BIRD, William Wilberforce (1758-1836), of Little Park Street, Coventry and The Spring, Kenilworth, Warws.
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Family and Education
b. ?2 July 1758,1 o.s. of Alderman John Bird, silk manufacturer, of Coventry, and Wood Street, London by Judith, da. of William Wilberforce, Baltic merchant, of Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorks., aunt of William Wilberforce*. m. (1) c.1779, his cos. Elizabeth Bird (d.1780), sis. of Robert Bird of Taplow (who m. William’s sis. Lucy Wilberforce Bird), s.p.; (2) settlement 22 May 1782, Penelope, da. of Rev. Sir Charles Wheler, 7th Bt., preb. of York and vicar of Leamington, Warws., 4s. 3da. surv. suc. fa. 1772.
Prize agent, Cape 1807-10; comptroller of customs, Cape Colony Jan. 1810-d.
Bird’s family had introduced the silk trade in Coventry with Huguenot assistance in the late 17th century and were prominent as silk masters (he was one himself), ribbon makers and members of the corporation. One of them was returned to Parliament for the city in 1734. Bird, who seems to have contemplated it in 1784 while in the family business at Cheapside, London, strove to follow this example in 1790, relying on his standing in the trade (he had been chairman of a silk masters’ committee that successfully appealed to Pitt to tax raw silk, not silk ribbons) and on the fact that nearly half the electorate were weavers.2 Standing alone against the corporation’s favoured candidates, the sitting Members, he failed, but was sufficiently encouraged to stand again in 1796 with a colleague, on which occasion there was no effective opposition to him. He was also a steward for Alderman Combe’s election in London.3
As the champion of the Coventry Blues (Whigs), Bird was a staunch Foxite—he had joined the Whig Club 1 May 1787—and a frequent speaker in opposition, mostly on problems of credit and manufacturing as they affected Coventry. On 28 Feb. 1797 he supported an inquiry into the stoppage of cash payments by the Bank and on the succeeding days ushered through a bill to allow the issue of small promissory notes by country banks pro tem., moving the suspension of previous Acts prohibiting this. Named for the secret committee on the Bank on 1 Mar., he conceded Pitt’s wish to make his bill a general one and it passed next day. (He secured its renewal in November 1797 and 1798.) On 5 Apr. he unsuccessfully suggested a clause for the Bank indemnity bill to prevent the distraining of rent where a bank-note was tendered, and on 24 Apr. he sought to limit the duration of the bill enabling manufacturers to issue small notes. On 1 May he complained that the shortage of specie had been exacerbated by the drain of subsidies to the allies, but admitted, 22 Nov., that the stoppage of payments by the Bank had been justified. On 26 May 1797 he voted for parliamentary reform, but he did not secede with Fox. He unsuccessfully opposed the extra duty on admissions to the freedom of corporations as a restriction of the electoral franchise, 14 June.
On 11 July 1797 Bird spoke and was teller against the duty on clocks and watches. He presented a Coventry petition against it, 11 Jan. 1798, but he doubted the efficacy of the window tax by which Pitt subsequently replaced it, 22 Mar. He described the assessed taxes as ruinous to middling manufacturers, 7 Dec. 1797, criticized the composition of the land tax commission for Coventry and obtained leave to add to it, 19 Apr. 1798; and opposed the salt duty bill and any increase in corn prices which would raise the price of bread for the poor, 4 May. He was in the minority on the Irish rebellion, 22 June. He said the Coventry manufacturers would suffer by a union with Ireland, as ‘the advantages were all on one side’, unless a higher duty were placed on the import of Irish silks, 12, 14 Feb. 1799. He steadily opposed the Union. He presented a Coventry petition to this effect, 23 May 1800, insisting on giving expression to his constituents’ fears, even when requested by Pitt to put the interest of the kingdom as a whole first. On 26 May Pitt endeavoured to disprove Bird’s arguments. On 8 Mar. 1799 he was in a small minority against the proposed grant for the Prince of Wales’s establishment.4 He objected to the income tax schedule, 11, 14 Mar. 1799, and a week later failed to convince Pitt that it would be advisable to appoint commercial commissioners to make assessments, instead of juries, 18 Mar. On 21 May 1799 he joined the call for inquiry into the conditions of state prisoners in Coldbath Fields.
He voted steadily against the continuance and conduct of the war during the next two sessions. He insisted against Lord Hawkesbury that the grain famine was connected with the war, 18 Feb. 1800. He warmly supported a committee of inquiry into the coal trade and was placed on it, 11 Mar. He called for retrenchment in the committee of supply, 21 Nov. 1800. To meet the hardship caused by scarcity of grain, he suggested a maximum corn price, as government measures were inadequate, 26 Nov. He complained on 17 Feb. 1801 of frauds in the corn trade, which exacerbated the plight of manufacturers in the midlands and the north. He defended a Warwickshire petition to that effect, 21 Feb. He was teller against the renewal of suspension of habeas corpus, 14 Apr. On 1 May he unsuccessfully opposed the Coventry poor relief bill proposed by his colleague, maintaining that it was controversial. He voted for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s finances, 31 Mar. 1802. He wished to see Peel’s bill to ameliorate the lot of cotton apprentices extended to silk factories, 4 May.
At the election of 1802 Bird attempted to bring in Peter Moore* with him, instead of his previous colleague. They were defeated, but unseated one Member on petition. Bird, who had apparently visited France in the meantime, then waived his pretensions in favour of Moore. Nor did he seek to return to Parliament, though he sponsored the candidature of his brother-in-law William Mills* at Coventry in 1805. The fact was that he was hard up: the Cheapside business had failed. On 18 June 1806 he informed Viscount Howick:5 ‘The kindness of Mr Fox could avail no further than to procure the division of the place of stamp distributor and my portion ... produces to me less than £100 per annum’. He asked for a secretarial position on the auditing board, for which he was qualified by a ‘long acquaintance with business’, to support his large family. His appointment as prize agent at the Cape was ‘one of the last acts’ of the Grenville administration and on that account his cousin Wilberforce sought assurance from Spencer Perceval that it would not be revoked.6 It enabled him to interest himself in the welfare of slaves, but also to build up a commercial agency which was already significant enough to bring him into collision with the East India Company when he was neutralized by his appointment as comptroller of the customs in 1810.7
Bird, who had arrived there on 4 Jan. 1808 with his wife and eight children, spent the rest of his life at the Cape, ‘a steady friend and an able supporter of its public and benevolent institutions and one of the most agreeable and instructive of those ornaments of social life known by the name of companionable gentlemen’. He was the anonymous author of The state of the Cape of Good Hope in 1822. He died at Wynberg, 19 Apr. 1836.8
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. According to the Master’s Office, Cape Town, Bird was born 2 July 1750; this cannot be right, as this parents’ marriage articles are dated 2 Apr. 1756 (PCC 392 Taverner) and his father described him in 1772 as a minor. According to Gent. Mag. (1836), ii. 222, he was in his 78th year when he died.
- 2. T. W. Whitley, Parl. Rep. Coventry, 202, p. xx; Geo. III Corresp. i. 57.
- 3. Morning Chron. 4 June 1796.
- 4. Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1429.
- 5. Grey mss.
- 6. Wilberforce Corresp. ii. 127.
- 7. Dict. S. A. Biog. i. 77.
- 8. Ibid.; Gent. Mag. (1836), ii. 222, 433.