BURROUGHS, William (?1753-1829), of Castle Bagshaw, co. Cavan.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



24 Dec. 1802 - Feb. 1806
17 Mar. 1817 - 1818
1818 - 7 May 1819

Family and Education

b. ?1753, 3rd s. of Ven. Lewis Burroughs, DD, archdeacon of Derry, by Mary, da. of Richard Cane of Larabrian, co. Kildare. educ. Trinity, Dublin 9 July 1771, aged 18; M. Temple 1775, called [I] 1778, [GB] 1803. m. 19 June 1782, Letitia, da. of William Newburgh of Ballyhaise and Drumcarn, co. Cavan, 1s. d.v.p. 3da. cr. Bt. 1 Dec. 1804.

Offices Held

Adv.-gen. Bengal Jan. 1792-Dec. 1801, puisne judge Feb. 1806-16; bencher, M. Temple 1822, reader 1824.


Burroughs was born in Queen’s County, the son of a respectable clergyman and bred to the law. After ten years’ practice at the Irish bar, he was brought to ‘the brink of ruin’ by the loss of his wife’s property, following expensive litigation. He and his family became hostages to fortune: they were protected by the Earl Bishop of Derry. Burroughs was further rescued by the Whig magnate Lord Charlemont who, when Burroughs felt it necessary to leave Ireland and try his fortune in India, provided him with introductions to Burke and Francis in London, January 1789. Soon afterwards, meeting Burke, inadvertently so he maintained, outside Carlton House, Burroughs was represented by him to the Prince of Wales as ‘a man who had been very unfortunate, had a large family, great merit, and the good wishes of many of HRH’s friends in Ireland’. The Prince yielded to a hint that a letter from him to be conveyed by Burroughs to Cornwallis in Calcutta would make his prospects in India ‘secure’. Burroughs also received the blessing of Fox and letters of introduction from Lord Rawdon and from the Duke of Dorset, to whom his brother had been chaplain.1

Leaving his family to be provided for by the generosity of friends such as the Hickey family, who helped him to equip himself for India, Burroughs embarked. After the nightmare experience of being almost driven back to Ireland by contrary winds, he arrived at Calcutta in November 1789. He was described by William Hickey at this time as ‘a lively, sensible shrewd man, appearing to possess sound judgment, and a perfect scholar ... mild and unassuming’. Though taken aback by the contempt shown in India for ‘les gens de petits moyens’, and received with no more than ‘the most cordial civility’ by Cornwallis, who informed the Prince of Wales that, having ‘but little connexion with the government of the country’, Burroughs must depend ‘here as well as in England almost entirely on his own abilities’, he rented a hovel to live in, finding litigation ‘almost wholly evaporated’ on his arrival. Impressed by the wealth and prestige of Thomas Henry Davies, the advocate-general (i.e. first law officer of the Calcutta government), Burroughs aspired to succeed him. Meanwhile he became standing counsel: by 1791 he was making over £1,500 a year. In January 1792 he succeeded Davies on Cornwallis’s recommendation, which assured him an additional £2,000 p.a. By 1794, he informed Charlemont, he had made enough to ‘enable me to live at home in the style of a gentleman’ and was waiting only to make his annual income up to £2,000 to return home, not to ‘forensic brawling’, but perhaps to Parliament.

Hickey thought that from the moment Burroughs became advocate-general ‘the upstart hound became so arrogant and overbearing there was no enduring him’. He became

the most extravagantly expensive man in Bengal, his manners altering as much as his mode of living; from being the most humble he became insolent, overbearing and arrogant, so as to be universally despised and detested.

When a benefactor and connexion of his family, William Cane, fell on bad times, Burroughs would not lift a finger to help him and Cane responded with the allegation that ‘Burroughs and all his breed are the greatest scoundrels unhanged. He stole his wife from a gentleman who had been the patron of his father.’ Burroughs was also supposed to have added to his wealth at the gaming table. Francis MacNaughten, incensed with Burroughs’ ‘impudent’ treatment of his father-in-law Judge Sir William Dunkin, found Burroughs pusillanimous when challenged and actually tried to have him disbarred. Sir Henry Russell thought him ‘anything but a lawyer’ and ‘an impudent blackguard Irishman’. When (Sir) John Anstruther* came to Calcutta as chief justice, Burroughs protested at his regulation of barristers’ fees, but when courted by the judge, became a servile favourite, ‘this conduct becoming the more remarkable from its being notorious to all acquainted with Mr Burroughs that he had more than a common share of false pride’.2

Burroughs resigned on 10 Dec. 1801, having made ‘a large fortune’ without impairing his health. He arrived in London in October 1802 bringing with him an appeal to the Privy Council against a supreme court decision, which he had promoted, but which failed. He was preceded by letters of recommendation. Governor Wellesley wrote to Addington the premier that Burroughs had lived ‘in the greatest confidence’ with him, and thought his abilities and principles entitled him to the gratification of his wish to be in Parliament, while Henry Conyngham Montgomery* recommended him to Lord Hobart’s recollection. In December Burroughs was the successful contender for government nomination to a vacant seat for Enniskillen, which the patron Lord Cole sold him for £5,000. After this ‘unexampled sacrifice’ as he termed it, he claimed to have been an assiduous supporter of Addington’s administration.3 On 11 Feb. 1803 he said a few words against limiting the Bank restriction, and on 11 Mar. ‘in a maiden speech’ he took issue with Fox in favour of precautionary countermeasures to the French rearmament. His speech was endorsed by Lord Hawkesbury. He further spoke with ministers for the adjournment on 6 May. On 29 July he defended the conduct of recent governors in India, ‘from personal and local acquaintance’. On Irish affairs he was more independent; while he concurred in the suspension of habeas corpus, he was opposed to the continuation of martial law, 2 Dec. 1803. He was named to the Irish finance committee on 5 Dec.

In March 1804, Burroughs began to waver. On 12 Mar. he quibbled with the Irish duties bill. He had secured, to his own satisfaction, Addington’s ‘express promise’ of a baronetcy and ‘very little less than an express promise’ of succeeding Sir John Anstruther in due course as chief justice of Bengal, which he claimed Lord Wellesley had, unsolicited by him, obtained a promise of from the preceding administration in 1800. He maintained that Addington’s failure to secure the baronetcy had led to friction between them, despite which, and in spite of the offence caused the Carlton House party thereby, he

never gave a vote against his [Addington’s] interests or wishes, until the question for an enquiry into Lord St. Vincent’s naval preparations to defend us from invasion was brought forward by Mr Pitt, which I thought it the duty of every man who valued the safety and I may add the existence of the nation to promote.

After this vote of 15 Mar. 1804, Burroughs took sides with Pitt’s friends on the Liskeard election, 28 Mar., 5 Apr.; hedged by supporting the Irish militia offer bill, 10 Apr.; but on 16 Apr. voted with the minority against the Irish volunteer consolidation bill and on 23 and 25 Apr. likewise on Fox and Pitt’s defence motions which heralded Addington’s downfall. On 15 June he spoke in support of Pitt’s additional force bill and was subsequently listed a friend of Pitt’s second administration. Canning, however, reported to Pitt, 9 May:

Mr Burroughs has been with me today with a long story about his baronetage, the result of which, however, is, that he does not want, and will not take, it—but only wishes to stand clear in your good opinion—which indeed his story, vouched by its documents, entitled him to do.

On 24 Aug. Canning thought Burroughs must feel ‘a pang twice a week’ at not seeing his name gazetted, ‘which may be injurious if long repeated’. On 13 Oct. the patent of baronetcy was issued. Pitt had informed the King on 24 Sept. that the ‘great credit’ Burroughs had gained in India, together with his being ‘a very regular supporter of government’, warranted his pretensions.4

In the recess of 1804 Burroughs was in Ireland and before leaving for Parliament renewed an application to the chief secretary, first made in 1803, for a place ‘of more emolument and less labour’ for his ailing elder brother Medlycott, and a living for his brother-in-law. A list of 29 Dec. 1804 stated that he was then in London and had applied for ‘a deanery for one brother and a civil employment for another’. Within a month Burroughs, whose wife had died in 1803, was reported to have lost £36,000 at the gaming table, to be ‘quite ruined, and going back to India’. He at once applied to Pitt to succeed Anstruther as chief justice at Calcutta, rehearsing his claims, which he was sure Lord Melville would admit. If appointed, he promised his seat to any friend of his administration Pitt thought fit to name. On 23 Jan. 1805 he saw Pitt, but was left in suspense: he was sure he could remove ‘the only objection to my success that even malevolence could suggest’. He hinted that his rival for the appointment, Sir Henry Russell, who did not have any promise made him, was more deserving of the objection in question than he, and complained that he was being ‘singled out for a severity, that might with much more justice be applied to others’.5 On 8 Apr., Burroughs was in the government minority on the censure of Melville and on 25 June supported his impeachment. He also supported Trotter’s indemnity bill, 4 July. On 14 May he had voted against Catholic claims on Fox’s motion. He was an advocate of the cause of Sir Home Popham* and of the Duke of Atholl’s claims; he also defended Lord Wellesley’s Indian policy against its critics. He was five times teller for government between April and July 1805.

In June 1805 Burroughs informed Pitt through Canning that, though preferring to be chief justice of Bengal, he would accept the Madras equivalent if it were ‘easier to dispose of in his favour’. In July his name was mentioned for the Irish chief secretaryship. In August he informed Pitt, with reference to India, that as ‘a year or two may still elapse before your kind intentions towards me can be carried into effect’, he had turned his thoughts to Ireland and, realizing that the chief secretaryship might be above his hopes, assured the minister that the Irish attorney-generalship would do until the next Indian vacancy occurred. In December, however, on the resignation of Anstruther, Sir Henry Russell was recommended by Castlereagh to the King to succeed him as chief justice of Bengal and Burroughs was ‘strongly recommended’ by Lord Wellesley to replace Russell as puisne judge there. Writing to thank Pitt, 9 Jan. 1806, he expressed his disappointment that Russell had been preferred to him, but accepted, and, reminding Pitt of the offer of his seat, asked him to name a friend for it, or he would return his son as a stopgap, supporting government. He added, ‘My expectations of ever returning again to Europe are, I own, but slender’. Pitt died before nominating a Member for Enniskillen and Burroughs offered the seat to Lord Wellesley, to whom he was ‘bound by every tie of gratitude and attachment’. The latter declining it for his own connexions, he offered it to John King*, to oblige the incoming prime minister Lord Grenville. In return Wellesley, unsolicited, ‘rewarded’ his family; for instance, his brother-in-law obtained an Irish living.6

Burroughs arrived back in India in September 1806 with his elder daugher, ‘as odious an animal as himself’ according to Hickey, who had ‘a very cold interview’ with him on the occasion. He courted Sir Henry Russell, who also treated him coldly. He hoped to succeed Russell as chief justice and, claiming that Pitt had promised he should not be disappointed again, canvassed Wellesley and his brother Sir Arthur for this purpose in September 1807. He was confident that had Grenville remained in office, he would have complied. Now he feared that Castlereagh, who had taken umbrage at the manner in which Burroughs disposed of Enniskillen and who would have preferred to see Francis MacNaughten as puisne judge, would block his pretensions and send his enemy MacNaughten out over his head. He also feared that Lord Sidmouth was ‘no friend’, owing to their past differences, though he could count on Lord Melville and, he thought, Sir John Anstruther. Another obstacle was the possibility that Sir Thomas Strange, chief justice of Madras, who had married Burroughs’s younger daughter, might be in the competition. Nothing came of Burroughs’s hopes and his second sojourn in India was undistinguished; by the summer of 1816 he was back in England, busily blackguarding the characters of the Indian justiciary and prepared to avenge his neglect.7

In March 1817 Burroughs returned to the House on a vacancy at Colchester, where there was no contest. He espoused retrenchment and relief of popular distress. On 28 Mar. 1817 he took part in the debate on the seditious meetings bill, explaining that while he approved of the bill and ‘those that had passed in connexion with it before he had a seat in that House’, he disapproved of the suspension of habeas corpus, and believed ministers to blame for not calling Parliament together to remedy popular distress the previous autumn. He accordingly voted in the minority. On 29 Apr. he voted for Tierney’s motion against the third secretaryship of state and on 9 May in favour of Catholic claims. On 12 May he criticized the size of the military establishment as excessive, and next day, describing the army estimates as ‘unexampled’ and alleging that they were designed to meet internal threats, voted for the reduction of the army by 10,000 men to save £400,000. On 20 May he voted for Burdett’s reform motion. Next day he doubted the sincerity of the government’s employment of the poor bill, which he thought more likely to increase patronage than palliate distress. On 5 June he proposed a secret committee of 42 rather than 21 on internal sedition and was teller for the opposition. On 11 June he supported Folkestone’s motion for details of persons confined under the suspension of habeas corpus. On 23 May and 13 June he was one of the few critics of the Irish Insurrection Act continuance bill, condemning ‘a system of miscalled vigour’. His motion to curtail its duration was negatived. In the following week he supported Folkestone’s motion on the right of magistrates to visit state prisoners, spoke against Sidmouth’s circular letter to magistrates authorizing arrests for blasphemy and opposed the suspension of habeas corpus at every stage.8

In August 1817 Burroughs was at Brussels and Spa, where Lord Glenbervie noted:

he had not been three hours come when he was seen seated at the roulette or rouge et noir table ... he has got the nickname of Borehouse among the quizzers of the House of Commons. While he sat near the Treasury bench the phalanx there used to protect him from the quizzers, but since his last return from India, government not having attended his applications to be brought in on that side, he has bought a seat and joined or wished to join opposition, who by their quizzings and groaning show they will not have him.

On 17 June Burroughs had been admitted at Brooks’s. Lambton writing to Grey in March 1818 described Burroughs ‘or Bore-us (as they call him)’, as Lord Wellesley’s Member and found him ‘very violent’.9

Burroughs had continued his intemperate opposition in the session of January 1818, when he castigated government for their repeal of the suspension of habeas corpus, claiming that they should indemnify persons wrongfully arrested, 29 Jan. He claimed on 5 Feb. that the conspiracy that had been held to warrant repression was insignificant and government had no right to indemnify themselves: he opposed the secret committee designed to promote that indemnity. On 9 Feb. he spoke in favour of the Spanish slave trade treaty and on 19 Feb. and 2 Mar. found fault with Williams Wynn’s election laws amendment bill. He objected to the military establishment proposed for Ireland, 2 Mar., and a week later, three days after backing Althorp’s similar motion, moved the reduction of the army by 10,000 men: his motion was defeated by 51 votes to 21. He was a prominent critic of the government indemnity bill, 10-13 Mar., proposing several amendments which were negatived. There was ‘a laugh’ on 16 Apr. when, Burroughs having announced that his vote on the grant to the Duke of Cambridge would depend on whether the fate of the duke’s marriage was to be decided by it, Castlereagh advised him in that case to vote for it. He had opposed the Duke of Clarence’s grant the day before. Burroughs voted for the resumption of cash payments by the Bank, 1 May, and voted against the aliens bill, 19 May.

In the election of 1818, with no prospects at Colchester, Burroughs contested Taunton, with the concurrence of the Barings’ interest, which may also have introduced him at Colchester. He found it necessary to deny at Taunton, as he had at Colchester, that he had Papist sympathies and also that, apart from his Indian judge’s pension, he was a government pensioner. He was elected in second place, only to be unseated in the following May. In his last session he continued in opposition, his last vote being on 5 May 1819 for the repeal of the Irish window tax. He also joined in the defence of the record of British government in India, on the vote of thanks to Lord Hastings, 4 Mar. 1819, and on 16 Mar. defended the administration of justice in India as regulated by Cornwallis, though he admitted that the police force was totally inadequate.

Burroughs did not return to Parliament, but it is difficult to believe that he did not return to the gaming table, as Glenbervie found him in April 1818 ‘condemned and submitting with a good grace to play at short whist’. On 7 Apr. 1826 he wrote to Wellesley, then lord lieutenant of Ireland, reminding him of a promise made in a letter dated 26 Feb. 1818, to provide for him when again in office. Now that Plunkett was to be Irish chancellor, he hoped to be made a master in Chancery and spend the rest of his days in Ireland: instead of which he died at Bath, 1 June 1829.10

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Alumni Dublin, 117; HMC Charlemont, i. 167; ii. 91; Hickey Mems. ed. Spencer, iii. 351.
  • 2. HMC Charlemont, ii. 85, 87, 91, 110, 176, 232; Cornwallis Corresp. i. 463; Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 487; Hickey Mems. iii. 352, 353, 392-4; iv. 66, 97, 144, 174, 195, 205, 494; PRO 30/8/171, f. 56.
  • 3. The Times, 14 Oct. 1802; Hickey Mems. iv. 257, 325; Add. 37284, f. 197; 51736, Caroline Fox to Holland, 8 Feb. [1803]; Sidmouth mss, Wellesley to Addington, 30 Apr. 1802; Bucks. RO, Hobart mss J46.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/118, f. 162; 120, f. 197; Add. 37284, f. 197; Kent AO, Stanhope mss 729/1, Canning to Pitt, 24 Aug. 1804; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 2940.
  • 5. Add. 34753, f. 147; 35754, f. 296; Leveson Gower, ii. 10; PRO 30/8/118, ff. 162, 164; J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1806), 163.
  • 6. PRO 30/8/118, ff. 166, 168; 120, f. 238; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to J. H. Addington, 21 July 1805; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3136; Wellington mss, Burroughs to Wellesley, 23 Sept. [1807]; HMC Fortescue, viii. 82.
  • 7. Hickey Mems. iv. 341, 344; Add. 37284, f. 197; Wellington mss, Burroughs to Wellesley, 23 Sept. [1807]; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 24 July 1816.
  • 8. Romilly, Mems. iii. 297.
  • 9. Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 240; Memorials of Brooks’s, 91; Grey mss, Lambton to Grey, 10 Mar. [1818].
  • 10. See COLCHESTER and TAUNTON; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 240; Add. 37304, f. 117; Gent. Mag. (1829), ii. 82.