Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Winterbotham, William

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WINTERBOTHAM, WILLIAM (1763–1829), dissenting minister and political prisoner, born in Aldgate, London, on 15 Dec. 1763, was sixth child of John Winterbotham, who had been a soldier in the Pretender's army. He was brought up by his maternal grandparents at Cheltenham. Returning to London in 1774, he got into trouble with his schoolmaster and was apprenticed to a silversmith. In 1784 he started in business for himself, and, having occasion during a severe illness to review the nature of some dissolute habits which he had contracted, prepared himself for the conversion which he underwent two years afterwards when he joined the Calvinist methodists. Next year he began to preach, and in 1789 became a baptist. In December that year he went to assist at How's Lane chapel, Plymouth. Here he preached on 5 and 18 Nov. 1792 the two sermons for which he was prosecuted for sedition. Feeling on the French Revolution was high in Plymouth at the time, and Winterbotham had also been engaged in some local dispute with the corporation. The sermons were political, as their occasion—the gunpowder plot and the revolution—demanded. He enunciated the democratic view of kingly authority, and referred to the political aspects of the prevailing distress. A prosecution was immediately talked of after the first was delivered, and, to put matters right, he preached the second. On 25 and 26 July 1793 he was tried at the Exeter assizes for both sermons, and a jury found him guilty. An anonymous gift of 1,000l. which reached him years afterwards was supposed to be the conscience money of one of the jurymen. On 27 Nov. he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and a fine of 100l. for each sermon. He spent some of his time in the New Prison, Clerkenwell, but the conditions there were so disgusting that he successfully applied to be transferred, and was lodged in the state side of Newgate. While in prison he made the acquaintance of Southey, who frequently visited him. During one of those visits Southey left his drama of ‘William Tell’ in the hands of Winterbotham, requesting him to publish it in aid of the reform movement. Winterbotham, however, considered it utopian and injudicious, and the manuscript remained in his hands for twenty years, when it was stolen, copied, and published, much against Winterbotham's wish. He was released on 27 Nov. 1797, and went back to preach in Plymouth. In 1804 he removed to the neighbourhood of Stroud, Gloucestershire, and in 1808 to Newmarket, where he remained until his death on 31 March 1829.

On the day of his release from Newgate he married Mary Brend of Plymouth, by whom he had four sons and two daughters.

The two seditious sermons were published, London, 1794, and in the same year a report of his trial. From Newgate he wrote:

  1. ‘Historical, Geographical, and Philosophical View of the Chinese Empire,’ London, 1795, 2 pts.
  2. ‘Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the American United States,’ London, 1795, 4 vols.

He also edited an edition of Dr. Gill's ‘Body of Divinity’ and two volumes of selected poetry.

[State Trials, xxii. 823, &c.; Rev. William Winterbotham by Mr. W. W. Winterbotham, printed for private circulation.]

J. R. M.