HERRIES, Sir Robert (1730-1815), of Richmond, Surr.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 1730, 1st s. of William Herries of Halldykes, Dumfries, by his 1st w. Katherine, da. of John Henderson of Broadholme, Dumfries. m. (1) his cos. Grace (d. 1773), da. of John Henderson of Broadholme, s.p., (2) 12 Aug. 1777, Catherine, da. of Rev. Francis Hender Foote of Charlton Place, Kent, wid. of John Ross, s.p. suc. fa. 1777; kntd. 25 Feb. 1774.
Herries1 was the son of a prodigal father, whose brother Robert, a Rotterdam merchant, rescued the family from ruin, took young Robert into his business in 1747, and purchased the Halldykes estate in 1751.2 When his uncle retired to Scotland, Herries remained in Holland in partnership with another uncle until c. 1753, when with the assistance of Hope and Company of Amsterdam he established himself as a wine merchant in Barcelona. Subsequently he extended his interests to Valencia and Montpelier, and developed trade connexions in America, France, and the Mediterranean. In 1762 he accepted the invitation of Thomas and James Coutts to become principal partner in their father’s banking and commercial firm, John Coutts and Company of Edinburgh and London, withdrew from all his enterprises except that at Barcelona, and established his headquarters in London. In 1771 the Coutts brothers severed all connexion with the firm, leaving Herries and his partners Sir William Forbes and James Hunter Blair in control, who then, in association with Herries’s relations and Sir William Pulteney, founded the London Exchange Banking Company for handling the ‘circular exchange notes’ (prototype of travellers’ cheques) which Herries had invented. Through the Hopes, the Company established a network of exchange facilities extending from Lisbon to Moscow.
Herries successfully intrigued against Thomas Walpole and the Edinburgh firm of William Alexander and Sons to obtain the lucrative tobacco-purchasing contract of the French farmers general, secured the Scottish contract in 1771, the London contract in 1774, and also control of the outport funds. His commercial speculations with the vast French balances so disturbed his Edinburgh associates, Forbes and Hunter Blair, that in 1775 they withdrew from the partnership; his private tobacco deals also offended the farmers general and almost lost him his contract which nevertheless he retained until the war with France.3
Herries’s wide knowledge of the City, of European, West Indian, and American affairs made him useful to the North Administration who in 1774 obtained for him a knighthood. He was consulted by North on the prospects of opposing Frederick Bull at the London by-election 1773;4 in June 1776 he sent to Germain a letter from a Philadelphia correspondent, probably Robert Morris, on the American situation, warning him confidentially that unless Herries could devise means of shipping American tobacco to France, he would be obliged to yield to the planters’ demands and himself contract for it with the farmers general.5 Thereafter Herries exerted himself to save his contract and block the American tobacco negotiations in Paris, harassing the Government for permission to trade with America despite the blockade laws. On 2 Mar. 1777 Robinson wrote to Dartmouth condemning Herries’s ‘extraordinary’ propositions, but on 3 Mar. was chagrined to find that despite North’s disapproval Germain had given letters of protection to Herries’s agent to go to British occupied areas in America in an attempt to purchase tobacco.6 In 1778 his memorial on his French tobacco interest was recommended by Germain to the British conciliation commissioners with instructions to further his affairs.7
For some time Herries had recognized that a parliamentary seat would be a useful asset. Through his numerous relations and his friendship with Pulteney, he had considerable influence in Dumfriesshire, and when in 1780 Queensberry withdrew his interest from Sir William Douglas, Herries received the nomination and was returned unopposed. In Parliament he consistently voted with North to the end of his Administration. Although not known to have been concerned in the East India Company, he submitted to Jenkinson on 2 May 17818 ‘Propositions for the renewing the charter of the East India Company’, which included the establishment of branches at Bristol, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Hull, the appointment of a committee of war and finance including eight M.P.s, and direct trade between India and the American colonies.
He voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783; and on 11 Mar., in his first reported speech, opposed the bill for renewing trade with America, although its over-generous terms would be to his own advantage:
He had a house at Barcelona for thirty years and another at Ostend and by these might make an immense fortune. But as a Member of Parliament and a good citizen he must condemn the bill.
But he was also critical of Fox’s bill abolishing the regulations requiring American ships to produce bonds and other documents, protesting that certificates of lading and of health were essential, and that America should conform to the same rules as other nations. In general, however, he was a silent supporter of the Coalition. His only other reported speech was made on 4 Dec. 1783 when he opposed the expulsion of Christopher Atkinson, proclaimed his belief in his innocence, and offered to stand bail for his appearance.9
He voted for Fox’s East India bill on 27 Nov. 1783, but in December, shortly before Pitt took office, Robinson listed him ‘doubtful’ and believed he would eventually swing over to Pitt.10 Herries, however, remained faithful to the Coalition to the end of the Parliament and lost his seat at the general election.
He did not apparently seek to re-enter Parliament but concentrated on his commercial interests, travelled widely, kept closely in touch with foreign affairs, and lived for considerable periods in Paris.11 In 1798 he retired from business to Cheltenham, where he died 25 Feb. 1815.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest
- 1. For the information concerning Herries’s business career we are indebted to Dr. J. M. Price.
- 2. Misc. Gen. et Her. (ser. 4), iv. 301-5, 378-82.
- 3. Sir W. Forbes, Mems. of a Banking House, 9, 17-36, 45-53.
- 4. Fortescue, iii. 20.
- 5. HMC Stopford-Sackville, ii. 21-23.
- 6. HMC Dartmouth, ii. 434.
- 7. HMC Carlisle, 398.
- 8. Add. 38405, f. 120.
- 9. Debrett, ix. 482, 642; xii. 329, 330.
- 10. Laprade, 100.
- 11. Add. 36495, f. 386.