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Richard Rigby (1722-1788)

This article was written by Thomas Seccombe and was published in 1896

Richard Rigby was the only son of Richard Rigby of Mistley Hall, Essex, by his wife Anne (born Perry), who died in February 1741. He was born at Mistley in the early part of 1722. His grandfather, Edward Rigby, a prosperous London linendraper, obtained the reversion of the Mistley estate from Aubrey de Vere, twentieth and last earl of Oxford and came into the property in 1703. Edward's son, having sold the business and amassed a fortune as a factor to the South Sea Company, built a mansion at Mistley, where he died in 1730. After making the grand tour, Richard attached himself to Frederick, prince of Wales, to whom he politely lost money at the gaming-table, and was a regular frequenter of the levees at Leicester House. The prince promised to appoint him a lord of the bedchamber as soon as a vacancy occurred, but, finding it convenient to break his word, he attempted to soothe Rigby, whose fortune was by this time greatly impaired, by a considerable present. Rigby felt himself undervalued, and transferred his allegiance to the Duke of Bedford, whom he put under a lasting obligation by rescuing from a murderous mob at the Lichfield races in 1752. Rigby had already sat in parliament for Castle Rising (1745) and Sudbury (1747) during the Pelham administration.

Through his new patron's influence he was elected for Tavistock in April 1754, and represented that pocket borough without intermission down to 1784. In 1756, moreover, Bedford ‘contrived in the most delicate way to advance him a considerable loan,’ such accommodation being rendered extremely necessary by the increasing recklessness of Rigby's expenditure. Two years later, upon his appointment, under the Duke of Devonshire's government, as lord lieutenant of Ireland, Bedford nominated Rigby his secretary. Rigby's ‘polished gallantry and unaffected conviviality’ met with a hearty recognition at Dublin. For two months. Bedford set his face sternly against jobbery of every kind, but at the end of that period Rigby persuaded him without difficulty to ask an Irish pension of £800 for his sister-in-law, Lady Waldegrave, and thus inaugurated an undeviating policy of douceurs to followers and adherents of the ‘Bloomsbury crew,’ of which Rigby was designated the brazen boatswain. Early in 1759 Bedford procured from Newcastle the appointment of Rigby to the board of trade, and on 21 November in the same year he was created master of the rolls for Ireland.

After the resignation of Pitt in October 1761, Rigby associated himself closely with Henry Fox, whom he advised to use his influence to ‘make a clean sweep of the whigs.’ At the same time he advised the common council of London, in a speech of boisterous vigour, to fall to their proper business of lighting lamps and flushing sewers now that Pitt's cause was lost. When the storm of unpopularity broke over Fox's head in consequence of the proscription and the peace policy of 1762, Rigby rudely severed his connection with his former ally, whose genuine affection for Rigby was one of the most curious traits in an unamiable character. ‘I thought this man's friendship had not been only political,’ Fox wrote to George Selwyn, and numerous passages in a similar strain show how the wound rankled. Rigby had himself spoken strongly against the war in January 1762. In the following year his patron, the Duke of Bedford, took office as president of the council, and Rigby identified himself more closely than ever with his interests. In November of this year a scene took place in the house between him and Grenville. Rigby attacked Temple as an incendiary, and Grenville replied with fury, calling Rigby an illiterate and a coward, who fled to Ireland to escape being hanged. Rigby answered with good humour, and readily acquiesced in an undertaking demanded by the house that the altercation should have no consequences. Shortly after this incident, however, he fought a duel in Hyde Park with Lord Cornwallis, and during 1764 he travelled in France and Belgium, writing from Brussels and Antwerp, for the amusement of his patron, Bedford, racy descriptions of certain canvases of Rubens.

In 1765 he was appointed vice-treasurer of Ireland, with a salary of £3,500 and the following two years were occupied in finessing for a more lucrative office. Besides the vice-treasurership, he already held the mastership of the rolls in Ireland, and in November 1767 he tried his utmost, though without success, to get this post confirmed for life. The tax upon the pensions of non-residents drove him to a state of despair, in which he paid assiduous court to his old opponent, Grenville, and to Grafton. His bluster proved so offensive to some of the ministers that Grafton was adjured by Conway and others to tell the Duke of Bedford he ought to send for Rigby and whip him. In the following year, however, his diplomacy was triumphant, and on 14 June 1768 Rigby was made paymaster of the forces, the avowed goal of his ambition. His tenure of office was made famous by the jovial parties at the pay office. Lords Thurlow, Gower, and Weymouth and Dundas, among other ministers, are mentioned as drowning the cares of office at Rigby's convivial board. The orgies at Mistley Hall are spoken of with less reserve. Garrick suggested that Rigby had fixed his abode in a swamp in order that he might have an excuse for using brandy as the rest of the world used small-beer. Junius, alluding to the ‘lumen purpureum’ that habitually beamed from his features, satirised in him the solitary example of the Duke of Bedford's patronage of ‘blushing merit.’

Rigby's gratitude to the court led him in 1769 to take a prominent part in opposition to Wilkes by the promotion of bogus petitions for a dissolution. He spent large sums upon the ‘loyal address from Essex,’ and a contemporary engraving, entitled ‘The Essex [Calves] Procession from Chelmsford to St. James's Market for the good of the Common-Veal,’ represents two carts drawn by donkey tandems to St. James's Palace; each cart is filled with bleating calves, and the first of them is driven by Rigby, while one of the occupants exclaims ‘This is a Rig-by Jove.’ In 1770 he frankly opposed Grenville's Bribery Act on the ground that it stopped treating at elections. In 1771 he obtained a legacy of £5,000 and the remission of large outstanding debts from the Duke of Bedford, whose devoted henchman he had been to the last. In 1778 he opposed the motion for a public funeral to Chatham, and in May 1783 he vigorously defended Powell and Bembridge, the two pay-office officials who were accused of malversation. For some years he had been politically extinct, but he continued to hold his lucrative post of paymaster until the fall of the coalition in 1784, when he was succeeded in office by Edmund Burke, and (to his apparent surprise) called upon by the attorney-general to pay into the exchequer certain large balances of public money remaining in his hands (May 1784). According to Wraxall, Rigby only extricated himself from an impeachment by striking a bargain with the nabob, Sir Thomas Rumbold, whose daughter Frances married his nephew Francis: Rigby engaging to procure the stoppage of the Bill of Pains and Penalties against Rumbold, while the latter undertook to provide the funds necessary to save Rigby from public exposure. Although Rigby certainly spoke against the Bill of Pains and Penalties in the house, there seems to be no direct evidence for this allegation.

About 1785 Rigby, who suffered greatly from gout, gave up his house in St. James's Place and retired, by Sir William Fordyce's orders, to Bath. There he died on 8 April 1788, and was buried at Mistley, leaving, it was said, ‘near half a million of public money.’ A contemporary life stated that, though Rigby never married, ‘nor indeed was ever known to have expressed any violent inclination for the bonds of wedlock, he was fond of the society of women, and, by his gallantry and attention, made a tender impression upon some of the proudest female hearts in either Great Britain or Ireland.’ By his will he left £5,000 to a natural daughter, Sarah Lucas, £1,000 to her mother, a native of Ipswich, and an annuity of £100 to Jenny Pickard of Colchester. His chief heir and residuary legatee was his nephew Francis Hale-Rigby, the son of his sister Martha, who married Francis Hale.

Sir G. O. Trevelyan wrote of Rigby, that the only virtue he possessed was that he drank fair. An unblushing placeman during worst period of parliamentary corruption, his undoubted talent for addressing a popular assembly was sustained by a confidence that nothing could abash. His education was defective, but he was ready in rough retort, and Cowper relates a characteristic altercation in which Rigby undertook to teach the rudiments of English to Beckford (a notoriously incorrect speaker) who had ventured to correct his Latin. Wraxall depicts with nice discrimination Rigby's behaviour in the House of Commons. ‘When in his place he was invariably habited in a full-dressed suit of clothes, commonly of a purple or dark colour, without lace or embroidery, close buttoned, with his sword thrust through the pocket. His countenance was very expressive, but not of a genius; still less did it indicate timidity or modesty; all the comforts of the pay office seemed to be eloquently depictured in it. His manner, rough yet frank, bold but manly, admirably set off whatever sentiments he uttered in parliament. Whatever he meant he expressed, indeed, without circumlocution or declamation. There was a happy audacity about his forehead which must have been the gift of nature; art could not obtain it by any efforts. He seemed neither to fear nor even to respect the House, whose composition he well knew, and to the members of which assembly he never appeared to give credit for any portion of virtue, patriotism, or public spirit. Far from concealing these sentiments, he insinuated, or even pronounced them without disguise, and from his lips they neither excited surprise nor even commonly awakened reprehension.’ In 1844, in the pages of ‘Coningsby,’ Disraeli bestowed the name of Rigby on his ideal type of corrupt wire-puller and political parasite.

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