CALCRAFT, John (1765-1831), of Rempstone, Dorset and Ingress, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. 16 Oct. 1765, 1st illegit. s. of John Calcraft† of Rempstone and Ingress by the actress Mrs Elizabeth Bride; bro. of Sir Granby Thomas Calcraft*. educ. Harrow 1774; Eton 1778-9. m. 5 Mar. 1790, Elizabeth, da. and coh. of Sir Thomas Pym Hales, 4th Bt.†, of Bekesbourne, Kent, 2s. 3da. suc. fa. 1772.
Clerk of Ordnance Feb. 1806-Mar. 1807; paymaster of the forces June 1828-30; PC 16 June 1828.
Capt. Purbeck vols. 1794; capt. Dorset militia 1798, maj. 1799-1809.
Calcraft’s likeness to his father was remarked on: he certainly seems to have inherited the latter’s aptitude for administration, was easy in his morals, devoted to the theatre and was a follower of Fox in politics. He joined the Whig Club on 5 Dec. 1786. From 1790, when he married (‘a handsome fortune and handsome person had gained him a rich heiress’) he was out of Parliament, by his own choice. He commanded the nominations at Wareham and sold the seats until 1800, when he came in on a vacancy there.1
His first speeches (he does not appear to have spoken before 1790) were against penalizing the clergy for non-residence, 11 May, 15, 22 June 1801, and he next spoke on the subject of poor relief, which he wished to see extended and improved, 23 Nov. On 9 Dec. he was appointed to the committee on East India judicature. After voting against government on the civil list arrears on 29 Mar., he spoke and voted for Manners Sutton’s motion of 31 Mar. 1802 for a committee on the revenues of the duchy of Cornwall in aid of the Prince of Wales. He also spoke and voted in the minority on Nicholls’s motion for an address to the King thanking him for the removal of Pitt from office, though he claimed to ‘think very highly of the conduct of the late chancellor of the Exchequer’, 7 May. On 9 Dec. he remarked that he thought that both the previous and the present administration had the approval of the country. Nevertheless he became a regular opponent of Addington’s government.
On 4 Mar. 1803 he introduced a motion for a committee of inquiry into those financial claims on the Prince of Wales which harmed his public reputation. Calcraft claimed that he did this without contacting the Prince; in any case, the motion was lost and Calcraft became a member of the Prince’s set, many of whose fashionable dissipations he shared. He voted with opposition on the Nottingham election bill, 3 May 1803, but with the majority prepared to renew hostilities with France, 24 May.2 On 23 June he criticized the ballot for the army of reserve (he was a militia officer). On 5 July he attempted to amend the East India Dock bill. On 1 Aug., while expressing his approval of the peace treaty of Amiens, he deplored the fact that the Prince of Orange and his family had not been provided for by France as stipulated, and maintained that peace was now more dangerous to national safety than a renewal of hostilities; the next day he spoke in favour of the Prince of Wales having a military command. He defended the use of volunteer corps, 14 Dec. 1803, replying to their critic Windham that, though they might lack discipline, they deserved better pay and a clothing allowance, 19 Mar., 23 May 1804. He supported inquiry into the Irish insurrection and the war in Ceylon, 7, 14 Mar. 1804. In opposing the Irish militia augmentation bill, 10 Apr., he reminded the House that ‘he had some opportunity of knowing the state of the popular mind in Ireland’ (he had volunteered for service there in 1798); he was teller against the bill on 10 and 13 Apr. and claimed that the militia system was being ruined, 16 Apr. He voted against the ministry on the defence motions of 23 and 25 Apr. He had also (in response to a Gravesend lobby) opposed the Marine Society fishery bill, as the setting up of a speculative monopoly, 27 Mar., and the grant to Lord Hood for the value of the ships he captured at Toulon, as inopportune, 29 Mar.
When Pitt returned to power, Calcraft remained in opposition, being listed as of the Prince’s party, May and Sept. 1804, and as an opponent of ministers, July 1805. Moreover, he was an opposition whipper in. Of Pitt’s additional force bill he said, 8 June 1804, that ‘he by no means considered the administration a new one ... after all the House had heard from [Pitt] before upon the subject of the defence of the realm, and all the eloquence he had displayed in reprobating the inefficiency of those plans adopted by his predecessors’, he expected something more original. On the other hand, he defended the increase in the civil list as necessary, 3 July. He criticized the number of generals on the army establishment in the debate on the estimates, 4 Feb. 1805, and opposed the salt duty bill, as it would hit the poor and be expensive to collect, 19 Feb.: rather than raise new and devious taxes, he thought the government should retrench, 7 Mar. Several speeches of his deplored ‘mere jobbery’ countenanced by administration: the St. Pancras workhouse bill, the Duke of Atholl’s claim, the southern whale fishery bill, all in 1805. He was frequently a teller for opposition that session and a supporter of the censure of Melville, being chosen for the committee to draw up his impeachment, 26 June. In approving Abbot’s re-election as Speaker in 1807, he gave the ‘coup de patte’ to Melville by making Abbot’s casting vote against him on 8 Apr. 1805 his chief claim to the respect of the House.3
When the Grenville administration was formed in 1806, Fox secured for Calcraft faute de mieux the office, said to be worth £2,700 a year, of clerk of the Ordnance. Windham wrote to Grenville, on hearing that Calcraft was recommended by the Prince of Wales as secretary to the Treasury, 4 Feb. 1806:
When I first heard of the business of Calcraft, I was decidedly of your opinion, considering it as nothing less than an inlet to the House of Commons from Carlton House, but I have good reason since to think that the fact is not so, that it is Fox much more than the Prince that is anxious for this; and that not so much for any particular party view, as from the real advantage which he would derive from a man so long practised and so well versed in the business; Calcraft is, moreover, as I have always understood, a man less engaged in the intrigue of Carlton House, and more adverse to it, than anyone connected with that establishment.
Yet Fox expressed his regret to the Prince at being unable to realize his wishes for Calcraft, 1 Feb., and, according to the Marquess of Buckingham writing to his brother the premier, 4 Feb., to report an interview the Prince had requested with him, the latter stated ‘a very anxious and fervent wish of his ... to be the appointment of Mr Calcraft to the secretaryship of the Treasury which he turned in various points as one most practicable ... and then followed Mr Calcraft’s qualifications and ... his Royal Highness’s eternal obligations’. On the same day Grenville replied:
The objections which I feel to the appointment of Mr Calcraft have no reference to the character or situation of that gentleman: who I doubt not is worthy of every confidence and to whom the best recommendation would be the interest which his Royal Highness is so good to take in his behalf ... [but I desire] the assistance of a person in whom from former habits and acquaintance I can at once and entirely confide.
Fox did not conceal his regret from Grenville, 5 Feb.: ‘I see more mischiefs arising from this circumstance than I can describe’.4
During his year in office Calcraft ‘was considered to have rendered himself completely acquainted with the details of the British army’— like his father.5 In Parliament he defended the conduct of the Ordnance, promising considerable reductions in the estimates for next year, 14 Mar. 1806, a promise that he was proud to be able to fulfil, saving £600,000 (8 Jan. 1807). He was returned in 1806 for Rochester, on the Treasury interest; he was also active for the Treasury in several elections, notably at Shaftesbury and Christchurch, the latter episode occasioning a brush with George Rose in the House, 13 Feb. 1807. On the fall of the ministry, Calcraft was teller for Brand’s motion against their successors. He held his seat for Rochester and did not fall back on Wareham until 1818 when a setback, which he regarded as extremely unjust, obliged him to transfer. He was in constant opposition and, frustrated of the exercise of his administrative talents, never ceased to harry the government from 1807 until 1810. He had reservations about George Ponsonby as party leader in the House, but rallied to him on 18 Jan. 1809.6
He was teller against the address, 26 June 1807, and on 6 July voted for Whitbread’s censure motion. Next day he defended Cochrane’s motion for a list of the places held by Members, which he said would discredit administration. His interest in defence was as keen as ever; he obstructed the militia transfer bill, 27 July, 4 Aug., deplored the decline in the volunteer system, 31 July 1807, 26 Feb. 1808, and annually suggested ways and means of reducing the Ordnance estimates. On 3 Mar. 1808 he moved for papers to show that lack of provisions caused Sir Richard Strahan’s retreat from the blockade of Rochefort; on the basis of these, he moved five resolutions amounting to a censure of the Admiralty, but the first was rejected, 9 May. He was a keen critic of the promotion of Sir Home Riggs Popham*. On 14 Mar. 1808 his attempt to stop enlistment for life was outvoted by 189 to 116. He objected to the local militia bill, 18 May, 3 June 1808, as well as to the militia enlistment bill, 25 Jan. 1809, and asked why the regular army was being diminished, 25 Jan., 2 Feb. He believed the Duke of York to be guilty of misconduct of army patronage, 14 Mar. 1809, though he could not accept the intemperate attacks on the duke made by Folkestone, an indication that he was out of sympathy with the more radical Whigs: as indeed they were with him, largely because of his independence. Further symptoms of this were his readiness to side with his fellow Dorchester magistrates against the allegations made by radical prisoners in the gaol there, 24 Apr., and his unwillingness to join the minority for Madocks’s reformist motion charging ministers with corruption, 11 May 1809, after voting for the more moderate charges on 25 Apr.7
Calcraft opposed the proposed annuity to Lord Wellington, 16 Feb. 1810, regarding it as an attempt by administration to curry favour with the Marquess Wellesley, Wellington’s brother. Apart from finding the army estimates excessive, 26 Feb., 23 Mar. 1810, he also exposed the embezzlement of Ordnance funds by the treasurer Joseph Hunt* and secured Hunt’s expulsion, 23 May. He was against sending Sir Francis Burdett to the Tower and in favour of the release of the radical Gale Jones, 5, 16 Apr. 1810. He was invariably a supporter of Catholic relief. He also supported parliamentary reform, although he stood to lose his parliamentary interest at Wareham thereby; he voted for it, 21 May 1810, and defended the Kent county petition in favour, 11 June 1811. He voted with the majority for the adjournment on the King’s illness, 15 Nov. 1810, but rejoined opposition on the second division of 29 Nov. on the same question and during the Regency debates.8
Calcraft must certainly have been considered for office if the Regency brought the Whigs back to power, but he disappointed them by his lack of animosity towards the Prince Regent, who was supposed to have objected to his being appointed Irish chief secretary. His votes of 22 Feb. and 31 May 1811 showed that he still favoured Catholic relief, and he even voted on 6 June against the reinstatement of the Duke of York. But in other respects he seemed to be a Prince’s man again. Thus he supported the bank-note bill, 15 July 1811, was ‘out of town’ in January 1812, and if he voted for Turton’s censure motion, 27 Feb., and went away before the division on the orders in council, 3 Mar., it was, so ministerialists commented, as a friend of the Prince who was not a friend to government. On 6 Mar. Robert Ward claimed that Calcraft was seceding ‘unless the Prince makes a point with him, in which case he will side with us’. Whitbread, irritated by Calcraft’s objections to the Whig motion labelling the Prince’s secretary McMahon a dangerous man, accused him of sacrificing ‘early friendships’. 9 But he was in the minority of 13 Apr. on the barracks estimates, teller for Catholic relief on 24 Apr., in the majority for sinecure reform, 4 May, and for a stronger administration, 21 May. Speeches of 3, 5 and 10 June indicated his wish for a new pro-Catholic administration. He opposed the leather tax, 1 July, and the ‘search for arms’ clause in the public peace bill, 20 July.
At the dissolution of 1812 Calcraft was given Hobson’s choice. He disappointed Whig aspirants to his seats at Wareham by selling them, though his motives remained a matter of speculation. Yet he was threatened with defeat at Rochester where, to save the situation, he induced the more popular Whig candidate Barnett to withdraw on signed condition that he publicly espoused the Whig cause. This he did: ‘I am the same man you have twice before preferred for your representative, an enemy to the profusion of public expenditure now going on, and an opposer of the present administration.’ He undertook to accept no office.10 He was returned. Until 1815 his opposition was in low key. He remained pro-Catholic and was in the majority for the sinecure bill, 29 Mar. 1813. He was in the minority on the civil list, 27 May 1813 and again on 14 Apr. 1815; he believed it should be rationalized. He tried to amend the East India Company charter bill, 28 June, and opposed Christian missions to India, 1 July 1813. He spoke against Cochrane’s naval resolutions, 5 July 1814, as ‘a tissue of groundless assertions’. As opposition spokesman on the Ordnance estimates, he was prepared to give the ministry some credit for economy, 23 June 1813, 4 July 1814. He opposed the continuation of the militia in peace time, 28 Nov. 1814, 28 Feb. 1815. He was strongly opposed to alteration of the Corn Laws, proposing unsuccessfully the importation of foreign corn when the home market price was 72s. instead of 80s., 28 Feb., 8 Mar. 1815. He deplored the lack of cohesion among the Whigs and thin attendance on the subject, 1 Mar. He conditionally supported the property tax, 19 Apr., but voted for the reception of the London petition against the resumption of war and the public burden, 1 May. On 31 May he voted with opposition on the Regent’s expenditure, disclaiming any personal animosity and reaffirming the need to relate the cost of royal functions to the civil list. A month later he voted against the Duke of Cumberland’s marriage allowance.
Calcraft’s wish for government retrenchment made him an opposition regular again in the session of 1816. By the end of the next session he was ‘front rank’11 and so he remained. On 6 Mar. 1816 he advocated a reduction of the army estimates. He was teller against them throughout and frequently thereafter. He opposed the renewal of the property tax: despite the advent of peace, ‘the battle of the people was still to be fought’, 1 Mar. He unseated Sir Thomas Thompson*, 12 June. He opposed the suspension of habeas corpus and the seditious meetings bill in 1817 and defended petitions for parliamentary reform. He launched a campaign against the salt duties, 25 Apr. 1817; it succeeded, 10 Mar. 1818. In 1818 and 1819 he was named to the finance committee. Every attempt at reducing the cost of government met with his support and he opposed fresh taxation, 9 June 1819. On 3 Feb. 1819 he was named to the committee on the Bank, having regularly supported the resumption of cash payments. He favoured revision of the Poor Laws, but opposed their repeal, 21 Dec. 1819. Although he supported the training prevention bill, 8 Dec. 1819, and described the ideas of Robert Owen as ‘a delusion’, 16 Dec., he opposed all the other legislation that month curtailing the liberty of the subject.
Calcraft, who signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the Whigs in 1818, remained in stout opposition until 1828 when, against his better judgment, he accepted office under the Duke of Wellington. Rejoining the Whigs as a reformer in 1831 and winning the county seat on this platform, he committed suicide, 11 Sept. 1831. Lord Ellenborough wrote, ‘Calcraft has cut his throat because he thought both Tories and Whigs despise him. He was right. He might have been a man of importance and very popular with his party.’12 So perished a classic victim of party political humbug.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Life and Letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, ii. 143; Three Early 19th Cent. Diaries ed. Aspinall, 18.
- 2. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 46; The Times, 26 May 1803.
- 3. Bodl. Clarendon dep. c. 431, bdle. 5, Calcraft to Foster Barham, 17 Jan. 1805-15 Jan. 1806; Add. 34457, f. 189.
- 4. HMC Fortescue, viii, 11, 13-15; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2125, 2127.
- 5. J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1808), 510.
- 6. To the worthy and independent freemen of the city of Rochester (5 May 1819); Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 28 Dec. 1807, 1 Feb. 1809.
- 7. Grey mss, Ld. to Lady Grey, 12 May 1809.
- 8. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 17 Feb.; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 17 Nov. 1810; Blair Adam mss, Ponsonby to Adam, 18 Jan. 1811.
- 9. HMC Fortescue, x. 107; P. H. Fitzgerald, Life of Geo. IV, ii. 30; NLI, Richmond mss 64/703; Creevey mss, Whishaw to Creevey, 22 Jan.; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 6 Mar. 1812; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 450; Parl. Deb. xxii. 353; NLW mss 2791, C. to H. Williams Wynn, 7 July 1812.
- 10. Add. 51545, Holland to Grey, 21 Oct.; 51585. Tierney to Lady Holland, 3 Oct.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 3 Oct.; Brougham mss 2029, 20466; Morning Chron. 5 Oct.; Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 19 Oct. 1812.
- 11. Add. 51565, Brougham to Lady Holland, 1 Aug. 1817.
- 12. Three Early 19th Cent. Diaries, 128.