COLHOUN, William MacDowall (fl.1758-1821), of Wretham, nr. Thetford, Norf. and St. Kitts, W.I.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1784 - 1802

Family and Education

s. of Robert Colhoun, treasurer of St. Kitts 1754, by Frances, da. of Matthew Mills, c.j. of St. Kitts.1 m. c.1770, Grace, da. of Edward Parson of Little Parndon, Essex and St. Kitts, 2s. 1da. (who m. 1792 Edward Coke*).2

Offices Held


Colhoun’s presence in England, probably as a youth, was noted in 1758 by John Baker, solicitor-general of the Leeward Islands,3 but much of his life before he entered Parliament remains obscure, beyond the fact that he owned plantations in St. Kitts, Nevis and St. Croix. He joined the Whig Club in December 1784 and remained a member throughout his career in the House. Supported by the corporation, whose backing he additionally ensured by means of a secret interest-free loan and by the Woburn interest, he came top of the poll at Bedford in 1790 and retained the seat until his retirement at the dissolution of 1802.

Colhoun voted against government in the Oczakov division of 12 Apr. 1791, but not in that of 1 Mar. 1792. He was listed a supporter of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in April 1791. Although he did not vote for Fox’s amendment to the address, 13 Dec. 1792, he divided against the war, 18 Feb. and 17 June 1793. He voted for receipt of the Sheffield petition, 2 May, and for Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 7 May 1793, and continued to divide, albeit spasmodically, with the Foxite Whigs before and after the junction of the Portland Whigs with government. He signed the Norfolk petition for the removal of ministers, 10 Apr.,4 and voted for Grey’s reform motion, 26 May 1797. During the Whig secession, he evidently attended only for the few opposition motions for which Fox himself put in an appearance and for a handful of others on which the party mustered in comparative strength. His last recorded votes were for inquiry into the Ferrol expedition, 19 Feb., and for Grey’s motion on the state of the nation, 25 Mar. 1801. He is not known to have spoken in the House.

Colhoun returned briefly to St. Croix early in 1802, to deal with some of the complex financial difficulties created by a combination of rash mismanagement, shady dealing and bad luck, which had begun to overwhelm him. His principal creditors, the firm of Pinney and Tobin, had to pursue 60 years of remorseless litigation before they recovered all but £8,500 of their total investment of £60,000 in his concerns.5

Pressed hard by his English creditors, Colhoun, through his son-in-law, Edward Coke, sought the refuge of a seat in Parliament from the ‘Talents’ in December 1806, but Lord Howick replied that all his endeavours to find an opening had failed. On renewing the application, Coke catalogued Colhoun’s services and sacrifices in the Foxite cause, added that the seat which Colhoun was now prepared to purchase was ‘wanted for only two months either now or at the close of the session’ and furnished a rosy account of Colhoun’s financial prospects which was less than frank. Howick acknowledged ‘the full extent of the claims of Mr Colhoun on the friends of Mr Fox’, but held out little hope. Shortly afterwards Colhoun himself told Howick that he had begun negotiations for a seat, but nothing came of them. He fled to St. Croix later in 1807, was pursued by his creditors and imprisoned, but managed to extricate himself. Before the 1812 general election Lord Moira reported that ‘Colhoun’s money is ready if an opening be found for him’, but it is not clear whether this was Colhoun himself or his son.6

According to Pares, he ‘was heard of, from time to time, skulking in France, sending the Pinneys unpleasant lawyer’s letters and even threatening them with a Chancery suit’. On 23 Apr. 1821, when he was living in Jersey, he appointed Coke and one Philip Augustus Hanrott joint attorneys for his ‘realty and personally in the United Kingdom, which he cannot administer because of his residence abroad’, but no further trace of him or his concerns has been found.7

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Caribbeana, vi. 38, which corrects the pedigree in V. L. Oliver, Antigua, iii. 258.
  • 2. M. I. in St. Mary’s, Little Parndon, where Grace Colhoun’s death, 6 July 1803, aged 61, is recorded. For the Parson pedigree see Oliver, iii. 257-8, 261. See Eton Coll. Reg. 1753-90 for his sons, the elder of whom died at school of a fever, aged 12, in 1787. The younger was probably the Mr Colhoun jnr. who was elected to Brook’s on 7 May 1801.
  • 3. Diary of John Baker ed. Yorke, 109.
  • 4. Norf. RO, Colman Lib. mss 27.
  • 5. On the debt see R. Pares, A West-India Fortune, 280-92.
  • 6. Grey mss, Howick to Coke, 23 Dec. 1806, 14 Jan., Coke to Howick, 9 Jan., Colhoun to Howick [Jan. 1807]; Geo. IV Letters, i. 166.
  • 7. Pares, 287-8; Norf. RO mss 10072, 10073.