James Tomkinson of Nantwich and Dorfold is described as 'a clever legal man', 'a grasping lawyer', an eminent lawyer', 'wealthy', 'parsimonious'. Whatever his character James Tomkinson typified the rise of the professional classes in the 18th century, their increasing status and the role lawyers played in the financial affairs of their clients.
James was born at Bostock in the parish of Davenham. His father William Tomkinson was also a lawyer practising in Manchester until his death in 1718 when James was 11. In fact the Tomkinson family produced a number of lawyers; James' nephew, William, was closely linked with the affairs of the Egerton family at Tatton. He lived in Nether Knutsford and was an executor of James Tomkinson's will.
While practising from his premises in Welsh Row, Nantwich, James met Katherine Wettenhall, daughter of Thomas Wettenhall. They married in Nantwich church on October 30th 1738, she being 5 years his senior. The Wettenhalls were one of the ancient and relatively wealthy families of the town. They had 3 sons: James, Henry and Edward; one daughter Catherine Maria who married George Cotton, Dean of Chester; and twin daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, who died young.
Joseph Priestley, who acted as minister of the Unitarian Church in Nantwich from 1758-61, wrote in his autobiography, 'Immediately after this employment in my own school rooms I went to teach in the family of Mr Tomkinson, an eminent attorney and a man of large fortune, whose recommendation was of the greatest service to me; and here I continue until seven in the evening'.
One of Tomkinson's clients was Roger Wilbraham of Dorfold Hall. It is clear from the correspondence between the two men that Tomkinson acted as lawyer, estate agent and financial manager to Roger Wilbraham and that the affairs were complex and difficult. The supplicating tone of Wilbraham's letters to Tomkinson show which member of the partnership had the upper hand.
In 1745, Wilbraham asks for a bill of £100 - requested 2 posts before - to be sent quickly for "I am likely to be in a pretty situation unless you can immediately assist me". In December of the same year he writes, 'I am now thank God within a few days of getting out of the doctor's hands who must be paid before we part..... Mr Mawkin the butcher is very ill. If he should dye, I am likely to loose a good deal of money bye him. I beg you to go to him and get the best security you can for a butcher's stock is a very moveable one'.
Wilbraham is clearly in financial difficulties and looking to Tomkinson to solve his problems. He has mortgaged some of the estate and complains of the high rate of interest that is being demanded. "I am quite tired out with the thoughts of paying interest for so large a sum and having so small an income and therefore beg, if you can find anyone that will purchase, you'll make them an offer, for I am determined to sell it all." He is irritated by Tomkinson's tardiness. "I am sorry to find that indolence that I so often have accused you of still remains", and again, "Is there news of Chetwynd? I will go to him myself". In an undated letter, sealed and sent by hand he writes 'I propose going to Chester to-morrow.... I have some bills to pay at Chester therefore shall want the remainder of 200'l if convenient. I have a haunch of venison for dinner....' and invites Tomkinson to call round with the money.
In February 1746 Wilbraham writes, 'I wish you'd write to Mr Mills of Leek about the selling of my estate, as he is concerned for Mr Anson and many more rich persons in that part of the world. I shou'd think him a very likely person to get me a purchasers'.
The following year it appears Tomkinson was slow in collecting the tenants' rents: "I hope you'll not fail to enquire which of the tenants will buy their leases and those that won't to look out for other purchasers ifwe can but get off that dogging part of the estate...". Why was the Dorfold estate in such a bad way? Did the Agricultural depression have some part to play in this drama? Was Tomkinson overworked and therefore slow to fulfil his clients' demands? Whatever the cause, the estate was finally sold to James Tomkinson himself in 1754 for the sum of £30,600 - 'for those several manors and lordships of Dorfold, Acton, Hurleston and Croxton'. Tomkinson the professional had ousted the established gentry. The Dorfold estates remained firmly and soundly in the Tomkinson family for the next 90 years until a marriage with the Tollemaches merged the lands of the two families.
James Tomkinson was clearly a man of huge energy and determination. He was clever and ambitious. There is evidence to show that his work and influence were wide ranging. His clients included Samuel Jackson from Oxford, Samuel Egerton from Tatton, the Davenports from Capesthorne and 'the Duke's business in Warrington'. He travelled frequently to London and Ireland and maintained connections with Staffordshire. Locally he acted as a magistrate, was one of the receivers of the National Collection for the repair of Nantwich Church and led a group of landowners interested in the ramifications of the Enclosures Act. He was often involved in cases at the Assizes in Chester and is listed as one of The Governors of the Foundling Hospital in Chester. As squire ofDorfold he made a number of improvements to the Hall, in fact he had the ground floor completely remodelled employing the architect William Baker and the designer, the young Samuel Wyatt, who is said to have been responsible for the design of the library featuring in the centre of the ceiling a pair of cooing doves thought to commemorate the marriage of James' daughter, Catherine Maria, to the Rev. George Cotton, Dean of Chester and later also Rector of Davenham. He is described as 'a man of culture who planted many of the fine trees in the garden'.
More controversially, Tomkinson is the Dorfold squire who opposed the plan to take the Chester to Nantwich canal southwards from the present Basin End through the grounds of Dorfold Hall. Tomkinson was well acquainted by now - 1777/8 - of all the implications of such a scheme and being a man of some repute and experience was successful in his opposition. Telford had to accept the more expensive route, the building of the embankment next to his aquaduct crossing Welsh Row adding greatly to the cost. The canal was opened in August 1779, the cost £80,000.
In 1770, Tomkinson had been writing to say that he had to go to Warrington 'on the Duke's business' which was, of course, connected to the building of the Bridgewater Canal. He was now a lawyer of some repute well able to advise on business of canal finance. He had a wide network of colleagues in other parts of the country who could help find investors. He had established himself as a trustworthy and respected lawyer who could deal confidently with the relatively new business of canal finance as well as in Government related securities for his wealthy clients. He clearly prided himself on his important national connections and his familiarity with all matters of investment and financial gain. In many ways he was the antecedent of the modern stockbroker.
James Tomkinson died in 1794. The Chester Courant of Tuesday, March 11th reads, 'Friday died in the 83rd year of his age at Dunstable, on his way to London, James Tomkinson, of Dorfold, in this country, Esq.'.
He was buried at Acton Parish Church, March 17th 1794.
Previously published in the Nantwich Museum Newsletter, October 2003.
Jane would greatly like to hear from anyone who has more information on James Tomkinson - please contact her directly on JANEL523@aol.com