HEATHCOTE, Sir William, 5th bt. (1801-1881), of Hursley, nr. Winchester, Hants.

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



1826 - 1831
1837 - 17 Mar. 1849
7 Feb. 1854 - 1868

Family and Education

b. 17 May 1801, o.s. of Rev. William Heathcote, preb. of Winchester and rect. of Worting, and Elizabeth, da. of Lovelace Bigg Wither of Manydown, nr. Basingstoke, Hants. educ. by Rev. Edward Meyrick at Ramsbury, Wilts.;1 Winchester 1813; Oriel, Oxf. 1818; fellow, All Souls 1822-5, hon. fellow 1858-d.; I. Temple 1822. m. (1) 8 Nov. 1825, Caroline Frances (d. 3 Mar. 1835), da. of Charles George Perceval†, 1st Bar. Arden, 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 1 da.; (2) 18 May 1841, Selina, da. of Evelyn John Shirley*, 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 4da. suc. fa. 1802; uncle Sir Thomas Freeman Heathcote†, 4th bt., of Hursley as 5th bt. 21 Feb. 1825. d. 17 Aug. 1881.

Offices Held

PC 8 Aug. 1870.

Sheriff, Hants 1832-3; chairman, Hants q.s. 1838.

Capt. N. Hants yeoman cav. 1824-7, 1830, maj. 1831.


The branch of the Heathcote family to which this Member belonged was distantly related to the baronets of Normanton Park, Rutland and had been seated at Hursley since 1718. Heathcote’s grandfather and namesake had represented Hampshire, 1790-1806, and his uncle Sir Thomas Freeman Heathcote, who had succeeded as 4th baronet in 1819, from 1808-20.2 Following the death of his father, a Hampshire clergyman, 29 Mar. 1802, the infant Heathcote was brought up at Manydown, the residence of his maternal grandfather Lovelace Bigg Wither (d. 1813), whom he described in an autobiographical fragment as ‘the kindest of parents and most venerable of men’. In 1809 he was sent to an ‘excellent private school’ in Wiltshire, before transferring in 1813 to Winchester, where his mother took a house in the cathedral close. An able, delicate child, he won a gold medal for his poem ‘Antigone’ in 1817, and took a first class degree at Oriel in 1821. His tutor, the high churchman John Keble, was an abiding influence, and held the living of Hursley from 1835 until his death in 1866. In 1819 Heathcote toured northern England and Scotland with his college contemporaries Arthur Perceval, a nephew of Spencer Perceval, the late prime minister, and later chaplain to George IV, and James Wentworth Buller*. He ‘heartily enjoyed’ his later travels with Perceval through France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany in 1822, if only for the confirmation they provided for his notions of national superiority. Having acquired a particular antipathy for Italians, he subsequently declared that he ‘never wished to leave England again’. In the autumn of 1822 he was elected a fellow of All Souls and commenced his study of the law under the supervision of his cousin John Awdry, an experience which confirmed his belief that ‘one may extract amusement from anything’.3

Heathcote’s preparation for the bar was interrupted by the sudden death of his uncle in February 1825, when he succeeded to the baronetcy and to Hursley. Keble offered commiserations on his being ‘called at once to a post in society so full of temptations and burdens’, the latter of which became readily apparent when it emerged that Freeman Heathcote had left the bulk of his disposable property, including land in Ireland, to the son of his butler, whom he had adopted. The family historian attributes this to resentment at the rejection of his offer to do the same for his nephew, though he had taken a sufficiently avuncular interest in his educational progress, and probably framed his will on the basis of an overestimation of the intrinsic value of the Hampshire estate, which was seriously damaged by the collapse in the market for timber.4 With the sole exception of a silver vase, Heathcote was required to purchase all the furniture and fittings, valued at £10,000, as well as adjacent non-entailed land ‘essential to the comfortable enjoyment of the property’, which was worth some £80,000.5 He raised the money ‘in different ways ... having, at the time of Sir Thomas’s death, no more than £3,000 belonging to me’. (His father’s will had been sworn under a meagre £2,000.)6 Thus preoccupied, he did not take up residence until after his marriage in November 1825 to Perceval’s sister Caroline, a ‘deeply religious spirit’.7 His elevation to the county bench and admission to the freedom of Southampton during 1826 confirmed his accession to the county elite.8 A ‘good horseman’, he was already a captain of the yeomanry, in whose activities he found ‘that pleasure and relaxation which other men find in field sports, for which he had no taste’.9 In January 1826 he became vice-president of Hampshire Agricultural Society, and he acted as steward of Winchester and Southampton races during the summer.10

In anticipation of a general election, Heathcote announced his candidacy for Hampshire in October 1825.11 He secured the support of George Purefoy Jervoise, the opposition-inclined retiring Member, as well as the evident acquiescence of the Liverpool government, to whom he was expected to offer general support, though his brief hustings speech in 1826 contained nothing more than a ritual affirmation of independence and a frank admission of his political naivety.12 He was returned unopposed, as he reported to Awdry, 21 June, ‘with perfect unanimity and good humour’.13 In late December 1826 he chaired a meeting in support of the establishment of a public library in Winchester.14 For the ensuing session of Parliament he took a house in Old Palace Yard, Westminster.15 He voted against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827, 12 May 1828. On 28 Mar. 1827 he was granted a month’s leave on urgent business after serving on an election committee. He evidently shared the hostility to Canning and his ministry evinced by Perceval, who on 8 May urged him to look to the Lords as a bulwark against Catholic emancipation and ‘not be cast down at the appearance of public affairs’.16 He had returned to Hursley by 27 June, when Keble wrote to complain of the creeping secularism of ‘the age’, noting that ‘there never was a time when an honest man might be more useful in Parliament, and I am glad you are in it’.17 In the light of economic conditions, Heathcote granted a 15 per cent rent remission to his tenants in April. He attended a meeting of the Hampshire Agricultural Association in July.18 He presented petitions for repeal of the Test Acts, 7, 8 June 1827, 21, 28 Feb., and voted thus, 26 Feb. 1828.19 His popularity with the Dissenters was evident at the following general election, though in later years he supported the retention of university entrance tests and lost precious estate income by his absolute refusal to take non-Anglican tenants.20 On 16 June he was in a minority against restricting the circulation in England of Scottish and Irish small bank-notes. That August he was listed as a subscriber to the King’s College, London fund.21 He seconded the sole candidate for the vacant Hampshire coronership, 1 Oct., presided at a meeting of the county Horticultural Society, 10 Oct. 1828, and was nominated as a visiting magistrate for lunatic asylums later that month.22 He presented petitions from Hampshire parishes against the Wellington ministry’s concession of Catholic emancipation, 4 Mar., when he also brought up one from the clergy of Surrey and Hampshire, 12, 25, 30 Mar. 1829. As Planta, the patronage secretary, had anticipated the previous month, he voted steadily against the measure, 6, 18, 27, 30 Mar., for which he was commended by a Gosport meeting, 6 Apr.23 That month he granted another rent reduction to his tenants and presented a trophy for the best piece of home-spun cloth at a meeting of the Hampshire Agricultural Society.24 He was in a minority for protection of the silk trade, 1 May. At a Southampton meeting of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospels in the colonies, 23 Apr., he ventured the opinion that the ‘benign influence of our apostolical church should be commensurate with the extent of our national domination’.25 He was in the minority of 14 against the Maynooth grant, 22 May. The Ultra leader Sir Richard Vyvyan*, with whom he had resided in London for a spell in 1826, visited him in October, and reckoned him to be ‘strongly opposed’ to the administration.26 It has been suggested that Heathcote, who named a son after Vyvyan the following year, may have acted as a go-between in his negotiations with Lord Palmerston* for the formation of an alternative ministry.27

At his estate audit of November 1829 he announced another remission in rents and hoped for ‘brighter prospects’ for farmers.28 He distributed blankets and foodstuffs in his locality in January 1830, when it was reported that his ‘extensive charitable donations are frequently acknowledged with gratitude by the poor’.29 He was surely the ‘Heathcote’ present at the Ultra Tory meeting referred to on 15 Feb. by Sir Edward Knatchbull, for whose amendment to the address on distress he had voted, 4 Feb.30 He presented Hampshire petitions complaining of distress, 22, 23, 26 Feb., 4 Mar., when he named Wellington as the only prominent non-signatory of one from Kingsclere and demanded an ‘effectual remedy’ for what he perceived as a permanent problem, and 5, 16 Mar., when he asserted that ‘nothing short of a serious reduction’ of taxation ‘would have the effect of relieving the country’. He spoke in similar terms at a county meeting, 10 Mar., when his votes for military reductions, 19, 22 Feb., were applauded, but he cautioned that there were ‘a great many difficulties to overcome’ on parliamentary reform, against which he had divided, 18 Feb. A demand for this featured in the meeting’s petition, with which he nonetheless expressed his ‘entire concurrence’ on presenting it, 16 Mar.31 According to a local press report, he was in the majority against the Bathurst and Dundas pensions, on which ministers were defeated, 26 Mar.32 He was in minorities for the reduction of grants for official salaries, 10 May, South American missions, 7 June, and the Nova Scotia establishment, 14 June. He divided against the second reading of the sale of beer bill, 4 May, presented hostile petitions that day and 11 May, and voted in favour of amendments to restrict on-consumption, 21 June, 1 July. He voted against Jewish emancipation, 17 May 1830.

The rumblings of opposition prior to the general election of 1830 were not directed at Heathcote, who was returned unopposed after a bland profession of ‘perfect independence’.33 He attended a meeting of the Hampshire Horticultural Society, 10 Sept., and dined with his tenants, 4 Oct.34 He presented anti-slavery petitions, 5 Nov. Ministers listed him as one of the ‘violent Ultras’, and he duly voted against them in the crucial division on the civil list, 15 Nov. Having arrived in Winchester at the height of the ‘Swing’ disturbances, 20 Nov., he secured a vulnerable militia arsenal, organized civil defences until the arrival of military reinforcements, and confronted an armed group of labourers near the city, of whom the ringleaders were arrested.35 The family historian recounts that a number of his tenants, concerned at the possibility of reprisals, spontaneously formed themselves into a personal bodyguard, which became the nucleus of a revived militia troop.36 It is certain that the yeomanry were re-established under his local command, a move he applauded as ‘the only good result’ of the riots.37 In his response to the official inquiry, he noted the ‘extraordinary’ number of skilled workers who had been involved in the disorder, which he interpreted as ‘evidence that a revolutionary spirit has been infused into the people, in some parts at least’.38 This viewpoint was echoed in his subsequent alarmist response to parliamentary reform, though Lord Ellenborough reported him to be one of the Ultras who were ‘neuter’ on the subject, 9 Feb. 1831.39 He presented a Gosport petition for reform, 10 Feb., and another, from the same place, welcoming the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 19 Mar., with which it was surmised locally that he did not concur.40 At a county meeting two days before, he had complained that the bill was biased against the agricultural interest and gave an excessive representation to Ireland, before concluding, amid hisses, that it ‘might lead to good, but he feared it would not’.41 He offered the House a less circumspect prediction that it would bring ‘the most serious evils to the country’ and ‘severe retribution’ on the government, 22 Mar., when he voted against the second reading. But he conceded that public opinion was overwhelmingly in its favour, for which he blamed ‘the indifference of the House of Commons to the distresses of the people’, 29 Mar. He signed a Hampshire declaration against the bill and divided in favour of Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831.42

At the ensuing general election Heathcote declined a contest against two reformers, among them his neighbour and friend Charles Shaw Lefevre, who paid him a generous tribute on the hustings.43 He had no regrets, telling Awdry, by now a Bombay judge, 10 Aug., ‘I am enjoying myself this summer much more than I should had I still been a Member of Parliament, working away at the reform bill in St. Stephen’s, a place with which I have done as I hope forever’. On 30 Oct. 1831 he reflected on his own part in recent political upheavals:

I helped, as you saw, to turn out the late government ... Bitterly as I now deplore the existence of the present, I do not think, with the lights I then had, I could have done differently. Of course I was prepared and wished for a Whig government, but I do not think, on any ordinary principles of calculation, it was on the cards that they would have exhibited so complete a want of principle as ... these people have managed to do.44

For a time his public work was confined to his locality, where he promoted allotment schemes and helped to finance the rebuilding of churches.45 In June 1832 he inaugurated a prize at Winchester school ‘to promote a knowledge ... chiefly of the principles of the Christian religion, as defined by the Church of England’.46 That February he had reluctantly accepted the office of sheriff, which disqualified him from standing for either Hampshire division at the general election. Wellington surmised that he would not have done so in any case, but noted that there was ‘no man better qualified to represent the county with such claims to its confidence’, 7 Oct. 1832.47 Heathcote did not officiate at the election, having lately been concussed in a riding accident sustained on a yeomanry exercise, which left him permanently prone to headaches.48

In the post-Reform Act period Heathcote sank further into despondency over public affairs. He told Awdry, who had hitherto inclined towards the Whigs, 11 Apr. 1833, that

the progress of the revolution (of which the reform bill was, in my opinion, the first act) has been so much more rapid than I anticipated, and the measures of government so much more violent and unprincipled, that ... I should think that you must doubt whether you were not a little hasty in distinguishing in your last letter ... between Lord Grey and [Henry] Hunt*, at least if you supposed Lord Grey to be the less revolutionary character of the two.

He railed against the proposed reform of the municipal corporations and at the number of ‘low men’ in the Commons, 9 Feb. 1834, and in a letter to the antiquary, the Rev. Philip Bliss, expressed ‘satisfaction’ at William’s IV’s dismissal of the Melbourne administration, which had been ‘so unprincipled and incompetent’, 17 Dec. 1834.49 The Whigs, he informed Awdry, 11 Mar. 1836, ‘have proceeded on theories more or less supported by general reasoning, rather than on the safe foundation of English precedent and experience’, and should have followed the lead of Burke, not Fox. He regarded Buonapartist despotism as the inevitable consequence of the shift towards democracy, yet expressed ‘no partiality’ for Wellington or Peel, and in the course of a diatribe against centralization, criticized the latter’s ‘French police’. At the general election of 1837 he allowed himself to be nominated for North Hampshire and was returned unopposed with Shaw Lefevre. This distinction was, he told Awdry, ‘so hateful to me that I am not willing to enlarge on the subject’. He was far more gratified at becoming chairman of the quarter sessions the following year.50 He was classed as a Conservative, a term he derided as an example of ‘the cant of the day’, and opposed repeal of the corn laws in 1846.51 Three years afterwards he retired, citing ‘continued ill health’, but he recovered sufficiently to accept an invitation to succeed Sir Robert Inglis* as Member for Oxford University in 1854.52 Two years later the American author Richard Henry Dana visited Hursley, ‘a large brick house ... [which] cannot be called handsome, but ... is ... convenient and stately’. He was captivated by ‘the delightful countenance and delicate manners’ of his host, who had hitherto ‘never had a contested election, either for Oxford or Hampshire, though often chosen in the middle of high party feeling, and he is not a compromise man, but a decided Tory and Tractarian’.53 Heathcote’s biographer asserts that he was Shaw Lefevre’s preference to succeed him as Speaker, while Lord Derby certainly considered him as a fallback candidate for the colonial office in 1858, but he remained a backbencher until failing health forced his final retirement at the dissolution of 1868.54 He continued to regard public events as a progressive erosion of the natural order. In a revealing aside to Sir John Coleridge, Keble’s biographer and a judge in king’s bench, he bemoaned the descent of political leadership to ‘the worst and most unprincipled stratum of English society, viz. the so-called middle classes’, 11 Oct. 1858.55 In 1870 he was sworn a member of the privy council ‘in recognition of his long life of public usefulness’.56

Heathcote died at Hursley in August 1881. He was eulogized by Coleridge as ‘a perfect specimen of the old-fashioned, high bred, highly cultivated country gentleman’, and by his neighbour the 4th earl of Carnarvon, as ‘the highest product of a class and school of thought that is fast disappearing’.57 Behind the mask of gentility, his biographer perceived that he was ‘an abidingly anxious, if not an unhappy man’. Much of his personal life was as vexatious to him as the trend of public affairs. His first wife died in March 1835 after a routine operation, and her loss was followed by that of his youngest son from his second marriage, a great favourite, in June 1858. His eldest son William Perceval Heathcote (1826-1903) joined the army against his wishes, lived beyond the means of the family and adopted the creed of his wife, an Irish Catholic.58 Even worse, William Arthur Heathcote (1853-1924), his eldest grandson and the heir presumptive to the baronetcy, became a Jesuit priest, while another, George Wyndham Heathcote (1855-1930), was a navy deserter. Both grandsons were specifically excluded from Heathcote’s will of 22 July 1881, by which his widow received an annuity of £1,000 in addition to her marriage settlement and a life interest in Hursley, which was directed to be let thereafter to an Anglican. The residue was applied to the preservation of his Hampshire estate, which stretched to over 14,000 acres in 1883, but was broken up and sold before the turn of the century.59

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Philip Salmon / Howard Spencer


See F. Awdry, A Country Gentleman of 19th Cent. (1906).

  • 1. Ibid. 199.
  • 2. E.D. Heathcote, Heathcote Fam. 116.
  • 3. Awdry, 7-30, 64-65, 149, 199-200; Hants RO, Heathcote mss 63M84 234/11, 12, 14.
  • 4. Awdry, 23, 31; Heathcote, 143; Heathcote mss 234/18, 21, 22.
  • 5. Awdry, 33, 96, 201-2; PROB 11/1698/203; IR26/1045/322.
  • 6. Awdry, 202; PROB 6/178/396.
  • 7. Awdry, 33, 36-37.
  • 8. Wellington mss WP1/824/3; 848/15; Southampton Corporation Jnls. 1815-35, p. 41.
  • 9. Heathcote, 144; Awdry, 129.
  • 10. Hants Telegraph, 23 Jan., 22 May, 31 July 1826.
  • 11. Ibid. 10 Oct. 1825.
  • 12. Ibid. 24 Oct. 1825; 12, 19 June 1826; Hants Chron. 19 June 1826; Wellington mss WP1/829/3.
  • 13. Awdry, 35-36.
  • 14. Hants Telegraph, 1 Jan. 1827.
  • 15. Awdry, 202.
  • 16. Heathcote mss 480/1, 2.
  • 17. Awdry, 38-40.
  • 18. Hants Telegraph, 23 Apr., 30 July 1827.
  • 19. The Times, 8, 9 June 1827.
  • 20. Hants Telegraph, 6 Sept. 1830; Awdry, 96, 113, 160.
  • 21. Hants Chron. 4 Aug. 1828.
  • 22. Ibid. 6, 13, 30 Oct. 1828.
  • 23. Ibid. 13 Apr. 1829.
  • 24. Ibid. 6, 20 Apr. 1829.
  • 25. Ibid. 27 Apr. 1829.
  • 26. Awdry, 41; B.T. Bradfield, ‘Sir Richard Vyvyan and Fall of Wellington Government’, Univ. of Birmingham Hist. Jnl. xi. (1968), 148.
  • 27. K. Bourne, Palmerston, 302.
  • 28. Hants Chron. 9 Nov. 1829.
  • 29. Hants Telegraph, 18 Jan. 1830.
  • 30. Bradfield, 152.
  • 31. Hants Telegraph, 15 Mar. 1830.
  • 32. Hants Chron. 5 Apr. 1830.
  • 33. Portsmouth Herald, 8 Aug.; Hants Telegraph, 9 Aug. 1830; Wellington mss WP4/4/3/20.
  • 34. Hants Telegraph, 13 Sept.; Hants Chron. 4 Oct. 1830.
  • 35. R. Foster, Politics of County Power, 77-79; Baring Jnls. i. 74; Wellington mss WP4/2/2/2,4,11,12.
  • 36. Heathcote, 145.
  • 37. Awdry, 46-47.
  • 38. Foster, 70-71.
  • 39. Three Diaries, 49.
  • 40. Hants Telegraph, 13 Dec. 1830, 14 Mar. 1831.
  • 41. Ibid. 21 Mar. 1831.
  • 42. Hants Chron. 18 Apr. 1831.
  • 43. Wellington mss WP4/3/4/19; Hants Chron. 2, 9 May 1831.
  • 44. Awdry, 43-48.
  • 45. Heathcote, 146, 152.
  • 46. Add. 34571, f. 114.
  • 47. Wellington mss WP4/4/1/10; 4/3/20, 24.
  • 48. Awdry, 49-50; Hants Chron. 17 Dec. 1832.
  • 49. Add. 34571, f. 404; Awdry 49-50, 52-53.
  • 50. Ibid. 66-71.
  • 51. Ibid. 71-72; Dod’s Parl. Companion (1847), 182.
  • 52. Awdry, 89, 103, 107.
  • 53. C.F. Adams, Richard Henry Dana, 86, 95-96.
  • 54. Awdry, 93, 161-3; Victoria Letters (ser. 1), iii. 371; The Times, 12 Oct. 1868.
  • 55. Awdry, 121.
  • 56. The Times, 22 Aug. 1881.
  • 57. Ibid. 22, 24 Aug. 1881; Heathcote mss 500.
  • 58. Awdry, 6, 59, 86, 92, 119.
  • 59. Heathcote mss 498; The Times, 29 Oct. 1881; VCH Hants, iii. 407, 420, 449; iv. 413, 492.