BUTTERWORTH, Joseph (1770-1826), of 43 Fleet Street, London; 7 Bedford Square, Mdx. and Clapham, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1812 - 1818
1820 - 1826

Family and Education

b. 1770, 3rd s. of Rev. John Butterworth (d. 1803), Baptist minister, of Jordan’s Well and Cow Lane, Coventry, Warws. and 2nd w. Ann née Heap (d. 1808). educ. by his fa.; Coventry free sch. m. 13 Oct. 1791, Anne, da. of John Cooke, clothier, of Trowbridge, Wilts., 1s. d. 30 June 1826.

Offices Held

Treasurer, Wesleyan Missionary Soc. 1819-d.


Butterworth was an immensely successful London law publisher and bookseller. A convert to Wesleyan Methodism in the early 1790s, he became one of its leading lay spokesmen and was an indefatigable promoter of its associated good causes. He was friendly with William Wilberforce* and members of the Clapham Sect, whose Evangelical zeal he shared.1 His daughter-in-law, recalling his ‘kind and affectionate disposition’ and the ‘very miscellaneous’ society which frequented his Bloomsbury house, wrote that his

conversation was generally directed to some interesting topic, and he had great tact in drawing out what others best knew. His correspondence was general and extensive; he wrote with fluency and facility ... He had considerable talents for business, and with untiring industry he possessed the art of influencing those with whom he had to do, and bringing them round to the practical opinions which he deemed important. His mind was capacious and expansive, rather than deep and logical; he was a man of earnest piety and unbounded liberality.2

At the general election of 1820 Butterworth, who had been turned out of his seat for his native town in 1818, stood for Dover as a candidate professing ‘real independence’:

I shall feel myself pledged to act and vote in Parliament with freedom and perfect independence; unbiased by party prejudice, and agreeably to the dictates of my conscience, guided by the best consideration I can give to the various subjects which may present themselves for determination.

When one of the sitting Members shied away from a contest he came in unopposed.3

Butterworth was a conscientious, if wordy and sometimes sanctimonious Member, but poor health periodically interfered with his attendance. He pursued an idiosyncratic line, although he probably divided with government rather more than might appear from the surviving division lists, which contain comparatively few ministerial majorities: it was later said, for example, that he broke a promise to his constituents by voting against Brougham’s motion to take the droits of admiralty out of the hands of the crown, 5 May 1820.4 He voted against government on the civil list, 8 May, and the additional Scottish baron of exchequer, 15 May, but on 9 May, claiming to be ‘as little connected with ministers’ as any Member, he opposed Wood’s call for inquiry into the role of an alleged agent provocateur in the Cato Street conspiracy: ‘Speeches and publications of an inflammatory kind, addressed to the worst passions of the people, seduced them from their duty, and caused those disturbances which were so much to be deplored’. The Tory backbencher Henry Bankes thought he ‘afforded some very important information’ and ‘censured with becoming disgust’ Woods’s ‘intrusion’.5 He presented a petition against Catholic relief, of which he was an inflexible opponent, 31 May.6 The death of his wife, 12 June 1820, on account of which he was granted six weeks’ leave of absence, was a heavy blow to him.7

Butterworth, like Wilberforce and the ‘Saints’, favoured restoration of Queen Caroline’s name to the liturgy, and he voted to this effect, 23, 26 Jan. 1821.8 On 31 Jan. he denied having acted from political motives and said he had ‘treated the question as an abstract one’. He was absent from the division on the opposition censure motion, 6 Feb., though the radical Whig Henry Grey Bennet* was under the impression that he had voted in the ministerial majority.9 When presenting a Dover petition in support of restoration to the liturgy and parliamentary reform, 12 Feb., he sought to correct ‘a gross misrepresentation’ of his earlier speech.10 He secured returns of weekend newspaper publication in London, 31 Jan., 2 Apr.11 He was given a month’s leave because of ill health, 19 Feb., and so missed the division on Catholic relief, 28 Feb.; but on 12 Mar. he presented a hostile petition and explained that his opposition rested on the Catholics’ ‘intolerant spirit in civil and religious affairs, and their dangerous acknowledgement of a foreign supreme jurisdiction over this country’. He voted in Hume’s minority of 29 for a revision of salaries, 30 Mar., but was forced by recurrent illness to take further periods of leave, 11 Apr., 10 May. He was present to vote against ministers on the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June. Alarmed at the prospect of disorder if the queen was allowed to gain access to the coronation, he condemned Hume and Wood for egging her on, 10 July. Grey Bennet thought he ‘had better stick to his law publications’, for ‘even to print the nonsense of others is better than to talk it oneself’.12 He was relieved that the ceremony, which he attended, ‘passed off to admiration’, as he told his son Joseph Henry:

I happened to take a walk out for air and recreation, just as the queen was at one of the doors ... It was a pitiable sight to behold the queen of England parleying with the meanest officer of civil power, and having her claims honestly refused ... The case ... is a striking lesson ... that her degraded state is not for want of rank, but for want of virtue. I could not look at her without distress and pity ... There were not a dozen persons present besides her attendants; indeed the whole was so admirably managed by a powerful military force, that there was the utmost order and regularity.13

Butterworth divided with government against more extensive tax reductions, 11 Feb., but he sided with opposition on the same subject, 21 Feb., and voted for retrenchment in the divisions of 28 Feb., 1, 13 Mar., 2, 15 May 1822. He was in small minorities on the Barbados duties, 25 Mar., and abolition of the lottery tax, 1 July, but he voted against repeal of the salt duties, 28 June. He opposed inquiry into the disturbances at the queen’s funeral, 28 Feb., arguing that the military had only intervened in self-defence. He welcomed the colonial trade bill as a further nail in the coffin of the slave trade, 1 Apr. He voted against the Catholic peers bill, 30 Apr., and presented a Dissenters’ petition against it, 21 May.14 On 13 May he brought up a Bethnal Green churchwardens’ petition against the remission of Henry Hunt’s† gaol sentence, but it was deemed inadmissible.15 He voted for inquiry into the government of the Ionian Islands, 14 May, and was in minorities on Irish tithes, 19 June, and the conduct of the lord advocate towards the Scottish press, 25 June; but he supported the Irish insurrection bill as ‘a measure of mercy towards the peasantry of Ireland’, 15 July. He voted for the public house licensing bill, 27 June, and presented petitions against the beer retail bill, 15, 17 July.16 He voted for investigation of the Calcutta bankers’ grievances, 4 July. On 31 July 1822 he drew attention to a clause inserted by the Lords in the Marriage Act amendment bill which would inconvenience some Dissenting groups, but was satisfied with Phillimore’s explanation.17

Butterworth joined in compliments to Frederick Robinson* on his promotion from the board of trade to the exchequer, 12 Feb. 1823.18 On the revised marriage bill, 14 Feb., he observed that ‘many new obstacles had been thrown in the way of marriage’. He opposed Hume’s attempt to reduce the grant for the Irish yeomanry, 10 Mar., and his amendment to the national debt reduction bill, 13 Mar.; but he voted in a minority of 27 for a cut in the ordnance estimates, 17 Mar.19 He divided with ministers against repeal of the assessed taxes, 18 Mar., and of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr.; but opposed the Irish glebe houses grant, 11 Apr., 1 July, and voted for inquiry into the legal proceedings against the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr. In the ensuing committee of the whole House, 23 May, he clashed with Brougham over the latter’s bullying of an unco-operative witness, though he disclaimed any wish to condone secret oaths. He subsequently made a fool of himself by repairing to the library to seek a scriptural authority on this subject and returning to the chamber to report, inaccurately, his findings. He presented anti-Catholic petitions, 16 Apr., and, denouncing Nugent’s Catholic franchise bill, 30 June, provoked Hume to condemn Methodists as ‘Protestant Jesuits’, an expression of which he took a dim view.20 He voted for Russell’s parliamentary reform motion, 24 Apr. He supported inquiry into the Newfoundland fisheries, 14 May. On Wilberforce’s call for investigation of slavery in Honduras, 11 July, he resorted to one of his favourite debating ploys by reading extracts from his correspondence describing the cruelties perpetrated there.21

In the autumn of 1823 Butterworth, not for the first time, toured Ireland, to gauge the progress of Protestant proselytism. To his son’s father-in-law he wrote:

We saw much of splendour and much of poverty. Great refinement, and deplorable ignorance ... The two great causes of the miseries of Ireland are evidently popery and prodigality; the former has debased and degraded the mind, and the latter has oppressed and enslaved the civil condition of the people ... The Roman Catholics are very active in opposing the Protestant exertions, and the latter are equally vigilant in sending light into the abodes of darkness. It is really diverting to hear how assiduous the Protestants are to educate the children of the poor, and how determined the priests are to drive the children from the schools; however, great good is doing notwithstanding all the opposition, and the scriptures are silently working their way into the cabin.

He later reported his findings to his fellow anti-Catholic Lord Colchester.22 On the introduction of the Irish clergy residence bill, 16 Feb. 1824, he urged ministers to take stronger action to supply the deficiency of Protestant churches in Ireland, which allowed Catholicism to spread by default. He called for the appointment of a royal commission to investigate the current system of ecclesiastical preferment in Ireland, particularly in the diocese of Killaloe, 6 Apr.23 Defending the grant for the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in Ireland and speaking as ‘a Protestant wishing to produce a moral generation’, 9 Apr., he dismissed the idea of ‘general instruction without scriptural education’. He supported the grant for building new churches, ‘not on account of the increase of Dissenters, but on account of the increase of infidelity’, 12 Apr. He deplored the ‘ridicule’ with which some Members treated religious issues, and which ‘did more harm than the publications of Carlile, Hone, and people of that description’. He excited mirth by presenting a fishmongers and poulterers’ petition against the sale of mackerel on Sunday, 15 Apr. He voted for Newport’s attempt to outlaw pluralities in the Irish church, 27 May. He criticized details of the government’s proposals for regulating the silk industry, 8, 15 Mar.24 He voted for a transfer of the tax on beer to malt, 15 Mar., to postpone the grant for repairs to Windsor Castle, 5 Apr., and against the beer duties bill, 24 May, when he said that ‘great injury to public morals would arise from allowing persons to assemble for the purpose of drinking beer without the control of magistrates’. He opposed the St. Katharine’s Docks bill, which would ‘entail ruin on thousands’, 2 Apr., and presented a petition for legislation to prevent cruelty to animals, 15 Apr.25 He was in the minority of 20 against authorizing the export of long wool, 21 May. When supporting the grant for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospels in the colonies, 12 Mar., he admitted that it had been ‘exposed to some atrocious impostures, which ought to be inquired into’, but defended its ‘general utility’ and refuted allegations that its missionaries spread ‘fanatical and dangerous doctrines’. He presented several petitions for the abolition of slavery that month.26 He brought up petitions for inquiry into the prosecution of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 28 May, 1 June, and voted for Brougham’s motion to that effect, 11 June.27 In a discussion on abolition, 15 June 1824, he exonerated the missionaries from ‘any disposition to interfere with the political concerns of the colonies’.

In December 1824 Butterworth, who had voted for the Irish insurrection bill, 14 June, told Colchester that all his Irish correspondents agreed with him that ‘a crisis is at hand’, with many Protestants fleeing to the towns for safety. He claimed, too, to have accidentally uncovered the existence of a Catholic Association in England, a membership card of which ‘fell out of the pocket of a labourer in the factory of a friend of mine near Soho Square’.28 On the address, 4 Feb. 1825, when he welcomed the proposed suppression of the Irish Catholic Association, he strenuously denied Fitzgerald’s assertion that Methodist subscriptions were the same in principle as the Catholic rent: ‘the Methodists had never interfered in any political question, and the objects of the subscriptions were entirely religious’. On 10 Feb. Denman, also referring to Methodist subscriptions, made fun of the absence of Butterworth, ‘whom he had lately seen dozing on the benches, and who had probably since retired elsewhere to enjoy a more comfortable repose’. At the end of the debate on the introduction of the Irish unlawful societies bill, 15 Feb., Butterworth, who had privately congratulated Wilberforce on raising ‘the moral tone of the House of Commons, as well as of the nation at large’,29 ignored calls of ‘question’ to defend Methodist subscriptions. His attempt to read a letter to prove his assertion that the Catholic rent was extorted ended in farce when an irreverent Member interjected, ‘Amen’. When Richard Martin sought leave to introduce a bill to abolish bear-baiting, 24 Feb., Butterworth urged him to extend it to ‘the savage, abominable, and unChristian practice of prize-fighting’. He voted against Catholic relief, 1 Mar. He wrote to the home secretary Peel to obtain a hearing before the select committee on Ireland for the Rev. John Burnett, an Independent minister from Cork whose views accorded with his own.30 He took a fortnight’s leave on account of ill health, 15 Apr., but was present to oppose the relief bill, 10 May, when, after claiming that his correspondence indicated that Irish Protestant opinion was overwhelmingly hostile to emancipation, he admitted under pressure that he had ‘sent a circular to all parts of Ireland’ in search of this information. He supported the protest against the expulsion of a Wesleyan missionary from Barbados, 23 June 1825, and, as treasurer of the Wesleyan Missionary Society, replied to Wilmot Horton’s criticism of their activities and welcomed Canning’s conciliatory amendment. A month later he was recuperating from illness at Bath.31 At the end of October 1825 his son unsuccessfully sought Peel’s intercession with the lord lieutenant of Gloucestershire to secure his father-in-law’s appointment as a magistrate, ‘in consideration of my father’s general support of the existing administration (and he means to come in at the next election) during so long a period’. His threat to raise the matter in the House through ‘some opposition Member’ proved empty.32

Butterworth seconded Martin’s motion for leave to introduce a bill to prevent the ill treatment of cattle, 21 Feb. 1826, but again argued that he would do more good by curbing prize-fighting. Later that day he embarrassed himself in exchanges with Denman and Peel over a Dover municipal officer. He voted with Denman in condemnation of the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar., and presented anti-slavery petitions, 22 Mar., 20 Apr.33 He was a teller for the minority against the Finchley-Marylebone road bill, 6 Mar. Irish education continued to bring him to his feet. He maintained that ‘moral instruction alone could be of use to the lower orders in Ireland’, 20 Mar., when he voted in the minority of 19 for Newport’s amendment to the grant for Irish chartered schools. In this he was at one with Hume, but he defended the Kildare Place Society and the circulation of tracts against the latter’s attacks, 22, 23 Mar.34 Opposing reception of an Irish Catholic petition for subsidy of their education, 14 Apr., he condemned the priests, who ‘prevented the spreading of truth and morality’ and ‘encouraged disorder and opposition to the laws’. He made no bones about declaring his ‘zeal for proselytism’, for it was ‘proselytism from ignorance and vice, to morality and knowledge’. Later, denying an accusation that he was hostile to episcopacy, he stated that he was ‘a member of the established church, and sincerely attached to it from conviction’. Butterworth divided against government on the salary of the president of the board of trade, 7, 10 Apr., for reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 13 Apr., and for a general measure of reform, 27 Apr. He favoured revision of the corn laws, 18 Apr., and inquiry into the liberty of the press in India, 9 May. He spoke in defence of Colonel Arthur, former lieutenant-general of Honduras, 11 May. His last known speech in the House was on Brougham’s motion for early consideration of the abolition of colonial slavery, 19 May 1826: he spoke ‘for some time’, but cries of ‘question’ and incessant ‘loud coughing’ prevented the reporters from gleaning more than his opinion that ‘although all persons must rejoice that a church establishment had been sent out to the West Indies, it would prove of no use, unless missionary exertions were also encouraged’.

Butterworth had become unpopular with a section of his constituents, who considered him to be too fond of voting with government, and at the general election of 1826 he was challenged by a Whig. Despite continued poor health and a punishing schedule of travel and meetings in connection with his philanthropic activities, he was determined to contest the issue. He stressed his support for the ‘Protestant constitution’, yet professed to be ‘opposed to all measures which might lead to intolerance in religion, and to arbitrary power in the state’. He favoured such an adjustment of the corn laws ‘as might equally protect our agriculture and extend our manufacturing and commercial interests’. At a meeting of Canterbury out voters he tried to substantiate his claim to ‘genuine independence’:

He observed that the word independence was much hackneyed, that it was frequently applied to those who were uniformly opposed to the ministers; but that it could not be properly so applied, and that when its application was just it must be applied to those who were perfectly unshackled and unfettered by either party. In such a situation he conceived himself to be placed.35

Butterworth, who was reported to have declined an invitation to stand again for Coventry, had high hopes of success, but the situation was complicated by the intervention of a fourth candidate, also hostile to Catholic relief. In the event, he finished a very distant third.36 According to friends, he regarded his defeat as a blessing in disguise, and looked forward to

the additional leisure he should have to devote, partly to reading and retirement, and partly to the promotion of religious and benevolent objects, and ‘especially’, as he said, ‘to the great cause of missions’.

In fact his days were numbered, for he reached 7 Bedford Square from Dover in a state of exhaustion on 22 June 1826, fell ill with brain fever, and died there on the 30th.37 In his will, dated 3 Nov. 1820, he made many bequests to religious and charitable organizations and devised legacies in excess of £70,000, including £57,000 to his son. His personalty was sworn under £120,000.38 Joseph Henry Butterworth took over the Fleet Street enterprise, but he died in Genoa, ‘aged 36’, 27 Oct. 1828. His personalty was sworn under £90,000.39 The business was subsequently sold to Messrs. Saunders and Benning, but the family’s law publishing tradition was carried on at 7 Fleet Street by Joseph’s nephew and former assistant Henry Butterworth (1786-1860), who had been running an independent concern there for over ten years.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Oxford DNB; HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 348-9; H.K. Jones, Butterworths; J.B.B. Clarke, Adam Clarke, i. 263; ii.18-20; Blackwell Dict. of Evangelical Biog. ed. D.M. Lewis.
  • 2. M. Butterworth, Portraiture of a Father, 12, 14.
  • 3. Kentish Chron. 18, 25 Feb., 7, 10 Mar.1820.
  • 4. Ibid. 4 Apr. 1826.
  • 5. Dorset RO D/BKL, Bankes jnl. 117 (9 May 1820).
  • 6. The Times, 1 June 1820.
  • 7. Ibid. 13 June 1820; Clarke, iii. 1-5.
  • 8. Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 115; Black Bk. (1823), p. 143.
  • 9. HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 15.
  • 10. The Times, 13 Feb.1821.
  • 11. Ibid. 1 Feb., 3 Apr. 1821.
  • 12. Grey Bennet diary, 116a.
  • 13. Butterworth, 197-8.
  • 14. The Times, 22 May 1822.
  • 15. Ibid. 14 May 1822.
  • 16. Ibid. 16, 18 July 1822.
  • 17. Ibid. 1 Aug. 1822.
  • 18. Ibid. 13 Feb. 1823.
  • 19. Ibid. 15 Feb., 11 Mar. 1823.
  • 20. Ibid. 17 Apr. 1823.
  • 21. Ibid. 12 July 1823.
  • 22. Butterworth, 208-10; Colchester Diary, iii. 310.
  • 23. The Times, 7 Apr. 1824.
  • 24. Ibid. 16 Mar. 1824.
  • 25. Ibid. 16 Apr. 1824.
  • 26. Ibid. 12, 17, 26, 31 Mar. 1824.
  • 27. Ibid. 29 May, 2 June 1824.
  • 28. Colchester Diary, iii. 357-8.
  • 29. Life of Wilberforce, v. 239-40.
  • 30. Add. 40375, f. 56; PP (1825), viii. 381-93.
  • 31. Butterworth, 147.
  • 32. Add. 40382, ff. 202, 204, 277.
  • 33. The Times, 23 Mar., 21 Apr. 1826.
  • 34. Ibid. 24 Mar. 1826.
  • 35. Brougham mss, J. Smith to Brougham, 2 Sept. 1825; Kentish Chron. 28 Apr., 2, 26 May 1826.
  • 36. Kentish Chron. 9, 23 June 1826; T. W. Whitley, Parl. Rep. Coventry, 255.
  • 37. R. Watson, Sermon on Death of Joseph Butterworth, 9 July 1826, pp. 29-30.
  • 38. PROB 8/219 (26 July 1826); 11/1714/363.
  • 39. This corrects HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 349, where, on the basis of an erroneous statement made in Gent. Mag. (1860), i. 218 and perpetuated in Mem. Henry Butterworth (1861), 3, it is said that Joseph Henry predeceased his father. See Butterworth, 35-36, 151, 169; Gent. Mag. (1828), ii. 478; PROB 8/221 (29 Nov. 1828); 11/1747/631.