STEPHENS, William (1671-1753), of Bowcombe, nr. Newport, I.o.W.
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Family and Education
b. 28 Jan. 1671, 1st s. of Sir William Stephens*. educ. Winchester 1684–8; King’s, Camb. 1689; M. Temple 1691. m. 1697, Mary, da. of Sir Richard Newdigate, 2nd Bt.†, of Arbury, Warws., 7s. 2da. suc. fa. 1697.
Commr. victualling 1712–14; agent for York Building Co. in Scotland 1728–35; sec. to trustees of Georgia 1737–41; pres. Savannah County, Georgia 1741–3; gov. Georgia 1743–51.
The estate Stephens inherited from his father was considerably encumbered with debt. Despite his father’s warnings not to enter public life, he served as a colonel in the Isle of Wight militia (often being distinguished by the title of ‘Colonel Stephens’ in parliamentary records) and as a j.p., and in 1702 entered Parliament for the neighbouring borough of Newport as a Tory, partly on his own interest and partly on that of the governor Lord Cutts (John*). Cutts had written to Stephens on 11 Apr. 1702:
I have heard from more hands than one, of your kind expressions towards me; which I shall acknowledge upon all occasions as long as I live and shall be glad of the first opportunity to demonstrate what a grateful sense I have of your friendship.
Stephens replied that:
So very kind a letter as you were pleased to honour me with, gives me too much cause to doubt that your treatment among us has been very coarse. Your lordship cannot but know that I was ever a stranger to those little designs which were hatched, no matter where, to make the country unhappy by your lordship’s displeasure. I will not presume to enter into a detail of those things, which no doubt but you have seen to the bottom of.
These were references to various disagreements existing between Cutts and the local gentry over the electoral management of the Isle of Wight boroughs, and also a recent dispute with the corporation of Newport over the mayoralty. Stephens’ family had some influence in Newport, and the recent support which Stephens had given to the governor explains Cutts’s eagerness to support his candidature in 1702. In the House Stephens voted on 13 Feb. 1703 against agreeing with the Lords’ amendments to the bill for extending the time permitted for taking the oath of abjuration. In March 1704 he was forecast by Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) as a probable supporter of the government’s actions during the Scotch Plot. Although forecast as a probable opponent of the Tack, he was twice listed as voting for it on 28 Nov. 1704. Returned again for Newport in 1705, he was classed in an analysis of the new Parliament as ‘True Church’, and voted against the Court candidate for Speaker on 25 Oct.
Although the death of Lord Cutts in January 1707 brought in a strong Whig as governor in the person of the 2nd Duke of Bolton (Charles Powlett I*), Stephens retained his seat at Newport in 1708, being classed as a Tory and as a Tacker in two lists of that year. On 15 Aug. 1709 he wrote a letter to the commissioners of customs complaining that:
the late scandalous treatment I have met with from . . . an officer of the customs at Cowes, puts me under a necessity of doing myself common justice. He takes upon him to vilify me in an uncommon manner, and not many days since in public company, where my name happened to be mentioned, said that he knew me well enough; the Duke of Bolton would take care of and do my business; for I was trying to subvert the government. In no wise conscious of any slackness in my endeavours to my utmost to make my loyalty evident, much less of harbouring so much as an ill thought of the government; and as much as I assure myself of his Grace the Duke of Bolton’s favour, which I would by no means forfeit by any disrespect to him in Parliament or public misbehaviour, so I have not the least doubt but you will do me that justice, as not to let me be insulted and become a by-word among the beasts of the people.
He voted against the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell in 1710. With the change of administration that year, Stephens may have hoped for office as a means of repairing his family fortunes. If so, he was not immediately satisfied. Classed as a Tory in the ‘Hanover list’ of the 1710 Parliament, he was included on a list of ‘Tory patriots’ who opposed the continuation of the war in 1711, and on a list of ‘worthy patriots’ who assisted in exposing the mismanagements of the previous administration in 1711. He was also a member of the October Club. He twice acted as teller in this Parliament: on 11 Jan. 1711, on the Tory side, in the Lymington election dispute; and on 15 Apr. 1712, against committing the bill to enable electoral polls in Hampshire to be adjourned from Winchester to Newport. Since at least May 1711, Stephens had been soliciting Lord Treasurer Oxford (Robert Harley*) for an office in victualling, promising that he could be serviceable in preventing abuses and citing his ‘so many years being buffeted by a party, whom my zeal for the best of sovereigns, and best of constitutions has prompted me to withstand to my utmost ability’. Eventually, in July 1712, as part of Oxford’s policy of buying off his October Club critics, Stephens was appointed a commissioner for victualling the navy with a salary of £500 p.a. In the last session of this Parliament he voted on 18 June 1713 for the French commerce bill. He was classed as a Tory on the Worsley list and two other lists analysing the 1713 and 1715 Parliaments. Shortly after the accession of George I he lost his place on the victualling board. He remained in Parliament until 1727 as a Tory, and died in August 1753.1
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Paula Watson
Unless otherwise indicated, this biography is based on T. Stephens, The Castle-Builders; or, the History of William Stephens (1759)
- 1. Add. 70206, Stephens to Oxford, 31 May 1711; 70294, Stephens to Oxford, 27 May 1712.