MORTLOCK, John (1755-1816), of Cambridge and Pampisford, Cambs.

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



1784 - May 1788

Family and Education

b. 1755, o.s. of John Mortlock, a well-to-do Cambridge woollen draper, by Sarah, da. of John Davy, a Lowestoft surgeon, sis. of John Davy, fellow of Caius, Camb.  m. Oct. 1776, Elizabeth, da. of Stephen Harrison, ‘an eminent grocer lately retired from business’,18s. 2da.  suc. fa. 1777.

Offices Held

Freeman of Cambridge 1778, common councillor 1780, mayor 13 times: 1785, 1788, and every other year till 1809 (serving as deputy in the intervening years, while one of his sons or some dependant replaced him as mayor), recorder Jan.-Apr. 1788. Receiver of the land tax for Cambs. July 1781-Mar. 1784; commr. of salt duties 1789-98; receiver gen. of Post Office 1792-1806.


Mortlock seems to have started in his father’s business as a woollen draper, but in 1780, ‘newly escaped from behind his father’s counter’,2 founded the first bank in Cambridge. Through his mother and through three sisters, married to fellows of colleges, Mortlock had Anglican connexions, while his father-in-law and John Purchas, his first ally in Cambridge municipal politics, were zealous Presbyterians. His own power in the borough was undoubtedly founded on money, inherited or acquired by marriage, and enlarged by his banking transactions. Even before 1780 he had connected himself with the Duke of Rutland and the ‘new interest’, and after the Cambridge meeting of 25 Mar. 1780, which carried a reform petition, served with the Duke on the follow-up committee. In 1780 Mortlock supported Lord Robert Manners and Philip Yorke for the county and James Whorwood Adeane for the borough, but not Lord Hardwicke’s protégé, Benjamin Keene. When in July 1781 the receivership of the land tax for Cambridgeshire fell vacant, Yorke urged Hardwicke to nominate Mortlock—‘these places are always given upon the recommendations of lord lieutenants and county Members’; ‘I know of no one else in the county so well qualified for it in point of substance and credit’; ‘I should think not less than forty or upward voted for me on account of his interest being favourable to me ... this interest is likely to increase from his banking house at Cambridge’; ‘as ... it will finally end in his having that place, I should think the obligation would be greater by its being done soon’. Hardwicke objected: ‘Mr. Mortlock is liked by none of our friends’; is ‘at the head of a troublesome faction in Cambridge’; his ‘real attachment is to the Rutland interest’, etc. But in the end he acquiesced in the appointment of Mortlock.3

In 1782 Mortlock and Purchas set up a new club at the ‘Eagle’ (which ultimately became the Rutland Club), and there it was agreed that Mortlock was to offer himself for Cambridge at the next vacancy, and to try to get the receivership (incompatible with a seat in Parliament) for his banking partner, Samuel Francis. ‘Mr. Mortlock’, wrote Philip Yorke, ‘is a person who has had little education, and therefore is a very new gentleman now that he is in opulent circumstances.’ ‘I know him to be an intriguing, busy man, and wholly attentive to his own interests’, was Hardwicke’s description. And on another occasion: ‘In the little cabals of the town of Cambridge Mortlock’s is the Dragon of Wantley.’ That dragon, according to Bishop Percy’s Reliques, was an overgrown, rascally attorney who cheated some children of their estate—an apt description of the part which Mortlock was beginning to play in Cambridge affairs. By January 1783 the reformer of 1780 conceived it ‘absolutely improper to trouble Parliament [with petitions for electoral reforms], unless ... to point out any specified proposition, which the locality of this borough might render necessary in order to prevent the freedom of election being diminished’; and, critical of reform proposals, argued that under a £10 household franchise the houses would be bought up, and Cambridge, now an open and free borough, would become ‘to all intents a burgage tenure one’. In fact Mortlock had by then started to remodel its municipal government in a way which transformed Cambridge into a pocket borough of the Rutland family under his management.4

By the end of 1783 Mortlock was a declared candidate for Cambridge. As yet ‘disqualified by the receivership’, he was ‘determined to sacrifice every thing to a seat in Parliament’, and was confident of success, although the country gentlemen ‘and indeed many of the University’ seemed violent against him.5 Then in March 1784 a run occurred against his bank, the commissioners of taxes, by some hasty proceedings, having sent down a writ of scire facias against him for £50,000 ‘at a time when his arrear was only £7,000’. Mortlock wrote to Yorke on 21 Mar.:

I will not trouble you with the long recital of this villainous proceeding, which there is not from all the circumstances the smallest doubt was an election manoeuvre; intending by occasioning a sudden run upon our house, to have ruined our credit, and consequently all my future parliamentary views. In this however they were mistaken—for though the run it has occasioned has been great, we have resisted, and are still amply prepared to resist it.6

When Pitt visited Cambridge on 25 Mar., Mortlock waited upon him, in the presence of Arden, the solicitor-general, and told him he was

come to resign into his hands his place of receiver general for Cambridgeshire. Mr. Arden said, ‘Mr. Mortlock, consider what you are doing of, by no means have anything to do with parliamentary business. I have not long been in Parliament myself, my office requires it, but I am sick of it.’ The other said, ‘Sir, give me leave to know my own business best.’7

On 3 Apr. Mortlock was returned unopposed, the first native of Cambridge to represent it since 1660.

On 15 Apr. the Duke of Rutland wrote both to Hardwicke and Yorke8 about the receivership which ‘Mr. Mortlock ... is extremely anxious to procure for his partner Mr. Francis’ (financially they were not yet out of the wood9). ‘Mr. Mortlock’s attention and services to the interest of myself and my family have been so uniform, that I lose not a moment in forwarding his request.’ Yorke replied on 29 Apr. that putting in Francis ‘might be considered as an improper evasion, and in fact the same thing as if [Mortlock] held the office himself’, but that he had done for Mortlock the best he could: Francis was to be appointed for one year (but one year only) ‘which will allow the shop to recover its credit, and call in their money’.10 Similarly Daniel Pulteney, acting for Rutland, pleaded Mortlock’s case with Pitt. ‘The argument I used’, he wrote to Rutland on 27 May 1784, ‘... was that he promised to be very attentive in the House, and that he had done your Grace great service at the Cambridgeshire election.’11

In Parliament Mortlock’s course proved equivocal. Even before the election his allegiance was uncertain; and William Adam, in his list of the new Parliament compiled in May, classed him as ‘doubtful’. On 26 June 1784 Pulteney wrote to Rutland that Mortlock had received ‘very tempting offers from the Bedford party in Cambridgeshire, and his conversation has been once or twice very silly and mutinous’.12 Mortlock pressed to have Francis continued in the receivership, claiming that he had discharged every obligation of his bank (which had re-opened) and had ‘real property clear to the amount of £33,000’; but Pitt refused.13 And Pulteney on 4 Nov.: ‘Mortlock ... appears very dissatisfied with Mr. Pitt, and I fear we shall lose him when Parliament meets unless the King will knight him as mayor when he visits Cambridge.’14 When Pitt seemed to be losing popularity over the Westminster scrutiny, Mortlock ‘deserted the cause and voted with the Opposition’.15

In May 1786 occurred a crisis in Mortlock’s parliamentary career. Adeane having complained that in a list of commissioners of the land tax for Cambridgeshire handed in by him some names had been altered and mis-spelt while it was in the engrossing office, so as to prevent the persons from acting, the engrossing clerk deposed before the investigating committee that Mortlock had come to the office ‘and asked for the list and said that the names were wrong spelt’, and was seen by him ‘writing upon the list’. On the committee reporting to the House, 18 May,16 Mortlock, called upon to speak, said that he did not wish ‘to trouble the House with any reply to a report, which, upon the face of it, bore no charge against him’, and withdrew. In the ensuing debate Adeane quoted a resolution of the House of 4 May 1780 which declared alterations in papers presented to it ‘highly criminal and a breach of privilege’; but the Opposition—Basset, Beauchamp, Fox and Sheridan—argued that the report was vague and indefinite, and stated ‘neither crime nor criminal’, and that the matter should be closed ‘with a strong prospective resolution’. Also two Pittites, Hammet and Crickitt, both bankers, pleaded for Mortlock. Lord Mulgrave and the attorney-general spoke against him. Pitt himself took a grave view of the matter: there was a crime clearly ascertained and identified in the report; but the committee, having found that further inquiry would create a charge against a Member, under standing orders had to obtain sanction from the House; they should now be ordered to continue the inquiry. But the Opposition, by 81 votes to 79, carried an amendment referring the matter to the committee of the whole House; though when they tried to shelve it altogether, they lost by 97 to 76.17 The question was adjourned to 30 May.

On 23 May the Duke of Rutland wrote from Dublin to Thomas Orde, his chief secretary, then in England:18

I had, through the means of Mortlock, an intention of securing a seat in the town of Cambridge. But the persecutions that he has experienced from my enemies in Cambridgeshire have made him act very absurdly by taking a part hostile to Government, which he would not have done had I been in England. But I fear Mr. Pitt has listened to his enemies. A new matter has been brought up against him and a new ground of attack. I fear he has been led into error, misconceiving it to be a fair election trick ... Perhaps your interposition might save him from disgrace.

The Duke wished Orde to send for Mortlock; tell him that Rutland was ‘interested for his situation’; and find out

how far he will engage with me, and what weight he may have on a future occasion either to secure his own election, or to give me the nomination of a friend. If he would fairly come into an agreement I will be his protection and it will be worth Pitt’s while to cease persecuting him in order to aggrandize Mr. Yorke at my expense. This of course is a delicate matter and must be very cautiously touched upon.

Orde replied on 31 May that his obeying the Duke’s instructions had saved Mortlock from such trouble; that Pitt managed the matter favourably in consequence; and that Orde would sound Mortlock privately. And Pulteney, always critical of Pitt’s austere principles, wrote to the Duke on 2 June:

I fear that [Mortlock] would have been censured or even expelled if Mr. Pitt could have carried on the inquiry against him (which he gave many proofs of) till your Grace’s and Mortlock’s other friends actually beat him on the first division, and till Sir Richard Hill and others of Mr. Pitt’s general supporters told him they took ill his taking such a part against an individual. Pepper Arden did indeed speak to me two or three times on the subject, but not till they had brought themselves into such a scrape they could not proceed any further which I told him and he acknowledged. But Mortlock whom I saw yesterday expressed himself highly obliged to your Grace.19

In fact on 30 May, after some sparring between Government and Opposition, Mortlock prompted by Hammet, made a speech of apology, and Pitt agreed, if such was the sense of the House, to let the charge against him drop. Only a ‘prospective resolution’ was voted the next day.20 And Fox and Sheridan were made honorary freemen of Cambridge on 16 Aug. 1786.

On 13 Sept. 1786 Rutland wrote again to Pitt in favour of Mortlock, ‘one of my most active instruments’, persecuted in consequence by Yorke ‘who is my natural enemy there’. Yorke’s influence with the Administration has connected them in the persecution. ‘This has driven [Mortlock] into Opposition, from which I am anxious to recall him. I wish you would allow me to make his peace with Government, if it be possible. Personally he weighs not a feather; but he has decided influence in the town of Cambridge.’ Rutland feared that Mortlock might be thrown ‘into the hands of the Duke of Bedford’ with damage to his own interest in the borough and county.21 But apparently Pitt would not play—‘I fear Mortlock is becoming more deeply engaged in Opposition’, reported Pulteney on 24 Feb. 1787. ‘I cannot think it was policy in Mr. Pitt to lose him, when he might have been so easily retained. I hear on all hands that he has made himself master of the borough of Cambridge.’22

This Mortlock achieved by a series of by-laws validated in some fifteen lawsuits.23 Hitherto the municipal government, including parliamentary elections, had been in the hands of a small inner ring of townsmen. The common council and the aldermanic bench were self-recruiting bodies; the aldermen had to be chosen from among the councillors; no mayor could be re-elected until seven years had elapsed; the method of electing him was Florentine ‘in its elaborate provisions for secrecy and impartiality’; and business was transacted under a set of intricate rules. But what Mortlock proved was that by-laws and customs could be set aside provided that the charter was not violated; and one by one he broke down these fences. He started by changing the rules governing the election of mayors; established his hold on the office; greatly increased its power; had the election of common councillors and aldermen transferred to the whole body of freemen; and packed that body with honorary freemen. An oligarchy was transformed into a dictatorship.

Then some time before the Duke’s death on 24 Oct. 1787, an agreement was concluded whereby Mortlock was to vacate his seat and put the borough at Rutland’s disposal in return for a sinecure of £1,000 a year.24 On 22 May 1788 he informed a meeting at Cambridge that ‘he found he had made himself unpopular by the part he took in the Paving Act [for Cambridge]’, and that he meant in a few days to ‘resign his seat in Parliament, as he found his situation expensive and disagreeable’.25 For the ensuing by-election the Yorke family tried to find a candidate—Charles Yorke felt that it would be a mistake for him to stand when they could not expect ‘to carry the election absolutely against Mortlock’s interest’, though he would have liked to see a contest in order ‘to discover the exact and just balance of strength between the contending parties’. But no serious candidate came forward in 1788 against the Rutland nominee (and no parliamentary election for Cambridge was contested again in Mortlock’s lifetime). Still, some time passed before the promise to Mortlock was redeemed. ‘Mr. Mortlock ... has till lately been quite quiet upon this subject’, wrote the dowager Duchess of Rutland to Pitt on 4 July 1789, ‘and has I must say behaved extremely handsomely throughout the whole of the Cambridge business, and has performed all he promised concerning it, without ever mentioning the return he was to expect, but one cannot suppose that will last for ever.’26 All he had was a commissionership of salt, a troublesome office of small value—writing to the Duke of Beaufort, brother of the Duchess, 4 July 1791, Mortlock calculated that he was actually a loser over it. After a great deal of further correspondence with Beaufort, and between Beaufort and Pitt,27 Mortlock’s claims were satisfied by his being appointed receiver general of the Post Office (£800 p.a. and cash balances of £15-20,000 in his hands),28 which he held until 1806, when he was succeeded by one of his sons; some of his other sons were also provided for in Government posts. Besides, in complete command of the municipality, Mortlock and his friends were applying corporation revenues to their own service and purposes, granting themselves easy leases of corporation estates at small rents, and misusing trust and charity funds; and the ‘old interest’, having admitted defeat, were allowed their share of the spoils. The quondam radical reformer finished as a dictator and grafter.  He died 7 May 1816, worth £120,000.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Camb. Chron. 5 Oct. 1776.
  • 2. Wm. Cole’s notes, Add. 5855, f. 29.
  • 3. Add. 35380, ff. 39, 43, 48, 52, 56-58, 60, 63.
  • 4. Add. 35629, f. 141; 35831, f. 30; 35383, f. 15; 35381, f. 73; 35863, f. 296.
  • 5. Dr. Ewin to Hardwicke, 1, 8 Jan. 1784, Add. 35627, ff. 1, 3.
  • 6. Add. 35382, f. 201; 35683, f. 331.
  • 7. Ewin to Hardwicke, 30 Mar. 1784, Add. 35627, f. 24.
  • 8. Add. 35682, f. 159; 35683, f. 344.
  • 9. Add. 35627, ff. 40, 57; HMC Rutland, iii. 130; Add. 35382, ff. 154, 201, 205, 237; 35383, f. 17.
  • 10. Rutland mss at Belvoir.
  • 11. HMC Rutland, iii. 98.
  • 12. Ibid. 115.
  • 13. Pitt-Rutland Corresp. 99-100.
  • 14. HMC Rutland , iii. 255.
  • 15. Add. 35393, ff. 48-50.
  • 16. CJ, xli. 744, 787, 822, 826-7.
  • 17. Stockdale, viii. 397-404.
  • 18. Rutland mss at Belvoir.
  • 19. HMC Rutland, iii. 305, 306.
  • 20. CJ, xli. 864-5, 869-70; Debrett, xx. 257-8, 271-5; Stockdale, viii. 465-71.
  • 21. Pitt-Rutland Corresp. 171-2.
  • 22. HMC Rutland, iii. 375.
  • 23. H. Cam, 'Quo warranto proceedings at Cambridge 1780-90', Camb. Hist. Jnl. 1946.
  • 24. Mortlock to Duke of Beaufort, 4, 15 July 1791, Chatham mss.
  • 25. Add. 35627, f. 160.
  • 26. Chatham mss.
  • 27. Ibid.
  • 28. Ex inf. Dr. K. L. Ellis.