CARTER, John (1788-1838), of 19 High Street, Portsmouth, Hants and 16 Duke Street, Westminster.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



9 Oct. 1816 - 17 Feb. 1838

Family and Education

b. 1788, o. surv. s. of Sir John Carter, brewer, of Portsmouth by Dorothy, da. of George Cuthbert of Portsmouth. educ. Miss Whishaw and Mr Forester’s schs. Portsmouth; Unitarian Acad., Cheshunt 1800; Higham Hill, Walthamstow 1801; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1806, fellow 1811; L. Inn 1807, I. Temple 1812, called (L. Inn) 1819. m. 25 Dec. 1816, Joanna Maria, da. of William Smith*, 4s. 4da. suc. fa. 1808; uncle Thomas Bonham of Petersfield to Hants estate and brewery holding and took name of Bonham before Carter 19 Mar. 1827.

Offices Held


Carter came of a Portsmouth burgess family that had intermarried with well-to-do dissenting merchant stock there for the past century.1 His grandfather John Carter (1715-94) was seven times mayor of Portsmouth and led the corporation group hostile to the Admiralty; his father, knighted by George III in 1773 and nine times mayor, dominated the corporation and consequently the return of Members to Parliament. There were 32 Carter mayors of Portsmouth between 1747 and 1835; the 35 aldermen chosen in the period between 1785 and 1832 were all Carter nominees, as were most of the burgesses, many of them relatives, business associates and friends of the family. Critics of the establishment in church and state, the Carters formed a dissenting Whig oligarchy impervious to criticism in their own borough.

John Carter, the only surviving heir to this tradition, a delicate, accident-prone, studious child, whose one ambition was to be top of his class, went up to Cambridge, the first of the family to do so (he conformed). While he was there his father died, writing a benediction not long before his death (21 Mar. 1808): ‘I know that if you do not succeed to your wishes it makes you uneasy ... Various reasons may prevent your always succeeding—our abilities may not be the same at all times. I am sure it will not be for want of application.’2 Carter took a first in 1810 (he was fourth wrangler), became a fellow of Trinity in the following year and embarked on legal studies, mastering special pleading under Bradley and Chief Justice Abbott, whom he accompanied on the home circuit, and in 1816 he was marshal to Mr Justice Bayley.

In October 1816 Carter was returned for Portsmouth unopposed on the death of Sir Thomas Miller. His election was a foregone conclusion; he simply had to decide whether he wanted the seat ‘at this early period of my professional career’ as he informed William Smith, who had become his father-in-law.3 In his election speech, he had indicated that he was critical of government extravagance over military expenditure, places and pensions. As soon as he entered Parliament he acted with the Whig opposition, being introduced by his father-in-law at Devonshire House, joined Brooks’s Club and voted with them regularly, though no speech by him is recorded until 1825. He was diffident, though an excellent committee man. He signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the opposition in 1818. He was a friend to toleration, both of dissenters and Catholics. He voted for parliamentary and burgh reform, 20 May 1817, 6 May, 1 July 1819, and criminal law reform, 2 Mar. 1819. He opposed repressive legislation throughout in December 1819.

Carter, who had only £600 a year at his marriage plus £200 a year as a special pleader, lived in a house provided by his brother-in-law until in 1819 he was called to the bar, earned £750 a year and eventually gave up advocacy and £1,850 a year in 1826, when he inherited an estate worth £4,000 a year. He had practiced on the western circuit from the spring of 1819. Now he was able to devote himself to Parliament, but he scarcely ever spoke, ‘and when speaking on the hustings, at meetings, and elsewhere, he spoke tersely, and to the point, without hesitation, but in rather a curt and severe style, and without any attempt at oratory’. ‘A thorough man of business ... he required some constant object ... His conversation was always manly, sound and to the point. No one presided so well at table: he was never frivolous or loose, often playful and jocose ... always replete with sound information.’4

Carter four times ‘resisted the temptation’ of office under the Whigs, and died a diabetic, 17 Feb. 1838, aged 49.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. See V. Bonham-Carter, In a Liberal Tradition for the family history. This biography is based on it.
  • 2. Ibid. 27.
  • 3. Ibid. 39.
  • 4. Ibid. 69.