Richard Sharp (politician)

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"Conversation" Sharp
Died30 March 1835
Resting placeBunhill Fields, London.
EducationRev. Dr Fell, Thaxted (private),
Inner Temple
Occupationhat maker, merchant, politician.
Known forConversation, Criticism, Wit
ChildrenMaria Kinnaird (adopted)

Richard Sharp, FRS, FSA (1759 – 30 March 1835), also known as "Conversation" Sharp,[1] was a British hat-maker, banker, merchant, poet, critic, Member of Parliament, and conversationalist.

He was at various times known in London society as "Hatter Sharp", "Furrier Sharp", "Copenhagen Sharp" (after a famous speech that he gave as an MP castigating the British bombardment of Copenhagen) or, most famously of all, as "Conversation Sharp".[2]

Background and early life[edit]

His grandfather, another Richard Sharp (circa 1690–1775), from a family of clothiers at Romsey, Hampshire, had been apprenticed in 1712 to George Baker, a freeman of the Goldsmiths’ Company of London, but a haberdasher of hats by trade. He completed his apprenticeship, and by the early 1730s he was George Baker’s partner in the successful hatting business on Fish Street Hill in the City of London.[3] Baker & Sharp were frequent buyers of beaver at Hudson’s Bay Company sales,[4] which they would have supplied to feltmakers who made the felt "hoods" from which finished hats were fashioned. They had dealings with merchants in South Carolina in the 1730s and 40s.[5]

George Baker retired about 1747, and Richard Sharp carried on the business. He took a nephew, John Sharp, into partnership about 1760, but John died in 1766,[6] and Richard Sharp now faced a crisis in securing the future of his firm. His only son, also called Richard, had obtained a commission as ensign in the 40th Regiment of Foot in 1756; was stationed at St John’s Newfoundland, where he married a local woman, Elizabeth Adams in 1759, and returned to England about 1763, dying in London two years later. They had two young sons, Richard (born 1759) and William. No doubt planning for his successor, the boys’ grandfather took into partnership another hatter, Thomas Cable Davis, who married the boys’ mother in 1769. Next year old Richard Sharp made his will, in which he recorded that Davis had agreed to take one of the grandsons as an apprentice when he was old enough, and eventually make him a partner in the hatting business for a three-sevenths share. In 1775, shortly before his death, Sharp added a codicil showing that Richard, the elder of the two boys, had become the apprentice. Provisions were also made to loan substantial sums from the estate to Thomas Cable Davis, who must not have had enough capital to maintain the business on his own, if old Sharp’s share was taken out by his executors. By his grandfather’s will, young Richard was to receive £1,500, to be held in trust for him by his uncles until he came of age.[7] He was a partner with his stepfather, in the firm of Davis & Sharp, still at No. 6, Fish Street Hill, by 1782.

Young Richard Sharp’s future, as a haberdasher of hats in a long-established family business, had thus been settled by the time he was 11 years old. His wealthy grandfather’s determination to keep the business in family hands would have left the child no opportunity to plan for anything different. Before his apprenticeship began, however, Sharp had been placed with a private tutor at Thaxted, Essex, the Rev. John Fell, minister of a Dissenting congregation there (Sharp’s own family were Dissenters), and this must have opened his eyes to other possibilities. Sharp and Fell maintained a friendship till Fell’s death, and at the age of 24, Sharp wrote a preface to Fell’s book, An Essay towards an English Grammar (1784).

Adult life[edit]

Sharp's activities during his third decade show him seeking out intellectual stimulation, and finding political issues that interested him. It was not hard to enter the ranks of society where that was possible – he had some family money, and there were plenty of individuals in and about the City, many of them young, who enjoyed thought-provoking books, fashionable ideas, and good conversation. Often they were Dissenters like himself. He is reported to have met Samuel Johnson (who died when Sharp was only 24), and to have dined regularly with Boswell. Perhaps sampling a different career, he was admitted to the Inner Temple on 24 January 1786, though he never was called to the Bar. In 1788 he became a member of the Committee for the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (formed in 1787),[8] and he became a member of various reform political clubs over the next few years.

In 1798 Sharp finally left the hatting business, which came to an end when the other partner, his stepfather Davis, died two years later. In response to an invitation from a friend, Samuel Boddington (another Dissenter), he now took up a partnership in the latter's West India merchant's firm. A third partner was Sir George Philips (later Sir George Philips). This new enterprise, with the potential for great profits, must have opened the door to the considerable wealth that Sharp was now able to accumulate. The move, however, would surely have tested the depth of his anti-slavery sympathies, as the entire West India trade was based on the use of plantation slaves.

A commentator described Sharp at about the age of 30 as:

already a figure in society, where his great conversational powers and his unbounded goodness of heart made him universally welcome. His judgement was trusted by all who knew him, and in later years statesmen went to him for counsel and advice. It would scarcely be too much to say that he was the most popular man in London society in his time.[9]

Sharp made so much money as a merchant, and through his investments and banking connections, that he eventually left £250,000 in his Will. He was once described as being "one of the most considerable merchants in London". His acquired knowledge of the shipping business, for instance, enabled him to give crucial support and advice to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1804 when the poet was about to leave England for health reasons. As a respected London critic, Sharp also gave assistance and encouragement to both Coleridge and Wordsworth, among many others, and although much of their correspondence with Sharp has been sold overseas, some may still be seen within the poets' collected works.

Powers as a conversationalist[edit]

Despite his modest roots, Richard Sharp's exceptional cleverness and powers of conversation gained him acceptance in the highest social circles and led to him acquiring his lasting sobriquet. Although he achieved distinction in many areas, he nevertheless seems to have made most impact upon people simply because of his basic human kindness and wisdom, as a few quotes from some of those who knew him well will illustrate:[10]

John William Ward, later Earl of Dudley, was not only a man of immense personal wealth but similarly renowned for being an extremely talented, quick-witted and humorous man with a tenacious memory. He described Richard Sharp as,

Hatter Sharp, alias Copenhagen Sharp, alias Conversation Sharp, he is my particular friend, and I cannot forbear adding in perfect seriousness one of the most thoroughly amiable, good-tempered, well-informed, sensible men that I have ever become acquainted with.

Francis Horner, an original contributor to the Edinburgh Review and a barrister before he turned to politics, met Sharp when he came to London:

This morning spent with Sharp has forced me to attempt again a journal. He is a very extraordinary man; I have seen so much of him lately that I determine every day to see more of him, as much as I possibly can. His great subject is criticism, upon which he always appears to me original and profound; what I have not frequently observed in combination, he is both subtle and feeling. Next to literature, the powers of his understanding, at once ingenious and plain, show themselves in the judgement of characters; he has seen much of the great men of the last generation and he appears to have seen them well. In this particular his conversation is highly interesting; from his talent of painting by incidents and minute ordinary features, he almost carries you back to the society of those great personages and makes you live for a moment in their presence.

Horner later wrote to Lady Mackintosh in 1805 in the same admiring tones, complaining that he simply could not get enough of Sharp's company and telling her: "Sharp I respect and love more and more every day; he has every day new talents and new virtues to show". Her husband, Sir James Mackintosh, was one of the few people that Sharp felt able to discuss metaphysics with and he expressed the opinion that Richard Sharp had made a greater influence on his thinking than almost any other person. In Byron's opinion Sharp was one of those who had "lived much with the best – Fox, Horne Tooke, Windham, Fitzpatrick and all the agitators of other times and tongues"; while Macaulay was similarly impressed by Sharp when he commented in a letter to his sister before leaving for India:

the other day I had a long talk with Sharp about everything and everybody – metaphysics, poetry, politics, scenery and paintings. One thing I have observed in Sharp which is quite peculiar to him among Town wits and diners-out – he never talks scandal. If he can say nothing good of a man he holds his tongue. I do not of course mean that in confidential communications about politics he does not speak freely of public men, but about the follies of individuals I do not believe that – as much as I have talked with him – I ever heard him utter one word. I passed three or four hours very agreeably in his company.[11]

As a young man Sharp met Samuel Johnson[12][13] and Edmund Burke,[13] and dined regularly with Boswell. He was a close friend of the dramatist Richard Cumberland,[14] of Mrs Siddons, and of John Henderson the actor. The latter once asked Sharp to report on the acting ability of an up-and-coming rival, John Kemble, which he did.[15]

Friends and acquaintances[edit]

Sharp's reputation as a critic increased when his close friend, Samuel Rogers, began to emerge as the most eminent and popular poet of that period (his poem "To a Friend" being dedicated to Sharp) and both visited Wordsworth in the Lakes and gave him important 'city' support before this new, naturalistic style of poetry became truly fashionable. The Rogers family in Newington Green was a well known one in Dissenting circles, and the names of Joseph Priestley, Samuel Parr, Richard Price, Rev. John Fell, Kippis and Towers were eminently familiar to both men. Apart from a common interest in Unitarianism, both Sharp and Rogers became well known for their good taste at a time when "taste" was one of the most vital commodities that an aspiring young man could acquire. Rogers' home in St James's Place was visited by almost every famous person in London and he was a guest of royalty. Both men were habitués at the fashionable Whig salon, Holland House, and considerable correspondence between Sharp and Lord and Lady Holland has survived to this day. When Sharp moved to his house in Park Lane he acquired portraits painted by Reynolds of Johnson, Burke and of Reynolds himself as symbols of those things that he most cherished – language, oratory and art. At his cottage retreat, in Mickleham, Surrey, he received politicians, artists, scientists and some of the cleverest minds of the day including people from abroad such as the intriguing but formidable Mme de Staël. Guests were recorded and included such names as Henry Hallam, Thomas Colley Grattan, Sydney Smith John Stuart Mill, James Mill, Basil Hall, Dugald Stewart, Horne Tooke, Lord Jeffrey, Archbishop Whately, Walter Scott, Tom Moore, George Crabbe, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, Richard Porson, Maria Edgeworth, Francis Chantrey, and Sir Thomas Lawrence.[16]


By the late 1780s Sharp was at the hub of the Dissenter movement in London at a crucial period in history when Revolution was in the air and when young intellectual Whigs such as he fell under natural suspicion. (See Richard Price and the Revolution Controversy.) He belonged to the Society for Constitutional Information and helped, with other leading Whigs, to establish the Society of the Friends of the People. At about the same time he became one of the Dissenters' "Deputies" – it being the custom for each dissenting congregation within ten miles of London to be represented by two such deputies and their common aim being to overturn the Test Acts which so discriminated against them.[17] In this latter connection Sharp issued a famous "Letter" in support of repeal.[18]

In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed and Thomas Clarkson records that Richard Sharp was elected onto this famous Committee along with David Hartley.[19] The Committee produced prints showing the cramped layout on a typical slave ship (the Brookes), which had a profound effect on all who saw it, significantly helping to change public opinion regarding the slave trade. The print showed each slave being allocated less than 2 metres height and .5-metre width for a lengthy sea voyage that could last for 6 months or more, such figures being calculated on the assumption that there were about 400 slaves on a ship when in fact it was known that there were sometimes more than 600.

At different times Sharp represented the Whig party as a dissenting Member of Parliament for Castle Rising from 1806 to 1812, Portarlington from 1816 to 1819 and Ilchester from 1826 to 1827. In the House of Commons he often sat next to his friend, Samuel Whitbread, and supported his move for popular education.

Clubs and societies[edit]

Sharp was a founder member of the intellectual "King of Clubs" conversation club;[20] and a member of many other London clubs and societies, including Brooks's, the Athenaeum, the Unincreasable, the Eumelean,[21] and the Clifford Street Club.[22] An early member of the Literary Society, in 1787 he became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and in 1806 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, his application for the latter being supported by such names as Charles Burney Jnr, James Watt and Humphry Davy. From 1810 to 1812 he was Prime Warden of the Fishmongers' Company.

London Institution[edit]

Sharp's shrewdness and eloquence were frequently aimed at bringing about some tangible outcome or change, and he was a leading figure in the foundation of the London Institution, an establishment for popular education, in 1806.[10] One commentator wrote that it was "chiefly owing to his influences and exertions that the London Institute [sic] for the improvement of Science and Literature has been established".[23] At its foundation, Sharp was a member of the Institution's Temporary Management Committee and he remained a Manager for most of his life. In 1810 he served as their chairman, resigning from this position on 10 September 1812, and for the years 1827 and 1831 he was Vice-President. As his interest in education grew he supported Whitbread's move for a proper system of state education as well as Henry Brougham's drive for a fully-fledged city University.

Sharp's initiative predates that of his better known contemporary, George Birkbeck (also from a dissenter background), whose Mechanics' Institutes only developed in Glasgow, London and elsewhere from the 1820s onwards. Many of the founders of the London Institution later joined with Thomas Campbell and Brougham to found a new University of London.

Final years and death[edit]

Towards the end of his life Sharp liked to spend the winter months at his house in Torquay (Higher Terrace). He had suffered all his life with a cough and a bad chest and Torquay was noted for both its health-giving air and Italianate landscape, but in 1834 the winter was particularly severe and as Sharp succumbed he resolved that he would die in his beloved London. He set off for the city with his family and servants but only got as far as Dorchester before expiring at the coaching inn there. Fearful that a nephew might obtain and subvert his will, it is said that 70-year-old George Philips, in a final act of kindness, set off on his horse "Canon", and rode through the night as fast as he could to ensure that this did not occur.[24]

Personal life[edit]

Sharp never married, but in about 1812 he adopted an infant, Maria Kinnaird, who had been orphaned by a catastrophic volcano eruption in the West Indies.[25] Maria, as a teenager, knew William Wordsworth's daughter, Dora, very well and later led an interesting and colourful life in London society. Macaulay and Romilly (son of Samuel Romilly) were among many eligible young men who were said to be enamoured of Maria, but in 1835 she married Thomas Drummond, later became Under-Secretary for Ireland.

Published work[edit]

Sharp's only book was Letters and Essays in Prose and Verse (1834).[26] The Quarterly Review described it as remarkable for "wisdom, wit, knowledge of the world and sound criticism". Several editions were published, including an American edition.[27]

Sharp considered writing a history of American independence and wrote to his friends, John Adams and John Quincy Adams about this and other matters. He also considered writing a tourist's guide to Europe after becoming so familiar with continental travel that he was once called "the Thomas Cook of his day".[2] None of these projects came to fruition, however.


A single contemporary image of Sharp is known to exist: a drawing in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.


  1. ^ The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, Sir Walter Scott, 1890, entry for 29 August 1826
  2. ^ a b Hills, Hon. Mrs Eustace, "Conversation Sharp and his Friends", MS Bodleian Library.
  3. ^ Richard Sharp’s apprenticeship indenture, at London Metropolitan Archives, ELJL/384/5; London Trade Directories (London Guildhall Library); London Land Tax records, annual lists for Bridge Ward, Lower Precinct of St Lawrence Eastcheap (London Metropolitan Archives).
  4. ^ Hudson's Bay Company Archives, at Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Grand Journals and Fur Sales Books.
  5. ^ Philip M. Hamer, ed., The Papers of Henry Laurens (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1968-), Vol. 1, pp. 18, 78, 232.
  6. ^ Will of John Sharp, feltmaker of St Leonard Eastcheap London, proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), 31 October 1766.
  7. ^ Will of Richard Sharp, hatter, of Fishstreet-hill, city of London, proved in PCC, 9 September 1775.
  8. ^ Clarkson, Thomas : The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the Slave-Trade by the British Parliament (Echo Library Reprint, 2006), p.228.
  9. ^ Clayden, P. W. The Early Life of Samuel Rogers (1887), p. 280.
  10. ^ a b Knapman 2003.
  11. ^ Trevelyan, G.O., The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (1978), vol. 1, pp. 303–4.
  12. ^ Hester Thrale's 'Anecdotes': ref 1782, [1] Archived 9 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ a b Darwin, Emma (1915). Litchfield, H. E. (ed.). A Century of Family Letters, 1792–1896. 1.. London: John Murray. pp. 21n, 23, 24, 40, 45, 46. Retrieved 18 July 2008.
  14. ^ The Memoirs of Richard Cumberland (1856), pp. 318–319. See also
  15. ^ "Letter to John Henderson" in Sharp's Letters and Essays in Prose and Verse (1834).
  16. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Sharp, Richard" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  17. ^ See MS Records of the Deputies of the Dissenters, Guildhall, London.
  18. ^ Sharp, Richard, Letter to the Friends of the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, British Library.
  19. ^ Clarkson, Thomas, The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishments of the Abolition of the Slave Trade by the British Parliament (reprint 2006), p. 228.
  20. ^ Timbs, John (1872). Clubs and Club Life in London. London. pp. 141–22.
  21. ^ Nichols, John (1812). Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century. 2. London: Nichols, Son, and Bentley. p. 638.
  22. ^ Timbs, John (1866). Club Life of London with Anecdotes of the Clubs, Coffee-Houses and Taverns of the Metropolis During the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. 1. London: Richard Bentley. p. 169.
  23. ^ Wilson, J. Biographical Index of the current House of Commons, 1808, p.133
  24. ^ Autobiography of Sir George Philips, MS Warwickshire Record Office.
  25. ^ Paul, C. Kegan, Maria Drummond – A Sketch (1891)
  26. ^ Sharp, Richard (1834). Letters and Essays in Prose and Verse. London.
  27. ^ Sharp, Richard (1835). Letters and essays in Prose and Verse. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart. letters and essays prose and verse.

Further reading[edit]

  • Knapman, David (2003). Conversation Sharp: the biography of a London Gentleman, Richard Sharp (1759–1835) in letters, prose and verse. Dorchester: Dorset Press.
  • Knapman, David (2006) [2004]. "Sharp, Richard [called Conversation Sharp] (1759–1835)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/25217. (subscription required)
  • Thorne, R. G. (1986). "SHARP, Richard (1759-1835), of Park Lane, Mdx. and Fredley Farm, Mickleham, Surr., in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne". Boydell and Brewer.

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Charles Bagot-Chester
Peter Isaac Thellusson
Member of Parliament for Castle Rising
With: Charles Bagot-Chester 1806–1807
Charles Bagot 1807–1808
Fulk Greville Howard 1808–1812
Succeeded by
Augustus Cavendish-Bradshaw
Fulk Greville Howard
Preceded by
Arthur Shakespeare
Member of Parliament for Portarlington
Succeeded by
David Ricardo
Preceded by
Sir Isaac Coffin
Stephen Lushington
Member of Parliament for Ilchester
With: John Williams
Succeeded by
Lord Huntingtower
Felix Thomas Tollemache