MARTIN, James (1738-1810), of Overbury, Worcs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



8 Apr. 1776 - 1807

Family and Education

b. 4 June 1738, 3rd s. of John Martin, M.P., by Catherine, da. of Joseph Jackson of Sneyd Park, Glos.; bro. of John and Joseph Martin.  m. 17 Feb. 1774, Penelope, da. of Joseph Skipp of Upper Hall, Ledbury, Herefs. 3s. 3da.

Offices Held


On leaving school Martin entered the family banking house. In 1776 he succeeded his brother in the representation of Tewkesbury, and acquired a reputation for his scrupulously independent attitude. Wraxall described him as ‘one of the most conscientious and honest men who ever sat in Parliament’.1 His strong religious views—tending to unitarianism and firmly anti-clerical—led him to press for a number of humanitarian reforms: he spoke often against the slave trade and the press gang, and for some mitigation in the penal code. On political questions he took a radical line, advocating economical and parliamentary reform. A diffident and portentous speaker, his frequent protestations of independence bored the House, and he was not always well heard.

On entering Parliament he voted in opposition to Lord North’s ministry. On 26 Jan. 1779, speaking, he told the House, for the second time, he attacked the American war as ‘one of the most impolitic, unreasonable, unjust, and tyrannical wars that can possibly be imagined’.2 He went on to expound his creed:

Whoever may be in power will be unsolicited by me for place or emoluments ... I should as soon think of lurking in the avenues of the House as a petty pilferer, as I would barter the interests of the public or my constituents for anything a minister could grant me, or for any private advantage or emolument whatever. Ambition, Sir, as the word is generally understood, is entirely out of my line of life; but, Sir, I own I have an ambition, and of which I am not ashamed; it is to be an honest, independent, useful Member of Parliament.

After this he intervened frequently in debate, though he admitted later that he ‘never rose to speak in the House without great awe and embarrassment’. He gave general approval to the Rockingham Administration, applauded Lord Mahon’s bill to prevent bribery at elections, and Kenyon’s motion for the paymaster’s balances to be repaid at once.3 On 18 Feb. 1783 he voted in favour of Shelburne’s peace preliminaries.

The Fox-North Coalition shocked him greatly, and he attacked it repeatedly. North he found particularly obnoxious, and he continued for several years to press for his impeachment. On 25 June 1783, in the debate on the Prince of Wales’s income, he digressed to launch another attack: ‘the House seemed much disgusted at it, and strongly expressed their feelings’. But North was well able to protect himself. On 1 Dec. 1783 Martin condemned Fox’s India bill as ‘pernicious and unconstitutional’, and wished there were a starling to perch on the Speaker’s chair and repeat incessantly ‘disgraceful, shameless Coalition’. North took his revenge a few days later:

It had been said on a former day that a starling ought to be brought, placed in this House, and taught to speak the words ‘Coalition! Coalition! cursed Coalition’. Now, for my part, I think that while there is in this House an honourable gentleman who never fails, let what will be the subject of debate, to take an opportunity to curse the Coalition, I think there will be no occasion for the starling; and while he continues to speak by rote, and without any fixed idea, I think what he says will make just as much impression as if the starling himself was to utter his words. [Here the House could scarcely give the noble lord an opportunity to proceed, they fell into so violent a fit of laughter.]4

The immoderate response to a pleasant witticism suggests that Martin was already regarded as a ludicrous figure: indeed, a few weeks later, he referred to himself wryly as the deputy-starling.5 His extreme portliness made him conspicuous, and his behaviour was often eccentric: for years he conducted a campaign to prevent peers sitting under the gallery of the House of Commons to hear debates, jumping up in the middle of speeches when he noticed an offender.6 Yet he could still, on occasions, intervene with effect. After the debate on Pitt’s India bill, 23 Jan. 1784, when Members from all sides were urging Pitt to say whether there would be an immediate dissolution, Martin rose to declare that, though he had uniformly supported Pitt, ‘yet he thought there was something so fair in the question ... that the right honourable gentleman ought to give some answer to the House, and if he did not, he would vote against him upon the question if it came to a division’.7 The next day Pitt assured the House that he had no intention of advising a dissolution.

Though there was a contest at Tewkesbury at the general election, Martin’s seat was not in danger. He returned to Westminster to pursue his old vendettas against Lord North and the encroachments of the peers. In general he supported Pitt, though confessing that he thought his conduct over the Westminster scrutiny had been unwise. On 27 Feb. 1786 he voted with Opposition in the debate on the fortifications, telling the House:

The adoption of that system would make an increase of the standing army necessary, a matter he was too much of a Whig to give consent to, notwithstanding the good opinion he entertained of the noble Duke at the head of the Ordnance [Richmond], and the great partiality of his mind to his Majesty’s present ministers.

He was absent from the division on the Regency bill on 16 Dec. 1788, but spoke and voted against the ministry in February 1789. In the debate of 2 Mar. 1790 he voted against repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, contrary to his own opinions, explaining that he was obeying the instructions of his constituents.8

He died 26 Jan. 1810.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Mems. ii. 13.
  • 2. Almon, xi. 226.
  • 3. Debrett, vii. 156, 248, 269; xviii. 168.
  • 4. Ibid. x. 230; xii. 268, 480.
  • 5. Morning Chron. 6 Feb. 1784.
  • 6. Debrett, ix. 411; xv. 271; Morning Herald, 27 Jan. 1784.
  • 7. Morning Chron. 24 Jan. 1784.
  • 8. Debrett, xix. 161; xxvii. 154.