JOHNSON, William Augustus (1777-1863), of Witham-on-the Hill, Lincs.
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Family and Education
b. 15 Oct. 1777, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Rev. Robert Augustus Johnson, rect. of Wistanstow, Salop and Hamstall Ridware, Staffs., and Anna Rebecca, da. of Rev. John Craven, vic. of Stanton Lacy and rect. of West Felton, Salop. educ. Rugby 1785. m. 17 Feb. 1835, Lucy, da. of Rev. Kingsman Foster, rect. of Dowsby, Lincs., 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 6da. suc. uncle George William Johnson to Witham 1814. d. 26 Oct. 1863.
Ensign Independent Ft. 1793; lt. 32 Ft. 1794, capt. 1794, maj. 1803; lt.-col. 3 Ceylon Regt. (half-pay) 1810; col. 1819; maj.-gen. 1830; lt.-gen. 1841.
Sheriff, Lincs. 1830-1.
Johnson, who came from an old Lincolnshire family, well established as a clerical dynasty by the mid-eighteenth century, was a descendant of Archdeacon Robert Johnson, the Puritan divine and founder of the grammar schools at Oakham and Uppingham. His grandfather held a number of livings, including the vicarage of Witham-on-the-Hill, where he built the manor house and enclosed the park in 1752. His uncle George William Johnson inherited Witham and was sheriff of Lincolnshire, 1784-5, and his father held livings in Staffordshire and Shropshire.1 Johnson entered the army in 1793 as an ensign in one of the independent companies of foot. He joined the duke of Cornwall’s regiment as a lieutenant in January 1794 and served with them as a major in the Peninsular campaign of 1808-9. He was present at the battles of Roliça, Vimeiro, and Corunna, for which he received the war medal with three clasps. Six months after returning from Spain he took part in the ill-fated expedition to Walcheren. He was much engaged at the advanced posts during the siege of Flushing, where he caught the malignant fever which put his regiment out of action for almost a year. He did not see action in the Peninsular campaign of 1811-14, but appears to have served with the second battalion in Ireland. He was gazetted as lieutenant-colonel in the 3rd Ceylon regiment in 1810, and remained on the English half-pay list until 1830. He succeeded to Witham on his uncle’s death in 1814 and became hereditary trustee of Oakham and Uppingham schools. Chairman of the Bourne bench since 1818, he was instrumental in directing the rebuilding of the house of correction at Folkingham from 1824-6.2
At the 1820 general election Johnson accepted an invitation to stand for Boston on the Blue or anti-corporation interest, following the unexpected retirement of William Alexander Madocks*. According to Drakard’s Stamford News, a more ‘upright, zealous and really independent’ man could not have been selected. He declared his ‘rigid regard’ for economy and the freemen’s independence, but was defeated after a two-day poll. He appeared on the hustings at the county election in company with his friend Sir Robert Heron* and, according to a correspondent of the Stamford News, his future success at Boston was certain.3 He petitioned against the return of the corporation’s absentee candidate Henry Ellis, 5 May, on the ground of his ineligibility as an office-holder under the crown, but after a number of postponements the petition was lost by the prorogation.4 He addressed a meeting to promote the independence of Lincolnshire in company with Heron, 13 Oct. 1820, when he called for the establishment of associations and asked the Boston freemen to set an example by returning him free of expense.5 His petition was renewed, 31 Jan. 1821, though neither he nor Heron was confident of success at a by-election in the event of Ellis’s return being declared void. Johnson, who could ill afford another contest and had no wish to pay bribes, informed Richard Spooner*, a Birmingham banker, of his intention not to stand, but the election committee unexpectedly unseated Ellis in his favour, 16 Feb. 1821. William Garfit, the Boston banker, welcomed the prospect of seeing both Members voting on the liberal side, and assured Gilbert John Heathcote, the sitting Member, that he would find Johnson a ‘useful and agreeable’ colleague.6
Johnson took his seat, 28 Feb. 1821, and, according to the Stamford News, gave his first vote in favour of Catholic relief that day, though he does not appear in the known division lists. He divided in the same sense, 1 Mar., 21 Apr. 1825. A frequent attender, he voted with the Whig opposition to the Liverpool ministry on most major issues, including economy, retrenchment and reduced taxation.7 He divided to make Leeds a scot and lot borough if it got Grampound’s seats, 2 Mar., to exclude civil officers of the ordnance from voting in parliamentary elections, 12 Apr., for parliamentary reform, 9, 10 May 1821, 25 Apr. 1822, 20 Feb. 1823, 27 Apr. 1826, and inquiry into the Scottish burghs, 20 Feb. 1822, and reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 26 Feb. 1824. In his maiden speech, 11 Apr. 1821, he drew on his experience in the Peninsula and declaimed against the adjutant-general’s grant, saying that he had witnessed the embarkations at Corunna, Lisbon, and Mondego Bay, and on none of these occasions had the troops been assisted by staff officers. He presented and endorsed a Boston reform petition, 17 Apr. He paid his respects to the freemen and kept open house at the Green Dragon, 27 Apr. On 8 May 1821 he joined Brooks’s, sponsored by Heron and the 2nd Earl Fitzwilliam.8 Addressing a Lincolnshire county meeting to petition for agricultural relief, 29 Mar., he declared that parliamentary reform was the only means of redress and gave notice of a forthcoming county reform meeting, 19 Apr. 1822. He was one of the principal speakers on that occasion, when he reiterated his belief that without a ‘thorough reform’ nothing could be done, as the present House was incapable of making either the necessary retrenchments or stand against corruption and two sessions had provided little more relief than one shilling off the malt tax.9 He addressed a preliminary county reform meeting, 2 Jan. 1823, when he was appointed to the committee under the chairmanship of Heron, and succeeded in persuading the veteran reformer Major John Cartwright to attend the full meeting, 26 Mar., when he broke with Heron and seconded Cartwright’s amendment for a radical reform, but failed to carry it. When Anderson Pelham, the county Member, presented the resulting petition, 21 Apr., he declared himself a ‘radical, however unpalatable’ the term might be to the House, and asserted that the ‘great majority’ of the people were in favour of reform.10 He was a guest at the Nottingham election dinner to commemorate the triumph in 1820 of Birch and Denman, 24 Sept. 1823, when he argued that nothing less than reform could resolve the nation’s difficulties and called on the Whigs to embrace it. That month he emerged as the leading opponent of Sir William Amcotts Ingilby in the county by-election caused by Anderson Pelham’s succession as 2nd Baron Yarborough. He denounced Sir William, a renegade Tory, as an adventurer and Yarborough placeman, endorsed the proposal of Samuel Wells, the radical Huntingdon attorney, to put up the reluctant Sir John Hayford Thorold and nominated him at the election. In his analysis of Amcotts Ingilby’s victory he attributed 1,400 votes to the influence of Whig lords and gentry. He continued to be associated with the cause of independence and chaired the committee established at Sleaford in February 1824 to promote it.11
Johnson presented a private petition against Catholic claims, 19 Apr. 1825, when he said that were he a Catholic, he could not take the oath as enjoined by the proposed relief bill. He spoke and voted against the accompanying Irish franchise bill, which he condemned as a ‘wanton destruction of popular rights’, 26 Apr., was a minority teller against it, 9 May, and next day told the House that he was familiar with Irish elections and did not think emancipation ‘worth the price of this bill’. He spoke and was a minority teller against the ‘unexplained augmentation’ of the army, 7 Mar. On 11 Mar. he objected to the ‘inequality’ of military punishments, noting that there were regiments in which 100 lashes were the equivalent to 300 inflicted in others. He presented two petitions from Lincolnshire against revision of the corn laws, 28 Apr. 1825, when his proposed adjournment of the debate was lost and the House divided on Whitmore’s proposal for inquiry.12 Amid rumours of a dissolution that September he accepted a requisition to stand for the county, but refused to incur the cost of treating. According to Heron, his candidature on a radical platform opposed to ‘aristocratical combination’ risked dividing the cause of independence for ‘many years to come’. At a county meeting to petition for more agricultural protection, 23 Dec. 1825, he argued that the petition ought to encompass tax reductions since the corn laws did not influence prices as much as the quantity of ‘circulating medium’. He explained that he had supported Whitmore’s proposal for inquiry into the laws not because he felt pledged to revision, but because ministers had fudged the issue, and he proposed the formation of district committees to protect the agricultural interest.13 He seconded the motion to bring up William Cobbett’s† petition against the promissory notes bill and was in the minority against the measure, 20 Feb. 1826. He spoke and voted for Hume’s amendments to it, 27 Feb., 7 Mar., and contributed to the debate on the prohibition of small notes in Scotland, 14 Mar. He endorsed a Rochdale petition for reform and reduced taxation and complained that the ‘baneful effects’ of the circulation of small notes were already evident in the conviction of six men for forgery at Lancaster, 21 Mar. He ‘denied the utility’ of the yeomanry cavalry, 3 Mar., conceded that troops were better housed in barracks but objected to them in the heart of Westminster, 6 Mar., and was a minority teller for military reductions next day. He voted against the ‘detestable punishment’ of flogging in the army, 10 Mar. He spoke against the Irish chartered schools grant, 20 Mar. On 5 May he argued that reduced taxation was the best means of providing relief.14 He voted against revision of the corn laws, 11 May, and to modify the alehouse licensing bill, 12 May 1826. That month he declared his intention of not seeking re-election at Boston in view of the freemen’s rapaciousness.
At the 1826 general election he duly retired from Boston and offered for the county. Without the support of Thorold and Heron, who had unsuccessfully tried to rescind the resolution by which he had been adopted, his chances were bleak and he soon desisted, citing the divisions among the independents. According to Heron, who still valued him as a friend, he had become particularly unpopular by following the opinions of Cobbett. Johnson accepted Chaplin, the senior county Member, as the ‘legitimate’ Tory, but again denounced Amcotts Ingilby as a Yarborough nominee. He renewed his attack on the hustings, after a long and detailed speech on the economy, and declared the ballot to be the only way to stop coercion. He boasted of his own attempt to uphold the county’s independence in 1823 and stigmatized the Whigs as ‘old hacks’ for carrying Amcotts Ingilby’s election.15 As sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1830-1, Johnson made ‘numerous retrenchments’ which the Stamford Mercury thought would prove advantageous to his successors. With Johnson out of the running at the 1830 general election, the Sleaford independents tried to promote the candidature of two other local reformers, but neither was willing to come forward. Johnson officiated as returning officer at the county election and took a firm line with hecklers. He was a guest of honour at the dinner of Leicestershire independents in November 1830, when, after explaining the tactics of the Lincolnshire freeholders in 1823, he exhorted Thomas Paget*, the unsuccessful challenger at the last election, to persevere in his opposition to the duke of Rutland’s interest. He acceded to the request for a county meeting to petition for reduced taxation and sweeping reforms in December 1830, presided at it, 28 Jan. 1831, and endorsed its petition.16
Shortly after the completion of his shrievalty Johnson announced his candidature for the Southern division of Lincolnshire in a reformed Parliament. He favoured the correction of ‘all abuses’, but was reluctant to engage in a personal canvass. He sought the support of Heathcote, already encouraged by Heron to stand, but met with a polite rebuff. He withdrew his candidature, pending the division of the county, after Yarborough’s son signified his intention of standing.17 He maintained a low profile during the 1831 election, but attended the festivities at Stamford following Tennyson’s defeat of the Exeter interest there. At a county meeting in the aftermath of the defeat of the reform bill, 18 Nov. 1831, he attacked the peers and bishops who had rejected it, declared himself a champion of ‘mechanics and farmers’ (or a ‘Huntite’ as Heron now described him), opposed the resolution of confidence in ministers, called for the dismissal of all anti-reformers and the expulsion of bishops from the Lords, and vilified the ‘hereditary principle’ of the peerage. He added that the reform bill was too ‘aristocratic’ and envisaged the formation of associations to withhold taxes if steps were not taken to create new peers. Amcotts Ingilby lacked the courage to support him, but he carried his resolutions, including his violent attack on bishops, in the face of opposition from Heron and Tennyson. He did not, however, oppose a subsequent amendment expressing confidence in ministers.18 In July 1832 he published an address to the electors of South Lincolnshire, in which he urged the freeholders to exercise their votes responsibly and denounced the ‘profligacy’ of the church as a ‘gross abuse of religion’, but did not commit himself to becoming a candidate.19
At the 1832 general election he was brought forward for North Leicestershire by Paget, in an abortive bid to resist Rutland’s influence. In defeat he denounced the coercion of the gentry and clergy and spoke of the ‘crying necessity’ for the ballot. At the nomination of his friend Captain Joseph Wood, the unsuccessful radical candidate for Huddersfield, he argued the case for cheap government and further reform.20 He was himself beaten at Huddersfield in 1835 but in 1837 he successfully contested Oldham, where he was returned unopposed in 1841. He retired in 1847 but, according to the Stamford Mercury, never lost his interest in ‘liberal politics’.21 He set up an institution to relieve distress and soften the ‘asperities of the new poor law’ in 1837 and established a lending library at Witham in 1856.22 He died following a fall in his study in October 1863 and was buried in the family vault at Witham. By his will, dated 23 Mar. 1860, he devised the residue of his estate to his eldest surviving son Augustus Charles Johnson (b. 1837). His ‘much beloved’ relative Sir Robert Harry Inglis* (d. 1855) had devised the Bedfordshire property of his mother Catherine, daughter and coheiress of Harry Johnson of Milton Bryant (a junior branch of the family), to his wife for life, with reversion to Johnson as his nearest male heir. Lady Inglis died in 1872 and under the terms of Johnson’s will the Milton Bryant and Teddington estates passed to his second surviving son George Woolsey Johnson (b. 1845).23
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Authors: Philip Salmon / Simon Harratt
- 1. E. Green, Johnson of Wytham-on-the-Hill, 5-8; R.J. Olney, Rural Society in 19th Cent. Lincs. 108-9.
- 2. Marquess of Anglesey, One-Leg, 106; H. Ross-Lewin, The Thirty-Second, 129-30; Gent. Mag. (1863), ii. 807.
- 3. Drakard’s Stamford News, 10, 24 Mar., 20 Oct. 1820, 16 Feb. 1821; Boston Gazette, 7, 14 Mar.; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 17, 24 Mar. 1820.
- 4. CJ, lxxv. 155, 213, 238, 245, 389.
- 5. Drakard’s Stamford News, 20 Oct. 1820.
- 6. CJ, lxxvi. 18, 75-77, 84; Heron, Notes, 132-3; T. Lawson-Tancred, Recs. of a Yorks. Manor, 347; Lincs. AO, Ancaster mss XIII/B/10b, c, d, e, ff, gg.
- 7. Black Bk. (1823), 167; Session of Parl. 1825, p. 470.
- 8. Drakard’s Stamford News, 2 Mar.; Boston Gazette, 27 Mar., 1 May; The Times, 12, 18 Apr. 1821.
- 9. Boston Gazette, 23 Apr. 1822.
- 10. Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 10 Jan., 21, 28 Mar. 1823; F.D. Cartwright, Cartwright Corresp. ii. 234-7; Heron, 148, 150.
- 11. Boston Gazette, 30 Sept., 2, 9, 16 Dec.; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 14, 21 Nov.; Drakard’s Stamford News, 21 Nov. 1823; Olney, 148; The Times, 7 Feb. 1824.
- 12. The Times, 29 Apr. 1825.
- 13. Boston Gazette, 27 Dec.; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 30 Dec. 1825; Heron, 155-6.
- 14. The Times, 6 May 1826.
- 15. Drakard’s Stamford News, 26 May, 2 June; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 9 June 1826; Heron, 158-9.
- 16. Olney, 11-12; Leicester Chron. 27 Nov.; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 12 Mar., 6, 13 Aug. 1830, 7 Jan., 4 Feb. 1831.
- 17. Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 15, 29 Apr. 1831; Ancaster mss XIII/B/6/g.
- 18. Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 27 May, 25 Nov. 1831; Heron, 193.
- 19. Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 6 July 1832.
- 20. Leicester Jnl. 21, 28 Dec.; Leicester Chron. 17, 24 Nov., 29 Dec. 1832; Leics. RO DG24/1058/12; 1060/31.
- 21. Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 30 Oct. 1863.
- 22. W. White, Lincs. (1882), 818; N.R. Wright, Lincs. Towns and Industry, 1700-1914, p. 114;
- 23. Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 30 Oct., 6 Nov. 1863; Gent. Mag. (1863), ii. 807.