Walter Calverley-Blackett

Text from: Men of mark 'twixt Tyne and Tweed by Richard Welford, 1895.

Having no children by his wife, and the baronetcy becoming extinct at his death, Sir William [Sir William Blackett (c.1689– 1728)] left all his estates to his daughter, Elizabeth Ord, upon condition that within twelve months of his decease she should wed his nephew, Walter Calverley (the only son of the marriage of his elder sister Julia with Sir Walter Calverley, of Calverley and Esholt, in Yorkshire), and that he and his issue should assume the name of Blackett. Failing issue of this marriage, the property was to descend to the heirs-male of his remaining sisters. 



King of Newcastle

In obedience to his uncle's will, Walter Calverley married his cousin, Elizabeth Ord, on the 29th of August, 1729. The inheritance of the Blacketts had been neglected during his uncle's time, and he found it so crippled that the lands would scarcely pay the incumbrances upon them. By good management (the particulars of which may be read at length in Hodgson's " Northumberland," part 2, vol. i. p. 270) the mines and mills were brought into a healthy condition, and, by the time that Mr. Calverley had obtained a private Act enabling him to take the surname and arms of Blackett (March, 1734), his estate was worthy of the name he bore. 

To follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, to fill the same public offices, and render the same public services as he had done, were among the first objects of ambition to which this untitled heir of the Blacketts aspired. As soon, therefore, as he had rehabituated his impoverished estates, he petitioned the Corporation of Newcastle to admit him to the freedom of the town. The Corporation, delighted at the prospect, readily complied with his request, and at the first vacancy made him their youngest alderman. From these points of vantage he shaped his course to aims beyond. Ingratiating himself with the electors, he waited till a dissolution under the Septennial Act should enable him to try for the seat in the Commons which Newcastle had so often given to his maternal ancestors. In the meantime he served the office of High Sheriff of Northumberland. 

Parliament was dissolved on the 17th April, 1734, and the electors of Newcastle went to the polling-place a few days afterwards to decide whether Mr. Blackett should realise the object of his ambition. At the close the figures were “ Blackett, 1,354; Fenwick, 1,083; Carr, 716. Thus, the name of Blackett was once more at the head of the poll in Newcastle, and the seat was again held by a representative of the house which Mr. Carr had defeated at the previous election. The new member gave early and regular attendance to his parliamentary duties, was soon selected for committee work, and before many months were over had charge of a local Bill” a Bill for lighting and watching the town. Such a measure had been long in contemplation, and the Mayor (Mr. Matthew Ridley), in giving evidence before a Committee of the House on the subject, over which Mr. Blackett presided, told a dismal story of the condition of the streets after dark, showing that robberies, burglaries, and other outrages were common ; that two men had been executed the previous year for such offences ; that Mr. Joseph Ledger, Mr. Robert Douglas, and other substantial inhabitants refused to pay to the present watch ; and that the " enlightening " of the streets was a matter of great necessity. The Bill, in Mr. Blackett's charge, went as far as the second reading, but it was some years before a satisfactory measure was obtained. 

On Michaelmas Monday, 1735, Alderman Blackett was appointed Mayor of Newcastle. During his term of office he erected the building which disfigures the south side of St. Nicholas' Church “the lower part to form a vestry” the upper storeys to accommodate the old church library and books presented to the town by Dr. Thomlinson” and endowed it with an annuity of £25, to serve as salary for a librarian. He was iSIayor again in 1748-49 (the municipal year that followed Dr, Thomlinson's death), in 1756-57, in 1764-65, and in 1771-72” five times altogether. 

At the next Parliamentary election (May, 1741) four aldermen were candidates “Blackett and Fenwick, retiring members, representing the Tory, or country party, and William Carr and Matthew Ridley, nominated by the Whig, or Court party. "The Great Contest," as it was called, created an unusual degree of excitement in Newcastle. The old members were favourites all through, though, at the finish, Mr. Ridley was only a hundred votes behind the lowest of them. Alderman Blackett topped the poll with 1,453 votes, Alderman Fenwick received 1,231, Alderman Ridley, 1,131, and Alderman Carr, 683, Many fine old family names appear in the Poll Book among the splits for Blackett and Fenwick “Atkinsons, Blacketts, Bonners, Claytons (eight), Fenwicks, etc. ; there are some good ones also amongst the joint voters for Ridley and Carr” Andersons, Greenwells, Mowbrays, Punshons, and the like. The defeated candidates petitioned, Mr. Ridley claiming the seat of Fenwick only; Mr. Carr alleging that he had "an undoubted majority of legal votes," that both the successful aldermen had bribed and corrupted the freemen, and that the Sheriff had been guilty of illegal and unwarrantable practices. But proofs were not forthcoming, and although Mr. Fenwick's finances were crippled by the struggle, and he had to seek the protection of Holyrood, he and Mr. Blackett were confirmed in their seats. When the next election came round in 1747 Mr. Fenwick withdrew, and Mr. Matthew Ridley succeeded him as the colleague of Mr. Blackett without opposition. Mr. Straker tells us that at the election of 1741 Mr. Blackett was at the height of his popularity; the majority of the freemen striving to excel each other in wreathing laurels to decorate his brow. They styled him the " Patriot," the " Opposer of the Court," the "Father of the Poor." From other sources we know that from about this time through many years he was styled the King of Newcastle. 

Sir Walter Calverley died in 1749, and Alderman Blackett succeeded to the title of baronet, and the inheritance of Calverley, Esholt, and Horsforth. Desiring to limit his landed interest to the counties of Northumberland and Durham, he sold the Yorkshire estates, purchased the property at Wallington when it was sold by order of the Court of Chancery to pay his uncle's debts, and was thenceforward known only as Sir Walter Calverley Blackett, Bart., of Wallington and Hexham Priory, M.P. for Newcastle. To this latter title he clung tenaciously, and in defence of it was ready to fight all comers. No one ventured to oppose him at the elections of 1754, 1761, and 1768. He and Mr. Matthew Ridley held their seats undisturbed. But in 1774 there was a contest, and a very lively one too. Mr. Ridley retired in favour of his son. Sir Matthew White Ridley. Sir Walter had offended some of the freemen by espousing the unpopular side in the Town Moor struggle. There were other forces at work of a less local character. The treatment of John Wilkes by the House of Commons had created a formidable agitation; the question of reform in the representation of the people was coming to the front, and there was dissatisfaction at the absolutist tendencies of the Court. In anticipation of the election, a series of test articles was drawn up and presented to Sir Walter and Sir Matthew for signature. The gist of them was "To make the House of Commons acknowledge their error in expelling a man from his seat, in defiance of the majority of freeholders who had placed him there. To shorten the duration of Parliament, that voters may change their representatives if they do not behave as they ought. To reduce the number of placemen and pensioners in the House. To obtain a more equal representation of the people, and prevent places like Old Sarum, with one house, having equal weight with Newcastle, Liverpool, or Bristol" 

Neither Sir Walter nor Sir Matthew would sign this programme, whereupon invitations were sent to Thomas, brother of Sir Francis Delaval, and Captain the Hon. Constantine John Phipps, who agreed to adopt the articles and contest the borough. They had on their side the prohfic pen of the Rev. James Murray, author of "Sermons to Asses," etc. This earnest divine wrote a vigorous pamphlet of forty pages, entitled "The Contest," with the motto, "Give the Devil his Due," and conducted for six months a political serial called The Freemen's Magazine, or Constitutional Repository. In both these publications Sir Walter Blackett was handled with considerable freedom, and, it must be added, no small amount of scurrility'. More than six hundred new freemen were admitted for voting purposes just before the election came off, but it was a hollow affair after all. The votes for Sir Walter were 1,432; for Sir Matthew, 1,411; for Captain Phipps, 795; for Mr. Delaval, 677. 

Sir Walter Blackett had been forty years representative of Newcastle in Parliament; he was the father of the newly-elected House of Commons. With increasing age his courtly tendencies had deepened. The American difficulty occurred, and he steadily supported the king and his ministers in their struggle with the colonists. In October, 1775, there was a great meeting on the Forth, and 1,210 burgesses of Newcastle signed a petition to the king against the declaration of war with their brethren across the Atlantic. Sir Walter declined to present it; his colleague followed his example, and the duty was undertaken by Sir George Saville. A counter-petition was hawked about, it was signed by 169 persons, and Sir Walter laid it at the feet of his sovereign. He lived long enough to see the American States declare themselves free and independent, but before the conflict was finally decided he had passed away. 

Lady Blackett died on the 21st of September, 1759 (having had only one child, a daughter, who predeceased her), and was buried in St. Nicholas', with the accustomed pomp and ceremony. Sir Walter died in London on the 17th of February, 1777, and was interred in the family vault at Calverley. His entailed estates went to Sir Thomas Wentworth (son of his aunt Diana Blackett and William Wentworth), through whom it came to the Beaumont family, as already described. The Wallington estate he bequeathed to his only sister, Julia, wife of Sir George Trevelyan of Nettlecomb, and on her death to her eldest son. Sir John Trevelyan, who succeeded him in the representation of Newcastle. To her other son named after him, Walter, he left £40,000. Mr. Straker's pamphlet contains a list of other legacies and annuities, extending over a couple of pages, which he bequeathed to friends and institutions in Newcastle and Northumberland. 

The character of Sir Walter Blackett is drawn by Mr. Hodgson in the " History of Northumberland," and by Mr. Straker in his biographical sketch, in terms of glowing eulogy. He improved and beautified Wallington; erected the mock ruin of Rothley; built the market-place with piazzas at Hexham, and laid out the open space there called "The Seal" for the recreation of the inhabitants; augmented seventeen church livings in Northumberland; endowed an almshouse in the Manors, Newcastle, which, till swept away by the railway, was known as Blackett's Hospital; gave munificent gifts to the Infirmary; distributed annually on his birthday beef, bread, and money to hundreds of poor people, and subscribed liberally to all the local charities. " His splendour was the power that kept many thousand hands in motion” that cheered and comforted the feeble and the destitute." His was the only place visited by Arthur Young in his " Six Months' Tour " where fees were not taken, and thereby hangs a tale which may be read at length in " Richardson's Table-Book," ii. 89. " In his equipage and establishment there was a decent grandeur; in his hospitality and household affairs sumptuousness and regularity. His gallantry is often mentioned, and his manners are said to have been dignified." " He was tall, well-proportioned, and of a carriage erect and stately; his features were regular, manly, and expressive; his complexion florid; and over his countenance was diffused an air of benignity, though accompanied with that presence which, whilst it inspired esteem, commanded reverence and respect." 

As an orator, we are told, Sir Walter made no figure in the House, yet he had considerable influence as a member, " being truly independent." He was a Tory, " in opposition to the intriguing court of George II.," but on the accession of George III., "he kept consistent to the principles he had supported and lost the applauses of such as do not distinguish between good government and tyranny." He voted against the expulsion of Wilkes, but repented, and in November, 1770, at the opening of the session, made public acknowledgment of his error in the following speech : " Mr. Speaker,” - However particular, however unreasonable and uncalled for, what I am about to say may seem to be, or in whatever light I myself may appear, I must beg leave to open myself to the House upon a point which for some months hath greatly disturbed me; and the only apology I can offer for thus abruptly troubling the House with a matter which merely concerns myself is, that I am conscientiously compelled to it. Diffident of myself, forsaking my own judgment and adopting the opinions of others, I voted last session that Mr. Wilkes was not incapacitated from sitting in this House during this Parliament. Reconsidering that vote the night I had given it, and indeed ever since, has occasioned the greatest uneasiness to me, and whilst I was abroad this summer, ruminating upon what I had done, it appeared to me that the only satisfaction I could give to my mind was to acknowledge here the error, as I conceive, I had committed, and return to my own opinion, as I now do” that Mr. Wilkes is constitutionally incapacitated from sitting in this House during this Parliament. Having made this acknowledgment, as a man labouring under a malady to try the best remedy he can, I hope for the favourable construction of the House, sensible at the same time that many gentlemen, for whom I have a great regard, are as conscientiously of a different opinion." 

Dr. Carlyle, of Inveresk, in his "Autobiography," gives a slightly different turn to the eulogies of Hodgson and Straker, and a writer in the Northumberland and Newcastle Magazine for August, 1818, slyly states that if Sir Walter did not shine as a senator, " in canvassing at elections he was unrivalled," for he was on these occasions "attended often by above five hundred gentlemen, tradesmen, etc., some of whom had weight with almost every freeman." 

Portraits of Sir Walter Blackett, by his friend. Sir Joshua Reynolds, adorn Newcastle Infirmary and the drawing-room at Wallington. Ours is copied from Fittler's engraving of the Infirmary portrait, which forms the frontispiece to the first volume of Brand's " History of Newcastle." 

Men of mark 'twixt Tyne and Tweed by Richard Welford, 1895
- Digitised by the University of Toronto.

Added by
Simon Cotterill


Add a comment or share a memory.

Login to add a comment. Sign-up if you don't already have an account.


Co-Curate is a project which brings together online collections, museums, universities, schools and community groups to make and re-make stories and images from North East England and Cumbria. Co-Curate is a trans-disciplinary project that will open up 'official' museum and 'un-officia'l co-created community-based collections and archives through innovative collaborative approaches using social media and open archives/data.