STEELE, Thomas (1753-1823), of Westhampnett, nr. Chichester, Suss.
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Family and Education
bap. 17 Nov. 1753, 1st s. of Thomas Steele of Westhampnett, recorder of Chichester, and bro. of Robert Steele*. educ. Westminster; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1771; M. Temple 1772. m. 3 Sept. 1785, Charlotte Amelia, da. of Sir David Lindsay, 4th Bt., of Evelick, Perth, 1s. 2da. suc. fa. 1775.
Sec. to master-gen. of Ordnance 1782-3; sec. to Treasury Dec. 1783-Feb. 1791; PC 9 Mar. 1791; jt. paymaster-gen. Feb. 1791-July 1804; commr. Board of Control May 1791-June 1793; receiver-gen. alienation office 1793-7; King’s remembrancer, Exchequer Nov. 1797-d.
Maj. Suss. militia 1794, 2nd lt.-col. 1798.
Steele remained the 4th Duke of Richmond’s nominee for Chichester throughout his parliamentary career. As Pitt’s junior secretary to the Treasury his talent for business was widely recognized. In 1791 he became joint paymaster-general, with a seat on the Privy Council and on the Board of Control. George Canning wrote of him in 1793 as ‘perhaps the most popular man in administration. I have never heard him mentioned without praise. He is not a very forward man in company.’ His parliamentary duties, apart from acting as government teller, involved him mainly in the defence of Pitt’s financial measures even after 1791, when he undertook the parliamentary business of the paymasters’ department. But he also defended Pitt’s foreign policy, 29 Mar. 1791; was listed among opponents of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland that session; took the chair on the Prince of Wales’s debts, 14 May 1795; sat on the secret committees of 1794 and 1797 and was in Pitt’s inner circle of friends. When Lord Camden became viceroy of Ireland in 1795 and Thomas Pelham hesitated to return there as chief secretary, Steele was Pitt’s next choice. He was also Camden’s and the King’s, who described him as ‘a man of uncommon good temper, much versed in conversing with men, and sufficient powers of elocution to state what may be necessary for him in the Irish house of commons’. Camden undertook to secure permanent provision for him, but Steele maintained that £10,000 a year would not compensate him for his transportation. To Pitt he wrote:
It cannot inspire me with confidence in myself or in my own abilities; it cannot give me talents and information which I do not possess; it cannot improve my health or correct a bilious habit—I therefore feel, as I before told you I did, unfit for the situation and on that account am unwilling to undertake it.
If Pitt insisted, he would go; but after an interview with him on 23 Dec. 1795, Pitt had already seen that this would not do and given in. Steele’s ‘extreme dread and repugnance’, apart from his known dislike of ‘an ostensible situation’, had been exacerbated by the conduct of John Foster, the Irish Speaker, which smacked of ‘that dirty traffic of patronage’ that was all that Ireland suggested to him.1
As if to make up for this, Steele was prominent in defence of Pitt’s financial measures in the ensuing session. On receiving a sinecure for life, Pitt’s reward for ‘so many public as well as personal claims’, in 1797, he dried up and also went into reserve as teller. Nothing had come of a proposal, which was to recur, that he should become secretary at war in a reshuffle. His name also recurred as a possible chief secretary for Ireland: in 1799 the 1st Marquess of Buckingham assured his brother Lord Grenville from Dublin, ‘above all Mr Steele, whose pilgrimage here of one year would, to my conviction, give you the Union’. In the same year Canning envisaged Steele’s becoming secretary at war (or master of the Mint, which he certainly did not want). Nothing came of it, or of the report in 1800 (previously heard in 1791) that he would become treasurer of the navy in place of Henry Dundas. There was some basis for this: Dundas wished in April 1800 to give up the Board of Control, not the treasurership of the navy, and he wished Steele to succeed him in the former situation. As he informed Pitt:
The income for the present would be the same, and in every other view his interest would be promoted by it, for he may rest assured that at the end of this Parliament the treasurership of the navy would to a certainty be opened to him, and events may happen to do it sooner, and I need not tell you that during the next two years, when he would be occupied in giving the finishing stroke to the settlement of our Indian empire, there is no man breathing would be so pleasing to me to act with as Steele.
Soon afterwards Steele refused the treasurership of the navy, preferring to remain where he was.2
When Addington replaced Pitt in 1801, ‘well tempered’ Steele, ‘the friend and ex-favourite of Pitt’, stayed at his post. (Addington at first intended him to be secretary at war.) This was Pitt’s wish of course, but Steele, on behalf of the rump remaining in office, resented the resignations that accompanied Pitt’s, especially Canning’s, as ‘an affectation of attachment beyond theirs’. His new colleague in the paymastership, Lord Glenbervie, noted: ‘Steele hates Canning as a newer favourite with Pitt and one who has been supposed to have superseded him.’. He went so far as to resent the bid, during the King’s illness in 1801, to restore Pitt to office before Addington could take the reins. He did not know that his friend Dundas was suggesting him to Pitt as a suitable chancellor of the Exchequer in a ministry to be headed by the Duke of Portland.3
In debate Steele was prickly. On 11 Mar. 1801, as a militia officer, he discounted reports of excessive flogging. On 10 June he lectured the House on the difficulties of framing estimates for the public service, at the same time paying tribute to Pitt’s endeavours to curb expenditure. The same day he clashed with Charles Grey, who had hinted that he was a time-server, on the Irish martial law. On 15 June he explained the system of public accounting. On 26 June he attempted to rebuff the Lords’ objections to the insolvent debtors bill. His brother Robert had lately been appointed a Welsh judge, but he remained ‘open, ingenuous and cordial towards Mr Pitt’, and told George Rose that he would have resigned had Pitt not approved Addington’s negotiations with George Tierney*. Tierney hoped that Steele’s office would be his when he joined the ministry, but it was not so. On 8 Feb. 1802 Steele defended the absent Pitt against Tierney in the debate on the army extraordinaries for 1801, and when Pitt was offended at Addington’s lukewarmness in his defence, acted as a mediator between them, a role Pitt had previously anticipated for him. On 24 Mar. 1802 he was a spokesman for his patron the Duke of Richmond and was allowed by the Speaker to deprecate the ‘ignorance’ of another Member. In July Addington offered him the vacant clerkship of the pells, a sinecure worth £3,000 a year, if he would give up his own (worth less than half that) for Addington’s brother. ‘But he declared that distressed as he was to resist my wishes, no consideration could by any possibility induce him to consent.’4
Steele remained Pitt’s intermediary with Addington when they did not see eye to eye: even Canning thought that he might be turned to advantage in this role. With Lord Melville he was eager to promote the negotiation between Addington and Pitt for a junction in April 1803 and was mortified by its failure; but, as Canning observed, he ‘voted stoutly with A[ddington] both times’ on 3 June. In the House he confined himself to his business duties, which seldom called him up. In November 1803 he again approved a bid, by Charles Philip Yorke, to induce Addington to call on Pitt’s assistance in government, but saw that it would not do. He remained loyal to Addington, sitting on the civil list committee, 2 Feb. 1804, and mediating between Pitt and the premier later that month, but he failed to induce Addington to make another bid for Pitt’s help. On Pitt’s return to power he was dropped, resigning before he received ‘notice to quit’. He was listed ‘doubtful’ by the Pittites, though some could not believe that he was to have no office: Lord Hardwicke wondered if he was available for the Irish chief secretaryship. In September 1804 he was listed ‘Pitt’, but he was still in touch with Addington, approving his parliamentary line, 1 Nov. 1804. A month later Addington mentioned him as entitled to provision if he were reconciled to Pitt, among those who were ‘older or more attached friends to Mr Pitt than to himself’. In January 1805 Steele was formally reconciled with Pitt, after the junction with Addington but of his own volition. Lord Bathurst reported on 27 Jan., ‘Just before the reconciliation with [Addington], this began to take place, but they did not meet until Wednesday last’. Steele did not obtain office, though his brother obtained legal preferment, and he said nothing in debate. He voted against the censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805, but he did not condemn the Addingtonian rebellion against the government in July. He thought Melville had treated Addington shabbily, though he retained his former friendship for him.5
Steele was one of Pitt’s mourners and met with his friends to discuss the payment of his debts, having himself contributed £1,000 for the purpose in 1801: Pitt desired it to be repaid on his deathbed. Canning wrote, 15 Apr. 1806, ‘I have had a long talk today with Steele, whom I find quite right, and ready to vote with us, but apprehensive of a division. He thinks we should gain 40 ... votes ... but he thinks that would only tend to hasten a dissolution.’6 He voted against the Grenville ministry on the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act and the American intercourse bill, 30 Apr., 17 June 1806. Like Pitt he had supported the abolition of the slave trade, as his votes of 18 Apr. 1791 and 15 Mar. 1796 indicated, and he remained ‘staunch’ on this subject. He was no longer in the informal cabinet of Pitt’s friends. George Rose, for one, knew something damaging about him. On quitting the pay office, where he had succeeded Steele, on 10 Feb. 1806, Rose was informed by the clerks that in May 1799 and July 1800 Steele had appropriated sums of £7,000 and £12,800, without authority. They remained unaccounted for and Rose now pressed Steele for an explanation, but getting none, except that the money was for secret services, urged him to divulge the matter to the new paymaster. But Steele, who needed time to repay the money, did not do so until in February 1807 the pay office was investigated by the finance committee. He explained his appropriations to them as follows:
I was urged to do so by private considerations of a very peculiar nature, which operated at that time on my mind; and I thought that by directing them to be issued to myself, and by making myself responsible for them, I could not by possibility, incur the suspicion of concealment or fraud. It was my intention that they should have been replaced in a very short time, but it was not in my power to accomplish it ... I cannot take upon myself to defend my conduct in this instance, which I must admit to have been incorrect, but I console myself with thinking that the public will have suffered no loss.
Between February and April 1807 he repaid the money, with interest, but in such ‘a state of dreadful agitation’ that he did not know ‘where to look for consolation or relief’. It left ‘a stain’ upon the character of ‘Honest Tom Steele’. The Whigs were jubilant: Lady Holland wrote, 2 Mar. 1807:
T[homas] S[teele], one of Pitt’s oldest friends, and a man of a studiously fair character, frank and honest to bluntness and a variety of other such descriptive features peculiar to English worth, coarseness, grossness, rudeness, and all leading to saying he was honest, turns out to be franchement a rogue; having, it appears, appropriated to his own private use balances of government money ... He is now refunding principal and interest, imploring secrecy. It is not known however whether he is to be prosecuted; but until it is decided, the business is kept secret and is not revealed even to the cabinet. These sturdy, plain characters often prove to be the greatest thieves.
As Steele paid up and retreated from public life, he had less to fear from the adverse publicity when the committee’s report was published, 22 July 1808. The ‘person or persons’ to whom he advanced the money remained his secret, but Pitt apparently knew. When Glenbervie became Steele’s pay office colleague in 1801 he wrote:
In the hands of Steele it has been almost the second finance office in the state, and I fancy between Pitt and the Treasury, and the pay office, much accommodation has taken place during the war, which, though very honest, has not been strictly regular nor very justifiable.7
Steele died 8 Dec. 1823.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Brian Murphy / R. G. Thorne
- 1. Harewood mss, Canning jnl. 22 Nov. 1793; E. Suff. RO, Tomline mss, Rose to bp. of Lincoln, 9 Mar. 1795; NLS mss 11138, f. 141; Camden mss C123/6, 7; O156b; Add. 33101, ff. 329, 356, 368, 370, 376; 33105, f. 59; Portland mss PwF7421, 7427; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1345-7, 1349, 1358; PRO 30/8/180, f. 235; 326, ff. 48, 50, 230, 232; 329, ff. 384, 386.
- 2. Morning Chron. 13 June 1791, 5 Oct. 1797; PRO 30/8/157, f. 274; 195, f. 174; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1621; iii. 2144; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 96; HMC Fortescue, iv. 460; Harewood mss, Canning to Rev. Leigh, 9 Feb. 1799, 12 Apr. 1800; Wellesley Pprs. i. 90; The Times, 2 May 1800.
- 3. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 209, 221; Colchester, i. 224, 228-9, 259; PRO 30/8/157, f. 286.
- 4. Tomline mss, Rose to bp. of Lincoln, 22, 27 Nov. 1801; Hants RO, Tierney mss 52g; Pellew, Sidmouth, i. 490; P. Ziegler, Addington, 137-8; Rose Diaries, i. 511; Sidmouth mss, Henry to J. H. Addington, 27 July 1802.
- 5. Rose Diaries, ii. 8, 23-4; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 168, 171, 172, 176; Add. 35702, f. 169; 35704, ff. 34, 73, 77; 35717, f. 197; 35718, f. 10; 35756, f. 225; 45033, f. 135; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 4 June 1803; Colchester, i. 482, 537, 540; HMC Bathurst, 34; PRO 30/8/328, f. 103; Harrowby mss, Bathurst to Harrowby, 27 Jan. 1805; Sidmouth mss, Steele to Addington [Sept.], Addington (Sidmouth) to J. H. Addington, 1 Nov. 1804, 23 July 1805.
- 6. Rose Diaries, i. 338, 424, 429; ii. 239, 243; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 351; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 15 Apr. 1806.
- 7. Rose Diaries, ii. 254-6; Pol. Reg. 22 Aug. 1807; Parl. Deb. ix. p. lxvii; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 206; Wickham mss 5/62, Steele to Wickham, 9 Mar.; Farington Diary (Yale ed.), viii. 3024; Leveson Gower, ii. 243; Glenbervie mss diary, 2 Apr. 1801.