BUTTERWORTH, Joseph (?1770-1826), of 43 Fleet Street, London and Bedford Square, Mdx.

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



1812 - 1818
1820 - 1826

Family and Education

b. ?1770, 2nd s. of Rev. John Butterworth, Baptist minister, of Jordan’s Well and Cow Lane, Coventry, Warws., by 2nd w. Ann née Heap (d. 16 May 1808, aged 80). educ. by his fa.; Coventry free sch. m. 13 Oct. 1791, Anne, da. of John Cooke, clothier, of Trowbridge, Wilts., (her sis. Mary m. 1788 Dr Adam Clarke, the Methodist scholar), 1s.

Offices Held

Treasurer, Wesleyan missionary soc. 1819-d.


Butterworth’s grandfather was a pious blacksmith of Goodshaw Chapel, Rossendale, four of whose five sons became Baptist ministers. His father was for over 50 years until his death in 1803 a minister at Jordan’s Well, Coventry, where he caused a new chapel to be built in his own garden in Cow Lane, and the author of a biblical concordance. Joseph was apprenticed, by his own wish, to a harness plater at Birmingham and went with his master to London, where he set up in business himself. He subscribed £1,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797. Whieldon, a law stationer of Fleet Street then took him into partnership and, inheriting the business on the former’s death, he became an unprecedentedly successful law publisher, whose General Catalogue of Law Books (6th edition 1819) was a best seller in the profession. Most probably under the influence of his brother-in-law Dr Adam Clarke, whose works he published, he became an ‘influential member of the Wesleyan connexion’, was a superintendent of Sunday schools for 25 years and a founder of the British and Foreign Bible Society, whose first meetings were held at his house in Fleet Street. Among those interested in this and other philanthropic schemes boosted by Butterworth was Lord Liverpool, who became prime minister in 1812, the year Butterworth entered Parliament for his native Coventry.1

Invited there by dissenting freemen (perhaps his brother Henry, a wealthy timber merchant there, had a hand in it), Butterworth rejected the efforts of Peter Moore* to join forces with him or, failing that, to persuade him to stand down. He described himself in an address as ‘perfectly independent, unconnected with any party ... a friend of peace and of the interest of his native city’. He informed Moore that ‘a previous engagement to pay a certain part of the expenses of a contested election would subject me to the imputation of purchasing a seat in Parliament’. He got in unopposed and his friend Wilberforce wrote in his diary: ‘Honest Butterworth’s success reminded me of "Them that honour me, I will honour"; he was quite the popular candidate, and the crafty, roguish counsel of his opponents was made to recoil on themselves’.2

The verdict on Butterworth, who appeared on the Treasury list of supporters after his election, at the end of that Parliament was that he ‘had a leaning to the govt. but he frequently voted with the opposition’. His maiden speech consisted of his reading a letter from ‘a friend in the country’ in favour of the bank-note bill, 8 Dec. 1812. He invariably opposed Catholic relief: two or three visits to Ireland as a member of the committee for Hibernian schools made him desirous of converting that country (and the Catholic countries on the continent) to what he called ‘protestant truth’.3 On 25 Feb. 1813 he denied in the House that the protestant dissenting body were unanimously in favour of Catholic claims, and on 20 July 1814 complained of the partiality of Catholic juries in Ireland to their co-religionists. He voted for Christian missions to India in 1813 and on 26 June 1816 was prepared to vindicate the Wesleyan missionaries in the Caribbean against the aspersions of Joseph Foster Barham*, when Castlereagh stepped in to save time for other business. On 16 June 1815 he described the dissenting community as ‘every way as useful, enlightened and loyal, as any in the established church’. He criticized Parnell’s facile view of the Irish Catholic priests’ reception of non-Catholic schools and bible societies, which he insisted was mainly hostile; and explained that the papacy maintained a similar attitude in Poland, 7 July 1817.

Religious questions apart, Butterworth was in the majority in favour of the sinecure regulation bill, 29 Mar. 1813. He voted against the expulsion of Lord Cochrane from the House, 5 July 1814. He seconded his constituents’ petitions against altering the Corn Laws, 27 May 1814, 3 Mar. 1815, and invariably voted against such alteration. He presented a London petition for the removal of the Post Office to the West End, to which five-sevenths of the post was addressed, 12 July 1814, and went on to justify the new Post Office bill, 8 May 1815. On 9 Mar. 1815 he suggested a limitation of the tax on menservants and on 1 May voted for amendment of the income tax. He indicated by votes of 7 Apr. and 25 May that he was averse to the resumption of hostilities with Buonaparte. He was in the minorities on the civil list, 14 Apr., 8 May 1815, and opposed the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment bill throughout, 28 June-3 July. On 28 Feb. 1816 he supported his constituents’ petition against the property tax and on 18 Mar. voted against it, as also against the Admiralty salaries two days later. He was an opponent of lotteries for moral reasons, 12 June 1816. He opposed ministers on the Irish salaries question, 20 June 1816, and on the composition of the finance committee, 7 Feb. 1817. He defended a Coventry petition for retrenchment, 11 Feb. 1817, and supported Brougham’s motion for inquiry into manufacturing distress, 13 Mar. He wished to see parochial education promoted, 28 Apr., had views on tithe reform, 5 May, and welcomed the improvement of the metropolitan police, 7 July. He was in the minority critical of Canning’s mission to Portugal, 6 May. He voted for Burdett’s motion for a committee on parliamentary reform, 20 May, despite which Cobbett, who dubbed him ‘a sort of metropolitan of the Methodists’, was sure that he was ‘a silent opponent of reform’. He supported the suspension of habeas corpus, 23 June 1817. In the ensuing session he again joined opposition on questions of retrenchment, 16 Mar., 13 and 15 Apr.; but spoke only for the Coventry silk manufacturers, 18 Mar., and in favour of Peel’s factory regulation bill, 10 Apr.

Butterworth had to defend himself at the hustings in 1818 against the charge of having too often supported ministers, and, protesting how hard it was to be independent, was defeated at the poll. A hostile squib called him ‘Dr Cantwell’:

Yon house erected on St. Stephen’s ground

With tempting aspect drew me from my shop

Crown lawyers there good customers I found,

And there for ever I had hoped to stop.4

In December 1819 he headed the booksellers’ opposition to the newspaper stamp duties bill. At the same time he was advising the Home secretary how to curb radical agitation.5

Butterworth said he would return to fight again, but in 1820 he was returned at Dover, where there was less trouble from radicals. Defeated there in 1826, he died of brain fever, 30 June 1826, aged 56 and worth over £60,000. Wilberforce, whom Butterworth had congratulated on his retirement the year before for raising the moral tone of public life, invariably called him ‘honest Butterworth’ and in the Methodist and evangelical world he was highly esteemed: his daughter-in-law said of him: ‘he had a certain graciousness of manner that was peculiarly attractive, his spirits were joyous and effervescent, his playful wit innocent and exhilarating; he was the delight of the young, with whom he was ever ready for a frolic’. His son and heir predeceased him and the publishing tradition was continued by a nephew Henry, who, having been pressed into the business at the age of 15, left his uncle in 1818 on being denied the partnership that had been stipulated for him and set up business on his own. His uncle’s premises were sold and ended up as Spottiswoode’s Bible Warehouse.6 Butterworth’s memorial in Wesley Chapel, City Road records that he was a friend to every institution ‘which had for its object the amelioration of man’.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. DNB (Butterworth, John and Joseph); Poole, Coventry, 238; PRO RG/4/2982; T. W. Whitley, Parl. Rep. Coventry, 244; Gent. Mag. (1826), ii. 378.
  • 2. Whitley, 242-3; Life of Wilberforce (1838), iv. 65.
  • 3. Add. 40279, f. 62; Colchester, ii. 468, 589; iii. 9, 22, 310; Life of Wilberforce, iv. 88.
  • 4. Pol. Reg. 12 July 1817; Whitley, 248.
  • 5. Life of Wilberforce, v. 44; Add. 38281, f. 233; Sidmouth mss, Butterworth to Sidmouth, 30 Oct. 1819.
  • 6. M. Butterworth, Portraiture of a Father, 12; Mem. of the late H. Butterworth, 1861; PCC 363 Swabey.