MAXWELL, Sir William, 5th bt. (1779-1838), of Monreith, Wauphill, Wigtown

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



15 Apr. 1805 - 1812
30 July 1822 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 5 Mar. 1779, 1st s. of Sir William Maxwell, 4th bt., of Monreith and Katherine, da. and h. of David Blair of Adamton, Ayr. m. 23 Apr. 1803, his cos. Catharine, da. of John Fordyce† of Ayton, Berwick, 3s. 6da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. as 5th bt. 17 Feb. 1812. d. 22 Aug. 1838.

Offices Held

Maj. army 1802, 26 Ft. 1803; maj. Wigtown vol. inf. 1803-7; lt.-col. army 1805, ret. 1811; col. commdt. Wigtown militia 1814; maj. Wigtown yeoman cav. 1817.


Maxwell lost his left arm when commanding the Cameronians at Corunna and was wounded in the knee at Walcheren. He was an intelligent, bombastic, God-fearing man and an affectionate but overbearingly fussy father to his eldest son and heir William, born in 1805, who was briefly at Harrow but hankered after an army career. His great passion was the breeding and racing of horses, and he had a large string in training at Middleham, Yorkshire.1 As Member for his county of Wigtownshire, 1805-12, he had supported the Tory ministries of Pitt, Portland and Perceval, though his father, whom he succeeded in 1812, was a Foxite Whig; but he regarded himself as the man who, when not out of his teens, had ‘established a political independency’ in the county in defiance of the powerful Galloway interest. On the sudden death of the independent sitting Member Hunter Blair in July 1822 he came forward, as he claimed eight years later, to uphold ‘the independent interest’ against a ‘long formed’ plot by a small group of related lairds to fill the seat in rotation, even though a resumption of his parliamentary career was ‘entirely unsuited to my inclination and habits’. He easily defeated the son of one of these men, his former ally, having assured Lord Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager, who remained neutral, that ‘every day affords new proofs of the wisdom of present measures and matter to confirm my already settled principles’.2

He divided with government on the sinking fund, 3 Mar., against repeal of the house tax, 10 Mar., and for the grant for Irish glebe houses, 11 Apr. 1823. It was surely not he who voted in the Whig opposition minority for inquiry into the Irish church establishment, 4 Mar., or their majority for the Scottish juries bill, 20 June 1823. In September he agreed to let his son leave his clerical tutor in Northamptonshire and ‘remain at home and become my pupil’, but warned him that he would ‘have an instructor requiring as much instruction as you yourself do’. In February 1824 he described Edinburgh as ‘the most infernal place I ever was in’.3 He apparently returned smartly to Wigtownshire, and no trace of parliamentary activity has been found for that session, during which his son got a commission in the cavalry. In 1825, when he was reckoned to have ‘attended seldom’, he voted for the Irish unlawful societies bill, 25 Feb., and against the Irish franchise bill, 26 Apr., and the Catholic relief bill, 10 May.4 He seems to have been inactive in 1826, when he was returned unopposed for Wigtownshire at the general election. He was a cypher in the 1826 Parliament, where he divided against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827, 12 May 1828. In November 1828 he amicably acquiesced in his removal from the office of vice-lieutenant of Wigtownshire, which he had held since 1812, by the new lord lieutenant, Lord Garlies*, son of the 8th earl of Galloway.5 Two months later Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary, predicted that he would side ‘with government’ for the concession of Catholic emancipation, but he evidently did not vote on the issue. Maxwell, who by his own admission was always too nervous to speak in debate, though he possessed a fluent enough tongue in less forbidding circumstances, went abroad for the sake of his and his wife’s health and for financial reasons at some point in 1829: they were at Bagneres in southern France in September and had settled in Nice by early November.6 Maxwell remained there, apart from summer excursions to Switzerland and northern Italy, for almost five years. In April 1830 he confided to his son that ‘I never mean to offer myself as a candidate [again], nor should I last election had it not been with a view to your future success’. Warning William, who seemed to be ‘careless’ about standing, to keep this quiet and not be seduced by the Galloway family’s blandishments, he observed that if he did aspire to the county representation it could not be attained

without pains and troubles, listening without hot reply to a great deal of nonsense you will hear. In short, make as far as you are concerned every man pleased with himself. You must eat at their houses what you hate, drink when not but appear to be thirsty, flatter their wives, kiss bubbly children, and make love to the daughters. Join no party if any such exist ... I am happy to think I never did or said a thing to gain my return which I would not do again, without very much regret. To be sure I have eat[en] two large plates of broth stuffed full of parsnips, my abhorrence ... when canvassing drunk more bumpers of bad port to success to the independent interest than was according to Hoyle, but this gained my point, and perhaps left a pleasing remembrance of me.7

On 12 July 1830, having learnt of the dissolution necessitated by the death of George IV, he privately informed his son-in-law and preferred successor Hugh Hathorn of his intention of retiring and lectured William, who had evidently shown some inclination to stand:

I think you mistake the best place to become fit to make a figure in Parliament. Little is to be picked up there but severe colds and a certainty that most men’s speeches are better when said than listened to. The preparation ought to be an extended view of men, a knowledge of foreign courts and enlarged acquaintance of the world, which in London as relating to Europe or the other three quarters of the globe is seen far more obscurely than even through the medium of books, which can only teach in theory.

He advised William to stress his wish to ‘support the independence of the county’ while reserving his candidature for a future opportunity, and, on his professed political leanings, commented:

I fear ... if you have incautiously stated your determination to be an oppositionist your chance is cut ... A declared man who enlists to one side or the other is equally a slave as he who would lose a salary, who said yes when the minister expected, no when opposition is made ... No man has any right to talk of conscience who does not vote for one or the other side according to circumstances ... I have no doubt that had I stood pledged to any party, a declared ministerial candidate would have sometimes beat me ... My bias was strongly ... to ministry except on Fox’s [1806] administration, by a firm belief that had they [Whigs] come into power or longer remained, Britain would never have attained its present rank among nations.

He announced his retirement publicly soon afterwards.8

Maxwell, who alienated Hathorn by pressing him to stand, was not best pleased to hear of the return of Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw, whom he regarded as a potential Galloway ‘vassal’. When the Grey ministry came to power in late 1830 he observed sarcastically to William that ‘now that the patriotic Whigs, your favourites, have got in I suppose we shall have no taxes [and] they of course will all give up for the public good their salaries’.9 His son’s costly entanglement with more than one ‘artful worthless female’ caused him great but temporary vexation in 1831, when he toyed with the idea of dashing to Scotland to vote for Hathorn, an avowed opponent of the ministerial reform scheme, against Agnew, its equivocal supporter, but stayed put because Hathorn (who lost by one vote) did not request his aid.10 In July 1831 he wrote:

I look to the reform bill being passed, the excitement subsided and ministers in the exercise of their diplomatic functions supporting those necessary measures in our foreign and domestic policy, which difficult times produce ... Above all I wait to see with what tinsel they will adorn and make pleasing to their friends of the gutter the downfall of all the utopian promises this reform was to bring about ... I prophesy they will not be in office two sessions.11

Five months later he condemned the evils of ‘bigotry’ of all types and, conceding that a degree of reform was now unavoidable and necessary, lamented the duke of Wellington’s rash declaration against any change in November 1830, which had

lost Britain its fittest statesman and which I can’t think was expressed with thought. Had he flattered a little and offered to discuss a moderate reform he might have given what reform he liked. He would now have been England’s idol and its pilot and the tumult and scenes of devilment which are now passed ... would have been avoided and those men whose bigotry to new fashioned theories are turning away from old friendly allies ... would now be reaping the neglect they deserve.12

The spread of Dissent and lapse from piety in his own parish also appalled him:

What was, when I left home, a delightful society of friends, all striving along the same path to enter at the same gate, is now a bear garden, father divided against son, mother against daughter, all the worst passions in full operation, and can it be supposed that bigotry and total irreligion could so soon have spread its baneful influence even to the cottage fireside, blinding men’s eyes to such a degree that the hour dedicated to the lessons of wisdom of our Creator and Redeemer on the Sabbath evening is now spent by the youths in idleness and mischief.13

His wife died in December 1832 and was buried at Nice.14 He returned to Scotland in August 1834, by which time William had married and settled down, though financial worries continued to harass him. On the eve of the general election of 1835 he tried unsuccessfully to talk William out of his resolution ‘never’ to stand for Wigtownshire and encouraged him at least to exert himself to keep up the family interest.15 In June 1835, about to go abroad again and anticipating death there, he disposed of ‘some trifles of personal property’ and assured his son, who he hoped would ‘find my affairs so managed as to give you little trouble’, that ‘if ever I have said or ever done a harsh or unkind thing to you it was not done from want of love’.16 He did return, but he died at Monreith in August 1838. By his brief will, dated 5 Apr. 1825, he left all his property to William, his sole executor. His personalty was sworn under £1,500 in the province of Canterbury, but his Scottish estate was proved under £10,688.17

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. NLS, Maxwell mss Acc 7043/8, Maxwell to son [1821], 28 May, 29 Aug., 22 Sept. 1822; HP Commons, 1790-1820, iv. 573-4.
  • 2. Maxwell mss, Maxwell to son, 6 Apr., 12 July 1830, 8 Sept. 1832; NAS GD46/4/127; GD51/1/198/28/15; Glasgow Herald, 5 Aug. 1822.
  • 3. Maxwell mss, Maxwell to son, 18 Sept. 1823, 7 Feb. 1824.
  • 4. Session of Parl. 1825, p. 476.
  • 5. NLS Acc 6604/1, Garlies to Maxwell, 11 Nov., reply, 16 Nov. 1828.
  • 6. Maxwell mss, Maxwell to son, 18 Sept., 6 Nov. 1829.
  • 7. Ibid. Maxwell to son, 6 Apr. 1830.
  • 8. Ibid.; Caledonian Mercury, 26 July 1830.
  • 9. Maxwell mss, Maxwell to son, 26 Aug., 10 Sept., 2 Dec. 1830.
  • 10. Ibid. Maxwell to son, 13, 22 May, 10, 19 June 1831.
  • 11. Ibid. Maxwell to son, 14 July 1831.
  • 12. Ibid. Maxwell to son, 5 Dec. 1831.
  • 13. Ibid. Maxwell to son, 5 Jan., 3 Mar. 1832.
  • 14. Gent. Mag. (1833), i. 95.
  • 15. Ibid. Maxwell to son, 26 June, 21 Aug., 17 Dec. 1834.
  • 16. Ibid. Maxwell to son, 25 June 1835.
  • 17. Gent. Mag. (1838), ii. 441-2; PROB 11/1904/770; IR26/1492/943.