Charles Pratt was born in 1713 in Kensington, London, son of Sir John Pratt and Elizabeth Wilson. Sir John had been MP for Midhurst, but at the time of Charles’ birth, he was Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, a position he held until 1725.
Young Charles went to Eton and then to King’s College Cambridge. He followed his father into the legal profession, and was admitted to Middle Temple in 1738 to practice as a barrister, and became a King’s Counsel in 1755.
Charles also followed his father in politics, and became an MP for Downton in 1757. At Eton, Charles had been friends with William Pitt (the elder), and he advised his friend on legal and constitutional matters. As his progression through the ranks of the legal profession continued, so did his political fortunes, so that by 1762, he was Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and a Privy Counsellor, having been knighted in December 1761, and he had held the post of Attorney-General in William Pitt’s coalition government on 1757.
As Chief Justice, he freed John Wilkes, an M.P. who had been arrested for seditious libel, and announced his support for the principle of awarding damages to victims of unlawful arrest and condemned the increased use of warrants for entry and search. As a result, he was very popular amongst radical groups, and more generally was regarded as a champion of English civil liberties. As a result of his action, he received the freedom of the City of London, and similar honours from Dublin, Bath, Exeter and Norwich.
Rockingham made Pratt a Baron in July 1765 as part of his attempt to create a closer relationship with Pitt. By this time, Pratt had acquired Camden Place, and took the title of Baron Camden to sit in the House of Lords. When Pitt once again became Prime Minister in May 1766, he appointed Lord Camden as Lord Chancellor.
Camden was active in the difficult times of the American crisis following the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and later the American War of Independence. He belonged to the Chatham faction, which favoured mediation rather than military action. In this, he was at one with his neighbour Thomas Townshend, later Lord Sydney who also opposed military action.
Camden was appointed Lord President of the Council, first by Rockingham, in 1782, and then by Pitt the Younger in 1784. Shortly afterwards he was created Earl Camden (and Viscount Bayham of Bayham Abbey, a courtesy title for Camden’s son, John). One of Camden’s most notable acts as Lord President was to assert that the Commons had the over-riding power to appoint a regent for the ailing King George III, which prevented the allies of the Prince of Wales from effectively putting the Prince on the throne. He was also instrumental in pushing through major constitutional changes in Irish trade, libel (and freedom of the press), trial by jury, and the 1785 Parliamentary Reform Bill.
By the time of his death in 1794, Camden had served under five Prime Ministers, and though he has been criticised as too often putting politics before the law, he is still regarded by many as a great Lord Chancellor at a difficult time.
Camden Place was his country home and he developed both the house and its land. He acquired substantial additional land from the executors of Thomas Farrington, and felled part of Red Hill Wood to create an open park, changing the name of what was left as Camden Wood. He was not necessarily popular with the other inhabitants of Chislehurst, and after he had enclosed two parts of the Common for his own use, totaling nearly 4 acres, his further attempts to enclose more of the Commons were stopped by the Parish Vestry. It was of Earl Camden, that it is said that if you could prevent someone from removing a goose from the Commons, you could also prevent someone from removing the Commons from the goose.
Camden had a house in Berkeley Square, London, where Cabinet meetings were often held. He also owned land just to the north of London. In 1788 he obtained permission to develop it, and in 1791 he arranged for 1,400 houses to be built there, and gave the area the name of Camden Town.
Like his neighbour, Lord Sydney, Camden’s name lives on in place names outside the UK, particularly in America. There are several towns there named after him, including in Maine, North and South Carolina, and New Jersey, and Camden Counties in Missouri and Georgia.
Charles had married Elizabeth Jeffreys in 1749 , and they had five daughters and one son. Camden died a wealthy man in 1794, and was buried in Seal Church in Kent, where there is a memorial stone in his honour. His son, John, 1st Marquess Camden, inherited his father’s titles, and was himself a successful politician. John never inherited Camden Place since his father had sold it before his death
John Pratt (pictured left), M.P. for Bath between 1780 and 1789, was Lord of the Admiralty from 1782 and 1789 and Lord of the Treasury between 1789 and 1792. He was invested as a Privy Counsellor in 1793. He was Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland between March 1795 and June 1798 and Secretary of State for the Colonies and Secretary of State for War between 1804 and 1805. He later held the office of Lord President of the Council until April 1812. He was Lord-Lieutenant of Kent between 1808 and 1840.and Chancellor of Cambridge University between 1834 and 1840. John died in 1840.
The 6th Marquess of Camden, David Pratt, was born in 1930, but we are not aware of any continuing links to Chislehurst.
Members might be interested to view the family pictures of the first Earl Camden, who took his name from Camden Place here in Chislehurst. The portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds are now (September 2014) on permanent display at Tunbridge Wells Museum having never been on public display outside Bayham Abbey before. Look here for more information…