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George Hibbert (1757-1837)

This article was written by Charles William Sutton and was published in 1891.

HibbertGeorge Hibbert, collector and merchant, son of Robert Hibbert, a West India merchant, was born at Manchester in 1757. He was educated at a private school kept by a clergyman named Booth first at Liverpool and afterwards at Woolton. He settled in London as junior partner in a West India house, eventually becoming the head of the firm. He was alderman of London from 1798 to 1803, and from 1806 to 1812 was M.P. for Seaford, Sussex. He was a lucid and forcible speaker, and supported the whigs. At meetings in the city of London he moved the resolutions which led to the imposition of the property tax in 1798, and again those which forced its repeal in 1816. In conjunction with Robert Milligan, he was mainly instrumental in originating and maturing the schemes for establishing the West India Docks. He was also chairman of the West India merchants until 1831, and agent for Jamaica. In the foundation of the London Institution in 1805 he was most active, and was its president for many years.

He was elected F.R.S. in 1811, and F.S.A. in 1812. He was a patron of art and a collector of pictures and books, and formed a large collection of exotic plants at his house at Clapham. In 1829 he succeeded to the estate of R. Parker at Munden, near Watford, Hertfordshire, and removed there; but the size of his new residence necessitated the disposal of the greater part of his literary and art treasures. The sale of his library occupied forty-two days, and the catalogue fills 482 pages. He published in 1807 ‘The Substance of three Speeches on the Abolition of the Slave Trade.’ As a member of the Roxburghe Club he edited for that body in 1819 Caxton's translation of Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses,’ with a preface by himself.

He died at Munden House on 8 October 1837, and was buried at Aldenham. He married Elizabeth Margaret, daughter of Philip Fonnereau, esq. His portrait and that of his wife were engraved by Ward after Hoppner. Another portrait of Hibbert by Sir Thomas Lawrence hangs in the board-room of the East and West India Company.

From A History of Parliament .

Hibbert’s grandfather and father were well-to-do Manchester merchants. His uncle Thomas Hibbert went to Jamaica in 1734 and by his death in 1780 had become one of the island’s leading merchants and plantation owners. Unlike his elder brothers Thomas and Robert, George never went to the West Indies. His father, who died in 1784, gave him £1,500 when he came of age and left him a further £1,000 in his will. In about 1780 he went to London to join the West India trading house of Hibbert, Purrier and Horton at 9 Mincing Lane. He eventually became head of the firm, which was later styled Hibberts, Fuhr and Purrier and was described in 1800 as the ‘first house’ in the Jamaican trade. In his evidence before the committee of inquiry into the slave trade in 1790 Hibbert, who argued forcefully that abolition would ruin the West India interest, stated that he imported annually produce worth between £200,000 and £250,000 and that he had invested much capital in Jamaica in the form of loans to planters. By 1804 he was also in partnership with Robert and William Hibbert, operating from the same address.

He was elected an alderman of London in 1798. As one of the ‘old fashioned Whigs’ in the court who dissociated themselves from the Foxites, he ‘rendered material service’ to government by moving the resolution of the London merchants in favour of a property tax, 21 November 1798. The first chairman of the West India Dock Company, he was primarily responsible, with Robert Milligan, for initiating and implementing the new dock scheme, which fully established him as one of the leading figures in the London commercial world. He aspired to a seat in Parliament for the City, but it eluded him in 1802 and the following year he resigned his alderman’s gown ‘to avoid the expensive offices of sheriff and lord mayor’, which would soon have fallen to him.

At the general election of 1806 he was returned unopposed for Seaford as a paying guest of John Leach. In his maiden speech, 10 February 1807, he declared his utter hostility to the slave trade abolition bill, which he went on to oppose at every stage in its passage through the House. He presented a petition for compensation from the West India merchants and planters, 27 February, and on 12 March successfully moved to have it referred to a select committee. On other issues, Hibbert supported the ‘Talents’. He voted for Brand’s motion condemning their successors’ pledge on the Catholic question, 9 April, and seconded Lyttelton’s motion regretting the change of administration, 15 April 1807, when he explained that ‘although he had, in the measure regarding the slave trade, uniformly opposed the late administration, yet he was happy in now giving them a proof of his sincere approbation of their general conduct’.

He was returned again with Leach for Seaford, after a token contest, at the 1807 general election and attended the opposition gathering before the opening of the new Parliament, in which he voted against government in almost all the major divisions. He was one of the Whigs who met to endorse Ponsonby’s leadership, 18 January 1809, and was elected to Brooks’s, sponsored by Earl Fitzwilliam, on 30 April 1810. He was one of the minority of 58 who voted for Whitbread’s peace resolution, 29 February 1808, was an active supporter of the campaign for economical reform from 1809 onwards, voted for the release of John Gale Jones, 16 April, and for parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810, and divided on the pro-Catholic side in the divisions of 3 March., 5 and 25 May 1808, 31 May 1811 and 24 April 1812.

In the debate on the address, 22 January 1808, he urged ministers to start peace negotiations, and although he supported the commercial credit bill, 22 March 1811, he called on them ‘to heal by peace the wound which commerce and the country had received’. He spoke against the orders in council, 18 February 1808, and against Perceval’s exculpatory resolution on the Duke of York scandal, 17 March 1809; supported receipt of the Middlesex petition for the release of Burdett, 2 May 1810, and Tierney’s motion for a secret committee on the ank, 17 March 1812, when he deplored the continued suspension of cash payments and questioned the necessity for the unlawful oaths bill, 5 May 1812.

As a leading parliamentary spokesman for the West India interest, Hibbert consistently supported the ban on grain distillation, but demanded its extension to Ireland, 6 and 27 February 1809. He supported Brougham’s motion calling for measures to put an effective end to the slave trade, 15 June 1810, explaining that although he had opposed abolition on practical grounds, he had never questioned its desirability on humanitarian ones; but did not fail to point out that the motion in itself vindicated his former argument that abolition would merely encourage the foreign slave trade. He opposed Bankes’s proposal to end the exemption of foreigners from tax on their dividends, 15 June 1808, came to the defence of the West India Dock Company, 27 July 1807 and 8 May 1810, and supported Foster Barham’s proposal to supply the West Indian colonies with free labour from the East, 4 April 1811. When Hibbert retired from Parliament in 1812, Tierney named him among those of ‘our good old supporters and best attenders’ whose services would be missed.

As agent for Jamaica and chairman of the West India merchants’ body, he was an active and forceful spokesman for West India and commercial interests until old age and infirmity forced him to retire in 1830. The firm of Hibberts, Fuhr and Purrier was wound up in about 1815, but that of George, William and Samuel Hibbert, which had premises in Billiter Court, Fenchurch Street from about 1812, remained in existence throughout his lifetime.Hibbert, a noted botanist, bibliophile, patron and collector of the arts, was one of the founders of the London Institution in 1805. J. H. Markland, secretary to the committee of West India merchants, wrote that: "He possessed strong common sense, judgment, sagacity, a mind richly stored with various information, a retentive memory, and great readiness in bringing his understanding and information to bear upon any subject".

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