LESTER, Benjamin (1724-1802), of Poole, Dorset.
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Family and Education
bap. 13 July 1724, 3rd surv. s. of Francis Lester, merchant, of Poole by Rachell, da. of William Taverner of Newfoundland. m. by 1755, his cos. Susannah, da. of Jacob Taverner, merchant, of Newfoundland, 1s. 3da. surv. suc. mother 1768.
Mayor, Poole 1779-80, 1781-4.
Like his father and elder brothers John and Isaac, Lester was engaged in the Newfoundland trade at Poole, dealing in timber, fish and sealskins. He was in partnership with John Lester and also with Joseph Garland, Moses Simmonds and Benjamin Linthorne. With substantial property in Poole and its neighbourhood,1 he was a leading member of the corporation and in contact with government about Poole affairs from 1775. They leaned on him in the election of 1784 and in 1789 approved him as candidate for the next election. He headed the poll but his running partner was unseated on petition and, as Lester had been an Admiralty contractor within a year of his election, he was liable to a fine of £500 if he voted in Parliament. He accordingly vacated his seat, and the statutory year having passed, was re-elected unopposed, 12 Mar. 1791.2
In Parliament Lester was a silent supporter of Pitt’s administration, and was listed hostile to the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in 1791. He became disgruntled because government paid so little attention to the Newfoundland trade, which, he informed Pitt, 27 Feb. 1792, had fallen on bad times and would be ruined if the cost of introducing a judiciary proposed by government were charged on the trade: ‘America was lost by it’, he added. When he sent a memorandum on the subject to Lord Hawkesbury at the Board of Trade, George Rose* advised the latter to pay attention to it: ‘Lester is rich I believe, but I am sure he has great weight in Poole; he likes a little civility and attention (and who, my dear lord, does not) but he is testy if slighted, and this he feels’.3 In 1794 Lester fell out with Rose over the future representation of Poole. Charles Stuart*, his unsuccessful partner in 1790, had refused to share the Parliament with him and was haggling over election expenses. Lester, who claimed to have spent £3,000, offered Stuart £1,000 compensation, but on condition of retaining his seat and the disposal of it. As to patronage, he explained that his support of Pitt was not based on ‘so despicable a foundation’:
if I have ever given his measures any support it was from principle, and that I shall continue to do so long as I have the honour of a seat in the House of Commons, and those measures meet my approbation, and no longer.
If Rose found his letter ‘audacious’, it was a just return for
the little ceremony you treated me with at our last interview, for although I may not be so tremblingly alive to any little failure of etiquette as yourself, I am not totally insensible to the common interchange of civilities, nor will I subject myself to insult, when I am conscious my conduct deserves a contrary treatment.
Despite this, a new agreement was concluded between Lester and Stuart soon afterwards, by which Stuart evidently obtained Lester’s abdication in his favour. Lester’s son-in-law George Garland* described it as ‘a very bad bargain ... and a very degrading one’, which can only mean that Lester received financial compensation and surrendered his interest at Poole for the next election. On 11 Aug. 1800 he (or Garland in his name) assured Pitt that he had always meant to support his government, but ministers seemed to ‘spurn’ him: therefore he wished his son-in-law to come in for Poole ‘unshackled’, though not as ‘the instrument of my resentment if I felt any’.4
Lester died 25 Jan. 1802. His diaries and accounts showed him as first and foremost a Newfoundland merchant: the direction of the prevailing wind was daily noted by him until three days before his death.5 He reported his activities as an alderman of Poole with relish; but did not chart his visits to Parliament, which evidently made as little impression on him as he did on Westminster.
He was in the true and more comprehensive sense of the word what was formerly called in this country a real merchant. The numerous ships which traversed the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean freighted with his goods, were his own, built by his workmen on his own plantations, and fitted and victualled from his store.6