Alderman William Beckford

19th Dec 1709 - 21st Jun 1770


William Beckford was born in Jamaica in 1709, his father was Colonel Peter Beckford (1673-1735) and his mother was Bathshua Herring (?-1750) the daughter and coheir of Julines Hering of Jamaica. He was one of thirteen children. His father was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Jamaica. An extensive land and slave-holder, Peter served as a member and speaker of the Jamaica House of Assembly. His grandfather, Peter Beckford (c.1643-1710) had founded the family dynasty in Jamaica and served as lieutenant-governor of the island.The family's influence and riches in Jamaica were mirrored in the success of the London-based commercial branch of the Beckfords.

William was educated at Westminster school in England beginning in 1719. He then attended Balliol College, Oxford from 1725 where received a B.A. in 1729 and an Master's in 1732. In 1731 William moved to Leiden to study medicine and then went on to Paris where he gained experience at the Hotel des Invalides.

William's father Peter left his British properties to his eldest son and heir Peter and divided his Jamaican estates between his five other sons. Following his father's death in 1735 William returned to Jamaica in 1736 to settle his affairs. Several family deaths, including that of his older brother Peter, led to William's father's will being disputed within the Beckford family and the case was referred to Chancery. The case was concluded in 1741 and William retained his father's lands in Clarendon. In 1737 he was elected as a member of the Jamaica house of assembly for Clarendon here he was joined by his brothers Richard, Julines, and Nathaniel and by a cousin Ballard Beckford.

In 1740 the estates that William held in full ownership were Retreat, Kay's, Malmsey Valley and Danks in Clarendon and Bodle's Pen in St. Dorothy. He co-owned Lime Hall, Rock River and Croft's in Clarendon, Seven Mile Walk in St. Dorothy, Esher in St. Mary, and Guanaboa in St. Catherine. After 1740 he acquired Moore's, Harbour Head and Stanton in St. Thomas in the East, Ackerdown, Bog, Retrieve and Strathbogie Pen in Westmoreland and Drax Hall in St. Ann. Lands held by the Beckford brothers in Jamaica in 1754 totaled 42,075 acres, of which William held 22,021, Richard 9241, Julines 8197, and Francis 2616. In William's absence his estates were managed by Richard Lewing and Robert Mason - a power of attorney in 1761 gave them full responsibility for the plantations and the sale of produce.

In 1745 William purchased the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire at a cost of £32,000. The purchase was aided by a £20,000 mortgage from Sir Jacob Bouverie. The estate would eventually stretch over 5000 acres. William also retained an address in London - firstly at 12 Upper Brook Street and from 1751 to 1770 at 22 Soho Square. In 1762 he purchased Witham Friary, fifteen miles to the north-west of Fonthill. This required a mortgage on the property that historian Perry Gauci has suggested was approximately £31,000. In 1763 William added the manor of Eaton Bray to his property portfolio. William kept enslaved Africans to serve him in England.

William Beckford was listed in the Jamaican Quit Rent books for 1754 as the owner of 1027 acres of land in St Catherine, 40 acres in St Andrew, 2372 acres in St Thomas-in-the-East, 1000 acres in St Mary, 715 acres in Westmoreland, 7838 acres in Clarendon, 1713 acres in St Dorothy, 6920 acres in St John and 396 acres in St Thomas-in-the-Vale, total 22021 acres.

Alongside his acquisition of land and country houses he also collected art and books. His library had over 1500 volumes in it. There were portraits of William, his wife Maria, his father and grandfather, mother Bathshua, and sister Elizabeth, the Countess of Effingham. The work of Chippendale, Moore and Casali all ornamented Fonthill. William owned racehorses and he commissioned Robert Adams to design a hunting lodge. Planting 61,800 Scottish pines at Witham and Fonthill won him a gold medal from the Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.

William settled into British political life with a parliamentary seat in 1747; he remained an MP for the rest of his life. He became an Alderman in the City in 1752 and in 1754 became M.P. for London. In 1755 he became the sheriff of London. He was an active member of the London West India interest. He served as Lord Mayor of London twice - in 1762/3, and 1769/70. The most controversial incident of his political career was his outspoken supprt for John Wilkes which included two remonstrances with King George III in which he asserted the city's right to speak out.

William fathered eight illegitimate children (six sons and two daughters) by three different women. He provided for them including paying for their schooling and training. On 8 June 1756 he married Maria March widow of fellow Jamaica planter Francis March the daughter of Hon. George Hamilton and granddaughter of the Duke of Abercorn, a Scottish peer. Their only child was William Thomas Beckford, born in 1760. Maria proved to be a useful political ally through her friendship with Hester Pitt, the wife of William Pitt. William Pitt was godfather to William Thomas Beckford.

William died on 21 June 1770 on his way from Fonthill to London. A statue was commissioned in his memory to be placed in the Guildhall where it remains today.

William Beckford of Britain, Esquire. Estate probated in Jamaica in 1774. Slave-ownership at probate: 1356 of whom 718 were listed as male and 638 as female. 0 were listed as boys, girls or children. Total value of estate at probate: £114268.83 Jamaican currency of which £84159.39 currency was the value of enslaved people. Estate valuation included £0 currency cash, £0 currency debts and £18.5 currency plate.

This entry is indebted to the work of Perry Gauci.


Perry Gauci, William Beckford First Prime Minister of the London Empire (Yale University Press, 2013).

Richard B. Sheridan, ‘Beckford, William (bap. 1709, d. 1770)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. See also Sheridan's entry for Peter Beckford (1672/3–1735) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Museum of London: London, Sugar & Slavery 1600 – today.

A List of landholders in the Island of Jamaica together with the number of acres each person possessed taken from the quit rent books in the year 1754', TNA CO 142/31 transcribed at

Trevor Burnard, Database of Jamaican inventories, 1674-1784.

We are grateful to Hannah Dunmow and Gareth Evans for their assistance with compiling this entry.

Further Information

Maria March
William Thomas Beckford b.1760, d.1844
A will but no further details
Westminster [1719 ]
Balliol College, Oxford [1725-32 ]
Politician and plantation owner
Oxford DNB Entry

Associated Estates (25)

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
1754 [EA] - 1769 [LA] → Mortgagee-in-Possession
1771 [EA] - 1781 [LA] → Previous owner
1740 [EA] - → Other

Filed Accounts Produce

1735 [EA] - 1770 [LA] → Owner
1735 [EA] - 1770 [LA] → Owner
1781 [EA] - → Previous owner
1762 [EA] - 1769 [LA] → Mortgagee-in-Possession
1753 [EA] - 1761 [LA] → Not known

Probably mortgagee of the estate of Col. John Hynes.

1771 [EA] - 1781 [LA] → Previous owner

Deceased mortgagee-in-possession

- 1770 [LA] → Owner
1762 [SY] - 1770 [EY] → Owner
1735 [EA] - 1770 [LA] → Owner
1754 [EA] - 1754 [LA] → Owner
1754 [EA] - 1773 [LA] → Owner

Although William Beckford died in 1770 the Accounts Produce recorded him as owner until 1773.

1779 [EA] - 1781 [LA] → Previous owner
1770 [EA] - 1780 [LA] → Previous owner
1770 [EA] - 1779 [LA] → Previous owner

William Beckford was deceased but the documents still referred to the estate as the property of William Beckford Esq. deceased.

1754 [EA] - 1754 [LA] → Owner
1770 [EA] - 1780 [LA] → Previous owner
1762 [EA] - 1769 [LA] → Mortgagee-in-Possession
1771 [EA] - 1781 [LA] → Other

Deceased mortgagee-in-possession

- 1770 [LA] → Owner

William Beckford died in 1770.

1754 [EA] - 1770 [LA] → Owner
1753 [EA] - 1765 [LA] → Mortgagee-in-Possession
1781 [EA] - 1781 [LA] → Other

Deceased mortgagee-in-possession

Legacies Summary

Commercial (1)

Name partner
Beckford and Evans
West India merchant  

Cultural (1)

Statuette, terracotta, Alderman William Beckford, Lord Mayor of London, by Nathaniel Smith, England,... 
notes →

Physical (1)

Country house
Fonthill [Built] 
description →
In 1744-45 William Beckford purchased Fonthill for £32,000 from Francis, 2nd Baron Cottington. Following a fire in 1755 Beckford built a new and substantial Palladian mansion on the site (which came...

Political (2)

Local Government
office →
Lord Mayor
1762 -
election →
Shaftesbury Wiltshire
1747 - 1754
election →
London London
1754 - 1770

Relationships (15)

Executor → Testator
Father → Son
Son → Father
Other relatives
Notes →
William Beckford godfather to James Beckford...
Business associates
Notes →
James Wildman appointed overseer of Beckford's Jamaican properties in 1782. Subsequently on council administering William Beckford of Fonthill's...
Uncle → Nephew
Father → Natural Son
Father → Natural Son
Other relatives
Notes →
Alderman William Beckford married in 1756 Maria March (nee Hamilton) the widow of Francis...
Father → Natural Son
Son → Mother
Business associates
Notes →
Also business...
Business associates

Addresses (2)

12 Upper Brook Street, London, Middlesex, London, England
22 Soho Square, London, Middlesex, London, England

Inventories (1)