WITHERS, Sir William (c.1654-1721), of Fulham, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. c.1654, 2nd s. of William Withers, Fishmonger, of St. Mary-le-Bow, London, by his 1st w. Sarah, da. of George Cornish. m. lic. 24 Feb. 1682, aged 28, Margaret (d. 1711), da. of Thomas Hayes of Chertsey Abbey, Surr. 5s. (2 d.v.p.) 3 da. (2 d.v.p.). Kntd. 20 Oct. 1699.1
Freeman, Fishmongers’ Co. 1680, prime warden 1700; alderman, London 1698, sheriff 1701–2, mayor 1707–8; gov. Irish Soc. 1706–d.
?Commr. taking subscriptions to land bank 1696, building 50 new churches 1711, 1712.
Asst. R. African Co. 1697–8, 1706, sub-gov. 1707–9; dir. New E. I. Co. 1698–1700, (united) E. I. Co. 1709–10.
Pres. Bethlehem and Bridewell Hosp. 1708–d.; gov. St. Thomas’ Hosp. by 1719.2
Withers was born into a well-established London household, his ancestors having been settled there since at least the early 16th century. His father, a linen-draper in Cheapside, was recognized as a staunch defender of the Anglican Church, and supported the surrender of the London charter while serving as a common councilman for Cheap. Withers followed his example in both trade and politics, and such was their similarity of outlook that the early career of the younger Withers is obscured by the activities of his father and namesake. However, the appearance in May 1683 of ‘William Withers jnr.’ on the jury panel for the trial of Thomas Pilkington† and other City Whigs suggests that the future Member was actively involved in the party controversies of Charles II’s reign. Furthermore, in October 1685 he was sworn as a juror for the proceedings against the Whig martyr Henry Cornish. Most significantly, in June 1688 he may have sat on the jury for the celebrated trial of the Seven Bishops.3
For some time after the Revolution it is difficult to distinguish between the actions of Withers and his father. However, it was almost certainly Withers snr. who in December 1690 featured as a prominent supporter of the petition submitted by Tory common councilmen to the House of Commons which detailed the abuses recently perpetrated by the Whig aldermen. The identification of the ‘William Withers’ who in 1696 appeared among the commissioners to receive subscriptions to the land bank is less easy to resolve, for by that time the younger Withers had clearly established a City reputation independent of his father’s. As early as May 1693 he had joined a consortium of merchants to lobby for the foundation of the New Pennsylvania Company, and he soon revealed an interest in other trades, most notably with Northern Europe and Africa. In August 1698 he came to prominence as one of the few Tories to be elected a founding director of the New East India Company, and within a few months was actively promoting its negotiations with the Old Company. His mercantile status led to his election to the aldermanic bench in October 1698, and a year later he was knighted as a member of the City delegation which congratulated the King on his return from the Continent. The following year he was regarded as a likely victor in the City’s shrieval contest, but although recommended as ‘well affected to the present government’, he did not attain office.4
Withers’ candidacy at the London election of January 1701 highlighted the importance of his East India connexions, for in spite of his Tory background he was prepared to stand with the Whigs in the interest of the New Company. He finished fourth in the poll as his new allies carried all the seats, but it is difficult to assess the longer-term significance, if any, of his rapprochement with the Whigs. His activity in the succeeding Parliament revealed little concerning his political outlook, since he failed to make any significant contribution to Commons business, or to appear in any parliamentary list. Moreover, his election to the shrievalty in June 1701 meant that he acted as a returning officer at the City elections of November 1701 and July 1702, and therefore could not stand in either contest.
The City election of May 1705, however, demonstrated that Withers had re-established ties with the City Tories. He performed poorly, finishing bottom of the poll as the Whigs secured a crushing victory. Thereafter, he shared fully in his party’s disappointments, and although praised as ‘a very loyal and honest gentlemen’ in October 1705 when gaining the colonelcy of a City militia regiment, he had lost the post within two years. More encouragingly, in Michaelmas 1706 he finished runner-up in the mayoral election, and a year later took the chair after receiving the unanimous approval of the court of aldermen. As mayor he was in a particularly strong position from which to contest the City by-election of November 1707, which he won by a majority of some 250 votes over his Whig rival Sir John Buckworth. Withers quickly made his mark at Westminster, reporting on 6 Feb. 1708 from the committee on a petition of ropemakers from London and elsewhere.5
Withers’ Tory politics were confirmed by two parliamentary analysts during the course of 1708, and in May of that year he successfully defended his seat for the City in the general election. In the first session of the succeeding Parliament he was an active sponsor of a bill for fire prevention, and acted as a teller on 2 Apr. 1709 to block an additional clause for that measure. He also promoted a bill to invest the London commission of sewers with the powers enjoyed by county authorities. Other predictable interests included bills to ease insolvent debtors, and to establish a regulated African company. More controversially, he was actively involved in the election of High Churchman Dr Henry Sacheverell as chaplain of St. Saviour’s, Southwark. Withers initially backed his own former chaplain for the post, but was subsequently cited as having been ‘very serviceable’ in procuring Sacheverell’s victory.6
In the next session Withers continued to campaign for the High Church interest in the capital, acting as a teller on 16 Feb. 1710 in an unsuccessful attempt to block a Whig motion for leave to introduce a bill to regulate London vestries. In addition, he subsequently voted against the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell. Just as eager to appease commercial opinion in the City, he acted as a teller on 18 Mar. to block the passage of a bill for the construction of a dock at Liverpool, and was named to drafting committees on four trade-related measures. Although his attentiveness to economic matters undoubtedly aided his candidacy at the City election of 1710, religion remained the key issue in that contest. Withers duly benefited from the tide of High Church support stirred by the Sacheverell trial, emerging at the head of the poll, and this triumph was followed by his reappointment as colonel of a City militia regiment. However, when the City lieutenancy was entertained by the Queen in late October, he stormed out before dinner in protest at Anne’s refusal to confer knighthoods on several Tory leaders. Furthermore, Whig control of the aldermanic bench continued to frustrate his party’s plans, and in November he was ready to challenge City electoral practice to ensure that fellow Tory John Cass* became an alderman.7
In the first session of the 1710 Parliament Withers did not neglect party advantage, successfully moving on 12 Dec. 1710 for the introduction of a Members’ qualification bill. Further confirmation of his standing within his party came when he was lauded as one of the ‘worthy patriots’ who in the first session endeavoured to discover the mismanagements of the previous ministry, and he also gained credit as a ‘Tory patriot’ for opposing the continuation of the war. His reputation as a High Churchman was consolidated in the course of that year by appointment to the commission to build 50 new churches in London, and he may possibly be identified as the ‘W. Withers’ who in 1711 published a broadside in defence of Dr Sacheverell. However, he enjoyed little political success outside the House, failing in April 1711 to secure a place on the board of the united East India Company. Moreover, he and his Tory allies were unable to mount a successful challenge to Whig control of the Honourable Artillery Company. Despite these setbacks, he was clearly regarded as an important figure by the ministry, his name appearing on a canvassing list drawn up by Robert Harley*, who may have sought to secure his loyalty with a customs post. Several months earlier a report had erroneously suggested that Withers had been appointed a commissioner of customs, but such promotion continued to elude him.8
Withers again featured in Harley’s calculations during the next session, Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) marking him as a Member to be canvassed, possibly in preparation for the attack on the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†). Withers’ contribution to Commons business principally revolved around City matters, in particular a bill to repeal the Bankruptcy Act. Vested interest prompted him to intervene when the House discussed African commerce, he acting as a teller on 3 June 1712 to block the passage of a bill to establish a new company to regulate that trade. Soon afterwards he promoted a City address to the Queen offering loyal thanks for her promise to communicate the peace terms. In the next session he was concerned with less significant matters, presenting bills to indemnify a bankrupt, and to settle a private estate. In addition, on 20 May 1713 he reported on a petition from the proprietors of the ‘two million adventure’, who had complained of deficiencies in their funding. At the end of the session he gained much publicity as the only City Member to vote on 18 June in favour of the French commerce bill. A few months later his loyalty in that division appeared to have been rewarded when the Post Boy announced his impending appointment to the Board of Trade, but although he received the backing of Lord Treasurer Oxford (Robert Harley*), no appointment followed.9
During the run-up to the City election of October 1713 the London Whigs bitterly attacked Withers for supporting the French commerce bill. However, although the Whig campaign was specifically targeted at embarrassing him, he managed to secure his seat, having informed Swift at the poll that he did ‘not despair of carrying it for himself’. Soon afterwards he clashed with the Whigs in the court of aldermen over a motion to print an anti-papist sermon, opposing its publication on the grounds that it was ‘full of sedition and reflection upon her Majesty and the ministry’. Moreover, shortly before the opening of Parliament he imprisoned three soldiers for attending a Whig parade in celebration of the Queen’s birthday, deeming their actions ‘high treason’.10
Perhaps goaded by the Whig electioneers, Withers actively promoted commercial legislation during the ensuing Parliament, particularly for the regulation of broadcloths. His linen business evidently rendered him an expert in such matters, for he reported on 12 Apr. 1714 from the committee on a merchant petition concerning abuses in that trade, and subsequently managed a bill to amend a recent Act to encourage woollen manufacture. In his capacity as its principal sponsor, he acted as a teller on 21 June to block a motion to postpone debate on the report. The next day, in another act of commercial self-interest, he told against a proposed increase in the duty on linens. With more general benefit in mind, he presented a bill to prevent the covert importation of foreign goods, and on 7 May told in support of a motion for its committal. Although he was immersed in mercantile affairs, his attachment to Tory principles could not be doubted.11
Reaffirming his commitment to the Hanoverian succession, Withers featured in August as one of the City delegation which attended the mayor to request that the London common council meet to address the new King. At the London election of January 1715, he only managed sixth place, a result which effectively ended his parliamentary career. He remained an important figure in City circles, and in 1720 was prepared to loan the government £15,000. He died at his Fulham home on 31 Jan. 1721, and was buried in the local churchyard. Although his monument inaccurately suggests that he was born in around 1651, it praised him as ‘a very diligent, careful and loyal magistrate’. He was also lauded by the governors of the Bethlehem and Bridewell Hospitals, who acknowledged his ‘eminent care and pains’ as their president. His heir, Colonel William, only survived him by a year, and none of his successors sought to emulate his parliamentary career.12
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Perry Gauci
- 1. C. J. Feret, Fulham Old and New, ii. 163–5; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster, 1494; IGI, London; St. Mary-le-Bow (Harl. Soc. Reg. xliv), 36–37, 202, 205.
- 2. Guildhall Lib. ms 5587/1; 5570/6, p. 75; Beaven, Aldermen, ii. 119; K. G. Davies, R. African Co. 390; London Rec. Soc. xxiii. 186; J. Aubrey, Surr. v. 309.
- 3. Feret, ii. 165; J. R. Woodhead, Rulers of London (London and Mdx. Arch. Soc.), 179; Seymour, Survey of London, i. 523–4; HMC Lords, iii. 50, 63, 66; Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 446.
- 4. Rapin, Hist. Eng. ii. 251; CJ, xii. 510; CSP Dom. 1693, p. 162; G. S. De Krey, Fractured Soc. 146; Luttrell, 3–4; Boyer, Wm. III, iii. 410; Post Man, 20–22 June 1700.
- 5. Add. 70075, newsletter 11 Oct. 1705; Luttrell, vi. 186; Boyer, Anne Annals, v. 334, vi. 240.
- 6. G. Holmes, Trial of Sacheverell, 58; BL, Trumbull Alphab. mss 53, Ralph Bridges to Sir William Trumbull*, 25 May 1709.
- 7. Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 915; HMC Portland, ii. 223; Trumbull Alphab. mss 54, Bridges to Trumbull, 13 Nov. 1710.
- 8. SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1020/2, Hon. Sir James Dunbar, 1st Bt.*, to Ld. Grange (James Erskine†), 12 Dec. 1710; W. Withers, General Apology for Lies against Dr Sacheverell by Pretended Answer to Dr Bisset ; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 58(8), p. 73; De Krey, 263; HMC Downshire, i. 891.
- 9. Trumbull Add. mss 136, Bridges to Trumbull, 20 June 1712; Post Boy, 12–15, 15–17 Sept. 1713; Bolingbroke Corresp. iv. 295.
- 10. Trumbull Add. mss 136, Bridges to Trumbull, 23 Oct. 1713; Swift Corresp. ed. Williams, i. 396–7; Huntington Lib. Hastings mss HA44710, ff. 373–4; Boyer, Pol. State, vii. 186.
- 11. Add. 17677 HHH, f. 288.
- 12. Add. 70070, newsletter 14 Aug. 1714; P. G. M. Dickson, Financial Revol. 431; Boyer, Pol. State, xxi. 88; Feret, i. 301, ii. 162.