1715 - 1780
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.
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.
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