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Sir  William Scawen (1646/7–1722), by unknown artist, c.1722Sir William Scawen (1646/7–1722), by unknown artist, c.1722
Scawen, Sir William (1646/7–1722), merchant and politician, was born in St Germans, Cornwall, the fifth son of of Horton, Buckinghamshire, and his wife, Catherine, daughter of Cavendish Alsop, a London merchant. His younger brother Thomas (c.1654–1730) [see below] also achieved note as a merchant and politician. The Scawens were of ancient Cornish stock, but Robert Scawen prospered as a London attorney, and then secured advancement as a military and revenue administrator under the interregnum and Restoration regimes. His success led to his election in 1640 as MP for Berwick upon Tweed, and to his purchase of the manor of Horton in 1658; he subsequently represented Grampound, Cornwall (1659) and Cockermouth (1662–70). As a younger son, William was destined for a career in trade, and was apprenticed in 1663 to Fisher Dilke, a London merchant based in Cornhill. Although William did not formally complete his apprenticeship by taking the freedom of the City, he quickly advanced in the textile trade with continental Europe, and by 1677 was listed (as William Scoing) as an independent trader in his own right in Lawrence Pountney Lane. His standing was further attested by his marriage on 9 December 1684, at St Mary's, Walthamstow, to Mary (1666/7–1700), daughter of Sir William Maynard, first baronet, of Walthamstow; the couple had no children.

Scawen's skill as a trader ensured him great wealth, and he proved himself just as adaptable as his father when forging a political career in the wake of the revolution of 1688. His acceptance of the new regime is suggested by a £500 loan to aid the war effort in 1690, and by his appointment as a colonel in a City militia regiment soon afterwards. He subsequently moved in government circles thanks to his prominence in the textile trade, becoming a major supplier of clothing for the armed forces. In turn, his connections with the Low Countries promoted him as a financier too, and in 1692 he remitted £30,000 in payments on behalf of the government. This was lucrative work, and also brought him to the favourable attention of ministers. On 29 October 1692 he was knighted, and then gained a parliamentary seat at New Windsor, a pocket borough close to his father's Horton estate, and susceptible to court influence.

As a government contractor and financier, he was naturally prominent in the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694, and subscribed £10,000 to the original stock. He was defeated in the first contest for the governorship, but secured a place on its inaugural board of directors, and remained a close confidant of the whig junto ministry. In 1695 he backed a scheme to establish a bank at Antwerp to facilitate government payments on the continent, and travelled to the Low Countries to advise William III while the king was on campaign. The huge demands of the war, and the coinage crisis of 1696, led the ministry to make increasing calls on his expertise, and ensured him growing public scrutiny.

At the end of hostilities in 1697 Scawen was elected as the bank's second governor, and continued to act as one of the junto's trusted lieutenants in the City. His government links could not rescue him from defeat at the New Windsor election of 1698, but he was brought in at the Cornish borough of Grampound instead. His whiggish allegiance at this time was demonstrated by his strong support for the New East India Company, which was founded in 1698 to challenge the old company. He also joined with a consortium of merchants to challenge the Russia Company's monopoly. Commercial opportunism dictated his politicking here, but these campaigns cemented his reputation as a leading figure in both trading and financial circles. Scawen's loyalty to the court was proven in January 1699 when he voted in favour of the standing army, and the following month government critics in the Commons called for his dealings as a receiver for Bank of England revenues to be scrutinized. This personal attack may help to explain why he chose to sit for Grampound rather than New Windsor at the first election of 1701, and he again plumped for the Cornish seat in the second election of that year, although also returned at Truro. He then declined to sit for any constituency in the parliament of 1702. Personal considerations may also have played some part in his decision to withdraw, for in August 1700 his wife, Mary, had died aged thirty-three, and her monument testified to Sir William's ‘sorrowful’ reaction to the loss of ‘so dutiful a wife, and so good a woman’ (Manning and Bray, 2.517). Although without public office, he was again the centre of controversy when touted as a commissioner of accounts in March 1704, when his candidacy was backed by the whig-dominated House of Lords.

Although Scawen was less politically active, his party allegiance had not wavered, and he was returned as a whig candidate for Surrey in 1705. Charges of corruption were again levelled at him, but his investment in an estate at Carshalton in 1696 helped him to overcome local tory opposition, and he was returned again in 1708. He continued to serve the whigs in the City, acting as a key intermediary for the unification of the two East India companies, and offering his support for the naturalization of the Palatine refugees. His prominent support for the Godolphin ministry and the continental war was to be his political undoing, especially after he featured as part of a delegation of Bank of England directors who visited the queen in June 1710 to suggest that a change of ministry might threaten public credit. This action earned widespread condemnation as an attack on the royal prerogative, and presaged a bitter campaign against Scawen at the ensuing Surrey election. He finished an ignominious last in the poll, and his opponents regarded the result as a victory over the nefarious influence of the City's moneyed élite.

Although the accession of George I revived whig fortunes, Scawen did not stand at either the 1713 or 1715 general election, probably bruised from previous attacks. He did allow his name to be put forward at a Surrey by-election in July 1721, but his candidacy was clearly a stop-gap for the county's whigs, and he did not contest any seat at the ensuing general election. His energies may already have turned to developing his estate, for in his will of March 1722 he earmarked £10,000 for the rebuilding of his Carshalton home, described by one contemporary as ‘a handsome old house’ (Aubrey, 2.174). No progress could be made, however, before his death, aged seventy-five, on 18 October 1722, which came after ‘a long illness’. He was buried ‘in great state’ at Carshalton on 31 October, where his tomb proclaimed him ‘a faithful subject and zealous for the laws and liberties of his country’ (Post Boy, 18–20 October, 30 October – 1 November 1722; Manning and Bray, 2.517). Some estimates put his fortune at over £200,000, and the bulk of this vast estate passed to his nephew Thomas (d. 1774), the eldest son of Sir Thomas Scawen (c.1654–1730), merchant and politician, who was himself the seventh son of Robert and Catherine Scawen.

Like William, Thomas also successfully established himself as a City merchant, and at one point both brothers lived at the same address in Walbrook. On 8 September 1691, at the Mercers' Chapel, Cheapside, London, he married Martha (d. 1766), daughter of another leading London trader, Abraham Wessell, with whom he had eleven children (five sons and six daughters), two of whom predeceased him. Thomas expanded the family commercial interests from the Low Countries into colonial markets such as Jamaica. A member of the Fishmongers' Company, he was prepared to follow a more traditional civic route to City prominence, ultimately becoming alderman for Cornhill in 1712. He joined his brother on the board of the Bank of England in 1705, and also began his parliamentary career in 1708 when he was elected MP for Grampound. His political ambitions led him to contest for a City seat in 1713, but he lost out to the tories in a bitter election. His knighthood, awarded on 25 September 1714, reflected the resurgence of the whigs under George I, and he was returned for London in 1715. Sir Thomas only served one term as City MP, during which time he proved a dependable whig supporter. Although he made little impact at parliamentary level, he remained an important figure at the bank, and served on the board (with statutory intervals) until his death, presiding as governor in 1721–3. He shared his brother's ambitions for the development of the Carshalton estate, and in about 1726 commissioned Leoni Alberti to design a great family home, but the project was never realized. Scawen died on 22 September 1730, and was buried at the family estate of Horton. He was survived by his wife who died in June 1766 and was buried in St Stephen's Walbrook, London. His eldest son, Thomas, also served as MP for Surrey between 1727 and 1741, and was reputed ‘one of the richest commoners in England’ (Daily Post, 9 January 1725).

Perry Gauci

Sources  

P. Gauci, ‘Scawen, Sir William’, HoP, Commons, 1690–1715, 5.379–83 · R. R. Sedgwick, ‘Scawen, Sir William’, HoP, Commons, 1715–54, 2.410 · P. Gauci, ‘Scawen, Sir Thomas’, HoP, Commons, 1690–1715, 5.378–9 · R. R. Sedgwick, ‘Scawen, Sir Thomas’, HoP, Commons, 1715–54, 2.410–411 · D. Hawkins and others, ‘Samuel Long's house, a lost Carshalton mansion’, London Archaeologist, 10 (2004), 204–13 · will, Robert Scawen, father, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/332 · will, William Scawen, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/588 · will, Thomas Scawen, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/640 · J. Aubrey, The natural history and antiquities of the county of Surrey, 2 (1718), 174 · O. Manning and W. Bray, The history and antiquities of the county of Surrey, 2 (1809), 509–17 · T. C. Wales and C. P. Hartley, eds., The visitation of London begun in 1687, Harleian Society, new ser., 16 (2004), 181–2

Likenesses  

portrait, sculpture, All Saints Church, Carshalton, Surrey [see illus.] · portrait, tomb effigy, repro. in D. Lysons, The environs of London (1792), 127

Wealth at death  

very wealthy; one estimate put estate at ‘above £200,000’: St James's Journal, 25 Oct 1722