ADAMS, William (1752-1811), of Bowden, nr. Totnes, Devon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1796 - June 1801
6 July 1801 - 21 Sept. 1811

Family and Education

b. 30 Sept. 1752, 1st s. of William Adams of Totnes by Mary, da. of William Chadder. m. 25 June 1774, Anna Maria, da. of Richard Dacres of Leatherhead, Surr., 2s. 2da.

Offices Held

Mayor, Totnes 1780-1, 1788-9, 1797-8, recorder 1807-d.


Adams spent much of his life in trade, but the exact nature of his business interests is not known. In 1809 he told Farington that in 1766 he had been employed ‘in a mercantile house in Liverpool’; and it was later stated that he had become a government contractor during Pitt’s first ministry.1 In 1808 he was thought to have been ‘formerly ... if not still’ a merchant in the mercantile house of ‘Wilsford and Co’.2 This is almost certainly an error for ‘Welsford and Company’. Adams’s sister Mary married Giles Welsford, and his sister Susan married John Parr Welsford, who was probably the Welsford of Welsford and White, merchants and insurance brokers of 15 Angel Court, Throgmorton Street, London, who were in business by the early 1790s. From 1800 John Parr Welsford alone was listed in the London directories as a broker at the same address, and in 1811 he was described as secretary to the Patriotic Fund. He may have been connected with the firm of Welsford, Gouldsmith and Campion, later Welsford and Company, who operated as warehousemen and merchants at 9 Lad Lane during the same period. Adams may have ventured into banking in his later years: the Totnes General Bank of Adams and Company was listed in the London directories between 1811 and 1813, after which it became Prideaux and Company.

He bought Bowden from the Trist family, became a freeman of Totnes in 1779, served the first of his three terms as mayor the following year and was appointed recorder in 1807. His wife was wet nurse to the King’s youngest child, Princess Amelia, born in 1783, and subsequently received a pension from the Queen.3 His younger brother Samuel was barrack master at Hounslow and in 1791 his elder son William Dacres Adams entered the Home Office as a supernumerary clerk. He signed the London merchants’ declaration of loyalty, 2 Dec. 1795, and invested £10,000 in the 1797 loyalty loan. His name was included on a ministerial list of ‘persons wanting seats’ in 1796, when he showed a brief interest in Honiton, pledging himself ‘against democratic principles’,4 but in the event he came in for Plympton as a paying guest of Lord Mount Edgcumbe. He was reported to have made use of the Queen’s name ‘very improperly’ at the election for Totnes and received a royal rebuke.5 In 1801 he was returned unopposed on a vacancy for Totnes, where he built up an interest in alliance with his kinsmen the Bentalls, local bankers, and he retained the seat without difficulty until his death.

He played an unobtrusive role in the House, where he supported Pitt’s first ministry. In the only known speech of his career, 19 May 1797, he opposed Combe’s motion for its dismissal:

at this time everything should be opposed that tended to diminish lawful authority or to embarrass the operations of the executive power ... All party, all prejudice should be laid aside ... He deprecated the unmanly despondency that was taking possession of men’s minds ... Unanimity was our best resource ... as well as confidence in ministers.

He initially supported Addington, but his basic loyalty remained with Pitt, though deteriorating health evidently interfered with his parliamentary attendance. On 16 Nov. 1803 his son reported:

My father says that if after the first week of the session he finds Mr Pitt wants to make up numbers he will endeavour to come up, though the idea of being again attacked, while absent from his family, alarms him ... this is his only motive for staying away at all. His inclination in favour of the good cause is very strong and hearty.6

He turned up to vote against Addington on Pitt’s motion for a naval inquiry, 15 Mar., and in the decisive divisions of 23 and 25 Apr. 1804.

On Pitt’s return to power William Dacres Adams became his private secretary and his father naturally supported the ministry, voting against the censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805. He is not known to have opposed the ‘Talents’, but was reckoned ‘adverse’ to the abolition of the slave trade in 1806. The Duke of Portland employed Adams junior as private secretary during his premiership, which had Adams’s support, as did that of Perceval. He voted with ministers on the address, 23 Jan., and on the Walcheren question, 26 Jan., 23 Feb. and 5 Mar. 1810. Listed as ‘against the Opposition’ by the Whigs in mid-March, he was among the ministerial absentees from the Walcheren divisions of 30 Mar. 1810. He voted against sinecure and parliamentary reform, 17 and 21 May and in July 1810 his son was appointed a commissioner of woods and forests. His wife helped to nurse Princess Amelia during her fatal illness later in the year.7

On 31 Dec. 1810 Adams was granted a month’s leave of absence on account of ill health. By the following August he had decided to give up his seat at the dissolution, but he died in possession of it, 21 Sept. 1811.8

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: P. A. Symonds / David R. Fisher


  • 1. Farington, v. 276; PP (1835), xxiii. 643.
  • 2. J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1808), 607.
  • 3. Lysons, Magna Britannia, vi. p. cxxxii; Trans. Devon Assoc. xxxiv (1902), 706; xxxvi (1904), 500, 504; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 103; Harcourt Pprs. vi. 52-53.
  • 4. Bland Burges mss, M.A. to J. Bland Burges, 21 May 1796.
  • 5. Harcourt Pprs. vi. 52-53.
  • 6. PRO, Dacres Adams mss 11/15.
  • 7. Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 103.
  • 8. CJ, lxvi. 22; Dacres Adams mss 11/38-39.