EWART, William (1798-1869), of Mossley Hill, Liverpool, Lancs. and 16 Eaton Place, Mdx.

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



23 July 1828 - 1830
30 Nov. 1830 - 28 Mar. 1831
1831 - 1837
9 Mar. 1839 - 1841
1841 - 1868

Family and Education

b. 1 May 1798, 2nd. s. of William Ewart (d. 1823), merchant, of Liverpool and Margaret, da. and coh. of Christopher Jaques of Bedale, Northallerton, Yorks; bro. of Joseph Christopher Ewart†. educ. Eton 1811-17; Christ Church, Oxf. 1817; M. Temple 1820, called 1827; continental tour 1821-3. m. 15 Dec. 1829, his cos. Mary Anne, da. and coh. of George Augustus Lee, cotton merchant, of Singleton, Lancs., 1s. 4 da. (2 d.v.p.) d. 23 Jan. 1869.

Offices Held

Commr. on capital punishment 1864-6.


Ewart’s father, a general commission merchant, was described by George Canning, at whose elections he assisted, as ‘unquestionably the most powerful commercial man in Liverpool’. He was a son of the Scottish minister and landowner, the Rev. John Ewart of Troqueer, Dumfries, godfather of the future prime minister William Ewart Gladstone†, and senior partner in the firm of Ewart, Rutson and Company.1 He died worth £330,000, 8 Oct. 1823, having purchased the church living of Kirklington in Yorkshire for his youngest son Peter (d. 1852) and partnerships in Ewart, Myers and Company of Liverpool, and Ewart, Taylor and Company of London for his sons John (1796-1839), a common councillor and sometime chairman of the Liverpool East India Association, and Joseph Christopher (1799-1868), an early promoter of the Liverpool-Manchester railway. Together, they financed Ewart’s early parliamentary career.2 Tutored privately with his brothers by a ‘Mr. Bold’, and at Eton by the Rev. William Heath, he excelled in Latin verse at Oxford, where Edward Pusey, Lord Morpeth* and Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley* were his closest friends, taking the Christ Church prize in 1819 and the Newdigate the following year. Eschewing the ecclesiastical career his father had intended for him for politics, he toured the continent, 1821-3, studied trade and political economy, qualified as a barrister and practised briefly on the Northern circuit.3 Returning from it to London in May 1828, he replied to a query from Thomas Gladstone* about London Clubs:

The Crown Club, as far as I have been able to ascertain, does not bear a good character. I can learn nothing of the infant University. Both these Clubs, and several others, are in such a state of immaturity that you will be able to make your own election when you arrive in town, and where the choice is within your reach, I should not be justified in choosing for you. The junior University will perhaps be destroyed in its birth by the extension of the senior establishment. We are to decide in a few days whether our club is to be increased from 1,000 to 1,500 and lodged in a new edifice of magnificent construction near St. James’s Park. I inserted your name among the candidates about a year ago.4

He owed his return for Bletchingley in July that year as the paying guest of William Russell* of Brancepeth to Canning’s friend William Huskisson, whose politics he espoused and whose Liverpool elections were partly bankrolled by his brothers.5 Russell’s kinsman Charles Tennyson*, who met Ewart that October, complimented Huskisson on his choice.6

A slight, slender, studious and rather sallow young man with longish hair,7 he took a seat near Huskisson, 5 Feb., and divided with him for Catholic emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. 1829. His maiden speech on 27 Mar., an endorsement of the measure in which he expressed reservations over the attendant franchise bill (which Huskisson opposed), was ‘flat’ but well received, and ‘read well’. He soon established himself as a regular speaker on commercial and humanitarian issues and Huskisson, although perturbed by his ‘diffidence’, praised his ‘talents and considerable acquirements’.8 He voted with Tennyson to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May, declared that the case for disfranchisement was proven and spoke against issuing a new writ, 29 May. At Prestwich in December 1829 he married Mary Anne Lee (d. 1837), seven years his junior, the daughter of his father’s youngest sister and heiress to a Lancashire cotton fortune. She had a £20,000 marriage settlement. Stating that he was sorry to differ from Huskisson, Ewart chose not to vote for Knatchbull’s amendment regretting the omission of distress from the king’s speech and cited cotton trade statistics to substantiate his claim that reports of a slump in trade in the Liverpool and Manchester district were exaggerated, 4 Feb. 1830. He voted as previously on East Retford, 11 Feb., and to enfranchise Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and divided steadily from March until the dissolution in July with the Huskissonites who supported the revived Whig opposition, including for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May, to make forgery a non-capital offence, 24 May, 7 June, and to consider the abolition of colonial slavery, 13 July. When the Hull ship owners’ distress petition was presented, 2 Apr., he countered criticism of Huskisson’s economic policies by demonstrating that the tonnage carried by British vessels was increasing faster than that conveyed by American ones. He introduced petitions for and urged inquiry into ‘inadequate’ law court accommodation, 18 Feb., 10 May, and welcomed the changes to king’s bench proposed by Henry Brougham, 29 Apr., 7 July. Preparing for the next Parliament, he proposed legislating to end capital punishment for non-violent crimes, 13 July, and ordered returns on the northern turnpikes in which his relatives had vested interests, 20 July 1830.

Left without a seat at the general election of 1830, Ewart swiftly staked his claim to that vacated by Huskisson’s death, 15 Sept., so precipitating a realignment in Liverpool politics and a 20-year breach (signalled by the return of portraits) with the Gladstone family, who denied him their support.9 Willing only to make way for Charles Grant*, who declined, and amid mercantile rivalry and mounting concern that he lacked political weight, he defeated his schoolfellow and political ally John Evelyn Denison*, Lady Canning’s nephew, in a protracted contest remarkable for its closeness, cost (about £100,000) and corruption. During it Lord Grey replaced the duke of Wellington as premier and appointed Denison secretary to the India board, and Ewart’s first child Mary Anne (a pioneer and benefactor of university education for women) was born.10 His addresses and speeches stressed his Liverpool origins and Huskissonite connections, opposition to the East India Company and Bank monopolies and support for civil and religious freedom, free trade and reform of the corn and game laws.11 Justifying his recent anti-slavery vote, he explained:

I voted in favour of the motion, not in favour of the expressions which may have fallen from some of the speakers ... It is not likely that I should unguardedly acquiesce in any measure by which the interests of my native town and ... near relations should be unjustly compromised. I know also that some of the West Indian proprietors themselves voted on that occasion with Mr. Brougham. I may refer particularly to our respected fellow townsman Mr. [Joseph] Birch.12

He wanted the West India planters compensated but expected the colonies, ‘not Britain’, to pay.13

In later life Ewart described his commitments as Member for Liverpool as onerous, thankless and permitting no free time. He advocated inquiry and early emancipation with compensation when Lord Chandos brought up the West India planters’ distress petition, 13 Dec., and spoke similarly on presenting Liverpool’s petition, 15 Dec. 1830, when, to the general satisfaction of the merchants, he praised their support for Canning’s 1823 resolutions and maintained that to be effective abolition should be gradual.14 He brought up petitions against colonial slavery, 15 Dec., and for Jewish emancipation, 16 Dec. 1830; and one against the Liverpool poor bill, 2 Mar., whose third reading he carried, 14 Mar. 1831. Referring to recent innovations in Lancashire textile production, he made light of foreign competition and congratulated the chancellor Lord Althorp on his budget, 15 Feb., reserving censure for the locally unpopular taxes on steamboat passengers, 17 Feb., soap, 10 Mar., and timber, which, echoing the trading associations’ petitions, he deemed too steep, 15, 17 Mar. 1831.15 Criticism of his performance persisted, especially his failure to secure concessions on the sugar duties, transport bills and Chinese trade.16 His return had been petitioned against, alleging bribery, 13, 20 Dec., and with steps to reform the Liverpool franchise also in train, he scotched reports that he would vacate to impede investigation of corruption there, advocated an extended franchise ‘to represent wealth’ and spoke proudly of his middle class origins, 20 Dec. 1830.17 Ignoring its references to the recent by-election and demand for a householder franchise, he voiced general support for the Liverpool reform petition presented by Smith Stanley, 26 Feb., and presented another that day from the ratepayers. In hostile exchanges with his colleague Isaac Gascoyne, 14 Mar., he fully endorsed a heavily signed petition in favour of the ministerial reform bill, which his brothers had helped to procure, and claimed that Canning would no longer have ‘ruled out’ reform.18 He divided for the bill’s second reading, 22 Mar. Unseated on petition, 28 Mar. 1831, and ‘half dead with anxiety’, he left for Liverpool to seek re-election, unaware of the writ’s suspension and that a botched report by the election committee chairman John Benett had ‘unintentionally’ disqualified him as a by-election candidate.19 Three weeks later, after Gascoyne had wrecked the reform bill, precipitating a general election, he was rapturously received by the merchants at Liverpool Exchange. Backed by the newly constituted reform committee, he topped the poll.20

On 5 July 1831 he wrote to the leader of his local party, the Liverpool Unitarian minister William Shepherd, that

there appears to be a determination on the part of every Member of the present Parliament, liberal and otherwise, to express his sentiments about reform. I therefore infer that a reformed Parliament will be a very long winded one; as they are, I believe in America. I intend to explain myself to the Speaker and my constituents as soon as I can get an opportunity. Last night I rose several times in vain. The Speaker’s eye is not very easily caught.21

He voted for the reintroduced reform bill at its second reading, 6 July, and steadily supported it in committee, where he endorsed its provisions for Downton, 21 July, Manchester and Salford, 2 Aug., the Liverpool suburb of Toxteth Park, 6 Aug., the £10 borough vote, terms of qualification, 25, 26 Aug., and two-day polls, 5 Sept. His votes on Saltash, 26 July, and Aldborough, 14 Sept., were wayward ones. He divided for the bill’s third reading, 19 Sept., and passage, 21 Sept., the second reading of the Scottish reform bill, 23 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. Praising ministers, he refuted suggestions by his new colleague Lord Sandon and others that Liverpool was dissatisfied with the revised reform bill, 7, 12 Dec. He divided for its second reading, 17 Dec. 1831, generally for its details, and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He dismissed Daniel O’Connell’s assertion that the bill would increase the electoral power of landowner combinations, 27 Jan., but divided against enfranchising £50 tenants-at-will, 1 Feb. His opposition to a proposal for a £15 qualification in large towns, 3 Feb., annoyed Liverpool corporation.22 Pleading a lack of time for letter writing, he informed Shepherd, 22 Feb., that

the brief moments of leisure interposed between the mechanical movements of a Member of the Lower House - oscillating as we do from the committee rooms to the green benches and back again - have not been sufficient even for a few short lines. We are now looking out for a constitutional reinforcement of peers ... I wish the ministers were more popular both in the House and in the country. I am afraid that many neutrals will become adversaries when the reform bill is passed.23

To taunts of ‘Toxteth Park’ he was mocked by the anti-reformers for defending the bill’s ‘meagre’ provision for Liverpool, 28 Feb., 5 Mar. According to Edward Littleton’s* diary

a disgraceful and most ungentlemanly scene took place ... [that day] between Croker and Ewart ... in which Croker’s manner was more violent and worse than his language. The chairman put it to him whether it was ‘worth while’ to continue such language to Ewart, on which Croker rejoined, ‘Sir, I agree with you’, and then with a most courteous motion of the hand towards Ewart, said, ‘It is not worth while’. The whole House felt indignant, and [Smith] Stanley insisted on explanations before the parties left the House. Bernal, the chairman, then called not on Croker! but on Ewart! to explain. He must have been asleep. However the affair was made up.24

Ewart suggested to Shepherd that he should rely only on the Mirror of Parliament’s account of the debate and explained:

Croker was in a fury; but he assailed me first. [Smith] Stanley did not extricate me well, though kindly, from the skirmish. Toxteth Park has been made a rallying point by Peel and Croker. I suspect that ... Peel has an eye to Toxteth, as he has always had to Liverpool.25

He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the reform bill unimpaired, 10 May, and, as directed by the meeting, he endorsed the Liverpool petition requesting the withholding of supplies pending its passage, 15 May.26 He voted for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May, and against a Conservative amendment to the Scottish measure, 1 June. Alluding to his 1829 vote, he endorsed his constituents’ critical petition requesting extension of the English bill’s provisions to Ireland, 21 June 1832.

Dogged by bribery allegations and the controversy surrounding the Liverpool by-election writ (necessitated by Denison choosing to sit for Nottinghamshire), he deemed delay to the latter insupportable, 6 July, and was a minority teller for issuing it, 8 July 1831. He had informed Shepherd, 5 July, that ‘the proceedings of Benett have been, and are, in my opinion, absurd’ and signalled his intention of avoiding a quarrel with him, ‘as much as I should his acquaintance’.27 He denied any involvement in corruption and, in several brief interventions, he praised the innovative multi-booth facilities erected by Liverpool corporation 14 July, 29 Aug., 2, 5 Sept. He was a teller for the minority, 5 Sept., and the majority for issuing the writ, 12 Oct. 1831. He generally contrived to be absent when the Liverpool disfranchisement bill was heard but, ‘hoodwinked’ by its promoter Benett, who brought it up unexpectedly, 24 May 1832, he failed to evade close questioning by Croker and the anti-reformers and condemned the measure as an act of vengeance and injustice. He was glad to see it lapse, 13 July 1832. He voted in the minority for appointing 11 of its original members to the reconstituted Dublin election committee, 29 July, but divided with government on the election controversy, 23 Aug. 1831, the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12, 16, 20 July, Portugal, 9 Feb., and the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr. 1832. However, he voted with the radicals against them for printing the Waterford petition for disarming the Irish yeomanry, 11 Aug., and inquiry into the Deacles’ case, 27 Sept. 1831, military punishments, 16 Feb., and Peterloo, 15 Mar. 1832. Noting the last, which, by explanation, Ewart had equated to impeachment, Thomas Gladstone commented: ‘He is indeed far gone’.28

After suffering several postponements and disparaging comments from Peel, on 27 Mar. 1832 Ewart obtained leave to introduce his bill to end capital punishment for the non-violent theft of animals, money and effects from domestic premises. He backed it with petitions (7, 17 May, 22, 28 June) and a plethora of statistics and arguments demonstrating that in these instances the death penalty inhibited sentencing, rarely followed conviction and was no deterrent, 2 Apr., 30 June, 3, 4, 5, 6, 21 July. It received royal assent on 11 July (2 & 3 Gul. IV, c. 62), and served as a basis for his subsequent achievements as an abolitionist. He naturally supported the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 22 June, 21, 25 July, 11 Aug. 1832. He was appointed to the East India select committees, 28 June 1831, 27 Jan. 1832. In debate, 28 June 1831, he described the difficulties faced by British merchants at Canton and pressed for consular representation there and measures to promote the China trade. He presented the East India Association’s petition against renewing the Sugar Refinery Act, 16 Aug., but apparently refrained from voting when the bill’s second reading was made a party issue, 12 Sept. 1831. On 7 Oct., he said that he hoped to see the problems arising from it referred to the West India select committee, to which he was named, 6 Oct., 15 Dec. 1831. He criticized the opposition raised by the planters’ spokesman Burge to the crown colonies relief bill and expressed confidence in it and in the November 1831 orders in council, 8 Aug. 1832. Drawing on information supplied by Liverpool traders, he urged ministers to lodge formal protests over the Brazilian government’s tardiness in compensating British merchants, 16 Apr., and also against Russia for invading Poland, 18 Apr., 7 Aug. However, echoing Huskisson’s former pleas, he warned that war inhibited the extension of liberal principles, 7 Aug. 1832. As a spokesman for the Liverpool merchants and tradesmen, who submitted bills and petitions, he reiterated his criticism of the duties on soap and timber, 1 July 1831, adding those on marine insurance, hemp and railway carriages to the list, 8 July 1831, 2 Apr., 9 Aug. 1832. He justified government expenditure on the Liverpool Revenue Buildings, 1 July 1831, 8 Feb. 1832, detailed the hardship the quarantine laws imposed on shipping, 8 Aug. 1831, and, using his experience as a member of the select committee on Irish communications, opposed the proposed curtailment of the Liverpool-Dublin packets, 4 Apr. 1832. Although personally in favour of registration in principle, he joined in criticism of the general register bill, 11 Oct. 1831, 14 Feb. 1832. With the general election and the Irish vote in mind, he supported Liverpool’s bid to host the Lancashire assizes, 19, 22 June, and petitions in favour of the Maynooth grant, 22 June, 23 July, and against the bill for the removal of Irish vagrants, 28 June, 16 July 1832.

Ewart contested Liverpool successfully in 1832 and 1835 as a Liberal free trader, inclined to radicalism. Following defeats there and at Kilkenny in 1837, when the general election coincided with a slump in trade, he published a pamphlet questioning the achievements of the Reform Act.29 He lost the 1838 Marylebone by-election before being accommodated in 1839 at Wigan. At the general election of 1841 he returned to his family’s Scottish roots, becoming Member for Dumfries Burghs, which he represented until his retirement at the dissolution in 1868. He devoted much of his long widowhood and parliamentary career to humanitarian issues and improving the management of business in the Commons. His contribution to improving public services, especially in the fields of education and free library provision, was a pioneering one. (The Ewart Library in Dumfries is named in his honour.) He died of pneumonia in January 1869 at the Wiltshire estate of Broadleas, near Devizes, which he had purchased in 1854 with his brother Joseph, and he was interred with him at nearby Bishop’s Cannings. He left the bulk of his estate to his only son, William Lee Ewart (1836-92), and provided for other family members.30

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott


Draws on W.A. Munford, William Ewart, M.P., 1798-1869: portrait of a radical (1960).

  • 1. Add. 38743, f. 2; Oxford DNB.
  • 2. PROB 11/1690/510; IR26/1001/815.
  • 3. Liverpool RO, Ewart Letters 920/MD293, fa. to Ewart, 8 July 1817, Canning to Ewart sen. 21 May 1820.
  • 4. St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 519, Ewart to T. Gladstone, 3 May [1828].
  • 5. Ibid. 227, Huskisson to J. Gladstone, 18 July 1828.
  • 6. Add. 38757, f. 147.
  • 7. [J. Grant], Random Recollections of Commons (1835 edn.), 278.
  • 8. Ibid. 277-9; Glynne-Gladstone mss 278, Huskisson to J. Gladstone, 10 Apr. 1829.
  • 9. Glynne-Gladstone mss 196, T. to J. Gladstone, 17, 18, 27 Sept., 2 Oct.; 453, J. Ewart to T. Gladstone, 2 Oct. 1830; 329, W. Ewart to J. Gladstone, 15 Dec., Joseph Ewart to same, 27 Dec. 1850.
  • 10. Brougham mss, William Shepherd to Brougham [postmark 30 Sept.]; Hatfield House mss, bdle. 3, Leigh to Salisbury, 30 Nov.; Glynne-Gladstone mss 243, G. Grant to J. Gladstone, 30 Nov. 1830; Greville Mems. ii. 76-77; Oxford DNB sub Ewart, Mary Anne.
  • 11. Albion, 27 Sept., 18 Oct., 6 Dec.; Gore’s Advertiser, 24 Oct., 2 Dec. 1830; J. Picton, Memorials of Liverpool, i. 421-5.
  • 12. Glynne-Gladstone mss 2871.
  • 13. Ibid. 243, G. Grant to J. Gladstone, 19 Nov. 1830.
  • 14. Ibid. 196, T. to J. Gladstone, 13 Dec. 1830 and undated.
  • 15. Ibid. 197, T. to J. Gladstone, 23 Feb. 1831.
  • 16. Liverpool Chron. 15, 22 Jan.; Glynne-Gladstone mss 197, T. to J. Gladstone, 5, 7, 23 Feb., 26 Mar. 1831.
  • 17. 4 Dec. 1830.
  • 18. Liverpool Chron. 5, 12 Mar.; Glynne-Gladstone mss 196, T. to J. Gladstone, 14 Mar. 1831.
  • 19. Glynne-Gladstone mss 103, J. Gladstone to Denison, 3 Apr.; 197, T. to J. Gladstone, 7, 8 Feb., 19, 21, 25, 28 Mar.; 244, G. Grant to same, 22, 27 Mar. 1831; Manchester New Coll. Oxf. Archives, William Shepherd mss vii, f. 53; PP (1830), iii. 1-418.
  • 20. Glynne-Gladstone mss 197, T. to J. Gladstone, 28 Apr.; 244, G. Grant to same, 23 Apr., 2-4 May; Gore’s Advertiser, 28 Apr., 5 May; Liverpool Chron. 30 Apr., 7 May 1831.
  • 21. William Shepherd mss vii.
  • 22. Glynne-Gladstone mss 199, T. to J. Gladstone, 6, 9, 11 Feb. 1832.
  • 23. William Shepherd mss vii, f. 87.
  • 24. Hatherton diary, 5 Mar. 1832.
  • 25. William Shepherd mss vii, f. 87.
  • 26. Albion, 14 May; Gore’s General Advertiser, 17 May 1832.
  • 27. William Shepherd mss vii, f. 53.
  • 28. Glynne-Gladstone mss 199, T. to G. Gladstone, 16 Mar. 1832.
  • 29. The Reform of the Reform Bill and its anticipated results.
  • 30. Dumfries and Galloway Standard and Advertiser, 27 Jan; Devizes and Wilts. Gazette, 28 Jan.; The Times, 28 Jan. 1869; Oxford DNB.