CONGREVE, William (1772-1828), of Walton, Staffs.
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Family and Education
b. 20 May 1772, 1st s. of Lt.-Gen. William Congreve, comptroller of the royal laboratory at Woolwich, by 1st w. Rebecca, da. of Fleet Elmstone. educ. by Mr Tucker, Singlewell, Kent; Newcome’s, Hackney; Wolverhampton g.s.; R.M.A. Woolwich; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1788. m. late 1824 at Wesel, Isabella, wid. of Henry Nisbett McEvoy, 2s. 1da.1 suc. fa. as 2nd Bt. 30 Apr. 1814; KCH 1816.
Equerry to the Prince Regent 1811-d.; comptroller of the royal laboratory and supt. of the royal military repository 1814-d.
Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1803.
According to one account of his career, Congreve was originally intended for the bar, but ‘found it necessary to have recourse to a different employment in life’.2 Creevey, his schoolfellow at Hackney, recalled him in 1811 (when he was living with one of Creevey’s cast-off mistresses) as ‘a brother lawyer with me at Gray’s Inn’ in the early 1790s, but no record of his admission there has been found.3 In 1798 Congreve senior, resting his claims on his military services and the improvements he had made in the manufacture of gunpowder, applied to Pitt for ‘provision in some department under government’ for William, who was ‘from unforeseen accidents yet totally unprovided for’.4 Nothing came of this and Congreve evidently went into business: early in 1804 Lord St Vincent commended him to Hiley Addington as ‘a respectable merchant in the City’ who had established a newspaper, the Royal Standard and Political Register, ‘for the sole purpose of vindicating government against the vile charges of Cobbett’. Later in the year George Cranfield Berkeley* was awarded damages of £1,000 in a libel action against the Standard and Congreve seems to have withdrawn from publishing.5
He was already experimenting at Woolwich with ‘fire rockets for the annoyance of the enemy’s coast’, received encouragement from Pitt and Castlereagh and in 1805 was granted an allowance of £100 a month to develop the weapons. Their first trial against Boulogne in November 1805 was a failure, but Congreve persevered, persuaded the ‘Talents’ to continue the rocket establishment and demonstrated the efficacy of the weapons in attacks on the French coast in 1806. He also assisted in person at the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, when a jaundiced observer derided him as ‘Commodore Squib’, the ‘jest of the whole fleet’:
he appears determined to make himself conspicuous, as he wears a white hat and coat; consequence seems his leading characteristic, which cannot be wondered at with a salary of £2,000 per annum for an invention which hitherto has proved futile.
Self-important and officious Congreve may have been, but his rockets were widely used, often to good effect, during the rest of the war and two rocket troops were formed in 1813.6
He was taken up by the Prince Regent and appointed an equerry in 1811. Lord Grey later commented that ‘the rockets were to be the great instruments of security in the new park against the mob’.7 At the general election of 1812 Lord Yarmouth recommended him to Lord Lowther as a suitable ministerial candidate for Liverpool. Lowther agreed that ‘a more proper person I do not think could have been selected, either in point of abilities or reputation, or who has the interest of government more at heart’. He went to Liverpool ‘with the sanction of government and the Prince Regent’, but decamped after a few days, convinced that he had no chance. He begged the Regent’s secretary to
aid me in some other arrangement, for if I am now to be left out after all these hopes and fears and fags, and after the various tantalising expectations which I have had, it will be hard indeed—nay it will be disgracing me in the eyes of the world, who will not rightly comprehend this last operation.
His unsuccessful candidature for Grampound was purely token, but Sir Mark Wood agreed, on application from Carlton House, to return him for his pocket borough of Gatton.8
Congreve, an uncompromising opponent of Catholic relief, proved a thoroughly dependable supporter of government. His few known speeches in the House, 30 June, 13 July 1814, 14 Apr. 1815 and 1 Mar. 1816, were made in his capacity as supervisor of the peace celebrations in the royal parks, which included fireworks and specially constructed buildings. In 1813 he successfully applied to Lord Liverpool to have the rocket establishment and his allowance made permanent, having ‘no other emolument whatever for my services’, but got nowhere with his request to be allowed to sport the insignia of his Russian knighthood, conferred on him by the Tsar in recognition of the part played by his rockets in the battle of Leipzig: ‘although I was not actually in person in the field’, he argued, ‘I was virtually and in spirit there. I was there both as cause and effect.’9 The following year he succeeded to the baronetcy which his father had received in 1812 and to his post as comptroller of the royal laboratory. He vacated Gatton for Wood’s son in 1816, but was returned unopposed for Plymouth as a friend of the Regent backed by government, on a vacancy early in 1818, and again, after a contest, at the ensuing general election. In 1819 he published a pamphlet on the Impracticality of a resumption of cash payments.
The rockets made Congreve’s name, but he had several other inventions to his credit, including the hydro-pneumatic canal lock, a method of inlaying metals, and a gas meter. He ended his days under a cloud as a result of his involvement in the Arigna Mines Company scandal of 1826. He went abroad and died in straitened circumstances at Toulouse, where he was buried in the protestant cemetery on 16 May 1828.10
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: P. A. Symonds / David R. Fisher
- 1. He also had at least two illegit. sons, William and Harry. The latter was born about 1812 (PCC 694 Sutton).
- 2. Trial of Whiting, Parsons and Congreve (1804), 73.
- 3. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 147.
- 4. PRO 30/8/125, f. 77.
- 5. St. Vincent Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. lxi), 231; Trial .
- 6. Add. 38364, f. 84; Barham Pprs. (Navy Recs. Soc. xxxix), 157-74; Castlereagh Corresp. v. 92, 114, 121, 132, 144-52; Naval Misc. (Navy Recs. Soc. lxiii), 401; idem. (xcii), 423-68.
- 7. Prince of Wales Corresp. vi. 2528; vii. 2839; Brougham, Life and Times, ii. 59.
- 8. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 22, 25 Sept., Liverpool to same, 24 Sept. 1812; Geo. IV Letters, i. 151, 164, 168.
- 9. Add. 38364, f. 84; 38572, ff. 124, 147.
- 10. Gent. Mag. (1828), ii. 179; Add. 40390, ff. 88, 90; PCC 694 Sutton.