CONGREVE, Sir William, 2nd bt. (1772-1828), of Walton, Staffs. and 13 Cecil Street, Mdx.
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Family and Educationb. 20 May 1772, 1st s. of Lt.-Gen. William Congreve, comptroller of the royal laboratory at Woolwich, and 1st w. Rebecca, da. of Fleet Elmstone, RN. educ. by Mr. Tucker, Singlewell, Kent; Newcome’s, Hackney; Wolverhampton g.s.; RMA Woolwich; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1788. m. late 1824, at Wesel, Isabella, wid. of Henry Nisbett McEvoy, 2s. 1da. suc. fa. as 2nd bt. 30 Apr. 1814; KCH 1816. d. 15 May 1828.
Equerry to George IV 1811-d.; comptroller of the royal laboratory and supt. of the royal military repository 1814-d.
Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1803.
Congreve, who succeeded his father as comptroller of the Woolwich laboratory in 1814, with a salary of £2,500,1 continued the work of developing fire rockets for military purposes which had earned him some celebrity during the French wars. In 1821 he organized the coronation celebrations in the royal parks at a cost of £1,991.2 He had been elected for Plymouth in 1818 on the regent’s interest, which had effectively been combined with the admiralty interest when he and Sir Thomas Byam Martin were returned unopposed in 1820. He expressed regret that ‘the period of my services has hitherto been confined to an epoch when, from the distressed and limited circumstances of the country, the means of achieving any good, either of a public or a private nature, have been most lamentably narrowed’.3
He continued to give consistent support to Lord Liverpool’s ministry, though poor health seems to have restricted his attendance after 1824.4 He voted against Catholic claims, 28 Feb. 1821, 30 Apr. 1822, but not in the divisions of 1825. On 26 Mar. 1821 he stated that the commissioners inquiring into the prevention of forged banknotes, of whom he was one, had approved a plan submitted by the Bank, expressed confidence that despite technical problems ‘a secure banknote was perfectly feasible’ and mentioned a ‘plan proposed by him for the security of the country bank circulation, which would shortly appear under the sanction of government’.5 He denied that his duties as superintendent of military machines and the Woolwich laboratory made him a ‘pluralist’, 14 May, and explained the purpose of the establishments at Feversham and Waltham Abbey, 21 May 1821. He presented a petition from Plymouth Dissenters for amendment of the Marriage Act, 24 May 1822, and constituency petitions against the Insolvent Debtors Acts and the coal duties, 19 Mar. 1823.6 He presented a Plymouth anti-slavery petition, 12 Mar.,7 but voted against condemning the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824. He defended his position as inspector-general of gas light companies, 2 Apr., when he told the home secretary Peel that he had never sought the appointment, which had been ‘one of much labour and responsibility and expense’.8 He introduced the equitable loan bank bill, 3 May 1824, which passed the Commons but did not reach the Lords. That autumn he sent the duke of Wellington, master-general of the ordnance, a detailed account of the Woolwich laboratory’s work to demonstrate the regularity of its proceedings and denied that he had taken undue authority on himself.9 He supported the proposed financial provision for the duke of Cumberland, 30 May 1825, declaring that ‘no one could be more punctual in the payment of his debts’. At the general election of 1826 a threatened opposition at Plymouth did not materialize and he was returned unopposed after expressing regret that ‘his health had in a great measure prevented him from paying that attention to his constituents which he could have wished’ and promising to ‘devote the remainder of his life to their service’.10
On 5 Dec. 1826 the Commons received a petition from shareholders in the Arigna Iron and Coal Mining Company, of which Congreve was chairman, for inquiry into alleged fraudulent practices by its directors. Congreve, who had earlier sent Peel a detailed defence of his role in the affair, was too ill to attend the debate, but he gave evidence before the resulting select committee. In April 1827 its report delivered the damning verdict that while he might not have been ‘cognisant of the particulars of the fraud’ he was ‘too far acquainted ... to be entitled to the plea of ignorance’, and that his conduct had to be construed either as ‘a not unwilling suppression of scruples’ or as ‘an insensibility to evident obligation which no rule, either of law or morals, admits to be a defence of transgression’.11 He fled to France to avoid his creditors and died at Toulouse in May 1828, being buried in the Protestant cemetery there. It was said that towards the end of his life, ‘having totally lost the use of his legs’, he ‘invented a mechanically arranged chair or sofa, which enabled him to move himself about his apartments without any assistance’.12 By his will, which was proved under a nominal £100, he left all his property, including any sums arising from his contract with the East India Company for communicating the secret of manufacturing his rockets, to his wife, who was to divide it on her death between their three children. He instructed that canal shares due to him by his brother’s will should be used as security to raise money to provide for an illegitimate son, Harry, who was to be trained as a naval cadet and sent out to India. His widow, who was granted a civil list pension of £400, was advised not to undertake administration of the will ‘on account of his numerous debts in consequence of the failure of his mining and other speculations’; his solicitor and principal creditor, John Tynely, did so.13 A friend claimed to have knowledge of his widow’s ‘real origin’, stating that ‘her mother, who is evidently Irish, is called Mrs. Carvalho’ and was the widow of ‘a Portuguese or Spanish merchant’ resident in Tenerife, that her first husband was ‘an Irish surgeon’ at Tenerife, ‘by whom she has a son now about 14 years old’ and that ‘the whole family are Catholics’. The same source believed that Congreve’s eldest son, Augustus, was illegitimate, having been ‘born previous to his marriage by a Protestant clergyman ... though he had been married by a Popish priest, before he had any connection with his wife; at least, so he always assured me’. Augustus, who according to standard reference works was born in 1827, did succeed to the baronetcy and was ‘last heard of in 1860 when he was in Sydney and proposed going to ... the Fiji islands’; letters of administration were issued in 1882, by which time Congreve’s other son, Frederick, was not known to be living and the baronetcy was presumed to be extinct.14
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Terry Jenkins
- 1. He and his brother Thomas were named as residuary legatees of their father’s estate in succession to their stepmother, who lived until 1831. The personalty was sworn under £10,000 (PROB 11/1559/459; IR26/605/622).
- 2. Staffs. RO, Congreve mss D1057/N/6.
- 3. Flindell’s Western Luminary, 8 Feb., 14 Mar. 1820.
- 4. Black Bk. (1823), 147; Session of Parl. 1825, p. 457.
- 5. The Times, 27 Mar. 1821; Add. 38369, f. 100.
- 6. The Times, 25 May 1822, 20 Mar. 1823.
- 7. Ibid. 13 Mar. 1824.
- 8. Add. 40363, f. 228.
- 9. Wellington mss WP1/800/6.
- 10. Alfred, 6, 13 June 1826.
- 11. Add. 40390, ff. 88-92; PP (1826-7), iii. 37-61; The Times, 4 Apr. 1827.
- 12. Plymouth Herald, 31 May; R. Devonport Telegraph, 31 May 1828.
- 13. PROB 11/1748/694; IR26/1159/718; Congreve mss D1057/M/O/2/14; S/22/11; Wellington mss WP1/1035/45.
- 14. Congreve mss D1057/S/22/11; Gent. Mag. (1828), ii. 178-9.