CARTER (afterwards BONHAM CARTER), John (1788-1838), of 19 High Street, Portsmouth, Hants and 16 Duke Street, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



9 Oct. 1816 - 17 Feb. 1838

Family and Education

b. 1788, o. surv. s. of Sir John Carter, brewer, of Portsmouth and Dorothy, da. of George Cuthbert of Portsmouth. educ. Miss Whishaw and Mr. Forester’s schs. Portsmouth; Unitarian Acad., Cheshunt, Herts. 1800; Higham Hill, Walthamstow, Essex 1801; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1806, fellow 1811; L. Inn 1807, I. Temple 1812, called (L. Inn) 1819. m. 25 Dec. 1816, Joanna Maria, da. of William Smith*, 5s. (1 d.v.p.) 4da. suc. fa. 1808; cos. Thomas Bonham1 of Petersfield to Hants estate and brewery holding and took name of Bonham before Carter 19 Mar. 1827. d. 17 Feb. 1838.

Offices Held


Carter was born into the Whig oligarchy which dominated the corporation of Portsmouth, but was not the direct heir to his family’s local brewing and distilling concerns. He trained as a lawyer and by diligent practice in London and on the western circuit between 1819 and 1827 secured the financial independence which his inheritance had not provided (his father’s personalty had been sworn under £20,000 with no residue).2 He was raised as a Unitarian and ‘continued though life to attend chiefly in the public services of that denomination, but he never allied himself to any association having proselytism as its object’.3 In 1816 he married the daughter of his co-religionist and political bedfellow William Smith, Whig Member for Norwich.

At the 1820 general election Carter offered again for Portsmouth, denying that he was a factious opponent of government and citing his approval of the suppression of blasphemous publications. He was returned at the head of a poll in which his family recovered control of the second seat.4 After the contest, he reportedly departed to resume his work on the circuit, though he was present at a Portsea dinner to mark the election of George Purefoy Jervoise for Hampshire, 19 Apr.5 A largely silent Member who ‘attended frequently’ during the 1820 Parliament, Carter voted steadily with the Whig opposition to the Liverpool ministry on most major issues, including economy, retrenchment and reduced taxation.6 He was present at meetings in support of Queen Caroline at Portsmouth, 3 Jan., and Winchester, 12 Jan., and presented the petition of the former for the restoration of her name to the liturgy, 26 Jan. 1821.7 He divided for Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, 21 Apr. 1825. On 6 Mar. 1821 he was granted leave to go the circuit. He voted for parliamentary reform, 9 May 1821, 25 Apr. 1822, 24 Apr. 1823, 27 Apr. 1826, reform of the county representation of Scotland, 2 June 1823, and that of Edinburgh, 26 Feb. 1824, 13 Apr. 1826, and for resolutions against electoral bribery, 26 May 1826. He was present at the election of his kinsman James Carter as mayor of Portsmouth, 24 Sept. 1821.8 A professional engagement prevented his attendance at a Portsmouth meeting for Irish poor relief, 15 May 1822, though he sent a subscription.9 He divided against the Irish constables bill, 7 June 1822. According to his intermittent diary, he found Brougham’s speech of 4 Feb. 1823 ‘quite heart stirring’ and thought that the response of Peel, the home secretary, ‘clearly demonstrated his insufficiency for the place of leader’, considering ‘his prosing on general principles dull’ and ‘didactic’. He declined to vote against the peacetime appointment of a lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 19 Feb., as he regarded the question as unclear, but he was unimpressed with the foreign secretary Canning’s argument against inquiry into the parliamentary franchise, for which he divided next day. He considered the speech on the national finances by Robinson, the chancellor of the exchequer, 21 Feb., ‘excellent’, yet he voted for a £7 million reduction in taxes, 28 Feb.10 He was granted six weeks’ leave to go the circuit, 6 Mar. On 24 Apr. 1823 he presented and endorsed a petition against the Portsmouth harbour fishery bill, which he portrayed as an infraction of ancient fishing rights.11 He contributed to a fund to fight the measure and won local praise for securing its rejection.12 He presented a petition from Portsmouth licensed victuallers for a reduction in their licensing costs, 18 Feb., and one from Portsea against the beer duties, 11 May 1824.13 He was appointed to the select committee on prisons, 18 Mar., and on 12 Apr. 1824 to the recommital of the ensuing county gaols bill, from which he had privately lobbied ministers for Portsmouth’s exemption on the ground of expense, though apparently without success.14 He presented a Portsmouth petition complaining of the treatment of John Smith, the Methodist missionary accused of inciting slave riots in Demerara, 1 June, and voted accordingly, 11 June.15 He attended the mayoral election at Portsmouth in September 1824, when he commended the liberal turn of recent government policy and the concomitant development of a political consensus.16 He divided against suppression of the Catholic Association, 15, 21 Feb. 1825. He was granted four weeks’ leave to go the circuit, 25 Feb. On 19 Apr. 1825 he denied that a constituency petition against Catholic relief reflected majority opinion.

In November 1825 Carter resolved to be more assiduous in keeping his journal of reflections on public affairs: ‘I am sure it will tend greatly to improve my mind ... I am conscious of a very slight and superficial knowledge of all things, even of those I ought to know thoroughly and I hope in some degree by these means to improve myself’. His good intentions evidently survived only a matter of days, though he wrote a brief record of his unopposed return for Portsmouth at the 1826 general election.17 Addressing his hustings speech to the inhabitants, he suggested that triennial parliaments, as part of a ‘general reform’, would strengthen the bond between constituency and Member and declared himself a ‘decided friend’ to Catholic relief, a gesture of tolerance that would improve the ‘mental and moral character of the people of this country’.18 In the House, 24 Nov. 1826, he disputed the argument that more documentation was required to decide the validity of the Tregony election return. Next month his cousin Thomas Bonham, who died on the 15th, left him landed property in Petersfield, Buriton and the Isle of Wight, a majority shareholding in the Pike brewery in Portsmouth (bequeathed, as he surmised, to fortify his interest in the borough), and about three-quarters of personalty sworn under £120,000. The size of the inheritance appears to have surprised Carter, who promised his wife to ‘endeavour to prove that I am not unworthy of it’ and to mollify his disappointed relations.19 In accordance with his benefactor’s wishes he took the additional name of Bonham, but he never resided at his Buriton seat, though he rented nearby Ditcham Grove from 1832.20

He argued against the rejection of a Leominster election petition on a technicality, 9 Feb., but was a teller for the minority against the acceptance of one from Dover, 13 Feb. 1827. He disagreed with Peel’s assertion that legislation to prevent bribery at elections should operate retrospectively, 26 Feb. He voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., when he was granted six weeks’ leave to attend the circuit. On the admission of Whigs to Canning’s ministry, Bonham Carter wrote to his colleague Francis Baring, 22 Apr.:

How do you feel when you hear of your contemporaries getting into public employments? I have no hesitation at saying that I should like exceedingly to be engaged in some office in which I could turn my talents to good account, but at the same time I am sure I should be very uneasy under the idea of service and a positive engagement to support my superiors through thick and thin.21

He informed his wife that he and Baring ‘shall not pledge ourselves to support the admin[istration] ... but I suppose we shall sit on the ministerial side of the House’, 30 Apr.22 Yet he voted for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May. That June he suffered the loss of an infant son.23 Whilst on the circuit next month he missed the visit to Portsmouth of the lord high admiral, the duke of Clarence, against whose financial provision he had voted, 16 Feb. 1827.24 His new financial independence enabled him to give up legal practice thereafter, though he evidently did so under pressure from his wife.25 In the judgement of his eldest son and namesake, he ‘threw himself entirely into politics as soon as his circumstances enabled him (or rather were such as to render it becoming in him, for he would probably have willingly continued at the profession of advocacy)’.26 He voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. 1828. Three days later he voiced concern at reports of the admission of hearsay evidence in magistrates’ courts. He voted against the government-backed plan to sluice the corrupt borough of East Retford, 21 Mar., 24 June, and expressed concern at the disqualification of individual voters in the case of Penryn, 24 Mar. That day he presented a Portsmouth petition in favour of Catholic relief, for which he voted, 12 May. He presented petitions against the friendly societies bill from interested parties in Portsmouth, Portsea and Plymouth, 24 Apr., 6 May. He divided against the financial provision for Canning’s family, 13 May, and spoke and voted against the appointment by the archbishop of Canterbury of a third registrar, 16 June, when he was a minority teller with Hume for an amendment prohibiting compensation. On 20 June he presented an anti-slavery petition from Newport, Isle of Wight, and voted for a reduction in the garrison grant. He voted to condemn the misuse of public money on Buckingham House improvements, 23 June, for inquiry into abuses in the Irish church, 24 June, and for ordnance reductions, 4, 7 July. He wished for a broader definition of existing sporting rights in the sale of game bill, 27 June 1828.

Bonham Carter admitted that a Portsmouth meeting against Catholic emancipation had been ‘conducted fairly’, but doubted the veracity of many of the signatures to its petition, 4 Mar. 1829. He ridiculed the attempt of Lord George Lennox to cast similar aspersions on a favourable petition from Portsmouth corporation, which he presented later that day, and brought up others in similar terms, 25, 27 Mar. He was, of course, expected by Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary, to vote ‘with government’ on the issue and he divided accordingly, 6 Mar., though his name did not appear in any of the subsequent divisions. He voted for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May, and Lord Blandford’s resolutions in favour of parliamentary reform, 2 June 1829. Resuming his journal during the 1830 session, he explained that he had divided for Knatchbull’s amendment to the address, 4 Feb., ‘after much hesitation, because the language ... did not seem to me to go far enough in the description of the distress’. He voted for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., 5 Mar., believing the case for disfranchisement to be stronger than that of Penryn. Despairing of ‘the silence of ministers’ on promised proposals, he voted for a general reduction in taxation, 15 Feb. He recorded that he voted twice for army reductions, 19 Feb., when he questioned the necessity of maintaining large British garrisons abroad, ‘or indeed that the colonies should be maintained’. He continued to divide steadily for military economies for the remainder of the session. He abstained from voting on Blandford’s parliamentary reform motion, as it contained ‘so many matters to which I was adverse’, 18 Feb., but he divided for the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. He voted for information on British military interference in Portugal, 10 Mar. As he privately doubted that any benefit would accrue, he did not support the referral of petitions complaining of distress to a committee of the whole House, 16 Mar., but he divided for inquiry into a revision of taxation, 25 Mar., ‘not being deterred by the apprehended consequence of a property tax’.27 He voted for the omission of the Bathurst and Dundas pensions from the civil list the following day. He presented a petition for Rye election petitioners to be allowed more time to enter into their recognizances, 23 Mar. He queried the expense of moving the navy victualling department out of Portsmouth, 26 Mar., and the arrangements for dockyard repairs, 29 Mar. He voted for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May, and presented Portsmouth petitions for the measure, 2, 17 May. That day he failed by 18 votes to 50 to secure a postponement of the third reading of the parishes watching and lighting bill. He voted for mitigation of the punishment for forgery, 24 May, 7 June, parliamentary reform, 28 May, and reform of the divorce laws, 3 June. He presented petitions against the beer bill from the licensed victuallers of Portsmouth, 19 Mar., and of Petersfield and Havant, 12 May, and divided for an amendment to prohibit on-consumption, 21 June. He called for a reduction in the cost of transacting business in the exchequer court, 18 June, and pronounced himself broadly happy with the ministerial measures to expedite the judicial process, 2 July. After Brougham’s speech on the regency bill, 6 July 1830, he predicted to Denis Le Marchant† that the days of the Wellington administration were numbered.28

At the 1830 general election Bonham Carter, who was involved in the attempt to open the borough of Petersfield, was again returned unopposed for Portsmouth. On the hustings he welcomed repeal of the Test Acts and Catholic emancipation and predicted that parliamentary reform would shortly become a reality.29 Listed of course by ministers among their ‘foes’, he voted against them in the crucial division on the civil list, 15 Nov. Following the ‘Swing’ agricultural labourers’ riots which affected Hampshire later that month, he served on a committee appointed at the quarter sessions to assess damage claims.30 He presented petitions for the abolition of slavery, 17 Nov., 16 Dec. 1830. On the former date he presented an election petition from the defeated candidates at Rye, and he was the conduit for their plea of withdrawal, 9 Feb. 1831. He was appointed to the select committee on the public accounts, 17 Feb. 1831. At a Portsmouth reform meeting, 17 Dec. 1830, he deflected calls for the inclusion of a critical reference to the corporation and a demand for vote by ballot in its petition.31 Presenting this to the House, 23 Feb., he applauded the willingness of the Portsmouth burgesses ‘to sacrifice their interests to the common good’ and he presented their own pro-reform petition, 15 Mar. At a Hampshire county meeting, 17 Mar., he successfully proposed that to save time, the petition in favour of the Grey ministry’s reform bill should be signed by the sheriff on behalf of the freeholders. He presented a similar petition from Portsmouth, 19 Mar. He voted for the second reading of the reform bill, 22 Mar., and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831, and presented further favourable petitions next day.

Bonham Carter was again returned unopposed at the ensuing general election, when he remarked on the irony that as old supporters of parliamentary reform, his close electorate would have ejected him had he not supported the measure. Afterwards he planned to travel to Cambridge to poll for the university reform candidates, and thence to Southampton, where he possessed a slight influence. At a meeting to promote the reform candidates for Hampshire, 25 Apr., he had wryly praised the lawyers who had volunteered their services, knowing only too well that they ‘seldom worked for nothing’. For his own part, he made an active canvass in the south of the county and contributed £108 towards the election expenses.32 He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, though he had confided to Baring, 31 May, that with its inconsistent usage of terms and lack of reference to existing statutes, it was ‘not drawn to my taste’.33 He gave generally steady support to its details in committee, though confusion surrounds his vote on Lord Chandos’s amendment to enfranchise £50 tenants-at-will, 18 Aug.: one source places him in the majority in favour and another in the ministerial minority. He defended ministers from the charge of inconsistent treatment of Whig and Tory controlled boroughs during a debate on Appleby, 19 July, and rejected the claim of Joliffe, Petersfield’s proprietor, that the population of its neighbouring district should be included in the reckonings, 22 July. He was in the majority against the complete disfranchisement of Saltash, over which ministers offered no clear lead, 26 July. He welcomed proposals to vest the appointment of returning officers for the metropolitan districts in the sheriff of Middlesex, 10 Aug., and to allot a separate Member to the Isle of Wight, 16 Aug. He argued that a simple alteration in the wording of the relevant clause would prevent false entries in rolls of freeholders, 19 Aug., and showed impatience with the apparent obtuseness of Croker and Sugden over the status of existing voters, 30 Aug., 2 Sept. He voted for the bill’s passage, 21 Sept., the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. On 8 July he defended a grant to Oxford and Cambridge lecturers on account of the benefits afforded to poor scholars. He complained of the loose terminology used in a debate on the bankruptcy court bill, 14 Oct. 1831.

Bonham Carter’s eye for detail was evidently appreciated by Lord Althorp, who requested his assistance in redrawing the reform bill, 6 Nov. 1831.34 He voted for the second reading of the revised measure, 17 Dec. 1831, and divided steadily for its details. According to Le Marchant, he was impressed with the ‘thoroughly legal head’ displayed in committee by Althorp, who continued to rely on his drafting expertise for the incorporation of amendments. But when the prospect of his taking office was raised by Althorp in January, Bonham Carter replied that he ‘cared not about place, and that indeed there were very few situations for which I should think myself fit’. After some consideration, he declined a lordship of the admiralty.35 He clashed with Sugden over the future status of the non-resident electors of New Shoreham, 8 Feb. He defended the partial disfranchisement of Dartmouth, 14 Mar., and the wording of the clause on the rights of freemen, 23 Mar., having voted for the bill’s third reading the previous day. He was in minorities in favour of the Vestry Act amendment bill, 23 Jan., and against the recommital of the Irish registry of deeds bill, 9 Apr., but was in the ministerial majorities on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12, 16, 20 July, and the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr. He was appointed to the select committee on the East India Company, 27 Jan. After the rejection of the reform bill by the Lords, Bonham Carter informed his wife, 8 May, that ‘the crisis has arrived sooner than I expected, but it could not have come at a better time or under a better shape’; he anticipated the creation of 40 or 50 peers.36 He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the measure unimpaired, 10 May, but according to Le Marchant took the view that the putative Tory administration should be allowed to take office unhindered and face the wrath of public opinion.37 He doubted reports of trouble in the ensuing negotiations with the king, being convinced, 16 May, that Lord Grey would ‘ask for nothing but the power to carry the bill, and without using the power, he will do it’.38 He voted for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May, and against a Conservative amendment to increase the Scottish county representation, 1 June. He was appointed to the committee of secrecy on the renewal of the Bank of England’s charter, 22 May, and to the select committee on slavery, 30 May. He voted against Alexander Baring’s bill to exclude insolvent debtors from Parliament, 6 June. He denied that the ecclesiastical courts contempts bill would function retrospectively, 3 Aug. 1832.

At the 1832 general election Bonham Carter was returned at the head of the poll for Portsmouth on the widened franchise. According to William Cobbett†, who had visited the place in July 1832, he was ‘a great and general favourite of the people’ because, like his ancestors, he had so conducted himself ‘as to be ... beloved and respected’.39 At the same election he gave active support to the reform candidates for Petersfield and the southern division of Hampshire, where he played a vital part in the Liberal registration drive.40 He continued to sit for Portsmouth until his death, and his advice continued to be sought by senior Whigs, most notably Althorp, who consulted him on his possible assumption of office in the Melbourne administration.41 He resisted all such temptations, however, in 1833 reportedly declining the under-secretaryships of the colonies and of Ireland, and at an unspecified date refusing the offer of a seat on the privy council from Lord Brougham.42 Bonham Carter died in February 1838 after a long and debilitating illness identified by the family historian as diabetes.43 By his will, dated 20 Feb. 1832, his wife received an annuity of £1,800 as part of a settlement which, he calculated, would enable her to remain at Ditcham while ‘keeping a smaller establishment’. He left £12,000 each to his three younger sons and £9,000 apiece to his daughters. The Hampshire estates, the Portsmouth brewery and the residue of his personal fortune, sworn under £120,000 in total, passed to his eldest son John Bonham Carter (1817-84), Liberal Member for Winchester, 1847-74.44 In 1849 he offered a commentary on his father’s parliamentary career, based on a conversation with the family solicitor Edward Hopkins:

My father scarcely spoke in the House, and when speaking on the hustings, at meetings and elsewhere, he spoke tersely and to the point, without hesitation, but in rather a curt and severe style and without any attempt at oratory. His opinion on law questions was much looked up to and often asked in the House, where he was sure to give a straightforward decided answer which could be relied upon ... He frequently also would during a debate cross to the other side of the House and by quiet conversation and reasoning with individual Members, tend to bring the question in hand to a settlement much more than could have been done by an eloquent speech.45

In a similar vein his sister Hilary remarked in 1846 that their father’s career ‘was not a brilliant one, he was not eloquent, nor much admired nor followed after, but he was valued and trusted, and never found wanting, with a confidence that lives longer than a loud admiration’.46

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Philip Salmon / Howard Spencer


  • 1. Not uncle, as stated in HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 410.
  • 2. V. Bonham-Carter, In a Liberal Tradition, 13-22, 35, 39-43, 239-40; IR26/138/81.
  • 3. Hants RO, Bonham Carter mss 94M72 F967.
  • 4. CJ, lxxv. 118.
  • 5. Hants Telegraph, 13 Mar., 24 Apr. 1820.
  • 6. Black Bk. (1823), 145; Session of Parl. 1825, 455.
  • 7. The Times, 8, 27 Jan.; Hants Telegraph, 15 Jan. 1821.
  • 8. Hants Telegraph, 24 Sept. 1821.
  • 9. Ibid. 30 May 1822.
  • 10. Bonham Carter mss F40.
  • 11. The Times, 25 Apr. 1823.
  • 12. Hants Telegraph, 28 Apr., 12 May 1823.
  • 13. The Times, 19 Feb., 12 May 1824.
  • 14. Hants Telegraph, 22 Mar. 1824.
  • 15. The Times, 2 June 1824.
  • 16. Hants Telegraph, 17 Sept. 1824.
  • 17. Bonham Carter mss F40.
  • 18. Hants Telegraph, 12 June 1826.
  • 19. Bonham-Carter, 44-52; Bonham Carter mss F10, Bonham Carter to wife, 17, 18 Dec. 1827; IR26/1112/27.
  • 20. Bonham-Carter, 53-54.
  • 21. Bonham Carter mss F12.
  • 22. Ibid. F10.
  • 23. Bonham Carter mss F12, Bonham Carter to Baring, 25 June 1827.
  • 24. Hants Telegraph, 6 Aug. 1827.
  • 25. Bonham Carter mss F10, Bonham Carter to wife, 6 Aug. 1827.
  • 26. Ibid. F44.
  • 27. Ibid. F37.
  • 28. Le Marchant, Althorp, 248.
  • 29. Hants Telegraph, 9 Aug. 1830.
  • 30. Bonham-Carter, 62.
  • 31. Hants Telegraph, 20 Dec. 1830; Bonham Carter mss F12, Bonham Carter to Baring, 17 Dec. 1830.
  • 32. Baring Jnls. i. 86; Bonham Carter mss F10, Bonham Carter to wife, 24, 29 Apr., to Baring, 26 July 1831.
  • 33. Bonham-Carter, 64-65; Bonham Carter mss F12.
  • 34. Bonham Carter mss F19.
  • 35. Le Marchant, 394; Bonham Carter mss F10, Bonham Carter to wife, 1, 15 Feb., 6 Mar. 1832.
  • 36. Bonham Carter mss F10.
  • 37. Three Diaries, 253.
  • 38. Bonham Carter mss F10.
  • 39. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, ii. 682-4.
  • 40. G. Willson, A Strong Supporting Cast, 77; K. Bourne, Palmerston, 537; Bonham-Carter, 66.
  • 41. Bonham Carter mss F19 passim; Le Marchant, 518.
  • 42. Bonham-Carter, 70; Three Diaries, 317, 328; Bonham Carter mss F19, Le Marchant to Bonham Carter, n.d.
  • 43. Bonham-Carter, 70-71.
  • 44. PROB 11/1893/230; IR26/1478/297; Bonham Carter mss F45, 47.
  • 45. Bonham Carter mss F44.
  • 46. Bonham-Carter, 87.