Lord Thurlow was Lord Chancellor between 1778 and 1792. He first lived in Dulwich in a property on the site of the Grove Tavern on Lordship Lane, also the site of Dr Glennie’s academy attended by Lord Byron amongst others and previously the Green Man tavern. Before moving to Dulwich, Thurlow had lived in Great Ormond Street. Thurlow in 1771 bought Knights Hill farm, with an estate of a thousand acres stretching from Herne Hill to Streatham, building a mansion on what is now Elmcourt Road, on the corner of the road which is now named after him as Thurlow Park Road. The building of the house was a slow process, which drew attention of the press, and apparently even that of the Queen. Thurlow apparently had disagreements with his architect, Henry Holland. The work on the house had started in 1787, but the house was not finished until 1792, by which time Thurlow, ill with gout, had retired from his official position. There were comments that the house was ‘a plain brick building, without any addition of stucco or other ornament’. Thurlow preferred to live in his cottage on the west side of Dulwich Common at Knight’s Hill, only using the grand mansion for entertainment. When Thurlow died in 1806, the ownership of the estate passed to his mistress, Polly, but no buyer could be found for the property and the house was demolished in 1810. It was estimated that building the house had cost between £18,000 and £30,000, compared with the original estimate of £6,000. Salvaging the materials from the devolution apparently raised £7,250.
Edward Thurlow was born in Norwich in 1731, managing to be sent down for insolent and insubordinate behaviour from both King’s School, Canterbury and Caius College, Cambridge. Thurlow claimed descent from Oliver Cromwell’s secretary, John Thurloe, but this was unproven. Thurlow’s father was a clergyman. One of his brothers became bishop of Lincoln and then Durham; another brother became an alderman in Norwich.
Thurlow was called to the bar in 1754 and took silk in 1762, that is becoming a ‘King’s Counsel’. Thurlow’s legal activity won him the attention of Lord Weymouth, a follower of the Duke of Bedford, the former being appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the latter being Lord President of the Council. Bedford was an opponent of the city radical, John Wilkes. Weymouth arranged for Thurlow, to be returned for the constituency of Tamworth in Staffordshire. Thurlow joined the Bedford group, opposing Wilkes and his associate, Dulwich resident and Lord Mayor of London, Brass Crosby, and advocating British authority over the American colonies.
Thurlow was not married, though he had a relationship with Kitty Lynch, daughter of the Dean of Canterbury, which produced a son. He then had a relationship with Polly Humphries, daughter of the keeper of Nando’s coffee house in Fleet Street, whom he installed in a house at Knight’s Hill in 1771. The relationship produced three children, with the couple remaining together until Thurlow’s death. The three daughters were baptised at Christ’s chapel in Dulwich and were described as being ‘distinguished in personal accomplishments and outstanding and elegant horsewomen’. Polly attended the chapel every Sunday - ‘her devotion here was as fervent as that of the most pious part of the congregation, indeed her whole conduct has been remarkably decent and consistent with the most extreme decorum’.
In parliament, Thurlow supported the Bedford group in opposing the repeal of the Stamp Act - Rockingham’s relatively reformist administration sought to reduce the duty on newspapers introduced by the Grenville administration. The Bedford group, including Thurlow supported the administration of the Tory, Lord North, which succeeded the Whig, Lord Rockingham 1770. Thurlow became solicitor- general and then attorney-general in January 1771. Thurlow was a close friend of King George III. It was the King who pushed for Thurlow to be appointed Lord Chancellor in 1778, Thurlow being awarded a baronetcy, becoming Baron Thurlow of Ashfield. Thurlow took his seat in the Lords on 14 July 1778.
Thurlow was assiduous in performing his functions and attending the Lords. In fact, he dominated the Lords debates. He was known as ‘lion’ or ‘tiger’. His friendship with the King meant that his power basis was no longer dependent on the Bedford group. When the Bedford group, including Weymouth, pulled out of Lord North’s ministry in 1779, Thurlow stayed on as Lord Chancellor. Thurlow however considered himself strong enough to criticise Lord North and his government colleagues. For example, he attacked Lord Sandwich’s management of the naval war. He also attacked Lord Shelburne, who was criticising the administration’s policy on Ireland and on public expenditure. He also opposed the protestant Gordon rioters of 1780, who were seeking to introduce penalties on Roman Catholics, which had been removed two years earlier in 1778.
With the defeat of the British army by the American colonists at Yorktown, North lost his Commons majority. Rockingham took over as Prime Minister for the second time, this time with the support of Shelburne, but was obliged to keep Thurlow on as Lord Chancellor. Thurlow however opposed the new administration’s economic policies, specifically the Contractors Bill. Rockingham died in July 1782, and Shelburne succeeded him as Prime Minister. Thurlow supported Shelburne, but Shelburne then resigned. The King sought Thurlow’s advice on the succession, and Lord North returned to power, but this time as Home Secretary, in alliance with his radical critic, Charles James Fox, who became foreign secretary, with the Duke of Portland as Prime Minister. Edmund Burke was paymaster of the forces. The role of Lord Chancellor was taken from Thurlow and handed to a group of commissioners. The coalition however only lasted nine months. Thurlow took a leading role in opposing the India Bill, which proposed to transfer the power of the East India Company to commissioners appointed by the government. Thurlow had been a friend and supporter of Warren Hastings of the East India Company, who was governor of Bengal and then governor-general of India. Thurlow advised the King to overthrow the Fox-North coalition. His reward, with the young William Pitt becoming prime minister, was reinstatement as Lord Chancellor. This ensured that the new administration controlled the Hose of Lords as well as the Commons.
Thurlow was loyal to Pitt. He was considered to be ‘robust and steady’. He supported Pitt’s Irish trade proposals in 1785. He opposed even the most moderate proposals for parliamentary reform. He was critical of British military intervention in the Netherlands. While some members of Pitt’s administration supported abolition of the slave trade, Thurlow was vehement in his defence of slavery.
The impeachment of Thurlow’s friend, Warren Hastings, weakened Thurlow’s position. With the controversy over the need for a regency because of King George’s increasing mental instability, Thurlow changed horses to support the regency and became an advisor to the Prince of Wales, who later became king as George IV. Pitt however increasingly considered Thurlow to be unreliable, and Pitt and Lord Grenville (who later became Prime Minister himself), insisted to the king that Thurlow was dismissed, which happened in July 1792. Thurlow was then made Baron Thurlow of Thurlow in Suffolk. After his dismissal, Thurlow, now living in Dulwich, continued to be active in the Lords, for example supporting the acquittal of Hastings. He spent much of his time at seaside resorts. He also acted as a mentor for young lawyers, including John Scott, later Lord Chancellor as Lord Eldon. Thurlow survived until September 1806, dying in Brighton.
Thurlow was clearly a very unpleasant individual. He swore a lot. Charles James Fox considered him to be dishonest. Seen by many as an inveterate reactionary, his friendships included political opponents, for example the radical John Horne Tooke. Sometimes his public position was different from his private view - he could support military intervention publicly while being critical privately. His position on divorce legislation favoured the protection of married women from their husbands. His views could therefore be sometimes unpredictable. He was in many ways a political survivor, certainly lacking political consistency or any moral or principled position. He was no intellectual but waged considerable influence in a succession of governments
DNB entry by G M Ditchfield
Gore-Browne, Robert Chancellor Thurlow (Hamish Hamilton 1953)
Green, Brian Dulwich: A History (2002)