Saturday 23 February 2019

Thomas Potter rake, pornographer and Recorder Of Bath

In October 1752 the wife of the politician Thomas Potter gave birth to a daughter, an event which Potter described as ‘the odious yell of a young Female Yahoo that thrust herself into the world’ and which seems to have driven him from home. He decided to escape to Bath and sent a note to his friend, the radical journalist and politician, John Wilkes:

'If you have either religion or morality. If you have but a pretence to one single social virtue, if you prefer young women and whores to old women and wives, if you prefer the toying away hours with little satin-back to the evening conferences of your mother-in-law … if life and spirit and wit and humour and gaiety, but above all if the heavenly inspired passion called LUST have not … deserted you and left you a prey to dullness and imbecility, hasten to town that you may take a place in my post chaise for Bath next Thursday morning.'
Thomas Potter, born in 1718, was the second son of John Potter, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas grew up to become a man of fashion, exceedingly handsome, a wit and orator but also a notorious libertine.

Thomas trained as a lawyer and his father made him principal registrar for the Province of Canterbury. In 1740 he married Anne Manningham, described by a newspaper of the time as: 'a young lady of fine accomplishments and a handsome fortune,' but as he never appeared to like her one must assume it was a marriage of convenience.

In 1747 he inherited his father's fortune of £100,000 (about £11 million today) his elder brother having been disinherited following his marriage to a servant. He quickly used his new wealth to enter the House of Commons as MP for St Germans in Cornwall. He was at first a follower of the Prince of Wales but after 1751 joined the Pitt-Grenville group: Horace Walpole, in his survey of the House at the end of 1755, included Potter amongst its foremost speakers.
Following the death of his first wife, he married a Miss Lowe who would become the mother of the Female Yahoo. It's from around this time that Potter’s health began to fail him and he made frequent trips to Bath to take the waters and enjoy the pleasures the town offered a wealthy and well connected young man.

At what point during his visits he met Ralph Allen isn't clear, but certainly part of the attraction for him in becoming one of Allen’s circle was Allen’s niece, Gertrude, the wife of the Rev. Warburton: Gertrude was 30 years younger than her husband and a beauty.

It was also in Bath, around 1750, that Potter first met John Wilkes and within months the two had become the closest of friends. 'The highest pleasure that can be afforded me next to the company of a woman,' Potter wrote, 'is that of my dear Wilkes.' It is around this time that Potter became a Monk of Medmenham or, in other words, a member of what is now commonly known as the Hell Fire Club founded by the notorious rake Sir Francis Dashwood.
In 1754 Potter was returned as MP for Aylesbury, apparently unopposed, and by the end of the year was again staying at Prior Park in company with Gertrude Warburton. Potter wrote to Wilkes on the 10th October that 'the Pedant', (Warburton,) had left Prior Park, and he then described in the most graphic terms how he intended to take advantage of Warburton's absence to seduce Gertrude. Indeed Potter was widely believed to be, and almost certainly was, Gertrude’s lover and was rumoured to be the real father of the Warburtons’ only child.
At the beginning of 1756 Thomas was once more in Bath staying with the Allens. Potter’s presence at Prior Park brought his friend William Pitt to dinner there on at least two occasions and soon Potter was being described by Pitt as one of the best friends he had in the world which, when the new Administration was being formed in November 1756, might have marked Potter out for the lucrative office of joint paymaster. The King ‘objected in the strongest manner ... as a thing unheard of at the first step in his service,’ but the appointment went through nevertheless. However, when the time came to kiss hands, on 4 December, Potter was too ill to attend. He felt: ‘doomed to the wicker chair for the rest of his life.’ From this time on he spent most of his time at Prior Park.
In the Newcastle-Pitt Administration of July 1757, Potter became joint vice-treasurer of Ireland, although according to Charles Lyttelton ‘most people thought he was not entitled to an employment of such rank and profit.’ The assumption of office by Pitt and Potter, as well as the Bath MP Sir Robert Henley's promotion to Keeper of the Great Seal, precipitated a reshuffle engineered by Potter and paid for by Wilkes. Pitt replaced Henley at Bath, Potter replaced Pitt at Okehampton, and Wilkes replaced Potter at Aylesbury. In addition, Sir Robert Henley promised to resign the post of Recorder of Bath. Potter wrote to Allen that while Sir Robert had recommended a Mr. Pratt for the post: '… if you approve it, I have many reasons which induce me to take it myself, having had an education at the bar, and being, I trust, qualified for it.' Allen did approve and Potter duly became Recorder of Bath.

It was from Prior Park on 30 September 1758 that Potter applied to the Duke of Bedford for his support in standing for the seat when a Parliamentary vacancy opened up in Bedfordshire. Bedford in his reply on 2 October promised his fullest support on this occasion, but would not give ‘any absolute promise for the next general election.’ Although with this endorsement Potter was reasonably certain of being elected, he stood down; writing to Pitt, from Prior Park, on 25 October he explained: ‘I have been obliged to renounce the project in Bedfordshire, by which I have renounced an establishment for my son; for to him I should have resigned at the general election, depending for myself on the friendship of my good host, who is more to me than a father.’ 

From this, it would seem that Potter was hopeful of becoming the member for Bath, and was anticipating Ralph Allen's support: the seat was due to come vacant in two years’ time and it was probably with this in mind that he threw a dinner for the Corporation followed by a ball. However, his standing down from the Bedfordshire seat prompted questions. On the 5th November, the Duchess of Bedford wrote to her husband: ‘People begin to come round to my opinion that there was some mystery in Mr Potter's declining to stand for the county, whether there was or no I think it much better as it is.’ Potter's health might well have been his reason for his standing down as around this time the politician Temple wrote to Grenville: ‘Potter exceedingly ill.’ .

Thomas Potter died 17 June 1759 and Wilkes succeeded to his friend’s offices in the Hell Fire Club.
The death of this once brilliant orator and politician went almost unnoticed in London. It was marked by a mere two line announcement in the Gentleman’s Magazine.

Potter had once written to Wilkes speculating about how he might be remembered after his death and thought it would most likely be for the time he was seen copulating with a cow on Wingrove Common! While the cow is often mentioned when Potter’s name appears in histories of the period, it is not for this that he is chiefly remembered; it was for his involvement with Wilkes in the creation of the Essay on Woman, an obscene parody of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man. The poem was to remain a private matter for the most part until some years after Potter's death when it provided the government with the ammunition it needed to attack John Wilkes.
The essay, dedicated to the Bath-born courtesan Fanny Murray, was not only obscene but it also ridiculed Ralph Allen’s brother-in-law who, by then, was Bishop of Gloucester and who had edited Pope’s essay. Potter had personal reasons for doing this as his admiration and affection for Ralph Allen led him to resent what he saw as Warburton's arrogant assumption of authority at Prior Park and, of course, his relationship with the Bishop’s wife. The poem is too obscene to quote in an article of this nature but its tone can probably be gauged by saying that the title page gives the author as Pego Borewell Esq, pego being slang for penis.
The poem, notwithstanding its scurrilous content, has historical significance because of the central role it played in John Wilkes' battle with the British establishment over free speech and the powers of the state. This battle inspired many others to fight for civil liberties and, in particular, influenced the leaders of American resistance to British rule. To understand how this came about we need to look in more detail at the life of John Wilkes who, incidentally, continued to be a frequent visitor to Bath.

John Wilkes was born in Clerkenwell, London, the second of six children of the distiller Israel Wilkes and his wife Sarah. The Wilkes' family were Presbyterians, so following a largely private education in England, Wilkes completed his education at the University of Leiden in the Dutch Republic. His studies were interrupted when he returned to England to join a Loyal Association during the Jacobite Rebellion but he returned to Leiden after the battle of Culloden. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1749.
In 1747, he married Mary Meade and came into possession of an estate and income in Buckinghamshire. They had one child, Mary (known as Polly), to whom John was utterly devoted for the rest of his life. Wilkes and his wife, however, separated after 10 years in 1756, a separation that became permanent. Wilkes never married again, but had numerous mistresses and liaisons with married women and is known to have fathered at least two other children.
In 1754 he was appointed High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and decided to enter parliament, standing unsuccessfully for Berwick-upon-Tweed. In 1757, after an election campaign said to have cost him £7,000, he was returned to parliament for Aylesbury. The huge cost of his campaign left Wilkes in debt but he hoped to retrieve his fortunes by political advancement.

He was elected for Aylesbury again in 1761, avoiding a contest for his seat by offering 300 of the 500 voters £5 each. It was that year the King’s First Minister, the Earl of Bute, set up The Briton newspaper, edited by Smollett, to publicize his policies.

In response to this in 1762 Wilkes started a radical satirical weekly, The North Briton, to attack Bute and his government. In the first edition, he wrote: 'the liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country.' 

One of Bute's followers was William Talbot, 1st Earl Talbot and Lord Steward who, having been ridiculed in issue 12 of The North Briton, challenged Wilkes to a duel. They met on 5 October 1762, but despite the close range and both of them firing, neither was hit and, apparently, honour having been satisfied, they went to a nearby inn to share a bottle of claret.
Wilkes's continued his campaign of criticism, culminating in an attack on George lll's speech at the opening of Parliament on 23 April 1763 in issue 45 of The North Britain. Wilkes wrote that the king's speech had given 'his sacred name to the most odious measures and the most unjustifiable public declarations from a throne ever renowned for truth, honour and the unsullied virtue.'

The King felt personally insulted by the attack and general warrants were issued with Wilkes being charged with seditious libel. A general warrant provides a law-enforcement officer with broad discretion or authority to search and seize unspecified goods or persons. Forty-nine people, including Wilkes, were arrested and searches carried out. General warrants, however, were very unpopular and Wilkes gained considerable support as he protested their unconstitutionality.

At his court hearing, he claimed that parliamentary privilege protected him from arrest on a charge of libel. The Lord Chief Justice ruled that parliamentary privilege did indeed protect him and he was restored to his seat. Wilkes then sued the law officers who had been involved in searching his house for trespass.

In response to these developments, Parliament swiftly voted in a measure that removed protection of MPs from arrest for the writing and publishing of seditious libel. As a result of this episode, the slogan: Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45, entered common parlance.

Bute resigned in April 1763, but Bute's successor was George Grenville, another man of whom Wilkes disapproved and, just as strenuously, opposed. It was at this point that the Essay on Women entered the public arena. 
Potter and Wilkes had originally written the Essay purely for their own amusement. However, in 1762 during a period of military service, Wilkes had amused himself by designing a version for publication, probably just among his friends. He had had some proofs made by a printer and it was one of these that had fallen into the hands of his opponents. Foremost among them was the notorious rake John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich

Sandwich’s animus against Wilkes stemmed in part from embarrassment caused him by a prank played by Wilkes at one of the meetings of the Hellfire Club, as well a number of witty public put-downs. He also had reason to be personally affronted by the dedication of the Essay to Fanny which was widely assumed to be a reference to his former mistress the courtesan Frances Rudman.
At the instigation of the king George Grenville decided to prosecute Wilkes for seditious libel, to which Wilkes immediately responded: 'The government have sent the spirit of discord through the land, and I will prophesy, that it will never be extinguished, but by the extinction of their power. A nation as sensible as the English, will see that a spirit of concord, when they are oppressed, means a tame submission to injury, and that a spirit of liberty ought then to arise, and I am sure ever will, in proportion to the weight of the grievance they feel.'

In November 1763, Samuel Martin, a supporter of George III, challenged Wilkes to a duel, (rumoured to have been part of a government plot to kill Wilkes,) and had better luck than Talbot, as he managed to wound Wilkes in the stomach. A week later, Wilkes was tried on a charge of publishing: ‘a most obscene and impious libel.’ At the trial Sandwich read aloud the Essay to the assembled House of Lords. Horace Walpole describes how Lord Lyttleton, a friend of Pope, ‘groaned in spirit and begged they might hear no more, but his fellow Peers cried “Go on, go on” and urged Sandwich to continue.’ Having heard it all, the Lords declared the poem obscene and blasphemous, and moved to expel Wilkes from Parliament; Wilkes, anticipating this, had judiciously fled to Paris before any expulsion or trial. He was, though, tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene and seditious libel, and declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764.
When eventually his French creditors began to pressure him for settlement, he had little choice but to return to England. He visited London briefly in December 1767, returning again in February 1768, living quietly under the name of Osborn until parliament was dissolved on 11th March 1768. Wilkes stood in the next election for the City of London but came in bottom of the poll of seven candidates, probably due to his late entry.

The government, unwilling to risk the kind of popular unrest that had resulted from his prosecution over North Britain 45, did not issue warrants for his immediate arrest. Even before the poll in the city closed, Wilkes announced his intention to stand for the county of Middlesex where most of his support was located. This campaign was much better organized; by five am on the morning of the poll 'Wilksites,' as his supporters were being called, had taken control of the Great North Road. Wilkes’ friend Boswell recorded: 'All the road was roaring with ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, which with ‘No 45’ was chalked on every coach and chaise.' In addition, the mob forced every traveller to don a blue cockade, Wilkes' colour.
Realising his position was inevitably going to lead to imprisonment, Wilkes surrendered himself to the King's Bench in April, waiving his parliamentary privilege to immunity. On 8th June 1768 Wilkes was found guilty of libel and sentenced to 22 months, but the Lords' sentence of outlawry was overturned. His outraged supporters now appeared before King's Bench chanting 'No liberty, no King.' Troops opened fire on the unarmed men, killing seven and wounding fifteen, the incident, known as the St George's Fields Massacre, led to further disturbances in the capital. The Irish playwright Hugh Kelly, a prominent supporter of the government, unwisely defended the right of the army to use force against rioters, which increased the anger of Wilkes' supporters. They began another riot at the Drury Lane Theatre during the performance of Kelly's new play forcing it to be abandoned.
In America, Wilkes’s trial and imprisonment were front page news with Wilkes being seen as the model of a decent rational man standing up for liberty in the face of government aggression. In Boston, ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ were as much a rallying cry as in London and the number 45 was inscribed on houses all over the town. John Hancock, who would go on to be the first signatory to the American Declaration of Independence, named a ship ‘Liberty’ in Wilkes's honour. The historian Merrill Jensen says that: 'By the end of 1768 ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ was a toast from one end of the colony to another.' So, when Parliament assembled in January 1769 they knew it wasn't just the eyes of their own citizens who were watching their handling of Wilkes.

Nonetheless, Parliament expelled Wilkes in February 1769 on the grounds that he was an outlaw when he'd returned from France, at which point Wilkes became an Alderman to strengthen his position. His Middlesex constituents re-elected him the same month only for him to be expelled again. He was re-elected once more in March but in April, after his expulsion and another re-election, Parliament declared his opponent, Henry Luttrell, the winner. Supporters of Wilkes now formed the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights, initially to raise fund to rescue Wilkes from his debts and pressure Parliament to accept the will of the Middlesex electorate, but going on to pursue a radical programme of parliamentary reform and support for the American revolutionary cause including sending military supplies.
John Wilkes was released from prison in April 1770 although he was still barred from the House of Commons. In February 1771, Parliament attempted to prevent several newspapers in London from publishing parliamentary debates, Wilkes already hailed as a champion of press freedom on both sides of the Atlantic, saw his opportunity to act. Over the next three years with the backing of the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights Wilkes perused a brilliant legal and political campaign which gained widespread popular support and finally got both Houses of Parliament to submit to the full reporting of their debates. Wilkes also, eventually, succeeded in convincing Parliament to expunge the resolution barring him from sitting which gave him a platform to further condemn Government policy towards the American colonies. Wilkes sponsored many radical causes as an MP and was particularly active in legislation on working conditions. Many riots and celebrations by working people continued to use the slogan 'Wilkes and Liberty.'
In 1774 John Wilkes was elected Lord Mayor of London but, in the words of one historian of the period, the Lord Mayors day of that year would be the last occasion on which the: ‘inferior sort of London would march in support of, or celebration of, Mr Wilkes.' According to one of his biographers, Peter Thomas: 'The mayoralty of Wilkes was one of the most splendid in London's history. His generosity, popularity, and flair for publicity combined to make it memorable; and affection for his daughter, Polly, an elegant lady mayoress, also explained why he put on such a show. He gave frequent and lavish entertainments - his expenses of £8,226 exceeding by £3,337 his official allowances - and he ended heavily in debt.'
In 1779 Wilkes was elected to the lucrative position of Chamberlain of the City of London and began to withdraw from political activism. His attendance at the house became increasingly irregular and at the 1790 general election he announced he would not be campaigning but was open for being nominated for Middlesex; no one showed any inclination to do this. John Wilkes died in December 1797.
In England Wilkes’ key achievement was to protect the freedom of the press by gaining passage for a bill to remove the power of general warrants and to end Parliament's ability to punish political reporting of its debates. However, his greatest impact was on British subjects in the American colonies for whom his struggles convinced many that the British constitution was being subverted by a corrupt ministry, an idea that contributed to the justification for Revolution. The story of his struggle with authority and his writings played an important role in establishing the right to freedom of the press in the United States. After the Revolution, the authors of the new Constitution included wording to prevent Congress from rejecting any legally elected member and to proscribe the sort of general warrants that had been central to Wilkes prosecution.


  1. Hi Ian

    Very glad to come across your Blog which is absorbing and impeccably researched. I am interested in the life of Thomas Potter and his association with Ralph Allen and Prior Park etc. As a Hell Fire Club member I have been trying to ascertain whether Potter and his associates practised any of the Club's rites and rituals at the home of Ralph Allen, Prior Park; particularly in the tunnels and caverns beneath the mansion house and further down and towards the Vale of Widcombe? Potter et al are likely to have been keenly aware of the practising Neo-Paganism of John Wood the Elder and potentially very aware of Wood's Druidism and its magical content. The wealth of Ralph Allen and the political grouping surrounding him (Broardbottoms etc) play into the story of the introduction of Freemasonry to the UK in the 18th century and henceforth its power and connection to political power and wealth.
    I wonder if you might be able to cast light upon such observations.
    Further, I noticed that the Pupils at Prior Park in the 1830s were taught dance at the college and performed on their Prize Day. It was highly regarded in their curriculum.
    For those so interested Prior Park has a very interesting spiritual history and as a former pupil I can testify to interesting experiences there. Good wishes, Vivian

  2. Hi Vivian

    Thank you glad you have enjoyed it.

    You raise some interesting questions. I will have to do some more research.