Pottinger, Thomas (c.1633–1715), merchant, was probably the second son of Edward Pottinger, ship's captain of Kirkwall, Orkney, and his third wife, Isobel Stewart. Thomas and his younger brother Edward (d. 1690) settled in Belfast in the early 1660s. In 1663 he married Janet, daughter and heiress of the Belfast merchant, Hugh Doake, and became a merchant stapler in 1664, trading in partnership with his father-in-law until the latter's death (1669). Pottinger and his brother, a ship's captain, prospered and had shares in several ships. In 1682 he married as his second (or third) wife Esther Eccles (d. 1729), sister of Hugh Eccles, a leading Belfast merchant. The Pottingers, Doakes, and Eccleses were presbyterians.
Thomas Pottinger was never elected a burgess of Belfast, although several other presbyterians served on the corporation, including his brother-in-law, Hugh Eccles, who was sovereign (mayor) in 1674–5. No records survive of the burgess elections so it is not known whether or how often Pottinger stood for election, but it seems clear that thwarted ambition led to his actions in 1688, when, as the Belfast town book records, ‘Thomas Pottinger a marcht & ffreeman of Bellfast without ye consent of the Lord of the Castle Sovereigne Burgesses and Commonality of the Borough of Bellfast procured a new Charter from King James . . . and ye said Thomas Pottinger was made ye first Sovereigne . . .’ (Town book, 242). New charters, generally naming Roman Catholic burgesses, were issued by James II to Irish towns in 1688 to gain control of the urban corporations which elected members of parliament, and included, for the first time, a clause enabling the Dublin government to dismiss any burgess or sovereign at will. Seventeenth-century Belfast was strongly presbyterian and there was no catholic merchant class. The new corporation was made up of non-resident catholic gentry and Belfast merchants who were largely Scots, or presbyterian, or both. It is not known how Pottinger came to the notice of the Dublin administration as a suitable sovereign, but it was presumably he who drew up the list of burgesses, which included his brother, four relations of his wife, and others who, from religious affiliation, personal ambition, or family loyalty, might have been expected to serve under his leadership.
Although the new corporation probably functioned for a few months after its appointment, there was a gradual exodus from Belfast, and after March 1689, when the protestant Northern Association was defeated at the Break of Dromore, there were few if any resident burgesses apart from Pottinger himself. Although his fellow townsmen never forgave him for his part in obtaining the new charter, in which he acted contrary to his oath as a freeman, all sources agree that his conduct during this period was exemplary. He played an active and successful role in protecting the property of Belfast townsmen from the Jacobite troops, and after the act of attainder was passed in 1689, he negotiated for an extension of the period of grace for those who had fled. Although called a Jacobite by his enemies, he was active in obtaining supplies and transport for the army of Schomberg (qv) in the winter of 1689–90, partly at his own expense.
In 1691 he petitioned the queen for recompense, and in the following year he petitioned on behalf of the family of his brother Edward, who had been given command of three vessels sent to cruise about the Isle of Mull, looking for rebels, and was lost with his ship, the Dartmouth, and most of his crew on 9 October 1690. With his wife Jane Faith (d. 1721) of Carrickfergus, Edward had three daughters who subsequently married into gentry families.
Thomas Pottinger's support for the Williamite forces was recognised by his appointment as commissioner for prizes at Belfast in 1691. The office, which he held until 1697, was not as lucrative as he expected and he petitioned for further relief. In 1703 he was at The Hague, apparently waiting on the duke of Marlborough (qv). After living for a year or two in London, he returned to Belfast in 1710, where he lived in reduced circumstances until his death. He was buried in Belfast on 6 April 1715.
With Esther Eccles, Pottinger had a son, Joseph Pottinger, who was the ancestor of Sir Henry Pottinger (qv), soldier and colonial governor, and Eldred Pottinger (qv), soldier and diplomat. His daughter Esther married (1709) Patrick Traill of Elsness in the Orkneys. The marriage was bigamous under Scottish law and led to a protracted lawsuit by Traill's first wife. In 1672 Pottinger had purchased the townland of Ballymacarrett, Co. Down, from Lord Clanbrassil, and his descendants lived there until 1779. The area, now part of Belfast, is known as Mount Pottinger.