SAWBRIDGE, John (1732-95), of Olantigh, Kent

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



1768 - 1774
1774 - 1780
28 Nov. 1780 - 21 Feb. 1795

Family and Education

b. 1732, 1st s. of John Sawbridge of Olantigh by Elizabeth, da. of George Wanley, banker, of London; gd.-s. of Jacob Sawbridge, M.P., South Sea Co. director.  m. (1) 15 Nov. 1763, Mary Diana (d. 21 Jan. 1764), da. of Sir Orlando Bridgeman, 4th Bt., s.p.; (2) 16 June 1766, Anne, da. of Sir William Stephenson of London, 3s. 1da.  suc. fa. 30 Apr. 1762.

Offices Held

Sheriff, London 1769-70, alderman 1769, ld. mayor 1775-6.


Sawbridge inherited large estates in Kent and Middlesex, and added to his property by two wealthy marriages. After his second marriage he became a partner in the business of his father-in-law, Sir William Stephenson, a hop-merchant and distiller, and a London alderman. Sawbridge hoped to come into Parliament for Kent in 1763, on the death of Sir Wyndham Knatchbull Wyndham, but declined in favour of Sir Brook Bridges. Thomas Dilkes reported to Portland, 29 Oct. 1763:1

Sawbridge has given up, as he says Sir Brook is an honest fellow and thinks as he does of the ministry. Lord Despenser offered him all the influence of the court if he would stand, but he answered if he did, it should not be on the ministerial interest.

Before the general election of 1768 he began working with William Evelyn of St. Clere to overthrow the Sackville interest at Hythe, a borough ten miles from his family seat. With government support,2 they carried the day comfortably against the Sackville candidates. When Parliament met, however, the main issue was Wilkes’s election for Middlesex, and Sawbridge at once adopted an attitude hostile to the ministry. On 14 Nov. 1768, the first day of business, he seconded the presentation of a petition from Wilkes, complaining of his treatment.3 In January 1769 he was called to the chair at a meeting of the Middlesex freeholders, at which their representatives were instructed to demand an inquiry into the ‘massacre’ in St. George’s Fields.4 He was a founder member of the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, and spoke for Wilkes on the hustings at Brentford in the spring of 1769.

The Wilkes controversy brought Sawbridge into London politics. In June 1769, as an avowed Wilkite, he was elected sheriff of London and Middlesex with James Townsend, and a week later was elected an alderman for Langbourne ward. He spent much time trying to co-ordinate the various branches of opposition,5 but in 1771 he quarrelled with Wilkes over the proper use of the funds of the Bill of Rights Society, Wilkes maintaining that he had first claim on them to discharge his own debts. The breach became serious, and in October 1773 Sawbridge joined Richard Oliver in opposing a Wilkite lord mayor.

In Parliament, Sawbridge attended very conscientiously. On 26 Apr. 1771, he introduced, for the first time, his motion for shorter Parliaments:6

The length of Parliaments gave up that power which the constituents ought to have over their representatives, that of frequent examination into their conduct, and rejection of them if they thought them unworthy. That long Parliaments gave an opportunity to such an intimacy between the minister and the Members, always dangerous and destructive to the constitution; that in shortening the duration of Parliaments, he should incline to annual, as subject to fewer objections, in his opinion, than triennial; but that must be the subject of future debates.

His motion was rejected by 105-54. Sawbridge brought forward the same proposal year after year; usually the House listened in bored hostility, and voted it down without discussion.

Sawbridge reached an understanding with Wilkes before the general election of 1774. He did not oppose Wilkes’s candidature for lord mayor, and Wilkes in return supported his attempt to gain a seat for the city of London in conjunction with Frederick Bull, Brass Crosby, and George Hayley. They adopted a common programme, pledging themselves to work for shorter Parliaments, a place bill, an oath for parliamentary candidates against bribery, a more equal representation, redress for the Middlesex electors, and conciliation in America. Sawbridge was returned top of the poll. At Hythe, where he was trying to maintain his interest against ministerial attack, he was defeated. The following year he followed Wilkes as lord mayor, and marked his term of office by refusing to allow press gangs to operate in the city.

He continued to intervene frequently in debate, and his attacks on the ministry were often couched in violent language. On 30 Oct. 1775 he declared he would never trust the ministers with public money, ‘which they had so repeatedly squandered, in effecting the most infamous and corrupt purposes’. In a later debate he told Lord North that he and his ministers were ‘the most unprincipled prostitute tools that ever disgraced this country’. He vigorously opposed their American measures, insisting as early as 10 May 1776 that all attempts at coercion would inevitably fail. Sawbridge was believed to share the republican views of his elder sister, Mrs. Macaulay the historian, and in March 1777 was falsely denounced to the Government by a confidence trickster as one of the leaders of a plot to assassinate the King. This led to a scene in the House, where Sawbridge accused North of ‘hiring spies and informers to ruin and distress innocent men’. He seems to have had a personal dislike of North. On 21 June 1779, he asked:7

Where was the man to be found who pretended to the smallest skill in finance or in politics, who was less capable of conducting the public affairs of a great people than the noble lord? He, for one, did not think that being existed. He charged the noble lord with having been the immediate cause of every one of our present political evils.

At the 1780 election he stood jointly with Bull, Hayley and John Kirkman. They told the electors that their intention was ‘to use every fair endeavour to exclude men either of avowed ministerial attachments, or men whose language and career were more than suspicious’.8 Sawbridge’s candidature was the least safe of the four. He found it necessary to issue two assurances that he had been active against the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1778.9 The Administration intervened against him, and he was defeated. At Hythe, his candidates were also unsuccessful. He made his return unopposed for the city at the by-election caused by Kirkman’s death.

In the new Parliament Sawbridge continued to speak often, particularly on constitutional questions. On 30 Apr. 1782, rather to the embarrassment of his own allies, he moved that the pension of £1,000 p.a. granted to John Robinson was ‘unmerited by public service, and a lavish and imprudent expenditure of the public money’. After the death of Rockingham he followed a Foxite course, voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, and supported Fox’s East India bill until he received instructions from his constituents to oppose it.10 At the general election he was again singled out by Administration for attack, and only beat off Richard Atkinson’s challenge by nine votes. At Hythe, where he stood once more himself, he was defeated.

As soon as the new Parliament assembled, Sawbridge pressed his proposals for parliamentary reform, moving on 16 June 1784 for a committee to inquire into the state of the representation. On 3 Mar. 1785 he moved that the Westminster scrutiny should be abandoned—‘to what end continues so tedious and fruitless a process?’—and carried his motion against Pitt’s objections. He spoke frequently on taxation matters, and voted with Opposition in every recorded division. On 12 May 1789 he denounced any unqualified abolition of the slave trade as ‘rash, impolitic and unwise’. He was much less active in the Parliament of 1790, and was paralysed for the last three years of his life.11

Wraxall described Sawbridge as ‘almost hideous in his aspect, of a coarse figure and still coarser manners’.12 Horace Walpole wrote:13

His soul was all integrity, and his private virtues all great and amiable. His capacity, though not deficient, was not bright, nor his eloquence adapted to popularity. Consequently he was more respected in his party than followed.

He died 21 Feb. 1795.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: I. R. Christie


  • 1. Portland mss.
  • 2. G. Wilks, Barons of the Cinque Ports, 114-16.
  • 3. Fortescue, ii. 58.
  • 4. London Mag. 1769, p. 51.
  • 5. Chatham Corresp. iii. 436-8, 474-5.
  • 6. Debrett, vi. 131.
  • 7. Almon, iii. 77, 156; iv. 107; vii. 117; xii. 479.
  • 8. Guildhall, Broadsheet, Noble Coll. c.78.
  • 9. B.M. Broadsheets, 1750 c.10.
  • 10. Debrett, vii. 101; xii. 397.
  • 11. Debrett, xv. 186; xvii. 326; Stockdale, xvii. 247; C. S. Orwin and S. Williams. Hist. Wye Church, 67.
  • 12. Mems. iii. 423.
  • 13. Mems. Geo. III, iii. 192.