BAKER, William (1743-1824), of Bayfordbury, Herts.
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Family and Education
b. 3 Oct. 1743, 1st s. of Sir William Baker† of Bayfordbury by Mary, da. and h. of Jacob Tonson, publisher, of the Strand, Westminster. educ. Twickenham to 1752; Eton 1752-61; Clare, Camb. 1761; I. Temple 1761, called 1775; tour of Holland 1764. m. (1) 23 May 1771, Juliana (d.23 Apr. 1772), da. of Thomas Penn of Stoke Park, Bucks., 1da.; (2) 7 Oct. 1775, Sophia, da. of John Conyers† of Copt Hall, Essex, 9s. 6da. suc. fa. 1770; his four yr. bros. in turn 1780-1804.
Sheriff, London and Mdx. 1770-1.
Bencher, I. Temple 1808, reader 1818.
Officer, Herts. yeomanry until 1810.
Baker, defeated at Hertford in 1784, joined the Whig Club as a founder member that year, a few months after being admitted to Brooks’s Club. He may have looked out for a seat before the election of 1790, but he did not find one and he was again defeated at Hertford. Nothing daunted, he stood for the county and after a four-day canvass defeated the ministerial candidate Hale, exposing him as a stooge of Lords Salisbury and Grimston. His friend Edmund Burke, who considered Baker’s absence from Parliament as ‘an evil’, wrote (25 June):
I met you in your state militant in pulvere et in sole; let me now congratulate you on your state triumphant, which has been so well earned by your virtues, talents, and exertions. Hertfordshire has done itself infinite honour: it will redeem Hampshire and London.1
As a Member, Baker was ‘conscientious ... active and attentive’.2 As a speaker, he was handicapped by ‘a petulancy ... in his manner, that is apt to tire’,3 if not also by his readiness to take part in any ‘desultory conversation’ that arose in the House. On 16 Dec. 1790 he was a critic of Pitt’s proposals for supply. Defeated in the ballot for the revenue committee, he joined opposition on the Oczakov question, 12 Apr. 1791, and three days later Fox made way for him to move an objection to the grant of supply until ministers had justified their armament against Russia.4 The motion was defeated by 162 votes to 154. On 6 May he called Burke to order during the momentous debate on the Quebec bill. He was listed a supporter of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland. He was a critic of the provision made for the royal dukes, 20 May 1791, 8 Mar. 1792.
Baker became a member of the Friends of the People and defended their aim of parliamentary reform in the House, 30 Apr. 1792, acting as chairman of their committee to promote it, 5 May. Two days before, he had objected in debate to the Westminster police bill because it added to crown patronage. On 25 May he described the royal proclamation against sedition as unnecessary, but thought it might do some good: a temperate reform of Parliament would curb disaffection. Then on 4 June, he and four other prominent Friends of the People resigned because of the admission of Major John Cartwright to their counsels. The associators were said to be ‘particularly enraged against Baker, who they say has always been in their cabinet, and to conciliate whom they have moderated all their late advertisements’. His silence prevented a fracas.5 Nevertheless, he answered his critics at a county meeting, of which he wrote to William Windham*:
As with you, so here, those only feel a disposition, for it amounts to little more, to complain of my conduct whose views on political matters, especially in matters of reform, reach far beyond the ideas which any reasonable man can be justified in adopting.6
Although he was horrified at the excesses of the French revolution, Baker did not at first part company with Fox: he voted with him against the address, 13 Dec. 1792, supported Sheridan’s amendment to the aliens bill, 31 Dec., and voted against war with France, 18 Feb. and 17 June 1793. A bid to add him to the committee on commercial credit was defeated, 26 Apr., and he voted for parliamentary reform on Grey’s motion, 7 May 1793. But in his speeches he was more conciliatory to ministers: for instance, he was a critic of the managers of Warren Hastings’s trial and was placed on the select committee to review it, 28 May 1793. The Duke of Portland had queried whether Baker was a political follower of his in December 1792 and, although he was on Windham’s provisional list of recruits for his ‘third party’ and thought highly of him, he was not recruited in February 1793. In the session of 1794 he supported opposition on the transportation of the radical Palmer, 24 Feb., on peace negotiations, 6 Mar., on the call for indemnification of the employment of foreign troops, 14 Mar., on the militia augmentation bill and Lafayette’s plight, 17 Mar., on voluntary contributions to the war effort, 28 Mar., on the taxation of placemen and pensioners, 8 Apr., on the enlistment of French émigrés, 11, 16 Apr., and against the subsidy to Prussia, 2 May. He opposed the bill to enable contractors to sit in Parliament, 12 May. But on 17 May he supported the conspiracy bill, regretting ‘his being under the necessity of differing upon the present occasion from those with whom, upon other occasions, he felt it his happiness to coincide’.
The ensuing junction of Portland with government weaned Baker from the Foxites and the only issue on which he clashed with ministers before the dissolution was the Prince of Wales’s debts, June 1795. He was now ‘the Duke of Portland’s man’, supporting his efforts to curb sedition, and, after carrying a loyal address from the county, secured the adoption of the bill for the King’s safety for life, instead of for three years, 30 Nov. 1795, speaking ‘with great ability and effect’. He was listed ‘pro’ by the Treasury and there were rumours of an Irish peerage for him—quite unfounded.7
Baker survived a contest directed against him by an embittered radical in 1796. He showed his independence by voting for a committee of inquiry into the Bank stoppage, 1 Mar. 1797, and into the French landing in Ireland, 3 Mar.; and joined opposition on the motions for adding Fox to the public accounts committee and for public economy, 13 Mar. He was himself a member of the former committee, reporting to it in the next two sessions on the tax office and on the civil government of Scotland and thereafter taking an interest in public accounting.8 On 9 May 1797 he brushed with Fox in the debate on the loyalty of the armed forces: he deprecated extraordinary measures after the naval mutiny, being convinced of the soundness of the ‘generalty’ of the forces, 2 June. He remained favourable to parliamentary reform on Grey’s motion, 26 May. He voted for Pitt’s assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798, after proposing several amendments the week before. On 22 Feb. he moved for information to refute enemy allegations of mistreatment of prisoners of war. He proposed doubling the supply for the war, 13 June. Next day he secured the exclusion of strangers from the debate on Ireland. He corresponded with Pitt and Dundas on militia matters.9 He was critical of the income tax, 30 Dec. 1798 (and again 17 Apr. 1800). Irked by Fox’s secession, he supported Tierney’s motion for a call of the House, 22 Jan. 1800. On 11 Dec. he denied abuses of the suspension of habeas corpus, drawing on his experience as a magistrate. He joined opposition in censure of the Ferrol expedition, 19 Feb. 1801. He was at first of opinion that Addington’s ministry ‘could not last a fortnight’;10 but he was acrimonious towards Fox in debate, 10 Mar., opposed the lifting of the suspension of habeas corpus, 14 Apr., 8 June, and welcomed the peace preliminaries, 4 Nov., placing ‘the most perfect reliance in the honour and integrity’ of the ministry. He nevertheless believed that there could be no peace without defence precautions; on 3 Mar. 1802 he complained that the peace was already out of date; on 11 May he found the treaty of Amiens too generous to France; and on 14 May he joined Windham and the Grenvillites in opposing it. He had been teller for the vote of thanks to Pitt for his wartime services a week before.
Baker’s conduct lost him his seat in the election of 1802, when he remonstrated against a ‘most preposterous coalition’ of aristocrats and Jacobins to oust him. He had no intention of sitting for a ‘rotten borough’ and despised the ministry. He obtained his revenge in 1805 when, on a vacancy, he regained the seat after a contest. The resumption of hostilities with France had, he felt, vindicated him.11 Pitt, back in office, gave him his blessing. He took his seat on 16 Feb. 1805. Yet at this juncture he found himself unable to support the ministry. He voted with opposition for the continuation of the naval commission of inquiry, 1 Mar., and for the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 6 Mar. He was in the majority censuring Melville’s conduct while at the Admiralty, 8 Apr., and joined the deputation which went to St. James’s, 11 Apr. On 25 Apr. Whitbread proposed him first for a select committee of inquiry on the subject, superseded by a ballot. On 30 Apr. Whitbread proposed Baker, instead of Castlereagh, for the committee on the 11th naval report, but the motion was defeated by 219 votes to 86. On 12 June Baker was in the majority for criminal prosecution of Melville. Not surprisingly, he was listed a ‘doubtful’ supporter of the government in July. Nevertheless, he sincerely lamented the death of ‘our great minister’, 24 Jan. 1806, and he was hostile to the Foxites in the ensuing Grenville ministry. He voted against Ellenborough’s cabinet place, 3 Mar. 1806, but for the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. On 6 June he stated that he ‘did not think ministers deserving of implicit confidence’. After ‘above thirty years in Parliament, during which period, he had voted sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other’, he based his suspicions of some of the present ministers on the experience of the last 12 years. He objected to the election treating bill as impracticable, 9 June, and voted against the American intercourse bill, 17 June.
The ministry would have liked to keep Baker out of the next Parliament, but his opponents could not agree on a junction and one of them withdrew, leaving him secure, but without any goodwill towards him.12 He was in the opposition minority on the Hampshire election petition, 13 Feb. 1807, and supported the Portland administration. At the dissolution of 1807 he retired when a compromise was reached in Hertfordshire, though he was confident that he could have secured re-election.13 In 1812 he welcomed Liverpool’s accession to power.14 His obituary claimed:
In principle, he was a Whig; but when the situation of the country appeared critical, and danger was dreaded both from abroad and at home, he withdrew from that party, and strengthened as much as was in his power the arm of the executive government. This conduct was not infrequently censured, but we believe that Mr Baker never reaped any personal advantage from the part he then took.15
As one of the more conspicuous country gentlemen in the House, Baker was ‘one of those people who with a great deal of zeal and good intentions in general, has not the advantage of a very right-headed judgment’.16 His regular contributions to debates on country matters thereby added little to his reputation, though they confirmed his goodwill. He constantly gave his views on efforts to reform the Poor Laws, few of which met with his approval. His own bill to prevent the removal of the casual poor from parishes was lost, 3 Apr. 1800. He frequently acted as spokesman for the corn growers and for maltsters and brewers in their opposition to the malt duties. He was pious and considerations of humanity moved him to support the abolition of the slave trade, to criticize transportation, 12 May 1791, to object to an increase in the number of offences deemed felonies, 20 May 1800, and to the plight of debtors in gaol, 20 Mar. 1806. He opposed cockfighting and bull-baiting, 2 Apr. 1800, and objected to divorce settlements in which erring wives were deprived of their dowries, 2, 6 June 1791. On 7 Mar. 1800 he obtained leave for a bill to enable the poor to grow potatoes on waste land during the food scarcity. Once groomed by Lord Rockingham as a spokesman on metropolitan affairs, he still occasionally contributed to debates on them. He spoke up for naval officers like Duckworth and Collingwood, whose services were not appreciated. He was a connoisseur of procedural matters and parliamentary privilege. On 10 Feb. 1802 he seconded Abbot’s election as Speaker. He died 20 Jan. 1824.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Burke Corresp. vi. 120.
- 2. Spencer mss, Ld. to Lady Spencer, 1 Feb. 1805.
- 3. Parl. Portraits (1795), i. 141.
- 4. Add. 47570, f. 183.
- 5. Debrett (ser. 2), xxxii. 457, 459; NLS mss 11137, f. 36; Whitbread mss W1/4427.
- 6. Add. 37914, f. 51.
- 7. Herts. RO, Baker mss 1, ff. 105, 108, 112, 114, 130; Add. 34448, f. 296; Portland mss PwF233, 235, 237-9; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 6 Mar. 1802; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1329; Morning Chron. 1 Jan. 1796.
- 8. Colchester , i. 155, 156, 205.
- 9. PRO 30/8/111, ff. 45, 49.
- 10. Colchester , i. 230.
- 11. The Times , 16 July 1802; Baker mss 3, ff. 352-3; 5, f. 653.
- 12. Baker mss 3, f. 375.
- 13. Ibid. f. 381.
- 14. Add. 38248, ff. 74, 122, 156.
- 15. Gent. Mag. (1824), i. 183.
- 16. Spencer mss, Ld. to Lady Spencer, 18 Feb. 1805.