Potter, Thomas (1718-1759) (DNB00)

POTTER, THOMAS (1718–1759), wit and politician, second son of John Potter (1674?–1747) [q. v.], archbishop of Canterbury, was born at Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, in 1718, his father being then bishop of Oxford. The eldest son married beneath his rank in society, the wife, according to Cole, being a bedmaker at Oxford, and Thomas inherited from the father all his personal property, the estate being usually estimated at from 70,000l. to 100,000l. He matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, on 18 Nov. 1731, aged 13, and graduated B.A. 1735, M.A. 1738. In 1740 he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple, and he held the recordership of Bath. Potter was ambitious, and with the wealth which he had obtained from his father, who had also bestowed on him the lucrative post of principal registrar to the province of Canterbury, he was enabled to embark in politics. In the parliament lasting from 1747 to 1754 he sat, through the favour of the family of Eliot, for the Cornish borough of St. Germans; and he acted as secretary to the Prince of Wales from 1748 until the prince's death in 1751. Potter during his first session attacked, in a speech which was ‘for those days extremely violent,’ the conduct of the Duke of Newcastle, who was accused of having exercised undue influence in the election of 1747 for Seaford in Sussex. Henry Pelham indignantly called him to order, and the incident attracted great attention. ‘Mr. Potter the lawyer is a second Pitt for fluency of words. He spoke well and bitterly, but with so perfect an assurance, so unconcerned, so much master of himself, though the first sessions of his being in parliament and first time of opening his mouth there, that it disgusted more than it pleased,’ was the comment of Lady Hervey (Letters, 1821, pp. 110–11). The speech was published in the magazines, and it drew from the old Horace Walpole an anonymous ‘Letter to a certain distinguished Patriot and most applauded Orator on the publication of his celebrated Speech on the Seaford Petition,’ 1748.

Potter's second conspicuous speech in parliament was on the bill for removing the assizes from Aylesbury to Buckingham, a bill introduced owing to a contest between Lord-chief-justice Willes and the Grenvilles. Potter contended for Aylesbury. On 20 March 1751 he opened ‘in an able manner his scheme for an additional duty of two shillings on spirits, to be collected by way of excise,’ and Walpole described him as a ‘young man of the greatest good nature’ and ‘not bashful nor void of vanity’ (Memoirs of George II, i. 69–71). In the session of 1753–4 he introduced a census bill, and, with the support of Pelham, succeeded in passing it through the House of Commons; but it was thrown out in the upper house as ‘profane and subversive of liberty,’ and the first census of Great Britain was not taken until 1801. He criticised as a country gentleman the ill-fated expedition of 1757 against the port of Rochefort in France, and this led to a war of pamphlets with Henry Seymour Conway [q. v.]

From 1754 to July 1757 Potter sat for the borough of Aylesbury. He very soon allied himself with the elder Pitt, who wrote to his nephew in October 1756, ‘Mr. Potter is one of the best friends I have in the world.’ His name was on the list of Pitt's candidates for high office, but the king ‘objected in the strongest manner to the promotion as a thing unheard of at the first step in his service’ (Chatham Corresp. i. 187–8). But Pitt was not to be denied, and in December 1756 Potter was re-elected at Aylesbury after appointment as paymaster-general of the land forces. In the following July he became joint vice-treasurer of Ireland, and he held that office until his death.

Though afflicted with bad health, Potter was extremely handsome in person and full of wit. His figure is said to have been introduced into Hogarth's election-print as the handsome candidate (Nichols, Anecdotes of Hogarth, 1785 ed. p. 335), and he was a member of the witty set that became notorious at Medmenham. Among the associates of John Wilkes he ‘was the worst, and was indeed his [Wilkes's] ruin, who was not a bad man early or naturally. But Potter poisoned his morals’ (Almon, Wilkes, i. 18–19). Wilkes was connected with Aylesbury, and desired to become member for the borough. A triangular deal was thereupon arranged, in July 1757, by Potter: a vacant seat at Bath was filled by Pitt; the place at Okehampton in Devonshire, a borough of the Pitt family which Pitt had vacated, was occupied by Potter; and Wilkes succeeded to the seat at Aylesbury. This arrangement cost the new member no less than 7,000l., and, as he had not the ready money, he was introduced by Potter to Jewish moneylenders, and was hopelessly entangled.

After a long decline Potter died at his favourite residence of Ridgmont, near Woburn, Bedfordshire (a property which he possessed through his wife), on 17 June 1759, and was buried on 25 June, at his own desire, in its churchyard, ‘at the west end of the belfry, in a place where no one was used to be buried,’ which he had pointed out to his steward a few days before his death. By his directions his body was dissected, and his lungs and liver were found to be much decayed. At the dictation of his father he married Miss Manningham, whom he treated very badly. She died on 4 Jan. 1744 (Gent. Mag. 1744, p. 53), leaving an only son, a youth of ‘good parts, good nature, and amiable qualities,’ who was sent to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in October 1756, when Pitt strongly recommended him to his nephew as a desirable acquaintance (Chatham Corresp. i. 172–5). Potter married for his second wife, on 14 July 1747, Miss Lowe of Brightwell, Oxfordshire, with a fortune of 50,000l.; by her he had two daughters, one of whom married Malcolm Macqueen, M.D. (d. 1829). To the latter Potter's estates passed. His descendant, Thomas Potter Macqueen, was member for East Looe in Cornwall from 1816 to 1826, and for Bedford county from 1826 to 1830 (Lysons, Bedfordshire, pp. 97, 127).

In some bibliographical notes contributed to ‘Notes and Queries’ (2nd ser. iv. 1–2, 41–3), Charles Wentworth Dilke [q. v.] gave good reasons for believing that the ‘Essay on Woman,’ although printed at the private press of Wilkes, was written by Potter. The burlesque notes appended to it purported to be by Warburton, and it was suggested that the selection of the bishop's name was due to a quarrel at Ralph Allen's house of Prior Park, near Bath, where both of them had been intimate guests. The suggestion as to the authorship is confirmed by a manuscript note by Dyce in his copy, which states that Wilkes had remarked to William Maltby ‘I am not the author of the “Essay on Woman”: it was written by Potter,’ and gives point to the line in Churchill's ‘Dedication’ describing the denunciations of Warburton on the printing of the poem:

And Potter trembles even in his grave.

Potter was called by Horace Walpole the ‘gallant of Warburton's wife,’ and is said in Churchill's ‘Duellist’ (bk. iii. lines 241–8) and in other satirical publications to have been the father of her only son. Potter wrote to Pitt on 11 May 1756, describing the ‘worthy’ owner of Prior Park (i.e. Warburton) and ‘the present joy at the birth of an heir.’

The name of Potter was printed, with those of Chesterfield, Wilkes, Garrick, and several other wits of the day, on the title-page of ‘The New Foundling Hospital for Wit,’ and some epigrams by him are included in the collection. Letters from him to A. C. Ducarel, describing his travels in France and the Low Countries in 1737, are in Nichols's ‘Illustrations of Literature’ (iii. 687–90), and several letters to Zachary Grey are in the same work (iv. 333–43). He was a correspondent of Pitt, and many of his communications are in the ‘Chatham Correspondence’ (i. 153–366). His letters to George Grenville are in the ‘Grenville Papers’ (i. 102–3, 104–5, 137–48, 155, 166–7, 172–3, 188–9). His library was sold in 1760.

[Gent. Mag. 1747 p. 342, 1759 p. 293; Cole's Addit. MS. Brit. Mus. 5831, ff. 181–3; Watson's Warburton, pp. 559–60; Bridges's Okehampton, p. 140; Gibbs's Aylesbury, pp. 214–20; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, i. 178, iii. 668; Dyce's Catalogue, ii. 424; Warburton's Letters to Hurd, p. 289; Churchill's Works (ed. 1804), i. 223, 225; Coxe's Pelham Administration, ii. 167, 271; Walpole's George II, i. 69–71, ii. 11; Walpole's George III (ed. Barker), i. 248–9.]

W. P. C.