Saturday, 14 February 2015

Robert Clive in Shropshire; and what followed

(This follows my previous entry on "Shropshire politics in the 18th century")

It has always been accepted by historians that the British political scene changed after 1760. A young King, George III, came to the throne, succeeding his elderly grandfather, George II, who neither liked nor understood British Parliamentary politics and was always happier back home in Hanover, in north-western Germany, where he actually spent half his reign. The Jacobite challenge, which had dominated politics earlier in the century, was now dead, and the old party labels of Whig and Tory now carried little meaning. Party politics had actually been in a state of disintegration ever since the death of the long-serving Prime Minister, Henry Pelham, in 1754, but for a while this political meltdown was concealed by the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War with France in 1756 and the creation of a wartime coalition government under the Duke of Newcastle, Pelham’s brother and now leader of the “Old Whigs”, and William Pitt, whose whole appeal was cross-party, or indeed anti-party. By the time of George III’s accession in 1760, the war was clearly being won, and discussion now centred on how best to bring it to a close. Disagreements between Pitt and Newcastle quickly surfaced, and the new King complicated matters by his known dislike for both of them and his preference for his former tutor, Lord Bute. The upshot was a decade of political chaos and weak, short-lived governments. Pitt resigned in 1761 and Newcastle in 1762, leaving Bute to be Prime Minister and push through a compromise peace treaty with France. But he resigned next year, to be followed by George Grenville (1763-5), Lord Rockingham (1765-6), William Pitt returning to office as Earl of Chatham (1766-8) and the Duke of Grafton (1678-70). Stability was only restored under Lord North (1770-82), who however presided over defeat at the hands of the American colonists. (All this is covered in much more detail in my three earlier blog entries on George III and Lord Bute). A far greater factor in Shropshire politics in the second half of the century was the return to his native county of Robert Clive.

Robert Clive, from Styche Hall in Shropshire, was born in 1725. As a teenager he was sent out to Madras as a “writer” (clerk) in the East India Company at the princely sum of £5 a year. India in the 18th century was a mysterious land, several months’ sailing time from Britain, to which young men like Clive ventured to seek their fortunes. Many of them were never heard of again, but a small number returned, perhaps suffering from strange diseases or addicted to opium, but possessed of enormous wealth, gained by means of which it was best not to inquire. William Pitt’s grandfather, “Diamond” Pitt, had been one of these. 
     British possessions in India at this time amounted to little more than footholds around the three bases of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, where they warily faced the nearby bases of the French East India Company. Soon after Clive’s arrival, the War of the Austrian Succession spread to India, and he was able to demonstrate great military and diplomatic talents in repelling the attempts of the French and their Indian allies to drive the British from Madras.  It was the start of the Clive legend. 
    In 1753 he married and returned to England, already a hero and rich enough to stand for Parliament at Mitchell, a notoriously venal “rotten borough” in Cornwall. There he spent £5,000 in a successful campaign to win over the 55 voters of the constituency, only to have the result overturned by a vote of the House of Commons on the grounds of corruption!
   He returned to India, where his reputation soared to new heights. He defeated the pro-French forces at the battle of Plassey, regained Calcutta for the East India Company and deposed the local Nawab (the representative of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi), replacing him with his pro-British cousin. The British position in Bengal (roughly equivalent to the modern Bangladesh) now looked secure, and Clive returned home in 1760. He was hailed by William Pitt as a “heaven-born general”.
     Clive was now not only a hero, but an extremely rich man: rewards given him by the new Nawab were said to amount to £234,000. He began the rebuilding of his ancestral home at Styche, and rented a country house at Condover, near Shrewsbury. He was resolved to establish a base in Parliament, and formed an alliance in Shropshire with Lord Powis. A general election was due in 1761. Clive’s father Richard could expect to be returned unopposed for Montgomery, which was under Powis’s control, and in Shrewsbury Robert Clive and the sitting M.P. Thomas Hill were Powis’s preferred candidates.

The threat that Powis faced in1761 came not from new money but something older. William Pulteney had led the opposition to Sir Robert Walpole’s government for almost twenty years, but after the fall of his great enemy in 1742 he had proved a complete failure in government, accepted a peerage as Earl of Bath and retired from active politics. By 1760 he was a very rich man, and generally despised as a miser. He now re-entered the political scene by establishing a link with Lord Bute, George III’s favourite, and using this on behalf of his son, Lord Pulteney.
      Pulteney was already M.P. for Old Sarum, the most notorious “rotten borough” in the country, but now his ambitions were transferred to Shrewsbury. When in 1759 it became known that Robert More, one of the sitting M.P.s, intended to retire, Bath approached him to seek support, only to be rebuffed. The Mayor of Shrewsbury reported that the town corporation was backing Thomas Hill and Robert Clive (who at this stage, it should be noted, was still out in India), and that Pulteney could expect little support.
   Pulteney’s next move was extraordinary. He wrote to Pitt, offering to raise, at his own expense, a regiment to serve in the war, with himself as Lieutenant-colonel! King George II approved, naming the new regiment the “Royal Volunteers”. It was to be based in Shrewsbury (where it would doubtless have been expected to help with electioneering) and its officers were drawn from some of the most prominent noble and political families in the country. The Duke of Newcastle, desperate to avoid a confrontation with Powis, was thrown into a tizzy, but the electors of Shrewsbury stood firm and in 1761 Pulteney withdrew from the contest and Hill and Clive were returned unopposed. Instead Pulteney was elected for Westminster, but sailed abroad with his new regiment and died of fever in Madrid in early 1763, leaving Lord Bath (who had refused to give any financial support to the new regiment!) without a son and heir.
    Powis’s relationship with the new regime was uncertain. In 1761 he applied without success for Thomas Hill’s son Noel to be appointed Gentleman-Usher to Queen Charlotte, George III’s teenage bride. Then in March 1761, just days before the poll in Shrewsbury, he was abruptly sacked as Lord-Lieutenant for Shropshire, and replaced by Lord Bath. This was clearly done at the instigation of Bute. Two months later Newcastle tried to soften the blow to Powis’s pride by having him appointed Comptroller of the Royal Household and a Privy Councillor. Even so, the whole episode was a sign of how Newcastle’s influence at court was slipping.
The Members of Parliament elected for Shropshire at the 1761 General 
Election were as follows:-
for the County: Sir John Astley and Richard Lyster
for Shrewsbury: Thomas Hill and Robert Clive
for Ludlow: Edward Herbert and Henry Bridgman
for Bridgnorth: William Whitmore and John Grey
for Wenlock: Brooke Forester and Cecil Forester
for Bishop’s Castle: Francis Child and Peregrine Cust
     In the summer of 1761 Robert Clive was ennobled as Baron Clive of Plassey; but since this title was an Irish one, he was able to continue to sit in the House of Commons.

The new Parliament did not meet until October, by which time Pitt had resigned from the government. Newcastle, increasingly uneasy about his own position, appealed to Powis and his “friends” for support. But when Newcastle himself resigned in May 1762, he urged his supporters to remain in office; advice which Powis was only too pleased to accept. But by the autumn Newcastle was becoming alarmed at the peace terms that Bute and his envoy the Duke of Bedford were negotiating with the French, and was thinking that he ought to oppose them. He drew up lists of supporters and opponents: of the Shropshire M.P.s, Whitmore, Bridgman, Herbert, Hill, Clive and the two Foresters were rated as “friends”; Astley, Lyster, Grey, Child and Cust as “opponents”. He now urged Powis to resign from his posts at court: Powis blandly replying that he held them from the King, not from Newcastle! When the peace terms finally came up for a Commons vote in December 1762, the opposition was hopelessly disorganized, and of the Shropshire men only Whitmore, the two Foresters and Clive (together with his father) voted against the government. Bridgman was absent, but reckoned by the new regime to be unreliable, and was sacked from his place on the government payroll in early 1763. Grey did not vote either, but as a known government supporter he retained his salaried sinecure. During the political chaos of the 1760s he loyally voted for whoever was in power, as indeed he did throughout his Parliamentary career. Of the other Shropshire M.P.s, Cust was the only one who spoke on behalf of the government on this occasion. It is uncertain whether any of the others even voted!
    Lord Bath died, generally unlamented, in 1764, and Powis was then restored to his old position as Lord-Lieutenant of Shropshire. The death of Bath’s only son had left him without an heir. His will revealed wealth of well over a million pounds, but only a few legacies. A Pulteney did eventually represent Shrewsbury, though he was only a Pulteney by inheritance: he was a Scottish lawyer named William Johnstone, who had married the daughter of Bath’s cousin and changed his name. After being defeated in a fierce contest at the 1768 General Election he was successful next time round in 1775, and continued to represent Shrewsbury for the next thirty years.

The East India Company proved wholly incapable of governing the vast territory of Bengal, and in 1764 Clive was obliged to return there in an attempt to sort things out, before settling in England for good in 1767. His reforms were unable to prevent the appalling Bengal famine of 1769-70, when perhaps as many of a sixth of the population died. In 1773 Lord North’s government passed a Regulating Act for India, which for the first time brought British territories in India under the control of the Crown, with the appointment of a Governor-General.
   Back in England, Clive bought properties at a dizzying rate. In Shropshire he bought the 6,000 acres of the Walcot estate, where the architect Sir William Chambers was hired to build a new house. Next, he bought the house and estate of Oakley, near Ludlow, from Lord Powis. In 1769 he paid the widow of the Duke of Newcastle £25,000 for Claremont in Surrey, and called in “Capability” Brown to demolish the old house and remodel the gardens. There were town houses in London and Bath as well. He bought estates in Ireland too, one of which he renamed “Plassey” in memory of his great victory in Bengal.  He estimated his personal wealth at well over half a million pounds.
    Clive’s family rose to wealth and prominence on his coat-tails. When the M.P. for Bishop’s Castle, Francis Child, died young in 1763, the local landowner and former M.P. Walter Waring attempted to make a comeback at the ensuing by-election (unwisely rejecting Clive’s offer of £1,000 if he stood down), and was badly defeated by Clive’s cousin George Clive, who then held the seat through to his death in 1779. A few years later Waring gave up the struggle and sold his estate to Clive for £35,000, and with it all his influence in Bishop’s Castle. This enabled Robert Clive’s younger brother, William, to become M.P. for the borough from 1768 to 1770 and again from 1779 to 1820. 
      But Clive proved less surefooted in Westminster politics; supporting at different times Newcastle, Pitt, George Grenville and even the appalling Lord Sandwich. Lord North cannily bid for his support by having him made a Knight of the Bath and Lord-Lieutenant of Shropshire following the death of Lord Powis. This political unreliability was unhelpful to Clive because he always had his enemies in the hierarchy of the East India Company, who sponsored vicious personal attacks on him in the press. Oddly enough in our eyes, he was denounced not for his rapacity towards the Indians but for misappropriating wealth which should by rights have belonged to the Company. In 1773 there was an attempt to impeach him (that is, put him on state trial before the House of Lords) which he managed to defeat with a strong speech in his own defence. He was savagely attacked in the Commons by John Burgoyne, that same General known as “Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne” who achieved unwanted immortality by losing the crucial battle of Saratoga to the American rebels in 1777. 

Clive was far from being the only man to use his vast Indian wealth to enter politics. By the 1780s there were a dozen of them in Parliament, nicknamed the “Nabobs” (a corruption of the Indian title of Nawab). An example from Shropshire was Sir George Pigot, a former Governor of Madras. He bought Sir John Astley’s Patshill estate for £100,000 and entered Parliament for Bridgnorth in 1768. Like Clive, he was rewarded with an Irish peerage, but his subsequent career was far less successful. In 1775 he returned to Madras, but quarreled with local Company officials and was arrested, dying in confinement two years later. His younger brother Hugh, who was an Admiral, succeeded him as M.P. for Bridgnorth in 1778, supporting the Rockingham Whigs.

The General Election held in the summer of 1774 saw Clive in control of no fewer than seven Parliamentary seats, putting him on a par with the greatest nobility in the country, but he did not enjoy his success for long, because in November of that year he died at his house in London.
    What followed has never been adequately explained. There was no proper inquest; instead his body was spirited back to his native Shropshire and hastily buried in an unmarked grave in the little village church of Moreton Say. Why?
     The usual account says that Clive cut his own throat with a penknife. Throughout his life he had exhibited signs of what would now be called a “manic-depressive personality”, and it seems he was in a state of deep depression at the time. But contemporary newspapers attributed his death, rather vaguely, to “apoplexy”, and later theories have suggested that he died of an overdose of opium, taken in an attempt to stave off the agonizing pains of gallstones. It is unlikely that the truth will ever be known.

Moreton Say church today. It was rebuilt in the 1780s, and a small plaque to Clive was erected.

The Earl of Powis died in 1772, and was succeeded in the title by his son Edward Herbert. But he died unmarried in 1801, and the estate passed to his sister, Henrietta, who was married to Robert Clive’s eldest son Edward (M.P. for Ludlow 1774-94). The families of Herbert and Clive were thus united, and Edward Clive was duly created Earl of Powis in 1804. Edward’s younger brother Robert served as M.P. for Ludlow from 1794 to 1807. Both Ludlow and Bishop’s Castle were rapidly becoming pocket boroughs of the family.

In the 1770s Lord North managed to restore some political stability. The General Election of 1774 passed with the rapidly deteriorating situation in the American colonies attracting no attention whatsoever in the vast majority of constituencies. But after the defeat at Saratoga and the entry of France into the war early in 1778, disaster was clearly looming. There was a revival of radical agitation for reform, and in the summer of 1780 came the Gordon Riots in London; an anti-Catholic rampage where the government lost control of its own capital city for an entire week.
   The General Election of 1780 was the closest for forty years. No 18th century government was ever defeated at the polls, but Lord North’s ministry was left on a knife-edge. Shropshire, however, seemed hardly affected at all. A Whitmore still sat for Bridgnorth, a Forester for Wenlock, and Clives for Ludlow and Bishop’s Castle. Henry Bridgman had switched from Ludlow to Wenlock in 1768. The County was represented by two gentlemen with the name of Hill, who were in fact second cousins: Richard Hill was the son of Sir Rowland Hill of Hawkstone in the north of the county, whereas Noel Hill was the son of Thomas Hill (born Harwood - see my previous blog entry), and had succeeded his father as M.P. for Shrewsbury in 1768, and was then returned unopposed for the County in 1774 and 1780. He was never known to have spoken in the House of Commons. 
      Of the new names, Hugh Pigot was an Admiral who succeeded his elder brother Sir George as M.P. for Bridgnorth in 1778, supporting the Rockingham Whigs. Charlton Leighton was a local landowner who had won at Shrewsbury in 1774 only to be unseated on petition, but had been returned unopposed in 1780. Frederick Cornewall was another local gentleman, whose father had married a Herbert girl and served briefly as M.P. for Montgomery: he himself had represented Leominster before being returned for Ludlow in 1780. He died in 1783.  Henry Strachey had two separate spells representing Bishop’s Castle, interspersed with other periods representing Pontefract, Saltash and East Grinstead. He had begun his career as secretary to Lord Clive, and was on his way to becoming a full-time civil servant in Parliament.

In February 1782, following the news of the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, there was a series of Parliamentary motions criticizing Lord North’s government for its disastrous conduct of the American war. The voting was extremely tight, but resulted in one of the very rare instances in which an 18th century government was defeated in the House of Commons and forced to resign.
       The Shropshire M.P.s were evenly split on the issue, and in contrast to their thin turnout in 1762, all of them voted, apart from Henry Bridgman of Wenlock who was absent abroad. The Clive group, who now controlled the four Members for Ludlow and Bishop’s Castle, solidly supported the government. Noel Hill and Richard Hill, representing the County, voted with the opposition, as did Thomas Whitmore and Hugh Pigot the Admiral and Nabob’s brother at Bridgnorth. At Wenlock, George Forester was firmly anti-government; and so was Charlton Leighton at Shrewsbury, whereas William Pulteney switched his vote from government to opposition.

Lord North’s government resigned following these votes, to be followed by almost two years of political chaos, with the short-lived governments of Rockingham, Shelburne and Portland (the “Fox-North coalition”). Finally in December 1783 King George III appointed William Pitt, son of the great Lord Chatham, as Prime Minister at the age of just 24. Pitt was in a hopeless minority in the Commons, and was kept going only by the support of the King and his own determination. Then in the spring of 1784 he called a General Election, less than four years after the previous one (which was unprecedented in the 18th century), and won it with a large majority. Historians have debated ever since whether this represented a genuine swing of popular opinion, or whether it was achieved by the usual corrupt methods of the time. Pitt then remained in office till 1801. 
    Most of the Shropshire M.P.s supported Pitt's government. Hugh Pigot, who did not, was defeated at Bridgnorth in 1784; but he was notoriously a nouveau riche incomer, not from one of the old-established local families. Otherwise the immediate changes were few. Henry Bridgman’s son John changed his name to Simpson in 1785 after inheriting property from an uncle, and under that name represented Wenlock in Parliament from 1794 to 1820. Noel Hill, who had inherited the country house at Attingham, south-east of Shrewsbury. was given a peerage, with the title of Lord Berwick. George Forester stood down at Wenlock, but then returned at a by-election soon afterwards. John Kynaston, whose uncle Edward had represented Bishop’s Castle back in the 1730s, was elected for the County. Gentlemen with familiar names, Foresters and Whitmores and Clives, continued to serve as M.P.s for Shropshire constituencies through into the nineteenth or even the twentieth century.
The last word on Robert Clive, albeit an extremely biased one, should go to the great Victorian historian Lord Macaulay. He described Clive as "A great wicked lord who had ordered the walls around his house to be made so thick in order to keep out the devil".          

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