Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe, Abingdon’s MP from 1796 to 1807, was an excellent example of what at the time were called nabobs. Nabobs were young men who went out to India with little or nothing and returned in middle age rich beyond the dreams of any stay-at-home save the greatest of merchants or of the landed aristocracy. Long-established social hierarchies were dislocated as these men sought to take the places their wealth entitled them to. Their first thought on disembarking was always to buy a landed property not too far from London – Berkshire was particularly favoured – and the second, very often, was a seat in Parliament. Parliamentary elections in the late eighteenth century were very expensive indeed, and a candidate who could pay for his own was sure of a welcome from any party or faction.
Metcalfe was born in 1745 into a family that claimed a Yorkshire origin but actually came from Ireland. His father was an army chaplain and his mother a clergyman’s daughter. He went to India in 1767, entering the army of the East India Company where he reached the rank of major. In 1782 he married Susannah Sophia Smith, widow of a fellow-officer. In the same year he became keeper and purchasing agent for military stores in Calcutta, which made his fortune in ways that are best not enquired into. In 1786 he returned to England. He bought a house in Portland Place in London, and, perhaps somewhat later, the 200-acre Fernhill estate at Winkfield in Berkshire with an originally Elizabethan, but modernised, manor house.
It was a time of difficulty for the East India Company, an object of contention among political groupings for the enormous patronage it controlled. The government exerted control through the secretary of state Henry Dundas, and in 1789 with Dundas’s backing Metcalfe became a director of the company. There were twenty-four directors; they were not supposed to serve more than four years, but he remained one for the rest of his life. He may have been one of the three members of the ‘secret committee’ which cooperated with the government but could not tell the others what was discussed. In 1792 he applied to become civil governor of Bombay but was not successful. In 1796 his name appeared on a list of men whom the government wanted to get into Parliament.
At the elections of that year, there was a vacancy in Abingdon. Edward Loveden Loveden, its member, had decided to seek a more prestigious seat as a knight of the shire. His nominee for the succession, Charles Abbott, after a detailed consideration which included the bribes he would have to pay, declined to stand. Metcalfe and another nabob, John Prinsep, disputed the succession. Metcalfe was said to be the Treasury candidate and spent money freely; he got the support of the brewer Edward Child, leader of a local faction, and, it seems, of Loveden’s agent Samuel Sellwood, the town clerk. Prinsep withdrew before the election.
Metcalfe retained the seat at several subsequent elections against powerful local opposition, but it is not clear that he ever did much for the constituency beyond providing a stand of colours for the militia force that Sellwood formed in 1798, a sort of home guard that would act seriously only in case of a French invasion. His parliamentary activity was concerned solely with the interests of the East India Company. He became a baronet in 1802.
In later years, Metcalfe found himself in a minority, often a minority of one, in the Court of Directors of the company. This is because of his consistent support of the governor-general, Lord Wellesley, whose objectives tended to be military and political rather than mercantile. One possible reason was that Wellesley had established a sort of staff college at Fort William in Calcutta where Metcalfe’s son Charles was a promising student.
Metcalfe’s principal opponent in Abingdon was George Knapp, who campaigned on his credentials as a local man and who was supported by the local Dissenters. Knapp won the election of 1807 by seven votes, but only after the mayor had disqualified nine voters. Metcalfe was expected to petition the House in protest but decided not to. Wellesley had been recalled in 1806 and this probably reduced his incentives for remaining in parliament. When Knapp died unexpectedly in 1809, Metcalfe was invited to stand again, but it happened that he was High Sheriff of Berkshire that year and therefore could not.
Metcalfe had four sons and two daughters. Three of the sons made their careers in India; the second, Charles, became a major figure in the administration, went on to be governor-general of Jamaica and of Canada, and finished as a baron. Charles had three sons but as his wife was Indian they could not be formally acknowledged or succeed to the barony. Nonetheless, his son James was educated in England and made a successful military career in India as his grandfather had done.
Metcalfe died in 1813 and is buried at Winkfield where there are memorial tablets to him and his son Charles.
© AAAHS and contributors 2019