Dowdeswell, William (1721-1775) (DNB00)


DOWDESWELL, WILLIAM (1721–1775), politician, was the eldest son of William Dowdeswell, who died in 1728, by his second wife, Anne Hammond, daughter of Anthony Hammond. The family seat of the Dowdeswells is at Pull Court in Bushley, Worcestershire, and they possessed much property in and around Tewkesbury. The boy was sent to Westminster School, and showed in after years his affection for this foundation by consenting to act as a Busby trustee (1769–75). He proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1736, and contributed a set of Latin verses to the university collection of poems on the death of Queen Caroline (1738), but does not appear to have taken any degree. In 1745 he went to the university of Leyden, where he associated with many persons afterwards well known, among whom were Charles Townshend, John Wilkes, Anthony Askew [q. v.], and Alexander Carlyle [q. v.] From Holland he made the tour of Italy, and travelled through Sicily and Greece. In 1747 he was once more in England, and in that year he married Bridget, the fifth and youngest daughter of Sir William Codrington, the first baronet, and was returned to parliament for the family borough of Tewkesbury. He retained his seat for this constituency until 1754, was out of parliament from that year until 1761, and then represented the county of Worcester until his death. In January 1764 he vigorously supported the movement for repealing the Cider Act, a measure which had given natural offence to his constituents. His exertions on this occasion marked him out among the country gentlemen, and in the next session his proposal for a reduction of the naval vote and his speeches on the Regency Bill made him still more prominent. Dowdeswell was now recognised as a leader of the whigs, and when the Rockingham ministry was formed in 1765, he was raised to the chancellorship of the exchequer on 13 July, and created a privy councillor on 10 July. In his official position he succeeded Lyttelton, whereupon Bishop Warburton sarcastically observed: 'The one just turned out never in his life could learn that two and two made four ; the other knew nothing else.' Rougher still is the estimate of Horace Walpole : 'So suited to the drudgery of the office as far as it depends on arithmetic [was Dowdeswell] that he was fit for nothing else. Heavy, slow, methodical without clearness, a butt for ridicule, unused in every graceful art, and a stranger to men and courts, he was only esteemed by the few to whom he was personally known ; ' but even Walpole was forced to allow that Dowdeswell had a sound understanding, was thoroughly disinterested, and was generally welcomed into office. The Rockingham administration was broken up at the close of July 1766, and Lord Chatham came into power On his retirement Dowdeswell received the thanks of the merchants in most of the principal towns in the kingdom for his exertions in promoting a revival of trade. He was offered in the new government the presidency of the board of trade or a joint-paymastership, but he declined, to the surprise of the king and to the astonishment of the political world, which thought that his 'straitened circumstances' and the cares of 'a numerous offspring' would have been sufficient reasons for deserting his allies. In the following January, by carrying by 206 votes to 188 a motion for the reduction of the land tax from four to three shillings in the pound a proposition in which he was supported by the landed interest without distinction of party, which inflicted on the new cabinet the first defeat in a money bill since the revolution Dowdeswell mortified Charles Townshend, his successor at the exchequer, irritated Lord Chatham, who spoke of the defeat as ' a most disheartening circumstance/ and lowered for a time his own character by his readiness to embarrass his opponents by assailing a tax which, though unpopular, was indispensable. He was now Lord Rockingham's 'chief political counsellor,' and the exponent of the whig views in the lower house. In January 1767 an attempt was made to unite the two parties of the Duke of Bedford and Lord Rockingham, but it failed, and a similar want of success, mainly in consequence of the objections of the duke's supporters to Conway, attended the suggestion in July 1767 that they should coalesce with the ministry in which Dowdeswell was again to be chancellor of the exchequer. During the next few years he continued a conspicuous figure in the House of Commons. In 1770 he urged the necessity of depriving excise and custom-house officers of the privilege of voting at parliamentary elections, a measure of disfranchisement which was carried into effect not long afterwards. In 1771 he urged the necessity of passing a bill for ‘explaining the powers of juries in prosecution for libels,’ but his motion, though supported by many distinguished senators, was vehemently condemned by Lord Chatham and rejected. ‘A Letter from a Member of Parliament to one of his Constituents on the late Proceedings of the House of Commons in the Middlesex Elections’ (1769) has been attributed to Dowdeswell (Grenville Papers, iv. 450), and when, through the troubles arising from these proceedings, the lord mayor and Alderman Oliver were committed to the Tower, they were visited there by Dowdeswell and the leading whigs. Next year (March 1772) he led the opposition to the Royal Marriage Bill, but he separated from the majority of his political associates in their desire to modify the subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles.

In the spring of 1774 he went to Bath for his health, and later in the summer visited Bristol on the same fruitless errand. He broke a blood-vessel, and in September the physicians recommended a change of climate. He went to Nice in November 1774. His weakness continued to increase, and he died, ‘totally exhausted,’ at Nice, on 6 Feb. 1775; when the body was brought to England and buried in a vault in Bushley Church, on 9 April 1775. His widow, who died at Sunbury, Middlesex, on 27 March 1818, and was placed in the same vault with her husband, requested Burke to ‘ commemorate the loss of his friend,’ who thereupon wrote the long and highly eulogistic epitaph on the monument erected at Bushley to Dowdeswell's memory in 1777. ‘The inscription,’ said Burke, ‘was so perfectly true that every word of it may be deposed upon oath,’ and in it Dowdeswell is described as ‘a senator for twenty years, a minister for one, a virtuous citizen for his whole life,’ and deservedly lauded for his knowledge of his country's finances and of parliamentary procedure. His inflexible honesty in refusing all emoluments ‘contrary to his engagements with his party’ was universally acknowledged. Numerous letters and extracts of letters from Lord Rockingham to him are printed in Albemarle's ‘Rockingham,’ he corresponded with George Grenville, and Burke wrote him several long and important communications. Many of his speeches are reported in ‘Cavendish's Debates,’ and in i. 575–90 of that work are notices of his life from a manuscript memoir written by his son, John Edmund Dowdeswell, one of the masters in chancery and formerly member for Tewkesbury. Dowdeswell left issue five sons and six daughters, several of whom died young. His library was sold in 1775.

[Walpole's Letters (Cunningham), v. 6, 73; Walpole's George III, i. 354–5, ii. 46, 196, 309, 356, 420, iv. 90, 284, 316; Walpole's Journals, 1771–83, i. 13, 49, 55, 63, 468; Burke's Works (1852 ed.), i. 126, 170–82, 234; Grenville Papers, iii. 281–94, iv. 211, 411–12, 450; Albemarle's Rockingham, i. 225–6, ii. passim; Chatham Correspondence, ii. 282–3, iii. 22–4, 224–5, iv. 95–115, 203–4; Satirical Prints at Brit. Mus. iv. 364; Prior's Malone, p. 443; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. iii. 620; Burke's Commoners (1837), i. 376–7; Bennett's Tewkesbury, pp. 442–3; Nash's Worcestershire, i. 181–3; Welch's Alumni Westmon. (1852), p. 556; Alex. Carlyle's Autobiography, pp. 167, 176.]

W. P. C.