(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”. The DNB claims he “helped lay the foundation for the modern notion of political inclusion”
The family had gained property with a marriage to a daughter of Thomas Cranmer, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury but were by now in reduced circumstances. Cartwright was born at Marnham in Nottinghamshire being the elder brother of Edmund, inventor of the power loom and the younger brother of George, 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.
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 Hawke and de Brienne. Engaged afterwards on the Newfoundland Station he saw action and was an administrator there for five years (1765–1770) but 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 War, 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.”
He married Ann in 1780 and they had a very happy marriage but with no children. He adopted his niece Frances Dorothy when the wife of brother Edmund died.
In 1775, when the Nottinghamshire Militia was first raised, he was appointed major, and in this capacity he served for seventeen years. He was forever after known as Major Cartwright. He was at last illegally superseded, because of his political opinions and the enmity of the Duke of Newcastle.
In 1776 appeared his first work on reform in parliament, which, was one of the earliest publications on the subject. It was entitled, “Take your Choice” and advocated annual parliaments, the secret ballot and manhood suffrage.
Cartwright was a patriot but the task of his life was thenceforth chiefly the attainment of these goals. In 1778, he conceived the project of a political association, which took shape in 1780 and included 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 tirelessly for the promotion of reform. He was one of the witnesses in the trial of his friends, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and Hardy in the 1794 treason trials on which they were acquitted.
He left his large estate in Lincolnshire in early 1800’s to move to Enfield, where he made friends with other leading Radicals including Sir Francis Burdett, 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, convicted of sedition and was condemned to pay a fine of £100; after Mr Justice Bayley refused his request to be imprisoned.
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 US President Thomas Jefferson who wrote back to Cartwright:
“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”.
In 1788, Major Cartwight sold his heavily mortgaged estates at Marnham, buying others in Lancashire and additionally with 18 others he erected a large mill at East Retford, called the Revolution Mill, in celebration of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. He hoped to weave cloth using the weaving patents of his brother Edmund. He also began the mechanical spinning of wool, or rather worsted but this business did not prove to be a success.
Cartwright took a keen interest in agricultural improvement and used his estate to conduct crop trials and to develop new agricultural implements, several of which were invented by his bailiff and later estate steward, William Amos 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.
Cartwright died in Burton Crescent, where he had moved in 1819, on 23 September 1824, and was buried at St Mary’s, Finchley. In 1835, a monument to him was erected in the churchyard, paid for by public subscription. His wife Ann, who died in 1834,was buried beside him. In 1831, a monument by George Clarke was erected to him in Bloomsbury, where he had lived and died and Burton Crescent, the original name of the street, was later renamed Cartwright Gardens in his honour.
Captain George Vancouver named Cartwright Sound, in British Columbia, Canada, in his honour. He was then in the navy and serving under Howe.
“The Life and Correspondence of Mayor Cartwright”, edited by his niece Frances, was published in 1826 and was the only account of his life until 1972. 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 and a number of the blocks were named after social and political reformers