FENTON CAWTHORNE, John (1753-1831), of Wyreside Hall, Lancs.

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



27 Jan. 1783 - 2 May 1796
1806 - 1807
1812 - 1818
1820 - 1 Mar. 1831

Family and Education

b. 5 Jan. 1753,1 1st s. of James Fenton of Lancaster by Elizabeth, da. and event. h. of John Cawthorne of Wyresdale. educ. Queen’s, Oxf. 1771; G. Inn 1792. m. 1 Aug. 1778, Frances, da. of Sir John Hussey Delaval, 1st Bt., of Doddington, Lincs., s.p. Took name of Cawthorne by royal lic. 15 May 1781 (in compliance with wish of his mother’s cousin, John Lane of Hillingdon, Mdx.); suc. fa. 1791.

Offices Held

Recorder, Lancaster 1791-6.

Col. Westminster regt. Mdx. militia 1791-6; brevet col. 1794-6.


Cawthorne, whose great-grandfather and grandfather were successively vicars of Lancaster 1685-1767, was the son of a barrister who became recorder of the borough in 1758. He took the name of Cawthorne in 1781 in anticipation of inheriting his mother’s nearby family property (her will was proved in 1798) and on his father’s death in 1791 was chosen recorder of Lancaster in his place. The previous year he had been returned again for Lincoln, after an expensive contest, on the interest of his father-in-law, now Lord Delaval.

He continued to support Pitt, for whom he had deserted Fox in 1784, and was a ministerial teller in divisions on the bank dividends bill, 22 Mar., Oczakov, 15 Apr. 1791 and 1 Mar. 1792, the Quebec bill, 16 May 1791, the traitorous correspondence bill, 25 Apr., parliamentary reform, 6 May 1793, and the suspension of habeas corpus, 16 May 1794. He supported ministers against Grey’s motion on the Russian armament, as he had done ‘on every similar proposition’, 2 June 1791; was listed hostile to the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland the same session; opposed inquiry into the Birmingham riots, 21 May 1792, defending the authorities and observing that Joseph Priestley had lived there unmolested until ‘in consequence of his admiration of the glorious French revolution, the philosopher was converted into a politician, and spread sedition through the country’; and spoke for the traitorous correspondence bill, 26 Apr. 1793.

Cawthorne, who may have had commercial interests in the slaving port of Lancaster, was an inflexible opponent of abolition or regulation of the slave trade. He complained of the damage inflicted on merchants and planters by the protracted agitation of the issue, 4 Feb., tried to discredit some of the evidence advanced in favour of abolition, 19 Apr., and attacked the Sierra Leone Company bill at length, 30 May 1791. His motion of 9 Mar. 1792 to ensure strict enforcement of the call of the House for the 28th, the day before a slave trade debate, was negatived. He condemned the proposal to abolish the trade by 1796 as even worse than immediate abolition, 1 May 1792, and in speeches against the bill to end the supply of slaves to foreign territories, 22 May 1793 and 7 Feb. 1794, attacked the ‘dissenters’ and ‘enemies to our constitution in church and state’ who espoused the cause of abolition. On 25 Feb. 1794 he complained that the ‘Methodist preachers and emissaries’ who had been ‘sent out to excite the negroes to revolt, were filling their heads with notions of liberty’.

He was a teller for the majority in favour of a canal toll regulation bill, 21 Mar., gave heavily qualified support to the bill to prevent canal Working in harvest time, 10 Apr., and supported Sinclair’s proposed board of agriculture, 17 May 1793. He opposed any further delay in the trial of Warren Hastings, 6 June 1793, and on 20 June 1794 told Farington that he intended to oppose the vote of thanks to its managers because ‘Burke had exceeded the authority he received from the House of Commons’.2 If he did so, it was with a silent vote. On the bill to raise men for the navy, 19 Feb. 1795, he proposed that every gentleman with three menservants should furnish one for the navy or pay a fine of 20 guineas, those with five should provide two and so on in proportion, but Pitt opposed the idea, as he did Cawthorne’s suggestion of exemption for half-pay officers from the hair powder tax, 23 Mar. 1795. He objected to the franking regulation bill, 20 Mar., and strongly opposed the Sunday observance bill as an unwarranted curb on labour in factories and collieries, 26 Mar. 1795.

Cawthorne appears to have met with a number of rebuffs from Pitt in his requests for patronage and favours. In 1791 he complained of a change of mind over a Lancaster customs post and for over a year in 1793 and 1794 he sought promotion for his brother, an infantry captain, reminding Pitt that ‘I have many years supported your administration and as a private individual have steadily and uniformly supported his Majesty’s government’. His brother was eventually promoted to major on 13 May 1795, only for news to arrive that he had died in New York a month earlier. In July 1795, hearing that other friends of Pitt were to receive marks of royal favour, he asked, in vain, for the minister to recommend him also.3

As the prospect of a dissolution approached, Cawthorne complained to Pitt that he was not getting his fair share of Lincoln patronage and that his chances of re-election were being jeopardized. He had become involved in a bitter wrangle with Delaval over the 1790 election expenses, and the unorthodox methods which he adopted to extricate himself from the financial problems created by his father-in-law’s insistence on their repayment eventually led to his disgrace. In March 1796 he was found guilty by court martial of fraud and embezzlement of the funds of his militia regiment and was cashiered for conduct ‘unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman’. Delaval had asked Pitt to intervene with the King to dissolve the court martial and pass sentence himself but had been told that this was impossible, and Cawthorne’s own bid to obtain the right of appeal to a court of review was unavailing. On 4 Apr. 1796 the nabob Richard Smith, Member for Wareham, initiated proceedings to have him expelled from the House. Rumours abounded that Delaval and others had tried to get him the Chiltern Hundreds and that when this had failed there had been an unsuccessful attempt to procure an army agency for him. On 2 May the proceedings and sentence of the court martial were read and Cawthorne defended himself, claiming that he had been guilty at most of technical irregularities and challenging the right of the Commons to ‘consider itself as a supplementary court for the purpose of receiving and registering the sentence of courts martial’. Farington was told that ‘he read his defence sufficiently audibly, but on the whole looked a little down in spirits’. Smith proposed his expulsion; Edmund Wigley, Member for Worcester, moved a saving amendment; but Pitt spoke against him, and this speech, it was said, ‘certainly determined the minds of many Members who, before, were undetermined’. Wigley’s amendment was defeated by 108 votes to 12 and Cawthorne was expelled.4

His creditors became clamorous in the course of these proceedings and his private affairs ‘fell into great embarrassments’, which were increased by actions from the regimental clothiers who recovered money with heavy charges against him. It was reported early in 1797 that claims on his estate amounted to £50,000 and that his principal creditors had agreed to allow him £400 a year for life, plus the £500 which his wife received as an annuity from her father. He nevertheless began to build up an interest at Lancaster, where his annual distributions of food and drink made him popular among the poorer voters. He was beaten there in 1802 by a coalition backed by Lord Lowther, but he persevered, ‘taking every pains to cultivate his interest in the borough’ and ‘living frugally’ to save money to finance another attempt on it. By 1806, when after protracted litigation he recovered £1,889 in liquidation of his regimental balances—which suggests that he may have been harshly treated by the court martial—he was in a strong position, particularly as Lowther was unable to find a candidate willing to risk money in a contest, and he came in unopposed at the general election. Lowther’s belief that he had received financial aid from the Prince of Wales may have been well grounded, for in June, after recovering his balances, he had submitted his case to the Duke of York (a former lover of his sister-in-law Lady Tyrconnel), who had admitted that matters now appeared in a different light and later expressed pleasure at his return to Parliament.5

There was widespread expectation that an attempt would be made to expel him and early in January 1807 the ministerialist George Porter, Member for Stockbridge, gave notice of a motion to bring the proceedings of 1796 before the House. It was twice postponed, 12 and 17 Jan., and on each occasion Cawthorne complained in his place of the delay. His father-in-law, arguing that there was no statutory warrant for exclusion on account of a previous expulsion, asked Howick, the Foreign secretary, to take up his case. Howick complied, informing the Speaker that he intended to move the appointment of a committee to search for precedents and to assign that as his reason for moving the previous question, thus confirming the belief of Lowther’s Member, Robert Ward, that ministers, in view of the fact that a known opponent was almost certain of success at Lancaster if Cawthorne’s seat fell vacant, were ‘not so exactly neuter as they pretend’. The Prince of Wales also intervened, instructing Porter that he wished Howick’s motion to supersede his own and ‘to have no case stated against Cawthorne’. When Porter brought on his motion, 23 Jan. 1807, Cawthorne, who had secured a petition from Lancaster challenging the House’s right to interfere, argued that he had been duly elected and that there was no precedent for a second expulsion. After a desultory debate Howick’s motion was agreed to. While legal opinion in the House was strongly against expulsion on constitutional grounds, there was widespread personal hostility to Cawthorne: Ward, who fully partook of it, thought that if there had been a division he ‘would have been done for’. The committee was revamped, 29 Jan. 1807, and its report presented and ordered to be printed on 16 Feb. An order for Cawthorne, who submitted his memorial to the Duke of York for the scrutiny of the prime minister, to attend in his place on 14 Apr. was subsequently deferred for a fortnight and he was still Member for Lancaster when Parliament was dissolved. He stood for the borough at the general election in partnership with a wealthy East Indian, but was beaten in a nine-day contest.6

Cawthorne kept up his interest and regained the seat without opposition in 1812, Lord Liverpool having failed to persuade the Lowthers to intervene against him. Contrary to expectation, his right to sit was not challenged in the new Parliament.7 Lord Lonsdale was informed in October 1812 that Cawthorne had ‘written to Lord Liverpool to declare his intention of supporting government’ and he was duly listed among their supporters; but early in 1813 he complained to Lonsdale’s son, Viscount Lowther, that ministers were giving ‘all the patronage’ of Lancaster to his colleague and asked him to put in a word for him at the Treasury, as ‘he could be of the greatest service to us at another election’. Lowther, who ‘merely asked to know how the matter stood’, informed his father that Arbuthnot, the secretary to the Treasury, ‘said they were of opinion that Cawthorne was such a blackguard, they thought it best to have nothing to do with him, but at the same time were ready to listen to any suggestion of yours’. Lonsdale kept his distance.8

Notwithstanding his continued ostracism, Cawthorne’s only known vote against government in the 1812 Parliament was to reduce the Duke of Clarence’s marriage grant, 15 Apr. 1818, and he divided with them on the Regent’s expenditure, 31 May 1815; the property tax, 18 Mar.; the civil list, 6 and 24 May; the public revenues bill, 17 and 20 June 1816, and the imprisonment of radical booksellers, 21 May 1818. He voted against Catholic relief, 2 Mar., 13 and 24 May 1813 and 21 May 1816. He had something to say on the Manchester justices bill, 12 May 1813; declared his support for the corn bill, 6 Mar. 1815, and supported a Blackburn petition in favour of the seditious meetings bill, 3 Mar. 1817, taking the opportunity to allege that the hostile amendment carried at the recent county meeting had been the work of ‘a rabble of cotton-spinners and weavers’.

Cawthorne lost his seat at the 1818 general election, but won it back in 1820 and continued to sit for Lancaster until his death on 1 Mar. 1831.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: M. H. Port / David R. Fisher


  • 1. N. and Q. (ser. 12), ii. 266.
  • 2. Farington, i. 55.
  • 3. PRO 30/8/121, ff. 310-23, 329; 195, f. 113.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/121, ff. 325, 331-3; 129, f. 87; 161, ff. 55-59; F. Askham, Gay Delavals, 198-200, 209, 212-16; Sir J. W. F. Hill, Georgian Lincoln, 97-99; Edinburgh Advertiser, 25 Mar.; True Briton, 25 Mar.; Morning Chron. 28 Mar., 2 Apr. 1796; Farington Diary (Yale ed.), ii. 539; Colchester, i. 55-56.
  • 5. The Times, 15 Feb. 1797; Lonsdale mss, Wilson to Lowther, 14 July 1806; HMC Lonsdale, 215; Fortescue mss, Cawthorne to Grenville, 18 Mar. 1807, enc. memorial to Duke of York.
  • 6. Colchester, ii. 88-90; Grey mss, Delaval to Howick, 16 Jan., reply 19 Jan.; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 20, 23, 24 Jan., Long to same, 21 Jan., 21 Feb.; Fortescue mss, Cawthorne to Grenville, 18 Mar. 1807; CJ, lxii. 77, 88, 128, 226, 322.
  • 7. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 25, 26 Sept., Liverpool to same, 25 Sept. 1812.
  • 8. Ibid. Long to Lonsdale, 30 Oct. [1812], Lowther to same, 25 [Feb. 1813].