OVERTON, Benjamin alias Ebenezer (c.1647-1711), of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Mdx.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. c.1647, yr. s. of Col. Robert Overton of Easington, Yorks. by Anne, da. of Jeremy Gardiner of Stratford, Bow, Mdx. m. 1s. 1da.1
Commr. prizes June 1689–90; warden of the Mint 1690–6; commr. customs 1696–1703.2
Asst. Irish Fishery Co. 1691.3
Overton’s father was a leading Parliamentarian soldier during the Civil Wars, but during the 1650s his sympathies towards the Fifth Monarchy Men led to his being imprisoned for two years. Released in 1659, he was again gaoled following the Restoration and spent most of the rest of his life in prison. A contemporary account of Overton’s life stated that he had been christened Ebenezer, and said of his early years:
upon the ruin of his family, after a good progress in a virtuous education, and the beginning of literature, [he] came to be very much considered, and to be acceptable in all companies. He changed his christian name at confirmation into Benjamin, as being best suited to the common abridgement of it, for he was commonly called Ben. He soon shook off the principles of all revealed religion, and allowed himself great liberties in many ill practices, chiefly in gaming both at cards and dice. By this he had gained great sums of money. But in the worst of ill courses, he retained the principles of public liberty and public justice. His conversation was lively and entertaining, and he was disposed to be generous and charitable, but for above 30 years he lived without any sense of religion.
He may have been the Overton who visited the Duke of Monmouth in 1682, and Overton claimed to have ‘acted a part in the Revolution’. It may have been in reward for this that he was given a place in the prize office in 1689 before being transferred the following year to the place of warden of the Mint. Overton had certainly found influential patrons: the Marquess of Winchester (Charles Powlett I*), who introduced Overton to court in September 1690, and, more notably, the Earl of Sunderland. A modern historian has argued persuasively that Overton was the likely author of A Dialogue betwixt Whig and Tory, published in 1693. This pamphlet condemned the Tories as Jacobites and questioned whether they should remain in the ministry, arguing that current ‘misfortunes’ were the result of ‘entrusting those with the government of all, who were the creatures and tools of the last two reigns, and are irreconcilable enemies to . . . [the] government’. Consequently, the pamphlet urged the formulation of an entirely Whig ministry. Such comments closely mirrored the strategy which Sunderland was at this time urging William III to adopt, and the connexions between Overton and Sunderland were clearly demonstrated in 1694. In the early part of this year Overton was acting as an agent in the negotiations for the marriage of Sunderland’s eldest son, Lord Spencer (Charles*). Overton’s name was suggested in June as a possible addition to the excise commission, and the following month Sunderland wrote to the Earl of Portland on this matter, stating that ‘as for Overton I will be answerable he shall be more serviceable by writing, talking, acting and keeping others in order than any man whatsoever’. Though Sunderland’s efforts were in vain, he did secure a promise that Overton would be given the next vacancy in either the customs or excise commissions. James Vernon I* was probably referring to Sunderland’s influence in April 1695 when he reported rumours that a vacancy was about to occur in the customs commission and that Overton ‘has been a long time a pretender and has a good support’. The favour in which Overton was held by the ministry was evident in March 1696 when he was granted £500 ‘as royal bounty without account’, and later the same month he vacated his place at the Mint to become a customs commissioner.4
In the late 1690s Overton remained close both to the Powletts and to Sunderland. In May 1697 Vernon reported that Overton claimed to have advised Winchester, on the latter’s appointment as a lord justice of Ireland, that he should ‘enjoy the sweets of employment, and not . . . set up for a manager’. Overton’s support for the ministry is suggested by his probable authorship at the end of 1697 of a pamphlet defending the standing army, and in January 1698 he acted as intermediary in the negotiations to repair the breach between Sunderland and the Junto, though in the spring Vernon described him as ‘a mediator, but without credential or powers’. This activity appears to have been cut short in February, however, by an illness so severe that his death was anticipated and suitors began applying for Overton’s place in the customs. Overton recovered, however, and by May was again attempting to persuade the Junto that a reconciliation with Sunderland was the only means by which they could effect a reconciliation with the King. In a letter to Winchester, for example, he expressed the opinion that the split between the Junto and Sunderland was to the detriment of the former as the latter was ‘the best, if not the only log they had to stand on’. But he was as much concerned with his personal ambitions as with general political developments, for he asked Winchester if the Powlett interest at St. Ives, Cornwall, might be used to secure his return at the forthcoming election; however, his application was unsuccessful. He nevertheless remained close to the Powletts, Vernon writing in June 1699 that ‘Overton . . . knows more of the Duke’s [of Bolton, as Winchester had become] ways than the others do and is more trusted by him’. In January 1701 Overton was returned for St. Ives on this interest, but there is no record of his making any significant contribution in Parliament and he never stood for election afterwards.5
Overton remained a staunch Whig, as demonstrated in October 1701 in a clash he had with Christopher Musgrave* at a London coffee house over the wording of the Westmorland address; and on the accession of Queen Anne, and amid the ministerial alterations in favour of the Tories, it was suggested that Overton would be removed from the customs commission. He was eventually displaced in June 1703. In the same year, according to an account of his life published shortly after his death, Overton began to suffer from ‘a rheumatical palsy which took from him all use of his limbs, and put him under great and constant pain, from which he was scarce ever free’. This same account stated that Overton’s physical pain led him to take solace in religion and gave ‘him a sad view of his past life, his wicked principles and bad actions; for which he continued to beg mercy of God, with many prayers and tears to the end of his life’. He died in 1711. His will, proved on 9 Nov., appointed Vernon, Sir John Norris*, Matthew Aylmer* and John Ellis* as his executors and guardians of his only son, and left legacies to the dukes of Newcastle (John Holles†) and Bolton, Sir Willoughby Hickman, 3rd Bt.*, Sir William Forester* and Charles Fox*, either out of regard or because they had lost money to him at gaming, and a legacy to Captain Wharton, the illegitimate son of his good friend Hon. Goodwin Wharton*. He also bequeathed £300 to Greenwich Hospital to compensate for those occasions when he had cheated at cards or dice, but could not remember to whom restitution should be made. Since none of the executors agreed to act, the will was not administered until his son’s death in 1738. The year after Overton’s death a pamphlet was published entitled Good Advice to the Whigs, by an old dying Whig: Or, Mr Overton’s last Letter to his Friends. The pamphlet chided the Whigs for their transformation from ‘men of probity and piety’ to men who often demonstrated ‘contempt’ for the ‘public worship of God’, complained that ‘even the show and profession of Christianity has been too much laid aside’, and recommended that they return to a ‘reverence to the worship of God; to a frequency at the sacrament, and to a solemn observation of the Lord’s day’, and that they ‘be not ashamed to worship God in your families with your servants’. Such advice would be consistent with Overton having undergone a revival in religious fervour in the 1700s, but the only evidence for such a conversion is in the unsigned preface to this pamphlet; a modern historian has suggested that this pamphlet may in fact have been ‘a Tory irony on the character of Overton . . . and his Whig colleagues’. The lack of contemporary evidence makes it difficult to state with any certainty whether Good Advice to the Whigs was Overton’s valedictory statement or a satirical lampoon.6
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison
- 1. DNB (Overton, Robert); Good Advice to the Whigs, 3.
- 2. CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 146; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 486, 649; x. 1358; xviii. 315.
- 3. CSP Dom. 1691–2, pp. 3–4.
- 4. DNB (Overton, Robert); Pepys Diary ed. de Beer, i. 286; B. S. Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men, 41, 106; Good Advice to the Whigs, 3–4, 7; C. Huygens, Journaal, i. 329, ex inf. Dr P. A. Hopkins; Pprs. of the Bibliographical Soc. of Amer. lxx. 263–71; State Tracts ii. 371–92; J. P. Kenyon, Sunderland, 267–8; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1238, [Sunderland] to [Portland], 13 July 1694; CSP Dom. 1694–5, pp. 180, 186; Add. 46572, f. 82; Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 1324, 1333.
- 5. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, i. 250, 470–1, 473, 478; ii. 74–75, 309; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 47/159, 195, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 4 Dec. 1697, 19 Feb. 1697–8; Kenyon, 303, 305; Bolton mss at Bolton Hall D1/16, Overton to Winchester, 2 May 1698.
- 6. Montagu (Boughton) mss 48/141, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 17 Oct. 1701; Add. 17677 WWW, f. 138; 70075–6, newsletters 20 May, 6 July 1703; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 313; Good Advice to the Whigs, 4–16; PCC 116 Young; Pprs. of the Bibliographical Soc. of Amer. 266–7.