Tennent, William (1760–1832), Belfast merchant, banker, and United Irishman, was born 26 June 1760, second of the eight children and eldest of the five sons of the Rev. John Tennent, minister of the Seceding Presbyterian congregation of Roseyards, Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, and Anne Tennent (née Patton). He was apprenticed when young to a Belfast merchant with interests in the West Indies trade. By 1783, when he was one of the founding members of the Belfast chamber of commerce, he had become junior manager in the New Sugar House; a partnership followed. He also became a partner in a distilling firm and an insurance company. (His pious father, hearing of the loss of a ship covered by the company, expressed the hope that it would be ‘a profit in the end to engage him henceforward to ensure himself . . . in the insurance office of Heaven’.)
This highly successful career was abruptly interrupted by Tennent's arrest and imprisonment in 1798. A man of advanced radical views, he had joined the Society of United Irishmen at its inception in 1791, had bought shares in its organ the Northern Star, and – when it became an armed conspiracy – had probably become chairman of its secret ‘Jacobin’ committee in Belfast. An informer reported the presence of a ‘Mr Tennent’ at a meeting of conspirators but, since no first name was given and Tennent had a couple of radical brothers, he escaped with his neck. At or before the outbreak of the rebellion in 1798, however, he and other leaders of the movement were arrested and imprisoned without trial. The northerners among them were at first confined in a ship in Belfast Lough. There Tennent broke a leg by falling through an open hatchway when exercising on deck, a misfortune from which he was humanely permitted to recover at home in his own bed. The twenty prisoners were then removed in 1799 to Fort George, Scotland, where they remained till 1802. At that point Tennent and four others agreed to give sureties for their future good behaviour and were allowed to return home.
Though the governor of Fort George had treated his guests well, Tennent's health had suffered from his confinement and the rigours of the climate in Inverness-shire. His commercial affairs, meanwhile, had been saved from ruin by his brother Robert (qv). Within a few years he was a wealthy man again, able in 1810 to pay £10,000 for a partnership in a new bank, four years later to purchase a substantial landed estate at Tempo, Co. Fermanagh, at a cost of £29,000, and later still – in the 1820s – to invest heavily in property in and around Belfast.
Obliged to eschew active politics, Tennent remained true to his liberal ideals, playing a considerable role in Belfast affairs as a commissioner for police and water, vice-president for many years of the chamber of commerce, one of the ‘managers’ of the new Academical Institution, treasurer for ten years of the First Presbyterian congregation, and so on. He died on 20 July 1832, of cholera, leaving one legitimate child by his wife (née Jackson), a daughter named Letitia, who married James Emerson (qv). Letitia inherited the Tempo estate, and Emerson changed his surname to Emerson-Tennent. Tennent also fathered at least nine illegitimate children. Characteristically, he took no notice of the inevitable gossip that resulted, but acted responsibly by acknowledging all his offspring, educating them, and setting them up in business or providing them with dowries.
There is a portrait of Tennent (c.1810, artist unknown) in the Ulster Museum, Belfast. The First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary St. made no difficulty about the erection of a memorial tablet extolling the good use to which he had put his wealth (he had bequeathed some valuable property jointly to the First and Second congregations, among other things), as well as his moderation ‘in times of public excitement’ and his firmness ‘when exposed to the reaction of power’.