William Beckford (politician)


William Beckford (politician)

William Beckford (19 December 1709 – 21 June 1770) was a well-known political figure in 18th century London, and twice held the office of Lord Mayor of the City of London (1762 and 1769). His vast wealth came from the labour of enslaved Africans on his plantations in Jamaica.

Early life

Beckford was born in Jamaica the grandson of Colonel Peter Beckford. He was sent to England by his family in 1723 to be educated. He studied at Westminster School, and made his career in the City of London.

Domestic life

In 1744 he bought an estate at Fonthill Gifford, near Salisbury, Wiltshire. He made substantial improvements to the property but it was largely destroyed by fire in 1755. "I have an odd fifty thousand pounds in a drawer: I will build it up again," Beckford promptly declared, and rebuilt it as Fonthill Splendens. It was here that his son William Thomas Beckford was born in 1760. From 1751 until his death his London residence was at 22 Soho Square, which became the centre of his political activities.

Political life

He became an alderman in 1752 and Member of Parliament (MP) for the City of London in 1754. As rich patron, he used his 'interest' in favour of William Pitt the Elder, sponsoring and encouraging his political rise (in favour, of course, of the West Indies sugar industry, from which his fortune came). On 8 June 1756, aged 47 he married Maria Hamilton, daughter of Hon. George Hamilton. His only child by this marriage was a son, William Thomas Beckford, who was a successful writer.

Beckford's eight children born out of wedlock are never mentioned (but he left them all legacies in his will).

In September 1758 he wrote to Pitt advising him on the advisability of attacking the French in Martinique:: [Martinique] has but one town of strength (...); all the inhabitants (...) have not victuals to support themselves and numerous slaves for one month, without a foreign supply. The Negroes and stock of the island are worth above four million sterling and the conquest easy (...) For God's sake attempt the capture without delay. [ As quoted in "The Great War for the Empire: The Culmination, 1760-1763" by Lawrence Henry Gipson p 84] .

Although some laughed at his faulty Latin, his wealth, social position and power obliged people to respect him. He hosted sumptuous feasts, one of which cost £10,000. On one occasion six dukes, two marquises, twenty three earls, four Viscounts, and fourteen barons from the House of Lords joined members of the House of Commons in a procession to honour him, followed by one of these banquets.

In March 1770 following the release of John Wilkes, of whom Beckford had been an ardent supporter, Beckford decorated his house with a large banner, which according to Horace Walpole bore the word "Liberty" written in three foot high embroidered white letters. A few weeks later, on 23 May, Beckford publicly admonished George III. Breaking contemporary protocol he asked the King to dissolve Parliament and to remove his civil councillors. King George was reportedly more enraged by the breach of protocol than by the nature of the request, yet it attracted the support of the Common Councilmen of London who expressed their gratitude by erecting a statue of Beckford "(pictured)", mounting it on a block of stone on which the words Beckford had used to admonish the king were engraved in gold.

References


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