GRANT, William (1752-1832), of Beldornie, Banff.

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



1790 - June 1793
1 Feb. 1794 - 1796
1796 - 1812

Family and Education

b. 13 Oct. 1752, 1st s. of James Grant of Hillockhead, Rothes, Elgin, later collector of customs for Isle of Man, by w. Christina. educ. Elgin g.s.; Aberdeen Univ.; L. Inn 1769, called 1774. unm. Kntd. July 1799.

Offices Held

Patent of precedence 7 Feb. 1793; bencher, L. Inn 1793, treasurer 1798.

Second justice of S. Wales circuit 1793-8; solicitor-gen. to Queen 1794-8; c.j. Chester circuit 1798-9; solicitor-gen. July 1799-Feb. 1801; PC 21 May 1801; master of rolls May 1801-Dec. 1817; charity commr. 1818-31.

Capt. L. Inn vols. 1798.

Rector, Aberdeen Univ. 1809.


Elizabeth Grant, daughter of John Peter Grant* of Rothiemurchus, reflecting that ‘the history of many great men in the last age began in a cabin’, wrote that William Grant was ‘a mere peasant’, whose ‘uncles floated my father’s timber down the Spey as long as they had strength to follow the calling’. Grant’s origins were not in fact as humble as that, for he belonged to a respectable cadet branch of the Grants of Ballindalloch. His grandfather and father appear to have been tenant farmers. His uncle Robert Grant (1720-1803), later of Wester Elchies, Banff, was head of the London firm of Robert Grant & Co., which prospered in the Canadian fur trade. After completing his legal training Grant, like many of his Strathspey kinsmen, went to Canada in 1775. He commanded a corps of volunteers during the siege of Quebec and served as attorney-general there for a short period before returning home in about 1777.1

Grant practised on the western and home circuits with scant success, but his fortunes improved when, on the advice of Lord Thurlow, he abandoned common law for the equity courts. He came to the notice of Pitt, who in March 1790 named him to Lord Camelford as a possible purchaser of a seat for Camelford, being ‘a lawyer rising into eminence, and very eager for Parliament’.2 Nothing came of this, but at the general election he was one of two ministerial candidates who successfully contested Shaftesbury against its proprietors and survived the subsequent petition. He quickly made his mark in the House with his powers of reasoned oratory. In his first major speech, 15 Apr. 1791, he opposed Baker’s motion criticizing the armament against Russia, insisting on ‘that confidence in the executive which the constitution, for wise purposes, had vested in ministers’. He was listed ‘doubtful’ on the question of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland that month. His speech of 11 May in support of the Quebec bill earned him the compliments of Fox. He defended the government’s conduct in the Oczakov affair, 29 Feb. 1792. On 27 Apr. in the debate on the slave trade, which he considered ‘an artificial evil, the result of the vicious administration of legislation’, he differed from Pitt by opposing Mornington’s proposal to abolish it in 1795, convinced that ‘it must be abolished by degrees, or it could not be an effectual abolition’. He opposed Fox’s motion for negotiations with France, 15 Dec. 1792, and supported the traitorous correspondence bill, 28 Mar. 1793. His appointment as a Welsh judge in April obliged him to stand for re-election, but he did not do so at Shaftesbury, where Paul Benfield* had established a strong position. Pitt and Dundas had hopes of securing his return for Banffshire, which Sir James Grant, the chief of his clan, would have vacated in return for a place, but Lord Fife, who had the leading interest in the county, refused to co-operate because he wanted the seat for his son. When the King’s preferred candidate for a vacancy at Windsor in January 1794 declined he consulted Pitt, and the minister’s immediate reaction was to recommend Grant, ‘whose assistance will certainly be very desirable in many of the debates of the approaching session’. He narrowly defeated a wealthy local man.3

For all this, Grant, who in March 1794 received the honorary office of solicitor-general to the Queen, is not known to have spoken again in the House until 15 June 1795, when he opposed the Whig attempt to assert the Prince of Wales’s claims to duchy of Cornwall revenues. He was a teller for the government majority in the division. He secured his reputation as a parliamentary speaker of considerable talent with his defence of the seditious meetings bill, 25 Nov. 1795. He argued that all government was per se restrictive, defined the issue as ‘whether, when a measure, though not good in itself, was productive of good by preventing evil, it should or should not be adopted’, and contended that the dangers from subversive societies outweighed the admitted but minor evils of the bill, which would operate not as ‘a ruinous restriction, but as a security and protection to our glorious constitution’. Richard Aldworth Neville reported:

Last night the sedition bill received the best colouring possible from Mr Grant ... who made by far the best speech, as to argument and clear reasoning, I ever heard in my life. The House were delighted with it and Fox paid him the highest compliments.

Charles Abbot thought the effort ‘admirable’, and Pitt that it was ‘as masterly a speech as was ever delivered’. Shortly afterwards, Abbot elaborated his assessment of Grant’s abilities:

Speaking seldom, but always heard with the utmost attention and respect by all parties. In manner of elocution rising very little above the familiar tone of discussion, but always prepared with important materials of argument, shrewdly and logically treated, lucid in their arrangement, impressive in the progress of their development, and by dint of excellent composition without any affected ornament, conclusive in their result and effect upon the minds of his hearers.4

At the general election of 1796 he was returned unopposed for Banffshire with the support of government and the acquiescence of Lord Fife. Three months later George Rose told Lord Auckland that Pitt was

anxious to bring forward Mr Grant to some situation which might make it worth his while to give up his profession, in order to have the full advantage of his support in Parliament, the expediency of which on reflection I am in much doubt about, and have said so in a letter today.5

Grant, who invested £2,000 in the 1797 loyalty loan and voted for the triple assessment, 4 Jan. 1798, evidently concentrated largely on his legal career during the next three years, when his only reported Commons speeches of any consequence were against Cavendish’s censure motion on Ireland, 22 June 1798, when he acted as a ministerial teller, and in support of the Union proposals, 7 Feb. 1799. He was promoted in the Welsh judiciary in August 1798, when his colleague Francis Burton reported to Abbot from the circuit that his manner was ‘uncommonly cold, dry and reserved’ and that he was ‘neat, quiet, regular, and well-tempered as well as accommodating’ in his exemplary despatch of business.6 A year later he was appointed solicitor-general, and the most effective of his few speeches in this capacity were against Western’s censure motion, 9 July, in support of the army and navy sedition bill, 18 Dec. 1800, and against Grey’s amendment to the address, 2 Feb. 1801.

Three days later Addington, in the process of forming a ministry on Pitt’s resignation, told Abbot that he hoped ‘to make Grant abandon his profession and devote himself to politics’ by appointing him chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster for life. Nothing came of this, but Grant acceded to Addington’s wishes to the extent of accepting the mastership of the rolls, which would give him ‘leisure to assist in debates in the House of Commons’. The appointment caused some sore feelings in senior legal circles.7 Grant opposed inquiry into the Prince’s claims to duchy revenues, 31 Mar., and in a more overtly political speech defended the peace of Amiens against Windham’s strictures, 14 May 1802. This performance pleased Bentham, who considered Grant ‘an animal sui generis amongst lawyers, and indeed amongst parliamentary men’. In 1803, two back-benchers described him to Farington as ‘the most conclusive’ speaker on the ministerial side of the House.8 On 3 June 1803 he opposed both Patten’s censure motion and Pitt’s question for the orders of the day. Besides delivering these major set-piece speeches, he supported the clergy residence bill, 31 May 1802 and 5 May 1803, introduced on 23 Mar. 1803 a measure to secure to Roman Catholics the benefits of both the statutes of 1778 and 1791 on taking the oath required by the latter alone, and spoke on questions arising out of disputed elections. He argued against receiving the Middlesex petition against William Mainwaring, 13 Dec. 1802, and on 22 Apr. 1803 opposed a motion to prosecute miscreants for bribery at Ilchester, on the general principle that the Commons should not institute proceedings when actions were already in progress at common law. He attacked the Aylesbury election bill, 16 Apr., 4 and 9 May 1804, because there was ‘no distinction made between those who committed and those who resisted acts of corruption’. Fox thought his speech in opposition to Hamilton’s motion on the Irish currency, 12 Apr., ‘flimsy beyond expression’.9

Grant’s name evidently appeared in one published list of the minority against Pitt’s additional force bill, 8 June 1804, but its inclusion was almost certainly an error. Although Addington claimed in later life that Pitt ‘could not readily forgive’ Grant’s attachment to him, he supported Pitt’s second ministry. He remained friendly with Addington, who on his reconciliation with Pitt in December 1804 reported that Grant ‘approves most cordially of the exact line which I have pursued’. Conjectures that he was to become lord chancellor in the re-shuffle proved incorrect.10 On 15 Nov. 1804 the bishop of Lincoln, commenting to Rose on the ministry’s want of ‘constant every-day debaters’, expressed a wish that Grant ‘could be prevailed upon to come forward upon common occasions’ as well as on ‘great days’, but it was to the latter that he continued to confine his major efforts. His defence of the war with Spain, 12 Feb. 1805, was described by the Whig Francis Horner as

quite a master-piece of his peculiar and miraculous manner: conceive an hour and a half of syllogisms strung together in the closest tissue, so artfully clear that you think every successive inference unavoidable; so rapid that you have no leisure to reflect where you have been brought from, or to see where you are to be carried, and so dry of ornament or illustration or refreshment, that the attention is stretched—stretched—racked. All this is done without a single note.

Ministers put up Grant as the ‘champion’ of Melville in the scandal over his alleged misappropriation of public funds. He spoke against Whitbread’s motion of censure, 8 Apr. 1805, but even he, ‘the greatest favourite in the House, was very ill heard’. He objected to the proposal for a criminal prosecution, 29 Apr., and the following day, when Whitbread complained of his appointment to the select committee of inquiry, defended himself:

he had never made extravagant professions ... If he had never vaunted of high qualities to the disparagement of others, he had not wholly disclaimed party feelings and party principles, and he should rather think the worse of that man who was destitute of either.

He opposed both impeachment and criminal prosecution, 11 June, ‘ably and at great length, but was ill-heard’, according to Abbot.11 He had also spoken briefly on matters arising out of the Middlesex and Knaresborough elections, 8 and 14 Mar. 1805.

On the formation of the ‘Talents’ ministry Grant, who offered his services at Pitt’s funeral and was in conclave with the late premier’s friends to discuss his financial affairs, seemed a possible choice as lord chancellor, but he received no offer, even though Lord Sidmouth strongly pressed his claims on Lord Grenville: ‘Of his parliamentary and professional talents there can be but one opinion, and I am convinced that he might be cordially and firmly attached to your government’. Farington was later told that, although Erskine was patently unfit for the post, Grant had ‘given his opinion so decidedly in favour of Lord Melville that he could not with propriety be appointed’.12 He opposed the witnesses’ declaratory bill on legal grounds, 16 and 23 Apr., spoke (as a stockholder) against Hamilton’s motion for particulars of the East India Company’s censure on Wellesley’s conduct in India, 21 Apr., and resisted attempts to hound Wellesley on the Oudh charges, 18 June and 4 July, when he also obtained leave to bring in bills to augment the salaries of masters in ordinary and to increase the establishment of the accountant-general’s office. He did not vote against the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr., but on 2 June he strongly attacked Windham’s limited enlistment proposals, as embodied in a clause of the mutiny bill. Shortly afterwards he came under attack in Banffshire, when Lord Fife secured ministerial backing for his plan to run his nephew against him at the next general election.

On 17 June Grant informed Earl Fitzwilliam, lord president of the Council, that he would no longer take his share of Council business on prize appeals, ‘finding that I am deemed a fit object of personal hostility by some of the members of the administration’. He made what Abbot described as an ‘able and vehement’ attack on the American intercourse bill, 8 July, declaring that if it passed, ‘a foundation will have been laid, by which ministers may come to Parliament with any claim which the intoxication of successful power may dictate’. Nevertheless, when Grenville made overtures to Canning in the summer, he held out the prospect of ‘some legal arrangement, which should comprehend (but exactly in what manner was not explained) Perceval and the master of the rolls’; yet Canning did not think it could be taken seriously, as Grant

could not consider anything but the great seal as above his present situation. In fact, his rank is already above that of the chief justice of the common pleas; and a peerage, which alone could make the latter situation the higher of the two, might possibly have suggested a wish to remove him from the House of Commons, quite as readily as that of a beneficial promotion.

Fife was confident of unseating him, but the early dissolution dashed his hopes, and Grant was returned after a contest.13

In December 1806 Grant wrote to Melville about politics and early in the new year he was listed among the Scottish Members on whom Melville could absolutely depend. When Canning considered in February whom to choose, should Grenville make an offer of cabinet places for himself and a single friend, he included Grant among seven possibles, but did not select him; and during the negotiations with Grenville in March he set Rose to sound Grant on his willingness to take the common pleas, with a view to succeeding within a short time to the great seal. In the House, Grant criticized the freehold estates bill, 18 Feb., and successfully opposed it, 18 Mar. 1807, in a speech which the Whig William Lamb described as

peculiarly calculated to raise doubt and apprehension, and ... distinguished by the greatest appearance of clearness and perspicuity ... While he is speaking you think that he is completely laying open the depths of the subject; but when ... the mind comes to consider what he has said, it finds that none of his inferences can be brought to bear fairly and satisfactorily upon the point, and that all his powers of reasoning have only served more effectually to perplex and embarrass the question.14

Grant ‘peremptorily declined’ the Duke of Portland’s offer of the Irish chancellorship, but supported his ministry in the Commons with speeches against the attack on the offer of the duchy of Lancaster for Perceval’s life, 25 Mar., and Lyttelton’s motion deploring the change of administration, 15 Apr. 1807. Fife was unable to make any serious trouble for him in Banffshire at the general election. He defended the orders in council, 5 Feb. 1808, in a speech which Perceval thought ‘luminous and convincing’ and Charles Long

the best he had ever made. ... Windham attempted to answer it, but could make nothing of it. ... He used no action, introduced no wit, or any of the ornaments of oratory. It was a plain, logical statement and the conclusions were convincing.

He opposed Wardle’s motion of censure on the Duke of York, 13 Mar. 1809, arguing that the evidence afforded no ground to convict him of corruption, however immorally or unwisely he had acted. William Henry Fremantle considered the three-hour speech ‘very able and ingenious’, but discerned in it ‘a tone infinitely less confident and more moderate and low than any of those in the government who had preceded him’.15

Grant voted with the Perceval ministry on the address, 23 Jan., and the Scheldt inquiry, 26 Jan., 5 and 30 Mar. 1810, but he nettled Perceval by speaking strongly and decisively in favour of adjournment of the debate on the Burdett affair, 28 Mar. The King expressed surprise that he had taken this line, but Lord FitzHarris thought it had saved ministers from an embarrassing defeat and considered it ‘incredible’ that they had not taken Grant’s advice beforehand. He spoke and voted for the release of John Gale Jones, 16 Apr., when Canning joined him in this ‘piece of mischief’, and supported Romilly’s unsuccessful bill to abolish the death penalty for certain offences, 1 May. He voted against parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810. His speech in favour of a restricted Regency, 2 Jan. 1811, was universally praised as ‘the flower of the evening’; and in his last reported speech in the House, 8 June 1811, he emphatically rebutted Whitbread’s allegation of a division in the Queen’s council over the state of the King’s health. He voted against a remodelling of administration, 21 May 1812, and in Wellesley’s abortive negotiations to this end in June was earmarked for the lord chancellorship. He retired from Parliament at the dissolution of 1812 and, prematurely it was thought, from the rolls five years later.16

While Grant, who ‘looked as if cut out of a walnut tree’, was a legal rather than a political animal and stood high in the professional estimation of his contemporaries, there can be no doubt of his talent as a parliamentary speaker. Brougham, critical of his reactionary prejudices, conceded that he was ‘unquestionably to be classed with speakers of the first order’ and Abbot considered him ‘one of the most effective speakers of my time’. Horner had a ‘heresy’ about his style:

it does not appear to me of a parliamentary cast. ... The effect he produces is amazement at his power, not the impression of his subject ... he gives me a suspicion of sophistry ... there are no trains of syllogism nor processes of intricate distinctions in subjects that are properly political ... there is a want of genius in being very ingenious about them.

Horner found him ‘silent but very good-natured’ in private, while Glenbervie described him as ‘a fagot de bois sec in society. Great on the bench, an oracle in Parliament, but like Mrs Siddons a preposterous body in a drawing room.’17 Grant died 23 May 1832.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Mems. of a Highland Lady ed. Lady Strachey, 108, 411; Scottish N. and Q. (ser. 3), vi. 173-4; W. S. Wallace, ‘Strathspey in Canadian Fur-Trade’, in Essays in Canadian Hist. ed. Flenley, 278-95; J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1806), 245.
  • 2. HMC Fortescue, i. 567.
  • 3. SRO GD51/1/198/4/1; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1002.
  • 4. Berks. RO, Braybrooke mss D/EZ/6/C1, Neville to Grenville, 26 Nov. [1795]; Colchester, i. 10, 22-23; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1333.
  • 5. Add. 34454, f. 63.
  • 6. Colchester, i. 161.
  • 7. Ibid. 223; Pellew, Sidmouth, i. 316-17; Rose Diaries, i. 307; Glos. RO, Redesdale mss X9, Sir J. Mitford’s memo, 7 Jan. 1802.
  • 8. Bentham Works ed. Bowring, x. 387; Farrington, ii. 81.
  • 9. Add. 47565, f. 122.
  • 10. Sidmouth mss, Leven to Mrs Goodenough, 16 June 1804; Wilson, Biog. Index (1806), 246, 611; Pellew, ii. 270, 340; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iii. 399; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 1998.
  • 11. Rose Diaries, ii. 85; Horner Mems. i. 285; Leveson Gower, ii. 53; Add. 35716, f. 26; Colchester, ii. 8.
  • 12. Rose Diaries, ii. 242; PRO 30/8/364, f. 185; HMC Fortescue, viii. 5-6; Colchester, iii. 36; Farington, iii. 201.
  • 13. Fortescue mss, Fife to Grenville, 11 June, 10 Oct., Grenville to Fife, 12 June 1806; Fitzwilliam mss; Colchester, ii. 76; Add. 37295, ff. 77, 81, 85.
  • 14. SRO GD51/1/109; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 27 Feb., 9 Mar. 1807; Lord Melbourne’s Pprs. 32-33.
  • 15. Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3425; Farrington, v. 20; Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville [14 Mar. 1809].
  • 16. Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville [29 Mar.] 1810; Colchester, iii. 242-3; Geo. III Corresp. v. 4122; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 29 Mar.; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 17 Apr. 1810; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 306-7; Brougham, Life and Times, i. 518; HMC Fortescue, x. 278; Holland, Further Mems. Whig Party, 140.
  • 17. Jnl. of Hon. H. E. Fox, 29; Romilly, Mems. iii. 324-5; Brougham, Hist. Sketches (1845), i. 171; Colchester, iii. 29; Horner Mems. i. 220, 285-6; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 129.