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He was appointed private secretary to the 1st Marquess Camden during his lord lieutenancy of Ireland from 1795 to 1798, and subsequently held an office there, probably as an assistant to Lord Castlereagh, the chief secretary. He witnessed the atrocities of 1798 and warned of the threat of a French invasion in late 1801 On a visit to Camden at Bayham Abbey in January 1802 he thanked Lord Auckland, another of Pitt’s ministers, for his flattering interest in his poem The Old Hag (1801), and added that ‘I am happy in this opportunity of assuring you how strongly I shall always feel your lordship’s kindness to me when I first commenced politician’. He apparently followed Castlereagh to the India board in 1802 as his private secretary, but gave that up in May 1804, to resume his old connection with Camden on his appointment as colonial secretary. He subsequently worked again for Castlereagh, who replaced Camden in 1805, and he probably stayed in place under the Grenville ministry, since Camden informed Lord Bathurst on 10 December 1806, that the ‘prince is certainly very ill and in a bad way. You know that through Watson I have means of knowing this circumstance’. It was no doubt at the instigation of Camden, the teller of the exchequer, that Watson was appointed to a deputy tellership and a commissionership of excise, which gave him a combined salary of about £2,200.
Although it was acknowledged that he ‘bears a most excellent character, and is much esteemed by all his relations and friends’, his lack of a private fortune initially stood in the way of his marriage to Anna Susanna Taylor, the niece of the wealthy Jamaican proprietor, Simon Taylor. The match was allowed to proceed, however, on the understanding that a favourable settlement was made on her and any future children. According to Lady Nugent, Simon Taylor was ‘the richest man in the island, and piques himself upon making his nephew, Sir Simon [Richard Brissett] Taylor ... the richest commoner in England, which he says he shall be at his death’. He died on 14 April 1813, when he owned the estates of Lyssons, Holland, Llanrhumney and Haughton Court, and personal property valued at nearly £740,000, which together brought in an estimated yearly income of £47,000. His heir, who himself had had ambitions to enter Parliament, died, aged only 30 and unmarried on 18 May 1815, and his property, including personal wealth sworn under £100,000, then passed to his elder sister. Watson took the additional name of Taylor, was said to have refused a baronetcy and other honours, and set about establishing his position in high society. Lady Charlotte Bury commented:
What a wonderful change of fortunes for these persons! - from having had an income of two to three thousand a year, with tastes far beyond such limits, to almost boundless and unequalled riches! It is said they are full of projects of splendour and enjoyment.
Negotiations for the purchase of Houghton from Lord Cholmondeley eventually fell through, but in 1819 Watson Taylor bought Erlestoke for £200,000 from the executors of Joshua Smith, a former Member for Devizes. Regarded as an extremely fine mansion, even the normally critical William Cobbett described it as a ‘very pretty seat’, and it was often the scene of society fêtes and royal visits. He also obtained other property in the area and began to cultivate an interest there, becoming a regular attender at meetings of the Devizes Bear Club and the Wiltshire Society. He continued to be listed in the London directories as resident at a number of different places, but he purchased a house in Cavendish Square in 1819 for £20,000, and spent £48,000 on its decoration. Philipp von Neumann, dining there with ministers in March 1821, wrote that the ‘splendour of the house equals that of those belonging to the greatest nobles’. Joseph Jekyll remarked at this time that ‘Dives Watson Taylor’ was ‘an unassuming man of some talents and makes a good use of riches’. Noting his position as ‘the entertainer of the fashionable world, and the host of princes’, The Times observed, 16 August 1831, that ‘bred as a dependent in office, as a point of honour, he seems to have adopted the principles of his superiors, and he firmly maintains them’.
In October 1815 Watson Taylor informed his rich Jamaican agent and friend, John Shand, that
it is my intention to go into Parliament at the first convenient opportunity and accustomed to public life, it is possible I may be induced to take a part in the discussion, which may there arise, upon West India concerns.
The following year he bought a seat at Newport, Isle of Wight, transferring to Seaford at the 1818 general election, but he failed to find one for Shand. He was added to the standing committee of the West India Planters and Merchants’ Committee, 19 Jan. 1816, and was a steady attender at its meetings throughout that year. Thereafter he was seldom present, but because of his management of his wife’s Jamaican estates, he took a close interest in their affairs. As he reported to Shand, 19 Feb. 1816, ‘from my long habits of friendship with Lord Castlereagh, I have ready access to him’, and he used this private channel to raise sensitive colonial matters with the foreign secretary. He respected his wife’s desire that her slaves should be treated with considerations of ‘pure humanity, benevolence, justice and liberality’, but opposed the abolitionists’ campaigns for their emancipation. He was sanguine of success, noting in early 1819 that ‘ministers may from time to time temporise, but they dare not concede ultimately to visionaries, that, for which they are struggling, and which all parties know would be the forerunner of the destruction of our colonies’. He occasionally raised West Indian issues in the House, where he was otherwise largely inactive.
At the general election of 1820 he was returned for East Looe by Sir Edward Buller, who made way for him because of illness, and who informed Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, that he would find him a ‘most strenuous supporter of those principles which have invariably guided my actions through life, and equally disposed towards the government’. It was reported that Watson Taylor’s town house was ‘superbly illuminated’ on the acquittal of Queen Caroline in November 1820, but he did not vote in the division on the opposition’s censure motion on 6 February 1821. He witnessed the petition from the Jamaican House of Assembly for relief being presented to the king on 23 February. He voted against Catholic claims, 28 Feb. 1821, and the Catholic peers bill, 30 April 1822. He explained to the House on 30 June 1821, that the duke of Clarence had previously declined to accept so low a grant as £6,000 because he had been advised that it would have made his former award appear excessive. He voted against more extensive tax reductions to relieve distress on 11 February 1822, abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 March, and inquiry into the conduct of the lord advocate relative to the Scottish press, 25 June. On 22 May 1822 he advised Peel, the home secretary, that several hundred Irish refugees were making their way from the west country to London. He divided against condemning chancery delays, 5 June 1823, and, according to Lord Colchester, he regretted, ‘as a parliamentary Protestant’, that the lord chancellor had blocked his motion in the Lords, 18 July, for a return of all Catholic churches and institutions.
At the Planters and Merchants’ Committee meeting, 10 February 1824, Watson Taylor spoke against any discussion of the abolition of slavery on the ground that it was a subject which ought first to be decided by the colonial legislatures. In the House he objected to the way in which itinerant adventurers had collected signatures for anti-slavery petitions by inflaming the passions of the people, 15 March, and made clear that ‘it was the abuse, and not the use’ of the right of petitioning to which he objected. The following day he boasted that he had spent £140,000 over eight years in attempting to ameliorate the condition of his slaves, and that ‘no consideration of equal weight, with regard to the management of his property, had pressed upon his mind’. He said he was reassured by Canning’s speech, which was ‘remarkable for its temperance and for its moderation’, expressed his hope that eventual emancipation would be accompanied by compensation for the proprietors, and excused the conduct of the Jamaican assembly, as it had to act in the midst of ‘fearful dangers’. On 13 May he justified the pensions received by government clerks, ‘a very deserving class of persons’. He did not vote in the division on the opposition motion condemning the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June. He spoke in defence of colonial interests at the Devizes Bear Club dinner, 27 August 1824. Watson Taylor wrote to Peel, 2 February 1825, to offer him a copy of Castlereagh’s paper on the Catholic question and the reply of Lord Rosslyn, who, he thought, had acted beneficially in poisoning George III’s ear against concessions to the Catholics. He added that
if now, or at any time during the session, you should foresee the want of an independent vote, let me know quietly and I will run up, from my plantings and my road makings, and house alterings and all my other country gentleman pursuits.
Peel thanked him for the papers, and asked for his attendance on 10 February for the Irish unlawful societies bill. He divided in favour of the third reading, 25 February, and against Catholic relief, 1 March. Asking Peel to attend the Wiltshire Society dinner, which he was due to chair, 10 Apil., he wrote jocosely that ‘I shall be with you on the second reading. NB this is not meant as a bribe’. He duly voted against the second, 21 April, and third reading of the relief bill, 10 May, and the Irish franchise bill, 26 April 1825.
He attended the dinners for the new mayor of Devizes in 1824 and 1825, speaking on both occasions of his attachment to the town and his hopes for cordial relations between its inhabitants and Erlestoke. He subscribed £500 to the costs of the local improvement bill in 1825, and in January 1826 he qualified as a magistrate for the county. He was thus placed in an excellent position to stand when Thomas Grimston Bucknall Estcourt resigned his seat in February 1826, vacating East Looe for this purpose. Bolstered by his connections in the corporation, he saw off a challenge from another local candidate and was elected as a self-styled independent, who ‘recognized no political leader’ and ‘had no favourite party’. He was not present in the House to vote in the division on Denman’s motion condemning the Jamaican slave trials, 2 March, and no trace of parliamentary activity has been found for that session. He contributed a further £500 to the town’s improvements and was returned with his colleague John Pearse, amid popular celebrations, at the general election. On the hustings, 9 June, he admitted he had not committed himself on certain issues, but argued for a reconciliation between the agricultural and commercial interests, and against Catholic relief. He spoke in praise of Camden’s eldest son Lord Brecknock and Lord John Thynne, the newly elected Members for Bath, at a dinner there, 29 June 1826. He was elected a free burgess of Devizes, 23 January, and sworn, 4 June 1827, when he declared that he would have no fear of standing again even if every householder had the vote.
He promised Peel that he would attend on the first day of the 1827 session, and voted against Catholic claims, 6 March. He warned Peel, 7 May, that
in consequence of a remark I heard yesterday from an able and warm supporter of the [Canningite-Whig] coalition, I suspect that they hope you will tonight commit yourself warmly, and that they may make out a disagreement between your line of argument now, and that when you were in office, and manfully shared any blame which might be placed solely to the account [of William] Huskisson.
He also informed Peel that the Dissenters intended to petition in large numbers for repeal of the Test Acts; he himself presented two from those resident in Devizes, 30 May 1827, 18 February 1828. In January he pledged his support for the duke of Wellington’s administration. He voted against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 February, and Catholic relief, 12 May 1828. In February 1829 he was listed by Planta, the patronage secretary, as one of the ‘opposition or doubtful men, who, we think, will vote with the government on this question’, but he divided against emancipation throughout March. In October he was listed by Sir Richard Vyvyan, the Ultra leader, among the ‘Tories strongly opposed to the present government’, and on 4 December 1829 Lord Lansdowne described him to Lord Holland as one of those who were ‘quite malignants’ in their attitude to the ministry. He voted against Jewish emancipation, 17 May 1830. He told the House that he would follow Lord Chandos if he pushed his motion for lower duties on West Indian sugar to a division, 14 June, so he probably voted in the minority of 23. At the Planters and Merchants’ Committee, 10 July 1830, he seconded the vote of thanks to Chandos for his defence of their interests.
On one of his incognito rambles, 20 July 1830, William IV met Watson Taylor in Pall Mall, and, surrounded by a mob, they walked together up St. James’s. He spoke in praise of the king during the general election, when he again offered for Devizes. He acknowledged that he had attempted to defend the endangered rights of the church, but promised to support ministers over the revolution in France. He argued against excessive expenditure and pointed out that he had retired without a pension or a sinecure. He was elected unopposed. He attended the Wiltshire meeting to congratulate the king on his accession, 17 August., and in Devizes, 29 September, he commented on the value of independent Members such as himself, by whom ‘the balance was sustained between ministerial profligacy on the one side and factious revolutionary principles on the other’. He was listed by ministers among their ‘friends’, and voted with them on the civil list, 15 Novemberr. He was given a month’s leave on account of the disturbed state of his neighbourhood, 30 November 1830, when he made himself popular on his own estate by increasing wages, reducing rents and ending the preservation of game. Watson Taylor voted against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 March 1831. He acknowledged that he might risk his popularity in Devizes, but declared that he would ‘continue to oppose it in all its future stages’, 18 April, when he denied that his seat was in the nomination of Lord Sidmouth. He voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment the following day. He was, indeed, attacked in the local press during the subsequent general election, when he gave a long defence of his independence and claimed that the measure was revolutionary rather than ameliorative and ‘a disfranchising rather than an enfranchising bill’. He was, however, again returned by the corporation. He voted against the second reading of the reintroduced bill, 6 July, at least once for adjourning debate on it, 12 July, and for postponing consideration of the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July. He justified the grant for Princess Victoria, 3, 10 August. He signed the Wiltshire declaration against reform. He voted against the third reading of the bill, 19 Sept., paired against its passage, 21 Sept., and divided against the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept. He voted against the second reading of the revised bill, 17 Dec. 1831, going into committee on it, 20 January 1832, the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 February, and the third reading, 22 March. He was in the majority against Wason’s amendment to limit polling in boroughs with less than 1,200 voters to one day, 15 February. He voted against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 January, but was listed as an absentee from the division of 12 July 1832.
According to John Macarthur, writing in May 1821, Watson Taylor was
sadly out of spirits respecting his West India property. I do not believe it produces one third of what it was when he succeeded to the estate. Unlike other West Indians, however, he has an English estate to fall back on.
According to Hudson Gurney, he faced financial disaster late the following year, ‘occasioned by the total failure of his West India remittances’. In 1823 he raised over £30,000 from sales of his books and paintings, and two years later he had to part with the furniture and sculpture from Cavendish Square, many of the finest pieces being bought by the king. His financial problems worsened over the next decade, exacerbated by his reckless purchases, and when the collapse came in mid-1832, he brought down many of his dependants with him. As the local newspaper commented, after his possessions had been put up for auction
notwithstanding Mr. Watson Taylor was surrounded by a degree of splendour, which it has been well said, might have excited the envy of royalty itself, his mind was scarcely for a moment at ease — he appeared to have an insatiable thirst for something he did not possess ... He could not for a moment have thought of the money he was expending.
By the autumn he was reported to have taken up residence in Holland. Nothing was heard of his retaining his seat at Devizes, and he left the House at the dissolution in December 1832. He was not formally declared bankrupt, but in 1839 he was still reckoned to owe over £60,000. The Erlestoke and Jamaican estates were, however, settled on his wife, who continued to control them until her death in 1853. Watson Taylor died in Edinburgh in June 1841. No will, administration or entry in the death duty register has been found. His eldest son Simon (1811-1902), who had been elected a member of the standing committee of the Planters and Merchants’ Committee, 8 Feb. 1832, restored his family’s standing and was Liberal Member for Devizes, 1857-9.
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