NORRIS, Sir John (c.1670-1749), of Hemsted, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. c.1670. m. 30 May 1699, Elizabeth, da. of Matthew Aylmer, 1st Lord Aylmer [I], wid. of Capt. Chester Moore R.N. (d.s.p. 1696), 9s. 3da. Kntd. 25 Nov. 1705.
Lt. R.N. 1689, capt. 1690, r.-adm. 1707, v.-adm. 1708, adm. 1709; c.-in-c. Mediterranean 1710-11; c.-in-c. Baltic squadron 1715-27; ld. of the Admiralty 1718-30; adm. of the fleet and c.-in-c. 20 Feb. 1734-d.
Of unknown parentage, but said to come ‘of a respectable Irish family’, Norris entered the navy as a boy in 1680, rising to the rank of admiral in 1709, when his father-in-law, another distinguished Irish naval officer, became commander-in-chief of the fleet. In the previous year he was returned for Rye, of which he became joint patron with Phillips Gybbon, buying in or about 1718 the neighbouring manor of Hemsted and the other Kent and Sussex properties of the Guldeford family.1 Employed on naval and diplomatic missions to the Baltic under George I, he succeeded his father-in-law on the Admiralty board in 1718. Nevertheless he voted against the peerage bill, observing that it would have been better for him
to have continued in tempest of sea till it had been over, for to the fault of my judgment and I fear my fortune I am unable to think on it in the way that would do me most good in my private affairs.2
However, he retained his place till 1730, when he and his son, John, spoke against the Government in the critical Dunkirk debate of 27 Feb. Turned out at the end of the session, and superseded in his command by Sir Charles Wager in 1731,3 he voted against the Government on the army in 1732 and on the excise bill in 1733. Coming to terms with the Government at the beginning of 1734, he was appointed admiral of the fleet and commander-in-chief. In a letter of thanks to Walpole, shortly before the general election that year, he wrote:
I have received by a messenger from the mayor of the city of Rochester their offer to choose me without any expense one of their representatives, which I have excused myself from accepting, that I may not oppose the person you approve should stand there; and that I may make things as agreeable to you as is in me to do, I will decline standing for Portsmouth and with pleasure see myself succeeded there by any body you shall appoint; and only stand at Rye in the room of Captain Norris.4
In 1739 he attended meetings of the cabinet committee set up to prepare for war against Spain, on whose outbreak he was appointed to command the Channel fleet. He was also called into the Cabinet when matters relating to the naval side of the war came up.5 In 1740 he and Wager, the first lord of the Admiralty, introduced a seamen’s registration bill, which was so severely criticized that it was withdrawn. He then proposed to the Cabinet to find the additional men required for the fleet by putting some troops and marines on board, replying to Walpole’s objections that the King would not like the scheme for using the army to man the fleet that their business was ‘to give the King the best advice ... and not consider what advice he would like best’. In 1741 he created a scene in the House of Commons by offering to fight Pulteney for saying that his fleet had done nothing, but was ‘pulled down’ by Walpole.6
When Wager resigned with Walpole in 1742, Norris refused an offer of the second seat on the new Admiralty board under Lord Winchilsea, formerly Lord Finch, expressing surprise that his old friend Gybbon, through whom Pulteney had conveyed the offer, ‘should bring me such a message, having been so long the first officer of the fleet’. He also refused the command of the Mediterranean fleet, writing to the King:
Ever since you have been in this kingdom the chief direction of sea affairs has been in the hands of a seaman. I once flattered myself your Majesty did me the honour to think me capable of it, and I am sure all those who now have the principal part in your Majesty’s business did formerly think, and have often declared I was. Since it is now thought otherwise, I must look upon it as a strong admonition that I am grown too old for my business, and therefore I come to beg your Majesty’s permission to retire.7
His resignation was not accepted but he was allowed to give up his command, also ceasing to attend the meetings of the war committee. Recalled to take command of the fleet assembled to deal with a threatened French invasion in February 1744, he quarrelled with the Admiralty, resigning his command as soon as all danger was over. On 24 Feb. 1749 he presented to the House of Commons a petition signed by five admirals and fifty-two captains against a bill making half-pay naval officers subject to trial by court martial. He died 13 June 1749.
Ref Volumes: 1715-1754
Author: Romney R. Sedgwick
- 1. D. D. Aldridge, in The Mariner’s Mirror, li. 173-83, ex inf. Julian M. Gwyn; J. Charnock, Biog. Navalis, ii. 341; Hasted, Kent, iii. 82-83.
- 2. HMC Polwarth, ii. 404.
- 3. HMC Egmont Diary, i. 73, 195.
- 4. 9 Apr. 1734, Cholmondeley (Houghton) mss.
- 5. EHR, xxxiv. 296 et seq.; Hervey, Mems. 925, 938.
- 6. HMC Egmont Diary, iii. 183-4.
- 7. H. W. Richmond, The Navy and the War of 1739-48, i. 180-1.