ATKINS, John (c.1760-1838), of Halstead Place, nr. Sevenoaks, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. c.1760. m. (1) 12 Apr. 1779 at St. Stephen Walbrook, Sarah Littell, spinster of that parish (d. 31 Aug. 1802), 3s. 2da.; (2) 1 Oct. 1803, Anna Maria, da. of Ven. Andrew Burnaby, DD, of Bagrave Hall, Leics., archdeacon of Leicester and vicar of Greenwich, 2s. 5da.
Alderman, London 1808-d., sheriff 1809-10, ld. mayor 1818-19.
Member, Merchant Taylors’ Co. 1800; dir. E.I. Dock Co. 1805-d.; vice-pres., Soc. of Shipowners 1817.
As a young man, Atkins went to sea. He became a tide waiter, afterwards settling down as a West India merchant and agent in the City, where about 1795 he was joined by his brother; they traded under the style of John and Abram Atkins at Walbrook.1 Having prospered, Atkins contrived to be returned to Parliament for Arundel in 1802. After a bout of ill health, he attended regularly. On 14 Dec. 1802 he first spoke on shipping, and on 20 Dec. on behalf of the West India merchants; on 9 Mar. 1803, deprecating a suggestion that the schedules of the Irish revenue perpetuation bill should be printed for examination by Irish merchants, he pointed out that ‘there were a sufficient number of mercantile men in that House, who were fully competent to the understanding of any business of that, or a similar nature’. He spoke in favour of raising 10,000 seamen, 11 Mar. 1803, saying he would willingly vote for 20,000. He had something to say on the East India Dock bill, 5 July 1803, on the Scotch malt bill and on 3 Mar. 1804 in defence of the Irish duties bill. Having taken no part in the downfall of Addington, he was listed ‘doubtful’ by Pitt’s friends in May 1804 and a supporter, but queried, in September. Then in July 1805, after voting with the majority against Melville on both 8 Apr. and 12 June, he was listed ‘doubtful Sidmouth’. He gave a general support to the Grenville ministry, voting for the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. On 14 Mar. he had defended the claims of British merchants to a bigger share of the East Indian trade. On 14 May he spoke in defence of St. Vincent’s conduct while at the Admiralty.
In 1806 Atkins stood for London, sponsored by the radical Robert Waithman*, but retired after making no headway at the poll. He may have been the ‘Mr Atkins’ prepared to offer at King’s Lynn. He does not seem to have offered anywhere in 1807, but was defeated in the aldermanic election for Candlewick ward in that year: in 1808 he was elected for Walbrook ward.2 In December 1809 his solitary opposition as sheriff to the Common Hall resolutions asserting their right to address the King on the throne was in sharp contrast to that of his fellow sheriff Alderman Matthew Wood*, and Henry Hunt† recalled: ‘Atkins evinced his character, and was a pretty faithful index of his future subserviency to the powers that be’. In April 1810 Atkins further disgusted Wood by calling in the military to deal with the Burdettite demonstrators, and in May 1811 he publicly expressed his hostility to reform in common council.3
By 1811 Atkins and his brother were trading separately at Finsbury Park and Austin Friars respectively. Atkins’s son John Pelly Atkins, after a period at Stockholm, became his partner a few years later and the firm continued as John Atkins and Son until the late 1850s. Atkins described himself as a ‘considerable shipowner’ in 1813, owned warehouses and wharves on the Thames, as well as in Limerick; besides which he acquired estates in Jamaica and coffee plantations in Bermuda. He was an East India Company proprietor and held shares in a number of fire and assurance companies, as his will shows.4
In 1812 he again contested London, this time as a friend of government. After he had been returned in fourth place, they listed him as a supporter. In his first session he was chairman of the troublesome Weymouth election committee. He opposed Catholic relief, 2 Mar., 11 and 24 May 1813, also on 9 May 1817. He voted for the sinecure regulation bill, 29 Mar. 1813. On the gold coin bill, 8 Dec. 1812, he contended that the shortage of specie was due to rapid economic expansion ‘which the whole metallic currency of the world would have been insufficient to supply’. As a spokesman of the shipping interest, he helped to thwart the Thames-Woolwich canal bill, which involved a tax on all shipping using the Port of London, 7 May 1813. Three days later he advocated the suspension of trade with the United States, and on 29 June moved for an embargo on imported American cotton, to cripple their export market and encourage cotton growing in British colonies: but while the West India interest concurred, the government had doubts and the manufacturers were hostile, so the bill was dropped. He voted against restrictions on private trading to India, 17 June 1813, and in favour of Christian missions there, 1 and 12 July. He opposed the new sugar duties, 26 Nov. 1813, as a stimulus to the import of Bengal sugars in East India built vessels, to the disadvantage of the British shipping interest; and approved a bill to regulate the use of East Indian vessels and remedy this disadvantage, 31 Mar. 1814. He did not fear the opening of the East India trade to foreigners, 29 Nov. 1813, as long as the Navigation Acts were in force. He also overcame his apprehensions about the circuitous trade bill, 9 Dec., which he thought gave such advantages to British merchants as would make England ‘the emporium of the East’.
Atkins’s conservatism was shown in his opposition to the repeal of the Apprentice Laws, 27 Apr. 1814, and also to the gaol fees abolition bill, 27 Feb., and the repeal of the assize of bread, 27 June 1815. He opposed the corn exportation bill, 23 May 1814, acting as teller against it. He had been a member of the select committee on it. In February-March 1815 he several times spoke and voted steadily against the corn bill. He was spokesman for the corporation on the London prisons bill, 14 June, 11 July 1814. On 23 Nov. 1814 he supported the release of the proprietor of The Statesman, imprisoned under an ex officio information. Moreover, he divided against ministers on the reduction of the civil list, 14 Apr. 1815; the property tax, 21 Apr., 1 and 5 May; the additional newspaper duty, 8 June, and the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment bill, 30 June, 3 July. On 1 May he acted as teller for the London petition for peace and retrenchment. He also spoke and was teller for the minority on the East India ships registry bill, 6 June. He supported ministers on the question of the Regent’s expenditure, 31 May.
Atkins opposed the renewal of the income tax, 18 Mar. 1816, but not without involving himself in a fracas with his constituents. After the violent resolutions against the renewal in common hall, 8, 9 Feb., he
insisted on his right to vote against the wishes of his constituents, and swore (yes, this supporter of Church and State) absolutely swore by God, that he would give them no pledge!—upon this, many laughed and more groaned and hissed—and the worthy alderman seemed much enraged.5
He voted with the minority against the increased salary of the secretary to the Admiralty, 20 Mar., and twice against the restriction of the Bank 1, 3 May, but he resisted Brougham’s motion on excise prosecutions, 2 Apr., and Tierney’s motion on the civil list accounts, 6 May. On 20 June he opposed the London gaslighting bill, which would ruin the whale fisheries. On 7 Feb. 1817 he explained that he had not been entrusted with the City petition for parliamentary reform because he would not pledge himself to its support. That day he was in the government majority on the composition of the finance committee and again ten days later on the question of the Admiralty secretary’s salary. He would have supported Brougham’s censure motion, 13 Mar. 1817, had it proposed a committee on trade and industry. He was a critic of the monopoly of the West India Dock Company, 20 Mar. He voted for an inquiry into the salt duties, 25 Apr. On 29 Apr. he defended the City magistracy’s refusal to license the Academical Society and on 5 May the London tithes bill. He voted for the abolition of habeas corpus 23 June 1817, and on 5 Mar. following against censuring government employment of spies and informers. He objected to the new fixed rate sugar duty proposed by the chancellor in place of the variable duty in the customs consolidation bill, 18 Mar. 1818. He voted with the opposition majority, 15 Apr., on Brougham’s amendment to the address on the marriage of the royal dukes, although Lord Liverpool had appealed for his support.
Atkins was defeated at the poll in 1818:
His political principles all seem’d to hate, And denounced him at once as a tool of the state.
Sir William Scott wrote on 20 June to Peel, ‘we shall lose a city vote in Atkins’.6 Having been passed over for mayor in 1817, when Alderman Wood was re-elected, Atkins took office in 1818: only to become a figure of fun, for his endeavours to prevent the threat of sedition in the face of the Smithfield meeting by proclamation made him a butt of the anti-ministerialists, who represented him as a timid alarmist. After his speech in common council, 23 July 1819, following the Smithfield meeting, he was censured by the Livery and was everywhere greeted with cries of ‘Fire, Fire!’ and ‘Smoak Jack’. ‘Peter Pindar the younger’ ridiculed him as ‘An Assified Mare’ and he was caricatured as an ass galloping away from orator Hunt. In his official correspondence with Sidmouth at the Home Office, he protested that he was ‘the last man to call out a soldier’, 29 Sept. 1819, and added, ‘I have in no way provoked, though on all occasions grossly insulted ... and whe