BECKFORD, William (1760-1844), of Fonthill, nr. Hindon, Wilts.
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Family and Education
b. 29 Sept. 1760, o. legit. s. of William Beckford† of Fonthill by Maria, da. of Hon. George Hamilton†, wid. of Francis Marsh of Jamaica. educ. privately by Robert Drysdale and Rev. John Lettice, DD; at Geneva 1777; Grand Tour 1780-1, 1782. m. 5 May 1783, Lady Margaret Gordon, da. of Charles, 4th Earl of Aboyne [S], 2da. suc. fa. 1770.
Beckford would probably not have returned himself to Parliament in 1790 if he had been sure that he stood no chance of realizing the ambition which was from the start his sole reason for Membership—a peerage. From his father he inherited, apart from his Wiltshire estate and the seat for Hindon which he occupied, ‘lands in Somerset, Gloucester, Hertford, Buckingham, Bedford, London and Jamaica’.1 In addition, his financial assistance to John Buller† of Morval had secured him the nomination of a Member for Saltash. He had been ‘England’s wealthiest son’2 and a godson of the Earl of Chatham, the prime minister’s father, with Lord Chancellor Thurlow for his guardian. He threw away all these advantages in 1784 when he incurred the accusation of homosexual behaviour with the young heir to the earldom of Devon, defied his accusers and became a social pariah. In revenge, he preferred the life of a continental exile ‘Guillaume de Beckford’, vituperating England and the English from an aesthetic vantage point aggravated by a solitary education and confirmed by experience of Catholic Europe.
Beckford played no more part in the Parliament of 1790 than he had in its predecessor. He had returned from his beloved Portugal but, before the House met, went abroad again, to Paris. In April 1791, as an absentee, he was listed hostile to the repeal of the Test Act. Apart from a few months in 1793, he remained abroad until July 1796, living ‘en prince’. The rumour in January 1792 that he would be in the next batch of peers was groundless. Late in 1794, summoned home, probably for the call of the House in January, he decided that it was a trap set by his enemy Lord Loughborough (now lord chancellor) and applied for the Chiltern Hundreds. From Lisbon he followed the debates on the slave trade and on 17 Apr. 1796 complained to his agent Wildman:
I was surprised upon examining the list of the division not to find two or three names who ought to have given us their support upon an occasion in which so principal a part of my fortune was at stake. We must be better supported.
He had never been to Jamaica and opposed abolition on the grounds that it exposed the Africans ‘to the butcheries of their native tyrants’.3
On his return to England, Beckford brought a request from the Regent of Portugal for naval aid, but Pitt’s government took as little notice of this as of his offer to promote peace negotiations with France in the summer of 1797 after the failure of Malmesbury’s mission. He prided himself on his influential contacts in Paris and was disappointed when the Duke of Portland and Pitt paid no heed to his renewed offers:
I am pleading the cause of no party. I disclaim all bias to particular sets or societies of men. I feel not the smallest ambition for diplomatic or public employment. All that I seek or solicit is the salvation of the country.4
He consoled himself in the building and furnishing of a draughty Gothic hermitage of immense and insecure proportions at Fonthill, on which he squandered his fortune; and by further sojourns in Portugal (1798-9) and France (1801, 1802-3). His nominees in Parliament continued to support the ministry.5 In November 1800 he schemed a peerage by reversion: his childless kinsman Sir William Hamilton† would be ennobled, with an annuity from Beckford and with remainder to him. Considering his ‘parliamentary arrangements so essential to the furtherance of my principal object that I cannot help urging them in the strongest manner’, he desired the brothers John Pedley* and Robert Deverell*, who had replaced the brothers Thomas Wildman* and James Wildman* as his men of business, to get into Parliament. He offered Pitt’s successor Addington both his seats in Parliament and his interest in two others if the peerage were conferred.6 Hamilton’s death in 1803 closed this chapter.
By 1805 Beckford’s income from Jamaica was much depleted and he was obliged to sell his estates in the home counties. He now pinned his hopes on a marriage between one of his daughters and the Marquess of Douglas*, who (with the reversion to his parliamentary interest) was to rehabilitate him in society and help him secure a peerage. The negotiations were checkered and the marriage did not materialize until 1810. Meanwhile, Beckford had returned himself to Parliament for Hindon in 1806. He was listed ‘adverse’ to the abolition of the slave trade in that Parliament, but by March 1807 he had thoughts of resigning and it does not appear that he took his seat. In fact, on 7 May 1807, he wrote to his West India business adviser Sir Robert Barclay* as ‘a perfect stranger to all parliamentary forms and ceremonies’, asking him to introduce him at Westminster. Soon afterwards he was once more in contact with the government on the subject of Portugal, but knew ‘nothing of politics’.7
Life at Fonthill, with its menagerie of freaks, absorbed him, since Europe was closed to him by Buonaparte. He deplored the convention of Cintra, but did not attend the House to vote against it in January 1809. That year he sold his interest at Saltash and, unless he was the ‘Beckwith’ who voted with ministers against the discharge of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr. 1810, there is no trace of him in that Parliament until on 8 June 1812 he took a month’s sick leave. The Whigs were doubtful of him in 1810; so was the Treasury after the election of 1812. Such political reveries as he indulged in at Fonthill were apocalyptic and took second place to ‘purse trouble and the trouble which is a hundred times worse than all others—boy trouble’. The Somerset estate was sold in 1811, after Beckford had been reduced to appealing to Andrew Cochrane Johnstone* to raise him a loan. Neither the Marquess of Douglas nor his other (repudiated) son-in-law Lt.-Col. James Orde could secure him a peerage. Ignoring his advisers’ demands for economy, he went on building.
Beckford attended the Regent’s opening of Parliament, 1 Dec. 1812. On 11 Mar. 1813 he took sick leave, extended to three weeks. A connoisseur of Catholicism, he was never converted to it and was described as neutral on the Catholic question. Apart from a visit to Paris in 1814, he lived in hypochondriac and misanthropic misery at Fonthill. On 28 Jan. 1817 he again attended the opening of Parliament, but that was all. He was in financial straits and his lawyer offered him ‘£4,000 a year if I will go to the Continent and leave ... Mr John Plummer [his West India agent] to Member-ify in my place’. He demurred and was re-elected in 1818: it seems that even an unopposed election at Hindon cost him £3,000. He was in the House for the choosing of committees in February and March 1819, but not being balloted, took his leave, proceeding to Paris in May. He thought revolution was not far off, if not French revenge upon England.8 In 1820 he was obliged to agree to Plummer’s replacing him as Member for Hindon, on terms which enabled him to stave off ruin.9 Fonthill was sold in 1822 and Beckford retired to Bath, resuming his building and collecting mania on a reduced scale as long as he could afford it. All passion spent, he returned to his starting point of literature: ‘Politics was not my mission. I was not destined to lead in politics, and was too stiff-necked to be a follower.’10 He died 2 May 1844.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: M. H. Port / R. G. Thorne
Otherwise William Thomas.
- 1. Life at Fonthill ed. Alexander, 156.
- 2. Boyd Alexander, England’s Wealthiest Son.
Beckford mss, Beckford to Wildman, 29 Nov. 1790; B. Connell, Whig Peer, 269; Morning Chron. 12 Jan. 1792, 13 July 1796; G. Chapman, Beckford (2nd ed.), 251; Beckford mss.
- 3. Beckford mss, Beckford to Wildman, 29 Nov. 1790; B. Connell, Whig Peer, 269; Morning Chron. 12 Jan. 1792, 13 July 1796; G. Chapman, Beckford (2nd ed.), 251; Beckford mss.
- 4. Morrison Coll. Nelson and Hamilton Pprs. i. 227; L. Melville, Life and Letters of William Beckford, 194-211; Farington, i. 217; The Times, 10 June 1797; Kent AO, Stanhope mss 732/5, Beckford to Pitt, 11 Dec. 1797, 27 Mar. 1798.
- 5. Morrison Coll. i. 212; ii. 192-3.
- 6. Melville, 230; Beckford mss, Beckford to Deverell [?14 Feb. 1802]; Morrison Coll. ii. 192-3.
- 7. Leveson Gower, ii. 314; Beckford mss, Heard to Beckford, 15 Mar. 1807; Chapman, 279; Morrison Coll. (ser. 2), i. 197; Life at Fonthill, 50.
- 8. Life at Fonthill, 83, 88, 96, 114, 123, 134, 136, 199, 208, 278, 282, 290, 296, 298, 299, 307.
- 9. Beckford mss, Plummer to Messrs Fownes and White, 1 Mar. 1820.
- 10. Melville, 187.