Henry Beeke was born on January 6th 1751, the son of The Reverend Christopher Beeke, vicar of Kingsteignton, and his wife Mary. His family was well connected, his mother Mary having links to the Yardes of Whiteway and the Swetes of Modbury.
The young Henry proved to be an outstanding scholar and he entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford in May 1769 where he gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1773. His studies continued at Oriel College where he was rewarded with a Master of Arts degree in 1776.
Whilst in based in Oxford he was nominated to the post of vicar of St Mary’s the Virgin in October 1782. In 1784 he became Junior Proctor of the University, gaining a Bachelor of Divinity in 1785. Oriel College presented him with the rectory of Ufton Norcot, Berkshire in 1789. His insatiable thirst for knowledge led to him furthering his studies to gain a Doctorate of Divinity in 1800. A year later he accepted the post of Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and, at the insistence of Prime Minister Henry Addington, delivered what is believed to be the first lecture in political economy at the university.
Beeke’s interests were wide and not just confined to theological matters. Following the publication of his Observations on the Produce of the Income Tax, and on its Proportion to the Whole Income of Great Britain in 1799, which was expanded and reprinted in 1800, he gained a reputation as an economics expert. He has been credited with the idea of persuading William Pitt to introduce income tax in 1799 as a temporary measure to help pay for the French wars. This was a time when Britain was in an almost permanent state of war with France. It was expected that the tax would net some £10 million in the first year. When it actually realised less than £6 million, Beeke explained that the any shortfall in revenue was due to the government getting its calculations wrong. Beeke considered that errors had been made in underestimating the rate of growth of the country’s rapidly expanding manufacturing industry and the level of private investment. He also drew attention to the fact that it had used woefully inaccurate maps in estimating the amount of cultivated agricultural acreage in the country when he stated that “the exact number cannot be ascertained with mathematical precision, till the present very excellent trigonometrical survey has been completed”. His calls for improved maps for estimating the wealth of the country gained the support of the military which saw the need for improved maps as vital to the defence of the realm.