BURGE, William (c.1786-1849), of 7 New Square, Lincoln's Inn and 50 Wimpole Street, Mdx.

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



14 Mar. 1831 - 1832

Family and Education

b. c.1786, 1st s. of John Burge, stocking maker, of Castle Cary, Som. and Elizabeth, da. of Rev. Benjamin Milward1. educ. Blundell’s 1799-1801; Wadham, Oxf. 29 Mar. 1803, aged 16; I. Temple 1803, called 1808. m. (1) bef. Nov. 1818, Helen Grace Murray (d. 19 Aug. 1839), at least 5s. (2 d.v.p.) 2da.;2 (2) 11 Aug. 1841, Margaret, da. of Rev. Archibald Alison, minister of Cowgate chapel, Edinburgh, s.p. suc. mother 1804. d. 12 Nov. 1849.

Offices Held

Att.-gen. Jamaica 1816-28, agent 1830-47; KC 27 Dec. 1834; bencher, I. Temple 1835, reader 1844, treas. 1844-5; commr. of bankrupts (Leeds) 1845-7.

Recorder, Winchester.


Burge came from a Somerset family active in the local textile industry in the eighteenth century. His paternal grandfather William Burge (d.1778) and his father, whose dates of birth and death remain uncertain, were stocking makers and maltsters at Bruton and Castle Cary, whence John Burge, against whom bankruptcy proceedings were instigated in 1808 (and finalized in 1815) moved to Bath. Burge retained until 1847 certain Thomas family properties in Evercreech devised by his mother.3 On his call to the bar he went out to Jamaica, where he built up an extensive practice and was joined in 1818 by his younger brother Benjamin Milward Burge, who died at Spanish Town, aged 23, the following year. His first marriage brought him property in the island and the ownership of some 130 slaves. His post as attorney-general was worth less than £700, which he later complained was scant reward for its ‘onerous duties’. He and chief justice William Scarlett were pelted with stones on leaving the court house following the acquittal of Augustus Beaumont, the proprietor of the Tinkler newspaper, on a charge of libel against the governor in 1823; and he was a party that year to the decision of the Jamaican authorities to deport as undesirable aliens two free coloureds, Louis Lecesne and John Escoffery, who claimed to be British citizens. Their complaints and demands for redress were taken up in the Commons by the Whig and abolitionist Stephen Lushington, who, when seeking inquiry, 16 June 1825, accused Burge of concocting for the governor a bogus retrospective defence, ‘founded upon documents which had nothing whatever to do with the merits of the case’.4 An investigative commission sent to Jamaica the following winter vindicated the authorities, but Lushington disputed their verdict. With the aid of William Courtenay*, he persuaded Serjeant John Bosanquet to report that Lecesne and Escoffery had been illegally deported and were entitled to compensation. Making it a resignation matter, Burge returned to England, and defended his conduct in a Letter to Sir George Murray, published in January 1829.5 He was then a defendant (with William Perratt) in protracted ‘writ of error’ litigation, and practised as an equity draftsman at the English bar, where he built up a good practice as an advocate before the judicial committee of the privy council on colonial issues.6 The duke of Wellington’s ministry (like the Whig lord chancellor Brougham subsequently) declined to make Burge a judge, an appointment he felt his Jamaican service merited. In 1830 he secured the island’s agency in London, worth £1,500 a year, and, as the assembly’s mouthpiece and a member of the standing committee of West India planters and merchants, he began to make an aggressive presentation of their case against a precipitate abolition of slavery.7 He made a ‘fruitless attempt’, instigated by the West India committee’s chairman Lord Chandos*, to overturn the controlling Carrington interest at Wendover at the general election of 1830, but in March 1831 Sir Edward Kerrison* returned him on a vacancy for Eye, where an anti-reformer was required.8

Burge divided against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar., and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. He had recently attended highly publicized meetings on manumission with the colonial secretary Lord Goderich;9 and in the House, 15 Apr., he protested that the valuable interests of the colonies were being ‘sacrificed to the popular clamour which ignorance and mistaken and misdirected zeal have excited’ and opposed Fowell Buxton’s motion for the immediate abolition of colonial slavery. He argued that as slaves were a form of freehold property enshrined in law, compulsory manumission would be a denial of justice and threaten the security of other property; and, taking issue with the colonial under-secretary Lord Howick, he deplored the government’s proposals to give preferential commercial treatment to colonies whose legislatures encouraged manumission. Later that year, after collecting evidence to prove the inaccuracy of Lushington’s statement that Jamaican coloureds were ready to emancipate their slaves immediately and unconditionally, which provoked uproar in the island, he threatened the colonial office with the prospect of Jamaica’s secession from the Empire.10

An editorial in the Suffolk Chronicle of 20 Apr. 1831 criticized Burge’s stance on slavery, but failed to jeopardise his election for Eye that month.11 He divided against the reintroduced reform bill at its second reading, 6 July, for adjournment, 12 July, and to make the 1831 census the criterion for English borough disfranchisements, 19 July. He presented an anti-reform petition from Eye that day and protested with Kerrison on the 21st against its disfranchisement. He denied that Eye (which in 1832 retained one seat) was a ‘rotten borough’ and declared his ‘deep-rooted and decided opposition’ to the bill as a whole. He voted to postpone consideration of the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July, upheld the right of the bill’s conscientious opponents to use every legitimate means to delay its progress, 4 Aug., and supported Hume’s scheme for colonial representation, 16 Aug. He favoured the total disfranchisement of Evesham because of its proven corruption, 14 Sept. He divided against the bill’s passage, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish reform bill, 23 Sept. He voted against the revised reform bill at its second reading, 17 Dec. 1831, against its committal, 20 Jan., the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He divided against the Irish reform bill at its second reading, 25 May. He voted against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July, and for inquiry into the effects of smuggling on the glove trade, 3 Apr. 1832.

He had postponed his motion on the foreign slave trade at the leader of the House Lord Althorp’s request, 13 July 1831, and concentrated on opposing the government’s sugar refinery bill which permitted foreign sugar to be refined in Britain, without safeguarding the colonial trade from ‘unfair’ competition from Brazilian and Cuban producers. Howick objected to producing certain details in the returns Burge ordered of orders sent out for the emancipation of slaves belonging to the crown, 17 Aug.; and, revising his motion, 18 Aug., he accused ministers of deliberately releasing and circulating dispatches from Goderich to the governor of Jamaica Lord Belmore, which showed the latter in a bad light. When, later that day, Hume questioned the payment of the £11,000 balance of the £16,000 authorized as compensation for Lecesne and Escoffery, Burge stubbornly defended his part in the affair and insisted on the legality of their deportation. He did so again when the grant was carried (by 117-12), 22 Aug. On 7 Sept. he opposed the duty on Cape wines as a breach of faith and complained that Britain’s colonial policy was being subordinated to her foreign interest. He condemned the proposed renewal of the Sugar Refinery Act as an act of ‘gross injustice’ to the colonies and a direct encouragement to perpetuation of the foreign slave trade; but his attempt to refer it to a select committee, which ministers had feared might be carried, was narrowly defeated (by 77-73), 12 Sept. He vainly urged ministers to drop the plan, 22, 28 Sept., and attacked their ‘cold and heartless policy’, but lost his inquiry motion that day (by 125-113). Calling for the abandonment of the sugar refinery bill, 30 Sept., he complained that the suggested inquiry into the commercial state of the West Indian colonies was ‘nothing more or less than an expedient resorted to for the purpose of creating delay’ and to ‘soothe the irritable feelings of the colonies with the pretence of taking their distress [whose causes were well known] into consideration’. He found little support for adjournment when the select committee was proposed, 6 Oct., and, giving way, was named to it that day (and again on 15 Dec.), and testified before them on the planters’ increasing distress, 16 Feb. He had resumed his attack on the sugar refinery bill, 7, 13 Oct. 1831, but thanked ministers on the 12th for the ‘humanity’ of their emergency measure sanctioning the free import of American flour to Barbados and St. Vincent following the devastation caused by the recent hurricanes. He applauded the convention with France on the slave trade, though he thought it might have been made more effectual, 6 Feb., and rebutted Hume’s criticism of spending on the colonial military establishment, 17 Feb. 1832. He consulted the colonial office on the 20th about the Jamaican slave insurrection and called for additional information on the matter in the Commons later that day. He wanted to see a Lords select committee investigate slavery, but Lords Holland and Seaford, whom he consulted, had reservations. He persuaded ministers (with a promise to ‘abstain from anything like vexatious opposition’) to postpone consideration of the sugar duties until the evidence submitted to the Commons select committee became available, and welcomed the proposed £100,000 grant for hurricane relief, 29 Feb.12 He supported Chandos’s unsuccessful attempt to reduce the sugar duties, an act of ‘substantial justice’, 7 Mar., and took exception on the 9th to the government’s decision to make financial relief for the colonies conditional on their legislatures enforcing the order in council of 2 Nov. 1831 for the amelioration of the condition of the slaves. He had failed to provoke ministerial disclosures and, realising that the Jamaican reply had not been received, he moved for information on the colonial response to the November directives, 15 Mar. Althorp’s statement, 23 Mar., that government would extend aid by way of loans to Barbados and Jamaica, on account respectively of the hurricanes and the insurrection, and continued uncertainties concerning the government’s slavery policy damaged Burge’s reputation, and his furious protests and threats were increasingly ignored. On 5 Apr. he attended but did not address the London West India planters’ meeting, which passed resolutions attributing distress to the anti-slavery fever, attacking ministerial policy and demanding a full inquiry into colonial slavery. Howick turned down his requests for a resumé of the latest intelligence from the West Indies, 13 Apr., and his complaints on 24 May that by virtually acquiescing in Fowell Buxton’s motion for inquiry into the abolition of slavery, ministers had renounced ‘the protection of our colonies’ and handed over settlement of the issue to the abolitionists, were, according to Buxton’s wife, listened to ‘not at all’.13 His objections to Buxton’s appointment to the select committee forced an adjournment, before both were named to it, 30 May. Prompted by Althorp’s refusal to set out the conditions for permanent relief, 13 June, he consulted Peel on the advisability of trying to force the government’s hand by bringing the whole question before the Commons:

I would endeavour to obtain from the House the adoption of certain resolutions which would express a strong and decided opinion of the value of our colonies, of their present distress, of the duty of pursuing that policy towards them which might alleviate that distress and retain their connection with this country ... I believe resolutions of this nature would be supported by a numerous party who have hitherto voted with the present government. The spirit which pervaded the meeting held in London in April has made its way in the country. It would exercise an extensive and beneficent influence if it were seen to prevail in the House. Resolutions ... sanctioned by the House or powerfully supported, would be of no inconsiderable aid to a [parliamentary] candidate assailed by anti-slavery applications for pledges.

Peel evidently advised against any such general initiative being taken.14 Burge welcomed the £1,000,000 relief loan for Barbados and Jamaica, however ‘inadequate and partial’, 24 June, but, as usual, clashed with Lushington, whom he accused of justifying the atrocities perpetrated by the negroes in the Jamaican uprising. He rejected Hume and Hunt’s calls for economies in the civil establishment of the Bahamas, 23 July. Responding to Althorp’s budget statement, 27 July, he begged him to be conciliatory towards the colonies and to give them all the relief in his power. He deplored the abolitionists’ campaign to extract election pledges in favour of summary emancipation, which would ruin both the colonies and British manufactures. His conciliatory mood evaporated when ministers brought in their bill to provide relief from local taxation in the crown colonies of Berbice, Demerara, St. Lucia and Trinidad, where the order in council had been locally enacted. He strenuously opposed the bill at its committal, 3 Aug., and repeatedly condemned it as an indirect sanction of the order in council, 8, 9 Aug. When the radical De Lacy Evans accused him that day, as a representative of the West India interest, of ingratitude, he angrily retorted:

I am not here as the representative of West Indians ... I am as exclusively the representative of the constituents who sent me here as ... any other Member ... In no way whatever did the West Indians assist me in obtaining my seat ... I should have been in the House whether I had or had not been in any degree connected with the West Indies.

Burge dissented from the majority view of the West India committee, and when they were directed to report their minutes of evidence he complained that, if published in its incomplete form, it would reinforce the ‘erroneous opinions’ prevalent on the subject, 6 Aug. 1832.

He had defended spending on the law commissioners, 18 July, wished to see the Maynooth grant discontinued, 26 Sept., and expressed reservations about John Campbell’s arbitration bill, 29 Sept., and the general register bill, 4 Oct. 1831. He opposed Brougham’s bankruptcy court bill on the ground that it would not remedy the court’s acknowledged defects, 12, 14, 15, 17 Oct. 1831. He voted against the Vestry Act amendment bill, 23 Jan. 1832. He supported the creation of a form of representation for New South Wales, 28 June, and was one of the senior lawyers who protested to Brougham at the hasty passage of four bills to amend the real estate laws.15 On 25 July, supporting the reduction of the tariff on castor oil, he said it was ‘not an agreeable subject to speak upon, but it should be recollected that many persons in humble life derive great relief from this medicine’. He failed to secure reductions in the duties on colonial coffee, vinegar, ginger and pimento. He inveighed against the retrospective function of the ecclesiastical courts bill, 3 Aug., and voted in the minority of 16 against the Greek loan, 6 Aug. 1832.

At the general election of 1832 Burge contested the newly enfranchised borough of Oldham, where William Cobbett and John Fielden stood in harness and the Anti-Slavery Society sent down their solicitor George Stephenson to oppose him. His speeches and addresses condemned the government’s alliance with France against Holland and professed support, in the abstract at least, for a lower duty on corn, an equitable adjustment of taxation, and a commutation of tithes, though he stressed that he was at bottom ‘a friend to the security of property’. Stressing the importance of the West Indian export market to Oldham and the industrial towns, he played on the threat posed to it by a precipitate abolition of slavery, but said that

he hated slavery himself, and if he saw a way of abolishing it with safety to the slaves, he would rejoice to support its abolition - but they were not prepared for freedom. He could not recommend those measures which wild enthusiasm wished to be adopted.

As expected he polled a distant fourth.16

Although no longer a Member, as agent for Jamaica, Burge played a prominent role in the colony’s turbulent history and dealings with Parliament and successive ministries in the 1830s. ‘Checked’ by the duke of Wellington in ‘his violence’ against emancipation in 1833, he continued to advance every possible argument for the extreme West Indian position on abolition, and orchestrated verbal attacks on the stipendiary magistrates and missionaries charged with administration of the transitional phase of negro apprenticeship. His machinations against the governor, Lord Sligo, in 1834 earned him a rebuke from the colonial office, but a vote of thanks from the Jamaican assembly. Testifying before the select committee on apprenticeship in 1836, he argued that the assembly’s lack of enthusiasm for it was dictated by its irritation at British interference on such issues as immigration and policing.17 He published Commentaries on Colonial and Foreign Laws in 1838, opposed the Melbourne ministry’s attempt to suspend the Jamaican constitution, which, had it succeeded, would have cost him the agency, and according to Benjamin Disraeli† he was ‘terribly tedious for five mortal hours’ in speaking against the bill at the bar of the Commons, 22 Apr. 1839. He hoped for more cordial relations between Jamaica and a Conservative ministry in 1841, and although he was far from satisfied with the modified bill which emerged, the assembly voted him £2,000 in recognition of his services.18 His Observations on the Supreme Appellate Jurisdiction (1841) urged the establishment of a single supreme court of appeal, consisting of five judges. Applying in vain to Peel as premier that year for a puisne judgeship, after previous applications had failed, he observed:

It has been my study to unite with the qualifications of an English lawyer an intimate acquaintance with the jurisprudence of foreign countries ... I venture to entertain the belief that I could usefully and efficiently discharge its functions, and that I could also render my acquaintance with foreign jurisprudence beneficial to the judicial committee of the privy council as an appellate court.

Testifying before the 1842 select committee on the West Indian colonies, he suggested remedying Jamaica’s labour shortage through ‘coolie’ immigration. Peel refused to make him master in chancery that year and his official approaches in 1844 and 1845 for a reduction of the duties on colonial coffee and sugar failed. After applying for a judgeship in November 1845, he was eventually offered and accepted a commissionership of bankrupts for the Leeds district. He did not relinquish the Jamaican agency.19

Burge rented a house for £100 a year at Oulton Green, near Leeds, where disaster and humiliation struck early in 1847, when he lost the agency ‘quite unexpectedly’ and was arrested and imprisoned in York Castle in March on a suit for the balance of a £800 debt incurred in London on the security of his legal library, whose sale failed to realize this sum. In all, 44 actions were begun or pending against him. He resigned his commissionership, and his remaining books, furniture and wines were sold under several executions for £2,000. Several Leeds creditors opposed his claim for a final protection order at his first county court examination, 16 Sept. 1848. His liabilities were then scheduled at nearly £56,000; but, disagreeing, Burge discounted £20,000 owed to relatives and friends and claimed that his ‘hostile debts’ amounted to no more than £14,000, when he came to Leeds, where he had borrowed a further £6-7,000 to pay off his London creditors, leaving him with interest bearing debts of £17,200 at the time of his arrest. He claimed to have made no concealment of his affairs and said that when he borrowed the money in Leeds he considered that he had means enough to repay everything. Justice Wharton, who suspected Burge of deliberately delaying his first petition to prejudice his creditors, refused to name a day for the issue of his final protection order and sent him back to gaol. Assignees were appointed to control and collect his estate in October 1848, but Wharton remained unsatisfied when he next came before the court three month later. Only after two doctors had testified to Burge’s poor physical and mental condition and said that it was ‘exceedingly improbable’ that he would survive another six months in prison (24 Feb. 1849), was his protection and discharge on 26 Apr. authorized. He died intestate in London in November 1849. On 3 Feb. 1851 a limited administration, sworn under £50, was granted to John Lettsom Elliot of Pimlico Lodge, Middlesex, the surviving trustee of William Mitchell of Lime Street, London, in respect of an insurance policy for £4,000 on Burge’s life, which he had mortgaged for £4,137 at five per cent interest in 1830 to Mitchell and his partners in a West Indian mercantile house. A further grant was made on 2 Feb. 1916. Of Burge’s three surviving sons the eldest, Alexander Barrett Burge, joined the Indian army and the second, Milward Rodon Burge, entered the church.20

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: David R. Fisher / Margaret Escott


  • 1. Som. RO, introduction to the Yeatman-Biggs, Thomas and Burge family pprs. [NRA 30839].
  • 2. J.H.L. Archer, M.I. of British West Indies, 36, 37; Gent. Mag. (1839), ii. 322; Reg. of Temple Church Burials, 84; PROB 7/65 (3 Feb. 1851).
  • 3. Som. and Dorset N and Q, xxx (1974), 186-7; PROB 11/1040/98; The Times, 22 Feb. 1808, 20 Mar. 1815; Yeatman-Biggs, Thomas and Burge family pprs. DD/YB/3-6, 13.
  • 4. The Times, 19 Nov. 1819, 17 June 1825; Gent. Mag. (1819), ii. 185; F. Cundall, Historic Jamaica, 340; Archer, 37.
  • 5. Add. 40490, f. 311; PP (1826-7), xxiv. 513; (1831-2), xx. 837; D.J. Murray, West Indies, 151, 191; O.M. Blouet, ‘Earning and Learning in the British West Indies: An Image of Freedom in the Pre-emancipation Decade, 1823-33’, HJ, xxxiv (1991), 391-409; A.V. Long, Jamaica and New Order, 15.
  • 6. LJ, lxi. 415; lxii. 18; lxiv. 320, 324, 347; lv. 447, 450.
  • 7. Inst. of Commonweath Stud. M915, reel 4; The Times, 11 Jan., 28 Feb. 1831; Add. 40490, f. 311; Brougham mss, Burge to Brougham, 23 Jan. 1834; PP (1842), xiii. 332; Long, 20; Murray, 191; W.L. Burn, Emancipation and Apprenticeship, 166.
  • 8. The Times, 26, 27 July 1830, 18 Mar.; Ipswich Jnl. 12, 19 Mar. 1831; VCH Bucks. iii. 23; Cent. Kent. Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/C228, Carrington to Lady Stanhope [11 Aug. 1830]; Wellington mss WP1/1125/21; [W. Carpenter], People’s Bk. (1831), 301, 367; Suff. RO (Ipswich), Eye borough recs. EE2/03/2/13.
  • 9. The Times, 25, 26 Mar., 1, 13, 16 Apr. 1831.
  • 10. M.C. Campbell, Dynamics of Change in a Slave Society, 92, 142-3.
  • 11. Eye borough recs. EE2/03/2/14; Ipswich Jnl. 30 Apr., 7 May 1831.
  • 12. PP (1831-2), xx. 837; Holland House Diaries, 137; Murray, 191.
  • 13. Bodl. (Rhodes House), Buxton mss, Brit. Emp. S.444, vol. ii, p. 251.
  • 14. Murray, 191-2; The Times, 6 Apr. 1832; Add. 40403, f. 40.
  • 15. Brougham mss, memo. [June 1832].
  • 16. Manchester Times, 24 Nov., 1, 8, 15 Dec.; Manchester Guardian, 1, 15 Dec.; Manchester and Salford Advertiser, 8 Dec. 1832.
  • 17. Holland House Diaries, 212, 222, 225; Three Diaries, 292, 342; Gent. Mag. (1833), i. 633-4; Murray, 203; Burn, 171, 191-2, 337; Wellington Pol. Corresp. i. 230, 281, 409, 412, 719-20; PP (1836), xv. 119-47, 173-99, 310-14, 330-1, 383-97; (1839), xxxv. 1-79, 81-93, 95-107, 109-26; P.C. Curtin, Two Jamaicas, 73, 97, 146, 159, 192, 205; Long, 20, 26, 28, 30-32, 36-39, 43.
  • 18. Burge, Reply (1839); Disraeli Letters, iii. 919; Add. 40333, f. 382; 40426, ff. 204, 426; 40427, ff. 17, 19, 38; 44819, f. 47; Brougham mss, Burge to Brougham, 19 Apr., 25 June, 3 July [1839]; Greville Mems. iv. 264.
  • 19. Brougham mss, Burge to Brougham, 23 Jan., reply, 25 Jan. 1834; Add. 40490, f. 311; 40521, f. 155; 40545, ff. 280-8; 40550, ff. 148-57; 40560, ff. 241-7; 40518, f. 205; PP (1842), xiii. 332-54; E.L. Erickson, ‘Introduction of East Indian Coolies into the British West Indies’, JMH, vi (1934), 127-46.
  • 20. TNA 30/222/6E, ff. 258-60; London Gazette, 1 Sept., 10 Oct. 1848, 13 Feb. 1849; The Times, 18 Sept. 1848; York Herald, 27 Jan., 3 Mar., 28 Apr. 1849; Gent. Mag. (1850), i. 322; PROB 7/65.