Of all the prominent citizens of Portsmouth in the 18C and 19C the most influential were undoubtedly the Carters. For 100 years the family dominated the political landscape of the town, between them being elected Mayor no less than 32 times and serving as MP for 22 years. This was all the more remarkable given that they were Dissenters, a religious group that were in effect barred from taking office. Their business ventures fuelled the economy of the area and in the process gave the Carters the fortune which enabled them to establish themselves on the national political and social stage.
The earliest recorded member of the family according to Victor Bonham-Carter in his biography of the family entitled "In a Liberal Tradition", was Roger Carter who was born in the early years of the 17C. A mason by trade, he married three times, the second wife being Sarah Ridge the daughter of Sir Thomas Ridge who was the owner of one of the largest breweries in Portsmouth which had the contract for supplying beer to the Navy. With Sarah's influence he was able to set up as a master mason and therefore become a Freemason. Bonham-Carter also says that Roger Carter went on to become a Burgess of Portsmouth Corporation, but his name does not appear in the list of Burgesses that appears in Robert East's book "Extracts from the Portsmouth Records". It is noted however that a Roger Carter is mentioned in the Borough Sessions Papers for the 28th June 1687 and that according to East a Richard Carter is recorded as being elected Burgess in 1683 and Alderman in 1686. It is not known whether Roger and Richard are the same person; Bonham-Carter goes on to say that Roger died in 1689.
Roger's eldest surviving son was John Carter, the first of several members of the family to bear that forename. He was born in 1672 and became in due course a prominent shipwright and timber merchant, supplying the Navy with wood for the warships built at Portsmouth. Like his father, John was to use marriage as a means of elevating his status when in 1710 he married Mary White the daughter of James White who had been elected a Burgess in 1681 and an Alderman in 1689.

In 1828, the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed so removing the ban on nonconformists holding of public office. But even before that date, it was possible for the government of a town to be led by the Dissenters. This was only possible thanks to two earlier changes to the law. In one the practice of 'occasional conformity' was accepted and this aalowed a Dissenter to qualify for office by taking the sacrament in an Anglican church and obtaining a certificate to say that he had done so. The other provided for a ruling that anyone who had held office for six months without being challenged could not be removed solely because they were Dissenters. Any challenge had in any case to be made by way of a complaint to a justice of the peace, but in a town like Portsmouth it would have been difficult to find one who was not themselves a Dissenter or a sympathiser who would agree to hear the case. Often the matter simply lay undecided until the six month limit had expired.

James White was a Presbyterian, as was his daughter Mary, and although John Carter had been born an Anglican he swiftly converted so beginning the Carter's long association with Nonconformity. This was less an act driven by religious zeal, rather one calculated to further his social standing. At any rate he is known to have vigourously supported the Presbyterian Chapel in Penny Street and supplied the timber to build a new chapel in High Street in 1718. Though not nearly so active in local politics as his descendants he nevertheless became a burgess of the Corporation. Victor Bonham-Carter offers a date of 1682 for this event but as John was only 10 years old at the time this seems unlikely. It must just have been a coincidence that there was another man named John Carter who was elected as Burgess in that year. A more likely date is September 29th 1721 as shown in East's 'Extracts'. What is certain though is that by the time he died in 1732 he was a wealthy man having combined his business strengths with those of his father-in-law's family.
John's son, also named John (and herein referred to as John Carter II) was born in 1715. He followed his father in becoming a Burgess on November 27th 1732 and 12 years later in 1744 surpassed his father when he was elected Alderman. There then followed a period of 36 years during which he was elected mayor on seven occasions. John Carter II followed the family tradition of marrying into wealth, though in this case his own fortune must have been considerable. His wife was Susanna the daughter of a wealthy Dissenter and business man, William Pike who owned a large brewery between High Street and Penny Street and made many spectacular purchases of land on the Isle of Wight, in Hampshire and Sussex. When Pike died in May 1777 his estate, amounting to almost £100,000 excluding the value of the brewery, passed to his two daughters, Susannah and Ann, who had married into the Bonham family of Meon and Petersfield.
The middle years of the 18th century were a period of intense upheaval in local politics due principally to the influence of the Navy who nominated the 2 MPs that represented Portsmouth in Parliament. In theory the Corporation were not obliged to accept these nominations but between 1721 and 1747 a total of 8 admirals represented Portsmouth and the Corporation were accused of corruption in the matter. Given that the members of the Corporation were all businessmen who stood to gain finacially from contracts with the Navy it was a charge that was hard to refute. There is no doubt that John Carter II benefited himself from the arrangement but at the same time he resented the Admiralty's intrusion into what were local political affairs and he took it upon himself to make amends. The corporation then found itself split between a reforming group led by Carter and the Admiralty group or 'ministerialists', an acrimonious affair that lasted 30 years.
In 1750 John Carter II convened at meeting at his house which elected 62 new burgesses, the majority of whom were nominated by the Carter faction, including his sons John III and William aged 8 and 5 respectively together with 16 other sons and grandsons of serving Aldermen who were also minors. The ministerialists responded by threatening to ruin the town's finances by removing the Naval contracts, a move which appeared to have some success as two more admirals (Hawke and Rowley) continued the practice of representing Portsmouth until 1761. An uneasy truce existed for some years up until 1770 when the Government section applied for legal action to remove those Burgesses who had been elected whilst minors. Claims and counter claims continued unabated with both sides losing significant numbers of their supporters until 1775 when only five aldermen were left - John Carter II and two of his relatives on the dissenting side and Philip Varlo and Edward Linzee on the other. Even the office of Mayor was not immune to the purge, three of the incumbents being removed from office between 1775 and 1780, at which point the Mayorship went unfilled for four months. From 1782 however the contest was in effect settled in the Carter's favour and there began a lengthy period when they virtually ruled Portsmouth.
Heading the family by this time was John Carter III. He had been born in 1741 and by his late 20s had assumed the managership of the family brewery. Following his early election as a burgess he stepped up to the roles of Alderman in 1763 and Mayor in 1769 and 1772 before being removed from office in 1775, just two years after receiving a knighthood at the visit of George III to Portsmouth. The restoration of entitlement in 1782 brought both John Carter III (Sir John Carter) and his brother William back to the centre of local politics in Portsmouth where they controlled parliamentary nominations virtually unchallenged until the introduction of the Reform Act in 1832. During that time the name of the Mayor was Carter on 21 occasions and relatives and business associates of the Carters, principally the Whites and Spicers occupied the position for many further years. Similarly the ranks of the Aldermen and Burgesses were packed with Carter nominees, and yet despite this shameless display of nepotism, the Carter name was well respected in the town.
Coming from a relatively non-dogmatic position as dissenters, the Carters managed to maintain a reputation for humanity and integrity which stood them in good stead, especially in times of conflict. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the Spithead Mutiny when Sir John Carter negotiated a peaceful solution to a problem that was threatening to blow the whole community apart. A full account of this incident can be read in the obituary of Sir John Carter which appeared in the Gentlemen Magazine, shortly after his death in 1808.
Sir John had married Dorothy Cuthbert who bore him 6 children the only son being named John (IV) who was born in 1788. John Carter IV was not to follow in the family business tradition but instead received an excellent education culminating in a period of study at Cambridge. As a dissenter he was not permitted to take a degree so he decided to 'conform' and obtained a first class honours degree and began studying at the bar. In 1816 one of the two MPs for Portsmouth died and John was elected unopposed in his place, so beginning 21 years of representation.
As John Carter had not followed his father into the family business, his income was largely restricted to the fees he could earn on the legal circuit, but in 1826 this changed. Since the death of William Pike in 1777 the family brewing interests had been jointly owned by the Carter and the Bonham families, but in 1826 Thomas Bonham, the last member of the family died without a natural heir, leaving the majority of his considerable estate to John Carter IV. In recognition of this, John changed his surname to Bonham-Carter and although he then possessed a majority share holding in the Pike Spicer brewery he was content to leave the managership of the business to his cousin and brother-in-law Edward Carter.
Although John Bonham-Carter lived away from Portsmouth for the rest of his life he nevertheless maintained a strong interest in the brewery business, but his real contribution to the development of political life in the town and across the country was in his involvement with the reform of local politics at a governmental level. Given his legal training he was a natural choice for the scrutiny of the legislation that passed through parliament in the first half of the 1830s, a role which brought him the offer of several important governmental appointments, all of which he refused.
His reforming zeal was supported by the family at large even though refomation would sweep away the very priviledges that had sustained the Carter family's supremacy for so many years. Perhaps they simply thought that their standing in the town would be sufficient to retain influence even without the machinery to do so. In the event Edward Carter became the first mayor of Portsmouth after the introduction of the Municipal Corporations Act, but thereafter the name of Carter appeared on the Mayoral Roll no more. Their business interests ensured that they would continue to be held in some regard but their domination of the political scene was forever diminished and their presence in Portsmouth ended altogether in 1911 when the brewery was sold to the Brickwood company.
Tim Backhouse
"In a Liberal Tradition" by Victor Bonham-Carter (1960)
"Extracts from the Portsmouth Records" by Robert East (1891)
"Borough Sessions Papers, 1653-1688" compiled by Arthur J. Willis and Margaret J. Hoad.
"Portsmouth, A History" by A. Temple Patterson (1976)
"Portsmouth Breweries 1492-1847" - Portsmouth Paper No. 51