ASTELL (formerly THORNTON), William (1774-1847), of Everton House, Hunts. and 4 Portland Place, Mdx

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1807 - 1832
1841 - 7 Mar. 1847

Family and Education

b. 13 Oct. 1774, 2nd s. of Godfrey Thornton (d. 1805), London merchant and banker, of Moggerhanger House, Beds. and Jane, da. and coh. of Stephen Peter Godin of Cullands Grove, Mdx. m. 15 July 1800, Sarah, da. of John Harvey of Ickwellbury, Beds. and Finningley Park, Yorks., 4s. 4da. (1 d.v.p.). Took name of Astell on suc. to Everton estate of his gt.-uncle, Richard Astell, 9 June 1807. d. 7 Mar. 1847.

Offices Held

Dir. E.I. Co. 1800-46, dep. chairman 1809-10, 1823-4, 1829-30, chairman 1810-11, 1824-5, 1828-9, 1830-1; dir. Russia Co. 1802, E.I. Dock Co. 1805-35.

Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1797; maj. R. E. I. vols. 1803, lt.-col. 1805, col. 1820-34; lt.-col. Beds. militia 1841.


Thornton had changed his surname to Astell in 1807 to inherit the Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire estate of his maternal great-uncle, in compliance with the will of the latter’s widow, Hannah Pownall, after his uncle, William Thornton Astell, had died without issue.1 His family were related to the Thorntons of Hull and Clapham, and William Wilberforce* was an uncle by marriage. He was a partner in his father’s London banking firm, Godfrey Thornton and Sons, and on his father’s death in November 1805 he received £8,000 in bank stock, a quarter-share of a £20,000 trust to be divided on his mother’s death and a half-share of the residue of the estate. He had already been given property in Northamptonshire as a marriage settlement.2 He served as a director of the East India Company for the unprecedented period of 47 years but, according to the Company’s historian, he was a ‘blustering and stupid’ time-server, one of a group known as the private trade interest, ‘wealthy mediocrities’ from the City with no experience of India, whose dominance of the Company in the 1820s was detrimental to its reputation.3 He shared in the Evangelical enthusiasm for the spread of English education in India, which he believed would help to Christianise that country.4 He had sat for Bridgwater since 1807 in alliance with George Pocock and the 4th Earl Poulett’s interest in the corporation, making systematic use of the East India Company patronage at his disposal; but at the dissolution in 1820 he abandoned his colleague to form a new alliance with the independent party, which named Charles Kemeys Tynte as its candidate. He was thus returned unopposed, after professing his ‘attachment to the glorious constitution’ and his desire to support Lord Liverpool’s government whenever possible, justifying its recent measures to suppress ‘atheism, blasphemy and sedition’.5

He was a regular attender, who served on various committees and continued to give general support to ministers, but as in previous Parliaments he sometimes acted with opposition, particularly on retrenchment. He voted to consider the droits of the crown and admiralty as sources of revenue for the civil list, 5 May, and presented two Wiltshire woollen manufacturers’ petitions against the wool tax, 15 May 1820.6 He was named to the select committee on foreign trade, 5 June 1820, 6 Feb. 1821, 25 Feb. 1822, 12 Feb. 1823, 4 Mar. 1824. He voted in support of Queen Caroline, 23, 26 Jan., 14 Feb., and on 2 Feb. 1821 denied that his attendance at the Mansion House meeting on this subject was inconsistent with his previously expressed views on public meetings. He was absent from the division on the opposition censure motion, 6 Feb. He bore testimony, as an East India Company director, to Canning’s efficiency as president of the board of control, 9 Feb., but welcomed the fact that his temporary successor Bragge Bathurst was to take no salary. He alleged a ‘breach of faith’ by the government in its failure to reimburse the Company for the expenses incurred in keeping Buonaparte at St. Helena, 1 June. He divided against Catholic claims, 28 Feb. He voted with ministers against malt duty repeal, 3 Apr., but was in the minorities for equalization of the timber duties, 5 Apr., reduction of the miscellaneous services grant, 28 May, and against the raising of £200,000 through a lottery, 1 June. He divided for the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June. In presenting a petition for free trade in corn, 24 May 1821, he argued that the 1815 corn law had demonstrably failed in its object of promoting price stability and that it was time for the House to ‘institute some proceeding on the subject’.7 He voted for Hume’s amendment to the address, 5 Feb. 1822, believing that it ‘pledged the House to a system of retrenchment’ which would create the surplus necessary to form a sinking fund. He divided against more extensive tax remissions, 21 Feb., and repeal of the salt duties, 28 June, but for the abolition of a junior lordship of the admiralty, 1 Mar., and inquiry into diplomatic expenditure, 15 May. He defended the East India directors during the debate on the board of control, 14 Mar.8 He warned that if the House entertained the Calcutta bankers’ petition demanding compensation from the Company, there would be ‘no end to petitions of a similar nature’, 4 July; he was a minority teller against referring it to a select committee, to which he was then appointed. He divided against the removal of Catholic peers’ disabilities, 30 Apr., and for inquiry into criminal law reform, 4 June 1822. He voted to condemn the appointment of a lieutenant-general of the ordnance in peacetime, 19 Feb. 1823. He supported the East India Company’s petition for equalization of the East and West Indian sugar duties and voted for the unsuccessful motion on this, 22 May.9 This failure, coupled with the government’s decision to prohibit the import of articles made from Indian silk, antagonized Astell and other directors, who had personal interests involved, and resulted in a period of frosty relations between ministers and the Company.10 He divided against the London Bridge bill, 16, 20 June, and for the usury laws repeal bill, 27 June 1823. He explained the circumstances behind the revocation of the license to operate in India of James Silk Buckingham*, editor of the Calcutta Journal, and ‘dissented entirely’ from Brougham’s assertion of the paramount importance of press freedom, 25 May 1824. He briefly defended the East India possessions bill, 17 June, arguing that it would end the differences between the British and Dutch governments and denying that the concessions made would endanger the trade route to China. He voted for the Irish insurrection bill, 14 June 1824. He presented Bridgwater petitions for repeal of the house and window duties, 24 Feb., and against the Western ship canal, 18 Apr. 1825.11 He argued that there was no case for the production of papers regarding the Bengal army, 24 Mar., as the Company’s object was to ‘ameliorate the condition of the native troops’; he acted as a majority teller against Hume’s motion. He divided against Catholic relief, 21 Apr., 10 May, and the Irish franchise bill, 26 Apr. He voted against the financial provision for the duke of Cumberland, 30 May, 9, 10 June 1825. He briefly expressed support for the petition of subaltern officers in the marines to be restored to the half-pay list, 3 Mar. 1826.12 He moved the second reading of the bill to continue the commission on the claims against the nabob of Arcot, 20 Mar.13 He again maintained that the loss of Buckingham’s business was due to his own ‘misconduct’, 9 May 1826, and was a minority teller against the appointment of a select committee to consider the petition for compensation, to which he was named. In February of that year Astell had confirmed his intention of standing again for Bridgwater in alliance with Kemeys Tynte, assuring his supporters of his ‘attachment to our glorious constitution in church and state’ and declaring that ‘though I may occasionally differ from ... ministers, as I hitherto have done on particular measures, I cordially acquiesce in the support of the great principles by which they are directed, both in regard to their foreign and domestic policy’. At the general election in June he was comfortably returned at the head of the poll.14

He voted against Catholic relief, 6 Mar., the Penryn election bill, 7 June, and the Coventry magistracy bill, 18 June 1827. He divided against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and Catholic relief, 12 May 1828. On 11 Mar. he introduced a bill to improve the East India docks, which gained royal assent, 19 June. He introduced an East India prize money bill, 10 June, and a Bombay marine bill, extending the provisions of the Mutiny Act, 30 June; they received royal assent, 15, 19 July respectively. He defended the ‘good and proper’ government of India against Hume’s attack, 16 June, and next day opposed inquiry into the Indian stamp duties, pointing to the ‘gradual and progressive improvement’ of that country under Company rule and maintaining that no case had been made out for ‘the continuation of the interference of this House in the management of Indian affairs generally, which is ... the object of the motion’. He voted against the duke of Wellington’s ministry on the silk duties, 14 July. He presented a petition against the Marylebone vestry bill from the select vestrymen, of whom he was one, 31 Mar., and at the report stage, 6 June 1828, he asserted that accusations of malversation against the vestry were ‘groundless’ and that the bill would ‘overturn established rights, against the opinion of a great portion of the parishioners’; he successfully moved its rejection, acting as a teller. In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, predicted that Astell would side ‘with government’ for Catholic emancipation, but his only recorded vote on the issue was for the amendment to prevent Catholics from sitting in Parliament, 23 Mar. On 12 Mar. he introduced an East India writers bill, which gained royal assent, 14 May. He was named to the select committee on the claims arising from the insolvency of the late registrar of Madras, 5 May, and gave notice that he would oppose Mackintosh’s resulting bill at all stages, 25 May. He urged the House to suspend judgement on the demands for removal of restrictions on the India and China trade until adequate information was available, 12 May, and rejected Alexander Baring’s advice that the East India Company should make a unilateral gesture to conciliate rival trading interests. He welcomed the subsequent motion for inquiry, 14 May, believing that a ‘thorough investigation would disperse ... prejudices’ about the situation in India and show that the Company’s administration was not as defective as its critics supposed, and that it had ‘been the humble instrument, in the hands of Providence, of conferring great benefits on the natives’. He warned that it was ‘our duty not to make experiments’, and that any change ‘must proceed temperately and with a view, not merely to extend the commercial resources of the country, but to advance the happiness and prosperity of the millions in the East confided to our government’. He voted to issue a new writ for East Retford, 2 June 1829. He welcomed the government motion for inquiry into the East India Company and eastern trade, 9 Feb. 1830, as it would ‘dispel the mist of error’ that prevailed and demonstrate that the directors had ‘never lost sight of their country’s interest in pursuit of their own’. He rejected the argument that as a director he should not sit on the select committee, and he was duly named to it. Privately, however, he admitted that the authority of the Indian government was in a weakened state.15 He denied that the Company was indifferent to the distress of British manufacturers, giving some instances to prove the contrary, 16 Feb., and he trusted that the committee’s verdict would be ‘founded in justice, without reference to any exaggerated statement made in this House’, 11 Mar. He introduced the Tanjore commissioners bill, to enable witnesses to be examined on oath, 8 Mar., and assured Members that no additional expense would be incurred, 15 Mar.; it obtained royal assent, 26 Apr. He initially reserved judgment on the bill to indemnify the victims of the Madras registrar, 6 Apr., but denounced it as ‘objectionable in principle’, 26 Apr., arguing that it was ‘the height of injustice’ to require compensation to be paid from East India Company revenues, which amounted to a tax on the natives. He dismissed the suggestion that as an interested party he ought not to vote on the second reading, 19 June, maintaining that ‘in this House I represent other interests than those of the East India Company’, and he held that the crown should be liable for the losses suffered. He withdrew his opposition after concessions were made, 9 July, but warned that the bill must not be regarded as setting a precedent. He introduced the New River Company bill, to improve the navigation of the River Lea, 11 Mar., but while little serious opposition was anticipated it failed to complete its committee stage.16 He voted against Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr. 1830. He was returned unopposed for Bridgwater at the general election that summer, after affirming that his principles were ‘calculated to uphold our invaluable constitution, which unites in itself all the distinguishing excellencies of monarchical and representative government’. He thanked his friends for arranging his return at the minimum of inconvenience to himself, at a time when his duties as chairman of the Company occupied much of his attention.17

The Wellington ministry regarded Astell as one of their ‘friends’, and although he told Lord Ellenborough that the duke’s declaration against reform had ‘injured him in the City’, he voted with them in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830.18 He was subsequently described as being ‘thunderstruck by the change of ministers’ and determined to ‘oppose’ Lord Grey’s government, which he thought would ‘not last six months’.19 He disputed the claim that there was already sufficient evidence to render the reappointment of the East India select committee unnecessary, 4 Feb. 1831, and was again named to it. He and his fellow directors were privately ‘violent against [the] government and ridiculed their budget’.20 He presented a Bridgwater petition for repeal of the house and window taxes, 7 Feb., and urged Lord Althorp to repeal the duty on the manufacture of tiles, ‘which presses very severely ... and produces very little advantage to the revenue’, 17 Feb., presenting a Bridgwater petition to this effect, 28 Mar. He divided against the second reading of the reform bill, 22 Mar., and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. At the ensuing general election he faced a severe challenge at Bridgwater, arising from the breakdown of his alliance with Kemeys Tynte and the intervention of a second reform candidate. He declared himself to be ‘an advocate for rational reform’ who would ‘continue to support such ameliorations of our institutions as are necessary to adapt them to the spirit of the age’, but ‘as an Englishman, reverentially impressed with the value of our constitution’, he could not ‘advocate a measure which at once roots up all the landmarks of our glorious forefathers’, destroying the balance between the three estates of the realm. He also deplored the prospect of increased Catholic representation in the Commons while that of ‘Protestant England’ was diminished. He was returned in second place by 11 votes, after a scrutiny, and a sympathetic local newspaper was moved to regret the ‘insults and outrages’ to which he had been subjected.21

He agreed that it would be ‘highly advantageous’ to have an ambassador at Canton, 28 June 1831, but advised Members not to ‘indulge in the confident anticipations expressed by some gentlemen, of the great advantages to be derived from throwing open the trade to China’. He was named that day to the reappointed East India committee, after repudiating the complaint that the presence on it of directors had retarded progress; he was named to it again, 27 Jan. 1832. He suggested that the objects of the petitioners for suppression of the pilgrim tax in India would be ‘sooner obtained by avoiding anything like angry discussion’, 14 Oct. 1831. On the motion for papers regarding the pecuniary claims of British subjects on native Indian princes subject to the Company’s authority, 14 June 1832, he explained that the directors had ‘always set their face against claims for alleged loans to native princes’, as they were ‘the guardians of the purse of the people of India’, and he regretted ‘the facilities which have been afforded to individuals to prosecute such claims in this House’. He paired against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July 1831, and voted for its adjournment, 12 July, and against its passage, 21 Sept. 1831. He was absent from the division on the second reading of the revised bill, 17 Dec. 1831, but voted against going into committee, 20 Jan., the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., the third reading, 22 Mar., and the second reading of the Irish bill, 25 May 1832. He divided against ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July, and for inquiry into the glove trade, 3 Apr. 1832. He declined to serve again as chairman of the Company at this time, being unwilling to engage in a losing battle with the government over the terms for renewal of the charter, which by the Act of 1833 involved increasing the powers of the crown and removing the Company’s commercial monopolies.22 In the summer of 1832 the appearance of a reform candidate at Bridgwater prompted him to issue an address announcing his intention to stand again at the dissolution, but he withdrew in November when Kemeys Tynte also decided to come forward. He regretted that

being unable to alter my views in regard to the means best calculated to maintain the established institutions of the country, in church and state, or to mould my opinions according to the fashionable doctrines of the day, I have thought it incumbent on me, not only to retire from your service, but to decline several most flattering invitations to represent other constituents, and I have done so from a wish to husband my strength of body and mind, until the present excitement and delusion shall have passed away.23

He was returned in 1841 for Bedfordshire, where he sat as ‘a consistent Conservative of the old school’, opposed to Peel’s free trade measures, until his death in 1847.24 His estates passed to his eldest son Richard William Astell (1804-64), a lieutenant-colonel in the Grenadiers, and then his second son, John Harvey Astell (1806-87), Conservative Member for Cambridge, 1852-53, and Ashburton, 1859-65; his personalty was sworn under £20,000.25

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PROB 11/1456/142.
  • 2. The will was sworn under £100,000 in Nov. 1805 (PROB 11/1434/799; IR26/105/300).
  • 3. C.H. Philips, E.I. Co. 172-3, 243-4, 263.
  • 4. Ibid. 247; J. Rosselli, Lord William Bentinck, 210.
  • 5. S. Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 153; Taunton Courier, 23 Feb., 8 Mar. 1820.
  • 6. The Times, 16 May 1820.
  • 7. Ibid. 25 May 1821.
  • 8. Ibid. 15 Mar. 1822.
  • 9. Ibid. 23 May 1823.
  • 10. Philips, 251-2.
  • 11. The Times, 25 Feb., 19 Apr. 1825.
  • 12. Ibid. 4 Mar. 1826.
  • 13. Ibid. 21 Mar. 1826.
  • 14. Taunton Courier, 22 Feb., 14 June 1826.
  • 15. Ellenborough Diary, ii. 151-2.
  • 16. Bucks. RO, Fremantle mss D/FR/139/14/23.
  • 17. Taunton Courier, 21, 28 July, 11 Aug. 1830.
  • 18. Ellenborough Diary, ii. 416.
  • 19. Three Diaries, 20.
  • 20. Ibid. 51.
  • 21. Bridgwater Herald, 27 Apr., 4, 11 May 1831.
  • 22. Philips, 290-7.
  • 23. Bridgwater Alfred, 2 July, 26 Nov. 1832.
  • 24. Gent. Mag. (1847), i. 546.
  • 25. PROB 11/2057/451; IR26/1761/501.