Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Abbot, Charles (1757-1829)
ABBOT, CHARLES, first Baron Colchester (1757–1829), speaker of the House of Commons, 1802–1817, was born 14 Oct. 1767, at Abingdon, Berkshire. His father, the Rev. John Abbot, D.D., was a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and rector of All Saints, Colchester. His mother was Sarah, daughter of Mr. Jonathan Farr, citizen of London. Dr. Abbot died in 1760, and his widow subsequently became the wife of Jeremy Bentham, Esq., father by a former marriage of the well-known writer on jurisprudence. The Abbots had been settled in Dorsetshire from the year 1100, when Richard Abbot was high sheriff of the county; but the immediate ancestors of the Speaker had resided for some generations at Shaftesbury. Charles was sent to Westminster in March 1763, before he was six years old, and at the age of thirteen was admitted ‘into college.’ In 1775 he was elected to Christ Church, where he went into residence in January 1776. He won the college prize for Latin verse in his first year, and in his second the chancellor's prize, the subject being ‘Petrus Magnus;’ and so highly were such performances valued at that time, that the Empress Catharine, to whom the verses had been presented, sent him a gold medal. At this time the well-known scholar, Markham, was dean of Christ Church; and for five successive years the chancellor's prize was carried off by Christ-Church men, among them being Abbot, Lord Wellesley, and Lord Grenville. On leaving Oxford in the summer of 1778, Abbot spent a year in Switzerland in the study of the civil law, and in the year following took chambers in Lincoln's Inn, and began to keep terms at the Middle Temple.
In 1781 Abbot was elected Vinerian scholar by the university of Oxford, and five years afterwards Vinerian fellow, appointment which involved residence at the university. In 1783 he was called to the bar, and joined the Oxford circuit; but in 1792, upon transferring his attentions to the equity courts, he found it necessary to resign his fellowship and reside in London. He was now earning by his profession about 1,500l. a year; but the work of the bar was too hard for him: ‘a life of unceasing and ungrateful toil,’ he calls it, ‘from daybreak to midnight.’ Accordingly in 1794 he accepted the office of clerk of the rules in the court of King's Bench, a place worth 2,700l. a year. He discharged his duty energetically for seven years, collecting and endorsing old records which had been left to moulder in garrets, and purchasing law books for the use of the King's Bench. At the expiration of this period the Duke of Leeds, who had been his schoolfellow at Westminster, offered him the borough of Helston in Cornwall. Abbot accepted the offer, and took his seat in the House of Commons in the autumn of 1795. Having turned his attention to the introduction of practical improvements in legislation, in his first session he obtained a committee to inquire into the manner of dealing with expiring laws. Its report established the practice of making complete annual tables of the temporary laws of the United Kingdom, so that none, as had formerly happened, should expire unobserved. In 1797 he brought before parliament a plan for the due promulgation of the statutes in all public offices and courts of justice, including magistrates' courts, by furnishing them with a copy of all acts of parliament as soon as printed; thus enabling them to see readily the state of the law which they had to administer, instead of being obliged to refer to private collections of acts. He was also ‘exceedingly desirous to have introduced a more improved style and diction in all public acts, but the matter was full of difficulties, and, though exhorted by all, he was helped by none.’ The project therefore fell to the ground (Memoir).
In 1797 a finance committee was appointed by Pitt, of which Abbot was the chairman; and for two years he gave his undivided attention to it. The committee made thirty-six reports, of which many were drawn up by Abbot himself; and one of the most beneficial results of his investigations was a bill for charging public accountants with the payment of interest. In the year 1800 he obtained a committee to inquire into the condition of the national records. And in December of the same year he introduced the first Census Act for ascertaining the population of Great Britain.
Abbot had always lived on terms of great intimacy with Addington, and on the latter becoming prime minister in February 1801, the member for Helston was selected to fill the post of chief secretary for Ireland. The office of secretary of state for Ireland, which was then held by Lord Castlereagh, was at the time abolished, and to do the work of the office a secretary to the lord lieutenant, and a keeper of the privy seal for Ireland, a sinecure office which might be held for life, were appointed. The latter post was added to Abbot's secretaryship to compensate him for the loss of his situation in the King's Bench. He arrived in Ireland in July 1801, and in the following October received the tidings of the peace of Amiens, which liberated the Irish government from its gravest anxieties. The remainder of his term of office was devoted to those official and departmental reforms for which he was so eminently qualified; but on the death of Lord Clare, the Irish lord chancellor, in January 1802, Sir John Mitford, the successor of Addington in the speakership, received the great seal, and Abbot was recalled from Dublin to occupy the vacant chair. His diary and correspondence whilst in Ireland may still be read with great profit.
Abbot was elected to the speakership on 11 Feb. 1802. He paid, he says, to his predecessor 1,060l. for the state coach which had been built in 1701, 1,000l. for wine, and 500l. for furniture. At the general election of 1802 the new speaker was returned for Woodstock, a seat which he held till 1806, when, on the dissolution of parliament by Lord Grenville, he was returned for the university of Oxford. His tenure of office was far from uneventful. It fell to his lot to give the casting vote on Mr. Whitbread's resolutions impugning the conduct of Lord Melville as treasurer of the navy, amid a scene long remembered as one of the most striking that have ever been witnessed within the walls of the House of Commons. Mr. Pitt had moved the previous question, and on the division the numbers were 216 on each side. Abbot turned as white as a sheet, says an eye-witness, and paused for at least ten minutes, after which he explained very briefly his reasons for voting in favour of the question being put, which was accordingly put and carried, to the intense grief of Mr. Pitt, who pulled his cocked hat over his face to hide the tears which trickled down his cheeks.
Two important controversies, touching the duty and authority of the speaker, occurred during Abbot's speakership. The earlier of the two arose on the resistance by Sir Francis Burdett to the execution of the speaker's warrant for committing him to the Tower in the year 1810. Sir Francis denied the legality of the warrant, and refused to surrender to it; whereupon the question arose whether the sergeant-at-arms was empowered by Mr. Abbot's warrant to break open the doors of his house. The attorney-general, Sir Vicary Gibbs, gave a very guarded opinion; but one, nevertheless, on which the sergeant felt justified in acting: he forced Burdett's doors, and the prisoner was conveyed to the Tower, where he remained till the prorogation set him free. He at once brought an action against both the speaker and the sergeant in the court of King's Bench, when judgment was given for the defendants. The question was carried by writ of error to the Exchequer Chamber, and afterwards to the House of Lords, but in each case with the same result.
The second of the two questions raised during Abbot's tenure of office was the right of the speaker to include in his address to the sovereign on the prorogation of parliament a reference to measures to which the house had not given its consent. In his address to the prince regent in July 1813, Abbot had introduced some remarks on the bill for the removal of Roman catholic disabilities which had been defeated in committee. Mr. Grant said in the debate, ‘What it is not lawful for the king to notice, it is not lawful for the speaker to express.’ Lord Morpeth moved, on 22 April 1814, that the address of the speaker on the occasion referred to should not be drawn into a precedent. The motion was defeated by a large majority, but, according to Sir Erskine May, the correctness of the doctrine upheld by the opposition has since been recognised in practice, and the speaker in addressing her majesty adverts only to the most important measures which have received the sanction of parliament during the session.
Seventy years ago the office of speaker was more laborious than it is now, and in 1816 Abbot’s health gave way, and he was obliged to send in his resignation. He retired with a peerage, and selected the title of Colchester; he received a pension of 4,000l. a year for himself, and 3,000l. for his immediate successor.
Abbot is certainly to be classed among the most distinguished men who have ever occupied the chair. Perceval vainly urged him to become secretary of state in 1809. Whitbread said that he was superior to any other speaker he had ever known. He was formally thanked by the House of Commons in 1808 for his upright, able, and impartial conduct; and both Lord Liverpool and Lord Castlereagh spoke of him on his retirement in terms significant of the general high opinion in which his qualities were held. His short speeches recorded in the Journals of the House of Commons, thanking admirals and generals for their exploits during the great war, are models of dignified panegyric. These speeches were collected into one volume by Mr. John Rickman, Lord Colchester’s secretary, and published in 1829.
Abbot’s services as an ex-officio trustee of the British Museum had been so valuable that on his retirement from office the number of trustees was increased in order that he might be elected. The appointment of days for the free admission of the public, the opening of the library for the accommodation of students, and the purchase of almost all the collections that were added to it between the years 1802 and 1817, are due to his suggestions.
The five years immediately following his retirement from the speakership were devoted to the restoration of his health; and from 1819 to 1822 he travelled through the greater part of France and Italy, returning to England just before the reconstruction of the ministry consequent on the death of Lord Londonderry. During the next seven years he continued to take an active part in politics. He was a tory of the Sidmouth rather than the Pitt school. He was strongly opposed to the admission of the Roman catholics to parliament; and he has left us a very full account of the political negotiations of 1827, adopting the strong anti-Canning view which distinguished all that section of the tories. On 6 Feb. 1829 he made his last speech in the House of Lords. He was then far from well; in the following month he became seriously ill. He lingered on through April, and died rather suddenly on 7 May, in the 72nd year of his age.
Shortly after his acceptance of the speakership, Abbot purchased the estate of Kidbrooke, in Sussex, which was his country retreat for the remainder of his life. Here he amused himself with planting and gardening, with drilling volunteers, and discharging the duties of a magistrate. He had married, in Dec. 1796, Miss Elizabeth Gibbes, eldest daughter of Sir Philip Gibbes, and was succeeded at his death by his eldest son Charles, who was postmaster-general in 1858, and, dying in 1867, was succeeded by the present Lord Colchester, the third peer.
Lord Colchester’s Diary and Correspondence were published by his son in 1861; they extend over a period of thirty-four years, from 1795 to 1829, and are among the most valuable collections of the kind. The memoir by the editor is the principal source of information. A selection from Abbot’s speeches on the Roman catholic question appeared in 1828, and the collection of his addresses to military and naval commanders, which have been already referred to, was published in 1829.[Diary and Correspondence of Lord Colchester, by the second Lord Colchester, 3 vols. 1861; Life of Mr. Perceval, by Spencer Walpole, 1874; Manning’s Lives of the Speakers; Annual Register, 1829.]