To attend or not to attend: state trials during an outbreak of smallpox

In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles considers the dilemma facing some peers summoned to attend the trials of the Jacobite peers after Culloden as London faced an outbreak of smallpox in the summer of 1746.

On 28 July 1746 the House of Lords convened in Westminster Hall for the trials of three Scots peers, who had been arrested following the collapse of the Jacobite rebellion. William, earl of Kilmarnock, George, earl of Cromartie, and Arthur, Lord Balmerino had all been engaged with Charles Edward Stuart’s rising and, following the trial, two of them went to the block.

(c) Trustees of the British Museum. 1868,0808.13478

As was usual, in advance of the proceedings the House authorities wrote to summon all absent peers to hurry to London to be present for the trial. Equally predictably, a flurry of letters then came back from sick and distant members of the House, seeking leave to remain away.

What is particularly striking is that several lords looking to absent themselves all reached for the same excuse. Of 49 members of the Lords who failed to attend the trials, stretching from (the most senior) Frederick Prince of Wales, and his brother, the duke of Cumberland, who was still busy in Scotland stamping out the last traces of rebellion, to the most junior peer, Lord Middleton, several wrote in advance to Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, pleading fears of smallpox as their reason for staying away.

One of these, Lord Maynard, was worried not just about the outbreak, but also the burden of attending a crowded and stuffy Westminster Hall in the middle of the summer. On 16 July he had written to Hardwicke hoping he would ‘plead my excuse with the House of Lords’ for not attending over his ‘fears of the small pox, which continues much in town’, but pointing out also ‘the heat of the weather’ and the crowds, ‘which curiosity will bring thither’. [BL, Add. MS 35588, f. 259] While Maynard may have made a particular point about rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi, in his concerns over smallpox he was not alone. Just two days before the trial, the earl of Uxbridge wrote to thank Hardwicke for ‘the kind manner with which you have received my application to be excused from attending’, noting that he had never had the disease, so felt particularly vulnerable. The day after (27 July) the earl of Portsmouth, slightly behind in getting his excuse in, hurried off a letter to Hardwicke also seeking to be released from attendance:

The Epidemicalness of the Small pox obliges me to fling myself upon the mercy of the House of Lords by not obeying their summons… I flatter myself that my known zeal for his Majesty’s Government & the deference I have always paid to the orders of that most Honourable House will plead my excuse…

BL, Add. MS 35588, f. 280

This was, of course, a serious point. Portsmouth’s Whig credentials were undisputed but, while the vast majority of the political nation was by the 1740s solidly behind the Hanoverian regime, there were some among the Tories who had been engaged in plotting with the Jacobites. Anyone wishing to avoid attendance at the trial would have been at pains to make it clear that this was not through any wish to avoid sitting in judgment on the rebels.

Possibly the most interesting of the letters came from the earl of Oxford. On 22 July he too set his hand to a letter to Hardwicke. In his case, he was eager to insist that he had been on the point of setting out from his country seat in Herefordshire to obey the summons, when news arrived from his family in London ‘that one of my children is taken ill of the Small Pox’. What should he do? Even if he did come to town to be with his wife, herself in poor health, he suggested to Hardwicke:

Whether the present Circumstances of my Family would not be a just excuse for my absence; as my son is in my own House where I should every day see & be with him, (for I am sure no one would think it reasonable that I should debar myself that satisfaction) & as the Distemper would be at the Heighth [sic] & the Infection the Strongest, about the time of the Trials, I think it would be very indecent in me & it might be very unsafe for others, if I was to presume to appear in Publick, where I might give just offense to many Lords & others who have not had this Distemper.

BL, Add. MS 35588, f. 264

Oxford’s dilemma was interesting. He could not see that it would be possible for his son to isolate effectively – indeed he could not conceive of not wanting to be with his sick child – so his only option then was for the whole family to isolate from the world while the illness ran its course.

Although the Lords’ Journals do not seem to reference smallpox at the time, the contemporary press did bear out the peers’ concerns. A table of diseases for the beginning of July noted the numbers of those suffering certain complaints in London as: consumption 52, convulsion 109, dropsy 15, fever 74 and smallpox 88. By the middle of the month the numbers had declined slightly. Now the table read: consumption 69, convulsion 124, dropsy 22, fever 85 and smallpox 76. There was another slight reduction by the end of the month – just in advance of the trial – with cases of smallpox now counted at 73. Convulsion remained the biggest culprit, accounting for 113. There were also certainly cases close to Parliament. The General Advertiser of 14 July 1746 noted that the wife of Sir Thomas Frankland, one of the MPs for Thirsk, was ‘very ill’ with smallpox at their residence in Great George Street. In the event she survived and went on to outlive her husband by 36 years.

The absence of the 49 lords from the proceedings made no material difference to the progress of the trials. Kilmarnock and Cromartie both pleaded guilty and only Balmerino troubled the House by denying the charges against him. He need not have bothered, as he was found guilty by all lords present in any case. The following month, Kilmarnock and Balmerino went to the block. Cromartie was pardoned, on condition that he never again travelled north of the Trent.

RDEE

Sources:

BL, Add. MS 35588 (Hardwicke papers)
London Evening Post
General Advertiser

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