BECKFORD, William (1709-70), of Fonthill Abbey, nr. Hindon, Wilts.
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Family and Education
bap. 19 Dec. 1709 in Jamaica, 2nd s. of Peter Beckford, sugar planter, Speaker of the Jamaica House of Assembly and comptroller of customs, by Bathshua, da. and coh. of Julines Hering, also of Jamaica. educ. Westminster 1719; Balliol, Oxf. 1725; Leyden Univ. as medical student1 1731; said afterwards to have studied at the Hôpital des Invalides in Paris.2 m. 8 June 1756, Maria, da. of Hon. George Hamilton, 2nd surv. s. of James, 6th Earl of Abercorn [S], wid. of Francis Marsh, 1 surv. s., 6 illegit. s. and 2da. recognized in his will. suc. bro. 1737.
Ironmongers’ Co. 1752-70, master 1753; alderman of London 1752, sheriff 1755-6, ld. mayor 1762-3 and 1769-70.
Beckford, who had settled in England after his father’s death in 1735, was a prominent member of the West India interest in London in 1737, when the death of his elder brother left him heir to the family estates in Jamaica,3 where he spent some years settling his affairs. After accompanying the governor, Edward Trelawny, on the abortive expedition to Panama in 1742,4 he returned to England in 1744,5 buying the large estate of Fonthill in 1745, with a view to entering politics. In 1742 he had written from Jamaica: ‘I have always had a very good opinion of Mr. Pulteney and the country party, but I think they have of late outdone their usual outdoings’.6 Before the 1747 election he sent down to Penryn ‘a great blunder-headed fellow’, who ‘broke and destroyed’ Thomas Pitt’s ‘scheme’ there for the Prince of Wales.7 At the same time he ‘seemed inclined to enter the lists’ at Shaftesbury, near Fonthill, obliging Cuthbert Ellison ‘to take such measures as prevented his further engaging’.8 Six months later he was returned as a Tory at a contested by-election for Shaftesbury, with the support of the 4th Earl of Shaftesbury. In his first recorded speech, in February 1748, he opposed Pelham’s proposed 5% poundage duty on all goods and merchandise, arguing on his own special interest that the extra rate would have to be borne by the West India planters and suggesting instead a 50% reduction on salaries above £100 of all placemen, pensioners and beneficed clergymen.9 On the death of the Prince of Wales he and Lord Shaftesbury consulted Bubb Dodington as to their future line of conduct, with special reference to a scheme for a ‘union between the independent Whigs and Tories’; and in a ‘long bad speech’ he opposed the third reading of the ensuing Regency bill on 20 May 1751.10 In the next session he spoke against the Government on the army, 27 Nov. 1751, saying that he wished it had committed outrages in order to have the nation sensible of the dangers from it; on the subsidy treaty with Saxony, 22 Jan. 1752; on a Tory motion against subsidy treaties in peace time, 29 Jan.; on Sir John Barnard’s scheme for discharging the national debt, 21 Feb.; and on the bill for purchasing forfeited estates in Scotland, 28 Feb.11 On 7 Mar. he spoke at length against a bill prohibiting insurance of foreign ships, which, he considered, was conceived in a spirit of Emden delenda est and solely designed to protect the monopoly of the East India Company. His behaviour induced Pelham to write in August 1752:
I wish to God we could get to a certain knowledge whether our West Indian merchants dont as often complain when they are in the wrong as in the right. Could Mr. Alderman Beckford be caught in illicit trade, it would be good, at least when Government is strong.12
On a vote of supply for Nova Scotia, 19 Feb. 1753, Beckford
spoke strongly in behalf of the colony, and for attending to the West Indies, where all our wars must begin and end; that till we attended to our navy, we had done nothing in the last war; how preferable this to flinging out money into the gulf of Germany!
To which Pelham retorted ‘that if he would praise oftener where it was deserved, his reproofs would be more regarded’.13 On 8 Mar. 1753 he opposed proposals to increase the number of whites in Jamaica. In May 1753 the French ambassador reported that he spoke in support of the city of London’s petition against the naturalization of the Jews
avec vivacité et representa entr’autres qu’il étoit surpris qu’un ministre [Pelham] parlât comme il avoit fait sur la religion, que ce n’étoit que sur le maintien de la pureté de cette même religion qu’il tournoit en ridicule que la révolution étoit fondée ... que si dans les tems on n’y eut pas eu plus d’égard qu’on n’en temoignoit aujourd’hui, il auroit été inutile de chasser le Roi Jacques et de former un établissement qui avoit tant coûté à la nation et occasioné le fardeau de taxes et de dettes sur lesquels elle gemissoit.14
In the same month he objected to Lord Hardwicke’s marriage bill, calling it a bill for the ruin of the fair sex in that it provided yet another pretext for a man not to fulfil a promise to marry, and asking why the royal family should be exempt. He spoke in favour of Sir John Barnard’s motion, December 1753, for repealing the acts prohibiting the wearing and importation of French cambrics and lawn; and in February 1754 he opposed the application of the Mutiny Act to the East Indies on the ground that it was a new and unnecessary extension of martial law. In 1753 he and the Duke of Bedford financed an anti-ministerial paper, The Protester.15 A new chapter of his life opened in 1754, when he was returned for London, which he continued to represent till his death, 21 June 1770.
Ref Volumes: 1715-1754
Author: R. S. Lea
- 1. R. M. Howard, Recs. and Letters of Longs of Jamaica, i. 109.
- 2. London Chron. 23-26 June 1770.
- 3. See list of landowners in Jamaica 1754, CO 142/31 and Add. 12436.
- 4. Beckford to Jas. Knight, 30 Apr. 1742, Add. 12431, f. 124.
- 5. APC Col. 1720-45, p. 786.
- 6. See note 4 above.
- 7. HMC Fortescue, i. 119.
- 8. E. Hughes, N. Country Life in 18th Cent. 287.
- 9. Coxe, Pelham, i. 384.
- 10. Dodington Diary, 99-101; Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 153-6.
- 11. Mems. Geo. II, i. 213, 243, 254-5, 257.
- 12. Pelham to Claudius Amyand, 30 Aug. 1752, Claudius Amyand Pprs. penes Sir William Cornewall.
- 13. Mems. Geo. II, i. 307.
- 14. AECP Angl. 436, ff. 10-15, 209-11.
- 15. Mems. Geo. II, i. 345.