amok and called Abbot ‘the insignificant little fellow in the wig’,24 but it was Burdett’s breach of privilege that really upset him. The failure of his officers to effect the arrest of Burdett according to his warrant had to be explained to the House; he was obliged to retain the law officers as counsel when Burdett instituted court proceedings against him, with the additional mortification of finding Perceval unwilling to assert the authority of the House against such an abrogation of the Speaker’s order. Having failed to persuade the opposition leaders to join in a bipartite conference on the subject at the Speaker’s house, 3 May 1810, he had to be satisfied with the finding of a committee that there had been a breach of privilege, 10 May, but that the House was prepared to allow the courts to adjudicate between Burdett and the Speaker on the former’s suit; and although judgment was given against Burdett in King’s bench (17 May 1811), his appeal was not settled by the Lords in Abbot’s favour until 7 July 1817.
Abbot was consulted by Perceval as to the Regency proceedings on the King’s illness in November 1810. He supported by his vote, 20 Dec. 1810, and, after maintaining strict silence hitherto, on 4 Feb. 1811 by a powerful speech, the institution of a regency by bill rather than by address.25 Soon after there were rumours of his having a peerage and perhaps a secretaryship of state, but he denied all knowledge of it. On 5 June 1811 he gave his casting vote with the ayes for a committee into delays in Chancery, it being an inquiry into existing grievances. In February 1811 he induced Perceval to regulate by bill the offices of the House of Commons. He also gave himself ‘endless trouble’ out of the House to secure the passage of the parish register bill, May 1812.
Abbot was reported to have ‘entirely lost his presence of mind’ on the occasion of Perceval’s assassination, ‘by adjourning instead of keeping the House together, and did not even send a message to the Lords’. He was reported to be considered as Perceval’s successor, but discouraged any such notion, being ‘absolutely decided not to lend himself in any manner to the miserable and shifting arrangements’ that ensued and horrified at the House’s ‘running quite wild’ on the subject of provision for Perceval’s family which he had tried to settle by conference. Indebted as Perceval had been to him for his ‘indefatigable labour’, Abbot conceived that Perceval had let him down in the crisis of his own authority.26
Returned unopposed for the university and to the Chair in 1812, Abbot was informed by Col. McMahon, 5 Feb, 1813, that the Regent was ready to bestow a peerage on him: he declined it then and again on 22 July. He was active in advising government on the Princess of Wales’s case and, while he upheld her right to have her petition of complaint read in the House, he discouraged the airing of the subject by Whitbread, 31 Mar., by reference to irregular procedure. On 23 Mar. he was in the majority who voted against Burdett’s Regency motion. On 9 Mar. and 24 May he opposed Catholic claims, his forceful speech and amendment on the latter occasion being instrumental in thwarting the relief bill. Ironically, at the same time, he was threatening to withdraw his services from the National Society to promote Church Schools, because they were loath to tolerate dissenters, and he voted for Christian missions to India, 1 July. Opposition were riled by Abbot’s conduct, and when in his prorogation speech of 22 July 1813 he dared to refer to the failure of a proposal that contradicted the ‘fundamentally protestant’ constitution of the country (to which the Regent nodded assent), they drew their knives out, arguing that the Speaker was in contempt of the House in informing the Regent of the rejection of a public measure unconnected in any way with supply. They affected to believe that it was Abbot’s parting shot: his health had been indifferent that session and his peerage was now thought settled.27 Yet he resisted a coronet and prepared to do battle with Morpeth, who undertook the censure of his conduct. After conferences with his friends and with ministers on the eve of the session, Abbot defied Whitbread’s condemnation of his speech in the debate on the address, 4 Nov. When Castlereagh changed his mind about securing the printing of Abbot’s speech in his defence, Holme Sumner stepped into the breach, 8 Nov., and Abbot received ministerial support in the debate that ensued, much as he abhorred the publicity attached to it. He was now kept waiting, to his great indignation, and it was not until 22 Apr. 1814 that Morpeth’s motion came on. As it was not in fact a censure motion, ministers declined countering it with a vote of approbation; and although the motion was lost by 274 votes to 106 after a very cogent speech from Abbot in his own defence, he had to endure an inflammatory amendment from Whitbread and further opposition taunts before his reputation was rescued by a counter-amendment of confidence in him by his friend Bankes, which was carried without a division. Romilly commented, from the opposition viewpoint:
It was perhaps a more gentle reproof than his conduct deserved. In the debate, however, ... he was treated with great severity. It was, indeed, a debate of a very novel character. The Speaker seemed fixed in his chair only to be reprimanded, for six hours together, by every Member successively that chose.28
It was a moral defeat for the Chair, but Abbot again disappointed those interested observers, such as Canning, who thought he must now retire, adequately vindicated.29 The rest of the session saw him in his glory, playing host in the House to the Duke of Wellington, the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia. The House heard in polite silence a suggestion by Serjeant Onslow on 15 July 1814 that the Speaker’s salary should be increased.
Abbot handled with assurance the disturbance threatened to the House’s proceedings by the anti-Corn Law riots, and Lord Cochrane’s bid for parliamentary immunity in March 1815: his only contretemps that session was being obliged to leave the House, indisposed, for a few minutes on 28 June, the first such occurrence in his 14 years as Speaker, but, the House being noisy and confused during a speech by Burdett, ‘it was not much observed’. After supplying his invaluable marginalia for a new edition of Hatsell’s work on Commons procedure and consenting to the publication of his speeches of thanks, he visited France and Belgium that autumn. During the session of 1816 his health was not reliable: a false impression of his being unwell (which he certainly had been the week before) caused an adjournment on 5 Apr. He weathered the session, but in December was stricken with erysipelas. He resumed his public duties in February 1817, devoting much time to the classification of petitions and instituting the daily publication of an abstract of the votes of the House, only to be halted by another attack in March. Although adjournments were readily granted by the House and he resumed the Chair on 24 Apr., the recurrence of his complaint on 26 May induced him to resign the Chair. Lord Sidmouth having previously discussed provision for Abbot with Lord Liverpool, he became Lord Colchester with a pension of £4,000 for himself and £3,000 to his heir, on the precedent of Speaker Onslow’s, though as he observed:
in my sixteen years the business which I had gone through was more than twice the quantity in half the time, including all the Irish business, and the attendance of a hundred additional Members, together with the constant burden of the Record Commission, and the Scottish Highlands Roads and Bridges, and Caledonian Canal Commissions, etc. etc., unknown to former Speakers.
He privately believed that it was the work of the London and Middlesex penitentiary committee that had destroyed his health the year before. He further maintained that the Speaker’s salary covered only two-thirds of his expenses.
The House, after asserting its right to pray for Abbot’s peerage rather than be informed that the Regent had bestowed it on him, thanked its indefatigable Speaker on 5 June. He retained his commissions, ‘that I might have something to do’. He remained active in the overhaul of parliamentary business as a peer and was in February 1818 and September 1822 tipped for the Home Office, but did not seek high office. Lord Sidmouth remained his political mentor. George Rose believed that ‘the duties of the Chair were never so performed’: Abbot certainly eclipsed his predecessors, including Addington, in perspicuity, zeal and activity. His diaries and papers reveal the entire dedication to his office of a complete man of business; and he subjected to analysis his every function, applying to public business a punctilio and a rationalizing spirit which would in other spheres have made him a remorseless reformer. He died 7 May 1829.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
Based on the Colchester (PRO) 30/9 and Colchester Diary and Corresp. (3 vols. 1861).
- 1. Harewood mss, Canning jnl. 10 Mar. 1795; R. B. Pugh, ‘C. Abbott and the Pub. Recs.’, Bull IHR, xxxix. 69.
- 2. Malmesbury Diaries, iii. 255.
- 3. Pellow, Sidmouth, i. 167-9; Debrett (ser. 3), i. 203, 510; ii. 1, 72, 389; iv. 201.
- 4. Berks. RO, Preston mss, Abbot to Sellwood, 30 Apr. 1796.
- 5. Sidmouth mss, Abbot to Addington, 1 Oct. 1797.
- 6. PRO, Dacres Adams mss 3/86.
- 7. Add. 35701, f. 233.
- 8. Ibid, ff. 9, 48.
- 9. Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss, Cooke to Auckland, 25 Sept., 8 Oct. 1801; Add. 34435, f. 429.