GORDON, Lord William (1744-1823), of Mamore, Inverness.
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Family and Education
b. 15 Aug. 1744, 2nd s. of Cosmo George, 3rd Duke of Gordon [S], and bro. of Lord George Gordon. educ. Harrow 1757; Eton 1758-60; Grand Tour 1762-3. m. 1 Mar. 1781, Hon. Frances Ingram Shepherd, da. and coh. of Charles, 9th Visct. Irwin [S], 1da.
Lt. 89 Ft. 1759; capt. 37 Ft. 1764; res. 1769.
Dep. ranger St. James’s and Green Parks 1778- d.; v.-adm. Scotland 1782-95; receiver gen. duchy of Cornwall 1817- d.
While still a schoolboy Lord William was given a commission in the regiment of his step-father, Staats Long Morris, but preferred fashionable London life to military duty. Handsome, popular, and ‘esteemed by the British court, one of the most accomplished young noblemen of the age’,1 he resigned from the army in January 1769 when he eloped to Scotland with Lady Sarah Bunbury, wife of Sir Charles Bunbury and sister of the Duke of Richmond.2 After a few months Lady Sarah returned in disgrace to her brother’s house, and Lord William, lampooned in the scurrilous press and ostracized by society, left England in August 1770 vowing never to return. With ‘his hair cut close, a knapsack on his back, and no other companion than a very big dog’, he intended walking to Rome, and his movements for the next three years are uncertain.3 By 1774 he had returned to London and resumed his life as a man of fashion with Lord March and his friends.4 He had little money and was largely dependent on his brother the Duke of Gordon, who was anxious to rehabilitate him and bring him into Parliament. But when the Duke, in 1777, offered to raise a regiment under the command of Lord William, the King contemptuously vetoed the appointment:5 ‘I can never think of giving Lord William Gordon the rank of lieutenant colonel ... he has not the smallest claim to military rank.’
When William Gordon of Fyvie ‘stole a march’ on his kinsmen, and secured the regiment for himself, the Duke, highly incensed, protested to North and the King, and offered to raise another corps. To placate him North, in February 1778, secured the King’s approval of a scheme to purchase for Lord William the place of deputy ranger of St. James’s and Green Parks from the incumbent, Captain Shirley, ‘a bargain’, wrote Horace Walpole, ‘so very advantageous to the latter, that it was supposed the Government really paid the charge to soothe Lord William and the Duke, his brother, for the refusal of their new regiment to the other’.6 Eventually, in April 1778, North prevailed upon the King to approve the raising of a Fencible corps with the Duke as colonel and his brother second in command.
In April 1779 Gordon at last obtained a seat, when after long negotiation between the Duke and Lord Fife he succeeded Arthur Duff in Elginshire. His only recorded speech was made on 23 June 1779 when he spoke ‘against parts of the bill for augmenting the militia, although approving the principle’.7 A consistent supporter of Administration, he was acutely distressed by the conduct of Lord George; visited him in the Tower after the riots and during his trial in 1781, and seemed by his harassed and dishevelled appearance more of a gallowsbird than his brother.8
His own position was not affected, and he was returned unopposed for Elgin in 1780. The English Chronicle wrote of him in 1781:
He possesses that kind of ability with which nature has benevolently supplied the more impotent order of her beings ... a quick perception in all the modes of applicable adulation, and an intuitive sagacity in discerning the most direct and effectual roads to preferment ... He is a constant attender at St. James’s on every vacancy, and is polite enough to be on all occasions the most obedient humble servant to command to the premier and all his colleagues in Administration
A heavy gambler, deep in debt, he achieved financial stability in 1781 by his marriage to an heiress, a ward in Chancery, despite the opposition of Lord Chancellor Thurlow.9 In 1782 his fortunes were further improved. On the death of Simon Fraser, North, fearing that the Duke of Gordon would try to bring in Lord George for Inverness-shire, suggested to the King that Lord William might be transferred there from Elgin:10
If his Majesty would permit Lord William to hold the office of vice-admiral of Scotland, his seat would be vacated and the family could not in that case refuse an arrangement to exclude Lord George.
Lord William’s mother-in-law, Lady Irwin, urged that the office be held by him personally and not in the name of the Duke, but the King objected: ‘The appointment ... will give well grounded disgust to the peerage of Scotland, he not being one of them and certainly his private character not being much in his favour.’ Nevertheless, in view of North’s anxiety to ensure the support of Henry Dundas and his Gordon connexions, the King was prevailed upon to agree and Lord William kissed hands on 1 Mar. On North’s fall he did not transfer to Inverness-shire but was re-elected for Elgin, 25 Apr. 1782.
Gordon did not vote on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, nor on Fox’s East India bill, 27 Nov. Robinson, in his survey prepared in December shortly before the change of Administration, wrote under Elgin:11
Lord William Gordon will certainly come in again. He acts at present and with propriety with the present Administration ... But ... there are hopes that in a future Parliament, holding the offices he does, he would be pro, and it may reasonably be expected that he would give his assistance, with attention, to get the seats at Horsham.<