GILBERT, Thomas (?1719-98), of Cotton, Staffs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



22 Nov. 1763 - 1768
1768 - Dec. 1794

Family and Education

b. ?1719, 1st s. of Thomas Gilbert of Cotton.  educ. I. Temple 1740, called 1744.  m. (1) 24 Dec. 1761 or 27 Jan. 1762,1 Miss Philips (d. 22 Apr. 1770), 2s.; (2) Mary, da. of Lt.-Col. George Crauford.

Offices Held

Paymaster of the charity for the relief of widows of naval officers 1753- d.; comptroller of the great wardrobe 1763-82; chairman of ways and means 1784-94.

Bencher, I. Temple 1782, reader 1787, treasurer 1789.


‘Mr. Gilbert’, wrote the Gentleman’s Magazine, (1798, p. 1146), ‘to improve a small estate by the profession of the law ... was called to the bar, but with no great success.’ He held a commission in the regiment raised by Lord Gower during the ’45; became Gower’s land agent; and through his influence was appointed to a semi-sinecure office. Granville, 2nd Earl Gower, brought Gilbert into Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme, and subsequently for Lichfield; and procured for him a place at the great wardrobe.

Through his connexion with Gower he belonged to the Bedford party. His first recorded speech on a political issue was against the repeal of the Stamp Act, 21 Feb. 1766. He voted against Chatham’s Administration on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767. Neither in December 1766 nor December 1767 did Bedford ask for an office for Gilbert, nor, after the Bedfords joined Administration, is there any record of his applying for office.

Gilbert early began the work which was to become the main interest of his career. His first poor law bill, which grouped parishes into unions, passed the Commons in April 1765 but was rejected by the Lords. Further attempts to improve the poor law followed, and in 1776 he was responsible for an Act requiring overseers to make returns of sums raised by the poor rates. Canals and roads also occupied his attention; and his Act of 1773, consolidating the law relating to turnpikes, is regarded as a landmark in the history of English highway administration.

After the Bedfords took office in December 1767 Gilbert regularly voted with Administration. Until 1778 he rarely spoke on political questions, and the speech he made on 2 Mar. 1778 took the House by surprise. Concerned at ‘the expenditure of public money, particularly the exorbitant contracts and abuses of office ... he declared his resolution ... to propose a tax of one fourth upon the incomes of all placemen’.2 ‘Lord Gower and the Duke of Bridgwater’, wrote Horace Walpole,3 ‘had taken great pains to dissuade him, but he said he could not be easy in mind without proposing it.’ He declared he did so ‘the better to enable his Majesty to vindicate the honour and dignity of his Crown and the dominions thereunto belonging’.4 The motion was successful in the committee of supply, but was rejected on report.

James Harris, in a letter to his son of 10 Mar. 1778,5 calls Gilbert ‘a kind of demi-courtier, demi-patriot’. On the contractors bill, 12 Feb. 1779, he was classed by Robinson as ‘pro, out of town’; and he voted with Administration on the censure motion over Keppel, 3 Mar. 1779. But when Burke introduced his economical reform bill, 15 Dec. 1779, Gilbert ‘expressed the warmest approbation of Mr. Burke’s propositions, and said that if he had not got the start of him he proposed to do something of the same kind himself’. In the divisions on economical reform of February and March 1780 he voted with Opposition; but on Dunning’s motion, 6 Apr., and the motion against proroguing Parliament, 24 Apr., with the court. On 28 Apr. he opposed as ‘indelicate’ Burke’s attempt to reform the civil list by Act of Parliament, ‘rather wishing his Majesty would be pleased to make the necessary reformations ... by his own authority’.6 Of his own place in the Household he said: ‘That with the assistance of the master of the wardrobe he had reformed such abuses in the office as fell under his inspection as comptroller, and had saved his Majesty £900 p.a.’ When asked by Sir Philip Jennings Clerke on 26 Apr. 1781 if he intended to re-introduce his motion for a tax on places, he replied ‘that he had not the most distant intention of reviving the bill’.7

Gilbert voted against Lowther’s motion to end the war, 12 Dec. 1781. But by February 1782 his attitude towards North’s Administration had changed. On 16 Feb. Sandwich, trying to win support in view of the forthcoming motion of censure against the Admiralty, wrote to Robinson:8 ‘The Duke of Bridgwater ... has spoke to Gilbert, and has told him that he is sure those who bring him into Parliament do not approve of his absenting himself.’ Gilbert voted with Administration in this division, 20 Feb.; but in those of 22 and 27 Feb., both on motions by Conway against the war, with Opposition. In the debate on Rous’s motion of no confidence in North’s Administration, 15 Mar., he said:9

He was quite undetermined how he should vote; he did not believe all his Majesty’s ministers were bad, but some of them undoubtedly were; he thought if there was a coalition of parties a good Administration might be formed that would be a means of saving this country if it was not too far gone.

He voted with Administration.

On 22 May 1781 Gilbert had proposed another bill ‘for the better relief and employment of the poor’, the well known ‘Gilbert Act’ of 1782. This gave parishes increased power to combine to build workhouses for the support of children and those unable to work; and sanctioned the practise of giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied. It was, wrote Sidney and Beatrice Webb,10 ‘the most carefully devised, the most elaborate and perhaps the most influential, for both good and evil, of ... poor law statutes between 1601 and 1834’. Sir Gregory Page Turner said in the Commons, 9 May 1787, that Gilbert ‘ought to have his name written in letters of gold, for the uncommon pains he had taken to assist the poor’.11

In August 1782 Gilbert was asked by Shelburne to conduct an inquiry into the value of places and pensions, for which he was paid £700:12 ‘in consequence of his report ...’, he afterwards said,13 ‘a great number of salaries had been diminished, and many sinecure places entirely abolished’. He voted for Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, and against Fox’s East India bill, 27 Nov. 1783; was a member of the St. Alban’s Tavern group which tried to bring about a union between Pitt and Fox; and supported Pitt. Much of his time in the Parliament of 1784 was taken up by his work as chairman of the committee of ways and means; but he continued his endeavours to reform the poor law both in Parliament and by pamphlets.

Gilbert died 18 Dec. 1798, ‘in his 79th year’.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Gent. Mag. 1761, p. 603; 1762, p. 45.
  • 2. Almon, viii. 421.
  • 3. Last Jnls. ii. 129-30.
  • 4. Stockdale, viii. 95.
  • 5. Letters of 1st Earl of Malmesbury, i. 380.
  • 6. Almon, xvi. 198; xvii. 590.
  • 7. Debrett, iii. 164.
  • 8. Abergavenny mss.
  • 9. Debrett, v. 465.
  • 10. Hist. Eng. Poor Lawi. 171.
  • 11. Stockdale, iii. 35.
  • 12. T29/54/114.
  • 13. Stockdale, ii. 134.