JEKYLL, Sir Joseph (c.1662-1738), of Bell Bar, Herts.
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Family and Education
b. c.1662, 4th s. of John Jekyll of London by Tryphena, wid. of Richard Hill. educ. M. Temple 1680, called 1687, bencher 1697. m. Elizabeth, da. of John Somers of Clifton, Worcs., sis. and coh. of Lord Chancellor Somers, s.p. Kntd. 12 Dec. 1700.
C.j. Chester 1697-1717; King’s serjeant 1700; master of the rolls 1717-d.; P.C. 31 July 1717; 1st commr. of the great seal 7 Jan.–1 June 1725.
Jekyll entered Parliament in 1697 under the aegis of his brother-in-law, Lord Chancellor Somers, on whose death in 1716 he acquired through his wife, Somers’s sister, an interest at Reigate, which he subsequently represented. Under Anne he supported the Whig junto and was one of the managers of Sacheverell’s impeachment.
In 1715 Jekyll was elected to the secret committee set up by the House of Commons to prepare the impeachment of the leaders of the late Tory Government. When the articles charging Lord Oxford with high treason and other high crimes and misdemeanours were moved in the Commons, he took exception to those relating to high treason, for which he considered there was insufficient evidence. He spoke to the same effect on the charges against Ormonde, saying that they did not amount to more than high crimes and misdemeanours and that though he had voted with the Whigs for many years, ‘yet now their proceedings were so slightly founded and straining the law, that he could not nor would not vote with them’. In a further debate on Oxford’s impeachment he reiterated his reasons for differing from the rest of the committee observing ‘that it was the duty of an honest man never to act by a spirit of party’. His speech, Oxford’s brother wrote, ‘threw the whole party into confusion and raised so great a storm upon Sir Joseph, that the Speaker desired to know whether they were impeaching the Lord Oxford or Sir Joseph Jekyll’. Years later a Tory friend told the 2nd Lord Oxford that Jekyll, though
he was brother-in-law and owed his fortune to your father’s implacable enemy, old Summers, and he himself was a Whig virulent enough in all conscience ... acted the fairest part to your father of any of that set of men; not out of the least personal regard ... but out of regard only to the justice of the cause.
During the split in the Whig party from 1717 to 1720, Jekyll at first adhered to the Government, speaking (4 June 1717) against an opposition motion accusing Lord Cadogan of peculation, which was defeated by only 10 votes. Rewarded with the office of master of the rolls, he was attacked by Shippen (12 June 1717) as a timeserver who had sacrified his principles for a place. In the following session (4 Dec. 1717) he spoke against an opposition motion reducing the army to 12,000; but a few days later he supported another opposition motion for breaking certain regiments, which was only defeated by 14 votes. ‘Most people were surprised at Sir Joseph Jekyll’s leaving the Court’, wrote a Jacobite observer, adding ironically, ‘but he is a man of honour and is provided for during life as master of the rolls’. At the opening of the next session he was regarded as one of the ‘chief managers against the Court’, joining the Opposition in attacking the war with Spain (11 Nov. 1718), only to change his mind and support the war a month later (17 Dec.). In 1719 he supported the Government on the repeal of the Occasional Conformity Act, but opposed them on the peerage bill. In the debate on the South Sea Company’s proposals in January 1720 he severely rebuked the chancellor of the Exchequer, Aislabie, for saying that ‘things of this nature must be carried on with spirit’.
This spirit, says he, is what had undone the nation; our business is to consider thoroughly, deliberate calmly, and judge of the whole upon reason, not with the spirit mentioned. Mr. Aislable desired to explain; said he only meant that credit was to be so supported; which caused some smiling.1
On the collapse of the Bubble he took the lead in forcing the Government to agree to an inquiry by another secret committee of the Commons, to which he was elected. When the committee brought charges of corrupt practices against ministers, directors and others, he again surprised the House by speaking for the acquittal of Sir George Caswall, on the ground that the case against him had not been made out, and by abstaining from voting on the charges against Charles Stanhope, in response, it was reported, to a personal appeal from the King. No one, however, ‘was so warm and inveterate’ as he against Lord Sunderland; he moved the resolution for consolidating the bill against Aislabie with that providing for the confiscation of the estates of the guilty directors; and he strenuously resisted Walpole’s attempts to reduce the extent of confiscation. He also attacked Walpole’s scheme for setting the South Sea Company on its feet. Later in the session he supported the Government on a subsidy to Sweden, which was hotly attacked by the Opposition. On a government proposal for discharging the civil list debt by a special tax of 6d. in the pound on official salaries, he moved and carried in committee a motion for increasing the tax to 1s., which was reversed next day by the full House.
During Walpole’s Administration, Speaker Onslow writes, Jekyll was
not in a set opposition to the Ministry and was sometimes for them ... yet ... he usually differed in the House of Commons from those who were in power and had much dislike of Sir Robert Walpole in many things and bore no great reverence to his character in general.2
According to Walpole this animosity arose from Jekyll’s failure to obtain the lord chancellorship on Lord Macclesfield’s resignation in January 1725, when he ‘pressed to be made chancellor, and his not being so made him Sir Robert’s enemy ever after’. At the end of that year Walpole refers to ‘righteous Sir Joseph’ as the only man gained by Pulteney; but at the beginning of 1726 ‘the master of the rolls and the anti-courtiers as they call themselves’, i.e. the opposition Whigs, voted with the Government on the army, Jekyll’s speech having ‘so great weight’ that without further debate it was resolved to maintain the existing strength. In the same session he supported the Government on the treaty of Hanover but opposed them on a vote of credit.
In George II’s first Parliament Jekyll’s recorded votes and speeches were consistently anti-Government till the excise bill when
Sir Joseph Jekyll, who is not used to vote with the Court, said he could not see one argument against it, and they who were against it had their own private advantage in their thoughts, not the good of the public.
In the same speech he declared that it was his invariable rule to come to the House
undetermined, and resolved so to remain, till I am fully informed by other gentlemen, in the course of the debate, of all the facts which ought to be known.3
At the opening of the next Parliament
the master of the rolls got up and before he sat down changed his opinion seven times, and as often the party which thought they had got him roared out the Hear him ... but at last he differed from both sides.
A few weeks later the Government were defeated on the Marlborough election petition as a result of a speech by Jekyll, ‘who spoke against the Court at twelve o’clock at night, after a hearing and debate of two days’. Writing of this affair, Hervey states that the Queen was greatly displeased by Jekyll, ‘whom she was always cajoling, always abusing, always hoping to manage, and always finding she was deceived in’. He describes Jekyll as
an impracticable old fellow of four score, with no great natural perspicuity of understanding, and had, instead of enlightening that natural cloud, only gilded it with knowledge, reading, and learning, and made it more shining, not less thick ... He was always puzzled and confused in his apprehension of things, more so in forming an opinion upon them, and most of all in his expression and manner of delivering that opinion when it was formed ... His principal topics for declamation in the House were generally economy and liberty.
though no individual in the House ever spoke of him with esteem or respect, but rather with a degree of contempt and ridicule, yet, from his age, and the constant profession of having the public good at heart beyond any other point of view, he had worked himself into such a degree of credit with the accumulated body that he certainly spoke with more general weight, though with less particular approbation, than any other single man in that assembly ... The balance of the Marlborough election was turned, as well as many other points, merely by his weight being thrown into the anti-court scale.
In 1736 Jekyll was the author of the Mortmain and Gin Acts, designed respectively to check the alienation of land to religious and charitable institutions, and to reduce drunkenness by putting a duty of 20s. a gallon on gin. The first is described as ‘drove on by the intemperate zeal of Sir Joseph Jekyll,’ a strong anti-clerical. The Gin Act was so unpopular that, according to Hervey, Walpole
rather, I believe, to mark out who was the author of this Act than in favour to the master of the rolls (for he hated him heartily), got a particular guard of thirty men to be set round the master’s house, under the pretence and show of protecting it from the attacks of the mob.
On the opposition motion in 1737 for an increase of the Prince of Wales’s allowance Jekyll, after being spoken to by the Queen, ‘spoke and acted ... in his usual double, balancing character, for he argued on both sides and voted for neither’. His last recorded speech was made on 3 Feb. 1738, when he argued that the emergence of Russia as a great military power had made a standing army in England unnecessary, saying ‘he thought he saw a northern star arising, which if properly managed might preserve the liberties of Europe’.4
On Jekyll’s death, 19 Aug. 1738, the 1st Lord Egmont wrote of him:
A noted Parliament man, and head of the flying squadron, he had the character in general of a man of probity, though some doubted it, because he sometimes gave into the court measures when least expected. Many good public bills were moved for and prepared by him, and some that were otherwise, particularly that against bequeathing lands in fee by will for charitable uses, or even money to be laid out in land for that end. He had a hatchet face and surly look, always looking grave and speaking sententiously, and was reckoned a great patron of the freethinkers ... He was a generous man to his relations, but left his next immediate heir, Mr. Jekyll, out of his will because he returned from his travels through France and not through Holland, as Sir Joseph had directed him.5
His will left £20,000 East India stock to be applied after his wife’s death to the reduction of the national debt. In 1747 an Act was passed authorizing the sale of £13,582 of this stock for the benefit of his residuary legatees, who had been reduced to want. Sir James Thornhill’s picture of the House of Commons, c.1730, contains a portrait of him by Thornhill’s son-in-law, Hogarth.
Ref Volumes: 1715-1754
Author: Romney R. Sedgwick
- 1. HMC Portland, v. 512, 570, 665; vii. 447; HMC Stuart, v. 301-2; Chandler, vi. 33; Coxe, Walpole, ii. 182-3.
- 2. Stuart mss 52/137, 53/14, 55/15; HMC Portland, v. 612; HMC 14th Rep. IX, 470.
- 3. Sir Dudley Ryder's Diary, 18 Oct. 1739, Harrowby mss; Coxe, Walpole, ii. 492-3; Knatchbull Diary, 28 Jan. 1726; Chandler, vi. 357; vii. 339-40; HMC Egmont Diary, i. 343.
- 4. HMC Carlisle, 147; Hervey, Mems. 419-20, 570, 691; Harley Diary, 15 Apr. 1736; Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 134; Cobbett, x. 446.
- 5. HMC Egmont Diary, ii. 507.