MEREDITH, Sir William, 3rd Bt. (?1725-90), of Henbury, Cheshire and Pierrepont, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. ?1725, 1st s. of Amos Meredith by Joanna, da. of Thomas Cholmondeley, M.P., of Vale Royal, Cheshire.1 educ. Westminster, Oct. 1738, aged 13; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 24 Mar. 1743, aged 18.2 unm. Sisters of his m. Lord Frederick Campbell, Barlow Trecothick, and Frederick Vane. suc. fa. 1745; gd.-fa. as 3rd Bt. Jan. 1752.
Ld. of Admiralty July 1765-Dec. 1766; P.C. 9 Mar. 1774; comptroller of the Household Mar. 1774-Dec. 1777.
Meredith was returned for Wigan in 1754 on the corporation interest and against Government candidates: a contest was threatened but there was no poll. He was classed in Dupplin’s lists as a Tory, and was included by Admiral Boscawen among the Tories who voted against Newcastle on the Mitchell election, 12 Mar. 1755.3 Indeed, Richard Rigby wrote on 29 Mar. 1755 that Meredith was ‘as determined a Jacobite reckoned as any in the House of Commons’.4 This charge Meredith himself denied in 1761.5
In 1759 Meredith’s opponents at Wigan secured their interest by having their candidate elected mayor.6 At the general election of 1761 Meredith stood at Liverpool against the corporation interest, and was returned after a contest.
After my election [he wrote to Jenkinson on 5 Nov. 1763] the Duke of Newcastle gave the disposal of everything to Sir Ellis Cunliffe, on this express condition, that he should recommend none of my friends.7
Meredith was not sent Newcastle’s whip in October 1761, and in Bute’s list of December 1761 is marked as his follower. He appears in Henry Fox’s list, December 1762, of Members favourable to the peace preliminaries. He supported Grenville’s Administration: there are letters from him to Jenkinson in 1763 about patronage at Liverpool8—‘My situation, you know’, he wrote on 14 Sept., ‘compels [me] to trouble you very often.’
By October 1763 he had consolidated his position there.
My friend was elected mayor [he wrote to Jenkinson on 25 Oct.] and the division among the gentlemen who opposed me so much greater than I expected, especially in the corporation, that no acts of power can be effected now; and the interest of my friends has now some reality and foundation, and I hope all divisions will cease.
He resented Grenville’s refusal to allow him to dispose of local patronage.
Having acted with Administration without a thought for myself [he wrote to Jenkinson on 5 Nov.] against the sense of my constituents ... I own I did hope to have been allowed the same degree of credit as my predecessors did ... especially after Lord Bute had told me ‘I might command (I repeat his words) as much regard from him as was ever shewn to a Member for Liverpool’.
On 15 Nov. 1763 Meredith voted against Grenville’s Administration on the Wilkes case. On 20 Jan. 1764 he moved to hear Wilkes’s complaint of breach of privilege, and on 3 Feb. for evidence concerning Wilkes. He was one of the leading speakers against general warrants, and on 14 Feb. opened the debate in which Grenville’s Administration was almost defeated. Walpole, writing of this period,9 described him as
a convert from Jacobitism; inflexibly serious, and of no clear head; yet practice formed him to a manner of speaking that had weight and was worth attending to by those who had patience for it. He was, I believe, an honest man, though not without personal views, which a little sharpened his scorn of those who had unlike views, and were not equally honest.
He belonged to Wildman’s Club, and was counted by Newcastle, 10 May 1764, as a ‘sure friend’.
Meanwhile he had resumed activities at Wigan, where he now supported the Duke of Portland’s interest.
As to myself [he wrote to Portland on 10 Jan. 1764] ... I am desirous to relinquish all my pretensions to the borough on no other condition than that my steady friends shall be supported. But, added to my labour and assiduity, I will put myself to an equal expense in setting the borough to rights and placing it in better hands.
He now professed to be a party man.
Has your Grace bid adieu to Charles Yorke? [he wrote to Portland on 21 Dec. 1764]. Or have we experience enough to adopt some better system than hanging ourselves on particular men, who have no regard for the party they are bound to but as it is the ladder to their own ambition and interest?10
On 6 Feb. 1765 Meredith spoke against Grenville’s Stamp Act:
The safety of this country consists in this ... that we cannot lay a tax upon others without taxing ourselves. This is not the case in America. We shall tax them in order to ease ourselves. We ought therefore to be extremely delicate in imposing a burden upon others which we not only do not share ourselves but which is to take it far from us.
If we tax America we shall supersede the necessity of their assembling. The clergy convocation ceased when we began to include them in the tax.
How will they pay their debts if the first fruits of their commerce are to be applied to the purpose of maintaining their army?
This proposition [was] agreed to last year that we might have more information given to us. The Government do not want it, but private gentlemen do want it; and till he received this information he shall wish to adjourn this question.
On 15 Feb. he once more opposed the bill, and presented a petition from Virginia against it.11
He became a lord of the Admiralty in the Rockingham Administration—‘I much wish that Sir William Meredith may have his choice of either the Board of Trade or Admiralty’, wrote Rockingham to Newcastle on 11 July.12 Grenville and Sandwich, instigated by Bamber Gascoyne, who cultivated an interest at Liverpool and who represented Meredith’s chances of re-election to be ‘very precarious’, tried unsuccessfully to set up a candidate against him;13 and Meredith wrote to Portland on 24 Aug. 1765:14
I had the honour to find myself supported with the greatest zeal and kindness by my old friends at Liverpool, and strongly taken up by almost every man who opposed me before.
On 4 Mar. 1766 Gascoyne read in the Commons a letter in which Meredith had written to the mayor of Liverpool: ‘I hope in a few days to send you word that Mr. Pitt is at the head of the Administration.’15 He later claimed to have opposed the Declaratory Act, and said he ‘would never have taken the part he did, could he have supposed the ministers who gave up the advantages would have maintained the principle of taxing America’.16
Lord John Cavendish and Mr. [Thomas] Townshend replied that they had been in office with the Right Honourable gentleman ... when the Declaratory Act was passed, and afterwards long continued in intimacy with him but had never heard ... of his objections to the Declaratory Act before this year.
He remained in office under Chatham, and was not present at the meeting on 19 Nov. 1766 when the Rockinghams decided to leave the Administration. ‘I hear ... that Sir William Meredith will not resign positively’, wrote Newcastle to Portland on 24 Nov.,17 ‘and that surprizes me most of all; for I thought him the most likely of any.’ Yet he did resign, and soon began to press for union of the Opposition parties. He sent to Newcastle lists of the division on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, arranged according to presumed party connexions.18 Grenville’s diary for 1 Mar. 1767 contains the entry: ‘The Rockingham party make very strong advances to Mr. Grenville, particularly Sir William Meredith.’19 And Newcastle wrote to Portland on 27 Apr. 176720 that Meredith
differs more with our friend the Marquess about union and coalition than your Grace and I do. He thinks it so necessary that he intends (as he says) to set by George Grenville in the House of Commons to use himself to it.
He was not of the core of the Rockingham group, and was not consulted during the negotiations of July 1767.
He was active on Portland’s behalf at the general election of 1768. Rockingham wrote of his speech on the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768:21
The zeal of Sir William Meredith when he got up to speak and begun a few sentences absolutely alarmed me. He was weak and strained his voice to a degree that I feared his lungs would suffer. He fairly exhausted himself of bodily strength but not before the strength of his arguments had made real impression, and I’m sure the House in general wished him better health. But as it was he had the good luck to be able to leave only little unsaid of what he had intended.
And Walpole wrote that he spoke ‘with more applause than he had ever done’.22 He worked for Booth Grey at Leicester and for Lord John Cavendish at Lancaster. He himself was returned for Liverpool unopposed on a joint interest with Richard Pennant, whom he had supported at the by-election in December 1767.
He spoke and voted against Administration over the Middlesex election in 1769 and 1770, yet tried to prevent his supporters in Liverpool from petitioning against Luttrell’s return: he told them ‘they were continually asking the assistance of ministers and should therefore be cautious of offending them’.23 Towards the end of 1770 he began to drift away from the Rockinghams. Calcraft wrote to Chatham on 14 November:24 ‘I sat next Sir William Meredith, who talks the language I wish. He is impatient to see your Lordship, and adopt your plans.’ He seems at this time to have been working for a settlement of Portland’s lawsuit with Sir James Lowther,25 and on 11 Feb. 1771 introduced a bill to amend the Nullum Tempus Act in Portland’s favour.
Richmond, in the account he gave to Rockingham of the meeting of their friends on 5 Feb. to consider their tactics on the Spanish convention, wrote: ‘I did not ask Sir William Meredith.’26 Meredith voted against the Spanish convention, 13 Feb. 1771; and on 7 Mar. spoke against Dowdeswell’s jury bill, taking the Chathamite line that the bill should be declaratory not enacting. On 27 Mar. 1771 he spoke against committing Brass Crosby to the Tower. Robinson in his first survey on the royal marriage bill classed Meredith as ‘doubtful’, and in the second as ‘contra’. But Walpole, in his journal for 11 Mar. 1772, wrote that Meredith was ‘supposed by the Rockingham party to lean to the court’;27 Burke attacked him for opposing Dowdeswell’s tactics on the royal marriage bill; and on 15 Mar. Richmond wrote to Rockingham:28
I am not sorry for the division where Sir William Meredith and our principal friends took different ways. The oftener we divide against Sir William and his clique the better, and pray let such of our friends as choose to follow his standard, go.
Yet he voted against the bill, and at Wigan continued to work for Portland, to whom he wrote on 1 Feb. 1773:29
Was inclination out of the question I think it a part of my public duty to do all that my weak powers can effect, wherever your Grace’s influence is to be kept up, or can be extended.
And in the division list on the naval captains’ petition, 9 Feb. 1773, which North sent to the King, he is marked ‘contra’. He was a member of Burgoyne’s committee on East India affairs, and was described by Walpole as ‘hot on the pursuit of Clive’: on 10 May he seconded Burgoyne’s resolutions censuring Clive. On 29 May, as one of the Duke of Gloucester’s ‘particular friends’, he was present at the birth of the Duchess’s child.30
On 25 Feb. 1774 he voted for making Grenville’s Election Act permanent, but was classified in the King’s list as ‘friend’; and in March took office as comptroller of the Household. American affairs were becoming critical, and Meredith had to justify Government policy in the light of his attitude in 1766. On 20 Dec. 1774 he ‘imputed all the present troubles to the Declaratory Act asserting the supremacy of Great Britain’, and on 10 Feb. 1775 said ‘it was not taxation but the trade of Great Britain which the Americans now opposed’.31 America is not mentioned in his speeches again until his resignation in December 1777, about the time when the news of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga had reached England.
The next day [wrote Walpole32] meeting Lord Camden in the street, with whom he was not acquainted, he stopped him and told him, but assured him he had resigned before the news of Burgoyne’s disgrace came; yet he was treated by both sides with equal contempt.
On 10 Dec. 1777 he replied in the House to the charge ‘of deserting his principles, and his friends the ministers, in the hour of their dismay’:33
That instead of deserting his principles, he adhered to them ...
That he had never voted for any one measure that tended to create or to support this war.
That at the beginning of this unhappy business, he desired to resign.
That he did not quit the ministers in their hour of dismay, but in their moment of triumph, for he resigned on the notification of the last successful accounts from America.
Henceforth he voted with Opposition but was never received back by the Rockinghams. On 6 Apr. 1778 he moved for the repeal of the Declaratory Act; on 27 May he attacked ministers, who had ‘long harassed and deceived the people’; and on 11 June 1779 moved a motion for peace with America.34
Meredith was the advocate of two causes which cut across party lines: religious latitudinarianism and reform of the criminal law. On 6 Feb. 1772 he presented a petition of the Anglican clergy against subscription to the 39 Articles, which was rejected; and repeated his motion on 23 Feb. 1773 and 5 May 1774.35 Walpole described him as ‘remarkably averse to punishments that reached the lives of criminals’.36 On 27 Nov. 1770 he moved for an inquiry into the state of the criminal law, and his speech of 13 May 1777 against capital punishment for minor offences37 was almost unique in the eighteenth century Parliament: a reasoned plea against an evil which hardly touched the conscience of his day.
In 1779 he sold Henbury for £24,000.38 On 4 Sept. 1780 an address was published to the voters of Liverpool stating that Meredith would stand at the forthcoming general election.39 ‘Nothing but a sickness of the most alarming nature’, it continued, ‘would have prevented an earlier application.’ It was probably issued without his authority, for there is another address, dated from Pierrepont 3 Sept. 1780, which announced his decision not to stand because of illness. He contested Liverpool in 1784 but withdrew before the end of the poll.
He died at Lyons 2 Jan. 1790.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: John Brooke
- 1. Ormerod, Cheshire (1882), iii. 708.
- 2. See also T. A. Walker, Adm. to Peterhouse, 1615-1911, p. 325.
- 3. Add. 32853, f. 260.
- 4. Bedford Corresp. ii. 159.
- 5. HMC Kenyon, 497-8.
- 6. Add. 32987, f. 39.
- 7. Jenkinson Pprs. 1760-6, p. 214.
- 8. Ibid. 189-90, 208-9, 210, 214-16; Add. 38200, ff. 346, 350.
- 9. Mems. Geo. III, i. 279.
- 10. Portland mss.
- 11. Ryder’s ‘Debates’, Harrowby mss; Harris’s ‘Debates’.
- 12. Add. 32967, ff. 315-17.
- 13. Grenville to Gascoyne, 27 July 1765, Grenville letter bk.; Sandwich to Grenville, 14 Aug. 1765, Grenville mss (JM).
- 14. Portland mss.
- 15. HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 108-9; Harris’s ‘Debates’.
- 16. 10 Feb. 1775, Almon, i. 177.
- 17. Add. 32978, f. 52.
- 18. Add. 33002, ff. 470-3.
- 19. Grenville Pprs. iv. 213.
- 20. Add. 32981, f. 146.
- 21. Rockingham to Newcastle, 18 Feb. 1768, Add. 32988, ff. 369-70.
- 22. Mems. iii. 115.
- 23. Meredith to Rockingham, 18 Oct. 1769, Rockingham mss.
- 24. Chatham Corresp. iii. 488.
- 25. Meredith to Portland, 10 Feb. 1771, Portland mss.
- 26. Richmond to Rockingham, 12 Feb. 1771, Rockingham mss.
- 27. Last Jnls. i. 43.
- 28. Rockingham mss.
- 29. Portland mss.
- 30. Last Jnls. i. 227, 230, 371.
- 31. Almon, i. 29, 177.
- 32. Last Jnls. ii. 81.
- 33. Almon, viii. 156.
- 34. Stockdale, viii. 204, 337; Almon, xiii. 350-2.
- 35. For his ideas on religious toleration see Gent. Mag. 1773, pp. 216-17.
- 36. Mems. iii. 208.
- 37. Almon, vii. 175-82. The speech was published as a pamphlet in 1831 by the Soc. for the Diffusion of Knowledge on the Subject of Capital Punishment, L. Radzinowicz, Eng. Criminal Law, i. 476.
- 38. Ormerod, Cheshire, iii. 706.
- 39. Coll. Pprs. Addresses, Songs, etc. printed during contest for Liverpool (1780).