CROKER, John Wilson (1780-1857), of Minster House, Fulham, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 20 Dec. 1780, 2nd s. of John Croker, surveyor-gen. port of Dublin, being 1st s. by 2nd w. Hester, da. of Rev. Richard Rathbone of Ballymore, co. Galway. educ. James Knowles’s sch. Cork; French émigré sch. Cork; Willis’s, Portarlington 1792; Rev. Richmond Hood’s sch. Portarlington; Trinity, Dublin 1796; L. Inn 1800, called [I] 1802. m. 25 May 1806, Rosamund Carrington, da. of William Pennell of Waterford, dep. comptroller of customs, later British consul S. America, 1s. d.v.p.
Customs comptroller of Wexford, Waterford and Ross May 1804-May 1807; sec. to Admiralty Oct. 1809-Nov. 1830; PC 16 June 1828.
Dir. Greenwich Hosp. 1815.
Croker overcame his childhood stutter sufficiently to attain the degree of volubility expected of a talented Irish barrister, but his abiding interest was in literature and journalism and, although his ambition and abilities secured and sustained him in the second rank of younger politicians of Peel’s generation, he derived greater satisfaction from being the self-appointed literary executor of 18th century England. His journalistic debut was a letter to The Times, 6 Apr. 1801, satirizing Tallien’s visit to England and reflecting a distaste for the French revolution, on which subject he nevertheless became an expert: he also wrote mock heroic couplets for H. F. Greville’s short-lived Pic Nic and edited the Cabinet for him, 1802. On his return to Ireland, he practiced on the Munster circuit and by 1806 earned £600 p.a., thanks to revenue cases provided by his father, in gratitude for whose promotion as surveyor-general of the port of Dublin after many years of obscure service as an exciseman at Newport, Mayo, he wrote an anonymous pamphlet in defence of Hardwicke’s administration after the Emmet rebellion of July 1803. He went on to write anonymous satires on the Dublin theatre and Dublin society (1804) but was temporarily discouraged by the attribution to him of a scurrilous satire on the Castle set in 1805 which, as he had become a comptroller of customs the year before, could do him no good.
Croker’s parliamentary debut was fortuitous: at the election of 1806 he was acting as legal adviser to Josias Rowley at Downpatrick, when the latter was called away on active service: Croker stood as locum tenens on the De Clifford interest, only to be defeated. Before his petition against the return could be heard, the dissolution of 1807 took place and he stood again. He had spent his own and his father’s money in 1806 and this time he was promised a government subsidy by the chief secretary, after convincing him that he would succeed and promising allegiance. He resigned his sinecure customs place, which was abolished, on defeating Lady Downshire’s Member Ruthven, despite the defection of local placeholders and riots.1
Croker boldly and unexpectedly made his maiden speech on the day he took his seat, 26 June 1807, replying to Grattan on the address. In a manner that was commended by Perceval and Canning despite its nervous insolence, he castigated Westminster for its ignorance of Irish affairs, and opposition for their encouragement of Catholic demagogues: while he favoured Catholic relief, he believed that Ireland needed ten years’ probation first. He denied any connexion with ministers, speaking ‘on pure principles of independence’. He returned to the fray, 6 July, in ‘an amusing but impudent and blundering speech of length’ against Whitbread’s censure motion, in which his personalities were found offensive in a novice. In the committee on the Irish insurrection bill, 24 July, he was criticized for an over-assertive defence of Perceval’s amendment and remarked in his own defence that it was natural for a young Member ‘to bow to authority’. In the session of 1808 he found his feet in opposing criticisms of the Dardanelles and Copenhagen expeditions, 15 Feb. and 21 Mar. Lord Glenbervie remarked of the latter that it was ‘a very odd, blundering, bold and witty speech’, which entertained the House.2
Croker’s keen interest in Irish affairs, of which his well-received anonymous pamphlet A sketch of the state of Ireland past and present, thought at first to be Grattan’s work when it appeared in England in February 1808, was symptomatic, now provided a further impetus to his public career. Perceval praised the pamphlet, which went through 20 editions and was reprinted as late as 1884, and, doubtless pleased by Croker’s reservations about immediate Catholic relief, as expressed in the Maynooth College grant debate, 29 Apr. 1808, induced Sir Arthur Wellesley to make Croker his locum tenens as Irish secretary in the Commons during his absence on the Peninsular expedition, July-November 1808. Wellesley had reservations about Croker’s family, who were embarrassing patronage arrangements at this time: Croker’s father was being generously pensioned off and his son by his first marriage, Walter, was unwilling to give up the barrack mastership of Clonmel as a quid pro quo for his younger half-brother Richard’s succeeding his father to the surveyorship. In the event the problem was solved by Walter’s retaining his place and Richard’s being earmarked as surveyor and stepping into his grave soon afterwards. Croker than made claims for his brother-in-law and later for his half-brother Walter, but the latter died in 1817 before Croker could induce his friend Peel to do anything for him. Even then, Croker asked for his barrack mastership for a nephew. In short, the Crokers were firm believers in keeping things in the family. But Wellesley found in 1808 that Croker had already created quite an ‘interest ... in the House’ and that his friends urged that the family deserved compensation for their expenses at Downpatrick. In fact, apart from dealing with local bills, he had nothing to say as Wellesley’s deputy. He had shown a flash of independence by his sympathy for John Palmer’s* claims, 12 May 1808 (which did not last), but Romilly noted that he was unsympathetic to criminal law reform, 18 May.3
Croker spoke fiercely against Whitbread’s peace motion, 31 Jan. 1809, denying that negotiation could secure any useful object and claiming that the Irish Catholics were being traduced when it was alleged that they were ripe for Buonaparte’s schemes. But his usefulness to government was greatly enhanced by his role in the proceedings against the Duke of York. He played junior counsel to Perceval in the duke’s defence and on 10 Feb. posed 60 awkward questions to Mrs Clarke, the duke’s mistress; on 13 Feb. his further interrogation of her established her collusion with Dowler, her current lover, in giving evidence, for which he was twitted by her for being a peeping Tom in having her house watched. On 14 Mar. Croker summed up the evidence and requested a verdict of ‘Not guilty’, adding in a long peroration full of ‘pleasantries and witty sallies’ that the duke’s indiscretion was undoubted, even if his morality was not called into question. He insisted that resolutions on the subject were more appropriate than an address. This speech Perceval described to the King as ‘most excellent’. The fact was that, in a precarious administration, Croker had become one of the leading government spokesmen in the House of Commons.4
His reward was not obvious. He himself seems to have applied to Sir Arthur Wellesley, whose tenure of the Irish chief secretaryship was rendered nominal by his military career, to be his effective substitute. On 5 Apr. 1809 Wellesley, who was in any case about to resign the office, replied:
In respect to acting for me generally, it would be impossible for me to arrange such a thing, or indeed to propose it. I have not the power to do the former, and if I were to do the latter, I should be suspected of an intention to retain my office when on service, there are besides other objections and difficulties in such arrangements of which you are not aware.
Nothing daunted, when Saunders Dundas succeeded Wellesley as chief secretary, Croker wrote to him, 15 Apr. 1809, applying to become his private secretary in office, an unusual request for a Member of the House. Three days later Perceval uttered to him these unmistakable words: ‘But, Croker, you are all this time taking a great deal of trouble for us, and no care for yourself. Can you not think of anything we can do for you? Be assured we have every disposition to serve you.’ As the summit of Croker’s ambition was Irish office there was no immediate solution and in the House he confirmed his usefulness by opposing the charge of corruption against Castlereagh as venial if ‘not altogether justifiable’, 25 Apr., and by opposing Parnell’s Irish tithes bill, though he admitted the grievance, 19 May. Outside it, he wrote much acclaimed verses on the battle of Talavera in the metre of Scott’s ‘Marmion’. On 22 Aug. Perceval wrote prophetically that he did not think he could serve Croker until October and he fell back on the Irish bar, where he earned a competence.5
In October 1809 Perceval became premier and made Croker, who would not join Canning in the wilderness, secretary to the Admiralty. He hesitated, but Arbuthnot overruled him. There was a storm of protest on all sides at his unfitness for his employment, which had previously been a professional and not a political one: it never was again. Although it was reported that Perceval, with little choice of men for office after the split in the government, at first contemplated a junction with the Whigs in which he proposed the Home Office for himself and Croker as his secretary (so Arbuthnot alleged), Croker was destined to hold the Admiralty office for the next 21 years, despite opposition rancour which pursued him with taunts of incompetence and innuendo for his first eight years, and despite his own hankerings for Irish office. Always at his desk, he gradually mastered Admiralty business, all of which passed through his hands, and was to be credited with the legacy of a new degree of efficiency and impartiality at the Admiralty, as well as with growing influence over Admiralty policy.6 Soon after taking office, he established his reputation for integrity by insisting that he would resign rather than overlook the defalcations of George Villiers*, a line which the King commended despite his partiality for Villiers.
Croker at first seldom intervened on Admiralty business in the House, but made himself generally useful in debate. He replied for government to Porchester’s critical motion on the Scheldt expedition, 26 Jan. 1810, against which he unsuccessfully moved the previous question and was teller. He was supposed to have worked up the Admiralty’s case on the conduct of the expedition. He was prominent in attack against Burdett’s breach of privilege, 28 Mar., and opposed Romilly’s motion for the discharge of the radical John Gale Jones, 16 Apr. He was personally interested in opposing the Lincoln’s Inn ruling against journalists being called to the bar, 22 Mar. 1810, and on 3 May successfully defended his father’s professional reputation against a query of Sir John Newport based on the report of the Irish customs commissioners. On 20 Dec. 1810, Croker vindicated at length government’s Regency proposals. In the two ensuing sessions he met a series of allegations of Admiralty abuses brought forward by Whitbread, while in general debate he defended McMahon’s appointment, 9 Jan. 1812, voted regularly against the opposition motions against sinecures and replied to Grattan against Morpeth’s critical motion on Ireland, 4 Feb. On 10 July 1812 he refuted as an eyewitness an alleged atrocity committed during the rebellion of 1798.7
Croker had voted against Stuart Wortley’s motion for a stronger government, 21 May 1812, and became a prop of Lord Liverpool’s administration. Nor was he involved in reshuffles of office, though it was reported in March 1812 that if George Rose* resigned, he would go to the Treasury. When Melville replaced Yorke as his chief, he became a more prominent Admiralty spokesman in the House. His connexions with the press proved advantageous: he had helped found the Quarterly Review in February 1809 and contributed to it for most of the rest of his life, though not often on political subjects as such in this period; he kept The Times supplied with Admiralty bulletins; helped Frederick John Robinson* write a Sketch of the campaign in Portugal (1810) and himself wrote a pamphlet proposing a convention on the exchange of prisoners of war (in French, 1810); he also defended British naval conduct in the American war under the name of ‘Nereus’ in the Courier, January 1813. In 1815 he contributed to the satirical verses of ‘The New Whig Guide’ in the Courier and in 1819 helped establish the Guardian newspaper as a government organ, thus gradually becoming in reputation if not in fact, the éminence grise of the ministerial daily press. He was himself the author of the official Key to the orders in council (1812) which was circulated in the USA to state the British government’s case.8
There was some doubt as to Croker’s seat in the election of 1812, but it was decided that he should contest Downpatrick again rather than stand for Rochester on the Admiralty interest. At Downpatrick, however, he was narrowly defeated by the ‘protestant’ candidate Hawthorne, after an expensive and rowdy contest in which government could not help him: he had supported Canning’s motion for Catholic relief on 22 June and his good relations with Canning, whose exclusion from office at the expense of less congenial men he evidently regretted, perplexed even such close friends as Robert Peel. Government brought him in for Athlone, enabling him to decline the offer of a seat for Cockermouth on Lord Lonsdale’s interest, procured for him by the friendship of Viscount Lowther. Disillusioned by the ordeal of contested elections, he had informed Peel that he would have preferred not to be required to sit in Parliament. He gave up a petition against Hawthorne at Downpatrick to please ministers, but wished to retain his interest in the borough and was indignant when Hawthorne claimed government patronage: but when Hawthorne vacated his seat two years later, Croker was discouraged by government from standing again.9
The defence of the naval conduct of war with the USA, already attempted by Croker in the Courier in January, was his responsibility in the House on 18 Feb. 1813, when Whitbread attacked it: and henceforward he defended the navy estimates and other Admiralty business against the charges of Whitbread, Lord Cochrane, Creevey and Burdett. He remained a critic of the abolition of so-called sinecures, 29 Mar. 1813, privately believing that ‘government could not go on without a little jobbing’, and also a friend of Catholic relief, though his votes were silent until 1819, after a defence of the Dublin petition of 23 Feb. 1813. In June 1813 he was also counsel for the lobby against the licensed victuallers bill, which he dismissed as ‘nothing but a squabble about pewter pots’. In the session of 1813-14, Croker confined himself largely to Admiralty business in debate, resisting Canning’s charges on the convoy system effectively on 13 May 1814. On 5 July he concurred in the expulsion of Lord Cochrane, who always maintained that Croker had spurned his friendship for the sake of office, but had picked his brain on navy questions and profited by it at Whitehall. Whig gossip had it that autumn that the Admiralty had, after a self-important episode in which he had insisted on a 13 gun salute at Portsmouth, ‘made an effort to get rid of Croker who instantly appealed to the Regent and obtained his protection which Lord Melville has not thought proper to resist’.10 In the autumn of 1814 and again in the summer of 1815, with Peel and William Fitzgerald, Croker visited Paris, urging rigorous measures for the detention of Buonaparte.
On 14 Nov. 1814 Croker defended the navy estimates and the conduct of war with the USA against Whitbread’s onslaught, and on 1 Dec. and 9 Feb. 1815 countered opposition allegations concerted by Whitbread about the sale of frigates to the USA. On 6 Mar. he informed the House that he was mobbed and assaulted, without due protection, outside the House, on account of his support of Corn Law revision. On 24 Apr. he defended his ex officio tenure of the paymastership of naval widows’ pensions, which he pointed out was no sinecure. There was worse to come: in the session of 1816, the restoration to Croker of his wartime salary of £4,000 p.a. was arraigned by Brougham, first as part of the opposition campaign against the property tax, 13 Mar., then on Methuen’s critical motion of 20 Mar. Croker had justified himself on 13 Mar. and on the 20th remained silent, being defended by Castlereagh and Robinson, except to announce his withdrawal before the division, which after an indiscreet speech by Brougham was carried in his favour by 159 votes to 130. His colleague Lowther commented ‘Croker has fagged hard and he deserves his whole salary’. On 25 Mar., however, Tierney was able to point out triumphantly the omission of the wartime salary from the navy estimates brought in by Sir George Warrender. What followed was later described by Edward John Littleton as ‘the most brilliant [scene] I remember in the House of Commons’. Tierney hoped to take, in Croker’s words, ‘a short cut to office by a coup de main against the navy estimates’, the tactic being to defeat the committal of the estimates by reference to the excess in peacetime over wartime. Croker had anticipated this, but had forgotten his papers: they were retrieved by William Holmes* in time for him to refute Tierney by showing that since the Treaty of Ryswick the first peacetime estimates had always been higher than the last wartime estimates. Between 25 Mar. and 1 Apr. Croker resisted the detailed attacks of Tierney, Brougham and Baring single handed and carried two divisions by 163 votes to 85 and by 153 to 57. At the end his ‘triumphant’ tone was remarked on. He was offered, but declined—as he did twice subsequently—a privy councillorship as his reward. He had boasted that he had not added one clerk to the Admiralty establishment: and opposition chose to forget that only a short time before it was they who had thwarted Croker’s bid to abolish the four marine barrack masterships for economy reasons, insisting that these were ‘most ancient and deserving servants of the public’ and that, Croker being ‘one of the most determined jobbers’, this scheme too must be a ‘job’.11
After outwitting opposition in March 1816, Croker was never again under such hostile pressure on Admiralty business. He was able to launch out on other subjects that interested him, such as the advocacy of a decimal coinage and the purchase of the Elgin marbles, 7 June 1816. On 17 Feb. 1817, it is true, opposition resumed their attack on the restoration of wartime salaries to the secretaries of the Admiralty, but Croker justified them by reference to the Algerine expedition and voted on his own behalf against Milton’s motion which, after Croker’s legal right had been strongly affirmed, was defeated by 169 votes to 114. Ridley’s motion against the lords of the Admiralty was likewise rebuffed with Croker’s assistance on 25 Feb., and on 14 Mar. the navy estimates passed with ease: indeed they were not effectively challenged thereafter until 1822.12
A suitable seat for Croker was again a problem in 1818. In the autumn of 1816 there was a notion of his contesting Portsmouth on a vacancy, but it was dropped. At Downpatrick he had spent, so he claimed, £12,000 on behalf of government, but there was no question of his replacing the friendly sitting Member whose return he had facilitated on a vacancy in 1815. In December 1817, however, he received hints that he might be a strong candidate for his alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin. His opponent was Plunket, whom Croker had wished to see ousted by government in 1812. Unfortunately government at first disavowed and then in response to the provost’s importunity permitted Croker’s candidature, their tergiversation arising out of the prospect of a Westminster coalition with the Grenville party, of whom Plunket was a talented member. In the course of a gruelling election canvass, Croker discovered that it was difficult to convince the electors that he, rather than Plunket, was endorsed by government and became involved in an unseemly wrangle as to which of them was more likely to procure the repeal of the statute of celibacy for the benefit of the electors. In the end, with his usual bad luck in elections, he was narrowly defeated. He contemplated a petition, but was discouraged from pursuing it and had to wait until 1827 to be returned for his university. Meanwhile the possibility of his sitting for Armagh on the Irish primate’s interest or Lisburne on Lord Hertford’s was considered. Croker, who had established himself in the good opinion of the Prince Regent, annoyed Arbuthnot, secretary to the Treasury, by asking the Regent’s secretary Sir Benjamin Bloomfield to buttonhole Hertford on his behalf, which Bloomfield could not do.13 In the event, Croker was returned for Hertford’s borough of Yarmouth in March 1819 and in due course acted as homme d’affaires to his patron’s son the 3rd Marquess. It was in this role that he was later traduced by Disraeli as ‘Rigby’ in his novel Coningsby, but this caricature was preceded in 1819 by his appearance as ‘Crawley’ in Lady Morgan’s Florence Macarthy, that lady being stung by Croker’s severe review of her book on France in the Quarterly Review. Croker’s only major speech outside Admiralty business in 1819 was a studied two hour defence of Catholic relief on Grattan’s motion, 3 May 1819, which he published. He was aware of the fact that his coincidence of views with Plunket on this issue had irked the ‘Protestant’ party in the university election, but it was an issue on which he would not retract his views, even at the risk of his friendship with Peel, the leader of the young lions out for promotion in the government. Croker explained that he had kept silence for ten years on Catholic relief but now believed the time was ripe for concession: his justification of relief was considered odd and clever.14
The death of Croker’s only son Spencer Perceval, aged three, in 1820 undermined his public ambition, and a quarrel with Peel, though patched up, set the seal on his public career which he immolated in the name of die-hard opposition to reform in 1832. He died 10 Aug. 1857. Greville commented:
He had lived to see all his predictions of ruin and disaster to the country completely falsified ... he certainly occupied a high place among the second-rate men of his time; he had very considerable talents, great industry, with much information and a retentive memory. He spoke in Parliament with considerable force, and in society his long acquaintance with the world and with public affairs, and his stores of general knowledge made him entertaining, though he was too overbearing to be agreeable.
He was the inventor of the word ‘abnutation’, to describe the state to which he reduced his opponents in debate, and first dignified the Tories by the style of ‘the Conservatives’ in the Quarterly Review in January 1830. His Athenaeum was the apotheosis of English club life.15
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
Based on L. J. Jennings, Mems., Diaries and Corresp. of J. W. Croker (3 vols. 1884) and M. F. Brightfield, J. W. Croker (1940), except as below.
- 1. Wellington Supp. Despatches, v. 41-42, 591; Wellington mss, Croker to Wellesley, 21, 23 May 1807.
- 2. Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3485, 3491; Add. 51593, Sharp to Holland [July 1807]; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 17.
- 3. Colchester, ii. 139; Wellington Supp. Despatches, v. 352, 443, 445; NLI, Richmond mss, Wellesley to Richmond, 13 May; Wellington mss, reply 16 May 1808; NLI, Melville mss, Saunders Dundas to Richmond, 7 May, reply 10 May 1809; Add. 40183, f. 72; 40184, ff. 35, 114; Romilly, Mems. ii. 247.
- 4. George III Corresp. v. 3832; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 320.
- 5. Wellington Supp. Despatches, 639.
- 6. Brougham, Life and Times, i. 465; Rose Diaries, ii. 408; Add. 41857, f. 176; NLI mss 7820, p. 25.
- 7. Geo. III Corresp. v. 4076, 4147; Horner mss 4, f. 153; Romilly, ii. 313.
- 8. Add. 34460, f. 325; HMC Fortescue, x. 227; Aspinall, Politics and the Press 1780-1850, pp. 128, 154, 199, 200, 202, 232, 428.
- 9. Add. 40183, ff. 13, 21, 61, 81, 261, 263, 273, 275; 40209, f. 78; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 23 June; Surr. RO, Goulburn mss 2/13, Peel to Goulburn, 2 Nov.; Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 4, 5 Nov., Croker to Lowther, 9 Nov. 1812; Parker, Peel, i. 62.
- 10. Lonsdale mss, Visct. Lowther diary, 15 Aug. 1813; Geo. IV Letters, i. 461; Grey mss, Goodwin to Grey, 16 Sept. 1814; HMC Fortescue, x. 390; Dundonald, Autobiog (1860), i. 208-10; ii. 278, 313, 334.
- 11. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, Thurs. [?14 Mar. 1816]; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 649; Heron, Notes (1851), 59.
- 12. Add. 51644, Lady Holland to Horner [Feb. 1817].
- 13. Add. 40183, f. 9; 40184, passim; 40278, ff. 195, 300; Harewood mss, Liverpool to Canning, 6 July; Lonsdale mss, Croker to Lowther, 13 June 1818.
- 14. Bagot mss, Lyttelton to Bagot, 5 Jan.; Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 24 Jan. 1819; Colchester, iii. 74; Life of Wilberforce (1838), v. 19.
- 15. Greville Mems. ed. Strachey and Fulford, viii. 298; Parl. Deb. xiii. 475.