BASSET, Sir Francis, 1st Bt. (1757-1835), of Tehidy House, nr. Redruth, Cornw.
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Family and Education
b. 9 Aug. 1757, 1st s. of Francis Basset† of Tehidy by Margaret, da. of Sir John St. Aubyn, 3rd Bt.† of Clowance. educ. Harrow 1770; Eton 1771-4; King’s, Camb. 1775; Grand Tour. m. (1) 16 May 1780, Frances Susanna (d. 14 June 1823), da. and event. coh. of John Hippisley Coxe of Ston Easton, Som., 1da.; (2) 13 July 1824, Harriet, da. of Sir William Lemon 1st Bt.*, s.p. suc. fa. 1769; cr. Bt. 24 Nov. 1779; Baron de Dunstanville 17 June 1796; Baron Basset with sp. rem. to his da. 30 Nov. 1797.
Recorder, Penryn 1778-d., Bodmin 1802.
Lt.-col. N. Devon militia 1779; maj. Cornw. fencible cav. 1794; maj. commdt. Penryn vols. 1794, lt.-col. 1795, col. 1796; maj. commdt. Cornw. yeomanry 1802, Penryn yeomanry 1803.
Basset, a restless, grasping wealthy man, was one of the most active figures in Cornish elections in 1784, when he contested five boroughs. He aligned himself with opposition throughout the ensuing Parliament, riveted to them by the Duke of Portland’s promise of a peerage in 1783. On 30 Mar. 1785, he joined Brooks’s Club, with Fox as his sponsor. His services were electoral rather than political. In 1788 he bought the borough of Tregony from Lord Falmouth, but sold it before the election of 1790 to Richard Barwell*. In 1784 he had attacked Lords Falmouth and Mount Edgcumbe, Pitt’s friends; in 1790 he obliged Falmouth to cede him a seat at Mitchell and challenged the Duke of Leeds, Pitt’s colleague, at Helston.1 He gained a seat there, but Leeds deprived him of one at Penryn. He was the instigator of his brother-in-law Sir John St. Aubyn’s* unsuccessful candidature for the county in 1790 and canvassed for him.
In the first two sessions of the Parliament of 1790, Basset was not a good attender. He was listed favourable to the repeal of the Test Act with regard to Scotland in April 1791, but James Boswell, on his Cornish jaunt in September 1792, reported of this ‘genteel, smart little man, well-informed and lively’ that
his high Tory talk crowned my satisfaction. He had three grand uncles killed in battle for Charles I. His blue and buff dress and attachment to Charles Fox seemed not quite consistent with all this old aristocracy. But in the present reign, party and not principles has been the bond of political union.2
Bassett had however shown his conservatism when he appeared in the House, which he ‘very seldom troubled’, 30 Apr. 1792, by deprecating the proceedings of the parliamentary reform associations. He had written a pamphlet against reform in 1783. In Cornwall he was an alert opponent of the reformers.3 In December 1792 he was listed a Portland Whig, though on 11 Jan. 1793 he assured the duke that he sincerely lamented ‘the present division of sentiment between those who have long acted together on the best of principles’.4 On 17 Feb. 1793 he attended the second meeting of Windham’s ‘third party’ pledged to stand by government in wartime, and next day, in debate, vindicated a defensive war against revolutionary France:
with respect to himself, he had always been accustomed to act, he trusted not inconsistently, with ... Mr Fox. Notwithstanding this difference, however, he could not forbear to take this opportunity to express his very high opinion of the talents of that right honourable gentleman, and the no less high opinion which he entertained of his heart.
Basset spoke in favour of electoral reform at Stockbridge, 10 Apr., 27 May 1793, and after acting as teller for opposition to two clauses in the traitorous correspondence bill, 1 May, was in the minority for the acceptance of the Sheffield petition next day. He also supported Grey’s motion against the immediate transportation of the radical Palmer, 24 Feb. 1794. But that year appeared his anti-revolutionary pamphlet The theory and practice of the French constitution (to be followed in 1798 by The crimes of democracy) and Portland’s accession to office in July 1794 completed his conversion to government.
Basset met with a ‘personal disappointment’ when he wrote to Portland reminding him of his past promise of a peerage: the duke asked him to be satisfied with a place on his reserve list for a future creation of peers. Basset remonstrated: his interest in politics had never been great and militia and other local duties now precluded him from seeking re-election to the Commons. When he received no reply, he wrote again threatening to vacate his seat at ‘the earliest opportunity’, though he pledged continued support of administration. Thereupon the duke, ‘extremely grieved and mortified’, advised him not to damage his character by ‘dereliction of the public cause in such a crisis as the present’. Basset then inquired when the next creation of peers would take place and, receiving no immediate reply, informed the duke that he took his silence as a signal of his renouncing their friendship and as justification for carrying out his threat of abandoning his parliamentary interest. Portland deprecated this reaction and renewed his promise of a peerage at the next opportunity, if Basset still wished for one. He also urged Pitt to grant Basset’s request of his share in the patronage of Penryn, monopolized while Basset was in opposition by the Duke of Leeds.5
On 26 Jan. 1795 Basset stated in debate:
as I did not vote on the first day of the session, I am desirous to give my reasons for my conduct then, as well as those which induce me to give the vote I intend this night ... I could not vote for the address on the first day of the session, because it appeared to me to pledge us completely to the war, without leaving any opening for peace; this was my objection to the address, and I could not vote for the amendment, because I thought it laid us in a manner at the feet of France.
Being satisfied that Pitt would bid for peace when it could be safely secured, he supported his amendment to Grey’s peace motion that night. Yet he voted with the minority on the imperial loan, 5 Feb. 1795, and on 10 June for Fox’s motion against it.
Despite his reservations on the conduct of the war, Basset could be relied on to rally to the ministry against reform at home. On 16 Nov. 1795 he was a leading spokesman in favour of the legislation against sedition, describing himself as a country gentleman, who saw no harm in political coalitions, particularly against the mischief perpetrated by the reform clubs. This speech, praised by the solicitor-general, was followed by another next day in which he deplored the idea of a revolution ‘upon jacobinical principles’. He clashed with Fox, assuring him that he had himself at no time used ‘jacobinical’ language. On 4 and 7 Dec. he presented petitions from Penryn and Redruth in favour of the sedition bills. He had been active in suppressing riots in Cornwall shortly before.
Basset obtained the promised peerage at the dissolution in 1796. His electoral interests did not quite vanish with his ambition: he returned two friends of Pitt for Penryn, where the Duke of Leeds left him in complete control in exchange for a free hand at Helston. He had also encouraged the minister in his bid to oust the Duke of Northumberland at Newport, but sold his interest at Mitchell to (Sir) Christopher Hawkins*, who now replaced him as Cornish borough broker in chief. On the fall of Pitt in 1801, he transferred his allegiance to Addington whose friend he remained for the rest of his life, though he deprecated his junction with the Grenville ministry.6 His electoral interest at Penryn became precarious and he fell foul of Hawkins, but Bodmin fell into his lap and as late as 1814 he was prepared to make a bid for Camelford, though long since ‘only a looker on’ in politics.7
Basset, a partner in the Cornish Bank at Truro (1779-1801) and chairman of the Cornish Metal Company (1785-1792) derived a princely income from his mines at Cook’s Kitchen and Dolcoath and was a supporter of Hornblower against Boulton and Watt (patronized by Lord Falmouth) in the battle for the steam engine patent in the early 1790s: his partisanship had at that time political overtones.8 He was also a contributor to Young’s Annals of Agriculture (1794-1805) and introduced legislation to regulate corn mills (1794-6).9 As a patron of the arts, he frequently figured in Farington’s diary, where, among other obiter dicta, appeared his view of Edmund Burke (12 Mar. 1810):
All he foretold has been realized; he had the largest comprehension, and was the most extraordinary man of his time. Mr Pitt, on the contrary, was slow in believing that a bad spirit was rising in this country from the example set by France; but being at length persuaded of it, he was prompt and vigorous in preventing the growing effects, and by the sedition bill which he brought into Parliament and carried, he saved this country.10
By 1817, De Dunstanville’s income was reduced (by the fall in copper and tin prices) ‘from £16 or £18,000, and sometimes £22 and £24,000 p.a. to a little more than £8,000’. He was more than ever ready to give up his electoral interests: ‘borough interest is no object because I have no personal views’.