WELLS, John (1761-1848), of 24 Lombard Street, London and Bickley Hall, Bromley, Kent

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

Constituency

Dates

1820 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 1761, 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of William Wells (d. 1805), shipbuilder, of Deptford and Susanna, da. of James Neave of London and Walthamstow, Essex. m. 3 Sept. 1796, Esther Puget of Wickham,1 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 5da. (at least 2 d.v.p.). d. 22 Nov. 1848.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Kent 1812-13.

Biography

Wells came from a family of shipwrights which had been established in business at Deptford since the seventeenth century. His grandfather, Abraham Wells, who was in partnership with a Mr. Brunsdon, died in 1752. His two sons purchased the Howland Great Dock from the 4th duke of Bedford in 1763 and constructed many ships for the East India Company and the navy. The elder, John, rebuilt Bickley Hall and died, ‘an eminent shipbuilder’, in June 1794. The younger, William, lived at the family home of Canister House, Chislehurst, acquired Holmewood, Huntingdonshire, from his brother-in-law, Sir Richard Neave, and inherited Bickley from his brother. John Wells was the second surviving son of William and became, like his youngest brother William (1768-1847), a partner in the family firm, which moved to Blackwall, Poplar, in about 1805. When his father died in November 1805 he was left £14,000 outright, and he later received a share from the trust established for his mother, who died in 1810.2 His elder brother, Thomas, vice-admiral of the white, settled at Holmewood and sold Bickley to Wells, who made it his permanent home. He became a magistrate, was appointed sheriff of Kent in 1812, being called in to hear Philip Nicholson’s confession to the brutal murder of his master Thomson Bonar and his wife in 1813.3 He seems to have left the family firm, then known as Wells, Wigrams and Green, in about 1814. In 1821 he became a partner in the London banking house which was thenceforth known as Whitmore, Wells and Whitmore, whose senior partner was Thomas Whitmore*.

Wells’s first known venture into politics was at Maidstone at the general election of 1818. He was brought forward on the day before the poll to oppose the Whig George Longman†, but was forced to retire when it became clear that Longman and a new Whig candidate, Abraham Robarts*, were ahead. In an address of 20 June 1818, Wells claimed that he would have succeeded if circumstances had allowed him to be introduced earlier and he promised to offer again ‘upon the British principles of loyalty and independence’.4 His chance came at the general election of 1820, when it was rumoured that he would stand on the ministerial interest. Despite being staunchly anti-Catholic, he initially withdrew his pretensions when his supporters in the corporation insisted that he pledge himself to vote against emancipation, and he only agreed to re-enter the field after having made it clear that he did so ‘unshackled and unrestrained’.5 He stood against Robarts and another Whig, Richard Sharp*, but received popular support and was returned in second place behind Robarts. In an address of thanks, 13 Mar. 1820, he promised to discharge his constituents’ trust, ‘neither influenced by party nor intimidated by faction’, and to assist in the alleviation of distress caused by the war.6 A petition against him lapsed owing to a failure to enter recognizances.

Although Wells was broadly sympathetic to the Liverpool ministry, he took an increasingly independent line, particularly on issues of economy and taxation. He moved the third reading of the bill to prevent frauds in the delivery of coal in places adjacent to the Thames, 30 June 1820.7 He voted with government on Hume’s motion for economies in revenue collection, 4 July, but divided against receiving the report of the barrack agreement bill, 17 July 1820. He was entrusted with the address calling on the king to dismiss ministers because of the prevailing agrarian distress, which was agreed by a meeting in Maidstone, 1 Jan. 1821, and his concern over the issue was shown by his forgiving one of his tenants a debt of £350.8 In the House, 2 Feb., he stated that he had signed the London merchants’ declaration of loyalty to the king agreed at the London Tavern, and rebutted John Smith’s allegations that this had been a clandestine meeting not truly representative of mercantile opinion in the City. He voted in defence of ministers’ conduct towards Queen Caroline, 6 Feb. He divided against Catholic claims, 28 Feb. 1821, and allowing Catholic peers to sit in the Lords, 30 Apr. 1822. He voted with government on the state of the revenue, 6 Mar., and Hume’s motion for economy and retrenchment, 27 June, but against them on the additional malt duty repeal bill, 3 Apr., the timber duties, 5 Apr., the war office grant, 6 Apr., and the omission of arrears from the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June 1821. He divided against parliamentary reform, 9 May. He presented a petition from Maidstone for reform of the criminal law, 17 May, but voted against the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 23 May.9 He was appointed to the select committee on poor returns, 28 May 1821, as he was every year until 1827. He was listed as voting against more extensive tax reductions to relieve distress, 11 Feb., but for this, 21 Feb. 1822. He voted for gradual reduction of the salt duties, 28 Feb., and abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar., 2 May. He divided for Lethbridge’s motion for a fixed 40s. duty on corn, 8 May, and against the new corn duties, 9 May 1822.

Wells was given ten days’ sick leave, 17 Feb., but was present to vote against the appointment of Lord Beresford as lieutenant-general of the ordnance in peacetime, 19 Feb. 1823. He voted for papers on the plot to murder the lord lieutenant of Ireland, 24 Mar., and inquiry into the legal proceedings against the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr. He divided for abolition of the death penalty for larceny, 21 May, and inquiry into chancery administration, 5 June. He voted for Whitmore’s motion to equalize the duties on East and West Indian sugar, 22 May, and was listed in both the majority and minority on inquiry into the currency, 12 June. He divided against the grant for a new London Bridge, 16 June, the beer duties bill, 17 June, and the reciprocity of duties bill, 4 July. On 30 June he stated that Hume, in making accusations of persecution against the Catholics, had charged Joseph Butterworth* ‘with matters as far from the fact as any can be’.10 During the session he assisted in obtaining the bill to light Maidstone with gas, including reporting from committee, 5 May 1823. The following year, he was involved in the passage of the bill to erect new markets there, and reported to the House, 18 Mar. 1824, that delays had been caused by the need to arrange a court of burghmote, but that leave should be given. He voted to end flogging in the army, 5 Mar., and for postponing the grant for repairs to Windsor Castle, 5 Apr. He divided for repeal of the leather tax, 18 May, and against lifting the prohibition on the exportation of long wool, 21 May. He voted against the beer bill, 24 May, stating that it ‘would not only be ruinous to a numerous class of tradesmen, but of no advantage to the public’, and the practice of plurality among Irish clergy, 29 May. Wells, ‘whose urbanity and kindness of heart gave zest to the proceedings of the day’, spoke at the mayoral dinner in Maidstone, 8 Dec. 1824, concluding ‘by a hearty assurance that, as he felt it to be his bounden and conscientious duty, for the safety and happiness of Great Britain, so would he strenuously oppose every attempt at Catholic emancipation’.11 He duly voted with ministers for the Irish unlawful societies bill, 25 Feb., and against Catholic claims, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. He brought up a hostile Maidstone petition, 26 Apr., when he divided against the Irish franchise bill. He voted against the duke of Cumberland’s annuity bill, 9, 10 June 1825, and for a select committee on the silk trade petitions, 24 Feb. 1826. On 17 Mar., when he commented that slavery was inimical to the liberty of the subject and ought to be abolished, he remarked that in his visits to France he had attempted to persuade the minister, Villèle, of the need to empower their navy to stop the trade.12 He urged the Bank of England to take greater precautions against the circulation of forged notes, 21 Mar. His only other known vote in this Parliament was against reform of the representation of Edinburgh, 13 Apr. 1826.

The local Tory newspaper reported that as a result of his anti-slavery speech, the ‘thinking part of our townsmen are resolutely determined to support Mr. Wells to the uttermost at the general election’. Indeed, a meeting in his favour, attended by over 200 freemen, 26 May 1826, revealed the extent of his popularity.13 He expressed his gratitude for their support in his address, in which he also stressed his independence of party. On the eve of the poll the following month, he confirmed his stance against Catholic relief and slavery. He also opined that the price of bread ‘ought to be as low as it possibly can be, consistent with the safety and protection of the farmer’, and that ministers had acted wrongly in trying to alter the corn laws. On the hustings, he professed ‘neither to be Whig nor Tory, but my principles are those which were established in this country in 1688’, and he denied the partisan slurs which were cast against him. The acknowledged Tory candidate, Wyndham Lewis*, whose own canvassing lists revealed Wells’s strength among the jurats and common councilmen, failed to gain his expected support and was easily defeated by Wells and Robarts.14 Wells, who became increasingly alienated from official Toryism, spoke and voted against Clarence’s annuity bill, 2 Mar. 1827. He presented an anti-Catholic petition from the corporation of Maidstone, 5 Mar., when his observations could not be heard above the coughing and cries of ‘question’, and he voted against relief the following day.15 He divided for information on the mutiny at Barrackpoor, 22 Mar., and to consider separating bankruptcy jurisdiction from chancery, 22 May. He voted against the second reading of the corn bill, 2 Apr. He declared that a ‘great proportion of the Protestant Dissenters among his constituents were adverse to the Catholic claims’, 22 May, and opposed concessions to Catholics, 6 June, observing that he would vote for ministers to stay neutral on the question. On 8 June he made some inaudible comments in reply to Robarts’s denial that most Dissenters were against relief.16 He praised the non-partisan work of the Church Missionary Society in Kent, at its meeting in Maidstone, 4 July 1827.17

He presented a Dissenters’ petition against the Test Acts, 22 Feb., and voted for their repeal, 26 Feb. 1828. He likewise brought up an anti-Catholic one from Beckenham, 1 May, and divided against relief, 12 May. He voted against provision for Canning’s family, 13 May, and reduction of the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July. At the request of a court of burghmote, 23 May, he presented Maidstone corporation’s petition against the alehouses licensing bill, 30 May.18 At a meeting of the Kent Auxiliary to the British Reformation Society at Maidstone, 5 June, he blamed Irish distress on the Catholic church and supported the extension of Protestantism there.19 He promised Lord Winchilsea, the leader of the anti-Catholic campaign in Kent, that he would attend a meeting in Maidstone to form a Brunswick Club that autumn.20 He duly endorsed its principle, 16 Sept., ‘for that constitution which we so justly love and revere would not be handed down to our children inviolable, unless the Protestant ascendancy was maintained’. He mentioned the Catholic threat to ‘lick the Protestants’, and received immense applause when he added that ‘I am now an old man, but if ever that time should come, my frame would be invigorated with youthful strength and I would fight up to my knees in blood in defence of Protestantism’. He attended the stormy county meeting on Penenden Heath as a Brunswicker, 24 Oct. 1828, but did not speak.21 At the end of the year he acknowledged the thanks of the Maidstone freemen belonging to the Purple Single Vote Society for his anti-Catholic votes, but mentioned that he did not intend to offer himself for re-election.22 He was, of course, listed by Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary, in February 1829 as ‘opposed to the principle’ of Catholic emancipation, against which he voiced his opposition on the 12th. On presenting hostile Maidstone petitions, 26 Feb., he acknowledged his fear of the intolerant spirit of the Catholics and the influence which 60 Catholic Members might hold in the House, affirmed that he would oppose ‘Stuart’ attempts to endanger the Protestant constitution and again quarrelled with Robarts over the balance of opinion in their constituency. He voted against relief, 6 Mar., and called Stephen Lushington’s attack on the likeminded Sir Robert Inglis, 9 Mar., ‘altogether unmerited’. In a major speech, 16 Mar., he criticized ministers for changing their policy, pledged himself once more to follow his constituents’ wishes and claimed that ‘I have attended in this House and voted on every occasion against the progress of these bills’. He ended with a peroration on the country’s obligations to ‘the family of Brunswick’, and when John Martin criticized him for having incited agitation the previous September, he answered that he deplored violence and that his ‘foolish expression’ had merely been intended as a riposte to Catholic threats. He voted against the second reading of the relief bill, 18 Mar., receiving the report, 27 Mar., and the third reading, 30 Mar. He divided against the silk trade bill, 1 May, arguing that it did too little to safeguard protection for manufacturers and so alleviate the distress which they blamed on free trade, and he again spoke against it, 7, 8 May. On 7 May 1829 he stated that it was the newly introduced system of free trade, not protection, which had caused economic depression.

Like Sir Edward Knatchbull, the county Member, Wells was listed by Sir Richard Vyvyan*, the Ultra leader, among the ‘Tories strongly opposed to the present government’ in October 1829. He was a steward at the dinner to thank Knatchbull for his anti-Catholic activities, 13 Nov. 1829, when he spoke in praise of his conduct in Parliament and of Winchilsea’s on Penenden Heath.23 He duly voted for Knatchbull’s amendment to the address on distress, 4 Feb. 1830. He divided for transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, and against the bill to prevent bribery there, 11 Feb., for which he received the praise of the Whig Maidstone Gazette, 16 Feb., as ‘one of the few independent men who support the marquess of Blandford in his patriotic though we fear unavailing endeavours to redress the grievances of the people’. He sided with opposition against granting supplies, 11 Feb. He presented a Tonbridge petition for repeal of the beer duties, 23 Feb., and, endorsing it, commented on the very great and widespread distress which he blamed on free trade and government’s refusal to act. He divided in favour of Blandford’s reform scheme, 18 Feb., and enfranchising Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. Having again voted for transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 Mar., he was in the minorities against the third reading of the East Retford disfranchisement bill and for O’Connell’s proposal to include the ballot in its provisions, 15 Mar. He sided with opposition against the admiralty grant, 22 Mar., the Bathurst and Dundas pensions, 26 Mar., and the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 29 Mar., and for returns of the emoluments of privy councillors, 14 May. When Knatchbull presented the Kent petition complaining of distress, 29 Mar., Wells supported its call for relief and its secondary request that Parliament reform itself in order to be more responsive to the demands of the people. He eschewed visionary political schemes, but warned ministers of the threat of enforced changes:

These principles of free trade and altered currency have extensively connected themselves with the causes of distress of the agriculturalist, the manufacturer and the shopkeeper; as long as these important classes are depreciated, all under them must of course suffer and it will be in vain to hope for an improvement of the national resources.

When Honywood, the other county Member, expressed surprise at his change of heart on reform, Wells replied that he was ‘mistaken: I always wished to see abuses remedied’. He presented and endorsed petitions from the licensed victuallers of Maidstone and Aylesford against the beer bill, and voted against it, 4 May. On 1 July he stated that it would be injurious to the peace of the country, as ‘numbers of houses are already fitting up in contemplation of it, which will of course be mere pot-houses and tend greatly to demoralize the lower classes’; he voted for postponing for two years permission to sell beer for consumption on the premises that day. Partly through his identification with the disaffected landowning Tories, Wells had become increasingly separated from the mainstream of the party, and, in addition to his consistent stance against financial extravagance, his conversion to reform had made him in practice almost indistinguishable from the Whigs by 1830. As expected, he retired at the dissolution that year, pleading that his age did not allow him to pay sufficient attention to his parliamentary duties.24 However, he continued to play a local political role, and in February 1831, for instance, he chaired a meeting of agriculturists in Bromley to petition Parliament. He was briefly considered as a possible candidate for Maidstone at the general election of 1831.25 He plumped for the Whig Thomas Law Hodges* for Kent West at the general election of 1837.26 He probably suffered heavy financial losses when his bank failed in July 1841, and some time later he left Bickley and moved to 53 Cambridge Terrace, Hyde Park.27 He died there, only two weeks after his wife, in November 1848, aged 87, leaving his entire estate to his only surviving son, John Joseph (b. 1804).28 His great-nephew, another William Wells, was Liberal Member for Beverley, 1852-7, and Peterborough, 1868-74.29

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell

Notes

  • 1. IGI (Kent); Gent. Mag. (1796), ii. 789 gives 2 Sept.
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1794), ii. 672; (1805), ii. 1087; (1810), i. 496; PROB 11/1434/810; IR26/105/216; E.L.S. Horsburgh, Bromley, Kent, 203-4; P. Banbury, Shipbuilders of Thames and Medway, 139-42; Oxford DNB sub William Wells (1729-1805).
  • 3. Gent. Mag. (1813), i. 583.
  • 4. Maidstone Jnl. 23 June 1818.
  • 5. Ibid. 15, 29 Feb., 7 Mar. 1820, 13 June 1826.
  • 6. Ibid. 14 Mar. 1820.
  • 7. The Times, 1 July 1820.
  • 8. Maidstone Jnl. 2 Jan., 13 Mar. 1821.
  • 9. The Times, 18 May 1821.
  • 10. Ibid. 1 July 1823.
  • 11. Maidstone Jnl. 14 Dec. 1824.
  • 12. Ibid. 21 Mar. 1826.
  • 13. Ibid.; The Times, 2, 9 June 1826.
  • 14. Maidstone Jnl. 6, 13 June 1826; Bodl. Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/13c.
  • 15. The Times, 6 Mar. 1827.
  • 16. Ibid. 23 May, 7, 9 June 1827.
  • 17. Maidstone Jnl. 10 July 1827.