There are books which are HUGE, both in size and influence, The King James Bible is one of those as is The Gutenberg Bible. There are also Documents which in a page or two can change the course of history. Today I have two rather small books bound together to discuss. They we’re both popular with protoAmericans, who are searching for the roots and the theories of their Republicanism. These two books have Liberty as their subject, and the rights and responses which are legitimate when the rights are threatened. I find it interesting that the advertisement in the back of the second book foreshadows John Hancock
176G SOMMERS, JOHN, Lord Somers (1651–1716)
The judgment of whole kingdoms and nations, concerning the rights, power, and prerogative of kings, and the rights, priviledges, and properties of the people: Shewing, The Nature of Government in general, both from God and Man. An Account of the British Government, and the Rights and Priviledges of the People in the Time of the Saxons, and since the Conquest. The Government which God ordain’d over the Children of Israel; and that all Magistrates and Governors proceed from the People, by many Examples in Scripture and History, and die Duty of Magistrates from Scripture and Reason. An Account of Eleven Emperors, and above Fifty Kings depriv’d for their evil Government. The Rights of the People and Parliament of Britain, to Resist and Deprive their Kings for evil Government, by King Henry’s Charter, and likewise in Scotland, by many Examples. The Prophets and antient Jews were Strangers to absolute Passive-Obedience: Resisting of Arbitrary Government is allow’d by many Examples in Scripture, by most Nations, and by undeniable Reason. A large Account of the Revolution; with several Speeches, Declarations, and Addresses, and the Names and Proceedings of Ten Bishops, and above Sixty Peers, concern’d in the Revolution before King James went out of England. Several Declarations in Queen Elizabeth’s Time of the Clergy in Convocation, and die Parliament who assisted, and justified the Scotch, French, and Dutch, in Resisting of their Evil and Destructive Princes
(Povey, Charles, 1652?-1743.)An enquiry into the miscarriages of the four last years reign. Wherein It appears by Sixty Five Articles, That a Scheme was laid to raise the Grandeur of France and Spain, break the Confederacy, make a separate Peace, destroy the Established Church, sink the Trade of the Nation, betray the Queen, and bring in the Pretender. As also A Design to Reform the Army, by putting in Irish Officers to Command it, and for making private Leagues, in order to hasten and support the intended Restauration. With other Particulars relating to the forwardness of a Rebellion in Scotland, die great encrease of Popeiy in Ireland, die occasion of the Queen’s Death, and the discovery of an Immense Sum of Money taken olit of the Treasury, and not accounted for. Presented to the freeholders of Great Britain, against the next election of a new parliament
London: printed for, and sold by T. Harrison, at the West Comer of the Royal-Exchange, in Cornhill,1714
London -.printed for the author, and sold by the booksellers of London and Westminster, 1714 $2,100
First published in 1709 as ‘Vox populi, vox dei, being the true maxims of government.’
Bound in a nineteenth century quarter calf recently rebacked.
First published in 1709 with the title Vox Dei, Being True Maxims of Government. Somers, a barrister of the Middle Temple, was Lord Chancellor of England and the author of The Security of Englishmen’s Lives (1681), a tract on juries and one’s right to a jury trial. The present work outlines the development of English freedoms, and calls for religious freedom, resistance to tyranny and a limited monarchy, it was reprinted before the American Revolution. John, Lord Somers’ The Judgment of Whole Kingdoms and Nations, first published in 1710 but reprinted in cheap editions in Philadelphia in 1773 and Newport in 1774, was even more widely read. The Judgment of Whole Kingdoms and Nations … (London, 1710), 8, and title page; issued in Philadelphia in 1773 and Newport, R.I., in 1774. It was brief, to the point, and cheap at sixpence a copy; see also Robbins, Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman, 78–80.
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53
by James McMullen Rigg Somers, Robert→
sister projects: Wikipedia article.
1904 Errata appended.
SOMERS or SOMMERS, JOHN, Lord Somers (1651–1716), lord chancellor of England, came of a family belonging to the rank of small landed gentry, which seated at Clifton, Severn Stoke, Worcestershire, and appears to have early conformed, as it afterwards steadfastly adhered, to the reformed faith. Its consequence was enhanced towards the end of the sixteenth century by the acquisition of the dissolved nunnery of Whiteladies, Claines, near Worcester, which Richard Somers or Sommers, as the name was popularly spelt, grandfather of the lord chancellor, settled on his daughter Mary upon her marriage with Richard Blurdon, a Worcester clothier. The lord chancellor’s father, John Somers, an attorney, fought on the side of the parliament during the civil war, throve in his profession on the restoration of tranquillity, inherited the Clifton estate, and, dying in January 1680–1,
He did not, however, allow the distractions of society to wean his mind from the severe studies proper to his profession. After exploring the entire field of English law and equity, he made himself an adept in the civil law, and prepared himself for political action by a close study of the constitution of his country.
Somers appeared as junior counsel for the seven bishops, 29–30 June 1688, being retained against the wish of the defendants at the instance of Henry Pollexfen [q. v.], afterwards chief justice of the common pleas, who refused to plead without him. The event proved that the old lawyer had not misplaced his confidence. Somers showed to no less advantage in court than in consultation. His learning furnished him with a precedent exactly in point, the exchequer chamber case of Thomas v. Sorrel (Vaughan, p. 330), in which it was held that no statute could be suspended except with the consent of the legislature, and his powerful appeal to the jury, which closed the pleading, virtually decided the case. He was shortly afterwards elected recorder of London, but declined the office.
The important rôle assigned to Somers by Lord Campbell in the negotiations with the prince of Orange (November–December 1688) is ignored by the contemporary authorities. But on his return to parliament, 11 Jan. 1688–9, for Worcester, which he continued to represent until his elevation to the woolsack, he at once took the lead in the critical debates on the settlement of the monarchy. Brushing aside the pedantic quibbles of more timid constitutionalists, he maintained with irrefragable logic that the desertion of the kingdom by James II was in fact an abdication of the throne. In this he carried the commons with him, but in the subsequent conference with the lords he encountered an opposition which yielded rather to stress of circumstances than the cogency of his arguments. If not exactly the author of the ‘Declaration of Rights,’ he presided over the committee which framed it, and doubtless had the principal share in its composition. In the debate on the coronation oath he supported an amendment which, if carried, would have relieved George III of one of his scruples in regard to the emancipation of his catholic subjects; otherwise he took comparatively little part in the discussion of the details of the new settlement, being fully engrossed by the office of solicitor-general, to which he was appointed on 4 May 1689. On 31 Oct. following he was knighted. He drafted the declaration of war against France (7 May), took part in the debate on the bill of rights (8 May), and at the conference with the lords on the bill to reverse the sentence against Titus Oates nobly vindicated the right of even the worst of mankind to evenhanded justice (July). In the debate on the revenue bill (17 Dec.), he opposed the grant to the Princess Anne. He was probably the author of the able ‘Vindication of the Proceedings of the late Parliament of England, An. Dom. 1689, being the first in the Reign of their present Majesties King William and Queen Mary,’ which was published at London in the following year, 4to (see Somers Tracts, ed. Scott, x. 257; Parl. Hist. vol. v. app. iv.). In the debates of the ensuing session on the indemnity bill and the bill for restoring corporations he advocated an assignment of the grounds of exception from the one, and the exception from the other of all persons who had been concerned in procuring the corrupt surrender of charters. In the prosecution of the Jacobite Lord Preston and his associates, 16–19 Jan. 1690–1, Somers discharged his duty with a temperate firmness in happy contrast to the excessive zeal characteristic of the previous régime. The judges, Sir John Holt [q. v.] and his colleagues, Pollexfen and Atkyns, were equally considerate, and when, the case being proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, the jury convicted the prisoners, the king, on the recommendation of Somers, exercised his prerogative of mercy.
On 2 May 1692 Somers succeeded Sir George Treby as attorney-general. In the autumn, parliament was occupied with a much-needed measure for regulating the procedure in cases of treason, which occasioned a prolonged struggle between the two houses. The bill was eventually abandoned owing to the refusal of the lower house to accept the lords’ amendments, and the attorney-general’s speeches materially contributed to this result. His action has been censured by Lord Campbell, but on inadequate grounds. The chief point to which he took exception in the amendments was a limitation of ten days for the presentment of the indictment, to run not from the discovery but from the commission of the offence. Such a rule would have rendered it in many cases impossible to lay an indictment at all; and the measure as eventually passed (7 Will. III, c. 3) justified Somers’s opposition by fixing the period of limitation at three years.
As attorney-general Somers conducted before the high steward’s court, 31 Jan. to 4 Feb. 1692–3, the prosecution of Charles Mohun, fifth baron Mohun [q. v.], for the murder of his rival in the good graces of Mrs. Bracegirdle, a case in which, the fact being proved, the prisoner owed his acquittal to the uncertainty which then reigned as to the precise degree of complicity necessary to support a charge of murder. In his private capacity the attorney-general also appeared for the Duke of Norfolk in his action for criminal conversation against Sir John Germaine. He stated the evidence with as much decency as the nature of the case permitted, and obtained a verdict.
On 23 March 1692–3 Somers was made lord keeper of the great seal, which had been in commission since the accession of William III, and was sworn of the privy council. On 2 May following he took his seat on the woolsack as speaker of the House of Lords. On 22 April 1697 he was advanced to the dignity of lord high chancellor of England, and on 2 Dec. following he was raised to the peerage—an honour which he had declined in 1695—by the title of Baron Sommers of Evesham, Worcestershire. On the 14th of the same month he took his seat in the House of Lords. About the same time he was provided with the means of supporting his dignities by grants of the two royal manors of Reigate and Howlegh, Surrey, and a pension of 2,100l.
Amid his official cares Somers by no means lost his taste for liberal pursuits and the society of men of learning and letters. He kept up his Italian to such purpose that his letter of condolence to Count Lorenzo Magalotti on Filicaia’s death could hardly offend the ear of the most fastidious member of the Accademia della Crusca (Magalotti, Lett. Fam. ii. 166). He corresponded with Le Clerc; he offered Bayle a handsome contribution towards the cost of producing his dictionary, which that sturdy savant declined rather than be beholden to the minister of a prince by whom he deemed himself ill-used. He was a connoisseur in art, and brought Vertue into vogue by commissioning him to engrave a portrait of his friend, Archbishop Tillotson, for whose widow he afterwards helped to provide. He was intimate with Bishop Burnet, whose scheme for the augmentation of livings, known as Queen Anne’s Bounty, he cordially promoted; and friendly with George Hickes [q. v.], the nonjuror; nor did he altogether disdain the society of Matthew Tindal, the deist, for whose ‘Rights of the Christian Church’ he is said to have written the preface; nor even that of the yet more adventurous freethinker, Janus Junius Toland. Addison, Congreve, Steele, Kneller, Garth, were members with him of the Kit-Cat Club, and must have often shared the hospitality which he dispensed at Powis House. Addison owed to him his pension. Swift, who made his acquaintance in 1702, was initiated by him in the true principles of whiggism, and dedicated to him the ‘Tale of a Tub’ (1704), in a style of profuse adulation, but, looking to him for preferment which he did not get, deserted to the tories, and became his mortal enemy. Even then he admitted that Somers had ‘all excellent qualifications’ for office ‘except virtue’ (Works, ed. Scott, iii. 187, xii. 237). The great historical antiquaries Thomas Rymer [q. v.] and Thomas Madox [q. v.] owed much to Somers’s encouragement.
Graver interests brought him into close relations with Charles Montagu (afterwards Earl of Halifax), John Locke, and Sir Isaac Newton. In concert with Montagu, chancellor of the exchequer, and in consultation with Locke, who owed to him a place in the council of trade, and with Sir Isaac Newton, whose appointment as master of the mint he supported, Somers applied his mind to the serious problem presented by the depreciation of the currency occasioned by the prevalent practice of clipping the hammered coin. In 1695 he devised a scheme for arresting its progress. A royal proclamation was to be suddenly and simultaneously issued in every part of the country, calling in the hammered coin to be weighed, after which it was to circulate only at its weight value, the difference between that and its nominal value being made good to the possessors by the state. This expedient had the approval of the king, but was eventually deemed too hazardous for adoption. On 30 Nov. 1699 he was elected to the chair of the Royal Society, which he continued to hold until 1704.
Learning, patience, industry, instinctive equitableness of judgment, comprehensiveness of view, subtlety of discernment, and command of apt and perspicuous language; in short, all the qualities best fitted to adorn the woolsack, are ascribed to Somers by his contemporaries. Yet, partly by the fault of his reporters, partly in consequence of the dearth of causes célèbres, partly by reason of his early surrender of the great seal, his recorded achievement is by no means commensurate with his reputation. Of his decrees in chancery only the meagre summaries given by Vernon and Peere Williams are extant. In the most important case which came before him in the exchequer chamber, that of the bankers who had recovered judgment in the court of exchequer for arrears of interest due to them as assignees of certain perpetual annuities charged by Charles II upon the hereditary excise as security for advances, he expended some hundreds of pounds and an immense amount of thought and research, with no better result than to defeat an intrinsically just claim, on the technical ground that it was not cognisable in the court of exchequer, but only by petition of right. No judgment so elaborate had ever been delivered in Westminster Hall as that by which, in November 1696, he reversed the decision of the court of exchequer; and its subsequent reversal on 23 Jan. 1699–1700 by the House of Lords, in which lay peers then voted on legal questions, affords no ground for questioning the soundness of its law. The result caused Somers a mortification so intense as still further to impair a constitution never strong, and already undermined by excessive application to business; but the story that it made him so ill that he never again appeared on the woolsack is a mere fiction (Burnet, Own Time, 8vo, iv. 443 n.; Lords’ Journal, xvi. 499 et seq.). He increased the efficiency of the House of Lords as a legal tribunal by compelling the judges to sit as assessors, stiffly maintained its jurisdiction to review cases decided in the Irish House of Lords, and in the cases of the Countess of Macclesfield and the Duchess of Norfolk vindicated for it an independent jurisdiction in cases of adultery by a wife.
Somers had opposed the commutation of the ancient hereditary revenues of the crown for an annual grant (17 Dec. 1689), and was requited by William with a larger measure of his confidence than was enjoyed by any other Englishman except Sunderland [see Spencer, Robert, second Earl of Sunderland]. Perhaps Dutch was one of the ‘septem ferme idiomatum’ of which, according to Filicaia, he was master; at any rate he could converse with the king in French, and though he had never travelled, he was probably neither ignorant nor negligent of foreign affairs. At his instance William readily renounced (March 1693) the prerogative of disposing of judicial patronage proprio motu, which he had usurped while the great seal was in commission. Their relations were improved by the steady loyalty of which Somers gave proof after the defeat at Neerwinden, when he went forthwith to the Guildhall and raised a loan of 300,000l. to meet the exigencies of the hour (August 1693). If William insisted on vetoing the Place Bill, which would have excluded from the House of Commons all paid servants of the crown except ministers, he yielded, probably to Somers’s advice, in regard to the Triennial Bill, which received the royal assent towards the end of 1694, and the king and the lord keeper were heartily at one in approving the omission to renew the Licensing Act, by which the press gained a liberty that Milton’s eloquence had failed to secure for it. On the death of Queen Mary, 28 Dec. 1694, Somers aided Sunderland in bringing about a reconciliation (rather apparent than real) between the king and the Princess Anne. The king was guided by Somers’s advice in regard to the assassination plot, and in the affair of Sir John Fenwick (1645?–1697) [q. v.], in which a certain deviation from the strict line of impartial justice must be acknowledged; and with Somers rested the responsibility for the cashiering of the numerous justices of the peace who refused to join the association for the protection of the king’s person. In 1695 and the four succeeding years Somers was one of the lords justices who formed the council of regency during the king’s absence on the continent, and of which virtute officii he was the working head. Hence he was associated in the popular mind with William and his foreign policy far more closely than there is reason to suppose was really the case.
Somers was also supposed—and with no more reason—to be the life and soul of the opposition to the bill for the resumption of the grants of forfeited Irish estates, which was returned from the House of Lords, with certain important amendments, in April 1700. To displace him accordingly became the prime object of the country party, and to that end an attempt was made to saddle him with responsibility for the piratical acts of Captain William Kidd (d. 1701) [q. v.] He was one of the undertakers who had procured Kidd his commission, equipped his ship, and were jointly interested in such ships and cargoes as he might capture from the pirates. When, therefore, instead of making war on the pirates, the captain hoisted the black flag himself, the undertakers were credited with an accurate foresight of events, and were denounced as aiders and abettors of piracy. The agitation culminated on 10 April 1700 in a motion in the House of Commons for an address to the king for the lord-chancellor’s perpetual exclusion from his councils and presence. It was defeated, but by so small a majority that William thought it expedient that Somers should retire. He was not unwilling to do so, but urged that his resignation would be interpreted as an acknowledgment of guilt. The king therefore sent him the usual warrant, upon which, on 17 April, he surrendered the great seal. After an interval, during which the seal went a-begging, he was succeeded by Sir Nathan Wright [q. v.]
In retirement Somers found leisure to recruit health long since shattered by excessive application to public business, and to concern himself more actively with the transactions of the Royal Society. He kept, however, a watchful eye on public affairs; and ‘Several Orations of Demosthenes to encourage the Athenians to oppose the exorbitant power of Philip of Macedon, englished from the Greek by several Hands,’ which appeared under his direction in 1702 (London, 24mo), had at that juncture a more than academic interest. Meanwhile he did not escape the consequences of the implicit confidence which, in the matter of the partition treaties, he had reposed in the king. The death of the king of Spain, 1 Nov. 1700, N.S., was followed by the publication of a will, signed by him under French influence, by which he nominated as his successor Philip, duke of Anjou, the second son of the dauphin. Louis XIV at once pronounced in favour of the will, formally recognised the duke as king of Spain, and occupied the Spanish Netherlands. In England he had the tories on his side, while the whigs rallied to the imperial cause. After the general election of January 1700–1 the tories soon gained the upper hand. In the House of Lords an address to the king for disclosure of all treaties negotiated since the peace of Ryswick brought the partition treaties under discussion (14 March). The negotiations were censured as both unconstitutional and impolitic. Portland, who bore the brunt of the attack, sought to share his responsibility with Somers and his friends. In the result the lords voted an address to the king unequivocally condemning the policy of the treaties and deprecating for the future the practice of negotiating without the advice of his natural-born subjects. A similar address was voted by the commons, who loudly demanded the impeachment of Portland, Somers, Orford, and Halifax. Released from his oath of secrecy by the king, Somers obtained leave to attend the lower house, and was heard in his defence on 14 April. He laid his letter of 28 Aug. 1698 on the table, and the whole responsibility for the negotiations upon the king, whose mandate he pleaded in justification of the transmission of the blank commission under the great seal, and the subsequent affixing of the great seal to the ratification, ignoring the fact that the mandate was not peremptory, but conditional on the treaty being approved. The enrolment of the documents in chancery he denied to be part of his duty.
The limits of the royal prerogative were then so ill defined that Somers must be acquitted of grave delinquency; but his defence was not such as could safely be admitted, and a resolution to proceed with his impeachment was carried, though only by a small majority. A motion was also carried for an address to the king for the immediate and perpetual exclusion of the impeached lords from his councils and presence. But to this attempt to snatch judgment before trial, William, fortified by a counter-address from the House of Lords, paid no heed. In May the impeachment, swollen in Somers’s case to fourteen articles, by inclusion of the stale charge concerning his connection with Kidd and some other fictitious accusations, came before the House of Lords. The minor charges Somers triumphantly rebutted; the rest of the indictment was not pressed; and, after a wrangle between the houses about procedure, his acquittal, which carried with it that of the other lords, was formally pronounced on 17 June. The turbulent scenes which attended these proceedings evoked Swift’s ‘Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome, with the consequences they had upon both those States,’ in which (chap. ii.) a parallel is drawn between Somers and Aristides.
On the recognition of the Pretender as king of England by Louis XIV, William, who had returned to his favourite notion of forming a coalition administration, permitted Somers to kiss his hand (3 July 1701). In the autumn, while the king was abroad, and on his return to England, Somers is stated to have written the speech—delivered by the king (30 Sept.) at the opening of parliament—which, by its spirited but sober patriotism, rallied for the time both parties to the throne. His early return to power was confidently anticipated. Sunderland wrote to the king (11 Sept. 1701) that Somers was ‘the life, the soul, and the spirit of his party’ (Miscellaneous State Papers, iii. 446); but the death of the king on 8 March 1701–2 completely changed the aspect of affairs.
During the early years of Queen Anne’s reign Somers, excluded from the privy council and even from the commission of the peace, became the virtual head of the junto of whigs (including Wharton, Orford, Halifax, and Charles Spencer, third earl of Sunderland) whose loyal support of the government contributed in no small degree to the vigorous prosecution of the war, while they successfully maintained the principle of religious liberty in the long struggle on the Occasional Conformity Bill, and championed the rights of constituencies against the House of Commons in the matter of the Aylesbury scrutiny [see Holt, Sir John, and Smith, John, (1657–1726)]. In the meantime, through the influence of the Duchess of Marlborough, Somers and his friends effected the elimination from the ministry of the high tory element (April 1704). They were thus enabled in 1705 to provide for the contingency of the queen’s death by the Naturalisation of the House of Hanover and Regency Acts (4 Ann, cc. 4, 8), while they commended themselves to the queen by resisting the factious proposal of the tories to invite the Princess Sophia to take up her residence in the country. The transference of the great seal from Sir Nathan Wright to Lord Cowper [see Cowper, William, first Earl Cowper] increased their influence, and in the following year they obtained places in the commission (10 April) for the settlement of the treaty of union with Scotland. Besides taking an active part in adjusting the details of that great act of state, Somers was burdened with its defence in the House of Lords. Meanwhile he had found time to initiate a measure for the reform of the procedure of the courts of common law and equity, which, with certain mutilations, passed into law (4 Ann c. 16), and was only superseded by the more radical changes of the present century. On the reconstruction of the ministry in 1708 he was sworn president of the council (25 Nov.). Fully aware that he was still personally unacceptable to the queen, he endeavoured to remove her prejudices by assiduous homage, and, as the star of Lady Marlborough waned, sought to enlist Mrs. Masham’s interest on his side. Secretly guided by Harley and St. John, the queen flattered his hopes, while she inclined more and more to the side of the tories, who steadily gained ground in the country. In 1710 the ministry committed the mistake of rejecting the terms offered by Louis XIV at the conference of Gertruydenberg, and the still more serious blunder of impeaching Sacheverell. Somers had opposed the impeachment, and, when its effect on the country was manifest, he inclined to accept the overtures made to him by Harley for a coalition. He was, however, overborne by his colleagues, and fell with them on 21 Sept. The queen desired him to retain office, having at length reached the conclusion, as she told Lord Dartmouth, that he was a man who had never deceived her; but Somers declined to desert the other members of the junto (Hist. MSS. Comm. 13th Rep. App. ii. 214–20; Burnet, Own Time, 8vo, vi. 7 n.).
Failing health now compelled him to take a less active part in debate. He continued, however, to advocate the vigorous prosecution of the war, and signed the protest against the restraining order on 28 May 1712. On the accession of George I he was sworn of the privy council, 1 Oct. 1714, and accepted a place in the cabinet without office. He was voted a pension of 2,000l., and appointed custos rotulorum of Worcestershire and commissioner of coronation claims (2 Aug. and 4 Oct. 1714); but thenceforth, except to attend an occasional cabinet council, he rarely left his Hertfordshire villa, Brookmans, near North Mimms, where he died of paralysis on 26 April 1716. His remains were interred in North Mimms church. As he was unmarried, his title became extinct.
Courtly and reserved by nature or habit, Somers carried into the relations of ordinary life a certain formality of demeanour, but in his hours of relaxation could be an agreeable companion. It does not appear that he was a brilliant talker, but his vast erudition and knowledge of affairs placed him at his ease with men of the most diverse interests and occupations. His religious opinions appear to have been latitudinarian. His domestic life did not escape the breath of scandal. His oratory, which cannot be judged by the meagre reports which alone are extant, is said to have united close reasoning with a masculine eloquence, the charm of which was enhanced by a musical voice. To Burke, Somers was the type of ‘the old whigs’ to whom was addressed the famous ‘Appeal;’ to Macaulay he was no less a symbol of awe and veneration. Yet as a statesman he does not merit all the praise which has been lavished upon him by his whig panegyrists. His part in shaping the settlement of 1688–1689 has been unduly magnified; in the matter of the partition treaty he showed a lamentable want of firmness; notwithstanding his latitudinarian opinions, he does not seem to have been particularly zealous even for the small measure of religious liberty secured by the Toleration Act. On the other hand his sagacity, industry, and disinterestedness are undeniable; his motto, ‘Prodesse quam conspici,’ was no vain boast, and only once towards the close of his career, when he gave some countenance to the agitation for the repeal of the union with Scotland (1713), did he dally with faction.
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 46
by George Atherton Aitken
POVEY, CHARLES (1652?–1743), miscellaneous writer and projector, was probably descended from a family which had settled at Shookledge, Cheshire, and may have been son of Ralph Povey (b. 1607) and a relative of Pepys’s friend, Thomas Povey [q. v.] (cf. Addit. MS. 5529, f. 59 b). He had a brother, Josiah (d. 1727), who was rector of Telscombe, Sussex. When twitted with his obscure origin, he said his birth was neither noble nor ignoble. According to his own statements, he spent the flower of his youth and middle age in study and thought, and during the reign of James II he was twice imprisoned for writing against that king (English Memorial). In 1689 he printed ‘A Challenge to all Jacobites,’ which was followed in 1690 by ‘A Challenge in vindication of the Revolution’ (State Tracts, 1705, vol. i.). In 1699 he printed ‘Proposals for raising One Thousand Pounds.’ Next year he was living at Wapping, and entered the coal trade; but, being persecuted by other merchants, he published ‘A Discovery of Indirect Practices in the Coal Trade,’ 1700, in which he described one of his inventions, an engine for clearing a coal-ship quickly. This was followed in 1701 by ‘The Unhappiness of England as to its Trade by Sea and Land truly stated,’ a piece containing proposals for employing the poor by founding four hospitals of industry, each to hold fifteen hundred people. Povey also dwelt upon ‘the pernicious consequence of wearing swords, and the ill precedents acted at the two theatres.’ This book was succeeded by two religious works, ‘Meditations of a Divine Soul,’ 1703, of which ten thousand copies are said to have been sold, and ‘Holy Thoughts of a God-made Man,’ 1704.
By 1705, and probably some time earlier, Povey was in possession of the Traders’ Exchange House, Hatton Garden, where he carried on for several years the business of a commercial agency, and floated life and fire insurance schemes. He estimated the subscriptions to the exchange house at 2,000l. a year. His Traders’ Exchange House Office for Lives was started about 1706. It was an insurance scheme for four thousand members, reputed healthy persons, and was to make an annual contribution to the building fund of a projected college for one hundred decayed men and women. Other funds were to be obtained from the proceeds of advertisements in the ‘General Remark on Trade,’ a periodical which appeared three times a week from October 1705 to March 1710. This paper, of which 3,500 copies are said to have been printed, was distributed gratis. Dunton said it was published in rivalry of Defoe’s ‘Review,’ and complained that Povey plagiarised from the ‘Athenian Oracle.’ The life-insurance scheme collapsed in 1710, but in the meantime Povey had floated (1707–8) the Exchange House Fire Office for Goods (London), or the Sun Fire Office. Business does not seem to have been begun before 1708, and in December of that year a salvage corps scheme was suggested. The office proved a success, but Povey parted with his interest in it at an early date, although he remained a member of the board. He was at first promised by the managers an annuity of 400l. a year during the lives of himself and his wife, and of the survivor, and he was also to receive 960l. This arrangement, however, was altered, to Povey’s annoyance, in October 1710, when the twenty-four acting members of the society said they would give Povey only 20l. each, and an annuity of ten per cent. of the profits, up to 200l. a year.
Povey started in 1709 a scheme called the halfpenny carriage of letters, an imitation of the penny post of William Dockwray or Dockwra [q. v.] The post was confined to the cities of London and Westminster and the borough of Southwark, and the collections seem to have been made by tradesmen. But in November 1709 the postmasters-general proceeded against Povey for an infringement of their monopoly, and in Easter term 1710, when the action was heard in the court of exchequer, Povey was fined 100l. Another scheme, for the carriage of small parcels of goods into the country, which was broached in 1709, never came to maturity (cf. Treasury Papers, 1708–14, vol. cxx. No. 33).
The first number of ‘The Visions of Sir Heister Ryley’ was published by Povey on 21 Aug. 1710; the eightieth and last number appeared on 21 Feb. 1711. Each paper consisted of two quarto leaves, and the periodical, which was sold for a penny, was confessedly an imitation of Steele’s ‘Tatler.’ In 1712 Povey let the house and park at Belsize, Hampstead, of which he was tenant, and on which he claims to have spent 2,000l., to Count d’Aumont, the French ambassador-extraordinary, who was to pay 1,000l. for the term of his residence in England, but Povey refused to ratify the agreement when he found that the newly erected chapel would be used for mass (English Memorial). Povey then vainly offered the house and chapel to the Prince of Wales, and the house remained vacant. One of his later schemes was to set up a factory for weavers in part of the house, with a warehouse for the sale of the goods. Povey says he was imprisoned on a false action for 10,000l. in September 1713 (Subject’s Representation), and that no bail could be obtained. A half-sheet was published, stating that he was imprisoned for conspiring against the queen and government; but Judge Tracey declared that there was no cause of action, and ordered the release of Povey, who afterwards obtained judgment for false imprisonment against the ringleaders. They, however, fled in order to evade justice (cf. Post Boy, 13–15 Oct. 1713).
Povey published anonymously in 1714 an ‘Enquiry into the Miscarriages of the last Four Years’ Reign,’ and he says his life was threatened on account of it. It went through eight editions, some of which were spurious, and was answered by Atterbury’s ‘English Advice to the Freeholders of England.’ In the following year he printed ‘A Memorial of the Proceedings of the late Ministry’ and ‘The English Parliament represented in a Vision,’ which were entered at Stationers’ Hall on 15 Dec. 1714 and 7 March 1715 respectively. ‘The Subject’s Representation,’ 1717, and ‘English Inquisition,’ 1718, were full of complaints of persecution by the whigs. Povey estimated his loss by public services at 1,700l. a year, and 15,673l. in money; and he complained (English Memorial) that when any scheme of his came to perfection the government seized the good seed. In ‘Brittain’s Scheme to make a New Coin of Gold and Silver to give in exchange for Paper Money and South Sea Stock,’ 1720, he said that a brewhouse at Hampstead belonging to him had been seized in 1718, and his goods sold by excise officers. In 1723 he designed a fire-annihilator, a bomb containing water, the idea of which was said to have been stolen from an invention of a chemist named Ambrose Godfrey or Godfrey-Hanckwitz [q. v.] , who in 1724 tried to convict Povey of the theft.
In 1733 Povey printed ‘The Secret History of the Sun Fire Office,’ and in 1737 the ‘English Memorial to obtain Right and Property.’ These were followed in 1740 by ‘The Torments after Death,’ in which he said that all the profits from his works went to ministers’ and tradesmen’s widows and charity children, and described a number of charitable projects, including the relief of distressed families, prisoners, and the sick. In 1741 Povey brought out a curious book, ‘The Virgin in Eden, or the State of Innocency. … Presenting a Nobleman, a Student, and Heiress, on their progress from Sodom to Canaan,’ in which there is a section criticising Richardson’s new novel, ‘Pamela’s Letters proved to be Immoral Romances, printed in Images of Virtue.’ ‘Torments after Death’ and ‘Virgin in Eden’ contain long catalogues of subjects on which he had written. In 1718 he stated that he had produced over six hundred pieces; but this must include the separate numbers of the periodicals which he brought out. His last invention was a self-acting organ (announced in the ‘Daily Advertiser’ for 23 Nov. 1742), which he left by will to the parish of St. Mary, Newington Butts.
Povey died on 4 May 1743, aged upwards of ninety (Gent. Mag. 1743, p. 274), in Little Alie Street, Goodman’s Fields, and was buried on the 8th at St. Mary’s, Newington, in the church, where his wife Ann was buried. He left directions that his will, which is dated 30 Jan. 1742–3, should be printed twice in a public newspaper, and it was given in imperfect form in the ‘Daily Post’ for 1 and 8 July 1743. Povey mentions land at Cheadle, Staffordshire; and he left money for the charity school in the parish of St. Mary, Newington (with which he was presumably connected through his wife), for the poor of Whitechapel, and for the widows of poor tradesmen and ministers. Of every pound received for his books ninepence was to go to the rector of St. Mary’s, Newington, and ninepence to the dissenting minister at the Broad Street meeting-house, for the use of poor ministers’ widows. The residue was left to two widows, who were executrixes—viz.: two-thirds to Elizabeth Smith, a niece, and one-third to Margaret Stringer. Povey declared that he never set up any undertaking with the intent to enrich himself by fraud or injustice, and never wrote anything which did not tend to promote virtue and unity among men. A prolific schemer and writer, his statements are untrustworthy and exaggerated. He was quarrelsome, and his vanity is shown by his practice of printing his coat-of-arms on his title-pages instead of his name. But some of his schemes were ingenious, while the Sun Fire Office became a great success. He took pleasure in charitable work and in the promotion of friendliness among persons of different religious beliefs.
[Almost everything that is known about Povey has been collected together by Mr. F. B. Relton in his Account of the Fire Insurance Companies. … Also of Charles Povey, 1893; see especially pp. 261–84, 447–543. Other works which may be consulted are Joyce’s History of the Post Office, 1893; Lewins’s Her Majesty’s Mails, 1865; the Hope Catalogue of Early Newspapers; Notes and Queries, passim; Walford’s Insurance Cyclopædia, iii. 465–7.]