Edward Stephenson (1691-1768)

Written by Kay Saville-Smith

Occupations: Financier, Landowner and East India Company Merchant

Edward Stephenson was born in Keswick and made a fortune in India. Ventures in the East Indies transformed the Stephenson and associated families from middling families into financiers and parliamentarians. Edward Stephenson’s wealth even saw him compete with the influence of the Lowthers in the Cumbrian counties. The extent of his social and economic success is indicated by his burial place in front of the altar of Crosthwaite parish church at Keswick, where he is memorialised as the ‘Governor of Bengal’ (Saville-Smith, Plate 2.1]). 

Edward Stephenson was baptized at Crosthwaite, probably at the parish church, on 8 October 1691. His mother, Rebecca, was born into the Winder family of Lorton and Winder Halls (Winder, 1893 and 1898).  His paternal grandfather was Edward Stephenson of Banniside, near Coniston. His father, also an Edward, probably had interests both in trade and a ropery at Whitehaven but was settled in Keswick and contributed wine and wood to Crosthwaite’s parish church. The Winder family was involved in ‘global trade’ from the seventeenth century embracing Spain, North Africa, and the West Indies.  Edward Stephenson’s uncle, Jonathan Winder, sponsored Edward’s appointment to India having been himself a merchant in Calcutta. On his return, Jonathan Winder became a prominent merchant in London with continued connections to the East India Company. Edward’s cousins Samuel and Jonathan were respectively trading with and sojourning in the East Indies in the first decades of the 1700s.

Edward’s career in the East Indies spanned two decades. Appointed to the East India Company in 1708, he was attached to the delegation to Delhi in 1714 which sought, and succeeded, in getting permission for the East India Company’s commercial operations. Success in Delhi brought Edward Stephenson financial reward and impetus for appointments and promotions including as chief factor successively at the Company’s trading posts of Balasor, Patna and Cassimbazar (Watson, 1970).

By 1720 Stephenson was on the East India Company’s Bengal Council. In 1728, he was second in seniority in the Bengal Presidency behind the governor, Henry Frankland. He was, consequently, appointed governor of Bengal at the death of Henry Frankland (1690-1728). But the position was short-lived. Two days later John Deane (d.1751) arrived in Calcutta with papers from the Company’s Court of Directors in London who, unknown to the Bengal Council, had effectively dismissed Frankland some months before his death and appointed Deane in his place (Desjardins, 2021). Presented with the determination of the Court, Stephenson stood aside and successfully sought permission to return to the British Isles with significant wealth accumulated from private trade.

The precise extent of Stephenson’s wealth is difficult to establish, but it was clearly substantial. On return to the British Isles he acquired houses and land in and around London as well as in the Cumbrian counties. An estate at Great Bardfield, near Braintree in Essex was purchased around 1729 for £11,000. This became the residence from which he represented Sudbury, Suffolk, in parliament between 1734 and 1741. Stephenson spent a further £26,000 purchasing Dawley, Middlesex in 1738, a property he sold ten years later. He maintained a residence at Queen Square, Bloomsbury, from around 1755 until his death in 1768 (Grainger and Collingwood, 1929).

In 1744, Stephenson was rumoured to have £150,000 available to purchase property in his pursuit of the Cockermouth borough. He invested heavily in other lands and ventures in the north. He bought Holme Cultram, as well as Stonegarthside Hall, at Nicholforest, close to the Scottish border. Edward also purchased lands between Keswick and Portinscale, including land still referred to as Howrahs and, thereby, commemorates the Keswick’s connections to Calcutta (Beckett,1980; Kaye, 1966).

In the 1750s, Edward Stephenson acquired the indebted Scaleby Castle estate near Carlisle from Richard Gilpin (b. 1692), elder brother of Captain John Bernard Gilpin (1701-1776; DCB) and uncle to the Rev William Gilpin (1724-1804; ODNB), the travelling promoter of the picturesque and headmaster of Cheam satirized as Dr Syntax. Richard Gilpin had inherited Scaleby Castle, originally purchased by his grandfather, in 1724. Already in disrepair and burdened by debt, Richard used Scaleby Castle to underwrite a series of loans from local gentry and merchants. The largest of those loans, £7,000, had been borrowed from Stephenson in 1741 (Curwen, 1926; Saville-Smith, 2018).

Beckett (1980) estimates that by 1750, Indian wealth had allowed Stephenson to acquire lands in the north yielding an income annually in the region of £1,245. His income from the north was further supplemented by financing Cumbrian merchants and gentry. In addition, Stephenson built the Governor’s House in Keswick, along with the Royal Oak Hotel.  Both buildings stand today (Kaye, 1966; Fisher Crosthwaite, 1884/5). The hotel represents Stephenson’s interest in the picturesque and encouragement of tourism in the Lake District.  It is not a coincidence that the first of five Cumberland and Westmorland picturesque views published in 1752 by the engraver William Bellers (fl.1749-1773), A View of Derwent-Water towards Borrodale, was dedicated to Edward Stephenson. Edward’s upward social mobility is indicated by the fact that four other engravings in this group were dedicated to aristocratic and leading armigerous landowners: the Marquis of Rockingham, Charles Howard of Greystoke, Sir James Lowther, and Sir William Fleming of Rydal (Powell and Hebron, 2010).  

Edward Stephenson had some political ambition. He contested and won the Suffolk seat of Sudbury in 1734 and held it until 1741. In 1744 he showed interest in acquiring control of the borough of Cockermouth, much to the dismay of, and expense to, Sir James Lowther. He appears not to have subsequently contested any other parliamentary seats in Cumbria but he still sought influence in Cumberland. In 1757 he was appointed high sheriff (Becket, 1980; Watson, 1970).

Edward Stephenson’s wealth may not have propelled a parliamentary career in the North West, but it ensured the political influence of his kinsman Rowland Stephenson (1728-1807). Edward’s cousin and eventual recipient of Scaleby Castle, Rowland Stephenson held Carlisle against the Lowther interest from 1787 to 1790. Rowland’s brother-in-law and a first cousin of Edward Stephenson, Henry Fawcett (1762-1816), held Carlisle from 1812 until he died unexpectedly in 1816 (Anderson and Thorne, 1986). Notably both men were heavily involved in the establishment of the Keswick regattas and Rowland Stephenson, who eventually inherited Edward’s fortune, subsequently built the Low Door Hotel (now Lodore) and developed nearby waterfalls as a tourist attraction (Denman, 2011).

On his return to the British Isles, Edward Stephenson married Ann Jennings, at St Peter and St Paul, Harlington on 28 April 1741 (London Metropolitan Archives). She was the daughter of William Jennings, previously East India Company warehouseman in Madras, member of the Madras Presidency Council and mayor from 1711-1713, and, latterly, a merchant of Great Russell Street (Love, Appendix V). Ann appears to have died young and childless sometime around 1744. Edward Stephenson died at his London residence on 7 September 1768. He rests at St Kentigern’s, Crosthwaite with his younger brother, John Stephenson (1700-1771), also an East India Company merchant, whose memorial plaque is in the chancel. The Stephenson family vault in which the two brothers were interred was left untouched when the restoration of St Kentigern’s in 1844 saw the removal of those buried immediately under the church flagstones to the cemetery (History of the Church of Crosthwaite, 1854).

Edward Stephenson died intestate. His brother inherited Edward’s fortune but died within a few years. Thereafter, the estates of both men devolved upon their cousin Rowland Stephenson, the banker of Lombard Street, who inherited Scaleby Castle, represented Carlisle in parliament and promoted the Keswick regattas in the late eighteenth century.  A patron of George Romney (1734-1802), the portraitist, Rowland Stephenson bought Romney’s innovative The Death of General Wolfe as a gift for Harry Verelst (1734-1785), Governor of Bengal. It was hung in the Council Chamber at Calcutta. Verelst was married to Ann Wordsworth (1751-1835) daughter of the Yorkshireman and East India Company director Josiah Wordsworth who was a distant relative of the Cumbrian Wordsworths (Cross, 2000; Kidson, 2002; Finn, 2000; Ward and Roberts, 1904).  


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