BURCHETT, Josiah (c.1666-1746), of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1705 - 1713
1722 - 1741

Family and Education

b. c.1666, prob. 1st surv. s. of John Burchett of Sandwich by his 2nd w. Katherine. m. (1) 24 Dec. 1695, Thomasine (d. 1713), da. of Sir William Honywood, 2nd Bt.*, 1s. 2da. (1 d.v.p.); (2) 22 July 1721, Margaret (d. 1740), wid. of Capt. Robert Arris, ?s.p.; (3) 10 June 1740, Isabella (d. 1756), da. of John Robinson*, wid. of Mr. Wood, ?s.p.1

Offices Held

Clerk to Samuel Pepys, as sec. to Admiralty, c.1680–Aug. 1687; clerk in the Admiralty Mar. ?1689–?Jan. 1691, by July 1693–?Apr. 1694; sec. to adm. of the Fleet Jan. 1691–by July 1693, ?Apr. 1694–Sept. 1694; sec. to Admiralty Sept. 1694–Oct. 1742; dep. judge advocate of Fleet July 1693–Aug. 1694; sec. of marines Feb. 1708–1713.2

Commr. Greenwich Hosp. 1695–?1704; er. bro. Trinity House 1707–22.3


A native of Sandwich, Burchett entered the service of Samuel Pepys around 1680, although he may not have graduated into employment in the Admiralty Office until 1685. In 1687 he was dismissed by Pepys, allegedly for accepting bribes, and in the years following made numerous attempts to regain a post in naval administration or, alternatively, to take ship to Jamaica. He may have been partially restored to favour following a letter to Pepys in February 1688 because he found work with William Hewer†, a member of the Navy Board closely linked to Pepys, and in September 1688 was allowed to enlist on the Portsmouth. In October he found himself among the retinue of Admiral Lord Dartmouth (George Legge†), and through the good offices of Dartmouth’s secretary, Phineas Bowles, when the latter was appointed secretary to the Admiralty under Torrington (Arthur Herbert†) in March 1689, Burchett was employed as a clerk. Promotion quickly followed and in June 1691 he was appointed secretary to Admiral Edward Russell*. He then alternated employment at the Admiralty Board with active service when Russell was at sea, until the place as secretary of the Admiralty became vacant in August 1694, although he had to wait until January 1695, when he returned from the Mediterranean, to take up his new office. After the ‘fatigue’ of the post persuaded his co-secretary, William Bridgeman, to retire in 1698, Burchett served as sole secretary until 1702. This period was probably crucial in allowing him time to establish his reputation; by 1700 a contemporary tract was describing the secretary as ‘the spring that moves the clockwork of the whole board, the oracle that is to be consulted on all occasions’. He continued there, as either sole or joint secretary until 1742.4

In July 1694 Francis Gwyn* had informed Robert Harley* that ‘Admiral Russell’s Birket’ had been appointed joint secretary, and for some years afterwards Burchett was seen as Russell’s creature. In his published memoirs, notable for their discretion, Burchett did on occasion laud Russell’s abilities, but his later career suggests that Burchett was adept at keeping on good terms with whoever exercised power at the Admiralty. Although he had married into a family of Kentish Whigs, Burchett’s opportunity to enter Parliament appears to have come as a result of his contacts with his native port of Sandwich. The corporation certainly approached Burchett over Sandwich harbour and although he had indicated in January 1704 that only an Act of Parliament could solve their problems, some of the townsmen were sufficiently impressed to offer him one of the seats in the borough. He duly topped the poll at the 1705 election. One analysis of the 1705 Parliament considered Burchett ‘a High Church courtier’, but the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) counted his election as a gain for the Whigs. He voted on 25 Oct. 1705 for the Court candidate as Speaker, and supported the Court on 18 Feb. 1706 in the proceedings on the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill. Burchett’s knowledge of naval affairs made him invaluable to Sandwich, and in January 1706 he was advising the corporation on the correct procedure regarding court martials. He was also used by the corporation in March 1706 to approach Lord Keeper Cowper (William*) to recommend the minister of the Dutch congregation in the town for the living of St. Peter’s, Sandwich. His solicitation was followed by a letter to Sandwich requesting details of the value of the benefice, Cowper being loath to part with a prize living which might suit one of the Queen’s chaplains. March 1706 also saw Burchett elevated on to the Kentish commission of the peace. In 1707 the corporation of Trinity House elected him an elder brother in place of the Earl of Pembroke (Hon. Thomas Herbert†) on the grounds that to be the Earl’s messenger was an implicit nomination to the corporation. In February 1708, Burchett’s appointment as secretary to the marines (in succession to Henry St. John II*) necessitated a by-election in which he was returned unopposed. Not surprisingly, he was also returned at the general election held in May 1708 and was twice during the year listed as a Whig.5

The 1708 Parliament saw Burchett at his most active in this period in Admiralty matters. In the previous Parliament his role had been limited to behind-the-scenes preparation, with the presentation of papers to the Commons being left to Admiral George Churchill* as the leading light of the Prince’s council. However, on 24 Nov. 1708 it was Burchett who presented to the House the statutory account of the activities of cruisers and convoys, and, who, two days later, presented the naval estimates. Indeed, for a short time after the death of Prince George, the navy was run in the Queen’s name, with orders being countersigned by Burchett. With the appointment in November of Pembroke as lord high admiral, Burchett must have maintained his influence, because there was no advisory council to contend with. Rumours of his dismissal in March 1709 were misplaced and in June he was rewarded with £1,200 for his extraordinary service during the Queen’s tenure of the office of lord admiral. Further evidence of royal favour followed in December 1709 when the Queen gave him a gift of plate to celebrate the christening of one of his children. With Pembroke’s departure from the Admiralty imminent, Burchett wrote to Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) in October 1709, concerned about his ‘fate’, not knowing ‘how I may stand with those who are to succeed’, and even offering to retire so long as his family would be provided for. Burchett need not have worried, as he presided over a smooth transition when Russell (now Earl of Orford) was named to head a new Admiralty commission in November. Indeed, Burchett again laid the estimates before the Commons, and continued to present papers until January 1710 despite the presence in the House of four Admiralty commissioners. He voted with the Whig ministry in 1709 in support of the naturalization of the Palatines and the following year for the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell. Despite this record, he survived the ministerial revolution of 1710.6

Burchett’s election address to Sandwich corporation in 1710 was admirably understated; he admitted to being ‘conscious’ that he had ‘not acquitted myself so as to deserve your future regard, but yet hope you will favourably believe that it has wholly arisen from want of power’. He was duly returned with a comfortable majority. As befitted a civil servant, whose first loyalty was to the ministry of the day, Burchett was classed as doubtful on the ‘Hanover list’ of 1710. However, he no longer presented Admiralty papers to the Commons, that task being performed in the 1710–11 session by Sir John Leake*. Correspondence exists from Burchett to the Earl of Strafford (first lord of the Admiralty, 1712–14), who for much of his tenure of office was abroad serving as ambassador at The Hague. In his letters Burchett was considerably more informative about the politics of the navy than would have been the case had Strafford been resident in England. Indeed, on one occasion in December 1712 he apologized ‘for taking on me so much of the statesman, for I am sensible that I ought to confine myself to my daily drudgery without meddling with these matters’. Strafford was also called into action (as was John Michel II*) in April 1713 to pressurize Lord Treasurer Oxford (Harley) to enable Burchett to sit in the following Parliament. Burchett had been caught out by the provisions of the Landed Qualification Act of 1711, but as early as October 1712 had proposed that Lord Treasurer Oxford facilitate the acquisition of an estate which would enable him to sit in the next Parliament. The request was couched in terms of his long service and the manner in which his income had been adversely affected by the abolition of certain fees. Oxford appeared to have responded favourably, but put the onus on Burchett to find an estate which the crown could grant him. By January 1713 Burchett had solved that problem: ‘the estate of one Robert Wise a tobacconist in London, called Stadham near Oxford, is ordered to be seized for customs due to her Majesty’. This was a property which, combined with the purchase of an adjacent estate, would make over £300 p.a. The plan fell through, as did his approach to his father-in-law for ‘£300 a year in Kent’, and eventually he had to withdraw his candidature at Sandwich. On the parliamentary lists of the 1713 session, Burchett was not listed as voting on 18 June on the vital question of the French commerce bill. Fortunately, his correspondence informs us that he had ‘readily and heartily’ come into the peace, ‘although the printer of the list of Members who voted for and against the treaty of commerce has been so good natured or forgetful to leave me out’. Indeed, to Strafford he had described the debate on the issue as a ‘very hard tug’. Thus, not only did the 1713 election see Burchett disabled from sitting in the Commons, but the end of the war meant the loss of £400 p.a. when the marine regiments were disbanded. To make matters worse, in August he reported that his wife was ‘either already dead or dying at the Bath’, although she did not die until October.7

January 1714 saw Burchett recovering from illness, but continuing to keep Strafford informed of Admiralty affairs. On 23 Apr. 1714 he reported that the decision of the Commons the previous day to join with the Lords in an address to the crown had, he hoped, ended ‘the dreadful fears which some people have shown for the Protestant succession’. The death of the Queen found him over-worked and in a quandary about his future, believing that

notwithstanding the pains I am now taking, and what I have for many years undergone, with a hearty zeal for my country, I know not how my lot will fall upon this change, though possibly it may be to eat bread and cheese with my children, for all that I have been able to save these 30 years past will hardly give them more.

Burchett need not have worried, for the new first lord was none other than Orford, who of course had a keen appreciation of Burchett’s administrative abilities. If there was any doubt about his loyalty after 1715, Burchett assuaged it by launching into print in 1716 with a poem entitled Strife and Envy since the Fall of Man, the last lines of which clearly distanced him from the previous Tory ministry. He returned to the Commons in 1722 and held his seat until 1741.8

Burchett died on 2 Oct. 1746, at the house in Hampstead to which he had retired. However, in his will he described himself as ‘of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields’. It would seem that he left considerable funds in government stock, but the will gives no indication of the precise amount. Both his second and third marriages had been to widows, the first of whom was the sole beneficiary of her deceased husband’s will in 1719. Burchett’s main achievement was to remain in office despite frequent ministerial changes, and thereby help to establish the principle that civil servants should not be dismissed along with their political masters. There is some evidence that he felt an affinity with other such servants of the state: he once began a business letter to Under-Secretary John Ellis* with the words, ‘we men of the quill’. However, in common with bureaucrats like Ellis and William Lowndes*, Burchett felt the need for a seat in the Commons. He certainly demonstrated considerable political skill in maintaining good relations with his superiors, while managing to distance himself from them when they fell from office. Only in hindsight does the longevity of his official career seem assured, but it was doubtless his administrative ability which commended him to successive politicians, some of whom, like Strafford, had great need of the man whose ‘memory and knowledge of sea affairs is the best in Europe’.9

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Stuart Handley


  • 1. Mariner’s Mirror, xxiii. 479, 489, 492; Add. 31139, f.56; Navy Recs. Soc. cxx. 56; PCC 158 Glazier; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster, 1144.
  • 2. Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 268.
  • 3. Add. 10120, f. 233; W. R. Chaplin, Trinity House, 188.
  • 4. Add. 33512, f. 193; Mariner’s Mirror, 480–4; Bodl. Rawl. A.189, f. 1; Life, Jnls. and Corresp. of Pepys ed. Smith, ii. 105; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 335; J. Ehrman, Navy in War of Wm. III, 561.
  • 5. HMC Portland, iii. 551; Ehrman, 559–60; N. and Q. clxxvi. 56–57; Add. 33512, ff. 187–8; Centre Kentish Stud. Sandwich bor. recs. Sa/ZB2/164–5, Burchett to corp., 18 Jan., 25 Mar. 1705/6; Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP/F173, f. 57, Burchett to Ld. Cowper, 23 Mar. 1705/6; info. from Prof. N. Landau; Chaplin, 64.
  • 6. HMC Portland, iv. 510; HMC Downshire, i. 871; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiii. 204, 454; Add. 61114, f. 218.
  • 7. Add. 33512, ff. 191, 197–8; 31137, ff. 424–5; 31138, ff. 154–5, 198–9, 245–6, 270–1; 70203, Michel to Oxford, 27 June 1713; 70310–11, Burchett to Oxford, 10 Oct. 1712, 29 Jan., 30 May, 8 Aug. 1713.
  • 8. Add. 31139, ff. 56, 128, 299; N. and Q. clxxvi. 57.
  • 9. Mariner’s Mirror, 493; PCC 286 Edmunds, 40 Browning; Add. 28891, f. 189; 31139, f. 64; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 356; G. Holmes, Pol., Relig. and Soc. 312.