Rigby, Richard (1722–88), MP and chief secretary for Ireland, was born in February 1722 at Mistley Hall, Essex, England, the only son of Richard Rigby of Paternoster Row, London, and Mistley Hall, and Anne Rigby (née Perry). He inherited the family estate while still a minor on the death of his father (November 1730). He was admitted to the Middle Temple (October 1738), and matriculated (1739) at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, but appears not to have completed his degree; he then embarked on a grand tour of Europe.
Elected MP for Castle Rising (1745), he attached himself to Frederick, prince of Wales, but gained little from the relationship: he ruined his own finances gambling with the prince, and was promised royal preferments that never materialised. In 1747 he won the seat of Sudbury and in 1752, tired of the prince's empty promises, attached himself to the duke of Bedford (qv) and his ‘Bloomsbury gang’. He earned Bedford's gratitude when he rescued him from an angry mob at Lichfield races (1752). In 1754 Rigby was elected as MP for Tavistock, a pocket borough in the control of Bedford, and held the seat until his death. His attachment to Bedford's interest, together with his reputation as a powerful and abrasive speaker in the commons, brought other rewards. He was appointed a lord of trade (1755) before becoming chief secretary for Ireland (1757), following his patron's appointment as lord lieutenant.
On his arrival in Ireland, he was elected MP for the government borough of Old Leighlin (October 1757). Rigby quickly found himself embroiled in a controversy in the house of commons, where opposition MPs aspired to curb the payment of pensions on the Irish establishment to non-residents of Ireland. This controversy, and the delays it caused to the passing of the money bill, ensured that Rigby enjoyed a baptism of fire in the area of Irish parliamentary management, which was exacerbated by the tensions between the Irish undertakers, Primate Stone (qv) and Speaker Ponsonby (qv), who were jockeying for position under the new administration. The pensions crisis was followed in late 1757 by an unsuccessful attempt by Edmond Sexten Pery (qv) and other Irish MPs to curb the power of the Irish privy council under Poynings’ law. Overall it was a difficult first session, which was further complicated by Bedford's uneasy relationship with the government in London. Rigby enjoyed parliamentary management – it suited both the convivial and the abrasive aspects of his nature – but he had little patience for the more tedious aspects of his office, claiming that ‘he lived in a world populated by blockheads and spent far too much time on trivialities’ (Burns, ii, 236).
Political tensions, already evident in the 1757–8 session, were heightened still further by the Seven Years War (1756–63), and in 1759 rumours circulated in Dublin that the government was planning an act of union. On 29 October 1759 Rigby went into the house of commons and informed it of the prospect of invasion, though he was sceptical that the French could land a large force. On 7 November Rigby introduced a bill in the Irish commons that would allow parliament to assemble quickly during a period of adjournment. This was envisaged as an emergency measure, which would only be used in the event of a French invasion. However, many were suspicious, and viewed the bill as a prelude to union. Throughout November and early December 1759 mobs confronted Irish MPs outside parliament. Tensions finally spilled over in the anti-union riot of 3 December 1759, during which the commons chamber was taken over by an unruly crowd and several MPs were assaulted and intimidated. The crowd made Rigby the main focus of their violent intentions and constructed a gallows with the intention of hanging him, but he was out of the city at the time. The antipathy expressed towards Rigby at this time reflects Horace Walpole's description of the chief secretary as ‘a man who was seldom loved or hated with moderation’ (quoted in HIP, vi, 163).
There was a curious epilogue to this affair in 1760 when the earl of Clanricarde accused Bedford of attempting to introduce an Irish act of union. Bedford was incensed by the allegation and let it be known that he intended to challenge Clanricarde to a duel. Rigby ultimately defused the situation by bringing the matter to the attention of the cabinet, and libel accusations between Bedford and Clanricarde followed. Yet, while he may not have wanted his political patron to fight a duel with Clanricarde, he had no qualms about fighting one himself. On 8 October 1760 he sent a messenger to Clanricarde challenging him to a duel, which was to take place at Holyhead, north Wales. Clanricarde never appeared, and eventually apologised to Bedford. Rigby gave his account of the affair in a pamphlet entitle A letter from the right honourable Richard Rigby, esq., to the right honourable earl of Clanricarde (1761).
He was granted the freedom of Cork (February 1759) and appointed as master of the rolls in Ireland (1759–88), a sinecure worth £2,500 at the time of his death. In 1760 he was appointed to the Irish privy council. He robustly defended Bedford after Thurot's failed French invasion of Ireland in February 1760. Replaced as chief secretary in 1761, he subsequently served as vice-treasurer of Ireland (1762–5, 1768) and was later appointed paymaster general to the forces (1768–82). He played a prominent role in Lord Bute's administration, his bruising oratory often being used to goad the opposition. In 1763 he became involved in a dispute between Bedford and Grenville, which led him to fight an inconclusive duel with Lord Cornwallis (qv) in Hyde Park. After Bedford's death (1771) his political career declined, although he later supported Henry Fox and Lord North. He opposed the repeal of the stamp act, and during the American war of independence consistently advocated a tougher line against the colonists.
By the time he retired as paymaster general in 1782, millions of pounds of public money had passed through his hands, some of which – estimated at between £500,000 and £900,000 – he was found to have misappropriated. He eventually concluded an arrangement to repay the outstanding money in instalments. Rigby died 8 April 1788 and was buried at Mistley. In his will he left nearly £500,000, much of which was probably public money; in March 1791 the treasury estimated that over £156,000 had never been repaid. In Benjamin Disraeli's novel Coningsby (1844), the term ‘Rigby’ is used as a synonym for a corrupt politician, and he has been described as ‘one of the most celebrated placemen and wire-pullers of his day’ (Burns, ii, 221). In 1778 a reporter for the English Chronicle wrote: ‘Mr Rigby is a very complicated character. He is hospitable, sincere, convivial, and entertaining; but he is at the same time violent, despotic, insolent, and superficial’ (quoted in Hist. parl, iii, 355).
Rigby never married but had numerous affairs in England and Ireland. In 1788 an account of his life was printed, entitle Authentick memoirs of the Rt Hon. Richard Rigby. His correspondence as chief secretary can be found in the Bedford papers at Woburn Abbey, and in the Wilmot papers (copies in PRONI).