JOHNSTON, James (1801-1841), of Straiton, Edinburgh and Champfleurie, Linlithgow

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



1830 - 1832

Family and Education

bap. 15 Aug. 1801, o.s. of James Johnston of Straiton and Mary, da. of William Baillie of Linlithgow.1 educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 1820. unm. suc. fa. 1814. d. 4 Sept. 1841.

Offices Held


Johnston’s grandfather Alexander Johnston was served heir to his father, also Alexander, in the Straiton estate, just south of Edinburgh, on 27 Aug. 1766. He also had ‘a very good estate’ at Champfleurie, near Linlithgow.2 Alexander Johnston was succeeded on 22 Jan. 1796 by his brother James, the father of this Member, who was served heir to him and his grandfather on 14 Nov. 1814, at the age of 13. He attended Oxford University. At the general election of 1826 he was chosen as delegate for Linlithgow in the interest of the Edinburgh banker Adam Hay, the successful candidate for Linlithgow Burghs.3 In 1830 he stood for the venal district of Stirling Burghs against a supporter of the Wellington ministry and secured the votes of three of the five burghs. After his return, which was particularly popular with the operatives and weavers of Dunfermline, he declared that he would enter Parliament as ‘a free and independent man, who would in all cases vote according to his conscience’: he was ‘under no pledge to government’ and ‘ministers had nothing to expect from him’. He observed that recent events in France had ‘taught us the value of the constitution under which we live’.4

Ministerial head-counters evidently knew little of him, and they listed him among the ‘good doubtfuls’; but he voted in Daniel O’Connell’s minority of 34 for repeal of the Irish Subletting Act, 11 Nov., and the opposition majority on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, when the government fell. He did not hide his light under a bushel, and on 19 Nov. he delivered what John James Hope Vere* described as a ‘curious’ speech, ‘more like a soliloquy than anything else’, in support of Lord Nugent’s bill to promote the employment of the labouring poor, citing evidence from letters to a friend to support his argument that Sussex, where labourers were combining to extort higher wages, was in ‘a most alarming state’.5 Later that day he gave notice of a motion proposing the appointment of a select committee of Members ‘of long standing’ to draw up instructions for the guidance of new Members balloted to serve on election committees, but he withdrew it, 22 Nov. He presented petitions for the abolition of slavery from United Associate Congregations in Dunfermline and Linlithgow, 23, 25 Nov., 2 Dec. He presented one from Edinburgh hammermen for reform of the municipal government of the royal burghs, 7 Dec., and next day brought up a like one from the incorporated trades of Stirling, but was ruled out of order by the Speaker when he referred to a comment by another Member on a previous day. On 9 Dec. he urged the Grey ministry, who had ‘hitherto acted discreetly’, to include wholesale reform of the ‘corrupt’ Scottish burghs in their impending scheme. Observing that he had been returned by 70 men for a constituency which should have at least 3,000 electors, he claimed to ‘have more constituents than any [other] Member ... for I consider myself the representative of the people of Scotland’. He presented several petitions for Scottish parliamentary and municipal reform, 11, 15, 18, 23 Dec. 1830, when he expressed his ‘high opinion of ministers, and ... cordial approval’ of their early measures. However, he disapproved of their proposed tax on steamboat passengers, 28 Feb. 1831. It was almost certainly he rather than the anti-reformer Sir James Carnegie, Member for Aberdeen Burghs (as attributed by the Mirror of Parliament), who, presenting reform petitions from two of his constituent burghs, 16 Feb., urged ‘the necessity of reform in [Scottish] administration’, and went on:

I make no imputation against the present ministry ... The country is very much obliged to them for what they have done ... I hail ... the repeal of the duty on coals ... but ... a great deal more remains to be done ... The distress of the poor must be relieved; it is not known ... by the aristocratic portion of the community, who are wallowing in wealth. Look into the dwellings of the poor, not only in the country, but ... in London, and you will see the most abject state of poverty ... The state of the country is awful ... Look at the failings and backslidings of men ... We are doing evil; we forget our duty ... I would entreat government to remember the recent events which have taken place in France ... Scotland has hitherto been contented ... but it is impossible to say how long she will continue so ... If something be not immediately done to relieve the country from its present dreadful condition, the kingdom will be in a state of anarchy and confusion ... The people will not always ... implore the House to relieve them. An hour of retribution will arrive, when the voice of the people must be heard and attended to. The higher orders ... must make some sacrifice to relieve the distress of the poor.

On 9 Mar. he declared himself ‘friendly’ to the English and Scottish reform bills, though he admitted to reservations about the £10 householder franchise, and said that ‘the people generally seem to be overjoyed at the prospect of reform’. He presented numerous petitions in favour of the scheme, 11, 14, 17, 18, 22, 25 Mar. He voted for the second reading of the English reform bill, 22 Mar., and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. At the ensuing general election he was returned unopposed for the burghs.6

He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced English reform bill, 6 July, and at least twice against the adjournment, 12 July 1831. The following evening he deplored the opposition’s behaviour and, taking up one Tory’s reference to Cromwell, observed that ‘we have now many Cromwells, who oppress us much more than one could with his Round Parliament’. He was reminded by the chairman to speak to the question before the House, but he went on to remark that the Wellington ministry had ‘acted very much like Catiline’. The chairman terminated these ramblings. He divided steadily for the details of the reform bill until early August; he paired for the proposal to unite Rochester with Chatham and Strood, 9 Aug., and for clause 15, 17 Aug. On 4 Aug. he endorsed the prayer of a petition from Linlithgow council urging ministers to expedite the progress of the measure, complaining that ‘delays have been interposed ... which ought not to have been permitted, and with which the people ... have great reason to be dissatisfied’. He voted for the passage of the bill, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish measure, 23 Sept. He had on 8 July given notice that he would propose that burgh councillors elected for life before the bill was introduced should retain their parliamentary votes; nothing came of this. He said on 25 July that the country’s present high taxation had its origins in ‘the ruinous wars in which we so long engaged’ and argued that repeal of the corn laws without compensatory relief of the agricultural interest from its peculiar burdens would condemn it to ‘certain ruin’. He presented petitions against the use of molasses in brewing and distilling, 27 July, 5 Aug. He was in the ministerial majority for Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. 1831, and on the 19th replied to Sir Richard Vyvyan’s denunciation of political unions as ‘lodges of carbonari’ with the claim that in Birmingham and Manchester their effect had been ‘to tranquillize the minds of the people’ rather than to incite violence. Urging ministers to bring in the reform bills again as soon as possible, he argued that as a result of ‘the spread of intelligence’ during the last 100 years, the people had ‘a moral strength which entitles them to the share of influence in the constitution which they ask for’.

Johnston voted for the second reading of the revised English reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831. He again divided for its details, and voted for its third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He sided with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12, 16, 20 July, relations with Portugal, 9 Feb., the malt drawback bill (unlike a number of Scottish reform Members), 2 Apr., and the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr.; but he was in Hunt’s minority of 31 for inquiry into Peterloo, 15 Mar., and the minority on the salary of the Irish registrar of deeds, 9 Apr. Protesting against the ‘compulsory assessment’ provisions of the Scottish cholera prevention bill, 15 Feb., he said that having been ‘a great deal on the continent’ he had witnessed ‘many of the local and infectious diseases’ there, but that he ‘never saw, in any continental city, so much poverty and distress as in St. Giles’s and Whitechapel’. He wanted it to be ‘generally made known that cleanliness and sobriety are the best preventatives’ against cholera and urged ministers to repeal the duty on soap. On 15 Mar. he moved for the appointment of a select committee to investigate cholera, with a view to its addressing the king for the repeal of all quarantine regulations, which ‘cramp the trading and manufacturing interests’, had created much distress and had made Britain ‘a bugbear to the whole world’. He failed to find a seconder. He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry undiluted reform, 10 May. His comment on the assault on the duke of Wellington, 23 May, that while Scots respected his military achievements, they might not be sorry to see him dead in order to terminate ‘his political course, which in Scotland is deemed to be mischievous’, caused a minor stir. He divided for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May. On 1 June he reluctantly acquiesced in the proposal to throw the burghs of Peebles and Selkirk into their counties and voted against a Conservative attempt to increase the Scottish county representation. He divided against another opposition amendment to the Scottish reform bill, 15 June, but was in the minority for a tax on Irish absentee landlords to provide permanent relief for the poor, 19 June 1832. In August, ‘as having been a supporter of the present government since they entered office’, he successfully applied to the colonial secretary Lord Goderich for a place at Sierra Leone for a friend.7

Johnston, who never joined Brooks’s Club, declared his candidature for Stirling Burghs for the 1832 general election, but he wrecked his chances of success by speaking at the Edinburgh public meeting, got up by the Conservatives, which carried resolutions condemning the government’s bellicose attitude to Holland over the independence of Belgium, 22 Nov. Claiming that he would not have attended had he considered it a party meeting and that he had been worried by the government’s stance and its likely effect on commerce for some time, he said that he still supported ministers on other issues but deemed them to have broken their pledge of non-interference in the affairs of foreign powers. He was savagely denounced by the Liberal press as ‘a renegade and an apostate’. He retorted in a public letter and a statement to his constituents that ‘it is measures and not men which I look to support’, denied that he had ever been ‘a radical of the most levelling order’, as alleged, insisted that as he was also ‘not a Whig’ he could not fairly be accused of apostacy and argued that it was ministers who had ‘become Ultra Tories’ in their Belgian policy.8 At the general election in December 1832 he was opposed in the burghs by the 4th earl of Rosebery’s son and heir Lord Dalmeny, a mainstream Liberal. On the hustings, Johnston stated that he was ‘not a thick and thin supporter of the present ministry, and would never lend them his countenance in pursuing bad measures’. He was well supported by the newly enfranchised Dunfermline electors, but Dalmeny beat him by 127 votes in a poll of 863.9 Johnston contested Linlithgowshire as a Liberal (or ‘the mere cat’s paw of the treasury’, as The Times saw it) at a by-election in June 1838, but lost to a Conservative by 120 votes in a poll of 540.10 He died, unmarried and intestate, at his London house in Bury Street, St. James’s, in September 1841. Administration of his personal effects, which were sworn under £6,000 within the province of Canterbury, was granted the following month to Stair Hathorn Stewart of Physgill, Wigtownshire, the husband of his sister Margaret and father of Robert Hathorn Stewart (1824-99), who succeeded to the entailed Scottish estates and took the additional name of Stewart.11

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. The b. date of 15 Sept. 1802 given in J. Foster, MPs for Scotland, 197, is that of James Johnston (d. 1886) of Kincardine, Perthshire, who was admitted an advocate, 14 Dec. 1824.
  • 2. Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 229.
  • 3. Caledonian Mercury, 8 July 1826.
  • 4. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 31 July, 7, 26 Aug.; Glasgow Herald, 27 Aug. 1830.
  • 5. Hopetoun mss 167, f. 191.
  • 6. Caledonian Mercury, 23, 28, 30 Apr., 26 May 1831.
  • 7. Add. 40879, ff. 174, 177.
  • 8. Caledonian Mercury, 22, 26, 29 Nov., 1 Dec. 1832.
  • 9. Ibid. 26, 29 Nov., 17, 22 Dec. 1832.
  • 10. The Times, 9, 15 June 1838.
  • 11. Gent. Mag. (1841), ii. 442; PROB 6/217/373.