The Garden Guide

Book: Gardening tours by J.C. Loudon 1831-1842
Chapter: Middlesex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Wilshire, Dorsetshire, Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent in the Summer of 1832

William Beckford character

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In confirmation of our idea that Mr. Beckford's enjoyments consisted of a succession of violent impulses, we may mention that, when he wished a new walk to be cut in the woods, or any work of that kind to be done, he used to say nothing about it in the way of preparation, but merely give orders, perhaps late in the afternoon, that it should be cleared out and in a perfect state by the following morning at the time he came out to take his ride. The whole strength of the village was then put in requisition, and employed during the night; and the next day, when Mr. Beckford came to inspect what was done, if he was pleased with it, he used to give a 5l. or a 10l. note to the men who had been employed to drink, besides, of course, paying their wages, which were always liberal. Even his charities were performed in the same manner. Suddenly he has been known to order a hundred pairs of blankets to be purchased and given away; or all the firs to be cut out of an extensive plantation, and all the poor who chose to take them away to be permitted to do so, provided it were done in one night. He has also been known suddenly to order all the waggons and carts that could be procured to be sent off for coal to be distributed among the poor. Mr. Beckford seldom rode out beyond his gates, but when he did he was generally asked for charity by the poor people. Sometimes he used to throw a 1l. note or a guinea to them, and sometimes he used to turn round and give the suppliants a severe horsewhipping. When the last was the case, soon after he had ridden away, he generally sent back a guinea or two to the party who had been beaten. In his mode of life Mr. Beckford had many singularities; though he never had any society, yet he had his table covered every day in the most splendid style. He has been known to give orders for a dinner for twelve persons, and to sit down alone to it attended by twelve servants in full dress, eat of one dish, and send all the rest away. There were no bells in the house, with the exception, we believe, of one room, occupied occasionally by his daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton. The servants used to wait by turns in the anterooms to the rooms which Mr. Beckford might occupy at the time. The rooms in which he lived in general were exceedingly small, and even low in the ceiling. In short, according to our ideas of a well-proportioned room, there never was one in the building. The finest were cubes of 22 ft. on the side. One of the last things which Mr. Beckford did, after having sold Fonthill, and ordered horses to be put to his carriage to leave the place for ever, was to mount his pony, and ride round with his gardener, to give directions for various alterations and improvements which he wished to have executed. On returning to the house, his carriage being ready, he stepped into it, and has never visited Fonthill since. Though Mr. Beckford spent immense sums of money at Fonthill (we were informed, on what we consider good authority, that the place in all cost him 1,600,000l.), it does not appear that he has at all elevated the character of the labouring classes in the neighbourhood; on the contrary, we were informed by Mr. Joy, the manager for the present proprietor, that the effect was directly the reverse. The men, in Mr. Beckford's time, were sunk past recovery in habits of drunkenness; and the consequence is, that there are now only two or three of the village labourers alive who were then employed. The labourers, however, generally, in this part of the country, are deeply degraded by the system of making up their wages from the poor's rates; so much so, indeed, that many of the married men drink every shilling that they earn, and leave their wives and children to be supported entirely by the parish; declaring, what, indeed, appears to be their belief, that there is a law obliging the parish to provide for their families, and that they are only bound to take care of themselves.