GIFFORD, William (c.1649-1724), of Portsmouth, Hants and Dover Street, Westminster

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



31 Dec. 1702 - 1708
3 Feb. 1711 - 1713

Family and Education

b. c.1649, ?2nd s. of Sir Richard Gifford, of King’s Somborne, Hants.  m. lic. 21 Dec. 1669, Elizabeth Charret, widow (d. 1721), s.p.  Kntd. 6 Sept. 1705.1

Offices Held

2nd lt. RN 1676, 1st lt. 1679, capt. 1682; commr. of navy, Portsmouth 1702–6, extra commr. of navy 1706–14; commr. excise May–Sept. 1710, disbanding marine regts. 1711–15.2

Freeman, Portsmouth 1702; gov. Greenwich Hosp. 1708–May 1710, Sept. 1710–15; keeper, Greenwich park and palace 1711–Oct. 1714.3


Gifford’s early life remains something of a mystery until 1676 when he was promoted 2nd lieutenant of the Dragon at the request of Sir Roger Strickland†, rising to the rank of captain under Charles II. In November 1688, when the fleet was ordered out to sea, he was reprimanded for tardiness in getting his ship under way by the naval commissioner at Deptford, who wrote to Pepys complaining of Gifford’s ‘ungentle, and I may well say rough, if not rude, return to my zealous discharge of that duty and trust incumbent on me, for hastening to sea all the addition of force possible at such a time as this’. Gifford excused himself to Pepys by blaming the delay on the pilot and on the commissioner himself.4

After William III’s accession Gifford’s loyalty was suspect and he was not employed in the navy again until 1701. In the meantime he went into the merchant service in partnership with a group of London merchants. In March 1693 he was given permission to sail to Madeira, but Luttrell reported that, at an extraordinary council held at Kensington at the end of March, there

was a great hearing before his Majesty between the East India Company and Captain Gifford and Captain Pitt, two interlopers; the company pressed to have the interlopers hindered from going to sea, alleging it would be detrimental to the company by their informing the Indians of the state of their concern.

The result was that the order to sail was revoked. Eventually Gifford seems to have accepted the company’s offer to meet the interlopers’ expenses by taking the ships into their own service, but with unfortunate results, since on 15 Sept. 1695 Evelyn reported that

my good and worthy friend, Captain Gifford, who that he might get some competency to live decently, adventured all he had in a voyage of two years to the East Indies, was, with another great ship, taken by some French man-of-war, almost within sight of England, to the loss of near £700,000, to my great sorrow and pity of his wife, he being also a valiant and industrious man.

Gifford remained in the service of the East India Company, but only as a ship’s captain, with no private interest in trading ventures. In January 1696 he was granted a commission to seize French ships, but this was revoked in the following March on the grounds that he was ‘disaffected to the government’. Shortly afterwards, on 13 Apr., the Duke of Shrewsbury acquainted Sir John Fleet*, the governor of the company,

upon application that has been made to the King, on behalf of Captain Gifford, by several persons of quality, who offer to stand engaged for his loyalty and good affection to his Majesty, and fidelity to the company, the King is inclined to permit his proceeding upon the intended service to the East Indies.

The final authorization was granted on 16 Apr. By the end of the reign doubts about Gifford’s loyalty seem finally to have been allayed, since in February 1701 he was given command of a ship.5

Shortly after the accession of Queen Anne Gifford was appointed a navy commissioner at Portsmouth and in the following December was returned for that borough in a by-election. He was forecast as an opponent of the Tack, and although he was one of the naval officers lobbied by Admiral George Churchill* to attend the division, did not vote for the measure on 28 Nov. 1704. Returned again for Portsmouth in 1705 he was listed as a placeman and a ‘High Church courtier’, voted on 25 Oct. 1705 for the Court candidate for Speaker, and supported the Court again on the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill on 18 Feb. 1706. He was rewarded the same year with promotion to the Navy Board in London and in April 1708 was made governor of Greenwich Hospital. Listed as a Tory in two lists of 1708, he did not stand in the general election of that year, perhaps not wishing to jeopardize his offices by voting against the now Whig-dominated administration. In May 1710 he was appointed a commissioner of excise with a salary of £800 a year, but in September he resigned, writing to the lords of the Treasury that,

being very much importuned by my friends of the corporation of Portsmouth to represent them in Parliament, as I formerly have done, I cannot refuse them, though it obliges me quitting [as] commissioner of excise, which I most readily submit to, agreeable to a late Act of Parliament enforcing the same, believing it more for her Majesty’s service, which makes me hope for your lordships’ favour and countenance when opportunity shall offer.

Although defeated at the election that year, he was seated on petition. On 10 Feb. 1711 the House took into consideration whether, as governor of Greenwich, he was capable of sitting under the terms of the Act of Settlement, and decided in his favour on 12 Feb. Compensation for his loss of the excise commissionership came in the form of two offices, as a commissioner for disbanding marine regiments and keeper of the park and palace at Greenwich, the latter giving significant opportunities for patronage. He was listed as one of the ‘worthy patriots’ who during the 1710–11 session detected the mismanagements of the previous administration, and on 18 June 1713 voted for the French commerce bill. He unsuccessfully contested Portsmouth in 1713, when he was defeated by another Tory, put up by the new governor, Lord North. After the accession of George I he lost all his offices. Describing Gifford’s presentation with an honorary DCL at Oxford on 22 Sept. 1715, Hearne wrote, ‘The orator presented Sir William Gifford, commending him for his loyalty and virtues and for being personally known to King Charles II, and withal observed that he had been lately deprived of the governorship of Greenwich.’ Gifford retired to live in lodgings at Oxford, where he died on 21 Nov. 1724, aged about 75.6

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Paula Watson


Unless otherwise stated, this biography is based on D. Ellison, 'Swashbuckler Captain Gifford' (Hist. of Parlt. trans.).

  • 1. PCC 8 Romney; St. Michael-at-the-Northgate, Oxf. par. reg. (ex inf. Mrs E. Finn).
  • 2. Charnock, Biog. Nav. ii. 92–93; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiv. 74, 293; xxix. 459.
  • 3. R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 373; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 296, 583, 634; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxv. 405; xxix. 367; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, p. 317; 1714–19, p. 44.
  • 4. CSP Dom. 1682, pp. 160, 259; J. R. Tanner, Cat. Pepysian Mss (Navy Rec. Soc. xxxvi), iii. 313; Tangier Pprs. of Pepys (Navy Rec. Soc. lxxiii), 33; Pepys Letters ed. Heath, 219–22, 243.
  • 5. Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 93; Luttrell, iii. 65, 68; Evelyn Diary, v. 218; CSP Dom. 1693, p. 101; 1696, pp. 101–2, 130, 134; 1700–2, pp. 235, 301; HMC Lords, n.s. ii. 62.
  • 6. Bull. IHR, xli. 182; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiv. 74; Hearne Colls. v. 118; viii. 298.