JOHNSON, Thomas (1586-1660), of Great Yarmouth, Norf.

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



Family and Education

bap. 18 Sept. 1586,1 s. of James Johnson of Gt. Yarmouth, merchant and Alice, da. of one Smith.2 m. 24 Jan. 1616, Margaret (d. by Oct. 1623), da. of Thomas Thompson of Gt. Yarmouth, 2s.3 1 other ch. d.v.p.4 d. Sept. 1660.5 sig. Tho[mas] Johnson.

Offices Held

Freeman, Gt. Yarmouth 1610,6 common cllr. 1616-24,7 auditor 1619-20, 1623-24, 1628-33, 1637-44, 1646-7,8 constable 1621,9 alderman 1624-48, 1660-d.,10 bailiff 1624-5, 1635-6, 1644-5, 1660-d.,11 j.p. 1628-at least 1648,12 commr. piracy 1630.13


Johnson, whose family may have originated in Kent,14 rose from humble beginnings to become one of Great Yarmouth’s most successful and wealthy merchants in the early seventeenth century. He imported luxury items, such as pepper, prunes, almonds and spices, but also brought in salt and wine, and occasionally ‘Holland ropes’ and barley.15 Though mainly an importer, he is known to have exported red and white herrings to the Continent.16 A shipowner as well as a trader, he was sufficiently prosperous to contribute £50 towards the recovery of the Palatinate in 1622.17 In 1622 he signed a petition from Yarmouth’s coal carriers complaining of unjust charges laid by the Newcastle hostmen.18

Johnson may have supplemented his income by smuggling, for in 1611 he and three of his associates were accused in Star Chamber of assaulting a customs official named Sadlington, who had seized a wherry laden with with pepper and salt for non-payment of duty. However, the case was far from straightforward, as Sadlington’s suit had previously been dismissed by the Exchequer. As for the assault, Johnson alleged that it had actually been instigated by Sadlington, who had ‘drunk somewhat too liberally’. It seems possible that Sadlington nursed a grudge against Yarmouth and its merchants, as the town’s bailiffs had earlier attempted to arrest him.19

Johnson was often in trouble with Yarmouth’s corporation, of which he himself was a member from 1616. In 1617 he was reminded that he owed 53s. 4d. for four muskets he had borrowed five years earlier which had not been returned. The following year he was fined 2s. for failing to attend an assembly meeting without licence.20 In 1629 £3 was demanded from him after one of his ships ran into the ‘town boat’. He was fined again in 1656, when his Iceland fishing bark clipped the bridge over the Yare.21 Nevertheless, Johnson was sufficiently trusted by the corporation to ride to London in 1620 to procure the all-important annual herring licence, a task he also undertook in 1627.22 On the latter occasion the licence was obtained only after ‘much opposition’ from the Fishmongers’ Company and London merchants. However, Johnson was assisted by his brother, William, who lived in the capital and had previously helped supply Yarmouth with gunpowder. The two men were paid £13 for their efforts.23

In 1626 Johnson was elected to his first and only Parliament, and received expenses from the corporation. Though unmentioned in its records, he certainly attended, as he related ‘divers passages’ of business to the corporation, including the king’s message on supply, read to the Commons by Sir Richard Weston* on 11 March. While in Westminster Johnson was entrusted with defending Yarmouth in the Court of Arches against a suit brought by the dean and chapter of Norwich. He also disbursed £200 on behalf of the town towards the victualling of two royal warships, anchored in Kirkely Road, just south of Yarmouth.24 After his return from Parliament he continued to be active in Yarmouth’s affairs. In 1630 he leased an inn, the Town Arms, for £43 p.a., and three years later served on the haven repair committee. In May 1633 he met the representatives of Sandwich in London, who had complained about Yarmouth’s licence to export 1,000 tons of beer a year free of customs’ duties.25 Johnson’s dealings in London stood him in good stead with the Privy Council. In 1637 he complained to the Board that a merchant of Yarmouth, John Seamen, had slighted his character and criticized his conduct. The Council referred the matter to the bailiffs, noting, ‘we have observed the said Johnson to have behaved himself here with much diligence and integrity in your affairs’.26

During the early 1640s Johnson supported the parliamentarian cause. He travelled to Westminster in November 1642 and, by arguing Yarmouth’s case, obtained ‘divers pieces’ of ordnance to fortify the town. He also visited London’s Guildhall to pay the £1,000 raised by Yarmouth to support the Parliament.27 Early in 1643 he again visited the capital, this time to pay the wages of the town’s MPs, Edward Owner and Miles Corbet.28 The following year Johnson returned to London to inform the 2nd earl of Manchester (Edward Montagu*) of the state of the town, and was allowed £21 11s. 11d. for his charges in successfully opposing the imposition of an external parliamentary governor on Yarmouth.29 In 1645 Johnson entertained the commissioner from the Scottish Church to the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, the earl of Lauderdale.30 The earl returned to Yarmouth in July 1648 when the royalist fleet, commanded by Prince Charles and bolstered by the defection of nine parliamentarian ships, anchored off the town.31 Although Yarmouth was strongly parliamentarian there was a royalist minority led by Johnson’s son, Thomas.32 Yarmouth refused to surrender and the fleet sailed southwards, apparently with the younger Johnson.33 As a result of his son’s actions and his own royalism Johnson was forced to resign from the corporation by the parliamentary committee, and ordered to pay £234 for his delinquency.34 However, he remained sufficiently respected in Yarmouth to retain his seat among the aldermen in St. Nicholas’ church.35

At the Restoration, Johnson was restored as an alderman and elected bailiff shortly afterwards, but died less than a fortnight later. In his will, proved on 18 Sept., he divided his lands and tenements equally between his two sons, Thomas and James. He gave £30 to the poor of Yarmouth, and £10 towards the haven.36 His son, James, was knighted in 1671 and served as a Yarmouth MP in 1680.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Chris Kyle


  • 1. Norf. RO, Gt. Yarmouth par reg.
  • 2. Vis. Norf. (Norf. Rec. Soc. iv), 112; W. Rye, Norf. Fams. 418.
  • 3. Norf. RO, Gt. Yarmouth par. reg.
  • 4. Norf. RO, Y/39/1, unfol.
  • 5. Ibid. Y/C19/7, f. 362v.
  • 6. Cal. Yarmouth Freemen, 56.
  • 7. Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, ff. 168v-9.
  • 8. Ibid. Y/C18/1, ff. 104, 106v, 109-11, 113v-16v; Y/C19/7, f. 91.
  • 9. Ibid. Y/C18/1, f. 105v.
  • 10. Ibid. Y/C19/5, f. 299v; Y/C19/7, ff. 131, 352v.
  • 11. Ibid. Y/C18/1, ff. 107, 112v, 117; Y/C19/7, f. 360v.
  • 12. Ibid. Y/C18/1, ff. 109, 112v-113v, 116-19.
  • 13. C181/4, f. 50.
  • 14. Rye, 418.
  • 15. E190/488/1; 190/489/17; 190/492/11.
  • 16. E190/489/17.
  • 17. SP14/156/14; Norf. RO, Y/C26/2, unfol.; CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 286.
  • 18. Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, f. 273.
  • 19. STAC 8/265/5.
  • 20. Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, 168v, 170, 177v, 197v.
  • 21. Cott. Augustus I, i. 74.
  • 22. Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, f. 226; Y/C19/6, f. 73v.
  • 23. Ibid. Y/C19/6, ff. 9, 78v, 116.
  • 24. Ibid. ff. 10-11, 12v, 19, 20, 24v; A. Thrush, ‘Origins and Development of Ship Money’, War and Govt. in Britain, 1598-1650 ed. M.C. Fissel, 146.
  • 25. Norf. RO, Y/C19/6, ff. 156v, 269, 272; Y/C18/6, f. 124.
  • 26. PC2/47, p. 453.
  • 27. Norf. RO, Y/C19/7, ff. 6, 7.
  • 28. Ibid. f. 9.
  • 29. Ibid. ff. 36v, 40v.
  • 30. Ibid. 68; CP.
  • 31. Hist. of Gt. Yarmouth by Henry Manship ed. C.J. Palmer, 389-90; B. Capp, Cromwell’s Navy, 34.
  • 32. Historical Collections ed. J. Rushworth, vii. 1207; Resolution of Major-General Monro (1648), p. 4; Message Sent From His Highness the Princess of Wales (1648), p. 6.
  • 33. R. Ashton, Counter Revolution, 443.
  • 34. Norf. RO, Y/C19/7, ff. 124, 131, 148v; CCC, 1896.
  • 35. Norf. RO, Y/C19/7, f. 151.
  • 36. PROB 11/307, f. 1.