GORDON, Sir James Willoughby, 1st bt. (1772-1851), of Niton, I.o.W

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



17 Mar. 1829 - 5 Apr. 1831

Family and Education

b. 21 Oct. 1772, 1st s. of Capt. Francis Gordon (formerly Grant), RN and Mary, da. of Sir Willoughby Aston, 5th bt.†, of Risley, Derbys. m. 15 Oct. 1805, Julia Lavinia, da. of Richard Henry Alexander Bennet† of North Court, Shorwell, I.o.W., 1s. 1da. KCB 2 Jan. 1815; cr. bt. 5 Dec. 1818; GCH 1825; GCB 13 Sept. 1831. d. 4 Jan. 1851.

Offices Held

Ensign 66 Ft. 1783, lt. 1789, capt. 1795, maj. 1797; lt.-col. 85 Ft. 1801; asst. q.m.g. at Chatham 1802; lt.-col. 92 Ft. 1804; mil. sec. to duke of York as c.-in-c. 1804-9; lt.-col. commdt. R. African Corps 1808, col. 1810; q.m.g. 1811-d.; maj.-gen. 1813; col. 85 Ft. 1815; col. 23 Ft. 1823; lt.-gen. 1825; gen. 1841.


Gordon, the author of Military Transactions of the British Empire (1809), saw active service in Ireland, the West Indies and at Gibraltar. He was present as a volunteer with Lord Hood’s fleet at the siege of Toulon in 1793, witnessed the capture of French forces at Bantry Bay in 1796 and commanded the first battalion of the 85th Foot during the occupation of Madeira in 1801.1 As military secretary to the duke of York he gave what Thomas Creevey* regarded as ‘pompous, impudent evidence’ to the Commons inquiry into the Mary Anne Clarke affair.2 Lord Palmerston*, who as secretary at war clashed with Gordon on administrative matters, described him as ‘a devilish clever active fellow, but inordinately vain and self-opinionated’. He was ‘an old friend and frequent correspondent’ of Lord Grey, whose father had been his commanding officer, and it is possible that in 1811 he aspired to Palmerston’s place in the event of the regent appointing a Whig ministry. In 1812 he was sent to the Peninsula as Wellington’s quartermaster-general, but ‘his behaviour ... was so arrogant, and his role as the "particular friend and confidential informant" of the Whig opposition in England so disloyal, that he had to be sent back home’ after a few months.3 He was quartermaster-general at Horse Guards for the rest of his life and was awarded a baronetcy in 1818.

During the 1820s he became close to Wellington and corresponded with him on military matters even when the duke was out of office. He supplied private information regarding Grey’s attitude towards the Goderich coalition ministry in 1827, and urged Grey in January 1829 not to move into opposition to Wellington’s ministry, which he correctly believed was prepared to act on Catholic emancipation.4 Two months later he was returned for Launceston on the interest of the 3rd duke of Northumberland, his wife’s cousin, on the understanding that he would support the government. In his speech of thanks he declared that the Catholic question was ‘one of a purely civil nature’, that Catholics were ‘worthy of being admitted to places of trust and power’ and that as long as Protestantism was ‘established on the genuine principles of the gospel’ it would ‘spread [and] triumph over every region of the globe’.5 He duly divided for emancipation, 30 Mar. 1829. That summer he wrote to Wellington proposing his son as a candidate for Cambridge University.6 He voted against the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb. 1830. In June he advised the premier of Grey’s disinclination to join in with the opposition to his government.7 At the general election in August he was again returned for Launceston.8

The ministry regarded him as one of their ‘friends’, but he was absent from the crucial division on the civil list, 15 Nov. Gordon, who is not known to have spoken in debate, presented anti-slavery petitions from Launceston Wesleyan Methodists, 5 Nov., and the inhabitants, 23 Nov., and one from the inhabitants for repeal of the coal duties, 17 Nov. 1830. On the formation of Grey’s ministry he was offered the master-generalship of the ordnance, with the promise of a Grand Cross of the Bath and a colonial governorship ‘when the opportunity occurs’. His appointment was apparently suspended owing to objections from the commander-in-chief, Lord Hill, who had not been consulted, but his eventual decision to decline the post was presumably influenced by a warning from Wellington that Northumberland would not allow him to keep his seat.9 In March 1831 he informed Northumberland, who wished him to oppose the government’s reform bill, that it was ‘quite impossible for me as the senior officer upon the king’s staff to vote against His Majesty’s government under any circumstances whatever’, and that he could only promise to ‘keep away from the discussion’. He was indeed absent from the division on the second reading, 22 Mar., but was given ‘notice to quit’; he resigned his seat, 5 Apr. 1831. He told Grey that he believed he had

kept away one enemy from you by keeping my seat over the 2nd reading, and I should have been glad to have done the same till your measure had finally passed. I have convinced myself that it must pass in the main principle - the middle classes of this country will no longer endure that their property shall be at the disposal of the nominees of peers ... [In future] the business of the House of Commons will be conducted by those who have the greatest interest in the economical and efficient discharge of it, and not by professed party politicians, most of whom have no claim to such stations as the treasury bench, whether by birth, fortune, education or ability ... All this sort of cattle are in high excitement and flourishing about in all directions, but I think without method or connected power.

His request for a privy councillorship was not granted, but he later received a red ribbon.10 In 1835 he unsuccessfully contested Newport, Isle of Wight (where he had a residence), as an ‘independent’ with Conservative leanings.11 It was said of him by an obituarist that he was ‘much esteemed for his urbanity and soldier-like qualities’.12 He died in January 1851 and was succeeded by his only son Henry (1806-76), on whose death the baronetcy became extinct.13

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. Ann. Reg. (1851), App. p. 248.
  • 2. Creevey Pprs. i. 151. See Add. 49471-49517 for Gordon’s papers, mainly on military matters.
  • 3. Palmerston-Sulivan Letters, 78; K. Bourne, Palmerston, 105-7, 166; E.A. Smith, Earl Grey, 208.
  • 4. Canning’s Ministry, 129; Wellington mss WP1/897/5; 903/10; Add. 49479, ff. 61-66.
  • 5. Wellington mss WP1/999/4; West Briton, 20 Mar. 1829.
  • 6. Wellington mss WP1/1028/8.
  • 7. Ibid. 1118/15.
  • 8. West Briton, 6 Aug. 1830.
  • 9. Three Diaries, 24-25; Greville Mems. ii. 71; Add. 49479, f. 84; Wellington mss WP1/1153/11; 1154/52, 59.
  • 10. Grey mss, Gordon to Grey, 18, 29 Mar., 6 Apr. 1831; Add. 49479, f. 91.
  • 11. Add. 35149, f. 158; 49479, f. 96; 49508, ff. 123-5.
  • 12. Ann. Reg. (1851), App. p. 248.
  • 13. PROB 11/2127/119; IR26/1897/86.