Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shipley, William Davies
SHIPLEY, WILLIAM DAVIES (1745–1826), dean of St. Asaph, born 5 Oct. 1745, at Midgeham, Berkshire, was son of Dr. Jonathan Shipley [q. v.], bishop of St. Asaph, and nephew of William Shipley [q. v.] He was educated at Westminster and Winchester successively, and matriculated 21 Dec. 1763, at Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated B.A. in 1769 and M.A. in 1771. Though liberal-minded churchmen, both father and son were great pluralists, and the former immediately after being made bishop of St. Asaph appointed his son vicar of Ysgeifiog, 19 March 1770. He was also made vicar of Wrexham 6 Feb. 1771, sinecure rector of Llangwm 11 April 1772, which he exchanged first for Corwen (1774–82), and subsequently for Llanarmon yn Ial (1782–1826), having meanwhile been also made chancellor of the diocese in 1773 and dean of St. Asaph 27 May 1774, all of which preferments, subject to the two exchanges mentioned, he held until his death. While he was dean the fabric of the cathedral at St. Asaph was repaired, the choir rebuilt (1780), and a reredos erected (1810).
Shipley appears to have early imbibed his father's principles of political freedom. In 1782 William (afterwards Sir William) Jones [q. v.], published a political tract of pronouncedly liberal tone, entitled ‘The Principles of Government, in a Dialogue between a Gentleman and a Farmer.’ Shipley, whose eldest sister had long been engaged to Jones and was married to him in April 1783, brought it to the notice of a county committee for Flint (a branch of one of the reforming associations of the day), who made it the subject of a vote of approbation. He also gave instructions for having it translated into Welsh (though he had not yet read it himself), but on hearing that its contents might be misinterpreted, he resolved to proceed no further in the business. The tory party in the county, led by the sheriff, the Hon. Thomas Fitzmaurice, violently attacked him for his abandoned project at a county meeting on 7 Jan. 1783, whereupon Shipley caused a few copies of the tract to be reprinted at Wrexham, adding a brief preface in his own defence. At the instigation of the sheriff—the treasury having declined to prosecute—Shipley was indicted at the Wrexham great sessions in April 1783 for publishing a seditious libel, and the case came on for hearing on 1 Sept. before Lloyd Kenyon and Daines Barrington. In March 1784 it was removed by certiorari to the king's bench, and then remitted for trial at Shrewsbury, where it was finally heard before Mr. Justice Buller on 6 Aug. 1784. Buller directed that the jury was merely to find the publication and the truth of the innuendoes as laid; whether the words constituted a libel or not was for the court. Erskine, who had appeared for the dean from the first, vigorously resisted this view, and the verdict given was ‘Guilty of publishing, but whether a libel or not the jury do not find.’
In Michaelmas term Erskine, in an eloquent speech, argued for a new trial, which Lord Mansfield refused. Having down to this point fought the case chiefly on the lines of vindicating the rights of juries, Erskine now moved the court for arrest of judgment on the ground that no part of the publication was really criminal, a view which the court accepted, and the dean was at length discharged from the prosecution, which had lasted nearly two years. The news was received with great rejoicings, and bonfires were lit and houses illuminated as the dean proceeded first on a visit to his father at Twyford, near Winchester, and subsequently through Shrewsbury, Wrexham, and Ruthin to his residence near St. Asaph.
The interest which the trial evoked, coupled with the power of Erskine's eloquence, was the means of somewhat tardily inducing the House of Commons to transfer the decision of what is libellous from judge to jury by Fox's Libel Act of 1792 (32 Geo. III, c. 60), a measure which completed the freedom of the press in this country.
Shipley's actions were, however, closely watched by the tory party in Flintshire for many years afterwards, and a vague proposal to recommence proceedings against him is mentioned in November 1796 in a letter addressed to Lord Kenyon by Thomas Pennant, who communicates some spiteful stories of the dean, charging him not only with ‘profligacy,’ ‘impudence,’ and ‘incorrigibility,’ but also with breaches of the peace (Kenyon MSS., quoted in Bye-Gones for 1895–6, pp. 438, 488).
The dean is said (Gent. Mag. vol. xcvi. pt. ii. p. 642) to have written a preface to the edition of his father's works published in 1792, when he took occasion to vindicate the bishop's espousal of the cause of the American colonists in their conflict with the British government, but this preface does not appear in the ordinary copies of the work. He is also said to have assisted his sister in collecting the letters and other literary remains of Sir William Jones (Nichols, Literary Illustrations, iii. 155), which were published in 1799.
Shipley died at his residence, Bodrhyddan, near St. Asaph, on 7 May 1826. He was buried at Rhuddlan, where there is a tablet to his memory, and a life-size statue of him by Ternouth, provided by public subscription in the diocese, at the cost of 600l., was also placed in St. Asaph's Cathedral. He married, 28 April 1777, Penelope Yonge, elder daughter and coheiress of Ellis Yonge of Byrn Iorcyn, near Wrexham (as to this family see Foley, Jesuits, i. 629), and next of kin of Sir John Conway, last baronet of Bodrhyddan, whose maternal great-granddaughter she was (Burke, Extinct Baronetage and Landed Gentry, s.v. ‘Conway’). She died on 5 Nov. 1789, leaving issue five sons and three daughters, the eldest son being Lieutenant-colonel William Shipley (1779–1820), whig M.P. for Flint boroughs from 1807 to 1812 (Taylor, Historic Notices of Flint, pp. 174–176; Williams, Parl. Hist. of Wales, p. 93), whose son, on the death of the dean in 1826, assumed the name of Conway, which is still borne by his descendants, the present owners of Bodrhyddan. The eldest daughter, Penelope, was married to Dr. Pelham Warren [q. v.]; the second, Anna Maria, to Colonel Charles A. Dashwood; and the third, Amelia, was married in April 1809 to Reginald Heber [q. v.] It was while on a visit to his father-in-law that Heber composed, at the old vicarage, Wrexham, his popular hymn ‘From Greenland's icy mountains.’
The dean's third son, Conway Shipley (1782–1808), entered the navy in 1793, and in 1804, when in command of the corvette Hippomenes, captured a French privateer, L'Egyptienne, of much greater tonnage. He was consequently posted, and commanded the Nymphe frigate in the expedition to the Tagus under Sir Charles Cotton [q. v.] He was killed in a cutting-out expedition on the Tagus in April 1808. A monument was erected on the river-bank by his fellow-officers (cf. Gent. Mag. 1808, i. 467, 555).[A full memoir appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. xcvi. pt. ii. pp. 641–3 (cf. pt. i. 645); see also Foster's Alumni Oxon. 2nd ser. p. 1289; Willis's Survey of St. Asaph, 2nd ed. i. 182; D. R. Thomas's Hist. of St. Asaph, pp. 206, 244; P. B. Ironside Bax's Cathedral Church of St. Asaph, pp. 14, 50; A. N. Palmer's Hist. of the Parish Church of Wrexham, pp. 45, 57, 67–70; Life of Reginald Heber, by his widow, i. 254. For a full account of the trial, see Howell's State Trials, xxi. 847–1046, and Gurney's Verbatim Reports of the Arguments at Wrexham, and of the Trial at Shrewsbury; Erskine's Speeches, i. 137–393; Erskine May's Constitutional History, 2nd ed. ii. 112.]