Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duncombe, Charles

DUNCOMBE, Sir CHARLES (d. 1711), banker and politician, was, according to one account, the son of Mr. Duncombe of Drayton Beauchamp, Buckinghamshire, whose family came from Ivinghoe in the same county, and according to another he was born in Bedfordshire of mean parentage, while his sister, Ursula Duncombe, on her marriage in 1678 to Thomas Browne of St. Margaret's, Westminster, was described as ‘of Rickmansworth, Herts, spinster, about 20.’ He is entered in the pedigrees of the family in Burke's ‘Peerage’ (sub. ‘Feversham’) and Hoare's ‘Wiltshire’ (sub. ‘Downton,’ iii. 45) as the son of Alexander Duncombe of Drayton, Buckinghamshire (who married, 15 May 1645, Mary, daughter of Richard Paulye, lord of the manor of Whitchurch in that county), and as baptised at Whitchurch 16 Nov. 1648. The entry in Le Neve's ‘Knights’ runs: ‘His father, a haberdasher of hatts in Southwark as some say, others that he was steward to Sir Will. Tiringham of Tiringham in Bucks,’ and the balance of probability inclines to the latter statement. Charles was apprenticed to Alderman Backwell [q. v.], the leading goldsmith of London, whose son and heir was married to the daughter of Sir William Tyringham; but on his master's financial embarrassment he succeeded in escaping entanglement. In the ‘London Directory’ of 1677, in the list of ‘goldsmiths who keep running cashes,’ occur the names of ‘Char. Duncomb and Richard Kent, at the Grashopper in Lombard Street,’ and the firm is stated to have been established there a few years before that date. So early as 1672 Duncombe had attained to a leading position in the city of London. He was at that time banker to Lord Shaftesbury, from whom he received a timely warning of the projected closing of the exchequer by Charles II, and by this means he was enabled to withdraw ‘a very great sum of his own,’ and 30,000l. belonging to the Marquis of Winchester, afterwards the first duke of Bolton. He remained a city banker until August 1695, when Luttrell records in his ‘Diary:’ ‘This week Charles Duncomb sold all his effects in the Bank of England, being 80,000l.’ On his retirement, ‘at the moment when the trade of the kingdom was depressed to the lowest point,’ he purchased the estate of Helmsley in Yorkshire, which had been bestowed by the House of Commons on Fairfax, and had passed in dowry with Fairfax's daughter to the Duke of Buckingham. This was the greatest purchase ever made by any subject in England; the consideration money is fixed by Evelyn ‘at neare 90,000l., and he is reported to have neare as much in cash.’ The character of old Euclio (Pope, Moral Essays, ep. i. 11. 256–61), the dying miser who, even in his last agony, could not consent to part with all his substance, has been fathered on Duncombe, and Pope alludes to his acquisition of land in the couplet—

And Helmsley, once proud Buckingham's delight,
Slides to a scrivener or city-knight.
Macaulay describes the transfer of the estate.

Macaulay describes the transfer of the estate, and adds : 'In a few years a palace more splendid and costly than had ever been inhabited by the magnificent Villiers rose amidst the beautiful woods and waters which had been his, and was called by the once humble name of Duncombe.'

Under Charles II and James II the receivership of the customs was held by Duncombe (Harl. MS. 7020), and when the latter monarch fled to France, he sent to the receiver for ‘1,500l. to carry him over sea, which he denied,’ a proceeding which caused Duncombe's name to appear as the only excepted citizen in the general declaration of pardon which the exiled James issued on 20 April 1692. When the lieutenancy of London carried their address to the Prince of Orange, desiring him to repair forthwith to the city, Duncombe formed one of the deputation. After his retirement from business he took a more active part in public affairs. Among his landed purchases was the estate of Barford, in the borough of Downton in Wiltshire. He was M.P. for Yarmouth (Isle of Wight) 1690 to 1695, and Downton returned him to parliament from Oct. 1695 till he was expelled from the House of Commons in 1698, and again from 1702 to the year of his death. In the city of London, which he contested without success in 1700–1, 1701, and 1702, he took high rank among the leaders of the tory citizens; and as the Bank of England was started and fostered by whig financiers, it met with his opposition (Rogers, First Nine Years of Bank of England, passim). He had been alderman of Broad Street ward (1683–6). He was elected sheriff on 24 June 1699 without a poll, and when the corporation waited on the king at Kensington on 20 Oct. in the same year to express their satisfaction at his safe return Duncombe was knighted. On 31 May 1700 he was chosen alderman of Bridge ward by a majority of three to one, and in that year he was nominated as lord mayor of London, with the result that on the declaration of the polling of the livery the numbers were—Duncombe 2,752, Abney 1,919, Hedges 1,912, and Dashwood 1,110 (1 Oct. 1700). A week later the aldermen met to make their choice, when by fourteen votes to twelve, amid great excitement and fierce recriminations, they gave their decision in favour of Abney. He was a whig, and Duncombe was a tory, and as the new East India Company worked for Abney, the old body laboured for his opponent. Next year Duncombe was again nominated as lord mayor, but his election did not take place until September 1708, when he was unanimously chosen to that office. He was treasurer of the Artillery Company for five years (1703–8), but his party's management of its affairs did not prove beneficial to the company's interests.

Duncombe had obtained his receivership of the excise through Sunderland's influence, and had been ejected from his post by Montague. A demand for the payment into the exchequer for the public service of 10,000l. was made upon him, and instead of paying the demand note in silver, he made up the amount in exchequer bills, then at a discount, and pocketed the difference, about 400l. This in itself was not a criminal offence, but it was discovered that the bills had been falsely endorsed as having been a second time issued, and had thus been wrongly credited with an interest of 7l. 12s. per cent. per annum. Macaulay says that ‘a knavish Jew’ had been employed by Duncombe in forging these ‘endorsements of names,’ and that some were ‘real and some imaginary.’ The matter came before the House of Commons on 25 Jan. 1698, and in less than a week Duncombe had been committed a close prisoner to the Tower, had pleaded illness, and after a confession (as was alleged) of his guilt, had been expelled from parliament. A bill of pains and penalties, by which two-thirds of his property, real and personal, was seized for public uses, passed the commons on 26 Feb., ‘after much debate—yeas 139, noes 103.’ It went to the upper house, when ‘three great tory noblemen,’ Rochester, Nottingham, and Leeds, headed the opposition, and the Duke of Bolton, remembering Duncombe's good offices in 1672, exerted all his interest on behalf of the accused. After much debate the bill was rejected on 15 March by one vote (yeas 48, noes 49), and Duncombe was immediately set at liberty, only to find himself recommitted to the Tower by the order of the lower house (31 March 1698), and kept a prisoner there until parliament was prorogued on 7 July. In the following spring (4 Feb. 1699) he was tried at the court of king's bench ‘for false endorsing of exchequer bills,’ but was found not guilty, through a mistake in the information. This was amended in the next term, but ‘the jury, without going from the bar, found him not guilty’ (17 June 1699), and further proceedings against him were abandoned.

Duncombe kept his shrievalty and mayoralty in the hall of the Goldsmiths' Company, of which body he was a leading member, but he made no gift to its corporate funds. While he was sheriff many of the unhappy wretches detained in the London prisons for debt were released through his liberality, for which he was justly lauded in a Latin poem of four pages by Gulielmus Hogæus. At the cost of 600l. he erected ‘a curious dyal’ in the church of St. Magnus, near London Bridge. His country house at Teddington was built and fitted up by himself, the ceilings being painted by Verrio, and the carvings being the work of Grinling Gibbons. A poem on this house was addressed to Duncombe by Francis Manning, and will be found in his poems, p. 180. A poetical description of his country house of Barford, at Downton, and an account of the festivities there on New Year's day 1708, are in ‘Pylades and Corinna, or Memoirs of Richard Gwinnett and Elizabeth Thomas’ (1731), and are reprinted in Hoare's ‘Modern Wiltshire.’ The pageant at his mayoralty was described in the usual strain by Elkanah Settle in a tract of six pages. Duncombe died at Teddington 9 April 1711. It was at first proposed, as appears in the long memorandum in Le Neve's ‘Knights,’ that he should be interred in state in St. Paul's Cathedral; but the intention was changed, and he was buried in the south transept of Downton, where a monument was placed to his memory. He left no will, and administration to his effects was granted, 30 May 1711, to his sister, Ursula Browne, his mother, Mary Duncombe, renouncing her right. His father apparently died early in life; his mother lived to the age of ninety-seven, and was buried in Teddington Church on 7 Nov. 1716. The second Duke of Argyll married, as his first wife, Duncombe's niece, Mary Browne, and she acted as her uncle's lady mayoress. The old alderman was the richest commoner in England, and Swift, in chronicling his death, adds: ‘I hear he has left the Duke of Argyll … two hundred thousand pounds. I hope it is true, for I love that duke mightily.’ The duchess left no children, but from Duncombe's brother is descended the present Earl of Radnor, and his sister was the progenitrix of the Earl of Feversham.

[Swift's Works (1883), ii. 223; Orridge's Citizens of London, pp. 241–2; Vernon Correspondence (1841), i. 469–88, ii. 19–26, iii. 138–41; Herbert's History of the Livery Companies of London, ii. 204; Hoare's History of Wiltshire (iii. sub. ‘Downton’), pp. 26, 40–5; Le Neve's Knights (Harl. Soc.), pp. 468–9; Luttrell's Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs (1857), passim; Evelyn's Diary (1827), iii. 354, 363; Price's Handbook of London Bankers (1876) pp. 94–5; Marriage Licenses (Harl. Soc. vol. xxiii.), p. 283; Biog. Brit. (Kippis), v. 504; Burnet's Own Time (Oxford ed., Lord Dartmouth's notes), i. 533; Hist. MSS. Comm. 10th Rep. appendix, pt. iv. 450; Macaulay's History, iv. 630, v. 19, 37 et seq.]

W. P. C.