Friday, 28 June 2013

Sir James Henry Sproule Rivett-Carnac, Spendthrift Extraordinaire

I was really very surprised to find that one of my Sproule uncles had been in Bombay in the early 1800s, and that his daughter had become Lady Rivett-Carnac. It was totally unexpected! Up to that point I had been researching a County Tyrone farming family and this new finding really put spice into the search for the family history.

How did the Sproule Rivett-Carnac connection fare, I wondered? I would love to be able to report that this injection of Sproule farming blood had proved a successful addition to the Rivett-Carnac family. Alas, no! For the duration of the Sproule Rivett-Carnac bloodline, the family took an unfortunate turn for the worse!

The Successful Rivett-Carnacs

The Rivetts, as they were first known, were a very old English family and they had a history of public life. Thomas Rivett was mayor of Derby in 1715 and his son was MP for that same town in 1748.1 The “Carnac” name was added by James Rivett in 1801. James was living in Bombay, as was his brother-in-law, General John Carnac. General Carnac had no children, and he made James Rivett his heir, with the request that he adopt the name Carnac, hence the Rivett-Carnacs.2

Sir James Rivett-Carnac
The newly named James Rivett-Carnac had a son, also called James, who was born in Bombay in 1784. This James was close friends with my great, great uncle Samuel Sproule. They were cadets at the same time in the East India Company in the very early 1800s.  In his will of 1828, my uncle talks fondly of James Rivett-Carnac and he referred to him as “my esteemed and proven friend”. 

James Rivett-Carnac seemed to have been successful in everything he touched.  He had a
distinguished career in the military, and he then became a Director of the East India Company. He was elected Chairman of the Company in 1836 and was made a Baronet in the same year. Sir James was elected Member of Parliament for Sandwich in England, and was appointed Governor of the Bombay Presidency in 1839.3

The Rivett-Carnac’s star was still rising when his son John married Samuel Sproule’s daughter, Ann-Jane, in 1840. Then in 1846 it all went horribly wrong! Their son, James Henry Sproule Rivett-Carnac was born.

The Exploits of James Henry Sproule Rivett-Carnac

At the tender age of 23, my cousin James Henry Sproule Rivett-Carnac was in the bankruptcy court in London!  The famous jewellers Emmanuels were suing him for non-payment of a quantity of jewellery.  James Henry is reported to have said that he was not sure what had happened to the purchased jewellery, some of it he gave away and some was pledged.  He argued that he would be coming into money when his mother died. Not only was mother Ann Jane only 44 years old and not planning to die, but James Henry had already borrowed heavily on the strength of this inheritance.  He was actually put in jail, but later released.4

Since there is no mention of his affluent parents at this event, I would guarantee that this was not the first time that James Henry was in financial trouble! Did he settle down? Not at all!

James Henry was back in the bankruptcy court again in 1888.5  Both of his parents were dead at this stage and he was now Sir James Henry Sproule Rivett-Carnac. He had come into his inheritance. However, I believe that both of his grandfathers had left their money in the form of trust funds. James Henry could only get hold of a limited amount of the fortune, and he had no difficulty at all in spending all of this!

The Grab for the Family Silver

Sir James Henry went to Court in 1885 to try to get his hands on the family silver!  He asked if he could sell a vast quantity of plate and other items that had been presented to his grandfather, Sir James Rivett-Carnac. Those opposed to him argued that all of this should be owned by the Baronetcy and that James Henry had no right to sell it. Sir James Henry won his case, and presumably he stripped the cupboard bare!6

I did get a moment of hope when I found that Sir James Henry Sproule Rivett-Carnac had written a book! Perhaps my profligate cousin had some redeemable qualities! But my excitement was brief. The book was called “Fans and Fan-painting on Silk and Satin” and it was 26 pages long.

The End of the Line

Sir James Henry had only one son, Claud James, and therein lies another tale for another time! Claud died without issue. The Sproule bloodline in the Rivett-Carnac family was now at an end.  Let both families breathe a heavy sigh of relief!


1 The assembled Commons; or, Parliamentary biographer, with an abstract of the law of election, by a member of the Middle Temple 1838; London Scott, Webster and Geary p. 49
2 Debrett’s The Baronetage of England revised, corrected and continued by G.W. Collen; London William Pickering; 1860 p. 102
3 Dod's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, of Great Britain and Ireland (Volume 1865) p.163
4 Morning Chronicle of Halifax Nova Scotia Nov 10th 1868  under ‘Fashionable Bankrupts’
5 The London Gazette Nov 9th 1888 Petition for Bankruptcy
6 The Teesdale Mercury Wednesday 8th July 1885, “The Carnac Heirlooms”
7 Fans and Fan-painting on Silk and Satin by James Henry Sproule Rivett-Carnac (Sir.) 1877 26 pages

Painting: Sir James Rivett-Carnac by Henry William Pickersgill, British Library

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