MARTIN, Sir Thomas Byam (1773-1854), of Somerset Place, Mdx.

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



1818 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 26 July 1773,1 4th but 3rd surv. s. of Henry Martin I*. educ. by Mr Batchelor, Freshford, nr. Bath 1780; Southampton g.s. 1781; by Mr Coles, Guildford 1782; Portsmouth naval acad. 1785. m. settlement 9 Aug. 1798,2 Catherine, da. of Robert Fanshawe of Stone Hall, nr. Plymouth, Devon, commr. of Plymouth dockyard, 3s. 3da. KCB 2 Jan. 1815; GCB 3 Mar. 1830.

Offices Held

Entered RN 1786, lt. 1790, cdr. 1793, capt. 1793, r.-adm. 1811, v.-adm. 1819, adm. 1830, v.-adm. of UK 1847-9, adm. of the fleet 1849-d.

Comptroller of navy 1816-31.


Martin was borne on the books of three ships before he was ten and first went to sea in 1786 under the captaincy of Prince William, the future William IV, who was fresh from an embarrassing flirtation with one of Martin’s sisters. He sailed with the Prince, chiefly in the West Indies, for three years, but strongly denied in later life that he owed his early promotion to royal favour.3 Between 1793 and 1802 he served in the Mediterranean, Irish waters, the Caribbean and off the French coast, where he carried out one of the most brilliant frigate actions of the war in 1798.

His marriage to the daughter of Robert Fanshawe, an influential figure in Plymouth politics, and his family’s friendship with the Bastards of nearby Kitley (John Pollexfen Bastard, Member for Devon, married his sister Judith in 1809) were credentials which made him a potential contender for one of the borough seats. When approaches were made to him through Fanshawe in 1804 he was strongly tempted, but eventually, fearing the expense even of an uncontested election ‘with my prospect of a large family’, he backed down.4 Martin, who served in the Channel from 1803 to 1807 and thereafter in the Baltic, loathed Lord St. Vincent, condemned the Duke of Portland as ‘that jobbing man’ and Lord Grey as a ‘nasty fellow’, but respected Perceval as ‘at least an honest man’ and admired Charles Philip Yorke* as first lord of the Admiralty.5

He again shied away from contesting Plymouth in 1807 when his friend Sir Charles Morice Pole, one of the sitting Members, offered to make way for him.6 In September 1811 he was invited by the Prince Regent’s friend Thomas Tyrwhitt, Pole’s colleague at Plymouth, to stand at the next general election in harness with Benjamin Bloomfield, another Carlton House man, who had been earmarked as Tyrwhitt’s successor. Martin, who had already received hints that he might be offered a seat as a generally acceptable compromise candidate, clearly thought his best chance of a quiet and inexpensive return for Plymouth lay in keeping aloof from the fierce faction fight which had been raging there since 1802. He suspected that Tyrwhitt’s motive was ‘to secure the interest of my friends’ for Bloomfield, and ‘no love for me’, and replied ‘with due civility, and due caution’, declining to commit himself and refusing to act injuriously towards Pole, whom he at the same time warned of his danger. He had in any case many reservations about the idea of entering Parliament, as he told his eldest brother:

You will perhaps reprove me as a senseless kind of fellow, when I tell you that I cannot work myself up to any great feelings of ambition to hold a seat in Parliament. The consciousness of an incapacity to be of any service there would alone justify the decision, which inclination would prompt me to take, were it not for the sake of others whose interest I might promote without any dereliction of public duty. But then again the horrors of a contest (which by the bye [I] should never be fool enough to persist in) and the dread even of the ordinary expenses of an uncontested election, are frightful pictures, from which I turn with that kind of tremor that I think a poor fellow must have who is first entering the King’s Bench prison.7

He was becoming discontented professionally and in February 1812, having been frustrated in his hopes of an appointment in the Channel fleet, which had been encouraged by Yorke, who was about to resign from the Admiralty, he told his brother that ‘if I am neglected a few months longer, I have taken an unalterable resolution to give up the service, at least so far to give it up, as not to seek, or to take any employment’.8 Shortly afterwards he was ordered to the Baltic, where he took part in the defence of Riga, and on his return in the autumn of 1812 he was made second in command at Plymouth. He was not a competitor for a seat there at the ensuing general election. He was entrusted with special missions to Spain, Antwerp and the Scheldt during the next three years and struck his flag in September 1815.

At the end of that year Martin, like his father before him, was made comptroller of the navy. He later claimed that the appointment was ‘wholly unsolicited’ and that he had ‘particularly requested’ Lord Liverpool ‘to excuse my being in Parliament, but his lordship said it was impossible’. It was not until the general election of 1818 that he was put up with ministerial backing for Plymouth, where Pole had apparently agreed to make way for him. In the event Pole, believing that he had been duped into needlessly pledging away his seat to appease the Regent, whose creature Sir William Congreve had been returned on Bloomfield’s unexpected retirement earlier in the year, forced a hopeless contest. Martin later claimed to have taken no active personal part in the ministerial attack on his friend, notwithstanding the ‘strong expressions used by persons in the highest station, and the intimation of the displeasure’ he would incur if Congreve did not receive his assistance.9

He voted with government against Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May, for the foreign enlistment bill, 10 June, and for the banishment clause of the blasphemous libels bill, 23 Dec. 1819. His inclusion in one of the published lists of the minority who voted for Burdett’s parliamentary reform motion, 1 July 1819, is almost certainly an error for Sir Thomas Mostyn.10 His few known speeches were on naval matters: he denied the incidence of and resisted inquiry into a high death rate among transportees, 26 Jan. and 18 Feb., and defended the level of naval expenditure, 12 July and 8 Dec. 1819.

Martin’s tenure of the comptrollership was the second longest since the re-establishment of the Navy board in 1660. His contemporary Sir William Hotham commented that

his capacity for business and thorough knowledge of the state of the navy marked him as a fit man to be at the head of its civil department. He added to a strong understanding and quick perception great personal application and activity, and transacted arduous business without any trouble to himself and satisfactorily to others.11

He died 21 Oct. 1854.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: P. A. Symonds / David R. Fisher


See Martin Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. xii, xix and xxiv).

  • 1. Ibid. xix. 238 and Add. 41364, f. 23; DNB states 25 July.
  • 2. Add. 41373L.
  • 3. Martin Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. xxiv), 3-23.
  • 4. Add. 41371, ff. 126-33, 160, 169.
  • 5. Add. 41371, ff. 213, 222, 225; 41372, ff. 105, 110.
  • 6. Add. 41371, f. 218.
  • 7. Add. 41372, ff. 92-95.
  • 8. Add. 41372, f. 106.
  • 9. Martin Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. xix), 242, 244, 246.
  • 10. Parl. Deb. xl. 1503; but cf. The Times, 5 July 1819.
  • 11. Quoted in DNB.