BALFOUR, John (1750-1842), of Trenabie, Orkney; Charlton Grove, Blackheath, Kent, and 18 Curzon Street, Mayfair, Mdx

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. 6 Nov. 1750, 1st s. of William Balfour of Trenabie and Elizabeth, da. and h. of Rev. Thomas Coventry of Newark, Notts. educ. Aberdeen Univ. 1766-70. m. at Calcutta, 10 Nov. 1783,1 Henrietta, da. of Benjamin Sullivan of Dromeragh, co. Cork, wid. of Col. Alexander Maclellan, s.p. suc. fa. 1786.2 d. 15 Oct. 1842.

Offices Held

Writer, E.I. Co. (Madras) 1772; coroner and clerk to the justices 1776; accountant-gen. of mayor’s ct.; factor 1778; jun. merchant 1780; auditor of public accts. 1784-8; sen. merchant 1785; member, bd. of trade 1786; left service 1795.3


Balfour, who had acquired considerable wealth in India, was an Orkney laird, but from about 1804 he lived in England, in or near London. He entrusted his estate affairs, which included a substantial stake in the kelp trade, to his nephew, Captain William Balfour, a naval officer. He had had an undistinguished and personally dispiriting spell as Member for Orkney in the 1790 Parliament.4 At the time of the dissolution in early 1820 he was in his 70th year and in occasionally poor health. By the terms of the electoral pact concluded in 1818 between the county families of the Balfours, Baikies and Traills, on the one hand, and the Whig Thomas Dundas†, 1st Baron Dundas, on the other, it was the turn of the former to nominate the Member. Balfour was ‘not solicitous to obtain a seat’, but was persuaded to be put in nomination.5 He remained in England throughout the campaign. He was opposed by the eldest son of Sir William Honyman, Lord Armadale (SCJ), against whom the coalition had been formed. Three days before the election he was irritated to discover that his supporter James Baikie, in a correspondence with the Liverpool ministry’s lord advocate, Sir William Rae*, had presumed to ‘vouch for my political principles, that I am a thorough paced ministerialist’, but he decided to ‘restrain my feelings’.6 He was returned by five votes in a poll of 33 freeholders.7

Balfour did not anticipate being able to take his seat for ‘some time’, as by late April 1820 he had ‘not yet ventured abroad on foot, though the weather has been very favourable’. When he went to the House to take the oaths, 21 June, he discovered that ‘as I was not present at the general election (when my qualification would have [been] sworn to), I must now specify the nature of that qualification and on what property I stand enrolled as a freeholder’. His nephew sent him ‘a specification of the qualification’ and he was able to take the oaths and his seat by 11 July, when he reported to Captain Balfour that the chancellor of the exchequer, Vansittart, had refused to ‘make any difference in the duties on malt made from Scotch and English barley’, but had conceded a drawback of ‘6d. a bushel on malt made from bear or big’. He could not say whether bills in progress for ‘putting the Scotch fisheries more on a footing with the Irish’ would meet all the requirements of his constituents, but he hoped that ‘the alterations in the bounties will be beneficial, if not entirely satisfactory’. Armed with ‘a very good memorial’ from Shetland on the subject, he was able to ‘get inserted’ in one of the fishery bills ‘a clause giving the same bounties as in Ireland for oil made from whales, and from other fish caught on the coasts of Scotland’, which ‘the Shetland gentlemen had represented as being of some consequence to them’. On 12 Sept. 1820 he notified a constituent that ‘wishing to disengage myself as much as possible, I have placed all my Orkney concerns under Captain Balfour’s exclusive management, without reference to me’.8

Balfour, whose attendance record was poor in this period, gave general but not undeviating support to the government.9 He divided for restoration of Queen Caroline’s name to the liturgy, 23 Jan., and paired in the same sense, 13 Feb., but voted with ministers against the opposition censure motion, 6 Feb. 1821. He was absent from the division on Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821. He presented an Orkney landholders’ petition for repeal of the additional malt duty, 30 Apr. 1821.10 He voted against more extensive tax reductions, 11, 21 Feb., and abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar., but was in the minority for repeal of the salt duties, 28 June 1822. On 29 July 1822 he moved to throw out the bill to halve the duty on barilla, which he said would do untold damage to kelp producers and manufacturers and was a source of great anxiety in Orkney, where people were threatened with ‘beggary and ruin’. His amendment was negatived, but in committee Vansittart agreed to postpone implementation of the reduction to January 1823.11 The following month Captain Balfour informed him that while ‘we have no relief to expect from government in our kelp trade, it is very gratifying to find that the misfortune to which we supposed ourselves exposed by their measures is not so great as we imagined’, as experts considered that kelp could easily be made almost as valuable as barilla for the manufacture of soap.12 Balfour divided with government against inquiry into the parliamentary franchise, 20 Feb., and Lord John Russell’s reform motion (as a pair), 24 Apr., an amendment to the national debt reduction bill, 13 Mar., repeal of the assessed taxes, 18 Mar., and inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr. 1823. His only known vote in 1824 was against reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 26 Feb. He presented an Orkney petition for repeal of the duty on notaries’ licences, 12 Apr. 1824.13 He paired for the second and third readings of the Catholic relief bill, 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. Soon afterwards he was asked by leading Orkney freeholders to give his backing to their resistance to the current legal claim of Shetlanders to a share in the franchise, but his nephew advised him to remain neutral.14 Balfour divided against Russell’s resolution condemning electoral bribery, 26 May 1826.

When a dissolution had been anticipated the previous year he had been told by William Balfour that in accordance with the pact of 1818, which had been renewed (for two elections) after the 1820 election, they were in honour and from long term self-interest bound to support a Dundas candidate at the next one, even though one of their former allies, Samuel Laing†, a Whig, had broken ranks. Laing solicited his support, but Balfour replied that he had ‘for several years declined taking generally any part in the political contests for the county’ and left his ‘friends’, who he believed planned to support the Dundas man, free to act as they wished.15 Captain Balfour reckoned that the most they could do was insist on a firm pledge of neutrality on the Shetland question from the Dundas candidate, Captain George Heneage Dundas*, and, wishing to wash his hands of county politics after the next election, recommended strict neutrality between the contending parties in future.16 Balfour was sounded by George Veitch, on behalf of a group of his supporters, as to whether he would consent to be put in nomination at the next general election, or support George Traill* of Hobister if he had no wish to come in again. Balfour replied:

I never have and have not now a wish on my own part to come into Parliament. I have no object. Neither I or any relation of mine has derived or are deriving in future any benefit from my being there. My share is the trouble of attending to the duties of the situation, with the satisfaction of thinking I may have been ... useful to the interests of the county ... I would not accept a seat fettered by engagement or obligation of any kind whatever, excepting the usual one of discharging its duties according to my best judgement and ability. If I come again into Parliament I must come in as before free and independent, and should a majority of the freeholders consider me on these terms a fit person to represent them again, and I at the time feel myself still capable of taking charge of their interests, I ought not to decline the honour intended me. But it would seem presumptuous to decline that honour now when it is not in my option, for I understand my friends are engaged to support Captain Dundas, an engagement to which they will adhere if he be a candidate ... I wish all good to George Traill ... But good wishes are all I can offer him.17

In February 1826 Traill revived the notion of trying to persuade Balfour to stand again at the next general election as the best hope of defeating a potential hostile coalition, but William Balfour dismissed the idea. In late April, when Traill found him in good ‘bodily health’ and ‘in promptitude and acuteness equal to any man of thirty years’, he positively refused to be put forward, even with the blessing of the Dundas party. He duly retired from Parliament at the dissolution and remained neutral in the election, which ended in Captain Dundas’s unopposed return after Laing’s late withdrawal.18 The freeholders present at the election meeting voted him thanks for his services.19

Soon afterwards there was talk of another approach for Balfour to stand at the next election, but William, relaying this news, commented that it could be ‘of no further importance than as the spontaneous offering of respect and good will from the worthiest among your countrymen’.20 Balfour, who was virtually blind in his right eye by the end of 1826, made it clear to his nephew and Traill in May 1827 that he would never stand for Parliament again, if only on account of ‘old age with its accompanying infirmities’.21 A year later he expressed his hostility to the claim of the Shetlanders to a share in the franchise and authorized his nephew to oppose it in his name.22 He gave his blessing to the purchase of the Honyman property at Graemsay.23 At the 1830 general election he approved the successful candidature of Traill, who reported that he was ‘well and quite alert in mind, more so than any person I have met with at his time of life’.24 Balfour advised Traill in the early stages of his parliamentary career: for example, he persuaded him to vote against the Wellington ministry on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830 (but Traill turned up too late for the division), and gave him guidance in his dealings with the Grey ministry on the glass duties and the kelp trade.25 Traill formed the initial impression that Balfour, like himself, approved of the ministry’s reform scheme in principle, but he seems to have been mistaken, for it became clear that Balfour and his nephew agreed that it went too far, especially in enfranchising £10 proprietors in Scotland. He was, however, content to see Traill, who voted for reform, returned again in 1831.26 In 1832 he exhorted his nephew to take action to ensure prompt and regular payment of rents by his tenants, as ‘irregularity ... if indulged, will soon grow into an unconquerable habit’; but he was unfailingly generous to William, who had recurrent financial problems. After the passage of the Reform Acts, he told William that ‘from old friendship, as well as personal regard’, he would be reluctant to ‘thwart’ Traill’s candidature for the new constituency of Orkney and Shetland, but was

decidedly of opinion that the interest of Orkney, in competition with that of Caithness [where Traill lived] and Shetland, has been lost sight of. Had an Orkney man without bias been its representative (and if a reformer, so much more likely to succeed with a reforming administration) he would have insisted that Shetland (if it could not have a separate representation) instead of its being saddled on Orkney to the injury of this county, should be joined to Caithness, which even thus would still be favourably treated, perhaps beyond its just claims, by having an entire representation instead of an alternate one. This was neglected, and the inference is plain.27

On 1 Oct. 1832 he wrote to William:

I feel myself getting very old, though not knowing my age or birthday. Such memorable events cannot, I presume, have passed unchronicled. If there be in existence a register of them, such as an old family bible, I shall be obliged by your giving me an extract.28

He survived for another ten years, dying in October 1842, three weeks short of his 92nd birthday. By his will, dated 1 June 1838, he gave his wife an annuity of £3,000, in addition to the proceeds of their £28,200 marriage settlement, and his homes in Kent and Mayfair. He left the residue of his personal estate to his nephew, who succeeded him in the entailed Orkney estates.29

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Orkney Archives, Balfour mss D2/17/1; Bengal Past and Present, vii. 168.
  • 2. Scots Mag. (1786), 569.
  • 3. Compiled from information in C. Prinsep, Madras Civilians, 6-7; H.D. Love, Vestiges of Old Madras, iii. 107, 164, 321; Balfour mss D2/4/10.
  • 4. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 125-6.
  • 5. Orkney Archives D14/1, G. Traill to J.T. Urquhart, 16 Feb.; Balfour mss D2/27/7, Balfour to Baikie, 8 Mar. 1820; NLS mss 11, ff. 17, 79.
  • 6. Balfour mss D2/27/7, J. to W. Balfour, 5 Apr. 1820.
  • 7. Inverness Courier, 23 Mar., 20 Apr. 1820.
  • 8. Balfour mss D2/11/9, J. to W. Balfour, 22 Apr., 21, 23 June, 11 July, 12 Aug. 1820.
  • 9. Session of Parl. 1825, p. 449.
  • 10. The Times, 1 May 1821.
  • 11. Ibid. 30 July 1822.
  • 12. Balfour mss D2/25/4, W. to J. Balfour, 6 Feb. [1823].
  • 13. The Times, 13 Apr. 1824.
  • 14. Balfour mss D2/24/1, W. to J. Balfour, 18 May [1825].
  • 15. Ibid. W. to J. Balfour, 14 June, 22 Aug.; D2/3/18, Laing to J. Balfour, 24 Aug.; D2/28/11, reply [Aug. 1825].
  • 16. Ibid. D2/24/1, W. to J. Balfour, 6, 12, 23 Sept. 1825.
  • 17. Ibid. D2/28/11, Veitch to Balfour, 30 Sept., reply, 6 Oct. 1825.
  • 18. Ibid. Traill to W. Balfour, 21 Feb., reply, 5 May; D2/3/10, W. to J. Balfour, 25 Feb., 3 June, 26 June; D2/8/13, Traill to W. Balfour, 29 Apr. 1826.
  • 19. Ibid. D2/3/10, W. to J. Balfour, 13 July 1826.
  • 20. Ibid. W. to J. Balfour, 29 Aug. 1826.
  • 21. Ibid. same to same, 26 Nov. [1826]; D2/28/11, J. to W. Balfour, 5 May; D2/12/6, same to same, 26 May 1827.
  • 22. Ibid. D2/12/6, J. to W. Balfour, 10 Apr. 1828.
  • 23. Ibid. D2/7/12, W. to J. Balfour, 17 Oct., Traill to same, 24 Oct. 1827.
  • 24. Ibid. D2/8/9, Traill to W. Balfour, 11 June, 16 July 1830
  • 25. Ibid. same to same, 16 Nov. [1830], 5 Feb. 1831.
  • 26. Ibid. same to same, 12 Mar.; D2/3/14, W. to J. Balfour, 17 Mar., 12 Apr., 11 May 1831.
  • 27. Ibid. D2/20/11, J. to W. Balfour, 21 Feb., 20 July 1832.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. PROB 11/1969/660; IR26/1600/833.