SULLIVAN, John (1749-1839), of Richings Park, Bucks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1790 - 1796
1802 - 1806
14 Feb. 1811 - 1818

Family and Education

b. 7 Apr. 1749, 2nd s. of Benjamin Sullivan of Dromeragh, co. Cork, clerk of the crown for county Cork and county Waterford by Bridget, da. of Rev. Paul Limric of Schull, co. Cork; bro. of Richard Joseph Sullivan*. educ. Greenwich acad. until 1764. m. 23 May 1789, Henrietta Anne Barbara, da. of Hon. George Hobart of Nocton and Blyborough, Lincs., 3s. 5da.

Offices Held

Writer, E.I. Co. (Madras) 1765, factor 1771; jun. merchant and member of council, Mazulipatam 1774; sen. merchant 1776; resident, Tanjore 1781; ret. 1785.

Under-sec. of state for War and Colonies May 1801-May 1804; PC 14 Jan. 1805; member of Board of Trade May 1805; commr. Board of Control Feb. 1806-Apr. 1807, from Apr. 1812.

Sheriff, Bucks. 1797-8; trustee, Westminster Life Assurance Office 1805, British Fire Office 1811.


Sullivan, like his brothers Benjamin and Richard, obtained his passage to India through the influence of their kinsman Laurence Sulivan, director and sometime chairman of the East India Company. He visited China ‘for the recovery of his health’ in the late 1760s and in 1771 obtained the contract for the construction of a new arsenal and hospital at Fort St. George. Lord Macartney, a fellow Irishman who became governor of Madras in 1781, appointed him resident at Tanjore and subsequently praised his ability, enterprise and ‘good sense’ and described him as ‘a man after my own heart’, with ‘an excellent head, a cool temper, no levity, no vanity’, who ‘looks to the point as it really is, not as it appears to be, minds what is to be done, not what may be said’. Sullivan, who published Observations respecting the Circar of Mazulipatam in 1780, was said to have ‘made a large fortune at Tanjore by being concerned in providing grain, provision and stores for the troops to the southward in the late war’. He left India in 1785 and bought a Buckinghamshire estate the following year.1

His prime ambition was to return to India in a more exalted position. According to his own statement of 1793 he was offered a seat in council at Madras by Dundas in 1787, but declined it because the minister would not meet his request for the ‘successional appointment’ to the governorship. Later in the year he was thought of by certain East India Company directors as a suitable governor of Bombay, but he turned down their offer of support, so he later claimed, because he did not wish to cause trouble for Dundas. When in March 1790 Dundas recommended Charles Oakeley, one year his junior in the Indian service, as governor of Madras, Sullivan complained bitterly at being passed over. Dundas, who had assumed that Sullivan’s Indian ambitions had been extinguished, admitted that he had cause to feel aggrieved, but could do no more than advise him to try to secure the backing of East India House. He made the attempt, but was unable to win sufficient support among the directors. At the same time he asked Dundas for the succession to Bombay, but failed to secure more than the minister’s promise to consult the governor-general Lord Cornwallis.2

Sullivan had meanwhile made some useful political contacts. In 1788 the Marquess of Buckingham mentioned him as a man he would be prepared to back in a contest for the Buckinghamshire seat if his brother William, later Lord Grenville, had to abandon it in order to facilitate his political promotion. His marriage the following year gave him the protection of the ambitious Hobart family and also connected him with the Norths. At the general election of 1790 he was returned for Old Sarum by Pitt’s kinsman Lord Camelford, to whom the premier had recommended him as a nabob of ‘good fortune’ and ‘good character’.3 He also contested Bodmin in Camelford’s unsuccessful attempt to revive his interest there.

Sullivan presumably supported government— he was listed hostile to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in April 1791— but he continued to meet frustration in his bid for an Indian governorship. In July 1792 he renewed his application for Bombay, but Dundas still prevaricated and eventually let it be known, through a third party, that opposition to Sullivan at East India House was the main obstacle to his appointment. Sullivan reminded him that he had had substantial support in 1790 and argued that his unreserved recommendation by ministers would sway the directors, but Dundas postponed a decision. At the end of the year Sullivan applied to succeed Oakeley at Madras, but failed to obtain a satisfactory response. In April 1793, complaining that his position had become intolerably ‘awkward’ and ‘painful’, he stated his case at length to Dundas. What ensued is not clear, but in October 1793 Sullivan’s brother-in-law Robert Hobart* was appointed governor of Madras, with a provisional succession to the governor-generalship, and Sullivan’s own importunities seem to have ceased.4

His only known speech during the 1790 Parliament was in support of the war, 21 Jan. 1794, but in March 1795 he confided to Hobart his view that ‘peace is not at a great distance and therefore that Pitt and Fox might be brought to unite their talents towards effecting it’. In 1794 he published Tracts upon India and the following year, ‘in the hope of assisting towards an arrangement’ of the Indian army ‘upon a fixed principle’, was ‘induced to print a supplement to the tracts, and to distribute a few copies’.5 In August 1795 he was thought of by Hobart as his replacement as Member for Lincoln at the next election, but when a strong local candidate, Richard Ellison, applied for the Hobart interest, Sullivan willingly made way for him and told Hobart, 11 Feb. 1796, that whenever the dissolution occurred ‘I beat my retreat from St. Stephens’.6 He duly did so, though he appeared on ministerial lists of persons wanting seats in 1796.

In August he wrote to Hobart that if Dundas were to appoint him to a seat at the Board of Control in place of Sylvester Douglas, who was expected (wrongly, as it turned out) to go to the Cape, he ‘would forgive him all he has made me suffer’, but, refusing to ‘humble myself by soliciting’, he did ‘not feel anything like expectation’. In 1796 and 1797 he acted as mediator between his brother-in-law and ministers and sought to secure the best possible compensation for Hobart on his recall from India. Late in 1800 he came forward as one of two candidates for an anticipated vacancy at Aylesbury. Lord Buckingham, whose nominee occupied the other seat and who had observed in 1797 that Sullivan had ‘claims’ on him, was embarrassed, feeling obliged to ‘assist’ him, but he withdrew shortly afterwards, probably under pressure from Lord Grenville.7

Sullivan’s chance came with Addington’s accession to power, when Hobart entered the cabinet as colonial secretary. In May 1801 he replaced William Huskisson as under-secretary and at the general election of 1802 paid £4,000 for his return for Aldborough on the Newcastle interest. He is not known to have spoken in the House during the life of the ministry but he became, like his brother-in-law, a recognized member of Addington’s political connexion and was dismissed from office when Pitt returned to power in 1804. Hobart’s last act before leaving the Colonial Office was to procure for Sullivan’s son the reversion to the sinecure of provost marshall of Jamaica; and the King, sanctioning the grant, observed that ‘the father’s merit and diligent assiduity most fully entitle him to this mark of favour’.8 Although he voted with his fellow Addingtonians against Pitt’s additional force bill in June 1804, ministers thought that ‘some impression might be made’ on him in September. When Addington joined Pitt in government in January 1805 Hobart, now Earl of Buckinghamshire, became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and Sullivan was admitted to the Privy Council, to the disgust of the Pittite Lord Harrowby, who thought the appointment ‘absolutely unexampled’.9 He spoke in the debate on the 11th naval report, 29 Apr., and followed Sidmouth when he broke with Pitt afterwards, voting for the criminal prosecution of Melville, 12 June 1805.

On the formation of the ‘Talents’ ministry Sullivan, who according to Buckinghamshire was ‘always more active upon the subject of other men’s interests than his own’, became an unpaid member of the Board of Control. He told his colleague, Sidmouth’s brother, that ‘it had not been his intention to have interfered much in the business of the department’ and he remained inconspicuous in the House.10 On 30 May 1806 he defended his mortally ill brother, Sir Richard, against charges levelled at his conduct in India 25 years previously, and expressed approval of Lord Wellesley’s Oudh policy, though he criticized his dealings with the nawab of the Carnatic. Two weeks later Buckinghamshire told Wellesley that Sullivan, though ‘not much in the habit of speaking’, was ‘taking great pains to make himself master of the subject’ and would ‘strenuously exert himself to do you justice’,11 but his only known contribution to the ensuing debates was a minor one on the Arcot debts, 7 July 1806.

At the general election of 1806 Buckinghamshire put him up for Lincoln with Ellison in a bid to capture both seats, but he was beaten into third place after a ‘most severe contest’ than which nothing, as he told his brother-in-law John Balfour, ‘could have been more distant from my expectation or more opposite to my habits and nature’. In February 1807 Lord Buckingham offered to return him for his pocket borough of Buckingham, where he anticipated a vacancy, until his younger son came of age, if the gesture would help to reconcile Sidmouth to Canning’s admission to the cabinet, but nothing came of this and Sullivan left the India Board when the ministry fell. Had Ellison succeeded in his bid for Lincolnshire at the 1807 general election, Sullivan would have been Buckinghamshire’s candidate for the city, but in the event he failed to find a seat.12

An opening was provided for him in February 1811 on the Palk interest at Ashburton, for which Laurence Sulivan had sat in the 1768 Parliament. He continued to follow Sidmouth’s line and on 18 Mar. 1811 he defended the Portuguese subsidy. In April 1812, when Sidmouth and Buckinghamshire entered the cabinet, he was appointed to the Board of Control under the latter, this time with a salary. On Buckingham’s death and succession by Canning in 1816, Sullivan stayed on at the Board, contrary to expectation.13 He upheld the proposed settlement with the East India Company, 1 and 3 June 1813, and opposed Creevey’s motion on expired Company pensions, 12 May 1814, but is not known to have spoken in the House thereafter. A consistent opponent of Catholic relief, he was a reliable ministerial voter until 1817, when personal problems, perhaps the ill health of his wife or children, seem to have disrupted his life. Writing to Vansittart from Marseilles, 26 Dec. 1817, he expressed relief that he had not, as he had earlier feared, ‘put government to an inconvenience by allowing my domestic concerns to influence my conduct’. He decided ‘to remain with my family’, unless he heard from Sidmouth ‘that an individual vote can be made of consequence by some extraordinary change of circumstances’. With regard to his office, he went on, Vansittart and Sidmouth were ‘already in possession of the assurance that I shall thankfully concur in whatever you may think advisable on that point’.14 He was present to vote with government on the Duke of Clarence’s allowance, 15 Apr. 1818, but retired from Parliament at the ensuing dissolution. He died 31 Oct./1 Nov. 1839.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: J. W. Anderson / P. A. Symonds


  • 1. India Office Lib. J/1/5, ff. 310-13; HMC Palk, 29, 123, 270, 354, 364; H. D. Love, Vestiges of Old Madras, iii. 36; Macartney Corresp. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, lxxvii), 9, 14, 25, 45, 47, 49, 199; Lipscomb, Bucks. iv. 519.
  • 2. SRO GD51/4/143/2; Blair Adam mss, Macpherson to Adam, 15 Apr. 1790.
  • 3. HMC Fortescue, i. 334, 567.
  • 4. SRO GD51/4/126, 143.
  • 5. Bucks. RO, Hobart mss E62, 63.
  • 6. PRO 30/8/181, ff. 179-81; Hobart mss E65.
  • 7. Hobart mss E66, 72, 73, H75; Wellesley Pprs. i. 37; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 3/97.
  • 8. Geo. III Corresp. iv. 2847.
  • 9. Ibid. iv. 3006; HMC Bathurst, 44.
  • 10. Add. 34456, f. 372; HMC Fortescue, viii. 16, 19; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Addington to Bond [4 Feb. 1806].
  • 11. Add. 37309, f. 124.
  • 12. Orkney Co. Lib. Balfour mss D2/3/11; HMC Fortescue, ix. 56.
  • 13. Add. 38741, f. 7; Harewood mss, Huskisson to Canning, 18 May 1816.
  • 14. Add. 31232, f. 164.