Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burdett, Francis

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BURDETT, Sir FRANCIS (1770–1844), politician, was the third son of Sir Robert Burdett, fourth baronet, and member of an ancient family. He was born on 25 Jan. 1770. After some years at Westminster School he was sent to Oxford, and subsequently undertook a tour through France and Switzerland. During the early days of the French revolution he resided in Paris, where he heard the debates in the National Assembly and attended the meetings of some of the numerous political clubs. In 1793 he returned to England, and in August of that year married Miss Sophia Coutts, daughter of the celebrated banker. Three years later he entered parliament for Boroughbridge in the Newcastle interest. He also joined the Constitutional Association for promoting a Reform in Parliament.

He had not been long in parliament before the ministry of the day found themselves confronted by a vigorous opponent. In May 1797, upon Grey's motion for parliamentary reform, he uttered a vehement indictment against the government and against their arbitrary encroachments upon popular rights. He stigmatised the war against France as a futile attempt to stifle the flame of liberty. Burdett continued this high tone in succeeding sessions, and was speedily recognised by the public as a champion of the liberty of speech. Imputations naturally arose on the part of his opponents that his sole aim was the applause of the mob. But the true cause of his rapid rise in popular estimation was his constant effort to expose the genuine grievances of the day—the increasing weight of taxation in consequence of the war, the continued restraints upon the expression of public opinion, and the abuse of power over those who were offensive to the ministry. He had repeated opportunities of protesting against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and was bold enough on one occasion to suggest that it should be repealed altogether, rather than rendered inoperative by continued suspensions. He resisted the measure for excluding Horne Tooke from the House of Commons. He rendered a great public service by obtaining inquiry into the mismanagement of Coldbath Fields Prison, where suspected persons were usually detained under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Acts. It was shown that the governor had made no distinction between his treatment of these persons and that accorded to convicted felons. An order was issued that Burdett should no longer be permitted to visit any prison in the kingdom, but eventually the authorities gave way and the condition of the unfortunate prisoners was ameliorated.

In 1797 Burdett made the acquaintance of Horne Tooke, and there speedily grew up between them the closest friendship. Alike in philology and in politics Burdett became the pupil of the veteran whig. At the general election of 1802 Burdett was proposed for the county of Middlesex, in opposition to Mr. Mainwaring, chairman of quarter sessions, the magistrate who had the most strenuously resisted inquiry into prison abuses. Burdett was elected by a considerable majority and sat for nearly two years, during which legal proceedings were going on with the object of nullifying the return. At length in 1804 his election was declared void, and a new contest took place between him and Mainwaring's son, who headed the poll by a majority of five. This return was amended in the following year, and Burdett's name substituted for that of Mainwaring; and further amended in February 1806, Burdett being thus finally excluded. This unexampled litigation cost the parties untold sums of money, and Burdett forthwith resolved that he would never again contest a parliamentary constituency.

In 1806, when, upon the death of Fox, Earl Percy, a government candidate, stood for Westminster, Burdett subscribed 1,000l. towards the candidature of Paull for Westminster. Paull was brought forward by the party anxious for an improved tone of morals with reference to parliamentary elections. Paull was defeated, but the party determined that both he and another candidate of their own choice should succeed next time. In the following year another dissolution of parliament gave the opportunity. Burdett was requested to stand, but he adhered to his resolve not to become a candidate at another contested election. This precisely suited the Westminster committee, who were determined to send their man to parliament free of every sort of expense. Meanwhile a misunderstanding arose with Paull, who challenged Burdett to a duel. Both were wounded, and were carried up to London together in Paull's carriage. The committee were compelled to throw Paull overboard, and after a lively contest of fifteen days Burdett was found at the top of the poll, Lord Cochrane being second. The exultation was immense. A public dinner was held, and an anniversary festival instituted for 23 May. A chairing followed, and the popular baronet was borne through the streets upon a triumphal car.

The Westminster election of 1807 was the first triumph of the parliamentary reformers. The expenses proper were under 800l., but this amount was augmented to nearly 1,800l. through the costs attendant on the dinner, the chairing, and several actions at law brought against Burdett by the returning officer and others. All this cast much obloquy upon the committee, but the high reputation of their representatives in parliament more than repaid them for any sacrifices they made. Burdett continued to sit for Westminster for thirty years.

There were now several abortive attempts to raise the great question of reform, in all of which Burdett took a prominent part. He spoke against the practice of corporal punishment in the army, and made an unsuccessful endeavour to get a parliamentary return of ten years' floggings. In 1809 he seconded Wardle's motion for inquiry into the transactions which brought the Duke of York into temporary disgrace. He supported Madocks's inquiry into the alleged parliamentary corruption of ministers, Curwen's Reform Bill, and Whitbread's motion on placemen and pensioners in parliament. On one occasion he was called to order for saying that ‘since the sale of seats in this house was openly avowed, it was no longer to be called the commons' house of parliament’ (Colchester's Diary, ii. 193). An incident at length occurred which seemed to give the government an opportunity of silencing him. A well-known radical orator, John Gale Jones, had been imprisoned by the House of Commons for raising a discussion upon the practice of the house as to the exclusion of strangers. Burdett, moving that Jones be discharged from custody, was supported on a division by only 14 against 153. He thereupon issued to the public a revised edition of his speech. It was first printed in Cobbett's ‘Register,’ and subsequently reprinted as a shilling pamphlet, which likewise had an immense sale. A Mr. Lethbridge was put forward to accuse Burdett of breach of privilege. Much debate was exercised as to what was to be done with him. Extensive research was made into precedent. At length the speaker issued a warrant for his arrest, but Burdett refused to surrender except to superior force. Mr. Speaker Abbot did not know if it were justifiable to break open doors, and suggested consulting the magistrates. Lord Eldon and other legal authorities could give no advice. Lord Redesdale suggested an act of attainder if the culprit still refused to yield. Meanwhile the Westminster mob began to gather. The house was garrisoned by volunteers, and although Sheriff Matthew Wood implored the government to abstain from calling out the military, lifeguards were stationed in the streets. The Westminster committee, led by Francis Place, went to support Burdett, and proposed that the officers of the guards should be arrested in detail by the civil power if they refused to withdraw their troops. At length, on the fourth day of the warrant, a forcible entry was made into Burdett's house, and Burdett was conveyed to the Tower, the town being guarded by many thousands of soldiers.

Burdett remained in the Tower for several weeks, until parliament was prorogued. He brought actions at law against the speaker and the sergeant-at-arms, but did not succeed in obtaining a verdict in his favour. On the day of his quitting the Tower, he quietly departed by water. This proceeding caused him a temporary loss of popularity, as his constituents had prepared a triumphal procession, and were obliged to content themselves with dragging an empty car through the streets to Piccadilly. Mr. Place, who was chief wire-puller to the Westminster committee, never forgave the apparent slight, and did not speak to Burdett again for years.

Burdett was re-elected for Westminster in 1812 and again in 1818, his colleagues being successively Lord Cochrane and Sir Samuel Romilly. In 1819 George Lamb took Romilly's seat, and in 1820 it was filled by Hobhouse, who shared the representation with Burdett until after the passing of the Reform Bill. During this long period Burdett steadily maintained the principles upon which he had entered public life. His motion for a committee on the parliamentary representation, in 1817, although unsuccessful, moved the question a great step forward. In 1820, by a too warm animadversion upon the conduct of the authorities, consequent upon the Peterloo affair, he exposed himself to a government prosecution at the Leicester assizes, which resulted in a conviction, and he was accordingly sentenced to a fine of 2,000l. and imprisonment for three months. In May 1828 the House of Commons carried by a small majority Burdett's resolution affirming the expediency of considering the state of the laws affecting the Roman catholics. When the Reform Bill was at last carried, Burdett sat down as one satisfied with what had been done. The conservative reaction of 1835 found him in conflict with a large section of his constituency, and early in 1837, in deference to their clamour, he resigned his seat, but was immediately re-elected. At the general election, however, which followed the queen's accession, he threw his influence to the side of the conservatives of the day. He represented North Wiltshire thenceforth until his death, on 23 Jan. 1844.

To Burdett is confessedly due the merit of having made public speech again possible in England. He endured personal sacrifices for his opinions. He was not even what would be called a party man, and there were in some sections of aristocratic society persons who kept carefully aloof from him. His dislike of O'Connell's political principles had something to do with his later stand on the side of toryism. He was not a close attendant of the parliamentary sittings, but it was understood among his constituents that he hardly cared for a seat except as connected with matters of reform.

Apart from politics, Burdett devoted much attention, in correspondence with Bentham, to the subject of law reform. Hobhouse had a high opinion of his colleague, and declared that Burdett was the best constitutional lawyer in England (Memoirs of T. Moore, vii. 139). His ample purse was always open to the support of a worthy cause. When Francis Place began the movement which developed into the Birkbeck Mechanics' Institution, a great deal of its early success was due to handsome subscriptions from Burdett and to those which resulted from his example. He gave money freely in support of the reform movement. His favourite recreation was fox-hunting. As he grew in years he presented a perfect type of the English country gentleman; and the generous disposition of his youth remained with him to old age.

Abundant materials for the study of Burdett's career and his influence on public opinion will be found in the manuscript collections of Francis Place and in the newspapers of his day. He had also the distinction of being very well abused by anonymous and other pamphleteers—a certain token of the high value of his services to his countrymen.

[Addit. MSS. 27789, 27823, 27838–42, 27845, 27846, 27850, passim; Tegg's Memoirs, 1804; Memoirs, 1810; English Cyclopædia; Gent. Mag. (March 1844), pp. 314–17; Hansard's Parl. Debates; Cobbett's Register, passim; Random Recollections of the House of Commons, 242; Globe, 23 Jan. 1844; Times, 24 Jan. 1844; The Trial of Sir F. B. at Leicester, 23 March 1810; Authentic Narrative of the Westminster Election, 1819; Correspondence between Mr. Cobbett, Mr. Tipper, and Sir Francis Burdett (1819); Stephens's Life of Horne Tooke, ii. 233, 306; Henry Hunt's Memoirs, vol. ii. passim; Lord Colchester's Diary, i. 403, ii. 150, 178, 186, 193, 241 et seq., iii. 68, 120, 144, 371, 465; Romilly's Memoirs, ii. 306, 308, 315, 319, 320, 340, iii. 192, 360; Memoirs, &c., of Thomas Moore, ii. 158, v. 64, 65, vi. 78, 317, vii. 139; Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors, vii. 436 et seq., viii. 263; Lord Hatherley's Memoirs, i. 7; Life of Lord Lyndhurst, 248, 303; Dr. Parr's Memoirs, i. 393, 431, ii. 32, 200 et seq.; Diary of H. Crabb Robinson, i. 384; Journal of Thomas Raikes, Esq., i. 144, ii. 64, 269, iii. 143, 175, 183, 185, iv. 344, 345; Bentham's Works, iv. 566, x. 104, 460, 471, 491 et seq., 550, 551, 592, xi. 50; The Croker Papers, ii. 211; All the Year Round, xvii. 230–7.]

E. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.42
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
297 ii 13-15 Burdett, Sir Francis: for In 1806 . . . for Westminster read At the general election of 1806
16 for Paull, who read Paull for Westminster. Paull
298 ii 14-15 for In 1820 . . . and shared read In 1819 George Lamb took Romilly's seat and in 1820 it was filled by Hobhouse, who shared