BECKFORD, William (1709-70), of Fonthill, Wilts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

8 Dec. 1747 - 1754
1754 - 21 June 1770

Family and Education

bap. 19 Dec. 1709, in Jamaica, 2nd s. of Peter Beckford, sugar planter, Speaker of the Jamaica House of Assembly, and comptroller of customs, by Bathshua, da. and coh. of Julines Hering, also of Jamaica.  educ. Westminster 1719; Balliol, Oxf. 1725; adm. Leyden as medical student 1731, and said afterwards to have studied, till 1735, at the Hôpital des Invalides in Paris.1  m. 8 June 1756, Maria, da. of Hon. George Hamilton, 2nd s. of James, 6th Earl of Abercorn [S], wid. of Francis Marsh, 1 surv. s. 6 illegit. s. and 2da. recognized in his will.  suc. bro. 1737.

Offices Held

Alderman of London 1752, sheriff 1755-6, ld. mayor 1762-3, 1769-70.

Biography

Beckford, who had inherited from his brother large estates in Jamaica,2 sat for Shaftesbury on the interest of the 4th Earl of Shaftesbury, with whom he seems to have closely co-operated in politics for some time.3

In 1752 he took the step which was to condition his future career. With the support of Tory allies in the House and in the City of London, he took up by redemption the freedom of the Ironmongers’ Company,4 and a few days later was elected alderman of Billingsgate ward preliminary to standing for the City at the general election of 1754.5 The City normally elected men who were not only citizens but intimately connected with its affairs. Though Beckford claimed to be a merchant on the strength of his business in buying and selling for his plantations, and later boasted that ‘his family were citizens, and some of them had borne the highest offices for a century past’,6 he was the first politician whose interests lay largely outside the City to seek to break through this custom. In 1754, returned third on the list after a hot contest, he thanked the electors for the trust which they had shown him despite the short time he had had the honour of being known to them, and the prejudices that had been laid against him.7 He was in all very successful at this general election, boasting to Bedford that he had satisfied his ambition of having ‘as many friends elected into the new Parliament as I well could, with prudence in respect to my fortune’, and that he had ‘carried three cities and two boroughs’. (London for himself, Bristol, after a great struggle, for his brother Richard, and Salisbury for his brother Julines; Petersfield, for which he was returned, he handed on to Sir John Philipps, and at Hindon he brought in James Dawkins). His appeal to the Duke of Bedford for a seat for a third brother was, however, unsuccessful.8

An indefatigable speaker in the House from the beginning, he supported Tory measures; in March 1755 took a prominent part in meetings of the Tories at the Horn Tavern;9 and as late as January 1760 acted as spokesman for them with Pitt.10 But in 1754 a paragraph in the Public Advertiser alleged that at the Bristol election he had called himself a Whig;11 on 7 Mar. 1763 he declared in the House: ‘I am, Sir, a Whig, and have the utmost abhorrence of passive obedience’;12 and by 1769 could accuse others of ‘rank Tory doctrines’.13 Though working so closely in his earlier years with the Tory country gentlemen, and, like them repudiating any desire for office, he differed from them not only in his colonial and commercial interests, but in the urgency of his desire to find a leader who would implement the policies he supported, and in the steps he was prepared to take to this end. Disappointed, like others of his group, by the death of the Prince of Wales in 1751, in 1753-4 he went some way to enrolling himself under the banner of the Duke of Bedford; with his backing started a paper, the Protestor (run by Ralph till November 1753, when he went over to the Administration);14 and on 4 June 1754 wrote to the Duke: ‘As the eyes of most people are looking toward your Grace as the head of an Opposition founded on true patriot principles. ...’15 In 1755 he entertained hopes of the leadership of Henry Fox; even when speaking against the ministers on 21 Nov. he owned ‘he had a great opinion of the abilities of Mr. Fox which if exerted well should have his support’.16 Then—when the stress of war brought Pitt to the fore—he attached himself firmly and permanently to this new leader. ‘I intend’, he wrote on 6 Nov. 1756, ‘to act as one of your private soldiers without commission.’17

In his enthusiastic support of Pitt as war minister from 1756 onwards, Beckford assisted him partly by frequent speeches (which were often ill-heard, and were described as ‘rambling and irregular’, but which also contained ‘some things pertinent’),18 partly by advice and the collection of expert opinions on America and the West Indies,19 but mostly by the hold he gained over popular opinion in the City of London and by the skill he acquired in bringing it to bear on political questions. In return Pitt helped him in the House on matters concerning the West Indian interest—‘without presence’, Beckford wrote to him, 19 Feb. 1760, ‘I shall not dare to enter into the debate, for in this question I am the object of envy, hatred and all uncharitableness’.20 Pitt rallied to his aid also on other occasions.21 As early as 1758 Beckford began to press on Pitt his views as to a satisfactory peace: he urged the importance of retaining Canada—there is no evidence of his having favoured the return to France of the sugar islands in the interest of English sugar producers, as was alleged at the time.

In 1761 he made no further attempt to extend his parliamentary interest, which had suffered by the death of Richard, the most active of his brothers, but stood again for the City, where another contest took place. He described the nomination meeting of the livery as ‘very troublesome and at the commencement a little tumultuous’ where ‘Mr. Beckford had the honour to have those for enemies who are not well-wishers of Mr. Pitt’;22 his appeal for assistance to Bedford was rejected, but he was said to have had some backing from Administration (for a rival candidate complained ‘there is letters from the office of Ordnance and the Board of Works in Beckford’s favour only’);23 and he was once again returned third of the four successful candidates.

Pitt’s resignation in October 1761 brought Beckford back into the opposition to which he was accustomed, and presented him with the difficult task of reconciling the popular elements in the City to his leader’s acceptance of a pension for himself and a title for his wife;24 a letter from Pitt to Beckford explaining the situation was published in the press, and Beckford persuaded Pitt to attend the lord mayor’s feast—a refusal ‘would damp the ardour and public spirit of every well wisher to his country’.25 It was said that ‘mobs were hired by Mr. Beckford ... to huzza and clap them as they passed along the streets’.26 Beckford’s campaign was so successful that when he was elected lord mayor in October 1762, it was considered ‘a mark of their good-will to his friend Mr. Pitt’,27 though he owed it as much to his own adroitness. He carried out the formal duties of the lord mayor with splendour, made use of the position to support the views of his friends in Parliament, and fanned the fires of discontent in the City. He opposed the peace preliminaries; on 25 Nov. spoke vehemently against them, and, according to George Onslow, was heard as never in his life;28 tried to speak again on 9 Dec.: he ‘rose, but could not be heard’;29 and both on the 9th and 10th voted in the minority against them; and in 1763, when addresses of thanks were being sought throughout the country, he refused to call the livery together in common hall to vote one.30 When the majority of the court of aldermen voted an address on their own, he did not accompany them to present it.31 And though he was personally unfriendly to Wilkes, whose North Briton attacked him in 1762-3,32 he took up his cause, by the end of 1763 was outwardly at least on friendly terms with him33 and spoke and voted on 17-18 Feb. 1764 against general warrants. It was at this time that Beckford began to earn the reputation of a demagogue, ‘the scavenger ... to throw dirt upon Government’.34 On the other hand, his speech at the end of his mayoralty was said by Charles Townshend to be ‘no bad speech. ... It is composed upon good ideas of taste, and firm and explicit, without being indecent or warm.’35

In August-September 1763 he was employed as an intermediary in an attempt to persuade Pitt to return to power (a duty which he performed with goodwill and whose failure he openly deplored);36again in March 1764 an attempt by him to see Bute at Luton raised some speculation;37 but with Pitt withdrawing from the political field in 1764-5, and the Wilkite agitation dying down in the City, Beckford’s political importance declined. He was active in the House, however, on all matters concerning the West Indies and the militia (of which he had been an ardent supporter since 1759), and he could claim the somewhat rare distinction of opposing Grenville’s Stamp Act both in 1764 when it was adumbrated, and in 1765 when it was introduced.38 When Pitt re-emerged as a political force and supported the Rockinghams over the repeal of the Act, Beckford spoke and voted on their side;39 but he viewed with much less favour their proposals for a free port in the West Indies, and persuaded Pitt to oppose it at first, though he did not succeed in carrying his leader very far with him in what proved an unpopular direction.40

The formation of the Chatham Administration gave him another experience of supporting Government, and even a short-lived prominence in the House when Chatham chose him to introduce his attack on the territorial rights of the East India Company in Bengal. The collapse and withdrawal of Chatham left him, however, without instructions, and without support except from Shelburne; and after May 1767 the matter was out of his hands.41 In the debate on the embargo on the export of corn, 11 Nov. 1766, he supported Administration, making an unfortunate reference to the value of a ‘dispensing power’ which he never altogether lived down;42 and he voted with them on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, because he considered ‘that relief ought to be given to the poor man, in preference to the opulent land-holder’.43 On the other hand he opposed them, 15 May 1767, on the measures to force the American Colonies to supply necessaries to the British troops there.44

In 1768 Beckford prepared for the forthcoming general election by introducing a bill on 26 Jan. to force Members to take an oath on their return that they had not used bribery in their elections, a measure viewed with favour by some country gentlemen, but attacked by Burke and Dowdeswell and abandoned in committee. He voted with Administration against the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768, as he later maintained, on principle,45 but during the general election of that year he was attacked in the press by the interests in the City usually associated with Administration, and after the resignation of Chatham and Shelburne was once more in opposition, especially on the American question. In the election for the City he was again returned third on the list. The contest was a confused one and made more so by the candidature of Wilkes, and while none of the candidates cooperated with him, Beckford and Barlow Trecothick, both standing in the popular interest, found it wise to treat him ‘with much civility’.46

Wilkes’s triumphant return for Middlesex foreshadowed the rise of a new force in the City, where the measures taken by Administration raised a fury. Since Wilkes was serving a term of imprisonment and could not personally lead the following which had sprung up round him, Beckford was able for a time to enjoy the fruits of Wilkes’s enterprise. Though he did not disguise his personal dislike of Wilkes,47 and never joined the Supporters of the Bill of Rights Society, he soon found that an appearance of goodwill towards Wilkes was necessary. While as late as 14 Nov. 1768 he had declared in the House that he was ‘tired of Wilkes and Liberty’, on 23 Jan. 1769 he said, ‘I shall move an address to his Majesty to pardon Mr. Wilkes’; and on 27 Jan., that ‘no man has been more persecuted than he has been’.48 Moreover his two new coadjutors in the City, James Townsend and John Sawbridge, were at this time ardent Wilkites. On 10 Feb. 1769 Beckford assisted the livery to draw up instructions to their representatives;49 and on 25 Apr. he supported in the court of aldermen the eligibility of Wilkes to sit in Parliament;50 on 24 June he was received with acclamation by the livery,51 when a petition to the Crown on the Middlesex election was brought forward; and on 6 July he was among those presenting it.

On 6 Oct. 1769 Beckford’s supporters in the City put forward his name and that of Trecothick for lord mayor,52 and the court of aldermen, believing his statement that he would not stand, elected him only to find to their indignation, that he withdrew his refusal at the instance of the livery.53 His second mayoralty, though as splendid as his first, was thus stormy from its beginning, and entirely partisan in its character: the majority of the aldermen refused to attend the mayor’s feast; of the Administration only Lord Chancellor Camden was present; the Opposition was there in force.

Beckford, backed by enthusiastic City supporters, enjoyed for the last few months of his life an unusual degree of independence from his leaders in politics. He even tried to force on them his own programme of parliamentary reform, based on the traditional aspirations of the ‘country party’ but reinforced with the somewhat sharper radicalism rising in the City. He arranged a grand dinner for the Opposition leaders of all parties on 22 Mar. 1770, at which he hoped to get their agreement to a scheme he had drawn up and given to Horne to put into shape. According to Horne, when Rockingham and his friends learnt this, they ‘flatly refused any engagement; and Mr. Beckford as flatly swore they should then “eat none of his broth”'; but ‘he was prevailed upon by—[Chatham] to accept the position’,54 Chatham having written to him on the 10th that Rockingham, Temple, and himself were ‘equally of opinion that no new matters should be opened or agitated at or after the convivium’.55

Apart from these attempts Beckford chiefly occupied himself in following up the City's petition to the Crown of 1769. On 6 Mar. 1770 he carried through the livery a strongly-worded remonstrance against the neglect of their petition,56 from which the court of aldermen dissociated themselves57 and which, when presented, called forth a rebuke from the King, and an address of disapprobation from both Houses of Parliament. In the Commons debate on this address Beckford defended himself and the City;58 and, unabashed, organized a further remonstrance. It was more moderate in expression, but when presenting it on 23 May he took the unprecedented step of haranguing the King on the misdeeds of his ministers.59 This speech, which called forth praise from both Chatham and Wilkes, marked the climax of Beckford's popularity. How he would have followed it up, and whether he would have been able to maintain his personal ascendancy now that Wilkes (since 18 Apr. 1770) was free and able to assert his influence, it is impossible to say. For Beckford, on 14 June reported ill of a neglected cold, died on 21 June.

His reputation in the City stood so high at his death that a statue was voted him in Guildhall, inscribed with what was believed to be his speech to the King; and the slightest criticism in the eulogies lavished on him was resented.60 His death was considered a grave blow to Chatham, and a rumour went round (quite unfounded) that he had ‘forced himself into his [Beckford's] house and got away all the letters he had written to that demagogue’.61 Hints in the press that Beckford had left money to Chatham and Wilkes were equally unfounded. So too was the popular estimate of the fortune he left, though it was large. Statements in the press estimated his son's inheritance at more than £48,000 p.a.;62 he himself had boasted in 1770 that it would be over £40,000 p.a.;63 it was in fact about £27,000 p.a.64

All his contemporaries agreed in judging Beckford a strange and contradictory character, and his enemies did not fail to point out the contrast between his declamations on liberty in England and his position as a great slave-owner in Jamaica,65 and the irregularities of his private life (which he boastfully exaggerated) called forth some criticism. Walpole wrote in exasperation after his death: ‘The papers make one sick with talking of  that noisy vapouring fool, as they would of Algernon Sidney’;66 but his more considered verdict was also unfavourable:

He had boldness, promptness, spirit, a heap of confused knowledge, displayed with the usual ostentation of his temper, and so uncorrected by judgement that hisd absurdities were made but more conspicuous by his vanity. Under a jovial style of good homour he was tyrannic in Jamaica ... and under an appearance of prodigality, interested. On the other side, the excesses of his factious behaviour were founded neither on principle nor on rancour. Vainglory seemed to be the real motive of all his actions.67

On the other hand, he sought no private gain in politics, appears genuinely, if if naïvely to have believed in the shibboleths he propounded, and Chatham seems to have valued his support. Some years after his death Chatham told Beckford's son that his father had been ‘an individual of great importance in politics, because of his uncommon popularity in the City of London, and the figure he made in the House of Commons’, though he added that ‘from the warmth of his character he was apt to overshoot himself in council’.68 His career is of interest because it provides the link between the ‘country party’ of George II's reign and the radicalism of the City in the 1770s, between Sir John Barnard and John Wilkes.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Lucy S. Sutherland

Notes

  • 1. London Chron. 23-26 June 1770.
  • 2. See list of landholders in Jamaica 1754, CO142/31 and Add. 12436.
  • 3. See e.g. Dodington, Diary, 22 Mar. 1751, and Gent. Mag. 1752, p. 89.
  • 4. 22 June, Gent. Mag. 1752, p. 286.
  • 5. 24 June, ibid.
  • 6. Public Advertiser, 30 Sept. 1762.
  • 7. Ibid. 8 May 1754.
  • 8. Bedford Corresp. ii. 145.
  • 9. Namier, ‘Country Gentlemen in Parliament’, Personalities and Powers, 68-71.
  • 10. George to W. Lyttelton, 9 Dec. 1756, Lyttleton Mems. ii. 543; Newcastle to Hardwicke, 26 Jan. 1760, Add. 32901, f. 479.
  • 11. Public Advertiser, 25 Apr. 1754. See also Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 357.
  • 12. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 13. 15 Apr. 1769, Cavendish’s Debates, i. 370.
  • 14. Dodington, Diary, 235-6, 243, 251; Bedford Corresp. ii. 127, 135; Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 300-301.
  • 15. Bedford Corresp. ii. 150.
  • 16. Jas. West to Newcastle, Add. 32861, f. 55; see also Lyttelton Mems. ii. 543.
  • 17. Chatham Corresp. i. 185-6.
  • 18. Harris’s ‘Debates’, 12 May 1762.
  • 19. e.g. Beckford to Pitt, 11 Sept. 1758, Chatham Corresp. i. 352 seq.; mem. from M. Dzeganowski which Beckford offered to present, Chatham mss.
  • 20. Chatham mss. See also Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 350.
  • 21. Climenson, Eliz. Montagu, ii. 127-8.
  • 22. Beckford to Pitt, 5 Mar. [1761], Chatham mss.
  • 23. S. Fludyer to Kinnoull, 30 Mar. 1761, Add. 32921, f. 190. For Beckford’s approach to Bedford, see Bedford mss 43, f. 178.
  • 24. See e.g. T. Birch to Royston, 27 Oct. 1761, Rockingham Mems. i. 49.
  • 25. Chatham mss.
  • 26. Narrative in Mrs. Grenville’s hand, Grenville Pprs. i. 415; Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, i. 70.
  • 27. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, i. 153.
  • 28. Newcastle to Hardwicke, 29 Nov.; Yorke, Hardwicke, iii. 438.
  • 29. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 30. T. Walpole to Newcastle, 12 May 1763, Add. 32948, f. 269.
  • 31. Repertory Bk. of the court of aldermen, vol. 167, pp. 280 seq.
  • 32. e.g. on 13 Nov. 1762 and 26 Mar. 1763.
  • 33. Grenville Pprs. ii. 158.
  • 34. Harris’s ‘Debates’, 16 Nov. 1763.
  • 35. Townshend to Temple, 3 Oct. 1763, Grenville Pprs. ii. 133.
  • 36. See Chatham Corresp. ii. 235-6; Grenville Pprs. ii. 201-2, 214-18.
  • 37. Grenville Diary, 7 Mar. 1764; ibid. ii. 404.
  • 38. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 39. For a report of his speech, 17 Jan. 1766, see report of debate in T1/446/134 and Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 40. Beckford to Pitt, 18 Apr. 1766, Chatham mss; Sackville to Irwin, 25 Apr. 1766, HMC 9th Rep. pt. 3, p. 24; Bateson, Newcastle Letters, 58-59.
  • 41. See Sutherland, E. I. Co. and in 18th cent. Politics ch. vi.
  • 42. See Grenville to Temple, 18 Nov. 1766, Grenville Pprs. iii. 341-2.
  • 43. Public Advertiser, 22 Mar. 1768.
  • 44. Beckford to Chatham, 29 Apr. 1767, Chatham Corresp. iii. 251.
  • 45. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 241.
  • 46. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, iii. 127.
  • 47. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 47 and 228.
  • 48. Ibid. 47, 117, 121.
  • 49. Public Advertiser, 11 Feb. 1769.
  • 50. W. P. Treloar, Wilkes and the City, 73.
  • 51. Rockingham Mems. ii. 100-1.
  • 52. Beckford to Shelburne, 24 Oct. 1769, Lansdowne mss.
  • 53. Common Hall Bk. 8 f. 148 seq. Cf. Public Advertiser.
  • 54. C. A. Stephens, Mems. of John Horne Tooke, i. 388.