Seaford on the Sussex coast was a Cinque Port and as such was able to return two Members of Parliament. Many men represented the town but usually they lived far away and paid little heed to to local constituents. William Hay who represented Seaford between 1734 and his death in 1755 however was different in many ways. He lived locally and seemed to have a social conscience. He also had a disability.
He wrote “I was born at Glyndebourne in 1695, I am scarce five feet high, my back being bent in my mothers womb”
His parents died when he was five and he was looked after by his grand-parents but they died when he was 12. The family crest was formed of Sussex martlets.
Despite being born a hunchback, (today the condition is known as kyphosis) William struggled not only with his disability but with the attitudes of the time. He was educated at Newick School, at Lewes Grammar School and later at Oxford. In 1715 he contracted smallpox which severely affected his eyesight.
William studied law and was called to the bar in 1723. He was described as having “good features and an agreeable nature” and he “willingly mixed in company and conversation and wrote little pieces of poetry to his friends”. In order to help his condition he wore a whalebone corset but this severely restricted his movement although not his travelling – he visited Scotland, Germany, France and the Netherlands. He also liked to walk in the countryside and said he could manage up to 20 miles a day. His favourite spot was Mount Caburn near Lewes and he was so moved by the views from the top that he wrote a poem about the hill.
Hay was a Sussex Magistrate but was obviously a fair one. He admits that he had a partiality for the poor and said that when he saw poor people working hard under difficult circumstances it often made him cry. In parliament he was a campaigner for poor law reform. In 1733 Hay was appointed as the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions that met in Lewes.
At the age of 39, William Hay married Elizabeth, the daughter of the powerful MP and local landowner, Sir Thomas Pelham. He became an MP himself in January 1734, representing the Cinque Port of Seaford, no doubt assisted by his influential father-in-law. In the House of Commons he was described as an acute and intelligent speaker and he went on to represent Seaford for the Whigs (Liberals) for over 20 years. In 1738 he became the Commander for Victualling the Navy and six years later was made the Keeper of Records at the Tower of London.
The Hay family lived at Glyndebourne where William also kept silkworms. In 1754 he too a quantity of their threads up to Spitalfields in London where they were made into silk.
William wrote a number of essays and pamphlets including an “Essay on Deformity”. This is fascinating although sometimes difficult to read because of the many classical references (you can get read on googlebooks). He talks about the activities denied to him but was positive in the many things he was able to do. He records that of 558 MPs in the House of Commons he was the only one with a disability and says that his worthy constituents in Seaford never objected to his appearance. He also also reveals that at a previous election one of the candidates was ‘a negroe’. It would be fascinating to find out who this aspiring black politician was!
Hay suffered from gall-stones and died in 1755. The Prime Minister, Sir Thomas Holles-Pelham wrote “His Majesty has lost a very faithful and useful servant in the House of Commons, who, in twenty years attendance there, was scarce ever absent at one question and never gave a wrong vote”
Hay’s eldest son, Thomas, became a Lieutenant – Colonel of the Sussex Militia and also became an MP representing Lewes. His youngest son William was murdered in India
Hay had requested that on his death his body be opened up and examined by eminent surgeons and for his gall-stone to be removed and preserved in the Sir Hans Sloane Collection (now the Natural History Museum). Although this fascinating politician was buried at Glynde Church, I wonder if a little part of him is still held in a London museum?