JOHNSON, Thomas (1664-1728), of Water Street, Liverpool

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Dec. 1701 - 2 Feb. 1723

Family and Education

bap. 27 Oct. 1664, s. of Thomas Johnson of Bedford Leigh, Lancs. by his 1st w. Elizabeth Sweeting.  m. (1) Lidia Holt (d. 1696), 2s. d.v.p. 2da.; (2) lic. 7 Apr. 1697, Elizabeth Barrow (d. 1718), s.psuc. fa. 1700; kntd. 20 Mar. 1708.1

Offices Held

Bailiff, Liverpool 1689, mariner, 1689, merchant appraiser 1691, common council 1689–d., mayor 1695–6, alderman by 1696–d.; burgess, Wigan 1696.2

Collector of customs on R. Rappahannock, Virginia 1723–5.3


A prominent tobacco and sugar merchant and a leading figure in the emerging rock salt industry of Cheshire and south Lancashire, Johnson was for over 30 years one of Liverpool’s leading citizens. Intimately involved in Liverpool’s economic expansion and the development of the town’s infrastructure, he played an important role in church-building, establishing Liverpool’s first dry dock, and in securing a reliable supply of water for the borough. Despite his prominence in local trade and corporation affairs, Johnson was always needy. Rumours about his dubious trading practices, given credence by the removal for fraud of Liverpool’s chief customs official in 1705, were rife among contemporaries, and Johnson’s poor financial position led him into a number of ill-judged schemes. Johnson’s father had been a leading figure in the corporation since the 1660s. In the 1670s he became the leading advocate of the right of the freemen to elect the mayor, and when the charter of 1676 vested this right of election in the common council, Johnson refused to act under the new charter. Johnson senior’s position as a martyr to the right of the freemen was recognized in 1695, when he was named as the borough’s mayor in the charter of that year which restored popular mayoral elections, and his son’s support for the new charter can be seen in the fact that in 1695–6 he was the first mayor chosen under its terms.4

With such strong credentials with the Whig interest at Liverpool, Johnson was an obvious candidate at the second election of 1701, once it had become clear that (Sir) William Norris* (1st Bt.), absent in India since 1698, was unlikely to be tolerated any longer, and he was returned unopposed. Until 1708 Johnson’s Commons activity is difficult to distinguish from that of William Johnson, but his copious correspondence reveals strong Whig sympathies, though tempered with an independence of thought and action. On 8 Jan. 1702 he claimed that ‘I take no side but as my reason directs me . . . I hope I shall not forfeit that to gratify any party’. Later the same month he wrote to Richard Norris* dismissing suggestions that in the forthcoming conflict with France, England should ‘but act as auxiliaries’, believing that the Commons’ resolutions were ‘in some measure declaring of war’. The financing of the war, more particularly the imposition of a duty on sugar, troubled him, but he wrote to Norris stating that although provision for supply ‘lies hard on trade’, such measures ‘could not be avoided’, and by March he was writing enthusiastically of the prospect of an alliance with the Dutch to ‘humble the great monarch’. The abjuration oath proposed by Sir Charles Hedges* in January caused Johnson some alarm. His loyalty to the Protestant succession was not in doubt, but he worried that the proposed clause to uphold the Church of England meant that ‘many will scruple’, and particularly that ‘ours and other corporations might suffer’ as a result of Dissenters’ unwillingness to take the compulsory oath. This sympathy for Dissent was again evident in March when the appointment of Tory ministers by Queen Anne prompted him to express concern about the possible consequences for the religious settlement: ‘places of trust will be given to those esteemed of the Church of England, and toleration allowed to Dissenters, I do often say, is all our Dissenters desire and whichever opinion they may have of me, I shall never give my consent to abridge them of that’. The Queen’s accession also brought to the surface Johnson’s Country instincts. On 17 Mar. he wrote: ‘the scheme is now changed: it was unanimously granted to her Majesty for life what the late King had for the civil list, there was no preaching up of good husbandry as formerly – all the managers agreed, some to keep places and some to get new – the poor country has lost all her friends’. Earlier, his independent nature was also demonstrated on the issue of the impeachments of the Whig ministers in the previous session, having, on 26 Feb., supported the motion vindicating the Commons’ proceedings thereon.5

Despite his assiduous attendance during the 1701–2 Parliament, Johnson claimed that ‘I have no pleasure in this station’, and offered ‘if the corporation pleases, to resign to any they shall think capable to serve them’. The offer was refused, and he was returned unopposed at the 1702 election. Much of Johnson’s time during the 1702–3 session was spent lobbying the customs and excise on behalf of Liverpool merchants in connexion with tobacco duties, and also in trying to obtain a lease of Liverpool Castle for the corporation, through the auspices of the Earl of Derby (Hon. James Stanley*). Given his Whig sympathies it comes as some surprise to find Johnson writing in December 1702 to his friend Norris that he would support the occasional conformity bill, but only if it were so framed that it was aimed at ‘ensnaring nobody’. Once it became clear that this was the bill’s primary objective Johnson regarded it critically, confiding to Norris that

I do not think it much loss if the bill drop; for my own part I do not think it of any service to the Church. The government will take care to prefer to such offices of profit that will not go to meetings; that, and the making [of] Members, is the chief desire of most for the bill. I agree with you they are the least concerned about religion.

In December 1702 he bemoaned the proposed grant of a £5,000 p.a. pension to Marlborough (John Churchill†), observing to Norris that ‘you are sensible what a noise such things made in the late reign, and now they begin in the first year’, and in 1703, as he recovered from serious illness, he complained that ‘we are such an unhappy people’ and that this was ‘purely occasioned by the pride of ambitious men’. His hostility to the Court, further evidenced in January by the comment that ‘nothing but pride reigns among most of these courtiers’, was the product of both his Country and Whiggish sympathies. Johnson was not, however, an automatic supporter of Country measures; this session, for instance, saw him oppose attempts to introduce a landed property qualification for Members, though his correspondence suggested that he may not have met such a requirement himself. His Whiggery and hostility towards the persecution of Dissenters was confirmed in the 1704–5 session by his failure to vote on 28 Nov. for the Tack. His support for local trade and manufacturing interests led him, along with his fellow Liverpool Member William Clayton, to oppose in January and February 1705 the bill allowing the export of Irish linen to the plantations. Opposition to this bill was strong among Lancashire’s linen manufacturers, and although the bill passed the Commons Johnson and Clayton appear to have been the authors of a clause limiting the bill’s life to 11 years, thus moderating the effects of the bill upon Lancashire’s linen industry.6

Returned at the head of the poll in 1705, Johnson was classed as ‘Low Church’ in an analysis of the new Parliament, and on 25 Oct. voted against the Court candidate for Speaker. His concern for Liverpool merchants led him to pursue with Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) the matter of interest due on merchants’ bonds, and a more general concern for trading matters is evident from his support for Thomas Lamplugh’s* bill for the improvement of Parton harbour, Cumberland. Johnson’s opinions on the regency bill are difficult to discern, but in December 1705 he wrote that ‘I believe the Whigs will have it, for now they carry everything’. It is indicative of his continuing independent behaviour that he was one of the Court supporters absent on 18 Feb. 1706 from the division upon the ‘place clause’ of the bill, and that day he wrote to Norris that ‘the Lords have got their end, relating to the regency bill – the expedient is a jest as near as I can take it’. In the following session Johnson became concerned with the consequences of the Union for the tobacco trade. He saw an opportunity for Liverpool’s merchants to import tobacco, re-export it to Scotland before the Union, claim drawback on the customs duties, and bring the tobacco back to England after 1 May 1707 without paying any further customs duty. He himself intended to take full advantage of this loophole and encouraged other merchants to do likewise. Johnson’s schemes provoked Clayton to raise the issue in the Commons, and as the loophole became a contentious issue the clamour embarrassed Johnson, but he nevertheless argued that the attempts in March and April 1707 to close the loophole by legislation amounted to ‘so manifest a breach of the Union that I think it will not pass into a law’, and that such a law would be ‘a great advantage given to Scotland’. Johnson himself had dispatched tobacco for Scotland in March, and he was angered at rumours that the government would refuse to return the bonds of merchants taking advantage of the loophole, so much so that he helped organize a petition against such action. The Union also saw Johnson concern himself in the passage of the bill to equalize export allowances between England and Scotland, a measure intended to prevent foreign salt imported into Scotland before the Union, from being moved to England after 1 May, thus preserving the position of the salt industry in which Johnson was involved. Early in 1708 Johnson was classed as a Tory in an analysis of the Commons, a description that may have been an error, or may indicate that Johnson’s problems over the Union had provoked him into more frequent opposition to the ministry’s measures. A disillusionment with the Junto is certainly suggested by his reaction to the ministerial changes of 1708. Having written to Richard Norris that ‘all the whole gang goes out, and the staunch Whigs come in’, he pointedly noted that ‘these were often against the Court in King William’s time’. In the same letter he also referred to the Commons’ agreement with the Lords, on 22 Dec. 1707, that an ‘honourable’ and ‘safe’ peace depended upon the exclusion of the Bourbons from ‘any part of the Spanish monarchy’, and complaining that the Whigs’ ‘grand fault is they did not prevent the House of Commons coming to the resolution they did relating to Spain’. His reaction to the abortive Jacobite invasion of March 1708 rekindled his Whig loyalties, however. On 11 Mar. he wrote that ‘we look like a people for destruction’; and once the invasion panic had passed, he and the Earl of Derby attended the Queen on 20 Mar. with Liverpool’s address of thanksgiving. He described the course of events to Norris thus:

about half an hour past 12 or near 1, I went to the House of Lords to know when the Lord Derby would please to present the corporation address, upon which my lord told me when the Queen came to the House, in the Princes’ Chamber and desired I would stay . . . after the Queen returned from the House, the Lord Derby carrying the sword, he presented the address; and I being there the Lord Derby against my knowledge spoke to the Queen to confer the honour of knighthood. God knows I kneeled to kiss the Queen’s hand and to my great surprise the other followed.

His continuing concern for local mercantile interests was demonstrated in this session in his keen interest in, and support for, the bill promoted by Robert* and William Heysham* for the better security of trade by cruisers and convoys.7

Returned again in 1708, Johnson was not listed as voting for the naturalization of the Palatines in 1709, but this was probably due to absence rather than opposition as he played a leading role in assimilating the 130 poor Palatines who settled in Liverpool. Following his knighthood, his committee activity becomes easier to distinguish, but during the 1708–9 session he was appointed to only one of any significance, that on 18 Mar. 1709 to draft a bill to establish a regulated trading company trading to Africa. The 1709–10 session, however, saw him guide through the Commons a bill to establish Liverpool’s first dry dock, having been requested to do this by the corporation in October 1709. His support for the rock salt industry led him to support the abortive attempt to obtain a bill for the navigation of the Weaver in Cheshire, and a concern for municipal improvement explains his nomination on 2 Feb. to draft a bill to supply Liverpool with water. During this session he also opposed James Lowther’s* attempts to remove drawback from tobacco re-exported to the Isle of Man, an allowance which Lowther asserted was being exploited by Liverpool merchants who were re-exporting tobacco to the Isle of Man, claiming drawback upon the customs duties, and subsequently smuggling the tobacco back to the mainland. Johnson’s continued support for the Whigs was demonstrated by his vote for the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell.8

Following his return in 1710 Johnson was marked in the ‘Hanover list’ as a Whig. On 27 Feb. 1711 he was appointed to draft a Weaver navigation bill, but on 7 Mar. he was surprised in the Commons by Peter Shakerley* who, noticing Johnson in the chamber with the printed bill at a time when few of his ‘friends’ were in the House, moved for the second reading at which the bill was defeated. Johnson had told on 28 Feb. against the removal of drawback upon re-exported steel. In April his concern for trading interests had been allied to more personal considerations when Johnson had joined with his fellow Liverpool Member John Cleiveland and James Lowther to oppose an attempt to withdraw the drawback on tobacco re-exported to Ireland. He was appointed to only one committee of any significance in the 1711–12 session, and told only once, on 16 Apr. against the amendment to the Greenwich Hospital bill exempting London ships from a duty on imported corn. The record of his activity in the 1713 session extended no further than his vote on 18 June against the French commerce bill, a measure which was felt to jeopardize Liverpool’s trade and which the borough had petitioned against on 4 June. That Johnson’s Whig sympathies remained unaltered was confirmed when he told on 18 Mar. against the expulsion of Richard Steele. On 11 May he was teller against an amendment to the bill to encourage the tobacco trade, and was nominated on 25 May to draft a bill to clarify the import duties upon wrought inkle.9

Johnson was again returned for Liverpool in 1715 and classed as a Whig in three different comparisons of the 1713 and 1715 Parliaments. By 1717 he was facing severe financial difficulties, owing £7,825 to the crown in unpaid bonds. However, he remained loyal to the Whigs until he left the Commons in 1723 and accepted (presumably for financial reasons) a post as a customs collector in Virginia, though it seems he either never took up this post or exercised it by deputy. In 1725 he received a payment of £350 from the government, and thereafter a series of small, irregular sums down to August 1728. He died on 28 Dec. 1728 in lodgings at Charing Cross. His son-in-law and business partner, Richard Gildart, went on to represent Liverpool as a government Whig.10

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison


  • 1. Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. and Cheshire, lxxxii. 234; W. D. Pink, Parl. Rep. Lancs. 195.
  • 2. J. Picton, Memorials of Liverpool, i. 174; R. Muir and E. M. Platt, Hist. Mun. Govt. of Liverpool, 204–5; Wigan RO, Wigan bor. recs. AB/MR/10.
  • 3. Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. and Cheshire, xc. 184–8.
  • 4. Info. from Prof. J. M. Price; Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. and Cheshire, xcv. 53; cxxiv. 31–56; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1702–7, p. 415; Muir and Platt, 204.
  • 5. Liverpool RO, Norris mss 920NOR 1/149–50, 154, Johnson to Norris, 8, 10, Jan., 12 Feb. 1701[–2]; 2/246, 245, 244, 238, 216, same to same, 20, 27, 31 Jan., 5, 24, Feb. 1701[–2]; Norris Pprs. (Chetham Soc. ser. 1, ix), 79–82.
  • 6. Norris Pprs. 89–91, 104–5, 108–15, 123–4, 126–7; Norris mss 920NOR 1/192, 194–5, 200, 212, Johnson to Norris, 2, 19, 26 Nov., 3 Dec. 1702, 14 Jan. 1702[–3]; CSP Dom. 1702–3, p. 446; Parlty. Hist. xvi. 175–80.
  • 7. Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/8, James to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 16 Dec. 1705; Norris mss, 920NOR 1/303, Ralph Peters to Norris, 15 Feb. 1706[–7]; 1/329, 306, 309, 330, 333, 353, 369, Johnson to Norris, 1, 5, 8, 18 Apr., 18 June 1707, 5 Feb., 11 Mar. 1707[–8]; 2/601, 412, 456, 458, 460, 459, 618, same to same, 11 Dec. 1705, 31 Jan. 1705[–6], 6, 11, 18 Mar. 1706[–7], 12 Apr., 20 May 1707; 2/446, 611, 452–3, 422, 462, 613, same to [same], 4, 15, 23, 27, Feb., 15, 22, 25 Mar. 1706[–7]; Party and Management ed. C. Jones, 81; Norris Pprs. 146–7, 153, 167, 170–1; SHR, lxiii. 3–4.
  • 8. Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. and Cheshire, lxxxii. 167–8; J. Picton, Liverpool Mun. Recs. 1700–1835, p. 24; T. S. Willan, Navigation of the River Weaver (Chetham Soc. ser. 3, iii), 10, 147; Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/1/43, Lowther to William Gilpin, 6, 28 Feb. 1709[–10].
  • 9. Chester City RO, Chester bor. recs. M/L/4/640, Shakerley to Sir Thomas Aston, 3rd Bt., 8 Mar. 1710[–11]; Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/1/45, Lowther to Gilpin, 10 Apr. 1712.
  • 10. Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. and Cheshire, xc. 181–96; info. from Prof. Price; The Craftsman, 4 Jan. 1729.