NICHOLL, Sir John (1759-1838), of Merthyr Mawr, Glam.

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

Constituency

Dates

1802 - 1806
1806 - 1807
1807 - Aug. 1821
11 Feb. 1822 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 16 Mar. 1759, 2nd s. of John Nicholl of Llanmaes, Glam. by Elizabeth née Havard. educ. Cowbridge sch. 1766; Bristol 1773; St. John’s, Oxf. 1775, BCL 1780, DCL 1785; L. Inn 1775. m. 8 Sept. 1787, Judy, da. of Peter Birt of Wenvoe Castle, Glam., 1s. surv. 3da. Kntd. 31 Oct. 1798; suc. Edward Powell to Tondu, Glam. 1771.

Offices Held

Adv. Doctors’ Commons Nov. 1785; King’s adv. Oct. 1798-Jan. 1809; dean of ct. of arches and judge of PCC 1809-34; PC 6 Feb. 1809; judge, ct. of Admiralty 1833-d., holding his other offices in commendam; vicar-gen. to abp. of Canterbury 1834-d.

Lt.-col. commdt. St. Giles and St. George’s Bloomsbury vol. inf. 1803.

Biography

Nicholl, an advocate at Doctors’ Commons, succeeded another eminent civilian Sir William Scott* as an official of the London and Middlesex archdeaconries in 1788.1 In 1791 he was employed by government on a legal commission to Jersey and before the year was out applied to Pitt for the vacant office of Admiralty advocate.2 It was forespoken and Nicholl, who subscribed £2,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797, had to wait until 1798 when, again on Sir William Scott’s promotion, he became King’s advocate. He thanked Pitt, whom he had solicited ‘for your patronage upon this occasion’. In September 1801 he was consulted over the wording of a clause in the peace treaty.3 He was brought into Parliament in 1802 by a friend of Addington’s ministry, Lord de Dunstanville, who a year later warned Nicholl that he was giving up his interest in the borough (Penryn).

Nicholl had no intention of exceeding his professional brief in Parliament, though he joined the ministerialists invited to hear the King’s speech in advance, 21 Nov. 1803. He transferred his allegiance to Pitt in 1804 and adhered to him on Melville’s case, 8 Apr. 1805. In his first major speech, 11 Feb. 1805, he justified war against Spain in terms of international law and on 25 May justified the prize agency bill. On Pitt’s death he was ready to resign unless granted freedom of parliamentary conduct. The Grenville ministry did not discharge him: they required his services to regulate relations with the United States.4 He voted for their repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. They considered appointing him to the Privy Council, to take advantage of his ability to manage Board of Trade business, much of which had ‘for some time devolved upon him’, with the salary of assessor to the courts of prize appeals and plantations; or, failing that, appointing him successor to Sir William Scott as a judge of the Admiralty.5 But nothing came of it. On 4 Feb. 1807 he defended, against Spencer Perceval, the order in council on neutral vessels. He was listed friendly to the abolition of the slave trade. This and Lord Sidmouth apart, he had no personal tie with the Grenville ministry, who had provided him with a Treasury seat.

Nicholl was enlisted by their successors, who gave him the option of a seat for Rye and kept him busy. Henceforward, however, he sat for Bedwyn on the 1st Earl of Ailesbury’s interest, recommended by Spencer Perceval. He justified the King’s freedom of action with regard to the droits of Admiralty, 11 Feb. 1808, defended the orders in council, 18 Feb., denying that they would lead to rupture with the United States, justified commercial licences, 7 Mar., and gave the official view of the case of Sir Home Popham*, 31 May. He resigned as King’s advocate in January 1809 to succeed Sir William Wynne as dean of the arches; but the Duke of Portland secured his admission to the Privy Council to assist in prize and plantation cases.6 Nor was his contribution to debate confined to the business of the ecclesiastical courts. In the frequent absences of Sir William Scott he defended the court of Admiralty against its critics, 19 Feb., 9 Mar., 13 June 1810; on 6 June 1811, likewise, the vice-admiralty court of Malta and, on 17 July 1811, the prize courts. On 21 Jan. 1812 he once more vindicated the King’s droits of Admiralty and on 23 Jan. defended the inferior ecclesiastical courts.

Nicholl’s change of office in 1809 was also followed by increasing political commitment. He had not been ‘much either of a politician or a party man, except being an enthusiastic admirer of Mr Pitt’. In 1807, when Charles Abbot asked him to second his re-election to the Speaker’s chair, he had declined: ‘I have always confined myself to matters immediately connected with my profession upon which alone I can hope to be entitled to any attention’.7 But he was kept au fait with the difficulties of the Portland administration by Richard Ryder and had ‘a sincere respect and regard’ for Perceval. He voted steadily with Perceval’s ministry in the criticial divisions of January-March 1810 and was then listed as being against the opposition by the Whigs. He voted against sinecure and parliamentary reform, 17, 21 May 1810. He was appointed to the House’s committees to confer with the Lords on the Regency, supported the bill, 1 Jan. 1811, and thanked the Speaker for his part in rescuing it.8 On 3 Feb. 1812, to answer Morpeth’s critical motion on the state of Ireland, Perceval put up Nicholl: ‘an excellent good man—but a sort of English Duigenan, who was evidently commissioned to excite a cry of "Church in danger", and to introduce as much fury and animosity into the debate as possible'. Thus wrote Canning,9 who commented:

If Nicholl had been answered by Whitbread or any Cath[olic] as violent as he (Nich[oll]) was a Protestant—the debate would have been a conflict of outreageous extravagences on both sides—which would have been to Per[ceval] gagne de cause. This I completely spolied. I annihilated Nicholl's speech (which was in fact every syllable of it P[erceval]'s own sense and sentiment)—but did so in perfect good humour and with perfect civility to Nicholl, and left on the dicussion a tone and impression of moderation, which is what of all things what P[erceval] has the most to dread.

This was confirmed by Francis Horner*, who reported that Hicholl was 'stiffled by Canning':

it is very amusing that Sir John Nicholl should have maintained on this occasion the character of the faculty to which he belongs: for all through the parliamentary history it appears that exploded prejudices and abuses of every sort find their last advocates among the civilians of Doctors Commons ... They come from their monastry in St. Paul's churchyard with opinions which all the rest of the world would have rejected, or begin to be ashamed of.

He was not in fact a bigot and, as a member of the committee of the National Society for Anglican Schools, threatened to resign from it that year if a doctrinaire curriculum was imposed on them.10 He further espoused Perceval's measures in defence of the licence trade, 16 Apr. 1812, and on 20 May paid tribute to the assassinated premier, advoating full compensation for his family. He voted against a remodelling of the government, 21 May, and on 22 June was teller for the diehard opponents of Catholic relief, again speaking against it. He also opposed the attack on the office of Admiralty registrar, held by Perceval's brother, 19 June.

Nicholl appeared as a Treasury supporter after the election of 1812 and, at Castlereagh's request, proposed Charles Abbot's re-election as Speaker, 24 Nov. On 24 May 1813 he was again a leading opponent of Catholic relief. He got out of a scrape at this time, connected with his wish for an independent seat in the House. In April 1812his name had been mentioned for the representation of his university, but he had before this negotiated the purchase of (Sir) Mark Wood I's* interest at Shaftesbury for £50,000 and wriggled out of it on discovering that it was a doubtful asset, likely to blemish his reputation. Nicholl's nephew Robert Peter Dyneley then paid a deposit on the purchase, but did not complete it. In 1813 Wood threatened to publicize the matter and it was the Speaker who reluctantly agreed to arbitrate between the parties and awarded against Wood, 14 July 1813.11

More to Nicholl's liking would have been a seat for Glamorgan. He had purchased the Merthyr Mawr estate in 1804 and rebuilt the residence and had founded a national school at Bridgend in 1812, following this up in 1817 with a savings bank. Yet the vacancy of 1814 did not tempt him and he was content subsequently to play an important part in deceiding elections. He had also ruled out Oxford Univeristy when again solicited that year.12 Nor was he often conspicuous in the House, though he supported ministers in most critical divisions. His patron Lord Ailesbury would have preferred him to oppose the property tax, but allows him to vote for it, 18 Mar. 1816.13 On 27 May and 10 June 1814 he advocated a larger pension for Lord Hill. He opposed chapel rate exemption, 16 June 1815, and was chairman of the committee on tithes which reported on 18 June 1816. On 30 May 1816 and 28 Apr. 1917, before and after a visit to the Continent, he renewed his hostility to Catholic relief. He was a member of the secret committee on sedition in 1817. His speech in opposition to Burdett's motion for parliamentary reform, 20 May 1817, was perhaps his most memorable. On 2 June he proposed Manners Sutton for the Speaker's chair. He rallied to ministers on the ducal marriage grants, after being invited to Fife House to hear their case, 15 Apr. 1818. On 3 Feb. 1819 he was named to the secret committee on the Bank (he also sat on the charities commission). He defended the Windsor establishment, 16 Mar. 1819, and next day joined Joseph Phillimore in presenting a Marriage Act amendment bill. Nicholl died 26 Aug. 1838.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne

Notes

  • 1. Merthyr Mawr mss F/93/1 (1788).
  • 2. PRO 30/8/163, ff. 196, 198.
  • 3. Merthyr Mawr mss L/189/1-8, L/197/1, 3, 4.