HEYSHAM, Robert (1663-1723), of London and Stagenhoe, Herts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1698 - 1715
1715 - 1722

Family and Education

bap. 16 Aug. 1663, 2nd s. of Giles Heysham of Lancaster by Elizabeth, da. of Robert Thornton of Oxcliffe, nr. Lancaster; bro. of William Heysham*.  m. (1) Mary, da. and coh. of Edmund Thornton, draper, of London and Stagenhoe, s.p.; (2) bef. 1708, Jane, da. of Thomas Thornton, 1s. 1da.1

Offices Held

Commr. receiving subscriptions for land bank 1696, dir. land bank 1696.2

Alderman, London 1720–d.; member, Drapers’ Co. 1720–d., master 1720–1.3

Pres. Christ’s Hosp. 1721–d.4


Heysham’s great-grandfather had settled in Lancaster but by the 1690s Heysham had established himself as a merchant trading from London with the colonies. His links with Barbados were particularly strong, and between 1700 and 1702 he served as the colony’s agent in England. Following the opening up of the Africa trade in 1698 Heysham became an independent slave trader, becoming ‘the largest African separate trader of Anne’s reign’. Never aspiring to be a director of a major London joint-stock company and, save for the purchase of estates in Hertfordshire in 1703, keeping his investments to a minimum, Heysham has been described as the ‘epitome of the independent colonial trader’. Although his business was primarily based in London, his strong family links with Lancaster allowed him to establish an interest in the borough, and in Parliament he aligned himself with the Tories. He was not, however, a slavish follower of the party line, and he was among those Members who ‘had already earned themselves a reputation as rebels by 1713’. This reputation was enhanced during the 1713 Parliament as his concern for the Protestant succession and opposition to the French commercial treaty led him into opposition to the Tory ministry, so that by 1715 his behaviour was, to contemporaries, indistinguishable from that of a Whig.5

Shortly after his return for Lancaster in 1698 Heysham was classed as a Court supporter in a comparison of the old and new Commons. He made little impact upon his first Parliament, though in March 1700 he guided the estate bill of Leonard Wessell* through the Commons. In early 1700 an analysis of the House into interests classed Heysham as doubtful or, perhaps, opposition. Following his return at the first election of 1701 Heysham’s parliamentary activity significantly increased. This Parliament saw him nominated to prepare bills upon the estates of Sir Thomas Stanley, 4th Bt. (22 Mar.) and to allow the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster to improve a parcel of land (24 Apr.). He also managed an estate bill through the Commons in May. The first parliamentary indication of his Toryism also came in this session with his opposition to the preparations for war, noted in a subsequent blacklist, and his nomination, on 14 May, to prepare an address against Defoe’s pro-war Legion Memorial.

Returned unopposed in the December 1701 election, Heysham spent a great deal of the 1701–2 Parliament acting for the Barbados merchants in their attempts to have the duty upon their exports applied to the defence of the island, a quest which was only partly successful. This did not, however, prevent him from taking an active role in parliamentary business. His concern for trade was evident in a number of his committee appointments, most notably to draft a bill to encourage privateers (10 Jan.), and to receive proposals to encourage privateers in the West Indies (14 Mar.). The most important of his committee assignments was perhaps that of 28 Jan. to draft a bill to continue and amend the Act regulating the manufacture of silver and gold thread. He also told against amendments to two bills, that obliging Jews to maintain and provide for their Protestant children (8 May) and the bill concerned with Irish forfeitures (23 May). His Toryism was clear from his being listed among those who had favoured the motion of 26 Feb. vindicating the Commons’ actions of the previous session against the King’s former ministers, and in July he was added to the Lancashire bench by Sir John Leveson Gower, 5th Bt.*, the newly appointed Tory chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster.6

The 1702 Parliament saw Heysham’s parliamentary activity decline significantly. On 28 Jan. 1703 he told against the election of James Anderton* for Ilchester, and on 13 Feb. voted against agreeing with the Lords’ amendments to the bill enlarging the time for taking the Abjuration. Heysham was lobbied on the Tack by Hon. Henry Boyle* and he did not vote for it on 28 Nov. 1704. His parliamentary activity increased slightly in the 1704–5 session. On 11 Jan. 1705 he was put on a two-man committee to draft an estate bill relating to the Suffolk estates of Henry Cavendish*. He also told, on 21 Feb., for an amendment to exempt sugar from a supply bill imposing a tax on imports from the plantations. During this session Heysham also took a prominent role in the campaign to have Sir Bevill Granville* recalled from the governorship of Barbados.7

Heysham was active in support of Richard Shuttleworth* in the Lancashire election of 1705, and the Heysham interest at Lancaster had become strong enough to return both Robert and his brother William. The brothers retained their seats until 1715 and it is consequently difficult to disentangle the parliamentary activity, particularly the frequent committee work, of the two men. Robert was, however, regarded by contemporaries as the more prominent parliamentarian, and all significant parliamentary activity attributed to ‘Mr Heysham’ is dealt with in this biography. Robert was classed as a ‘Churchman’ in an analysis of the new Parliament, and on 25 Oct. he voted against the Court candidate for Speaker. On 24 Jan. 1706 ‘Mr Heysham’ was nominated to committees to draft a bill to allow a London merchant to compound with the Treasury and to consider the state of trade with Newfoundland, the latter committee being ordered on 12 Feb. to prepare an address embodying its conclusion that the French had been allowed to gain too large a share of this trade. Six days later one of the brothers was appointed to a conference with the Lords on their amendments to the bill allowing the import of a cargo of French wine contracted before the ban upon such imports. One of the brothers spoke to Sir Charles Hedges* in early March, concerning the investigation initiated in January into the authorship of the inflammatory High Tory pamphlet The Memorial of the Church of England, and ‘dropped some words’ warning the secretary that the Commons intended to request an update upon the progress of this investigation, although in the event nothing further occurred. Much of the Heyshams’ time in the 1706–7 session was occupied by managing the bill to allow Lancaster to import Irish wool. The corporation, merchants and inhabitants of Lancaster petitioned for such a measure on 19 Dec. and Heysham was nominated the same day to draft this bill. ‘Mr Heysham’ presented the bill two days later but the motion to commit the bill was lost on 20 Jan. 1707, one of the brothers telling in the minority. ‘Mr Heysham’ was nominated, on 17 Jan., to examine abuses of the act to prevent frauds by bankrupts, and on 12 Feb. to draft a bill to this end. The session also saw one of the brothers nominated to investigate piracy in the East and West Indies. Heysham’s growing concern with French attacks upon English merchant vessels became evident in the first Parliament of Great Britain. On 6 Dec., in a committee of the whole concerned with the state of the navy and trade, it was reported that

Sir Gilbert Heathcote proposed a question, only in relation to Jamaica, that the losses of the merchants trading thither arise from the delays of appointing their convoys in due time. That not being seconded in time, Mr Heysham the merchant, who has showed himself before favourable to the Admiralty, proposed another question, that, for the encouragement of trade, besides the ships provided for the grand fleet, there should be a sufficient number provided of cruisers and convoys, which his brother seconded. Those who were for censuring, in the first place, gave way more readily to the passing that question . . . If there were a design to remove or mortify the Admiralty, it had no great support, there being a division among the Whigs which I need not explain, and none of the Tories appeared to encourage any such design; on the contrary, the Heyshams declared in favour of the Admiralty.

Concern for trade was again evident in the appointment of one of the Heysham brothers on 8 Dec. to draft a bill to secure the American trade, and on the 18th another bill for the better provision of convoys which one of them presented five days later. Robert Heysham was classed as a Tory in a list of early 1708. His final act of the session gives the first indication of the Hanoverian loyalties which were to become more evident in the last two Parliaments of Anne’s reign. On 1 Apr. he moved that the Commons thank Prince George ‘for his great care in fitting out the fleet that had defeated the design of the French invasion’, a motion which passed with the support of the Whigs and despite the opposition of some Tories. One of the brothers was appointed to the resulting committee of thanks.8

Returned unopposed for Lancaster in 1708, Heysham was classed as a Tory on an analysis of the 1708 election returns. Concern for the protection of trade was again evident in this session with the nomination of ‘Mr Heysham’ on 26 Nov. to examine the accounts of ships used in convoys and the estimate of the navy debt, and by one of the brothers telling for an amendment to a supply bill to allocate £780,000 towards the payment of seamen’s wages. During this Parliament Heysham became involved in the attempts to establish a regulated company trading to Africa to supersede the Royal African Company. As one of the leading separate traders, Heysham had given evidence to the Board of Trade and Plantations on the Africa trade in early 1708. The vested interest of Heysham and his brother in ending the situation whereby separate traders were required to pay the company a levy on their trade with Africa is indicated by a rumour in March that the brothers had ‘defrauded’ the company of £80,000 of such payments. A ‘Mr Heysham’ was nominated on 17 Mar. to draft a bill to establish a regulated company trading to Africa. During this session ‘Mr Heysham’ also told, on 18 Mar., against the Commons going into a committee of the whole on ways and means. On 17 Nov. 1709 one of the brothers was nominated to draft a bill to prevent the export of grain, while the support for a regulated company trading to Africa seen in the previous session led to the appointment of one of them to committees to draft bills to settle the Africa trade (18 Feb. 1710) and to relieve the creditors of the Royal African Company (20 Feb.). Heysham’s continuing Tory loyalties were demonstrated in this session by his vote against the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell.9

Returned for Lancaster in 1710, Heysham was classed as a Tory in the ‘Hanover list’. The pattern of activity recorded in the Commons Journals in the 1710–11 session increases markedly for one or other of the two brothers, or perhaps both, but it is impossible in most respects to distinguish between them. On 7 Dec. one of the brothers was appointed to the committee investigating the state of the plantations, and on 21 Feb. 1711 ‘Mr Heysham’ spoke against a bill intended to end the ban on importing French wines. This concern for trade was also evident seven days later when ‘Mr Heysham’ told against the removal of drawbacks upon re-exported steel. One of the Heyshams managed an estate bill through the Commons in April. The most notable feature of the brothers’ activity in this session was their concern to expose alleged administrative abuses of the previous Whig ministry, and was shown in the appointment of one or both of them to a string of committees for this purpose. At the end of the session Robert was included among the ‘worthy patriots’ who had detected the mismanagements of the previous ministry, and he was also listed as a ‘Tory patriot’ who had opposed the continuation of the war. Despite this record, however, Robert Heysham’s later opposition to the Tory ministry may have been foreshadowed by one of the brothers telling, on 11 Jan., on the Whig side in the Lymington election case.10

Heysham’s willingness to depart from the party line was also evident early in the 1711–12 session, during the debate upon the motion of censure on Marlborough (John Churchill†). One of the Heyshams appears on the canvassing list of the Earl of Oxford (Robert Harley*), but in the debate of 24 Jan. 1712 Robert was among those who made ‘fine speeches’ in support of the commander-in-chief. This evidence of alienation from the ministry may be confirmed by the appointment of ‘Mr Heysham’ to draft a place bill (8 Feb.). At this stage, however, it seems that Heysham’s actions were motivated by independent Toryism rather than a transfer of loyalties to the Whigs, an interpretation suggested by one of the brothers telling on the Tory side in the division of 3 June on the Boston election case. A great deal of Heysham’s time was occupied by the attempts to settle the Africa trade, particularly in giving evidence on this subject to the Board of Trade and Plantations, and on 31 Mar. one of the brothers was appointed to draft a bill to keep the Africa trade free to all and to establish a regulated trading committee. A ‘Mr Heysham’ also told, on 23 May, against the Commons going into a committee of the whole on the bill to make effectual the agreement between the Royal African Company and its creditors. One of the brothers told on 12 Mar. for an address that the cost of fortifying Stirling Castle be laid before the Commons.11

The Heyshams’ interest in legislation regulating the Africa trade continued in the 1713 session. ‘Mr Heysham’ was appointed on 2 May to draft a bill to open up the trade, and told for its committal ten days later. One of the brothers also told on 8, 10 and 13 July against the House going into a committee of the whole on the bill to regulate the armed forces. He or his brother was appointed on 1 May to draft a place bill, but Heysham’s growing disillusionment with the ministry was most evident during the proceedings on the French commerce bill. Although he had in May presented an address from Lancaster corporation praising the peace, Heysham disapproved of the French commercial treaty, not least because part of his trade to Barbados consisted of Portuguese wines which, if the treaty was confirmed, would have to compete with French wines. In the debate of 14 May on the 8th and 9th articles Heysham was among those who spoke in support of Nicholas Lechmere’s argument that ‘the trade with France would be very prejudicial to our woollen and silk manufactures and commerce with Portugal’. Heysham also spoke against the bill on 18 June. His speech was, however, interrupted when ‘one of the House plucked out a Gazette with an address in it delivered by him, which he assured the House was drawn up and sent down to be subscribed below by the persons he represents, part of which he read, which showed the inconsistency of the address and the speech so much, the gentleman sat down’. Despite his obvious embarrassment Heysham still voted against the bill, and his opposition to the ministry led him to be classed a ‘whimsical’ when the division list was printed. In the closing weeks of the session ‘Mr Heysham’ was appointed to prepare two addresses.12

The extent of Heysham’s alienation from the ministry can be seen by the fact that he stood on the Whig list at the London election of 1713, and during the course of campaigning in London he was reported to have come to blows with the Tory candidate Sir Richard Hoare*. Though defeated at London, Heysham was returned for Lancaster and his opposition to the ministry continued in the new Parliament. A ‘Mr Heysham’ was appointed on 11 Mar. 1714 to draft a place bill. Heysham’s opposition to the ministry was confirmed by his vote on 18 Mar. against the expulsion of Richard Steele, and it seems likely that it was Robert who spoke against the ministry in the debate of 15 Apr. upon the succession. Heysham’s profound concern about the conduct of the Tory ministry, particularly on the succession issue, may also explain a number of tellerships attributed to ‘Mr Heysham’ at the end of the first session of 1714. On 25 June one of the brothers told on the Whig side in the Southwark election case, told in favour of allowing the franchise to a Quaker, and four days later told against the Tory interpretation of the Southwark franchise. The same day saw ‘Mr Heysham’ tell against the election of two Tories (backed by Lord Bolingbroke [Henry St. John II*]) at Harwich, and in favour of two Whigs. Although these tellerships cannot be definitely ascribed to Robert, when taken in alliance with the other evidence of his political behaviour in this session it seems that he was not prepared to support a ministry whose prevarication was perceived by many to be threatening the Protestant succession. Despite such activity Heysham did not neglect his interest in trade. On 8 Apr. ‘Mr Heysham’ was appointed to draft the bill to encourage the tobacco trade, and four days later one of the brothers was nominated to prepare a bill to relieve the London tobacco merchants. Robert or William told on 19 Apr. against an amendment to the bill reducing drawback on Irish tobacco imports, and the trading interests of the Heyshams were further reflected in several nominations to committees, most notably to draft a bill to explain the soap and paper duties (28 Apr.).13

After Queen Anne’s death one of the brothers was appointed on 5 Aug. to draw up the address of congratulation to George I. Again supported by London’s Whigs, Heysham was successful for the capital in 1715, and this, allied to his recent parliamentary behaviour, led the compiler of the Worsley list to class him as a Whig who would often vote with the Tories. Heysham was classed as a Whig in two more lists of the 1715 Parliament, but he remained in opposition throughout this Parliament. When he died on 25 Feb. 1723 he left a personalty of £19,960 net, with £26,000 laid out in land, to his son Robert, and was buried on his estates in Hertfordshire.14

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison


  • 1. Misc. Gen. et Her. n.s. iv. 373.
  • 2. CJ, xii. 509; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Bank of Eng. pprs. 31.1.7, f. 98.
  • 3. Beaven, Aldermen, i. 31, 341.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. CSP Col. 1696–7, p. 286; 1700, pp. 216–17; Cal. Treas. Bks. xiv. 39, 204; G. S. De Krey, Fractured Soc. 139–40; K. G. Davies, R. African Co. 372; D. W. Jones, War and Econ. 330; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 169, 280.
  • 6. I. K. Steele, Pol. of Colonial Policy, 94–97; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 285.
  • 7. CSP Col. 1704–5, p. 291; Jnl. Commrs. of Trade and Plantations, 1704–9, p. 123.
  • 8. Bagot mss at Levens Hall, Heysham to James Grahme*, 11 May 1705; HMC Portland, iv. 289; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 286–7; Addison Letters, 106.
  • 9. Davies, 149–51; Jnl. Commrs. of Trade and Plantations, 1704–9, p. 437; Bank of Eng. Morice mss, Nicholas to Humfrey Morice*, 25 Mar. 1709.
  • 10. NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 5, ff. 138–9.
  • 11. Add. 70331, canvassing list, [1712]; Oldmixon, Hist. Eng. 488; Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 6, f. 96; Jnl. Commrs. of Trade and Plantations, 1709–14, pp. 333, 335, 348.
  • 12. London Gazette, 30 May–2 June 1713; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 1212; Bodl. Ballard 31, f. 106.
  • 13. Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/3/13, Jane to James Lowther*, 27 Oct. 1713; Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 8, ff. 95–96.
  • 14. Bodl. Rawl. D.734, f. 78; Jones, 272; PCC 51 Richmond.