DICKINSON, William (1771-1837), of Kingweston, Somerton, Som. and 8 Upper Harley Street, Mdx.

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

Constituency

Dates

1796 - 1802
1802 - 1806
1806 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 1 Nov. 1771, 1st s. of William Dickinson† of Kingweston and Philippa, da. and coh. of Stephen Fuller of Brightling, Suss. and Jamaica. educ. Westminster 1781-9; Christ Church, Oxf. 1789, BA 1793, MA 1795; BCL All Souls 1799; L. Inn 1791, called 1796. m. 19 July 1803, Sophia, da. of Samuel Smith*, 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 2da. suc. fa. 1806. d. 19 Jan. 1837.

Offices Held

Ld. of admiralty May 1804-Feb. 1806.

Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1800-6; lt.-col. commdt. E. Som. vols. 1819.

Recorder, Glastonbury 1821-35.

Biography

Dickinson’s grandfather was a Bristol merchant with Jamaican interests and his father had purchased the Kingweston estate and other landed property in Somerset. He was the residuary legatee of his father’s estate, which included plantations in Jamaica and was sworn under £7,500.1 He began his career as a supporter of Pitt but generally aligned himself with the Whigs after 1806, although his backing for Tory repressive measures in 1819 confirmed his reputation for independence, while sensitivity to his constituents’ views led him to adopt an increasingly hostile line against Catholic relief. This ensured that he was spared an opposition at the general election of 1820, when his pro-Catholic colleague, William Gore Langton*, was forced to give way to the ‘No Popery’ champion, Sir Thomas Lethbridge. He declared that ‘from birth ... education ... principle and ... practice he was a churchman’, denounced the ‘murderous enterprise’ of the Cato Street conspiracy and argued that taxation had reached its limits and economy was needed. He disagreed with calls for increased agricultural protection, but recognized that a ‘timid and feeble agriculture was the greatest calamity that could befall a nation’ and looked for a ‘united endeavour’ by statesmen, independent Members, property owners and ‘all those that are loyal, brave and patriotic’ to find a remedy.2

He was a fairly regular attender who continued to act with the Whig opposition to Lord Liverpool’s ministry on most issues, including parliamentary reform, 25 Apr. 1822, 24 Apr. 1823, 27 Apr. 1826. He was a conscientious county Member, presenting petitions from various interests and serving on relevant committees. He was granted five weeks’ leave owing to the death of a near relation, 12 June 1820. He divided against Catholic claims, 28 Feb 1821. He strongly endorsed the claims for compensation from American loyalists who had ‘sacrificed their property’ through attachment to the British cause, 21 Mar. He supported inquiry into conditions at Ilchester gaol, 11 Apr., but disbelieved the allegations made against the gaoler and stated that as a magistrate he had personally conducted an inspection. He successfully moved to discharge the order for a copy of the visiting magistrates’ report, 21 June, acting as a majority teller. In announcing that he would not proceed with his intended sewers bill for improved land drainage, 11 Apr. 1821, he said he would move next session for a select committee instead and complained of the accusations of private interest made against the bill’s supporters in a pamphlet.3 He bore testimony that day to the facility with which applications for admission to the British Museum reading room were dealt with. In January 1822 he attended the public meeting at Taunton to petition Parliament on agricultural distress, which he supported but did not think would produce an effective answer, as ‘our misfortune was in our debts ... our taxes and ... our currency, and until these were put upon a better footing it would be in vain to hope for better times’. He rejected demands for ‘radical reform’ and looked rather to the formation of a ‘strong and powerful government, consisting in men of talents and of landed property, without any reference to Whig or Tory’; only ‘the king’ could form such an administration.4 He divided with ministers against Brougham’s motion on distress, 11 Feb., but continued to vote for opposition retrenchment and tax-cutting resolutions. He presented four Somerset petitions for agricultural relief measures, 15 Feb., and confirmed the extent of the problem in his county, 26 Apr.5 He sympathized with a Somerset petition for a tax on absentees, but doubted its practicability, 16 May. He was initially unsympathetic to complaints about the conditions in which the radical agitator Henry Hunt* was being held at Ilchester gaol, 8 Feb., observing that the ‘family’ he was prevented from seeing was in fact his mistress. However, he was forced to acknowledge that the rules ‘pressed too severely’ on Hunt and stated that the gaoler and surgeon had been dismissed and all the commissioner’s recommendations adopted, except the building of a new gaol, 27 Feb. He reaffirmed the Somerset magistrates’ desire to ameliorate prison conditions, 1, 4 Mar., and announced that the living conditions of debtors were ‘about to be remedied’, 11 Mar.6 He admitted that ‘the magistrates had certainly been much deceived with respect to the character and conduct of the gaoler’, 13 Mar., but thought it was ‘highly creditable’ to them that they had given Hunt ‘every means of establishing the truth of his allegations’. He deplored the disrespectful tone adopted towards the magistrates in petitions favourable to Hunt, 22, 28 Mar.7 He opposed the remission of Hunt’s sentence, 24 Apr., arguing that he was ‘guilty of a most dangerous offence’ and that his punishment had had a deterrent effect. He opposed the motion to produce the magistrates’ journal and keeper’s occurrence book as ‘an interference with private property’, 13 May. He supported the Essex grand jury petition for speedier processing of remand prisoners, 27 Mar., observing that ‘in these times of agricultural distress it would lessen the burthens on land’. He was appointed chairman of the select committee on sewers, 27 Feb.8 He divided against the Catholic peers bill, 30 Apr. He defended the Somerset magistrates’ conduct in issuing and withdrawing licenses to public houses, 10 May, 19 June 1822.9 About this time, he began to attend meetings of the West India planters and merchants committee in London.10

Dickinson attended both of the Somerset county meetings in January 1823. At the first, he repudiated Hunt’s assertions that he had ‘got a sly bit for himself’ out of excessive government expenditure, through his role as an officer in the yeomanry cavalry and his lease from the crown on favourable terms of the Flatholm lighthouse in the Bristol Channel. He supported the petition for relief from agricultural distress as ‘applicable to the situation’, but opposed calls for tithe commutation which would impoverish the church and clergy. At the second meeting, he again rebutted Hunt’s accusations of corruption and stated that, while he favoured some measure of reform, he was ‘against radical reform as contrary to the genius and spirit of the English constitution’.11 He voted with ministers against Western’s motion for inquiry into the currency, 12 June.12 He announced that in the light of the commissioner’s report the Somerset magistrates had ‘ordered extensive repairs ... to remedy the defects and inconveniences’ at Ilchester gaol, 4 June 1823.13 He successfully moved for a select committee on the expenditure of county rates and was named its chairman, 19 May 1824 (and again, 9 Mar. 1825, 2 Mar. 1826).14 He spoke briefly against a motion for returns of the commitments made by magistrates, 27 May.15 Despite his West Indian interests, he voted to condemn the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824. He presented and ‘fully concurred’ in the anti-Catholic petitions from Bath, 15 Feb. 1825, declaring that ‘the sense of the bulk of the people of England’ was so overwhelmingly hostile that ‘he had quite made up his mind against any further concessions’. He was named as a defaulter on the call of the House, 28 Feb., but attended next day to divide against Catholic claims, and did so again, 21 Apr., 10 May. He voted against the Irish franchise bill, 26 Apr., 9 May. He presented petitions against the Western Ship Canal bill, 21 Mar., 18 Apr., and was a minority teller against it at the report stage, 13 June 1825.16 He supported a petition from Taunton silk-weavers against foreign imports, 6 Feb., and presented similar ones from Yeovil glovers and Bridgwater and Milborne Port silk-throwsters, 8, 17, 22 Feb. 1826.17 He backed inquiry into the state of the silk trade, 24 Feb., wishing to keep France agricultural and not encourage its manufactures, and he ‘greatly feared that this country was borne away by a spirit of visionary speculation’ and was sure that ‘if they persevered in the commercial system they had embarked upon ... it would lead them into most serious mischief’. Although he presented several Somerset anti-slavery petitions, 1, 3 Mar., 13, 21 Apr.,18 he divided against the opposition motion condemning the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar. He considered Peel’s statement on criminal law consolidation ‘the most luminous ... he had ever heard’, 9 Mar. 1826, and urged that the expense of public prosecutions should be met from a special fund rather than falling on landed property, ‘which was unable to bear further burthens’. In May 1824 he had intimated to his chief ally in Somerset, John Phelips of Montacute, his intention to offer again at the next general election, and at the dissolution in the summer of 1826 his and Lethbridge’s supporters combined forces to combat a vexatious challenge from Hunt. He did not presume to suppose that his parliamentary conduct was ‘free from error’, but maintained that it had been ‘actuated by good intentions’. He was again obliged to refute various ‘calumnies’ levelled against him by Hunt, concerning partiality in his sentencing policy as a magistrate and his interests as a slave owner, but he was easily returned at the head of the poll after a contest lasting ten days.19

He was prevented by illness from attending the debate on Catholic claims, 6 Mar. 1827, but it was reported that he would have voted against them.20 He supported inquiry into the mode of taking the poll at county elections, which would be ‘productive of much good’, 15 Mar. He voted to condemn delays in chancery, 5 Apr. 1827. He presented numerous petitions for repeal of the Test Acts early in 1828 and voted in this sense, 26 Feb. He observed that Somerset clerical petitioners against Catholic relief were not opposed to repeal of the Test Acts, 10 Mar., because ‘the clergy and Dissenters’ of that county ‘were in the habit of living on amicable terms’. He did not believe that Catholic concessions would remove Irish grievances, which stemmed from overpopulation and lack of employment, and he suspected that their admission to Parliament would merely raise ‘other subjects of contention’ such as tithes and church rates, to the irritation of the English people. He duly divided against Catholic claims, 12 May. He presented three Cork petitions for a scheme to promote industry in Ireland, 16 June. He regretted that Somerset was ‘remarkable for the increase of crime’, although there had been few prosecutions under the game laws, 28 Feb. He opposed the freeholders’ registration bill, 25 Mar., arguing that contrary to its objective it would ‘increase the expense of candidates’ and effectively disfranchise small freeholders, who ‘could not go to the expense and trouble of registering unless stimulated to it by a ... wealthy candidate’; he was a minority teller against the second reading. He voted in the minorities for inquiry into small banknote circulation in Scotland and Ireland, 5 June, reduction in the grant to the Royal Cork Institution, 20 June, and against recommitting the East Retford disfranchisement bill, 27 June 1828.

In February 1829 Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary, predicted that Dickinson would side ‘with government’ on Catholic emancipation. However, he presented several hostile petitions and twice voted against relief, 6 Mar., when he repeated his doubts that concession would satisfy the Irish Catholics but seemed reconciled to the government’s measure passing. He also expressed alarm at ‘the great increase of monastic institutions ... taking place in Somerset and other parts of the West of England’. He divided against the emancipation bill, 18, 27, 30 Mar., and the accompanying Irish franchise bill, 19, 20 Mar. He presented a petition from ‘a portion of the most distressed class of His Majesty’s subjects’, the silk-throwsters of Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire, 9 Apr., and urged ministers not to ‘sacrifice an industrious people for a theory, nor apply the principles of free trade to a complex state of society that does not suit them’. He divided with the minority against going into committee on the silk trade bill, 1 May. He introduced a division of counties bill, 19 May, which received royal assent, 19 June (10 Geo. IV, c. 46). He voted with the minority to issue a new writ for East Retford, 2 June 1829. In February 1830 he accompanied a Bath deputation to the chancellor of the exchequer, Goulburn, representing their opposition to the assessed taxes.21 He voted steadily that session with the revived Whig opposition for civil and military retrenchment. He presented a Taunton petition lamenting the general state of distress, 8 Mar., which he confirmed from his own knowledge, and argued that the people ‘must be untaxed to a very considerable extent’. He reiterated that in the West of England ‘trade is ... as bad as it possibly can be’, 16 Mar. However, he supported ministers in resisting reduction in the sugar duties ‘on account of the danger to the national revenue’, 21 June, when he testified to the impoverished state of the plantations and trusted that ‘West India property is not to be ground down to nothing by severe taxation’. He presented licensed victuallers’ petitions against the sale of beer bill, 8 Apr., 11 May, and described it as an ‘extremely injudicious’ measure which would encourage ‘recklessness’ on the part of the lower classes at a time when ‘penury and want assail them’, 4 May; he was a minority teller against the second reading. He voted for Knatchbull’s amendment against sales for consumption in beer houses, 21 June, and paired for postponing on-consumption for two years, 1 July. He presented petitions for abolishing the death penalty for forgery, 27 Apr., 13, 24 May, and voted in this sense, 24 May, 7 June. He divided against Jewish emancipation, 17 May 1830. At the general election that summer he was returned unopposed with a fellow Whig, Edward Sanford, after Lethbridge withdrew owing to the widespread condemnation of his volte face on the Catholic question. He emphasized the ‘strict fidelity’ shown by his recent parliamentary conduct and claimed to have ‘given his sanction to every measure calculated to reduce the national expenditure, as far as was consistent with the honour of this country’. He argued that Britain should observe ‘strict neutrality’ regarding the revolution in France, as ‘our duty was to look to our own concerns’.22

The ministry regarded him as one of their ‘foes’, and he duly voted against them in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830. He testified to the respectability of the Glastonbury petitioners for parliamentary reform, 2 Mar., but nevertheless divided against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s bill, 22 Mar. 1831. He excused himself from attending the Somerset reform meeting at Bridgwater, 28 Mar., owing to an attack of gout, but sent a letter explaining that he had opposed the bill because ‘he considered it unjust that Englishmen should be deprived of their privileges’. He approved of the increase in county Members, ‘inasmuch as it tended to strengthen the landed interest’, but strongly objected to the division of counties into ‘petty districts’, which would ‘give them too much the appearance of ... rotten boroughs’. He also feared that the registration provisions would lead to ‘vexatious annual litigation’. However, he expressed the hope that the bill might ‘receive such alterations as would make it a more moderate and less objectionable measure’, so that he could ‘vote for it on the third reading’.23 After the sheriff had vacated the chair, Hunt, who claimed that Dickinson ‘stalked up and down the House of Commons like a sick duck in a farmyard’, carried a vote of censure against him. In the event, he paired for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the bill, 19 Apr. 1831. At the ensuing dissolution he announced his retirement on account of differences with his constituents over a measure which he considered ‘too extensive and subversive of rights that have existed in this country beyond the memory of man’. He had always been willing to ‘remove what was obsolete, useless and encumbering’, but could not ‘consent to make the government a subject of hazardous experiment’ and risk leading the people into ‘inextricable confusion, perhaps into anarchy’.24 In July 1832 he received a requisition at the Bridgwater quarter sessions inviting him to offer for the new Eastern division of Somerset, but he declined with a ‘painful pang’ on account of his age; at the general election he nominated the unsuccessful Conservative candidate.25 He died at Naples in January 1837 and left all his Somerset and Jamaica estates to his eldest son, Francis Henry Dickinson (1813-90), Conservative Member for West Somerset, 1841-47; his personalty was sworn under £35,000.26

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Terry Jenkins

Notes

  • 1. PROB 11/1444/467; IR26/112/102.
  • 2. Bristol Mirror, 26 Feb., 11, 18 Mar. 1820.
  • 3. The Times, 12 Apr. 1821. Som. RO, Dickinson mss DD/DN/285 contains correspondence indicating that his bill was supported by Somerset landowners but opposed by various local interests elsewhere.
  • 4. Bristol Mirror, 19 Jan. 1822.
  • 5. The Times, 16 Feb., 27 Apr. 1822.
  • 6. Ibid. 12 Mar. 1822.
  • 7. Ibid. 23 Mar. 1822.
  • 8. Dickinson mss DD/DN/285 includes printed minutes of the evidence taken and associated correspondence.
  • 9. The Times, 11 May, 20 June 1822.
  • 10. Inst. of Commonwealth Stud. M915/4.
  • 11. Bristol Mirror, 25 Jan., 1 Feb. 1823.
  • 12. The Times, 16 June 1823.
  • 13. Ibid. 5 June 1823.
  • 14. Dickinson mss DD/DN/286 contains printed papers and correspondence on this.
  • 15. The Times, 28 May 1824.
  • 16. Ibid. 22 Mar., 19 Apr. 1825.
  • 17. Ibid. 7, 9, 18, 23 Feb. 1826.
  • 18. Ibid. 2, 4 Mar., 14, 22 Apr. 1826.
  • 19. Dickinson mss DD/DN/289, to Phelips, 1 May 1824; Bristol Mirror, 3, 10, 17, 24 June, 1, 8 July 1826.