POWNALL, John (1720-95), of Wykeham, Lincs.

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



23 Nov. 1775 - May 1776

Family and Education

b. 1720, 1st s. of William Pownall by his 2nd w. Sarah da. of John Burneston, dep. gov. of Bombay; bro. of Thomas Pownall.  educ. Lincoln g.s.  m. Mary, da. of Bowden Lillingston of Ferriby, Yorks., 2s. 1da.

Offices Held

Clerk, Board of Trade 1741-5, solicitor and clerk of reports 1745-53, jt. sec. 1753-8, sec. 1758-May 1776; under-sec. of state, American dept. Jan. 1768-May 1776; naval officer in Jamaica 1755-71; prov. marshal gen. of Leeward Is. 1771 (confirmed to him for life 1776); commr. of Excise May 1776-85, of Customs 1785-8.


When on 13 Mar. 1780, during the debate on Burke’s motion to abolish the Board of Trade, William Eden called for the ‘living testimony’, the ‘plain sense and information’, which might be had from John Pownall, Burke, while declining to seek opinions on the utility of the office from one ‘who had made a fortune’ by continuing in it for thirty years, acknowledged Pownall to be ‘an able, intelligent, honest man, of remarkable probity’.1 The fortune which Pownall had made in a lifetime of devoted service hardly exceeded a comfortable competency; but what he had acquired was an unrivalled knowledge of colonial affairs which gave him, the permanent civil servant, considerable influence on policy and its implementation, especially when his ministerial chiefs changed frequently, and were inexperienced or indolent. His own attitude toward America was that of an authoritarian bureaucrat. Thus in a letter to the King, 12 Sept. 1775:2

Mr. Pownall further humbly submits to your Majesty drafts of two other letters to the Admiralty upon points that appear to be essential, being convinced, that under God, the safety of the British Empire depends in the present situation of America upon your Majesty’s fixed resolution to exert every effort of vigour for reducing your Majesty’s deluded subjects there to a due obedience and submission.

On 8 Aug. 1772 Pownall had written to Dartmouth:3 ‘My wish and hope is that after 25 years diligent and faithful service I may after a reasonable time be enabled and permitted to retire altogether to the humble duties of a private station.’ What he probably envisaged was a profitable but less laborious post, and the vantage ground for such a transfer was the House of Commons—Pownall’s short parliamentary career presumably served that purpose. In November 1775 he was returned for St. Germans by Edward Eliot, a lord of Trade 1759-76, who in May 1776, though by that time in Opposition, again undertook to return a Government supporter because Pownall, ‘an intimate friend of mine for many years, had set his heart on being made commissioner’, and could not be, if this lost a vote to Government.4 Two interventions in debate are recorded during his half year in the House.5

In 1782-3 he was consulted by Shelburne on future commercial policy toward the U.S.A.6 He retired from all public business in 1788; and during his last years engaged in his favourite archaeological pursuits.7  He died 17 July 1795.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Almon, xvii. 296, 300.
  • 2. Fortescue, iii. 259.
  • 3. Dartmouth mss, ex inf. Franklin Wickwire.
  • 4. Eliot to Gibbon, Add. 34886, ff. 111-12.
  • 5. Almon, iii, 280, 409.
  • 6. Ex inf. Franklin Wickwire.
  • 7. Nichols, Lit. Anecs. viii. 66-67.