Carter, Sir John

Sir John CarterSir John Carter (before December 20, 1741-May 18, 1808), a Unitarian merchant, was on nine occasions Mayor of Portsmouth, the chief maritime port for the Royal Navy. He played a key role in defusing the crisis caused by the 1797 naval mutiny at Spithead. Members of his family were long influential in Portsmouth politics.

The eldest son of Susanna Pyke and John Carter, a successful and respected merchant, John was baptised in the High Street Presbyterian (Unitarian) Chapel in Portsmouth. His parents, rational dissenters, refused to belong to the Church of England and, like both his grandfathers, were members of this chapel. In 1763, at 22, John was elected an Alderman of the (then) borough of Portsmouth and, at the same time, started to act as a magistrate. He was mayor for a few months in 1769, but, as he was a Whig, the Tories soon turned him out of office.

In 1773, when Carter was again mayor, King George III visited Portsmouth for the first time and was more warmly received than he expected. The King accordingly conferred on the mayor a Knighthood, a distinction that at that time not many rational dissenters were offered, and one which Carter accepted only reluctantly and in order not to slight the crown. In 1784 he was made Sheriff of the County of Sussex.

Carter was a merchant and a brewer. He also ran a distillery for his maternal grandfather. When his father retired in 1782, Sir John and his brother William took over all his interests in Portsmouth, commercial and political. Members of the Carter family occupied the mayoralty of Portsmouth on 32 occasions between 1747 and 1835; they and their associates dominated the town until the 1830s. Most members of this controlling group within the town council were members of the High Street Unitarian chapel.

The Carter family were major benefactors of the High Street Chapel. In 1718 Sir John’s grandfather, John (1672-1723), a merchant who laid the foundations of the family’s wealth, contributed greatly towards the cost of erecting the chapel. In order to play the part they did in administration the Carters needed to adopt ‘occasional conformity.’ This meant once a year attending communion at the Parish (Church of England) Church and obtaining a certificate that this had happened. This formality was much resented by Dissenters. Nevertheless, in order to undertake a significant role in the town administration, other Unitarians—at Norwich, Bristol, Bridport, and Bridgewater—did it as well. There is a tradition that Sir John frequently attended services at the High Street Chapel during his mayoralties, accompanied by members of the Corporation in full state. The building, destroyed in bombing in 1940, had a socket in front of the gallery that accommodated the mace on these occasions.

At this time English local administration was often self-serving and dominated by cliques who ran towns in their own interests. Moreover, the Carters cannot avoid the charge of nepotism. Their domination of Portsmouth, through family influence and with their associates, was almost complete. Some saw the Carters, ever stating their high principles, as hypocrites, but the law placed them in this position. And the tenacity with which they held their power prevented the establishment of more socially and religiously repressive authority. As V. Bonham Carter has pointed out, ‘They had to make themselves and the law look foolish, if they were not to submit to endless frustration and, at times, to real persecution. As men of strong character and a long tradition of independence behind them, they were not the kind to stand for that. Indeed had they not acted as they did, it is unlikely that the battle for toleration and reform which continued well into the nineteenth century, would have been won so roundly and conclusively as it was.’

Sir John, while exercising a dominating power within Portsmouth, was widely regarded for his honesty and courage in defending personal rights. Like other members of his family he was opposed to autocracy and bureaucracy, and antagonistic to privilege. His administration was regarded as based on fair dealing, a reflection of the principles of the chapel of which he was the leading member. Once during a turbulent meeting, in which Dissenters took part, Sir John deliberately spent the whole evening with the minister of the Chapel at his house in order to establish an alibi in case the minister was accused of being involved. Between 1777 and 1782 he worked closely with minister Thomas Wren to relieve American prisoners-of-war at the local Forton prison. They provided clothing, money for food, and books. They may have played a part in helping some prisoners to escape.

In 1797, when Carter was again mayor, he became nationally known for his conduct during a mutiny in the Royal Navy ships at nearby Spithead. The sailors, who had lost three of their comrades in the mutiny, wished to carry their bodies in procession through Portsmouth. As the Governor of the local garrison refused to allow this, further fighting looked certain. Carter devised a formula that allowed the men to march through the town and garrison. He accompanied the mutineers throughout. He used his influence with the ships’ crews in order to save the life of Admiral Colpoys, held prisoner on board the ship London. He came aboard and personally escorted the admiral off the ship. He also walked with those opposed to the local stationing of the Buckingham militia. While many recognised his brave contribution and the government supported him, others reviled him, saying he was a Jacobin and little different from a revolutionary. According to an obituary, his ‘mild, conciliatory and patient conduct rendered the Country a very essential service.’ He declined honours offered to him for these services, feeling that to accept a reward would compromise his principles.

When Carter died in 1808, as the longest serving member of High Street Chapel, he was buried in the burying-ground of the Unitarian Dissenters at Portsmouth, mourned by a large crowd, many of whom could not be accommodated in the chapel. According to an obituary, ‘The Southern Unitarian Society [founded 1801] have, in him, lost a valuable member, and mankind a friend, if the prayers and tears that followed him can be taken as any proof of the public esteem’.

The Unitarian tradition continued through his son John (1788-1838). He later added Bonham to his name, combining two parts of the family. A Member of Parliament for the town, 1816-38, he worked tirelessly for the dissenting or nonconformist interest. Challenged by Sir Robert Peel on the Carter control of electing MPs for Portsmouth, he said ‘the Borough is kept close for the purpose of making sure of two members to vote for throwing open [i.e. to free elections] all boroughs in the kingdom.’ In other words, he worked for his own dismissal. Nevertheless, when elections were thrown open in the 1830s, he continued to be elected. His son Henry Bonham Carter (1827-1921) declined to take his degree at Trinity College, Cambridge because ‘as a Unitarian he refused to conform to the Church of England’. Although he attended Church of England services, he retained Unitarian beliefs throughout his life. His cousin Florence Nightingale said of him, ‘Henry was not Church-y’. Henry’s numerous sons played a distinguished role in British legal, military, and political life, as did members of following generations in the twentieth century. There is no evidence that, after Henry, the Bonham Carter ‘dynasty’ adopted Unitarian views.

Records relating to the Carter family can be found in the City of Portsmouth Museum and Archives. For the family ownership of property see Victoria County History of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Vol 5. Sir John’s will is in the National Archives. There are obituaries in Gentleman’s Magazine (1808) and Monthly Repository (1808). On the Carter family and their activity in Portsmouth see A Temple Patterson, Portsmouth, a History (1976); Alastair Geddes, “Portsmouth during the Great French Wars 1770-1800,” Portsmouth Papers No. 9 (March 1970); V. Bonham Carter, In a Liberal Tradition (1960); and J. Webb and others, The Spirit of Portsmouth; a History (1989). The ‘dynasty’ is described by Roger T. Stearn in his article on Henry Bonham Carter in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Carter’s role with American prisoners is recounted by Sheldon Cohen in his article on Thomas Wren in The Pennsylvania Magazine (1979) and in his other works.

Article by Alan Ruston
Posted October 4, 2007