CURTIS, William (1752-1829), of Culland's Grove, Southgate, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1790 - 1818
13 Feb. 1819 - 1820
1820 - 1826
1826 - Dec. 1826

Family and Education

b. 25 Jan. 1752, 3rd s. of Joseph Curtis, biscuit baker, of Wapping by Mary, da. of Timothy Tennant of Wapping. m. 9 Nov. 1776, Anne, da. and coh. of Edward Constable, 4s. 2da. cr. Bt. 23 Dec. 1802.

Offices Held

Alderman, London 1785-d. (Father of the City 1821-d.); sheriff 1788-9, ld. mayor 1795-6; coal meter, London 1791; maj. commdt. Tower vols. 1798, lt.-col. commdt. Loyal London vols. 1799, 1803-4; commr. Exchequer loan office 1798-1808; collector orphans’ coal duties 1810-d.; member Drapers’ Co. 1783-d. vice-pres. Hon. Artillery Co. 1793-5, pres. 1795-d., lt.-col. 1804-6, colt 1806-17; treasurer, London Institution 1806-d.; pres. Christ’s Hosp. 1813-d.; dir. W.I. Dock Co. 1802-3, 1805-13, 1815-d., E.I. Dock Co. 1805-13, 1815-21, 1823-9; trustee, Pelican Life Assurance Office 1709-d.

Biography

A portly and bottlenosed bon vivant and unconscious buffoon, Curtis was the best-known of the City Members in this period, the leading spokesman for the corporation and mercantile interests and the most irresistible butt of the caricaturists. His family originated in Nottinghamshire, but his grandfather had settled at Wapping as a ships’ biscuit baker; his presbyterian father, and he and his brother Timothy, succeeded to the business in turn. Being ‘one of the enterprising sort’, Curtis proceeded to capture extensive markets at home and abroad, developing an interest in the whale fisheries and the shipping trade to the East Indies and contracting with government. In 1792 he became a founder partner in the Cornhill bank of Roberts, Curtis, Were, Hornyold, Berwick & Co.1 He was eager to enter Parliament, but failed at Seaford in 1784; at Maldon, which he canvassed on a vacancy in 1787, but where he was attacked as an opportunist and business monopolist; and at Abingdon, which he canvassed in 1789 on the strength of his sister’s connexions there, but gave up after a day, though characteristically ‘liberal to the poor even to a profusion’.2 Next he headed the poll for London in 1790 and was returned in second, third or fourth place until 1818 when he was defeated, but regained his seat in 1820.

As one of the City friends of government (even if he stressed his independence) Curtis first spoke in favour of the convention with Spain, though satirized as a disappointed warmonger, 14 Dec. 1790, and was listed hostile to the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in April 1791. He spoke subsequently in favour of the address, 25 May 1972.3 A frequent speaker thereafter, he was often lampooned as an illiterate one, his ‘bold and plain language’ being replete with catchwords which were the delight of satirists; but his reported speeches showed no want of cogency and it must be assumed that his pronunciation and delivery were at faulty.4 As a shipping magnate he rebuked the trustees of Ramsgate harbour for neglect, 3 Feb. 1791. He led the unsuccessful opposition to a clause in the corn bill subjecting vessels smuggling corn to confiscation, 22 Feb., 4 Apr. 1791. He defended the Admiralty against Fox’s motion for an inquiry into convoys, 18 Feb. 1794, though on 7 Jan. 1795 he felt obliged to admit that ‘much of our trade had suffered from want of protection’. After advocating ‘vigorous prosecution’ of the war against a London peace petition, he approved Pitt’s plan to strengthen the navy by recruitment from the mercantile marine, 2 Feb. 1795. He voted for Foster Barham’s motion critical of the conduct of Grey and Jervis in Martinique, 2 June 1795, and was a teller on the second division on that question.

Curtis defended Pitt’s measures to alleviate commercial distress, 30 Apr. 1793, and subsequently became one of the confidential commissioners to grant aid to distressed merchants. As a militia colonel, he approved the City militia bill, 25 June 1794, 5 Jan. 1795, preferring a small trained force to an ‘armed multitude’. He was the corporation spokesman against the independent merchants’ proposal to erect new wet docks at Wapping, 8 Feb. 1796, believing that ‘a new city’ would thereby be established. Later (10 Mar. 1800) he presented a corporation counter-petition and was a teller against the scheme.

On the subject of the common hall petition against the seditious meetings bill, 3 Dec. 1795, Curtis, then lord mayor, said that the majority at common hall was not representative of the City as a whole; if he thought it was, he would resign his seat rather than be at variance with his constituents’ expressed wishes. With regard to the loan, he admitted that his bank was subscribing, £2½ million, but he was one of only three Members of Parliament among the 250 subscribers and did not see ‘why they or he should be corrupted by the circumstance’: in fact, ‘that he knew nothing of the loan till that honest fellow, his hairdresser told him in the morning of the circumstance’. On the strength of this, Curtis’s pronouncements were subsequently credited to

the profound information he receives from his barber whose opinions and intelligence, communicated to him in the morning, are conveyed to the House of Commons in the evening, no doubt to the great information of our national representatives.5

Curtis again refused to accept the instructions of the London livery and censure ministers on the imperial loan, 1 Dec. 1796, regarding them as unrepresentative and an affront to his conscience, as also on Combe’s motion for the dismissal of ministers, 19 May 1797. He supported the Bank restriction bill, 27, 31 Mar. 1797, as an attempt to restore public credit. He supported Pitt’s loyalty loan in 1797, his firm subscribing £10,000 and his bank £30,000. He also favoured Pitt’s tax proposals, in defiance of his constituents:6 he shuffled on 14 Dec. 1797 but voted with Pitt on 4 Jan. and spoke for his income tax scheme on 19 and 22 Dec. 1798. He disliked only the methods proposed for ‘enforcing and securing the equal and fair payment’ of the taxes. Tierney’s jibes about the ‘frauds of the commercial men’ brought him to his feet, 19 May 1800, to deny that they were tax evaders.

Curtis was a foe to ‘the rival competition of speculators upon the necessaries of life’, 7 Dec. 1801, and in the years 1798-1802 demonstrated this by his concern to maintain steady prices in the grain market. (In 1796 his endeavour to keep down the price of bread had been treated as an election stunt.)7 To this end, he opposed lifting the prohibition on exporting corn and the indemnifying of corn importers and was an enemy to all restrictive practices in the trade tending to harm the consumer. Thus, in moving the repeal of the Acts fixing the assize of bread, 26 Nov. 1801, he admitted the impolicy of legislative interference, but thought it necessary to protect the public.

Curtis was one of Addington’s City friends and for his sake feasted the Whig politicians at Southgate in May 1802.8 In December he received a baronetcy. He had proposed, unsuccessfully, a double tax on foreign servants, 14 Apr. 1802; and on 27 Apr. opposed the exemption of Ireland from the new import and export duties, without being ‘alarmed for our trade nor for our shipping interest, though he was a considerable shipowner’. He supported the property tax bill, 13 July 1803, the plan for Sunday training for home defence, 20 July, and sided with Addington against Pitt’s motion for naval inquiry, 15 Mar. 1804. Although he was classed a friend of Pitt’s second administration in September 1804, he had evidently voted against Pitt’s additional force bill on 18 June. He was an opponent of the corn trade bill, 24 July 1804. After voting in compliance with a petition from his constituents which he presented to the House both for the censure and the criminal prosecution of Melville, 8 Apr., 12 June 1805, he was listed ‘doubtful Sidmouth’. Of Melville’s trial he was reported as saying ‘By G—, sir, we felt him in our market’. On this occasion he received his constituents’ thanks: though at his election in 1802, he had insisted on being ‘unshackled’ by them.9

Curtis was similarly independent during the Grenville administration. While he voted for their repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806, he opposed their American intercourse bill, 22 May, 17 June, as an infringement of the Navigation Act; he had presented a London petition against the bill on 2 June. He had also deprecated the slave importation bill, 18 Apr., thinking slavery ‘an evil that could not be remedied’, though ‘he never purchased a slave himself’. He opposed the Globe Insurance bill, 24 June 1806.

After coming fourth in the poll in 1806, Curtis, who presented the London clergy petition against the Catholic bill, 9 Apr., jumped to second place in 1807 and supported the Portland administration. In March 1808 he defended their orders in council against a London petition. Although he did not believe the Duke of York had been guilty of corruption, 17 Mar. 1809, he ‘supposed he should be turned out of his seat for having voted for him’: he was in fact censured by his constituents for doing so. In the same year he accompanied the Walcheren expedition in his yacht, ‘carrying delicate refreshments of all kinds to the military and naval commanders, and the principal officers’. For this the ‘City gormandizer’ was mercilessly caricatured and subsequently appeared in sailor’s garb in the prints, dubbed ‘Alderman alias Commodore Curtis’.10

Nevertheless, Curtis was about to change his tune: on 5 Dec. 1809 in a speech in common hall, met to censure the Walcheren expedition, he ‘abused the ministry’ for their divisions. This Brougham described as ‘a formidable symptom’, and added by way of explanation, ‘he is for his friend Castlereagh’.11 On 7 Jan. 1810 Lord Sidmouth informed his brother Hiley that Curtis had that day assured him of his determination to act with him and to express his hostility to government by voting against the address:12 this Curtis did on 23 Jan. Three days later he supported Porchester’s motion for an inquiry into the Walcheren expedition, raising a laugh by insisting that he was as independent as any Member in the House. He now became ‘Weathercock Billy’,13 for on 26 Feb. he favoured Wellington’s pension, against the wishes of his constituents, and on 30 Mar. voted with government against Porchester’s censure motion. Although he voted with the minorities favourable to Burdett and Gale Jones, 5 and 16 Apr., and on 7 May criticized government obstruction of the City address to the King in favour of Burdett, he deprecated a petition in Burdett’s favour presented by him next day. On 21 May he voted against parliamentary reform. He voted with ministers henceforward, being listed ‘Government’ both by the Whigs in 1810 and by the Treasury in 1812. In June 1811 he vetoed a reform dinner at the Guildhall. On 15 June 1812 he secured exemption for the corporation of London from the sinecure offices bill.

Despite his absence during the election campaign of 1812, Curtis was regarded as quite safe for the City.14 On 1 Dec. 1812 and 23 Feb. 1813 he presented London petitions against Catholic relief, after having voted against it on 22 June 1812; he did so again on 2 Mar. 1813 and subsequently. He was a determined foe of the importation of American cottons and of American trade with the West Indies while Britain was on hostile terms with the United States, 10, 18 May 1813. Though he was at this time anxious to defend the London magistracy over the administration of the London prisons, he was prepared to admit that investigation was necessary, 7 Dec. 1813, 28 Mar. 1814. He was a friend to the East India Company monopoly, 16 June 1813, and, in any case, an interested party.

Curtis was one of the committee on and a consistent opponent of revision of the Corn Laws, 1813-15, and acted as teller against considering them in committee, 22 Feb. 1815: he said that the agricultural interest had been sufficiently protected, 17 Feb. On 6 Mar. he presented a monster City petition against them. On 1 May he deprecated (though obliged to act as teller for) another City petition he presented against the renewal of war and wartime taxation, the condemnation of which he had supported in common hall in January. It was rejected by 107 votes to 59. Yielding to public opinion and the evidence of distress, he supported subsequent petitions and was a stern critic of the continuation of the property tax, 13 Feb., 1, 18 Mar. 1816. On the last occasion, the House, ever prone to laugh at Curtis, cheered him. Yet he continued to vote with the majority on civil list questions, 14 Apr., 31 May 1815, 6, 24 May 1816; for the army estimates, 6 and 8 Mar. 1816; and was in the ministerial minority on the public revenue bill, 17 June 1816. On 7 Feb. 1817 he recorded his disapproval of parliamentary reform, but voted against ministers on the composition of the finance committee. He voted with administration against Ridley’s motion for retrenchment at the Admiralty, 25 Feb., and next day, as a member of the ‘secret committee’, he totally disagreed with his constituents in their petition against the suspension of habeas corpus. He refused to believe that the suspension was a threat to liberty and described the Spa Fields riot, during which, owing to his lameness, he had been confined to watching the magistrates’ operations from the Mansion House, as ‘treason and rebellion’ (24 June). In February 1818 Curtis was a querulous defender of the City corporation against Sumner’s allegations of corruption, and not for the first or last time, of his own reputation for honesty. He remained hostile to London petitions against the suspension of habeas corpus, 27 Feb. He favoured the ‘modified arrangement’ for provision for the royal dukes’ marriages, 13, 15 Apr. 1818, having been mustered by Lord Liverpool in support.

In 1818 Curtis, whose opposition to the expressed wishes of his constituents over the habeas corpus suspension had made him unpopular, was defeated in the City election. Nothing daunted, he gave a gala dinner to the Regent, the royal dukes and cabinet ministers. His friends hoped that a quiet seat would be found for him and he refused to become a peer with the style of Lord Tenterden.15 In October 1818, Matthew Russell*, proprietor of Bletchingley, was prepared to bring in Curtis there, understanding that the Regent had pledged Curtis to find a seat for him. Curtis was Russell’s banker. It subsequently appeared, however, that he wished to be a paying guest under no obligation to the Regent for his return: Russell’s brother-in-law Charles Tennyson was informed, 5 Nov. 1818, that Curtis

far from being the personal friend of the Chief [the Regent] ... is the direct contrary, and ... the mere creature of the present ministry. If Lord L[iverpool] desired him tomorrow to vote for turning the Chief out of the R[egenc]y Sir William Curtis would be at the head of the ministers’ list.

He was alleged to have ‘extorted a kind of pledge’ from the Regent ‘at an unguarded moment’.16 After much wrangling of this kind, Curtis secured the seat in February 1819, but played little part in that Parliament, apart from a remark on the London clergy bill, 24 Mar., a pair in favour of the foreign enlistment bill, 21 June, no doubt symptomatic of others; and a clash with his opposition colleagues Waithman and Wood in debate, 7 Dec. 1819. In 1820 he regained his seat for London.

Farington in 1811 had this to say of Curtis:

He was brought up in the presbyterian line, and retains certain impressions of religion, which in the midst of his jovial proceedings occasionally makes him for a short time serious. He met J. Wells in the street and pressed him to go to a party to dinner. He talked of his way of life and expressed a desire to alter it; and during this conversation shed tears; but he afterwards went to a meeting where, as usual, he took his wine very freely. J. Wells called upon him at a time when he was confined to his bed with fever. A Quaker physician ... admonished him upon the necessity of becoming abstemious and told him he must live upon water gruel, to which he consented. The doctor then recommended to him to abstain from drinking champagne in future. This roused Sir William and he replied, ‘Not so, Doctor. I shall drink champagne whenever I can get it’.

Mrs Arbuthnot thought him ‘clever, intelligent ... full of anecdote and conversation’, but lacking in polish. Curtis died at his house in Ramsgate, 18 Jan. 1829.17

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Lawrence Taylor / R. G. Thorne

Notes

  • 1. DNB; Gent. Mag. (1829), i. 273; Beaven, Aldermen of London, i. 252; City Biog. (1800), 37; Hilton Price, London Bankers, 142; BL cat. (Curtis); M. D. George, Cat. Pol. and Personal Satires, vols. vi-x, passim.
  • 2. W. D. Cooper, Parl. Hist. Suss. 47; Strutt mss, Queries to Mr Ald. Curtis, 14 Feb. 1787; Berks. RO, Pryse mss, Saxton to Loveden, 12 Jan. 1789.
  • 3. Public Advertiser, 11, 28 June 1790; M. D. George, vi. 7676.
  • 4. Parl. Portraits (1795), i. 256; Gent. Mag. loc. cit.
  • 5. Parl. Portraits, loc. cit.
  • 6. Morning Chron. 16, 18 Dec. 1797.
  • 7. True Briton, 7 June 1796.