HARRISON, John (c.1589-1669), of St. Olave's, Hart Street, London; later of Balls Park, Herts. and Beaumont, Lancs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



1640 (Apr.)
1640 (Nov.) - 4 Sept. 1643
1644 (Oxf. Parl.)
1661 - 28 Sept. 1669

Family and Education

b. c.1589, 12th s. of William Harrison of Aldcliffe, Beaumont, Lancs. and Margaret, da. of Christopher Gardiner of Urswick, Lancs.1 educ. Warton g.s.; ?Queen’s, Oxf. 1603.2 m. (1) 6 Sept. 1616, Margaret (bur. 6 Aug. 1640), da. of Robert Fanshawe of Dronfield, Derbys., 3s. (d.v.p.), 2da.;3 (2) c.Jan. 1646, Mary (d. 14 Feb. 1706), da. of Philip Shotbolt alias Battalion of Ardeley, Herts., 1s. 1da.4 kntd. 4 Jan. 1641.5 d. 28 Sept. 1669.6

Offices Held

Member, Virg. Co. 1622.7

Clerk to Sir John Wolstenholme* c.1611-38;8 collector, pretermitted customs, outports 1620-4;9 farmer, sugar duties 1626-?32, petty farm 1632-8, 1641, great farm 1640-1;10 commr. customs 1660-2, farmer 1662-d.11

J.p. Herts. 1638-42, 1660-d.;12 commr. levying money (parl.) 1643, loyal and indigent officers, London and Westminster 1662, assessment, Herts. and Lancs. 1664-d.13

Gent. privy chamber 1664-d.14


From a modest Lancashire background, Harrison should not be confused with Capt. John Harrison, sent to the Barbary coast as diplomatic agent in 1626, or with the man who served as groom to Prince Henry and was licensed to travel abroad in 1613. Nor was he the Leeds clothier cited in Parliament as an associate of Sir John Savile* in June 1626.15 He was probably related to the Lancashire Harrisons who ran a clothing business at the Old Exchange, and was almost certainly the brother of George Harrison, a Virginia colonist, as he acquired three shares in the Company from Sir John Wolstenholme in 1622.16 Harrison entered a brief pedigree when granted arms in 1616, but his daughter admitted

I have little knowledge of my father’s relations more than the families of Aston [?Assheton], Ireland, Sandys, Beaumont and Curwen, who brought him to London and placed him with my lord treasurer Salisbury [Robert Cecil†], then secretary of state, who sent him into Sir John Wolstenholme’s family and gave him a small place in the custom house to enable him for that employment.

There is no independent evidence to link Harrison with these families, or with Salisbury. Harrison’s daughter also claimed that ‘besides his education’, her father ‘never had but 20 marks which his father gave him when he came to London’, and she recalled his facility as ‘a great accountant [of] vast memory, [and] an incomparable penman’.17 Harrison began his career managing Wolstenholme’s collectorship of London export duties, married a relative of the latter’s wife in 1616, became joint collector of the new pretermitted custom in 1620 and served as an overseer of his former master’s will in 1639.18

In April 1624 Harrison testified before the Commons about bribes offered to lord treasurer Middlesex (Sir Lionel Cranfield*) by the holders of the great farm of the customs and the French and Rhenish wine farm. He and several others claimed gratuities had been paid, and while Middlesex insisted these payments had been for shares in the great farm, the House was in no mood to accept his excuses.19 Two years later, following Parliament’s failure to renew traditional customs revenue of Tunnage and Poundage, Harrison drafted plans for the Crown to resume control of customs administration. This would have given the customers a direct mandate to collect dues no longer authorized by statute, and would also have allowed administrators such as himself a much greater say in the running of the customs house than private financiers were prepared to allow. In a later account probably prepared for the Long Parliament, Harrison claimed that the duke of Buckingham rejected his scheme in the autumn of 1627 because it did not allow for the anticipation of customs revenues, a facility keeping Crown finances afloat following the defeat on the Île de Ré.20 Although Harrison might have wished to suggest otherwise in 1640, this rebuff does not appear to have strained his relations with the duke, as he was then a tenant of Lord Dingwall, one of the duke’s supporters, and Buckingham’s confidant Sir George Goring* had recently sold him the lease of the sugar farm formerly held by Middlesex.21

In his 1640 memorandum Harrison recalled that in 1628, ‘the Act of the subsidy of Tunnage and Poundage [was] not passed’. It was clearly the need to secure the passage of this bill which moved Harrison and Wolstenholme (whose return was eventually overturned by the House) to seek election to Parliament in that year. Harrison wrote to the Scarborough corporation for a seat on 31 Jan., professing ‘a desire to do my country service, and particularly (in respect of some friends amongst you) to dedicate my best endeavours to the good of your corporation’. The friends he referred to were probably the 1625 MP William Thompson* and the latter’s son Francis, customer of Scarborough. Despite this undertaking, the only evidence that he became involved in local interests while in Parliament was his appointment to a committee to investigate the attempts of the London-based Greenland Company to exclude the Hull whalers from their hunting grounds (17 May).22

Harrison left no trace on the debates over constitutional issues which dominated much of the 1628 session. The Tunnage and Poundage bill received two readings in the opening weeks, but on 11 Apr. it was resolved that the customs rates should be revised, a decision which promised endless delays but offered the faint prospect of an end to 20 years’ worth of disputes over impositions. On 17 May Sir Dudley Digges* called for a progress report, whereupon the imposition on currants and the Newcastle coal duty (the latter farmed by Wolstenholme) came under fire. Harrison named Sir Edmund Sawyer* as the author of a new draft of the Book of Rates which proposed the introduction of fresh impositions, an issue which was always contentious during this period. Sawyer, an Exchequer auditor whose work superseded a similar project by Harrison’s colleague Abraham Dawes, was subsequently expelled from the House (21 June). Harrison’s motives in naming Sawyer are difficult to discern. Perhaps he feared that his own activities would be investigated, or maybe he was prepared to sacrifice Sawyer in order to establish customs revenues on a wholly statutory basis, a development which would have delighted the farmers, if not necessarily the Crown.23

Harrison was named to committees to interrogate Sawyer (17 May), to investigate sundry minor customs matters (4 June, 20 June) and to assess the prospects for completion of the Tunnage and Poundage bill (13 June). Moreover, on 19 May he delivered up Wolstenholme’s patents for coal levies, which were referred to the same committee as Sawyer’s book of rates but remained unexamined at the prorogation.24 On 24 June, when Digges reported proposals to revive the Crown’s bounty for shipbuilders, Harrison was one of those ordered to draft a petition to the king. It is not known whether he was a member of the committee appointed later the same day to draft the Remonstrance on Tunnage and Poundage, which promised to update the book of rates but criticized the collection of duties without the authority of statute, and led to the sudden prorogation of the session two days later.25

The customers’ seizure of John Rolle’s* goods shortly before Parliament reassembled in January 1629 dashed any realistic hopes of passing the Tunnage and Poundage bill; in his 1640 memorandum, Harrison recalled that the session ended ‘without effecting anything that was hoped for either for the good of [the] King or kingdom’.26 Though he presumably lobbied in private, Harrison’s employment by the customs farmers made it difficult for him to defend Wolstenholme when the latter was examined about the seizure of Rolle’s goods: his only recorded contribution was to explain the financial guarantees given to the farmers in their lease. Other than this, he was named to committees to investigate breaches of the trade embargo with Spain (26 Jan.), confirm the charter of the Somers Island Company (10 Feb.), and increase trade (11 February). He was also appointed to help investigate complaints against Sir Edward Moseley* (7 Feb.) and the postal service (7 February).27

Writing in 1640, Harrison claimed to have become increasingly disillusioned with the customs farmers during the 1630s for using procedures ‘conducing to their most profit and advantage’. He allegedly considered resignation, ‘which I had absolutely done if the persuasion of some intimate friends together with some danger threatening me from the court, by means of ill offices from some of our envious partners warning me to look to my safety had not stayed my resolution’. However, he may have exaggerated his objections in hindsight to win the sympathy of the Long Parliament, and indeed, far from resigning when his scheme for direct administration was ignored, he joined the petty farm syndicate.28 On the other hand, he and Wolstenholme raised fresh objections in 1635 when Abraham Dawes drafted a revised book of rates. Sir Thomas Roe* urged him to take his alternative to Archbishop Laud, though Harrison insisted he was ‘a stranger to him and not affecting those ways of innovation in the church which he was then voiced to be the bringer in and great favourer of’. Nevertheless, Harrison lobbied for Laud’s endorsement of a scheme which, Harrison claimed, would increase Crown revenues by as much as Dawes’s book of rates. While initially interested, Laud changed his mind in 1636, following the appointment of his ally Bishop Juxon as lord treasurer.29

In about 1637, probably to prevent Lord (formerly Sir George) Goring from taking control of the great farm from the existing syndicate, Harrison took his plan for direct administration to Digges, now master of the Rolls, and Sir Henry Vane*, who persuaded lord chamberlain Pembroke (Sir Philip Herbert*) to show it to the king. However, when the project was referred to a sub-committee of the Privy Council, Goring clinched the contract by raising his tender to match the income guaranteed by Harrison’s scheme.30 Harrison retired temporarily to his newly acquired Hertfordshire estate, but he was returned for Lancaster at both the general elections of 1640, and was persuaded to rejoin the customs syndicate in the summer of 1640. He incurred the wrath of the Long Parliament for doing so, but his son William† saved him by promising the Commons an advance of £50,000 on the subsidy to pay the armies in the north. He remained in London on the outbreak of the Civil War, where he was eventually put under house arrest, but he escaped to Oxford in 1643.31 After the war he was unable to pay his composition fine of £10,745, but, presumably by adding uncollected customs revenues to his personal losses, ‘he made it appear with great truth that during the time of the war he lost by the rebels above £130,000’; he was therefore discharged from his delinquency on payment of a mere £1,000. Harrison’s financial troubles ended at the Restoration, when he regained his post in the customs administration.32

‘Sick and weak in body’, Harrison was ‘above eighty years of age’ when he drafted his will on 21 Sept. 1669; he died a week later.33 Having long since provided for the children of his first marriage, he was succeeded in both his estates and his parliamentary seat at Lancaster by his only surviving son, Richard Harrison†.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. Vis. London (Harl. Soc. xv), 354.
  • 2. PROB 11/338, f. 121; Al. Ox.
  • 3. Fanshawe Memoirs ed. H.C. Fanshawe, 19-20; H.C. Fanshawe, Hist. Fanshawe Fam. 39-43; St. Olave, Hart Street (Harl. Soc. reg. xlvi), 173.
  • 4. Fanshawe, 43, 142.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 208.
  • 6. Fanshawe Memoirs, 21.
  • 7. Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.M. Kingsbury, i. 599.
  • 8. Fanshawe Memoirs, 21.
  • 9. E351/779-83.
  • 10. CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 573; R. Ashton, Crown and the Money Market, 104-5, 108, 110-12.
  • 11. CTB, i. 226; iii. 1127.
  • 12. C231/5, pp. 292, 530.
  • 13. A. and O. i. 231; SR, v. 382, 532, 582, 619.
  • 14. Carlisle, Privy Chamber, 174.
  • 15. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 116; 1625-6, pp. 6-7; SO3/5, unfol. (3 July 1613); LC5/132, p. 52; Procs. 1626, iii. 393-4.
  • 16. PROB 11/82, f. 90v; 11/133, f. 574; 11/135, f. 259; CSP Col. 1574-1660, pp. 25, 29, 36, 52, 61; Recs. Virg. Co. i. 599.
  • 17. Grantees of Arms ed. W.H. Rylands (Harl. Soc. lxvi), 116; Vis. London (Harl. Soc. xv), 354; Fanshawe Memoirs, 21-22.
  • 18. Fanshawe, 42; PROB 11/181, f. 297v; E351/779-83; CD 1629, p. 154.
  • 19. M. Prestwich, Cranfield, 443-5, 449-50, 458; ‘Nicholas 1624’, ff. 121, 123v, 124; ‘Holland 1624’, i. ff. 85v, 87v, 88v; ‘Spring 1624’, p. 192.
  • 20. Stowe 326, ff. 40, 58v-59; Ashton, 95-6.
  • 21. Fanshawe Memoirs, 18; CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 573; M.C. Alexander, Charles I’s Ld. Treasurer, 66-7.
  • 22. Stowe 326, f. 59; Scarborough Recs. ed. M.Y. Ashcroft (N. Yorks. RO, xlvii), 187, 361; APC 1627, p. 229; CD 1628, iii. 122, 449.
  • 23. CD 1628, ii. 386-7, 411, 415-16; iii. 453-5; iv. 392, 469; C. Russell, PEP, 386-8.
  • 24. CD 1628, iii. 448, 469; iv. 82-3, 289, 389.
  • 25. Ibid. iv. 453, 458, 470-1, 480.
  • 26. Russell, 401-3; Stowe 326, f. 59.
  • 27. CD 1629, p. 159; CJ, i. 922a, 927-9.
  • 28. Stowe 326, ff. 59v-60; Ashton, 108.
  • 29. Fanshawe Memoirs, 23; Alexander, 196-8; Stowe 326, ff. 61-2; SP16/285/7 (21 Mar. 1635).
  • 30. Stowe 326, ff. 42-52, 64-65.
  • 31. Ibid. ff. 66-67, 89v-90v; Ashton, 110-12; Fanshawe Memoirs, 24, 39.
  • 32. Ashton, 110-12; Fanshawe Memoirs, 22; CCC, 95; ii. 1523; Stowe 185; CTB, i. 226.
  • 33. PROB 11/338, f. 121; Fanshawe Memoirs, 191.