DEMPSTER, George (1732-1818), of Dunnichen, Forfar.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1761 - 1768
4 Apr. 1769 - 1790

Family and Education

b. 8 Dec. 1732, 1st s. of John Dempster of Dunnichen, Dundee merchant, by his 1st w. Isobel Ogilvie. educ. Dundee g.s., Leuchars; St. Andrews Univ.; Edinburgh Univ.; Academie Royale, Brussels; adv. 1755. m. 24 Sept. 1774, Rose, da. of Richard Heming of Jamaica, s.p. suc. fa. 3 Nov. 1754.

Offices Held

Sec. to the Order of the Thistle Aug. 1765- d.; director, E.I. Co. 1769, 1772-3.


Dempster inherited some 6,000 acres in Forfarshire (worth £769 p.a.) and a considerable fortune, founded by his grandfather, a grain merchant.1 He began the Grand Tour with his life-long friend Adam Fergusson but, summoned home by family affairs, returned to Edinburgh to practise law. An attractive, humorous young man, of vigorous mind, much influenced by Hume, Rousseau and Montesquieu, Dempster was a member of the Select Society, an independent Whig, rating ‘intrinsic merit’ high above rank or wealth, a ‘true blue Scot’, dedicated to the encouragement of agriculture, industry and the arts, and to the establishment of a Scottish militia.2

In 1761 Dempster stood for Perth Burghs, and, after a contest which severely strained his finances, defeated Thomas Leslie, Newcastle’s candidate. He at once made his mark in the House when on 13 Nov., in the debate on the Address, he spoke ‘with an assurance that for its unexampled novelty gave great entertainment ... pleaded the extension of the militia to Scotland ... censured the German war ... and condemned faction’.3 Lord George Sackville wrote:4

A new Scotch Member, a Mr. Dempster, showed a strong desire of speaking and seems to have abilities sufficient to make him an object. In short, he promises well, and though he diverted the House by a becoming ignorance of its forms, yet he proved that he neither wanted language, manner, nor matter.

Dempster was now approached by Sir Harry Erskine, who wrote to Bute, 28 Nov. 1761:5

After showing him the necessity of attaching himself to some person or body of men, and entering on your Lordship’s character, I asked him if he had made any connexion with any other person ... he declared he had not. I advised him if he meant to attach himself to you to tell you so ... he said he chose to do it in writing ... as an evidence to produce against him if he should act contrary to his professions.

Having affirmed his adherence Dempster, hostile to Pitt, on 11 Dec. attacked Beckford’s motion for Spanish papers as ‘foolish and factious’.6 When, through the illness of Gilbert Elliot, the promised motion for a Scottish militia was delayed, Dempster was prepared to move for it himself. ‘One ought to squeak when his toes are trod on’, he wrote to Alexander Carlyle on 20 Jan. 1762.7 Exasperated when, on Bute’s advice, the scheme was dropped, he intervened in the English militia debate of 18 Mar. to accuse defecting counties of cowardice.8 Dempster soon became restive in the Government camp and at variance with most of his Scots colleagues. His breach with Bute’s friends became complete when on 9 and 10 Dec. he spoke and voted against the peace.

He was not, however, engrossed in politics; he collaborated with Boswell and Andrew Erskine in a critique of a play by Mallet; became active with his friends the Johnstones in East India Company affairs; and in summer 1763 founded the first Dundee bank, ‘George Dempster Co.’ As a patriotic Scot he resented Wilkes’s attacks in the North Briton, and voted 15 Nov. 1763 against him;9 but, opposed in principle to general warrants, in February 1764 spoke and voted against Administration. Yet Dempster was still essentially unconnected; in May Newcastle listed him and ‘doubtful’, in June Robert Nugent sought to secure him for Grenville.10 On 9 Jan. 1765 he attended the Cockpit meeting to hear the speech and address, but on 6 Feb. spoke and voted against the Stamp Act.11During the Regency bill debates Dempster on 9 May eulogized the King, deferring to his judgment in the selection of a Regent; but on 11 May he supported Pryse Campbell’s motion against any female regent’s marrying a Catholic.12

Under the Rockingham Administration Dempster accepted the office of secretary to the Thistle, though he had ‘neither the head nor heart of a truly ambitious man’.13 He spoke and voted for the repeal of the Stamp Act and, according to Boswell, acquired ‘a real ministerial look’.14

On Rockingham’s fall he expressed to Adam Fergusson his distrust of the new Administration under Chatham, whose wartime extravagance he had always deplored:15

Pitt is now sovereign arbiter ... His object from the first moment of his former resignation was to attain this perch of power ... I myself believe he will not pay off our debts ... will not help the constitution and ... will break his neck upon the backstairs.

When invited by Conway to attend the pre-Parliament meeting to hear the King’s speech, Dempster sought direction from Rockingham:16

It will give me pleasure to regulate my parliamentary conduct in whatever shape is agreeable to you. Let me say even more pleasure now than when your Lordship was at the head of the Treasury. While in that situation the strongest declarations of attachment might admit of a double construction; at present your Lordship will not think I flatter when I express my very high esteem both of your public and private conduct.

Dempster therefore followed the Rockinghams into opposition and voted with them on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767. Having opposed Beckford’s motion in December 1766 for a parliamentary inquiry into East India Company affairs, Dempster in the court of proprietors on 12 Mar. 1767 followed Laurence Sulivan in objecting to the terms negotiated by the directors for the renewal of the charter: ‘a letting the Government into a partnership with the Company would soon end in the absolute dependency and ruin of the latter’.17 On 6 May he was a leader of the proprietors who in defiance of both ministry and the direction increased the dividend to 12½%.18

Dempster’s alliance with Sulivan and the Johnstones in the East India Company incurred the hostility of the Clive party, who now sent Robert Mackintosh to oppose him in his burghs. During the campaign Dempster was arrested for bribery, but on his plea of parliamentary privilege the case was adjourned. He returned to Parliament, voted with Opposition on nullum tempus, 17 Feb. 1768, but, with a criminal prosecution pending against him, withdrew his candidature in favour of his friend William (Johnstone) Pulteney, who was returned. Pulteney was also successful in Cromarty, for which he elected to sit, and Dempster, when the case against him had been dismissed, was returned again for his burghs. The campaign and litigation had cost him over £10,000; he was obliged to sell all his estates except Dunnichen and thereafter was justly reckoned poor.19 In April 1769 the Sulivan party secured his election to the direction of the East India Company.

Faithful to the Rockinghams in opposition, he voted with them on the Middlesex election, 8 May 1769, and in November, when Sulivan went over to Administration, scotched rumours that he would follow suit. Burke wrote to Rockingham, 9 Nov. 1769:

Dempster thought as I do about Sulivan’s coalition. He told me that it should make no difference in his line in India House; that there he would stand as firmly by him as he would continue to oppose his new friends in Parliament. That his political connexion was with your Lordship and would always be so; but that if Mr. Sulivan should find that course of conduct prejudicial to his interests in Leadenhall Street, that he would at an hour’s notice disqualify for the directorship. This was what I expected from Dempster ... not to sacrifice one duty to another; but to keep both if possible—if not, to put it out of his power to violate the principal.

Under North’s Administration Dempster maintained his reputation for candour in opposition; strongly protested on 7 Dec. 1770 against the recruitment of German and Irish Catholic troops, advocating compulsory service, if necessary, and the creation of a Scottish militia; he was equally emphatic in the debates of 19 Feb. and 4 Mar. 1771 against the plan to raise German and Irish regiments for the service of the East India Company ‘as increasing the influence of the Crown and creating a new standing army of foreigners’.20

During the debates on the printers’ case in March 1771 he censured the Commons’ ‘avidity for prosecution’ as below the dignity of Parliament: ‘I see a new scene opened that affects the liberty of the press ... I do not like to see people so passionately fond of privilege’; and he contended that the public had a right to printed reports of parliamentary proceedings.21 In the heated debates over the conduct of Alderman Oliver and Brass Crosby he urged moderation, and voted against their commitment to the Tower.

In 1772 Dempster was elected a director of the East India Company, not on the house list but as the popular choice of the proprietors. He was closely concerned in the Company’s proposed reforms and in the selection of supervisors to be sent out to India; when Parliament rejected the plan Dempster, strongly objecting to Government intervention, early in March ‘disqualified as a director ... that he might be more at liberty in Parliament’;22 with the Duke of Richmond and the Johnstones he headed a group of dissident proprietors23and was a frequent Opposition speaker in the debates of March-June 1773 on North’s Regulating Act. ‘I would rather return the territory to the Mogul than suffer it to be taken by the Crown.’24 He opposed North’s American policy, and spoke against the Boston port bill and the Quebec bill.

During the recess Dempster married, but got little money with his wife, and after his unopposed return at the general election decided, mainly for reasons of economy, not to attend the next parliamentary session. He wrote to Sir Adam Fergusson, 26 Jan. 1775:25

I have long thought ... that unless one preserves a little freedom and independency in Parliament to act in every question and to vote agreeably to ... one’s own mind, a seat in Parliament is a seat of thorns and rusty nails. That this cannot be attained without some ease in your affairs ... either you must be very rich or very frugal ... When single I lived on my salary in London the year round—as a married man this is impossible.

‘Having discharged his duty last year to America very conscientiously and very fruitlessly’,26 he believed his attendance would not affect the issue. He wrote to Fergusson:27

The ministry are ... determined to adhere to their system, the Americans to their natural rights ... I foretell it will begin with bloodshed in America and end with a change of ministers and measures in England.

To his American friend Ralph Izard he wrote, 7 June 1775:28

In Scotland, myself and a very few more excepted, the whole body of the gentry and of the independent and enlightened class of people are to a man on the side of Administration ... There is a principle against America as well as for her, insomuch that it would not be easy for a ministry more favourable to her to bring the bulk of the House over to their opinion.

Dempster returned to London for the autumn session of 1775, urged conciliation, opposed the prohibition of trade with America, and supported Fox’s motion for an inquiry into the ill-success of British arms.29 Believing that the American crisis might induce the Government to concede a Scottish militia, he assisted in drafting Lord Mountstuart’s bill and strongly supported it in the debates of March 1776.30 Dempster also favoured the extension of the Scottish franchise ‘now engrossed by the great lords, the drunken laird and the drunkener baillie’, and did not approve Dundas’s abortive proposals for limiting the creation of county votes.31 He wrote to Carlyle:32

Instead of curtailing the right by cutting off superiors, let it be extended to vassals and tenants ... but I am Whig enough to think that the most beneficial law should not be crammed down the throats of any people, but their minds gradually prepared for the alteration.

Throughout 1777 Dempster maintained his opposition; demanded an inquiry into the civil list debts, 18 Apr.; criticized, 15 May, North’s financial measures and the system of contracts; intervened in the East India debate on 22 May to attack the intrigues of the Nabob of Arcot; but affirmed his independent views on West India trade and the Scottish militia.33

Dempster’s finances had now been augmented by £1,000 p.a. bequeathed to him under the will of Sir Robert Fletcher.34 In December 1777 he went to France, and did not return to Parliament until spring 1779. Convinced that ‘the influence of the Crown is the true cause of the origin and absurd conduct of this American war’, Dempster supported Burke on economical reform, 15 Dec. 1779, and was a prominent Opposition speaker in the debates on pensions and the civil list establishment.35

At the general election of 1780 Dempster, labelled by his opponents ‘a traitor to Scotland’ for his vote on Dunning’s motion, was modestly surprised by ‘the successful issue of his short campaign’.36 In the new Parliament he took the lead in opposing concessions to Irish trade at the expense of Scotland; was prominent in the East India debates in support of the Company’s rights, and maintained to the end his objections to the Bengal judicature bill. His ‘proverbial candour’ occasionally disconcerted his Opposition colleagues. When Fox on 21 June 1781 attacked George Johnstone for incompetence, suggesting that his naval command was a reward for going over to Administration, Dempster, who ‘never framed his friendship on such sandy ground as party consideration,’ joined North in defending Johnstone’s ability and integrity.37

Dempster does not appear to have attended the winter session 1781-2; he did not vote in any of the divisions leading to North’s fall. No speech of his is recorded until 18 Apr. 1782, when he intervened in the Bengal judicature debate in defence of his friend Sir Elijah Impey.38 Although in general supporting the Rockingham Administration, Dempster maintained his independence in Indian, West Indian and Scottish affairs, and continued to press for a Scottish militia.

He voted for Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, ‘as a thing absolutely necessary for the country’.39 He supported the Coalition with considerable reserve and remained uncompromisingly hostile to North. Although in 1782 he had supported Pitt’s motion for an inquiry into parliamentary representation and urged its extension to Scotland,40 he did not approve his proposed reforms of 7 May 1783: ‘As the representative of a borough he could not assent to give a vote that would lessen the influence of his constituents.’41

Seeking nothing for himself, he disliked soliciting for friends. He wrote to Fergusson on 22 Sept. 1783:42

When you ask a minister to do a favour ... it founds an expectation that you will in return confer a favour upon him ... But the true spirit of our constitution ought to make it criminal in a Member of Parliament to offer any constituent the smallest personal favour. We shall never sit quite at our ease in Parliament till it may be said ... that we never obtained the slightest favour at court either for ourselves or others.

Over East India affairs Dempster during the long controversies had modified his views. He now wished to abandon all territorial claims and confine the Company’s activities to commerce. On Fox’s East India bill he expressed on 27 Nov. 1783 considerable misgivings:

All chartered rights should be held inviolable, one charter only excepted ... The charter of the E.I. Co ... ought to be destroyed for the sake of this country ... of India ... and of humanity. He ... conjured ministers to abandon all idea of sovereignty in that quarter of the globe. It would be much wiser ... to make some one of the native princes King ... and to leave India to itself. [But] ... he saw which way the House was inclined and therefore he should withdraw, as he would not vote, against his principles, for the throne of Delhi.

Shortly afterwards he left for Scotland, was absent during the change of Administration, and on his return in January 1784 was listed by Robinson as an opponent of Pitt. On 23 Jan. he strongly protested against a dissolution and welcomed Fox’s motion to reintroduce his bill. ‘He would now be able to modify it in respect of patronage and ... make it generally palatable.’ Dempster remained loyal to Fox, but as a member of the St. Alban’s Tavern group favoured a union of parties and preached moderation so that ‘something decisive’ might be done for India.43

Returned unopposed at the general election, Dempster now became increasingly ‘elevated above all party views’.44 He was conciliatory to Pitt who, respecting his views on trade and finance, supported his motion for a committee on fisheries, which now became Dempster’s major interest. Over India he maintained his individual view that he would rather see Indian affairs ‘egregiously mismanaged’ by the court of directors than well managed by the Crown, and that it was impracticable to govern India from England. In the debate of 16 July 1784 he proposed:

That his Majesty should be requested to send over one of his sons and make him King of that country; we might then make an alliance or federal union with him and then we could enjoy all the advantage that could be derived from the possession of the East Indies by Europeans—the benefit of commerce.

Dempster was critical of Opposition attacks on Warren Hastings ‘to whom alone he imputed the salvation of India’.45

In the new session he supported Pitt’s Irish propositions, although uneasy about their effect on Scottish trade and industry, and voted for them 13 May 1785; but in February 1786 he spoke and voted against Richmond’s fortification plans as unnecessary and extravagant. During the East India debates of 1786-7 Dempster remained a vehement defender both of Warren Hastings and of Impey; rebutted all Opposition charges against a governor general whom he eulogized for his integrity as statesman, soldier and financier; and justified even his severities. But he joined with Opposition leaders in pressing the complaints of the East India Company servants in Bengal; on 19 Mar. he moved for the repeal of the East India Acts of 1784-6 and proposed a new system of government under a viceroy, council, and a representative assembly of resident Europeans. Although frequently an advocate of free institutions and better representation, especially in Scotland, Dempster now seems to have limited his proposals to county representation, and on 28 May 1787 declined to support petitions for the reform of Scottish burghs.46

In the House Dempster was respected as ‘one of the most conscientious men who ever sat in Parliament’,47 particularly for his efforts to curb taxation and reduce the national debt, and for his championship of the distressed, whether famine-stricken Highlanders, poor hawkers, or American loyalists. In Scotland he was honoured for his exertions both in and out of Parliament to encourage Scottish trade, agriculture, manufactures and fisheries. In furtherance of his schemes he purchased in 1786 the estate of Skibo, and on his Angus estate embarked upon plans for building the new village of Letham. During the summer of 1788 he decided not to seek re-election, and in November informed his constituents. He wrote, 10 July 1788, to Alexander Carlyle:48‘It is now twenty years since I have found my opposition to any measure one of the necessary accompaniments of its success’, and listed as examples the American war and Hastings’s prosecution.

He returned to Parliament for the new session and was a leading Opposition speaker in the Regency debates. On the King’s recovery he resumed his customary strictures on Government expenditure, seconded the motion for toleration for Scottish Episcopalians, but opposed the abolition of the slave trade without full compensation to the planters and traders affected. He made his last recorded speech on 22 July in favour of supplying corn to revolutionary France.49

For the rest of his life he devoted himself to the development of Scottish fisheries, industries and communications, and the improvement of his own estates. He wrote to Adam Fergusson, 2 Aug. 1793:50

I am full of occupation from morning till night ... Although I don’t get into debt, I am pretty near as bare of money as I used to be ... I have ... the satisfaction of considering that I am done with Parliament after a service of thirty years neither suited to my fortune nor genius, where I never was metaphysician enough to settle to my own satisfaction the bounds of the several duties a Member owes to his King, his country, to purity or Puritanism rather, and to party, to myself and those who depended upon my protection ... but went on floundering like a blind horse in a deep road and a long journey.

He died 13 Feb. 1818.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. A. J. Warden, Angus or Forfarshire, iii. 197-8; J. Malcolm, Parish of Monifieth, 313.
  • 2. Sir James Fergusson, Letters of Geo. Dempster to Sir Adam Fergusson, 25, 36, 346-7; Boswell, Johnson, i. 439-44; Boswell, Letters, i. 27; Carlyle, Autobiog. 338.
  • 3. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 4. HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 17.
  • 5. Bute mss.
  • 6. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 7. Carlyle mss, Edin. Univ. Lib.
  • 8. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 9. Caldwell Pprs. ii (1), p. 199.
  • 10. Nugent to Grenville, 28 June 1765, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 11. Harris’s ‘Debates’; Fergusson, Letters, 85.
  • 12. Grenville Pprs. iii. 27; Fortescue, i. 89.
  • 13. Dempster’s memorandum; Fergusson, Letters, 347.
  • 14. Boswell, Private Pprs. vii. 77.
  • 15. Letters, 63-4.
  • 16. Dempster to Rockingham, 8 Nov. 1766, Rockingham mss.
  • 17. J. West to Newcastle, 13 Mar. 1767, Add. 32980, f. 280.
  • 18. L. S. Sutherland, E. I. Co. in 18th cent. Politics, 169-171.
  • 19. Letters, 347; Boswell, Private Pprs. viii. 173.
  • 20. Cavendish, Debates, ii. 190, 337, 352.
  • 21. Ibid. 383-5, 389.
  • 22. Ibid. 466; Brickdale’s ‘Debates’, 27 Mar. 1771.
  • 23. Sutherland, 157.
  • 24. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 25. Letters, 84-85.
  • 26. Dempster to Ralph Izard, 5 Mar. 1775, Corresp. of Ralph Izard of S.C., ed. Anne I. Deas, 55.
  • 27. Letters, 86.
  • 28. Corresp. of Ralph Izard, 87-88.
  • 29. Almon, iii. 70-73, 167, 249, 282, 331.
  • 30. Dempster to Alex. Carlyle (early Dec. 1775), Carlyle mss; Almon, ii. 395.
  • 31. Scots Mag. 1775, pp. 225, 289-91, 409-12, 566-9.
  • 32. Carlyle mss.
  • 33. Almon, vii. 106-7, 151, 209, 214, 233; xi. 129.
  • 34. Letters, 100-104.
  • 35. Almon, xvi. 37; xvii. 142, 385.
  • 36. Rockingham to Sir Lawrence Dundas, Oct. 1780, Rockingham mss; Letters, 109.
  • 37. Debrett, iii. 167-9, 193, 280, 377, 384, 653, 665.
  • 38. Ibid. vii. 54, 263; Add. 16260, ff. 181b, 205b.
  • 39. Debrett, ix. 206.
  • 40. 7 May 1782, ibid. vii. 138.
  • 41. Ibid. ix. 735.
  • 42. Letters, 121.
  • 43. Debrett, xii. 198-9, 640; xiii. 66, 90, 104, 251, 295.
  • 44. Wraxall, Mems. iv. 339.
  • 45. Debrett, xv. 381-2; xvi. 103, 309.
  • 46. Ibid. xvii. 262; Letters, 141, 143-4; Stockdale, vii. 100; xi. 6-9; xii. 177.
  • 47. Wraxall, Mems. iv. 339.
  • 48. Letters, 193.
  • 49. Stockdale, xvii. 227-8, 316; xviii. 99.
  • 50. Letters, 232-3.