PLUMMER, John (1780-1839), of 32 Fenchurch Street, London and Fort Lodge, Margate, Kent
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Family and Educationbap. 11 July 1780, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Thomas Plummer†, merchant, of Camberwell, Surr. and w. Sarah. m. 6 Mar. 1810, Mary, da. of John Taylor of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 3s. 5da. (2 d.v.p.).1 suc. fa. 1818. d. 1 Oct. 1839.
Dir. W.I. Dock Co. 1815, London Marine Assurance 1817.
Plummer’s family background is largely unknown, though his mother may have been one Sarah Oliver, who was baptized at St Anne’s, Soho, 14 Jan. 1739, and married a Thomas Plummer in the same church, 31 Oct. 1768. Like his father and elder brother, Thomas William (bap. 17 Dec. 1776), who were both briefly Members of Parliament in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Plummer was a West India merchant with interests in shipping and insurance.2 Though it is not clear when he entered the family business, he undoubtedly played a part in the firm, which was usually called Plummer, Barham and Plummer, and was based, successively, at 2 Fen Court, Fenchurch Street, 2 Philpot Lane, Thames Street, and, by 1816, at 32 Fenchurch Street. The West India Planters and Merchants’ Committee added him to the committee for managing their rum establishment in Fenchurch Street, 12 May 1813, but the ‘Mr. Plummer jnr.’ mentioned as attending the committee’s meetings for some years prior to this was probably his brother. This is also true of similar entries in the minutes of the Merchants’ Committee, though he was specifically mentioned as being present on four occasions in 1814.3 His business letters to Joseph Foster Barham*, who was a partner in the firm until 1815, when he made way for his brother John Foster Barham*, show that he was in charge of its administration by the mid-1810s.4 This was before the deaths of his brother in 1817, when he was living in Abbeville, France, and, in 1818, of his father, who had also probably retired. Plummer inherited the latter’s entire estate, including personalty sworn under £60,000.5
Since 1807 the family had acted as agents for the Jamaican estates of William Beckford† of Fonthill, who was often irritated by the attempts of the ‘Plummer people’, as called them, to impose some sort of order on his affairs. He controlled and occupied one seat at Hindon, the sale of which was identified as a possible source of revenue to set against his increasing debts. In 1817 he complained that his attorney had ‘made me an offer of £4,000 a year if I will go to the continent and leave a certain faithful Mr. John Plummer to Member-ify in my place’. Two years later he wrote that ‘without a severe rule about every kind of purchase, great or small, one will certainly fall under the rule of Messrs. Plummer, who, refusing to advance a penny more, will force the sale of [Fonthill]’.6 At the general election of 1820 he yielded the representation of Hindon to Plummer, who agreed to pay all the electoral expenses, to underwrite mortgages to the value of nearly £35,000 and to settle other debts, and to increase the firm’s annual payment to Beckford (out of the income on his Jamaican property) from £4,000 to £5,000.7 On 11 Mar., a few days after being returned unopposed, Plummer rather misleadingly informed Foster Barham
of the proposition Mr. Beckford was good enough to make me of occupying his interest at Hindon as he found it more convenient to himself to remain out of Parliament and in accepting which I assure [you that] my object is the hope of being useful to West India interests.8
A regular attender at the meetings of both the Merchants’, and the Planters and Merchants’ Committees from the early 1820s, his parliamentary activities were, indeed, largely concerned with the protection of his mercantile affairs.9 Though basically a supporter of the Liverpool administration, he displayed little consistency in his voting behaviour.
He voted against the appointment of an additional baron of exchequer in Scotland, 15 May 1820. He divided with ministers against repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr., and reduction of the adjutant-general’s office and barracks grants, 11 Apr., 28 May, but was listed in the minority against them on the miscellaneous services grant, 28 May 1821. He voted against more extensive tax reductions to relieve distress, 11 Feb. 1822. He was appointed to the select committee on foreign trade, 25 Feb. (as he was again in the following two sessions), and in his first known speech, 1 Apr., he applauded the introduction of the foreign trade bill and warned that a famine threatened the West Indies. He sided with opposition to condemn Sir Robert Wilson’s* removal from the army, 13 Feb., and for reduction of the salt duty, 28 Feb., 28 June. Although he was named in the majority against abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar., he apparently voted in the majority for this, 2 May. He divided for criminal law reform, 4 June, and in condemnation of chancery delays, 26 June, but against investigation of the conduct of the lord advocate towards the press in Scotland, 25 June 1822.
Activated by motives of both humanitarianism and pragmatism, Plummer fully concurred in Foster Barham’s plans for ameliorating the condition of the slaves:
I have long since discountenanced the unnecessary extension of labour in producing sugars and I should be happy to find that your idea of employing it in the cultivation of articles of provision frequently imported without occasion, or even in the products for exportation, was more generally adopted. It is certainly only in the diminution of expenditure, that West India property can now be preserved.
In early 1823 he was cheered by an upturn in the market, though he thought it ‘more owing to political appearances than to any other cause’, and considered that the possible appointment of a Commons select committee on East India sugar ‘may do us good rather than otherwise’. Particularly assiduous in his attendance at the Planters and Merchants’ Committee at this time, he was named to a committee to carry into effect its opposition to the expected anti-slavery motion in the Commons, 25 Apr. He was not a member of the delegation which waited on ministers at Fife House (Lord Liverpool’s residence) in May, but he wrote that
I do not think the reception was a very favourable one by ministers, as they admitted that though they should oppose Mr. [Thomas Fowell] Buxton’s motion, they could not refuse to admit the propriety of looking eventually to abolition. If this was to be done upon the principle of adequate and simultaneous compensation it might be just, but they say you must prove a loss before we can listen to compensation. Justice so deferred may never be given. They do however (at least Mr. Canning did) admit that the surrender of the one day’s labour is some sacrifice and express their readiness to give some bonus for it. I shall not be sorry if they do compensate a sacrifice it is in our own interest to make.10
He spoke briefly about the condition of apprentices on merchant vessels, 13 Mar., presented a petition from Nevis against repeal of the protecting duty on East Indian sugar, 22 May, and asked a question about the continuance of the trade in slaves between British colonies, 4 July.11 He voted with government against limiting the sinking fund, 3, 13 Mar., repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr., inquiry into the legal proceedings against the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and reform of the Scottish representative system, 2 June. He was in the minorities against Stuart Wortley’s amendment approving British neutrality towards the French invasion of Spain, 30 Apr., though he had ‘really intended to vote for the amendment’, and against the committal of the usury bill, 17 June 1823.
He was, however, in the majorities for going into committee on the measure, 27 Feb., 8 Apr. 1824. He voted against the committal of the beer duties bill, 24 May. He was named to a deputation to ministers from the Planters and Merchants’ Committee to ask for a reduction of the rum duty, 4 Mar., and was appointed to a committee to improve its internal finances, 5 Apr. (and again, 20 June 1825).12 He attacked the marine insurance bill as a violation of the charters of those companies which monopolized the business, 17 May. He brought up petitions against the bill from one of these companies, London Marine Assurance, of which he was a director, 26, 31 May.13 He spoke against it again, 27 May, as he did on 3, 14 June, when he was a teller for minorities against it in three divisions. He voted in condemnation of the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June. He divided with ministers for the Irish insurrection bill, 14 June 1824. He had voted for Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, and although he was in the hostile minority on 1 Mar., he did so again, 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. He spoke against the Mauritius trade bill, 3 June, when he was a teller for the minority in favour of the wrecking amendment, and three days later he said that it would be a ‘very great act of injustice’ to the West India interest to allow the entry of sugar from Mauritius.14 He divided in the majorities for the duke of Cumberland’s grant, 30 May, 6, 10 June, the St. Olave tithe bill, 6 June, and the spring guns bill, 21 June. His last known votes were against going into committee on the Bank Charter Acts, 13 Feb., for receiving the report on the salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr., and against resolutions to curb electoral bribery, 26 May 1826.
In the early 1820s Beckford’s financial position became untenable, not least because he was heavily in debt to his West Indian agents, who threatened to foreclose. His lawyer informed the duke of Hamilton, 3 Nov. 1821, of the
absolute necessity for an early payment to Mr. Beckford’s merchants of £30,000, towards reduction of the debt of £40,000 remaining due to them, without which, they have intimated their inability, during the depressed state of West India produce, to continue their present quarterly payments to Mr. Beckford, or the payment of the interest of the £50,000 part of the mortgages on the Fonthill estate (amounting in the whole to £70,000) which they have hitherto discharged and which has tended considerably to increase the balance due to them.
Even after the sale of some Jamaican estates to meet part of these liabilities, Plummer was still owed well over £12,500, and since this was the valuation put on the seat at Hindon, there was a possibility that he might have taken over the interest.15 However, Beckford sold Fonthill in 1822, and so avoided letting it fall into Plummer’s clutches. The electoral influence passed to Lord Grosvenor, and despite trying to come to an arrangement with him and the other patron of the borough, Lord Calthorpe, Plummer was left without a seat at the general election of 1826.16 He is not known to have sought one elsewhere, and never sat in the Commons again.
Plummer and Wilson, as his company was known from the mid-1820s, was itself in an increasingly precarious position, and on 5 Nov. 1830 Plummer apologized to Foster Barham that ‘the house is so poor that it cannot advance the £250 before the dividends’. On 24 Nov. he informed Beckford’s attorneys of his ‘apprehensions that our house cannot long continue its payments owing to the extreme pressure on its resources which the long continued and unceasing pressure of West India property has occasioned’. They were declared bankrupt at the start of December 1830, but, as had been hoped, Plummer and William Wilson became partners in a new firm led by Thomson Hankey, another West India merchant, at 7 Mincing Lane. They brought with them clients such as Beckford, so that within ten years most of the debts had been repaid.17 Plummer remained a partner until his death in October 1839, at his then residence in Bedford Square, and was buried with his father and two of his daughters at Carshalton, Surrey. He divided his estate between his six surviving children, of whom the eldest, Thomas William, was born in 1812.18
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Stephen Farrell
- 1. IGI (London, Surr.); Gent. Mag. (1810), ii. 753.
- 2. IGI (London); The Times, 7 Feb. 1825; HP Commons, 1790-1820, iv. 836-7.
- 3. Inst. of Commonwealth Stud. M915/2, 3.
- 4. Bodl. Clarendon dep. c. 361, bdle. 3.
- 5. PROB 11/1603/195; IR26/756/322.
- 6. Life at Fonthill ed. B. Alexander, 85, 125, 208, 306, 326.
- 7. Bodl. ms. Beckford. c. 30, f. 105b.
- 8. Clarendon dep. c. 361, bdle. 3.
- 9. Inst. of Commonwealth Stud. M915/2-4.
- 10. Ibid. M915/4; L.J. Ragatz, Fall of Planter Class, 411; Clarendon dep. c. 361, bdle. 3, Plummer to Foster Barham, 6 Sept. 1822, 17, 28 Feb., 13, 17 May, 18 Sept. 1823.
- 11. The Times, 14 Mar., 23 May, 5 July 1823.
- 12. Inst. of Commonwealth Stud. M915/4.
- 13. The Times, 27 May, 1 June 1824.
- 14. Ibid. 7 June 1825.
- 15. Ms. Beckford. c. 30, f. 114; c. 39, ff. 25, 27, 36, 56; Life at Fonthill, 326-31; B. Alexander, England’s Wealthiest Son, 189-91, 286.
- 16. Clarendon dep. c. 362, bdle. 3, Plummer to Foster Barham, 21, 24 June 1825, 4 Mar. 1826.
- 17. Clarendon dep. c. 362, bdle. 3; c. 389, bdle. 7; ms. Beckford. c. 30, ff. 143, 148; The Times, 4 Dec. 1830, 16 Mar., 2 June 1840.
- 18. Gent. Mag. (1839), ii. 545; G.B. Brightling, Carshalton, 72-73; PROB 11/1917/646; IGI (Surr.).