PARSONS, Sir John (1639-1717), of Well Close Square, Ratcliffe, Mdx. and the Priory, Reigate, Surr.
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Family and Education
bap. 28 Aug. 1639, 2nd s. of John Parsons, Brewer, of East Smithfield, London by his w. Jane. m. (1) by 1667, Elizabeth, da. and h. of Humphrey Beane, Cordwainer, of St. Mary Axe, London, and Epsom, Surr. 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 6da.; (2) 7 Feb. 1678 (with £6,000), Jane, da. of Richard Milward, merchant, of London, 3da. Kntd. 15 Aug. 1687. suc. bro. 1670.1
Jt. farmer of excise, Cumb., co. Dur., Northumb., Westmld. 1671–4; victualler to navy 1677–83; commr. victualling the navy 1683–9.2
Freeman, Hertford 1681, Brewers’ Co. 1686, master 1689–90; transferred to Fishmongers’ Co. 1703, prime warden 1706–8; sheriff, London 1687–8, alderman 1687–8, 1689–d., ld. mayor 1703–4; commr. sewers, Tower Hamlets 1712.3
A leading Tory alderman of his day, Parsons turned to politics after establishing for himself both fame and fortune as a major brewer, tax farmer, victualler and insurance director. Reportedly worth about £200,000 at his peak, he enjoyed a far from trouble-free career, finding much controversy as a victualler to the forces and as an MP with Jacobite sympathies. His rapid advancement under James II highlighted a staunch Toryism that never deserted him, and he accordingly encountered many difficulties after the Revolution. In November 1689 he was actually taken into custody for mismanaging naval provisions, and his reported dealings with the exiled court aroused much suspicion. However, having purchased the Reigate Priory estate in 1681, Parsons based his parliamentary career on a very secure constituency interest which was only once successfully challenged after 1690. Moreover, even though his greater hopes for political advancement in London were confined to the corporate sphere, his extensive influence in the capital was recognized by his election as lord mayor in October 1703.
Although the Revolution proved an obvious setback to his political career, the election of February 1690 gave ample proof of his still-pervasive local influence, for he and his son secured both seats at Reigate. His status as a leading Tory financier was subsequently acknowledged by Sir Peter Rich†, and at the outset of the new Parliament Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) listed Parsons as a Tory supporter of the Court. Although never an active Member at any time during his parliamentary career, he quickly made his mark in the House on 17 Apr. when trying to block the presentation of an address from the London corporation. Parsons cast doubt over the origin of the petition by declaring that ‘several aldermen were not called to the common council and particularly I was one’, a claim which the Whig magnate Sir Robert Clayton* was at great pains to refute on 22 Apr. Parsons again featured as a central figure in the struggle for control of the capital when appointed in July as one of the six colonels to command the auxiliary militia raised by the City. However, along with the other five ‘loyal, honest gentlemen’, he refused to take up the commission.4
Although Lord Carmarthen still felt confident of Parsons’ support for the ministry at the end of the year, by April 1691 Robert Harley* had identified him as a Country supporter, and for some time thereafter he proved a steady opponent of the Court. His Tory connexions were clearly demonstrated in November 1691 when he acted as one of the four sureties for the bail of the suspected Jacobite Earl of Clarendon (Henry Hyde†), but Parsons did not establish himself as one of the ministry’s major critics in the House. On 2 Dec. 1692 he argued that the House should determine how the naval estimate for 1693 would be raised before any money was voted for the army, a view no doubt conditioned by his experience as a victualling commissioner. He was inclined to make his forthright views even more apparent on matters that concerned the corporation of London, as when on 5 Jan. 1692 he spoke in opposition to a bill to regulate the Company of Thames Fishermen, a measure that was said to encroach upon the corporation’s rights. The presentation of a petition from the corporation concerning street-lighting on 19 Dec. brought him further publicity, for after some MPs had questioned the corporation’s right to petition the House directly, Parsons actually ‘went out and fetched in the petition and presented it to the House’. He was just as keen to see progress on the bill to repay the London orphans, presenting on 16 Feb. 1693 a list of proposed local rates for raising the necessary funds, and gaining appointment the next day to the committee to prepare a bill to tackle this issue.5
The following summer saw some partial rehabilitation of Parsons’ reputation when the ministry chose to ignore his prior dismissal as a victualling commissioner and enlisted his services as a naval contractor. Even so, on account of this responsibility, Parsons briefly appeared alongside the government’s more vociferous critics in the course of the subsequent fourth session. On 22 Nov. 1693 he launched a sustained attack on the Admiralty when it tried to exonerate the fleet for its failure to engage the French during the preceding summer, claiming that a lack of provisions had forced a return to port. In his initial speech he pilloried the admirals for exhibiting ‘a lame excuse’, and then lambasted them for not representing their shortages to the Admiralty, declaring, ‘I thank God I was no commissioner during these miscarriages’. He later assured the House that, as a contractor, he could confirm that all the beer ordered had been supplied to the fleet, although he also observed that the victualling commissioners had ‘put six men to four men’s allowance’ while at sea. This spirited broadside apart, he remained very much a back-bench figure for the rest of the Parliament. During the 1694–5 session he was listed by the Treasury secretary Henry Guy* as a probable supporter in the light of the proceedings being threatened against him for corruption.
At the election of 1695 Parsons’ general antipathy to the Court was confirmed by the challenge mounted by two ministerial candidates to his interest at Reigate. Having met with recent disappointment in failing to secure the excise farm, possibly for political reasons, Parsons scored a notable triumph in ensuring that both seats were retained for his family. However, when acting as an agent for Edward Harvey* at the subsequent county contest, he found little success. Parsons used his influence to transfer the poll from Guildford to Reigate, but the Surrey Tories did not cause undue trouble to their principal rival, Sir Richard Onslow, 3rd Bt.* Although Parsons signed the Association in February 1696, he remained firmly within Country ranks, for he was forecast as an opponent of the Court on the proposed council of trade in the division of 31 Jan. 1696, and voted against fixing the price of guineas at 22s. in late March.6
The second session of the 1695 Parliament proved to be the most significant of Parsons’ entire career. In November 1696 he voted against the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, and by the end of the year had earned much celebrity for introducing Sir John Foche’s capitation bill into the House on 11 Dec. Having led a deputation of brewers to the Treasury the preceding July to protest against the arbitrariness of the excise commission, Parsons was understandably keen to promote any fiscal scheme which did not rely on further excises. Although the bill had been much altered by the time it went to the Lords on 26 Jan. 1697, Parsons earned the sobriquet of ‘Sir John Capitation’ in recognition of his primary role in sponsoring the measure. Despite such new-found prominence, Parsons did not actively promote any further legislation, although his name continued to be mentioned in the course of parliamentary business. On 29 Jan. his account of a riot caused by supporters of the bill to restrain the wearing of East Indian fabrics was reported to the House, and on 18 Feb. his recent difficulties with the excise commissioners were cited by the committee investigating brewers’ grievances. More embarrassingly, on 19 Mar. the parish officials of St. John’s, Wapping, petitioned the House to request that Parsons waive his parliamentary privilege so that they could recover the dues which he owed them as a local resident. Alongside his business partner Nicholas Barbon*, Parsons had used his parliamentary status in 1690 to escape prosecution for mismanaging the Fire Office, but on 23 Mar. 1697 the House resolved that its privilege did not extend to cases of non-payment of taxes or parish dues, thereby permitting Parsons’ suitors to proceed against him. The following November he was further embroiled in conflict after he had censured the Dissenting lord mayor Sir Humphrey Edwin, whose son reportedly tweaked Parsons’ nose in pique at his remarks.7
Although Parsons managed to avoid controversy in the next session, his political future was placed in some jeopardy by the grant of the royal manor of Reigate to Lord Somers (Sir John*) in April 1697. Somers mounted a formidable campaign to oust Parsons at the election of July 1698, but even the resources of such a major politician only just managed to prevail against the Tory brewer. In the wake of that defeat Parsons was bracketed with the Country Members, and while outside the House he continued to rally anti-ministerial support, touted as he was as the nominee of ‘the Church party’ for the London mayoral election of Michaelmas 1699. More controversially, in August 1700 he was said to have paid court to James II at St. Germain, an audience at which he reportedly assured the exiled King and Queen that he would ‘receive them when he is mayor of London, which he pretends is his right next year’. He did not in fact contest the mayoral election of Michaelmas 1700, but became a central figure in the row which followed the narrow defeat suffered by (Sir) Charles Duncombe* in the ballot of the court of aldermen. Parsons was accused of having reneged on a promise of support to his fellow Tory Duncombe, a treacherous act said to have been perpetrated in the hope of securing the favour of Lord Somers. Although Parsons denied the charge and was said to be ‘believed’, his subsequent success at the Reigate election of January 1701 was clearly engineered as part of an electoral compact with the former lord chancellor. Moreover, he also campaigned against Arthur Moore*, one of Somers’ principal critics, at the Southwark election.8
On his return to the House Parsons appeared much readier to support the Court, and was listed in February as a likely supporter in agreeing with the committee of supply’s resolution to continue the ‘Great Mortgage’. Moreover, in June he was reported to have ordered that bonfires be lit at Reigate to celebrate the acquittal of Lord Somers, ‘though he was far from being of his lordship’s principles in politics’. However, he soon showed that he had not completely deserted his Tory allies, cited as he was as one of the members of the ‘Vine Tavern Club’ opposed to the preparations for war with France. At the November election he actually stood as one of the Tory candidates for the City, only to finish in a very poor last place. Parsons had taken the sensible precaution of first securing his seat at Reigate, where his local interest was strong enough to capture all but 13 of the 85 votes cast. Confirmed in Harley’s list as a Tory soon after his humiliation at the London poll, he chose not to contest London at the first election of Anne’s reign, resting content with another emphatic win at Reigate.
Undeterred by his previous poor showing in the London election, Parsons directed most of his energies during the 1702 Parliament towards personal advancement in the capital rather than to the business of the House. In the mayoral contest of 1702 he received sufficient support to be put forward as one of the two candidates for election by the court of aldermen, but his fellow Tory Sir Samuel Dashwood* was appointed ahead of him. The next contest saw Parsons victorious, although his success was facilitated by the unpopularity of his main rival, Sir Thomas Cooke*. As James Craggs I* explained, ‘the Somerites were all for Sir John, which shows the voting for his lot and against Sir Thomas has got him this dignity’. In the course of his campaign Parsons had sought to establish his credentials as a beneficent civic patron, and his first action on taking office was to divert to the London orphans fund the money set aside for his inaugural dinner. The City poet, Elkanah Settle, alluded to Parsons’ generous spirit in a celebratory verse, enthusing wildly that ‘great Parsons wants no gaudy pageantry’.9
Heavy corporate responsibilities evidently curtailed Parsons’ parliamentary activities still further, although he did present a bill on 5 Jan. 1704 to revive the Act permitting the import of saltpetre. Of much greater significance, however, was the growing interest shown by Whig leaders in gaining his support, encouraged by Parsons’ willingness to establish a working accord with Somers at Reigate. In May the Earl of Kingston (Evelyn Pierrepont*) wrote to assure the Duke of Newcastle (John Holles†) that Parsons had taken the oaths of allegiance in William’s reign, and opined, ‘I think he may be of service in that part of the country’. Sufficient doubts over his politics remained for Harley to include Parsons on his lobbying list in preparation for the division on the Tack. However, even though on 30 Oct. a parliamentary observer bracketed Parsons with the likely opponents of the High Tory measure, he did vote in its favour on 28 Nov. Further confirmation of his political allegiance came at the London parliamentary contest of May 1705, when, having once again secured election at Reigate, he ran with the Tories. Although he had presided over the capital’s joyous celebrations for the victory at Blenheim only a few months before, Parsons finished at the bottom of the poll for the second and last time.
In the new Parliament Parsons was cited as ‘True Church’ and accordingly voted against the Court candidate for the Speakership on 25 Oct. He made no significant contribution to the business of the House in the course of this Parliament, an inactivity that might have been influenced by increasing domestic difficulties. The costs of his mayoralty and London election campaigns had no doubt proved a major drain on his resources, and his family estate had been thrown into further disarray by the death of his eldest son, John*. In April 1707 (Sir) Joseph Jekyll* actually reported to Lord Somers that Parsons was contemplating the sale of Reigate Priory, and urged the former lord chancellor to secure the £1,000 p.a. estate for the Whig cause. By January 1708 Parsons was said to have frittered away three-quarters of his estate ‘by keeping racehorses and other voluptuous courses out of his sphere’, a situation desperate enough ‘to make him weary of life’. However, Parsons did not sell the Priory estate, and, having twice been identified as a Tory in early 1708, again went to the expense of securing one of the Reigate seats at the May election.10
In the ensuing Parliament Parsons maintained his customary anonymity, although he did vote against the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell. In the wake of this High Church triumph he felt sufficiently confident to challenge the Somers interest at the Reigate election of October 1710, choosing a fellow London businessman John Ward IV* as his running-mate. In a poll whose size surpassed even that of the bitter clash of 1698, the Tory candidates scored a notable victory by ousting both their Whig rivals, albeit in a very close contest. Later that month Parsons was appointed a colonel of the London militia, and his rejuvenated Tory zeal also ensured that he became one of the new ministry’s victualling contractors. Identified in the ‘Hanover list’ as a Tory, he proved a loyal adherent of the ministry for most of the 1710 Parliament, cited as one of the ‘worthy patriots’ who had discovered the mismanagements of the previous ministry in the first session, and in another list as a ‘Tory patriot’ in 1711 for his opposition to the continuation of the war. In the session of 1710–11 his City background probably figured in his nomination to two Tory-inspired committees of inquiry: to examine abuses in victualling contracts, and to investigate the case of the poor Palatine refugees. However, he was not a member of the October Club, and on 18 June 1713 was one of the leading Tory rebels who voted against the French commerce bill. He was even prepared to re-establish an electoral compact with Lord Somers at the ensuing Reigate contest, although this move was probably motivated as much by financial as by ideological considerations.
In the 1713 Parliament Parsons’ only significant action was of a characteristically self-interested nature, for on 5 June 1714 he presented a petition to seek repayment of an £800 loan which he had made towards the repair of the Dagenham breach. Outside the House he endeavoured to maintain a more active civic role, conducting an investigation into the regulation of coal-metering in the capital in March 1714, and advising the Treasury on the same matter in July. At the accession of George I much uncertainty still surrounded his politics, although such confusion was as much a result of his vote on the French commerce treaty as a consequence of his Jacobite sympathies. In common with other Whimsical Tories, Parsons was cited by the Worsley list as a Whig who would often vote with the Tories, while two other observers gave conflicting verdicts, one bracketing him with the Whigs, the other with the Tories.11
Parsons’ twelfth electoral success at the election of 1715 was once again the result of an agreement with Lord Somers, but, by now in his mid-seventies, he made little impact on the House before his death on 25 Jan. 1717. At his demise he was sufficiently solvent to provide for a very large family, and the ‘famous’ Red Lion brewery in East Smithfield, in particular, was a sure economic platform on which his successors could build. Although rumours of Jacobite connexions tended to overshadow any personal virtues in the eyes of contemporaries, outside political circles he did manage to make a less controversial name for himself as a successful horse-breeder and as a generous local patron. His heir, Humphrey†, did not succeed to the family seat at Reigate, but he surpassed his father’s other achievements by twice serving as lord mayor of London and by becoming the City’s leading opponent of (Sir) Robert Walpole II*. Another son, Henry†, preferred to secure a seat at Westminster by supporting the government, having emulated his father by gaining appointment as a victualling commissioner.12
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Perry Gauci
- 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. iii. 844–5; iv. 255; v. 825; vi. 941.
- 3. Herts. RO, Hertford bor. recs. 25/90; Beaven, ii. 113; Guildhall Lib. mss 5448; HMC Townshend, 211.
- 4. W. Hooper, Reigate, 119; CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 348; Dorset RO, Fox-Strangways mss D124/235, bdle. 4, Sir Peter Rich to Sir Stephen Fox*, 17 Mar. 1690; Grey, x. 57–58; Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 77.
- 5. Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 306; Luttrell Diary, 111, 284, 328, 426.
- 6. Add. 28878, f. 57; Grey, x. 321, 323, 325; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter, 25 June 1695; BL, Evelyn mss 740.
- 7. H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 187; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 83; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/67, James Vernon I* to Duke of Shrewsbury, 11 Feb. 1697; PRO, C 10/337/19; BL, Verney mss mic. 636/50, Anne Nicholas to (Sir) John Verney* (2nd Bt., later 1st Visct. Fermanagh), 18 Nov. 1697.
- 8. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 563; 7th Duke of Manchester, Court and Soc. Eliz. to Anne, ii. 186–7; Vernon–Shrewsbury Corresp. iii. 139; Memoirs of Life of John, Ld. Somers , 78; Montagu (Boughton) mss 48/126, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 10 Oct. 1700; HMC Portland, iv. 11.
- 9. W. L. Sachse, Ld. Somers, 185; Add. 7078, f. 58; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 220; Univ. Kansas Spencer Research Lib. Moore mss 143 Cc, James Craggs I* to Arthur Moore*, 29 Sept. 1703; G. S. De Krey, Fractured Soc. 196; Add. 17677 WWW, f. 365; Guildhall Lib. ms 2103.
- 10. HMC Portland, ii. 185; Boyer, Pol. State, iv. 16; Evelyn Diary, v. 578; Surr. RO (Kingston), Somers mss 371/14/01/15, Jekyll to Somers, 4 Apr. 1707; Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP/F32, p. 158.
- 11. Surr. RO (Kingston), 445/1; Boyer, i. 10; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 358; Report and Order . . . Concerning Coal Meters ; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxviii. 378.
- 12. Le Neve’s Knights, 413; Surr. Arch. Colls. xliv. 5; Hooper, 62, 73, 102.