POTTER, Thomas (?1718-59), of Ridgmont, Beds.
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Family and Education
b. ?1718, 2nd s. of Rt. Rev. John Potter, bp. of Oxford (abp. of Canterbury 1737-47), by a da. of one Venner. educ. Ch. Ch. Oxf. 18 Nov. 1731, aged 13; M. Temple 1736, called 1740. m. (1) 17 Feb. 1740, Anne (d. 4 Jan. 1744), da. of Rev. Thomas Manningham, rector of Slinfold, Suss., 1s.; (2) 14 July 1747, a da. of one Lowe of Brightwell, Oxon., 2da. suc. fa. 1747.
Sec. to Prince of Wales 1748-51; jt. paymaster gen. Nov. 1756-Apr. 1757; jt. vice-treasurer [I] July 1757- d.
While still under his father’s roof at Lambeth Palace, Potter started on a life of dissipation. Reputed joint author with John Wilkes of the Essay on Woman, for which Wilkes was prosecuted, he may well have been its sole author and Wilkes merely its printer.1 The heir to his father's fortune of £100,000 (his elder brother was disinherited), he soon made his mark on the House of Commons. He was at first a follower of the Prince of Wales and after 1751 joined the Pitt-Grenville group. Horace Walpole, in his survey of the House at the end of 1755, included Potter among its foremost speakers;2 and Newcastle, in May 1757, named him in his list of ‘Speakers or Efficient Men’.3
In 1754 Potter was returned for Aylesbury apparently unopposed. In Dupplin's list of the new Parliament he was classed as ‘doubtful’; on 13 Nov. 1755 he voted with Pitt and the Grenvilles against the Address; in a letter to Temple, in October 1755, spoke of ‘the destruction of the Duke of Newcastle’ as ‘the great end’ of his life; and in 1756 was described by Pitt as one of the best friends he had in the world. When Newcastle's resignation was imminent, Potter wrote to Pitt on 17 Oct. 1756:
If anything should take place, think on Pratt for attorney. If you have the lead in the House of Commons, ’tis fit you should have at your elbow a lawyer of your own. He may be brought into Parliament ... for Lord Feversham's borough of Downton.4
The advice was sound; but few if any would have presumed to proffer it to Pitt in that familiar, offhand manner—had perhaps Potter broken through the wall of Pitt's tense isolation, and planted himself where others dreaded to enter?
When the new Administration was being formed in November 1756, Potter was marked out for joint paymaster. The King, Devonshire told Temple, ‘objected in the strongest manner ... as a thing unheard of at the first step in his service’; yet it was done. But when they kissed hands, on 4 Dec., Potter was too ill to attend. He felt ‘doomed to the wicker chair for the rest of his life’ and spent much of his time at Prior Park near Bath, at the hospitable house of Ralph Allen (whom he repaid by obscene ridicule directed in the Essay on Woman against Bishop Warburton, who was married to Allen's favourite niece). In the Newcastle-Pitt Administration of July 1757, Potter became joint vice-treasurer of Ireland—‘most people thought he was not entitled to an employment of such rank and profit’, wrote Charles Lyttelton.5
The assumption of office by Pitt and Potter and Henley's promotion to keeper of the great seal vacated their seats, and a reshuffle ensued, engineered by Potter and paid for by Wilkes.6 Pitt replaced Henley at Bath, Potter Pitt at Okehampton, and Wilkes Potter at Aylesbury. Further—
Sir Robert Henley [wrote Potter to Allen at the end of June] has promised to resign the recordership [of Bath] when we choose he should ... He mentioned Mr. Pratt as a fit person, but, if you approve it, I have many reasons which induce me to take it myself, having had an education at the bar, and being, I trust, qualified for it.
And so Potter came to hold the recordership of Bath after Northington and before Camden.
On a vacancy in the representation of Bedfordshire Potter wrote to the Duke of Bedford from Prior Park on 30 Sept. 1758:
Your Grace will not I hope think it presumtption in me if I offer myself (not to the county my Lord) but to your Grace. I should propose to vacate Okehampton, and fill up the place for the county. At the next election, I or my son should be infinitely honoured by being joined with Lord Tavistock ...
I have no other merit to boast than the share of property I hold in the county, and the goodwill of most of my neighbours ... Hitherto I have been a voluntary vagabond. Your Grace chose that I should be so, and I have submitted.
Bedford, in his reply on 2 Oct., promised his fullest support on this occasion, but would not give ‘any absolute promise for the next general election’.
I have always showed my willingness to act with you in the utmost harmony in what relates to the county, and nothing but your having declared to me, that your connexions were different from mine could have made me wish to see you elected out of this neighbourhood. I have given orders for advertising a meeting at Bedford for Wednesday the 25th instant.
Thus Potter was reasonably certain of being elected; yet he stood down. On 14 Oct. he wrote to the Duke:
It has pleased God to disappoint those views of mine which your Grace was pleased to favour. I am once more struck upon the bed of sickness; nor is there an expectation that I should rise from it so as to be able to present myself on the 25th, to the meeting of the county.
And to Pitt, still from Prior Park, on 25 Oct.:
I have been obliged to renounce the project in Bedfordshire, by which I have renounced an establishment for my son; for to him I should have resigned at the general election, depending for myself on the friendship of my good host, who is more to me than a father.
Which means he had expected, in about two years time, to turn once more a ‘voluntary vagabond’, and be elected at Bath.7
The Duchess of Bedford wrote to her husband on 5 Nov.:
People begin to come round to my opinion that there was some mystery in Mr. Potter's declining to stand for the county, whether there was or no I think it much better as it is.
About the same time Temple wrote to Grenville: ‘Potter exceedingly ill’.8 He died 17 June 1759.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Sir Lewis Namier
- 1. N. & Q. (ser. 2), iv. 1-2, 41-43, 74-75.
- 2. Mems. Geo. II, ii. 144.
- 3. Add. 32997, ff. 82-87.
- 4. Grenville Pprs. i. 145; Chatham Corresp. i. 173, 179.
- 5. Chatham Corresp. i. 154, 187-8; Grenville Pprs. i. 186; M. Wyndham, Chrons. of 18th Cent. ii. 224.
- 6. R.E.M. Peach, Life & Times of Ralph Allen, 159-67.
- 7. Bedford mss 37, f. 222; 38, ff. 10, 54; Chatham Corresp. i. 366.
- 8. Bedford mss 87, f. 120; Grenville Pprs. i. 276.