ROOPER, John Bonfoy (1778-1855), of Abbots Ripton Hall, Hunts.
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Family and Educationb. 8 Aug. 1778, 1st s. of John Rooper of Berkhampstead Castle, Herts. and Abbots Ripton and Elizabeth, da. and h. of Thomas Bonfoy. educ. Rugby 1790; St. John’s, Camb. 1797; L. Inn 1800. m. 15 June 1810, Harriet, da. and h. of William Pott of Gloucester Place, Portman Square, Mdx., 5s. (1 d.v.p.) 11 da. (at least 2 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1826. d. 11 Mar. 1855.
Lt. Beachwood troop Herts. yeoman cav. 1805.
Sheriff, Cambs. and Hunts. 1845-6.
Rooper’s great-grandfather John Rooper, deputy cofferer of the household to Queen Anne, obtained the lease of Berkhampstead in 1720 from the duchy of Cornwall, and his descendants renewed it several times during the eighteenth century.1 Little is known of Rooper’s early life, but some time before 1807 he travelled with one of Lord Erskine’s sons to the United States, where, according to his nephew, he was fired with those ‘strong liberal views which he carried throughout life’. In his own words, his ‘principles were Whig ones, they were those in which he had been brought up’.2 He was still abroad in 1807 when his father mismanaged the negotiations over the renewal of the Berkhampstead lease and was obliged to sell out. Rooper deeply resented the loss of the Hertfordshire property and, it was said, refused to speak to his father again. Abbots Ripton in Huntingdonshire, which had come to his father through his marriage to the niece and coheiress of Nicholas Bonfoy, sometime serjeant-at-arms to the House of Commons, became the family’s residence.3 By the time of his father’s death in 1826 Rooper had already made a mark in Huntingdonshire politics. At the general election of 1820 he seconded Lord John Russell’s nomination for the county and lamented the loss in the Lords of his bill to suspend the issue of writs to Grampound and other corrupt boroughs, which ‘would not be lost in the minds of the people’. At a celebratory dinner in July he complimented the freeholders on their independence from ‘political thraldom’. He denounced the Aliens Act, barrack system and the repression of free speech by military force. He was congratulated by Russell, who wished to see him elected to Parliament and predicted that ‘giving utterance to such opinions as I know him to entertain ... there are not many who would distinguish themselves more for independence and for eloquence than he would’.4 In March 1821 Rooper addressed the county meeting called to censure the Liverpool ministry: he condemned their conduct towards Queen Caroline as ‘not only unjustifiable, but unconstitutional’ and argued that parliamentary reform was ‘absolutely necessary’.5 He elaborated on this theme at the county reform meeting in March 1823, when he repudiated the argument that reform was synonymous with revolution: ‘He did not wish to destroy, but to restore the constitution’.6 He came into actual possession of the Ripton estates on the death of his mother in July 1824.7 He was again active in Russell’s support at the contested election of 1826, when he deplored the intrusion of the ‘No Popery’ cry and the bigotry of the ‘old women’ of the county. He won great applause for his comments on the corn laws, arguing that a stable market was more desirable than high prices.8 He was one of the requisitionists of the Huntingdonshire agricultural meeting in October 1826.9
Rooper remained associated with the county’s independents after Russell’s defeat and, as Lord John was engaged elsewhere by 1830, emerged as their first choice to contest the county at the general election. He was encouraged to come forward by Lord Milton*, but he shied at the expense of a contest and refused to stand without a guarantee of financial indemnity. He told Milton:
The more I think on the subject, the more I feel satisfied of the imprudence of my placing myself in a situation, I must, one day have incurred considerable expense to have maintained; the running into a contest would, with my family, have been little short of madness.
He could not be cajoled into standing even by a deputation of freeholders, 7 July 1830, but that day he informed Milton: ‘I am to be nominated, not as a candidate, nor to be put into any expense, but if elected am pledged to serve’.10 A subscription was opened and he was canvassed for with some degree of success as the ‘farmer’s friend’. He was nominated in opposition to the Montagu candidates, but although he appeared on the hustings and was by far the most popular candidate, he refused to accept the nomination. He defended his reluctance to come forward on the ground of his determination to maintain his integrity, and declared that a seat in Parliament ‘might be purchased too dearly’. He welcomed the growing spirit of independence among the freeholders, adding that nothing remained for them but the election of a candidate of ‘sentiments congenial with their own, or returning two Members who dared not and who would not vote as they ought’. In a reference to the July revolution in France, he condemned the conduct of Polignac’s ministry and trusted that ‘speedy and condign punishment would fall upon them’. He reaffirmed his Whig principles and commitment to the agricultural interest, but denied being under Milton’s thumb. His supporters persisted on his behalf, but the cause was hopeless and he came bottom of the poll after a four-day contest.11
Rooper addressed the Huntingdon reform meeting, 2 Apr. 1831, when he represented the Grey ministry’s reform bill as a compromise between extremes. He considered that the disfranchisement of nomination and corrupt boroughs was ‘a pretty good sweep, but not more so than the country required’, and he particularly welcomed the enfranchisement of industrial towns. He acknowledged the duke of Wellington’s achievements, but said that even repeal of the Test Acts and Catholic emancipation were ‘dust in the balance when weighed against his opposition to parliamentary reform, for in a reformed Parliament such evils could not for a moment have existence’.12 Writing to Milton on the dissolution, 24 Apr., he remained as pragmatic as ever about the possibility of coming forward:
The same motives which compelled me to resist becoming a candidate at the late election still exist; indeed are stronger, as I have an additional child to provide for. No nomination can succeed, neither is it fair merely for the purpose of putting our opponents to expense. You, I think, will enter into my feelings respecting subscriptions, agents unpaid and tradesmen injured in their business, though others will not.
He was aware of his increased popularity at Huntingdon, particularly among the tradesmen, and continued, ‘I hear they mean to nominate me, at all events, for the borough, not with any view to success now but in case it should be thrown open’.13 Nothing came of this. As a member of the county’s independent committee he was a party to their initial agreement not to oppose Lord Strathavon, one of the county Members, in consequence of his support for reform. The independents, however, soon lost confidence in Strathavon, and shortly before the election they brought forward Rooper, whom they had guaranteed against expense, as an uncompromising reformer. Under normal circumstances, he told the freeholders, he would not have aspired to a seat in Parliament; but when so important a measure was brought forward by ministers and approved by the crown, it would have been improper for him to have demurred:
The friends of the independence of the county had been so often taunted with the epithets of Jacobin and radical, that it would have been unworthy of him had he not afforded them an opportunity of evincing their loyalty ... He was not a moderate reformer; if reform was necessary let them have such a one as would effect some good.
He repudiated the assertion of Lord Mandeville, the senior county member, that reform was prejudicial to the agricultural interest, and headed the poll throughout the three-day contest. In returning thanks he pledged himself to a ‘diligent attendance’, and at his celebration dinner he boasted that his triumph had emancipated the county from aristocratic dictation.14
Rooper, who never joined Brooks’s Club, voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and divided steadily for most of its detailed provisions, though he voted for the disfranchisement of Saltash, 26 July 1831. He is not known to have spoken in debate during this period, but he presented an anti-slavery petition, 25 June. He voted with government against charges of improper interference in the Dublin election, 23 Aug. He divided for the passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept., the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s motion of confidence in the ministry, 10 Oct. He voted for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and was again a reliable supporter of its details. He divided for its third reading, 22 Mar., and the second reading of the Irish measure, 25 May 1832. He was in the government majorities on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12, 16, 20 July, inquiry into the number of British mercenaries serving in Portugal, 9 Feb., and rationalization of the civil administration of the navy, 6 Apr. He voted for the Irish register of deeds bill, 9 Apr., and to open coroners’ inquests to the public, 20 June 1832.
Rooper represented the county until his defeat in 1837, when he retired to private life, from which he had emerged, it was generally believed, more out of deference to his friends than from any ambition of his own. According to a fulsome obituary he was ‘the personification of that rare virtue political honesty’, and ‘there was in him no bending sycophancy, no double-faced policy, no subserviency’. He was ‘thoroughly English’, for ‘no other land would have produced the bones and gristle of his mind’.