DOLBEN, John (1662-1710), of Epsom, Surr.

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



21 Nov. 1707 - 29 May 1710

Family and Education

bap. 1 July 1662, 2nd s. of John Dolben, abp. of York 1683–6, and bro. of Gilbert Dolben*.  educ. Westminster 1676; I. Temple 1677, called 1684; Christ Church, Oxf. 1678; travelled abroad (France) 1682–3.  m. by Dec. 1683, Elizabeth (d. 1736), da. and coh. of Tanfield Mulso of Finedon, Northants. 2s. (d.v.p.) 4da.1

Offices Held

Judge-adv. for E.I. Co. in Bengal by 1692–1694; trustee, poor Palatines 1709; dir. Bank of Eng. 1710.2


Dolben's father, perhaps not surprisingly, had originally wished his younger son to study theology. However, Dolben preferred the law, being admitted to the Inner Temple at the special request of his uncle, Sir William Dolben, at that time recorder of London. He then embarked on a journey to France, his arrival in Paris In june 1682 being reported by Lord Preston (Sir Richard Grahme†), the English envoy to France. Upon his return he contracted a favourable marriage (probably by December 1683, and a daughter was baptized in February 1686), and was called to the bar in 1684. With his father's death in April 1686, Dolben's prospects appeared bright. However, his addiction to gambling (some disconcerting reports of which had reached his father during his stay in Paris) led him to dissipate his fortune. The moiety of the manor of Finedon, acquired by marriage, he sold to his brother, Gilbert, around this time. By December 1691 Dolben's circumstances were so bad that Gilbert wrote to Sir William Trumbull*:

My brother had by profligate gaming wasted so great a part of his wife's fortune and his own that she and her children are obliged to the charity of friends for subsistence. He hopes to amend his condition by going to the East Indies, the company having promised to place him in an advantageous post. This misfortune sits very heavy upon us, not so much for the loss of the estate as of the scandalous means whereby it is lost, which reflects a reproach even upon my father's memory, the enemies of his order saying that it is the effects of his not having educated my brother to better courses.

Dolben went out to Bengal as judge-advocate for the East India Company and subsequently became friendly with Governor Pitt (Thomas I*). Dolben took advantage of the trading opportunities available to him in order to repair his fortune. These included a voyage to China in 1699 in company with one of Pitt's sons. The death of his uncle Sir William in 1694 again brought home to Dolben the folly of his previous conduct. Sir William's will recorded that he had intended to leave his nephew £5,000, but, being ‘very unwilling to have so great a part of that which I have gathered together by industry ... thrown away at gaming houses ... I give John Dolben no legacy’. The £5,000 was left in trust for Dolben's children.3

By July 1701 Dolben was back in England and writing to Pitt about the politics of the Old and New East India Companies. He seems to have kept Lord Godolphin (Sidney†) informed about events within the ruling councils of the Old Company, for on 11 Sept. Godolphin reported to Robert Harley* that Dolben had told him ‘matters sharpen apace in the committee of the Old Company’. By the 24th Sir Samuel Dashwood* was reporting that Dolben was bound for Fort St. George via China. However, it seems likely that he delayed his departure from England until well into the next year, Dashwood writing to Pitt in August 1702 in terms which suggest Dolben's recent departure. This would seem more likely, since February 1702 witnessed the baptism of one daughter and the marriage of another.4

Dolben again left the Indies in 1706, and, once back in England, he became one of those trusted by Pitt to conduct his affairs there. Possibly because of his links with Godolphin he appears to have been able to secure a seat in a by-election for Liskeard, at the behest of Bishop Trelawny of Winchester. On the very day of his election, 21 Nov. 1707, he was in London attending the Lords over the issue of privateers in the West Indies. Once he had taken his seat Dolben proved to be very active in the House. He was named to ten drafting committees, including the naturalization bill of John Aleck, who may have come from the Indies with him and which he managed through all its stages in the House; the bill to secure American trade, on which he registered his only tellership in the session on 14 Feb. 1708; and, most important, the bill to extend the East India Company Act. In this he may have been self-interested as his activities certainly aroused the suspicions of Robert Pitt*, who wrote to his father on 3 Jan. 1708,

Mr Dolben, by means of Lord Halifax [Charles Montagu*] and the lord treasurer [Godolphin], worked himself into the management of the union between the Old and New Companies in the interest of the latter and to the great dissatisfaction of the former. His main object, I believe, is to supplant you in your post, but while the Old Company stick so close to you, your position is safe.
     You may depend on it that the New Company will do you all the hurt they can, and Mr Dolben, notwithstanding his professed friendship, has left no stone unturned to undermine and remove you.

Thomas Marshall concurred with Robert Pitt, writing to Thomas Pitt on 23 Jan. that Dolben had made an interest to replace Pitt, and (Sir) Stephen Evance* may have been making the same point when he wrote that Dolben ‘likes Fort St. George better than England, and don’t doubt but the first opportunity that offers he will return again, having made a very great interest with both parties in concerning himself very much in uniting the two companies’. Suspicions were perhaps aroused by Dolben’s role in Parliament. In ways and means on 26 Jan. Dolben and William Lowndes suggested an alternative to the East India Company’s proposals for an extension of their charter, which added £200,000 to the sum to be loaned to the government. On 1 Mar. 1708 Dolben wrote to Thomas Pitt of this bargain: there would not ‘be a perfect union [of the Old and New Companies] unless the Parliament force them to it, [although] there will be a fair opportunity this session’. Dolben revealed that his proposal for £1,200,000 ‘does not yet go down glib with the Company, but if the Parliament seem willing they dare not refuse for fear of a worse bargain’. However, the bill passed into law, perhaps a testament to Dolben’s political acumen. In another example of Dolben’s perceived influence in legislative matters, Francis Atterbury approached Bishop Trelawny to canvass Dolben, when rallying opposition to the cathedrals bill, as Dolben had ‘declared himself to be in suspense because he doth not know your Lordship’s opinion’.5

Any designs Dolben had on Thomas Pitt’s position in India were soon dashed, as he explained to Pitt in a letter of 20 Oct. 1708. After reporting the unification of the two companies following the previous session’s Act, he reported that the Company were ‘enraged’ at the £1,200,000 they had given in the Act,

being almost undone by it, and lay the blame wholly on me, since I moved that sum, which they say was £200,000 more than the House expected or would have taken, and which, they will have it, I prevailed with [Sir Gilbert] Heathcote* and others to consent to as an agent of Lord Treasurer’s, many other provocations of the like nature they urge against me in the carrying on of the union.

In these circumstances Dolben denied any design on Pitt’s job, affecting to be ‘so well settled to my content that no temptation shall ever prevail with me to give up my ease’. In the first session of the 1708 Parliament he continued to be very active. He was named to nine drafting committees, the first being the bill to prevent wagers relating to the public (27 Nov. 1708). Ironically, this was a pastime which still seemed to engage Dolben’s attention, according to a correspondent of Trumbull, who only a month previously had reported Dolben a loser by the capture of Lille and that in a separate wager he had contracted to pay a guinea a day while Prince Eugene lived: if so, ‘the East India fortune will soon be spent, and we expect to hear of his taking another voyage ere it be long’. Dolben was involved in the management of the bill to establish a regulated company trading to Africa, which he presented on 21 Mar. 1709 and he managed the Earl of Clanricarde’s estate bill through all its stages in the Commons. He was a teller on ten occasions in this session, three concerning elections, including the notorious Abingdon case, which saw the defeat of (Sir) Simon Harcourt I. Other partisan tellerships included one on a motion preparatory to the expulsion of Anthony Hammond on 7 Dec. 1708, and another on 9 Apr. 1709 against the passage of the bill improving the Union. Another indication of partisan conduct occurred on 22 Jan. 1709 when ‘some words of heat’ passed between Dolben and (Sir) Jacob Banks, forcing the House to intervene to compose the quarrel. As might have been expected, he voted in favour of naturalizing the Palatines. When rumours abounded of Thomas Pitt’s removal, Dolben again denied making interest to succeed him: ‘I have raised such a storm against me about the £1,200,000 given last year by the Company, that their severest resentments are showed on all occasions when my name is but mentioned.’ Indeed, Dolben may have been looking to preferment from another quarter, for the death of Lord Herbert (Henry Herbert*) had left a vacancy at the Board of Trade. According to one observer, Dolben, ‘a great stickle[r] for [the] lord treasurer in the House of Commons, has the fairest prospect of it’, but no appointment was made. Nevertheless, his usefulness to Godolphin and the Whigs was made plain by Lord Johnston’s (James*) report that Dolben ‘next to [Lord] Coningsby [Thomas*] speaks most’ in the Commons.6

In the second session Dolben’s main preoccupation was with the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell. Dolben was the first to raise the matter of the doctor’s printed sermons on 13 Dec. 1709, when he moved, first, that the House should take the matter into consideration, and second, that the sermons should be voted ‘malicious, scandalous and seditious libels’. He spoke in the debate the following day and moved that Sacheverell should be impeached. At the end of the debate he was ordered to go to the bar of the Lords and formally impeach Sacheverell, which he could not do till the next day (15 Dec.), since the Lords had adjourned. In the meantime he was appointed to the committee drawing up the articles of impeachment, of which he acted as chairman, making his first report on 22 Dec. on the precedents for allowing bail to those committed for high crimes and misdemeanours. His electoral patron, Bishop Trelawny, was not altogether pleased with Dolben’s role in the affair. A correspondent wrote to Robert Harley* on 21 Dec. 1709: ‘the Bishop of Winton [Trelawny] storms at Jack Dolben. He sent for him and desired him not to engage in this affair. Dolben excused himself upon a promise he made to great men, I suppose [Lords] Somers [Sir John*] and H[alifax].’ Dolben reported the articles of impeachment on 9 Jan. 1710 and carried them up to the Lords on the 12th. Sacheverell’s answer was referred to the articles committee, from which Dolben reported the Commons’ ‘replication’ on 2 Feb. At the trial itself he acted as one of the managers, speaking to the third article on 1 Mar. 1710, when he argued that Sacheverell’s claim that the Church was in danger could easily be the result of ‘malice and envy at its prosperity’, at a time when it was so well protected by both Queen and Parliament. He then launched an attack on Sacheverell himself, describing him as

a trumpeter itinerant of sedition and rebellion . . . an agent detached from that dark cabal whose emissaries appear in all shapes, and almost in all places; an asserter of such pestilential and unparalleled doctrines, as at once overthrow the whole constitution, both of Church and state.

Half-way through his speech, according to one Tory commentator, he ‘quitted the article, and ran upon the doctrines of obedience and non-resistance, venting notions that came near, if not up to high treason’. He claimed that the Commons had brought the case ‘to obtain an occasion in the most public and authentic manner to avow the principles, and justify the means, upon which the present government and the Protestant succession are founded and established’. He concluded by saying that it would be hard indeed, after 20 years of war against ‘tyranny and oppression’, to be ‘betrayed at home to a perpetual condition of bondage by such false brethren as are at your Lordships’ bar’. The use of the plural occasioned Harcourt, one of the defending counsel, to make ‘a very low bow, which very much diverted the House’. Immediately, Lord Haversham (Sir John Thompson, 1st Bt.*) moved to adjourn. When the Lords had returned to their own House Haversham explained that, as Dolben’s remark reflected on the counsel appointed by the Lords, he thought Dolben should be called on to explain himself. After a two-hour debate the Lords returned to the court and the lord chancellor called on Dolben for an explanation. Dolben arose and after a considerable pause and ‘in a great deal of confusion’ replied that his words ‘had relation only to the prisoner at the bar’, which explanation, though according to one commentator ‘flat nonsense and a lie, was admitted’. It was subsequently noted in the Commons on 21 Mar. that Dolben had given away ‘the right of the Commons by explaining himself . . . without leave of the House’. Nor was this the only moment of discomfort experienced by Dolben during the trial, for the mob threatened to burn down his house and ‘were going to hang him upon a tree, till he swore he was not Dolben, nor a Parliament-man’. Further indignity was heaped upon him in Liskeard where the clock he had presented to the town was pulled down by the mob there.7

Dolben remained active in other matters apart from the Sacheverell affair. He was named to more drafting committees dealing with a range of private, local or trading legislation, and subsequently played a managerial role in three of these bills and two others. He also acted twice as a teller on disputed election cases. He clashed with Harley on 25 Jan. 1710, during the debate on the place bill, when, commenting on Harley’s support for the bill, he told the ‘fable of the king of the beasts that had lost his tail, and therefore used all his rhetoric to persuade all the beasts to cut off theirs, but could prevail with none but a few monkeys and jackanapes’. At the end of the session he seems to have retired from the directorship of the Bank of England and taken refuge at his house at Epsom. It was there that he died of a fever on 29 May 1710, ‘to the great joy and exultation of Dr Sacheverell’s friends’. As one contemporary noted, Dolben ‘was worse treated by his physicians a great deal than by the mob, for they mistook his distemper and after three days illness sent him . . . out of the world’. Others attributed a degree of psychological torment to his demise ‘as ’tis said for some time discovered a great uneasiness and disquiet in his mind blaming the latter part of his life’.8

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Paula Watson / Stuart Handley


  • 1. DNB; Bridges, Northants. ii. 261; Le Neve’s Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 314–15; HMC Downshire, i. 22; Add. 28875, ff. 192, 220, 222; HMC 7th Rep. 265, 267, 271, 287.
  • 2. Diary of Sir William Hedges (Hakluyt Soc. ser. 1, lxxv), 259; C. N. Dalton, Life of Thomas Pitt, 142; Post Boy, 30 June, 2 July 1709; N. and Q. clxxix. 61.
  • 3. Life and Adventures of John Dolben (1710), 5-8; Cal. I. T. Recs. iii. 111; VCH Northants. iii. 198; Diary of Sir William Hedges (Hakluyt Soc. ser. 1, lxxviii), 49; HMC Downshire, i. 388-9.
  • 4. C110/28, Dolben to Thomas Pitt, 19 July 1701; HMC Portland, iv. 22; Add. 22851, ff. 10-11, 52; IGI, London.
  • 5. Addison Letters, 463; C. R. Wilson, Early Annals in Bengal, i. 374; HMC Fortescue, i. 21, 31, 33–34, 38, 40, 47; HMC Lords, n.s. vii. 227; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 325; C110/28, Marshall to Pitt, 23 Jan. 1707–8, Evance to same, 31 Jan. 1707[–8], Dolben to same, 1 Mar. 1707–8; Atterbury Corresp. iii. 286–7.
  • 6. C110/28, Dolben to Pitt, 20 Oct. 1708, 18 Jan. 1708–9; HMC Downshire, i. 862; Wentworth Pprs. 73; BL, Trumbull Misc. mss 53, Johnstone to Trumbull, 4 [Feb. 1709].
  • 7. HMC Portland, iv. 531–2; HMC Egmont, ii. 244; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 806, 828; Impartial View, 185; Tryal of Dr Henry Sacheverell (1710), 86–87; G. Holmes, Trial of Sacheverell, 89, 91, 94–95, 99, 109–10, 146–9; State Trials, xv. 168–9; Calamy, Life, ii. 228; Life and Adventures, 15.
  • 8. Wentworth Pprs. 106; Poems on Affairs of State ed. Ellis, vii. 448; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 57(4), p. 19; Add. 70421, newsletter 30 May 1710.