Henry Thrale's parliamentary career

  • Posted on: 20 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

Henry Thrale was no Tory, nor was Hester Thrale. Henry Thrale had been raised as an intimate of that powerful Whig clan of Temples, Grenvilles and Lytteltons; and like most wealthier M.P. merchants, voted with the Government of the day.

Abingdon 1754

In the spring of 1754 Henry Thrale stood for election to Parliament in Abingdon, but was beaten by John Morton.

Henry Thrale c.1770-1780 by Francis Wheatley. Yale Centre for British Art

Southwark 1760

In 1760, two years after the death of his father, William Belchier, one of the incumbent Members of Parliament in Southwark decided not to seek re-election1. This prompted Henry Thrale to write to the Duke of Newcastle on 21 December soliciting support for his candidacy. Newcastle duly obliged. However Thrale later withdrew from the race after becoming aware of the strength of the opposition.

St Albans 1761

During 1761 Henry Thrale considered standing for the constituency of St Albans and had assurances at an early stage of 25 votes. He decided not to stand for election2.

Southwark 1765 - elected

On 16 September 1765, one of the incumbent Members of Parliament for Southwark, Alexander Hume, died. This time Henry Thrale succeeded in replacing him and was elected as Member of Parliament for Southwark on 23 December 1765, after opponent George Durant withdrew before election day due to lack of support. Henry Thrale later became an Alderman and a Sheriff of London. Mr. Thrale announced his running four days before his second child, Frances Thrale was born.

Southwark 1768 - elected

Henry Thrale after Sir Joshua Reynolds 1777
Early in 1768 parliament was dissolved. On the back of a letter dated 29 February 1768, Samuel Johnson wrote an election address for Henry Thrale. Thrale wrote three addresses himself dated 8, 14 & 23 March 1768 which were published in various London papers. Hester Thrale campaigned for Henry despite being heavily pregnant and was surprised that he was elected at the top of the ticket.


The election on 10 May 1768 was…

Henry Thrale 1,248 votes - re-elected
Sir Joseph Mawbey - 1,159 re-elected
William Belchier 994 votes - defeated.

Legal challenge

Thrale won with Sir Joseph Mawbey, a Vauxhall vinegar distiller who represented Southwark from 1761-1774. On 21 November 1768, Belchier petitioned the House of Commons, charging Mawbey of bribery corruption and other illegal election practices. The Committee on Privileges and Elections heard the matter on 6 February 1769, and on 13 March they reported that Belchier's petition was frivolous, vexatious and groundless, and ordered Belchier to pay all costs and expenses.

Southwark 1774 - elected

On 29 November 1774 Henry Thrale retained his seat> with Nathaniel Polhill.

Nathaniel Polhill (Whig) 1195 votes - elected
Henry Thrale 1026 votes - elected
Lee 741 votes - defeated
Hume 457 votes - defeated.

Southwark 1780

In May 1780, a general election was imminent. Britain was at war with France and Spain, things were going badly in America. Henry decided to fight the election despite his inability to travel to London to campaign. Johnson and Hester Thrale travelled to London and campaigned on Henry's behalf. In a letter to her daughter, Queeney, of 15th May 1780 Hester Thrale wrote…

I fear poor Mr. Polhill will lose his seat as all the folks are mad for Sir Richard Hotham.

Later on 6 August 1780 Hester Thrale wrote…

I dread the General Election more than ever; Mr Thrale is now well enough to canvass in Person, and 'twill kill him: had it happened when he could not absolutely have stirred—We could have done it for him, but now! Well! one should not however anticipate Misfortunes, they will come Time enough.

On 2 September 1780 Hester Thrale wrote…

Mr Thrale received this day at Michel Grove the News of the Parliament being dissolved; we drove to Brighton that Night, & to Streatham the day following-Sunday.-on Monday 4: Septr he begun his Canvass, & went over St Savrs Parish, but so feebly, that his friends said I must go with him to all the others, which I did, & diligently we worked till Saturday came round again: on that day3 he was particularly brisk, & bore his fatigues to admiration, but on Sunday Morning he rose with a Diarrhea which fretted him the more, as he meant to appear at St George's Church that day, & face his Rival Candidates.

thither however I attended him, & had the Mortification to see him seized with such Illness as made him look a perfect Corpse in the full View of an immense Congregation assembled to see the Gentlemen who wished to represent them. He would not quit the Church ill as he was, but sate the Service thro' with the help of Hartshorn, Water &c. came home, & sunk into a State of Stupor from which Dr Lawrence & Sr Richard Jebb recovered him by the loss of 26 ounces of Blood, in Aid of Blisters & Catharticks, which were rapidly administer'd beside.

Mean Time I had a Committee met in the other Room but was obliged to confess Mr Thrale's Situation, & Inability to appear at the Hustings next Morning-so we appointed & prevailed on Sir John Lade to perform for him, while I was forcd to appear in the Streets as a proof that my Husband existed. the next Step was to obtain Council, & I got Mr Lane & Robson the Attorney to give us what Assistance they could:-Monday however went off but heavily, Hotham & Polhill had avail'd themselves of our Misfortune, & had a great Majority.-Mr Thrale's Spirit returned with his Consciousness, & he came to the place of Polling on Tuesday amidst the deafening Acclammations of his Friends-

It was too late however; & we could not regain by Effort, what Absence & Illness had lost: Private Friendship & untainted Character could hardly at any Time have carried this Cause against Political Fury, and a cajoling Candidate; but with added Illness it was far from probable; on Wensday therefore was the Poll declined-& we stole hither unobserved, to refit our shattered Frames against the next great Storm. My Constitution is sadly shook by this, but all will be well again, & my dear Master mends upon it hourly, & means even to try at another Borough.-.

The Cruelty of Sir Richard Hotham's Behaviour, the Handbills set out against us, and Mr Polhill's dirty Behaviour, is too bad.

Election address

Henry Thrale - caricature as the Southwark Macaroni
On 5 September 1780 Hester delivered an election address from her husband, written by Samuel Johnson.


Even though voting in the general election did not end until Friday 17 September, his rivals leads were so large that Henry Thrale conceded defeat on 13 September after serving as Member of Parliament for Southwark for fifteen years. Eleven months later he died.

Hotham 1300 votes - elected
Nathaniel Polhill 1138 votes - elected
Henry Thrale 855 votes - defeated.

Hester Thrale went on to say…

One Day, the last of the Canvass-I worked at Solicitation for Ten hours successively, without refreshment, or what I wished much more for- a place of retirement. This neglect, wch was unavoidable, surrounded as I was with Men4 all the time, gave me an exquisite pain in my side-wch tho' relieved at my return home of Course, has never quite left me since- & I believe now never will-no matter!

Samuel Johnson wrote to William Strahan, on the day the election was conceded, inquiring for news of a seat to be had in "a Borough less uncertain".

Later on 5th October 1780 Hester Thrale wrote in Thraliana

This last Election has hurt my health radically & seriously: the great & long continued Exertion of Voice for many days together deprived me for about 5 or 6 days of all Power to speak at all; & even when that was recovered, I felt & still feel a pain across my Breast, & difficulty of Respiration which gives me reason to believe my Lungs are touched. I will however say nothing about it;

  • 1. British Library Add. MS. 32,916, ff.240,242.
  • 2. Namier and Brooke III, 528.
  • 3. 10 September 1780.
  • 4. At that time women were not permitted to vote.


I found your web page via GENUKI Family History News, and was very interested to read your biography of Hester Thrale, as I had found out a little about her, because of my ancestral research.

My 5x great-grandfather William Devaynes was M.P. for Barnstaple for most of the period 1774 - 1806, a Director and Chairman of the East India Co. His brother, John Devaynes, was Royal Apothercary to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III.

Whilst reading Boswell's "Life of Dr. Johnson" I came across a passage concerning Henry Thrale's last bid for election to parliament (vol. iii, p.442):

Mrs. Thrale to her eldest daughter, 16 May 1780 - We are just come from a general canvass of the sullen Jonians, whom we have subdued and gained in great numbers ... Govr. Devaynes canvassed with me all morning...

Sorry my ancestor was not of much use in helping Henry!

Pat McCourt

David Thrale's picture

Many thanks for the information. Don't feel too bad about letting the Thrale's down, we forgive you! From what I have read, Henry Thrale lost because he looked deathly sick on the hustings.

Do you know how John Devaynes was connected with the Thrales?


Thrale.com owner: David Thrale | My blog | Family motto: In cruce confido