ROLLE, John (1756-1842), of Stevenstone, Bicton and Tidwell, Devon.
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Family and Education
b. 16 Oct. 1756, 1st s. of Denys Rolle† of Stevenstone by Anne, da. of Arthur Chichester of Stowford and Hall. educ. Winchester 1764; Emmanuel, Camb. 1769. m. (1) 22 Feb. 1778, Judith Maria (d. 1 Oct. 1820), da. and h. of Henry Walrond of Bovey, s.p.; (2) 24 Sept. 1822, Hon. Louisa Barbara Trefusis, da. of Robert George William, 17th Baron Clinton, s.p. cr. Baron Rolle 20 June 1796; suc. fa. 1797.
Col. S. Devon militia 1788, brevet col. 1794; capt. Beer and Seaton vols. 1795, maj. commdt. 1796; maj. Bicton yeomanry 1800, col. 1 Devon yeomanry 1801, N. Devon yeomanry 1803; col. commdt. 2 and 6 Devon militia 1808.
Recorder, Torrington 1797.
Rolle, a strapping Devonian, whose ‘hand and foot were said to be the largest in the kingdom’, and described by Prince Augustus in 1791 as ‘a solid man and a man of principles’, was the last of an old parliamentary family and heir to the most extensive landed property in Devon. By 1790, when he retained the county seat after a token contest, his days of genuine political independence were behind him, for he had formed a ‘firm attachment to Mr Pitt, founded’, as he later claimed, ‘on personal esteem as well as public principles’.1
With no pretensions to physical or verbal elegance, he expressed his views with rustic bluntness. He approved the Spanish convention and stated his confidence in Pitt, 14 Dec. 1790, declared his opposition to ‘every motion for reform’, 18 Apr. 1792, and welcomed the royal proclamation, 25 May 1792, as a necessary response to the seditious spirit fomented by Thomas Paine’s ‘extravagant’ doctrines and the work of French agents. He approved the naval estimates, 7 Jan., and the suspension of habeas corpus, 23 Jan. 1795, and was teller for the majorities in favour of the Prince of Wales’s annuity bill, 3 June, and the Austrian loan bill, 10 June 1795. The repressive legislation of November 1795 had his wholehearted support, and when presenting loyal addresses from Devon, 23 and 25 Nov., he fell into dispute with Fox over their accuracy as a reflection of Devonian sentiment. He was reported to have been one of only five county Members who voted for the estate duty bill, 9 May 1796.2 He voted for the principle of gradual abolition of the slave trade, 2 Apr. 1792, and in the debate on government’s specific proposals, 23 Apr., was called to order for his assertion that many Members, swayed by ‘popular opinion’, had voted against their consciences on the issue. He voted for the unsuccessful abolition bill, 15 Mar. 1796.
Rolle, who supported Sinclair’s motion for the formation of a board of agriculture, 17 May 1793, showed traces of his old independence on agricultural issues. He was teller for the minorities in favour of the corn grinding price regulation bill, 7 Mar., and the wool-combers bill, 9 May 1794, and in the debate on the budget, 8 Dec. 1795, advocated the exemption of agricultural horses from tax, recommending instead a heavy duty on foreign servants. His proposal to exempt certain horses from the tax, 17 Dec., was negatived without a division. He showed an interest in the improvement of conditions of naval service, pressing for better provision for invalid marines, 3 Dec. 1790, and for midshipmen, 2 June 1795.
By December 1791 he was in pursuit of a peerage for himself or his father, whose elder brother Henry had enjoyed that dignity for only two years before dying without issue in 1750. It would seem that Rolle senior who, since the failure of his American colonization scheme and his retirement from Parliament had adopted the dress and regimen of a ‘common husbandman’, notwithstanding his great landed wealth, showed no interest, but that John, assured that there would be no difficulty about his being ennobled during his father’s lifetime, received a firm promise from Pitt. In August 1794, when peerages were handed out to some of the Portland Whigs, he was informed by Henry Addington of Pitt’s wish that he would waive his pretensions for the moment, evidently because government were reluctant to precipitate a by-election in Devon. Rolle agreed to do so ‘till either the death of my father or previous to the general election’, but, claiming that ‘from my steady adherence to Mr Pitt’s administration, and taking such a decided part in support of the established church and government’ he was certain to meet vexatious and expensive opposition from the strong dissenting element in Devon if he stood again, insisted on fulfilment of the engagement. Meanwhile he tentatively requested admission to the Privy Council as a compensatory mark of approbation for his political services. Nothing came of this, but he duly received his peerage at the dissolution of 1796.3
Rolle, who succeeded his father the following year, was reckoned in 1809 to possess estates with a potential rental of £70,000 per annum. A ‘choleric, hard-bitten old Tory’, he was one of the 22 ‘stalwarts’ who voted against the third reading of the reform bill, 4 June 1832, and in 1834, after a clash in the Lords with Lord Chancellor Brougham, ‘went up to him on the woolsack and said, "My Lord, I wish you to know that I have the greatest contempt for you both in this House and out of it".' He is chiefly remembered as the inspiration and butt of the Rolliad, and for his accident at Queen Victoria's coronation in 1838 when, at the age of 83 and 'dreadfully infirm', he fell and 'rolled quite down' the steps of the throne while paying homage.4 He died 3 Apr. 1842.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: P. A. Symonds / David R. Fisher
- 1. Teignmouth, Reminiscences, i. 240; Geo. III Corresp. i. 659; Sidmouth mss, Rolle to Addington, 3 Aug. 1794.
- 2. Morning Chron. 12 May 1796.
- 3. PRO, Dacres Adams mss 1/46; Gent. Mag. (1797), ii. 1125; Sidmouth mss, Rolle to Sidmouth, 3 Aug. 1794.
- 4. Farington, v. 277; Greville Mems. ed. Strachley and Fulford, iii. 58; iv. 72; iii. Letters of Queen Victoria (ser. 1), i. 155.