GORDON, John (c.1776-1858), of Cluny, Aberdeen; 4 St. Andrew Street, Edinburgh and 25 Jermyn Street, Mdx.
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Family and Educationb. c.1776, 1st s. of Charles Gordon of Braid, nr. Edinburgh and Joanna, da. of Thomas Trotter of Mortonhall, nr. Edinburgh. educ. Norwich sch.; St. John’s, Camb. 1797. unm. 2s. illegit. (1 d.v.p.) 2da. illegit. d.v.p. suc. fa. 1814. d. 16 July 1858.
2nd lt. R. Aberdeen light inf. 1800; lt. Aberdeen militia 1804, maj. 1808, lt.-col. 1820, col. 1836-d.
Although the family of the Gordons of Cluny had died out in the early eighteenth century, a spurious continuity was maintained by the purchase of the estate by John Gordon, ‘the Curator’ (?1695-1769). He, who was factor to the 3rd duke of Gordon and an Edinburgh merchant, established the family’s Scottish propertied wealth, not least by his penuriousness. He was succeeded by his eldest son Cosmo Gordon (who died unmarried in 1800), of Kinsteary, Nairnshire, baron of the exchequer and Northite Member for Nairnshire, 1774-7, while his younger son Alexander (d. 1801) of Belmont, Tobago, acquired lucrative West Indian plantations. Their brother Charles, John’s second son, was made a writer to the signet in 1763 and became a clerk to the court of session in 1788. He married, 8 Nov. 1775, ‘Jackie’ Trotter (d. 10 Aug. 1798), with whom he had at least six children. He greatly extended his estates, but suffered from the family vice of miserliness. It was later recorded that ‘as he advanced in years his passion for saving became a perfect disease. He declined to move about for fear of incurring expense, and latterly he refused to get up out of bed on the ground that he could not afford it’. He died, 8 May 1814, leaving £12,000 to his son Alexander (of Great Myless, Essex), £10,000 to each of his three daughters, and Cluny and the rest of his property (which included personalty sworn under £30,000 in the province of Canterbury) to his eldest son John. He had embarked on a brief military career in 1800, travelled in Europe and the Levant, 1802-4, apparently in the company of the 4th earl of Aberdeen, and returned to England with Nelson’s remains in 1805. He largely occupied himself with the management of his estates and, displaying a strongly litigious streak, was involved in three cases over them between 1815 and 1818.1
Through his sister Charlotte, widow of Sir John Lowther Johnstone†, Gordon wanted to obtain a seat at Weymouth, where the Johnstone family interest was managed by Masterton Ure* as trustee of the young 7th baronet.2 As nothing came of a rumour in mid-1820 that Ure was to receive an appointment incompatible with a seat in Parliament, Gordon had to wait until the general election of 1826 to contest the borough.3 He then offered, as a ministerialist and anti-Catholic, with Richard Weyland*, Charlotte’s second husband, on the interest of the heir as distinct from that of the trustees, with whom the family were in dispute. He persisted in a bitter struggle, being a popular and able candidate, and one supporter noted that he liked his appearance ‘very much - he looks a warm one’. He was finally returned in second place behind Thomas Fowell Buxton (the town Member), and ahead of Ure and his colleague Thomas Wallace, a junior minister.4 A legal opinion against Gordon, alleging treating, obstruction and orchestrated violence, was prepared on behalf of the defeated candidate, but the matter was not pursued.5 Gordon, who claimed that his election had cost him £40,000, complained to ministers about the summoning of the army to restore order during the contest.6
In the House, where he was usually distinguished from other Gordons by the title ‘Colonel’, he appears to have been an almost silent supporter of the Liverpool, Canning and Wellington administrations. He voted against the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May, and for the grant to improve water communications in Canada, 12 June 1827. He divided against inquiry into chancery administration, 24 Apr., and reduction of the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July, and for Fyler’s amendment on the silk duties which was carried with government support, 14 July 1828. He divided against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827, 12 May 1828, and in February 1829 was listed by Planta, the patronage secretary, as ‘doubtful’ on the government’s new pro-Catholic policy. He duly divided against emancipation, 6, 30 Mar., and for Henry Bankes’s amendment to prevent Catholics sitting in Parliament, 23 Mar. 1829, after which he received a vote of thanks from his constituents.7 He was granted one month’s leave on urgent private business, 12 Mar. 1830. In his only known speech, 29 Mar., he spoke as a professional soldier against the reduction of the ordnance grant by £1,200, urging that
the army has great claims on the sympathy of the House and on the country; and I must say, it is beneath the talents of the great civilians here to enter the arena against the army, and strip for a contest with them about a petty sum like this.
He voted against abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 7 June 1830.
After Wallace’s elevation to the peerage in February 1828, Gordon evidently gave his support to Weyland at the ensuing by-election, when his brother-in-law was defeated by the ministerialist candidate, Edward Sugden.8 However, having that year become a trustee for his nephew, Sir George Frederic Johnstone†, he soon fell out with his sister, who accused him of trying to usurp the management of Weymouth. He came to a secret agreement with Sugden: that he should pay his election expenses, providing he was allowed to sell two of the other three seats; that Sugden would endeavour to procure him a peerage, and that Weyland would be excluded. Sugden, who also gave him legal advice, acted as a cover for his purchase of property in the borough for £21,000. The news of this acquisition made him so unpopular that by early 1829 Gordon was obliged to come to terms with Ure.9 He also began legal proceedings challenging Lady Johnstone’s income under her late husband’s trust.10 He accompanied Sugden at the by-election in June 1829, following his appointment as solicitor-general. Stressing his continued independence, but strongly criticized for having abandoned the popular party, Gordon was returned unopposed for Weymouth with Ure, Sugden and Buxton at the general election of 1830.11 He was listed by ministers among their ‘friends’, but was absent from the division on the civil list that precipitated their resignation, 15 Nov. A proprietor of East India stock, he may have been the ‘John Gordon’12 who attended the special meeting of the West India Planters and Merchants’ Committee, 23 Nov. 1830, but he was not otherwise active on it.13 He voted against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar., and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831.
An action for debt having been brought against him in late 1830 by his former agent James John Fraser, the summons to the court of session stated that Gordon
has, for many years, been much concerned in political adventures, the main object of which was to raise him to the peerage; for which distinction he has constantly, but unsuccessfully, struggled, in a great variety of ways, and more particularly by attempting to get himself returned as a Member of Parliament to represent a Scotch county, he having become exceedingly unpopular in the borough of Weymouth.
He held property in several counties and was said to have been especially hopeful of succeeding his friend Lord Fife to the representation of Banffshire in 1827. Indicating his frustration at the failure of his ambitions, the summons also quoted him as saying that
if the steady and zealous support which my predecessors and I have always given the ministers of His Majesty’s present government, and the increased support which, in future, I shall have it in my power to give them, is not enough, without the addition of £40,000 to put me on a level with the other candidates for royal favour, I will remain as I am.14
Incriminating correspondence between Gordon and Sugden, which was produced in court and published, initially in the Caledonian Mercury, created a good deal of criticism, which was exacerbated by Sugden and Fraser’s self-justificatory remarks in the press. In response, a statement was issued that ‘although not pretending to the quixotry of sacrificing his property solely to promote his nephew’s advantage’, Gordon was acting in Johnstone’s long-term interests; and in a letter of 6 Apr. he denied being a party to the sale of seats.15 Sugden’s withdrawal, which cleared the path for Weyland, secured Gordon’s return after a token contest at the general election of 1831, when he pledged himself to oppose the reform bill, which he considered to be ‘too sweeping, too revolutionary’.16 He plumped for the anti-reformer Bankes at the Dorset county contest,17 and presumably supported the like-minded Charles Baring Wall* at the Weymouth by-election caused by Weyland’s decision to sit for Oxfordshire.
Gordon voted against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July 1831. He was a teller for the minority on the second division to adjourn proceedings on it, 12 July, and divided at least three other times in this sense that night. He voted to postpone consideration of the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July, and to censure the Irish government over the Dublin election, 23 Aug. He may, as ‘R. Gordon’, have voted for a select committee to inquire into how far the Sugar Refinery Act could be renewed with due regard to the West India interest, 12 Sept. He divided against the third reading, 19 Sept., and passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept., and against the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept. In the Dorset by-election that autumn he voted for the anti-reformer Lord Ashley*.18 He paired against the second reading, 17 Dec. 1831, and voted against the third reading of the revised reform bill, 22 Mar., and the second reading of the Irish bill, 25 May 1832. He may have divided in favour of going into committee on Alexander Baring’s bill to exclude insolvent debtors from Parliament, 27 June. His only other known vote was with opposition against the Russian-Dutch loan, 12 July 1832.
Johnstone, who had recently come of age, was elected for Weymouth with Buxton at the general election in December 1832, and there is no evidence that Gordon sought another seat.19 He was said to have abandoned his parliamentary career in disgust after the unfortunate dispute with his agent, though he retained a small electoral interest in Scotland.20 Instead he concentrated on consolidating his estates, purchasing Shiels and (for £65,000) Midmar near Cluny, and the islands of Benbecula, South Uist and (for £150,000) Barra in the Hebrides. He was an assiduous, innovative and generous landlord, who largely rebuilt Cluny Castle, but he was fiercely criticized for his harsh treatment of his Hebridean tenants, many of whom underwent enforced emigration to Canada. Described as being ‘above the middle size, and of a stout athletic make’, he was ‘possessed of a hardy constitution ... great intelligence and was very well bred’, yet he too became eccentric in money matters, driving miles out of his way in order to avoid toll bars. He died, after a short illness, in July 1858, when he was reputed to be the ‘richest commoner in the kingdom’ of Scotland, leaving over £2,000,000.21 By his will, dated 27 Apr. 1837, which was proved in London, 29 Aug. 1859, Gordon attempted to provide for his illegitimate children by his housekeeper and to create a distinct ‘Gordon of Cluny’ dynasty. In fact, his daughters Mary Steel and Susan had died in 1833 and 1856 respectively, and his younger son Charles on 27 Nov. 1857, so that the vast estates in Aberdeenshire, Banffshire, Inverness-shire, Midlothian and Nairnshire passed to his elder son John. He tried to break the terms of the entail and was challenged to the inheritance by his cousin, the eldest son of Alexander (d. 1839), Charles Henry Gordon (1816-95), which resulted in 20 years of litigation. John Gordon junior, an agricultural improver, died without issue, 22 July 1878, after which the estates descended through the family of Alexander’s daughter, Maria Frederica Linzee.22
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Stephen Farrell
- 1. J. M. Bulloch, Gordons of Cluny, 3-33, 41, 53-54; Gent. Mag. (1798), ii. 729; (1801), i. 92; (1858), ii. 310-11; The Times, 23 July 1858; PROB 11/1557/351; IR26/608/331.
- 2. The defeated candidate for Wootton Bassett at the general election of 1820 was probably John Gordon (1794-1843), Member for Athlone, 1818-20.
- 3. Northumb. RO, Middleton mss ZMI/S76/40/5, 8.
- 4. Dorset Co. Chron. 18, 25 May, 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 June 1826; Middleton mss S76/52/4, 7; Dorset RO D/ASH:B E20.
- 5. Dorset RO, photocopy 555.
- 6. E.S.L. Cosens, Hist. Weymouth, 82; Add. 40387, f. 229.
- 7. Dorset Co. Chron. 23 Apr. 1829.
- 8. The Times, 5, 6 Feb. 1828.
- 9. Ibid. 5, 6 Apr. 1831; [W. Carpenter], People’s Bk. (1831), 374-7.
- 10. Brougham mss, Weyland to J. Brougham, 4 May 1829.
- 11. Dorset Co. Chron. 18 June 1829, 8, 15 July, 5 Aug. 1830.
- 12. Unless this was John Gordon (1774-1834), West India planter, of Wincombe Park, Dorset, Clifton, Glos. and Jamaica.
- 13. Inst. of Commonwealth Stud. M915, reel 4.