William Beckford (politician)

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William Beckford
William Beckford 2.jpg
BornDecember 1709
Colony of Jamaica
Died21 June 1770 (1770-06-22) (aged 60)
Other namesAlderman Beckford
EducationWestminster School
Maria Marsh (m. 1756)
Children9, including William
RelativesPeter Beckford (grandfather)
Statue of William Beckford atop the huge monument in his memory, Guildhall, London, by John Francis Moore

William Beckford (baptised 19 December 1709 – 21 June 1770) was a well-known political figure in 18th-century London, who twice held the office of Lord Mayor of London (1762 and 1769). His vast wealth came largely from his plantations in Jamaica and the large numbers of slaves working on these plantations. He was, and is, often referred to as Alderman Beckford to distinguish him from his son William Thomas Beckford, the author and art collector.

Early life[edit]

Beckford was born in the colony of Jamaica, the son of Peter Beckford, Speaker of the House of Assembly there, and the grandson of Colonel Peter Beckford, sometime Governor of the colony. He was sent to England by his family in 1723 to be educated. He studied at Westminster School, and made his career in the City of London.

Domestic life[edit]

In 1744 Beckford bought an estate at Fonthill Gifford, near Salisbury, Wiltshire. He made substantial improvements to the property but it was largely destroyed by fire in 1755. "I have an odd fifty thousand pounds in a drawer: I will build it up again," Beckford promptly declared, and rebuilt it as Fonthill Splendens.[1]

On 8 June 1756, aged 47, he married Maria Marsh, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton. His only child by this marriage was William Thomas Beckford, born at Fonthill Splendens in 1760. Beckford also had eight children born out of wedlock who were left legacies in his will.

From 1751 until his death, his London residence was at 22 Soho Square, which became the centre of his political activities.

Political life[edit]

Engraving of a statue of Beckford

He became an alderman in 1752, a Sheriff of London in 1756 and was then elected Lord Mayor of London first in 1762 and again in 1769. He was returned as Member of Parliament (MP) for the City of London in 1754. As a rich patron, he used his 'interest' in favour of William Pitt the Elder, sponsoring and encouraging his political rise, supporting the Whig cause in general and the West Indies sugar industry (from which his fortune came) in particular.

In September 1758 he wrote to Pitt advising him on the advisability of attacking the French in Martinique:

[Martinique] has but one town of strength (...); all the inhabitants (...) have not victuals to support themselves and numerous slaves for one month, without a foreign supply. The Negroes and stock of the island are worth above four million sterling and the conquest easy (...) For God's sake attempt the capture without delay.[2]

Although some laughed at his faulty Latin, his wealth, social position and power obliged people to respect him. He hosted sumptuous feasts, one of which cost £10,000. On one occasion six dukes, two marquises, twenty-three earls, four Viscounts, and fourteen barons from the House of Lords joined members of the House of Commons in a procession to honour him, followed by one of these banquets. He also drew some popular support due to his promotion of political liberalism, in opposition to the party of the 'King's Friends'.

In March 1770 following the release of John Wilkes, of whom Beckford had been an ardent supporter, Beckford decorated his house with a large banner, which according to Horace Walpole bore the word Liberty written in 3-foot-high (0.91 m) embroidered white letters. A few weeks later, on 23 May, Beckford publicly admonished George III. Breaking contemporary protocol he asked the King to dissolve Parliament and to remove his civil councillors, referring to "our happy constitution as it was established in the Glorious and Necessary Revolution".[3] King George was reportedly more enraged by the breach of protocol than by the nature of the request, yet it attracted the support of the Common Councilmen of London who expressed their gratitude by erecting a monument in the Guildhall, London including a life-size statue of Beckford (pictured), surmounting a stone tablet on which the words Beckford had used to admonish the king are engraved in gold.


  1. ^ Fonthill: History, accessed July 2017
  2. ^ As quoted in The Great War for the Empire: The Culmination, 1760–1763 by Lawrence Henry Gipson p 84
  3. ^ "glorious and necessary" British History Online

External links[edit]

  • Wikisource-logo.svg "Beckford, William" . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1900.
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
George Pitt
Cuthbert Ellison
Member of Parliament for Shaftesbury
With: Cuthbert Ellison
Succeeded by
James Brudenell
Sir Thomas Clavering, Bt
Preceded by
John Jolliffe
William Gerard Hamilton
Member of Parliament for Petersfield
With: William Gerard Hamilton
Succeeded by
William Gerard Hamilton
Sir John Philipps, Bt
Preceded by
Sir John Barnard
Sir William Calvert
Slingsby Bethell
Stephen Theodore Janssen
Member of Parliament for London
With: Sir John Barnard 1754–1761
Slingsby Bethell 1754–1758
Sir Robert Ladbroke 1754–1770
Sir Richard Glyn, Bt 1758–1768
Thomas Harley 1761–1770
Barlow Trecothick 1768–1770
Succeeded by
Sir Robert Ladbroke
Thomas Harley
Barlow Trecothick
Richard Oliver