Biography

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Sir William Meredith (1722? - 1790)

This article was written by William Prideaux Courtney; it was published in 1894


Sir William Meredith was a politician, third and last baronet of Henbury, Cheshire. He was the son of Amos Meredith (1688-1745) of Chester city, by Anne St. John, his second wife. He matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, on 24 March 1742-3, when aged 18, and was created D.C.L. on 14 April 1749. In 1752 the title and family estates descended to him by the death of his grandfather, Sir William Meredith, the second baronet. He sat in parliament for Wigan from 1754 to 1761, and for Liverpool from 1761 to 1780, when he withdrew from public life, though at the election in 1784 a small number of votes was cast for him. When young he inclined to Jacobitism, but soon became an active Whig, and was numbered among the followers of Lord Rockingham. He took a leading part in the proceedings connected with Wilkes, and his speeches are included in the published volumes of Sir Henry Cavendish's shorthand notes of the debates. When the Rockingham ministry was formed, Meredith became a lord of the admiralty (August 1765), and he remained in office for a short time after its fall; but at the close of November 1766 he resigned his post. In the following March he zealously struggled to effect an alliance of the followers of Rockingham with those of George Grenville, and for some years was one of the most active leaders of the opposition. Horace Walpole describes him as ‘inflexibly serious and of no clear head; yet practice formed him to a manner of speaking that had weight. He was, I believe, an honest man, though not without personal views.’ In 1771 he brought in a bill for repealing a clause in the Nullum Tempus Act, by which rights and titles acquired under grants or letters patent from the crown can be prosecuted with effect within a certain time, and it was carried against the government for some stages, but was ultimately rejected. He was even less successful in his attempt in February 1773 to abolish the subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles which was imposed on members of the universities. Much to his credit he interfered in March 1771, at considerable risk to his own person, to protect Lord North from the violence of the mob, and that minister acknowledged the courtesy by bestowing a benefice on his brother, the Rev. Theophilus Meredith. A little later his position in the house was that of leader of ‘a very small squadron’ of personal followers, and he was supposed ‘by the Rockingham party to lean to the court.’ On the dismissal of Charles James Fox, in February 1774, his name was mentioned for the vacant lordship of the treasury, and in the next month he kissed hands ‘as comptroller of the household and privy councillor,’ when Horace Walpole called him ‘that fluctuating patriot who has broken with all parties and at last has dropped anchor at his own interest.’ Meredith knew his own faults of character, for in response to some compliments on this promotion he piteously referred to his instability of mind. His reputation was now lost, and when he was ordered by the court not to visit the Duke of Gloucester, the king's brother, he was forced, though his particular friend, to acquiesce in the command. He resigned his post on principle, early in December 1777, only to find that he ‘was treated by both sides with equal contempt.’ His career had been marked by great extravagance, and in 1779 he was obliged to sell the family property at Henbury for 24,000l. At the dissolution of 1780 he lost his seat in parliament, and dropped into obscurity, but at the close of 1785 it was rumoured that he would be appointed to assist William Eden (afterwards Lord Auckland) in the commercial negotiations at Paris.

Meredith died at Lyons, France on 2 January 1790, when it was mentioned that ‘the last annuity he sold was to M. Perigeux, the banker, who is probably one of the greatest gainers by his death.’ The baronetcy became extinct, for the announcement of his marriage on 17 November 1747 to Miss Cheetham of Mellor, Derbyshire, was a mistake. He had five sisters: one married the Hon. Frederick Vane; another was the wife of Barlow Trecothick, lord mayor of London; a third married, as her second husband, Lord Frederick Campbell. All his brothers-in-law were prominent politicians. His portrait, a half-length in oval frame, painted by Daniel Gardner, was engraved by Thomas Watson, and published on 10 June 1773.

When Charles Lloyd (1735-1773) published his ‘Defence of the Majority in the House of Commons on General Warrants,’ it was answered anonymously by Meredith in ‘A Reply to the Defence of the Majority,’ 1764; 2nd edit. 1765. His other works were: 2. ‘The Question stated whether the Freeholders of Middlesex lost their right by voting for Mr. Wilkes. In a Letter from a Member of Parliament to one of his Constituents,’ 1769. This was attacked by the Rev. Nathaniel Forster in ‘An Answer to a Pamphlet entitled “The Question Stated”’ [anon.], 1769; and by Blackstone in ‘A Letter to Sir William Meredith,’ to which Meredith replied with 3. ‘A Letter to Dr. Blackstone, by the Author of “The Question Stated,”’ 1770. 4. ‘A Letter to the Earl of Chatham on the Quebec Bill’ [anon.], 1774, which produced ‘A Letter to Sir William Meredith in answer to his last Letter to the Earl of Chatham’ [anon.], 1774. 5. ‘Punishment of Death. Speech of Sir W. Meredith, 13 May, 1777, in Committee on a Bill creating a new Capital Felony,’ 1777; 3rd edit. of sixty thousand copies, 1831-2; 5th edit. 1831-2; another edit. 1833. Meredith is stated to have been ‘remarkably averse to punishments that reached the lives of criminals.’ 6. ‘Historical Remarks on the Taxation of Free States’ [anon.], London, printed 16 Nov. 1778 (thirty copies only). This was marked by learning and argumentative power.

An account by Meredith of a short tour which he made from Lancashire into Scotland is printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ 1766; numerous speeches by him are inserted in the same magazine, and in the volume for 1773, is a letter from him on religious toleration. His report, assisted by the Hon. Constantine Phipps, afterwards Lord Mulgrave, of the speeches in the debate of 27 February 1771, on his bill to repeal a clause in the Nullum Tempus Act, was printed in that year, and embodied in Hansard's Parliamentary Debates. Letters by him are in Albemarle's Life of Lord Rockingham.


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