BURTON, Francis (1744-1832), of Edworth, Beds.
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Family and Education
b. May 1744, o.s. of Col. Francis Burton of Knightsbridge, Mdx. by 2nd w. Mary, da. and coh. of William Laremer of Knightsbridge.1 educ. Westminster; Christ Church, Oxf. 1760; L. Inn 1761, called 1768. m. 1 Jan. 1788, Catherine, da. and coh. of Nicholas Halhead of Woodstock, Oxon., s.p. suc. fa. 1753.
KC 18 Jan. 1778; bencher, L. Inn 1778, treasurer 1792; recorder, New Woodstock 1780-1802; second justice of Chester circuit 1788-1817; dep. recorder, Oxford 1778-97, recorder 1797-1801; commr. for building new churches 1818; charity commr. 1819-20.
Burton owed his seats in Parliament to his friend the 4th Duke of Marlborough, with whom he had been up at Christ Church and to whom he remained legal adviser until the duke’s death in 1817. In 1790 the duke set aside the claims of his brother Lord Robert Spencer, an opposition supporter, in favour of Burton, who supported Pitt’s administration, as a Member for the city of Oxford. He held this seat against opposition and it left him much more out of pocket than had Woodstock.
After 1790 Burton contributed more often to debate, but his speeches were usually brief and on the legal side. In March every year he obtained leave, to act as a judge at Chester. He was reckoned hostile to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in April 1791. His amendment to Grey’s motion for an inquiry into debtors in gaol was welcomed by the mover, 6 June 1791. He brought in the bill multiplying the metropolitan police courts and replacing ‘trading justices’ by stipendiary magistrates and defended it ably, 16 Mar., 3 May 1792. His clause to allow for detention of offenders on suspicion alone proved the most controversial, but he secured the bill for three years’ trial and on 19 Feb. 1796 obtained its perpetualization, nem. con. He opposed the prolongation of the trial of Warren Hastings, 30 May 1793, and on 12 June defended the archbishop of York after his outburst against the management of it. He was teller for the suspension of habeas corpus and objected to an adjournment of it, 16, 17 May 1794. He spoke on the Prince of Wales’s debts, 8 June 1795, suggesting that creditors should publicize their claims as proof of their respectability and that Parliament should then sift and pay them. He opposed government interference in the corn market, 18 Nov. 1795.
Burton wished to succeed Edward Bearcroft* as chief justice of Chester and was thought as likely to be made a baron of the Exchequer before the vacancy arose. In fact he obtained neither office. When (Sir) William Grant* became chief justice in 1798, Burton got on well with him and admitted that he would not like to have faced re-election at Oxford, as it might have ‘finished’ his eyesight, which was deteriorating. By 1800 he was nearly blind in one eye and had ceased to appear at Westminster Hall; nor would he have accepted the Exchequer if offered to him. He remained active in the House, ‘the blind senator’.2
On 23 Feb. 1797 he opposed tithe relief for Quakers; on 30 Dec. he obtained some rate exemption, though only for three years, for contributors to the assessed taxes, but failed in his clause enabling landlords and tenants to arrange mutual loans to facilitate payment of their contributions. He voted for the assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798. He approved the prosecution of the war with France and the volunteer effort, 27 Mar. He supported Buxton’s proposal that the land tax should be merged in a more general tax, 18 May, and on 20 Dec. defended the assessment of the income tax. He justified the court of Exchequer, 22 May, the trial of Roger O’Connor, 11 June 1798, the restoration of an earlier start to partridge shooting, 28 Feb. 1799, and the lottery bill, 28 May 1800. He objected to the executory devise bill, 14 July 1800, as a restriction on the accumulation of assets and on the voluntary distribution of property. He objected to the Lords having any say as to the undoubted ineligibility of clergymen to sit in the Commons, 13 May 1801. On 11 Dec. he presented the Oxford corporation petition for the continued prohibition of distillation from corn, lest bread prices rise, and on 14 Dec. he tried to procure the continuation, but failed by 82 votes to 20. He saw no reason why Members of Parliament should be immune from the debtors bill, 2 Mar. 1802, though he was a critic of it, 21 May. He wished to include all child employees in Sir Robert Peel’s bill on behalf of cotton apprentices, since at Chester he had become aware of the prevalence of crime among them. He was in favour of the clergy residence bill, 5 May 1802, and objected to it only because his bid to secure provision for the repair of parsonages was thwarted, 11 May. He went on to bring in bills to procure aid for poor curates from Queen Anne’s bounty, 4 July, and to enlist private benevolence towards the upkeep of church buildings, parsonages and graveyards, 12 July 1802.
In May 1801 Burton had at last been allowed his wish to resign the recordership of Oxford in favour of Charles Abbot, who was to succeed him as Member at the next election. The plan was spoilt by the threat of a four-cornered contest for the city in the summer of 1801. Abbot being in Ireland, Burton was reluctantly obliged to deny that he meant to retire, 31 July: his patron decided that he was the best hope for the preservation of the Blenheim interest. He could not canvass in person, but he retained his seat at the election of 1802 and remained in the House ten years, heading the poll in another contest in 1806. He also retained his judicial office, despite suppositions that he wished to resign it.3
Burton was well disposed to Addington’s and afterwards to Pitt’s second ministry, though he voted with the minority for the continuation of the naval commission of inquiry, 1 Mar. 1805. He defended the stipendiary curates bill, 21 May 1805. He probably concealed a dislike of the Grenville ministry: he was critical of the Marquess Wellesley’s conduct in India, 6 July 1806. He was listed ‘adverse’ to the abolition of the slave trade, although on 14 Mar. 1796 he had been teller for early consideration of an abolition bill. On 9 June 1808 he defended the curates residence bill and on 15 June stated his objections to Romilly’s bill to substitute transportation for the capital punishment of thieves: he agreed that the use of capital punishment should be reduced, preferring transportation for life as an alternative. He disliked projects for the commutation of tithes in Ireland, 16 June 1808. On 8 Mar. following he addressed the House for two and three quarter hours in mitigation of the charges against the Duke of York. Spencer Perceval informed the King:
having understood that Mr Burton saw the subject in the same light as Mr Perceval and that he was desirous of speaking, Mr Perceval thought it desirable to take advantage of Mr Burton’s respectable character, his great experience and his judicial situation, to make the first impression upon the House, and therefore gave way to him—and he is happy that he did so, as Mr Burton made a very excellent and impressive speech.
On the other side, William Henry Fremantle complained: ‘Burton made a very bad speech, and a very improper one as a judge, extracting and omitting evidence which best suited his arguments, and laying down very improper doctrines’.4 Burton continued to be serviceable to Perceval even when his patron wavered; he voted staunchly with ministers 23 Jan.-30 Mar. 1810, approving Perceval’s amendment of the personnel of the Scheldt committee, 5 Feb. The Whigs listed him ‘against the Opposition’. He was on the government side on the Regency, 1 Jan. 1811. On 9 Jan. 1812 he stood by his friend the Speaker in the procedural wrangle with Christopher Hely Hutchinson. He voted against Stuart Wortley’s motion for a stronger administration, 21 May, and against Catholic relief, 22 June. He opposed Burdett’s motion for an inquiry into the state of Lancaster gaol, 3 July.
Burton retired, as anticipated, in 1812, whereupon his replacement lost their patron the seat. He ‘retained the full enjoyment of his other faculties’ and his interest in public life until his death, 28 Nov. 1832.5
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. PCC 162 Searle.
- 2. O.B. Cole, Biog. Sketch of the late Francis Burton, the blind Senator (Dublin 1845); PRO 30/9/31, Abbot diary 16 Mar., 20 Nov. 1796; 30/9/32, ff. 293, 294; Colchester, i. 160.
- 3. PRO 30/9/33, Burton to Abbot, 20 Feb.; 30/9/1, Agar to Abbot, 16 Oct.; pt. 1/2, Burton to Abbot, 30 Sept., 13, 27 Oct. 1801; Colchester, i. 229.
- 4. Colchester, ii. 171; Geo. III Corresp. v. 3828; Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville, half past 3 [9 Mar. 1809].
- 5. Colchester, iii. 95, 144, 180; Gent. Mag. (1833), i. 86.