Hutchinson, John Hely- (1723–94), politician, was born John Hely, the heir to Francis Hely of Gortroe, Co. Cork, and Prudence Hely (née Earberry). Educated by Dr Baly, he was admitted to TCD on 29 April 1740 and graduated BA in 1744.
Legal training and early career Having chosen to go into the law, Hely entered the Middle Temple, London, on 19 December 1740 and was called to the Irish bar in 1748. He became a king's counsel on 6 May 1758, and was awarded an LLD (honoris causa) in 1765. Meantime, on 8 June 1751, he married Christiana Nickson (1732–88), the eldest daughter of Abraham Nickson of Munny, Co. Wicklow, and grandniece of Richard Hutchinson of Knocklofty, Co. Tipperary; he took the additional surname Hutchinson on his wife's succession in 1759 to the Knocklofty estate.
Hely made his first attempt to become a member of the Irish parliament in 1756 by purchasing his return for the borough of Rathcormack, Co. Cork. He was frustrated by the intervention of the 1st earl of Shannon (qv), and he was unsuccessful once more when Lord Midleton declined his offer of £1,500 for the right to represent Midleton borough for two terms. He finally secured a seat in 1759 for the borough of Lanesborough, Co. Longford, in return for the payment of £500 to Luke Dillon, who controlled the borough. Though not without influential connections, Hely-Hutchinson calculated when he entered the house of commons that the quickest way to secure remunerative preferment was by standing forth as an independent critic of the administration, since this afforded him the maximum opportunity to display his considerable talents as a debater. Recognising that the best way to win notice was by upstaging Edmond Sexten Pery (qv), the acknowledged leader of the small opposition interest in the Irish parliament, Hely-Hutchinson actively challenged the administration phalanx on a sequence of issues. He made an immediate impression, and such was the effect of his interventions that he soon earned complimentary comment from all sides of the house. ‘Our opposition consists of one man … [with] either sense, speech or understanding, and about seventeen or eighteen others, who have none of these qualities’ (Wilmot papers, T 3019/6762/570), the chief secretary Richard Rigby (qv) reported approvingly; he was not always so positive, as Hely-Hutchinson sustained his ‘daily attack’ (Walton, 203) through the ‘parliamentary winter’ of 1759–60.
The knowledge and skill Hely-Hutchinson demonstrated in parliament served him well and he was made a freeman of Dublin and of several guilds in 1760. More importantly, they assisted him to secure a parliamentary seat by election rather than by purchase when a general election was called after the death of George II in October. Having already attracted the notice of the Cork merchants, on whose behalf he presented a petition in 1759 opposing the export of live cattle, Hely-Hutchinson offered himself for election for the Cork city constituency, and he had the satisfaction in 1761 of topping the poll. His triumph at Cork was assisted considerably by the support for his candidature from Lord Shannon; the alliance the two men entered into over the representation of the constituency was mutually advantageous, to the extent that Hely-Hutchinson and the 2nd earl of Shannon (qv) maintained it till the 1780s, thereby ensuring Hely-Hutchinson a safe and prestigious seat in the second city in the country for thirty years.
Ally of the administration, 1761–72 His parliamentary position secure, Hely-Hutchinson determined to capitalise on his achievements to date to gain remunerative office. Armed with a warm letter of introduction from the primate, Archbishop George Stone (qv), he travelled to England in the summer of 1761 to meet the earl of Halifax (qv), the newly appointed lord lieutenant, before his arrival in Ireland. It was on this occasion that he had his first encounter with William Gerard Hamilton (qv), Halifax's chief secretary, in whom he found a kindred spirit. Hely-Hutchinson and Hamilton were to advise each other as they contrived to maximise their return from the spoils system, and things began encouragingly for Hely-Hutchinson when he was appointed in November to the position of prime serjeant, which came with an additional salary. Hely-Hutchinson was recruited to this role with the specific purpose of reinforcing the administration's presence in the Irish house of commons and, though he was careful to preserve a degree of freedom of action, which permitted him to take an independent position on matters of personal or of constituency concern, he proved an able and reliable spokesman.
Encouraged by this, Hamilton floated a scheme in November 1762 to forge ‘a body of friends’ (HMC, Donoughmore MSS, 239), which, had it been realised, would have made Hely-Hutchinson a dominant force in Irish politics; but the appointment to the lord lieutenancy in the summer of 1763 of the duke of Northumberland (qv), who distrusted Hamilton, ensured that this came to naught. It also obliged Hely-Hutchinson to take second place behind Philip Tisdall (qv), the attorney general, in the official pecking order, though the discomfort this caused was eased by his purchase, with official approval, in August 1763 of the sinecure office of alnager, which earned him a return of £1,000 per annum by 1770. Moreover, Hely-Hutchinson was soon restored to favour, for when the earl of Hertford (qv) took over at the head of the Irish executive in 1765 he responded energetically to the invigorated patriot interest, led ably by Henry Flood (qv), in the house of commons during the 1765–6 session. A potentially more serious challenge was posed by the earl of Bristol, who was appointed to lead the Irish executive in 1766: it was reported that he harboured a grand plan to displace the Ponsonbys and Hely-Hutchinson as the main allies of the Irish administration with Flood and the Beresfords. Bristol's failure even to set foot in Ireland averted this threat temporarily, but it was revived in a new, more formidable, form with the arrival in 1767 of George, Lord Townshend (qv).
Lord Townshend's complimentary observation, shortly after his arrival in Ireland, that Hely-Hutchinson was ‘by far the most powerful man in parliament’ (McDowell, Ireland, 223) suggested that the new lord lieutenant was well disposed to working with him. Hely-Hutchinson for his part was anxious to sustain his profitable relationship with the Irish administration, but eager to seize every opportunity for personal aggrandisement; and regarded increasingly as a parliamentary undertaker, although he did not possess a parliamentary following, he joined with the more conventional undertakers, Lord Shannon and John Ponsonby (qv), in demanding a high price for his services. His request was for a peerage of the rank of viscountess for his wife (she was eventually, in 1783, made Baroness Donoughmore in her own right) and provision for his two sons (then aged eleven and twelve), but this was too much for Lord Townshend, who further discommoded Hely-Hutchinson by authorising the appointment of a little-known English lawyer, James Hewitt (qv), to the vacant lord chancellorship.
Convinced that Townshend could be compelled to yield to their demands, Hely-Hutchinson joined Shannon, Ponsonby, and Tisdall in opposing the lord lieutenant's scheme to augment the army. It was, he observed a few years later, his ‘first . . . act of opposition’ since accepting the prime serjeancy (HMC, Donoughmore MSS, 273), and he immediately regretted it. Acutely aware that there was no future for him in opposition, among whom he was regarded as a ‘factious tribune’ and ‘a scum in politics’ (Baratariana, 6–7), Hely-Hutchinson used his ‘utmost endeavours to make his Excellency [Lord Townshend] sensible of my services and earnest disposition to promote the success of his Majesty's measures’ (HMC, Donoughmore MSS, 265). Townshend's response initially was to ‘disregard and ridicule’ (ibid.) these professions, but when Hely-Hutchinson backed up his words with actions and voted unconditionally for the army augmentation and other government measures in 1769, the lord lieutenant mellowed. Eager that a man of ‘his uncommon abilities’ should be ‘rendered more useful to government’, Townshend recommended ‘the addition of £1,000 per annum during pleasure to the place of alnager’ (Bartlett, 52) in order to allow Hely-Hutchinson, who was currently earning £3,000 a year from his legal practice, to apply ‘more of his time to public business’ (ibid., 201). This and other, smaller, grants to family members, which served to reinforce his already inflated reputation for ‘avarice, insolence, unreasonableness and presumption’ (ibid., 216), ensured that Hely-Hutchinson was soon firmly reintegrated within the ranks of the Irish administration, and in the early 1770s he worked closely with the chief secretary, George Macartney (qv), in gaining approval for Townshend's controversial plan to divide the revenue board.
The provostship of TCD Now restored to ministerial favour, Hely-Hutchinson anticipated that he was set fair to enjoy a profitable relationship with Earl Harcourt (qv), who held the reins of power in Ireland between 1772 and 1776. Harcourt's disposition to favour Henry Flood, which excited Hely-Hutchinson's jealousy – easily aroused when his interests and ambitions were at stake – caused him some disquiet, but his capacity to park his resentments to support John de Blaquiere (qv), the chief secretary, in the house of commons ensured that when it came to reaching an agreement satisfactory to both men Hely-Hutchinson was given priority over his long-time rival. The office that Flood and he coveted most was the provostship of Trinity College, which was for life and in the gift of the crown. The negotiations leading to its allocation were tortuous, but, compared with Flood, who proved exceptionally difficult, Hely-Hutchinson made the most of his closer relationship with the Irish administration and his well-honed capacity for intrigue: his willingness to surrender the prime serjeancy and alnagership in order to gain the provostship and a searcher's position in the revenue worth £1,000 was received favourably by the administration.
Hely-Hutchinson's success in securing these positions, which were worth a total of £3,000 per annum, in 1774 and 1775 was widely interpreted as a victory for corruption, but the reality was, as Godfrey Lill (1719–83), the MP for Baltinglass, observed, that ‘there is no retaining him but by paying him as you do post boys on the roads . . . and he will go any length for pay’ (Bartlett, 247). This was cold comfort for the fellows of Trinity College, who were incensed by the appointment of a man widely deemed ‘unfit’ (PRONI, Shannon Papers, D 2710/A2/3/38) and, following his arrival in college, by his modernising vision, his method of doing business, and his attempt to bring the college's right to return two members of parliament under his personal control. They embarked, as a result, on a sustained campaign of resistance, the purpose of which, Hely-Hutchinson reported, ‘was to drive him out of the College’ (ibid.), and launched an intimidating barrage of hostile criticism that elicited a number of celebrated satirical and derogatory pamphlet publications, notably Patrick Duigenan's (qv) Lachrymae academicae, or, The present deplorable state of the college (Dublin, 1777) and Pranceriana: a select collection of fugitive pieces since the appointment of the present provost of the University of Dublin (Dublin, 1775), decrying both the nature and impact of Hely-Hutchinson's administration; he also received a number of challenges to fight duels. All the fellows' efforts were in vain: Hely-Hutchinson remained firmly in place and, indeed, over the twenty years that he remained in position, he ‘conferred considerable benefits on the College. He encouraged the professors to lecture, secured a government endowment for two chairs of modern languages, arranged for the College estates to be surveyed and rents to be raised, was largely responsible for the legislation which established the school of physic on a satisfactory basis, and was instrumental in securing large building grants from parliament’ (McDowell, Ireland, 85).
Later political interests In parallel with his attempt to improve and enhance Trinity College, Hely-Hutchinson remained politically active. His appointment in 1776 to the sinecure office of secretary of state, in succession to Philip Tisdall, increased his obligations to the Irish administration, though his relentless search for preferment had diminished his political credibility. His usefulness to the Irish administration in the late 1770s was diminished further by his efforts to represent the concerns of the Cork mercantile community over the loss of trade they experienced after the imposition of an embargo on provision exports in 1776.
As a result, however, Hely-Hutchinson had more freedom to act in the house of commons than hitherto. He chose in the main to vote with the administration on financial and constitutional matters; he favoured catholic relief in 1778 and he promoted free trade. His most celebrated public intervention in the late 1770s was in support of free trade, and it took the form of a pamphlet The commercial restraints of Ireland, which was published in Dublin in 1779. Carefully researched and cogently expressed, it is particularly noteworthy as one of the first works to deploy the still novel arguments advanced by Adam Smith in the first volume of The wealth of nations (1776) in favour of removing the restraints on Ireland's right to trade. Hely-Hutchinson did not refrain from engaging directly with the current and historical state of Anglo–Irish relations, but it is significant that he ascribed Ireland's economic ills to a decline in consumer demand rather than to oppressive British regulation. His object in doing this was to ease British fears, which had resulted in the weakening of a measure for Irish relief in 1778. His persuasive contention that an economically vigorous Ireland would also benefit Britain cannot be said to have influenced ministers to concede free trade in 1780, but his measured and intelligent intervention earned him warm applause in Ireland.
Hely-Hutchinson's economic vision of Ireland was of ‘a proud, largely self-governing, and commercially successful [island] as a vital component of a larger British–Irish polity . . . at the centre of the Empire’ (Small, 73). This set him at odds with the earl of Buckinghamshire (qv), who was prompted by Hely-Hutchinson's failure actively to support the administration in the house of commons to appeal to the prime minister to authorise his dismissal. It seemed for a moment in 1780 that this might happen, but Hely-Hutchinson deftly ensured that the threat was averted in 1781 by offering Lord Carlisle (qv), who succeeded Buckinghamshire as lord lieutenant, the ‘assurances’ he sought. Consistent with this commitment, he played a leading part in defeating an attempt by Henry Flood in December 1781 to advance the repeal of Poynings' law.
The same sinuousness that enabled him to convince Carlisle was further in evidence in the years following as, despite several changes in the personnel at the head of the Irish executive, Hely-Hutchinson continued to enjoy official trust. In return he could be relied upon to present the administration's case in the commons or to present a cogent analysis of a major issue, such as the law on attachments, by which, in 1784, the sheriff of Dublin was prosecuted for permitting a public meeting of the advocates of reform. In 1785, he advised the then chief secretary, Thomas Orde (qv), on elements of William Pitt's plan for a commercial union, though he did not mask his dissatisfaction with the suggestion that Irish commercial legislation should mirror that approved at Westminster. In 1786 and 1787 he made a number of important contributions to the public debate on the tithe, sparked off by the Rightboy agitation in Munster, and on the proposal to introduce a new navigation act. He also sought, largely in vain, to win over his critics in the established church, by promoting legislation to compensate clergy whose incomes were diminished by the activities of the Rightboys.
Hely-Hutchinson was thus an active parliamentarian throughout the 1780s, but since the Irish administration could draw on a phalanx of younger, newer office-holders, he increasingly left routine fiscal and administrative matters to others while he concentrated on major social issues. One such matter was prison reform; following a recommendation by the prison reformer John Howard, he introduced a measure in 1783 to abolish the payment of gaol fees by prisoners who were acquitted by the courts. Education loomed larger on his horizon, though a major opportunity to reform the whole educational system was lost when he and Thomas Orde, the chief secretary between 1784 and 1787, did not agree on the best way forward. Hely-Hutchinson's priority was a network of major public schools that would ensure Trinity a stream of well-qualified students, whereas Orde aspired to a more root-and-branch reconstruction. Hely-Hutchinson remained closely involved in education nonetheless, and his appointment in 1788 as one of the commissioners who were charged to inquire into the state of Irish education resulted in the presentation of a valuable report in 1791.
Meanwhile, his usefulness to the Irish administration meant that he escaped sanction when he abandoned the administration on the question of a regency in 1789. His liberal instincts encouraged him to take a progressive stand on a number of major issues in the early 1790s but, as his decision in 1790 to take his parliamentary seat for Taghmon rather than Cork signalled, he chose to take an increasingly lower political profile. However, events conspired to ensure that he remained active; for example, the sharp differences generated by his efforts to turn the university constituency into a close borough prompted a visitation in 1791, while the determination of the fellows to ensure a more sympathetic successor also made for an eventful final year. Hely-Hutchinson died 4 September 1794 at Buxton in Derbyshire where he had gone to drink the waters. He was buried in Christ Church, Dublin. His papers are at TCD.
Assessment Hely-Hutchinson was a very capable politician, with a strong capacity for work and a skill at getting things done. Yet his appetite for preferment, excessive even by the indulgent standards of the eighteenth century, ensured that he never gained the trust or affection of those he served or those, the fellows of Trinity College most notably, who benefited from his endeavour. It is doubtful, however, if he much cared. His career in public life well illustrates how a man of ability could use the political system for personal advantage, and his achievement in this respect is symbolised by the fact that in his lifetime the Hely-Hutchinsons rose from comparative obscurity to the peerage and to a place among the leading families of the Anglo–Irish elite.