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Handsome Devils and Their Digs: John Mortlock & Sons

Today & 1750 

The history of Great Abington Hall originates in the 13th century with the Earls of Oxford, though the house was then a medieval manor built around one large room.  Around the end of the 16th century the original hall gave way to a rebuilding project on the same site and the deed passed through several owners, including Thomas Western, ironmonger to the King, and Mr. Pearson, a Riga (or Baltic sea coast trader).  John Mortlock, our handsome devil, purchased Abington in 1800.

John Mortlock by John Downman

Born in 1755 to a wealthy draper, John inherited the family business along with land in Pampisford and Whittlesford when he was just nineteen.  As the sole son and heir–and a handsome one at that–women must have swooned in his wake, but it didn’t take long for one to snatch him off the market.  The year he reached his majority he married Elizabeth Mary Harrison, the daughter and sole heiress of a rich grocer.  She provided him with a plentiful dowry and together the couple had two girls and seven boys, including the young John Cheetham pictured with his mother below.

 Elizabeth Mortlock and her son, 1779, by John Downman.  Touching, isn’t it?

Although already moneyed and well settled, John had ambitions.  He established the first bank in Cambridge in 1780, and as man of questionable morals, found clever ways to order his environment as he saw fit.  A placard attached to the building on Bene’t Street near where his bank once stood reads: That which you call corruption, I call influence.”  The quote appears to be an abbreviation of his statement, “without influence, which you call corruption, men will not be induced to support government, though they generally approve of its measures.”

John became Mayor of Cambridge in 1785 by asserting this influence and held the office for 13 terms before his death in 1816.  He was a politically astute individual, using his power to maneuver his constituents and to always, always obliterate his enemies.  As Gray and Stubbings write in Cambridge Street Names, Mortlock issued “letters of credit to travelers who feared to be robbed of their cash by highwaymen if they approached town at dusk . . .”  But he was a highwayman of his own sort.  He bullied and blackmailed his opponents, and there was even rumor that the highwaymen’s pockets around town were padded courtesy of Mortlock Bank.

Clearly, the man had enemies as well as friends.  During his multiple terms as mayor, he used land from the city and sold it to his cronies at attractive prices.   Skullduggery, it seemed, was in the family blood.   He and his sons retained mayoral influence from 1785-1820 with scarcely an interruption in between.  Among his sons, one, John Cheetham, became a knight, and another, Edmund, a reverend, but it was his grandson who stole the attention in the papers.

Experiences of a Convict by John Frederick Mortlock.  Originally published 1864/5

John Frederick Mortlock’s story begins in a most un-knightly way.  After his father’s death in 1838, the man we shall call Freddie decided that to be an heir-at-law without actually inheriting an estate had caused him a great unhappiness.  Following a series of incidents, including breaking the windows at his family’s bank, he was accused of setting to fire his uncle Thomas Mortlock’s house at Little Abington.  Romilly’s Cambridge Diary of 1832-1842 recalls the arson suit of 1837: “There seems to be no evidence, though all the world is convinced to it being fact.  If it came to a capital conviction the misfortune is that [Thomas] Mortlock is to be sheriff.”  Thomas did indeed become high sheriff of Cambridge in 1840, and although Freddie was found not guilty, he was warned to keep the peace with his other uncle, reverend Edmund Mortlock, as in 1835 he had written the reverend a threatening letter.

His and the reverend’s dispute over a “standing complaint that he was barred from certain information respecting the disposal of his father’s property” was never resolved.  Come 1843, Freddie stormed to his uncle’s domicile, lashed out in reckoning, and after what must have been a repetitive argument at this point, drew his pistol and fired.  Horrified by his actions, fearful of the repercussions, or both, he gave chase and shot his two pursuers (inflicting only “bruises”) before he was reprimanded.  He was around 28 years of age at the time but despite the excuse of volatile youth, attacking his uncles was not the last of his contumacy.  For wielding a pistol with the intent to murder, he gained the occasion to write his Experiences of a Convict.  Sentenced to twenty-one years transportation for his crimes, he spent his sentence on Norfolk Island and New South Wales in Australia tutoring the son of an Agricultural Superintendent and Deputy Commandant.

Despite his rather extended holiday, Freddie returned to England with his old grievances intact.  Mortlock v. Mortlock appears in court records in July 1869 with a bill in forma pauperis.  This was the fifth bill filed with the Court by Freddie asking that a new trustee be appointed to complete the trust of his father’s will. By this point, Freddie was desperate.  In 1868 he published the tell-all How I Came to be a Bankrupt.  He needed the inheritance dispute settled and settled quickly but his uncle, the defendant, filed a motion asking the suit be discharged on account that Freddie had “designedly” and “improperly” omitted the fact of his bankruptcy and mention of his material deeds.  In the end, the bill was taken off the Court’s files and costs, as requested by his uncle in the motion, were paid by Freddie.

The Mortlock Legacy

Whether we would call the Mortlocks corrupt or entrepreneurial, the lot of them are a fascinating example of a landed gentry family in the 18th and 19th centuries.  They were wealthy and powerful, and like all big families, were given to squabbling about inheritances or otherwise.

If you wish to learn more about the Mortlocks and their history, the pdf file The Banking Mortlocks covers their pursuits from 1453 to 1755.