MACKRETH, Robert (d.1819), of Ewhurst, Hants.
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Family and Education
m. 22 Oct. 1761, Mary, da. and h. of Robert Arthur, coffee house proprietor, of St. James’s Street, Mdx., s.p. Kntd. 8 May 1795.
Mackreth’s rise to prominence and notoriety as a usurer and dealer in landed estates after his marriage to the daughter of the owner of the London coffee house where he had once worked as a waiter is well documented, but little is known of his origins. He was a native of Kendal, Westmorland, where he was accustomed to make an annual donation of £50 for distribution among the poor and where he still had property and female relatives at the time of his death.1 He may have been the Robert Mackreth who was baptized in Greyrigg chapel, Kendal parish on 27 Nov. 1727, the son of one William Mackreth of Whinfell, possibly the man of that name who had married Agnes Jackson in the chapel of Longsleddale on 6 May 1724. Another William Mackreth, whose wife Margaret died, aged 44, on 12 Mar. 1744, was mayor of Kendal in 1737 and in 1720 had subscribed one guinea to the building of a dissenters’ meeting house in the town. William Mackreth of Whinfell had another son, Thomas, baptized at Greyrigg on 4 Mar. 1726, who was almost certainly the man who died on 9 Jan. 1787, aged 60, having been master of the Kendal hospital and charity school for 40 years.2 Identification of this Member with the son of William of Whinfell must remain tentative, for his own claim in February 1818 that he was ‘92 years of age’, the statement in his obituary notice at the time of his death early in 1819 that he was ‘in his 94th year’ and Jeremy Bentham’s belief that he was 94 when he died point to a birth date in 1725.3
Returned again for Ashburton by his patron and debtor the 3rd Earl of Orford in 1790, Mackreth, who was marked ‘for’ in the ministerial election survey of that year and ‘pro’ in the one compiled for 1796, continued to support government. In 1791 he was considered hostile to the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland. After Orford’s death that year, as one of his executors he was closely involved in the sale of the residue of the Ashburton property to his coheir, Robert George William Trefusis, later 17th Baron Clinton. On 1 Mar. 1794 he told his co-executor Anthony Hamond that he had ‘every assurance of Lord Clinton’s support and interest at a future election’ for Ashburton, and he was duly returned in 1796.
In 1793 he was fined £100 and imprisoned for six weeks on an indictment brought by Sir John Scott*, whom he had insulted and challenged in consequence of Scott’s having acted as counsel for his opponent in the Fox Lane lawsuit, which had cost him at least £20,000. He wrote to Hamond from his confinement, 20 May 1793:
I could not refrain from addressing the court to know whether I might be permitted to say a few words ... The court gave me leave ... I obliquely hinted at the injustice that had been done to me by the channels being shut to my prayer ... for a trial by a jury. My delivery I am told was manly, firm and energetic, so much so, that a pin might have been heard to drop while I was speaking. I am also told from everyone that though I stood well in the opinion of mankind before, my conduct in this instance has done me more honour than it is possible for me to conceive ... It is said that having pursued this business in exposing certain descriptions of men, that [sic] I have rendered essential service to the public, and that I shall stand esteemed while living, and recorded in the annals of my country when I am no more.
Mackreth clearly had a large capacity for self-deception. Pitt for one treated him with scant regard, apparently ignoring his repeated claims for financial restitution in a dispute with the excise commissioners and driving him to an outburst of indignation, 15 Oct. 1795:
As a gentleman and a Member of the British Senate I flatter myself I may be entitled to an answer, though perhaps that answer may not be consonant to my wishes. A state of suspense few tempers can bear, trifling as may be the point at issue; but I must own I have felt much more from your indecision, than any accessary advantage could possibly compensate.4
On 29 Apr. 1795 he commented to Hamond that
Parliament is acting spiritedly and pointedly on the second application for payment of the Prince of Wales’s debts ... in my humble opinion it is high time, more especially in the present distressed situation of the country, to check the lavish dissipation of the younger branches of the royal family, as well as all other descriptions of men who have places and pensions (without merit) beyond what the country in its present calamitous situation is well able to bear.
Nine days later he was knighted, ostensibly as one of the Westminster burgesses who presented an address to the King on the occasion of the Prince’s marriage.5
Mackreth, who in 1818 owned ‘three undivided tenth parts or shares of plantations’ in Grenada,6 voted against the abolition of the slave trade, 15 Mar. 1796. Writing to Hamond, 24 Nov. 1797, of reports that Pitt intended to ‘double, triple and quadruple the assessed taxes’, he observed that ‘it will be more than the people are able to bear’; and on 4 Dec., in his only known speech, he criticized the scheme and recommended an alternative plan for a tax on mortgages, equalization of the land tax and the sale of forests and mortmain lands, which would ‘destroy the corrupt influence of the crown’. He nevertheless voted for the third reading of the assessed taxes augmentation bill, 4 Jan. 1798. With Clinton’s death and succession by a minor in 1797, when management of the property passed to trustees, Mackreth’s connexion with Ashburton was effectively broken. Brigg Fountaine, one of Orford’s executors, commented to Hamond, 3 May 1799, that had Clinton lived he and Mackreth ‘would never have got out of Chancery’. Late in 1798 Mackreth fell ill and was ‘confined for 13 or 14 months’. On 31 Jan. 1800, when he was confident of ‘a thorough restoration of health’, he predicted to Hamond that as the war had become one of ‘extermination’, Pitt would soon be unable ‘to raise money to pay the interest of the national debt, and the increased enormous expense of the executive government’. He was replaced at Ashburton in 1802 by a friend of one of the Clinton managing trustees.
In his will, dated 12 Dec. 1818, Mackreth boasted that he had ‘always endeavoured’ to act the honest and upright part through life’, but he was never really trusted and his co-executors found him slippery and devious when it came to making him part with trust money in his hands. Fountaine wrote that he ‘seems to spend a good income in running about the kingdom estate jobbing’ (10 June 1798) and wished that ‘the ferrets of the law’ would ‘catch him in his burrow’, as ‘they might be able to scratch what little fur he has remaining without’, though ‘of what he has within I have little expectation they will succeed in’ (3 May 1799). He must be pinned down to a meeting, wrote Edmund Rolfe to Hamond, 3 May 1799, for otherwise he would ‘always shuffle and procrastinate’.
Bentham, who had been friendly with Mackreth until, so he claimed, he had inadvertently pricked his vanity by appearing to mock him, ‘lost much enjoyment and much instruction in losing his friendship’ and recalled him as ‘a clever, well-informed man’, whose burning ambition was ‘to be considered a gentleman, and to be admitted among the quality’. In this ‘he often was disappointed, for those who knew he had been a waiter at Arthur’s, could not bear the thought of recognising his equality’: ‘there were so many behind whose chairs he had officated at dinner, that it would not do’ and he was ‘excluded from their company’.7 On his death in 1819 Ewhurst went to his great nephew Henry Williams, and legacies to Sarah Mackreth of Kendal and her sister Barbara Tyson of Hawkshead. He referred in his will to £25,000 which might be ordered to be paid to him by the court of Chancery.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: David R. Fisher
Quotations, unless otherwise stated are from the Hamond mss (Norf. RO).
- 1. Leeds Intelligencer, 18 Jan. 1791; PCC 388 Ellenboro’.
- 2. E. Bellasis, Westmld. Church Notes, ii. 41; F. Nicholson and E. Axon, Older Nonconformity in Kendal. Miss S. J. Macpherson of Kendal RO kindly supplied information from the parish registers.
- 3. Hamond mss, Mackreth to Hamond, 6 Feb. 1818; Gent. Mag. (1819), i. 282; Works of Bentham ed. Bowring, x. 48.
- 4. PRO 30/8/154, ff. 243-9.
- 5. W. H. Manchée, Westminster City Fathers, 173-4.
- 6. PCC 388 Ellenboro’.
- 7. Works of Bentham, x. 48-50.