BALFOUR, James (c.1775-1845), of Whittinghame, Haddington; Balgonie, Fife, and 3 Grosvenor Square, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. c.1775,1 2nd s. of John Ramsay Balfour (d. 1813), adv., of Balbirnie, Markinch, Fife and Mary Ellen, da. of John Gordon of Ellon, Aberdeen. m. 19 Jan. 1815, Lady Eleanor Maitland, da. of James Maitland†, 8th earl of Lauderdale [S], 2s. 3da. (1 d.v.p.). d. 19 Apr. 1845.

Offices Held

Writer, E.I. Co. (Madras) 1793; asst. to sec. in pub. commercial and revenue dept. 1796, to collector of Polygar Peishcush 1797; out of employ 1799; dep. commercial res. at presidency 1800; suspended and ordered home Sept. 1800; returned to India 1802; jun. merchant by 1803; sen. merchant 1807; left India 1812; out of service 1815.


Balfour came from a prosperous and well-connected Scottish gentry family. George Balfour (d.1665) made a fortune as a clothier in London and Edinburgh, and bought the Balbirnie estate near Kirkcaldy in 1642. His great-grandson Robert Balfour (c.1698-1767) married the heiress of Sir Andrew Ramsay of Whitehill, Midlothian, and took the additional name of Ramsay. He had four sons, of whom the eldest, John Balfour (1738-1813) of Balbirnie, admitted as an advocate in 1761, and reckoned in 1788 to command six votes for Fifeshire, was the father of this Member.2 John Balfour’s next brothers, George and Andrew Balfour (1741-1814), a judge in the commissary court, succeeded in turn to the Whitehill estate and assumed the name of Ramsay. On Andrew’s death it passed to the youngest brother, General James Balfour, and on his death in 1823 it went to his nephew Robert Wardlaw, the son of his sister Elizabeth, who took the additional name of Ramsay.3

Balbirnie passed on John Balfour’s death to his elder son Robert Balfour (1762-1837), who entered the army in the early 1780s and attained the rank of lieutenant-general.4 His younger brother James Balfour was trained in accounting and book-keeping by William Swanson of Edinburgh, and in March 1795 secured a writership in the Madras civil service, with seniority from September 1793. He arrived in India in December 1795, and held three posts in the next five years. In September 1800 he was suspended and ordered home for allegedly accepting gifts. It is not clear what disciplinary proceedings ensued, but he returned to Madras in September 1802. Although he was not subsequently employed as a civil servant he amassed a fortune of about £300,000 as a contractor for victualling the navy. He left India in July 1812 and formally retired from the service in 1815. He was a proprietor of East India stock, with one vote, by 1829.5 In January 1815 he married a daughter of the 8th earl of Lauderdale, then a prominent Whig, who described Balfour to Lady Holland as ‘a very good sort of man’, with ‘a fortune more than enough’.6 Two years later he bought from Colonel William Hay the 10,000-acre Haddingtonshire estate of Whittingehame, about 20 miles east of Edinburgh, which yielded an annual rental of £11,000. He subsequently engaged Smirke to design a large, classical Greek mansion on the other side of the valley from the old Tower, bought much of the neighbouring property and created a new village at Luggateburn. He also acquired a Highland estate and shooting lodge at Strathconan, Ross-shire, and in 1824 and 1825 bought Fifeshire property, including the estate of Balgonie, close to Balbirnie, which contained coal and iron workings.7 In November 1820 he came forward on a vacancy for the open and venal borough of Berwick, where he was opposed by Sir Francis Blake*, a local landowner. On the eve of the election Lauderdale, who may well have put him up to it, wrote to Lady Holland:

If Balfour contrives to lose it, he will have the merit of being the only man who could do so, and I would think it impossible if I had not great confidence in his dexterity.

Yet Balfour’s connection with Lauderdale damned him in the eyes of many voters, who resented his recent zealous support for the prosecution of Queen Caroline (for which he was rewarded with a knighthood of the Thistle in 1821), the first clear indication of his drift into rabid Toryism. At the nomination Balfour, who was slighted by his critics as Lauderdale’s creature and an intruder, swore to

the independence of his principles, declaring that he would have opposed the bill for the recent trial of the queen, and that if he succeeded he would endeavour ... to abolish all unnecessary places and pensions, and maintain the purity of our most excellent constitution.

He led after the first day, but was beaten on the fourth by 11 votes in a poll of 737; he blamed his defeat on 30 broken promises.8

Balfour suffered the loss of an infant daughter in a fire, and it was presumably this tragedy which lay behind his refusal to try again at Berwick on a vacancy in December 1822: as Lauderdale reported, he felt ‘unequal to it in his present state of mind’. In January 1826, according to Lauderdale, he stood to gain some £60,000 as his share of the estate of his maiden aunt, Ann Balfour, who died reputedly worth £400,000.9 At the general election later that year he stood for the Anstruther district of burghs, which lay about 15 miles from his Fifeshire estates. After ‘a severe struggle’, he succeeded in turning out the lord advocate, Sir William Rae, who had been sitting on the hitherto dominant Anstruther interest.10 He voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and in the protectionist minority against the corn bill, 2 Apr. 1827. He divided with the duke of Wellington’s ministry against inquiry into chancery delays, 24 Apr., and for the ordnance estimates, 4 July 1828. He presented a petition from his constituent burgh of Pittenweem against the justiciary courts bill, 30 Apr. 1828. He voted for Catholic relief, 12 May 1828, and, as expected, for emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. 1829, even though he presented anti-Catholic petitions that month. He voted against the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., and the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. 1830. His attendance may have lapsed thereafter: he was granted a month’s leave to attend to urgent private business, 7 Apr., and was troubled by the severe illness of one of his daughters in May 1830.11 At the subsequent general election he was opposed in the burghs by Dr. Robert Marsham, warden of Merton College, Oxford, who had married the widow of Sir John Carmichael Anstruther. His appeal for government support to the home secretary Peel (his contemporary at Christ Church) was unsuccessful:

James Balfour has given to the government a regular and cordial support. He is in possession of the seat, and it would be a departure from our uniform course, and not quite consistent with justice, if we were to do anything which could affect his interests injuriously.12

Balfour had little difficulty in holding off his challenge.13

Ministers duly listed him as one of their ‘friends’, and he voted with them on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. Three days later he obtained a month’s leave because of illness in his family. He voted against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s English reform bill, 22 Mar., and next day presented a Pittenweem petition against the Scottish measure. In his first reported speech, 25 Mar., he protested against the proposed disfranchisement of his burghs, which had a combined population of over 6,000. He voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the English reform bill, 19 Apr. 1831. He had already declared his future candidature for Haddingtonshire, where Lauderdale had influence and the sitting Member Lord John Hay was keen to retire and allow Balfour to replace him with the backing of his brother Lord Tweeddale. At the dissolution he came forward as an opponent of the reform scheme, though he professed to be ‘ready to support a wise and prudent amendment to the representative system’ of Scotland. He was elected ‘without much opposition’, defeating his pro-reform challenger by 40-11; but he was shouted down by the non-voting householders of Haddington when trying to return thanks.14 Balfour, who remained a lax attender, voted against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, was in the opposition minorities on the 1831 census, 19 July, and the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July, and divided against the passage of the bill, 21 Sept. He voted against the second reading of the Scottish measure, 23 Sept. On 16 Aug. he presented a county petition against the use of molasses in brewing and distilling. He paired (with George Traill) against the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831,15 but voted in person against its third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He obtained a return of excise duties on wines and spirits, 23 Mar.; was present for but abstained from the division on the malt drawback bill, 2 Apr.; presented his brother’s petition against the Edinburgh and Glasgow railway bill, 17 May, and paired against the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May. On 5 June he expressed doubts about the requirement of the Scottish bill for claimants to the vote in burghs to submit written claims to the town clerk, and cited the majority view in Haddington that ‘the chief magistrate ... should have the power of registering the votes’. He was given a month’s leave on account of illness, 29 June 1832.

Balfour successfully contested Haddingtonshire at the general election of 1832, but retired at the 1834 dissolution because of poor health.16 In 1843 his ‘gawky’ elder son, James Maitland Balfour (1820-56), Conservative Member for Haddington Burghs 1841-7, married Lady Blanche Cecil, a daughter of the 2nd marquess of Salisbury. James Balfour did not live to see the birth of his grandson Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), the future prime minister, for he died at Whittingehame in April. 1845.17 By his will, dated 29 Feb. 1844, and four codicils he confirmed the entail of Whittingehame and Strathconan on his elder son, who also inherited his London house in Grosvenor Square. He devised the Fifeshire estates to his younger son, Charles Balfour (1823-72) of Newton Don, Berwickshire, who also received a legacy of £47,000 and a sum of £20,000 to rebuild and refurbish the mansion at Balgonie. He left his wife a life annuity of £3,760 and a legacy of £31,000. His two daughters were provided with £40,000 each under their marriage settlements. His personal estate within the province of Canterbury was sworn under £80,000; while that in Scotland was reckoned to exceed £1,000,000.18

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. He swore on oath, 31 Mar. 1795, that he was ‘above the age of 17 years, and under the age of 22 years’ (BL OIOC J/1/15, f. 274). According to S.H. Zebel, Balfour: a Political Biog. 1, he was b. in 1773.
  • 2. Zebel, 1; M. Egremont, Balfour, 13; Pol. State of Scotland 1788, pp. 113, 123, 124.
  • 3. Scots. Mag. (1814), 158, 559; Gent. Mag. (1823), i. 381; PROB 11/1681/65.
  • 4. Gent. Mag. (1838), i. 109.
  • 5. OIOC J/1/15, ff. 271-4; Egremont, 14; Zebel, 1; B.E.C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, i. 14; Madras Almanac (1813), 164.
  • 6. Add. 51698, Lauderdale to Lady Holland, 30 Oct., 28 Dec. 1814.
  • 7. Zebel, 1-2; Dugdale, 14; M.B. Lang, ‘Whittingehame Tower’, Trans. E. Lothian Antiq. Soc. iii (1938), 82, 91-92. PROB 11/2020/537.
  • 8. Add. 51699, Lauderdale to Lady Holland [2 Dec.]; Newcastle Chron. 4, 11 Nov., 2, 9 Dec. 1820.
  • 9. Add. 51692, Lauderdale to Holland, 16 Dec. 1822; 51700, to Lady Holland, 18 Jan., 3 June 1826; PROB 11/1681/65.
  • 10. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 3, 12 June, 6 July 1826.
  • 11. Add. 51701, Lauderdale to Lady Holland, 4 May 1830.
  • 12. Add. 40401, f. 87.
  • 13. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 5, 23, 26 Aug. 1830.
  • 14. Add. 51701, Lauderdale to Lady Holland, 16 Apr., 19 May; NLS mss 14441, ff. 102, 114, 119, 126; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 16, 28 Apr., 12 May 1831.
  • 15. Cockburn Letters, 359; Orkney Archives, Balfour mss D2/3/14, Traill to J. Balfour, 8 Dec. 1831.
  • 16. Scottish Electoral Politics, 221.
  • 17. Lady Holland to Son, 209; Gent. Mag. (1845), ii. 200-1.
  • 18. PROB 11/2020/537; IR26/1699/943.