Alderman-Beckford-portrait - blog

Wealth, Power and a Sex Scandal in the next Gold Hill Museum talk

A former Lord Mayor of London will present his research into two local landowners who enjoyed influence and massive wealth, before a sex scandal forced one of them into exile. Next month Gold Hill Museum is hosting Sir John Stuttard’s talk on the 18th century lives of Alderman William Beckford and his son William.
“Both of them were the wealthiest commoners in England in the 18th century,” said Sir John. “One was a great politician and the other was the greatest fine art collector of all time.” As a former Lord Mayor of London Sir John became interested in Alderman Beckford, who held that position twice.
Alderman Beckford, the father, was elected MP for Shaftesbury in 1747 but, unlike today’s politicians, he would have had little contact with townspeople. Shaftesbury’s parliamentary seat was termed ‘a rotten borough’, where the wealthy or the aristocracy effectively decided who was elected and how they voted in parliament.
Beckford was politically savvy though and saw an opportunity with the growing movement for political reform. “The Alderman’s three addresses to George III were all about the King abolishing parliament and preventing these rotten boroughs. Yet, earlier, Beckford had been elected as an MP to a rotten borough. He is an enigma,” mused John.
Alderman Beckford’s free trade ideals made him very popular in the City of London, and that’s why he’s the only Lord Mayor with his own statue. But Beckford’s liberal views might seem at odds with the source of his wealth – Jamaican sugar plantations.
If tabloid newspapers had existed in the 18th century, the lifestyle of the Alderman’s son William would probably have filled the front pages.
“He was bisexual,” John explained. “He had a relationship with a boy who was eight years younger than he was. There was a scandal associated with letters that he wrote to the boy. He was shunned by the aristocracy,” said John. “He was about to be offered a barony but he didn’t get a peerage.”
Beckford went into voluntary exile to Portugal. When he returned to Fonthill he began constructing a stately home that would reflect his immense wealth.
Fonthill Abbey sported a 90 metre-high tower, briefly. The structure collapsed due to construction problems. Very little of Beckford’s grand country home has survived. Eventually Beckford had to sell his entire art collection and the Fonthill Estate.
“He blew a huge fortune,” said John. “It was his money and he spent it.”
Sir John Stuttard will give his illustrated talk on The Two Beckfords of Fonthill at Gold Hill Museum on Tuesday 05 December at 2.30p.m. Lectures are free to members and admission for visitors is £3, on the door.

Website Launch and Podcast

‘Shaftesbury Remembers The Great War’ Podcast

Shaftesbury & District Historical Society member Keri Jones has created a superb 16 minute podcast relating to the launch of the Shaftesbury Remembers website on 11 November. You can hear interviews with Ann Symons, Claire Ryley and Chris Stupples (seen above with website designer Rob Frost, far left, and the Mayor and Mrs Lewer) as they describe the process and heartache of compiling a comprehensive record of those from Shaftesbury and surrounding villages who served and died in World War I. There are surprising details too about the town during the war years.

The podcast can be found at

Shaftesbury Remembers Website Launch

‘Shaftesbury Remembers’ Website Launched on Armistice Day

It was standing room only in the Anna McDowell Garden Room at Gold Hill Museum for the official launch of the ‘Shaftesbury Remembers’ website created by The S&DHS Great War Community Project team. Ninety Project contributors, accompanied by the Mayor of Shaftesbury and Mrs Lewer, saw the website demonstrated by designer Rob Frost (far left) and explained by Project leaders (from left to right) Ann Symons, Claire Ryley and Chris Stupples. Heritage Lottery Funding and a huge amount of voluntary effort have gone into creating an archive of the stories of people commemorated on 25 local war memorials and of information about contemporary life in Shaftesbury and district. Participants also enjoyed tea and cake, and were able to view folders of stories, documents and artefacts collected by the Project. Work continues to find details about individuals hard to identify, and to input the stories of those who came back.