DUNDAS, William (1762-1845), of 45 Grosvenor Street, Mayfair, Mdx.

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



1 July 1794 - 1796
1796 - 1802
1802 - 8 Apr. 1808
13 July 1810 - 13 Mar. 1812
26 Mar. 1812 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 1762, 3rd s. of Robert Dundas† (d. 1787) of Arniston, Edinburgh, ld. pres. of ct. of session, and 2nd w. Jean, da. of William Grant† of Prestongrange, Haddington, Lord Prestongrange (SCJ); bro. of Philip Dundas† and Robert Dundas†. educ. Edinburgh h.s. 1770-1; Univ. Coll. Oxf. 1780; L. Inn 1780, called 1788. m. 1 June 1813, Mary, da. of James Archibald Stuart Wortley Mackenzie† of Admaliesh, Bute, s.p. d. 14 Nov. 1845.

Offices Held

Commr. bd. of control Nov. 1797-Oct. 1803; PC 25 June 1800; sec. at war May 1804-Feb. 1806; ld. of admiralty Mar. 1812-Aug. 1814.

Kpr. of the signet [S] 1814-d.; kpr. of sasines [S] 1819-d.; ld. clerk register [S] 1821-d.

Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1797-1803; capt. Loyal N. Britons 1804.


Dundas, the purple-faced1 first cousin of the 2nd Viscount Melville, a member of Lord Liverpool’s cabinet and his Scottish manager, had once practised at the English bar and held efficient offices in Tory administrations; but from 1814 he was a sinecurist as keeper of the Scottish signet, worth £2,000 a year. On the death of his eldest brother Robert, lord chief baron, in 1819, he replaced him as keeper of sasines, and in June 1821 he was appointed lord clerk register of Scotland. These sinecures increased his annual income for doing nothing to an average of £4,500, as he stated in the House, 15 Dec. 1830, when he admitted that in one year he had pocketed £7,000. Since 1812 he had sat for Edinburgh on the Buccleuch interest, underpinned by that of his own family, who had dominated the city’s affairs for over 40 years. At the general election of 1820 he encountered a token opposition (as in 1818) from the small disaffected group in the council, which he brushed aside as motivated by personal animosity.2

Dundas of course continued to be a reliable supporter of the ministry; he was frequently listed in The Times among the ‘placemen’ voting with them on various issues in the 1820 Parliament. He was a government teller for the divisions on their conduct towards Queen Caroline, 6 Feb. 1821, the lord advocate’s treatment of the Scottish press, 3 June, and the Whig-sponsored Scottish juries bill, 30 June 1823. Unlike Melville, he was hostile to Catholic claims, but he abstained from the divisions of 28 Feb. 1821, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. He was named to the select committees on the Scottish royal burghs, 4 May 1820, 16 Feb. 1821, the additional Scottish malt duty, 12 Apr. 1821, and the Scottish banking system, 16 Mar. 1826. In debate, he defended the appointment of an additional Scottish exchequer judge, 15 May 1820. He urged ministers to grant free export of spirits to ‘the poor distiller of Scotland’ as well as to Irish producers, 6 July, but on 13 July he vindicated their increase of the Scottish malt duty, though he conceded that it might encourage illicit distillation.3 He was named in a petition complaining of undue aristocratic influence over the election of Members, 15 July, but insisted that he was returned ‘in the most fair and incorrupt manner’. He presented a Scottish petition for the removal of commercial restrictions, 18 July 1820.4 When Hume criticized him for refusing to present a Leith weavers’ petition for restoration of the queen’s name to the liturgy, 31 Jan. 1821, he said that he had done so because he could not conscientiously support its prayer, as requested, and commented sarcastically that he had thereby enabled the petition to enjoy the advantages of Hume’s ‘elegant address, polished language and persuasive manners’. Next day he did present an Edinburgh inhabitants’ petition in support of the queen.5 On 2 Apr. his only comment on the legal proceedings brought by some Edinburgh burgesses and guildry members against the council in an unsuccessful attempt to open municipal elections was that it was time for the protagonists to ‘ground their arms and sit down in peace’. He did not respond to Hume’s jibe that the court of session’s decisions in this case proved that he had sat ‘illegally’ since at least 1820.6 He defended the grant for the Scottish deputy judge advocate, 13 Apr., and endorsed the lord advocate Rae’s opposition to the Scottish juries bill, 18 May. He called for calm consideration of the report of the royal burghs select committee, 14 June 1821.7 On 18 Feb. 1822 he opposed the Whig Lord Archibald Hamilton’s motion for the abolition of several offices in the Scottish consistory courts, arguing that ‘the cases of fraud ... were confined to a very few instances’. Defending the controversial council-backed Edinburgh police bill, which he had brought in, 8 Mar., he said that ‘there were at Edinburgh certain gentleman radicals who felt so much enmity to all established authority that for a man to be chief magistrate ... was quite sufficient ground for their animosity’.8 He presented Edinburgh petitions for repeal of the duty on candles, 17 Apr. 1822, modification of that on apprentices’ indentures, 14 Mar., and abolition of that on stone carried coastwise, 10 Apr. 1823.9 On 24 Apr. the Whig Lord Normanby, seconding Lord John Russell’s parliamentary reform motion, observed that the situation whereby a handful of self-elected men returned the Member for so large and important a city as Edinburgh was ‘a mockery of representation’. Dundas accepted his assurance next day that he had intended no personal slur.10 On the Edinburgh inhabitants’ petition presented by Abercromby for reform of the city’s electoral system, 5 May, Dundas said that ‘no abuse was alleged to exist by the petitioners’, who nevertheless ‘asked the House to infringe upon the chartered rights of the electors’. He voted silently against reform of the Scottish representative system, 2 June 1823. The Whig Kennedy twitted him for his ‘remarkable silence’ in the debate on Abercromby’s motion for Edinburgh reform, 26 Feb. 1824, when he was of course in the hostile majority. He presented constituency petitions for the abolition of slavery, 15 Mar., a drawback on silk stocks, 16 Mar., and repeal of the window tax, 14 Apr., and against the hides and skins bill, 3 May.11 He opposed Kennedy’s bill to abolish Scottish poor rates assessments, 7, 26 May.12 He brought up Edinburgh petitions for reduction of the duty on fire insurances, 8, 24 Feb., and for a repeal of assessed taxes, 17 Mar. 1825.13 On 25 Feb. he introduced the council’s Leith docks bill, which provoked strong opposition inside and outside the House, where on 2 May he replied to its critics and was a teller for the minority of 14. In early 1826 he was prominent in urging ministers not to restrict the circulation of small bank notes in Scotland and to ‘pause before they touched an established plan of business, which had existed for more than a century, with infinite advantage to the country’ (21 Feb.). He presented several Edinburgh and Leith petitions against interference, 24, 28 Feb., 14, 17 Mar., 17 Apr., and ones from Dalkeith, 20 Mar., and Comrie, Perthshire, 7 Apr.14 Canning, the leader of the Commons, evidently got Melville to tell Dundas that he would have to lead the resistance to Abercromby’s renewed motion for Edinburgh reform, 13 Apr., as punishment for missing the divisions of the 7th on the president of the board of trade’s official salary. Dundas protested to Peel, the home secretary, that he had voted in the first division and had accidentally missed the second through no fault of his own, and complained that ‘the defence of an important public question’ should ‘not ... be abandoned for such a reason’.15 In the event Canning did speak in the debate, when Dundas opposed the motion as an attack on ‘vested rights’ and violation of the Union and was a majority teller. He presented an Edinburgh West India proprietors’ petition demanding financial compensation for losses if slavery was abolished, 9 May.16 He divided against Lord John Russell’s resolutions condemning electoral bribery, 26 May 1826.

For some time there had been in Edinburgh council signs of discontent with Dundas as Member; and in June 1825 the former lord provost Sir John Marjoribanks* declared his intention of opposing him at the next election, on the ‘pretext’ of his active support in committee of the Edinburgh and Leith Water Company bill. Melville, who had recently obtained with Dundas’s aid a government loan of £240,000 to the council to relieve it of its debts in respect of Leith docks, in return for turning over part of them for naval use, acted quickly to crush this rebellion.17 There was some resistance to the endorsement of Dundas when he sought re-election in 1826, and a group of the trades councillors tried to persuade the lord provost, William Trotter, who had been put in place by Melville the previous Michaelmas, to stand. Dundas’s nephew Robert Dundas of Arniston and the family’s agent soon brought Trotter to heel.18 At the election an attempt by the disaffected deacons to have Dundas summoned to the council chamber for interrogation was thwarted, but one of the rebels damned him as a ministerial puppet and public parasite. Returning thanks for his unopposed election, he stressed his role in promoting the continuing physical improvement of the city and his resistance to interference with the Scottish currency, and argued that ministers had taken tax reductions as far as they safely could.19

Dundas’s attendance seems to have fallen away markedly in the 1826 Parliament. He paired against Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and was given a month’s sick leave, 14 Mar. 1827. The following month Canning, the new premier, was informed that ‘far from applauding Melville’s course’ in resigning with Peel and the senior anti-Catholic members of the Liverpool ministry, Dundas ‘deeply and bitterly deplores it’.20 He presented an Edinburgh merchants’ petition in favour of the salmon fisheries bill, 22 May. He unsuccessfully defended the Edinburgh oil gas bill, 1 June, and offered to give his single £10 share in the company to one of its critics in the House. He presented an Edinburgh maltsters’ petition against the Malt Act, 17 June 1827.21 In November the Canningite Scot Lord Binning* told his leader William Huskisson*, a member of the Goderich ministry, that


William Dundas’s language was everything as strong as a friend of Canning’s could wish ... when I spent two days with him some weeks ago. He made the strongest declarations of the same sort at a public dinner where Canning’s memory was given ... He blames his cousin soundly, and I am much mistaken if you do not find him as steady a supporter as his moderate habits of dining will allow.


Binning confirmed this report a month later.22 The collapse of the government and the inclusion of Melville in the duke of Wellington’s cabinet in January 1828 spared Dundas any awkward conflict of views with his cousin. He voted against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and on 20 Mar. belatedly presented Edinburgh council’s favourable petition, claiming that had he received it earlier he would have voted accordingly, ‘deferring to their judgement’. He presented more petitions for repeal, 24, 25 Mar. He brought up Edinburgh petitions for repeal of the Malt Act, 28 Mar., and the removal of restrictions on the study of anatomy, 18, 24 Apr. 1828. He presented an anti-Catholic petition from the archdeaconry of Exeter, 24 Mar., and paired against relief, 12 May. He had charge of a petition for the prevention of fluctuations in corn prices, 24 Apr. On 22 May 1828 he defended the government’s small notes bill, which left the Scottish currency largely untouched. In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, predicted that he would vote ‘with government’ for the concession of Catholic emancipation, but he only paired in its favour, 30 Mar., having stated on the 6th that the clergy and laity of Scotland were overwhelmingly hostile to it. He presented Edinburgh petitions both for and against it, 18, 20 Mar. He thought the bodies of people who died in hospital should be exempted from the provisions of the anatomy regulation bill, 15 May 1829. His only known vote in the 1830 session was against the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., when he presented the Merchant Company of Edinburgh’s petition against renewal of the East India Company’s trade monopoly. He denied opposition assertions that the ‘lower orders’ of Scotland were suffering ‘great privation’, 15 Mar., pointing out that food prices had fallen. He presented Scottish petitions against the proposed additional duty on corn spirits, 3 May. On the 28th he spoke and was a teller against referring petitions against the Clyde navigation bill to an appeal committee, and on 10 June claimed that subsequent events had vindicated him. On the sugar duties, 3 June 1830, he remarked that opposition Members had ‘adopted the plan sometimes ascribed to ... [William] Holmes*, often called the whipper-in, for although they have been started from the same point, they do not seem to run well together’. Brougham mocked this ‘language of the kennel’.

At the general election of 1830 a late attempt to persuade the lord provost, William Allan, to stand against Dundas came to nothing. Returning thanks, he denied that Scotland was ‘neglected and overlooked’ by the Westminster administration and said that the revolution in France should be no concern of Britain’s:


In this happy land the peasant walked fearless and free as the throned monarch. Free were both while they pursued the path of order, the law and the constitution ... No rank, however high, could elevate a man above the reach of offended laws, no power, however extensive, shield him from the angry rebound of a violated constitution. That luckless hour seemed to have struck in France.23


Ministers of course listed him as one of their ‘friends’. Before voting in their minority in the decisive division on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, he asserted, in response to Hume’s claim that many Scots favoured the ballot, that the ‘general feeling’ in Scotland was hostile or at best indifferent to it and to reform in general. When Hume said that if the inhabitants of Edinburgh had the vote Dundas was ‘the last man they would send here’, he contended, on the strength of the presence on the council of 14 deacons chosen by the incorporated trades, that his elections were ‘certainly popular’. Indignation at what the Edinburgh Whig lawyer Henry Cockburn called his ‘insane’ pronouncement on Scottish hostility to reform helped to stimulate the popular campaign for it and did not escape the notice of his critics on the council.24 In the House, 13 Dec. 1830, Kennedy alleged that a return of public salaries and civil list pensions included only Dundas’s sinecures as lord register and keeper of the signet, which brought him £3,300 a year, and omitted his keepership of sasines, which boosted his income to £7,000. Two days later Dundas accused Kennedy of ‘great exaggeration and misrepresentation’, admitted to an average income of about £4,500, but said that as keeper of sasines he was liable for any damages arising out of mistakes made by the clerks. On 21 Mar. 1831 he introduced a bill to regulate the widows’ pension fund of the Society of Writers to the Signet, which lapsed on the dissolution. He presented a petition from Edinburgh chamber of commerce against the East India Company’s China trade monopoly, 29 Mar. He paired against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s English reform bill, 22 Mar., and voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831, having already informed the city council of his decision to retire at the next dissolution.25

Dundas, who was then almost 70, lived comfortably for another 14 years on his share of the spoils system. In April 1845 he complained to the prime minister Peel that as keeper of sasines he had recently been ‘deprived of a clause of compensation never hitherto denied’.26 Seven months later he died at his residence at Quarry House, St. Leonard’s, Sussex. By his will, dated 1 Apr. 1842, he left this, his London leasehold house in Grosvenor Street and the revenue of his English estate to his wife. He devised £5,000 to be invested for the benefit of his nephew William Pitt Dundas, deputy register of Scotland, subject to his wife’s life interest.27


Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Bk. of Old Edinburgh Club, xiv (1925), 180.
  • 2. Caledonian Mercury, 9 Mar. 1820.
  • 3. The Times, 14 July 1820.
  • 4. Ibid. 19 July 1820.
  • 5. Ibid. 1, 2 Feb. 1821.
  • 6. Ibid. 3 Apr. 1821.
  • 7. Ibid. 19 May, 15 June 1821.
  • 8. Ibid. 9 Mar. 1822.
  • 9. Ibid. 18 Apr. 1822, 15 Mar., 11 Apr. 1823.
  • 10. Ibid. 26 Apr. 1823.
  • 11. Ibid. 16, 17 Mar., 15 Apr., 4 May 1824.
  • 12. Ibid. 8 May 1824.
  • 13. Ibid. 9, 25 Feb., 18 Mar 1825.
  • 14. Ibid. 22, 25 Feb., 1, 15, 18, 21 Mar., 8, 18 Apr. 1826.
  • 15. Add. 40386, f. 160.
  • 16. The Times, 10 May 1826.
  • 17. Harewood mss, Canning to wife, 12 Apr. 1824; NLS mss 2, ff. 71, 73, 75, 79, 83, 91, 98, 95; NAS GD51/1/198/16/43; Caledonian Mercury, 16 June, 4 July, 19, 22, 29 Sept., 6 Oct. 1825.
  • 18. Caledonian Mercury, 25 May, 5, 8 June; The Times, 10 June 1826; Arniston Mems. 326-9; NAS GD51/1/198/16/44-46.
  • 19. Caledonian Mercury, 17 June 1826.
  • 20. Canning’s Ministry, 279.
  • 21. The Times, 23 May, 2, 18 June 1827.
  • 22. Add. 38752, ff. 75, 176.
  • 23. Caledonian Mercury, 5, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 24. Cockburn Letters, 252, 267, 272, 275, 302; Caledonian Mercury, 25, 27 Nov. 1830.
  • 25. Cockburn Letters, 305, 312; Caledonian Mercury, 6, 14 Apr. 1831.
  • 26. Add. 40564, f. 88.
  • 27. Gent. Mag. (1846), i. 312; PROB 11/2029/19; IR26/1732/75.