OSWALD, James (1715-69), of Dunnikier, Fife.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1741 - 1747
1747 - 1754
1754 - 1768

Family and Education

b. 1715, 1st s. of Capt. James Oswald, M.P., of Dunnikier, provost of Kirkcaldy. educ. Kirkcaldy burgh sch.; Edinburgh Univ.; L. Inn 1733; Leyden 1733; Grand Tour; adv. 1738. m. 19 Jan. 1747, Elizabeth, da. of Joseph Townsend, London brewer, wid. of Abraham Reynardson, cos. of Chauncy Townsend, 1s. suc. fa. c.1725.

Offices Held

Burgess of Edinburgh 1742; commr. of the navy Dec. 1744-June 1747; ld. of Trade Dec. 1751-9 of Treasury 1759-63; P.C. 20 Apr. 1763; jt. vice-treasurer [I] 1763-7.


Oswald’s father, a wealthy merchant, who purchased Dunnikier in 1703, established an independent interest in Dysart Burghs, for which Oswald himself was returned unopposed in 1741. He was expected to support Walpole but joined the Opposition, voting against the Government on the election of the chairman of the elections committee on 16 Dec. 1741. According to Horace Walpole:

Sir R. [Walpole] sent a friend to reproach him; the moment the gentleman, who had engaged for him, came into the room, Oswald said, ‘You had like to have led me into a fine error! Did you not tell me, that Sir Robert would have the majority?’1

‘The surest way of becoming remarkable here’, Oswald wrote on 7 Jan. 1742, ‘is certainly application to business, for whoever understands it must make a figure.’2 One of the group of Scotch Members known as the Duke of Argyll’s gang, ‘the flower of Kirkcaldy’ became one of the principal opposition speakers on economic and naval affairs, signing the opposition appeal to supporters to be in town for the opening of the session 1743-4. He spoke for a motion to discontinue the Hanoverians in British pay, 6 Dec. 1743; against continuing British troops in Flanders for the next campaign, 11 Jan. 1744; for Lord Limerick’s proposed duty on foreign linens instead of Pelham’s proposal for a duty on sugar, 20 Feb. 1744; against the arrest of Lord Barrymore without the previous consent of the House, 28 Feb.; against the Austrian subsidy, 10 Apr. 1744, and for the amendments made by the Lords to the bill to make it high treason to correspond with the sons of the Pretender, 3 May.3 His friend David Hume wrote, 4 Aug. 1744: ‘He has shown me the whole economy of the navy, the source of the navy debt, with many other branches of public business. He seems to have a great genius for these affairs, and I fancy will go far in that way if he perseveres.’4

On the formation of the Broad-bottom Administration at the end of 1744 Oswald secured a commissionership of the navy. ‘The office named for me is one of trouble and business’, he wrote. ‘It is a sort of apprenticeship indeed to the greatest scene of business in the country.’5 It did not prevent him from attacking the Government’s handling of the rebellion in a speech on 28 Aug. 1745, and the bill for abolishing hereditary jurisdictions in Scotland, 14 Apr. 1747.

In June 1747 Oswald resigned his office which, under the Place Act of 1742, was about to become incompatible with a seat in the Commons.

I fear much he will not have a seat in the next Parliament [David Hume wrote] though it were a thousand pities. He sets out for Scotland in a few days with his wife, who seems to be a sensible woman but old and also dry and reserved ... She keeps, as they say, all in her own power; so that, to tell truth, I am not excessively fond of this marriage, though he is. But if it were not for the advantage of its enabling him to throw up his office and continue in Parliament I wish him rather a bachelor.6

Contrary to expectations he was returned for Fife, though the Government’s interest went to his opponent. At first he ‘attended no court’, devoting himself to the study of trade, finance and colonial affairs;7 but in 1750 he connected himself with Bubb Dodington, who found him ‘entirely disposed to assist us’, i.e. Dodington’s party at Leicester House. In January 1751 he spoke against the Government on the question of a reduction in the number of seamen. In February Dodington, with Frederick’s authority, sounded him as to his terms for entering the Prince’s service. Oswald explained that he had just been approached by Pelham and

offered to be made comptroller of the navy, with a promise of all Mr. Pelham’s power to reform the abuses of it, and full liberty to follow his own opinion in Parliament ... But as he saw no reform could be thoroughly and effectually brought about, but by the concurrence of the Crown, which was not to be hoped for in our present situation, he had much rather attach himself to his Royal Highness from whom only he could hope for that concurrence; but as he was no courtier and had no connexions of that kind, he must be contented to do his best in that station that was offered him.

He authorized Dodington to say ‘that he would refuse all offers of the Court’ if the Prince was willing to admit him into his service. This led to an audience with Frederick at which Oswald agreed to accept the office of clerk of the Green Cloth and ‘to kiss hands on Lady day’.8 In the 2nd Lord Egmont’s list of office holders in the next reign he is put down as secretary to the Admiralty or secretary to Prince George as lord high admiral. Meanwhile he took a prominent part in the opposition attacks on General Philip Anstruther, in the course of which he showed himself

a master of a quickness and strength of argument, not inferior to Fox or any speaker in the House. The rapidity of his eloquence was astonishing; not adorned but confined to business.

After the Prince’s death Oswald re-opened negotiations with Pelham, who gave him a seat on the board of Trade. On 28 Feb. 1752 he spoke ‘with fine warmth’ for a bill empowering the Government to purchase forfeited estates in Scotland.9

He died 24 Mar. 1769.

Ref Volumes: 1715-1754

Authors: Edith Lady Haden-Guest / Eveline Cruickshanks


  • 1. Walpole to Mann, 22 Jan. 1742.
  • 2. Mems. of Jas. Oswald of Dunnikier, 13-15.
  • 3. John Drummond to Ld. Morton, 2, 4, and 11 Dec. 1742, Morton mss, SRO; Yorke’s parl. jnl. Parl. Hist. xiii. 140, 393, 654, 670, 702, 857.
  • 4. Letters of David Hume (ed. J. Y. T. Greig), i. 58.
  • 5. Mems. 39.
  • 6. New Letters of David Hume, 28.
  • 7. Caldwell Pprs. ii(1), pp. 93-107; Letters of David Hume, i. 142-4.
  • 8. Dodington Diary, 80-88, 89, 90-93.
  • 9. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 59, 226-7, 257.