Sir Robert Beachcroft (1650 – 1721)

Portrait of Sir Robert Beachcroft attributed to Richard van Bleeck, formerly belonging to Sir Melville Beachcroft, now at Clothworker’s Hall

Robert Beachcroft was baptised at All Saints Church, Derby on 28th April 1650 the second son and fourth child of Daniel Beachcroft, maltster and farmer, and Mary Fox or Skelton.  His father Daniel was wealthy enough to support many children and to apprentice three of his sons to London merchants and send the eldest to Cambridge University.  These were expensive undertakings that aimed to set the boys up for life.

In September 1668, Robert was apprenticed to London Clothworker Thomas Palfreyman, possibly a friend and contact of his father. There were Palfreyman’s living in Derbyshire at this date, and the Beachcroft connection with clothworking and cloth dying in Derby went back to the reign of Elizabeth I.

Robert became free of the Clothworkers’ Company on 5th October 1675.  In 1677, aged 27 he married Jane Crew, widow (nee Parry) at St George’s, Southwark.

He settled in the parish of All Hallows, Barking by the Tower, and worked from a house in Mark Lane, London, gaining a position as a factor or agent at Blackwell’s Hall which was a market for cloth. These years were very good ones to be in the woollen cloth trade, England’s biggest export.  Blackwell Hall was described as consisting of:

“commodious storehouses and different apartments assigned to the counties for the lodging and harbouring of cloth and other woollen commodities brought from the several counties of England, and there sold either by the maker himself or by his factor: so that ‘tis reckoned without vanity or ostentation the most noted market for cloth in the whole world.”

To be a factor meant earning a fee on each trade, as well as the opportunity to offer credit to clothiers, drapers and exporters.  Robert Beachcroft was one of about 50 factors at the end of the 17th century.

On 6 March 1682, Robert took Joseph Atcherley or Acherley as his apprentice.  Joseph would then go on to marry Robert’s much younger sister Elizabeth Beachcroft in 1690.

In 1686, Robert and his wife Jane being childless they took in the three surviving orphaned children of his deceased older brother the Rev. Samuel Beachcroft:  Samuel, Susannah and Mary.  They were to live with him for the rest of their childhood.  Samuel junior was apprenticed to his uncle Robert on 4th February 1690 going on to have his own very successful City career and becoming Sir Robert’s heir.

In 1689, only 14 years after setting out in his business Robert had amassed enough money to purchase the manor of Preston Hall, Suffolk, together with other houses and land in Preston and Kettlebaston, Suffolk.  The (later?) purchase of the manor of Kettlebaston from John Leman cost him £3,600.  Becoming a landowner was an important climb up the social scale and city merchants were keen purchasers of manorial estates.

In 1695 a survey of households within the London city walls was undertaken and Robert and Jane were listed as still living in All Hallows, Barking, probably still in Mark Lane, also with them were his nephew and nieces, his mother-in-law Elizabeth and Willmore Parry noted as ‘kin’ and another nephew also an apprentice with him, Joseph Beachcroft, son of his brother Joseph.

In 1697, he purchased the manor and house of More Hall, also known as Gobions, in North Mymms, Hertfordshire.  This was an historic country house, formerly owned by the father of Sir Thomas More, and where More had been born, and 1698 found the Beachcroft household living there. This house burned down in 1891, but remarkably one of the historic 16th century fireplaces was saved and was later installed in a large house, now a hotel, Hillbark Hotel, Frankby, Wirral, where it can still be seen.  One wonders what the Beachcrofts made of being able to toast their feet by the same fireplace as Sir Thomas More.

In 1698, Robert’s niece Susannah Beachcroft married clergyman William Burletson, Minister of Teston, Kent.  On her marriage licence she is noted as living in North Mymms.   

However, business and politics continued in London where Robert probably maintained a residence.  He became a Whig Councillor for Tower Ward in 1699-1700 and also in 1700 Master of the Clothworker’s Company as well as Sheriff of London.   In October the same year he was knighted. The story goes that on 24th October 1700 he accompanied a number of city merchants to Hampton Court to welcome the return of King William III from the Low Countries. In return for his support he was knighted the same day.  However, direct evidence for the story has not yet been found.

In 1701, his nephew and heir Samuel was sufficiently established to make a good marriage to Mary Matthews (an heiress via her mother Martha Stanlake), daughter of Richard Matthews also of the parish of All Hallows, Barking and Stoke Newington. 

Sir Robert was elected an Alderman for Lime Street Ward in 1703, serving in that capacity until his death.

In 1704 his wife Jane died and was buried at St Michael Bassishaw, London.

On 17th January 1706, aged 55, he married for the second time to another widow, Margaret Parry, at St Mary’s, Leyton, Essex.  Margaret Parry was the daughter of John Wilmer of Walthamstow, born 18th April 1655 and baptised at St Mary’s Stratford-le-Bow on 22nd April 1655. Her first husband had been Richard Parry of All Hallows in 1679/80, thus being neighbours of the Beachcrofts. Given that Robert’s first wife was Jane Parry it may be that Richard Parry was Jane’s brother, there was also a Willmer Parry in the Beachcroft household with them in 1695, but more research needs to be done on the detail of these relationships. Parry is shown as Perry in some records.

Robert sold More Hall in 1707/8 to Jeremy Sambrooke.

Meanwhile, his nephew Samuel seems to have succeeded to some or all of Robert’s business interests and in 1706 Samuel continued living in Mark Lane in All Hallows, Barking by the Tower, and carried on his business from there.  Robert and Margaret must have maintained a house in the London area during the period 1708 – 1714, but then they appear in the rate books for Low Leyton in 1714.  Evidence suggests this previous London house was in Basinghall Street.

Robert was also associated with St Thomas’s Hospital, being elected to the Court of Governors on 3 October 1701 and serving until at least 1706; he was also one of the City of London Justices of the Peace and sat in the court at the Bridwell Royal Hospital. He was also a colonel of the Green Regiment 1707-1710, part of the City volunteer militia.

On 29 September 1711 Robert became Lord Mayor of London, having lost the previous year’s election to Sir Gilbert Heathcote. He can also be found at the Old Bailey in the year he was Lord Mayor as Chair of the Justices of the Peace, 1711-12.  Under his time sitting at the Old Bailey hearing 43 criminal conviction cases, he reprieved 28, but sent 15 to their deaths.

As well as this he was briefly a director of the South Sea Company in 1711, retiring in 1712, long before the South Sea Bubble burst.  He receives a short mention in John Carswell’s The South Sea Bubble (1960, rev ed. Sutton Publishing 1993). Carswell notes that “two retirements in 1712 were a serious loss to the Court, Sir Robert Beachcroft …had lent much prestige to the original flotation, … as a Lord Mayor of great wealth and respectability” (p.54).  Robert’s probate inventory shows that he had a large amount money invested in both stock and bonds of the South Sea Company amounting to £6,700 at his death.  In a Chancery case of 1713, he is described as being late of Mark Lane and now of Basinghall Street.

In 1714, Sir Robert and Lady Margaret Beachcroft moved to Lea House in Leyton perhaps as a retirement place after his day-to-day City involvements were more or less at an end.  It is possible that he was also suffering from a decline in health.  The Leyton Rate Books show him there from Lady Day 1714 and then continuously until Michaelmas 1720.

Sir Robert was granted a coat of arms in November 1717, Bendy of six argent and gules three stags heads cabossed or. Crest: A beech tree proper behind six park pales argent.

He died of the ‘palsy’ on 27 May 1721 following a long illness. 

His will was drawn up in1719 and proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 2 June 1721.

A copy of the probate inventory of the contents of Lea Hall exists, listed room by room, giving a nearly complete picture of the household furniture and equipment at Sir Robert’s death in 1721 and very grand they are too, although the house was not excessively large.  

In his will among a very long list of bequests he left the estate of Preston Hall in Suffolk to his widow for life, with a small annuity of £80 and following her death then to his nephew, Samuel Beachcroft. He left small annuities to family members, gave money to his servants and friends and relatives for mourning and left £100 each to Christ’s Hospital and St Thomas’s Hospital and £200 to the poor in Bishopsgate Street.  He didn’t forget money for mourning rings for his doctor or apothecary, or the six Alderman whom he assumed would carry his coffin.

Lady Margaret Beachcroft left Lea Hall shortly after the death of her husband as her name disappears from the rate book.  She lived a further 6 years and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Walthamstow on 15th December 1727.

Please contact me if you have a question about any of the sources for this biography.

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