Published on April 6th, 2021 | by All Things Warrington0
William Beamont (1797-1889)
Warrington’s greatest citizen – Mayor, attorney, historian, philanthropist, life-saver.
Anyone the slightest bit interested in Warrington’s past owes a debt of gratitude to William Beamont. Not only did he help establish the town’s central library – the first ‘free’ rate-aided municipal library in the country – he produced scores of local history books documenting the town and its people.
But to categorise him solely as a prolific antiquarian would be doing him a disservice. For as well as diligently documenting the town’s history, he contributed to it too, playing a pivotal role in the formation and support of many organisations that continue to benefit the town today.
Examples include guiding Warrington to its incorporation as a democratically-run Borough in the mid-1840s, becoming its first mayor in 1847, helping to establish the old Warrington Infirmary and donating substantial funds to at least three local churches. A number of educational establishments also benefitted from his patronage including the old Mechanics Institute, Warrington Grammar School, Heathside School, Warrington School of Art and Orford Sunday School.
Some of his most important contributions however have gone largely unnoticed. There’s a good chance, for example, anyone who’s taken a stroll through modern-day Warrington has stepped over sewers and drainage systems paid for, in part, by Beamont himself. We take them for granted today but in the 1800s such systems contributed massively to the reduction of disease and fatalities. William Beamont didn’t just innovate and educate – he saved lives too.
Astonishingly, for a man who achieved so much, relatively little has been written about him. In May 2014, for example, his online Wikipedia entry comprised a paltry nine lines. So what exactly do we know about the man once dubbed “Warrington’s greatest citizen?”
A happy childhood
William Beamont was born on 12 September 1797 in a three-storey house in Bridge Street, located roughly where Hancock & Wood now stands. From here, his father – also called William – and mother Jane ran a drapery business.
William snr and Jane had four children: Ann in 1795 (who died aged one), William in 1797, John in 1802 and Jane jnr in 1807. It appears Beamont had a happy childhood. In his book ‘Walks About Warrington’, the ageing author reminisces about a tall building close to where he lived that included the image of a boy holding aloft a large stone ball. He and his playmates believed if they were still outside when the town’s 8pm curfew rang the boy would throw the ball down at anyone playing in the street. It is easy to imagine young William scampering home as fast as he could the moment he heard the first chime sounding.
After acquiring a good, solid education at a boarding school in Chester, William’s chosen profession was the law and in 1812, at the age of 15, he began the long process of becoming a solicitor. Official paperwork shows he was articled as a clerk to a gentleman called Strethill Wright of Knutsford and it was here his appetite for hard work and eye for detail were founded.
The young Warringtonian remained focused throughout his apprenticeship and despite suffering two bereavements during this period (his seven-year-old sister Jane died in 1814 closely followed by his 72-year-old father in 1817), he was able complete his legal training at Wright’s London office whilst his brother John took over the family’s drapery business.
In 1820, with his training complete, William decided life in London wasn’t for him and returned home to set up his own law practice in Warrington. Baines’ Business Directory of 1824-25 lists him as a fully-fledged attorney, based in Market Square, Warrington (close to where the old fish market now stands). “You should see the scene from my office window,” he wrote to his former landlady in Knutsford, “I am in the middle of the market place!”
The prime town centre location of ‘Beamont, Urmston & Davies’ (as it later became) helped make the business a great success and by the time of his 1825 marriage to Ann Gaskell, a distant relative of Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, the company’s founder was financially secure.
As Beamont’s business expanded, so did his family. Living in Bewsey Street, William and Ann had two children: William John Beamont in 1828 and John Gaskell Beamont in 1830. Although John died in infancy, their remaining son went on to achieve great success, first as a student at Eton College and then as a globe-trotting clergyman, warranting at the time of writing a Wikipedia entry twice as long as his fathers!
Beamont the Solicitor worked hard to provide for his family but it wasn’t just his nearest and dearest who reaped the rewards – he and his wife were devout christians renowned for their financial generosity and the concern they showed for others. It was these attributes that inspired Beamont’s life-long involvement in civic life. Before, during and after his tenure as mayor (1847-1848) he contributed massively to milestones that would feature heavily on any Warrington timeline. Such was his involvement in the running of the town it is difficult to pinpoint his most important contributions. However, one that stands out is the role he played in the town’s incorporation as a Borough.
It is important to understand the backdrop against which Beamont’s call for incorporation came. In the early 1800s, conditions in Warrington were atrocious: high crime rates, unpaved streets, open sewers, no refuse collection, no street lighting and ramshackle housing. The lord of the manor, who by birthright was responsible for the welfare of the town, was unable to deal with these problems on his own. The solution was an 1813 act of parliament “for paving and improving the town of Warrington” which resulted in a board of ‘improvement commissioners’ being formed.
Effectively an early form of local government, Warrington’s improvement commissioners comprised over 200 men who either owned or rented property in Warrington worth over £40 or £50. By levying rates, they were able to make significant improvements to the town including street cleaning in 1814, gas lighting in 1821, a fire brigade in 1828 and a police force in 1837. However, as time progressed, some of its members – High Commissioner William Beamont included – found the committee’s unwieldy ‘gentleman’s club’ style structure inappropriate, slow to react and unrepresentative of the town as a whole.
Beamont began lobbying for a new municipal corporation with democratically elected council officers. In 1846 he published a long letter to the people of Warrington entitled ‘some remarks as to the necessity of a corporation’ and although there was much resistance along the way, on 3 April 1847 Warrington’s application to become a municipal borough received royal assent. At the town’s first elections on 1 June 1847, 36 officers were duly elected and William Beamont became Warrington’s first mayor.
It wasn’t until the second half of his life, after the death of his first wife Ann in 1859 and his second marriage to Letitia Naegeli in 1863, that William Beamont began to focus on antiquarian pursuits.
It was at Orford Hall, a building William and Letitia moved to following his retirement in 1866, that his research and documenting of the town’s history began in earnest. Years of legal training meant his pioneering history books – he produced over 60 in total – contained masses of detail that every local historian has called upon since. This, and the catalogue of artefacts and information he donated to the library and museum he helped to establish are one of his greatest legacies.
Aged 80, William Beamont let slip the secret of his massive literary output: “I spend several hours before breakfast every morning on the work,” he declared.
On the eve of his 90th birthday, William Beamont was still playing an active role in public affairs, lobbying, in a letter to local leaders, for the establishment of public leisure spaces: ‘The town is still growing, and the land in it being rapidly covered in buildings will soon leave no space for the healthy recreation of people,’ he wrote. ‘We must not forget to follow the example of the cities of old, who provided large breathing spaces for their inhabitants.’ Thankfully, the town listened and anyone who’s taken a stroll through Queens Gardens or kicked a ball around Victoria Park since has, to a small degree, William Beamont to thank for the privilege.
William Beamont, a man truly deserving of the title ‘Warrington’s Greatest Citizen’ died on 6 June 1889 and is buried at Christ Church, Padgate. 125 years after his death, All Things Warrington hopes articles such as this will help keep his memory alive.
Footnote: Education, Education, Education!
If anyone embodied the spirit of the statement “education, education, education” it was William Beamont. At a time when literacy levels in Warrington were poor (in 1851 only 12% of the town’s children attended day school) he firmly believed every child, whatever their gender, deserved an education, a belief he backed up with hard cash and personal action. He was an active member of the management committee of St. Paul’s Boys’ School (more commonly known as Heathside School) and paid for a number of school buildings to be built out of his own pocket including Heathside Girls’ School in 1879 and two extensions to Orford’s National School in 1880 and 1884. He was also an avid supporter of adult education, delivering lectures to Warrington’s Mechanics Institute and donating large sums to Warrington Grammar School and Warrington Arts College. It is fitting that 125 years after his death, Warrington’s Beamont Collegiate Academy still carries his name.
Header image shows a painting of William Beamont, aged 52, by Thomas Francis Dicksee.