IMPEY, Sir Elijah (1732-1809), of Newick Park, Suss.
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Family and Education
b. 13 June 1732, 3rd s. of Elijah Impey, merchant, of Butterwick House, Hammersmith, Mdx. by 2nd w. Martha, da. of James Fraser. educ. Westminster 1739-51; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1752, BA 1756, fellow 1757, MA 1759; L. Inn 1751, called 1756. m. 18 Jan. 1768, Mary, da. of Sir John Reade of Shipton Court, Oxon., 5s. 2da. 1s. illegit. Kntd. 30 Mar. 1774.
Recorder, Basingstoke 1766-73; c.j. Bengal 1774-87, pres. sadar diwani adalat 1780-2.
After a distinguished academic career Impey, youngest son of a prosperous London merchant, practised at the bar for 17 years before being appointed the first chief justice of the newly established supreme court of Bengal. In the difficult task of introducing the principles and rule of English law into India, which he appears to have executed with ability and dedication, he came into repeated conflict with the East India Company. His intimacy with Warren Hastings, a friend since their school-days, made him a prime target for the enemies of the governor-general, and their pressure for investigation of a number of controversial episodes during his career in India led to his recall in 1783. An attempt by Burke, Francis, Elliot and other Whigs to have him impeached was thwarted in the Commons in 1788, but he carried to his grave an unsavoury reputation, which was later perpetuated, with scant regard for justice, by Macaulay.1
In 1790, Impey, who had hoped to obtain a seat in the House earlier, in order to meet his adversaries on stronger ground, canvassed Stafford against Sheridan, one of his tormentors, but got nowhere. At ‘the particular recommendation’ of Pitt, Sir Edward Dering returned him for New Romney. The story was later circulated by the Whig Morning Chronicle that Dering, on learning that Impey was to be one of the men he had contracted to bring in for £5,000 each, demanded and received an extra £1,000 for accommodating such a notorious character.2 Three days after his election Impey asked Pitt to reappoint him chief justice of Bengal, pleading ‘the exigence of my affairs’ and pointing out that his resignation in 1787 had never been made official, that none of the charges against him had been proved and that no-one had yet been appointed in his place. The request was turned down. Burke considered reviving impeachment proceedings against him and was amused to find himself taking the oaths at the same time as his quarry, but in the event Impey was left in peace.3
In the House he supported government. In April 1791 he was listed as an opponent of the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland. Opposing Grey’s motion against the Russian armament, 2 June 1791, he defended Pitt’s right to claim public confidence ‘during the pendency of a treaty’, but his assertion that Pitt had promised, in the event of war, to explain the grounds of it to the House brought a denial from the minister. He chaired the committee of the whole House on the traitorous correspondence bill, 28 Mar. 1793, and on 8 June 1795 spoke against the Whig proposal to charge the Prince of Wales’s annuity on the civil list rather than the consolidated fund. He voted against abolition of the slave trade, 15 Mar. 1796, and retired from Parliament at the subsequent dissolution.
Impey went to France in 1801 in an abortive attempt to recover money invested there before the Revolution. Detained on the resumption of hostilities, he did not secure his release until July 1804, when David Scott I*, former chairman of the East India Company, passed on to Lord Melville, first lord of the Admiralty, ‘a very affecting letter’ from Impey, in which he requested naval promotion for his second son:
While Sir Elijah was in Parliament I think you will recollect that he was a steady friend. In the court of proprietors ... there was no question in which he learnt that you took part, but he attended to. His attendance also was particular, for notwithstanding his age he stayed the debate out, however late it ended, and this in the most trying weather.4
The promotion was not forthcoming. Impey died 1 Oct. 1809.