Family and Education

bap. 2 May 1647, 2nd s. of Henry Ashurst, Merchant Taylor, of Watling Street and Hackney, Mdx. by Judith, da. of William Reresby, merchant, of London; bro. of Sir Henry Ashurst*.  m. lic. 31 Aug. 1668, Elizabeth, da. of Robert Thompson, merchant, of Newington Green, Surr. 7s. (1 d.v.p.) 4 da.(1 d.v.p.).  Kntd. 29 Oct. 1687.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Merchant Taylors’ Co. 1668, asst. 1687, master 1687–8; common councilman, London 1678–83, auditor 1682–3, alderman 1687–Oct. 1688, Oct. 1688–d., sheriff 1691–2, ld. mayor 1693–4; member and treasurer, New England Co. 1681, gov. 1696–d.; pres. Christ’s Hosp. 1688; vice-pres. Hon. Artillery Co. 1689–1703, pres. 1708–d.; gov. Highgate sch. 1697–d.; St. Thomas’ Hosp. by 1719.2

Commr. preventing export of wool 1689–92, Greenwich Hosp. 1694, 1704, excise 1698–1700, 1714–d., relieve Vaudois, by 1701; trustee, Exchequer bills 1697; receiving loan to Emperor 1706; dir. Bank of Eng. (with statutory intervals) 1697–1714.

Proprietor, New Jersey by 1701.3

Biography

Ashurst remained a controversial figure throughout his career, an acquaintance observing that he never ‘acted a little or mean thing in his whole life’. His known sympathy towards Dissent ensured him much opposition, reflecting as it did the upbringing of his ‘holy father’, a Presbyterian woollen-draper of Lancashire origin. However, although Ashurst followed his father’s trade, there is no direct evidence of his regular attendance at a conventicle. He first came to prominence during the struggle over the London charter, a Tory observer opining in 1682 that ‘naught’ could be expected of him, and in June 1685 he was actually listed as one of the London lieutenancy commissioners to be disarmed for suspected disaffection towards the government. Under James II he was courted as a possible supporter for the royal policy of toleration, gaining election as alderman in August 1687 and receiving a knighthood three months later. His readiness to serve under James may well have earned him rebuke from several of his fellow Whigs, William Cowper* having earlier in the year described him as ‘a knave and an ill man’. James’s overtures failed to convert him, however, and he quickly accepted the Revolution. The strength of the City Whigs in the immediate aftermath of James’s flight was attested by Ashurst’s appointment in April 1689 as colonel in the City militia, as well as by his victory at a by-election held the following month. Such success rendered him a prime target for Tory attack, and in January 1690 he was accused of having drunk a republican toast to ‘our sovereign lord, or lords, the people’. The charge could not have helped his cause at the London contest of March 1690, where he finished a disappointing seventh, and within a few weeks he had also lost his colonelcy.4

Even though out of the House, Ashurst remained a powerful force within City politics, the Tory Sir Peter Rich† citing him in March 1690 as a leading Whig financier, and he certainly made at least one loan of £500 to the crown. Further proof of his influence came at the shrieval election of June 1691, where Ashurst gained a crushing victory, finishing nearly 1,400 votes ahead of his rivals. ‘Both sides’ were said to have agreed to support his nomination by the outgoing mayor, the Whig Sir Thomas Pilkington†, and among those who warmly greeted the result was Robert Harley*. Further proof of his links to Dissent was provided in January 1693, when the Nonconformist Common Fund actually wrote to him to request a donation, evidently confident of his sympathy to their cause. However, the Dissenting interest was unable to carry Ashurst to victory at the parliamentary by-election held two months later, since he finished some 200 votes behind Sir John Fleet*, a fellow alderman courted by both Whigs and Tories since the Revolution.5

Undaunted, later that year Ashurst fought a most successful campaign to gain the mayoralty, emerging with Sir John Houblon at the head of the Michaelmas poll, over 900 votes ahead of their nearest Tory challenger Sir Jonathan Raymond. On gaining the unanimous assent of the court of aldermen on 3 Oct., Ashurst made an impassioned speech against the dangers of current party divisions, warning that they threatened a possible return to popery and slavery. In particular, he vigorously defended himself against charges of republicanism, a London minister having already condemned his election as a prelude to the overthrow of Church and monarchy. The new lord mayor’s allegiance to William and Mary could not be questioned, however, even though the exiled King James actually drafted a letter to Ashurst to request his support for a planned invasion. Indeed, on 30 Oct. he received a ringing endorsement from Lord Chief Baron Sir Robert Atkins, who, while ‘reflecting much upon Lord Nottingham and the Church’, recommended Ashurst as ‘one every way so fitted and qualified for that great office’, and assured him that he had ‘the interests of all the Protestants in the world . . . on your side’. Four days later the new lord mayor received the personal congratulations of the King, having led a civic delegation to greet William on his return from campaign. In his year of office he proved a conscientious magistrate, reporting the movements of suspected persons, and conducting a campaign against prostitution.6

The government clearly saw Ashurst as an important ally in the City, for in June 1694 he was appointed one of the commissioners to receive the first subscriptions to the Bank. The following month he successfully petitioned for a grant from the Irish forfeitures as compensation for a debt of £1,200 owed by two Irish rebels, favouritism later described as a reward for ‘his faithful services when lord mayor’. Such continuing prominence argued for his candidacy at the London election of October 1695, where he finished second as the Whigs regained three seats from their Tory rivals. His success was welcomed by Nonconformist minister Philip Henry, who confidently predicted that Ashurst’s name ‘will be precious to succeeding generations’. Sir William’s support for the Court was demonstrated in the first session by a forecast for a division on 31 Jan. 1696 concerning the proposed Board of Trade, and on 27 Feb. he duly signed the Association. Having narrowly failed to become a commissioner for public accounts, finishing ninth in the ballot declared on 5 Feb., he proved an inconspicuous Member during that session, making no significant contribution to Commons business.7

During the next session, however, Ashurst was much more active, being closely involved with a local measure to repair the highways of Islington and St. Pancras, including a tellership on 4 Nov. in an unsuccessful attempt to commit the bill. Later that month he supported the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, and his identification with the Court was further confirmed on 19 Dec. when he acted as a teller to block a bill to regulate elections. He again acted as a teller on 21 Jan. 1697 in order to oppose a clause submitted for addition to a land tax bill, and, returning to the capital’s affairs, presented a bill to complete the building of St. Paul’s cathedral. He was one of the two Members appointed to draft a bill to encourage the manufacture of woollens by a ban on the export of rival Irish produce. He was also named to the drafting committee on the Stour navigation bill, and his final important action in that session again concerned a supply measure as he told on 30 Mar. to block the committal of a bill to levy duties on wines and other commodities.

During the recess the government made further use of Ashurst’s financial contacts, appointing him as one of the trustees for the circulation of Exchequer bills. He actually subscribed £1,000 to the scheme in May, but a fellow trustee later testified that Ashurst had ‘never acted’ in that office. The Bank’s affairs clearly absorbed more of his energies, and although failing to mount any significant challenge for the governorship in July, he did become a director for the first time. In the ensuing session he was appointed on 7 Dec. to the committee to draft a bill to regulate the press, a measure revealing a possible concern for moral reform, especially since he was subsequently named to the committee to address the King to suppress profaneness and immorality. More predictably, he was one of the principal sponsors of a bill for the payment of inland bills of exchange, and, maintaining his interest in textile trade, managed a bill to enable two merchants to import Italian silk via Amsterdam. He later failed to block a bill to levy duties on coal and culm when acting as a teller on 3 May, his opposition perhaps stemming from the continuing hardship inflicted upon the capital’s poor by high fuel prices. His distaste for this measure, however, did not prevent him from accepting a place on the excise commission in July 1698, a highly lucrative post which again signified his financial utility to the ministry. At the end of that month he finished a strong second at the London poll, a success emulated by his eldest son, Henry*, who was returned for Preston. Lord Stamford, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, was clearly instrumental in procuring the younger Ashurst’s victory, and soon afterwards Secretary James Vernon I* sought to use Sir William’s connexion with Stamford to further the electoral ambitions of Hon. Harry Mordaunt* at Bere Alston, although ultimately to no avail.8

Advancement to the excise commission was clearly seen to have influenced Ashurst’s political outlook, for while one political observer bracketed him with the Court’s opponents by forecasting shortly after the election that he would probably oppose the standing army, two other lists cited him as a placeman. His ties to the ministry had been strengthened even further by recent service as agent for the garrison at New York, his prominence within the New England Company acting as an obvious recommendation for that office. In the decisive division of the first session on 18 Jan. 1699 Ashurst voted in favour of the standing army, and subsequently became a prime target for the Country attack on royal influence in the Commons. On 17 Feb. the committee investigating royal revenue officials noted that he was an Exchequer bill trustee, but that he had ‘declined to act in that trust since his being a Member of Parliament’. Only three days later the committee brought to the Commons’ attention Ashurst’s former commission for the first Bank subscription, but Sir William was able to retain his seat after ‘so much’ was said on his behalf. For the rest of the session he prudently refrained from any direct involvement in controversial issues, gaining nominations to drafting committees for measures to preserve game and to make free two ships, acting as teller on 24 Mar. against a bill to establish a corn-market at Westminster, and being named to the conference committee on the bill to make Billingsgate a free market.9

Ashurst also made little impression on the next session, with no significant contribution to business. Significantly, an analyst of the Commons in early 1700 was sufficiently unsure of Ashurst’s political allegiance to query his identification with the Junto interest. However, the place legislation against excisemen passed during that session was clearly aimed at officers such as Ashurst. In June he decided to resign from the excise commission rather than cut short his parliamentary career, for which he was lauded in the press as one of the ‘true patriots’ who put the service of their country before self-interest. This decision was subsequently vindicated by his performance at the London election of January 1701, where he finished second as the Whigs took all four seats.10

In the new Parliament he initially revealed a willingness to support the new ministry, a list of 22 Feb. 1701 citing him as a probable supporter of the Court to agree with a resolution of the committee of supply to continue the ‘Great Mortgage’. However, he may also have backed a Whig move to influence the passage of the Act of Settlement, since an affidavit for a Whig-inspired inquiry into the birth of the Pretender was signed at his Highgate home. Less controversially, he demonstrated concern for social issues, being named to drafting committees for bills to set the poor to work, and to redress abuses in hospitals and other charities. Personal affairs were also served in the course of this Parliament, the House taking notice on 19 May of Ashurst’s petition to the trustees for Irish forfeitures to secure his grant against resumption. On 13 June it was reported that the petition was not to be transmitted to the trustees in Ireland, but the Parliament was dissolved before any resolution could be brought to the matter. His close interest in colonial affairs was subsequently demonstrated in August by his direct involvement with the surrender of the New Jersey charter. Moreover, three months later he was prepared to intervene on his brother Sir Henry’s behalf in a dispute over the governorship of Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire.11

Ashurst survived the London election of November 1701, finishing second in a closely contested poll. The following January he wrote to the Electress Sophia to assure her of the City’s support for the Hanoverian succession. He also appeared once more concerned for matters affecting the lower orders, gaining nominations to drafting committees for bills to set the poor to work, to settle a workhouse at Dorchester, and to punish felons and their accessories. He was also named to the committee to draft the bill to prevent clandestine imports from France. However, his attention was mainly focused on the confirmation of his grant from the Irish forfeitures. On 26 Mar. his petition to the trustees for the Irish forfeitures was read a second time, and a motion was carried for a bill to be brought in to relieve Sir William, although only after a division. Sir Rowland Gwynne*, a fellow Whig and associate of Lord Stamford, was the principal sponsor of the measure in the Commons, while Stamford himself acted as chairman of the committee in the Lords. Their aid ensured the bill a smooth progress, although the amendments made by the Upper House to the bill sparked fierce protests in the Commons on 15 May, several Members arguing that the Lords had altered a money bill. As Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, observed, ‘this was more party than reason’, and the measure was passed by a majority of 21.12

The accession of Anne promised a greater challenge to Ashurst’s prospects, and at the London election of July 1702 he finished a lowly sixth as the Tories captured three of the City seats. The preceding month his London rivals had already engineered his removal as a colonel in the capital’s militia, but he managed to retain the vice-presidency of the Honorary Artillery Company, commanding it in October on the occasion of the Queen’s attendance at the Lord Mayor’s Day celebrations. For the next three years, however, his political influence was largely confined to the court of aldermen. His colonial interests provided him with some leverage, and in 1705 he sought to persuade the Church hierarchy to employ Nonconformist ministers to convert the North American Indians, arguing that ‘our ministers (though not episcopal) are capable of doing good’. Several years before he had clashed with the Earl of Bellomont [I] (Richard Coote*) over this issue, but the latter had evidently been impressed by Ashurst’s missionary zeal, describing him as ‘a right honest gentleman who will hearken to reason’.13

The London election of May 1705 saw a substantial rehabilitation of his party’s fortunes, with Ashurst finishing third of the three Whig candidates to be returned. His political enemies greeted his return to Westminster with familiar attacks on his Nonconformist sympathies, a pamphleteer accusing him of having written to a friend that ‘it’s past 12 with the Church, so she must come down’. The Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) recognized his return as a Whig gain, and, having been predictably identified as ‘No Church’ by an analyst of the new Parliament, Ashurst voted on 25 Oct. for the Court candidate in the division on the Speakership. His significant activity in the first session was principally confined to the management of a bill to allow two London merchants to import a cargo of wine from Copenhagen, but he was also named to the conference committee on the bill to make an exemplification of Lord Conway’s will. His allegiance to the Court was further demonstrated by his support on 18 Feb. for its proceedings concerning the place clause within the regency bill, a loyalty which recommended his appointment in the same month as a commissioner for receiving the loan to the Emperor.14

In the next session Ashurst was much more prominent, actively sponsoring a variety of measures, beginning with the management of a private estate bill. He was also one of the Members detailed to convey the thanks of the House to the bishop of Salisbury for preaching a sermon. More importantly, he was closely involved in the progress of a bill to encourage the Royal Lustring Company, having been closely involved with the scrutiny of the company’s original petition for relief. Another corporation to benefit from his presence in the House was the London Gunmakers, whose petition for aid was reported to the House by Ashurst. He later became involved with a bill to curb the dangers of bringing gunpowder into the capital, and acted as a teller on 24 Apr. to read for a second time the Lords’ amendments to the bill. Recalling earlier parliamentary interests, he was also nominated for the conference committee on the bill to continue the Vagrancy Act. He evidently backed the Court on the great issue of the Union, expressing warm approval for the measure on 6 Mar. to the Presbyterian Earl of Sutherland, and asking leave ‘to call your lordship my countryman and to congratulate myself of being a Briton’. Several months before, he had actually sought to reassure Sutherland that the Union did not pose a commercial or religious threat to the Scots, at which time he insisted that (contrary to Jacobite rumours) English Dissenters lived ‘amicably’ with their Anglican neighbours.15

During the summer recess Ashurst had further cause for self-congratulation when he was restored in July as a colonel of the London militia. In the first session of the British Parliament he remained a conspicuous figure, principally in connexion with commercial and maritime affairs. On 6 Dec. 1707 he reported from the committee on a merchant petition complaining of the smuggling of French wine, and was one of the Members named to prevent such illegalities. He was also nominated to the drafting committee on a bill to prevent the import of cochineal, and on 26 Jan. 1708 acted as a teller to block the second reading of a bill to recruit seamen. Two more appointments to drafting committees followed in February, for measures to relieve three regiments and to regulate the militia. His allegiance to the Whig-dominated ministry was confirmed by two parliamentary lists of early 1708. In the remainder of the session he was a leading sponsor of a bill to regulate Bank elections, and was also named to the conference committee on a measure to amend the Highway Repair Act.16

The London Whigs again performed well at the City election of May 1708, at which Ashurst finished third. He did not prove as active as before in this Parliament. His support for the ministry was further suggested by an incident the following month, when he was duped by the Tory lord mayor (Sir) Charles Duncombe* into thinking that the allies had gained a major victory abroad. Evidently eager to boost support for the war effort, Ashurst hurried to Parliament to break the news, only to discover subsequently that no spectacular success had been gained. Edward Harley*, a recent convert to the opposition, enjoyed his humiliation, observing that the mayor had ‘served that fellow well enough’. Maintaining his interest in commercial legislation, he was named to drafting committees on bills to ban the import of wrought marble, and to perpetuate acts against the forging of coins and promissory notes. In the next session he was again active, managing a bill to regulate the assize of bread, and being named to three drafting committees on commercial issues of obvious metropolitan interest. He remained loyal to his party during this Parliament, supporting the naturalization of the Palatines in early 1709, and voting for the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell a year later. The ministry’s favourable impression of him was indirectly confirmed in early 1710 by his appointment as agent for Massachusetts Bay, the colonial assembly clearly viewing him as an influential ally in governing circles. However, despite his close connexion with the New England Company, Ashurst declined to serve the colony in an official capacity, pleading grounds of ill-health.17

The High Church campaign mounted before the general election of 1710 was an obvious threat to Ashurst’s influence in London, and although polling over 3,000 votes at the City contest in October he finished bottom of the poll. This galling defeat was accompanied by the loss of his colonelcy, but as a senior alderman he remained an important figure in City circles, stubbornly opposing Tory efforts to gain control of the Honorary Artillery Company. In June 1711 it was even rumoured that his financial status might lead to reappointment as a revenue commissioner, but he did not gain preferment under Robert Harley’s administration. Although he did not stand, or even vote, at the London election of October 1713, he was keen to maintain Whig dominance within the London corporation, prompting the mayor to adjourn a common council in March 1714 to thwart a Tory attempt to overturn the result of a ward election.18

Ashurst’s loyalty to the Whig cause was rewarded on the accession of George I, for in November 1714 he was reappointed to the excise commission, a post which effectively precluded any ambition of a return to Westminster. He retained the office until his death on 12 Jan. 1720, which came ‘after a very long indisposition’, perhaps linked to an apoplectic seizure reported in November 1715. A most favourable epitaph was supplied by one of his colonial contacts, who lauded him as ‘a hearty lover of our civil and religious liberties’, but noted, somewhat surprisingly, that he had betrayed ‘an extreme aversion to a court and the tedious ceremonies of attendance’. Although Ashurst had requested to be buried at St. Augustine’s, London, his body was interred at Hedingham, Essex, the family’s influence having been extended there in 1713 by the purchase of the manor of Castle Hedingham. His will revealed little concern for charitable causes, but prior beneficiaries of his benevolence included the London corporation of the poor and Greenwich Hospital, as well as several young Nonconformist ministers. His eldest son Henry having predeceased him, his principal estate, which included the ‘beauteous pile of honour’ he had built at Highgate in 1694, passed to his grandson William. Sir William’s sons had already been well catered for, each having benefited from their father’s wealth and influence, most notably William, who had become a comptroller at the stamp office. However, even though his son Robert succeeded him as governor of the New England Company, none of his surviving offspring attempted to emulate his parliamentary career.19

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Notes

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