Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Parsons, Humphrey

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PARSONS, HUMPHREY (1676?–1741), lord mayor of London, third and only surviving son of Sir John Parsons (lord mayor in 1703), by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Humphrey Beane of Epsom, was born about 1676 (London Magazine, 1741, p. 152). Sir John Parsons represented the borough of Reigate in every parliament (except the Convention parliament and that of 1698) from 1685 to 1717, the year of his death. His son Humphrey carried on a successful business as a brewer in Aldgate, and had in his hands the principal export trade in beer to France. The goods which he sent to that country were exempted from import duty, a privilege which he owed to the personal favour of Louis XV. Parsons is said to have been brought under the king's notice during hunting, a sport to which he was passionately addicted. His spirited English courser outstripped the rest, and, in contravention of the usual etiquette, brought him in at the death. In response to the king's inquiries, Parsons was maliciously described to him as ‘un chevalier de Malte.’ At an interview which followed, Parsons offered his horse, which had attracted the king's admiration, for his majesty's acceptance. The horse was accepted, and the king, who showed him every mark of favour, presented him, on 16 Feb. 1731, with his portrait set in diamonds. This story, told by Hughson (Edward Pugh) in his ‘History of London’ (ii. 195), is corroborated by other writers. A broadside of 1741, in the British Museum (fol. 1872, a. [177]), entitled ‘A Hymn to Alderman Parsons, our Lord Mayor,’ describes him as a churchman, an incorruptible tory, and as being proof against the bribery and wiles of the whigs. It then proceeds:

    In France he is respected,
    The French King does agree
    That he should bring his beer
    Over there duty free.

(See also Catalogue of Satirical Prints in the British Museum, div. 1, ii. 717–18.)

Parsons was a member of the Wax Chandlers' Company, of which he was admitted a freeman on 7 March 1720; he was chosen master on 2 Aug. 1722, but was excused serving at his request. This being a minor company, he was, according to custom, translated upon his election as lord mayor to one of the twelve great companies, viz., the Grocers’. He was elected alderman of Portsoken in March 1720–1, served the office of sheriff in 1722, and was president of Bridewell and Bethlehem Hospitals from 1725 till his death in 1741. He unsuccessfully contested Reigate in the same year, but represented Harwich in the last parliament of George I, and the City of London in the first two of George II. He became lord mayor on 29 Oct. 1730, and was highly popular during his year of office. A portrait of him in hunting dress appeared on the first page of the ‘Grub Street Journal’ for 3 Dec., with verses in Latin, French, and English, and, on each side, ‘The character of a good Lord Mayor drawn by the late Dr. Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester.’

Parsons had the unusual distinction of being elected a second time to the chief magistracy in 1740 (cf. Journal of the Shrievalty of Richard Hoare, Esq., in the years 1740–1741, Bath, 1815). Parsons's pageant in his second mayoralty was of unusual splendour, the state coach being for the first time drawn by six horses gaily decorated with trappings. On this occasion the following broadsides were printed: ‘A new Song made on … Humphrey Parsons, Esquire, now our great and good Lord Mayor’ (British Museum, 1872, a. [170]), and ‘Whittington revived, or a City in triumph, on Alderman Parsons being chosen twice Lord Mayor of London’ (British Museum, 1876. f. 1. [120]). Parsons died, during his second mayoralty, on 21 March 1741, and was succeeded as lord mayor by Alderman Daniel Lambert. No instance of the death of a lord mayor in his mayoralty had occurred since that of Sir John Shorter in 1688.

Besides his ‘mansion-house,’ called The Hermitage, which probably adjoined his brewery at St. Katherine's in the eastern district of the city, Parsons inherited the family estates at Reigate on his father's death in 1717. These comprised Reigate Priory, purchased by Sir John from the niece of Viscount Avalon under an act of parliament obtained for the purpose on 16 April 1677; Dorking Priory, the tithes of which, producing 160l. yearly, he settled on his wife as her jointure; and the advowson of Mickleham rectory. He married, on 18 April 1719, Sarah, the daughter of Sir Ambrose Crowley or Crawley, by whom he had a son John and two daughters—Sarah, who married James Dunn of Dublin; and Anne, who married Sir John Hinde Cotton, bart. His wife died on 28 Jan. 1759. Parsons's will, dated 29 April 1725, with a codicil of 25 March 1740, was proved in the prerogative court of Canterbury on 24 March 1741 (Spurway, 97). All his property was devised to his wife and three children, the portions of the latter during their minority being held by his wife as trustee on their behalf. After his death his family seem to have lived much in Paris. At the lord mayor's ball in October 1741, Horace Walpole noted the presence of ‘the Parsons family from Paris, who are admired too;’ and adds in a note that they were the son and daughter of Alderman Parsons, ‘a Jacobite brewer.’ Goldsmith, in his ‘Description of an Author's Bed-chamber,’ celebrates ‘Parsons's black champaign.’

An elegy ‘To the Memory of Humphry Parsons, Esquire, who died 21 March 1741. By J. B., S.E.M.M.,’ was published as a large copperplate engraving. A tablet inscribed with the elegy is surmounted by a group of allegorical figures which surround the bust of Parsons. It is designed and drawn by H. Gravelot, and engraved by G. Scotin. There are two mezzotint three-quarter-length portraits of Parsons: one in his robes as lord mayor, published by W. Banks; the other painted by Ellys in 1730, and engraved by Faber. There is also a large allegorical plate in praise of, and dedicated to, Parsons, with a portrait in a medallion engraved by W. P.

[Authorities above cited; City Records; Records of the Wax Chandlers' Company; Gent. Mag. 1741, pp. 162, 164; Manning and Bray's History of Surrey, i. 292, 304, 591, 593, 598, ii. 659; Catalogue of Prints (Guildhall Library); Memoirs of the Society of Grub Street, 1737, i. 214–16, 239–41.]

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