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Witham Park, Frome, Somerset: designs for the house for Alderman William Beckford, partly executed with alterations, 1762-70 (10)

Signed and dated

  • 1762-70


William Beckford (1709-70), a politician and landowner, was born in Jamaica, the son of Peter Beckford (1672-1735), a wealthy and powerful plantation owner in Jamaican. The family’s Jamaican dynasty had been founded by William’s grandfather, Peter Beckford (c.1643-1710) who had been lieutenant-governor of the island. Having been educated in England, and then returned to Jamaica on his father’s death in 1735 he was elected a member of the Jamaican house of assemble for Clarendon. Although he was one of 13 children, on the death of his father and older brother, he inherited a vast ammount of land in Jamaica: by 1754 this is recorded as 22,021 acres. At his death in 1774, when his Jamaican estates were probated, he owned 1,356 enslaved people. He was reportedly tyranical in Jamiaca.

Beckford relocated to London in 1744, and also purchased the estate at Fonthill, Wiltshire. He kept enslaved people in England to serve him. In 1756 he married Maria, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton, second son of James, 6th Earl of Abercorn. His only legitimate son, William Thomas Beckford (1759-1844), inherited the majority of his estate, although eight illegitimate children were also recognised and provided for in Beckford’s will. Beckford served as MP for Shaftesbury in 1747-54, and London in 1754-70. In 1752 he was elected Alderman of Billingsgate (his trading interests were restricted to the goods produced by his Jamiacan estates), in 1755-56 he was the Sherriff of London, and in 1762-63 and 1769-70 he served as Lord Mayor of London. Despite his many successes Beckford was criticised as nouveau riche and a vulgar colonial. Horace Walpole described him as a ‘noisy good humoured flatterer, vulgar and absurd, pompous in his expense, and vainglorious’. His rivals enjoyed illustrating the contradiction between his fight for liberty in Parliament, and his great wealth founded on the backs of enslaved people working in Jamaica.

In 1761 Beckford purchased Witham Park, once England's first Carthusian monastery, which had been much altered since the Dissolution. Final alterations were made to the house for Sir William Wyndham in c1717 to designs by James Gibbs (1682-1754), before it was sold by Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont. Although Beckford's principal residence was Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire, he demolished the old house at Witham in c1764 in favour of a new house built on a nearby site to designs by Robert Adam. It is possible that Beckford had become acquainted with Adam through his old school friend William Murray (later Lord Mansfield), who was Adam's patron at Kenwood, but Beckford's roles within Parliament and the City would have also brought him into contact with a great many other Adam patrons. The work at Witham began in c1762, and the shell of the fabric was well advanced, but it was abandoned after Beckford's death in 1770, and finally demolished in 1791. Despite this the house is illustrated in the fifth volume of Vitruvius Britannicus (1771, pl. 38-42).

See also: Fonthill Splendens, Tisbury, Wiltshire

J. Woolfe, and J. Gandon, Vitruvius Britannicus V, 1771, pls. 38-42; H. Walpole, Memoirs of the reign of George II, 1849, Volume II, p. 177; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index pp. 31, 62; R. Wilson-North, and S. Porter, 'Witham, Somerset: from Carthusian monastery to country house to gothic folly', Architectural History, Volume 40, 1997, pp. 81, 93-96; E. Harris, The genius of Robert Adam: his interiors, 2001, p. 186; D. King, The complete works of Robert & James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, p. 105, Volume II, pp. 81-85, 134; 'Beckford, William (1709-70), of Fonthill Abbey, nr. Hindon, Wilts', and 'Beckford, William (1709-70), of Fonthill, Wilts', The history of Parliament online; Legacies of British Slavery database, UCL: www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs

Frances Sands, 2012



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Contents of Witham Park, Frome, Somerset: designs for the house for Alderman William Beckford, partly executed with alterations, 1762-70 (10)