To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity.

Samuel Johnson


The Villain of the Piece

I am afraid the storyline of Coldharbour Gentlemen is somewhat unfair to Mr George Barclay of Burford Lodge. He is cast there as the deepest-dyed of villains—a traitor and all-around blackguard. It must be confessed that there is nothing in the historical record to indicate that he was guilty of the crimes I have laid at his door. In truth, however, he seems to have been, if not a blackguard, at least a very-dark-grey-guard—and characters should never betray vice to a writer of fiction, for she is bound to exaggerate their faults.

            The scanty historical record on Mr Barclay is not very complimentary. The History of Parliament Online informs us that he was born in 1759, the son of ‘an unscrupulous Portugal merchant’—a cryptic phrase I take to mean that the father was involved in the slave trade. Father and son appear to have shared a peculiar relationship with their principal business partner, a Mr Hyott of London, as well as other business partners, who could expect of the Barclays that their money would be absconded with and themselves left in the lurch. The painter and diarist Joseph Farington reports of the elder Barclay that he went into business with Mr Hyott for a thirteen-year stretch, convincing Mr Hyott to be a silent partner while Barclay ran the business. At the end of the agreement period, Mr Barclay disappeared with all the firm’s customers, leaving poor Mr Hyott to try in vain to save the business. The younger Mr Barclay in due course succeeded to the business and repeated the exercise at the hapless Mr Hyott’s expence; in cold weather he took pleasure in leaving Mr Hyott ‘waiting in a passage for an audience.’

John Hassell, ‘Burford Lodge’ (1816), engraving. From the author’s collection.

            George Barclay had ambitions to rise above his merchant roots, so he claimed to be descended from the august Quaker family of Barclays of Collairnie, though no connection was ever substantiated. Perhaps to support his claim to an association with those Barclays, and perhaps for political gain, he claimed to be a Dissenter, though again there is no evidence that he was. He ‘was returned on the dissenting interest at Bridport’ in 1795, and continued to serve as a Member of Parliament until 1807. His political career was marked by other evidence of opportunism; he displayed a marked aversion to loyalty, often switching allegiances as the advantage of the moment dictated.

            From 1789 until 1803 he was a director of the Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation, a company founded in the early eighteenth century that began by offering marine insurance but expanded into guaranteeing buildings against fire and, in 1793, the novel idea of life insurance. In 1803 Barclay went spectacularly bankrupt, owing £300,000. Mr Hyott could have warned his creditors that they would gain little satisfaction and he would have been right, Barclay having secured large sums from collection by settling them on his children. Nevertheless Barclay, known to have been a proud and haughty man, was kept by the shame of his failure from returning to the exchange, and on 28 February 1806 he attempted suicide.

James Gillray, ‘The Twin Stars, Castor & Pollux’ (1799), hand-coloured etching thought to represent George Barclay (left) and Charles Sturt, MPs for Bridport. NPG D12690. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

            Farington writes of this incident, ‘in the morning he went to Blackwall, where he passed the day, and in a house there drank a bottle of brandy. It appears that he went out with an intention to destroy himself. He had pistols in his pocket, but does not seem to have had the resolution to use them; however in the evening he took a boat at Blackwall and came town[wards] and soon after the boat had passed London Bridge he threw himself into the water. . . . He was caught in the water by a man and struggled hard with him but was at last got out and carried to a house apparently dead: but in about an hour was recovered.’ Evidently Mr Barclay was no more capable a villain in real life than I have made him out to be in fiction.

            Unlike the George Barclay of Coldharbour Gentlemen he did not at this point flee to the Continent; he remained in England and in March 1807 finally retired from his business, which, Farington noted, ‘will be a happiness to his partners.’ He died in 1819.

            In the final chapter of Coldharbour Gentlemen, Harry wonders whether Mr Barclay had a family. The answer is that he did. According to Burke’s Peerage, he had three sons: Thomas-Brockhurst (b. 1783), George-Pearkes (b. 1784), and Frederick-Maude (b. 1787). Presumably his first wife died because he married Rebecca Brockhurst in 1792. The year after his father’s demise, 1820, Thomas-Brockhurst married Sarah Peters, a daughter of Henry Peters of Betchworth Castle; they settled far from Darking Hundred (where presumably the locals had long memories of scandal), in Lancashire.

            It should be noted for purposes of disambiguation that George Barclay has no known connection to a rather more illustrious and respectable Barclay who soon established himself in the Darking area: Robert Barclay, who purchased Bury Hill in 1815.

4 November 2021


The Diary of Joseph Farington

Burke’s Peerage

History of Parliament Online

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