Thomas Gilbert, a poor-law reformer, was born in 1720. The son and heir of Thomas Gilbert of Cotton in Staffordshire, he was admitted at the Inner Temple in 1740 and called to the Bar in 1744. In 1745 he accepted a commission in the regiment formed by Lord Gower, brother-in-law of the Duke of Bridgewater. He was for many years the land-agent to Gower; Gilbert's brother, John Gilbert, acted for the duke in the same capacity. Through their interest Thomas Gilbert sat in parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme from November 1763 to the dissolution in 1768, and for Lichfield from that year till 1795, when he retired to make room for Lord Granville Leveson Gower. In 1765 the sinecure place of comptroller of the great wardrobe was given to him, and he retained it until its abolition through Burke's bill reforming the civil list.
He also held — from the date of its foundation until his death — the office of paymaster of the fund for securing pensions to the widows of officers in the navy. But his most important office was the chairmanship of committees of ways and means, to which he was appointed shortly after Pitt's accession to power on 31 May 1784.
Gilbert was zealous in amending the poor-laws. He succeeded in 1765 in passing through the commons a bill for grouping parishes for poor-law purposes in large districts, such as hundreds, but it was rejected in the upper house by 66 votes to 59. In 1776 a committee of the House of Commons reported on the condition of the workhouses and almshouses, and Gilbert, after having worked at the subject energetically for many years, introduced into the commons three bills in 1782. The first two, on the amendment of the laws relating to houses of correction, and for enabling two or more parishes to unite together, passed into law; but the third, for reforming the enactments relating to vagrants, miscarried. Gilbert proposed in 1778 that during the war with the American colonies a tax of twenty-five per cent. should be levied upon all government places and pensions. James Harris, the author of ‘Hermes,’ ridiculed the tax, and called its author ‘a kind of demi-courtier, demi-patriot.’ George III told Lord North that it was utterly impracticable. Nevertheless it was carried in committee against Lord North, and in spite of the opposition of Burke and Fox, by a majority of eighteen votes, but on the report it was rejected by a majority of six. Horace Walpole mentions the current belief that this proposal was aimed at Rigby, who had refused to give a vacant place at Chelsea Hospital to the brother of its author's second wife.
Gilbert endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to carry a general act for the improvement of highways, and succeeded in passing many local acts for roads in the midland counties. Through his advice the Duke of Bridgewater engaged the services of James Brindley, and Gilbert joined with Brindley in purchasing an estate near Golden Hill in Staffordshire. He supported many of the canals then projected for the central districts of England, and he was one of the promoters of the Grand Trunk. In 1787 he introduced another poor-law bill, grouping many parishes together, taxing dogs, and imposing an additional charge for the use of turnpikes on Sundays. He also advocated the abolition of ale-houses in the country districts, except for the use of travellers, and the stricter supervision of such establishments in towns. His views for doing away with imprisonment for small debts were not adopted until many years later, but his propositions for encouraging the formation of friendly societies by grants from the parochial funds were largely provided for in an act passed in 1793. To promote the residence of the clergy he procured the passage of the act still known as ‘Gilbert's Act,’ enabling the governors of Queen Anne's Bounty to lend capital sums for the erection of such houses on easy terms.
His first wife was a Miss Phillips, to whom he had presented a lottery ticket which drew one of the largest prizes of the year; she bore him two sons, one of whom became a clerk-extraordinary to the privy council, and the other served in the navy. He married, secondly, Mary, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel George Craufurd, and with her he retired into Staffordshire, devoting his time and his money to the improvement of his estate. Gilbert died at Cotton on 18 December 1798, and his friend John Holliday printed anonymously a monody on his death, praising his generosity for building and endowing in 1795 the chapel of ease of St. John the Baptist at Lower Cotton. He was bencher of the Inner Temple in 1782, reader 1788, and treasurer 1789.
Gilbert's publications on his schemes of reform were very numerous. He published
- 1775 Observations upon the Orders and Resolutions of the House of Commons with respect to the Poor and A Bill intended to be offered to Parliament for the better Relief and Employment of the Poor in England.
- 1781 Plan for the better Relief and Employment of the Poor,
- 1781 Plan of Police
- 1782 Observations on the Bills for amending the Laws relative to Houses of Correction,&c.
- Plan to amend and enforce the Act 23 George III
- Heads of a Bill for the better Relief and Employment of the Poor and for the Improvement of the Police
- Considerations on the Bills for the better Relief of the Poor, &c.
His opinions found many supporters and opponents. He was supported by John Brand (d. 1808) in 1776, and was attacked in Observations on the Scheme before Parliament for the Maintenance of the Poor 1776 (anonymous, by Edward Jones of Wepré Hall, and printed at Chester). A candid friend published in 1777 some critical Remarks on Mr. Gilbert's Bill for Promoting the Residence of the Parochial Clergy and Sir Henry Bate Dudley criticised his Poor-law Bill in 1788 in Remarks on Gilbert's Last Bill. Gilbert edited in 1787 A Collection of Pamphlets concerning the Poor, written by Thomas Firmin in 1678, and others. His report on the king's household in 1782, and some letters from him on its management, are among the manuscripts of the Marquis of Lansdowne. Stebbing Shaw, in the preface to his History of Staffordshire, records his obligations to Gilbert and praises his plantation at Cotton.
Stephen, Sir Lesley, and Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900. London, Oxford University Press, 1949.
Last modified 12 November 2002