Coke, Thomas William (DNB00)

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COKE, THOMAS WILLIAM, Earl of Leicester of Holkham (1752–1842), was the eldest son of Robert Wenman (who on succeeding to the estate of his maternal uncle, Thomas Coke, earl of Leicester, assumed the surname and arms of Coke) by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of George Chamberlayne, afterwards Denton, of Wardington, Oxfordshire. He was born on 4 May 1752, and educated at Eton, after which he travelled abroad, spending a considerable time at Rome, where he acquired the name of 'the handsome Englishman.' In 1774 he returned to England, a fact which Horace Walpole relates (accompanied as usual with a small piece of scandal) in his letter to Conway dated 18 Aug. 1774: 'The young Mr. Coke is returned from his travels, in love with the Pretender's queen, who has permitted him to have her picture ' (Walpole, Letters, Cunningham, vi. 109). Upon the death of his father in 1776, Coke was elected in his place as member for Norfolk without a contest. He was then only in his twenty-fifth year, and was at that time very reluctant to enter parliament, but was induced to do so on being assured that if he did not stand a tory would get in. He was again returned in 1780; but at the general election of 1784, owing to the action of the leading dissenters of the district, he did not present himself as a candidate. He was re-elected, however, in 1790 and 1796 without a contest, and also in 1802, when the tory candidate, Colonel Wodehouse, was placed at the bottom of the poll. In 1806 he was again returned by a considerable majority, but the election was declared void, and in February of the following year he was elected member for the borough of Derby in the room of his brother Edward. At the general election in the following June he was once more returned for Norfolk without a contest, and from that time he continued in the undisturbed possession of his seat until his retirement from the House of Commons at the end of the last unreformed parliament. For many years he had been the father of the house, and on the occasion of his retirement a public dinner was given him at St. Andrew's Hall, Norwich, on 12 April 1833, when the Duke of Sussex took the chair.

Throughout his parliamentary career Coke was a zealous whig, and one of Fox's staunchest supporters. Though not a frequent speaker in the house, he moved the address for an administration entitled to the confidence of the people on 24 March 1783, which was carried almost unanimously. Though favouring the cause of reform, he always voted for the protection of agricultural interests, and on one occasion in 1815 he narrowly escaped the violence of an anti-corn law mob at Norwich through the timely interference of a butcher named Kett, who let a bull loose upon the crowd, which was quickly dispersed by this ingenious contrivance. After having refused the offer of a peerage in 1776, and again in 1806, he was created Earl of Leicester of Holkham and Viscount Coke on 12 Aug. 1837. At the time the patent was granted there was already an earldom of Leicester in existence belonging to the Townshend family, but Coke was naturally anxious to adopt the title which had become extinct on the death of his great-uncle in 1759. When Coke came into his estates in 1776 the whole district around Holkham was unenclosed, and the cultivation was of the most miserable character. The sheep were of the old Norfolk breed, and, with the exception of a few milch cows, no cattle were kept upon the farms. The origin of the wonderful improvement of the district was the refusal of one of Coke's tenants to accept a renewal of his lease at a rent of 5s. an acre. Coke thereupon determined to farm the land himself, and the lease having expired in 1778, he commenced farming on his own account. Being ignorant of farm management, he collected around him a number of practical men, and annually invited the farmers from the neighbouring districts to examine his farm and discuss its management. These annual meetings gradually developed into the famous Holkham sheep-shearing gatherings, the last of which was held in 1821. By adopting an improved course of cropping, by the application of marl and the increase of live stock, the land became so much improved, that in 1787 wheat was for the first time sown on the farm. Though Coke soon proved by his own practice that wheat could be profitably grown in that part of the country, it was some time before any of the farmers ventured to follow his example. Gradually the old system of agriculture fell into disrepute, and at length Coke was able truthfully to boast that he had converted West Norfolk from a rye-growing into a wheat-producing district. This result, however, would not have been attained had not he insisted upon the introduction of covenants as to the mode of cultivation in all the leases on his estate. Prior to this, farming leases had contained no covenants of this character, and the tenants had been at liberty to cultivate the land in any way they chose. With regard to sheep, after a trial of the new Leicester breed, and of the merinos, he eventually adopted the Southdowns; while, with respect to cattle, after persevering for many years with Bakewell's Leicester breed of Longhorns, he finally bred nothing but Devons. He also greatly improved the Suffolk breed of pigs by crossing them with the Neapolitan, thereby obtaining a superior quality of meat. He is said to have raised the rental of his Holkham estate, which at the time of his father's death stood at 2,200l., to above 20,000l., the annual fall of timber and underwood alone averaging about 2,700l. In the erection and repair of his farmhouses and outbuildings he spent more than 100,000l. On the death of Francis, fifth duke of Bedford, he became the chief agriculturist in the country. Coke was a keen sportsman, and in his younger days was considered to be one of the boldest riders and best shots in England. In the game-book at Holkham it is recorded that on one day in November he killed for a bet eighty-two partridges in eighty-four shots. Coke married twice. On 5 Oct. 1775 he married his cousin Jane, the youngest daughter of James Lenox Button, and sister of the first Lord Sherborne, by whom he had three daughters. She died on 2 June 1800. After remaining a widower for more than twenty-one years, Coke, when sixty-nine years of age, married, on 26 Feb. 1822, Lady Anne Amelia Keppel, third daughter of William Charles, fourth earl of Albemarle, by whom he had five sons and one daughter. He died at Longford Hall, Derbyshire, on 30 June 1842, in his ninety-first year, and was buried on 11 July in the family mausoleum attached to Tittleshall Church, Norfolk. A memorial column was erected to his memory at Holkham by public subscription. Among the many portraits of Coke, the one by Gainsborough at Holkham is perhaps the most interesting, as it represents him in the actual costume in which he appeared before George III when presenting an address from the county of Norfolk in favour of the acknowledgment of the independence of the American colonies. The principal features of this costume consisted of a broad-brimmed hat, a shooting jacket, and long boots. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Thomas William, viscount Coke, who is the present earl. His widow afterwards married the Rt. Hon. Edward Ellice, M.P., and died on 22 July 1844.

[Gent. Mag. 1842, new ser. xviii. 316-17, 677; Annual Register, 1842, Ixxxiv. 275-6; Derby and Chesterfield Reporter, 7 and 14 July 1842; Norwich Mercury, 9 and 16 July 1842; The Georgian Era (1834), iv. 50-2; Earl of Albemarle's Fifty Years of My Life (1877); Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, iii. 19, v. 341-3; Narrative of the Proceedings … connected with the Dinner to T. W. Coke, Esq. (1833); Dr. E. Rigby's Holkham, its Agriculture (1818), where a long description of one of the annual sheepshearings will be found; Parl. Papers (1878), vol. Ixii. pt. ii.]

G. F. R. B.