TURTON, Sir Thomas, 1st Bt. (1764-1844), of Starborough Castle, Surr.

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



1806 - 1812

Family and Education

b. 27 Sept. 1764, 3rd s. of William Turton of Soundess, Nettlebed, Oxon and Kingston Lisle, Berks. by 2nd w. Jane, da. of Thomas Clarke, MD, of Hertford. educ. St. Paul’s sch. 1776; Jesus, Camb. 1784; M. Temple 1790, called 1794; L. Inn 1801. m. 2 Sept. 1786, Mary, da. and h. of Rev. John Michell, rector of Thornhill, Yorks., 1s. 6da. cr. Bt. 13 May 1796.

Offices Held

Clerk of juries, ct. of c.p. 1793-1836.

Sheriff, Surr. 1795-6; maj. Surr. yeoman cav. 1797, lt.-col. commdt. 1820

Dir. Atlas Assurance 1811, dep. chairman 1816.


Turton was prepared, even on the hustings, to enter into ‘the history of his youthful adventures a little more explicitly than we can decently report’, according to The Times, 9 Mar. 1820; but scurrility was a feature of Southwark elections, and at his first appearance there in 1802 he was obliged to gloss over his adultery with Mrs Dunnage, a City merchant’s wife, which had cost him £5,000 damages in 1797. Lady Turton, who had already borne him seven children, showed ‘the accommodating spirit of modern wives’ by appearing in company with Mrs Dunnage. It was on marrying her, an heiress, that Turton had given up medical training. He subsequently took up law, practising fitfully on the home circuit. He purchased Starborough in 1793 and was active as a magistrate and volunteer in Surrey. As sheriff, he suppressed the riots in St. George’s Fields and was rewarded with a baronetcy. In 1796 he nominated Sir Alan Gardner for Westminster (his politics were ministerialist) and he was also active at Southwark. He subscribed £6,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797. In 1800 he published a pamphlet in favour of laissez-faire in the corn trade.1

Turton’s unsuccessful candidature at Southwark in 1802 was directed against George Tierney. Apart from forswearing adultery and advocating a moderate parliamentary reform he had little to offer, but he showed staying power and a year later gave Tierney a fright in the by-election caused by his acceptance of office, making the most of Tierney’s supposed desertion of popular causes. In 1806 he not only defeated Tierney, but headed the poll. Insisting on his political independence, he assailed the Foreign secretary over the unsuccessful negotiations with France in his maiden speech, 5 Jan. 1807, and on 20 Jan. and 4 Feb. over the inadequacy of the embargo on neutrals, particularly the United States. His victim, Viscount Howick, was outraged by his ‘ignorant assertions’. He was also critical of the ministry’s budget. He apparently supported the abolition of the slave trade to throw the obloquy of it on the French and ‘avert the wrath of heaven’, 9 Mar. 1807. On 9 Apr. he upheld the royal prerogative against the dismissed ministry, and when he again headed the poll at Southwark a month later he admitted that he was, in general, well disposed to the Portland ministry.2

Turton hoped to rise to fame by a campaign, suggested to him by a fellow barrister named Samuel who wrote for the Pilot evening newspaper, against the misgovernment of India. In this he was preceded by James Paull and Viscount Folkestone, who had assailed the Marquess Wellesley’s expansionist policy, but, taking advantage of Sheridan’s inability to pursue it he staked his claim to the Carnatic question (the deposition by Wellesley of the nawab) during his first Parliament, 26 Feb., 23 Mar. 1807. To this he added the connected question of the disarming of the Polygars, 1, 21 July 1807. After supporting Folkestone’s efforts on the Oudh question on 22 Feb. and 15 Mar. 1808, he produced on 17 May six resolutions in a four-hour speech ‘without a pause or hesitation’ against Wellesley’s conduct in the Carnatic; the first four were rejected, after adjournment until 1 June, by majorities of 102 votes to 18, 109 to 21, 128 to 17 and 124 to 15. The last two were rejected on 17 June by 34 votes to 11 and by 97 to 19. To add to his discomfiture, resolutions commending Wellesley’s conduct were passed on both occasions.3

Turton’s other ventures in debate were frequently as infelicitous. His opposition to compulsory parish schools, 13 July, 4 Aug. 1807, was unpopular in Southwark and held against him five and even 13 years later. On 28 July 1807 he awarded merits and demerits to the Grenville and Portland ministries on their military plans. He opposed Whitbread’s motion for information on the prospects for a mediated peace, 16 Feb. 1808, though he had expressed his wishes for an honourable one, 7 Aug. 1807, and, while a critic of ‘foolish expeditions’, he approved the Copenhagen one and opposed Folkestone’s motion for the restoration of the Danish fleet, 29 Mar. 1808. He criticized the party spirit which he believed activated Whitbread, 8 Apr. 1808, and was rebuked by the Speaker for his language. On the eve of the failure of his Indian campaign, he espoused the cause of John Palmer*, 12 May 1808, and it was he who carried the resolutions awarding him compensation that session in the teeth of opposition from Spencer Perceval. Speaking from the bench behind Perceval, according to Fremantle he ‘leant with more personal allusion and bitterness against him than I should have thought it possible for the Speaker to have allowed; he spoke extremely well’.4 He was a critic of military expenditure in the Peninsula, 25 Jan. 1809, and particularly active in the examination of witnesses on the Duke of York’s conduct in the following month. On 17 Mar. his resolution that there were grounds for charging the duke with knowledge of the irregularities exposed in evidence was defeated by 334 votes to 135. He spoilt the effect by an attempt to clear General Clavering, one of the witnesses, from the charge of prevarication in his evidence, 20 Apr. He interested himself in an insolvent debtors bill that session and subsequently, but deprecated attacks on the morality of public lotteries.5 Curwen’s reform bill ‘greatly disappointed his expectations’, 12 June 1809, but as a ‘decided friend’ to moderate and practical reform he supported it. He likewise supported Burdett’s reform motion on 15 June, though he disliked some of his proposals. On 19 June he failed in a bid to prevent the East India Company’s ‘cruel’ recall of employees sent out as patronage rewards by 77 votes to 35.

Turton opposed Perceval’s ministry on the address and the Scheldt expedition, 23 Jan.-30 Mar. 1810, though he approved the vote of thanks to Wellington, 1 Feb. He remained an advocate of the reduction of military expenditure, but his motion for retrenchment on 26 Feb. was lost by 76 votes to 35. On 30 Mar. he called on the ministry to resign. The Whigs had just listed him ‘hopeful’. He supported the discharge of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr., and disliked the committal of Burdett to the Tower, but roundly condemned Burdett’s notice to the Speaker as a breach of privilege, 7, 9 May—although he was in favour of the reception of the London petition on Burdett’s behalf. Charles Williams Wynn was prepared to see Turton second his motion to safeguard the privileges of the House against Burdett,6 because Turton, in speeches of 18 and 23 May, had reproached the House for entrusting their privileges ‘to a junta more imbecile than the junta of Spain’. He voted for parliamentary reform on 21 May, but opposed Catholic relief, 1 June 1810. On 5 June he failed by 66 votes to 29 to secure an annual account of the public revenue at the beginning of each session, which he was told was impracticable. On 14 June he called for tax relief on lower incomes and an end to the immunity of foreign investors from taxation; opposed the East India Company’s public loan (‘India was a millstone about the neck of England’) and advocated more time for private bills.

Turton, who opposed the adjournment on the King’s illness, was an active opponent of the Regency restrictions in January 1811 and offered a last-ditch amendment on 4 Feb. He remained critical of continental commitments, 13 Feb., 1 May, and of the army estimates, 11 Mar., though not opposed to pay rises, 4 Apr. He was still hostile to Catholic relief, 7 Mar., but thought that Maynooth Catholic seminary should have a larger grant, 27 Mar. 1811. He disagreed with the report of the bullion committee in favour of the resumption of cash payments by the Bank, 8 May 1811, but also opposed the bank-note bill, 15 July, because it took for granted the depreciation of paper currency. He failed to secure a reduction of tax on low incomes, 24 June 1811. He opposed the King’s household bill as extravagant, 27 Jan. 1812, and opposed legislation against machine-breakers whose distress, he maintained, was exacerbated by the prolongation of the war, 18 Feb.

The culmination of Turton’s eccentric course in Parliament was his motion for inquiry into the state of the nation, 27 Feb. 1812, in which he lectured the ministry on the cost and inadequacy of the war in the Peninsula, the feasibility of peace with Buonaparte and the risk of war with the USA unless the orders in council were repealed. Robert Ward reported:

He has nothing to do with, and is not owned by, the other side. Having, however, got possession of the House, they resolved to make their stand under his motion, for which purpose they set up Tighe as his seconder.

(Tighe added a plea for Catholic relief.) The motion was defeated by 209 votes to 136, Turton being supported by the Whigs, the ‘Mountain’, Canning, the Wellesleyites and most of the Duke of Norfolk’s nominees, but not by the ‘Saints’, or the Duke of Northumberland’s nominees. Perceval pronounced it ‘a motion for a committee to inquire into the state of parties, rather than the state of the nation’.7 Turton went on in the same strain subsequently, but he was unable to find a seconder for his motion against the property tax, 6 May. No doubt out of pique, he ceased to vote with the Whig opposition and on 11 June denounced them as an ‘oligarchy’, who wished to have the Regent ‘at the mercy of two noble lords’. At the same time he claimed that the ministry had brought the nation to the brink of ruin. Only on the leather tax, at his constituents’ request, did he rejoin the minority, 26 June, 1 July, and he temporarily supported the preservation of the peace bill, 20 July. His ultimate venture, the introduction of 13 financial resolutions, the last of which called for retrenchment, was combated both by government and opposition and quashed, 9, 23 July 1812.

Turton found himself an unpopular candidate at Southwark in 1812 but thought that his exertions in the House must excuse him from accusations of neglecting his constituents. After his defeat, he was induced by his Southwark friends to offer for the county, at no expense to himself.8 This was a forlorn venture, as was his repetition of the experiment in a by-election in 1813. He had sold Starborough. The Whigs distrusted him and his Southwark associations were distasteful. It was for Southwark that he offered again in 1820, this time as the most conservative of the three candidates, but it was his last fling. He died 17 Apr. 1844.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Brian Murphy / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. True Briton, 15, 17 June; Morning Post, 19 June 1797; The Times, 3 July 1802; J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1808), 552; An address to the good sense and candour of the people .
  • 2. Leveson Gower, ii. 236; The Times, 7 May 1807.
  • 3. Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, 2nd ed. (1858), i. 74; Colchester, ii. 149.
  • 4. Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville, 24 June 1808.
  • 5. Geo. III Corresp. v. 3834; Colchester, ii. 178; Romilly, Mems. ii. 288.
  • 6. Add. 41858, ff. 49, 77.
  • 7. Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 433; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 29 Feb. 1812.
  • 8. Morning Chron. 5, 9 Oct. 1812.