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William Fletcher (1739–1826)

Mayor of Oxford 1782/3, 1796/7 and 1809/10


William Fletcher

William Fletcher was was baptised at St Michael's Church on 8 October 1739. He was the son of James Fletcher, a bookseller of the University of Oxford who had been matriculated as a privileged person on 13 January 1729/30, and his wife Mary. His father's shop was at the north end of Turl Street.

William had eleven siblings, all also baptised at St Michael's Church: James (1730), John (1733, died aged seven), Mary (1734), Rebecca  (1735, died aged five), Richard (1736), Mary (1737), Ann (1742, died the same year), Rebecca (1743, died the same year), John (1744), Richard (1746, died the same year), and a third Rebecca (1738). The five who died were all buried inside St Michael's Church.

 

William was a sickly child, and was sent to Yarnton to be nursed by the wife of the parish clerk until he was aged 15. He never forgot Yarnton, and not only made benefactions there but also chose to be buried inside its church.

William's older brother James Fletcher junior was matriculated as a privileged person of the University on 17 February 1756 and took over his father's business. On 25 March 1755 when William was 15 he was apprenticed for seven years to the Oxford mercer William Wickham (who was himself shortly to become Mayor) in his shop opposite University College.

Fletcher was granted his freedom on 14 June 1765, and went into partnership with Wickham, opening his own shop on the other side of the High.

Fletcher was elected as one of the 24 councillors on 30 September 1766, as well as cloth-searcher, and in 1767 he became one of the five keykeepers. In July 1769 Isaac Lawrence selected him as Mayor’s Chamberlain, and four years later in 1773 he was chosen as Junior Bailiff.

The 1772 Survey of Oxford shows Mr Miller, Routledge and Fletcher all on the site now occupied by 93 High Street, with Fletcher in the shop on the right with a frontage of 3 yds 2 ft 0 in.

In early 1775, Jackson’s Oxford Journal stated that the partnership of Wickham & Fletcher Mercers had been dissolved in July 1773, and that henceforth the business would be carried on by Fletcher alone.

92-93 High Street

 

In 1775 the four bays on the west side of the Old Bank (left) were built for William Fletcher and John Parsons.

Jackson’s Oxford Journal announced on 24 March 1781 that William Fletcher of 93 High Street had entered into partnership with another mercer, John Parsons, but that business would initially continue in both shops.

This Fletcher & Parsons business was soon to expand into 92 High Street. By 1790 it had changed from mercery to banking.

For over two hundred years 91–92 High Street remained a bank. In its latter days, until 1998, it was called Barclays Old Bank, and the building has been the Old Bank Hotel since 1999.

In June 1781 Fletcher was elected one of the Mayor’s eight Assistants, and in September 1782 he was elected Mayor of Oxford (for 1782/3), choosing James Shipton as his Chamberlain and James Adams as his Child.

From 1787 to 1826 Fletcher lived at 46 Broad Street. He also owned the house next door, 47 Broad Street, which he let out to tenants. He was an antiquarian, and had a private museum in his home that included many Oxford objects. He adorned its corridors with 40 paintings illustrating the Dance of Death.

Bust of Fletcher

 

In 1796 Fletcher was elected a second time Mayor (for 1796/7). He chose John Sheard as his Chamberlain and Thomas Henry Taunton as his Child.

In April 1798 Fletcher was chosen as an Alderman “by scrutiny”.

In 1809 Fletcher was elected Mayor a third time (for 1809/10), but served much against his will: he wished to stand down on grounds of ill health and pay a fine, but was not allowed to do this. His obituary in Jackson's Oxford Journal states that “though at this period far advance in life and with a constitution never very strong, and now greatly impaired, he discharged the duties of the office, as he had twice before done, with unwearying diligence, with advantage to the City, and with credit to himself”.

 

 

Right: Bust of Fletcher in the Town Hall, Oxford

In 1817 Fletcher had the parish clerk’s house and adjoining schoolroom built at the north-west end of Church Lane in Yarnton. His arms appear on the south gable.

Fletcher served on the council for 60 years, from 1788 to 1826, and for some time was senior Alderman and Father of the Corporation. He died at the age of 86 or 87 at his Broad Street home on 27 December 1826, having kept “the noiseless tenor of his way” through his life. He was remembered as one of the last men in Oxford to wear his hair in a pigtail.

† William Fletcher was buried at Yarnton Church on 4 January 1827. His lead coffin was placed inside a massive stone coffin with its original sculptured lid which had been dug up at Yarnton many years before and presented to him by the Earl of Abingdon. The Revd Vaughan Thomas, Vicar of Yarnton, took the funeral service.

Fletcher, who never married, left the bulk of his fortune to the children of his sister Rebecca, who had married the Revd Thomas Robinson, Master of Magdalen College School, in 1776. (His nephew Thomas Robinson was already a partner in the bank, and was also in turn to become Mayor.)


Fletcher’s tomb and memorial at Yarnton

Fletcher brass

Fletcher was buried in a large raised tomb (below) at the west end of Yarnton Church.

The top of the tomb has a brass showing an Alderman in his official robes (right).

Fletcher's tomb in Yarnton Church

There are also two brass plates on the tomb. The first is inscribed:

YARNTON, MY CHILDHOOD’S HOME!
DO THOU RECEIVE 
THIS PARTING GIFT –
MY DUST TO THEE I LEAVE.

The second plaque reads:

WILLIAM FLETCHER
OF OXFORD
1826
AGED 87 YEARS

Memorial to William Fletcher

 

Robinson’s grateful nephew and nieces, who received all his wealth, erected a memorial to him in Yarnton Church (left).


Obituary

His obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine (reproduced here in The Annual Biography & Obituary for the Year 1828, Vol. 12) read:

FLETCHER, William, Esq. Dec. 27, 1826; at his house, Clarendon [presumably Broad] Street, Oxford, in his 87th year. Mr. Fletcher was senior partner in the Oxford Old Bank, and was a gentleman distinguished in all the relations of life, by the strictest integrity, the soundest judgment, and the most uniform benevolence. The good opinion of his fellow citizens had conferred upon him the Alderman’s gown in 1798, and had placed him three times in the civic chair, in 1782, 1796, and 1809. In his discharge of all these duties, he was at once firm and courteous, combining upon these, as upon all other occasions, the most pacific disposition with the most conscientious adherence to his own principles and opinion; and it is to be remembered, that he had to act in times of great political agitation, and when it was important that a magistrate should be forward to avow, as well as faithful to maintain, the principles of the constitution.

Mr. Fletcher was always among the first to come forward in support of those public measures, which he deemed conducive to the good of his country, and to the stability of its constitution in church and state.

But that which formed the peculiar feature in the character of this upright and amiable member of society, was his benevolence, or rather the considerate nature of his benevolence; to be charitably disposed is one thing, to study how to be charitable in the most serviceable way another: and it was the characteristic of Mr. Fletcher’s charity, to be diligent in finding out what he considered to be the best ways and means of administering to the wants, comforts, and happiness of his fellow creatures. This habit of pondering upon sorrow in its less obvious distresses, and upon poverty in all the little details of its wants, led him to unfrequented paths of kindness, and to modes of charitable donation, which a less studious almoner would never have thought of, and one less strenuous would not have been disposed to undertake and pursue.

But amidst the studies of his benevolence, and the avocations of his business and his duties, Mr. Fletcher found opportunities to pursue, and with considerable success some antiquarian enquiries respecting the counties of Oxford and Berks, having made some interesting collections for the illustration of the topography of those counties. It may be important to add, that they are now in the possession of his nephew, Thomas Robinson, Esq. of the Oxford Old Bank.

The same love of antiquity led him into a line of enquiry which when he entered upon it, was less pursued than it is at present; he made large collections of antient stained, or painted glass, upon a variety of subjects in sacred and profane history, heraldry, and portraiture; and he was as munificent in giving, as he was diligent in collecting and preserving, what had escaped the ravages of time and the fury of fanaticism. Out of these collections, he formed (by a symmetrical arrangement of the several pieces) some large and splendid windows, two of which he presented to the University of Oxford, and placed in the tower of the Picture Gallery; to which, he also contributed original portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Lord Burleigh; other windows he gave to the Curators of the Bodleian; one, entirely composed of the Oseney Abbey glass, to the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church; for which acts of munificence he received the thanks for those learned bodies.

He also presented a suit of windows of painted glass to the church of Yarnton, a village in the vicinity of Oxford, for which, from early recollections, he always felt a strong attachment. It had happened that in his infancy he had been nursed in that village, where he also passed the first year of his childhood, and hence arose that kindness, and those multiplied proofs of it, which that place and its inhabitants ever experience from him. For, besides the gifts of the windows he new pewed and paved, and otherwise improved the church; he also built a substantial stone house for the parish clerk, with a school-room adjoining; every year of his life he used to bestow alms in a variety of ways upon young and old, and he has bequeathed by will several legacies and benefactions to individuals, or for permanent purposes at that place. This force of local attachment and early associations still further showed itself in his desire to be buried there, and in the grave which he had long before prepared for himself in the parish church.

As a man of business, Mr. Fletcher was clear, exact, and punctual. To all within the circle of his acquaintance, friendship, or connection, he was candid, sincere, and kindly affectioned. Mr. Fletcher never having been married, he made his nearest and dearest relations the objects of his paternal regard. But that which completed the character of this Christian philanthropist, was his humility. Wealth, office, high reputation, and universal esteem, were not for a moment able to change the lowliness of his heart; and so precious in his eyes was the garb of humility, that he, who had always worn it so gracefully through life, wished to indicate even after death how much he prized it, by leaving it as his request, that his remains from the hearse to the grave might be borne on the bier, and be covered with the pall of the parish.


Fletcher’s bequests in Oxford and Yarnton

St Peter-in-the-East Church, Oxford

St Peter in the East inscriptions

1827 Alderman Fletcher left 5L annually
to a poor widow of a Freeman of the age of
fifty years or upwards who has resided at
least 12 Months in this Parish previously

St Bartholomew’s Church, Yarnton

Yarnton Church plaque

William Fletcher Esqr. Alderman
of the CITY OF OXFORD, by deed Dated Feb. 5
1823, Left a Sum of Money to the Mayor & Cor-
poration of OXFORD for various Purposes,
Amongst others to pay 30L yearly in every Year
on St Thomas’s Day to the Vicar & Church-
wardens of YARNTON to be by them distrib-
uted every Year as follows.

L
10

Amongst the Poor Inhabitants in Bread
& Meat on Christmas Day.

4

In Bread of the same             ] on the 4th of January the day of his Burial.

1

In Cakes for their Children    ] ditto

8

To the Parish Clerk for tolling the great
Bell on the 4th of Janry 87 times the num-
ber of Years he lived.

2

To the Parish Clerk, as Rent for the
School Room,

5

For the Repair of the Clerk’s House if
wanted, if not, for the support of the
School.


See also:

  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 30 December 1826, p. 3b (obituary)
  • Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1827: obituary of Fletcher by his friend, the Revd Vaughan Thomas of Yarnton
  • Annual Biography & Obituary for the Year 1828, Vol. 12, pp. 434–5 (reproducing the article from the Gentleman’s Magazine)
  • John Parsons, Mayor in 1788 and 1898 (Fletcher’s banking partner)
  • Thomas Robinson, Mayor in 1817 (Fletcher’s nephew and heir)
  • L.F. Bradburn, The Old Bank (92 and 93 High Street) Oxford (Oxford, 1977)
  • Portrait of William Fletcher in 1798, in the Council Chamber of the Town Hall
    Download information about Council Chamber portraits
  • Three portraits of William Fletcher in the National Portrait Gallery entitled “The father of the Corporation of Oxford. Omnibus Carus”. Hand-coloured etchings, published in March 1808 by Robert Dighton (NPG D9446; D13284; and D13448: in archive collection and not on display)
  • Brass rubbing (made in 1919) at the Ashmolean Museum of the 1826 monumental brass to William Fletcher at Yarnton Church (ref. Oxfordshire 8/1, not on display)
  • Malcolm Graham, Oxford City Apprentices 1697–1800, entry numbered 2093
  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 30 December 1826, p. 3b: Announcement of Fletcher’s death
  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 6 January 1827, p. 4b: Obituary of Fletcher
  • PCC Will PROB 11/1723/198 (Will of William Fletcher, Alderman of Oxford, proved 16 March 1827)
  • Museum of Oxford, St Aldate’s: Bust of Fletcher, and three of his “Dance of Death” paintings, showing a skeleton dancing with a lawyer, a physician, and a canon
  • Bodleian Library and Yarnton Church for Fletcher’s collection of stained glass

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 11 December, 2019

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