SHAW, James (1764-1843), of America Square, London.

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



1806 - 1818

Family and Education

b. 26 Aug. 1764, yr. s. of John Shaw, farmer, of Riccarton, Ayr by Helen, da. of David Sellars of Craigie, Ayr. educ. Kilmarnock g.s. unm. cr. Bt. 2 Sept. 1809.

Offices Held

Alderman, London 1798-1831, sheriff 1803-4, ld. mayor 1805-6, chamberlain 1831-Apr. 1843.

Member, Scriveners’ Co.; maj. 7 London vols. 1798, lt.-col. 1803; pres. St. Bartholomew’s hosp. 1806-31; treasurer, Hon. Artillery Co. 1810-18, vice-pres. 1818-29, pres. 1829-d.: dir. W.I. Dock Co. 1805, Imperial Assurance Co. 1812, Commercial Dock Co. 1814; vice-pres., Society of Shipowners 1817.


At the age of 17 Shaw left his unpromising environment and through the influence of an elder brother already in America, joined the commercial house of George and Samuel Douglas in New York. He returned three years later and was made a junior partner in the firm’s London branch, in which he eventually became a full partner.1 He was a signatory to the London merchants’ declaration of loyalty to Pitt in 1795. He was a member of the shipping interest of the East India Company and ambitious of becoming a director of the Company, in which he had Lord Melville’s encouragement; but in 1803 he met with disappointment, and in January 1807, when a vacancy arose, admitted to Lord Grenville that he was not now so eager, ‘the favour of the public and particularly my fellow citizens having of late ... gratified almost every wish of my heart’.2 In 1805-6 he had been lord mayor, gaining reputation by his insistence on the precedence of the lord mayor of London on public occasions when the King was absent,3 and at the end of his term of office he was returned to Parliament for the City, without reference to politics in his address and in second place at the poll. He had been in the running in 1802. In 1807 and 1812 he was placed third.

Shaw normally supported each successive administration, though he was an infrequent speaker. In June 1807 Perceval nominated him to the finance committee and he secured the House’s preference over Burdett. On 27 July 1807, as a dock company director, he defended the London port improvement bill. He objected to Combe’s London petition against the orders in council, 10 Mar. 1808, as unrepresentative of the meeting at which it was mooted. He said he was convinced that on this ‘as well as on the merits of his Majesty’s present servants, and particularly on the merits of the expedition to Copenhagen ... in the population of England 99 out of 100 were decidedly in their favour’. Whitbread ridiculed this piece of political arithmetic: Shaw, he alleged, had similarly approved of late ministers when they were ‘the present ministers’. Shaw sought and obtained a baronetcy from the Duke of Portland in 1809. After voting with ministers on the address, 23 Jan. 1810, he joined opposition in favour of the Scheldt inquiry, 26 Jan., 23 Feb., but reverted to government on 30 Mar. The Whigs listed him ‘Government’ at that time. He felt obliged to vote against Burdett’s committal to the Tower, 5 Apr., and to support his colleague Combe’s remonstrance against ministers’ refusal to allow the City address in favour of Burdett to reach the King, 7 May 1810, even if it was not supported by the majority of the livery. (He had shown no sympathy for Burdett in debate on 4 Apr. and had been criticized for hostility to him as sheriff in the Middlesex election of 1804.)4 He voted against parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810, vetoing a reformers’ dinner at the Guildhall a year later, but for sinecure reform, 17 May 1810, 4 May 1812 and 29 Mar. 1813. He was reported to be intending to vote against ministers on the Regency restrictions, 31 Dec. 1810, but did not do so.5 On 1 Mar. 1811 he was appointed to the select committee on commercial credit and on 5 June to that on the cotton trade. He voted against Stuart Wortley’s motion, 21 May, and against Canning’s motion for Catholic relief, 22 June 1812: he subsequently voted consistently against it. On 23 Feb. 1813 he defended the London and Westminster petition against it: on this occasion, the Speaker corrected him for stating the City’s right to petition the House through the sheriffs to be indisputable—it was a courtesy.

At the election of 1812 Lord Melville asked Shaw to stand for Kirkcudbright, but he refused. He appeared on the Treasury list of supporters after the election. From 1812 to 1815, he spoke mainly on London and mercantile subjects. On 16 Mar. 1813 he failed to steer the firearms bill through its second reading. He was the leading corporation spokesman against the London prisons bill, claiming that the City magistrates were already doing all they could to reform Newgate, 28 Mar. 1814. His colleague Curtis was active to the same end but Farington the diarist was informed that Shaw had ‘more cunning’ and ‘more ability’ than Curtis.6 He was also City spokesman on the new post office bill in 1815 and the London merchants’ spokesman against the proposed tax on shop and warehouse windows, 20 Feb. 1815, 21 Feb. 1817.

In 1815, under increasing pressure from his constituents, Shaw became more independent. He presented a common hall petition and supported others from London against the protectionist corn bill, 24 Feb. 1815; having sat on the select committees, he spoke and voted steadily against it. He rebuked Vansittart, 8 Mar. 1815, for telling the House ‘not to consider the opinions of furred gowns and golden chains as authoritative upon a subject like the present’. On 29 June 1815 he voted for the Duke of Cumberland’s marriage grant, having also opposed inquiry into the Regent’s expenditure, 31 May. In February and March 1816 Shaw presented and defended several London petitions against the renewal of the property tax, claiming that the whole city was unanimously against it; he accordingly proposed the substitution of a loan without interest and voted against it, 18 Mar. 1816. He had voted with ministers on the army estimates, 6 and 8 Mar., although he claimed to support military retrenchment on 25 Mar. He voted with ministers on the civil list, 6, 24 May. He did vote for Althorp’s motion against the leather tax, 9 May. In December 1816 he was active as a magistrate in suppressing the Spa Fields riot.7 On 7 Feb. 1817, when he voted with ministers on the composition of the finance committee, he nevertheless defended a London petition for economy and retrenchment. He objected only to that part of it which anticipated parliamentary reform, which he regarded as ‘visionary’. He spoke, brought in a common hall petition and voted in the same month against the suspension of habeas corpus, as also in June 1817. On 15 Apr. 1818 he was in the majority against the ducal marriage grant, for which Lord Liverpool had sought his support. He had sat on the Poor Law committee for two sessions.

Shaw retired for health and business reasons at the dissolution in 1818; he had met with ‘considerable disappointments’ in winding up his ‘concerns in America’. He may also have thought little of his chances of re-election in the face of the increasingly radical complexion of the London livery, or grown weary of their dictation, and he can scarcely have pleased the friends of government. He died 22 Oct. 1843. He ‘never was known to have asked for or received either place or emolument for any of his numerous family and connexions, for whom he had otherwise to make provision’. He was, moreover, ‘at all times a pattern for the performance of his official duties, punctual to all his appointments, and precise in all his arrangements’. He died unmarried, but by a second patent of 1813 the baronetcy passed to his heir at law, his sister’s son John, who took the name of Shaw. Shaw was the patron of ‘many deserving young persons’: indeed ‘the walls of his drawing and dining rooms were crowded with the portraits of many of those objects of his patronizing care’.8

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Richard Brown / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. DNB; Gent. Mag. (1843), ii. 654; (1844), i. 656; City Biog. (1800), 60.
  • 2. C. H. Philips, E.I. Co. 320; SRO GD51/1/557/16; The Times, 18 Jan., 30 Mar., 30 Apr., 4 Nov. 1803; Fortescue mss, Shaw to Grenville, 15 Jan. 1807.
  • 3. Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3165.
  • 4. Ibid. v. 4126; J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1808), 365.
  • 5. Add. 51549, Lady Holland to Grey [31 Dec. 1810].
  • 6. Farington, v. 138.
  • 7. Pellew, Sidmouth, iii. 157.
  • 8. Morning Chron. 2 June 1818; Gent. Mag. loc. cit.; PCC 1843, f. 800.