William Beckford of Somerley

24th Sep 1744 - 5th Feb 1799


  1. Illegitimate son of Richard Beckford, the brother of Alderman William Beckford. William Beckford of Somerley inherited 4 [in fact, the Accounts Produce show 5] estates and the enslaved people on them, and spent 13 years in Jamaica between 1774 and 1786. He was incarcerated for debt in 1786 and the estates passed into the control of representatives of his creditors. He was the author of Remarks upon the situation of the negroes in Jamaica, impartially made from a local experience of nearly thirteen years in that island (1788), and A descriptive account of the island of Jamaica: with remarks upon the cultivation of the sugar-cane throughout the different seasons of the year, and chiefly considered in a picturesque point of view (2 vols., 1790). He has an entry in the ODNB as 'sugar planter and historian'.

  2. A staunch opponent of the abolition of the slave trade, he remarked in his Descriptive account that: 'If abolition ... shall take place, our interest in the West-India islands must be at an end, seventy millions of property will wear away with time, and be sunk at last: the revenue will suffer an annual diminution of three millions at least; the price of sugar, which is now become a necessary article of life, must be immediately enhanced; discontentment and dissatisfaction may dismember the empire.'

  3. Attended Westminster School: "BECKFORD, WILLIAM, illegitimate son of Richard Beckford (qv), and Elizabeth, dau. of Thomas Hay, Secretary for Jamaica; b. Jamaica 24 Sep 1744; at school under Markham (The Monthly Mirror, vii, 259); Balliol Coll. Oxford, matr. 17 Mar 1762; MA 6 Apr 1765; Grand Tour (Italy) 1770-1; of Somerley Hall, Suffolk; settled on his estates in Jamaica 1774; returned to England 1787; in Fleet Prison as a debtor 1790-2; author, A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica, 1790, and other works; a contributor to literary magazines; a man of varied attainments; characterised as “Benevolus” in A Short Journey to the West Indies, 1790; m. 13 Apr 1773 his mother’s niece, Charlotte, dau. of Thomas Hay; d. 5 Feb 1799. DNB."


  1. Richard B. Sheridan, ‘Beckford, William (1744–1799)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1904, accessed 31 March 2016]

  2. A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica (2 vols., London, 1790), vol. II, pp. 315-16; cited in Christer Petley, ‘The Royal Navy, the British Atlantic Empire and the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ in The Royal Navy and the British Atlantic World, c.1750-1820, ed. John McAleer and Christer Petley, (London, 2016), p. 106.

  3. The Record of Old Westminsters (1928), with improvements © Hugh Edmund Pagan MA FSA, available via the online catalogue for Westminster School's Archive & Collections, http://collections.westminster.org.uk/index.php/beckford-william-1744-1799 [accessed 05/01/2020].

We are grateful to Hugh Pagan, Bethany Duck and Elizabeth Wells for their assistance with compiling this entry.

Further Information

Charlotte Hay
Westminster School
Oxford (Balliol)

Associated Estates (10)

The dates listed below have different categories as denoted by the letters in the brackets following each date. Here is a key to explain those letter codes:

  • SD - Association Start Date
  • SY - Association Start Year
  • EA - Earliest Known Association
  • ED - Association End Date
  • EY - Association End Year
  • LA - Latest Known Association
1799 [EA] - 1837 [LA] → Previous owner
1766 [EA] - 1798 [LA] → Owner
1799 [EA] - 1832 [LA] → Previous owner
1766 [EA] - 1798 [LA] → Owner
1800 [EA] - 1834 [LA] → Previous owner
1766 [EA] - 1798 [LA] → Owner
1768 [EA] - 1798 [LA] → Owner

The estate was in the hands of mortgagees for much of this period.

1799 [EA] - 1807 [LA] → Previous owner
1799 [EA] - 1832 [LA] → Previous owner
1766 [EA] - 1798 [LA] → Owner

Legacies Summary

Historical (2)

Remarks Upon the Situation of Negroes in Jamaica: Impartially Made from a Local Experience of Nearly Thirteen Years in that... 1788 
A Descriptive Account of the Island of... 1790 

Relationships (1)

Natural Son → Father