GILLON, William Downe (1801-1846), of Wallhouse, Linlithgow and Hurstmonceaux, Suss.

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



1832 - 1841

Family and Education

b. 31 Aug. 1801, o.s. of Lt.-Col. Andrew Gillon of Wallhouse and Mary Anne, da. of William Downe of Downe Hall, Dorset. educ. Richmond, Yorks. (Mr. Tate); Trinity Coll. Camb. 1819. m. 24 Oct. 1820, Helen Eliza, da. of John Corse Scott of Synton, Roxburgh, 2s. 3da. suc. fa. 1823. d. 7 Oct. 1846.

Offices Held


Gillon’s ancestors had been in possession of the former monastic estate of Wallhouse, between Linlithgow and Bathgate, since the Reformation. John Gillon (d. 1650) and his son and namesake (d. 1695), who acquired property elsewhere in Linlithgowshire and in Midlothian, were Covenanters. The second John Gillon’s grandson, another John, succeeded to Wallhouse in 1748. He was trained as an advocate and served as sheriff of Linlithgowshire, 1744-73. His younger brother Archibald Gillon became a merchant in London and left a son, John Gillon, who prospered in business there and in Dominica. On John Gillon of Wallhouse’s death in 1775 he was succeeded by his second son Andrew, the father of this Member, his eldest son Alexander having predeceased him in 1769. Andrew Gillon obtained a commission in the 2nd Hussars (Royal Scots Greys) in 1778, attained the rank of major in 1794, was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in the army in 1798 and retired in April 1801. His Linlithgowshire estate was described in 1788 as a ‘good’ one.1 His son William Downe Gillon was born in August, but his wife died eight days later; he never remarried. His first cousin, John Gillon of Dominica and Welbeck Street, Marylebone died in December 1809, leaving by his will of 18 July life annuities of £500 each to Andrew and William Downe Gillon and residual personal estate which he directed to be used for the purchase of landed property for the latter. Accordingly, the Sussex estate of Hurstmonceaux, near Hailsham was bought for him in 1819.2 He did not take a degree at Cambridge and succeeded his father in 1823. In 1829 he became embroiled in a legal dispute with the commissioners for winding up the Edinburgh Shipping Company. The court of session twice ruled against him, and on 6 Dec. 1830 he appealed to the Lords. The case was eventually heard on 22 Sept. 1831, when his petition was dismissed and he was ordered to pay £150 in costs.3 At the general election of 1830 Gillon, an ‘athletic’ man with ‘a well developed forehead’, stood for Linlithgow Burghs (as he had been planning to do for almost a year) against a supporter of the Wellington ministry. He obtained only the vote of Linlithgow, the nearest burgh to his estate, to his opponent’s three, and his subsequent petition against the return was unsuccessful.4 At the general election of 1831 he tried again, as an avowed supporter of the Grey ministry’s reform scheme, secured Lanark and Peebles as well as Linlithgow and was elected over a Tory amid scenes of popular celebration.5

Gillon’s maiden speech, 30 June 1831, was against Alderman Wood’s motion for a revision of public salaries to 1797 levels. He professed support for ‘the most rigid economy consistent with the proper administration of the affairs of the country’, but sought to expose the ‘delusion’ that vast savings could be made, which the Huntite radicals and the Tories were peddling, the latter in order to ‘return to office, and again dip their hands into the pockets of the people’. He attributed agricultural distress to the ‘iniquitous’ currency settlement of 1819 and the burden of wartime taxation and declared his confidence in the sincerity of ministers’ wish to economize. Later that day he expressed reservations about the possible sanction of the use of molasses in brewing and distilling, which he said would ruin Scottish whisky producers and damage the agricultural interest. He was, however, in the minority of 41 for Robinson’s motion, seconded by Hunt, for a reduction in the grant for civil list pensions, 18 July. He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced English reform bill, 6 July, and at least twice against the adjournment, 12 July, and on the 22nd protested against ‘the system of delay and irrelevant discussion ... pursued by the other side’. He gave steady support to the details of the measure throughout July and August. On 4 Aug. he presented and endorsed a petition from Linlithgow council deploring the ‘great delays’ in the progress of the bill and, moving that it be printed, asserted that the people of Scotland had a vested interest in the speedy passage of the English measure, for on this ‘depends their own deliverance from a system which is an outrage and an insult to them’. He got into a minor scrape when he brought up a similar petition from the inhabitants of Linltihgow, 12 Aug., for inspection by the clerk revealed ‘certain erasures’, for which the Speaker demanded an explanation. Gillon confessed that he had made them to get rid of some ‘strong’ language. He grudgingly complied with the Speaker’s order that he withdraw the now invalid petition, but began to rant about the ‘earnest’ support for reform in Scotland and was peremptorily silenced from the Chair. Next day Gillon, who apparently began his speeches ‘in loud and distinct tones, and with considerable animation’, but soon lapsed into a ‘lower’ register and a ‘more languid’ manner,6 took issue with William James’s passing reference to Members as ‘the representatives of the people’:

Very few ... have a right the claim the title ... Most of them are mere dross, instead of being pure gold. They sit here as nominees of peers, as the Members for nomination and rotten boroughs. Instead of possessing independence, they are compelled to vote as their patrons direct them.

He said that if more Members could be allocated to Scotland without prejudicing England, he would gratefully accept them, but argued that as Scotland had been effectively unrepresented under the old system he was prepared to regard the 50 seats intended for it now as a ‘boon’; he therefore supported the proposal to give some English counties three Members. When Joseph Dixon insisted that many Scots were disappointed in the bill and described him as one of those ‘who cheer ... ministers on in the course that they have adopted’, Gillon retorted that the people of Scotland desired above all that ‘the bills should at once pass’. On 24 Aug. he explained that he had overcome his initial misgivings about the uniform £10 English borough franchise, which in some places would create almost universal suffrage, a desirable ‘vent for popular feeling’, but in others, especially the ‘agricultural’ towns, would confine the franchise to ‘the aristocratic part of the community’: overall, it would create an electorate comprising ‘the respectable middle classes’ and give them a stake in the new constitution. He opposed an attempt to exclude weekly tenants from the franchise, 25 Aug. He divided for the passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish measure, 23 Sept., when he played down the significance of the election riots of May; attacked Edinburgh councillors and their penchant for ‘snug jobs’; declared that the history of the royal burghs presented an unexampled ‘scene of corruption, petty tyranny, fraud, and demoralization’; called for ‘a wholesome system of burgh reform’ once parliamentary reform had been achieved, and hailed the reform bill as the instrument of ‘a better system of representation, founded ... on the property and intelligence of the country’. In a public address to his constituents, 14 Sept., he had urged reformers to ‘be true to yourselves and to that cause which we are pledged to support’ and to petition the Lords to endorse the ministerial scheme and so ensure that ‘we [shall] not have to sit down satisfied with a mockery of representation, or have our resources wasted and our rights as men despised’.7 He applauded the lord advocate Jeffrey’s statement of his determination that ‘no rag or shred of the old system should remain’, 27 Sept. On 4 Oct. he presented Lanark council’s petition against the planned addition of Falkirk to the district and moved an amendment against the proposal to remove Peebles and Selkirk from it and throw them into their respective counties. He secured some Tory support, but ministers stood by the arrangement and defeated his amendment by 133-60. He then opposed the Tory Sir George Murray’s attempt to secure eight additional county Members for Scotland, arguing that the bulk of the people were satisfied with the measure as it stood. After the defeat of the English reform bill in the Lords he wrote to Peebles council urging them and their counterparts in the other burghs to get up addresses to the king expressing their undiminished confidence in the government and ‘unabated anxiety for the ultimate success of reform’.8 He voted for the motion of confidence in the ministry, 10 Oct., and on 13 Oct. said to those Tories who accused them of having excited the people on reform that it was ‘the system of misrule which those gentlemen ... supported that has led to the inevitable necessity of reform’. He was in the minorities for postponing the Dublin writ, 8 Aug., receiving the Waterford petition for disarming the Irish yeomanry, 11 Aug., and granting compensation to Lescene and Escoffery for their expulsion from Jamaica, 22 Aug.; but he divided twice with government on the Dublin election controversy, 23 Aug. 1831.

He paired for the second reading of the revised English reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831. He divided to go into committee on it, 20 Jan., again supported its details, and voted for the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. On the reintroduction of the Scottish bill, 19 Jan., he denied that popular support for it had diminished and dismissed as ‘scandalous’ claims for compensation for loss of superiorities. He accused Scottish burgh Members ‘closely connected with the agricultural interest’ of obstinately resisting reform, 27 Jan. He did not vote in the division on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan. (nor in those of July), but he was in the government majorities on relations with Portugal, 9 Feb., and the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr. He urged ministers to end the ‘absurd and unjust’ system of Irish tithes with an ‘efficient’ measure, 8 Feb.; he was in two small minorities against their tithes resolutions, 27 Mar. He got leave to introduce a bill to regulate the Scottish law of hypothec, relating to the purchase of grain, 9 Feb., but he abandoned it on 1 June. He emphasized his radical credentials with a number of votes and speeches. On 16 Feb. he voted to print the Woollengrange petition for disarming the Irish yeomanry and spoke and voted in the minority of ten for Hume’s amendment to omit reference to Providence from the Scottish cholera prevention bill. Next day he likened the plight of many agricultural labourers to that of West Indian slaves, claiming that in Sussex ‘paupers are frequently harnessed together to draw loads’, and backed Hume’s call for repeal of the taxes on hemp and flax. On 15 Mar. he spoke and voted in the minority of 31 for Hunt’s motion for inquiry into Peterloo, if only as a means of ‘putting an end to that unconstitutional force ... the yeomanry’, who had often been ‘the mere tools of a Tory government’. Like a number of Scottish Members, he took strong objection to the ministerial proposal to reduce the malt drawback. He said it would encourage smuggling and illicit distillation, 17 Feb., and spoke and voted against the second, 29 Feb., and third reading, 2 Apr., of the bill, having failed in his bids to amend it in committee, 30 Mar. He presented Bathgate petitions in favour of the Edinburgh-Glasgow railway bill, 18 Apr., 11 May. On 10 May, after the resignation of ministers over the king’s refusal to create peers to carry reform through the Lords, he informed Peebles council of the turn of events and exhorted them to promote petitions to the Commons for supplies to be withheld until reform was secured.9 He presented a number of these, 21, 25 May, but on the first occasion was compelled to withdraw one from Bathgate because it was couched in unacceptable language. He divided for the address asking the king to appoint only ministers who would carry undiluted reform, 10 May. He said that news of the resignations would be greeted with ‘horror and dismay’ in Scotland, 11 May, but that the abuse of the bishop of Lichfield at a service in St. Bride’s, Fleet Street ‘disgraced the name of reformers’, 15 May. He divided for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May. He denied that treasonable emblems had been flourished at the mass Edinburgh reform meeting, 1 June, when he again protested against the ‘disfranchisement’ of Peebles and Selkirk and voted against Murray’s renewed bid to increase the Scottish county representation. He criticized the ‘monstrous and impracticable’ provision which required Scottish electors to register only in burghs which had a town clerk. On 15 June he voted with ministers against a Conservative amendment to the bill, but objected to their proposal to add Port Glasgow to the Dumbarton district and observed that ‘no one change had been made to the bill except by ... ministers, and ... all bearing towards one side of the question’. He welcomed their abandonment of the proposed property qualification for Scottish burgh Members, which would ensure the return ‘not as ... heretofore [of] Members who merely represented their own breeches’ pockets, but Members representing the feelings and opinion of their constituents’. Pressing them to drop the county Members’ qualification also, he said:

I am not aware of any magical property which the possession of land has in conferring knowledge and intelligence ... I have no interest except in land, but there is nothing I more desire than that I had another description of property ... I am glad we are to get rid of the aristocratic borough holders.

He divided against Baring’s bill to exclude insolvent debtors from Parliament, 6 June, and in the minority of 23 for an amendment to the boundary of Whitehaven, 22 June. He was given a fortnight’s leave to attend to urgent private business, 9 July 1832.

Gillon successfully contested Falkirk Burghs at the general election of 1832, came in unopposed in 1835 and 1837 and was defeated by a Conservative in 1841, when Benjamin Disraeli† gave him good riddance as a bore and ‘a ruffian’.10 He belatedly joined Brooks’s in 1838 and employed his ‘plain’ but forceful oratory to promote church reform and other radical causes.11 He died in October 1846, soon after selling the Hurstmonceaux estate to the Curteis family.12 He was succeeded at Wallhouse by his elder son Andrew Gillon (1823-88).

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 230.
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1810), i. 89; PROB 11/1507/32; VCH Suss. ix. 134.
  • 3. LJ, lxiii. 151, 196, 238, 407, 444, 993, 994.
  • 4. [J. Grant], Random Recollections of Lords and Commons (1838), ii. 261; NAS GD224/581/4, C. Douglas to Buccleuch, 2 Oct. 1829.; Glasgow Herald, 23 July, 27 Aug. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 72, 333.
  • 5. Caledonian Mercury, 23, 28 Apr., 26 May; NAS GD224/581/4, A. Pringle to Buccleuch, 2, 3, 4 May 1831.
  • 6. Grant, ii. 257.
  • 7. Caledonian Mercury, 17 Sept. 1831.
  • 8. Hist. Peebles ed. J.W. Buchan, ii. 141.
  • 9. Ibid. ii. 142.
  • 10. Disraeli Letters, iii. 1172.
  • 11. Grant, ii. 257-8.
  • 12. VCH Suss. ix. 134; PROB 11/2048/35.