MARTIN, James (1738-1810), of Overbury, Worcs. and 68 Lombard Street, London.

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



8 Apr. 1776 - 1807

Family and Education

b. 4 June 1738, 3rd s. of John Martin, banker, of Overbury and Lombard Street by 1st w. Catherine, da. of Joseph Jackson of Sneyd Park, Glos. educ. by Rev. Matthew Bloxam, vicar of Overbury; by Rev. James Graham, Hackney. m. 17 Feb. 1774, Penelope, da. of Joseph Skipp of Upper Hall, Ledbury, Herefs., 3s. 3da. suc. bro. John Martin to Overbury 1794.

Offices Held


‘Starling’ Martin—so called after his celebrated denunciation of the Coalition in 1783—was head of the family bank in London and continued to sit for Tewkesbury on their interest. He expounded his political creed in a letter to Christopher Wyvill, 20 Jan. 1802:

In regard to the support of or opposition to any minister my idea is perhaps rather singular but I have never seen any reason to alter it. To use rather an ordinary expression, I am against support or opposition in the lump. If I think a minister upon the whole a bad one I will readily vote for his removal, but if such motion should not be attended with success I will support any good measure that he may bring forward though I disapprove his general conduct, and so on the contrary if the best minister in the world should propose anything pernicious to the country I would oppose it with as much earnestness as I would if it were proposed by a bad minister. If such conduct is improper I don’t understand the propriety of calling the House of Commons part of the great council of the nation.1

A frequent but awkward speaker, much given to protestations of his integrity and independence, he was not always taken seriously; but he was no buffoon and was generally recognized as one of the most scrupulously independent Members of the House, whose honesty was unimpeachable. Wraxall commented that his ‘incorruptible integrity compensated for the mediocrity of his talents’.2 He belonged neither to Brooks’s nor to the Whig Club, but his strong liberal and humanitarian outlook, rooted in his Unitarian brand of ‘rational Christianity’, led him to vote far more often with opposition than with government.

Martin supported the call for information on Nootka Sound, 13 Dec., opposed the malt tax and recommended a tax on dogs instead, 21 Dec. 1790, and on 1 Mar. 1791 successfully proposed the appointment of a committee of inquiry into means of regulating the air temperature of the House. He spoke and voted against government on the Russian armament, 29 Mar., 12 and 15 Apr., 2 June 1791, when he condemned, as he was to do many times, the shibboleths of ‘confidence’ and ‘responsibility’ in which Pitt took refuge. In an unusually lengthy speech, 18 Apr. 1791, he passionately advocated abolition of the slave trade. He did so again on 27 Apr. 1792, and voted for it in the division of 15 Mar. 1796. He was listed a supporter of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in 1791. In the debate on the Quebec bill, 6 May 1791, he defended Burke’s right to speak on the French revolution; but on 11 May he objected to Burke’s denunciation of the Constitutional Society and took pride in his own membership of an organization formed to commemorate the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was an opponent of franking, 9 May 1791, 26 Mar. 1794 and 20 Mar. 1795. He approved of Pitt’s attempt to curb frauds by taxing bills of exchange, 13 May 1791, and of the proposed marriage settlement for the Duke of York, 7 Mar. 1792; but he opposed ministers on Oczakov, 1 Mar. 1792, when he complained of the increasing tendency of speakers on both sides to monopolize debates to the exclusion of ‘plain men, like himself’.

Martin supported inquiry into alleged ministerial malpractice at the 1788 Westminster election, 13 Mar. 1792, but hoped it would be refused (as it was) in order to demonstrate the urgent need for parliamentary reform. He supported inquiry into the government of Scottish burghs, 18 Apr. A member of the Association of the Friends of the People, he defended them, 25 May, stated his desire for ‘an equal representation of the people’, but disclaimed responsibility for the views and activities of the Association as a whole on all issues. He voted for Fox’s amendment to the address, 13 Dec. 1792, but not for his resolutions against the war, 18 Feb. 1793, when he withdrew, on the advice of persons unspecified, his earlier notice of a motion to secure a national subscription for French refugees. The House would not listen to him when he tried to explain the principles on which he had joined the Friends of the People, 4 Mar. He supported the traitorous correspondence bill, 15, 21 and 22 Mar., on the ground that it would help to put an end to the deplorable war by handicapping the French. He opposed reception of the Stockbridge petition against extension of the borough franchise, 11 Apr., but voted for the Sheffield reform petition, 2 May, and for Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 7 May. He opposed the ‘summary’ manner proposed of voting money for the establishment of the board of agriculture, 17 May, and supported improvement of conditions in the hulks, 31 May. His first known vote against the war was cast on 17 June 1793.

On 4 Feb. 1794 Martin took Pitt’s expression of the previous day, that the French were an ‘armed nation’, as his pretext for denouncing those of his fellow countrymen ‘who, having no real religion either in theory or practice, affect to lay great stress on religion, merely for secular and political, if not for self-interested and corrupt purposes’. He advanced the notion that the war should be conducted solely by the navy on a basis of self-defence, and envisaged a future, once peace was restored, in which the country eschewed continental alliances so that involvement in a ruinous land war would never again be possible. He spoke in strong terms against the use of foreign troops, 10 Feb., and the military subscription, 24 Mar., voted in support of Palmer, 24 Feb., and Lafayette, 17 Mar., and to tax placemen and pensioners, 8 Apr. 1794. When opposing the Prussian subsidy, 2 May, he recalled his old vendetta against North and regretted that the latter had not been impeached over the American war: if he had been, the present conflict would never have started. He spoke and voted against the suspension of habeas corpus, 16 May, and denounced the address endorsing repression, 16 June.

Martin voted for peace, 30 Dec. 1794, 26 Jan., 6 Feb. and 25 May 1795; for inquiry into the state of the nation, 24 Mar., and against the imperial loan, 5 Feb. and 10 June 1795. He supported Fox’s view that war exertions should be confined to naval operations, 2 Jan., opposed the renewed suspension of habeas corpus, 16 Jan., denounced the payment of increased allowances to the army without the consent of Parliament, 18 May, and had the House counted out, 22 May. He was willing to go into committee on the Sabbath observance bill, 26 Mar., but felt unable to support it any further as it stood. He caused a laugh when he rose to speak on the bill to tax hair powder, 23 Mar.: he had stopped using powder, he explained, because he did not wish to contribute unnecessarily to perpetuation of the war; but he would support the tax so far as it might diminish the use of the article. He opposed government on the issue of the Prince of Wales’s debts, 27 Apr., 14 May and 1 June 1795, arguing that the best way to achieve Pitt’s professed object of preserving the hereditary monarchy was to ‘prevent it from being oppressive to the people’.

Martin opposed the seditious meetings bill in November and deplored the erection of barracks, 4 Dec. 1795. In the debate on suitable punishment for John Reeves for his Thoughts on the English Government, 14 Dec., he reminded the House that ‘the original motion was not for burning Mr Reeves, but his book, and for that he should vote’. He supported the formation of an association to diminish the consumption of wheat bread, 11 Dec., and supported the wage regulation bill, 12 Feb. 1796, as a measure of at least temporary relief, though he praised Whitbread’s humanitarian speech and urged him to produce practical measures: it was ‘a disgrace’ that ‘the industrious poor should not be provided with a sufficiency of wholesome food, and with a decent and comfortable lodging’. He opposed Lechmere’s proposed corn exportation prevention bill, 1 Mar., on the ground that the select committee on the scarcity were doing their best to relieve suffering, and advised him to abandon his bill to enforce the sale of corn in public markets, 11 May, because of the lateness of the session, though it was a good idea which ought to be followed up in the next Parliament. Although Martin thought Pitt’s conduct in the Boyd and Benfield affair had been ‘extremely irregular’, he was not prepared to vote it fraudulent, 26 Feb.; but he spoke and voted for inquiry into the state of the nation, 10 Mar., and opposed the succession tax, 9 May, when he avowed that the easy passage of such unpopular measures could only be prevented by parliamentary reform. He welcomed Adair’s Quaker relief bill, 26 Apr.1796.

When the new Parliament met, Martin voted against government on supply, 8 Dec., and the imperial loan, 14 Dec., spoke on behalf of Lafayette, 16 Dec., but welcomed Pitt’s Poor Law improvement bill, 22 Dec. 1796. He could not vote for the secret committee of inquiry into the Bank stoppage, 28 Feb. 1797, but he did not vote against it. He did so, however, on 1 Mar., and on the 10th objected to the selection of the committee by ballot. He supported Pollen’s peace motion, 10 Apr., and condemned the ‘unconstitutional’ mode of increasing army pay, 24 May; but in the debate on Whitbread’s motion of censure on ministers over delays in implementing increases in naval pay, 10 May, he declared that he

had no party motives to bias his judgment. He believed also that he was not suspected of being partial to ministers. But whatever he might think of them in general, he did not see how he could assent to the present motion ... They might have acted wrongly, but there was no evidence of their having done so intentionally, and therefore he could not vote for a censure on them.

‘Had not the division’ on Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 26 May 1797, ‘taken place at so late an hour’, he would have voted for it, as the ‘proposition had his warmest concurrence’.3

He disapproved of the Foxite secession4 and was active in the House throughout its duration. He supported Tierney’s motions against the third secretary of state, 7 Nov. and 15 Dec., but opposed Sinclair’s amendment to the address concerning peace overtures, 10 Nov. 1797: though ‘very seldom induced to support’ Pitt’s measures, he had been convinced by the minister’s speech that the French were determined to impose humiliating terms, but he was at pains to make it clear that

he had not altered his political opinions ... though he might think a continuance of the war necessary under the present circumstances, yet he hoped it would be conducted on a wiser plan than ... hitherto; that it would be wholly changed into a defensive war, and ... above all, that it should be conducted with economy.

This performance prompted Grey to reflect that when he saw a man like Martin, ‘whose integrity I cannot doubt’ and who represented the voice of ‘plain and fair men’, ‘joining with ministers in re-probating the conduct of the French, and in their exhortation to a vigorous prosecution of the war’, he was inclined to think ‘the feeling and judgment of the public likely to take the same bent’.5 On the assessed taxes augmentation bill he went through some contortions: he gave the ‘extremely objectionable’ measure his reluctant support, 4 and 18 Dec. 1797, if no better alternative plan could be advanced; on 3 Jan. 1798 he seized on Simeon’s counter-proposals as grounds for now opposing the bill, but on 4 Jan. he announced that he was not prepared to sit up all night listening to long-winded speeches, and he did not vote in the subsequent division on the third reading. He feared that the salt duty would fall heavily on the poor, 4 May; supported inquiry into the conduct of the lord lieutenant of Surrey, 8 May; was against an indemnity for corn importers, 10 May, and drew attention to the recent deaths of impressed men in naval tenders, 8 June. He voted against the land tax redemption bill, 23 Apr., 9 and 18 May, but on the third reading, 30 May, said that he would support the measure if he could be sure it would be beneficial. He was in the minority on the O’Connor case, 11 June, and spoke and voted for inquiry into the Irish rebellion, 14 June.

Martin approved the principle of the proposed income tax, 14 Dec., and on 27 Dec. 1798 supported proceeding with the bill without pledging himself for the future. He favoured Union, 23 Jan. and 12 Feb. 1799, provided there was no question of its being forced on Ireland, but he later voted for Grey’s motion on the implications of the measure for the independence of Parliament, 25 Apr. 1800. He criticized Pitt’s refusal to supply information on the civil list, 6 Mar., voted against the treason forfeiture bill, 25 June, and, on the militia service bill, 2 Oct. 1799, denounced the continued prosecution of a ruinous war. He voted against the address endorsing the refusal to negotiate, 3 Feb., and voted in the small opposition minorities on calls of the House, 22 Jan. and 27 June; suspension of habeas corpus, 13 and 19 Feb.; the imperial subsidy, 17 Feb.; restoration of the Bourbons as a war aim, 28 Feb. and 8 May, and the income tax, 17 Apr. 1800. He demanded relief for poor labourers, 21 Feb.; supported the prevention of bull-baiting, 18 Apr.; spoke for inquiry into the state of the nation, 9 July; denounced the country’s involvement in the European land war, 18 and 24 July, and supported Burdett’s call for inquiry into Coldbath Fields prison, 22 July.

Martin voted for a call of the House, 12 Nov., for information on the evacuation of Egypt, 18 Nov., for a separate peace, 1 Dec., and for Jones’s censure motion on ministers, 4 Dec. 1800. He opposed the renewed suspension of habeas corpus and on 12 Dec. explained that he had voted for their dismissal not because he doubted their abilities, but because they applied their talents to bad ends. He was in the minority on the report of the scarcity committee, 19 Dec., but was against reception of Lemaitre’s petition, 15 Dec., because it went too far. He had originally intended to vote for Sheridan’s motion on Egypt, 20 Nov., but was persuaded by Pitt’s speech to oppose it. He was one of Bateman Robson’s few supporters in his attempt to curb consumption of corn by the cavalry, 21 Nov. and 2 Dec.

Martin voted against the address, 2 Feb., but not for inquiry into the state of the nation, 25 Mar. 1801. He seconded Pierrepont’s proposal that 60 Members should constitute a quorum, 18 Mar., and the following day condemned the Irish master of the rolls bill, rejoicing that many ‘independent’ Members were deserting ministers on this issue. He voted against the Addington ministry’s coercive measures, 14 and 20 Apr., and against the spies’ indemnity, 5 June, but supported the Irish martial law bill as a temporary expedient, 12 June 1801, on the assurance of Irish acquaintances that it was necessary. He voted for Tierney’s attack on Dundas as war minister, 22 Apr.; denounced clerical nonresidence, 11 and 13 May; supported the bank-note forgery prevention bill, 15 May; deplored the loss of life in continental campaigns, 2 June; attacked the proposal for a Royal Military College as a further step towards the creation of a military state, 8 and 10 June, and complained of ministerial partiality in the contrasting speeds at which they chose to produce information requested by friends and foes, 26 June 1801.

Martin approved the peace terms, 29 Oct. 1801, but this did not mean ‘that he did not wish to bring to punishment those who had plunged the country into the war and brought the constitution into danger’. Poverty was no crime, he avowed on 25 Nov., and he would like to see badges transferred from the poor to those whose misdemeanours had reduced them to that state. On 20 Jan. 1802 he informed Wyvill that if Grey ‘should bring forward any motion for a reform in Parliament I shall certainly give my vote in its favour, though it should not go so far as I might wish’.6 His attack on the extravagance of the army extraordinaries, 5 Feb., provoked a sharp reply from Addington and on the 8th he explained that he had meant no personal offence to the minister, who would have been wiser not to have vacated the Speaker’s chair, which he had dignified so long, at the risk of his reputation. He attacked those implacable opponents of Pitt who now gave Addington ‘a kind of negative support’:

He too was inclined to support ... [him], because in general, as yet, he thought him deserving of it; but he would not pledge himself to give any minister that kind of systematic unqualified support which should preclude him from exercising his own judgment upon all occasions.

He supported Bateman Robson on the alleged failure of the sick and hurt office to meet a bill, 4 and 5 Mar., and was one of his three supporters in the division lobby, 9 Mar. He welcomed Taylor’s proposed measure to deal with controverted elections, 10 May 1802.

Martin did not support the Prince of Wales’s financial claims, 4 Mar., and on 7 Mar. 1803 approved the idea of appropriating a portion of his annuity for the use of the Princess. Addington, he said on 28 Apr., had generally acted with integrity and propriety, but this view did not prevent him from speaking and voting against the weekend adjournment when war threatened, 6 May,7 or from pressing ministers, of whom he was ‘disposed to think favourably’ until ‘he heard something to induce him to change his opinion’, not to adjourn again a week later. He voted with Fox against the Nottingham election bill, 3 May. He voted against government on the war in Ceylon, 14 Mar. 1804, but evidently supported them when their opponents combined to bring them down and was listed under ‘Addington’ in Rose’s analysis in May. He voted against Pitt’s additional force bill at least once, spoke against the additional stamp duty, 9 July, and in September was listed initially under ‘Fox and Grenville’, subsequently under ‘doubtful Fox and Grenville’ and ‘persons in opposition not quite certain’. He spoke and voted for the continuation of the naval inquiry, 1 Mar. 1805, when he praised St. Vincent’s administration of the navy, but did not vote against government on the Melville affair. He voted against the salt tax, 4 Mar., opposed the prize agency bill, 28 May, and was listed as ‘Opposition’ in July. On 23 Mar. 1805 he reflected in a letter to Wyvill that although he always forgot half he meant to say when he got to his feet, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had spoken his mind in a public assembly.8

On 20 Mar. 1806 Martin presented a Tewkesbury petition, but no other trace of parliamentary activity in 1806 or 1807 has been found. Lord Grenville told his supporter Lord Berkeley, 18 Oct. 1806, that he believed Martin had ‘always voted against us’, and encouraged him to start an opposition at Tewkesbury. Martin had in fact planned to retire at the dissolution but, warned of the possible threat from Berkeley, stood again and was returned unopposed.9 Granted three weeks’ leave because of ill health, 10 Mar. 1807,10 he retired at the subsequent dissolution to make way for his eldest son, who was surprisingly beaten at the polls.

Shortly afterwards Martin retired from the bank. On 1 Feb. 1808, now ‘old and infirm’, he agreed to sign Wyvill’s petition for religious toleration, being to the last ‘a most hearty advocate for civil and religious liberty to its utmost extent’.11 He died 26 Jan. 1810.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW 7/2/147/16.
  • 2. Mems. iv. 81.
  • 3. Substance of Fox’s Speech, 26 May 1797, p. 35.
  • 4. Wyvill mss 7/2/125/1.
  • 5. Grey mss, Grey to Bigge, 15 Nov. 1797.
  • 6. Wyvill mss 7/2/147/16.
  • 7. The Times, 7 May 1803.
  • 8. Wyvill mss 7/2/180/25.
  • 9. Fortescue mss; Wyvill mss 7/2/191/12.
  • 10. CJ, lxii. 224.
  • 11. Wyvill mss 7/2/198/11.