Thomas Gilbert (1719-98)
So who was Thomas Gilbert?
He’s grand enough to have his picture in the National Portrait Gallery but not so grand that we have any idea of who he might be. History hasn’t been kind to his reputation.
From this portrait he might be imagined as an extra from Poldark. Or perhaps the model for a minor character in a Jane Austen novel – as a younger man he could have been an inoffensively uncharismatic bachelor from a staid county family but with an income of £1000 a year or, older, the jovial father of the heroine’s best friend.
But that’s fiction: what of the reality? There’s no comprehensive account of his life, but snippets revealing different aspects of his character can be gathered from diverse sources and by joining the dots it might be possible to get a create a sense of who he really was – but just as easily misrepresent him completely.
There’s ‘local history’ account of his role as a provincial entrepreneur published by the University of Staffordshire and an entry in the History of Parliament Online website which records his political career; his obituary in the Staffordshire Advertiser from 1790 reveals a more personality than can be found standard sources like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Wikipedia, but it’s all a little thin.
The achievement that ensures his place in history is The Relief of The Poor Act (1782), or ‘The Gilbert Act’ as it is known. This was an attempt to improve the old Elizabethan Poor Law that dated from 1601, and was one of several tweaks before the Poor Law system was finally abolished 1948. The Gilbert Act only tinkered with the system, but Gilbert had a genuine desire to reduce poverty; he wrote several campaigning pamphlets on the subject and his success came after three earlier attempts had been unsuccessful. He wanted to make the Poor Law more accountable and efficient so that more generous benefits could be provided for the same cost and the cronyism that rewarded the so-called ‘Guardians’ of the poor at the expense of the poor themselves would be eliminated.
But there’s more to Thomas Gilbert than Poor Law reform; he’s an intriguing character as certain events in his life indicate:
- he was born in about 1719 and his family was probably ‘minor gentry’ in Staffordshire, his father owing a small farm with some mineral deposits that were being mined
- when Thomas was 20 his father afforded the cost of his legal training at Inner Temple, but several years before that he had sent Thomas’s 12 year old youngest brother John to an apprenticeship in a Birmingham workshop
- although Thomas was called to the bar after training he joined the army instead to oppose the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion so never practiced law professionally, but towards the end of his career he returned to Inner Temple to administer its business and finances
- in Lord Gower’s regiment he was trusted with the responsibility for Gower’s expenses, eventually becoming land agent for the Gower estate in Staffordshire
- in 1760 he arranged for his youngest brother, John, to advise the Duke of Bridgewater on a problem with flooding in the Duke’s coal mines, and it was John Gilbert who devised the idea of the Bridgewater Canal and hired James Brindley to build it – thereby starting the canal craze that enabled the industrial revolution to gather momentum
- in 1762, when engaged to Ann Phillips – the young woman who became his first wife, Thomas bought his fiancée the gift of a lottery ticket which won the £10,000 prize, worth about £2,000,000 today
- he was an MP for over 30 years, from 1763 to 1794, but wasn’t very interested in politics
- even though an endemic system of political patronage meant that he earned generous rewards for nominal responsibilities, he was concerned with what he called ‘exorbitant contracts and abuses of office’ and shocked Parliament in 1778 by unexpectedly proposing a bill to tax such payments at the rate of 25% – and this was some 20 years before the idea of income tax (at 0.4%) was introduced
- the Duke of Bridgewater had to remind him, in 1782, that he was ‘sure those who brought him into Parliament do not approve of his absenting himself’ and he should attend the Commons more regularly
- in addition to reforming the Poor Laws, he also supported improvements to transport through canal building and reforming turnpike roads, abolishing imprisonment for small debts, protecting child apprentices, and supporting the establishment of friendly societies
- although he never practiced the law professionally after being called to the bar he returned to administer the business of Inner Temple before he retired
- his younger brother, John, died before him in 1795
- he spent his retirement years in the family home, Cotton Hall, in Staffordshire until his death in 1798
- his sons eventually sold the hall and its lands to the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1843
- the Earl of Shrewsbury (who lived at Alton Towers) gave the property to a religious community who established Cotton College; it closed in 1987 and the buildings are now derelict but not demolished
So that’s a bit of Thomas Gilbert. He’s an interesting Georgian politician even though he didn’t express views on anything we might consider significant such as the Seven Year War with France, the American War of Independence, Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, the transportation of convicts, the slave trade, or the French revolution.
His 30-year political career seems typical of the period – the representative of a so-called ‘pocket borough’ controlled by a rich and powerful family, first Newcastle-under-Lyme (1763-1768) and then Lichfield (1768-1794). The Gower family ensured he was well rewarded with sinecures and appointments for his loyalty and support, and yet it seems he was also prepared to bite the hands that fed him when necessary. That he was never recommended for a title or peerage perhaps indicates that he wasn’t sufficiently compliant; he might have been loyal but he was independently minded too.
Perhaps if he’d received a title his lineage would be more evident. There are several eminent Gilberts who have emerged since the beginning of the 19th century but it will take more archive research to establish whether any of them are descended from Thomas, or whether the family line ended somewhere. Some mysteries remain.
Below, Cotton Hall in 1826. The original home dating back to the 1600s would have been the central square block, with the wings added by Thomas during the late 18th century.
Below, Cotton College in 1933. The original family home is still evident between the extensive new wings and chapel built by the college.
Above photos from the CottonCollege.co.uk
Above, Cotton Hall in 2011. Photos from 28DaysLater.com
Above, Cotton Hall in 2016. Photos by Becky Coates from bcoatesphotojournalism.wordpress.com