LEWES, Sir Watkin (?1740-1821), of 4 Parliament Street, Westminster and Plas Newydd, St. Dogmaels, Pemb.
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Family and Education
b. ?1740, 2nd s. of Rev. Watkin Lewes of Penybenglog, Meline, Pemb., rector of Meline, by Anne, da. and coh. of Edward Williams of Ambleston, Pemb. educ. Shrewsbury c.1754; Magdalene, Camb. 1 Jan. 1759, aged 18; M. Temple 1760, called 1766. m. 1770, Rebecca Eleonora, da. and coh. of Thomas Popkin of Forest, Swansea, Glam., 1da. d.v.p. Kntd. 5 Feb. 1773.
Alderman, London 1772-1821 (Father of the City 1804-d.); sheriff 1772-3; ld. mayor 1780-1; high bailiff, Southwark 1784-1817.
Member, Joiners’ Co. 1772-d.; col. Hon. Artillery Co. 1781-94, blue regt. 1781-9, 4 London militia 1789-94, E. London militia 1794-1803.
The first Welsh lord mayor of London since Sir Hugh Myddelton, Lewes was a butt of the caricaturists, who portrayed him with a leek in his hat and credited him with sentiments like ‘Cot pless the citizens’. When he was returned for London for the third time in 1790, having since 1784 decidedly transferred his allegiance from the Whigs to Pitt, Burke expostulated, ‘Good God, what sort of people must they be who could prefer Watty Lewis to [Nathaniel] Newnham!’1
Lewes continued to support Pitt, with whom he corresponded on City affairs and patronage: he regarded himself as Pitt’s right-hand man, albeit insufficiently respected as such, in common council. His not infrequent contributions to debate were those of a senior alderman defending the corporation against its critics. Occasionally his old preoccupations obtruded. He was strongly in favour of the bill to prevent the sale of clerkships of assize, 26 May 1791. A month before, he had been listed hostile to the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland, despite his support of dissenting relief before 1790. He supported the bringing in of a bill to regulate bribery and corruption at elections, 10 Apr. 1793, and on 16 June 1794, when he admitted his conversion to alarmism by the report of the secret committee, he confessed that he still favoured parliamentary reform. He supported Brook Watson’s clause to erect warehouses for imported corn, 23, 27 May 1791, and his constituents’ petition for a committee on the coal duties, 13 Mar. 1793. He spoke in favour of the institution of a board of agriculture, 17 May, and moved the erection of a monument to Lord Rodney in St. Paul’s, 17 June 1793. In June 1794 he brought in a City militia regulation bill, which passed, but which he had to amend in the next two sessions (9 Mar. 1795, 3 Mar. 1796). It was ‘jocularly said, that he possessed so much military ardour, that he always slept in his boots’. He was a spokesman for the corporation against the Thames wet docks bill, 8 Feb., 16 Mar. 1796. He also had an eye to Welsh interests: as the City Biography put it, ‘he is descended of a very respectable family in Wales, and his attention to those of his own country shows, that he does not wish ... to have the place of his nativity forgotten’.2
Lewes, who had taken it upon himself to warn Pitt of growing opposition to government measures in common council, wrote to him, 16 Jan. 1795, complaining that the minister had neglected his advice on the subject, ‘though on some very important occasions you have ultimately found me right, notwithstanding it did not strike you in the moment’. He added, ‘I do not wish to be troublesome, and shall leave it hereafter to those whom you have thought proper to honour with your confidence and support in preference to the long and tried attachment of ... Watkin Lewes’. He explained that he ‘had engaged two or three literary friends, who would have watched the papers and prevented the opposition from imposing on the minds of the people’. He was coughed down when he attempted to decry peace negotiations in common council that week. On 20 Jan. he was a defaulter, but appeared in the House two days later. Nor did he die in March, as was rumoured. On 25 Nov. 1795, he voted with the minority against the seditious meetings bill, his only known vote in opposition: the week before he had supported the bill, in common council, but the day before he had spoken on behalf of a petition to the House against repressive legislation from a respectable body of Londoners, explaining that although a counter petition had been signed by common council, not they but the livery were the parliamentary electors. In April 1796 he renewed contact with Pitt on militia matters, but this was one of the subjects that made him unpopular in London, and at the election of 1796, though approved by show of hands at the Guildhall, he was left at the bottom of the poll. In a despairing address of 26 May, he denied that he was responsible for the unpopular new commission of lieutenancy under the London militia bill, or that he made any personal gain from it. On 3 June, his friends sponsored his candidature for Middlesex, but ‘the show of hands being small’, he withdrew.3
Lewes, who had consumed his wife’s fortune in electioneering at Worcester 20 years before, needed a seat in Parliament to avoid his creditors. He had the reputation of being the despair of the London pickpockets. He wrote to Pitt, 5 June 1796, asking him to find him a seat at Yarmouth or ‘any other borough’, assuring him that he would thereby be ‘adding to his list of friends one on whose steady support and faithful attachment he may place the most perfect reliance and confidence, and which, while Member for the City of London, he never could show to the extent he wished’. Pitt evidently promised to do what he could for Lewes, who wrote again on 22 Nov. 1796 having heard of the vacancy at Saltash, ‘which I presume is under the direction or at the disposal of government’. He added ‘I have received within these few days very strong proofs in confirmation to what I had before that I lost my seat for the City of London from personal attachment to you and the support of the measures of administration’. Nothing came of this, and on 27 Mar. 1797 Lewes wrote that ‘it would be highly flattering to me to represent some place in the principality, particularly when my connexions and fortune which I have lately recovered give me some pretensions and I presume to say my countrymen would rejoice at that opportunity, in case a certain event should take place’. He was referring to the prospect of Lord Milford obtaining a British peerage for his part in resisting the French invasion of Pembrokeshire: this he strenuously advocated, so as to succeed Milford in the representation of his native county, where he had built a mansion.4
Nothing came of this either, and on 24 Dec. 1797 Lewes asked Pitt to back his candidature for the City chamberlainship in succession to Wilkes. (He had sought Pitt’s patronage for ‘a valuable appointment in the gift of the City’ in 1791.) He was heavily defeated in the election for chamberlain, January 1798. If elected, he would have had to devote half his salary to the payment of his debts. He was likewise defeated in the general election of 1802, when he again offered for London, declaring on the hustings that he believed Members should obey their constituents’ instructions. Having, as he put it, sacrificed a great part of his private fortune in the public service and endured every kind of persecution, he was arrested as he left the hustings. This scotched his notion of seeking an alternative seat at Carmarthen. Soon afterwards he benefited from the death of his elder brother, but his petition against the return failed in 1804. He was doomed to spend much of the remainder of his life in the Fleet for debt. He was an habitué of the London Coffee House, within the Fleet, where he took ‘his brandy and water at the expense of others’. Farington reported (18 Oct. 1804): ‘He complains of ill-usage received from the City of London and says his Worcester election cost him £30,000. Such has been the fate of a political struggler.’5
Lewes’s one hope was the reversal of a decision of the court of Exchequer which deprived him of the income from his wife’s Welsh estate, rich in minerals. He was confirmed in possession of the property, July 1810, but the litigation, in which he conducted his own case, dragged on and despite constant lobbying and another decision in his favour in 1818 he was unable to benefit from it. He died ‘at his apartments at the London Coffee House, Ludgate Hill’, 13 July 1821.6
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. E. Lewes, Welsh Outlook, xiii. 286. Sir Watkin was descended from the Lewes family of Llysnewydd, Llangeler, Carm., ex. inf. Maj. Francis Jones; M. D. George, Cat. Pol. and Personal Satires, vi. 7682; Burke Corresp. vi. 121.
- 2. PRO 30/8/152, ff. 35-59; Parl. Portraits (1795), i. 159; Reminiscences of Michael Kelly, i. 343; City Biog. (1800), 16.
- 3. PRO 30/8/152, ff. 55, 61, 63; Courier, 21 Jan.; Sun. 7 Mar.; Oracle, 16, 19 Nov. 1795; True Briton, 30 May, 3, 4 June 1796.
- 4. PRO 30/8/152, ff. 65, 67, 69.
- 5. Ibid. ff. 37, 71; Morning Chron. 27, 30 Dec. 1797; The Times, 9 July; Morning Post, 9 July 1802; Farington, iii. 10.
- 6. Morning Chron. 13 July 1810; Add. 34456, f. 523; 38253, ff. 137, 151, 164, 165, 278; Edinburgh Advertiser, 30 June 1818; Twiss, Eldon, iii. 474; Gent. Mag. (1821), ii. 93.