Art Detectives: The Mysterious Sir Thomas Mills and Lady Elizabeth

Sir Thomas Mills by Joshua Reynolds.
Sir Thomas Mills by Joshua Reynolds. McCord Museum

As you will probably be aware by now, we have been busy researching Dido Elizabeth Belle and as part of this, we have looked at those within the inner circle of her extended family. This has led us to look at Sir Thomas Mills, who was reputed to be the ‘nephew’ of Lord Mansfield. We have tried to find confirmation as to Mills actual connection to Lord Mansfield, but without any success so far. Some accounts record him as Lord Mansfield’s ‘nephew’, others as a ‘consanguineal relative’ and others that he was really Lord Mansfield’s ‘illegitimate son’. Neither appear to be true.

He seems to have appeared from nowhere and the only clue as to his identity is that he had a sister, Elizabeth, who died in Edinburgh according to the newspapers on May 9th 1775, however, there’s no obvious burial for her.

The Scots Magazine 01 May 1775
The Scots Magazine 01 May 1775

It appears that Mills was born in Scotland around 1736-1738 to a mother who never left her native country.  To date, we’re unable to place Lord Mansfield in Scotland, but who knows, maybe he nipped back across the border for a brief liaison and Mills was the result, but it does seem highly unlikely.

Whatever the relationship, Lord Mansfield was extremely fond of him. He regularly dined at Caenwood House. Sylvester Douglas (Lord Glenbervie), a prominent lawyer and diplomat wrote of Mills, that he was illiterate but frank, friendly and dashing and had served with ‘distinguished bravery’. Mills was given the post of Governor of Quebec after his military service, it appears that Lord Mansfield had a hand in arranging this position.

It is rare for us to take such an immediate dislike to someone we write about, but this character is one with very few redeeming qualities. He was a spendthrift and it appears a liar too; spent money like water, getting himself and his family into debt. Everything we’ve read about him seems to be negative, so it seems strange that Lord Mansfield had such a soft spot for him, unless there’s something we’re missing!

Lady Elizabeth Mills by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Lady Elizabeth Mills by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Courtesy of Philip Mould Ltd

We then came across this beautiful miniature by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is of a Lady Elizabeth Mills, née Moffatt, who was baptised 29th January 1756 at St Mary Woolnoth, London, the daughter of Andrew and Katherine (née Creighton) Moffatt. Her father, Andrew was a merchant and both he and his brothers were heavily involved with the East India Company.

Andrew Moffatt by Lemuel Francis Abbott Courtesy of Nick Cox at Period Portraits
Andrew Moffatt by Lemuel Francis Abbott Courtesy of Nick Cox at Period Portraits

The family lived at Cranbrook House in the extremely affluent area of Ilford, Essex, opposite Valentines and next to Highlands, an area where all the well-to-do families who were connected with the East India Company lived.

Valentine's, the seat of Charles Raymond Esq
Courtesy of Valentine

In November 1774, Elizabeth married Sir Thomas Mills, when she was just 18, a marriage which would prove to be an interesting one.

Caledonian Mercury 12 November 1774
Caledonian Mercury 12 November 1774

A marriage settlement was made by Elizabeth’s father of some £10,000 (just under one million today) but despite this large sum of money, Mills continued to spend more than he earned and even had to be bailed out by his father-in-law on more than one occasion, to the extent that Andrew Moffatt made provision in his will of 1780, for his siblings, daughters and grandchildren, but specifically mentioned that his son-in-law was indebted to him to the tune of £5,000, a debt which he wanted to be reimbursed to the estate as soon as possible, he was clearly not impressed by his son-in-law! It was slightly strange, as he also left Sir Thomas £100. Which seems to make little sense in light of his debt. Andrew also left 20 guineas to his good friend Lord Mansfield for him to buy a ring in memory of him and money for Elizabeth’s sole use, exclusive of her husband.

Despite our view of Sir Thomas, Elizabeth must have felt something for him, as the couple produced three children – Andrew Moffatt Mills born just over 9 months after they wed; Elizabeth Finch Mills (1776) and finally Catherine Crichton Mills (1779).

According to the Oxford Journal of July 1772

When Sir Thomas was returning home in a chair, he was surrounded by four street robbers in Windmill Street, Haymarket, who stopped the chair, and one of them presented a pistol and demanded his money. Sir Thomas told them that he would not be robbed and endeavoured to seize the pistol, at this point one of the assailants fired, he missed Sir Thomas who burst open the chair door and attacked the robbers who then fled. There were no watchmen nearby and the chairmen didn’t even try to assist to apprehend the robbers.

Was this a ‘set-up’? It seems highly likely, in our opinion.

Sir Thomas Mills died 23 February 1793 and left no will and it appears with no money either to leave, but despite what the newspapers said, he was not named as a beneficiary of Lord Mansfield’s will, who died 20th March 1793.

Kentish Gazette 22 March 1793
Kentish Gazette 22 March 1793

His wife Elizabeth died in June 1816.

History tells us that the Moffatt family were plantation and slave owners in Jamaica, as the family went on to make claims in 1832 for monies owed for freed slaves.


Valentine’s Mansion and Gardens

Legacies of British Slave Ownerships

The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson

The Westminster Magazine, Or, The Pantheon of Taste, Volume 8

Essex Parish Registers 1537-1997, Familysearch

7 thoughts on “Art Detectives: The Mysterious Sir Thomas Mills and Lady Elizabeth

  1. Rosemary Bentley

    My husband David Bentley is Sir Thomas Mills’ 4*great grandson and I have researched his life and found 5 possible sets of parents. I have also uncovered many other facts about his life not included in your blog.


    1. Sarah Murden

      5, wow that’s quite a lot of possibles! We’d love to hear anything else about him as were mainly looking at him in connection with Lord Mansfield.


    2. Margaret Herdeck

      For Rosemary Bentley

      I am writing a PhD on The Quebec Act of 1774. Sir Thomas Mill’s role in acting as a liaison between the bishop-elect Jean-Oliver Briand and some part of the government or someone in government in late 1765 and early ’66 and Mill’s presence in London in 1774 where it appears he spent time at Westminster helping push the Act through parliament–these are 2 areas of his involvement in the Quebec Act story I would like to have more information about. Lord Mansfield was also a pivotal supporter of religious and civil rights for the French Catholics. If there is any information that you have that would shed light on these issues, I would be very grateful to know. Mills was Receiver- General in Quebec, not givernor, btw.

      Thank you.

      Margaret Herdeck

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rosemary Bentley

        I do not know of any communication between Jean-Oliver Briand and the British Government via Sir Thomas Mills in 1765-66. This is not mentioned in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography’s account about Briand. In 1766 Mills was Receiver-General, member of the Council and Brigadier Major and in 1766 he has to return to England because of some misdemeanors and for 10 years his office is administered by acting appointees i.e. until 1776. In 1772 he is knighted and marries in 1774…I know nothing about Mills spending time in Westminster unless he was acting alongside his patron Lord Mansfield.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Rosemary Bentley

        Also in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography for Sir Thomas Mills it points out:

        “Mills had a remarkable capacity for self-deception. He even claimed credit for the passage of the Quebec Act. In a letter of June 1774 to Haldimand, he asserted that in face of Lord North’s deplorable ignorance, his own lobbying of the House of Commons had saved the day for “King and Country” and had done “Justice to the Conquered.” Indeed it was not too much to say that “The Limits – the Religion, the French Law, & the Council they owe to me.”

        F. Murray Greenwood” ..

        It would be difficult to find out how much truth there is in Mills’ assertion.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Margaret Herdeck

          Thank you so much for your prompt reply! I have copies of some letters Mills sent to Briand in Paris as latter awaited formal bulls from the Vatican for his consecration as bishop. He encouraged Briand to hang in there, but to get things done as quickly and quietly as possible. So there is concrete evidence of Mills’s acting as liaison for somebody in government, officially or unofficially, on this score. Corbett’s Parliamentary History also discusses Mills’s physical presence lobbying in Westminster during debate on the bill.

          The weight of historical evidence, in my opinion, points to Mill’s having a royal Stuart family connection. Your first comment on the Art Detectives mentions 5 possible parental origins. It would be of great interest to me to know if my opinion falls within this range of possibilities. The Marjory Murray Hay/James III connection does not seem to fit as the Hays left the St. Germain court, it appears, in later part of 1720s, likely well before Mills’s estimated birth date of 1738’ish. Perhaps Mills’s military record gives some further hint of his origins. As I am featuring him in my study, any further insights you can provide on his origins would be deeply appreciated. The fact that he was a great spendthrift and did not keep proper accounts, etc, is not atypical of many an eighteenth-century placemen. East India Company examples abound as to profligacy and unaccountability, for instance. Anyway, I find Mills a much more substantive actor in Quebec Act history than previous historians have noted. Also, I think he is one of the more fascinating people of the period I have encountered in 5 years of studying it. I am definitely in the ‘Friend of Thomas Mills’ camp of students.



          1. Rosemary Bentley

            It is encouraging to know that you have evidence of his lobbying at Westminster. I too believe that he was not unusual in getting into debt at that time and one has only to look at Newcastle, Thomas Pelham Holles (b. 1693), a secretary of state who became Prime Minister, who “never experienced a single debt-free moment”. Lord Mansfield also helped out his nephew and heir Lord Stormont when he got into debt as well. I do concur about the Royal Stuart family connection. Marjorie Hay nee Murray’s husband died 1740 without issue around the time of Mills’ birth …..


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