John Prise Gwinnett was the son of the Reverend Samuel Gwinnett (1699 – 1775) and his wife, Anne nee Emes (1700 – 1767). They are believed to have had 7 children: Anna Maria (1731-1745), Samuel (1732-1792), Button (1735-1777), Thomas Prise (1736-1736?), Robert (1738-1738?), Emilia (1741-1807) and John Prise (?-1777).
The date of birth of John Price Gwinnett (JPG) is unknown, but he died in 1777, the same year as Button Gwinnett, signatory of the American Declaration of Independence. He was a Lieutenant in HM Service and Captain in the East India Company, Bengal.
JPG’s inclusion as a sibling of Button Gwinnett comes from Jenkins’ biography of Button Gwinnett, and it’s probable that subsequent publications used the Jenkins’ family tree. JPG is also recorded as a brother of Samuel and Button and Emilia in the extension to the 1682/3 Heralds’ Visitation, made by Sir Thomas Phillipps when the books were edited at a later date. Anna Maria, Thomas Prise and Robert are not included on that list. In Barbara Button’s Will of 1755 he is listed after Samuel and before Emilia, confirming that Thomas and Robert had died young. Nothing is known about his education or early adult life. He possibly attended the College School held in Gloucester Cathedral – now the Kings School – but records for the relevant year of his admission, whichever year it was, are omitted from the Admission Register.
So JPG’s provenance as a brother of Button Gwinnett relies on secondary sources, in the absence of a baptismal record, tying him to Samuel and Anne Gwinnett. First, in 1755, he inherited £50 from Barbara Button, his mother’s cousin – as did his siblings. Second, the diary of William Thomas refers to a Captain Gwinnett, brother of Mr Gwinnett of Cottrell. The latter was the Revd Samuel Gwinnett, son of Revd Samuel Gwinnett and Anne Emes, whose wife, Emilia Button, inherited Cottrell Park from her aunt. Third, following the death of JPG in 1777, the Bengal Army paid the sums of money from his estate to Samuel Gwinnett, as his heir. On the basis of this evidence, I am counting JPG as a sibling of Button Gwinnett.
Without a baptismal record, placing him in the family tree is difficult. Jenkins has Thomas Prise born 1736, and died young. Given the family inclination to use names from Anne Emes’s family (Button named after his godmother Barbara Button and Price from her kinsman John Price of Wistaston Court), it is most likely that JPG was born after Thomas Price’s death, and so later than 1736, and possibly even later than Robert’s birth in 1738.
He followed a typical pattern of gentry – the eldest son (Samuel) following his father into the Church, the next brother (Button) going into trade with his uncle, William, in Bristol. JPG, the youngest surviving son, went into the army in India. By April 1759, he was a Lieutenant in His Majesty’s Foot Regiment of the Bengal Army of the East India Company.
In 1765 he was transferred as a Lieutenant to the Madras Army, which was lent to the Bengal Government in June 1766 during the Batta Mutiny. This was a mutiny by British officers in protest at a proposed reduction in their cost of living allowance – called a ‘double batta’. In 1766 Lord Robert Clive, then Governor-General of India, called the bluff of the mutineers and ordered officers to be sent from Bengal to Madras to take over the duties of the mutineers. JPG is listed as one of these. At some point he was transferred to the Bengal establishment.
It is known that John Prise Gwinnett made visits to England during his Army service. As already mentioned, the diary of William Thomas refers to the outcome of JPG’s visit to his brother Samuel in 1762:
January 1763: This day was buried in St Nicholas Catherine the Cook and housekeeper of Mr Gwinett of Cottrell, from nine days child Travel, being a Base child she bore to Captain Gwinett, brother of Mr Gwinett. She and her sister from children were breed up by Mrs Gwinett. ……. the report she dyed from the carelessness of her midwifery……
It is not clear from this if the illegitimate child survived – but there is no further reference to this in Thomas’s diary or in correspondence in the Gwinnett Family of Cottrell papers.
In 1765 JPG made his will, possibly as a consequence of his forthcoming transfer to the Madras Army and the likelihood of active service. There is no mention of a child. In his will, he describes himself as a ‘Gentleman’ and leaves his estate to his ‘much esteemed friend William Wollaston of Charing Cross, surgeon’. Why he left his estate to William Wollaston is unclear, although they were distantly related by marriage. Wollaston’s brother, Edward, married Mary Radcliffe, a cousin of Barbara Button. Wollaston had served in the Brigade of Guards. JPG also stayed with Wollaston at his London house during one of his visits to England. One of the witnesses to JPG’s will was Wollaston’s brother Edward.
In September 1767 John Prise Gwinnett was made a Captain in the Bengal Army.
In 1770/1771 there is correspondence from JPG, then based in London, to Peter Mitchell (Secretary of the Court of Directors of the East India Company), and Lord Clive in which he seeks to advance his career with a plan for the Bengal Army. In July 1770, JPG wrote twice to Peter Mitchell enclosing a proposal for the Court of Directors for the ‘better regulating the forces under Bengal’. His second letter refers to his ‘desire…of paying a visit to my Father whom I have not seen for many years’. This letter is written from the home of William Wollaston, surgeon, Charing Cross.
In November 1770, Lord Clive of India responds to the Committee of Correspondence and Treasury of the Court of Directors concerning JPG’s plan:
Capt Gwynnette has certainly some merit in proposing any Plan which he may think advantageous to the Service, but as General Coote and the Field Officers in India must be able, upon the spot, to form a better judgment of the propriety of making the proposed Alteration in your Military Establishment than it is possible to do here, I take the liberty to suggest that you refer the Plan to the
Still in pursuit of his plan, in October 1770 JPG wrote a letter to Lord Clive of India proposing himself as Adjutant General:
I am with the greatest reason concerned at your indisposition as it deprives me the honor of seeing you on the affair that brought me from India, an affair my Lord, that I hope you will consider as calculated intirely for the real Interest and advantage of the East India company and that you will by your recommendation of me to the Court of Directors, deem me the proper person to fill those posts I pointed out to your Lordship when I had the honor of seeing you at Walcott.
By having the Adjutant Generalship I shall be enabled to form two Armies of Ten thousand men each, within two months of my arrival in Bengal, exclusive of those wanted for the service of the Pergunah, if formed agreeable to the proposal now under your Lordships consideration, with the addition of the battery to make them one to each Company of Sepoys, and by my having the Command of the Black Cavalry I shall be enabld to form a Body of two thousand two hundred and thirty two in the course of a year without any additional Military expence to the Company more than what they are at present.
As the season is now near when the Companys ships will sail for India I should be glad to know their determination with regard to me that I may have some little time to provide for so long a voyage and to take leave of a Father whose great age makes it very improbable I should ever see again.
My Lord, I have often been Eyewitness of the Generous acts you have rendered to many who by their conduct justly merited your resentment in the highest degree and I flater myself as I have made the real Interest of the Company the sole[rale?]of my Conduct, I shall merit and obtain your countenance and protection in this present affair – I can assure your Lordship that whatever countenance you shall chose to honor me with it shall be my sole study to act in such a manner as to be through highly deserving of it.
A line directed for Capt Gwinnett at Mrs Grimadells in Orange Street Leicester Fields will always find me ready to attend the Commands of your Lordship
I am, with the greatest respect and Esteem My Lord
Your Lordships Devoted Servant, John Prise Gwinnett
Saturday 27th October 1770
To the Right Honble Robert Lord Clive
At the time of writing this letter, John Gwinnett was in lodgings in Orange Street, Leicester Fields, London – a road off what is now Leicester Square. Notable is the personal reference in the third paragraph which refers to his father’s ‘great age’ (Samuel Gwinnett died in 1775 and was aged 75 when John wrote this letter). Also noteworthy is the confidence with which John Gwinnett writes to Lord Clive, not only proposing a plan for re-organising the army but also promoting himself to have a senior role in that army. Maybe JPG’s role in the ‘Batta Mutiny’, over which Lord Clive took command, emboldened JPG to write directly to him. Also the fact that John had seen Lord Clive at his home, Walcot Hall, implies there was more than a passing acquaintance. Finally, although rather tenuously, William Wollaston was possibly the son of John Wollaston, surgeon of Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire. John Wollaston’s brother, Richard married a member of the Clive family. So there may have been a family connection which JPG exploited.
Apparently not having a satisfactory reply from Lord Clive, John Gwinnett follows him from London to Bath and writes asking for a brief meeting:
Letter to Lord Clive
Immediately on my arrival this morning I did myself the Honor of waiting on your Lordship but information of your not seeing company frustrated my wishes of five minutes consideration. I had the pleasure of seeing you at the Pump rooms, unwilling to trouble you at that time, hope as my wishes for that Honor was the sole purpose of my journey from Town, you will favour me the indulgence of five minutes any hour thus agreeable to yourself. Your commands buy the Bearer, or any other time to me at Mr Owens in Belmont Row, will find me ready
My Lord, Your Lordships most obedient and Very Humble servant
John Prise Gwinnett
Bath, Saturday 24th November 1770.
In February 1771, John Gwinnett is again in Orange Street, London. His approaches to Lord Clive leading nowhere, he wrote to the Court of Directors of the United Company of Merchants of England trading in the East Indies, looking for employment in their service. He commends himself on the grounds of good service in Asia, evidenced by certificates signed by the Governor and Council of Bengal. He offers to them his plan for re-organising the army.
Captain John Price Gwinnett praying for some employment in the Company Service
February 1st 1771
To the Honorary Court of Directors for the affairs of the United Company of Merchants of England trading to the East Indies.
The memorial of Captain John Prise Gwinnett humbly herewith that your memorialist has at great labour and expence employed himself informing a proposal for the increasing your Army in Bengal and your other settlements in Asia without incurring any additional expense more than what the Company are at, at present. And your memorialist flaters himself that as it is Analagous to the system adopted by his Prussian Majesty whose abilities as a General no one will dispute and whose economy is the admiration of all Europe that you will from these considerations be pleased to regard your memorialist as one deserving the notice of the Company by employing him in such a manner as shall seem best of your judgements and for the good and prosperity of the Company to whose welfare no one can be more warmly attached than is your memorialist.
That during the time of your memorialist residence in Asia in your employ he demeand himself in such a manner as became a good and faithful servant which his certificates signed by the Governor and Council of Bengal will ascertain. That his sole motive for coming to Europe was wholely to lay before you the Proposal above mentioned and to remove that bar which General Richard Smith in his person laid on all the junior military servants of the Company, namely that it was not proper that officers of the rank of the memorialist should be encouraged in giving their sentiments in to those concerned the good of the service thereby as your memorialist imagines damping the ardour of your faithful servants whose abilities might be turned to your honour and advantage.
That your memorialist thinks himself happy in having his case before a set of gentlemen whose abilities have rendered them worthy to be delegated by the Body of proprietors to superintend their affairs, as thereby he shall be sure to find that justice from their integrity which his being a stranger to them render improbable he should by their friendship. And that should his proposal not meet with their approbations yet they will consider him as having meant it for their service and not admit to his being a sufferer as to the loss of time and the detriments of his private fortune all which as in duty bound your memorialist submits to your candour and Justice.
John Price Gwinnett
Orange Street, Leicester Fields
This letter implies boldness on the part of JPG, in his seeking to overcome the bar on junior officers making proposals concerning the East India Company. The outcome of this letter is not known, but JPG was back in India in April 1773 where he was ‘appointed to command’ the 2nd Battalion Sepoys. He had been ‘passed over for command of Battalion by Henry Bickerton, q.v. “as he had not long before returned from a visit of some years to Europe”.’ Where or how JPG spent his time in Europe is not known.
John Price Gwinnett died in the service of the East India Company in September 1777 in Berhampore, Madras. Although leaving his estate to William Wollaston, there is a side note that Wollaston was himself deceased by the time JPG’s estate was settled, and Wollaston’s brother, Edward, took over administration of the estate:
On the twentieth day of February one thousand seven hundred and eight one Administration with the Will annexed of the Goods Chattels and Credits of John Prise Gwinnett late a Lieutenant in his Majesty’s Service and a Captain in the service of the Honourable the East India Company at Bengal in the East Indies Esquire deceased left unadministered by William Wollaston deceased whilst living the sole Executor and Residuary and Legatee named in the said Will was granted to the Reverend Edward Wollaston Clerk the Administrator of the Goods unadministered of the said William Wollaston he having been first sworn duly to administer.
Following his death his estate was valued by the East India Company as follows: £500 July 1780, and £350 in 1781. The first amount was paid to his brother, Revd Samuel Gwinnett but it’s not clear from these records who was in receipt of the second amount.
Entry in ledger Bengal Dispatches Vols 6 – 15
Gwinnett, Pryce, Estate of, sums paid on account of X157, XI228, 517
Sums rendered on account of the Estates of deceased persons
p.228 Bengal Public 5th July 1780
- To Mr Samuel Gwinnett on account of the estate of his brother Pryce Gwinnett £500
p.517 31st May 1781
John Price Gwinnett deceased £350
In Summary, John Price Gwinnett was probably raised in the family home in Down Hatherley in Gloucestershire, but left there to seek a life overseas in the East India Company. His correspondence is written in a clear hand and implies a good level of education. He achieved some promotions, but was unsuccessful in his proposal for reorganizing the Bengal Army – a bold move for a junior officer. He also spent time visiting his family – his father in Gloucestershire and his brother in Glamorgan. Whether the child he fathered on the visit to his brother’s was his only one remains unknown. As does where he spent time in the late 1760s. There is no known record of where John Price Gwinnett was buried.
Researched and written by Barbara Gwinnett, 3rd September 2014
-  C. F. Jenkins ‘Button Gwinnett’ (1926).
-  Will of Barbara Button, Llandaf ref: 1755. She was a cousin of Anne Emes.
-  College School Admission Register, held at Gloucester Cathedral Library.
-  The Diary of William Thomas 1762-1795, edited by R.T.W.Denning (l995).
-  Bengal Dispatches, Vols 6-15 (British Library).
-  V. C. P. Hodson ‘List of the Officers of the Bengal Army 1758-1834 (1928).
-  The Batta Mutiny of 1766, from FIBIwiki.
-  Families in British India Society Database – list of Officers of the Bengal Army Serving at the time of the ‘Batta Mutiny’ in May 1766.
-  V. C. P. Hodson ‘List of the Officers of the Bengal Army 1758-1834 (1928) – JPG’s service record.
-  The Diary of William Thomas, 1762-1795, edited by R.T.W.Denning (l995).
-  Gwinnett Family of Cottrell papers from Tredegar Papers, National Library of Wales.
-  Will of John Prise Gwinnett, National Archive. Ref: PROB11/1037/285.
-  Source: Alphabetical list of the officers of the Bengal Army (openlibrary.org).
-  Letters in British Library in India Office records, transcribed verbatim with spelling and grammar.
-  I have not yet been able to locate a copy of this plan, although it may be somewhere in the India Office records in the British Library.
-  Walcot Hall, Shropshire, was the family home of the Clives.
-  Burke’s Colonial Gentry (ancestry.co.uk).
-  V. C. P. Hodson, List of Officers of the Bengal Army, 1758-1834 (1928).
-  Source: Bengal Dispatches, Volumes 6-15 (British Library).