1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Burdett, Sir Francis

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BURDETT, SIR FRANCIS (1770-1844), English politician, was the son of Francis Burdett by his wife Eleanor, daughter of William Jones of Ramsbury manor, Wiltshire, and grandson of Sir Robert Burdett, Bart. Born on the 25th of January 1770, he was educated at Westminster school and Oxford, and afterwards travelled in France and Switzerland. He was in Paris during the earlier days of the French Revolution, a visit which doubtless influenced his political opinions. Returning to England he married in 1793 Sophia, daughter of Thomas Coutts the banker, and this lady brought him a large fortune. In 1796 he became member of parliament for Boroughbridge, having purchased this seat from the representatives of the 4th duke of Newcastle, and in 1797 succeeded his grandfather as fifth baronet. In parliament he soon became prominent as an opponent of Pitt, and as an advocate of popular rights. He denounced the war with France, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, the proposed exclusion of John Horne Tooke from parliament, and quickly became the idol of the people. He was instrumental in securing an inquiry into the condition of Coldbath Fields prison, but as a result of this step he was for a time prevented by the government from visiting any prison in the kingdom. In 1797 he made the acquaintance of Horne Tooke, whose pupil he became, not only in politics, but also in philology. At the general election of 1802 Burdett was a candidate for the county of Middlesex, but his return was declared void in 1804, and in the subsequent contest he was defeated. In 1805 this return was amended in his favour, but as this was again quickly reversed, Burdett, who had spent an immense sum of money over the affair, declared he would not stand for parliament again.

At the general election of 1806 Burdett was a leading supporter of James Paull, the reform candidate for the city of Westminster; but in the following year a misunderstanding led to a duel between Burdett and Paull in which both combatants were wounded. At the general election in 1807 Burdett, in spite of his reluctance, was nominated for Westminster, and amid great enthusiasm was returned at the top of the poll. He took up again the congenial work of attacking abuses and agitating for reform, and in 1810 came sharply into collision with the House of Commons. A radical named John Gale Jones had been committed to prison by the House, a proceeding which was denounced by Burdett, who questioned the power of the House to take this step, and vainly attempted to secure the release of Jones. He then issued a revised edition of his speech on this occasion, and it was published by William Cobbett in the Weekly Register. The House voted this action a breach of privilege, and the speaker issued a warrant for Burdett's arrest. Barring himself in his house, he defied the authorities, while the mob gathered in his defence. At length his house was entered, and under an escort of soldiers he was conveyed to the Tower. Released when parliament was prorogued, he caused his supporters much disappointment by returning to Westminster by water, and so avoiding a demonstration in his honour. He then brought actions against the speaker and the serjeant-at-arms, but the courts upheld the action of the House. In parliament Burdett denounced corporal punishment in the army, and supported all attempts to check corruption, but his principal efforts were directed towards procuring a reform of parliament, and the removal of Roman Catholic disabilities. In 1809 he had proposed a scheme of parliamentary reform, and returning to the subject in 1817 and 1818 he anticipated the Chartist movement by suggesting universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, and annual parliaments; but his motions met with very little support. He succeeded, however, in carrying a resolution in 1825 that the House should consider the laws concerning Roman Catholics. This was followed by a bill embodying his proposals, which passed the Commons but was rejected by the Lords. In 1827 and 1828 he again proposed resolutions on this subject, and saw his proposals become law in 1829. In 1820 Burdett had again come into serious conflict with the government. Having severely censured its action with reference to the "Manchester massacre," he was prosecuted at Leicester assizes, fined £1000, and committed to prison for three months. After the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 the ardour of the veteran reformer was somewhat abated, and a number of his constituents soon took umbrage at his changed attitude. Consequently he resigned his seat early in 1837, but was re-elected. However, at the general election in the same year he forsook Westminster and was elected member for North Wiltshire, which seat he retained, acting in general with the Conservatives, until his death on the 23rd of January 1844. He left a son, Robert, who succeeded to the baronetcy, and five daughters, the youngest of whom became the celebrated Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Impetuous and illogical, Burdett did good work as an advocate of free speech, and an enemy of corruption. He was exceedingly generous, and spent money lavishly in furthering projects of reform.

See[edit]

  • A. Stephens, Life of Horne Tooke (London, 1813).
  • Spencer Walpole, History of England (London, 1878-1886).
  • C. Abbot, Baron Colchester, Diary and Correspondence (London, 1861).
(A. W. H.*)