ADAIR, Robert (1763-1855), of 24 Great Marlborough Street, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



18 June 1799 - 1802
1802 - 1812

Family and Education

b. 24 May 1763, o.s. of Robert Adair, serjt. surgeon to George III, of St. James’s, Westminster by Lady Caroline Keppel, da. of William Anne, 2nd Earl of Albemarle. educ. Westminster 1773; Göttingen Univ.; L. Inn 1780, called 1785; European tour 1788-9. m. 27 July 1805, Angélique Gabrielle, da. of the Mq. de l’Escuyer d’Hazincourt, s.p. suc. fa. 1790; GCB 3 Aug. 1831.

Offices Held

Minister plenip. to Austria May 1806-8, to Turkey July 1808, ambassador extraordinary Apr. 1809-10; PC 23 July 1828; spec. mission to Belgium Aug. 1831-5, to Prussia July 1835-6.


Of Adair’s father, who became surgeon general of the army in 1783, it was said ‘a man of more honour and more worth has seldom lived’. According to a current pun, when objection was made to Adair’s being sent on diplomatic assignments because he was not of a sufficiently good family, the answer was ‘c’est le fils du plus grand saigneur de l’Angleterre’. The pun was superfluous: Adair was proud of his Keppel connexions on his mother’s side and publicly defended a member of that family against Edmund Burke’s aspersions. He was a precocious child: ‘at six years old, in the Wilkes and Liberty riots, he broke his father’s windows—because he was a placeman’. (His father was in his fifties when Adair was born.)1

By the time he was 20, thanks to the Keppel connexion, he was an intimate of his cousin Charles James Fox and his circle, in which he later remembered Fitzpatrick as ‘the most agreeable’ and Hare as ‘the most brilliant’, while Burke at first terrified him by replying to some well-meant question of his about the wild parts of Ireland, ‘You are a fool and a blockhead, there are no wild parts in Ireland’.2 He was a founder-member of the Whig Club in 1784 and joined Brooks’s, 30 June 1788. Had Fox taken office as Foreign secretary in the crisis of 1788, ‘Bob’ Adair would have been his under-secretary: as it was, he embarked on a tour of Europe (Berlin, Vienna and St. Petersburg) to observe the effects of the French revolution outside that country and to prepare himself for a diplomatic career: he had been educated at a German university and, though afterwards called to the bar in England, did not long practise.

On 17 June 1791 Charles Whitworth, the British ambassador at St. Petersburg, reported the ‘suspicious’ arrival of Adair, ‘scarcely a month from London’ and armed with letters of introduction to leading people furnished by Count Woronzov at Vienna. A Dutch observer noted Adair’s anxiety during his stay at a Berlin inn, where his hosts thought him mad, because he strode back and forth in his chamber, saying over and over again, out loud, ‘Shall I stay or not?’. Whitworth suspected he was sent to hinder the negotiations with Russia then under way, conducted by Pitt’s envoy Fawkener. The latter reported to the Foreign secretary of Adair, 18 June, ‘His connexions, as you know, are all in opposition, and he is himself a very warm and eager party man. I can hardly believe that he has any other object here than to satisfy his curiosity.’ On 1 July Fawkener reported that the Empress had received Adair ‘with infinitely more civility than [usual]. She spoke to him of Lord Keppel and Mr Fox and treated him the whole day with the greatest attention.’ On 12 July he had the same tale to tell. This was probably the basis of a claim, in 1843, that Adair was ‘nearly the only man living who is supposed to have had the good graces of the Empress Catherine’; it was also the basis of the allegations repeatedly made that Adair was ‘the individual whom Fox and the opposition party sent over to Petersburg ... to thwart and undermine Pitt’s administration with the court of Russia’. Whitworth, however, reported on 21 July 1791 that Adair had failed if he had tried to ‘counteract the effect of a negotiation’, and added that such people, known for their ‘virulent opposition’ should not have been presented at court. Fawkener observed laconically, 28 July: ‘Mr Adair’s mission, I understand, closes with mine’. The Foreign secretary, who was in receipt of these reports, thought that it might have been basically an intrigue of Count Woronzov’s, 1 Aug., and added, ‘I regret extremely that Fawkener has thought it necessary to confine to his private correspondence with me the details of Adair’s presentation and representation at Zarsko Zeloe. Some trace of so extraordinary a transaction ought to remain in the Office.’ By the end of the month, Lord Auckland at The Hague could dismiss the matter with a ribald reference to ‘a present made to Mr Adair’, which he thought might enliven a debate on the subject in the House. Plans were nevertheless made to intercept Adair on his return via Paris. He emerged unscathed, it seems, because Pitt was influenced by Lord Thurlow not to ‘expose’ Fox on that occasion, though he ‘had the proofs in his hands’.3

When the Portland Whigs sought a rapprochement with Pitt’s administration, Adair was anxious to prevent the schism in the party. He remained a follower of Fox, with whom he was in constant communication on affairs of the day.4 In February 1793 he drew up a manifesto of loyalty to Fox for the Whig Club and in 1795 published A Whig’s apology for his consistency in answer to Burke’s Letter to a noble lord, defending Fox and his other cousin the Duke of Bedford against Burke’s criticisms. He was, according to Lord Minto, ‘a great buff and blue squib maker’; he had made contributions to the Rolliad and wrote for the Morning Chronicle. When A Letter from Burke to the Duke of Portland appeared in 1797, containing 54 ‘articles of impeachment against Fox’ and accusing Adair of a ‘high treasonable misdemeanour’ in going to St. Petersburg, he replied in the Morning Herald of 15 Feb., doubting whether Burke was the author and denying the charge. (He had to deny it again, when the bishop of Winchester’s Memoir of Pitt appeared in 1821.) In 1802 Adair had a pamphlet published entitled The Letter of C. J. Fox to the electors of Westminster dated 23 Jan. 1793 with an application of its principles to subsequent events. In it he maintained that events had proved Fox right and the Portland Whigs wrong.

Adair was no less a butt for the ridicule of Pittite satirists. His appearance must have helped: his nephew described him as ‘a tall thin man with a sallow complexion and a melancholy cast of features, who was known in the family as the "knight of the woeful countenance"’. Like his cousins Bedford and Albemarle, he wore his hair à la guillotine, and had neither powder nor the pigtail (this was held to be a symbol of their sympathy with sans culotterie).5 Canning found his whole history amusing, from the German university

(There, first for thee, my passion grew

Sweet Matilda Pottingen

Thou wast the daughter of my Tu-

tor, Law Professor of the U-

niversity of Gottingen)

to the mission to the Empress:

Fresh missions of the Fox and Goose

Successful treaties may produce,

Though Pitt in all miscarries.

Canning also satirized Adair in the Anti-Jacobin, 28 June 1798, as ‘Bawba-Dara-Adul-Phoolah’, in a ‘Translation of a letter in oriental characters’, while Canning’s friend Frere called him ‘that silly coxcomb’.6

In 1796 Adair had contested Camelford on the Duke of bedford’s interest, without success. Fox looked out for an opening for him and arranged for his return in 1799 on Lord Thanet’s interest. Adair, when present, voted regularly with opposition. He rarely spoke in the House, his first efforts being to promote the Russell Square improvements bill for his patron in April 1800. Lady Bessborough wrote of him in September 1798 as ‘though not a very pleasant ... certainly a well informed and rather a clever man, a good deal above the common run’, In 1802, having received a legacy at the late Duke of Bedford’s wish, for which ‘vigilant benevolence’ he expressed public gratitude, he also came into Parliament for Camelford, being treated by the 6th Duke as one of his family. Like Fox, he visited Paris, where he passed, according to Lady Bessborough

for an English philospher. When he puts himself in an attitude they say ‘Ne lui dites rien, c’est qu’il pense’, but Fred says he is quite gay and in a new style since he came to Paris where he rather gives it out that he is the chef de l’opposition in England, but unambitious like the Abbé Sieyès, contending himself with the consciousness of dictating and leading everything, without being talked of like his creatures Fox, Grey and Sheridan–in short that Mr Pitt prompts and directs Mr Addington while he instructs Mr Fox, etc. Poor opposition! This is a bad account of it–I think we are not quite come to that yet.

She added an anecdote of Adair

in one of his dangerous fits and a little drunk ... holding forth upon the state of slavery of England and the destruction of all freedom, Camille Jourdain said to him ‘En vérité, Monsieur, quand un Anglais vient à Paris nous parler de l’esclavage de l’Angleterre, c’est pousser l’ironie trop loin’7

Adair’s loyalty to Fox through thick and thin led to his challenging Sheridan for ‘damning’ Fox while they were guests at Woburn. Lady Bessborough reported in September in 1803: ‘The quarrel between Adair and Sheridan was terrible. Adair had truth and honour on his side, but alas! they were in bad hands. He is a sad arguer, with anyone and with Sheridan he had no chance.’ Adair, who had been an intermediary between the Prince of Wales and Fox in 1803, spoke in the House on 18 Apr. 1804 in Fox’s absence, declaring that opposition had no objection to the postponement of a motion on the army of reserve suspension bill. Between 1802 and Pitt’s death in 1806, he voted with opposition on every motion of importance and in July 1805 was again an intermediary in feelers for a coalition between Pitt and Fox.8

In 1805 after an absurd courtship, during which he threatened to drown himself, Adair, said to be found attractive by all women, made a disastrous marriage. When the Grenville administration was formed early in 1806 and Adair appeared in ‘a new great coat and new hat’, Fox could not ‘attach him personally to himself’, at least at present, because he had a French wife. Adair appeared ‘a distracted man’ according to the Duchess of Devonshire, who reported him as syaing ‘if it is my accursed marriage that had done this I will blow out my brains: I have eductaed myself for the place - I knew he always intended me for it, and I care for nothing else. Money is no object to me.’ His wife, labelled ‘Talleyrand’s spy’, freely admitted ‘J’ai des oncles, des cousins partout’ and allegedly tried to bribe the duchess to reveal cabinet secrets. Minto reported, 6 Feb. 1806, that he was to have Adair as secretary at the Board of Control, but Fox sent him as minister to Vienna, without instructions, and he used to recall Fox saying: ‘I have none to give you. Go to Vienna and send me yours.’ His journey was subsidized by the Duke of Bedford. Lady Bessborough commented, 10 May: ‘it is rather a job ... he goes ostensibly to receive Sir Arthur Paget’s papers, etc. but in fact pour être quitte de sa femme’. Of his mission he wrote a justifactory Historical Memior, published in 1844.9

It was a first expected that he would vacate his seat in Parliament, lest ’the government lose the benefit of his vote’, and Tierney or Viscount Duncannon were spoken of for the seat, not to mention others subsequently, but his patron wished him to retain it. Too poor to cut a figure at Vienna and with ‘his hopes and prospects buried with Fox’, he did business ‘very well’, according to Lord Grenville.10 Every effort was made to prevent his destitute wife from joining him, but his new chief Howick, who was anxious to promote him, complained of her imprudent manoeuvres, 9 Feb. 1807. Adair, who had reminded Howick of Fox’s expressed intention to promote him amdassador, claimed that he found it ‘impossible to support his office with dignity’ and defended his wife, despite their determination to separate on grounds that he was unable to support her either. On 24 Mar. 1807 Howick obtained royal consent for Adair’s receiving the salary of envoy extraordinary from the date of his original appointment.11

When the ministry fell and Adair was in desperate straits, he was asked by his old critic Canning, who intended to replace him by Lord Pembroke, to stay on. After consulting his friends and assuring them that he was stilll a party man he accepted the offer. Meanwhile his ‘terrible wife’ arrived in Vienna. Adair wrote to Lady Bessborough informing her of this, September 1807, and expecting his ‘recall and consequent ruin’.12 Instead Adair parted from her and came home when war was declared, only to be sent further away in June 1808, to negotiate with the Porte. There was some indignation in Whig circles and on this occasion he wrote to his patron Bedford, asking to vacate his seat in Parliament, 2 June, so that some use might be made of it: he would be sorry, he aded, if his vote were neutralized, as it had been the week before, ‘in any future discussion of Catholic claims’. The duke asked him to hold on to his seat for fear of a contest at Camelford.13

Adair became amdassador at Constantinople in the following year, having concluded peace with the Porte. On his return in 1810, he resumed his parliamentary activities in October; since the death of Fox, whom he never ceased to admire and revere, his enthusiasm had diminished, but he continued to act with opposition, playing peacemaker between the Whigs and the Prince of Wales in December. He could not be rallied to an extra-parliamentary meeting to promote constitutional reform in 1811, but voted for Catholic relief, 31 May 1811, 24 Apr. 1812. It appears that the Prince had talked of a pension for him ‘on the first establishment of the Regency’, but Adair had asked him to defer his intentions ‘until they should be recommended to him by his own political friends’. When he was offered £2,000 p.a. in October 1811, he was reluctant to accept it, partly because he feared it would operate as a ‘retaining fee’ for future services in Russia, and partly because he did not wish to vacate his seat without giving his support to the Catholic claims during the next session. After consulting the Whig leaders, he accepted the pension on condition of his remaining in Parliament to vote on the Catholic question. This may have been a euphemism for his making arrangements about his debts. On 10 Feb. 1812 he spoke in defence of Charles Arbuthnot* embassy at Constantinople.14

An attempt was made by the Regent, 5 Mar. 1812, to entince Adair from his party, when ‘the Prince proposed to him to go to Sweden, first to make peace there, and afterwards to proceed to Petersburg ... and there establish a new system of Continental co-operation against France. Adair declined the mission.’ Thomas Grenville reported that the Prince pressed Adair ‘to have any foreign employment’, but he refused ‘to take any connexion with this ministry’. In 1812 his patron was obliged to sell his interst at Camelford and Adair was left without a seat, but obtained his pension. Nor did he return to Parliament, though his interest in Whig politics continued. In November 1812 he was a go-between in an unsuccessful negotiation for a colaition between Lord Grenville and Grey and Wellesley: it turned on whether Canning was to be included by the latter in his plans or not, and if he was, Adair discovered, many prominent Whigs such as Bedford were hostile to the idea.15

Adair, who rather reluctantly declined a mission to Vienna in 1813, resumed his diplomatic career when the Whigs came to power in 1830, being sent to avert a collision between the new Belgian kingdom and the Dutch, which he did, and was ‘shot at like a Holkham rabbit’ for his pains. He shone in latter-day Whig society, having outlived the memory of his follies and become, in sprightly old age, no longer ‘poor Adair’, but a link with the past, for he was ‘a great store of anecdotes of bye-gone days’. When he died on 3 Oct. 1855, aged 92, ‘having preserved his faculties, and especially his remarkable memory quite to the last’, Greville the diarist wrote:

He was the last survivor of the intimate friends of Fox and ... he preserved a boundless veneration for his memory, and the greatest pleasure he had was in talking of Fox and hois contemporaries, and pouring forth to willing circles of auditors anecdotes and reminiscences of the political events with which he had been mixed up, or of which he had been cognisant in the course of his long life. This he did in a manner quite remarkable at so advanced an age, and he never had any difficulty in finding listeners to his old stories, which were always full of interesting matter and related to the most conspicuous characters who flourished during the reigns of George III and George IV.16

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1790), i. 282; Ld. Albemarle, Fifty Years of My Life, i. 225; Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, i. 152; A Whig’s Apology for his Consistency (1795).
  • 2. Greville Mems. ed. Strachey and Fulford, i. 215.
  • 3. HMC Fortescue, ii. 100, 103, 114-15, 129, 134, 142, 144, 149, 178, 181; Raikes Jnl. iv. 322; cf. Annual Reg. (1791), 202; W. Suff. RO, Hervey mss, Liverpool to Hervey, Thurs. evening [1803]; Moore Mems. ed. Russell, iv. 267.
  • 4. Add, 47565, ff. 159-273; 53804, f. 117; Portland mss PwF33.
  • 5. Albemarle, loc. cit.
  • 6. Ibid.; Anti-Jacobin, 28 June 1798; Canning and His Friends, 142-3.
  • 7. Chatsworth mss, Fox to Devonshire, 4 June 1799; Letter of C.J. Fox to the Electors of Westminster (1802), p. v; Leveson Gower, i. 222, 351, 411.
  • 8. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 22; Leveson Gower, i. 432; Add. 47565, ff. 261-8; PRO 30/8/107, f. 90.
  • 9. Leveson Gower, ii. 79, 196, 216; Lady Bessborough and Her Family Circle, 133; Chatsworth mss, Duchess of Devonshire to Hartington, [29 Jan.], to her mother n.d. [c. Feb. 1806]; Croker Pprs. i. 293; D.M. Stuart, Dearest Bess, 135; NLS mss 11060, f. 23; Blair Adam mss, Adair to Adam, Tues. evening, 11 Mar. [1806]; Albemarle, i. 229; Grey mss, Adair to Grey, 13 Jan. 1831; Hist. Mem. of a mission to the court of Vienna in 1806 (1844).
  • 10. HMC Fortescue, viii. 422; Grey mss, Concannon to Adam, 16 Oct., Bedford to Howick, 7 Oct., 8 Nov. 1806; Leveson Gower, ii. 296; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2264; Lady Bessborough and Her Family Circle, 154.
  • 11. Grey mss, Howick to Bedford, 11 Nov. 1806, to Adam, 9 Feb., Adair to Howick, 26 Feb.; Blair Adam mss, Adair to Adam, 20, 28 Feb. 1807; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3409.
  • 12. Add. 51609, Adair to Holland, 29 May 1807; Leveson Gower, ii. 288, 296.
  • 13. Albemarle, i. 231; Add. 51549 Lady Holland to Grey, [27], 30 May, 6 June; Grey mss, Grey to Holland, 19 June 1808.
  • 14. Prince of Wales Corresp. vii. 2780; Add. 51609, Adair to Holland, n.d., 31 Oct.; Grey mss, Adair to Grey, 30 Oct., 10 Nov., 8 Dec.; Blair Adam mss, Bedford to Adam, 10, 24 Nov. 1811, Adair to Adam, Mon. [1812].
  • 15. HMC Fortescue, x. 225, 228, 299, 313-14; Fortescue mss, Grenville to Grey, 10 Nov.; Add. 51609, Adair to Holland, 5 Nov.; Grey mss, Adair to Grey, 28 Oct., 8 Nov. 1812.
  • 16. Grey mss, Adair to Grey, 8 Jan. 1813; Greville Mems. ed. Strachey and Fulford, vi. 95; vii. 164; Gent Mag. (1855), ii. 535; DNB.