DUNDAS, William (1762-1845), of Arniston, Edinburgh.

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



1 July 1794 - 1796
1796 - 1802
1802 - Apr. 1808
13 July 1810 - Mar. 1812
26 Mar. 1812 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 1762, 3rd. s. of Robert Dundas of Arniston, ld. pres. of ct. of session, by 2nd w., and bro. of Philip Dundas* and Robert Dundas*. educ. Edinburgh h.s. 1770-1; Univ. Coll., Oxf. 13 June 1780, aged 19; L. Inn 1780, called 1788. m. 1 June 1813, Mary, da. of Hon. James Archibald Stuart Wortley Mackenzie*, s.p.

Offices Held

Commr. Board of Control Nov. 1797-1803; PC 25 June 1800; sec. at war May 1804-1806; ld. of Admiralty Mar. 1812-Aug. 1814.

Keeper of the signet [S] Aug. 1814, keeper of sasines 1819, ld. clerk register June 1821-d.

Vol. Westminster light horse 1797-1803; capt. Loyal N. Britons 1804.


In striking contrast to Robert, his elder brother, William Dundas was (so Lord Glenbervie thought) ‘a tall, stiff, affected coxcomb—perhaps with more parts, but offensively important and assuming’.1 He was the only member of his family to receive an English education and, being called to the English bar, had a respectable but not extensive practice, acquitting himself ‘perfectly well’ in cases before the bar of the House of Lords. His uncle Henry Dundas arranged his return for Anstruther Burghs with Sir John Anstruther in 1794 and, under the same aegis, he transferred at the general election to Tain Burghs, where Francis Humberston Mackenzie returned him. He was ‘an active Member, and occasional speaker’,2 first intervening on 26 Feb. 1795 to protest against the delay in delivering the writ for Kirkcudbright: on 26 Mar. he threatened a bill to enforce the expeditious delivery of Scottish election writs. On 1 July the Scots licensed distillers were grateful for his ‘promptitude and friendly interference’ in their deputation to the prime minister.3 Dundas followed his uncle in voting against the immediate abolition of the slave trade, 15 Mar. 1796.

In the ensuing Parliament he was entrusted with the introduction of a number of measures of Scottish interest, chiefly on local defence and currency. He was at all times a stickler for procedural correctness, not infrequently acted as government teller and, from time to time, briefly defended government policy in general. On 25 Sept. 1797 Pitt recommended him to the King for a place at the Board of Control, which would be ‘peculiarly flattering and gratifying to his uncle, would afford him an assistant at the India Board on whose diligence and judgment he could rely, and would bring forward a person of some parliamentary talents, and all whose connections are among the most zealous and respectable supporters of government’. The King concurred, acknowledging that Dundas had ‘the appearance of a man of sense’ and that his appointment ‘must be very agreeable to his uncle’ and must particularly suit Dundas, ‘as the business is not so constant but he may continue to practise at the bar’. Dundas also served on several committees and was chairman of the committee to investigate the claims of John Palmer*, which he steadfastly resisted thereafter, and of the committee of inquiry into Coldbath Fields prison, appointed on 6 Mar. 1799, which involved him in opposing Burdett’s motion of 21 May 1799 and Sheridan’s of 16 July 1800, before winding up the business on 22 July. A month before, he had been appointed a privy councillor ex officio.4 Pitt had evidently intended that Dundas should succeed George Rose at the Treasury had the latter been prepared to retire, and had mentioned it to the King. As it was, Dundas did not resign his place when his uncle retired with Pitt in 1801 and it was surely by mistake that he was listed in the minority for Grey’s motion on the state of the nation on 25 Mar. The King, who was curious about Dundas, asked Glenbervie, 29 Jan. 1801, what he made of him: ‘a man of a sharp mind and understanding’ was the reply, though, after correcting the King’s notion that he still practised at the bar, Glenbervie added that he doubted whether Dundas was profound, to which the King, excepting only Pitt and Lord North from the generalization, remarked that ‘he thought men of quick parts seldom go to the bottom or take any lasting or useful impressions’.5

By April 1801 Addington had settled that Dundas was ‘under Lord Lewisham, to bring forward India business in the House of Commons’, seeing that he would be ‘the best channel of communication between Lord Lewisham and Henry Dundas’. When Glenbervie, reporting this, learned that Dundas was also ‘fixed on as minister for Scotland’, with the aid of his brother Robert, he grew incredulous.

William Dundas minister for Scotland and India! Will Dundas push for the cabinet for him, or add to his present £1,500 the paymastership of the navy? I do not think the public of England or Scotland will bear to see William Dundas in those stations and governing either at second or first hand. His temper at least and manner, and I think his talents, are against him ... he plays the minister already too much.6

Dundas did indeed undertake the management of Indian measures in the House, 12, 24 June 1801 and 4 Mar. 1802, while on 25 Nov. 1801 he freely expressed his reservations about the East India Company trade monopoly. On 8 Feb. 1802 he defended Pitt’s record as a war minister against Tierney. But Scottish measures remained his favourite topic in debate and during the election of 1802 Glenbervie reported: ‘Dundas is to be still King of Scotland, and William Dundas under him undertakes for Scotland in the House of Commons’.7

Dundas was returned for Sutherland on Lady Sutherland’s interest in 1802. On 21 Mar. 1803 he defended his uncle’s Indian administration when it came under attack. While he seems to have tried in April 1803 to prevent a rupture between Addington and Pitt,8 he was the only member of his family then in parliamentary office and was inexorably drawn by them into Pitt’s camp. Thus on 3 June 1803 he voted for Pitt’s question to forestall Patten’s censure motion on government, which he did not stay to vote against. Next day he offered his resignation, assuring Addington that he would have acted as he did for ‘only one person in the world’.9 He went on to join in and recruit Scots Members for Pitt’s final onslaught on Addington, voting with him on 15 Mar., 16, 23 and 25 Apr. 1804.10 On Pitt’s return to power he was appointed secretary at war. In this capacity he was assiduous and a frequent government teller, if unremarkable in debate. Pitt declined to move him in favour of Charles Bragge in December 1804, when Addington joined the government, not having another office to offer Dundas. The viceroy of Ireland would not have objected to him as chief secretary in February 1805. He was unable to keep his resolution of non-intervention when his uncle’s reputation was at stake in 1805, though reported as believing his uncle had better retreat from public life. On 10 Apr. he rounded on Kinnaird and subsequently, in a ‘hot and indiscreet speech’, on Fox, with a sweeping reference to the latter’s father’s peculation in office.11 Dundas was to have been ‘manager of Scotland’, had Pitt lived to dissolve Parliament, but his tone towards the minister was remarkably brusque, as witness a note of December 1805: ‘Perhaps you don’t know, that the gentlemen of my country have no dislike to save their money, and unless a letter is sent in your name, many of them will not appear till March’.12

Dundas enjoyed the dubious distinction of being the first Pittite convert to the Grenville ministry. His pretext was his connexion with Lord Stafford, whose wife was his electoral patron, while his motive was to preserve his family’s sway in Scotland, which he feared would be lost by their hostility to the new ministry. Two days after Pitt’s death Castlereagh had recommended Dundas, who had been invited to look for some favour, to the King as lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, but a week later he declined exile.13 He could not resist snatching one favour before going out of office: the reversion to the registrarship of sasines held by his brother Robert. This annoyed Lord Melville, whom he had not consulted and who commented confidentially to his son:

I hope in God he never will reap any benefit from it ... it will be counted against him as a favour to preclude other more beneficial objects—as to that however it is his own affair. But if after having asked and through Lord Hawkesbury’s interposition with the King having obtained the survivancy ... I think they must have felt it a little singular when, within two days after, they received a message from him to intimate that he conceived himself bound to adhere to the politics of the Staffords. I believe he uttered some words of course that he reserved to himself the privilege of supporting every measure in which Mr Pitt’s character and administration are involved and I dare say in that respect there is no danger that his venture will be often put to the trial. ... The fact is that the Staffords were bound to him to continue his seat to him for his life, be his line of politics what they might ... no man is entitled to act on two opposite tacks. ... He might under circumstances have been an encumbrance on my politics but could never be of any aid to them.14

It does not appear that Melville ever trusted Dundas thereafter; he had intended him for the seat for Edinburgh city—but Dundas claimed he could not afford it. On 12 Feb. 1806 Dundas had, through Lord Stafford, taken it upon himself to assure Lord Grenville that his family intended no hostility to the new government.15 Soon afterwards he warned the premier’s brother, Thomas Grenville, that a ‘clean sweep’ in Scotland under Lauderdale’s management would be intolerable, and Lord Grenville that Moira’s management would serve little better. Thereupon Grenville himself assured him that no such intention existed. Satisfied that Earl Spencer should manage Scotland, doubtless because it would cause least disturbance to the ancien régime, Dundas emphasized that his connexion with the Staffords put him ‘in a different predicament from the generality of the Scotch Members who supported the late government’, but assured the premier that, without provocation, there would be no systematic opposition from Scotland. Thomas Grenville’s comment was:

He could certainly be made useful enough if he would really act bona fide individually; but I own I fear that he naturally must look to keeping up a Scotch party, at the head of which he would naturally find himself. At all events it is useful to show by communication with him that there is at least no spirit of proscription to that class.16

So on 3 Mar. 1806 Dundas ‘to his shame took this early opportunity of voting against his old friends and colleagues’ and when he felt obliged to vote against the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr., he warned Lord Grenville, who agreed that a silent vote was best and had Dundas’s assurance that it was the last question on which he would so act.17 While of service to ministers in committee and as an arbitrator,18 he was unusually reserved in debate, though he declared that he would oppose the election treating bill unless Scotland were exempted, 21 Mar. 1806, criticized the mode of impeachment of Melville, 26 Mar., and, differing from those with whom he usually acted as he put it, opposed the revelation of professional opinion on Windham’s military plan, 17 Apr. He also remained ‘adverse’ to the abolition of the slave trade. On 21 Jan. 1807, he was a leading advocate of the Scottish clergy bill. At the election of 1806 he had retained his county seat on the understanding that he supported the ministry: indeed they were assured that, failing that, ‘he cannot get a seat for any part of Scotland’.19 Just before the ministry fell, there was a rumour that he would be appointed secretary at war.20

Dundas duly went into opposition to the Portland ministry, voting against them on Brand’s motion, 9 Apr. 1807; on the address, 26 June; on Whitbread’s motion, 6 July; on the Irish arms bill, 7 Aug., and finally on the Copenhagen expedition, 3 Feb. 1808. But his situation was thoroughly uncongenial—at odds with his family and his interests. Thus on 25 Jan. 1808 he felt obliged to offer a last ditch resistance to the offices in reversion bill as an attack on the prerogative, for which he felt the lash of Whitbread’s sarcasms; on 29 Feb. he supported a pension for Lord Lake’s family: and on 28 Mar. he returned to criticism of the offices in reversion bill. The impasse was evident and shortly afterwards he resigned his seat.21 Though out of Parliament and believing that he must wait for a dissolution unless ministers found a seat for him, he could not resist interfering in affairs of state: on 22 Oct. 1809 he grandiloquently informed the prime minister, Perceval, ‘you could not take my uncle into office without laying the axe to the root of your government’. Adding that his wish was ‘that this influence should support the King’s government’, he promised through his brother Robert to work for a reconciliation between Melville and his son that would induce the latter to take office under Perceval.22 This was brought about, but Dundas’s influence over his brother Robert proved fatal to the latter’s prospects in 1811, when Dundas took it upon himself to assure Perceval that an English peerage would cure Robert of his aversion to the lord president’s office, which the ministry wished him to accept. Dundas was reported to have an eye to the office of baron of the exchequer in Scotland for himself in succession to Fletcher Norton.23

Dundas had returned to Parliament on a vacancy for Elgin Burghs on Sir James Grant’s interest in July 1810 and was in the ministerial minority on the Regency, 1 Jan. 1811. He was not at this time a regular attender and justified this to Perceval:

My income is £600 p.a., and as I live with my brother most of the year, I feel no inconvenience. But unless you can throw me in, say, £800 more, I shall not be able to be in London all the session or give you all the support in my power.24

On 7 Feb. 1812 he resumed his opposition to the offices in reversion bill and on 24 Feb. and 4 May 1812 sided with ministers against sinecure reform, complaining on the latter occasion (when he acted as teller) and again on 15 June that the abolition of Scotch offices was in contravention of the Act of Union. By then he was in office again, this time as a lord of the Admiralty, his cousin Robert, 2nd Viscount Melville, having become first lord in March 1812. On 21 May he duly voted in the government minority against Stuart Wortley’s motion for a stronger administration: afterwards, by his own account to Lord Wellesley, he urged a meeting of Lord Liverpool’s friends to consider taking Canning and Lord Wellesley into office. He added that he was sure two-thirds of the Scots Members would swallow this by Melville’s and his own persuasion and, even if the former demurred, he hinted that he himself would become available after a discreet interval to ‘preserve a strong and effective interest’ in Scotland.25

Dundas was returned for Edinburgh on resuming office in March 1812, Melville and the Duke of Buccleuch being agreed that he was ‘the most suitable and as coming nearest to what was wanted ... with the duke’s money and my father’s name’.26 In his general election speech Dundas, who retained this seat for the rest of his parliamentary career, admitted his bias towards ministers and against Catholic relief, but also against the East India Company trade monopoly.27 In fact he abstained on the Catholic question in the House. On 11 Dec. 1812 he defended the interests of the Scottish maltsters in the House. He was named to the corn trade committee, 22 Mar. 1813. Otherwise he spoke largely on Admiralty business, moving the navy estimates in 1813 and 1814. On 2 July 1813 he attempted unsuccessfully to introduce three stipendiary Scottish clergymen to the East India Company establishment: the Company subsequently conceded. In August 1814 he resigned the Admiralty to succeed his cousin Robert as keeper of the signet in Scotland; he had the year before married Miss Wortley, who brought him £40,000.28 He could subsequently be counted on to support government through thick and thin, though his speeches were confined largely to Scottish matters. He was a warm advocate of the Scottish trial by jury bill, 9 Mar., 12 Apr. 1815, and successfully opposed the Scotch game preservation bill as being too severe, 5 June. On 5 Feb. 1816 he was almost alone in opposing a monument to Lord Nelson, but did so solely from respect for the other naval heroes and allowed the motion to be carried nem con. He presented, but dissented from, his constituents’ petitions against the property tax, 5 Mar. 1816. On 6 June he exposed the moral evils of illicit distillation in the Highlands. He was one of the secret committee on sedition in 1817. On 10 Apr. 1818 he was spokesman for Lord Douglas against the impeachment of electoral malpractice by Lord Archibald Hamilton. In the Parliament of 1818 his speeches were confined to two against Scotch burgh reform, which he described as an attempt to give ‘a sedate, religious people ... the benefits of a Westminster election’. He supported ministerial measures to curb radicalism. Two further Scotch sinecures fell in to him in 1819 and 1821 and he was in receipt of some £4,000 a year from them at the time of his death, 14 Nov. 1845.29

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Glenbervie Jnls. 124, 126. Glenbervie could not resist the suggestion that the brothers were so unlike as to warrant a suspicion ‘which my recollection of the mother’s reputation might perhaps confirm’.
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1846), i. 312.
  • 3. Oracle, 2 July 1795.
  • 4. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1621, 1623; iii. 2180.
  • 5. E. Suff. RO, Tomline mss, Rose to bp. of Lincoln, 13 July 1801; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 148.
  • 6. Glenbervie mss diary, 5 Apr. 1801.
  • 7. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 320.
  • 8. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife [c.18 Apr. 1803].
  • 9. D. Marshall, Rise of Canning, 251; Sidmouth mss, Dundas to Addington, 4 June 1803.
  • 10. Stanhope, Pitt, iv. 145.
  • 11. Add. 35756, f. 225; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 26; Colchester, i. 556-7.
  • 12. HMC Fortescue, vii. 300; PRO 30/8/131, f. 76.
  • 13. Add. 48219, f. 157; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3174, 3179; SRO GD51/1/195/17.
  • 14. SRO GD51/1/195/16.
  • 15. SRO GD51/1/195/11.
  • 16. SRO GD51/1/195/18; Fortescue mss, Dundas to Grenville, Tues. [18 Feb. 1806]; HMC Fortescue, viii. 35, 43.
  • 17. Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 4 Mar.; Fortescue mss, Dundas to Grenville, Tues. [29 Apr. 1806], reply of even date.
  • 18. HMC Fortescue, viii. 137, 173.
  • 19. Spencer mss, Scottish list, 1806; Grey mss, Adam to Howick, 7 Feb. 1807.
  • 20. J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1808), 580.
  • 21. SRO GD51/1/198/19/6.
  • 22. Perceval (Holland) mss 9, f. 15.
  • 23. Prince of Wales Corresp. viii. 3179, 3180; G. Omond, Arniston Mems. 279-80.
  • 24. Perceval (Holland) mss, Dundas to Perceval, 6 June 1811.
  • 25. NLI, Richmond mss 74/1909; Add. 37296, ff. 402-3.
  • 26. SRO GD51/1/198/21/45.
  • 27. Edinburgh Advertiser, 13 Oct. 1812.
  • 28. NLS mss 2265, f. 21; 3796, ff. 94-5.
  • 29. Gent. Mag. (1846), i. 312.