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Abraham Wildey Robarts (1779-1858)

This page is taken from Namier and Brookes' History of Parliament and was written by Stephen Farrell

Abraham Wildey Robarts was born on 1 August 1779; his parents were Abraham Robarts of North End, Hampstead, Mdx. and Sabine, da. of Thomas Tierney of Limerick. His siblings were George James Robarts and William Tierney Robarts. He was educated at the Rev. Thomas Horne’s sch. Chiswick until 1794. On 20 January 1808, he married Charlotte Anne, daughter of Edmund Wilkinson of Potterton Lodge, Tadcaster, Yorks. RTobarts' residences were 15 Lombard Street, London; 26 Hill Street, Berkeley Square, Mdx., and Roehampton, Surrey. Between 1794 and c. 1801, he was a Writer for the East India Company in Canton.

Robarts was the eldest of the four sons of Abraham Robarts, who sat for Worcester, 1796-1816, and the longest lived of the three that entered Parliament. Like his father, a wealthy merchant, he was a partner in the London banking firm known by 1820 as Curtis, Robarts and Curtis of 15 Lombard Street, whose senior partner, Sir William Curtis, was Tory Member for London. In 1816 Robarts received a considerable inheritance from his father, which included East and West Indian interests. His fortune was supplemented by the bequests he received on the deaths of his brothers (for each of whom he acted as executor): William, Member for St. Albans, in 1820; James, an East India Company employee, in 1825; and George, who had formerly sat for Wallingford, in 1829. He seems to have settled in Hill Street in about 1820, and lived there for the rest of his life, though from 1827 he also rented, and later purchased, Lord Duncannon’s house at Roehampton. Universally respected for his mild manner and patent honesty, he was first returned to Parliament for Maidstone in 1818, and was a frequent, but almost invariably silent, attender and voter. Like his brothers, he followed the line of their uncle, George Tierney, the Whig Commons leader. He offered again at Maidstone at the general election of 1820, claiming to stand on independent principles, and was opposed by John Wells, who had been the unsuccessful government candidate in 1818, and the Whig socialite Richard Sharp. After a contest which revealed Maidstone’s partisan and venal character, Robarts was returned with Wells.

Robarts divided with opposition on the Queen Caroline affair in June 1820, and presented a Maidstone address to her on 30 October. He was a silent participant in the campaign on her behalf early in 1821, and voted constantly with the Whigs for reduced expenditure and taxation that session. He divided against Catholic claims, 28 February, being one of only 12 of the Whig minority on the censure motion of 6 February to do so. He divided in favour of parliamentary reform. No doubt from professional considerations, he joined ministers to vote against the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 23 May 1821, but he took no part in proceedings on the Bank cash payments bill. He was listed in a handful of opposition minorities that session and, at a dinner held for him in Maidstone in August 1822, Lord Torrington declared that Robarts was ‘guided by constitutional principles and not by violence or strong party prejudice’.

He served his constituents by assisting in the passage of the bill to light Maidstone with gas, which he introduced, 13 March 1823, when he presented a petition from the town’s merchants, bankers and manufacturers for repeal of the Insolvent Debtors Acts. As well as continuing to support economical reform, he cast several votes on significant legal and other questions in this and the following session. He presented a Maidstone victuallers’ petition against their licenses, 5 March, and one from the town’s inhabitants for the abolition of slavery, 11 March 1824. He voted for Catholic relief, 1 March, 25 April. When Wells presented an anti-Catholic petition from Maidstone, 26 April, he made what may have been his first major parliamentary speech, asserting that opinion in his constituency was predominantly pro-Catholic. He also declared that he had previously been averse to emancipation, but that after hearing Canning and Plunket’s recent speeches

his views had been entirely changed and he much regretted that he had ever voted against the Catholic claims. So firm were his sentiments upon the subject, that as long as he should have a seat in that House, no consideration whatever would induce him to withhold his support from the measures intended to relieve the Catholics from their political disqualifications.

He duly voted for the relief bill’s third reading, 10 May 1825.

Like George James Robarts he divided in favour of taking the corn laws into consideration, 18 April, and probably witnessed his brother’s dramatic collapse in the House later that day. His last recorded votes that session were for inquiries into the state of the nation, 4 May, and the petition of James Silk Buckingham on the liberty of the press in India, 9 May 1826.

Robarts offered again at the general election that summer, receiving cordial support at a meeting in Maidstone, 5 June 1826. However, the popularity of Wells, combined with the entry of the wealthy Wyndham Lewis, led to expectations of a spirited contest: and one correspondent in the Kentish Chronicle of 9 June wrote that ‘Mr. Robarts has every weapon to contend against that bigotry, ignorance and venality can wield and invent. The timely and vigorous perseverance of his friends will, however, secure his election’. On the hustings, he spoke briefly in favour of civil and religious liberty, 10 June, and he was returned just behind Wells after a contest, in which he received a high number of plumpers despite his unwillingness to bribe. His success was celebrated at the annual fête he provided for his supporters at Gibraltar Fields on 23 August. He had been in the pro-Catholic minority, 6 March, and on presenting a petition from the Protestant Dissenters of Maidstone for repeal of the Test Acts, 8 June, he stated that they wished him to contradict Wells’s false statement that the majority of them opposed Catholic claims. He was presumably sympathetic to the short-lived Canning ministry, which Tierney joined, and, following Lord Goderich’s appointment as prime minister, Thomas Spring Rice reported to Lord Lansdowne, 9 September 1827, that Robarts had written that ‘I am glad, very glad that poor Canning’s government is sustained, but I am not altogether satisfied with the barking of the Whigs. I should like to know what dog barked loudest’.

At the meeting on the 23 December 1828, one of his principal supporters, Charles Ellis, said that Robarts was the ‘first gentleman that was ever returned from this town, at the same time avowing his sentiments to be favourable to Catholic emancipation’. In February 1829 he was listed by Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary, as being opposed to securities, but was also marked among those ‘opposition or doubtful men who, we think, will vote with the government on this question’. He voted for considering Catholic claims, 6 March, and, having brought up favourable petitions, 11, 16 March, quarrelled with Wells on the 16th about the balance of opinion in Maidstone and their conduct at and since the election. He voted for the third reading of the emancipation bill, 30 March, and to allow Daniel O’Connell to take his seat without swearing the oath of supremacy, 18 May. His only other known votes in that session were for transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 1 May, and the issue of its new writ and parliamentary reform, 2 June. In October 1829 he was listed by Sir Richard Vyvyan, the Ultra leader, among those supporters of emancipation whose ‘sentiments’ on the notion of an alliance between Ultras and Whigs were ‘unknown’. In January 1830 Planta reported to the premier that Robarts had sent in his support via William Yates Peel and requested the government’s ‘notes’ (the whip). Yet he voted for Knatchbull’s amendment to the address on distress, 4 February, and during the session regularly joined his Whig colleagues in voting for lower taxation and expenditure.

With a dissolution looming, Robarts offered again at Maidstone at the end of June 1830 and engaged in some active canvassing. Wells retired, but was replaced by Alderman Henry Winchester, while two independents also entered. Stressing his independence, 29 July, he declared that ‘I consider myself as your old and tried servant, only temporarily discharged and anxiously hoping to be taken into your service again’. The following day he reiterated his support for civil and religious liberty, reform and retrenchment. After a heated contest at the general election, during which he was obliged to swear to land in the parish of Lillingstone, Buckinghamshire, as his property qualification, he was returned comfortably ahead of the rest of the field. He was, of course, listed by ministers among their ‘foes’, and duly voted against them on the civil list, 15 November 1830. At the request of his constituents, he presented their pro-reform petition, 18 March 1831. He voted for the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 March, and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 April. A meeting in his interest at Maidstone, 13 April, had protested at his supporting a measure which would disfranchise the non-residents, but he offered again at the ensuing general election, declaring that he had voted for reform because it was a ‘question of such deep and vital importance to the best interest of the country’. He was too ill to attend the Kent reform dinner at Rochester, 8 June, but at the Inflexible Society’s fête, 5 September 1831, he attributed a ‘very great part’ of his success to their ‘exertions and independence’.

He was appointed to the committee of secrecy on renewing the Bank of England charter, 22 March 1832. According to Charles Arbuthnot, 14 June, Robarts and John Smith were the members of this committee who most feared being at the mercies of a reformed Parliament

both having voted through thick and thin for the bill, and both so unwilling to be the victims of their own law that they yesterday in the committee told Lord Althorp [the chairman] that, if they were not given time to report, the Bank and the monied interest would be so alarmed that they would call in all their accommodations and close their accounts, which would cause the greatest confusion and embarrassment. Can you conceive such villainy as forcing upon the country a law which they themselves consider dangerous?

After he had offered again at Maidstone, he apologized to his constituents, 9 July, for having to return immediately to London for this committee, which he called ‘a subject of the most vital importance to the best interests of the country’. By 24 July, as Sir John Beckett informed Lord Lowther, Robarts seemed to ‘think they can get no further with examination of witnesses. They had Old [Nathan Meyer] Rothschild today. He gave very good evidence says Aby. That is, said I, evidence in favour of the Bank? Yes!

On 12 August Greville recorded that Commons business would soon be over, and that

Robarts told me that the Bank committee had executed their laborious duties in a spirit of great cordiality, and with a general disposition to lay aside all political differences and concur in accomplishing the best results ... He told me that the evidence all went to prove that little improvement could be made in the management of the Bank.

He was again successful at the general election of 1832, being returned as a Liberal with Barnett against Lewis, despite refusing to engage in bribery. On the eve of another such victory in 1835, Greville described him thus:

A reformer, and supports all Whig and reforming governments; but he does so (like many others) from fear. What he most dreads is collision, and most desires is quiet, and he thinks non-resistance the best way.

He left Parliament in 1837, but continued to pursue his career in banking, becoming chairman of the committee of bankers, and also indulged his passion for paintings, mainly Dutch, of which he established a fine collection. He died, after a brief illness, in April 1858, The Times obituary notice stating that ‘no member of the financial world ever held a higher position or was more universally esteemed’. His two eldest sons, Abraham George and Henry Christopher, both partners in his banking house, inherited the bulk of his estate.

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