Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sewell, Thomas

SEWELL, Sir THOMAS (d. 1784), master of the rolls, the son and heir of Thomas Sewell of West Ham, Essex, is said to have been ‘bred up under an attorney’ (Gent. Mag. 1784, ii. 555). He was admitted a member of the Middle Temple on 6 June 1729, was called to the bar on 24 May 1734, became a king's counsel in Hilary term 1754, and a bencher of his inn in the following May. He practised with much success in the chancery courts, where, at the time of his appointment to the rolls, he was said to be making between three and four thousand pounds per annum (Chatham Correspondence, 1838–40, ii. 294–5 n.) After attempting to procure the Duke of Newcastle's interest at Seaford and Dover (Addit. MSS. Brit. Mus. 32856 f. 317, 32864 ff. 316, 336), he was returned to parliament in December 1758 for the borough of Harwich, which he continued to represent until the dissolution in March 1761. At the general election in this year he unsuccessfully contested Exeter. He was, however, elected for Winchelsea at a by-election in December 1761, and on 4 Dec. 1764 (London Gazette, 1764, No. 10475) he was appointed master of the rolls in the place of Sir Thomas Clarke [q. v.], with the annual salary of 2,500l. W. Gerard Hamilton, in a letter to John Calcraft, says the appointment ‘surprised every one exceedingly, and I am told no one more than Sewell himself, who had never applied for it, and who had no idea that he was in the contemplation of government till the acceptance of the office was proposed to him by the chancellor and Lord Mansfield jointly’ (Chatham Correspondence, ii. 298 n.). Sir Fletcher Norton, the attorney-general, appears to have been named Clarke's successor at the rolls in the first instance (see Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George III, 1894, ii. 26; Walpole, Letters, 1857–9, iv. 294, 297–8). Sir William de Grey, the solicitor-general, on hearing of Sewell's promotion, sent an indignant protest to George Grenville (Grenville Papers, 1852–3, ii. 471–2). Sewell was knighted on 30 Nov. 1764, and sworn a member of the privy council on 12 Dec. following (London Gazette, 1764, No. 10478). In January 1765 he was re-elected for Winchelsea. He, however, lost his seat at the general election in March 1768, and thereupon retired from parliamentary life. On the death of John Bowes, baron of Clonlyon, in July 1767, Sewell was mentioned for the Irish chancellorship (Grenville Papers, iv. 132), but the appointment was eventually given to James Hewitt (afterwards Viscount Lifford [q. v.]), then a puisne judge of the king's bench in England. Sewell, who made an able and efficient judge, presided at the rolls for over nineteen years. He died after a lingering illness on 6 March 1784, and was buried in the Rolls chapel.

He married, first, Catherine, elder daughter of Thomas Heath of Stansted Montfichet in Essex, M.P. for Harwich, by whom he had four sons and four daughters. His first wife died on 17 Jan. 1769. He married, secondly, on 20 March 1773, Mary Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Dr. Humphrey Sibthorp of Canwick in Lincolnshire, professor of botany in the university of Oxford; by her he had an only daughter, who died an infant. His second wife died at Twyford Lodge, Maresfield, Sussex, on 16 Sept. 1820, aged 77.

Sewell died intestate, and was succeeded in the possession of Ottershaw Park and the manors of Aden, Stannards, and Fords, in Chobham, Surrey, by his eldest son, Thomas Bailey Heath Sewell, who died on 19 Oct. 1803, and was buried at Chobham. Sewell's third daughter, Frances Maria, was married to Matthew Lewis, deputy secretary at war, on 22 Feb. 1773, and became the mother of Matthew Gregory Lewis [q. v.], better known as Monk Lewis.

Sewell hardly seems to have shone in parliamentary life. Though no speech of his is to be found in the volumes of ‘Parliamentary History,’ a story is told that during one of the debates in the House of Commons in 1764 on Wilkes's arrest Sewell supported the adjournment of the question for three days because ‘it would enable him to look into the authorities, and give a decided opinion on the subject, which he was, at present, unable to do.’ When the debate was resumed, Sewell, who appeared according to his custom in his bag-wig, said that ‘he had that morning turned the whole matter over in his mind as he lay upon his pillow, and, after ruminating and considering a great deal, he could not help declaring that he was of the same opinion that he was before.’ Upon which Charles Townshend exclaimed that ‘he was very sorry to observe that what the right honourable gentleman had found in his nightcap he had lost in his periwig’ (Law and Lawyers, 1840, ii. 8).

[Foss's Judges of England, 1864, viii. 366–8; Lord Campbell's Lives of the Lord Chancellors, 1857, vii. 130, 132, 197–8, 201; Life of Lord Kenyon, 1873, pp. 102, 135; Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis, 1839, i, 6–7; Manning and Bray's Surrey, 1804–14, i. 498, iii. 196, 198, 201, 224; Brayley and Britton's Surrey, 1850, ii. 161–2, 225; Bloxam's Magdalen College Register, vi. 228; Townsend's Calendar of Knights, 1828, p. 53; Gent. Mag. 1754, p. 142, 1769 p. 55, 1773 pp. 103, 154, 1774 p. 390, 1784 i. 237–8, 1820, ii. 377; H. S. Smith's Parliaments of England, i. 69, 108, iii. 84; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, ii. 112, 134; Haydn's Book of Dignities, 1890; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. viii. 388, 521, 621, ix. 86, 2nd ser. x. 396, 3rd ser. ii. 157, 177, 4th ser. vii. 305, 376, 7th ser. xii. 269, 8th ser. viii. 507, ix. 138, 178, 248.]

G. F. R. B.