CURTIS, Sir William, 1st bt. (1752-1829), of 15 Lombard Street, London; Culland's Grove, Southgate, Mdx., and Cliff House, Ramsgate, Kent

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

Constituency

Dates

1790 - 1818
13 Feb. 1819 - 1820
1820 - 1826
1826 - 2 Dec. 1826

Family and Education

b. 25 Jan. 1752, 3rd s. of Joseph Curtis (d. 1771), sea biscuit baker, of Wapping, London and Mary, da. of Timothy Tennant of Wapping. m. 9 Nov. 1776, Anne, da. and coh. of Edward Constable of London, 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 2da. cr. bt. 23 Dec. 1802. d. 18 Jan. 1829.

Offices Held

Alderman, London 1785-d. (father of the City 1821-d.), sheriff 1788-9, ld. mayor 1795-6; member, Drapers’ Co. 1783-d.; coal meter, London 1791; treas. London Institution 1806-d.; recvr. and collector of orphans’ coal duties, London 1810-d.

Vice-pres. Hon. Artillery Co. 1793-5, pres. 1795-d., lt.-col. 1804-6, col. 1806-17; commr. exch. loan office 1798-1808; 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-d.; trustee, Pelican Life Assurance Office 1799-d.

Maj. commdt. Tower vols. 1798; lt.-col commdt. Loyal London vols. 1799, 1803-4.

Biography

Curtis, as one commentator put it, was ‘by nature fitted for the bustle of the world’.1 A ships’ biscuit baker turned merchant, with interests in shipping and the whaling trade, and senior partner in the Lombard Street banking house of Curtis, Robarts and Curtis (founded in 1792), he was prominent in City politics, where he led the Tory party, for about 40 years. While he cut a ludicrous figure with his massive paunch, drinker’s nose and untutored diction (he was supposedly the unwitting coiner of the tag ‘The Three R’s’), and was a godsend to the cartoonists, who mercilessly caricatured him as the epitome of civic gormandising and corruption, he was ruthless and courageous and nobody’s fool.2 Unexpectedly defeated in London, which he had represented for 28 years, at the general election of 1818 (Henry Bankes* ‘had not the least suspicion that ... [he] could have lost it while turtles, and turbot, and venison, are in request within the precincts of the City’)3, he found a refuge at Bletchingley as a paying guest on the Russell interest. He took a dim view of the London livery’s espousal of the popular side in the Peterloo controversy in the autumn of 1819, and in the court of aldermen, 12 Oct., he carried a loyal declaration:

At a time when the disaffected were raising the standard of sedition and rebellion ... it became the duty of the sober minded and loyal part of the community ... to declare their abhorrence of the libellous and blasphemous publications with which the country was inundated. The public distress he considered to be only of a temporary nature, and arising from the war only.4

Personal spite as well as political enmity seems to have inspired his promotion of the court’s attempted prosecution of Alderman Robert Waithman*, the radical Whig who had been returned for London at his expense in 1818, for disrupting the 1819 mayoral election.5 Waithman sought revenge by harrying Curtis in the court over his practice of retaining in his own hands, as collector and receiver of the orphans’ duties on coal, balances averaging £11,730 in each year since his appointment in 1810. Curtis, ignoring the fact that he had an efficient deputy who was paid £150 a year to do the work, argued that the annual yield to himself in interest of £500 was ‘not too large a remuneration for all the trouble of the collection, and the personal risk and the security he gave for the safety of the property’; but in response to the fuss he reduced his retained balances from three to two months. In late January 1820 he and his aldermanic cronies had the subject referred to a committee of their own court.6 Two weeks later, following the death of George III, he declared his candidature for London at the ensuing general election, promising to continue to resist ‘encroachments’ on the constitution.7 The orphans’ fund issue was used relentlessly against him by Waithman, who sought re-election; but he brazened it out at the nomination and on subsequent polling days left his second son Timothy to bear the brunt of the livery’s abuse. Benefiting from a reaction against the Whig triumph of 1818, he finished a comfortable third, almost 800 ahead of Waithman in fifth place. At the formal declaration of the result, 16 Mar., he proclaimed ‘the triumph of loyalty over democracy’, exulted that Waithman was ‘down, never more to rise’ and, in a wild outburst, insulted him and his leading associates in common council in language which earned him their vote of censure, 23 Mar., when he outraged his opponents by defiantly repeating his words.8 On 28 Mar. the court of aldermen adopted the report of their committee on the coal duties, which of course exonerated Curtis, while recommending that in future only two months’ balances should be retained by the receiver.9 At a celebration dinner, 6 Apr. 1820, Curtis denounced radical agitators and fomenters of unrest and indicated that he would continue to support the Liverpool ministry which, being composed of Pitt’s heirs, was ‘substantially a good one’, though he insisted that ‘there was not a man in the House of Commons who had acted more independently than he had always done’.10

He was one of the Members who were unable to get into the House of Lords to hear the king’s speech in the chaotic crush which occurred on 27 Apr. 1820.11 He admitted, 4 May, that the condition of London Bridge warranted investigation, but denied that it was in the dangerous state alleged by Thames watermen. When he presented the report of the committee on the City corporation’s petition for permission to raise more money for the completion of municipal improvements, 11 May, Holme Sumner, Member for Surrey, an old adversary, objected, and raised the matter of the orphans’ fund, of which Waithman and common council were still making an issue. Curtis, who on 16 and 18 May moved for and presented accounts of the orphans’ fund coal duties, explained that the money for improvements had run out.12 He warmly supported a London shipbuilders’ petition against reduction of the duties on Baltic timber to the detriment of the North America trade, 5 June. His bill to amend and consolidate two Acts of the 1790s regulating the London militia, introduced on 5 July, received royal assent on the 24th (1 Geo. IV, c. 100).13 He presented a petition of complaint from recently dismissed London tide surveyors, 17 July.14 He was one of the aldermen who opposed common council’s address to Queen Caroline, 14 June;15 and in the House, 3 July, he denied all knowledge of the stationing of troops at Holborn, on the order of the lord mayor and City Member George Bridges, during a meeting of common hall in her support on 30 June 1820.

Curtis, a close personal friend of George IV, was depicted in the autumn as the sycophantic consoler of his troubles over his wife. He was one of the seven aldermen who at the end of November sent her a written remonstrance against her plan to attend St. Paul’s to offer thanks for her deliverance from prosecution. He refused to comply with a requisition for a meeting of his ward (Tower) in her support, and on 5 Dec. 1820 spoke and voted for the aldermen’s loyal address to the king.16 In the Commons, 2 Feb. 1821, he conceded that the London merchants’ and bankers’ pro-queen petition, voted at a meeting on 24 Jan., when, seeking to oppose it, he had been shouted down, enjoyed respectable backing, but denied that the loyal declaration issued from a closed meeting on the 11th had been clandestinely got up.17 He voted against the opposition censure of ministers’ conduct of the affair, 6 Feb. He gave guarded approval of a proposed bill to remove restrictions on new building between the Temple and London Bridge, 27 Feb.18 Next day he voted, as previously, against Catholic relief. His attempted censure of Waithman in common council for disclosing and attacking aldermanic proceedings fell flat.19 He secured returns of information on salt deliveries to British fisheries, 7 May, and of official correspondence on the postal system, 17 May;20 he was named to the select committee on the extra post, 13 June. He presented petitions from outlying villages against the metropolitan roads bill, 18 May, and on the 25th objected to the costly recommendations of the committee on the state of London Bridge.21 He paired against the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 23 May. On the death of Sir Watkin Lewes in July Curtis became father of the City and, by tradition, transferred to Bridge Ward Without. His cup of joy overflowed in September 1821 when the king spent a night at his harbourside residence at Ramsgate on his way to Hanover: his friend Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary, received from him a descriptive letter ‘which was very much of a paraphrase of the "Song of Simeon"’. When barracked at the mayoral election in Guildhall a few days later, he responded, ‘as usual ... by smiling obeisances’.22

Curtis voted with government against more extensive tax reductions, 21 Feb. 1822. On the 28th he ironically seconded and voted for his Whig colleague Wood’s motion, made in response to common council’s petition, for inquiry into the alleged assault by soldiers on Waithman, one of the sheriffs of London, in disturbances at Knightsbridge during the funeral of two men killed when troops had fired on the queen’s funeral procession the previous August: ‘he wished to let the world know the real character of this great common council, who were always meddling with matters with which they had nothing to do’. This landed him in more hot water with the council, who again censured him, 21 Mar., when he accused them to their faces of submitting themselves to the misguided leadership of ‘demagogues’ and ‘Jesuits’.23 He dissented from the prayer of the livery’s petition for parliamentary reform as a means of relieving distress, 2 Apr.24 He introduced, 13 Mar., and steered through a bill to remove the waterworks at London Bridge, which became law on 26 July; and on 26 Apr. he objected to a proposal, backed by Holme Sumner, for the erection of a new bridge at Southwark, ‘when gentlemen were talking of economy and retrenchment’.25 He presented ship owners’ petitions against the bill to relax the navigation laws, 29 Apr., 6, 17 May, promising relentless opposition to this threat to ‘the key-stone of our commercial prosperity’.26 In the same spirit, he denounced the West Indian trade bill, 17 May. He paired against Canning’s bill to relieve Catholic peers, 30 Apr. He presented petitions from Thames coal traders against tolls, 5 June, and from London watch finishers against the warehousing bill, 17 June 1822.27

To forestall Holme Sumner, he had on 20 Feb. 1822 secured the appointment of a select committee to inquire into how far surpluses of the orphans’ fund had been duly applied to the extinction of its debt. When Holme Sumner, whose attempt to widen the scope of the investigation he thwarted, personally attacked him, Curtis professed confidence that the committee would refute ‘at least nine-tenths’ of the allegations against him. Its report, delivered to the House on 26 June, attached no blame to him, but recommended legislation to ensure that collected revenues were paid quarterly into the City’s treasury and surpluses applied to the earliest possible extinction of the debt. Curtis obtained leave to introduce such a bill, 27 June. A bid by Holme Sumner, who accused him of having packed and manipulated the committee, and Wood to impose the weekly payment of revenues and a killing amendment were voted down after angry exchanges, 22 July, and the measure received royal assent on 5 Aug. 1822. In common council Waithman complained that when he had attended to give evidence to the committee (26 Mar.), he had found Curtis ‘in the extraordinary situation of opening the business by a statement of his own case to his own committee’.28 In his evidence to the foreign trade committee on harbour dues, 26 Apr., 1822, Curtis, a trustee and chairman of Ramsgate harbour, admitted that salaries, commissions and expenses consumed over a quarter of revenue and that the commission for collectors was an exorbitant seven and a half per cent; denied the notorious fact that the harbour, which was in a ruinous state, was exceedingly dangerous to shipping, and stated that there was no prospect of being able to improve it to accommodate larger vessels, even though they were routinely charged dues. In December 1822 The Times pilloried his performance, pointedly recalling his Commons speech of 3 Feb. 1791 attacking the then trustees for neglect and wasting money, and making fun of his apparently serious assertion that mariners deliberately ran their vessels against the pier in order to advance its destruction.29 By then Curtis had achieved his apotheosis as an unconscious buffoon by appearing at the levee at Holyrood House on 19 Aug. 1822 in full but ill fitting and wholly unsuitable Highland uniform, including a dangerously short kilt, as a grotesque parody of the king, who was resplendent in the Stuart tartan.30

Curtis, now 71, was given a month’s leave on account of ill health, 17 Feb. 1823; and the only known traces of his activity in the last four sessions of the 1820 Parliament are his paired votes against Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. A radical review of that session noted that he had ‘attended very seldom latterly, and voted with ministers’.31 He was one of the ten aldermen who signed a written protest against common council’s grant of £1,000 to support Spanish patriots in June 1823.32 He announced his retirement from the City representation in an address from Ramsgate, 29 Mar. 1826, recalling his zealous support for ‘the matchless fabric of the established government’, especially in the ‘dark and appalling times’, marked by ‘infidelity and democratic frenzy’, of the French Revolution. In a valedictory comment The Times described him as

an easy, adroit, and agreeable man of the world, who, while he kept the one thing needful steadily in view, no matter what course he professed or appeared to follow, so managed his politics and his intercourse with society, as to make both productive of fortune, friends and credit.33

At the general election of 1826 he came in for the government borough of Hastings, returning to Ramsgate after the formalities in his yacht Emma.34 He vacated his seat for a younger man as soon as the new Parliament met. He died at Cliff House in January 1829, six days after his clergyman younger brother Charles, who had publicly defended him against an attack by Dr. Samuel Parr in 1792. He was buried with his father and uncles at Wanstead in Essex, after a funeral procession which accompanied his coffin halfway to Canterbury.35 By his will, dated 9 Apr. 1828, he entailed Culland’s Grove and his other assorted real estate at Edmonton (where he was lord of the manor), East Barnet, Muswell Hill and Tottenham on his eldest son William Curtis (1782-1847), his successor in the baronetcy. He left his wife £2,000, an annuity of the same amount and the Ramsgate house, and provided generously for his two younger sons. He gave £50 to Sidmouth and a mourning ring to all his fellow aldermen, irrespective of politics. His personalty, which yielded a residue of £52,800, was sworn under £140,000.36 A sympathetic obituarist described him as ‘a complete specimen of a loyal, patriotic, munificent and socially benevolent citizen’ and ‘a very active and serviceable Member of Parliament’.37

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher

Notes

  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1829), i. 273.
  • 2. M.D. George, Cat. of Pol. and Personal Satires, vii. 11354; x. 13567, 13853, 14690, 14883, 14884.
  • 3. Colchester Diary, iii. 52.
  • 4. The Times, 13 Oct. 1819.
  • 5. Ibid. 9, 13 Oct., 8, 15, 16, 20, 27 Nov., 7, 8 Dec. 1819.
  • 6. Ibid. 29 Dec. 1819, 20, 26 Jan. 1820.
  • 7. Ibid. 7, 8, 11 Feb. 1820; Lincs. AO, Tennyson D’Eyncourt mss Td’E H108/18, 24, 28.
  • 8. The Times, 7, 8, 11, 18, 26 Feb., 4, 6, 8-11, 13-17, 25 Mar. 1820; George, x. 13706.
  • 9. CJ, lxxvii. 1203, 1214.
  • 10. The Times, 7 Apr. 1820.
  • 11. Ibid. 28 Apr. 1820.
  • 12. Ibid. 17, 19, 25 May 1820.
  • 13. Ibid. 5, 8 July 1820; CJ, lxxv. 395, 402, 414, 447, 468.
  • 14. The Times, 18 July 1820.
  • 15. Ibid. 15 June 1820.
  • 16. George, x. 13853, 14014; Ann. Reg. (1820), Chron. pp. 499-500, 519-21; The Times, 5, 6 Dec. 1820.
  • 17. The Times, 12, 25 Jan. 1821.
  • 18. Ibid. 28 Feb. 1821.
  • 19. Ibid. 8 Mar. 1821.
  • 20. Ibid. 8, 18 May 1821.
  • 21. Ibid. 19, 26 May 1821.
  • 22. A.B. Beaven, Aldermen of London, i. 252; C.T. Richardson, Hist. Ramsgate, 114-15, 152; Devon RO, Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Bragge Bathurst, 24, 29 Sept.; The Times, 1 Oct. 1821.