William Astell’s biography from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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Astell [formerly Thornton], William (1774–1847), director of the East India Company, was born on 13 October 1774, the second son of Godfrey Thornton of Mogerhanger and Everton, a director of the Bank of England, and his wife, Jane, daughter of Stephen Peter Godin of Cullards Grove, Middlesex. He took the name Astell in lieu of Thornton in 1807 to inherit the Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire estates of his maternal grandmother, Margaret Astell. In 1800 he married Sarah (d. 1841), only daughter of John Harvey of Ickwellbury, Bedfordshire; they had four sons and four daughters.

Astell was a partner in Godfrey Thornton & Sons and a director of the East India Company (1800–46), the Russia Company (1802), and the East India Dock Company (1805–35). He was also at one time chairman of the Great Northern Railway Company. In 1807 he was returned for Bridgwater as a conservative, which borough he represented continuously until 1832; he sat for the county of Bedford from 1841 until his death in 1847. Astell was an unimpressive politician and rarely spoke in the House of Commons except when called upon to deflect criticism of the East India Company; nevertheless, he kept a firm hold on his borough through the ample distribution of company patronage.

A director of the East India Company for forty-six years, Astell was chairman four times and deputy three times; most importantly he was in one or other of these offices from 1828 until 1831, the early years of Lord Bentinck's governor-generalship of India. Astell pushed for the employment of more Indians at the lower levels of the executive, not out of any great spirit of racial inclusiveness but as a means of cutting the company's expenditure on European servants. He was similarly motivated by pragmatism in opposing interference with Indian religious customs. Having voted four times against Catholic emancipation, Astell was no advocate of tolerance; he simply did not want reformers arousing social discontent in India. He was averse to annexation, unless it was clearly in the financial and military interests of the company, and in 1844 was prominent in the recall of Lord Ellenborough. He was a deputy lieutenant of Bedfordshire, lieutenant-colonel of the Bedfordshire militia, and colonel of the Royal East India volunteers. He died on 7 March 1847 at his country residence, Everton House, Huntingdonshire.

Katherine Prior


HoP, Commons, 1790–1820 · The correspondence of Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, governor-general of India, 1828–1835, ed. C. H. Philips, 2 vols. (1977) · WWBMP · ILN (13 March 1847), 170


BL OIOC, corresp. relating to India, home miscellaneous series |  BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40426–40572, passim · BL, letters to Sir Hudson Lowe, Add. MSS 20236–20237 · U. Nott. L., corresp. with Lord William Bentinck



G. R. Ward, mezzotint (after F. R. Say), BM, NPG

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Katherine Prior, ‘Astell , William (1774–1847)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/815, accessed 19 Nov 2005]

William Astell (1774–1847): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/815


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