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Major John Cartwright (1740-1824)

Adapted from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949). The original biography was written by Edward Smith in 1886.

Johnn Cartwright, a political reformer, was descended from an old Nottinghamshire family, and was the third son of William Cartwright of Marnham, and Anne, daughter of George Cartwright of Ossington. He was born on 17 September 1740 and was educated at a grammar school in Newark and at a private academy in Heath, Yorkshire. In 1780 Cartwright married Miss Anne Katharine Dashwood, of a Lincolnshire family.  They had no children and his wife died on 21 December 1834. She was buried by her husband in the churchyard of Finchley, Middlesex.

At about the age of eighteen (c. 1758) he entered the navy and saw some active service under the command of Lord Howe. He devised some improvements in gun exercise, afterwards incorporated in Falconer's Marine Dictionary. Cartwright rapidly rose in the service, and in 1766 was appointed first lieutenant of the Guernsey on the Newfoundland station.  The following year he was made deputy commissary to the Vice-Admiralty court there. Here he took the lead in a short exploring expedition. He returned from Newfoundland in 1770 in impaired health. He thought constantly about the improvement of naval efficiency, and for several years he tried to draw the attention of the government to plans for a perpetual supply of timber for the navy.

In about 1775 Cartwright began publicly to assert his opinions on political matters in A Letter to Edmund Burke, controverting the Principles of American Government laid down in his lately published speech on American Taxation, and in a tract on American independence. Two years later his sympathies hindered him from joining Lord Howe's command in North America, and a stop was thus put to his professional advancement. In 1775 Cartwright had been appointed as a Major to the Nottinghamshire militia. He now began a series of writings on reform in parliament: his most famous pamphlet was Take your Choice (1776).  From the first he advocated annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and the ballot. His extreme notions hindered his acceptance by the Whigs, but his position as a country gentleman ensured him respect. He was frequently in correspondence with Edmund Burke and other leaders of opinion. In 1780 Cartwright began the agitation which earned for him the title of the Father of Reform. A county meeting in Nottingham was succeeded in March of that year by the historic meeting at Westminster, on which occasion the leaders of the Whig opposition met Cartwright and his friends, and passed resolutions on the inadequate representation of the people of England. Shortly afterwards, he founded the Society for Constitutional Information. He stood for parliament on a number of occasions: he contested Nottinghamshire in 1780 and Boston in 1806 and 1807, and was nominated for Westminster in 1818 and 1819.  He was unsuccessful on every occasion.

Meanwhile he was actively engaged in agricultural pursuits and laying down practical hints for the encouragement of the farming interest. He was likewise in active co-operation with Clarkson, Granville Sharp, and the other anti-slavery leaders. During the alarmist period Cartwright ran personal risk. Having attended a public meeting to celebrate the taking of the Bastille, his promotion in the militia was withheld, and his commission at length cancelled.

In about 1800 a plan was started for erecting a naval temple which should record the feats of British seamen. Cartwright produced one which was considered to be far ahead of any other project. Drawings were publicly exhibited at a house in Pall Mall, and an elaborate quarto volume remains as a record of the scheme, and, indeed, as the only part of it which was ever carried out (The Trident, or the National Policy of Naval Celebration; describing a Hieronauticon, or Naval Temple). In 1803-4 Cartwright renewed his representations relative to the defenceless state of the country, particularly in the eastern counties, and produced one of his more important works, under the title of England's Ægis; or, the Military Energies of the Constitution.

He contributed many papers to Cobbett's Register on this and other topics. He continued to publish numerous writings, of which the more important were: The Comparison: in which Mock Reform, Half Reform, and Constitutional Reform are considered; or, who are the Statesmen to preserve our Laws and Liberties (1810); Six Letters to the Marquis of Tavistock, on a Reform of the Commons House of Parliament ( 1812); The English Constitution produced and illustrated (1823). He also devoted himself during the later years of his life to the cause of Spanish patriotism; and in 1821, at a time when the Greeks were making their struggle for independence, he aided the public subscriptions both in money and by his pen in Hints to the Greeks (a study of pikes, in default of bayonets). In 1813 he was arrested in the course of a political tour, but soon released; and in 1820 was tried for sedition and fined £100.

In 1805 Cartwright left his Lincolnshire home and went to London, residing for some time at Enfield. In 1810 he removed to James Street, Buckingham Gate, and in 1819 to Burton Crescent, where he resided till his death on 23 September 1824. A monument was erected to his memory in the garden opposite. Cartwright was one of the most generous-minded public men of his time. He was tender to his opponents, forgiving to detractors, and always open-handed. He saved persons from drowning, at the risk of his own life, on four different occasions. His writings are excessively dry to the ordinary reader, and quite significant of the enthusiast who could be earnest without being inflammatory. ‘He was cheerful, agreeable, and full of curious anecdote. He was, however, in political matters, exceedingly troublesome, and sometimes exceedingly absurd,’ according to Francis Place.

Other testimony of his contemporaries seems to show the accuracy of this opinion. Over eighty tracts or other writings, besides the above-mentioned, were published by him, a list of which is given in the biography by his niece. Those which expressed a full statement of his views are: Give us our Rights: or, a letter to the present electors of Middlesex and the Metropolis, showing what those rights are, &c’. (1782); The Commonwealth in Danger: with an introduction, containing remarks on some late writings of Arthur Young (1795). The rest of them are mere reiterations.

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