FORDYCE, John (1735-1809), of Ayton, Berwick.

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



1796 - 1802
1802 - 5 Apr. 1803

Family and Education

b. 1735, s. of Thomas Fordyce of Ayton by 2nd w. Elizabeth, da. of Sir Adam Whitefoord, 1st Bt., of Blairquhan, Ayr. m. 28 Jan. 1767, Catharine, da. of Sir William Maxwell, 3rd Bt., of Monreith, Wigtown, 2s. 4da. at least. suc. fa. 1755.

Offices Held

Dir. Bank of Scotland 1759-61; receiver-gen. of crown land rents and land tax [S] 1766-83; sec. to commrs. for inquiring into crown lands 1786-7, commr. 1787-93; surveyor-gen. of crown lands 1793-d.; commr. for liquidating the Prince of Wales’s debts 1795-d.; commr. of naval revision 1804.

Capt. Ayton vols. 1798.


Fordyce, the son of an Edinburgh lawyer who had purchased Ayton and several other forfeited estates in 1715, began business as a banker in Edinburgh and by the age of 24 had become a merchant councillor and a director of the Royal Bank. He contested Edinburgh unsuccessfully in 1761 against the candidate of the Duke of Argyll, and in 1766 succeeded his maternal uncle Allan Whitefoord as receiver-general of the land tax in Scotland. The marriage of his wife’s younger sister in 1767 to the 4th Duke of Gordon, first at Ayton and later at Fordyce’s town house, carried him into the top rank of Scottish society. The failure of his banking house, Fordyce, Malcolm & Co., in June 1772, following the crash of the business empire of his distant kinsman Alexander Fordyce,1 seems to have had little effect on his social life, although it may have damaged his reputation. Boswell recorded after seeing him in Edinburgh in 1779;

I took no manner of notice of him, as I have all along thought that his living in plenty while numbers have been reduced to indigence by him, is (without going deeper) such dishonesty that he ought not to receive any countenance. Besides, his manners are forward and assuming, and he is a fellow of low extraction.2

Nor did the failure of three different agents while holding balances of his remittances to the Exchequer seriously damage his official career. He was removed from office and forced to assign his property to trustees in 1783, when arrears of over £90,000 were outstanding against him, but was not disgraced and was promised a non-revenue office in compensation.3 Appointed secretary to the commission inquiring into crown lands in 1786, he wrote to Henry Dundas, 21 June 1787:

as it was by your means that I was placed here in order (as you and Mr Rose were so good as to say to me) that I might have an opportunity of recommending myself to a better situation, I have studied every part of the property of the crown as if it had been my own with the hope of acquiring character from its improvement, and having become keen in the investigation it will make me very happy if I shall be allowed to devote myself to it.4

Soon afterwards he was appointed a commissioner and secured a share in the secretaryship for his son. George Home, a Berwickshire man, wrote to his cousin Patrick Home, 24 Aug. 1788:

I have learned ... from very good authority, that nothing has indisposed many of the independent Members towards Mr Dundas so much as the promotion of Mr Fordyce and his son, and that many of them, both friends and foes of Mr Pitt’s, anxiously sought for an opportunity of stating it to the House. Mr Fordyce’s character you know does not stand perfectly fair particularly in his own country, and if he has a mind to play the rogue he can command a greater fortune than if he was at the head of the Treasury in England.5

Although the commission reported in 1793 in favour of the union of the offices of crown lands and woods and forests and their replacement by a board of commissioners, Fordyce was appointed surveyor-general of crown lands shortly after the publication of the report; and it was only after his death that the commission’s recommendations could be put into effect.6

Fordyce was returned for New Romney on the Dering interest in 1796, almost certainly at the suggestion of the Treasury. He voted with government on the loyalty loan, in which he invested £500, 1 June 1797, and the assessed taxes augmentation bill, 4 Jan. 1798, advised Pitt on matters of financial policy and Berwickshire politics, but is not known to have spoken in the House. He wrote of his warm attachment to Addington on his re-election to the Speakership, 20 Jan. 1801, and apparently supported his administration, though he observed to Dundas, 6 Jan. 1803, that Pitt ‘has not a right at his time of life to withdraw his talents from the service of the public’.7

Fordyce remained deeply indebted to the public, but still accepted an invitation in October 1799 to contest Berwick, a notoriously expensive borough close to his estate. An agent reported to Lord Delaval that Fordyce had told his supporters that ‘an expense of £3,000 or £4,000 would be no object to deter him’ and added that he suspected Fordyce was showing an interest in Berwick because he wished to return his son for New Romney; but Fordyce himself assured Dundas that he had warned the electors that he ‘would engage in no doubtful or expensive contest’, and attributed his popularity to the advice he had been in the habit of giving to local merchants and to his good standing with ‘a very considerable number of people who have themselves farmed my land or been in my employment, or whose grandfathers, fathers or relations have’.8 Successful at the general election of 1802, Fordyce was unseated for distributing tickets for entertainment during his canvass. At the consequent by-election he successfully brought forward a government supporter, Alexander Allan, in his place.9

Fordyce’s appointment to the commission for revising the civil affairs of the navy in 1804 provoked the Whig Thomas Creevey to move on 19 Mar. 1805 for an inquiry into his financial affairs, as the arrears on his land tax account still remained unpaid. He was warmly defended by Pitt, who attributed his losses purely to misfortune and, with the support of Fox, shielded him from investigation before a select committee by moving for and presenting papers relating to his case.10 He quailed at the prospect of a renewed parliamentary attack on him in 1809, but the threat came to nothing.11 Although Fordyce’s affairs were not settled until long after his death, genuine administrative ability (attested by the praise of Pitt and Sir Charles Middleton),12 the support of powerful friends and, above all, his own resilience contributed to his survival in public life. ‘Who would ever have dreamt’, wrote George Dempster to Sir Adam Fergusson in 1807, ‘that Ayton whom he saw drowned in the river [in 1772] would, as the alderman in the play says of his son Jacky, come up again in a bag wig and a sword at his side?’13 Fordyce died 1 July 1809, aged 74.14

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: J. M. Collinge


A. D. Fordyce, Fam. Rec. Dingwall Fordyce, app. pp. xliv-xlv.

  • 1. Scots Mag. (1772), 312, 424-7.
  • 2. Boswell Private Pprs. xiii. 259-60.
  • 3. Reps. from Cttees. of the House of Commons, xii. 225, 240-1; J. E. D. Binney, Brit. Pub. Finance and Admin. 1774-92, 62-64; W. R. Ward, ‘The Land Tax in Scotland, 1707-98’, Bull. John Rylands Lib. xxxvii. (1954), 303-5.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/136, f. 64.
  • 5. SRO GD267/1/13.
  • 6. CJ, xlviii, 572; Geo. III Corresp. v. 3970.
  • 7. PRO 30/8/136, ff. 125, 133; Sidmouth mss; SRO GD51/9/235/1.
  • 8. Northumb. RO, Delaval mss 2/DE45/17, Constable to Delaval, 17 Oct. 1799; PRO 30/8/136, f. 149.
  • 9. Newcastle Chron. 23 Apr. 1803.
  • 10. Parl. Deb. iv. 48-60, 87, and app. pp. xxxv-xliv; Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 34.
  • 11. Blair Adam mss, Fordyce to Adam, 1 Dec. 1808, Sunday [1809].
  • 12. Parl. Deb. iv. 55-57, 59.
  • 13. Letters of Geo. Dempster to Sir Adam Fergusson, 1756-1813 ed. Fergusson, 303.
  • 14. Scots Mag. (1809), 559.