William Thomas Beckford

1st Oct 1760 - 2nd May 1844

Claimant or beneficiary


William Thomas Beckford was the son of Alderman William Beckford and Maria Hamilton, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton. Maria was the widow of Francis Marsh, another Jamaican planter and City man, with whom she had a daughter, Elizabeth. Beckford was born at the family's London home at 22 Soho Square. From his father he inherited his Wiltshire estate and the seat for Hindon which he occupied as well as lands in Somerset, Gloucester, Hertford, Buckingham, Bedford, London and Jamaica. He was described as ‘England’s wealthiest son’ and was a godson of William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham and the prime minister’s father, with Lord Chancellor Thurlow for his guardian. Beckford came into his inheritance in September 1781, to mark the occasion an event was organised in which £40,000 was spent on entertainments at Fonthill Splendens.

He was educated privately by Robert Drysdale and Rev. John Lettice, DD. He was trained in music briefly by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and studied the arts and drawing under Sir William Chambers and Alexander Cozens. In 1777, along with his tutor Lettice, he went to live in Geneva with his uncle, Colonel Hamilton, a former soldier of the East India Company army. He took the Grand Tour with Lettice arriving in Venice in 1780 and wrote a book about his travels Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents in 1783. Inspired by the musicality of his experiences he wrote an overture to the ballet Phaeton which was engraved in Paris in 1781–2. He left various other scores for songs and small orchestral pieces he had written between 1780 and 1839. Some of these are available to view at the Bodleain Library in Oxford.

Beckford authored several literary works; Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), the Gothic novel Vathek (1786) and Letters from Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1834).

On 5 May 1783 Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon, a daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. The couple had two daughters. Margaret Maria Elizabeth Beckford who married Lt-Gen. James Orde and Susan (d. 1859) who married Sir Alexander Douglas-Hamilton 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852). Beckford's wife died in childbirth aged 24.

In 1784 scandal erupted when it was publicly insinuated that Beckford had engaged in homosexual behaviour with the young heir to the earldom of Devon, William Courtney (1768–1835). The incident was capitalised on by Courtney's uncle, Lord Loughborough, who was Beckford's political enemy. Loughborough used the press to attack Beckford, although no formal charges of homosexuality were brought against him. The affair led to Beckford's social exclusion and he lived much of his life in exile either abroad or at Fonthill.

He served as a Member of Parliament between 1784-90 for Wells, 1790-94 for Hindon and again 1806-20 for Hindon. He was not an active member but he did follow West Indian affairs and commented on the issue of abolition in 1796. His main political end seems to have been to gain a peerage for himself, although this did not happen.

Perhaps the most famous of Beckford's activities was his decision to build Fonthill Abbey. Around 1790 Beckford had approached the Gothic architect James Wyatt. By 1797 Wyatt was able to exhibit plans at the Royal Academy exhibition. The structure included a squat tower and 145 foot spire, with apartments and galleries. Beckford's income at this point was still such that he was determined to do away with his father's house Splendens and to compliment his tower with a new building - Fonthill Abbey. By 1798 plans for the spire had expanded and the height now reached 300 feet. By 1807 Beckford was able to move in although building work continued until 1809. In 1819 parts of the structure had to be rebuilt, by 1821 the tower had showed signs of being structurally unsound and in 1825 it finally collapsed.

Beckford was a vociferous collector of art and books. His owned the complete library of Edward Gibbon. Beckford eventually gave Gibbon's library of some 6000–7000 books to his physician, Frederic Schöll. His art collection was rich in Italian Quattrocento paintings, Asian objets d'art including Mughal hardstone carvings, lacquer, metalworks, statues and ceramics,eighteenth-century French furniture and decorative arts. He was one of several English collectors to benefit hugely from the sale of property belonging to members of the French aristocracy in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

Eventually Beckford's extravagances, combined with the falling price of sugar led to the sale of both some of his Jamaica plantations and also Fonthill itself. Fonthill, along with part of Beckford's art collection was sold before the sale for £330,000 to John Farquhar. In 1823 Farquhar auctioned the art and furnishings in the 'Fonthill sale.' Beckford and his son-in-law the Duke of Hamilton were significant buyers in some instances acquiring items more cheaply than their original cost. The sale famously reviewed by William Hazlitt who poured scorn on Beckford's taste. The remainder of the collection was kept at Lansdown Tower. The collection was inherited by the Dukes of Hamilton until the 'Hamilton Palace sale' in 1882. Objects from Beckford's collection can be found across the world today including items in the National Gallery, London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Wallace Collection, the National Museum of Ireland, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, the Getty Museum, the Huntingdon Libray and Art Gallery and many more.

In his later years Beckford moved to Bath, where he bought No. 20 Lansdown Crescent and No. 1 Lansdown Place West. He merged the buildings with a one-storey arch across a driveway. In 1836 he purchased Nos. 18 and 19 Lansdown Crescent. No 18 was left empty to secure Beckford's privacy and tranquility. Having purchased several small farms around Lansdown Hill he then commissioned Henry Goodridge to build a 154-foot tower.

Beckford died at Bath on 2 May 1844 and was buried in the granite sarcophagus at Lyncombe cemetery. He had not approved of his elder daughter Maria's marriage however he maintained good relations with his younger daughter Susan. In order that she might fulfill her father's wishes to be buried near the tower at Lansdown, Susan presented the tower and a plot of his land to Walcot parish. The land was consecrated and Beckford was reinterred there in 1848. Susan inherited the major part of his estate which was valued at under £80,000. He also bequeathed 10,000 books and 80 manuscripts to her.


Anita McConnell, ‘Beckford, William Thomas (1760–1844)’, first published 2004; online edn, May 2009, 5888 words, with portrait illustration



William D. Rubinstein, Who were the rich? A biographical dictionary of British wealth-holders Volume Two 1840-1859 (London, Social Affairs Unit, 2012) reference 1854/32; the 10th Duke left £126,704. 1863/73 for Hamilton, 11th Duke of (the son of the 10th Duke and Susan Beckford) 'Landowner and mineral owner', who left £419,980.

Further Information

Margaret Gordon b.1763, d.1786
Margaret Maria Elizabeth Beckford and Susanna Euphemia, sometimes called Susan
A will but no further details
Wealth at death
Oxford DNB Entry

Associated Claims (4)

£2,570 2S 3D
£3,183 17S 7D
£4,318 2S 10D
£2,731 0S 2D

Legacies Summary

Historical (1)

Vathek, an Arabian... 1834 

Relationships (2)

Son → Father
Grandson → Grandfather