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Creevey, Thomaslocked

(1768–1838)

Thomas Creevey (1768–1838)

by Abraham Wivell, c. 1821–4

private collection

Creevey, Thomas (1768–1838), politician, was born in School Lane, Liverpool, on 5 March 1768, the second child and only son of William Creevey, captain of a slave ship, and his wife, Phoebe Prescott. His father died soon after Thomas was born. Mrs Creevey married again; she died as Mrs Lowe in 1812. The evidence that Creevey was the natural son of Lord Molyneux, later first earl of Sefton, is suggested but not conclusively proven. His rise in the exclusive society of the whig party was rapid, and he called the Molyneux his 'real' family. Creevey was educated at Newcome's school, Hackney, which favoured 'the sons of noblemen and gentlemen', from about 1780 to 1787, when he was admitted to Queens' College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1789 as seventh wrangler. In November 1789 he was admitted as a student of the Inner Temple, transferring to Gray's Inn in 1791.

While practising at the chancery bar, he kept up an interest in Liverpool through Dr James Currie, whose circle included many local Liberals like William Roscoe, as well as rising whig politicians such as Samuel Romilly and James Scarlett (later first Baron Abinger). His political career was helped by an old school friend, Charles Western, who introduced him to Eleanor Ord, widow of William Ord, and a distant cousin of Charles Grey, the future prime minister. She had five children and an independent income, and Creevey married her in 1802. In the same year he used his interest with the tenth Baron Petre to secure the parliamentary seat of Thetford (thirty-one electors) with the approval of Petre's guardian, Charles Howard, eleventh duke of Norfolk.

Creevey described his political creed as 'devotion to Fox'. During Pitt's second administration he was an outspoken critic, especially of its Indian policy. He was one of the managers who drew up the articles of impeachment of Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville. In the ‘ministry of all the talents’ his reward was to be made secretary to the Board of Control, 1806–7. On the death of Fox in 1806, Creevey became dissatisfied with the party's leaders, and his attacks on the Grenvilles helped weaken whig unity. In 1812 he accepted an invitation to stand for Liverpool with his friend Henry Brougham. The candidature of two whigs in tandem lost both the election. In 1813 Creevey was found guilty of a libel on a Liverpool inspector of taxes and fined £100. Heavily in debt, following the failure of his appeal to the king's bench, he had to be rescued by his friends Western and Samuel Whitbread, the latter paying him an annuity of £1000.

From 1814 to 1819 the Creeveys lived in Brussels. Creevey left a vivid account of his experiences before and during the battle of Waterloo, which ended Napoleon's ‘hundred days’. He also came to know and admire Arthur Wellesley, first duke of Wellington. Mrs Creevey died in May 1818. In the same year the duke of Norfolk gave Creevey notice to quit Thetford, receiving a long but futile rebuke in return. Creevey returned with his stepdaughters to England in the autumn of 1819.

Creevey was returned to parliament in 1820 as MP for Appleby, through his friend Brougham's good offices with Sackville Tufton, ninth earl of Thanet; he held the seat until 1826. He was thus a witness of the political crisis engendered by the ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline in that year. But his speeches in parliament were now less frequent and more restrained. In 1825 Thanet died, and with him went Creevey's political ambitions. Thereafter he lived for society and gossip, projecting the writing of a history of his times, the materials for which were to be his long, delightfully observant letters to his favourite stepdaughter, Elizabeth Ord. The book was never written and his only publications were two pamphlets, A Guide to the Electors of Great Britain, upon the Accession of a New King (1820), and Letters of Lord John Russell, upon the Original Formation of the House of Commons (1826), in which he declared for a thorough reform of the closed boroughs he had always represented. His term as MP for Appleby ended in 1826.

When Grey became prime minister in 1830, Creevey got the post of treasurer of the ordnance at £1200 a year. He was MP for Downton from 1831 to 1832, but the borough was destined for abolition in the Reform Act of 1832. When his post at the ordnance was abolished in 1834, Creevey's luck held, with the auditorship of Greenwich Hospital, which he retained until his death. He died on 5 February 1838; he had no children of his own.

Creevey's charm and good humour made him both popular and a delightful guest; his fame derives from the amusing letters preserved by the Ord family. His importance as a historical source is considerable. No one described more graphically the appearance, or recorded more faithfully the looks and the talk, of the royal personages and major politicians of the time. His nicknames for leading characters have often stuck. But he was, after 1819, an observer more than a participant. While he was politically active, his judgement was vehement and unsteady, oscillating between adulation and disillusionment, but not equipped for the small gains and reverses of political routine. As his political prospects faded, his assets as a gossip grew. His rootless life did, however, colour the descriptions he left. He had an acute eye for absurdity, and some power of describing the surface of events and places, but he is incurious about the underlying processes shaping them. It is a cartoonist's talent, sharp, but not deep or lasting. He had not, as a source, the shrewdness of his friend Charles Greville, nor the sharp asperity of his contemporary J. W. Croker; but he had a greater sense of humour than either.

Sources

  • The Creevey papers, ed. H. Maxwell, 2 vols. (1903)
  • Creevey's life and times: a further selection from the correspondence of Thomas Creevey, ed. J. Gore (1934)
  • [T. Creevey], Creevey, ed. J. Gore (1948)
  • The Greville memoirs, 1814–1860, ed. L. Strachey and R. Fulford, 8 vols. (1938)

Archives

  • Northumbd RO, Newcastle upon Tyne, corresp. and papers
  • Beds. & Luton ARS, letters, mainly to Samuel Whitbread
  • BL, letters to James Currie, Egerton MS 3020
  • Lambton Park, Chester-le-Street, co. Durham, corresp. with first earl of Durham
  • Lpool RO, Currie MSS
  • Lpool RO, corresp. with William Roscoe
  • U. Durham L., letters to second Earl Grey

Likenesses