MADOCKS, William Alexander (1773-1828), of Tan-yr-allt and Morva Lodge, Caern and Tregunter Hall, Brec.

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



1802 - 1820
1820 - 1826

Family and Education

b. 17 June 1773,[footnote] 3rd. surv. s. of John Madocks† of Fron Yw, Denb. and Frances, da. of Joseph Whitchurch, London merchant, of Twickenham, Mdx. educ. Charterhouse 1784-9 (expelled); Christ Church, Oxf. 1790, fellow, All Souls 1794-1818; L. Inn 1790; I. Temple 1797. m. 2 Apr. 1818,[footnote] Amelia Sophia, da. and coh. of Samuel Hughes, land agent (who m. the Harris heiress of Tregunter Hall), wid. of Roderick Gwynne of Buckland, Brec., 1da. suc. fa. to estate in Denb. 1794. d. 29 Sept. 1828.

Offices Held

Dir. Hope Insurance Co. 1811-14.

Chamberlain to Queen Caroline 1820-1.


A member of a well-established Denbighshire family, Madocks directed his considerable energies towards the extraordinary engineering projects that became known as ‘the Wonder of Wales’. During this period, despite financial problems and poor health, he sought to exploit the area of land between Caernarvonshire and Merionethshire which he had enclosed from the sea, and where he had founded Tremadoc, by the establishment of a harbour at Porthmadog to export slate from the interior.[footnote] However, he was clearly more or less bankrupt in practice, even though he was never formally declared to be so. In 1820 he was saddened by the death of his brother Joseph, known to the beau monde as ‘the gayest of the gay’, whose will revealed that, like many others, he held a mortgage on part of Madocks’s property.[footnote] Thomas Love Peacock, who accused him of ‘complicated villainy and lying’ after he refused to return some books belonging to Percy Byshe Shelley that had been left in his safekeeping as collateral for a debt, informed his fellow poet, 28 Feb. 1822, that Madocks was

determined to stand an action, with which he has been menaced, thinking perhaps that I shall not be willing to incur so great an expense; more especially as he is insolvent, and all the expenses would thereupon fall upon me, whether I should gain or lose the cause.[footnote]

Forced to rent out Tan-yr-allt, he lived mostly at Tregunter Hall.[footnote] Although he afterwards claimed that he could have come in again for Boston at the general election of 1820, he failed to redeem a promise to his constituents to stand, no doubt because the expense would have been too high. (Indeed, he appealed to Lord Darlington for financial assistance.) Instead he purchased a seat for Chippenham, which he thought would prove to be less troublesome, and he was duly elected unopposed, probably on the interest of Anthony Guy, a local solicitor.[footnote] Formerly a man of sound radical credentials - Charles James Fox and the 11th duke of Norfolk were once ‘great private and political friends’ - by 1820 he had largely drifted into obscurity.[footnote] With his business affairs in a parlous state and demanding all the attention he could give them, it is not surprising that he made no reported speeches during this period and was generally inactive in Parliament.

He voted with opposition on the civil list, 5 May, but on 3 July 1820 was granted a month’s leave of absence on account of an attack of jaundice, which he described as ‘a miserable complaint’.[footnote] In a letter printed in The Times, 26 June, he claimed that ‘severe indisposition’ had prevented him from dividing against Wilberforce’s compromise motion on the Queen Caroline affair four days earlier. Initially wary of presenting her with an address from Brecon,[footnote] he came under local pressure to do so, and relented on the grounds that it was couched in respectful language and was such that ‘any friend of the House of Brunswick’ might safely sign. In a published letter he wrote that he was afraid that

whenever Members of Parliament become the slavish tools of power, whenever they cease to hold connection with the people and feel no interest in public liberty ... what you dread will really take place, namely the downfall of the greatness of your country; but on the other hand, if the representatives of the people respect and observe the sacred principles of the constitution, if they keep a vigilant eye on the public expenditure and maintain a constant jealousy of power, if they control extravagance, promote economy and keep down taxation, the confidence of the people in their rulers will then place our envied institutions on a rock, where they will long survive the storms and shocks which corrupt and arbitrary governments periodically suffer.[footnote]

Addresses from Brecon and Chippenham were among those which he therefore felt it was his duty to present to the queen.[footnote] He signed the requisition for a Breconshire meeting on the issue, which he attended, 20 Jan. 1821. His close involvement in it was described by Thomas Wood, the county Member, as a vain attempt to strengthen the local Whig influence.[footnote] He voted to restore Caroline’s name to the liturgy, 26 Jan., 13 Feb., and in condemnation of ministers’ conduct towards her, 6 Feb. His appointment as her chamberlain drew the scorn of Lady Williams Wynn, who observed that it was ‘certainly making one step towards having a brilliant Court’.[footnote] He was sometimes involved in the promotion of Welsh interests and legislation in the House: for example, in attempts to reduce the duties on Welsh coal.[footnote] It was in pursuance of his own concerns, however, that he was most active. His petition for a bill to allow the construction of Porthmadog harbour was presented, 2 Feb., and was supported by other Welsh Members. It survived technical problems, local opposition from the guardians of the young Lord Newborough, and Lords’ amendments, to be given royal assent, 15 June.[footnote] Madocks was listed as a steward for, but apparently did not attend, the City of London Tavern reform dinner, 4 Apr.[footnote] He divided in favour of inquiry into Peterloo, 16 May 1821.

Having crossed to Le Havre in September 1821, Lord Palmerston* informed his sister that

our party was not very large but somewhat comical. The principal personages were Bob Heathcote without his Columbine, and William Madocks with a portly dame who passed among the passengers for Lady Madocks but who was better qualified for Falstaff than Columbine. But both Heathcote and Madocks are entertaining people.[footnote]

Madocks voted for Hume’s amendment to the address, 5 Feb., further tax reductions to relieve distress, 11 Feb., and the inclusion of a clause in the Irish insurrection bill to require trial by jury, 8 Feb. 1822. No evidence of parliamentary attendance has been traced for the following session. He voted to condemn the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824. He was again given a month’s leave on medical grounds, 18 Feb. 1825, and later that year he consulted a celebrated liver doctor, ‘in order that I may know how to regulate my medicine, diet, etc’.[footnote] By the mid-1820s he was in ‘mild despair’ over his plans to link Ffestiniog and Porthmadog by rail, especially because a rival set of interests had decided that the line between the slate mines and the coast should be established along an alternative route. After the necessary legal preparations, his petition for a bill was presented, 18 Feb. 1825, but it was not proceeded with. He tried again the following year, amid much bustle and with anxious hopes for support. His petition was presented, 13 Feb. 1826, and he wrote to his agent, John Williams, 24 Feb., urgently requesting him to meet him at the office of Richard Jones, a clerk of the House, before the committee on 3 Mar., ‘so that we may give up our minds to the most important [?]æra in our lives’. However, an opposition was again raised, and his scheme collapsed.[footnote]

In May 1824 there was a possibility that about 20 properties in Chippenham, a burgage borough, might have been sold to Madocks by Guy for £14,000, but they were purchased instead by the Maitlands, who thereby gained a controlling interest.[footnote] Madocks, who had failed to cultivate any influence of his own in the constituency and had hardly ever visited it, was forced to turn elsewhere.[footnote] In September 1825, anticipating a dissolution, he briefly canvassed East Retford, and issued an address in favour of free trade and independence. Surprisingly, he came forward with the support of the duke of Newcastle as an opponent of Catholic relief, for which he had formerly voted. Yet he almost immediately withdrew, apparently in disgust at having failed to gain a single promise, and was ridiculed as a ‘Mad Ox’ and pilloried for his reluctance to re-enter the fray.[footnote] He sided with ministers against receiving the report on the salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr. 1826. This, his last recorded vote, was the only one he is known to have given against his Whig friends, and it may indicate that he felt an increasing degree of sympathy with the government’s more liberal policies. Hudson Gurney* recorded in his diary, 7 May, that at a ministerial dinner given by the foreign secretary Canning, ‘Madocks the radical reformer, Sir Charles Forbes and myself [were] the only ones not dead votes’. Having failed to find an alternative seat, he left the Commons at the dissolution in 1826.

As a result of his precarious finances and deteriorating health he left England with his family in May that year, and travelled via France and Switzerland to Naples, from where he continued to issue lengthy and exhortative instructions to Williams. It was always his intention to return, so he must have believed that his business affairs were retrievable, and on 5 July 1827 he wrote that ‘in November I am to come in for a borough in Ireland. All is arranged for that purpose’. Nothing, however, came of this plan.[footnote] He looked upon 1828 as the year for the salvation of his fortunes, though he was at times disheartened by numerous setbacks, particularly to his recovery, which delayed his journey home. In characteristic style, he complained, 14 Feb., that

I have had the fatigue, and anxiety for 17 years of keeping all together, and preserving for others what would all have gone to the Devil and Tremadoc returned to a mere wilderness. How then could those who can now get something, ever have got anything except for the efforts I have made to keep the property together, and where would the persons be now, who now are flourishing upon the property and enjoying and turning it to account to their own benefit, while I individually, notwithstanding such undiminished efforts, and getting friends to come forward from time to time, am only repaid by constant mortification, vexation and breach of all arrangements that are made for the great end, that is equally the interest of all, whether they have claims on the property that can produce anything only by my arrangements and exertions or whether they reside on the property, and are now doing well upon it?[footnote]

He died in Paris in September, while on his way back to Wales. That his efforts were recognized there was shown by an obituary in the Carmarthen Journal, 3 Oct. 1828, which noted that he had ‘spent a princely fortune in useful improvements and set an example, which it would be wished that every gentleman of wealth, property and influence would follow’. The Ffestiniog Railway, which was completed in 1836, owed much to his inspiration, and his other schemes prospered.[footnote] A limited administration was granted in May 1834, but without a valuation, and it is doubtful that he left much of an estate.[footnote] His wife, generally known as Eliza Ann, who may have enjoyed a family income of her own, had personalty valued at under £8,000 on her death in 1859. Their only child, Eliza Anne Maria Ermine, married Roderick Gwynne Holford (d. 1849), and then John Webb Roche (d. 1869) of Rochemount, County Cork, with whom she had four children. John Madocks (d. 1837) of Glan-y-wern and Fron Yw, Denbighshire, who was sometimes mistakenly referred to by contemporaries as Madocks’s son, but was in fact his nephew, served as Liberal Member for Denbigh Boroughs, 1832-4.[footnote]

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell