HARRIS, George (1787-1836), of York Chambers, St. James's, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Constituency

Dates

1830 - 2 Aug. 1831

Family and Education

b. c.1787, 2nd s. of Thomas Harris (d. 1820) of Putney Hill, Wimbledon, Surr. m. 29 Nov. 1821, Anna Maria, da. of John Woodcock of Fern Acres, Bucks., 1s. 1da. CB 4 June 1815. d. 27 Oct. 1836.

Offices Held

Midshipman RN 1801, lt. 1805, cdr. 1806, capt. 1807.

Biography

Harris’s father ‘came of a respectable family, and was brought up in trade’. In August 1767, in conjunction with three partners, George Colman the dramatist, William Powell and John Rutherford, he bought the patent of Covent Garden theatre for £60,000. During the first season a ‘violent quarrel’ arose between Harris and Colman ‘in consequence of the pretensions of Mrs. Lessingham, an actress with whom Harris lived’. Powell sided with Colman and barricaded the theatre against Harris and Rutherford, who forcibly broke it open: litigation and a pamphlet war between the two sides ensued. The matter was settled in Colman’s favour in July 1770 (Powell having died in the meantime), but he resigned from the theatre in 1774, and Harris became chief manager, which post he retained until he passed control to his elder son Henry a few years before his death in 1820.1

Harris did not follow his father and brother but pursued a distinguished naval career. He took part in a successful attack on a flotilla off Boulogne in 1801 and the capture of four Spanish frigates, 5 Oct. 1804. He served in the Mediterranean, 1805-7, before being posted to the East Indies in 1808. Off Java in August 1810 he captured a total of 17 armed Batavian boats, five pirating proas and 35 Dutch trading vessels. Under his captaincy a flotilla of 16 French boats was destroyed in May 1811, and the following August he led the capture of the French fortress at Sumanap on the Isle of Madura. Here he succeeded in persuading the sultan to ally himself with the British, an action described by Admiral Stopford as a ‘masterstroke of policy’ which ‘essentially contributed to the final reduction of Java’. On 3 Apr. 1813 Harris captured the Grand Napoleon, an American schooner with four guns, and on 11 May he took the Revenge. In 1814 he commanded 800 seamen and marines who overran the five batteries protecting the entrance to the River Gironde, destroying all their cannon. For this achievement he was made a companion of the Bath.2 On 28 Nov. 1823 he was brought to court martial at Plymouth, charged with ‘delaying the public service’ through delays in conveying Sir Edward Thornton, the new ambassador, to Lisbon. Harris conducted his own defence, and the court received unsolicited letters of commendation from eight vice-admirals and from Admiral Lord Exmouth, who described him as ‘an officer of zeal, talent, and ability’. Harris was ‘most honourably acquitted’, 2 Dec. 1823, the blame being apportioned to Thornton.3

At the 1830 general election Harris came forward for Great Grimsby on the Tory interest, promising to bring forward a second candidate, Colonel Mayne of Boulney Court. Mayne canvassed with him, 14 July, but soon withdrew, whereupon Harris, who considered his election certain, introduced another friend.4 A contest ensued and Harris was returned in second place.5 The Wellington ministry listed him among their ‘friends’, but he voted against them in the crucial division on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. He presented a Grimsby petition for the abolition of slavery, 7 Mar., and made his maiden speech, deploring the proposed partial disfranchisement of Great Grimsby, when presenting a petition from the town against the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 21 Mar. 1831. He voted against its second reading next day and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. During discussion of the navy estimates, 25 Mar., Admiral Sir Joseph Yorke questioned the cost and effectiveness of chronometers for ships and made reference to the loss of the Thetis. Harris defended its captain, and said that as Yorke well knew, ‘if the current be strong, as it proved to be in this case, and the weather thick, twenty, even fifty chronometers would not have saved the ship’. That day he asserted that more clerks, rather than fewer as suggested by Hume, were required by the dock yards. Harris announced his intention of standing for Great Grimsby as an anti-reformer at the 1831 general election, and promised to introduce his likeminded friend John Villiers Shelley as his colleague.6 They again faced two candidates in the pro-reform interest, but Harris and Shelley triumphed, Great Grimsby’s fate under the reform bill being the deciding factor. Their opponents promised to petition against the return.7 Three days after his victory, 5 May 1831, Harris, ‘in the presence of hundreds of spectators’, laid the foundation stone of his rope and canvass factory, which was inscribed, ‘To commemorate the victory achieved by the independent freemen ... over every conjoined influence that could be opposed to them’. The building was to be the largest in Great Grimsby and was expected to employ two or three hundred people in producing goods from raw materials imported from New Zealand. (In a debate on the supplies, 8 July 1831, he asserted that the production of rigging by convicts would be best performed in New Zealand, ‘from whence a better commodity in the shape of hemp or flax than is now in use could be obtained’.) He told the crowd that he had taken out patents in France and Holland for similar factories, but assured them that he intended this to be his ‘principal station’.8

Harris voted against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and for the attempts to adjourn the debate on it, 12 July. During discussion of the use of the 1821 census to determine the disfranchisement schedule, 14 July, he pointed out that Great Grimsby now had over 4,000 inhabitants and more than 300 houses, and was therefore entitled by the principles of the bill to retain both its Members. He highlighted its ancient privileges, said the freemen had never abused their rights, and denied that it was a nomination borough, citing his own election as proof of its independence from the interference of Lord Yarborough. He challenged his former Whig colleague to say whether he had been the free choice of the people or a nominee when he had represented the borough, and warned ministers to be cautious in their interference unless they could prove that Great Grimsby deserved to lose a representative. He brought up the subject again during a debate on the civil list, 18 July, when he asked Lord Althorp, chancellor of the exchequer, whether or not the pensions under discussion were monarchial grants. He called for consistency, complaining that as disfranchising the freemen of Great Grimsby would nullify a grant of the sovereign, ‘the pensions of the rich shall be continued’ while those ‘of the poor freemen of Grimsby shall cease’. He voted for use of the 1831 census to determine borough disfranchisements, 19 July, and against considering Chippenham’s inclusion in schedule B, 27 July. Next day, in committee on Great Grimsby’s place in the schedule, he again doggedly defended the borough. Heckled throughout, he was applauded by Waldo Sibthorp for the way in which he had expressed his ‘contempt for the titters and ungracious gesticulations’ of ministerial supporters. As the question was being put, Harris leapt to his feet and asked if any of the former Members for the borough in the House had a good word to say for it. Although none did, this tactic caused a delay as an argument on procedure ensued, and the question was deferred. Unfortunately for Harris, before it was reconsidered he and his colleague were unseated on petition for treating and barred from offering at the ensuing by-election, 2 Aug. 1831. Three days later they issued a defiant address promising to ‘bring down two gentlemen as staunch as ourselves to your interests’.9 Welcomed on their arrival by ‘three-fourths of the populace’ that day, they brought with them Lord Loughborough and Henry Fitzroy, who triumphed over two reformers at the poll.10

In June 1832 William Maxfield, one of the defeated candidates, canvassed the borough in readiness for the first post-reform election. Advised of his activities by Alderman Edward Brown, Harris issued an address announcing his own candidature, 3 July. On 30 Aug. he informed Brown that he would be in Great Grimsby to canvass as soon as possible, but that he had to go to France to complete negotiations over his proposed factory there, otherwise he might lose ‘many thousands of pounds’. He continued:

I cannot but reflect and ask myself the question: is it possible that a Mr. Anybody under the interest of a government, who have mercilessly taken from the borough half its privileges, can succeed against a man who has for these two years past watched with fatherly affection over its prosperity; endured all the trouble incidental on three elections, and a petition, to say nothing about expense, and who besides that, has expended so much money in and about the borough? ... I will not suppose he will prove successful.

Harris, however, did not persevere, and Maxfield defeated Loughborough.11 The rope factory initially prospered, but it was in trouble by 1836, when it closed, causing a decline in Great Grimsby’s prosperity and population.12 Harris died at Devonport in October that year. By his will, dated 13 Oct. 1836, and proved under £8,000, he instructed that all his freehold property at Great Grimsby and his personal estate was to be sold and the proceeds invested to provide for his children until they reached the age of 21. He appointed William Gregory of Marston, Cheshire as their guardian.13

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Philip Salmon / Martin Casey

Notes

  • 1. Oxford DNB sub Thomas Harris; Cuttings relating to Covent Garden Theatre, i. 27; Gent. Mag. (1820), ii. 374.
  • 2. J. Marshall, R. Naval Biog. ix. 286-92.
  • 3. G. Harris, Minutes of Court Martial, 83.
  • 4. Grimsby Pollbook (Skelton, 1830).
  • 5. Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 6 Aug. 1830.