Tottenham, Charles (1685–1758), MP, was the only child of Edward Tottenham of Tottenhamgreen, Ballyloskeran, near Taghmon, Co. Wexford, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Samuel Hayman of Youghal, Co. Cork. Little is known of his early life other than his marriage, by 1713 (when his first child was born), to Ellinor, daughter of John Cliffe of Mulrankin, Co. Wexford, a prominent figure on the tory side in the Irish house of commons. The marriage brought other valuable political connections in Counties Wexford and Kilkenny, most notably among the Colclough, Leigh and Vesey families, all of whom shared Cliffe’s tory sympathies. However, by 1727, when Tottenham himself entered parliament for the first time, his high-church prejudices had been overlaid by a strong engagement with the politics of ‘patriotism’. In the general election of 1727 Tottenham and his brother-in-law, John Leigh, were both returned for New Ross, overthrowing the previously dominant proprietorial interest of the tory magnate Lord Anglesey (d. 1737), who at this time may have been seeking an accommodation with Dublin Castle.
Almost all of Tottenham's parliamentary career was passed in relative obscurity on the back benches. His one moment of glory came in November 1731 when he is reputed to have cast the crucial vote in November 1731 against a proposal from government to secure long-term funding of the Irish national debt. According to legend, Tottenham arrived at the house of commons at the very moment of the division, having ridden overnight from Co. Wexford to cast his vote. Even then he was obliged to shoulder his way past the serjeant, for he was ‘improperly attired’ according to the rules of the house, being dressed in his riding clothes and splashed all over with mud. However, the speaker decided that he could not be excluded, and Tottenham strode into the chamber in his riding boots to cast his vote for the ‘patriot’ cause. Little was heard of this curious episode at the time, and various attempts by historians to identify the precise occasion of the division, using the evidence of the commons’ Journals, have come to naught. Possibly it occurred in a committee, whose proceedings would not have been recorded in the Journals. The first reference to it dates from 1749, when an engraving was made, by Andrew Miller (d. 1763), of ‘Tottenham in his boots’, carrying a riding crop, on the steps of the parliament house. This was said to be based on an original painting by J. Stevens. Another portrait, by James Latham, showing the subject in jackboots and riding-breeches, and beside a portico, is held by the NGI. It is dated 1731, and had been in the possession of Tottenham's family, but is obviously not the original of the print; moreover, the background does not resemble the parliament house on College Green, and the presence of a small dog at Tottenham's feet would also seem to militate against any notion that Latham had intended to commemorate the famous vote. The probable occasion for the appearance of the engraving in 1749 was a parliamentary fracas in that year over the appropriation of surplus funds.
Tottenham's supposed heroic defence of the rights of Ireland made him the subject of many a ‘patriotic’ toast in the eighteenth century and beyond. He was, however, briefly to regret his fame when he voted with government in favour of the altered money bill of 1753, and was subjected to a stinging rebuke from the author of the Dublin Spy, who charged him with exchanging his hallowed boots for ‘court stilts and dirty spatter-dashes’, and announced that the name of Tottenham would ‘stink on the dunghill of bad fame to all ages’ (Dublin Spy, 24 Dec. 1753, p. 7). In fact, this singular indiscretion was soon forgotten, and as the century wore on his reputation steadily grew. Although his was not the only vote delivered in riding boots by an eighteenth-century Irish ‘patriot’ (‘Boots’ Carew being his greatest rival in the footwear department), it was the one most often remembered. ‘This anecdote could not die while the Irish parliament lived’, declared Sir Jonah Barrington (qv) (Sketches, i, 105–6), whose colourful account of the episode related it to a vote on the appropriation of a revenue surplus. Later still, opponents of the union believed that ‘Tottenham and his boots’ had defeated the efforts of an English ministry ‘to deprive Ireland of a resident legislature’ (obituary notice of Lord Arran, c.1809 (PRONI, Arran MSS, T/3200/2/48)), while the account of Paddy Dignam’s funeral in James Joyce's (qv) Ulysses contains a sidelong reference to ‘totting him in his boots’.
With his first wife, Tottenham had six sons and two daughters. After Ellinor's death in 1745 he promptly remarried, to Mary, the twice widowed daughter of another Wexford landowner, John Grogan of Johnstown. Both her previous husbands were also Wexford men. She was to outlive her third by nineteen years. He died on 20 September 1758, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Sir John, 1st baronet, who sat in the Irish parliament for New Ross (1759–60) and Fethard (1767–76), and was in turn succeeded by his own son Charles (afterwards Charles Loftus (qv)), who by contrast to his grandfather enjoyed a long and successful political career as a ministerialist and pro-unionist, eventually becoming marquess of Ely in the Irish peerage and Baron Loftus in the UK peerage.