Beckford, William (1709-1770) (DNB00)

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BECKFORD, WILLIAM (1709–1770), alderman and twice lord mayor of London, was born in Jamaica, where he was baptized on 19 Dec. 1709. His father, the Hon. Peter Beckford, was at the time speaker of the assembly in that colony; his mother, Bathshua, being the daughter of Colonel Julines Herring, also of Jamaica. The Beckfords were descended from a family long established in Gloucestershire. In that county the parish of Beckford still marks the site of the ancient manor of the same name, which, according to Domesday Book, had been terra regis in the time of the Confessor. One noted ancestor. Sir William Beckford, was among the principal adherents of Richard III. As such he loyally followed that monarch to the field of Bosworth, where he was probably killed. After passing through many vicissitudes, the family had its fortunes restored about the middle of the seventeenth century by Peter Beckford, the alderman's great-grandfather, who, quitting England in search of advancement, settled down in Jamaica, and there rose to considerable wealth as a planter. His son, Colonel Peter Beckford, acquired so much distinction among the colonists during the reign of Charles II that he was nominated president of the council, being eventually, under William III, appointed lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief of the island. His immense property having on his death, 3 April 1710, been inherited by his eldest son and namesake (the alderman's father already mentioned), passed on the latter's demise, 23 Sept. 1735, to the fourth Peter Beckford of Jamaica. That eldest son dying unmarried, however, but little more than a year afterwards, the whole inheritance came of right into the possession of his younger brother William.

As a boy of fourteen William Beckford, in 1723, had first arrived in England from Jamaica. Being sent here expressly to be educated, he was placed under the care of the Rev. Robert Freind, then the able headmaster of Westminster School, by whom he was often spoken of afterwards in later life as one of the best scholars that the school had ever had. At Westminster he secured the lasting friendship of Lord Mansfield. Entering public life on the death of his elder brother as an enormously rich West Indian planter, he soon found his onward path made clear before him in many directions. He expanded his operations as a merchant in London. He acquired and adorned a palatial country residence in Wiltshire. He was advanced to the magistracy and entered parliament. According to Nicoll's quarto 'History of the Ironmongers' (p. 453) he was admitted in 1752 to the freedom and livery of that company. According to Noorthouck's quarto 'History of London' (p. 374) he was in that same year on 24 June elected alderman of Billingsgate ward, in succession to Thomas Winterbottom, the then lord mayor, who had died on 4 June 1752. In the following year (1753) Beckford served the office of master of the Ironmongers' company. In the ensuing spring he was returned simultaneously during the course of the general election as M.P. for the city of London and as M.P. for Petersfield, the latter on 19 April, the former on 7 May. Deciding, almost as a matter of course, that he would sit for London, he sent, in munificent evidence of his goodwill, as a solatium to his other constituents, 400l. to pave the streets of Petersfield. In 1755 he was installed in the office of sheriff of the city of London, in association with the other sheriff, Ive Whitbread, the lord mayor of that year being Slingsby Bethell, alderman of Walbrook, presumably an ancestor of Lord Westbury. On 4 April 1761 Beckford was re-elected M.P. for the city of London. Before the close of the following year he became lord mayor. Though he was in a manner entitled by rotation to that office, it was known that a strong party were preparing to oppose him. Beckford, on 28 Oct. 1762, attended the court of aldermen and desired leave to resign his gown as alderman. His resolute course in thus acting had its due effect. His request was postponed until the following day, when (29 Oct. 1762) he was elected lord mayor, eighteen votes being given for him and but one for Alderman Bridger, the rival candidate. This mayoralty was memorable for its luxurious character. Though extremely moderate in his own diet, Beckford's public banquets were of the most sumptuous description. Four of them in particular were long afterwards referred to by gourmets as probably more elaborate than any since the days of Henry VIII. His political savings and doings during this year were remarkable in a different way. John Wilkes's name and his were then and long afterwards intimately associated. Wilkes was at the time a London alderman and M.P. for Aylesbury. On 23 April 1763 No. 45 of the 'North Briton' was published, in which the king was openly charged with uttering falsehood in his royal speech. On the 26th general warrants were issued by Lord Halifax for the apprehension of its authors, printers, and pubishers. On the 30th they were arrested and committed to the Tower. A week later they were (on 6 May), upon their being brought by writ of habeas corpus before Chief Justice Pratt, summarily discharged. But it was only upon the very morrow of the completion of the year of Beckford's mayoralty (15 Nov. 1763) that Wilkes's No. 45 was declared by parliament to be 'a scandalous and seditious libel,' and was ordered as such to be burnt by the common hangman. Beckford throughout that agitated twelvemonth was side by side with Wilkes. Beckford's, not Wilkes's, was the daring dictum then in everybody's mouth — that under the house of Hanover Englishmen for the first time had been able to be free, and for the first time had determined to be free. To him, almost as much as to Wilkes, the opposition looked for their guidance.

Seven years afterwards Beckford was reelected (25 March 1768) by the metropolitan constituency, and before the close of the following year he again became lord mayor. On 29 Sept. 1769, three persons having been returned by the livery of London to the court of aldermen, the nomination at once took place, when the show of hands was declared by the sheriffs to be in favour of two of them. A poll having been then demanded by the rejected candidate, Beckford, at the close of it on 6 Oct., was found to be at its head with 1,967 votes, the second candidate numbering 1,911, and the third 676. On the following day (7 Oct.) the aldermen scratched Beckford for sixteen, his opponent being able to secure no more than six supporters. The popular champion resolutely declined the proffered honour, pleading as his excuse, though he had not yet completed his fifty-ninth year, his age and infirmities. This intimation having been conveyed to the livery was received by them with signal marks of dissatisfaction. On 13 Oct. a great number of them waited upon Beckford and induced him to reconsider his decision. On 8 Nov. he was duly sworn in at the Guildhall. A stormy time was before him. Attended by the aldermen and common councilmen of London, he went from Guildhall to St. James's Palace on 14 March 1770, and there presented to the king a powerfully worded address complaining in the strongest terms of a certain false return made at the Middlesex election. In consequence of his majesty's answer to this address being couched in words of stern reproof, the agitation was intensified. On 23 May 1770 Beckford, accompanied by the aldermen and livery, again sought audience of the king, to whom he presented another address and remonstrance, equally resolute. The sovereign's answer was even more curt and emphatic than the last. Thereupon, in obedience to a sudden impulse, the lord mayor asked permission of his majesty to utter a few words in reply. Accepting the momentary silence which ensued upon this most unexampled request as indicative of assent, Beckford then delivered an impromptu speech which has since become historical, and the words of which have for more than a century past been legible in gold letters on the pedestal of his monument in Guildhall — a speech which when it was being uttered made the king's countenance flush with anger, while the court surrounding him listened to it with something like consternation.

A glance at the Earl of Chatham's correspondence will demonstrate the absurdity of the pretensions long afterwards put forth by Horne Tooke, that he himself wrote that speech, and that Beckford never delivered it. Those pretensions were first heard of by the public at large more than forty years after Beckford's death, when, in 1813, Stephens, in his 'Memoir of Horne Tooke' (i. 157), remarked that Mr. Horne (as he was then called) lately acknowledged to him that it (the speech) was his composition. Gifford, three years afterwards, in a truculent footnote to his edition of Ben Jonson (vi. 481), insisted upon the accuracy of that astounding statement. According to Isaac Reed, these claims were first put forth orally by Tooke in the midst of an informal club-house gossip. Turning now, however, to the 'Chatham Correspondence' (iii. 458-9), it will be seen that immediately after the delivery of Beckford's impromptu address to the king, one of the sheriffs present on the occasion, Mr. Sheriff Townshend, wrote to the Earl of Chatham on that very day, 23 May 1770, 'My lord, I take the liberty of enclosing to your lordship his majesty's answer to our petition. The lord mayor made a reply to the king which greatly disconcerted the court. He (the lord mayor) has promised to recollect what he said, and I fancy the substance will appear in the papers to-morrow.' To this the earl replied on that same day, 23 May, 'I greatly rejoice to hear that my lord mayor asserted the city with weight and spirit, and am full of impatience for the papers to-morrow.' Thereupon, in the 'Public Advertiser' of the morrow, 24 May 1770, the impromptu speech as recollected by the lord mayor duly appeared, with this sentence appended to it: 'The humility and serious firmness with which the Lord Mayor uttered these words filled the whole court with admiration and confusion.' And on the following day Sheriff Townshend, again writing to the Earl of Chatham under date 25 May 1770 (see Correspondence, iii. 460), said: 'The Lord Mayor's Speech in the "Public Advertiser" of yesterday is verbatim, the words "and necessary" being left out before "revolution," and is ordered to be entered on the journals of the Court of Common Council.' Besides being entered thus on the records of the city, the speech was scattered broadcast over all contemporary periodicals. Horace Walpole, writing on 24 May 1770 to Sir Horace Mann, referred (see Letters, v. 238-9) to its having reduced the king to the alternative of either sitting silent, or tucking up his train, jumping from the throne, and taking sanctuary in the royal closet. Lord Chatham in return for that speech was more affectionate than ever to Beckford. It was printed directly after its delivery in the 'Gentleman's Magazine,' xl. 218-9. Half a year later it was deliberately republished as authentic in the 'Annual Register' for 1770, in which may also be found, at p. 111, under date 30 May, an account of the lord mayor, in company with the aldermen, sheriffs, and common councilmen, having again gone from Guildhall to St. James's with an address on the queen's safe delivery, when the lord chamberlain came into the ante-chamber bearing a paper in his hand from which he read these words: 'As your lordship thought fit to speak to his majesty after his answer to the last remonstrance, I am to acquaint your lordship, as it was unusual, his majesty desires that nothing of this kind may happen for the future.' Upon the following day, 31 May 1770, Beckford laid the first stone of Newgate. Exactly three weeks afterwards, at the age of sixty years and six months, he died in London, on 21 June 1770, his fatal illness being the result of a chill caught in hastening up to town from his estate of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire. He was buried at Fonthill on the last day of that month, leaving his only child and namesake [see Beckford, William]], 1759–1844], then a boy of nine, to come into possession, after a long minority, of a million of money and 100,000l. a year. Lord Mayor Beckford's wife, the mother of this boy, was Maria, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton, second surviving son of James, sixth earl of Abercorn. The sum of 1,000l. was set apart by the city of London on the morrow of Beckford's death for the Guildhall monument in his honour, which was unveiled on Midsummer day two years afterwards. Another admirable life-size statue of Beckford in white marble, formerly at Fonthill Abbey, sculptured by More, and the gift of Beckford's son, the author of 'Vathek,' to his father's old city company, stands midway on the staircase of Ironmongers' Hall, in Fenchurch Street.

[Nicoll's History of the Ironmongers' Company, 1866, pp. 453, 467, 491, 590; Orridge's Account of the Citizens of London and their Rulers, from 1060 to 1867, pp. 203, 244-8; Maitland's History of London, continued to 1772 by the Rev. John Entick, 1775, ii. 35, 47, 52, 72, 85, 92, 96-116; Britton's Illustrations of Fonthill Abbey, 1823, ch. iii. pp. 61-8; Noorthouck's History of London, 1783, pp. 417, 462, 468-486; Redding's Memoirs of William Beckford, i. 1-70; Thornbury's Old and New London, i. 407; Gent. Mag. xl. 215-9, 340-1; Annual Register for 1770, 8vo, pp. 111, 199-203, 251,252; Notes and Queries, 1st series, ii. 262; Craik and Macfarlane's Pictorial History of England, 2nd series, iv. 80, 96-8; Massey's History of England under George III, i. 357, 358; Adolphus's History of England, i. 437-40; Horace Walpole's Letters, v.238, 239; Chatham Correspondence, iii. 458-9, 460; Gifford's ed. Ben Jonson, 1816, vi. 481 note; History of Lord North's Administration to the Dissolution of the Thirteenth Parliament of Great Britain, 1781, part i. 12-15; Correspondence of Gray and Mason, 1853, p. 439; Public Advertiser, No. 11067, 24 May 1770; Stephens's Memoirs of John Horne Tooke, 1813, i. 157.]

C. K.