HAMMET, Sir Benjamin (c.1736-1800), of Wilton House, Sherford, nr. Taunton, Som. and Park Place Farm, Eltham, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. c. 1736, s. of a Taunton tradesman.1 educ. Taunton. m. c. 1763 (postnup. settlement 31 Oct. 1765), Louisa, da. of Alderman Sir James Esdaile, London banker, of Upminster, Essex, 3s. 5da. Kntd. 11 Aug. 1786.
Alderman, London 1785-Sept. 1798, sheriff 1788-9, ld. mayor elect 1797;2 master, Haberdashers’ Co. 1785-6.
A thumb-nail sketch of Hammet in the City Biography shortly before his death allotted to him the ‘rudeness, ignorance and impudence’ with which successful parvenus are commonly attributed. He was there described as a Taunton barber’s son of little education, who as a footman in the household of the usurer ‘Vulture’ Hopkins (John Hopkins of Brittens, Essex) made the conquest of his mistress’s sister, the daughter of Esdaile the banker; and owed his rise as a building contractor and his banking partnership to his father-in-law. On his marriage his father-in-law settled £5,000 on Hammet’s wife and Hammet settled the proceeds of copyhold of the manor of Taunton Dean worth £48 10s. a year, acquired not long before, on her. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine described him as ‘a conspicuous example of the effects of enterprise and industry’: although he ‘wanted the advantage of education’, he was endowed with ‘plain common sense and well acquainted with the qualities of mankind’. His memorial inscription at Taunton, referring to his ‘munificence’ to his native town ‘to which he was most zealously attached’, credited him with ‘a clear and comprehensive mind, a fervid imagination and an enterprising spirit’.3
In 1790, when he was returned for Taunton on the Market House Trust interest for the third time, after a severe contest, Hammet founded there the bank of Hammet, Jeffries, Woodforde and Buncombe, which drew on Esdaile, Hammet and Esdaile of 73 Lombard Street. In Parliament he continued to give a general and, he boasted, independent support to Pitt’s administration and became a more confident speaker, finding, so he claimed, a better audience there than he did in common hall. On 15 Mar. 1791 he spoke for a meeting of government stockholders who deplored Pitt’s bill to apply half a million pounds of unclaimed dividends in the Bank of England to the public service and advised an adjournment, in the hope that Pitt would reconsider it.4 On 22 Mar. he threatened to present a stockholders’ petition entrusted to him if the minister persisted with the bill, which he now described as a ‘robbery’ of the kind that sparked off the American revolt: he unsuccessfully moved an adjournment (his favourite parliamentary activity). On 25 Mar. he presented the threatened petition, but Pitt was not impressed. Hammet also deplored the alteration in duties on bills of exchange, 13 May, which he regarded as an unfair tax on bankers: ‘except in unavoidable necessity’, he said, ‘not a single guinea ought to be raised but where the whole community were to bear a part of the burden’. Like his Taunton colleague, he was listed ‘doubtful’ on the question of Test Act repeal in April 1791: they had both supported it from 1787 to 1789.
On 28 Mar. 1792 he introduced a bill to make bankers’ private estates liable when they contracted debts: in view of their growth in respectability as a profession, he was anxious that they should not have power without responsibility. At the report stage, however, this bill was sat upon by legal Members, who pointed out flaws in it, 3 May. On 20 Mar. 1795, in the debate on the privilege of franking, he conceded that ‘it had happened to him to frank a great many letters’ (he was said to be making £2,400 a year by sending bills of exchange duty free under his name), ‘but he would be willing to forego it’. On 10 Apr. he came to answer a summons of the House to explain why he had for two years deputed his privilege of franking to his son; he pleaded ‘extreme indisposition’: ‘it was true that, at intervals, he was much better’, but ‘he was this very morning uncertain whether he should be able to attend the House from illness’. He narrowly escaped a reprimand for abuse of privilege.5 On 27 May 1795, seconding Windham’s opposition to Wilberforce’s plea for peace, he said he was more afraid of Russia than of France and Spain united and that the government would make peace when they could ‘with security’. He had already opposed peace negotiations in common council in January 1795, and both there and in livery and ward meetings defended the measures against sedition in November.6 On 24 Nov. he doubted in the House the authenticity of a London ‘bankers’ petition against the restriction of a civil liberty and offered to present a loyal address from his constituents’.
In his last Parliament he spoke less often: after writing to Pitt of his anxiety at the stoppage of payment in specie by the Bank of England, he twice defended the conduct of the Bank in March 1797. Soon afterwards he was acquitted on a charge of usury at Taunton.7 On 27 Apr. he took two months’ leave of absence and went off to Wales. His refusal to serve as lord mayor in October 1797 for health reasons was ill conceived; the city crier, who was sent to Wales to fetch him up to London, reported ‘his health to all appearances being in a much better state than I could have expected from the tenor of his letter to the livery’. Yet on arriving in town, Hammet informed his colleagues: ‘Since my arrival, I find myself so much indisposed, as to be under the necessity of leaving town immediately, and therefore am deprived of the satisfaction of meeting you, as I fully intended’. He again declined the honour. For this he was much twitted in the opposition press, which ended by suggesting that he was expecting a peerage at any time.8 On 2 Apr. 1798 he opposed the payment of land tax in stock, rather than cash: ‘he already paid £500 towards it and would pay double that sum’ in the interests of defence. On his return from another visit to Wales he begged Pitt, 29 Nov. 1798, not to consider a duty on native iron, which would cripple a growing industry: he suggested other fiscal expedients.9 He died 22 July 1800 at Castle Maelgwyn, the Welsh estate with a tin-plate works and mining prospects which he had acquired a few years before. According to his obituary, ‘the bustle of one period of his life, and the calm that succeeded notwithstanding his love of notice and popularity afford good materials for philosophic reflection’.10