ROLLE, John (1756-1842), of Stevenstone, Devon

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



4 Jan. 1780 - 1796

Family and Education

b. 16 Oct. 1756, 1st s. of Denys Rolle.  educ. Winchester 1764; Emmanuel, Camb. 1769.  m. (1) 22 Feb. 1778, Judith Maria (d. 1 Oct. 1820), da. and h. of Henry Walrond of Bovey, Devon, s.p.; (2) 24 Sept. 1822, Louisa Barbara, da. of Robert Trefusis, 17th Lord Clinton, s.p.  cr. Baron Rolle, 20 June 1796; suc. fa. 1797.

Offices Held


John Rolle was a completely independent country gentleman, strong-minded, original, and unpredictable. In the five division lists between January and April 1780 he voted with Opposition, though Robinson, in his electoral survey of July 1780, noted that Rolle often supported Administration ‘but is not to be depended upon in any trying circumstances’. He made two speeches in 1780, on 12 Apr., against a suggestion for taxing cider, and on 13 Apr., in support of a bill for disfranching revenue officers, who, he said, were ‘under the influence of the Crown, which was often exerted against independent country gentlemen in a very violent manner’.1

On 8 May 1781, in a debate on the motion for diminishing the influence of the Crown, he said that while approving the principle, he ‘wholly disapproved of associations and committees without doors to watch and control Parliament ... and as he considered the present petition as coming from a committee of delegates ... he should vote against it’.2 His votes during the last months of North’s Administration followed a unique pattern: he voted with the court on Sir James Lowther’s motion against the war, 12 Dec. 1781; with Opposition on the censure motion against the Admiralty, 20 Feb. 1782; with Administration on Conway’s motion of 22 Feb., but spoke and voted for it on 27 Feb., and voted with Opposition in the two divisions of March 1782. In the party conflicts following North’s resignation he showed a violent dislike of Fox and Burke (which led eventually to his being satirized in the Rolliad), without aligning himself with Shelburne and Pitt.

In two long speeches (May 1782) he condemned Fox’s recall of Rodney,3 and during Shelburne’s Administration, when Fox attempted to manœuvre for time by putting off the call of the House, Rolle declared, 24 Jan. 1783: ‘he did not approve trifling ... with the rules of the House’; he made it ‘a settled point to pay all due attendance’ and ‘thought it the duty of every Member to be as punctual as possible’.4 He voted for Shelburne's peace preliminaries, 18 Mar. 1783, and in March was classed by Robinson as ‘country gentleman, doubtful’.

On 16 Apr. 1783, in the debate on Lord John Cavendish's proposals for a loan, Rolle said he wished to see the list of subscribers, and hoped ‘that it would appear that a part of the loan had been given to pay off gambling debts and annuities’.5 In May he attacked Burke for restoring Powell and Bembridge, the pay office officials then under suspicion of embezzlement, and he persisted till Burke agreed to accept their resignations.6 He voted against Fox's East India bill, 27 Nov. 1783—to him ‘an attack made on the constitution’ to turn the King into ‘a mere cipher, and his minister a despotic monarch’. In January 1784 he had further exchanges about Powell and Bembridge with Burke who commented that Rolle could ‘give broadside for broadside and knew how to open his lower deckers as well as any man in the House’.7 Yet he was a member of the St. Alban's Tavern group, and on 21 Feb. supported Grosvenor's motion for an united Administration which he hoped would ‘pave the way for a conference between the contending leaders, to obtain a union on the basis of principle and honour’. But he did not wish Pitt to resign, believing him to have ‘the hearts and wishes of the people with him, and as long as his measures were proper he should have his voluntary and hearty support’. On 20 Feb. he spoke against Fox's motion for an address to the King to dismiss his ministers; was included among the followers of Pitt in Stockdale's list of 19 Mar.; and in the debate on the Westminster petition, on a point on which Fox was clearly in the right, said, 31 May:

However Mr. Fox and the Westminster electors might wish to head the House and take up their time, he had an estate and property which he was desirous of looking after, and having no views to hereafter, and no object within those walls but serving his country, he wished to go on with the public business without delay.8

Although henceforth generally voting with Pitt, he spoke and voted against him on parliamentary reform, 18 Apr. 1785; opposed the Duke of Richmond's fortifications plan, 27 Feb. 1786, and remained essentially independent. On 27 Apr. 1787, on an Opposition motion to address the King on the Prince of Wales's debts he declared:

If a motion was urged which he thought highly improper ... he would not flinch from it, but act as it became an independent country gentleman ... and state without reserve his sentiments according as the matter struck him ... he had nothing to expect from his present Majesty, nor from his successor; but he would do his duty and oppose a motion which might produce serious difficulties between the father and son.

On 30 Apr., ‘at the express desire of his constituents’, he proposed to bring in a bill for ‘a more comfortable subsistence for the poor, and a diminution of the very heavy and increasing rates’, to be founded ‘on the basis of the present friendly clubs or societies ... successfully established, and advantageously adopted to the comfort of the poor, and the diminution of poor rates in many counties’. He wished to establish

one general club or fund throughout the kingdom, with permanency to the body, and security to the capital ... to be raised by obliging the rich in a certain proportion to become contributors to the benefit of the poor, and to oblige the poor, whilst young and in health to contribute towards their own support when disabled by sickness, accident, or age.9

He was given leave to bring in the bill, but nothing seems to have come of it. Rolle continued to speak frequently on diverse subjects; in 1788-9 supported Pitt on the Regency, and on 7 Feb. 1789 made a pointed attack on the Prince of Wales's relations with Mrs. Fitzherbert. For this he was ridiculed by the Opposition, but he declared that ‘he was conscious of having done his duty, and so far was he, when satisfied in his conscience that he was right, from being afraid from persevering and maintaining a point that he had once started, that he would persist, if he stood single and all the House was against him’.10 He made more than a dozen speeches before the dissolution; one in favour of an inquiry into the slave trade; and another for the relief of Crown debtors.

Wraxall wrote of him:11

Nature had denied him all pretension to grace or elegance. Neither was his understanding apparently more cultivated than his manners were refined. He reminded me always of a Devonshire rustic, but he possessed plain common sense, a manly mind, and the faculty of stating his ideas in a few strong words.

He died 3 Apr. 1842.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Mary M. Drummond


  • 1. Almon, xvii. 506, 520.
  • 2. Debrett, ii. 297.
  • 3. Ibid. vii. 185, 200.
  • 4. Ibid. ix. 161.
  • 5. Ibid. 637.
  • 6. Ibid. x. 44, 45, 48, 54, 57, 100, 103.
  • 7. Ibid. xii. 581.
  • 8. Ibid. xiii. 48, 49, 211; xv. 58.
  • 9. Ibid. xxii. 205, 221-5.
  • 10. Stockdale, xvi. 383-4.
  • 11. Mems. iv. 118.