CATOR, John (1728-1806), of Bank Side, Southwark, and Beckenham, Kent

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



27 Jan. 1772 - 1780
3 Apr. - 18 June 1784
1790 - 22 Feb. 1793

Family and Education

b. 12 Mar. 1728, 1st s. of John Cator of Southwark and Ross, Herefs. by Mary, da. of John Brough. m. 1753, Mary, da. of Peter Collinson, F.R.S., Quaker and friend of Benjamin Franklin. suc. fa. 21 July 1763.

Offices Held


Cator’s father, of a prominent Herefordshire Quaker family, settled in London and established a timber business at Southwark. Cator joined the firm as a young man, and in 1763 took control. Shrewd and able, he seems early to have acquired a large fortune.

In 1768 he stood for Gloucester in opposition to George Selwyn, though he had no connexion with the borough. Selwyn’s friends were indignant: ‘I am heartily sorry, my dear George, that this d-d carpenter had made matters so serious with you’, wrote Gilly Williams in March.1 But William Dowdeswell, though he found it ‘a very extraordinary opposition’, told Charles Yorke that the arrival of ‘this adventurer’ had ‘procured for Selwyn ... the assistance of those who would have given him opposition if a gentleman of the neighbourhood had been proposed’.2 And Cator was forced to withdraw. In 1772 he successfully contested the venal borough of Wallingford.

In Parliament he was inclined to support the Administration, but was sufficiently independent to follow his own line on several occasions: thus he voted with the Opposition on the naval captains’ petition, 9 Feb. 1773, and Grenville’s Election Act, 25 Feb. 1774, but is marked both times in the King’s lists as a friend. While supporting the American war, he voted against the Administration on the civil list debts, 16 Apr. 1777, the contractors bill, 12 Feb. 1779, and on Keppel, 3 Mar. 1779. Still, Robinson in 1780 classed him as ‘pro’. Half a dozen speeches by Cator on diverse subjects are reported during his first Parliament but only one after 1774.

Before the general election of 1780 Robinson, in his survey drawn up in July, expected an opposition at Wallingford—‘But Mr. Cator [will] stand with another friend of Government and says that he is sure of carrying the borough for both.’ Yet Cator and Richard Barwell after canvassing the borough withdrew before the election. Cator now showed a relentless determination to find another seat. Immediately after his defeat (8 Sept.) he wrote to Charles Jenkinson:3

I have informed our friend R[obinson] and have referred to his consideration that ... when I should have compromised with the adversary, I have risked my seat and the expense to get a friend. I have signified a wish he would assist me in another seat at a moderate price.

And on 16 Sept:

I see there will be a vacancy for Aldborough, and another for Rye if Mr. Onslow succeeds in Surrey. I hope Lord North will consider that I have lost my election by endeavouring to defeat Lord Abingdon, who sent and would have compromised me [sic] if I would.

A further letter with more suggestions followed on 27 Sept. and yet another on 6 Oct., contesting the prior claims of other defeated candidates—‘I should expect that Lord North would prefer me to some others, who after they get in must be provided for, whereas I shall never trouble them.’ And on 26 Oct.:

I have called on you last Saturday ... to tell you of an offer I have had on very moderate terms, but to engage myself contrary to my present dispensation, since then the same was offered to me on condition of a loan on a good and sufficient security, which I would willingly have complied with to be free, but it is still insisted on as the sine qua non to attend when and to act as desired, and for that reason I have rejected the proposition.

This broad hint was followed on 31 Oct. by a further request and a list of fourteen vacant boroughs. But still no seat was forthcoming and the correspondence lapsed.4

After the fall of the Coalition Cator approached Lord Shelburne:5

Rejoicing at the fate of the India bill and the consequences thereon and wishing to support the new Administration, hoping you will be one, and as I find Lord Abingdon and myself are much of a mind I shall be glad to join any friend of his at Wallingford. I shall be much obliged to your Lordship to communicate this idea to his Lordship, or if your Lordship knows of a seat on moderate terms.

Cator appears in Robinson’s lists of candidates for seats at the general election among ‘persons that will pay £2,000 or £2,500, or perhaps £3,000’.6 In the end no Administration seat was provided, but Cator was invited to contest Ipswich by the ‘Yellow’ party in the borough.7 He paid £1,700 for his election, was returned, but on petition was found guilty of bribery and unseated. He also accepted an invitation from the town party at Lyme Regis to oppose the Fane interest, but was heavily defeated. In January 1785 he approached Jenkinson about a vacant seat at Ilchester,8 but though Jenkinson seems to have been encouraging, nothing came of it. Nor did Hawkesbury (as Jenkinson had now become) offer him the seat at Ilchester when put at his disposal in October 1786, though Cator was still hoping to reenter Parliament.

Cator was a friend of Henry Thrale, and with Dr. Johnson and Jeremiah Crutchley an executor of his will. Mrs. Thrale writes that when asked by her husband whom to appoint, she named Johnson, Sir Lucas Pepys, and Cator:

This was rather a testimony of good opinion ... than of fondness, for who could be fond of Cator? and yet I really think him as fit a man for the purpose as either of the other two. Rough in his manners, acute in his judgment, skilful in trade, and solid in property is John Cator Esq.

She thought it possible to ‘gain great information from keeping him company; but his voice is so loud, and his manners so rough, that disgust gets the better of curiosity’.9 And Fanny Burney: ‘He prated so much, yet said so little, and pronounced his words so vulgarly, that I found it impossible to keep my countenance.’10 But Dr. Johnson wrote to Mrs. Thrale: ‘Cator has a rough, manly, independent understanding, and does not spoil it by complaisance, he never speaks merely to please and seldom is mistaken in things which he has any right to know.’11 Cator seems to have been a conscientious trustee, and a good friend to the Thrales’s daughters, and it was to his house that they went after their mother’s second marriage. Boswell writes, June 1784,12 that Johnson was

pleased with the kindness of Mr. Cator, and thus describes him: ‘There is much good in his character, and much usefulness in his knowledge’. He found a cordial solace at that gentleman’s seat at Beckenham, in Kent, which is indeed one of the finest places at which I ever was a guest.

Cator died 21 Feb. 1806, ‘immensely rich’.13

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Mary M. Drummond


  • 1. J. H. Jesse, Selwyn, ii. 265.
  • 2. Add. 35430, f. 230.
  • 3. Abergavenny mss.
  • 4. Add. 38458, ff. 131, 137; 38214, ff. 205, 250.
  • 5. Lansdowne mss.
  • 6. Laprade, 126.
  • 7. See IPSWICH constituency.
  • 8. Add. 38458, f. 153.
  • 9. Thraliana, i. 220, 418.
  • 10. Diary, i. 500.
  • 11. Letters, ed. Chapman, no. 926.
  • 12. Life of Johnson, iv. 313.
  • 13. Gent. Mag. 1806, p. 285.