ABNEY, Sir Thomas (1640-1722), of Stoke Newington, Mdx. and Theobalds, Herts.
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Family and Education
b. Jan. 1640, 4th but 3rd surv. s. of James Abney of I. Temple and Willesley, Leics., sheriff of Derbys. 1656, by his 1st w. Jane, da. of Edward Mainwaring of Whitmore, Staffs.; bro. of Sir Edward Abney*. educ. Loughborough, Leics. m. (1) lic. 24 Aug. 1668, Sarah (d. 1698), da. of Rev. Joseph Caryl, of Bury Street, London, 7ch. d.v.p.(at least 4s. 1da.); (2) 21 Aug. 1700, Mary (d. 1750), da. of John Gunston of Stoke Newington, 1s. d.v.p. 3da. Kntd. 2 Nov. 1693.1
Freeman, Fishmongers’ Co. 1666, asst. 1691, prime warden 1704; common councilman, London 1689–90, alderman 1692, sheriff 1693, ld. mayor 1700–1.
Commr. taking subscriptions to Bank of Eng. 1694, 1709, Greenwich Hosp. 1695; dir. Bank of Eng. 1694–d. (with statutory intervals); trustee, receiving loan to Emperor 1706.
Manager, Common Fund 1695; member, New England Co. by 1698; pres. St. Thomas’ Hosp. 1707–d.2
Abney gained prominence as a leading spokesman for Dissenters, his piety leading his biographer to declare that ‘the honour and service of God were his aim and business in life’. As the youngest son he moved to the capital to establish himself in trade, and quickly enjoyed a ‘considerable increase’ in fortune. He also became an important figure in Nonconformist circles, attending the Silver Street congregations of Presbyterian ministers Thomas Jacombe and John Howe. He also married a daughter of the ejected Independent divine Joseph Caryl, thereby proving that he was ‘of a catholic spirit, and loved all true Christians rightly holding Christ the head’. However, he played no active role in the London corporation until after the Revolution, his acceptance of which can be gauged by his willingness to lend the government £800 in 1689.3
In October 1690 Abney demonstrated his support for his co-religionists by contributing a £10 subscription to the Nonconformist Common Fund, an organization of which he later became a gentleman manager. Under William he sought rapid promotion within the London corporation, briefly serving as a common councilman for St. Peter’s Cornhill before becoming an alderman in December 1692. Only seven months later he was chosen as sheriff in an uncontested poll, and while serving in that office he received a knighthood. His standing within the City was further attested when he was appointed in June 1694 as one of the commissioners to take subscriptions for the Bank of England. He was duly elected one of its founding directors, and served intermittently in that capacity for the rest of his life. Another government scheme to receive his backing was the loan to circulate Exchequer bills, to which he subscribed £400 in May 1697. He also invested in the East India trade, but by the spring of 1698 had sold his £1,000 stake in the Old Company.4
In September 1699 Abney strongly contested the City’s mayoral election, but although one of the two candidates to be returned to the court of aldermen, he failed to gain the chair. He stood again the following year, only to find himself at the centre of a bitter party dispute. His main rival on this occasion was the Tory (Sir) Charles Duncombe*, who topped the poll of freemen with 800 votes more than Abney. However, in the court of aldermen Sir Thomas achieved victory by 14 votes to 12, a result which infuriated the City Tories, who had been confident of gaining the majority there. Amid ‘great animosities’ in the capital, Sir Thomas Cooke* led a campaign to remove Abney, but all Tory efforts to undermine his election proved unsuccessful. At that time Abney was actually cited by the Prussian envoy Frederick Bonet as a ‘bon Anglican’, but he did not sever his ties with the Dissenters, qualifying himself for office by an occasional conformity to the Established Church.5
Abney’s mayoralty proved as eventful as his election, his attendance at Dissenting meetings causing renewed controversy. Most significantly, he was cited as the catalyst for Daniel Defoe’s An Inquiry into the Occasional Conformity of Dissenters in Cases of Preferment, which was prefaced by a direct challenge to John Howe to justify the presence of Nonconformists at Anglican services. The corporation itself was a scene of much party manoeuvring, and Abney was subjected to royal pressure when the London common council tried to petition the crown concerning the imprisonment of the Kentish petitioners. Although ‘very zealous for the cause of liberty in opposition to illegal and arbitrary power’, Abney bowed to the King’s wishes and gave his casting vote to defeat the council’s motion to address William. Later that year he led the City campaign to address the King to denounce Louis XIV’s recognition of the Pretender. ‘Though much opposed by a number of his brethren’, Abney prevailed, and the wave of loyal addresses imitating London’s example was reported to have given ‘new life to the Whig interest at home and abroad’. He subsequently gained much credit for this political initiative, a ‘considerable person’ observing that Abney ‘had done the King more service than if he had given him thousands, or raised him a million of money’.6
Such prominence led to Abney’s candidature at the City election of November 1701, which saw an overwhelming victory for the Whigs. Not content with third place in the London poll, Abney also sought to thwart his Tory rival Sir Thomas Cooke at Colchester. In a letter to the aldermen of the Essex borough, Abney accused Cooke of opposing the recent London address, and then launched another attack ‘which was worse than the former’. However, Cooke managed to secure an uncontested return. Abney proved an inconspicuous Member, his only significant contribution to Commons’ business resting with an appointment to the drafting committee on a bill to employ the poor. Moreover, even though he clearly sat in the Whig interest, his name does not appear on any parliamentary list. The accession of Anne effectively ended his Commons career, since at the City election of July 1702 a resurgent Tory party managed to oust him and two of his fellow Whigs. Shortly before the contest his standing in the capital had been weakened by his removal from the colonelcy of a London militia regiment.7
Although destined never to sit in the House again, Abney petitioned the Commons on 7 Feb. 1704 in order to defend one of his Hertfordshire properties against the threat of a bill to resume royal grants. Thereafter his contribution to public life was largely confined to City affairs, for he was appointed in February 1706 as a trustee for receiving the loan to the Emperor, and three years later was chosen as a commissioner to enlarge the Bank’s stock. He remained true to his political principles, voting in the Whig interest at the City elections of 1710 and 1713. Moreover, as a stubborn defender of Dissenting rights he found the Occasional Conformity Act of 1711 ‘one of the great trials’ of his life. He chose to worship privately rather than lose his City office, a decision taken in consultation with ‘several persons of distinction’, and one which received the direct support of the Hanoverian court. Within the corporation he continued to play a prominent role, serving as acting mayor in September 1712, and featuring in May 1713 as one of the seven Whigs who withdrew from the court of aldermen to defer the aldermanic election of Tory Joseph Lawrence. A second clash with the Tory aldermen followed in December when Abney supported the publication of an anti-papist sermon, arguing that ‘we are in a strange case now when no minister can preach against popery and slavery but it must be called sedition’.8
Having sacrificed public worship ‘that he might be capable of serving his country and securing the interest of King George’, Abney obviously welcomed the Hanoverian succession. He did not gain office under the new King, but remained politically active, attending a meeting of a Whig club in December 1716 to plan the party’s strategy for the forthcoming common council elections. He was also said to have ‘made several remonstrances to some of the ministers of state’ concerning the repeal of the Occasional Conformity Act, and once the campaign had achieved its goal in 1719, he resumed his attendance at Dissenting meetings. For the previous seven years his religious needs had been administered by the great Nonconformist hymnodist Isaac Watts, who for over 30 years resided with the Abney family. Watts also led the widespread mourning which followed Abney’s demise on 6 Feb. 1722, an event which was ‘universally lamented’. The Father of the City at his death, he was praised as a wise and just magistrate who had encouraged ‘all regular endeavours for the reformation of manners’. Moreover, his reputation for philanthropy ‘without distinction of parties’ had evidently earned him much respect. St. Thomas’ Hospital remained his favourite charity, but two other causes to benefit from his support were the London corporation of the poor and the New England Company, both of which had close ties to Dissent. In the absence of a male heir, his ‘very great estate’ passed to his widow and three surviving daughters. Together they ensured that Abney House in Stoke Newington remained a mecca for Dissenters, and his widow Dame Mary Abney received special praise as ‘a generous friend and succourer of gospel ministers’.9
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Perry Gauci
- 1. J. Nichols, Leics. iii. 1032; J. Smith, Magistrate and Christian, 37; The Gen. v. 90–92; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 218.
- 2. Guildhall Lib. mss 5587/1; 5570/6, p. 145; Beaven, Aldermen, ii. 118; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Bank of Eng. pprs. 31.1.7, f. 146; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiii. 77; Add. 10120, ff. 232–6; Boyer, Anne Annals, iv. 126; Dr Williams’ Lib. O. D. 68, f. 3; W. Kellaway, New England Co. 289.
- 3. Smith, 2, 37, 41, 66–67; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 1972, 1979.
- 4. Dr Williams’ Lib. O. D. 67, f. 6; Luttrell, iii. 123; Univ. London mss 65/3; Bodl. Rawl. A.302, ff. 224–7.
- 5. Luttrell, iv. 566; HMC Portland, iii. 631; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/053/9, James Vernon I* to Alexander Stanhope, 4 Oct. 1700; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 139; Add. 30000D, f. 288.
- 6. E. Calamy, Mems. of Life of John Howe , 210; Calamy, Life, i. 435–6; Smith, 62; G. S. De Krey, Fractured Soc. 201.
- 7. Add. 70075, Dyer’s newsletter 27 Nov. 1701; Luttrell, v. 193.
- 8. London Poll of 1710; London Rec. Soc. xvii. 66; Smith, 49–50; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter 25 Sept. 1712; Beaven, i. 411; Huntington Lib. Hastings mss 44710, ff. 373–4.
- 9. Calamy, Life, ii. 245–6; London Rec. Soc. 39, 45; Smith, 51–52, 63; DNB; Boyer, Pol. State, xxiii. 234; Macfarlane thesis, 324; S. Price, Funeral Sermon . . . of Dame Mary Abney , 40.