BECKETT, John (1775-1847), of Somerby Park, Lincs.
Available from Cambridge University Press
Family and Education
b. 17 May 1775, 1st s. of John Beckett, banker, of Leeds, Yorks. and Somerby Park and Mary, da. of Rt. Rev. Christopher Wilson, bp. of Bristol. educ. Leeds g.s.; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1791; I. Temple, 1795; M. Temple, 1799, called 1803. m. 20 Jan. 1817, Lady Anne Lowther, da. of William Lowther†, 1st earl of Lonsdale, s.p. suc. fa. as 2nd bt. 18 Sept. 1826. d. 31 May 1847.
Under-sec. of state for home affairs Feb. 1806-June 1817; judge adv.-gen. June 1817-May 1827, Feb. 1828-Dec. 1830, Dec. 1834-Apr. 1835; PC 11 July 1817; ld. of treasury Nov.-Dec. 1834; bencher, I. Temple 1840.
Lt. Temple vols. 1798; ensign Law Assoc. vols. 1803.
Beckett reputedly owed his appointment as under-secretary at the home office in 1806 to Joseph Allen, a fellow of Trinity and later bishop of Bristol and Ely, who recommended him to the 2nd Earl Spencer as ‘a clever working Cambridge man’.1 It was partly in recognition of his official services that his father, a banker and sometime mayor of Leeds, received a baronetcy in 1813. He inherited this title in 1826, along with a sizeable Lincolnshire estate and the residue of personalty sworn under £14,000.2 His appointment in 1817 as judge advocate in Lord Liverpool’s ministry was attributed to the influence of his father-in-law, the 1st earl of Lonsdale, who returned him for Cockermouth the following year and again in 1820.3 That higher office eluded him was owing in part to his low profile in the House, where he spoke rarely, and almost exclusively on matters relating to his office. His political character, described by an obituarist as that of ‘a zealous and consistent Conservative’, emerges clearly from his letters to his brother-in-law Lord Lowther*.4
He declined to answer a question about soldiers’ allowances in the absence of the colonial under-secretary, 19 June 1820. He defended the chief magistrate of Bow Street against a charge of negligence, which he did not regard in any case as a matter for the House, 17 Oct. The following month he was reportedly pleased at the government’s decision to refuse Queen Caroline’s demands for a palace and thought he detected a shift in public opinion away from her. In December 1820 he opined to Lowther that Canning’s resignation would ‘weaken the government’ and that ‘Peel is the best card they can play’, though he subsequently predicted that ‘political arrangements’ would have to wait ‘until the queen is done, or she has done us’. He privately condemned Wilberforce as an ‘imposter’ for breaking a pledge to vote in defence of ministers’ conduct towards the queen, 6 Feb. 1821.5 He divided against Catholic relief, 28 Feb. According to the Whig Henry Grey Bennet* he ‘made a very weak and bad speech’ in defence of the magistrates’ use of troops at the Carlisle election, 15 Mar., ‘for which he was handsomely trimmed by Calcraft’.6 In reply to an unsuccessful motion to reduce the allowance for the judge advocate’s office, 11 Apr., he detailed the increase in its duties and compared the remuneration unfavourably with that enjoyed by a circuit judge.7 He evidently much resented imputations that he was a corrupt sinecurist, maintaining in a letter two years later that ‘I have scrupulously avoided helping myself when I could have done it and ... have never received a favour ... for any of my family connections since I belonged to the government’.8 After a debate on Hindu widows had prevented a question on Orange Lodges being raised, 20 June, he promised Lowther to attend the next day, ‘to prevent your being burnt alive for your bigotry if I can’; in fact he made no recorded intervention in the brief exchange that occurred.9 In July 1821 he vacated his seat for another Lonsdale nominee, and in Grey Bennet’s opinion he had ‘judged wisely’, for had he remained he ‘would have been worried out of his life: he is very unguarded, cannot speak at all [and] gets into a scrape every time he opens his mouth’.10
Though no longer in Parliament, Beckett’s retention of his office enabled him to act as a conduit between his patron and the government;11 he and Lowther continued to exchange court and ministerial gossip. Following the leader of the Commons Lord Londonderry’s suicide in August 1822, he noted that ‘the niche he has vacated will not be supplied easily’. He mentioned Canning’s pretensions without enthusiasm, but admitted that his going to India (which he did not now expect) would leave the government too dependent on Peel to represent it in the House.12 He visited Paris in the summer of 1822, approved of France’s suppression of the constitutional government in Spain the following year, and in 1825 fraternized with Polignac, later the instrument of Charles X’s reactionary policies.13 At home he promoted the use of treasury funds in December 1823 to assist the Star newspaper in combating the spread of radical ideas.14 About this time he made plain his disquiet at the drift of the administration to Charles Arbuthnot*, whose wife recorded:
He was quite sorry to find out how much Lord Liverpool had lost the confidence of his staunchest supporters by his conduct last session, tampering with the liberals and giving himself up so completely into Canning’s hands. He said that Ld. L. fancied this made him popular and that he was grossly mistaken for that the people of this country were aristocratic and especially monarchical, that they liked a strong government and look with suspicion at any courting of revolutionists. ‘Ld. Liverpool’ said Mr. Beckett, ‘has lost two or three holes in his stirrup leather this year; and if he don’t mind, he will lose the rest next year. That is the man’ (continued he, pointing at the duke of Wellington, who was standing some distance off) ‘in whom the country confide, and they admire him much more now as a statesman than they ever did even as a general’.15
Early in 1824 Beckett reported from Brighton that the king’s infirmity would prevent him travelling to London to open Parliament, which would ‘annoy Liverpool and Co. a great deal’, as ‘they must come down about the speech’. Denied, to his irritation, a preview of its contents, he warned that if the declared policy were not ‘plain, downright non-interference about Spain, the funds will go to the devil’. He had found that in the north of England ‘there is not the same confidence in Robinson [the chancellor of the exchequer] as was placed in Van[sittart]’.16 In the autumn of 1825 he declared, with typical defiance, that ‘Protestant feeling is at a better price than three per cents and is rising’.17 He was critical of the government’s response to the financial crisis early in 1826, believing that without a Bank of England issue to fill the void, the restriction placed on the circulation of country banks’ small notes constituted mere ‘trifling with the mercantile interest’; he greeted the concession on this point as ‘better late than never’. On the growing influence of liberals in the cabinet, which he detected in the recognition afforded to ‘South American cut-throats’, he inclined towards Wellington’s view that ‘it is best to let some people have rope enough’.18 He had inquired unsuccessfully after an opening for Lonsdale’s borough of Haslemere in January 1823 and he was returned there at the general election of 1826, when he took an active part in the elections for Yorkshire and Westmorland.19
In the autumn of 1826 Beckett privately expressed disapproval of the government’s emergency measures to admit foreign corn and produced figures to show the inadequacy of the 15s. duty which he believed was in contemplation. He warned of the folly of relying on imports and declared that to free trade doctrines, and to ‘Canning’s liberal system ... John Bull will answer "We will not wait for the experiment"’. Against this background of innovation, he mourned the approaching death of the duke of York.20 He divided against Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and, according to John Wilson Croker*, he was privy to the king’s avowal of immovability on this issue, 18 Mar. 1827.21 He defended the use of corporal punishment in the army, 12 Mar. Following Liverpool’s stroke he wrote to Lowther trusting that Canning would not be allowed to succeed to the premiership without
stipulations and conditions that will fetter him extremely. Peel and the duke of Wellington must insist on the king being protected against the Catholic question, and if he does enter into these conditions and similar ones he ... must war with the opposition and rely on us necessarily for support in the future. So his situation will be one of dependence ... upon us, and so far so good.22
Urging this line on Peel, he assured him that if Canning did not agree to ‘terms of restriction’, resignation ‘would not be degrading in any shape to you and your friends’. He observed that ‘the anti-Catholic party quite dread the notion of a Catholic advocate being premier, with the treasury patronage at his disposal, and they rely on those who they have supported upon this vital question for protection in this present crisis’. Peel notified him of his intention to resign, and Beckett followed him out.23 Canning, anxious to secure Lonsdale’s adhesion to his ministry, was prepared to leave the office of judge advocate unfilled in case Beckett chose to return to it, but he was not to be tempted, either by this or by a home office post. ‘There is a regular siege opened at you and me’, he observed to Lowther, whom he urged to stand firm. He also reported Wellington’s conviction that Canning would have to turn to the Whigs, and judged that he would be ‘utterly damned if he did’.24 He regarded Canning’s successor Lord Goderich as ‘so cajolable a person’ that ‘one cannot count upon what he will or will not do’, and he believed the cabinet lacked the experience to deal with the pressing concerns of Turkey and Portugal and ‘must strengthen itself somehow with respectability and weight of character’. He could not foresee the return of those, like himself, who had earlier walked out, and noted that Wellington was waiting in the wings.25 He viewed the rows that preceded the break-up of Goderich’s ministry in January 1828 as a ‘struggle between right and wrong, between honesty and roguery’, in which William Huskisson*, Lord Holland and the Whigs were cast as the forces of darkness. He was involved at this time in manoeuvres to oust William Mudford, the Canningite editor of the Courier. He was convinced that ‘if the king were left to himself he has even now more confidence in ... Wellington than anybody’.26 After Wellington was summoned to form a government, Beckett responded equably to the rumoured retention of the Whigs, the duke of Devonshire and Lord Carlisle, who would ‘do no mischief in a good Tory cabinet’, but he resented the likely admission of Huskisson and ‘all his followers’ and hoped Wellington would ‘not permit the Protestant leaders to be so humiliated’. He expected a cabinet post either for himself, Lowther or their ally the earl of Westmorland. However, Lowther observed that while his brother-in-law’s ‘talents and acquirements would enable him to perform any office with credit’, unfortunately he had ‘such a proverbial shyness and indisposition to say a word in the House ... even under attack, that inferior persons get over his head’. His failure ‘to believe in his own deficiency’ and take remedial action, Lowther continued, made it ‘impossible to advance his pretensions’, and his anxiety for office might even lead him to plot a course closer to the ministry than Lowther intended.27 A correspondent of Lord Sidmouth reported Beckett’s disappointment when he returned to the judge advocate’s office and his ambition to be Irish secretary, for which post ‘he over-appreciates his fitness’. Harriet Arbuthnot was still more dismissive, recording that ‘like all the high Tories he is very discontented and thinks himself ill used’, but adding, ‘God knows what he wanted ... he is a shabby, vulgar fellow and it is no matter, for he is very stupid too’.28
Beckett enjoyed a quiet re-election for Haslemere following his appointment. He divided against Catholic relief, 12 May 1828, and took some comfort from the defeat of this measure in the Lords, but he observed to Lowther that ‘from the tenor of the duke’s speech, the Catholics will expect that something is about to be tried to settle the question’. At this juncture it appears that his hopes of the coveted Irish office were falsely raised.29 In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, expected him to side ‘with government’ for Catholic emancipation, but Lowther reported that he was ‘low spirited’ at the prospect of its enactment. He presented a hostile petition from Haslemere, 8 Feb., and later that month was supposed by one cabinet minister to be again the repository of the king’s confidences on the subject.30 According to Lord Palmerston*, he ‘went away’ before the division on emancipation, 6 Mar., and subsequently offered his resignation, explaining to Wellington that he had abstained because he was unwilling to oppose the government in which he served.31 Lowther assumed that Beckett would continue to abstain on the issue, but in fact he voted against emancipation, 18, 30 Mar. Nevertheless, after a period of suspense, he was ‘entirely absolved’ by the premier and invited to remain.32 At the end of the year he bemoaned the ‘general gloom’ in the country.33 Like his Lowther connections, Beckett evidently found it hard to reciprocate Wellington’s forgiveness, and in January 1830 Mrs. Arbuthnot suspected him of treachery, noting that he ‘is a party to all the duke of Cumberland’s intrigues’. She complained that ‘Sir John and Lady Anne Beckett pass their time in abusing [Wellington], running down his government and saying it cannot last’, and she strongly pressed the premier not to ‘promote’ him ‘to the mint’.34 On 22 Feb. he justified the expenditure of the judge advocate’s office, by detailing the economies made and assuring the House that he was ‘as much alive to the distress of the country, and as convinced of the necessity for ... retrenchments, as any man’; Joseph Hume, his interrogator, felt bound to admit the efficiency of his work. In March he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the Speaker’s chair.35 Early in April 1830 he complained to Lowther from Somerby that he was ‘tired of being sick’ with lumbago and ‘something very like gout’, and thanked him for presenting petitions on his behalf, adding that ‘agricultural matters go on very badly’.36 During George IV’s last illness he speculated on the possibility of an Ultra ministry headed by Cumberland, remarking that ‘I should never be surprised to see a breeze spring up somehow or other’. He also deplored the state of the Commons, which ‘seems to be sitting till 2 o’clock every night, but doing nothing’, and thought it was ‘pretty clear that without Peel, things could not go on’. However, a few days after the king’s death he told William Vesey Fitzgerald* that he did not expect to see a change of ministry.37 He came in again for Haslemere at the general election that summer.
Beckett advised Lowther that the significance of the revolution in France should not be underestimated, observing, ‘think how easily dynasties are changed!!!’38 He was of course listed among the ministry’s ‘friends’ and voted with them in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830. In early January 1831 he questioned Wellington’s indispensability and raised the suggestion, supported by the duke of Buckingham, of Lonsdale leading the opposition in the Lords; nothing more was heard of this. He anticipated a measure of reform from Lord Grey’s ministry at least as extensive as that earlier propounded by lord chancellor Brougham.39 He divided against the second reading of the government’s bill, 22 Mar., and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. Returned again for Haslemere at the ensuing general election, he voted against the second reading of the reintroduced bill, 6 July, and the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July. He wrote to Lowther on the question of Belgian independence, 15 Aug., adopting a pro-Dutch stance and hoping that the allied powers would shake the British government from its ‘dilly-dally system’ into a firmer line against France. In the same letter he reported ‘a blow up in the cabinet about the reform bill’ and alleged that Grey was in thrall to his Irish supporters. The following month he predicted that the outcome of the Dorset by-election would be ‘of immense consequence’ and, as a witness of the Lords debates, he was confident that victory in the Upper House was ‘not a matter of much doubt’. He doubted that Grey would have the stomach to continue, but ‘those about him don’t mean to give up their offices if they can help it, and so they will try to keep him in’.40 He voted against the bill’s passage, 21 Sept. Following the Lords’ rejection of the measure he wrote to a relative in ‘a most desponding key’, and in November he warned Lowther that continued resistance by the peers could not be counted on without the support of the Tory ‘Waverers’, who ‘will go a considerable way in reform, take my word for it’. Before planning any further steps, he advised that they should await reaction to the government’s proclamation against the political unions, and then
make the most of their turning on their friends in every paper we have at command. We should soon thus discover what turn the public feeling is likely to take before we commit ourselves on the reform question at all. But at any rate I hope we shall be told what the government call a modified bill before we open our lips ... I have every confidence in [Wellington] and Peel, but in Harrowby and Wharncliffe none at all.41
Disappointed of any substantial concession, he divided against the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, its passage into committee, 20 Jan., the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. During the ‘days of May’ he predicted the creation of 70 peers.42 He voted against ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July 1832.
With Haslemere disfranchised by the Reform Act, Beckett was anxious to find another seat before the dissolution in 1832. He searched widely for an opening, but decided to leave Beverley to another Tory hopeful and found Evesham in the possession of ‘Dissenters and Quakers and radicals’. Friends advised him against a contest at Hull, where his connection with the Aire and Calder navigation might be deemed to conflict with the interests of the port, and he blamed his failure to fight Pontefract on the reluctance of the earl of Mexborough to spend money.43 In the end he contested East Retford, where he was narrowly defeated. A similar fate befell him at a by-election for Leeds in February 1834, but he was successful there at the general election the following year, after he had been appointed to his old office in Peel’s ministry. He could not conceal his distaste at fighting a populous constituency where, as he informed Wellington, he was ‘compelled to talk as much liberalism as I could in any way afford to do’.44 He was defeated in 1837. He died in May 1847. According to an obituarist, he had ‘latterly’ taken ‘very little interest in the political world’, concerning himself instead with the family bank of Beckett, Blayds and Company and with railway promotion. His title and Lincolnshire estate passed to his younger brother Thomas Beckett (1779-1872).45
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Howard Spencer
- 1. Three Diaries, 212.
- 2. PROB 11/1720/2; IR26/1076/1514; Gent. Mag. (1826), ii. 372-3; White’s Gazetteer of Lincs. (1842), 49.
- 3. Canning and Friends, ii. 52.
- 4. Gent. Mag. (1847), ii. 426-7.
- 5. Plumer Ward Mems. ii. 98; Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 17 Dec. 1820, 4 Jan., n.d. [Feb.] 1821.
- 6. HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 37.
- 7. The Times, 12 Apr. 1821.
- 8. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 22 Oct. 1823.
- 9. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 20 June 1821.
- 10. Grey Bennet diary, 116a.
- 11. Lonsdale mss, Liverpool to Lonsdale, 23 Dec. 1823, 15 Aug. 1824.
- 12. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 12, 13, 22 Aug. 1822.
- 13. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 2 Sept. 1822, 30 July 1823, 17 Nov. 1825.
- 14. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 25 Dec. 1823; A. Aspinall, Politics and the Press, 100.
- 15. Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 271-2.
- 16. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther [Jan. 1824].
- 17. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 20 Oct. 1825.
- 18. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 9, 15, 17, 26 Feb. 1826.
- 19. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 30 Jan. 1823, 3, 7, 22, 25, 27 June 1826.
- 20. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 30 Sept., 27 Oct., 26 Dec. 1826.
- 21. Canning’s Ministry, 52.
- 22. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 10 Apr. 1827.
- 23. Add. 40393, ff. 187-8, 191.
- 24. Add. 48406, ff. 118, 121; 52447, f. 107; Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 18, 19 Apr. 1827; Canning’s Ministry, 133, 180.
- 25. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 20, 26 Sept., 3 Oct. 1827.
- 26. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 6, 7 Jan. 1828; Aspinall, 223.
- 27. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 8, 15 Jan., Lowther to Lonsdale, 16, 21 Jan. 1828.
- 28. Devon RO, Sidmouth mss, John Pearse to Sidmouth, 25 Jan. 1828; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 176.
- 29. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 11 June 1828; TNA 30/29/9/5/71.
- 30. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 5 Feb. 1829; Ellenborough Diary, i. 362, 385.
- 31. Southampton Univ. Lib. Broadlands mss PP/D/5; Wellington mss WP1/1002/10.
- 32. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 15, 17, 19 Mar., 16 Apr. 1829.
- 33. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 23 Dec. 1829.
- 34. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 326, 329.
- 35. Ellenborough Diary, ii. 208.
- 36. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 7 Apr. 1830.
- 37. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, n.d. [June 1830]; Wellington mss WP1/1121/29.
- 38. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 31 July 1830.
- 39. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 7, 13 Jan. 1831.
- 40. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 15 Aug., n.d. bis [Sept.] 1831.
- 41. Spencer-Stanhope Letter-Bag, ii. 140; Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 23 Nov. 1831.
- 42. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 9 May 1832.
- 43. Ibid. Beckett to Lowther, 21, 31 July, 6, 30 Aug., 30 Oct., 4 Dec. 1832.
- 44. Wellington Pol. Corresp. ii. 14, 44, 592.
- 45. Gent. Mag. (1847), i. 547; ii. 426-7; PROB 11/2058/547; IR26/1762/669.