The very sleepy Cambridge of the 1770s was given a jolt when young John Mortlock, third of the name, jumped over the draper’s counter to enter local politics. His family was moderately prosperous and owned property south of the town at Pampisford. They had made no particular mark in Cambridge affairs and had not even become freemen. John Mortlock II owned a draper’s shop near the Rose Inn (that is, on the north side of the market) which his son inherited in 1775.

Cambridge was once described as having no history in the eighteenth century. Town and University both went about their business in a fairly lethargic manner and no great events shook them out of their complacency or required even the routine fulfilment of their functions. The Cambridge Corporation had few obligations. It managed certain properties round the town, some of them for charitable causes, and it organised the three annual fairs. It issued occasional directions relating to cleanliness and hygiene, but had no regular obligation to pave or light the town. Only a minority of Cambridge residents played a formal part in the running of the town. For that it was necessary to be a freeman, and only eldest sons and apprentices of freemen were automatically eligible. Any others had to pay. There were around 180 – 200 freemen, nearly half of whom lived elsewhere. The remaining 1,000 rate-paying householders in the town had no official voice.

In 1776 Mortlock married Elizabeth Harrison, only daughter of Stephen Harrison, a prosperous grocer (who had also had the good luck in 1763 to be a sharer in a large lottery win). Elizabeth was described by the Cambridge Chronicle as ‘an accomplished young lady with a large fortune’. With his own inheritance and his wife’s fortune at command, Mortlock decided he would make his mark in the town. He paid £40 to become a freeman (far more than a year’s income to labouring families) and two years later was elected a Common Councilman. About the same time he took the bold step of opening a bank – the first in Cambridge. This was a great amenity to businesses in the area, lessening the need to carry large sums of gold or to deal in credit through London businesses. The University opened an account and so did many individuals. Although Mortlock made many enemies in his later actions, no-one ever accused him of any improper action in his banking.

While the Corporation had few duties, its members did have political views and a vote in the election of the town’s two members of Parliament. National parties were keen to influence the vote and if possible to get their own nominees elected. Opinions in Cambridge in the 1770s divided sharply over national questions: the war of independence in America, and the very limited Parliamentary franchise and the scope it gave to corruption. When public meetings were held on these issues in 1780, Mortlock joined the radicals on the side of reform, and came in contact with the young Duke of Rutland. The Duke was looking to develop his influence in Cambridge, and the two young men recognised the opportunities offered by an association. Mortlock organised a breakaway club for aldermen in the Eagle inn (the traditional gathering place was the Rose) which was acknowledged to support the Duke’s party. From 1784 to 1788 he was one of Cambridge’s two Members of Parliament.

In 1782 Mortlock became an Alderman, and in 1785 was elected mayor. The mayoralty customarily passed around the aldermen so that most of them had one turn in office. Very rarely, one would get a second term in later years. At the end of Mortlock’s year his friend Alderman Francis was elected. The following year Mortlock was re-elected, and he was then mayor in alternate years until 1809, with first Francis and later his son John Cheetham Mortlock in the office in the other years.

‘I hear on all sides that Mortlock has made himself master of the town of Cambridge.’ Rutland’s agent commented in 1787. How did he do it? At this distance in time, it is impossible to say, but a glance at his portrait, now in the Mayor’s Parlour in the Guildhall, suggests personal good looks and charm may have contributed, allied to the influence and power of the Duke of Rutland and the hold Mortlock later had as banker to a large section of Cambridge society. As Mayor, he engineered the changes to Corporation by-laws and practice that enabled him to stay in power, and he used the corporation assets to reward his followers. Although his procedures were resented by some, and the Corporation’s assets stripped, he was personal liked by some who did not personally benefit from his procedures.

In 1794 poor harvests pushed up the price of wheat and bread and crowds of desperate people were threatening to raid the mills for flour. Mortlock spent a day on horseback in the throng, keeping matters calm and refusing to draft in constables or militia who might, by precipitate action, inflame the situation. He organised the distribution of flour and meat at ‘fair’ prices, to ever-growing crowds, showing considerable personal bravery in this volatile situation.

Mortlock kept a firm hold on the town for years and it wasn’t until the 1830s that national government passed laws to reform the administration of boroughs like Cambridge.
Mortlock died at his Cambridge home in May 1816, three days after his son was knighted by the Prince Regent. He was buried in St Edward’s church.


The bulk of the Mortlock portraits by Downman passed to Mrs Alice Mortlock, as well as a portrait of the Duchess of Rutland presented to John Mortlock III by the Duke, although the group portrait of the sisters together and a portrait of Sarah, Lady Lacon, went to the Lacons. The formal oils of John and his wife Elizabeth Mary Harrison went to Alice’s elder sister, Mary Blanche Lias, and were reproduced in Connoisseur magazine in December 1921 and December 1922. Reproductions of many of the others can be found in Connoisseur for July 1931.