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Child, Thomas

by George Stevenson, 1979

fl. 1745–67

Thomas Child, attorney general, legislator, and agent and attorney to John Carteret, Earl Granville (proprietor of the northern counties of North Carolina), was born in 1720 or 1721 in the vicinity of Sudbury, Suffolk County, England, the youngest of the three sons of Richard Child, an eminent physician of that county. It is assumed that Child, like his older brothers Richard and John, was educated in the Yorkshire school of Dr. Kinsman at Bury. Unlike his brothers, however, he did not go on to Caius College, Cambridge, but was in the early 1740s put to reading law in the Middle Temple. Child was admitted a member of the Middle Temple on 22 Apr. 1746 and called to the degree of utter bar five weeks later on 30 May.

Late in 1745, Dr. Child learned through a friend's colonial correspondence of a vacancy in North Carolina's attorney generalship; he encouraged his son to apply for appointment to the vacant office. This Child did in December 1745, and after he interested Thomas Fonnreau, a minor member of Newcastle's administration, in his application, the appointment was granted on 8 Feb. 1746. Child left for North Carolina soon thereafter.

Child's initial appearance in North Carolina was in June 1746, when he assumed the duties of attorney general in the colony's general court. Within a few months, however, he had returned to London with the consent of Governor Gabriel Johnston. To Johnston, Child explained that affairs at home necessitated his return; in London, however, he reported to the secretary of state for the southern provinces that he had been compelled to leave North Carolina because of the unrest and confusion in the colony. In late 1748 and early 1749, Child joined an anti-Johnstonian party that sought the governor's removal by denouncing him to the board of trade. This party included Francis Corbin, who was one of Earl Granville's protégés, associates of the land speculator Henry McCulloh, McCulloh himself, and some merchants trading with North Carolina ports. Child's accusations against Johnston (maladministration in the court of chancery and the court of ordinary, imposition of inflationary economic policies, the granting of commissions to unfit and disloyal persons, and attempts to intermeddle arbitrarily in legislative representation) were outside the scope of his office as attorney general, and the sincerity of the charges may be open to question. In any event, the board of trade was not sufficiently moved by the testimony presented to it to recommend Johnston's dismissal from office.

While in London, in addition to agitating for Johnston's removal, Child sought appointment as proprietary agent to Earl Granville. The earl's deceased cousin, Lord Granville of Potheridoe, had married Rebecca, daughter of Sir Josiah Child, and it is not unlikely that the Childs of Suffolk were connected with the family of the London merchant. If so, Thomas Child probably made use of this connection in his application for the agency. Certainly he was found acceptable to Granville, and Child shared with Francis Corbin the duties of agent to the earl by a commission and a power of attorney drawn up in London on 18 Oct. 1749. Both agents returned to the colony, but after they had opened the proprietary land office in Edenton in October 1750, Child returned to London and stayed for nearly a decade. During this period he remained active in proprietary affairs and gradually assumed an ascendancy over Corbin in them.

By 1752, Granville warned the agents in the colony to be certain to remit all monies owing to Child, "as I shall particularly interest myself in his concerns." Child was entrusted with a role in the negotiations with the Moravians in London for sale of tracts totaling nearly one hundred thousand acres within the proprietary, and the deeds transferring title to these tracts were drawn up by him. Similarly, he negotiated contracts between Henry McCulloh and Granville involving nearly three hundred thousand acres in the proprietary, guided the earl clear of difficulty when Corbin's grants of land from these tracts resulted in legal action, and obliged McCulloh to renegotiate or forfeit upon expiration of the original contract. When Corbin, because of mismanagement of the land office, became the object of a riotous attack in January 1759, Child persuaded Granville to remove Corbin and his coagent, Joshua Bodley; in April of that year, new and fuller powers as exclusive agent were granted to Child by the earl.

In July, the Privy Council reaffirmed Child's commission of 1746 as attorney general of North Carolina, and by September 1759 he was back in the colony. His first action in the proprietary land office was to turn out all the Corbin appointees. He then forwarded to the courts of the proprietary counties his new plan of business for the land office, assuring the earl's tenants through the county justices that Earl Granville "will do any Thing on his part that may be yet wanting to the Establishment of People's Rights"; Child further assured the tenants that in future dealings with his office, fairness and equity could be expected. In October he commissioned new entry takers, surveyors, and receivers of quitrents. By July 1760, most of the enormous backlog of delayed land grants, some of them pending completion for twelve years, was cleared up to the satisfaction of the Granville tenants, and the land office was restored to sound order.

While undertaking these reforms, Child became a decided supporter of the political and economic interests of the northern (proprietary) counties. With the former agent, Corbin, Robert Jones, proprietary collector of quitrents, and Thomas Barker, former proprietary collector, Child was active in the General Assembly in behalf of those interests during 1760 and 1761, when he represented Chowan County. Governor Arthur Dobbs labeled the group "the northern Junto," denounced Child as an opponent of the royal prerogative, and called for his dismissal as attorney general. But Dobbs's antagonism toward Child may in part be accounted for by the fact that the governor had run afoul of the ministry at home in 1759, when he followed Child's advice and gave his assent to acts of the assembly contrary to his own ministerial instructions.

Child, however, had no intention of remaining in the colony nor of retaining his offices. Selecting Robert Jones as his successor, he resigned the attorney generalship in his favor early in 1761; the warrant to commission Jones in the office was passed by the Privy Council on 14 Apr. of that year, and on 25 July 1761, Jones received his commission from Dobbs. In proprietary affairs, too, Child secured the transferral of part of his power to Jones. In about August 1761, Child left active management of proprietary affairs in the hands of Jones and removed to Suffolk, Va., where he took up residence. From there he maintained an oversight of the proprietary affairs until April 1763, when the death of John, Earl Granville, closed the land office. Upon receipt of the news of the proprietor's death, Child settled his American affairs and returned to London. There he attempted to persuade the new proprietor, Robert, Earl Granville, to sell him the proprietary lands in North Carolina. Though he was unsuccessful in the attempt, Child was able to buy from the second earl the quitrents from the nearly one hundred thousand acres owned by the Moravians. These he held until 1767, when he sold them to the Moravians; the sums involved are not known, but the fact that the Moravians were still paying for the purchase of the quitrents from Child as late as 1789 suggests that he found it a profitable venture. With this sale, Child dropped out of North Carolina affairs altogether; he was not involved with the plans of Robert, Earl Granville, during the years 1773 to 1776, to reopen the proprietary office in North Carolina. It is presumed that Child died in London in the early 1790s. A heavy charge against Child, that he conspired to defraud John, Earl Granville, continues to haunt his reputation. The basis for this charge was the oral report of a statement said to have been made during verbal testimony in the course of a trial in Edenton District Superior Court. Joshua Bodley, last of Corbin's coagents in the proprietary office, was with Corbin an object of the riotous attack on the agents in January 1759; with Corbin, he had been dismissed by Granville in April of that year. It appears that Child allowed Bodley to buy the office of proprietary collector of quitrents sometime later, but in August 1760, Child removed him from the exercise of any proprietary office. Bodley promptly sued, and the action dragged on in the civil courts and in chancery for a decade. While the suit was in progress, Bodley is said to have told the jury, presumably in November 1766, that he and Child had deliberately concocted a plan to deceive the earl in order to share profits from the proprietary quitrents, that as a result of this agreement he had bought the office of receiver from Child, and that Child, after accepting the price for the office, had defrauded him by revoking the appointment. Whatever the truth of this report, which is not reflected in the surviving records of the suit, Bodley was awarded damages of more than three thousand pounds. On the other hand, execution of the award was prevented by an injunction in chancery. The dispersal and partial disappearance after 1785 of the records of the colonial court of chancery prevent full exploration of this charge against Child. One wonders, however, whether a court of law would have awarded damages for a broken contract itself based upon fraud.

Child, an Anglican, was first married at the age of twenty-eight to the heiress Jane Arthington of Arthington, Yorkshire, at St. Dunstan in the West, London, on 12 June 1749. After her death, he married Ann Faver of Stafford, Staffordshire, at St. James, Westminster, on 18 Mar. 1756. He is not known to have had children by either marriage.

References:

Allegations for Marriage Licenses, Surrogate, Bishop of London (Guildhall Library, London).

Adelaide L. Fries, ed., Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, vols. 1–2 (1922).

Granville Proprietary Records (Longleat, Wiltshire, England).

Newcastle Papers (British Museum).

North Carolina State Archives (Raleigh), for Chowan County Deed Books H, M, and N.

Colonial Court Records, Edenton District Superior Court Records (1760–71), Governor's Office Records, Granville Papers, and Secretary of State Records.

H. A. C. Sturgess, comp., Register of Admissions . . . Middle Temple (1949).

Additional Resources:

"Thomas Child." N.C. Highway Historical Marker A-53, N.C. Office of Archives & History. http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?sp=Markers&k=Markers&sv=A-53 (accessed July 8, 2013).

"CSR Documents by Child, Thomas, fl. 1745-1767." Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.html/creators/csr10248 

George II, King of Great Britain. "Warrant to appoint Thomas Child as Attorney General of North Carolina." February 28, 1746. Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.html/document/csr11-0036

George II, King of Great Britain "Warrant to appoint Thomas Child as Attorney General of North Carolina." July 6, 1759. Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.html/document/csr11-0067

 

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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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