NICHOLLS, John (1744-1832), of Goring, Oxon. and Ockley, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. 1744,1 o.s. of Francis Nicholls, MD, of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Mdx., physician to King George II, by Elizabeth, da. of Richard Mead, MD, of Great Ormond Street, Mdx. educ. Hertford sch.; Exeter, Oxf. 16 June 1761, aged 16; L. Inn 1761, called 1767. m. by 1774, a gdda. of Rt. Rev. Edmund Gibson, bp. of London, 2s. 1da. suc. fa. 1778.
Nicholls, formerly a barrister practising on the western circuit, came into Parliament as a supporter of the Portland administration. He would have preferred a coalition of Fox and Pitt in 1784; as it was, he acted with opposition to the latter, but in 1787, the year he joined the Whig Club, ‘relinquished the friendship of the Duke of Portland’ by his refusal to support the impeachment of Warren Hastings. He resigned his seat and ever after championed Hastings and denigrated Burke, whom he regarded as the evil genius of the Portland Whigs, turning a party into a faction and encouraging the grandees in a conspiracy against the constitution, which culminated in their crusade against the French revolution and their coalition with Pitt in 1794. He himself was in France 1788-9 and after seceding from the Whig Club, became a Friend of the People (1792) and, after the treason trials of 1794, a Friend of Freedom. In 1795 he wrote a pamphlet advocating that the King should be responsible for the Prince of Wales’s debts, having appropriated the revenues of the Prince’s duchy of Cornwall during his minority.2
By the time Nicholls re-entered Parliament in 1796, on the interest of (Sir) Christopher Hawkins* for Tregony, he was obsessed with a notion that the Whig aristocracy, after upsetting the balance of the constitution by subjugating the King, were becoming intolerable to the people, who would overthrow both. Party violence would bring this about and the obvious remedy to forestall it would be to shorten the duration of parliaments, thus discouraging party alignments. He was prepared to give credit to Pitt’s peacetime measures, but, as he later recalled, expressed his ‘disapprobation’ of him as a war minister, though he bore him ‘no ill will’, having met him privately only twice and found him ‘civil, and in the House of Commons he more than once protected me when others wished to injure me’. On the other hand, he had ‘at different times, much confidential intercourse with Charles Fox’: in caricatures of the late 1790s he appeared as one of Fox’s cronies, a hideous figure, holding a double eyeglass to his single eye and sporting the tricolor.3
Nicholls voted with the Foxite opposition in the House, characteristically joining the ‘armed neutrality’ in March 1797 and speaking his own mind: but the vehemence, irrelevance and inconsequence of his speeches made him a figure of obloquy and ridicule. Canning satirized him in the Anti-Jacobin. His outbursts seem to have surprised friends who remembered him previously for the ‘softness of his voice, the suavity of his manners, and the extent, variety and profundity of his knowledge’.4 His first butt was the cavalry bill, 2 Nov. 1796, but on 14 Dec. he launched into the imperial subsidy in a speech he thought calculated to ‘please neither side of the House’. On 22 Dec. he promised a bill to prevent fictitious burgage conveyances for electoral purposes, which never materialized. He was a critic of the export of specie, 20 Dec. 1796, and on 27 Feb. 1797 seconded Sheridan’s motion to prevent it. When he pressed Pitt for a reply to his question whether bank-notes were to become legal tender, and expressed his contempt for those who gave unquestioning support to the minister, Pitt complained of ‘an exertion of voice much beyond what he was accustomed to and an asperity of language’ and remarked that ‘the learned gentleman seemed to be as ignorant of the forms of the House as of the common mode of business’. Nicholls’s hostility to paper money grew: ministers might thwart opposition by packing the secret committee (1 Mar.), but they were making of the Bank ‘a mint for the coining of paper currency’, heedless of the disastrous examples of France and the United States (22 Mar.). He also feared that the minister might now obtain money from the Bank ‘covertly and indirectly’, for ‘the influence of the minister with the Bank directors was a matter which could not be denied’ (27 Mar.).
After voting for parliamentary reform on Grey’s motion, 26 May 1797, Nicholls did not secede with the Foxite Whigs and had all the more opportunity to air his views in the House. He deplored Fox’s absence on the address, 2 Nov., and was ‘proceeding to the history of Mr Fox’s parliamentary conduct’, when he was called to order. There was ‘much laughter’ when he rejoined that peace was ‘necessary to the salvation of the country’. His idées fixes now began to obtrude. Having left the House without voting, he published a letter to Pitt on the subject5 and soon returned to the House to declare that Pitt’s tax proposals would ruin the middle class, already threatened by the government credit monopoly, and hit the lower classes hardest, 24 Nov.: the taxes would have been superfluous, had not Burke persuaded the boroughmongers that a crusade against revolutionary France was necessary for their security. He was called to order when he alleged, 4 Dec., that ‘those peers who had usurped the power of election from the commonalty, were not prepared to relinquish their usurped power: he believed it on his soul’; but he contrived to declare that the removal of ‘those great proprietors of boroughs’ would lead to peace, if combined with the removal of ministers. If he had to pay tax, he preferred a land tax to an income tax, but moved, 8 Dec., that placeholders should sacrifice part of their emoluments to the war effort, £2,000 at least. Pitt suggested that there should be grades in taxing office as in taxing income. Windham accused Nicholls of having ‘French principles’ which provoked a further outburst against boroughmongers, but also the explanation that he did not favour universal suffrage, only the restoration of the House of Commons to the commonalty.
Lady Holland wrote in her journal, 20 Nov. 1798:6
There is a strange man in the House of Commons, who is distinguished by being the particular object of the satire in the Anti-Jacobin and having devoted himself most especially to Tierney during the last sessions, a Mr Nicholl [sic]. His opinions upon the state of Europe have at least the merit of singularity. The Emperor of Russia imputes it to shoe-strings and round hats; Dr Ingenhousz to freemasonry, but Mr Nicholl ascribes all the disorders to the great families. ‘Aye sir,’ said he to Tierney, ‘unless they are crushed nothing can be done.’ He has explicitly protested to Tierney that unless he will bring forward a motion to that effect, he must no longer count upon his support. He called three times in one morning to obtain Tierney’s answer. Each time, like Dick in The Confederacy, ‘I’ll call a coach’, then, ‘I’ll call a coach’, he declared he would retire to his farm, and cultivate sour land. ‘I’ll go; I certainly will, Sir. These great families, this oligarchy, destroy us, Sir. Yes, Sir, they oppress us. Why look at them individually? Have they any single merit? Why, there is Lord Fitzwilliam, a flat retailer in dull prose of Burke’s poetical, mad flights: has he not plunged us in this war? There’s Lord Spencer recovering from epilepsy, merely to squander thousands upon an early edition. As to the house of Russell, Sir, Mr Burke has handled them properly. The Cavendishes, Sir, are so notoriously stupid that they blunt satire; but see the head of them, Sir, the Duke of Devonshire. Sir, why, I assure you I am credibly informed, I have it from the best authority, Sir, that he is a mere sensualist.’ (I wrote this to Chatsworth. The duke, who, in fact, was paying for this said sensuality, laughed on his sick bed heartily).
This shows the travers of the human mind. Nicholls’s understanding has not kept pace with events. Sixty years ago, when he first flourished in manhood, the cry might have had some foundation.
Nicholls inveighed against Pitt’s income tax at every stage, 14, 18 Dec. 1797, 3 Jan. 1798 (this speech he published) and 31 Jan. In the first of these speeches, described by Lord Hawkesbury as containing a ‘multitude of extraneous matter and declamatory topics’, he perorated: ‘It cannot pass; I say it cannot—I beg pardon, I forget where I am, it ought not to pass’. The tax was novel and unconstitutional, 18 Dec., inquisitorial, unjust and unnecessary, 3 Jan., like the war: Pitt had shown that though ‘maximus as a political gladiator in that arena’, he was ‘minimus’ as a statesman. He doubted even whether the minister had financial genius. He himself certainly had not. When on 14 Feb. 1798 he proposed an ingenious amendment to the public grants to Lords St. Vincent and Duncan, intended to reduce their cost, Pitt readily pointed out that in fact he would increase it.
A critic of coercion in Ireland, 27 Mar., 2 Apr. 1798, Nicholls announced that he would not vote against the suspension of habeas corpus at home, 20 Apr. He likewise objected to the use of the militia in Ireland, 19 June 1798, but supported the militia bill, 27 Sept. 1799, stating that the war would cease when ministers realized how impracticable their war aims were. On 7 Feb. 1800 he characterized these as amounting to the restoration of the ancien régime in France, and refused to support the increase in the navy, as the continuation of the war exposed England to famine and poverty, after being deluded ‘by those great families who had uniformly and systematically avowed the design of controlling the King and his people by confederacy and combination’. He accordingly opposed the allied subsidy, 17 Feb., and regarded peace as the only preventive against the corn famine, 6 Mar. He came out in favour of union with Ireland, 21 Apr., if it entailed Catholic relief, though he did not believe religion lay at the bottom of Irish grievances, but ‘rights refused, and ... oppression continued’. He went on to support the allied subsidy, 18 July, as it would encourage peace negotiations between France and Austria: ‘peace was all that was wanted’. This plea he reiterated until peace came, and his concern for it led him to claim, 11 Nov. 1800, that he was unconnected with either side of the House, and to oppose Sheridan’s motion on foreign policy, 20 Nov. The prolongation of war aggravated the plight of the poor (4 Dec.) and the deficiency of bullion (5 Dec.). On 12 Dec. he resolved that the usurpation of electoral power by peers should be treated as a ‘high crime and misdemeanour’. He claimed that 200 seats in that House were in the hands of peers. No attention was paid him and he was in a minority of one in his motion for an address for peace, 31 Dec. So ended what Canning described as the parliamentary campaign of ‘the three Horatii’, Thomas Jones, Nicholls and Richard Bateman Robson, the freebooters of the Whig secession period.
Nicholls was not sorry to see Pitt go: he had let the Irish Catholics down (3 Feb. 1801). His indiscreet motion for a debate on the King’s illness was foiled, 27 Feb., as was his motion for an inquiry into the profits of the Bank, 23 Mar. He conceded that he was not ill-disposed to Addington’s ministry provided it gave up the policy of ‘perpetual war’ and, after securing Addington’s word of honour that his administration was independent and that he was sincere in his wishes for peace, he parted company with opposition. On 22 June 1801 Sheridan described him as having ‘for the first time, spoken from the opposite side of the House’, where he appeared to have ‘imbibed a new air, and with it a different set of opinions’. The Whigs were alleged to be annoyed and dubbed him ‘Jockey’ Nicholls henceforth. On 4 Nov. 1801, sitting ‘behind the Treasury bench’, he welcomed the peace treaty. But there were still questions that impelled him to the minority: his former ally Robson’s motions (9 Mar. 1802), the Prince of Wales’s debts (31 Mar.), on which issue rumour had it that he had fallen out again with Addington, and his own motion, for an address of thanks to the King for Pitt’s removal from office, 7 May 1802. He attacked Pitt for his ‘heinous delinquency’ in launching a quixotic war: if the blessings of peace could now be enjoyed, ‘it was the war which rendered that peace necessary; had we not gone to war, we should have been at peace [a loud and general laugh]. Gentlemen might smile, but he should repeat his words.’ His motion was defeated by 224 votes to 52. For the remainder of the session, sitting in ‘one of his places’, as Sheridan put it, he poached on a topic reserved for the latter, the case of the nawab of the Carnatic. The dissolution ended his parliamentary career. He had fallen out with his patron Sir Christopher Hawkins and nothing came of a project to contest one of the Clive boroughs in Shropshire in partnership with Bateman Robson.7
Canning had quite rightly supposed that Nicholls, with his enthusiasm for the peace treaty, would go to Paris: he now did so. For a time he was a détenu at Verdun and at Lyons.8 In 1806 he contested Tregony unsuccessfully against its Whig patron Lord Darlington: his vendetta against the great Whig families continued and in 1818 he visited the radical John Cam Hobhouse† to expound his views, which the latter found ‘very tiresome’.9 His later years were spent mostly with his daughter, the wife of a Toulouse banker, in France where he wrote his Recollections, published in 1820.
Nicholls provided a characteristically disjointed memoir of the administrations of George III, with forthright opinions on the character of the King and his successive ministers. Of Lord Rockingham he wrote: ‘approbation of his conduct has uniformly influenced my political life’. He was now as critical of Fox as of Pitt and blamed the Grenville ministry for the continental blockade and the consequent war with the United States. His main criticism of the Foxites was their failure to put parliamentary reform first, as the only alternative to revolution in England. Reform was more important than Catholic relief, though more could have been made of that, or retrenchment. As it was:
They have no right to expect that the people should exert themselves to place one set of individuals in office, in the room of another ... But the Foxite leaders are the great borough-mongers: by their coming into office, all hope of reform will be at an end.
Nicholls was no democrat: he suggested a landed qualification of £20 per annum for the franchise and, as for men of talent without property on the look-out for seats in Parliament, ‘I think they are rather mischievous than useful’. He could not make up his mind on the abolition of the slave trade: if the aim was desirable, the means adopted for ending it were ineffective.
His memoirs were ‘the very reverse of egotistical and contain scarcely any allusions to his own history’: but as a prophet of woe, he proved unreliable. He died 29 Feb. 1832.10
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. According to his Recollections and Reflections personal and political as connected with Public Affairs during the Reign of George III (1820), i. 1.
- 2. Ibid. 54, 130, 170, 206, 294, 295; Farington, i. 119; Observations on the situation of ... the Prince of Wales .
- 3. Farington Diary (Yale ed.), ii. 479, 487; Recollections, i. 72, 130-5, 159; M. D. George, Cat. Pol. and Personal Satires, vols. vii, viii, passim.
- 4. J. Taylor, Recs. of my life, ii. 307.
- 5. Morning Chron. 14 Nov. 1797; Leveson Gower, i. 182.
- 6. Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 204.
- 7. Rose Diaries, i. 319-21; The Times, 25, 27 June 1801, 5 Apr., 21 June 1802; Whitbread mss W1/420; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 276; Cornw. RO, Johnstone mss DDJ2098, f. 59.
- 8. Add. 38738, f. 255; J. G. Alger, Napoleon’s British Visitors and Captives, 1801-15, p. 232.
- 9. Add. 56540, f. 20.
- 10. The Times, 5 Mar. 1832; Gent. Mag. (1833), ii. 539. His will (PCC 315 Tenterden) was proved on 3 May 1832.