NEWDIGATE, Sir Roger, 5th Bt. (1719-1806), of Arbury, Warws. and Harefield, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 20 May 1719, 7th s. of Sir Richard Newdigate, 3rd Bt., by his 2nd w. Elizabeth, da. of Sir Roger Twisden, 2nd Bt., M.P., of Bradbourne, Kent. educ. Westminster 1727; Univ. Coll. Oxf. 1736; Grand Tour (France, Italy, the Netherlands) 1738-40. m. (1) 31 May 1743, Sophia (d. 9 July 1774), da. of Edward Conyers, M.P., of Copt Hall, Essex, sis. of John Conyers, s.p.; (2) 3 June 1776, Hester, da. of Edward Mundy of Shipley, Derbys., sis. of Edward Miller Mundy s.p. suc. bro. as 5th Bt. 14 Apr. 1734.
Newdigate was a large landowner in both Warwickshire and Middlesex, well-qualified to represent either county. He owed his adoption by Oxford University to his Middlesex friend and supporter James Clitherow, who introduced him to William Blackstone, fellow of All Souls and one of the leaders of the Old Interest at Oxford. In 1754 Oxford was one of the few places where the word Tory retained any meaning, and Newdigate was the ideal representative for the University. He was independent of ministers or party leaders; rigidly attached to the Church of England and opposed to all changes in its constitution, liturgy, or privileges; and suspicious of a court which seemed to him alien and which pursued a foreign policy he regarded as un-English. In 1754 he was returned without a contest.
He took his duties seriously, and in a tiny hand noted down in his pocket book the day’s proceedings in Parliament.1 From these books it is possible to calculate his attendance each session. Thus in 1754-5, when he was chief manager for the Old Interest over the Oxfordshire election petition, he was present on 105 out of the 122 days on which Parliament sat—an 85% attendance, very high indeed for the period and which he himself never surpassed. From 1755 to 1759 his average yearly attendance was 61%, a very high figure taking into account the barrenness in parliamentary interest of the years of the Newcastle-Pitt Coalition.
He also took notes of the most important debates, which form a valuable source for a period when debates were not publicly reported. Sometimes he merely jotted down the names of the speakers, adding ‘pro’ or ‘con’; but on some debates (especially those concerned with finance) wrote long and detailed reports. His notes on the Oxfordshire election case would fill a small book, and consist mainly of an examination of individual freeholders’ qualifications. Preoccupied with routine and trivial detail, he seemed to find satisfaction in the tedious work of election disputes. He was a member of the group of country gentlemen which in March 1755 met at the Horn Tavern to consider what line to adopt on the Mitchell election petition, and took the lead in urging that the question (which he had studied carefully) should be decided purely on its merits.
His connexions were with the country gentlemen of his own region, such as the Mordaunts of Warwickshire or the Bagots of Staffordshire; he had little to do with the West country or North of England Tories; and distrusted such as William Beckford or Sir John Philipps, who sought to play the political game. Newdigate watched unconcerned the struggle for power between Pitt, Fox, and Newcastle; but when Pitt took office tended to support him. On 14 Jan. 1757 he was one of the group of country gentlemen who discussed with George and Charles Townshend the projected inquiry into the loss of Minorca and the reverses in North America. It was ‘resolved to leave it to the gentlemen in Administration to consider what [should be] expedient’; and Newdigate, who began by taking the inquiry seriously, soon abandoned hopes of anything being done. About the debate of 14 Mar. 1757, on Sir William Baker’s contract, he wrote:
Inquiry into American contract in order to cover a scandalous bargain, extended beyond its intention or execution, and then by a majority of advocates of the late Administration voted to be a wise and prudent measure—a specimen of what is to be expected from inquiries in such a House.
And when Pitt proposed to pay subsidies to foreign powers, Newdigate opposed him as he had opposed Newcastle. On 19 Apr. 1757 he wrote about the grant of £670,000 to the King of Prussia: ‘Gave my negative to every proposition—no British measure.’
The entry in his diary for 3 Mar. 1759 reads: ‘Took the oaths in the court of King’s bench to qualify for militia captain.’ He flung himself heart and soul into the work of the militia, busied himself with the details of drill and dress, and took pride in his new authority and responsibility. He spent the summer of 1759 recruiting and exercising his men; went up to London in November for the meeting of Parliament; and, in his diary for 13 Nov., noted only one point from Pitt’s long speech in the debate on the Address: ‘Mr. Pitt said owing to militia that the plan [of the war] was not interrupted. If he had not had it he would have moved to recall the army from Germany. Unanimous.’ Most of the next two years he spent with the militia: his attendance during the parliamentary session 1759-60 was only 11%, and 33% in that of 1760-1; and on 24 Nov. 1761 he was one of the group of country gentlemen who discussed with Pitt and Charles Townshend a petition to make the militia perpetual.
On 12 Nov. 1760, a few days after the accession of George III, he was presented at the levee and kissed the King’s hand (he appears never to have attended any of George II’s levees). Shelburne tried to win him for Bute through Blackstone,2 and he was included in Fox’s list of Members favourable to the peace preliminaries. But Newdigate still followed a ‘country’ line. About this time he wrote:3
I can’t answer your question what my party is. I am only sure it is neither Cumberland nor Pelham; landed men must love peace, men proscribed and abused for 50 years together [should] be presented with fools caps if they make ladders for tyrant Whigs to mount by. I like the King and shall be with his ministers as long as I think an honest man ought, and believe it best not to lose the country gentleman in the courtier.
Still, there was a change in his attitude: he would not have written of George II as he did of George III, nor did he now consistently oppose Administration as he had done before 1757. In part this was the result of the change at court: thus on 24 Feb. 1763 Newdigate, with other Tories, attended a meeting to hear the secretary at war explain the army estimates—under George II the court would not have invited Tories to such a meeting.
During the session of 1763-4 his attendance, due to the illness of his wife, was only 26%. He came up for the debates on general warrants, and wrote in his diary on 14 Feb.:
Came to Spring Gardens [from Arbury] at 5. Found a note from Charles Mordaunt that House was sitting and I was desired to come, pulled off my boots, tea, and was there at 6.
He sat the debate out and did not leave the House until 7.25 the next morning, presumably having voted with Administration. Similarly, he was present at the next debate, of 17 Feb., which did not end until 5.30 a.m. on 18 Feb. And here is the entry in his diary for 21 Feb.:
Mr. Grenville’s levee, where I met most of the country gentlemen by agreement. Mr. Grenville, first lord of the Treasury’s levee, the first time I was ever at a minister’s levee.
Grenville’s policy of entrenchment appealed to Newdigate, but he had no confidence in Rockingham and voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act. During the first year of the Chatham ministry he kept in touch with Grenville, and on 27 Mar. 1767 said in the Commons that he had never admired any Administration except his,4 but never acknowledged Grenville as a party leader and continued to look at politics with the eyes of a country gentleman. He spoke against the court on the land tax, 27 Feb., and on the motion to provide extra allowances for the King’s brothers, 24 Mar.; and on 17 Feb. 1768 voted for the nullum tempus bill. And here are some notes he made for a speech on Beckford’s bribery bill, February 1768:
Not sufficient of itself to restore—you must unravel by degrees the strong lines of the web. Remount to the first principles of the constitution—repeal Septennial Act—not to introduce Triennial Parliaments but annual. To restore the ancient weight and dignity of families, honours, and great estates, would ease the noble and great of their anxieties, who now sit brooding over their borough[s], eyeing with the utmost solicitude the birds of prey from the East and West who are hovering over them. Could wish even to see restored the pay to the Members, the weekly pay, for then men would take care to see they earned it.
In 1768 four candidates offered themselves for Oxford University—the first contest since 1751, but Newdigate was generally agreed to be in no danger of losing his seat. He was vigilant in protecting the interests of his constituents; his political and religious attitude commended him to most of them; and his position was greatly strengthened by the benefactions he had made to the University (he was the founder of the Newdigate prize). He was returned head of the poll by an overwhelming majority.
After 1768 political and religious feeling drove him closer to Administration than he had ever been before. In the session of 1768-9 he voted regularly with the court over Wilkes and the Middlesex election, but against them on 28 Feb. and 1 Mar. on Dowdeswell’s motions for papers concerning the civil list debt; and his attendance reached the figure of 82%—his highest since 1754-5, the year of the Oxfordshire election dispute. In February 1770 he was sent North’s whip as if he were a regular Government supporter. But he never lost the country gentleman in the courtier: at dinner with North on 14 Feb. 1771 he pressed for a reduction of the land tax, and on 4 Mar. 1772 voted for Sawbridge’s motion for shorter Parliaments. The Tory demands of the early eighteenth century for annual Parliaments and the exclusion of placemen from the Commons had been taken over by the town radicals; and Newdigate now found himself in a curious position—voting sometimes with Administration and sometimes with the extreme wing of the Opposition.
Religion, even more than politics, drove him over to North. In 1772 North became chancellor of Oxford University, and for the first time since Queen Anne’s day High Churchmen felt they had a friend in power. About the same time a series of attacks began on the position and privileges of the Church of England, which Newdigate vigorously opposed: the bill to repeal the observance of Charles I’s execution, 1772; the petition for relief from subscription to the 39 Articles, 1772; Meredith’s motion to abolish the University tests, 1773; etc. Newdigate took the lead against all attempts to relieve Dissenters, which, he said in the House on 10 Mar. 1779,5 ‘ought to be opposed by every man who held the constitution of his country sacred, and who regarded the religion of his country ... as the foundation of all our liberties’.
In 1774, following the death of his wife, he began a long tour of the Continent, and at the general election was elected for the University in his absence and without opposition. During this tour he made vast additions to the collection of pictures, engravings, and statuary to adorn the Gothic reconstruction at Arbury which was one of the major interests of his life. He returned to Parliament without any enthusiasm. Only three speeches are reported between 1775 and 1780, and though he approved of North’s attitude towards the colonies, he had little confidence in his ability to wage successful war. He voted with the court on the contractors bill, 12 Feb. 1779; was absent from the next five divisions for which lists are available; voted for Dunning’s motion, 6 Apr. 1780; and though he voted with the court on the motion against prorogation, 24 Apr., was classed by Robinson in his list for the general election of 1780 as ‘doubtful’.
Long before the general election rumours had been circulating around the University that he did not intend to stand again, and in 1780 his friends advised him to make a public declaration of his intentions. His letter of resignation to the vice-chancellor is that of a disillusioned man, ascribing the nation’s disasters to ‘majorities implicitly following the dictates of the ministers of the day, changing their opinions as the minister was changed ... the people at large more corrupt than even the representative body, and that more corrupt than even the minister himself’.
As a landowner Newdigate contributed greatly to the economic advancement of the Midlands. The coal mines on his estate at Bedworth, near Coventry, had been developed by his father, and Newdigate sought to link them by canal to Coventry. He was also active in the promotion of the Oxford canal and the Coventry to Leicester turnpike road.
He died 23 Nov. 1806.