Naval MPs in the Victorian Commons

Trafalgar Day (21st October) seems a fitting date to note that the biographies already completed for the 1832-1868 project include several MPs who pursued careers in the navy before entering Parliament. These individuals were generally esteemed as representatives of a force which epitomised the ideal of Britain as the defender of liberty around the globe. Their naval expertise was often used to good effect in the Commons, making well-informed contributions to debates on matters ranging from naval armaments and coastal fortifications to the system of promotion and retirement for naval officers. These MPs were an obvious choice to hold office as a Lord of the Admiralty: among those who served in this position were Admiral Sir John Poo Beresford (MP for Coleraine, 1832-3, and Chatham, 1835-7) and Admiral Sir John Charles Dalrymple Hay (MP for Wakefield, 1862-5, Stamford, 1866-80, and Wigtown Burghs, 1880-5).

A less distinguished but equally fascinating naval parliamentarian was Captain John George Boss (1781-1837), remembered as a ‘hearty, coarse, good-humoured “jolly tar”’. He joined the navy as a midshipman in 1796 and saw active service against the French, by whom he was briefly captured. His naval career took him to the Leeward Islands, Martinique, Spain and Portugal, and by 1811 he had been promoted to the rank of commander. In 1812 he received a presentation of silver plate from a group of merchants in recognition of ‘his zeal and valour in the destruction of two French privateers, and in defending a convoy from St. Jago de Cuba to Heneaga’. The following year he received another presentation to reward his efforts in saving all hands and almost all of the 500,000 dollars on board his sloop, the Rhodian, when it was wrecked off the coast of Jamaica.

Boss presented himself in a suitably heroic light when he became a candidate for Northallerton at the 1832 general election. Adopting the election motto of ‘Freedom and Independence’, he emphasised that he was standing in order to emancipate the borough from its previous electoral patrons, who must not be allowed to defeat ‘the noble love of liberty which warms the breast of every true-born Englishman, and particularly that of a sailor’. To symbolise his desire to open up what had previously been a pocket borough, he toured the constituency displaying a large gilded key from his carriage. Boss’s wife was the first cousin of the Whig prime minister, Earl Grey, a connection which won him favour among Northallerton’s electors. His election victory may also have been helped by his willingness to ‘turn on the taps’ during the contest. He was already well-known in Northallerton after inadvertently causing a riot at the 1831 election when he sent for barrels of ale to ‘wet his whistle’ while addressing a crowd on the subject of the Reform Bill. He later lost popularity when he had difficulty in settling his £750 bill for his 1832 contest.

Unlike many of his fellow naval MPs, Boss never spoke in the chamber, and his attempts to listen to the debates ‘usually ended in his falling to sleep on a back bench, or stretching himself out at length in the gallery’. One account of his parliamentary career jested that he appeared ‘at sea’ at Westminster: ‘the forms of the house were an awful puzzle to him, and when the division bell sounded – or, as he used to say, “all hands were piped” – which gangway he ought to go out at, whether he was an “aye” or a “no”… were points on which he never could arrive at a decision’. He abandoned his attempt to secure re-election at Northallerton in 1835, and died two years later.

For details on how to access the full biographies of Boss and his fellow naval MPs on our preview site, see here.

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