Dr Robin Eagles looks at the colourful life of Thomas Potter, who was first elected to parliament in the summer of 1747…
During the summer of 1747, the ministry of Henry Pelham responded to a challenge caused by the heir to the throne, Frederick, Prince of Wales, returning to opposition by calling a snap general election. Taken by surprise, Frederick’s party fared badly in the polls but among the new intake who were successful in securing seats in the prince’s interest was one of the more colourful MPs of the mid-eighteenth century: Thomas Potter.
Potter was a younger son of John Potter, who had risen from relative obscurity as the son of a Yorkshire merchant to be variously fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, regius professor of Divinity, Bishop of Oxford and ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas may have been the second son but was preferred by his father after his elder brother contracted an unsuitable marriage. He was noted for his good looks – he is probably the ‘handsome candidate’ in plate 1 (an election entertainment) of Hogarth’s series: The Humours of an Election, 1755 – and his non-existent morals. Later accusations that he was prone to Satanism misunderstand and grossly exaggerate the character of Sir Francis Dashwood‘s circle of ‘Medmenham Monks’ (dubbed the Hellfire club) of which he was a prominent member; however he was probably the main author of the pornographic Essay on Woman for which John Wilkes, a friend and protégé of Potter’s, was later convicted and sent to prison. Potter was also said to have been responsible for plunging his young friend Wilkes into debt, having encouraged him to waste what money he had on expensive electioneering and to fund his ongoing political career through recourse to moneylenders.
All this may not appear so very significant except when one considers the extent to which Potter was able to finance his louche lifestyle through the fortune he ultimately inherited from his archiepiscopal father (reputedly £90,000). He was also able to benefit through the office he held during his father’s lifetime of principal registrar of the province of Canterbury; it was thanks to his father’s interest too that he was made recorder of Bath. He owed it to the Grenville faction that he was made joint vice treasurer of Ireland and, presumably also to this connection, that he was appointed to the household of the princess of Wales as secretary.
As a member of the Commons, Potter was not particularly distinguished, though in his first season in the chamber he was reckoned a potential rival to the great William Pitt the Elder as an orator. Thereafter, his career waned. He suggested increasing the duty on spirits as a way of combatting the gin craze but his principal claim to fame was in moving a bill for a national census in 1753, anticipating the eventual decision to undertake such a scheme by almost a century. In keeping with his melodramatic life, Potter’s end was premature and pathetic. Having suffered for many years from various ailments, he eventually succumbed at the age of 41. Most of the goods from his estate at Ridgmont in Bedfordshire, including livestock and plants, had to be auctioned off.