BAKER, William (1705-70), of Winchester St., London and Bayfordbury, Herts.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 5 Nov. 1705, 1st s. of John Baker, draper, of Basinghall St. by his 2nd w. Maria, da. of William Cleeve of Hammersmith, Mdx. m. 19 Jan. 1742, Mary, da. of Jacob Tonson II, publisher, sis. of Richard Tonson, 6s. 1da. suc. fa. 1727; purchased Bayfordbury 1757; kntd. 3 Nov. 1760.
Alderman of London 1739; director, E. I. Co. 1741-5, 1746-50, 1751-3; dep. chairman 1749, 1751-2; chairman 1749-50, 1752-3; dep. gov. Hudson’s Bay Co. 1750-60, gov. 1760- d.
Baker was one of the foremost merchants trading with America; his interests, very considerable in the Carolinas1and New York,2 extended over the whole length of the seaboard. He also made large land purchases in Georgia,3 and at one time, together with Brice Fisher and Nicholas Linwood, held the ‘Hobcaw Barony’ in South Carolina.4 From 1746 onwards he had contracts for victualling and paying troops in Nova Scotia;5 that of March 1756 was for provisioning 12,000 men in America at 6d. per day, i.e., for nearly £110,000 a year; but he held none after March 1760. The circumstances of his dropping out of the East India directorate are not clear: possibly there was a connexion between it and the Brice Fisher affair, in which some of Baker’s closest associates were involved: but while this may explain his not being elected to the directorate after 1755, it does not explain why he left it in 1753, before the matter had come up.6 Baker was consulted by the Treasury on finance but was not one of its chief financiers; though at times he subscribed substantial sums to Government loans: in 1761 nearly £100,000. At his death the senior alderman, Baker was never sheriff or lord mayor; he was perhaps too much of a Pelhamite in Barnard’s days, and too much against Pitt and Beckford in the ’60s. The only Government post for which he is known to have applied was that of postmaster general.7
He was brought into Parliament by Administration in 1747 on the Edgumbe interest at Plympton. His re-election in 1754 was again arranged by the Treasury, Baker paying apparently £1,000, although £1,500 was usual at that general election. In 1761 he paid £2,000.8 All his elections were unopposed.
In Parliament Baker was a steady but not a subservient Government supporter. Although Newcastle attached the utmost importance to the plate bill, on its second reading, 17 Mar. 1756, Baker went away without voting.9 Horace Walpole calls him ‘a man rather busy and confident than able’;10 Rigby, ‘as shrewd a fellow as any in the world’.11 When in Feb.-Mar. 1757 his victualling contract was violently attacked in the House by Charles Townshend, Baker’s defence of it was generally acknowledged to have been clear and convincing, and on 14 Mar. the question of the contract passed without a division, ‘and almost without a negative except the two Mr. Townshends and Alderman Beckford’.12 There seems to have been a rooted dislike between Baker and Beckford. In April 1759 they clashed over East India affairs, Beckford indicting the Company as monopolists, and Baker defending them; and in the early 1760s they repeatedly followed each other in debate on opposite sides, although both were in opposition to the Bute and Grenville Governments. A frequent subject of controversy between them was the militia, to which Baker was hostile.
Baker was repeatedly consulted by Newcastle on American affairs.13 His reasoning on Canada versus Guadaloupe is noted on 14 Oct. 1760 in Newcastle’s ‘Memorandums for the King’: then, as in a paper of 13 Apr. 1761,14 Baker emphasized the value of Canada ‘as a security to our other dominions in America, and as a means of wealth and power to Great Britain’—‘if somewhat must be given up,’ Guadaloupe ‘seems the fittest’.15
In the House Baker was a frequent speaker: between December 1761 and April 1765, Harris notes 26 interventions by him in debate. While he took the Government side against Pitt, Harris had high praise for him: ‘of all the citizens’ no one spoke ‘so well as Sir William Baker’; and on 25 Jan. 1762, when Baker defended the Government against Beckford: ‘a very able speaker’. But a new note enters on 19 Mar. 1762: Baker ‘was acute, and being a good natural logician, is sometimes pleased to ride in the regions of sophistry’; and on 13 Mar. 1763: ‘Baker sophisticated, a task to which he often degrades his very acute parts’. Harris ends by calling him ‘the Hippias or sophist of the House’: but there are no reasonably full and coherent reports of his speeches to prove or disprove that contention.16
On Newcastle’s dismissal Baker went into sharp opposition to the Government. ‘He is a strong thinker and often a very free speaker’, wrote Newcastle to Hardwicke, 16 July 1762,17 ‘and indeed he does not spare the present ministers or the present times.’ Between December 1762 and July 1765 all Baker’s recorded votes and most of his speeches were against Government: on Wilkes, 23 Nov. 1763, he spoke ‘excellently’,18 and acted as teller for the Opposition; on the cider tax; ‘on the monstrous profit’ made by subscribers to the Government loan of 1763;19 on the navy debt, 3 Feb. 1764, he ‘had no regard to hurting public credit’, wrote Harris, ‘if it hurt Administration at the same time’, and Horace Walpole (to Lord Hertford, 6 Feb. 1765): Grenville ‘was driven from entrenchment to entrenchment by Baker and Charles Townshend’.
On 9 Mar. 1764 Grenville opened his budget which contained proposals for taxing America. Baker, who rose immediately after him, according to Harris ‘did not acquit himself with his usual acuteness, nor even with his usual sophistry’. Some of his argument is given in a fragmentary form in Nathaniel Ryder’s notes:20
Agrees perfectly to our right to tax the colonies. Thinks the power of the Crown extends no further over the colonies than it does in England. And yet this power has been exerted as by orders passed here by the King in council which have gone to the plantations as kind of laws.
Stamps, does not dislike that duty in America but would have some regulations in England.
On 22 Mar. the American bill was debated ‘for taxing the commodities of that country’, writes Harris, ‘that it might in some measure support itself. Baker, against the bill, particularly against taxing French indigo’; also for a lower duty on molasses. Grenville defended his proposals. ‘Baker replied—Beckford for the measure.’ Clearly Baker’s objections as yet concerned detail rather than the principle of taxing America. When, however, on 6 Feb. 1765 Grenville brought in the American stamp bill, Baker opposed it, but, writes Harris, ‘had less argument and less specious sophistry than I ever heard from him—rambled (like Beckford) ... and acts the patriot, this rather awkwardly’. Again, when on 29 Mar. the secretary at war brought in the American mutiny bill, ‘Beckford and Baker ... objected to the quartering of men in private houses, and talked much for barracks.’ An opposition to Grenville’s American policy was forming.
Also outside the House, Baker between 1763 and 1765 played a leading part in attempts to organize opposition to the Government. In the City he ‘acted strenuously against the Court’; and Charles Townshend, when sketching plans of action, wrote to Newcastle, 30 Apr. 1764: ‘Sir William Baker should be desired to put the City in motion, both as an example to other counties, and as an attack nearest home.’ Almon reported to Temple, 12 Nov. 1764: Fitzherbert and Baker are agreed ‘that a weekly paper ought to be set up’. And when the Duke of Cumberland told Newcastle, 12 Dec., that since Charles Yorke had left them and Pitt would not work with them, ‘all opposition would be in vain’, Newcastle replied: ‘that opposition there would certainly be from our zealous friends, Sir William Baker, etc.; and that I thought our friends must go with it’. Baker consistently pursued the Opposition line, and was indignant when in May 1764 Newcastle, to please Charles Yorke, recommended George Hay, a Government supporter, to the Archbishop of Canterbury for dean of the arches. ‘I think I have great reason to complain of my old friend Sir William Baker’, wrote Newcastle to Thomas Walpole, 20 July 1764, ‘who is blowing up the party upon the silly point of Dr. Hay. ... If I had done anything liable to objection, Sir William Baker is not the man who should first have sounded the trumpet upon it. I know it proceeds from his long hatred to Charles Yorke.’ And in George Onslow’s letter to Newcastle, 3 June 1765, there is a somewhat cryptic reference to Baker’s ‘way of thinking and publicly talking of you’.21
Baker’s not being too close to Newcastle recommended him to Rockingham, who did not want Newcastle to run the Treasury for him; and in a paper of June 1765,22 dealing with the allocation of offices, Rockingham noted against Baker’s name: ‘Query—if proper to set at the head of the Board of Trade.’ But the idea was not pursued any further. Newcastle attributed a great deal of Rockingham’s behaviour ‘to my old, ungrateful, conceited friend Sir William Baker, who thinks he can entirely govern these young men’;23nevertheless, in a memorandum for Rockingham on who should be consulted on the Stamp Act, its repeal or modification, he himself named Baker.24 Only too successfully: when during the next few weeks Rockingham settled his American policy not in the Cabinet but in ‘a pretty mixed set of company’25 whom he entertained to dinner, on one or two occasions Baker was of it (in these meetings, represented as merely exploratory, repeal was coupled with the Declaratory Act).26When on 18 Dec. Grenville moved an Address to the King for American papers, Baker treated him ‘as the author of all the troubles in America’,27 and spoke again in the crucial debate of 24 Feb. 1766 in favour of repealing the Stamp Act.
Subsequently Baker went into opposition with Rockingham, and in 1767 was of the inner circle consulted on the proposal to take a shilling off the land tax.28 He did not stand again in 1768, and Newcastle arranged with Edgcumbe for Baker’s son to succeed him at Plympton. In the City election of 1768 Baker voted for Ladbroke, Trecothick and Wilkes, but not for Beckford. He died 23 Jan. 1770.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Sir Lewis Namier
- 1. Hawley to Bedford, 6 Nov. 1746, Bedford mss.
- 2. Letter Bk. of John Watts, (Colls. N.Y. Hist. Soc. 1928).
- 3. Bd. Trade Jnl. 29 May 1755; APC, 1766-83, pp. 295-6.
- 4. S.C. Hist. and Gen. Mag. Apr. 1913.
- 5. T27/26, 29/30-33, 52/43, 54/30, 37, 43.
- 6. See FISHER, Brice, and L. S. Sutherland, A London Merchant.
- 7. Baker to Newcastle, 21 Nov. 1758, Add. 32885, f. 478.