MADOCKS, William Alexander (1773-1828), of Tan-yr-allt, Caern.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1802 - 1820
1820 - 1826

Family and Education

b. 17 Jan. 1773,1 3rd surv. s. of John Maddocks of Fron Yw, Denb. by Frances, da. of Joseph Whitchurch, London merchant, of Twickenham, Mdx. educ. Charterhouse 1784-9 (expelled); Christ Church, Oxf. 1790-1; L. Inn 1790; I. Temple 1797; fellow, All Souls 1794-1818. m. Mar. 1818, Amelia Sophia,2 da. and coh. of Samuel Hughes, land agent, (who m. the Harris heiress of Tregunter Hall, Brec.), wid. of Roderick Gwynne of Buckland, Brec., 1da. suc. fa. to estate in Denb. 1794.

Offices Held

Dir. Hope Insurance Co. 1811-14.

Chamberlain to Queen Caroline 1820-1.


Madocks was intended by his father, a prosperous Chancery barrister, for the law, but on the latter’s death he devoted part of his inheritance to the purchase of Dolmelynllyn, Merioneth, of which he made a ferme ornée to entertain his friends the ‘chaotics’, admirers of romantic scenery (1796); the rest went to purchase the marshy Penmorfa estate in Caernarvonshire (1798), which became the basis of a remarkable experiment in regional planning over the next 20 years. He embanked it against the sea, reclaimed 1,000 acres for scientific agriculture, built the town of Tremadoc to take the Irish packet trade, linked Caernarvon and Merioneth by road (1809)3 and later by rail, and fostered the development of Portmadoc, where he established a clothing factory in partnership with Gwillym Lloyd Wardle*. Madocks’s projects became ‘the wonder of Wales’ and were much admired by the poet Shelley, but by 1813 he was reported ‘utterly and totally ruined’ and having to prevent his creditors from seizing his estate. He found relief by marrying a widowed heiress.

Madocks, who joined the Whig Club on 8 Nov. 1796, was returned for Boston on the Blue interest at the head of the poll in 1802. He had to contest every election until 1820. He owed his introduction there to a friend of Major John Cartwright, the reformer.4 His interest in fen reclamation and the promotion of the Boston harbour bill (1812), to revive the fortunes of the decayed port, enhanced his popularity. A steward for Burdett’s election for Middlesex in 1804, he was in silent and steady opposition until 1806, being listed ‘Fox’ in March and May 1804, ‘Prince’ in September and ‘Opposition’ in July 1805. Whitbread had proposed him for his select committee on Melville’s case, 25 Apr. 1805. He supported the Grenville ministry, sympathizing with the abolition of the slave trade and Catholic relief, and voted against their successors on Brand’s motion, 9 Apr. 1807. In his election address he deplored the anti-Popery cry. In the ensuing Parliament he acted with the Whig ‘mountain’, voting for inquiry into placemen and pensioners, 7 July 1807, and for peace, 29 Feb. 1808.

In the session of 1809, when his friend Wardle drew attention to himself by his charges against the Duke of York, Madocks, who encouraged Wardle, also made a bid for the limelight. On 14 Feb. he moved for the Stamford writ in an unsuccessful bid to thwart Lord Exeter’s interest there: next day the issue of the writ was superseded. Then on 29 Mar. he gave notice of a motion, for after the holidays, for parliamentary reform. Lord Folkestone, champion of a campaign against abuses, was outraged, but informed Lord Milton next day:5

There is this consolation that he has done it altogether of his own head and as far as I can discover, without consultation with any person whatsoever—and that it is received with general disapprobation by all the enemies of corruption. No man more loud in his condemnation of it than Burdett. The thing is vexatious to the highest degree and even if the motion is never made—or if made not seconded (which I trust in that case would be its fate) the notice is mischievous to the greatest extent. It will alarm people; it will bring a sort of discredit to our cause; and I am afraid will set the hot and foolish heads in the country at work. The only line, I think, for us to pursue is to disclaim everywhere and on every opportunity all connexion with this motion and any approbation of it—and to query the idea (which is in truth highly ridiculous) of Wm. Madocks’s starting such a subject. We must trust too the obscurity of his name as a parliamentary performer for its not producing much effect in the country. Still however I cannot help thinking it a most ill-advised and dangerous step.

Milton agreed, thinking that Madocks would do ‘his friends a great deal more mischief than his enemies’ and hoped that the first opposition to the motion would come ‘from our side’, preferably from Burdett. Lord Althorp, another young Whig to whom Folkestone had conveyed his views, thought from the tenor of Burdett’s and Whitbread’s current speeches at Westminster Hall that, much as they disliked his springing it on them, they must support it—which would do them no good. Althorp’s father, Earl Spencer, thought Burdett’s initial annoyance arose from Madocks’s having too soon ‘let the cat out of the bag’. Thomas Creevey* informed Whitbread, 4 Apr.,

I am afraid poor Madocks left Westminster Hall under the influence of your eloquence in favour of parliamentary reform and came and gave his notice in the House of Commons accordingly. We have all of us abused him most abominably for his rashness in which I have no doubt you cordially join ... this apple of discord, this speculative theory of reforming flung amongst us, is too great a godsend for the friends of corruption to have expected.

He added that Madocks would probably ‘consent to let the matter be at least deferred if not disposed of altogether’.6

Madocks duly gave up his intended motion. After Lord Archibald Hamilton* had on 25 Apr. assailed ministerial trading in seats in Parliament with reference to an allegation against Castlereagh, he was one of six Members who attended the Crown and Anchor reformers’ dinner, 1 May 1809, and seconded their resolutions. He gave notice of a motion for 5 May ‘for a committee to inquire into the conduct of ministers in procuring returns of Members to Parliament’, again ‘without consultation’. On 5 May he sprang up and charged Perceval and Castlereagh with ‘corrupt and criminal practices, in order to procure Members to be elected into this Parliament’, for which he wished them to answer at the bar of the House. These particular charges, as Perceval pointed out, were not to be expected from his notice, which Perceval had taken to be a substitute for his abandoned motion and introductory to the agitation for reform. The Speaker concurred and Madocks would have withdrawn the motion had not Canning insisted on negativing it (there was no division). Madocks was given leave to try again and on 11 May he proceeded more regularly, securing the reading of the House’s resolutions of 10 Dec. 1799 and 25 Apr. 1809 against corruption: it was the system, not the men, he attacked—a flagitious abuse to be rooted out: Hastings, Rye, Cambridge, Queenborough, Westbury, New Romney and Cashel were corrupt boroughs. He made much of Cashel, because Quintin Dick*, the Treasury nominee, had blabbed that he was under Treasury pressure to resign his seat, though Madocks afterwards denied that Dick had given him any encouragement. Lord Grey, who believed this was indeed the case, commented privately on Madocks’s attacks on practices in Treasury boroughs:

These are no more than have been practised for the last hundred years, I believe, by every Treasury, nor would they have been brought forward in other times or by men of liberal spirit. But now a new code of political morality and honour has been adopted and everything seems to be greedily taken up that can tend to throw discredit on the general system of government.

Charles Williams Wynn reported that Madocks performed ‘with less ability than those who rate him lowest could have expected’. Milton and Tierney, for the Whigs, moved amendments to his motion, which was defeated by 310 votes to 85. Ponsonby, the Whig leader and all the Whigs who had held office in 1806, except Romilly, voted with the majority; Tierney and Lord Henry Petty did not vote; the Grenvilles went away; Whitbread and Folkestone and Wilberforce were the spokesmen for the minority. ‘This,’ remarked Robert Saunders Dundas, ‘is rather a damper upon Jacobinism.’ Sturges Bourne was more cynical: ‘Mr Madocks who has stood forth a hero of reform of Parliament obtained his election for Boston by giving ten guineas to one description of voters and five guineas to another set’.7

Madocks, who on 26 May and 12 June joined the critics of Curwen’s mutilated reform bill, seconded Burdett’s motion for parliamentary reform, 15 June 1809; self-consciously moderate this time, he emphasized that he would be satisfied with a reform that gave its due weight in the franchise to property rather than ‘an old wall or twenty five stones in a field’. ‘Ministers have not been able to jockey me’ was his boast, but thereafter he lapsed into ill health and obscurity. He was reported ill in Wales during the Scheldt inquiry, but turned up to vote with opposition on 30 Mar. 1810, which they had first expected, then apparently doubted. He sided with Burdett and Gale Jones on 5 and 16 Apr., but did not support Brand’s motion for parliamentary reform. He acted with opposition during the Regency divisions. On 13 Feb. 1811 he complimented Burdett in the House and on 28 Mar. voted for a motion of Folkestone’s. His only other known vote that session was against the reinstatement of the Duke of York, 6 May. He was present at the meeting of Whigs and radicals to promote co-operation on parliamentary reform, 30 Mar., but it does not appear that he was present, although he was a steward, at the reform dinner on 10 June.8 In 1812 he voted for Morpeth’s Irish motion, 4 Feb., against McMahon’s sinecure, 24 Feb.; for Turton’s motion, 27 Feb.; against the orders in council, 3 Mar.; against McMahon’s appointment as secretary to the Regent, 14 Apr.; for Catholic relief, 24 Apr.; against the sinecure tellerships, 7 May, and for a stronger administration, 21 May.

Madocks retained his seat in 1812 after offering as a champion of civil and religious liberty, an opponent of slavery and of the war. Afterwards it became his practice

to visit Boston at the close of every session, and to deliver, generally in public, an epitome of the proceedings in Parliament; to state what conduct he pursued, to request of the electors the expression of their opinion as to the line of conduct they wished him to pursue in future, and to give them a general insight into the political occurrences since he last met them.9

His attendance was not so regular as in previous parliaments. In 1813 only three minority votes are known, 11, 23 Feb. and 2 Mar., the last for Catholic relief, which he again favoured in 1815 and 1817. He voted against Lord Cochrane’s expulsion, 5 July 1814, and against the aliens bill, 15 July. Next session he opposed the continuation of the militia, 28 Nov. 1814, the corn bill, 3, 10 Mar., and the renewed property tax, 19 Apr. 1815. He voted against the resumption of war with Buonaparte, 28 Apr., 25 May. He opposed the Duke of Cumberland’s marriage grant, 3 July. In the session of 1816 he voted against continental alliances and, after insisting on the reading of the Boston petition against the property tax, 27 Feb., pressed ministers for retrenchment at home. He voted fairly steadily for it thereafter. Both in February and June 1817 he opposed the suspension of habeas corpus: on 28 Feb. he asked for delay so that a Boston petition against it could be sent in. He further opposed indemnification of government for their conduct during the suspension in March 1818. A founder member of the Hampden Club in 1814, he voted for Burdett’s motions for parliamentary reform, 20 May 1817, 1 July 1819; for the repeal of the Septennial Act, 19 May 1818, and for burgh reform, 6 May 1819. He favoured inquiry into the resumption of cash payments by the Bank, 1 May 1818, 2 Feb. 1819, and adding Brougham to the committee, 8 Feb. He was absent ill in the spring of 1819, until 4 May (when he paired against state lotteries). He voted for Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May, though he had not signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the Whigs. He supported Brougham’s motion for inquiry into abuses of charitable foundations, 23 June. In the last session of that Parliament he voted against the address, 24 Nov. 1819, against the seditious meetings bill, 2 Dec., and for its limitation to three years, 6 Dec.

Madocks, hard pushed in 1818, could not afford Boston in 1820. He found another seat, but withdrew to the Continent in 1826. He died at Paris, 29 Sept. 1828, and was buried at P‘re Lachaise, despite legends of a secret return to his haunts in North Wales, where he was popular.10 He was probably the ‘Squire Headlong’ of Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


E. Beazley, Madocks and the Wonder of Wales (1967).

  • 1. NLW mss 10590.
  • 2. She seems to have preferred to call herself Eliza Ann, DWB, 342.
  • 3. By Acts of 47 and 49 Geo. III.
  • 4. Wakes museum, Selborne, Holt White mss 342.
  • 5. Fitzwilliam mss X1605.
  • 6. Berks RO, Pleydell Bouverie mss 025/64, 69; Add. 41854, f. 243; Whitbread mss W1/373/13.
  • 7. Geo. III Corresp. v. 3873; Colchester, ii. 181, 182, 186; Grey mss, Grey to his wife, 10 May; NLI mss, R. S. Dundas to Richmond, 12 May; Waldegrave mss, Whitbread to Grenville, 13 May; NLW mss 10804, C. to H. Williams Wynn, 14 May 1809; Farington, v. 160.
  • 8. E. Davies, Hanes Porthmadog, 121; Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville, ½ past 5 [Mar.]; Morning Chron. 8 Mar. 1810; 7, 11 June 1811.
  • 9. Hist. Boston Election, June 1818 (Noble, Boston 1818), preface.
  • 10. Jones, Y Gestiana, 68; Williams, Eminent Welshmen, 305.