BEST, William Draper (1767-1845), of Wynford Eagle, Dorset.
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Family and Education
b. 13 Dec. 1767, 3rd s. of Thomas Best of Haselbury Plucknett, Som. by w. Betty née Draper.1 educ. Crewkerne sch.; Wadham, Oxf. 1782; M. Temple 1784, called 1789. m. 6 May 1794, Mary Anne, da. of Jerome Knapp of Haberdashers’ Hall, London, company clerk, 4s. 6da. Kntd. 3 June 1819; cr. Baron Wynford 5 June 1829.
Serjeant-at-law 24 Jan. 1800; King’s serjeant Apr. 1806; recorder, Guildford 1809-19; solicitor-gen. to Prince Regent Dec. 1813-Feb. 1816, attorney-gen. Feb. 1816-19; second justice of Chester 1817-18, c.j. Jan.-Nov. 1818; puisne judge, KB Nov. 1818-24; PC 25 May 1824; l.c.j.c.p. Apr. 1824-June 1829; dep. Speaker of House of Lords 1829.
Orphaned in infancy and dependent on scholarships to supplement his limited resources, Best was intended for an ecclesiastical career, but while at Oxford a legacy from a cousin enabled him to follow his natural inclination and study for the bar. As a young barrister on the home circuit he attracted the attention of Lord Kenyon to whose patronage he owed his early professional success.2
Best entered Parliament on the Jolliffe interest in 1802. His first known speech, 5 May 1803, was a plea for leniency to the mayor of Grimsby, found guilty of partiality as returning officer. On 10 May he asked for exemption for naval chaplains from penalties for non-residence. In his first major speech, 24 May 1803, he vindicated resumption of hostilities with France, and on 11 Aug. he blamed the rebellion in Ireland on enemy interference, deprecating the discussion of tithe reform and Catholic relief. On 2 Feb. 1804, however, he aligned himself with Fox as teller for the discharge of the Middlesex election petition and on 25 Apr. voted with the combined opposition to Addington. He went on to join opposition to Pitt’s second ministry and, although himself preoccupied in carrying a bill for the relief of the London clergy (introduced on 30 Apr. 1804), he made a point of opposing Pitt’s additional force bill in June and the stamp duties bill in July. He voted with the minorities of 12 Feb. 1805 against war with Spain and of 21 Feb. on defence.
Best was in the majority for the censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805, and pressed for action on the tenth report of the commissioners of naval inquiry, supporting Whitbread’s motion for a select committee, 25 Apr. He advocated the criminal prosecution of Melville, 29 Apr., and on 23 May moved for a select committee on the 11th report, with reference to the raising of financial supplies without parliamentary consent. In the event and to his relief he had to postpone indefinitely his resolutions based on the select committee’s report, but was one of the Members deputed to investigate the case against Melville. He was more successful with a bill to regulate privilege of Parliament in the case of bankrupts, which he took to the Lords on 3 July 1805. He had no time for Jeffery’s bid to arraign St. Vincent’s naval administration, 8 Jan. 1806. Between then and the dissolution, his only notable parliamentary action was to obtain leave for a bill to ban newspaper publication of ex parte criminal proceedings, 18 Apr.: he withdrew it in the face of his fellow professionals’ hostility.3
Best found no seat in 1806. In 1807 he assisted Edward Berkeley Portman in his Dorset campaign.4 In 1812 he found an opening at Bridport, where the death of Charles Sturt made a vacuum. He was regarded as the champion of the church party on the corporation.5 Even so, there was some doubt as to his politics. On 23 Oct. 1812 he was reported to have ‘voluntarily tendered himself’ to the Marquess Wellesley.6 Canning was evidently taken aback, for he wrote ‘Serjeant Best was regular opposition when he was last in Parliament. Has he changed?’7 Best was in fact listed a government supporter and on 11 Feb. 1813 spoke in favour of the vice-chancellor bill. On 2 Mar. he voted for Catholic relief, but on 24 May paired against it. When in December 1813 he became solicitor-general to the Prince, Joseph Jekyll commented ‘He is a Swiss you know, and has fought already under the banners of opposition and then of Canning. He wisely considers the Prince’s service as an hot-bed from whence attorneys and solicitors general are transplanted.’8 Henceforward he could usually be relied on to vote with ministers, when not on the home circuit. On 30 May 1815 he was an outspoken critic of Catholic relief and on 4 July he paid fulsome tribute to the Duke of York and called for a panegyrical address to the Prince Regent, whose attorney-general he became in February 1816. Somewhat surprisingly he voted against ministers on 12 and 14 June 1816 and again on 7 Feb. 1817.
His main topic remained legal business. He set his face against Romilly’s attempts at legal reform, 26 Mar., 9 Apr. 1813;9 favoured capital punishment as a deterrent for machine breaking, 6 Dec. 1813; campaigned for less lenient legislation against insolvent debtors, 1814-15; defended the continuation of the militia, 28 Nov. 1814; and condemned the London petition against the property tax and the resumption of war, 1 May 1815. He opposed any tax exemptions for dissenters 16 June 1815. He defended the aliens bill, 20 May 1816, obstructed Catholic relief, 6 June, and deplored the removal from Athens of the Elgin marbles, 7 June 1816. According to Arthur Onslow*, Best was opposed to the renewal of the property tax—so the House learned in his absence, 18 Mar. 1816. He was a keen critic of petitions for reform and defended the seditious meetings bill in March 1817. That month he went out of Parliament on his appointment as a Welsh judge.
In 1818 he was elected at Guildford, of which he was recorder, on the interest of his distant kinsman Lord Grantley. He vacated his seat before Parliament met on appointment to the bench, which had long been his ambition.10 It did not improve his reputation: he had been ‘a favourite ... with his colleagues at the bar ... and the litigating public’, but now became known as the ‘judge advocate’ from his political bias.11 He died 3 Mar. 1845.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Winifred Stokes / R. G. Thorne
- 1. Not the daughter of Sir William Draper, the opponent of ‘Junius’, as stated in Gent. Mag. (1845), i. 431; but seemingly related to him (Add. 27781, f. 148). Perhaps her father was William Draper of Haselbury.
- 2. Foss, Judges, ix. 10.
- 3. Sidmouth mss, Hobhouse to Sidmouth, 5 July 1805; Romilly, Mems. ii. 143.
- 4. Dorset RO, D413.
- 5. Ibid. D43/X1, Barclay to Colfox, 27 May 1812.
- 6. Beckford mss, Cochrane Johnstone to Beckford, 24 Oct. 1812.
- 7. Bagot mss, Canning to Bagot, 9 Nov. 1812.
- 8. Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 13 Dec. 1813.
- 9. Romilly, iii. 95, 100.
- 10. Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 29 Jan. 1816.
- 11. Foss, ix. 12; Campbell, Lives of Chief Justices, iii. 294.