HAY, George (1715-78).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1754 - Nov. 1756
12 July 1757 - 1761
1761 - 1768
28 Nov. 1768 - 6 Oct. 1778

Family and Education

b. 25 Jan. 1715, s. of Rev. John Hay, rector of St. Stephen’s, Coleman St., London.  educ. Merchant Taylors’ 1724; St. John’s, Oxf. 1731; Doctors’ Commons 1742. unm.  Kntd. 11 Nov. 1773.

Offices Held

Chancellor of the diocese of Worcester 1751-64; King’s advocate gen. Mar. 1755-May 1756, Nov. 1756-July 1764; vicar gen. to abp. of Canterbury 1755-64; ld. of Admiralty Nov. 1756-Apr. 1757, July 1757-July 1765; chancellor of the diocese of London 1764-78; judge of the prerogative ct. of Canterbury and dean of the arches 1764-78; judge of the high ct. of Admiralty 1773-8.


Hay was returned for Stockbridge on the interest of Sir Robert Henley as a Government supporter; and when appointed advocate general solicited and received through Newcastle from the archbishop of Canterbury the office of vicar general—which was ‘a necessary support to a station attended with small emolument though of such high rank at the Bar’.1 But half a year later he joined Pitt and Legge in opposing the subsidy treaties to Hesse and Russia. ‘I have ... sought out Dr. Hay and secured him in the strongest manner’, wrote his friend Thomas Potter to George Grenville in September 1755.2 And Lord Dupplin expressed to Newcastle his surprise at Hay’s conduct, and concern ‘because he has great abilities’.3 (Horace Walpole counted Hay among the 28 foremost speakers in the House.4) When the House met, 13 Nov., Hay spoke and voted against the Address approving the treaties;5 and on 10 Dec. against the Russian treaty.6 He was dismissed from his office of King’s advocate in May 1756, but reinstated by the Devonshire-Pitt Administration: ‘It was insisted upon in a manner not to be withstood’, wrote Holdernesse to Newcastle, 15 Nov. 1756,7 ‘and though it appeared unreasonable in the closet, was yielded to but with reluctance.’ Moreover he was appointed a lord of the Admiralty. A difficulty arose over his re-election: he was told by Henley that what interest he had had at Stockbridge was now ‘not at his but at Mr. Fox’s disposal’.8

When Dr. Hay knew this [wrote Fox to Devonshire on 26 Nov.9] ... I might have been applied to for my interest; but I have never yet been applied to from Dr. Hay’s quarter; nor from your Grace, till since Mr. Pitt and George Grenville made it a matter of public complaint. Now, my Lord, if it had been asked of me as a favour, refusing to choose Hay might show ill humour; but, on the other side to have chose him unasked, would have been meanness.

And when Bedford wrote on 22 Nov. to Fox deprecating his action as liable ‘to exasperate men’s minds’, and make him appear against the King’s measures and ministers, Fox added to his complaint about the ministers that ‘the King ... is mightily pleased that I oppose Dr. Hay’.10

When next the Government wished to return Hay in Admiral Byng’s place at Rochester, the King insisted on choosing Admiral Smith, who however declined. ‘But his Majesty is sturdy’, wrote Rigby to Bedford, 21 Mar. 1757, ‘and rightly says it shall nevertheless not be Dr. Hay.’11 A fortnight later Hay was dismissed from the Admiralty together with Temple, but was reinstated by the Newcastle-Pitt Administration. ‘I wish’, wrote Newcastle to Pitt, 24 June, ‘you would consider with Dr. Hay of a person and place to be vacated for his election.’ Pitt replied: ‘We have found a person to vacate, who is Mr. Duckett, and ready to accept a pension of £500 p.a. till an office of that value can be found for him.’12 Hay was now a prominent speaker on the Government side, especially on legal and naval matters (habeas corpus bill, March 1758; judges salaries, June; privateer bill, April-May 1759; etc).

In 1761 he was returned by Newcastle for Sandwich on the Admiralty interest. When before the opening of Parliament the choice had to be made of a new Speaker, Hardwicke wrote to Newcastle, 9 Oct. 1761:

I have thought again of Dr. Hay. He has certainly more talents for it than any other person that has been named. The chief objections are that he is too low, and a Scotchman; and ... I doubt whether he would quit his profession for it.13

In the new House Hay adhered to the Government as such, and early in December 1762 both Newcastle and Fox listed him as gained for the peace preliminaries. But during the Bute period Hay’s interventions in debate were merely on legal or naval questions.

In the next session, on 2 Dec. 1763, Hay moved the Admiralty estimates; on 9 Feb. supported his friend Charles Yorke over the Marriage Act—a tender point with the Yorkes; and spoke repeatedly in the debates on general warrants and Wilkes with whom he admitted, on 17 Feb., to have ‘lived in friendship ... till his violent and profligate behaviour made him quit him’.14 On this, the decisive day in the Opposition campaign, Hay took a prominent part on the Government side, moving an amendment to the Opposition motion. Nevertheless, when the office of dean of the arches fell vacant in May, Yorke urged the archbishop to appoint him and pressed Newcastle for support: he himself had ‘always lived in friendship’ with Hay, ‘especially since his reconciliation with your Grace, my father and Lord Artson’; and Hay was the first in his profession. Newcastle admitted so much—‘But I know also that, after I had singly made him vicar general ... he left me’ for Pitt and Legge, and them for Bute. Finally Newcastle gave in, though conscious that this would not ‘be approved by any one friend of mine but yourself ’. ‘Standing as we all must do on public ground’, Thomas Walpole wrote to Newcastle on 15 June, ‘it is more necessary you consult the humour of the public than that of any private man whatever.’15 But when the archbishop told Hay that he owed his appointment to Newcastle, Hay replied that being in the King’s service he could not ask or accept a favour through Newcastle but ‘should always acknowledge Mr. Yorke’s friendship’, to which alone he thought himself indebted for it. In turn Hay negotiated for Yorke his patent of precedency with the Government in November 1764.16

When on 29 Jan. 1765 general warrants were once more discussed in the House, Hay spoke ‘with much and able subtlety’,17 but asserted that ‘there is a law superior even to the law of the land, the law of government by public safety’18 and was blamed for introducing concepts of Roman law alien to common law. (Thus again by Pitt, on 4 Mar. 1766, for adopting ‘arbitrary notions from the civil law’,19 and by Serjeant Adair over the prohibitory Act bearing ‘a much nearer affinity to the civil law than the common law of England’.)20

Hay went into opposition with the Grenvilles; spoke repeatedly on the anti-American side,21 and voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act; and spoke and voted against the Government over the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767. Nevertheless, Camden was prepared to help him at the general election. Hay wrote to Samuel Martin, 16 Dec. 1767: ‘A seat in the next Parliament must certainly be very acceptable to me. But I would much rather submit to the mortification of being excluded than lose your good opinion by forgetting my obligations to Mr. Yorke with which both you and my lord chancellor are well acquainted.’ And on 21 Dec. 1767 he told Martin ‘that he could not accept of lord chancellor’s help to a seat in the next Parliament; he said he could not tell whether he should sit there or not, and must take his chance’.22

Hay had kept up his connexion with Oxford University. Influential at St. John’s, he had been talking of standing for the University since 1759; and encouraged by Thomas Frey, president of St. John’s, an eccentric supporter of Wilkes and liberty, did so in 1768; but he found himself at the bottom of the poll, with less than one-third of the votes of Charles Jenkinson, the other defeated candidate. He was returned unopposed in November 1768 on Lord Gower’s interest at Newcastle-under-Lyme, and re-elected in 1774. He was now with the Government whenever his vote is recorded; but he was not a frequent speaker: only nine interventions of his in debate are noted 1768-74, none of much importance; and only four in the next Parliament, the last in December 1775. On 5 Dec. he spoke in favour of the prohibitory bill: ‘No man in his senses could doubt that America was in rebellion’, and rebels should be treated with severity. And again, on 8 Dec. he called the Admiralty courts in America ‘the wisest and most salutary measure ... for compelling the rebellious Americans to return to their duty’.23However, if Horace Walpole’s statement is correct, he was asked in March 1778 to serve on the conciliation mission to America, but ‘positively refused’.24

In May he fell ill, and on the 11th Horace Walpole prematurely registered his death.25 By August he was known to be ‘lunatic’;26 and the terms were settled for his quitting his offices.27 In a postscript to a letter of 28 Sept.-5 Oct., James Hare wrote to Lord Carlisle, then with the conciliation mission in America: ‘Sir George Hay, who has been confined for madness some time, yesterday escaped from his keepers and drowned himself.’28

Bishop Butler, a close friend of Legge’s, wrote to Lord Onslow about Hay on 17 May 1778:29

He had a better temper, a better understanding and a better character, than he was willing the world should see. It required much knowledge of him to perceive this ... His conduct in politics was much blamed. The true account of it was that he had no opinion of any cause, but considered them all as the pretences under which men carry on their selfish schemes; yet he was a friend to liberty, and did not think it in danger in any hands. When he joined Lord Bute’s party, for which I among others censured him, his apology was that Mr. Legge was declining in health, and that he liked neither Mr. Pitt nor any of the set, and thought the public full as safe in the feeble hands of Lord Bute as in theirs.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Hay to Newcastle, 1 Mar. 1755, Add. 32853, f. 19.
  • 2. Grenville Pprs. i. 138-9.
  • 3. Add. 32860, f. 116.
  • 4. Mems. Geo. II, ii. 144.
  • 5. Add. 32860, f. 476; 33034, f. 208.
  • 6. Add. 32861, f. 271; Newdigate’s ‘Debates’.
  • 7. Add. 32869, f. 49.
  • 8. Fox to Bedford, 23 Nov. 1756, Bedford mss 32, f. 107; Fox to Devonshire, 24 Nov., Devonshire mss.
  • 9. Devonshire mss.
  • 10. Bedford Corresp. ii. 220, 222.
  • 11. Ibid. 241.
  • 12. Add. 32871, ff. 383, 406.
  • 13. Add. 32918, ff. 293, 338; 32929, ff. 143-5.
  • 14. Harris’s ‘Debates’ Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, i. 296.
  • 15. Add. 32959, ff. 3, 28, 98, 401.
  • 16. Grenville Pprs. ii. 531.
  • 17. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 38.
  • 18. Ryder’s ‘Debates’.
  • 19. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, ii. 215.
  • 20. Almon, iii. 273.
  • 21. Fortescue, i. 236, 246, 267; Add. 32965, f. 311.
  • 22. Add. 41354, f. 119.
  • 23. Almon, 250, 273.
  • 24. Last Jnls. ii. 129.
  • 25. Ibid. 174.
  • 26. John Baker, Diary, ed. Yorke, 464.
  • 27. Add. 41335, f. 229.
  • 28. HMC Carlisle, 372.
  • 29. Onslow mss at Clandon.