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John Morton

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John Morton

1715 - 1780

Biography

(see long history)

John Morton was Abingdon’s MP from 1747 until 1770 and its recorder from 1753 until his death in 1780. Like several of his predecessors and successors, he found it profitable to combine the careers of politician and lawyer.

He came from a wealthy family long established in Tackley, some five miles north-east of Woodstock. Born in or about 1715 and educated at Abingdon School, he went on to Trinity College, Oxford, and then to the Inner Temple, being called to the bar in 1740. His early career is obscure, but in 1747 he became MP for Abingdon, replacing John Wright who did not contest the seat. Wright had been recorder as well as MP, but in 1753 that position also was given to Morton. Wright’s political opinions were not those of Abingdon’s corporation at that time, and his dismissal was brusque. 

Morton progressed faster in his legal than in his political career. He was a bencher – a senior member – of the Inner Temple in 1758, and became a King’s Counsel in 1760. In 1761 he was considered as a candidate for Speaker of the House of Commons, but was turned down because of his political views and at least in part as being considered of too low a social origin. Perhaps in consolation, he was made Chief Justice of the county palatine of Chester, a function which seems to have been lucrative without requiring too much personal attendance. According to some newspaper reports, he also became a judge in the court of exchequer which carried the courtesy title, but not the other prerogatives, of a baron, but this is probably incorrect.

In his politics, Morton was a Tory, even though under the first two Hanoverian monarchs this meant exclusion from government office. He was close to the Leicester House court of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and married the sister of one of its high officials, the solicitor-general Paul Jodrell. But when the prince died in 1751, he made no move towards any of the Whig factions. Only when George III succeeded his grandfather in 1760 and suspicion of Tories as actual or potential Jacobites began to be relaxed, did he move into the ambit of the new minister, Lord Bute.

He remained a back-bencher, though increasingly influential especially where his legal knowledge was of use. He generally supported the government, notably in its American policies and in its response to the challenges set by the populist agitator John Wilkes. But he retained his old allegiance to the Leicester House interest; when the government wanted to exclude the king’s mother, the dowager Princess of Wales, from a regency council, it was he who ensured that her name would be on the list. 

But although Morton would remain a member of Parliament until his death, he would not represent Abingdon after 1770. The election of 1768 was a disaster for him. His position in Abingdon had always depended on the active support of the Corporation which was solidly Tory while the population in general, and especially the large Dissenting minority, was overwhelmingly Whig. To ensure his re-election against Nathaniel Bayly the Corporation took measures that went well beyond the degree of corruption that was acceptable at the time. In the run-up to the poll, two new poor rates were levied. The lists of people to be charged – who would also have the right to vote – were augmented by a total of 55 names, almost all of whom would vote for Morton. The final result was a win for Morton by just two votes in 250. The Whigs published the poll book with annotations, and on their calculation voters from the pre-1768 list had rejected Morton by 117 to 79.

Bayly petitioned, and the matter hung fire for a couple of years while negotiations took place behind the scenes. Somehow, Bayly was able to dredge up three separate matters on which Morton might credibly be accused of accepting bribes, which would put an end to his legal career. He gave in, and the government found him an alternative seat at New Romney and later another at Wigan. He was made solicitor-general to Queen Charlotte. Towards the end of his life, Morton began to take a radical view on the misuse of public money.

7708843370_cd7924ea3b_b_0.jpg

 

 

Morton memorial in Tackley Church by John Bacon

Photo by Norfolkboy-1 

 

 

 

 

 

We know little of Morton’s private life. His home was at Hill Court in Tackley, which had been acquired by his great-grandfather before 1659. He greatly enlarged it, and enclosed a large tract of land to the south of the village. He later bought property at Medmenham in Bucks where he was living at his death. There were apparently no surviving children of his marriage, and in his will he enjoined his wife Elizabeth to make a will of her own immediately after his death to ensure the estate would descend ‘to such person or persons as she shall deem the properest objects of her kindness and courtesy’. He was buried at Tackley. What had been the family house at Tackley was demolished in 1959.

 

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2019

(see short history)

The key to understanding Abingdon’s political history between 1688 and the end of the eighteenth century is that while the Corporation was predominantly and sometimes exclusively Tory, the town had an unusually large Dissenting minority, perhaps at its greatest a third of the population and a quarter of the electorate, which would invariably vote Whig.[1] In 1747, the town’s MP was an Oxford lawyer, John Wright, who had been in office since 1741 and had also been recorder since 1736. Wright was a Whig. When, in that year, a snap election was called, it was decided to replace him.[2]

Wright was somehow persuaded, presumably by the Corporation, not to stand, and the seat was taken without a contest by another lawyer, John Morton (sometimes spelled Moreton). Morton was of an old-established family in Tackley, Oxfordshire; he had been educated at Abingdon School which under Thomas Woods was a nursery of Tory political talent, and was called to the bar from the Inner Temple in 1740.[3]

It was quite usual for ambitious young lawyers to seek to enter parliament. They could hope to become recorder of their borough; there would be opportunity to convert political activities into lucrative briefs; many middling and senior legal appointments were open to MPs and many of these were in the gift of political leaders of the time.[4]  Morton’s career would never take him to the heights attained by his illustrious predecessor Simon Harcourt, but would be typical for a class of lawyer/politicians of his time. It would show Abingdon as a constituency which was not under the control of the government or of an individual magnate but was kept firmly in hand by a faction of its own leading inhabitants. All concerned, whether on Morton’s side or against him, used means that would today be regarded as outrageously corrupt.

One difficulty faced Morton from the start. Under the first two Hanoverian monarchs, Tories, always under suspicion of Jacobite sympathies, were rigorously excluded from government office. Politics took place not between parties but between rival factions among the Whigs. The answer for a young man was to support the reversionary interest, that of Frederick, Prince of Wales, always at odds with his father, George II. Frederick had issued a declaration positively encouraging Tories to rally to him.[5] In fact, Morton may already have been in Frederick’s camp; his wife was sister to the prince’s solicitor-general although we do not know whether they were already married at the time of the election. But it is certain that by April 1749 his name was on a list of Frederick’s supporters in Parliament.[6]

Unfortunately, Frederick did not succeed his father. He died in 1751, leaving a pregnant widow and eight children. The heir to the throne, the future George III, was a minor. Some of Frederick’s adherents drifted into the government ranks. But many remained, and the Leicester House group – from the prince’s residence on the present Leicester Square in London – manoeuvred as a faction among others.[7] Gradually, the Earl of Bute, tutor of the future king and reputed lover of his mother, assumed its leadership. Morton had already made enough of a reputation for the factions to compete in courting him. In 1756 the Duke of Newcastle was discussing a position for him in the lucrative but not very onerous judicial arrangements of the county palatine of Chester. In the event that job went elsewhere. He wanted to become a King’s Counsel but this, being a position notionally under the Crown, would require him to be re-elected to his seat in the Commons. In 1758 Bute and William Pitt, temporarily allied, got him a “patent of precedence” which entitled him to most of the privileges of a King’s Counsel without the necessity of a re-election.[8]

Morton became a Bencher of the Inner Temple in 1758 and was its Treasurer – its ceremonial head – for the year 1766. He became involved in the affairs of Oxford University. In 1759 he gave a formal opinion on the eligibility of a potential chancellor of the university, and he worked with a much greater jurist, William Blackstone, on the sensitive question of the rights of the university to alter its own statutes. In 1770, Morton became deputy high steward of the university, one of its senior legal officials.[9]

In 1760, George II died and his young grandson succeeded. Bute’s influence increased and in 1761 he supported Morton for the post of Speaker of the House of Commons. Newcastle vetoed the appointment, not wanting a Tory in the Chair He also seems to have considered Morton as of too low a social status.[10] But, perhaps in compensation, Morton was appointed chief justice in Chester, a higher position than the one he had failed to attain in 1756. This did require him to be re-elected in Abingdon, but he was unopposed. According to newspaper reports, he was also in 1761 appointed to the more substantial judicial position of a Baron of the Exchequer, but this seems doubtful; it was not a function that could have been combined with regular attendance at the House of Commons.[11]

He continued as a middle-ranking back bencher, especially respected for his legal knowledge, and generally speaking and voting against change and reform.  He was critical of the populist John Wilkes and opposed his admission to Parliament. Wilkes’s case brought up the matter of general warrants which gave almost unlimited powers to the authorities if they wished to harass a political opponent; Morton was against their abolition. He defended Parliament’s right to tax the American colonies.[12] On the other hand, he also proposed reductions in government spending as “a real good to ye people” and, towards the end of his life, criticised “the great waste of public revenue” in the collection of the land tax and “the enormous emoluments of the officers of the Exchequer and Treasury”.[13]

Morton’s parliamentary career was unspectacular, but he had one moment in the limelight. In 1765, the king and queen already had three young children, and a bill was prepared to define the membership of a regency council in case the king should die. The only member of the royal family specifically named was the children’s mother, Queen Charlotte. Morton, no doubt remembering old friendships, successfully moved an amendment to add their grandmother, the dowager Princess of Wales. Given the difficult family dynamics among the Hanoverians and the princess’s unpopularity because of her supposed relationship with Bute, this was unlikely ever to be of more than symbolic significance. But it does seem to have been his own initiative and to have earned him the princess’s gratitude, if no one else’s.[14]

But all this time, it was his constituency of Abingdon that was taking up much of Morton’s attention. In the 1750s party hostilities intensified throughout the region. It was then that Oxford earned its reputation as the home of lost causes: it was solidly Tory and unfashionably Jacobite. The Whigs determined to end this state of affairs by taking the Oxfordshire county seats at the election due in 1754; the campaign they started a couple of years in advance would prove expensive enough to ruin some of the families involved. The Tory candidates were both Old Abingdonians – one of them a contemporary of Morton – and he worked hard in their interest.[15] But meanwhile the Abingdon Tories were starting a concerted campaign to eliminate Whig influence from their town.

John Wright was summarily dismissed as recorder by the Abingdon Corporation in April 1753 with no reason stated. He complained bitterly but it did him no good.[16] Morton replaced him. There were riots before the mayoral election in September. The candidates were Thomas Justice and John Spinage. Spinage had been mayor in the years when Wright had been elected to parliament and when he became recorder. It was Justice who was elected.[17] At about the same time, three Abingdon men complained to the Berkshire quarter sessions that they had been unduly omitted from the St Helen’s list of ratepayers. This was also the voters’ list, so they would be deprived of their vote at the general election in the following year. The county magistrates agreed, and insisted on adding no fewer than sixteen names to the Abingdon list – it is not at all clear by what right they could do this. The Corporation took legal advice, presumably from their new recorder, and, it seems, won their case.[18]

When the general election was called in April 1754, Morton’s Whig opponent was Henry Thrale, better known as the husband of Samuel Johnson’s muse Hester.[19] Thrale had a budget of £1500. A Londoner, he was seen by locals simply as “a person to pluck and defeat”.[20] They accepted sums as high as £50 for their votes, but voted Tory anyway. A new voters’ list was issued eight days before the election, and Morton won by 133:100.[21] Elections thirty years earlier had seen over 250 votes cast, and it seems likely that once more potential Whig voters had been arbitrarily excluded. The poll book shows that the 37 Dissenters all voted for Thrale, while the “churchmen” divided roughly two to one in favour of Morton.[22]

The Corporation was purged and arrangements were made to perpetuate the Tory ascendancy within it. John Spinage, apparently the leader of the few remaining Whigs, was among those who resigned, and an unusual number of new men were introduced as secondary burgesses.[23]

It was a time of seven-year parliaments. In 1761, Morton was opposed by a local man, a Mr Hawkins, who conceded defeat without a poll.[24] But seven years later, faced with considerable local opposition, the Corporation overplayed its hand. There had been some 200 names on the voter list, but another fifty or more were added in two batches between the dissolution of the preceding parliament and the voting day. These would virtually all vote for Morton. A similar list submitted by the opposing camp was rejected. The poll book, as later printed and published, showed that many of Morton’s voters were unqualified because in receipt of alms or because they paid their ‘scot and lot’ – local taxes for the indigent – at a much reduced rate; many of these were noted as employees of Corporation members; many who had assured his opponent that they would vote for him, and probably pocketed his bribes, had somehow been convinced to vote for Morton instead. In the end, 250 votes were cast, and Morton had a majority of just two.[25]  

Morton’s opponent was Nathaniel Bayly, a well-connected gentleman whose family had made a fortune in the West Indies.[26] He petitioned Parliament in protest. Parliament was slow to adjudicate the matter, and Bayly finally threatened to prosecute Morton on three allegations of bribery. It is not clear what these were; they may have simply been cases arising out of the disputed election, but the appearance is that they were more serious and that his legal career would be harmed if he had to answer them in court. In February 1770 he stood down in favour of Bayly. It happened that a long-standing member for New Romney, a borough under government control, had run into financial difficulties, and Morton was immediately put into his place. He was also made solicitor-general to the queen, succeeding his friend William Blackstone who had become a judge.[27]

He remained recorder of Abingdon. In 1774 it was he who managed a change to the town’s charter. There had until then been three magistrates in the town at any time: the mayor, the immediate past mayor, and the recorder.[28] Now the corporation would name a further two of its members each year as additional magistrates. It may seem that this was merely a technical adjustment to remedy a perceived shortage of justices of the peace in the town, but this cannot have been the case. Firstly, the cost of the change was over £750 – the Corporation’s expenditure in a normal year was less than £500 –and the money had to be borrowed, and secondly the civic celebration arranged on receipt of the amended charter was on a scale appropriate only to a political triumph. The Corporation enjoyed a banquet while the populace got an ox roast, seven barrels of beer and £5-worth of bread.[29]

In the words of an angry letter-writer to Jackson’s Oxford Journal, “The Justices have the sole power of appointing Overseers; - the Overseers of altering the Rates; or in other words of naming the Electors”.[30] Since the mayoralty was subject to a poll, there was always the possibility of an occasional Whig mayor. But succession to the Corporation was under the control of its majority, so it could be expected to remain Tory-dominated and select Tories to be magistrates in election years. As Nathaniel Bayly, by then sitting for another borough, explained to the House of Commons, “this new charter puts it in the power of the Corporation of Abingdon ....  to return any member to Parliament, they pleased”.[31]

Morton’s parliamentary career continued, but in national politics he remained a subordinate figure, a pawn moved by others. In 1774, the man he had replaced at New Romney took his seat back, but in the next year Morton was called on to take the place of a member for Wigan who was to become a Baron of the Exchequer. He would sit for Wigan until his death in 1780.[32]

We know little of Morton’s private life. Most of it was spent at his family home at Hill Court in Tackley, which had been acquired by his great-grandfather before 1659. He greatly enlarged it, and enclosed a large tract of land to the south of the village. In his last years he bought a Thames-side estate at Medmenham in Bucks, in much easier reach of London. His will is a sad document. No children or other relatives are named. Were both he and his wife Elizabeth the last survivors of their families, or had they quarrelled with them? A married woman could not make a will in her husband’s lifetime, and he enjoined Elizabeth to make one immediately after his death to ensure the estate would descend “to such person or persons as she shall deem the properest objects of her kindness and courtesy”. We know that she sold both the properties, but her will has not been traced and we do not know who finally benefitted from Morton’s exertions. The house at Tackley was demolished in 1959.[33]

Morton died at Medmenham on 23 July 1780 aged 65 years. Although no longer living at Tackley, he  was buried in Tackley Church.

 

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2019

 

[1] R S Lea. ‘Abingdon’, History of Parliament 1715-54, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1715-1754/constituencies/abingdon  (accessed 27/11/2018);  Michael Hambleton. A Sweet and Hopeful People, (2nd edn, Abingdon, 2011) p.63; Anon, An exact list of those who poll’d at the election for a member of parliament for Abingdon …. April 1734 (Bodleian, Ms Gough Berks 3 (1)).

[2] R S Lea, ‘Wright, John’ History of Parliament 1715-54, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1715-1754/member/wright-john-1692-1766 (accessed 27/11/2018)

[3] The Abingdonian (Abingdon School magazine) May 1965, pp 321-3; R S Lea, ‘Morton’ History of Parliament, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1715-1754/member/morton-john-1714-80.

[4] Lewis Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (2nd edn, 1957) pp. 43-4.

[5] Linda Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy: the Tory party, 1714-1760 (1982). p. 254.

[6] Aubrey N. Newman (ed), ‘Leicester House politics, 1750-60 : from the papers of John, second Earl of Egmont’, Camden Miscellany No 23 (Camden 4th ser Vol 7, 1969), p.125.

[7] Matthew Kilburn, ’Leicester House (act. 1743–1760)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/96922, (accessed 27/11/2018).

[8] Sir Lewis Namier, ‘Morton, John’, History of Parliament 1754-90, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/morton-john-1714-80 (accessed 27/11/2018); Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy, p. 286.

[9] L S Sutherland ‘Laudian Statutes in the Eighteenth Century’ in L G Sutherland and L G Mitchell, History of the University of Oxford, Vol 5, The Eighteenth Century (1986), pp. 199-203. Some of Morton’s ‘opinions’ are preserved in Bodleian, Ms Gough Oxon 96.

[10] Namier, ‘Morton’, History of Parliament 1754-90; Lewis Namier, England in the age of the American Revolution (2nd edn, 1961), p. 345.

[11] J Townsend, News of a Country Town (1914), p. 47; Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 17 September 1761, p.3; Ipswich Journal, 17 Oct 1761 p.3.

[12] J(ohn) M(orton), The legislative authority of the British Parliament, with respect to North America, and the privileges of the assemblies there, briefly considered (1766)

[13] Namier, ‘Morton’, History of Parliament 1754-90; Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy, p 259.

[14] J Bullion, ‘Augusta [Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha], princess of Wales (1719–1772)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/46829 (accessed 27/11/2018); The text of the act is in https://www.heraldica.org/topics/royalty/ukregency.htm#1766 (accessed 27/11/2018).

[15] R J Robson, The Oxfordshire election of 1754 (1949); Anon, Political arithmetick, or The Old and New Interest Numbers. April 23, 1754 (Oxford, 1755).

[16] Agnes Baker, Historic Abingdon: Fifty-six articles (Abingdon, 1963), p. 18.

[17] Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 25 August 1753, p. 3; Mieneke Cox, Abingdon: an 18th century country town (Abingdon, 1999), p. 94.

[18] Bromley Challenor, Selections from the records of the Borough of Abingdon (Abingdon, 1898), p. 203.

[19] Namier, ‘Thrale’ in History of Parliament 1754-90, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/thrale-henry-1728-81. (accessed 28/11/2018).

[20] R S Lea, ‘Abingdon’, History of Parliament 1715-1754.

[21] Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 20 April 1753, pp. 2,3; Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy, p 161; Oxfordshire Record Office, Abingdon Poll Book 1754, Shelfmark SZ896.

[22] Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy, p 131.

[23] Abingdon Town Council, Corporation Minutes 1667-1767, at 26 Oct 1753, 9 July 1754, 27 Sept 1754.

[24] Sir Lewis Namier, ‘Abingdon’, History of Parliament 1754-1790, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/constituencies/abingdon (accessed 28/11/2018).

[25] Anon, A True Copy of the Poll … Abingdon … March the 16th 1768 (Bodleian, Ms Gough Berks 3 (1)).

[26] J A Cannon, ‘Bayly’, History of Parliament 1754-1790, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/bayly-nathaniel-1726-98 (accessed 28/11/2018). See also https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146638579 for a discussion of the sources of Bayly’s fortune.

[27] Namier, ‘Morton’, History of Parliament 1754-90; John Brooke, ‘Dering’, History of Parliament 1754-90, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/dering-edward-1732-98 (accessed 28/11/2018).

[28] Challenor, Selections, p.208.

[29] Challenor, Selections, pp. 209, 210; Reading Mercury, 3 Oct 1774, p.3; Abingdon Town Council, Chamberlains’ Reports, Vol 7.

[30] Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 27 August 1774, p. 3

[31] J Almon, The Parliamentary Register, vol 1 (1775), pp 412-3.

[32] Namier, ‘Morton’, History of Parliament 1754-90.

[33] A P Baggs, Christina Colvin, H M Colvin, Janet Cooper, C J Day, Nesta Selwyn and A Tomkinson, 'Parishes: Tackley', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 11, Wootton Hundred (Northern Part), ed. Alan Crossley (London, 1983), pp. 194-208. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol11/pp194-208 [accessed 28 November 2018]. 'Parishes: Medmenham', in A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1925), pp. 84-89. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/bucks/vol3/pp84-89 [accessed 28 November 2018]; Will, The National Archives, PROB 11/1068.

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