John Cartwright (political reformer)

John Cartwright (17 September 1740 – 23 September 1824) was an English naval officer, Nottinghamshire militia major and prominent campaigner for parliamentary reform. He subsequently became known as the Father of Reform. His younger brother Edmund Cartwright became famous as the inventor of the power loom.

John Cartwright
Born17 September 1740
Died23 September 1824(1824-09-23) (aged 84)
Burton Crescent, England
Era18th-century philosophy
RegionWestern Philosophy
Main interests

Early life and naval career

He was born at Marnham in Nottinghamshire, being the elder brother of Edmund Cartwright, inventor of the power loom and the younger brother of George Cartwright, trader and explorer of Labrador. He was educated at Newark-on-Trent grammar school and Heath Academy in Yorkshire, and at the age of eighteen entered the Royal Navy.[1]

He was present, in his first year of service, at the capture of Cherbourg, and served in the following year in the Battle of Quiberon Bay between Sir Edward Hawke and Admiral Hubert de Brienne. Engaged afterwards under Sir Hugh Palliser and Admiral John Byron on the Newfoundland Station, he was appointed to act as chief magistrate of the settlement. He served in the post for five years (1765–1770).[1]

From 1763 to 14 May 1766, Cartwright was commander of HM Cutter Sherborne.[2] His brother George, when at loose ends, went with him on a cruise out of Plymouth to chase smugglers in Sherborne.

Ill-health necessitated Cartwright's retirement from active service for a time in 1771.

When the disputes with the American colonies began, he believed that the colonists had right on their side, warmly supported their cause and, at the outbreak of the ensuing American War of Independence, refused an appointment as first lieutenant to the Duke of Cumberland. Thus he gave up a path to certain promotion, since he did not wish to fight against the cause which he felt to be just. In 1774 he published his first plea on behalf of the colonists, entitled "American Independence the Glory and Interest of Great Britain."[1]

He married in 1780. He adopted his niece Frances Dorothy Cartwright, daughter of his brother Edmund.

Nottinghamshire Militia and Reform

In 1765, when the Nottinghamshire Militia was first raised, he was appointed major, and in this capacity he served for seventeen years. He was at last illegally superseded.

In 1779 appeared his first work on reform in parliament, which, with the exception of Earl Stanhope's pamphlets (1774), appears to have been the earliest publication on the subject. It was entitled, Take your Choice, a second edition appearing under the new title of The Legislative Rights of the Commonalty Vindicated, and advocated annual parliaments, the secret ballot and manhood suffrage.[1]

The task of his life was thenceforth chiefly the attainment of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. In 1798, he conceived the project of a political association, which took shape in 1780 as the Society for Constitutional Information, including among its members some of the most distinguished men of the day. From this society sprang the more famous London Corresponding Society. Major Cartwright worked unweariedly for the promotion of reform. He was one of the witnesses on the trial of his friends, John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall and Thomas Hardy, in 1794.[1]

He left his large estate in Lincolnshire in 1803[3] or 1805 [4] to move to Enfield, Middlesex, where he made friends with other leading Radicals including Sir Francis Burdett, 5th Baronet, William Cobbett and Francis Place.

In 1812, he initiated the Hampden Clubs, named after John Hampden, an English Civil War Parliamentary leader, aiming to bring together middle class moderates and lower class radicals in the reform cause. To promote the idea, he toured northwest England later in 1812, in 1813 (getting arrested in Huddersfield) and in 1815. He recruited John Knight who founded the first Hampden Club in Lancashire. In 1818, Knight, John Saxton and James Wroe formed the reformist and popularist newspaper the Manchester Observer. In 1819, the same team formed the Patriotic Union Society, which invited Henry "Orator" Hunt and Major Cartwright to speak at a reformist public rally in Manchester, but the elderly Cartwright was unable to attend what became the Peterloo Massacre. Later in 1819, Cartwright was arrested for speaking at a parliamentary reform meeting in Birmingham, indicted for conspiracy and was condemned to pay a fine of £100.[1]

Cartwright then wrote The English Constitution, which outlined his ideas including government by the people and legal equality which he considered could only be achieved by universal suffrage, the secret ballot and equal electoral districts. He became the main patron of the Radical publisher Thomas Jonathan Wooler, best known for his satirical journal The Black Dwarf, who actively supported Cartwright's campaigning.

Cartwright had sent a copy of The English Constitution to former President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote to Cartwright in July:

"Your age of eighty-four, and mine of eighty-one years, ensure us a speedy meeting. We may then commune at leisure, and more fully, on the good and evil, which in the course of our long lives, we have both witnessed; and in the mean time, I pray you to accept assurances of my high veneration and esteem for your person and character".[5]


In 1788, Major Cartwight sold his heavily mortgaged estates at Marnham, buying others at Brothertoft, Lincolnshire. The same year with 18 others, he erected a large mill at the bottom of Spital Hill in Retford. It was called the Revolution Mill in celebration of the centenary of the Glorious Revolution. He hoped to weave cloth using the weaving patents of his brother Edmund Cartwright. He also began the mechanical spinning of wool, or rather worsted. This business was not successful. The mill stood idle within a few years and was advertised to sale in 1798 and 1805.[6] The mill was later largely demolished and only one building remains.


Cartwright took a keen interest in agricultural improvement and used his estate at Brothertoft to conduct crop trials and to develop new agricultural implements, several of which were invented by his bailiff and later estate steward, William Amos.[7] He also turned over a large part of his estate to the cultivation of woad, creating dedicated buildings and improving the apparatus used to process the crop.[8]


Cartwright died in London on 23 September 1824, and was buried at St Mary's Church, Finchley, north London. In 1835, a monument to him was erected in the churchyard, paid for by public subscription. It is a Grade II listed building, but is on the English Heritage Heritage at Risk Register due to its dangerous condition.[9] There is a plan (2018) to restore it.

In 1831, a monument from a design by Macdowell was erected to him in Bloomsbury, London, where he had lived. Burton Crescent, the original name of the street, was later renamed Cartwright Gardens in his honour. His statue faces a student hall of residence and backs onto tennis courts and a terrace of houses, most of which serve as small hotels.

Captain George Vancouver named Cartwright Sound, on the west coast of Graham Island in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, Canada, in his honour in relation to his Royal Navy service under Admiral Howe.[10]

The Life and Correspondence of Major Cartwright, edited by his niece Frances Dorothy Cartwright, was published in 1826. John Cartwright House, built in 1976 on the Mansford Estate in Bethnal Green, was named in his honour. The estate was built by Tower Hamlets Council and a number of the blocks were named after social and political reformers. In 2006, the Estate transferred to Tower Hamlets Community Housing, a local housing association.


  1.  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cartwright, John". Encyclopædia Britannica. 5 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  2. Tobias Smollett. January 1793. The Critical Review, or Annals of Literature. (London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshal), pp. 32–33.
  3. "John Cartwright, Esquire". The New Monthly Magazine. Henry Colburn. XII (1 November): 522. 1824. Retrieved 15 April 2011.
  4. Cartwright, Major John (1826). Cartwright, F D (ed.). The Life and Correspondence of Major Cartwright. 1. London: H Colburn. p. 322.
  5. John W. Osborne, John Cartwright (Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 152.
  6. W. H. Challoner, People and Industries (1963), 48–9. S. D. Chapman, 'The Pioneers of worsted spinning by power' Business History 7(2) (1965), 103–5.
  7. Arthur Young, General View of the Agriculture of Lincolnshire, London, 2nd edn, 1813, pp.76–77, 163.
  8. Young, General View of Agriculture in Lincolnshire, pp.174–182.
  9. "Heritage at Risk Register, London" (PDF). English Heritage. 2012. p. 20. Retrieved 21 August 2013.
  10. "Cartwright Sound". BC Geographical Names.
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