DUNDAS, Henry (1742-1811), of Melville Castle, Edinburgh.

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



1774 - July 1782
16 Sept. 1782 - Dec. 1782
2 Jan. 1783 - 1790
1790 - 24 Dec. 1802

Family and Education

b. 28 Apr. 1742, 2nd surv. s. of Robert Dundas of Arniston by 2nd w. Anne, da. of Sir William Gordon, 1st Bt., of Invergordon, Ross. educ. Dalkeith g.s. until 1750; Edinburgh h.s.; Edinburgh Univ.; adv. 1763. m. (1) 16 Aug. 1765, Elizabeth (div. Nov. 1778), da. and coh. of Capt. David Rannie, shipbuilder, of Melville Castle, 1s. 3da.; (2) 2 Apr. 1793, Lady Jane Hope, da. of John, 2nd Earl of Hopetoun [S], s.p. cr. Visct. Melville 24 Dec. 1802.

Offices Held

Solicitor-gen. [S] Apr. 1766-May 1775; ld. advocate May 1775-Aug. 1783; jt. keeper of the signet [S] Mar. 1777-June 1779, sole keeper June 1779-1800; PC 31 July 1782-9 May 1805, 8 Apr. 1807- d. ; treasurer of navy Aug. 1782-Apr. 1783, Jan. 1784-June 1800; member of Board of Trade Mar. 1784; commr. Board of Control Sept. 1784-June 1793; sec. of state for Home affairs June 1791-July 1794; pres. Board of Control June 1793-May 1801; sec. of state for War July 1794-Mar. 1801; keeper of privy seal [S] May 1800-d.; first ld. of Admiralty May 1804-May 1805.

Rector, Glasgow Univ. 1781-3; chancellor, St. Andrews 1788-d.; gov. Bank of Scotland 1790-d.

Col.-in-c. E.I. Co. vols. 1799.


By 1790 Dundas was in Pitt’s own word the ‘indispensable’ coadjutor of his ministry and the prime minister’s friend par excellence. His hold over Pitt seemed to many observers unaccountable: but

Dundas brought to market qualities rarely combined in the same individual. Conviviality at table: manners frank and open and inspiring confidence: eloquence bold, flowing, energetic and always at command: principles accommodating, suited to every variation in government, and unencumbered with modesty or fastidious delicacy.1

Security had made him a dedicated politician and although during the Regency crisis his enemies might gloat over the prospect of his having to return to the Scottish bar, on the King’s recovery he turned his back on family tradition by declining the lord presidency of the court of session. His comment was: ‘my secession from all political life at this time would be a very fatal step to the strength and hold government has of Scotland’, and he described himself as ‘providing a cement of political strength to the present administration, which, if once dissolved, would produce very ruinous effects’.2 He was already ‘Harry the Ninth’ of Scotland. Since 1784 he had been working to lay Scotland, electorally speaking, at Pitt’s feet, and in the election of 1790, at which he himself transferred effortlessly from the Edinburgh county to the city seat, the Scottish Whigs were trounced. His second marriage to Lord Hopetoun’s sister in 1793 consolidated his interest and in 1796, at his apogée, at least 36 ministerialist Members endorsed by him were returned from Scotland. His grip became so firm that neither the half-hearted efforts of the Addington ministry to assert itself in 1802, nor the more ambitious attempts of the Whigs in 1806 shook it effectively; and despite the slackening hold of his later years, when management devolved on his less able clan lieutenants, his was still the dominant interest in Scotland at his death.3

India was doubtless the brightest jewel in his crown: it made possible what Canning called his system of ‘pillage and patronage’. It was a commonplace of the time that ‘Scotland and India Dundas ruled and fed the one with the other’. Patronage apart, Dundas’s view of British India did not extend to colonization: it involved commercial exploitation and monopoly, with the corollary of depriving competitors of their footholds. ‘As long as he is in office’, wrote Rev. Sydney Smith, ‘the Scotch may beget younger sons with the most perfect impunity. He sends them by loads to the East Indies, and all over the world.’ Dundas’s Admiralty office and his intimacy with the Duke of York as commander-in-chief gave him the key to military patronage for his Scottish clients. There was scarcely a family in Scotland which had not been under obligation to him, Lord Minto maintained. As the distribution of loaves and fishes did not appeal to Pitt, Dundas became his ‘old jobber’.4

Being the only other member of the cabinet left in the House on the promotion of William Wyndham Grenville* to the Lords, Dundas was Pitt’s right-hand man in debate in the Parliament of 1790. On 14 Dec. he justified the convention reached with Spain after an unparalleled display of naval force. His chief subject, however, was India, and later that month he was a spokesman for the continuation of Warren Hastings’s impeachment (though on 27 May 1791 and 11 Feb. 1793 he spoke in favour of its abridgement) and made the first of many speeches in that and the ensuing session in defence of Cornwallis’s offensive against Tipu in India. The defence of the India budget had also become his annual responsibility. On all other subjects he had less to say: his reply to Grey’s Oczakov resolution, 12 Apr. 1791, was marred by illness: but, as anticipated, he opposed the repeal of the Test Act as regards Scotland, 10 May, and obstructed all Sheridan’s efforts to promote burgh reform there in 1791 and 1792. In June 1791, in addition to being a commissioner for India and treasurer of the navy, he became Home secretary in the government reshuffle, ‘the first Scotchman to be Home secretary since James II’s reign’, as Lord Spencer remarked. George Rose commented, ‘I am afraid of unpopularity and a revival of a cry against the Scotch when the patron and leader of Scotland is put into the highest situation of authority here’.5 It was, however, at first regarded as a temporary expedient until Lord Cornwallis became available. Ironically Dundas, whom Pitt had at first intended for the Foreign, not the Home Office, spoke more often after his appointment on foreign than on domestic issues, notably in defence of the armament against Russia as a means of effecting peace between Russia and the Porte.6

On 2 Apr. 1792 Dundas made himself the champion of ‘gradual’ abolition of the slave trade and carried his case against the ‘immediate’ abolitionists by 193 votes to 125; on 23 Apr. he submitted resolutions fixing 1800 as the date for final abolition. Pitt did not agree and Dundas surrendered to the majority who preferred a terminal date of 1796, though he offered to advise on any bill they drafted. On 30 Apr. 1792 he deplored the rash of sedition in the country and on 21 May expressed his hatred of mobs, ‘religious or political’, with reference to the attack on Birmingham dissenters, whose connexion with political radicalism he hinted to be the cause of their ill-treatment. The existence of sedition was in his view a strong argument against parliamentary reform, 25 May. That summer, in view of the burden on Pitt and himself in Commons debates, he was eager to parley with the conservative Whigs and draw some of them into the government. The preliminary meeting with Lord Loughborough took place at his house on 14 June 1792. He called it ‘giving ... to the natural aristocracy of the country its due weight and power’. That autumn he was preoccupied with combating the unrest in Scotland, where there were threats to his life but where, he assured Pitt, he felt he was more useful than in London.7 He came down, however, in Pitt’s unavoidable absence, to vindicate the address in debate, 13, 14 Dec. 1792, and oppose negotiation with revolutionary France, 15 Dec., in reply to Fox; to make the preparation for war, which he likewise vindicated against Fox, 12 Feb. 1793, and, as to the actual measures taken, on 15 Mar. The outbreak of war interrupted one of his major responsibilities, the justification of the renewal of the East India Company charter continuing ‘the domestic plan of administration’ there as well as the Company’s commercial monopoly. This policy he presented in 33 resolutions on 23 Apr. 1793 and subsequently carried in committee. As a result he became first paid president of the Board of Control in place of Lord Grenville. Henceforward his India budgets included the home as well as the Indian resources of the Company.

The defence of the conduct of the war against France and of its domestic repercussions was the burden of Dundas’s contribution to debate in the session of 1794, in which he moved the address to the throne pledging co-operation in national defence, 26 Mar., and justified the embodiment of French émigrés in the army, 17 Apr. He also made a point of opposing Adam’s motion for the reform of Scottish criminal law, intended to succour the radicals Muir and Palmer, 27 Jan., 25 Mar., and on 17 May denied that prisoners under the suspension of habeas corpus had been inhumanly treated. On 14 May he was named to the secret committee on sedition and on 26 May opposed the repeal of the Test Act. In presenting the East India budget, 4 Apr., he exulted in the complete destruction of the enemies of British India, external and internal. He took upon himself henceforward until 1799 the pleasant duty of congratulating the victorious admirals of the fleet, and Canning, who at this time remarked that ‘nobody has pleasanter conversation and better wine than Dundas’, added that good news of far-flung expeditions made him liberal of both.8

Dundas was not happy with the arrangements made by Pitt for the junction of the Portland Whigs with government in July 1794, by which he was to surrender the Home Office to the Duke of Portland, while remaining secretary of state for War, and William Windham was to be secretary at war. On 9 July Dundas suggested to Pitt that the plan would be objected to as creating a third secretaryship and cause confusion in the executive; there would be ‘constant wrangling’ between Dundas and ‘the various executive boards’, which would lead to appeals to Pitt’s arbitration so troublesome that Pitt might as well himself undertake the general superintendence of the war, if he did not wish to become a mere ‘puppet’. Nor was Dundas happy at losing control of the colonies, which Pitt had not intended for Portland but conceded to him: he was prepared to take a stand on this but, with a view to his services in the Commons, Pitt begged him to swallow the arrangement. He did so after Pitt had made it clear to Portland and Windham that there could be no question of removing Dundas from the War Office.9 Inevitably at the opening of the next session, 30 Dec. 1794, he had to defend himself against the imputation of being a ‘third’ secretary of state, and on 7 Jan. 1795 it was his role at the navy pay office that he had to vindicate. Pitt had urged him to go over to Holland in the autumn of 1794 to encourage the allies, but he showed no great enthusiasm for or consistency about the continental war, preferring colonial depredation.10

Dundas rode roughshod over opposition pleas for peace in the session of 1794-5: he was, so Canning thought, too fond of moving the previous question against them himself in summary fashion.11 He was extremely sensitive to opposition criticism of the ill-fated West Indian expedition, and while he did not block an inquiry into the conduct of Sir Charles Grey and Sir John Jervis, saw to it that it was thwarted, 2 June 1795. He still differed from Pitt on the abolition of the slave trade, 26 Feb. 1795, and was an advocate of commercial relief for the West India merchants, 11 June. He was prominent in defence of the legislation against sedition, 17 Nov., 3 Dec. 1795, and, although he paid lip-service to the willingness to negotiate an armistice expressed by the ministry at the opening of that session, he spoke as a miles gloriosus, representing the war as having been eminently successful, 9 Dec. On 14 Dec. he thwarted the opposition attack on John Reeves, promoter of the loyal associations.

Dundas thought it had been a ‘pretty hot parliamentary campaign, but we bore them fairly down and turned the country completely against them’. To Sir John Sinclair he confided, 1 Jan. 1796, ‘I hope it will be a better year than the last for I do not recollect having spent one happy day in the whole of it’. Yet, as Sinclair commented, Dundas was ‘a person distinguished for a bold and manly spirit and consequently as little likely to be affected by trifling incidents or unfortunate political circumstances as any man’. As to the figure he then cut in Parliament, Charles Abbot, a new Member, reported of him:

In argument bold and cogent: always bearing upon the material point in debate; and conciliating all individuals by his frankness and good humour. Miserably Scottish in his accent, and inelegant in his arrangement and diction.12

The term ‘inelegant’ might well be extended to Dundas’s handwriting, described by George III as ‘the worst and most ungentlemanlike he had ever met with’. The King was however not unaware of Dundas’s approachability: it was to him, rather than to the aloof Pitt, that he unburdened himself on the problems of his family, and it was to him likewise that the Prince of Wales turned to mediate on his behalf with Pitt when his debts or his father’s disapprobation of his ambitions overwhelmed him. Dundas could be relied on to deprecate ‘parsimony’ when the Prince’s finances were submitted to parliamentary debate.13 Pitt, perhaps, found Dundas less conciliatory: on 18 Feb. and 15 Mar. 1796 he was once more publicly at odds with him over the abolition of the slave trade, Dundas remaining, to the great satisfaction of the West Indian lobby, which published the latter speech, an unrepentant ‘gradualist’ and, by now, one who declined putting forward his own plans.14 Nor, as his elaborate defence of it on 28 Apr. 1796 indicated, would he allow the House to question the wisdom of his predatory West Indian policy.

Dundas returned to Scotland at the dissolution of 1796 ‘to make good my promise of producing ... a unanimous representation’, in which he was not far from succeeding: ‘I might be able to prevent the return of any one Member from Scotland hostile to government. The thing has never happened since the Union and the temptation was strong to make the experiment.’ Sylvester Douglas quoted him as saying ‘unaffectedly’, 13 Oct. 1796, ‘I think now I might look to a peerage’, and this with reference to his admission that ‘last summer he had lost the pleasure of hearing himself speak in the House of Commons’. Douglas believed Dundas had reached a climacteric: disappointed of his prey in the West Indies, clinging to the acquisition of the Cape of Good Hope and Ceylon, but especially the Cape, to the point of threatening to resign if they were sacrificed in peace negotiations; and perhaps fretful about being put at seeming disadvantage by a reshuffle for which Pitt might require the treasurership of the navy, which ‘from so long enjoyment he must consider in a manner as his estate’. In January 1797 it emerged that he would have gone to govern India on a refusal by Cornwallis, had not Pitt made it out of the question. He was not yet a spent force, as Douglas concluded:

his thorough knowledge of Scotland, his powerful talents in Parliament, his long experience in business, his frank conciliatory manners, with a bold, intrepid look and elocution, his good temper and good nature, even perhaps his unpretending demeanour and style of conversation, or rather his good humoured silence in society, all form a very solid basis of power and general influence to him, and much patronage indirect if not official must ever be attendant on power.15

Dundas’s ‘Stentorian lungs’ (Sheridan’s phrase), were exercised in the opening session of the Parliament of 1796 on behalf of defence precautions, 18 Oct., 13 Dec., and of the ministry’s sincerity in their abortive peace negotiations, 30 Dec., in a speech in which he denounced Fox for ‘pleading the cause of the enemy’ and admitted his aversion to surrendering the Cape and Ceylon. He had subscribed £10,000 to the loyalty loan. On 22 Dec. he opposed the promulgation of a criminal code for India, ‘that distant country’:

Codes of law for a whole people were not to be formed at once from motions of dry and abstract propriety: they should be adapted to the feelings and the prejudices of those on whom they were designed to operate.

After an interlude of sleeplessness and ‘nervous affliction in the head’, he returned to the parliamentary fray late in February 1797 to vindicate the secrecy of the investigation of the Bank crisis: privately he urged Pitt to coerce the Bank into regulating its loans to government. He replied to the opposition motions critical of the French invasion of Ireland, 3 Mar., of the state of national defences, 28 Mar., and of the Caribbean strategy, 18 May. On 10 May he explained away the mutiny in the fleet and on 2 June vindicated the conduct of the Admiralty on the occasion. Had the ‘third party’ succeeded in their bid for a remodelled government that spring, it would appear that Dundas was expected to remain secretary of state: but he seems to have made it clear that he would not serve Pitt in that capacity if the Cape and Ceylon were given up to promote a peace treaty.16

On 7 Nov. 1797 Dundas was obliged to meet Tierney’s charge that he was disqualified from membership of the House by acting, since 1794, as ‘third’ secretary of state in infringement of Burke’s Act of 1782 which abolished the colonial secretaryship. Dundas explained that he was not the ‘third’ man; that he was not responsible for the colonies, but for the military correspondence formerly attached to the Home Office which had become too onerous for the Home secretary in time of national emergency; he held no patent and no additonal salary; he was the only secretary of state in the Commons and the intention of Burke’s Act was in no way violated by him. On 15 Dec. Tierney returned to the fray, to complain that Dundas’s anomalous situation, apart from multiplying the number of civil servants, awarded him in addition to £4,000 p.a. as treasurer of the navy, £2,000 as president of the Board of Control, £1,500 from his Scottish sinecure, and £6,000 as secretary of state (of which he admittedly took only £2,000). Although Pitt and Wilberforce came to his defence, Dundas was peeved and his tone towards opposition in debate that session was bitter. It was Lord Holland who remarked of him: ‘He had much frankness and good humour in his manner and countenance, but no man was more implacable in his hatreds’. On 14 Dec. 1797 and 4 Jan. 1798 he was a leading advocate of Pitt’s tax proposals. Subsequently he was responsible for legislation to secure the realm from the danger of invasion, a problem that irked him, for on 10 Feb. 1798 he informed Pitt that he would be glad to be relieved of the War Office, which might be shared between the other two secretaries of state, and to hold on to India. Pitt would not hear of it and on 8 Feb., 27 Mar., 10 and 16 May, Dundas introduced the requisite defence measures, while on 19 June (despite personal reservations) he vindicated the government’s acceptance of English militia voluntary offers to assist in crushing the Irish rebellion. During a violent debate next day he cleared the gallery of reporters and opposed opposition motions for inquiry into Irish affairs.17

Dundas talked of retiring at the dissolution, but gave little sign of it in the session of 1798-9. He was prominent in debate, in defence of the income tax, 14, 17 Dec. 1798, and of the suspension of habeas corpus, 21 Dec., but above all in defence of the Irish union. His speech of 7 Feb. 1799, which lasted two hours and 20 minutes, was in the Speaker’s opinion ‘excellent’ and in his own view his best parliamentary performance. Although Ireland entered into it, in passing, it was largely a minute examination of the circumstances and success of the parallel union with Scotland. How it struck opposition may perhaps be gauged by Lord Holland’s general assessment of Dundas the debater:

His parliamentary merits consisted chiefly in outward appearance, spirit, and readiness; an unblushing countenance, a manly figure, a sort of grotesque hoaxing eloquence conveyed in a loud voice and a provincial dialect, which was neither pleasantry nor invective, and yet reminded me of both. He never hesitated in making any assertion, and without attempting to answer an argument, he either treated it as quite preposterous, or, after some bold misstatements and inapplicable maxims, confidently alleged that he had refuted it. These resources in debate, such as they were, he had always at hand. Mr Fox used to say that he never failed to speak with effect unless by some strange fatality he happened thoroughly to understand the subject on which he spoke, and then he was long, dull, and tedious beyond all sufferance.

Tierney facetiously précised Dundas’s defence of the Irish union: ‘the Imperial Parliament would be a good field of enterprise and adventure to the members of the Irish parliament’.18

Dundas was fully alive to the impossibility of governing Ireland by ‘standing army’ and anxious to bring George III round to the idea of Catholic relief, which would crown the Union. He was not the man to do it. The King, abetted by his son the Duke of York, who had come to resent Dundas’s interference in military matters, grew ‘cool’ towards him and in February 1799 an exasperated Pitt was allegedly declaring that ‘he himself will not go into the House of Commons till he is assured that Dundas will be well received in the closet’. That autumn Dundas and the King were at loggerheads about military patronage involving Lord Granville Leveson Gower*. By November Dundas, who to their continued disagreement over the slave trade had since added an aversion to Pitt’s brother Lord Chatham in his official capacity, was again urging Pitt and the King to relieve him of his secretaryship, which he now regarded as sufficiently superfluous to suggest Chatham as his successor—though not until Easter or perhaps the end of the session. The failure of the Helder expedition, which irked him, was not the only motive for delay: he was waiting for the death of the aged Stuart Mackenzie, the reversion to whose office of privy seal in Scotland he had been promised, to secure his retreat. Pitt would not hear of his quitting his post.19 Meanwhile he had bid the House exult in the successes of British arms, particularly in India, and on 3 Feb. 1800 moved the address approving the rejection of French armistice proposals, a step which he cordially endorsed: ‘repose is not their real object’, he maintained, but ‘we have put no absolute negative on the question’. On 10 Feb. he had to explain the failure of the expedition to Holland, about which he had had misgivings all along. His residual dislike of the continental expeditions predicated by the second coalition against France was by now a source of friction between him and his colleagues and he admitted as much to Lord Grenville after the cabinet of 7 Nov. 1799. At the meeting of 21 Mar. 1800 he made it clear that he thought British forces should be used ‘for British purposes’ i.e. to protect ‘the essential interests of commerce and navigation’, instead of being frittered away on direct operations against France. The ensuing expedition to Egypt was regarded by him as his own brain-child and was executed, like the Ferrol expedition, in defiance of the wishes of the King, whose opposition exasperated him. After the Egyptian expedition had succeeded, the King made amends and graciously toasted the minister who had dared to stand up to his sovereign.20

On the death of Stuart Mackenzie in April 1800, Dundas duly accepted his office in Scotland, worth £3,000 p.a., but did not wish to resign the War department and the treasurership of the navy until October, ‘when the campaign or at least the preparations are over’. He was concerned at the loss of income involved and, though he knew that others looked to it, was loath to give up the Navy Office: he was prepared instead, to consider setting up a vice-president of the Board of Control endowed with his presidential salary, but leaving him the title, to give ‘the finishing stroke to the settlement of our Indian empire’. He admitted that he had promised to hold the War Office as long as the war continued, but pleaded ill health, or his wife’s anxiety about it, as a reason for giving it up prematurely. In the event the Navy Office was prised from him in June 1800 and he retained the others. As a price for the surrender of his apartments in Somerset House, he was awarded a house purchased by the government in Downing Street.21

On 22 Sept. 1800 Dundas submitted to Pitt, who had recently vetoed his project of an expedition to Cuba and whose preference for a naval armistice was to him anathema, a memorandum of the state of the cabinet on the question of war or peace. This showed that, in his view, the ‘jarring opinions’ on the subject had brought them to an impasse. A week later he informed Pitt of his inability to swallow Lord Grenville’s strategy. He was not expected to attend the opening of Parliament, having been ill, but on 11 Nov., contrary to his intention, he replied to Grey on the address, glossing over the failure of the Ferrol and Cadiz expeditions and justifying the war in terms of colonial conquests. On 27 Nov. he spoke to the same effect against Tierney’s motion and on 1 Dec., in a speech described by Canning as ‘one of the greatest effect that I ever heard in the House of Commons’, vindicated the alliance with Austria of which he had had such little joy as an essential combination against Jacobinism.22

It was to Dundas that the King suggested at the levée of 28 Jan. 1801 that the advocates of Catholic relief were his personal enemies. Ever a friend of Catholic relief, Dundas was now adamant about it. His attempt to soften George III by suggesting that the King’s scruples about his coronation oath were needless, applying to the King in his executive and not in his legislative capacity, had been brushed aside with the classic retort: ‘none of your d—d Scotch metaphysics, Mr Dundas’. Dundas resigned with Pitt on the question and, so he subsequently insisted, for no other reason, little as historians might be disposed to believe it. Some contemporaries certainly impeached his motives: Lord Liverpool confided to Lord Glenbervie that he was convinced Dundas was

apprehensive of enquiry concerning the expeditions, that he has for some time wished to retire from the war department, in order to weaken or avoid any impending blow, and that having hitherto failed in obtaining the King or Pitt’s consent to this, he has hit on the present mode of obtaining his end.

Glenbervie commented, ‘I suppose Dundas has rather encouraged the explosion, in order to get out of office on public grounds, and so make his terms, and as safe a retreat as he can’. Speaker Addington thought Dundas ‘found himself in disfavour and in ill health and that he must quit’ and was relieved to find a public pretext for doing so.23

In his letter of resignation, 6 Feb. 1801, Dundas referred to his 35 years’ public service. He did not have a peerage in mind and proposed retiring to Dunira. Next day he wrote to Pitt ‘to whisper into your ear my conviction that no arrangement can be found under [Addington] that will not crumble to pieces as soon as formed’; that those of Pitt’s friends who remained in office did so with ‘the utmost chagrin and unwillingness’; that all the aristocracy opposed the new ministry and that it would be better if the Duke of Portland took the helm. He then asked Pitt to forward his former correspondence with Lord Westmorland to prove to the King, who boasted of his own consistency in his acceptance of Dundas’s resignation, that he (Dundas) had consistently refused to rule out Catholic relief. It seems that he could not believe that Pitt would long remain out of office, particularly when the King became deranged. He ‘took back the boxes’ from Lord Hobart, whose succession to the presidency of the Board of Control he disapproved, and caballed at his house at Wimbledon for Pitt’s restoration. He hoped to place him at the head of ‘the strongest government ever known in this country’, waiving the Catholic question. In this he showed ‘much less pride, and fewer scruples than Pitt’, who demurred at his notion of swaying the King through the Duke of York and refused to displace Addington, whom Dundas proposed to buy off, unless he volunteered to step down. By 11 Mar. 1801 Dundas appeared to be resigned to the Addington administration, shaky as it must be. The King took leave of him in a civil, if agitated, manner. Dundas had told Thomas Pelham ‘very inadvisedly, probably unintentionally’ that ‘if these new ministers stay in and make peace, it will only smooth matters the more for us afterwards’. On leaving the Board of Control in May he accepted, after previously refusing it, an East India Company pension of £2,000 as long as their charter was in force. On the strength of this, he had declined the King’s offer of an increase in his privy seal salary.24

Sitting with Pitt in the third row behind the Treasury bench, Dundas spoke in defence of the outgoing ministry on 16 Feb. 1801, and on 19 Feb. opposed the censure on the Ferrol expedition. In what turned out to be his last major speech in the House, he replied to Grey’s censure motion point by point, vindicating the late ministry’s war effort, which in its acquisition of colonies and commercial and maritime benefits outdid the Seven Years’ war, despite the handicaps of a desperate revolutionary enemy, sedition at home and rebellion in Ireland and unsatisfactory continental allies. On the question of their resignation, he eschewed mystery: the King’s ‘insuperable objections’ to Catholic relief was the reason: ‘we have retired in no disgust, nor in any spirit of faction’. He promised his ‘most decided support’ to Addington’s ministry in the belief that it would act on the same principles as its predecessor.25 In April he was named to the secret committee on the state of Ireland. On 12 June he presented the India budget for the last time and, in doing so, reaffirmed his faith in the East India Company’s commercial monopoly. As a parting shot, he left with the directors a plan for the gradual reduction of the Company’s debts.

Now ‘worn out’, Dundas wished for a peerage. He was apprehensive about the terms of the peace negotiated by Addington and on 6 Oct. 1801 informed Pitt that his suspicions were confirmed and that he could not swallow the sacrifice of the Cape and of Malta, but that he would remain silent in public. He gave the same pledge to Addington on 30 Oct., while freely criticizing the peace to confidential friends. Lord Grenville failed to draw him into opposition on it and nothing came of speculation that he would attend Parliament in November to express his criticisms. Rather than oppose government and with them his friend Pitt, he remained in Scotland where, he hinted, he would now happily retire. He was concerned to remain ‘King of Scotland’, which he proposed doing by delegating management to his nephews Robert Dundas* and William Dundas*, the latter being expected to replace him as the voice of Scotland in debate. This, according to Glenbervie, did not augur well, since Dundas

with much natural frankness which even yet often hurries him on to temerity and indiscretion, with a warm and liberal heart, but which has made him frequently the dupe of artful men and coquettish women, and now has placed him under the government (in a great measure) of divers Scotch and some few English subalterns, sycophants and relations of himself and his wife

was likely to be drawn into intrigue. Addington, who had appeared to acquiesce in his retaining his hold on Scotland and had meanwhile borrowed his house in Wimbledon, was warned off in the autumn of 1801 when Dundas found evidence of his meddling in Scottish election arrangements.26

Despite the urging of his friends ‘rising in the world’ to return to London and give them moral support, Dundas remained in Scotland. Even being ‘minister of Scotland’ had lost its charms for him: ‘it interferes with every system and plan of happiness I have chalked out for myself’. In April 1802, when they were at odds over two Scottish county elections, he had ‘a very long interview’ with Addington to patch things up, in which he made it clear that he would support government as long as Pitt did so, but that there was no question of his ‘returning totally’ and that he wished to retire from the House. Though personally averse to a peerage, he felt obliged to accept one if his friends urged it, as a necessary embellishment for the head of an important political connexion. Another potential source of friction with Addington was averted when on French Laurence’s motion on the concessions made to French trade in India under the peace treaty, 12 and 13 May 1802, Dundas, in his last Commons speeches, acquiesced in the treaty arrangements, while urging ministers not to ‘depart an iota from your sovereignty in India’ and reiterating his regret, on Indian grounds, of the surrender of the Cape. Meeting the King at the summer review at Wimbledon, he allegedly assured him that he would ‘never oppose the government’, whereupon the King wished him well of the management of Scotland.27

The election of 1802 gave Dundas ‘a good deal of trouble’, though he boasted that ‘a more steady and attached representation never came from Scotland’. He was himself returned but, being now reconciled to a peerage, was merely procrastinating until he could secure his family’s agreement to the settlement of the estate and his nephew’s succession to his seat for Edinburgh. He became Viscount Melville on 24 Dec. 1802. This honour and the compliment of being consulted on Indian affairs put him in a good humour with Addington’s ministry, but he failed to induce Pitt, who professed surprise at his accepting a peerage, to join the government in March 1803. It was understood that his own reward would be the Admiralty.28 It was now Melville’s turn to suffer from Pitt’s aloofness (which he blamed on Lord Grenville) and from accusations of over-impatience for office. He took his seat in the Lords, 20 Apr. 1803, welcomed the renewal of war in his first speech there, 23 May, but had to be dragged back to London by Pitt from his Highlands retreat when Addington’s ministry came under heavy fire in the spring of 1804. His support of Pitt’s opposition on this occasion alienated the King, who regarded it as a promise broken.

On Pitt’s return to power in May Melville, for whom Pitt had at first intended the Board of Control, as well as the management of Scotland, could not resist the Admiralty, though his wife thought he could not afford it. To secure it he acquiesced in the omission of Lords Grenville and Spencer and of Fox from the ministry and obtained an increase of his privy seal salary from the King. Overlooking the jealousy towards him in Pitt’s current entourage and the decay of their former intimacy, he did not perhaps realize the extent to which he was courted for his political interest rather than for his statesmanship. Had he done so, he might have hesitated about accepting the Admiralty, as he had already been examined by the naval commissioners of inquiry about malversation of public funds while he was treasurer of the navy.29 This came to a head when on the publication of the commissioners’ tenth report he was censured on Whitbread’s motion by the Speaker’s casting vote, 8 Apr. 1805. It ruined his reputation and rocked the ministry: Pitt’s subsequent bitter comment underlined it: ‘We can get over Austerlitz, but we can never get over the tenth report’. Melville, who resigned office and the Privy Council and spoke in his own defence in the Commons on 11 June 1805, was to have faced prosecution by the attorney-general, but his prospects were thought better if he were to be impeached by his peers, which his friends in office accordingly secured for him. ‘Scotland bowed down before this idol’, scoffed Whitbread in opening the impeachment charge, 29 Apr. 1806: but by then, with Pitt in the grave and Lord Grenville in power, the impeachment, the last of its kind, had lost its political sting. Melville was acquitted on 12 June.

His political opponents in Scotland found that they could not topple Melville’s influence there in 1806, and on the return of his friends to power in 1807 he was restored to the Privy Council. He accepted this reluctantly, as they dared not restore him to office at the Admiralty, as he wished. Lord Holland thus stated the predicament that darkened his last years (described at length by Melville himself in a memorandum of 6 May 1809):

But the proceedings against him were yet fresh in public recollection when Lord Grenville’s administration was overturned. Their successors did not consider themselves strong enough to sustain the odium of his name in their new cabinet. He was, consequently, left in an anomalous situation, where the hostility of one party, and the apprehensions of the other, prevented him from taking an active part, till infirmities and other circumstances had rendered him comparatively insignificant.

Melville, who occasionally attended and spoke in the Lords, refused an earldom from Spencer Perceval in October 1809 when the latter needed his political connexion to bolster up a weak administration. Yet he was an avowed aristocrat, who hated jacobinism everywhere and thought that the divisions in the royal family and aristocracy must, unless healed, lead to the destruction of the balance of the constitution by the unwieldy democratic part of it.30 He died in his sleep, 29 May 1811.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. W. L. Clements Lib. Pitt letters, Pitt to Dundas, 22 July [1790]; Wraxall Mems. ed. Wheatley, i. 266.
  • 2. N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/1/795; HMC Fortescue, i. 534.
  • 3. Holden Furber, Henry Dundas (1931).
  • 4. Malmesbury Diaries, iii. 592; PRO 30/12/17/2, E. to J. Law, 16 Aug. 1804; Two Views of British India ed. Ingram, 4-13; Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 79; Stanhope, Pitt, i. 311.
  • 5. Spencer mss, Ld. Spencer to his mother, to June 1791; Add. 34437, f. 401.
  • 6. Add. 34436, f. 548; Geo. III Corresp. i. 672.
  • 7. Auckland Jnl. ii. 417, 460, 464; Powis mss, Keene to Clive, 28 July; PRO 30/8/157, f. 144; Grey mss, Macleod to Grey, 30 Nov. 1792.
  • 8. D. Marshall, The Rise of Canning, 47-49.
  • 9. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1090-2; HMC Fortescue, ii. 597; Stanhope, ii. 253-55; PRO 30/8/157, f. 172; Portland mss PwF7705; SRO GD51/1/17/15.
  • 10. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 953, 1314; iii. 2033; W. L. Clements Lib. Pitt letters, Pitt to Dundas, 12 Oct. [1794]; Portland mss PwF3485.
  • 11. Harewood mss, Canning to Rev. Leigh, 7 Feb. 1795, 28 Jan. 1800.
  • 12. Camden mss C235/1; Sinclair mss, memo; Colchester, i. 22.
  • 13. Add. 33629, f. 3; Camden mss O119; Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 832; iii. 969, 971, 1250, 1339, 1342, 1360.
  • 14. True Briton, 31 Mar. 1796.
  • 15. Add. 38734, f. 178; Bucks. RO, Hobart mss E47; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 81, 107, 111, 122; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1493.
  • 16. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 125; PRO 30/8/157, f. 216; Oracle, 9 June 1797; Minto, ii. 410.
  • 17. Holland, Mems. Whig Party, i. 241; PRO 30/8/157, f. 236; HMC Fortescue, iv. 223.
  • 18. Minto, iii. 38; Debrett (ser 3), vii. 741; Colchester, i. 171; Holland, i. 241.
  • 19. PRO 30/8/157, ff. 226, 228; Chatsworth mss, Lady E. Foster jnl. 7 Feb. 1799; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 181; Add. 40102, f. 36; 48219, f. 96; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 2087; W. L. Clements Lib. Pitt letters, Pitt to Dundas, 4 Nov. 1799.
  • 20. HMC Fortescue, iv. 275, 433; v. 206, 215, 368, 493, 494, 498; vi. 12; Add. 40102, f. 40; W. L. Clements Lib. Pitt letters, Pitt to Dundas, 25, 26, 27 July 1800; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 2205, 2259; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 232.
  • 21. Add. 40102, ff. 44, 126; PRO 30/8/157, f. 274 and Dacres Adams mss 3/23; Harrowby mss, Dundas to Ryder, Wed. a.m. [May]; Harewood mss, Canning to Rev. Leigh, 12 Apr., to Mrs Leigh, 15 May; The Times, 29 Oct. 1800.
  • 22. Geo. III Corresp. iii. 2229, 2242, 2256; Add. 40102, ff. 75-83; The Times, 6, 10 Nov.; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 2 Dec. 1800.
  • 23. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 147, 156, 159, 277; Rose Diaries, i. 301, 305; Colchester, i. 232; Mackintosh Mems. i. 170; Chatsworth mss, Duchess of Devonshire jnl. 25 Feb. 1801.
  • 24. PRO 30/8/157, ff. 284, 286; 30/9/33, Abbot diary, 15 Mar. 1801; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 2346; iv. 2915; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 7-8, 24, 37; Colchester, i. 251, 258, 261; Add. 33107, f. 27; 40102, f. 94; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 200.
  • 25. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 204, 205.
  • 26. Ibid. i. 216, 222, 262, 269, 320; E. Suff. RO, Tomline mss, Rose to bp. of Lincoln, 13 July 1801; Dacres Adams mss 4/44, 52; SRO GD51/1/556/14, 17; 51/1/557/3; HMC Fortescue, vii. 56; The Times, 3 Nov.; Sidmouth mss, Dundas to Addington, 5 Sept. 1801.
  • 27. SRO GD51/1/195/2; 51/1/198/26/7; 51/9/219; Sidmouth mss, Dundas to Addington, 19 Apr. 1802; Rose Diaries, ii. 123n.
  • 28. Add. 38737, ff. 12, 17; SRO GD51/1/66/6-12; Sidmouth mss, Dundas to Addington, 10 Aug. 1802, 22 Mar. 1803; Rose Diaries, i. 517; ii. 30, 35; Minto, iii. 281-82.
  • 29. W. L. Clements Lib. Pitt letters, Pitt to Melville, 19 June 1803, 17 Apr. 1804; PRO 30/8/157, f. 293; Stanhope, iv. 139; Rose Diaries, ii. 123n, 130, 162, 201; Life of Wilberforce (1838), iii. 217.
  • 30. Holland, i. 243; SRO GD51/1/195/102; Lonsdale mss, Melville to Lonsdale, 18 July 1810.