Philip Yorke – the local lad who became Lord Chancellor

Dover Society Plaque in honour of Philip Yorke, at the corner of Yorke Street with Snargate Street .

Dover Society Plaque in honour of Philip Yorke, at the corner of Yorke Street with Snargate Street

On the corner of York Street and Snargate Street is a Dover Society plaque that states, ‘On this site was born Philip Yorke 1690-1764, Later Lord Hardwicke who instituted calling of the Banns before weddings (Marriage Act 1753).’ York Street, without the ‘e’ along with Hardwicke Road, Maxton, were named after Philip Yorke – Lord Hardwicke – Lord Chancellor of England.

The original name for York Street, on the west side of Market Square, was Priory Lane as it led from the harbour to the Priory (now the site of Dover College). First mentioned in the Dover Charter of 1540, the lane was by then an ancient thoroughfare. By 1606, it was referred to as Back Ditch, due to an intermittent storm stream from Western Heights that flowed down one side. That year the following entry was made in the Almshouses accounts, ‘for wydeinge sheet for Spaniard buried at Back Ditch 1s 10d, and for carrying him to be buried 12d!’ The Ditch, by this time was also referred to as Black Ditch and it eventually became an open sewer that ran down Worthington Lane (now Street) and eventually into the River Dour.

Meantime, the Pier District was developing on what had been Dover’s harbour – Paradise Pent – but had silted up. From the granting of the Harbour Commissions Charter in 1606 until 1802, the Commissioners had leased this land to tenants on which they built houses, shops, warehouses and hotels etc. Snargate Street was one of the earliest streets to be laid and initially started from the Snar Gate on the River Dour going west, while Back Ditch, was on the other side of Snar Gate going north.

It was around this area that Philip’s grandfather, Simon Yorke (1605-1682), settled after he came to Dover from Calne, Wiltshire, as a young man. During his lifetime, he gained fame as a local religious Dissenter of strong Puritan leanings (see Taverner and Stokes). Although Simon Yorke spent time in the Castle prison for his beliefs, he was not particularly sympathetic to those who did not agree with him.

Yorke Family Home re-drawn from an old print by Lynn Candace Sencicle

Yorke Family Home re-drawn from an old print by Lynn Candace Sencicle

Philip’s father, also called Philip (d 1721), was a local solicitor and is remembered for unsuccessfully helping the town when they were fighting to retain their ancient charter. It was he who had built the family home on the Back Ditch side of Snar Gate along what became Five Post Lane. The gabled house looked pretentious but Philip senior was not at all wealthy. He had, however, married Presbyterian Elizabeth Gibbon, daughter and co-heiress of Richard Gibbon of Rolvenden and widow of her cousin Edward Gibbon. She was also related to Edward Randolph (1632-1703) of Westcliffe, whom, it is said, was one of the most hated men in pre-Revolutionary America!

One of nine children and the only male to survive to adulthood, Philip was born on 1 December 1690 and when old enough, was sent to a private school in Bethnal Green. This was run by Samuel Moreland a strict Dissenter who was renowned for his classical learning. Philip’s maths teacher at the school was William Jones (1676-1749), a well-known intellectual at that time and although Philip applied himself, he was described as a ‘plodder.’

On leaving school, Philip’s mother wanted her son to enter the church, but instead he chose to train as an articled clerk without fees with his father’s London colleague, William Salkeld (1671–1715) of Brooke Street, Holburn. Salkeld had been a student in the Middle Temple, called to the bar in 1698 and highly regarded within the legal fraternity as a law reporter, particularly the King’s Bench. Philip made a deep impression on Salkeld who, on 29 November 1708, entered the young man into Middle Temple. He also recommended Philip as law tutor to the sons of Sir Thomas Parker (1666-1732).

Sir Thomas was climbing up the legal ladder and the appointment, it seems, fired Philip’s ambition to get to the top and stay there come what may. Indeed, at the time it was said that he had, ‘cast off his youthful associations that were likely to retard his upward flight … seeking acquaintances with ranks that had the power to help him.’ Philip was called to the bar on 27 May 1715, and through Sir Thomas – who was by then the Lord Chief Justice (1710-1718) and given the title Baron Parker of Macclesfield (1710), secured a post on the Western circuit. Three years later, on 3 October 1718, Philip was appointed the Recorder of Dover and he personally took charge of proceedings at the Quarter Session courts, in the town, for the next eighteen years.

Philip’s next step up the ladder of success was a transfer to the Court of Chancery. There he made a name for himself by clarifying the distinction between Law and Equity in a society case. Following this and the fact that he was handsome, charming, diligent, and eloquent with a strong musical voice, he had little trouble in persuading widow, Margaret Cocks niece of the by then Lord Chancellor Parker, to marry him on 16 May 1719.

18th Century Sketch of St James' Church where Philip York's parents were buried

18th Century Sketch of St James’ Church where Philip York’s parents were buried

Through his wife’s connections, Philip entered Parliament as member for Lewes and two years later represented Seaford, a limb of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. On 4 March 1720, he secured his reputation in the Commons in a speech on the supremacy of the British Parliament over that in Ireland. As a reward, although only 30 years old, Philip was appointed Solicitor-General and knighted. Sadly, on 18 June the following year, his father died. His mother was to live another six years both were buried in St James’ Church (the Tidy Ruin near the swimming pool).

The successful prosecution for treason of Jacobite, Christopher Layer (1683–1723) was his next step to power. Layer had also been a student in the Middle Temple and became the legal adviser to William North, 6th Baron North and 2nd Baron Grey, known as Lord North and Grey, (1678-1734), an English professional soldier and Jacobite. Together with other sympathisers and led by Francis Atterbury (1663-1732), Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster, they had conspired to restore the House of Stuart to the English Throne. The plot collapsed in the spring of 1722 and many were arrested including Atterbury, Lord North and Grey and Christopher Layer. Although evidence was scant, Layer was betrayed and brought to trial 21 November 1722 with Philip handling the prosecution. Found guilty, Layer was condemned to be immediately hung, drawn and quartered but this was delayed until he was finally executed at Tyburn 17 May 1723.

As a reward for his success, Philip was appointed Attorney-General and to help his career further, he moved from the Middle Temple to Lincoln’s Inn. However, the society gossips had linked Philip’s meteoric rise with his benefactor, Sir Thomas Parker who had been elevated to Earl of Macclesfield in 1721. Four years later, the Earl was impeached, accused of taking more than £100,000 in bribes and tried in the House of Lords. In his new role, Philip was called upon to undertake the prosecution but on the grounds of friendship, Philip declined. Instead, he stood back and watched his beleaguered former patron torn apart. After being found guilty, Macclesfield had to pay a fine of £30,000 and to remain in the Tower of London until it was paid. He then retreated to his country estate for the rest of his life.

At about this time Philip bought the Hardwicke estate in Gloucestershire. In 1729, Philip’s opinion was sort, as Attorney General, and along with Charles Talbot (1685-1737) in his capacity as Solicitor General, on aspects of slavery. In essence, they concluded that a slave’s status did not change if they were brought to England, a slave could be compelled to return to the colonies from England and that baptism would not free a slave. This view, Philip appears to have held throughout the remainder of his life and played an important role in the justification of the slave trade at that time. The 1807 Slave Trade Act and the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act eventually abolished slavery in England and the colonies.

Before the demise of the Earl of Macclesfield, Philip had found a new patron, the politically powerful Thomas Pelham-Holles (1693-1768) Duke of Newcastle and Secretary of State. Newcastle, nor the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole (1676-1745), had any wish to involve the country in wars particularly the War of the Polish Succession (1733–1738), which was beginning to flare up. George II (1727-1760) and popular opinion was of the opposite view. Philip supported Newcastle and on 31 October 1733, out of gratitude, he was appointed Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. The next day Philip was sworn in as a Privy Councillor and within twenty-three days was created Baron Hardwicke – taking the title form his new home in Gloucestershire.

George R P Jarvis drawing c1820-1840 of Gunman's gardens where pencester Gardens are today. Courtesy of Antony Jarvis

George R P Jarvis drawing c1820-1840 of Gunman’s gardens where Pencester Gardens are today. Courtesy of Antony Jarvis

Although the elevation made it difficult to continue taking an active role in the legal proceedings in Dover, Philip appointed, as his deputy, Thomas Knowler who did all the work while Philip was given the credit. He was also active in ensuring that the elite of Dover upheld the moral code he dictated! For instance, James Gunman, Commissioner of the Peace for the County of Kent and a Jurat – senior councillor – on Dover’s Corporation had married Elizabeth Wivell of the ancient Stokes family. The Gunman’s had a palatial home on what is now Pencester Gardens and were arguably the wealthiest family in the town.

Elizabeth spent a good deal of time in Bath enjoying the waters and the social life but died there on 2 October 1739 and her body was brought back to Dover for burial in St Mary’s churchyard. Shortly after rumours began to spread that James was about to marry a woman much younger than himself. This reached the ear of Philip, who wrote James a terse letter suggesting that if he was thinking of marriage, he should think again. James strenuously denied the rumour and in Dover remained a highly moralistic widower for the remainder of his life. Albeit, when he died in London on 27 June 1756 aged 79, his young mistress was at his bedside!

As Lord Chief Justice of England, Philip was active making pronouncements based on strenuous legal arguments, which were hardly ever challenged. He was also heavily involved in parliamentary politics and soon became the controlling power within the government. This was confirmed by George II, who appointed Philip the head of the Council of Regency when he was out of the country – a post held by Macclesfield during George I (1714-1727) reign.

Memorial cairn on the site, near Inveness, where the Battle of Culloden took place 16 April 1746

Memorial cairn on the site, near Inveness, where the Battle of Culloden took place 16 April 1746

Philip, however, was making powerful enemies for although he was generally criticised for his selfishness and arrogance; he was beginning to use his incisive legal mind to justify unfair legal judgements. This came to a head in 1746, following the Battle of Culloden – the final confrontation of Jacobite Rising near Inverness, in the highlands of Scotland – where the Jacobites were routed. Of the 3,471 ordinary soldiers, one in twenty were brought to trial as representatives of the others. Initially they were sentenced to death but this was commuted to transportation and some were released. The officers, however, were all sentenced to death and many took place on Tower Hill, London.


There was public outrage at the cruelty of the punishments and Philip was deeply shocked by the criticism. His son Joseph, then age 21, was an officer in the English Coldstream guards and at the height of the battle had written, ‘No, wait, the rebels are withdrawing. What strange foolishness. Surely, they ought to defend against our passage? Very little art would be needed to make that river almost impossible to cross. Maybe it’s because the rebels here are mainly lowlanders. They’ve complained bitterly of the Pretender and the clans for not coming down to help them.’

A year later, Philip tried to make amends by outlawing some abuses of power in Scotland and outlawed the wearing of the tartan by Highlanders. Nonetheless, he did use his qualities to reform the marriage laws that, with a few modifications, are applicable today.

At the time, there was a proliferation of confidence tricksters, of both sexes, who made a living by tricking wealthy aristocratic offspring into imprudent and often bigamous marriages. The only necessity for the pronouncement of a marriage, at that time, was the verbal ‘agreement’ by the two parties, of any age, in a ‘service’ conducted by a man belonging to the clergy. Albeit, often the supposed ‘clergy’ were not men of the cloth.

Philip’s Marriage Act of 1753 forbid the marriage of persons under 21 years of age without parental consent. All marriages, except Jewish and Quaker, were to take place in a recognised church. Banns had to be published, legal impediments taken into account and the ceremony recorded in the parish register. Although the new law was well received, the day before it was enacted at least 300 weddings took place that would have been seen as illegal the next day!

Phillip Yorke c1740 by A Ramsey (detail) in the Stonehall, Maison Dieu. Courtesy of Dover Museum

Phillip Yorke c1740 by A Ramsey (detail) in the Stonehall, Maison Dieu. Courtesy of Dover Museum

For this, the brother of his patron Newcastle, the Prime Minister Henry Pelham (1694-1754), elevated Philip to Earl of Hardwicke and Viscount Royston. Following his brother’s death, Newcastle became Prime Minister but two years later, he was forced to resign over England’s loss of the Mediterranean island of Minorca. The island had been a British possession since 1708  when it was captured during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). During the Seven Years War (1754-1763), on 20 May 1756, British and French naval squadrons met off Minorca.

The French were holding the British garrison under siege and a fierce battle took place that the French won. The British naval commander, Admiral John Byng (1704-1757), his ships badly needing repair, retreated to Gibraltar and he was subsequently court marshalled and shot by firing squad. This was seen by many as a smoke screen to hide Newcastle’s incompetence in handling the situation. Nonetheless, Philip stood by Newcastle and on 19 November 1756, he relinquished the Great Seal of the Lord Chief Justice.

Four years later and a new monarch, George III (1760-1820), Philip was back in favour such that he drafted the King’s coronation speech. Philip’s reward was to be sworn back into the Privy Council but was of little influence, as he was becoming increasingly frail. Philip died 6 March 1764 and was buried at another ‘family seat’ that he created in 1740 at Wimpole, in Cambridgeshire.

Although Philip was selfishly devoted to his ambitions and had moved his ‘seat’, first to Gloucestershire and then to Cambridgeshire, he maintained a close and influential contact with Dover. His two sisters remained in the town and they, no doubt, kept him abreast of the goings on. He frequently corresponded with local inhabitants, not only the Gunman’s but also the Wellard family and Isaac Minet and retained the position of the Recorder of Dover until his death – the longest in Dover’s history. Nationally and historically, he was, and still is, seen as one of the greatest judges who ever sat on the English bench.

Philip left five sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Philip (1720-1796) succeeded him as Viscount Royston. His second son, Charles (1722-1770) succeeded his father as the Recorder of Dover and eventually was appointed Lord Chancellor but committed suicide. Joseph (1727-1792), the third son, was a diplomat, Dover’s MP (1761-1774) and created Baron of Dover. John (1728-1801) was the MP for Reigate and Higham Ferriers and James (1730-1808), the youngest son, ordained into the church and eventually was appointed the Bishop of Ely. Of his daughters, Lady Elizabeth (1725-1760) married Admiral Lord Anson (1697–1762) of Shrugborough Hall, Staffordshire who is noted for his circumnavigation of the globe. Finally, Lady Margaret who married Sir Gilbert Heathcote.

Following the death of Philip Yorke, it was felt, in Dover, that a statue should be erected in his honour. This came to nothing so instead, Back Ditch was re-laid and renamed York Street (without the ‘e’) following which it was quickly developed. In the late 1960s, there were plans afoot to build the York Street dual carriageway. This was going to be in a deep cutting that would take traffic to and from Eastern Docks to the Folkestone Road without going through town. The New Dover Group (fore runners of the Dover Society) expressed concern that the proposed route would destroy artefacts of archaeologically significance. Dover Corporation contacted archaeologist, Brian Philp, who headed the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit (KARU) and with his team of archaeologists and local volunteers, started excavating.

In 1970, the archaeological world was astounded by the team’s discovery of the richest 15 acres of buried history in Britain! They had uncovered many large, exceptionally well-preserved, Roman buildings that made up the Classis Britannica Fort including the Roman Painted House. This opened to the public on 12 May 1977 and is recognised as the best-preserved building of its type north of the Alps. KARU also discovered considerable amount about the Saxons, who settled in the area and the early history of St Martin-le-Grand Church.

However, in autumn 1971 construction started on the York Street trunk road, and it was only after a considerable amount of lobbying, which included Brian Philp and his supporters sitting in front of JCB diggers, that the new road was raised six feet to go over the valuable archaeological sites! Except for the Roman Painted House, the sites have been carefully re-buried to preserve the precious archaeology. The road was completed in 1972 but sadly, about 100 buildings that characterised old Dover from Tudor times were destroyed in the process.

The tribute to Philip Yorke, after whom the road was named, was erected by the Dover Society and can be seen on the corner of York Street with Snargate Street near the roundabout.


  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 14 & 21 October 2010



About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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