Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coward, William (d.1738)
COWARD, WILLIAM (d. 1738), a London merchant, famous for his liberality to dissent, possessed large property, including lands and hereditaments in Jamaica. Little is known of his early life, but towards the close of his days his charitable gifts brought him into notice. At that time he lived in retirement at Walthamstow, a favourite retreat for wealthy London nonconformists, where he purchased a fine house, and spent much time and money in beautifying its gardens. His household arrangements were very strict, the doors being rigidly closed against visitors at eight o'clock in the evening, and mention of his eccentricities is frequently made by the ministers who partook of his hospitality. He established a meeting-house at Walthamstow, and selected Hugh Farmer as its first minister. A course of lectures ‘On the most important Doctrines of the Gospel’ was instituted by him in 1730 in the church of Paved Alley, Lime Street, where twenty-six in all, afterwards published in two volumes, were delivered. A second set was established by him at Little St. Helen's in 1726, and a third course at Bury Street, St. Mary-Axe, in 1733, the last set being printed in 1735. In the spring of 1734 he contemplated founding a college at Walthamstow for the education of children of dissenters for the ministry, and the post of professor of divinity was offered to Doddridge, but the scheme came to nothing, although Coward continued, while alive, to assist the poorer ministers and to aid in the teaching of their children. He died at Walthamstow on 28 April 1738, aged ninety, when his property was valued in the paper at 150,000l., and the bulk was said to have been left in charity. His arbitrary character is described in a letter from the Rev. Hugh Farmer, printed in Doddridge's Correspondence, iii. 251–2, and another of the same divine's correspondents (ib. iii. 315) went so far as to say that the old man had ‘a bee in his bonnet.’ It was this fiery disposition that caused a fierce quarrel between Coward and the hotheaded divine, Thomas Bradbury [q. v.] Coward's will is dated 25 Nov. 1735, and full credit for the disposition of his property may fairly be assigned to the donor. With the exception of his wife, no relatives are mentioned as such; but the similarity of name and the largeness of the bequest would lead us to infer that Mr. William Coward of Saddlers' Hall in Cheapside, to whom was bequeathed the main portion of the ‘lands and hereditaments whatsoever lying in the island of Jamaica,’ and Mary Coward, daughter of this William Coward, to whom 500l. was left, were nearly connected with him. Considerable property was left in trust ‘for the education and training up of young men … between 15 and 22, in order to qualify them for the ministry of the gospel among the protestant dissenters;’ and the four trustees, of whom Dr. Watts and the Rev. Daniel Neal were the best known, were enjoined to take care that the students should be instructed according to ‘the assembly's catechism, and in that method of church discipline which is practised by the congregational churches.’ For many years two educational institutions, one in Wellclose Square, and the other, first at Northampton and then at Daventry, were almost entirely maintained from the income of the trusts; but in 1785 pecuniary necessities brought about the withdrawal of the grant from the former academy, and the latter is now merged in New College, St. John's Wood. The best account of these training colleges is in the official ‘Calendar of the Associated Colleges,’ pp. 41–50. A three-quarter length portrait of Coward is preserved at New College; it was taken when he was about fifty years old, and was left to the Coward trustees by Dr. Newth, an old Coward College student, who had acquired it a few years previously from a collateral descendant of the subject. The trustees also possess a copy of a thin volume, eight pages in all, entitled ‘Thalia triumphans. A congratulatory poem to the worthy William Coward on his happy marriage. By E. Settle, 1722.’ From a line on page 7, the lady's maiden name is ascertained to be Collier, and the marriage can be identified with that of ‘William Coward, of Staples Inn, Middx., Bachr., and Sarah Collier, of St. Bennet Grace Church, London, Spr.,’ which was solemnised at St. Dionis Backchurch on 24 April 1722 (Register printed by Harleian Soc. 1878, p. 60). This was, no doubt, the William Coward of Sadlers' Hall, to whom the property in Jamaica was left.
[Wilson's Dissenting Churches, i. 212, 244, 253, 363, iii. 490; Stoughton's Doddridge, p. 228, &c., Correspondence of Doddridge, iii. 146–8, 231–2; Gent. Mag. 1738, p. 221; [Mrs. Le Breton's] Memories of 70 Years, p. 12; Lysons's Environs, iv. 222; Williams's Life of Belsham, pp. 392–9; Belsham's Theophilus Lindsey, pp. 286–7.]