Thomas Duffield, Abingdon’s MP from 1832 to 1844, was born in 1782 at Syston, Lincolnshire, second son of Michael Duffield. The family moved in 1805 to a new seat at Sunninghill, Berkshire. Thomas seems to have been intended for an academic career; he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1800, and in 1807 gained his MA and took up a fellowship at Merton. However, his ambitions were for a higher station in life. Emily Frances Elwes was the only child of George Elwes of Marcham Park, and sole heiress to a fortune said to be of almost a million pounds. Her father might reasonably have hoped for Emily to marry into the nobility, but in 1810 she and Thomas eloped and were married at Gretna Green. The elopement was widely and sensationally reported in the newspapers.
When George Elwes died in 1821 Thomas became the owner of Marcham Park, which he rebuilt and modernised. An interest in politics developed slowly; in 1825 he publicly supported the Tory candidate for one of the Berkshire county seats. In 1826, Abingdon Conservatives, who included most of the Corporation, invited him to stand against their incumbent, the Liberal John Maberly, but he decided that Maberly was too well entrenched and withdrew.
Nonetheless, he continued to be active in public affairs and to nurse the constituency. He was High Sheriff of Berkshire in 1827. He donated very generously to local social and charitable funds, and subscribed £100 of the £1700 cost of widening Abingdon Bridge in 1829, the largest contribution by any individual. He was a signatory to the 1831 Berkshire petition, where some 150 of the most prominent residents of the county publicised their opposition to the proposed parliamentary reforms and extension of the franchise.
In 1832, Maberly became bankrupt and had to flee abroad to avoid the debtor’s prison. Duffield was the obvious man to succeed him and had the support of most members of the Corporation. The Liberal candidate, Thomas Bowles of Milton Hill, was supported by ‘some of the gentry and nearly all the respectable tradesmen’ but withdrew, hinting at large-scale bribery by the wealthy Duffield with which he could not compete. He was replaced as candidate by a son of Maberly without local connections. Duffield won the seat by 157 votes against 43. He became as entrenched in Abingdon as Maberly had been, and was returned unopposed at the elections of 1835, 1837 and 1841.
Duffield was never an active parliamentarian and there is no record of him speaking in the House of Commons. His main political interest was in agricultural matters. He strongly opposed repeal of the Corn Laws. However, he also worked hard in support of local interests and, in particular, helped to defeat an early attempt in the Berkshire Quarter Sessions to close the Abingdon gaol and remove the convicts there to Reading. The Corporation trooped in a body to Marcham Park to thank him.
It may have seemed that Duffield would hold the Abingdon seat for a very long time, but in 1844 he unexpectedly resigned and was replaced by another Conservative, Frederick Thesiger. The Abingdon Corporation, nearly all Conservatives, manipulated the election so that it was impossible for the Liberals to field a candidate, and Thesiger walked over.
Thesiger was solicitor-general, and had lost his seat at Woodstock because the Duke of Marlborough wanted it for his son. The coup at Abingdon came about because the government needed to keep his services. It was speculated, probably rightly, that Duffield had received a payoff of £7500 or thereabouts from the Treasury.
Duffield’s motives remain a mystery – he plainly didn’t need the money – but it is possible that he was simply tired of parliamentary duties and anxious to spend more time with his young second wife and their growing family. His first wife, Emily, had died in 1835 after bearing ten children, eight of whom survived infancy. In 1838, he married Augusta Elizabeth Rushbrooke, daughter of a fellow-MP. His oldest son had died tragically in a shooting accident in 1833 at the age of twenty, and a daughter at the same age in 1841. Augusta died in 1846, probably after the birth of their fifth child.
In the summer of 1847, Duffield left Marcham Park and moved with his younger children to a new home, the Castle Priory in Wallingford. He continued active in public affairs, and was soon made High Steward of the town. He died in 1854.
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