SUTTON, Sir Robert (?1671-1746), of Broughton, Lincs.
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Family and Education
b. ?1671, 1st s. of Robert Sutton of Averham, Notts., and bro. of Richard Sutton. educ. Trinity, Oxf. 25 May 1688, aged 16; M. Temple 1691. m. 10 Dec. 1724, Judith, da. and coh. of Benjamin Tichborne, wid. of Charles Spencer, M.P., 3rd Earl of Sunderland, 2 surv. s. suc. fa. by 1691. Kntd. 18 June 1701; K.B. 27 May 1725.
Sec. and resident at Vienna 1697-1700, ambassador to Constantinople 1700-17; jt. mediator at Peace of Passarowitz 1717-18; ambassador at Paris 1720-1; P.C. 9 May 1722; member of committee of management, Charitable Corporation 1725-32; assistant, R. African Co. 1726-32, sub-gov. 1726-7, 1730-1.
‘Reverend Sutton’ as Pope was to refer to him, began life in straitened circumstances. Taking deacon’s orders,1 he became chaplain to his cousin, Lord Lexington, ambassador at Vienna in 1694, but gave up the church on being appointed secretary to the embassy in 1697. By Lord Lexington’s influence he was promoted in 1700 to be ambassador at Constantinople, where the British representative was also the paid agent of the Levant Company, with ample opportunities for enriching himself.2 At the end of 17 years at Constantinople, followed by a profitable mediation at Passarowitz and a final spell as ambassador at Paris, Sutton had made enough money to fight and win a costly county election, to marry the dowager Countess of Sunderland, and to embark on a new career as a Member of Parliament, a privy councillor, and a knight of the newly revived order of the Bath, with a house in Grosvenor Square, another in the country, and estates in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire worth nearly £5,000 p.a.3 In Parliament he moved the Address in 1726, but voted against the Government on the civil list arrears in 1729. On 16 Feb. 1730 he was one of some 60 ministerial supporters who caused the defeat of the Government on a bill excluding pensioners from the House of Commons, in his case by leaving the House before the division. Two days later he presented a petition from the Royal African Company, of which he was sub-governor.4 He was also on the managing committee of the Charitable Corporation, which had been granted a charter in 1707 to lend small sums to poor persons on pledges at legal interest so as to prevent them from falling into the hands of private pawnbrokers. In 1728 and 1730 he succeeded in obtaining licences from the Government to increase the Corporation’s authorized capital from £100,000 to £300,000 and then to £600,000. On the announcement of each increase the Corporation’s shares rose sharply, enabling Sutton and others with advance information to make thousands by stagging the new issues. In 1731 he defended the Corporation in the House of Commons against attacks made on it by the city of London and other parties for unfair trading practices and contraventions of its charter, under pressure from the Bank of England giving a public pledge, which was promptly evaded, that the Corporation would desist from the practice of issuing its own notes.5
Early in 1732 the disclosure of extensive frauds and losses in the Charitable Corporation led to an inquiry by a select committee of the House of Commons, mainly composed of extreme members of the Opposition. In April 1732, the committee presented a report showing that the Corporation’s losses were due to defalcations by some of its directors, made possible by the negligence of their colleagues, who throughout ‘had nothing in their view but to enhance the prices of their shares’. Sutton himself was not one of the directors implicated in the defalcations, but the report pointed out that he had obtained the first licence for increasing the Corporation’s capital on a false statement that the authorized capital had been exhausted, and that the grant of both applications had been ‘kept secret for some months for the private advantage of some of the committee [of management] and assistants and their agents, during which time great numbers of shares were bought by them’. In his evidence before the parliamentary committee he took the line that he had made the statement in good faith on information supplied to him by his colleagues; that he did not know that the grant of the licences had been concealed; that ‘he had but little share in the management of the Corporation, and when he entered upon it frequently afterwards declared that he neither would nor could attend the execution of ordinary business’. In this he was borne out by a colleague who testified to his practice of reading newspapers at board meetings.6
In the debate, 3 May, on this report the chairman of the select committee, Samuel Sandys, after moving and carrying a series of resolutions condemning the fraudulent practices disclosed by the Committee, went on to charge Sutton personally with several of these practices. The House then adjourned so that Sutton might have time to prepare his defence. Next morning, the 1st Lord Egmont wrote,
I went early to the House [of Commons] to secure a place. We proceeded on Sir Robert Sutton who, after a defence of six hours, was ordered to withdraw, and then Mr. Sandys, recapitulating the particulars of Sir Robert, showed the weakness of some and falseness of others [and] made a motion that ... Sir Robert Sutton had been guilty of promoting and abetting and carrying on the fraudulent practices of the Charitable Corporation.
Appeals for some mitigation of the severity of the motion were made by Sir Paul Methuen and Henry Pelham, on the ground that Sutton, though guilty of the grossest negligence, was a man of high character, who was not only admittedly innocent of wilful fraud, but as a large shareholder in the Corporation was one of the heaviest losers by the frauds. In reply John Barnard, a member of the select committee, said that there were
no words in the question that were not strictly true; that Sir Robert was not only remiss and negligent, but the patron of the Corporation. That his application and credit alone obtained the two licences for augmenting their capital to £300,000 and £600,000.
After pointing out that the first licence had been obtained on a false statement Barnard continued:
He left it to the House’s consideration how criminal a thing it was for Sir Robert to ... impose falsities on the King; and make his sacred Majesty a participant in the ruin of his subjects. That his guilt was greater in that he was at that time a Privy Councillor, and his good character before is an objection to him in this case, since he made use of it to seduce numbers of people to trust him with their fortunes, and then not only betrayed them to others, but bought up their shares at low prices to sell them out dear, for which purpose he kept the licences for augmentation of the capital secret for some months. He thought the motion was rather too charitable than too severe.
Carried without a division, the motion was followed by Sutton’s expulsion from the House. According to Egmont,
the Tories and discontented Whigs were resolved to a man to leave the House abruptly, if a division had passed this day against Mr. Sandys’ motion, which had been of most dangerous consequence to the Ministry, and perhaps to the nation. It would have been represented to the nation that the majority of the House were corrupted by the court, and that honest men could not sit any longer there. Sir Robert [Walpole] was informed of it late last night and for that reason made no opposition.
As Parliament was about to rise, the question of the punishment of Sutton and others who had been similarly censured was deferred; but a motion was carried declaring that they ‘ought to make a just satisfaction’ for the losses which they had occasioned, and an Act was passed prohibiting them from leaving the country and from alienating their property, which was to be inventoried, till the end of the next session.7
Towards the end of the next session Sandys, now armed with a report based on the confession of one of the parties to the defalcations, resumed his attack with a motion that Sutton had been guilty of ‘many notorious breaches of trust and many indirect and fraudulent practices’.
Had this been carried [Egmont writes], nothing had been bad enough for him, and we should have moved for a bill of pains and penalties, to render him forever incapable of holding a place of profit or trust, and to give his estate to the proprietors of the Corporation, sufferers by his breach of trust. Sir Robert Walpole, who thought this too severe, though he spoke not, yet influenced the court party to speak in Sir Robert Sutton’s favour, who were likewise joined by some of the malcontents on account of relation or particular friendship ... to him, such as Sir Paul Methuen, Lord Morpeth etc.
An amendment declaring Sutton to have been guilty of ‘neglect of duty’ only was carried by 148 to 89 which, Egmont writes, ‘put the minority in such a passion that after the numbers were reported, above 50 rose together from their seats and in a passion left the House’.8
In 1734 Sutton re-entered Parliament for Great Grimsby, the refuge of shady business men, where he owned considerable property and employed the mayor as his electoral agent.9 He played no further part in politics or business, and did not stand again. The verdict of the House of Commons was subsequently endorsed by Lord Hardwicke in his judgment in the case of Charitable Corporation v. Sir Robert Sutton and others in 1742, and also in an opinion on a petition by the Corporation to the House of Lords in 1743, in which he stated that
it is now fully known both from the enquiries in Parliament and in the court of Chancery that the whole iniquity was carried on by five only who entered into respective partnerships and that Sir Robert Sutton and the other defendants were equally imposed on with the rest and were themselves the greatest sufferers as their property in the Corporation was larger.10
In these circumstances Pope, on representations from Warburton, who was under obligations to Sutton, agreed that in future editions of his works allusions to ‘reverend Sutton’ should be amended to ‘reverend bishop’ or ‘bishops’.11
He died 13 Aug. 1746.
Ref Volumes: 1715-1754
Author: Romney R. Sedgwick
- 1. Pope’s Poems, Twickenham ed. iii (2), p. 97, n. 107.
- 2. A. C. Wood, Hist. Levant Co. 134-5.
- 3. Inventory of Lands and Goods of Sir Robert Sutton, 1732.
- 4. HMC Egmont Diary, i. 50-51.
- 5. ‘Report of the Committee of the House of Commons on the Charitable Corporation,’ Parl. Hist. viii. 1103, 1124-5, 1147-8; Inventory, ut supra.
- 6. HMC Egmont Diary, i. 221; Parl. Hist. viii. 1120, 1124-5, 1129; CJ, xxi. 912-13.
- 7. HMC Egmont Diary, i. 266-8, 270-2.
- 8. Ibid. 368; CJ, xxii. 131.
- 9. Tennyson d’Eyncourt mss B.24, Lincs. AO.
- 10. Add. 35876, ff.200-4.
- 11. G. Sherburn, Pope’s Corresp. iv. 492-6.