GORDON, Sir William (1726-98), of Garendon Park, Leics.
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Family and Education
b. 1726, 1st s. of William Gordon, merchant and planter of St. Mary’s, Kingston, Jamaica, by Susanna Gordon. educ. Glasgow Univ. 1739-45; Leyden 1745-6; Grand Tour 1746-?7. m. 2 July 1776, Mary, da. of Thomas Allsopp of Ashbourne, Derbys., wid. of Samuel Phillipps of Garendon. cr. K.B. 3 Feb. 1775.
Minister to the Diet at Ratisbon Apr. 1764-5; envoy to Denmark 28 June 1765, minister at Brussels Nov. 1765-77; clerk comptroller, Board of Green Cloth, Sept. 1780-Mar. 1782.
Gordon was born in Jamaica of Aberdeenshire parents, cousins of the Gordons of Hallhead. At Leyden he was a fellow student of Charles Townshend, John Wilkes, James Johnstone, William Dowdeswell and Alexander Carlyle, but was ‘too young and too dissipated’ to attend their serious discussions.1 With Dowdeswell he made the tour of Italy, Sicily and Greece; after further travels in France and Germany he probably went home to Jamaica, but after his father’s death disposed of his interest in the family plantations and mercantile concerns to his two brothers, and settled in London. He may have been the William Gordon of Marlborough Street who unsuccessfully contested Sudbury in 1761 and, claiming friendship with ‘Sir Harry Erskine, Mure and Campbell’, applied to Bute for support in his petition.2
Bon viveur, rake, and humorist, he was an intimate friend of Lord Sandwich who in 1764 appointed him envoy to Ratisbon. Despite his ribald comments on his own mythical qualifications, Gordon ‘really liked the trade he had taken by the hand’, and was anxious to earn the approval of his patron, who early in January 1765 offered to obtain his transfer from Ratisbon to Copenhagen.3 Gordon wrote to Under-Secretary Richard Phelps, 14 Jan. 1765:4 ‘Copenhagen is damned expensive and I am damned poor ... but as that place may lead to preferment I am ready to go there or anywhere else.’ Shortly before Sandwich’s dismissal, Gordon was appointed assistant to the Copenhagen minister,5 but did not take up duty, and in November received from the Rockingham Administration a better post in Brussels.
In England in 1776 he married a wealthy widow whose first husband had left her £7,000 a year and all his estates for life. He wrote to Sandwich, 13 July 1776:6 ‘May Heaven long preserve Lady Gordon say I ... I have been pretty active all my life ... but the getting to Garendon Park is the best thing I have yet done.’ Unwilling to return to Brussels, he pressed North for preferment, and sought to enter Parliament.
Will Suffolk, will North, force me to quit this charming abode? ... Before I left town I swore to them both I would not after 14 years banishment be thrown aside like an old slipper; reste à voir what they will do for me.7
Hearing that Peter Taylor was dying, he urged Sandwich in July to carry out his friendly intentions and ask North for the Government interest at Portsmouth. But Taylor did not die; and Gordon wrote to Sandwich, 26 Sept. 1776:
I have adhered to the advice that both you and Weymouth gave me, which was not to give up my post, but always to say I was ready to go abroad, for if I once gave it up without getting something I should be sur le pavé ... But one thing is very clear to me that my Principal will either make me resign or go abroad very soon unless my friends interfere and save me.
A few days later he was officially informed that he was destined for Sweden; but managed to avoid the Swedish appointment; seems to have returned for a time to Brussels; resigned in 1777; and on Taylor’s death entered Parliament.
Long hostile to ‘those canting hypocritical rebellious scoundrels of Bostonians’,8 Gordon in his maiden speech on 5 Dec. 1777 advocated coercive measures until ‘America had laid aside her claim to independence’.9 Horace Walpole records that in the debate on North’s conciliatory proposals, 17 Feb. 1778:10
Governor Johnstone ... called on Sir William Gordon ... who had been in America, to testify that the Americans had not formerly thought of making themselves independent. Sir William, a man of very blundering head, thus unexpectedly called on, had one of those momentary inspirations which sometimes light on idiots ... and ridiculed him with much humour, wondering that the Governor who so boldly attacked the highest personages, should descend to him.
Gordon remained closely attached to Sandwich, reporting to him parliamentary gossip and trends of opinion, but by the end of 1779 had lost faith in North, who had disregarded his claims for preferment. He wrote to Sandwich, 18 Jan. 1780:
I am no stranger to the views of the Opposition ... They are dangerous to particulars, they are dangerous to the Constitution ... It is now therefore become the duty of every man in the community to stand forth and counteract their schemes. But, my dear Lord, can a few Members in the House of Commons do this without a leader that is active, resolute, and decisive? Has Lord North a friend in office (one or two excepted) that is not lukewarm in his cause? Will his Majority of Mutes save him ... He must alter his conduct or he must sink himself and those that are joined with him. I will say nothing with regard to his behaviour to me; you have called upon me and I will most certainly be in town at the meeting of Parliament, and when there will give him all the active assistance I can, for I cannot act a lukewarm part. But I will be candid and honest to declare that the first Member of the House of Commons that kisses hands I shall ask for the Chiltern Hundreds.
Sandwich sent this letter to Robinson, who replied 22 Jan. 1780:11
Sir William Gordon is impatient, indeed too much so, for impatience might defeat the best intentions which are held for him. I return you his letter because I think it would injure him to show it to our friend.
Gordon continued to support Administration, and in 1780 was returned again on the Government interest for Portsmouth. On 5 Sept., a few days before the election, he received the lucrative place of clerk comptroller of the Green Cloth, and his loyalty to North was assured. He spoke, 20 Nov. 1780, against the vote of thanks to the former Speaker, Sir Fletcher Norton,12 and consistently voted with Administration to the end except on the censure motions of 8 and 15 Mar. 1782 when he was absent through illness.
Under the new Administration Gordon’s place was abolished. In August 1782 he had several conferences at Buxton with Loughborough, whose scheme for a Fox-North Coalition he approved, but thought impracticable. Loughborough reported to William Eden that Gordon held Shelburne ‘in great contempt’ and believed that ‘the country gentlemen ... bitterly repented their folly and would rally under Lord North’s standard if he would set it up’.13
Gordon voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, and supported the Coalition. In July he vacated his seat so that the Coalition might bring in Thomas Erskine. His price was a pension ‘on the foreign ministers’ list’ of £1000 p.a., and although the King was believed to be unwilling to grant it, the warrant was passed 17 Oct. 1783.14
Gordon retired to Garendon where he and his wife were active enclosers and, taking full profit from their liferent possession, cut down trees to the value of £9,500, which they invested for their own benefit.15 When his wife died in 1796 he lost control of the estate.
Gordon died 26 Jan. 1798.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest
- 1. Carlyle, Autobiog. 168, 176.
- 2. 1 Apr. 1761, Bute mss.
- 3. Gordon to Sandwich, 6, 23 July 1764, Sandwich mss; Stowe mss 258, ff. 188, 213; 259, f. 54; J. M. Bulloch, Gay Gordons, 207-19.
- 4. Stowe mss 260, f. 120.
- 5. Sandwich to Walter Titley, 28 June 1765, Stowe mss 261, f. 80.
- 6. Sandwich mss.
- 7. Ibid. 13 July 1776.
- 8. Gordon to Sandwich, 25 Aug. 1775.
- 9. Debrett, viii. 130.
- 10. Last Jnls. ii. 117.
- 11. Sandwich mss.
- 12. Debrett, i. 107.
- 13. Auckland Corresp. i. 18, 19.
- 14. T. Orde to Shelburne, 17 July 1783, Lansdowne mss; T52/72/502.
- 15. Nichols, Leics. iii. 802, 844, 855, 906, 919, 1017, 1022.