SCAWEN, Sir William (c.1644-1722), of Walbrook, London and Carshalton, Surr.

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



20 Nov. 1693 - 1698
1698 - 1702
1705 - 1710
24 July 1721 - 1722

Family and Education

b. c.1644, 5th s. of Robert Scawen† of Horton, Bucks.; bro. of Sir Thomas Scawen*.  m. Mary (d. 1700), da. of Sir William Maynard, 1st Bt., of Walthamstow, Essex, s.p.; 1 illegit. ch.  Kntd. 29 Oct. 1692.

Offices Held

Asst. N.W. American Trading Co. 1691, Mines Co. 1693; dir. Bank of Eng. 1694–5, 1699–d. (with statutory intervals), dep.-gov. 1695–7, gov. 1697–9; dep.-gov. Antwerp Bank, 1695; commr. enlarging capital stock of Bank of Eng. 1697; dir. New E. I. Co. 1698, manager, united trade 1706, dir. E. I. Co. 1710–12; trustee, receiving loan to Emperor, 1706; trustee, poor Palatines, 1709; commr. taking subscriptions to S. Sea Co. 1711.1


The position which Scawen established for himself as one of the greatest City merchants of his day belied a Cornish ancestry of a very ancient pedigree. It was Sir William’s father who had made a decisive break with the south-west by buying the Buckinghamshire manor of Horton in 1658. Robert Scawen had made his fortune as a lawyer and military administrator, but, as a younger son, William turned to a mercantile career, no doubt encouraged by the family’s proximity to London. Alongside his equally successful brother Thomas, he was sufficiently prominent within City circles, particularly in the Anglo-Dutch linen trade, to take full advantage of the financial opportunities that were to come his way after the Revolution. However, he did not seek advancement within the City corporation, and only secured parliamentary returns outside the capital.

Scawen’s considerable fortune was founded on his success as a major supplier of military clothing to the crown, having first fitted out regiments in the reign of James II. The escalation of European warfare after 1689 saw a dramatic increase in government demand, with one contract for the army in Ireland in October 1690 bringing Scawen £22,000 worth of business. Seeking to expand his business empire, he was quick to establish himself as one of the leading creditors to the crown, joining with (Sir) Joseph Herne* and (Sir) Stephen Evance* to loan the government £30,000 in 1692 for its military expenses in Ireland. Again in tandem with Evance, he acted as a contractor to remit payments to the forces in the Low Countries in 1691–4. He also invested in transatlantic trade and had emerged as one of the leading interlopers in the East India market as early as November 1691.2

Scawen’s government contacts soon earned him the recognition of a knighthood in October 1692 alongside such other major financiers as James Houblon* and William Gore. However, his ambitions did not tend in a parliamentary direction until he stood at a by-election for New Windsor in November 1693, the borough nearest to the family estate at Horton. By that time he had already displayed his powers of persuasion to the House when successfully promoting a bill to resurrect the Greenland trade in January 1693. ‘A good free purse’ was said to have helped his cause at Windsor, but his strong identification with the war effort and the ministry was undoubtedly crucial to securing the seat, and for the rest of his parliamentary career he was to be firmly ensconced within Whig ranks. Although he only joined the 1690–5 Parliament in its penultimate session, Scawen was to make a rapid impact on the House, acting as a teller on three occasions: on 5 Mar. 1694, to reject amendments made by the Lords to the mutiny bill; on 29 Apr. 1695, against a motion to adjourn the Commons; and on 1 May 1695, to secure bail for fellow merchant Sir Thomas Cooke*. In addition he was listed by the Treasury secretary Henry Guy* as a ‘friend’, probably in connexion with the Commons attack on Guy for corruption. Scawen made his principal mark as a leading spokesman on financial matters, figuring prominently within the band of interloping merchants led by Gilbert Heathcote* and Michael Godfrey which campaigned for the establishment of the Bank of England in the spring of 1694. Once their objective had been secured, Scawen acted as a receiver for the first subscription and supplied one of the twelve subscriptions of £10,000 towards the £1,200,000 target. Although he failed to mount a serious challenge to Sir John Houblon in the election for the first governor of the Bank in July, he was immediately chosen as one of the original directors.3

In May 1695, Scawen was named as one of the three deputy-governors for the bank established at Antwerp to facilitate the payment of British troops on the Continent. In July he, together with other major financiers, was granted a personal audience with the King when attending the siege of Namur. When questioned by William as to the reason for his presence on campaign, Scawen purportedly made light of his personal safety, loyally declaring that the safety of his King was of a far greater personal significance. Such sycophancy was geared to court his monarch’s favour, but its effect was no doubt enhanced by the tragedy that befell his travelling companion Michael Godfrey, the eminent merchant banker, who was killed by cannon-fire on the same trip.4

After the fall of Namur, Scawen’s close identification with the war effort worked to secure his re-election at New Windsor in October 1695. In this Parliament, having been recently promoted to deputy-governor of the Bank, he had the added pressure of representing its increasing concern over the funding of the war. On 1 Jan. 1696 he acted as a teller to block any delay on the recoinage issue when the committee of the whole House debated the likelihood of future trade stoppages. Earlier in the day Scawen had been appointed to assist in drafting a supply bill. He was subsequently forecast in January 1696 as likely to oppose the Court over the council of trade, although this rare lapse into opposition might have been triggered by an awareness of the King’s personal distaste for the measure. On 20 Feb. he was chosen as one of the drafting committee on the East India bill, an issue with which he had been closely identified for several years. Scawen had no difficulty in signing the Association in February when fears for the King’s safety had temporarily distracted the Commons from its fiscal agenda, and he maintained an active profile for the rest of the Parliament. On 20 Mar. 1696, he told against a move to set the price of guineas at 25s., and was later listed as voting for 22s. In the next session, he voted on 25 Nov. for the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. He again acted as teller when trying unsuccessfully to block a motion to adjourn all committees on 22 Jan. 1697. Having reported to the House on the Bank’s financial state three months previously, he acted as a teller on 3 Feb. 1697 in support of the motion that a new subscription be raised to maintain it. He was subsequently appointed one of the commissioners to take the second subscription, but these responsibilities were merely a prelude to his election as governor of the Bank on 16 July. He managed to beat Sir John Houblon by only 18 votes, but his victory was well received. In reaction to his election, the Dutch resident described Scawen as ‘un marchand fort riche et fort estimé’, and thought that his personal reputation for ‘la capacité et la probité’ would actually increase confidence in the Bank.5

In spite of this promotion, the Bank was not to monopolize Scawen’s attention. On 19 Jan. 1698, he joined with other leading clothiers to demand that the Treasury meet their arrears for wartime supplies. The following month he told in favour of submitting the issue of Russian trade to the committee of the whole House, and soon emerged as one of the chief contractors for exporting tobacco to that country. Most significantly, he was also cited as one of the ‘great promoters’ of the New East India Company alongside Gilbert Heathcote and Samuel Shepheard I*. When the interlopers had finally achieved their long-awaited parliamentary sanction, Scawen was elected one of the New Company’s first directors in September 1698. In both his mercantile interests and his political pronouncements, Scawen had shown himself to be a solid supporter of the Whig Junto, and had now reached the zenith of his political career.6

Despite such celebrity and riches, Scawen received a nasty shock at the 1698 general election when he failed to hold on to his New Windsor seat in the face of the challenge of Richard Topham. He immediately had recourse to his family’s influence in Cornwall, taking a seat at Grampound, the borough for which his father had sat in 1659 and which his brother Thomas was to represent in the 1708 Parliament. Having had to struggle to secure his place at Westminister, Scawen was caught up in the Country party’s attack on corruption in the House during the new Parliament. His vote against the disbanding bill on 18 Jan. 1699 is unlikely to have endeared him to the Court’s opponents, and his role as a commissioner for the first Bank subscription was the necessary pretext for him to be arraigned by them alongside other notable revenue officials such as Sir Joseph Herne and Sir William Ashurst*. However, ‘so much was said in their favour that the House saw fit to pass over them’, allowing Scawen to retain his seat. Again largely inactive as a legislator, he was named in March 1700 to the drafting committee for the bill to repeal the ban on imported bone-lace, a matter of considerable importance to trade with the Low Countries. He was further distracted at this time by his involvement in abortive negotiations between the Old and New East India Companies, and this issue dominated the rest of the Parliament as well as the ensuing general election.7

Before the polls of January 1701, one observer confidently predicted that Scawen would be chosen for New Windsor again, but he eventually chose the safer option of Grampound, having been paid the ‘compliment’ by its electors of a unanimous vote of support well before the day of the election. The well-orchestrated attack led by Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, upon Whiggish New Company figures in the new Parliament made it an especially wise move on Scawen’s part to have avoided electoral contention. He maintained his support of the Court even though it was now represented by a mixed ministry, being listed as likely to vote in its favour over the ‘Great Mortgage’, but in general he remained inconspicuous in the House.8

At the end of the year, the strength of Scawen’s political position was attested by the luxury afforded to him of deciding whether to sit for Grampound or Truro, both boroughs having returned him. He chose the former, and was identified by Robert Harley* as a Whig. However, he played no major role in the subsequent session, only surfacing as a teller in favour of a motion to refer the petition of the Earl of Athlone to the committee for forfeited Irish lands. Most surprisingly, he did not stand for any seat at the 1702 election. Particularly in the light of his strong showing at the elections of December 1701, this was an odd decision, and must be put down largely to the distraction of his business affairs. The renewal of European warfare could have only intensified the competition for clothing contracts, and the unification of the Old and New East India companies must also have absorbed his energies. The character of his replacement at Grampound, James Craggs I*, a military clothier very much akin to Scawen in business and political outlook, suggests that Scawen stood down voluntarily due to pressures of work.

Scawen’s parliamentary absence did not keep him out of the political headlines. On 21 Mar. 1704, he found himself at the centre of an extremely bitter dispute at Westminster after the Upper House had contested the Commons’ choice of commissioners for a bill to examine the nation’s accounts. Scawen was one of the three nominees put forward by the Lords, and, as an unwitting party to the affair, could only look on as the controversy brought a stormy conclusion to the second session of that Parliament. Of more direct significance to his political future was his continuing investment in Surrey properties at that time, having first purchased an estate at Carshalton in 1696. At the election of 1705, he decided to test his political interest in the county, having enlisted the considerable support of the local Whig grandee Sir Richard Onslow, 3rd Bt.* His first attempt at securing a county seat proved successful, albeit in a closely fought contest against the Tory Edward Harvey*. However, rumours that the ‘most extravagant expense’ had been used ‘to debauch and corrupt votes’ earned Scawen a reputation for electoral malpractice that was later to undermine his political standing within his adopted shire.9

Identified by Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) as a Whig ‘gain’ at the start of the new Parliament, Scawen showed that he had not changed his political views during his absence from the House, rebutting the label of ‘Churchman’ which one observer had bestowed upon him. He backed the Court candidate for the Speakership on 25 Oct. 1705, and in February 1706 supported the ministry once more over the ‘place clause’ in the regency bill. His involvement with the war effort was sustained by his appointment as one of the trustees for raising a £250,000 loan to the Emperor, a scheme which he personally backed to the tune of £4,000. He was again an inactive Member, although in the final session was a predictable nominee to the drafting committee on a bill to secure duties on Indian goods. Along with the rest of his party, he endeavoured to capitalize on the renewed tide of support for the war at the election of 1708. He stood with Onslow for a second time, professing to have been ‘persuaded by a great many gentlemen and freeholders to offer my service to stand again’. Despite such support, he only just managed to repel the challenge by Sir Francis Vincent, 5th Bt.*, in another close contest.10

The 1708 Parliament saw no compromise in Scawen’s Whig principles, for he supported the naturalization of the Palatines in March 1709, and acted as a trustee for the charity established on their behalf. He was also in favour of Sacheverell’s impeachment, and signed a Whiggish address from the City lieutenancy condemning recent High Church violence. However, his most overtly partisan role was reserved for the very end of the Parliament. In June 1710, he was one of four prominent Whig financiers who sought an audience with the Queen in a desperate bid to try to save the ministry in the wake of Sunderland’s dismissal as secretary of state. Hoping that they might shore up Lord Treasurer Godolphin’s (Sidney†) position by warning of the damage his removal might inflict on the nation’s credit, they were bitterly disappointed. The Queen gave an ‘equivocal assurance’ that she would make such ministerial changes as were required by the national interest, and the Tory press vilified the bankers’ attempt to coerce the monarch.11

For Scawen himself, this incident was only the beginning of his political troubles, for the major controversy surrounding the Surrey election of 1710 was to centre on his candidacy. Although in the preceding session he had sponsored a bill to establish a land registry in Surrey, a broad consensus of county gentlemen had formed to promote Onslow alongside Vincent. Onslow’s eventual endorsement of Scawen as his running-mate stirred up a storm of anti-City sentiment in the shire, in the midst of which Onslow was censured for having ‘manifestly put his whole dependence on his City friends and [had] despised the interest of the county gentlemen’ by suffering ‘the City of London to choose the representatives for Surrey’. This wave of ill-feeling was to sweep both Onslow and Scawen out of the Commons, as Vincent and Hon. Heneage Finch II* took full advantage of their opponents’ refusal to compromise over one of the two county seats. Neither Whig politician chose to contest the by-election of June 1711 caused by Finch’s appointment to public office, and although it was reported that Scawen was making interest to stand in 1713, he did not put up when Onslow recovered his former political ascendancy. Scawen’s status within Surrey society could only be rehabilitated with the passing of time, particularly as local observers would not quickly forget how he had secured votes ‘by ways that honest men will always hate’.12

Even out of Parliament, Scawen’s name remained firmly associated with Whiggish corruption. Having been identified by Boyer as a Whig director of the Bank in 1711, he was cited two years later as a party to a venal scandal which had allegedly taken place under the Godolphin regime. However, he could also take great comfort from his City links, for with some £30,000 of Bank stock and £19,200 of East India stock invested in 1709, his mercantile prominence remained undiminished. As a director of both institutions after 1710, he kept in very close contact with City opinion, and even acted as a commissioner for taking subscriptions to the newly established South Sea Company. Yet the drift of his investment was increasingly towards land, and he eventually owned estates in at least seven counties and in Ireland. Carshalton received his greatest attention, and remained his principal residence in his retirement from politics and business.13

Before his death, Scawen was to experience one more brief spell in Parliament when he was elected unopposed for Surrey in July 1721 on the death of Denzil Onslow*. An obvious stop-gap candidate for the Whigs in preparation for the ensuing general election, he was by now in ill-health. He died on ‘18 Oct. 1722 after a long illness’, leaving most of his ‘vast estate’ to his nephew Thomas†, son of his brother Sir Thomas. He was also said to have had an illegitimate child ‘to whom he left but little’. His appointed heir was to emulate his uncle by representing Surrey in the 1727–34 Parliament, and was later considered the richest commoner in England. Sir William’s hopes for the development of Carshalton, for which he left £10,000 in his will, were not to be realized, even though as talented an artist as Leon Alberti was enlisted for the project. The testimony of Sir William’s own lavish monument at Carshalton betrayed his more humble wish to be remembered as ‘a faithful subject . . . zealous for the laws and liberties of his country’.14

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Perry Gauci


  • 1. College of Arms mss K.9, pp. 136–7; Le Neve’s Knights (Harl. Soc. viii.), 441; PCC 41 Penn; CSP Dom. 1690–91, p. 527; 1693, p. 207; 1698, pp. 370–1; Add. 38871 (unfol.), list of E. I. Co. officials.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 354, 985, 1759–60; D. W. Jones, War and Econ. 83; Bodl. Rawl. C.449 passim.
  • 3. Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 603; iii. 342; Luttrell Diary, 357–8; BL, Verney mss mic. 636/47, John Verney* (Ld. Fermanagh) to William Coleman, 22 Nov. 1693; Jnl. Brit. Studies, xvii(2), p. 7; P. G. M. Dickson, Financial Revol. 257–8; Bodl. Carte 79, f. 553.
  • 4. Luttrell, iii. 473, 503; Manning and Bray, Surr. ii. 510.
  • 5. Luttrell, iii. 521; iv. 211, 252; CSP Dom. 1696, p. 449; 1697, p. 269; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1466, James Vernon I* to Portland, 16 July 1697; Add. 17677 RR, ff. 398–9.
  • 6. Cal. Treas. Bks. xiii. 57; Luttrell, iv. 372; Trans. Amer. Phil. Soc. li. 109; Post Boy, 30 July–2 Aug. 1698.
  • 7. Yale Univ. Beinecke Lib. Blathwayt mss, box 19, Vernon to William Blathwayt*, 20 July 1698; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 365; 1699–1700, p. 67; A True Relation of the Negotiations between the Old and New Cos. (1699).
  • 8. EHR, lxxi. 228, 233; Carte 228, f. 345; The English Post, 25–27 Dec. 1700.
  • 9. HMC Rutland, ii. 180; Jones, 330; Manning and Bray, 509–10; Evelyn Diary, v. 595.
  • 10. Daily Courant, 19 Mar. 1706; Luttrell, vi. 24; BL, Evelyn mss, Scawen to John Evelyn, 17 Apr. 1708.
  • 11. Post Boy, 30 June–2 July 1709; Add. 70299, O.S. to Earl of Oxford, 6 July 1713; Luttrell, vi. 594; Wentworth Pprs. 120; Huntington Lib. Q. iii. 230.
  • 12. Devonshire mss at Chatsworth House, Finch-Halifax pprs. box 5, bdle. 13, Henry Weston to Ld. Guernsey (Hon. Heneage Finch I*), 29 July 1710; Surr. RO, Midleton mss 1248/3, ff. 33–34.
  • 13. Boyer, Pol. State, ii. 264; v. 223–4; Dickson, 267; Pittis, Present Parl. 352; Jones, 280–1, 330.
  • 14. The Gen. n.s. iv. 166; Boyer, Pol. State, xxiv. 541–2; Le Neve’s Knights, 441; G. W. J. Gyll, Hist. Wraysbury, 220; PCC 223 Marlborough; Surr. Arch. Colls. xxi. 125–6; Manning and Bray, 517.