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Sir William Curtis (1752-1829)

This article was written by Henry Morse Stephens and was published in 1888

Sir William Curtis, lord mayor of London and M.P., third son of Joseph Curtis of Wapping, was born in London on 25 January 1752. Both his father and grandfather had been the owners of a business in sea-biscuits at Wapping, to which William and his elder brother, Timothy, succeeded. They largely extended their business, and in 1785 Curtis was elected alderman of the Tower ward, though only thirty-three years of age and not yet a freeman of the city. He had already made some successful ventures in the Greenland fisheries, and now established the bank which was at first known as Robarts, Curtis, Were, & Co., and is now represented by Robarts, Lubbock, & Co.

His speculations were very successful, and he served the office of sheriff in 1789 with Sir Benjamin Hamett, and in 1790 he was elected M.P. for the city of London, a seat which he held for twenty-eight years continuously. He was a supporter of Pitt and of the war, and acted as colonel of the 9th regiment of London volunteers and as colonel of the Honourable Artillery Company (1803-1817), and president (1795 till death).

He served the office of lord mayor in 1795-6, and was created a baronet for steady voting on 23 December 1802. He was a man of great importance as head of the tory party in the city, though he was a pitiably bad speaker, very badly educated, and the constant butt of all the whig wits. His toryism caused him to be elected only at the bottom of the poll in 1806, and his staunch support of the war and all tory measures made him at last so unpopular that he lost his seat for the city in 1818, when he was offered a peerage as Lord Tenterden, a place to which his wife's family belonged. He refused the honour, and in 1819 was elected M.P. for Bletchingley, Surrey.

He was partly compensated for his defeat by a great meeting in the Drapers' Hall, of which company he was a liveryman, where he was presented with a gold snuff-box, an address, and two hundred guineas, and in 1820 he was once more elected M.P. for the city. George IV was always intimate with him, and stayed at his house at Ramsgate in 1821 when on his way to the continent. Curtis was fond of the sea, and the whig and radical wits were never tired of laughing at the sumptuous fittings of his yacht, in which the king often accompanied him in his cruises. In 1822 he accompanied George IV to Scotland, where he appeared in a kilt, and was presented by the king with a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, inscribed ‘G. R. to his faithful and loyal subject Sir William Curtis.’

In 1821 he became father of the city, in the place of Sir Watkin Lewes, and exchanged the representation of the Tower ward for that of Bridge Without, which used to be always held by the senior alderman; and in 1826 he refused to stand a contested election for the city, and took his seat in the House of Commons for Hastings. This seat he resigned, however, on account of ill-health in December, and retired to his house at Ramsgate, where he died on 18 January 1829. Every shop in Ramsgate was closed on this occasion, and his funeral cortège was followed by an immense crowd halfway to Canterbury, on its way to Wanstead in Essex, where he was buried. He left a fortune of £300,000 behind him, a legacy to his friend Lord Sidmouth, and mourning rings to every member of the court of aldermen. No man of his time was ever the subject of so much ridicule, of which Peter Pindar's The Fat Knight and the Petition is a good example.

The Rev. Charles Curtis, his brother, rector of Solihull and of St. Martin's, Birmingham, who died only six days before him, was also a well-known man in his day, and is chiefly famous for his controversy with Dr. Parr, who had attacked and, as he asserted, insulted Sir William. There is a well-known portrait of Curtis by Sir Thomas Lawrence, which was engraved by W. Sharpe.

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