Sue Young Histories

Francis Burdett 1770 – 1844

January 20, 2009

Sir Francis Burdett 5th Baronet 1770 – 1844 was an English reformist politician, the son of Francis Burdett and his wife Eleanor, daughter of William Jones of Ramsbury manor, Wiltshire, and grandson of Sir Robert Burdett, Bart.

Francis Burdett was an advocate of hydrotherapy and a strong supporter of homeopathy, and he was a friend of John Epps and Frederick Hervey Foster Quin.

As an old man, Francis Burdett sought hydrotherapy for his gout, and when he died, his hydropathic practitioner James Ellis was accused, wrongfully of manslaughter. No such storm arose over the deaths from allopathy of Ludwig von Beethoven, Lord Byron, Franz Liszt, and Robert Alexander Schumann to name but a few!

Francis Burdett was educated at Westminster School and the University of Oxford. When young, he was for a long time the notorious lover of Lady Oxford (according to the Thomas Raikes Journal), and afterwards traveled in France and Switzerland.

He was in Paris during the earlier days of the French Revolution, a visit that doubtlessly influenced his political opinions.

Returning to England in 1793, he married Sophia Coutts, the second daughter of the wealthy banker Thomas Coutts. She brought him a large fortune. They had a daughter Angela Burdett Coutts who inherited the Burdett Family’s Baronetcy from her father and became the first Baroness of the Foremark Burdett Family.

In 1796 Francis Burdett became Member of Parliament for Boroughbridge, having purchased this seat from the representatives of the Duke of Newcastle, and in 1797 succeeded his grandfather as 5th Baronet.

His inheritance included the family seat of Foremarke Hall and “the hamlets of Ingleby and Foremark (sometimes referred to as a manor) which were under his Lordship”.

In Parliament he soon became prominent as an opponent of William Pitt, and as an advocate of popular rights. He denounced the war with France, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the proposed exclusion of John Horne Tooke from parliament, and quickly became the idol of the people.

He was instrumental in securing an inquiry into the condition of Coldbath Fields Prison, but as a result of this step he was for a time prevented by the government from visiting any prison in the kingdom. In 1797 he made the acquaintance of John Horne Tooke, whose pupil he became, not only in politics, but also in philology.

At the general election of 1802 Burdett was a candidate for the county of Middlesex, but his return was declared void in 1804, and in the subsequent contest he was defeated. In 1805 this return was amended in his favor, but as this was again quickly reversed, Burdett, who had spent an immense sum of money over the affair, declared he would not stand for parliament again.

At the general election of 1806 Burdett was a leading supporter of James Paull, the reform candidate for the City of Westminster; but in the following year a misunderstanding led to a duel between Burdett and James Paull in which both combatants were wounded.

At the general election in 1807, Burdett, in spite of his reluctance, was nominated for Westminster, and amidst great enthusiasm was returned at the top of the poll.

He took up again the congenial work of attacking abuses and agitating for reform, and in 1810 came sharply into collision with the House of Commons. A radical named John Gale Jones had been committed to prison by the House, a proceeding that was denounced by Burdett, who questioned the power of the House to take this step, and vainly attempted to secure the release of John Gale Jones.

He then issued a revised edition of his speech on this occasion which was published by William Cobbett in the Weekly Register. The House voted this action a breach of privilege, and the speaker issued a warrant for Burdett’s arrest. The charge was libelling the House of Commons. Barring himself in his house for two days, he defied the authorities, while a mob gathered in his defense.

Burdett’s colleague Thomas Cochrane offered assistance, but, realizing that Cochrane intended to use military tactics during this civil and political affair, Burdett declined. At length the house was entered, and under an escort of soldiers he was conveyed to the Tower.

Released when parliament was in recess, he caused his supporters much disappointment by returning to Westminster by water, and so avoiding a demonstration in his honor. He then brought legal actions against the speaker and the Sergeant at Arms, but the courts upheld the action of the House.

In parliament Burdett denounced corporal punishment in the army, and supported all attempts to check corruption, but his principal efforts were directed towards procuring a reform of parliament, and the removal of Roman Catholic disabilities.

In 1809 he had proposed a scheme of parliamentary reform, and returning to the subject in 1817 and 1818 he anticipated the Chartist movement by suggesting universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, and annual parliaments; but his motions met with very little support.

He succeeded, however, in carrying a resolution in 1825 that the House should consider the laws concerning Roman Catholics. This was followed by a bill embodying his proposals, which passed the Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords. In 1827 and 1828 he again proposed resolutions on this subject, and saw his proposals become law in 1829.

In 1820 Burdett had again come into serious conflict with the government. Having severely censured its action with reference to the Manchester massacre, he was prosecuted at Leicester assizes, fined 1000 pounds, and committed to prison for three months. After the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 the ardour of the veteran reformer was somewhat abated, and a number of his constituents soon took umbrage at his changed attitude. Consequently he resigned his seat early in 1837, but was re-elected.

However, at the general election in the same year he forsook Westminster and was elected member for North Wiltshire, which seat he retained, acting in general with the Conservatives, until his death. He was nick-named by fellow conservatives as “Old Glory”.

His wife, Lady Burdett to whom he was devoted died on 13 January 1844. Sir Francis, then 74, became inconsoleable and felt he had nothing left to live for. He refused all food and died just ten days later on the 23 January 1844. He and his wife were buried at the same time in the same vault at Ramsbury Church, Wiltshire.

He left a son, Robert, who succeeded to the baronetcy, and who inherited his very large fortune, and five daughters, the youngest of whom became the celebrated Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts after inheriting the Coutts fortune from her grandfather’s widow Harriet (Duchess ôf St Albans) and appending the Coutts surname under the terms of Harriet’s will. He was a member of the Literary Association of the Friends of Poland.

Of interest:

Angela Burdett Coutts had approached Charles Dickens in May 1846 regarding setting up a home for the redemption of prostitutes. Miss Coutts had sought Charles Dickens’ opinion before for her Ragged School and was keen for his practical help in this new venture.

Miss Coutts was a deeply religious woman whose religious beliefs, like those of Charles Dickens, were expressed in a practical way. She had become fabulously wealthy unexpectedly; as the youngest daughter of the Burdett Coutts family she was chosen by her grandfather’s second wife as the heir to the Coutts bank fortune.

Her family background with its radical traditions (her father was Sir Francis Burdett, the radical M.P.) had prepared her for a pragmatic approach to using her fortune for the good. It seemed to Miss Coutts that in Charles Dickens she had found a fellow campaigner, someone who like her was liberal when dealing with others, but driven and exacting with her own performance.


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