Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of voters:

about 100


(1801): 7,839


12 Nov. 1801 JOHN MARKHAM vice Seymour, deceased
19 Feb. 1806 HON. DAVID MONTAGUE ERSKINE vice Erskine, appointed to office
 MARKHAM re-elected after appointment to office
9 Oct. 1816 JOHN CARTER vice Miller, deceased
17 June 1818JOHN CARTER

Main Article

Portsmouth’s previous character as an Admiralty borough had been thoroughly undermined by 1783, when it was clear that Sir John Carter, leader in succession to his father John Carter (d.1794) of the independent party in the corporation, most of them religious dissenters like himself, was virtually patron, the borough remaining a close one. He guaranteed the return of Fetherstonhaugh, son of a former Member for the borough and, rather than endanger his hold, ceded to the ‘madness of the day’ in 1784 when Adm. Cornwallis, a Pittite, was returned in place of the Whig Erskine, himself originally a government nominee.1 By 1790, however, Carter was prepared to make no such concession, and when Henry Martin I*, commissioner of the navy, replaced Cornwallis as ministerial candidate, rebuffed him by summoning a meeting of resident burgesses, 22 of whom declared for Fetherstonhaugh and Erskine and only four for Martin, who took his leave.2

Before the next election, an attempt was made to reassert ministerial influence. On 20 Sept. 1795 the mayor, Thomas White, wrote to the Duke of Portland to ask

if either you or Lord Spencer has any wish to recommend any gentleman to be one of the Members for Portsmouth whenever a vacancy shall take place. I mention Lord Spencer upon this occasion as I believe your Grace and his lordship perfectly agree in politics and there has heretofore subsisted a good understanding and indeed seems to be a natural connection between the Admiralty and Portsmouth, and I should be very sorry to do anything that might be thought by his lordship to be disrespectful to him. I must desire your Grace and Lord Spencer to think that in case you think proper to interfere, I cannot answer for the success of it. All that I can say about the business is that it shall have my hearty support, and that from the present complexion of things there appears to me a great probability that it may succeed.3

White, whom George Rose at the Treasury had been anxious to secure before the previous election by ‘attention to his son’,4 proved an accurate prophet. In April 1796 Lord Egremont informed Thomas Grenville*:

Sir H. Fetherston has at last determined against coming into Parliament again which will make a vacancy for Portsmouth. I think you had better give Ld. Spencer a hint of it in time ... the corporation is in the hands of some purseproud dissenters vain of their independence and always in opposition at the head of whom is Sir John Carter a brewer very rich and who merely to show his independence has within these twenty years lost opportunities of at least doubling his fortune which he might have done if he had had the goodwill of government. I have learnt from some of his connexions that he is lately very much softened in his politics partly from some civilities which he received from the King when he was at Portsmouth and partly by the fervour of Thelwall’s doctrines and I believe he has expressed some uneasiness at the eagerness with which Erskine who is their other Member undertook the defence of Thelwall and Co., for I take these dissenters to be as tenacious of all property as they are jealous of all government. However they will certainly bring Erskine in again but I think that if the Admiralty could find out some popular sea officer who has some personal acquaintance and interest with the corporation which many must have merely from their residence at Portsmouth, they would have a good chance of bringing in one Member instead of having both against them, and if there should be any opportunity of showing some civility to Sir John Carter before Sir Harry’s intentions are generally known it would probably be of great use.5

Lord Hugh Seymour, the ministerial choice, then applied to Carter for support, backed by the Duke of Portland, who promised to find ‘the means of gratifying’ those of Carter’s friends whom he ‘wished to serve’.6 Fetherstonhaugh, who claimed that he had no wish to be a Member in the ‘present degraded state’ of the House,7 was thus replaced by a naval officer; and on his death in 1801 by another attached to Addington’s administration. St. Vincent, at the Admiralty, secured Carter’s approbation, promising him local patronage.8 Soon afterwards Erskine, informed by Carter that he was favourable to ‘the system prevailing’, offered his independent support to Addington on the strength of it and thereby secured his re-election in 1802. St. Vincent again secured Carter’s endorsement of Markham.9

Markham took office under the Grenville ministry, which Carter supported, and Erskine, on obtaining the woolsack, made way for his son, who in turn made way for another Whig, Sir Thomas Miller. In 1807 there was an attempt to raise an opposition to the return of two Whigs, but the Carter interest was too strong. The Admiralty attempted nothing, either then or in 1812, for though Sir John Carter died in 1808, his family retained their sway. In 1812 the Carters met with an unsuccessful challenge from a family connexion, Rev. George Cuthbert, in the mayoral election, won by James Carter by 22 votes to 12, and it was Cuthbert who seconded Markham’s nomination a fortnight later.10

On 17 Sept. 1816 Francis Horner* reported:

That veteran Whig Sir Thomas Miller is dead I see; the dissenters are strong enough, I believe, in the corporation of Portsmouth, to replace him properly. A gentleman of the name of Carter used to be spoken of as his successor.11

It was Sir John’s son and heir who came forward, unopposed. John Wilson Croker* had been induced to canvass, ‘as there is no other person connected both with the naval administration and the government at large who can be brought forward’, but finding he had no chance, contented himself with staking his claim, supported by 72 inhabitants, to join Carter in future. On 17 Sept. he announced, ‘We are not to attempt Portsmouth till the general election’. In 1818 it was Markham who was obliged to retreat when the Admiralty supported Sir George Cockburn. The latter was proposed by Sir Samuel Spicer, who had been a supporter of Cuthbert for mayor in 1812, though he had also seconded John Carter in 1816.12 So the compromise of 1796 was revived, but only until the next election.

Authors: Brian Murphy / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. P. A. Taylor, Taylor Fam. 523.
  • 2. Ibid. 526.
  • 3. Portland mss PwF9314.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/196.
  • 5. Add. 41855, f. 82.
  • 6. Portland mss, PwV110, Portland to Carter, 21 Apr. 1796.
  • 7. Fetherstonhaugh mss, Fetherstonhaugh to ? [1796].
  • 8. St. Vincent Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. lv), 371-2.
  • 9. Ibid. (Navy Recs. Soc. lxi), 89; Grey mss, Erskine to Grey [Dec.]; Fitzwilliam mss, X516/33, Laurence to Fitzwilliam [17 Dec. 1801].
  • 10. Grey mss, Markham to Howick, 10 May 1807; Hants Telegraph, 21, 28 Sept., 12 Oct. 1812.
  • 11. Add. 52180, Horner to Allen, 17 Sept. 1816.
  • 12. Add. 40184, ff. 39, 41; 40291, f. 172; Portsmouth city archives Z65, Daniel Howard, ‘State of Politics in Portsmouth ...’ [1816]; V. Bonham Carter, In a Liberal Tradition, 31; Hants Telegraph, 1, 15 June 1818.