HARRIS, James Edward, Visct. FitzHarris (1778-1841), of Heron Court, Hants.

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



1802 - 18 May 1804
10 Oct. 1804 - 1806
1807 - 1812
11 Nov. 1816 - 21 Nov. 1820

Family and Education

b. 19 Aug. 1778 at St. Petersburg, 1st s. of James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury, by Harriet Maria, da. of Sir George Amyand, 1st Bt. educ. Eton 1791; Christ Church, Oxf. 1796; continental tour 1799-1800. m. 17 June 1806, Harriet Susan, da. of Francis Bateman Dashwood of Well Vale, Lincs., 3s. suc. fa. as 2nd Earl of Malmesbury 21 Nov. 1820.

Offices Held

Précis writer, Home Office and private sec, to sec. of state for Home affairs July 1801-July 1802; ld. of Treasury May 1804-Feb. 1806; under-sec. of state for Foreign affairs Mar.-Aug. 1807; gov. I.o.W. Aug. 1807-d.

Cornet, Woodley vol. cav. 1798-1805; maj. commdt. Loyal Henley vols. 1801; capt. 2 Wilts. militia 1803, lt.-col. 1804.


FitzHarris in the Commons was little better than a cypher for his father, the ablest English diplomat of his age and a devotee of Pitt. He was promised a seat in Parliament by Pitt as soon as he came of age, and the Speaker, Henry Addington, offered to help in this objective, but his father preferred ‘some other channel’, to secure him ‘a vote perfectly unfettered’. Meanwhile FitzHarris, who had never given his father ‘a single moment of uneasiness’, was sent to Thomas Grenville* at Berlin, not intended for a diplomatic career, for his father wished to have him within reach, but to pick up ‘habits of business’. Thence he proceeded to Vienna to his uncle Lord Minto, with whom he ‘lived and worked for a year in a confidential way’. He became ‘a good modern linguist’.1

Soon after his return home, Addington succeeded Pitt and his father was relieved that Lord Pembroke had not been able to oblige FitzHarris with a seat, ‘as your first vote there would have been a very difficult one to give right’.2 Malmesbury himself did not take his seat in the Lords until February 1804; but he was sure Addington would remain friendly to his son and was proved right, for the premier ‘had him in his thoughts the moment he took office; offered him a seat the moment those who were coming into office were in Parliament’. In March 1801, following an application from his father, he was earmarked as private secretary to Thomas Pelham* at the Home Office, being placed on the establishment as précis writer in July. He was a reluctant man of business, but his father satisfied Addington that this would best prepare him for Parliament. His journal shows that he resented Addington’s insistence on an armistice as the head of ‘a 3 per cent consol government’ and that he disliked the terms of peace—but so did his father.3 In January 1802 Pelham secured him the offer of a seat for Helston on the Duke of Leeds’ interest at the dissolution on easy terms: before then his father declined the offer of a seat for him, on a vacancy at Heytesbury, from the Duke of Marlborough.4

FitzHarris was duly returned for Helston; but gave up his Home Office salary of £600 (his father allowed him £800). In January 1803 Pelham reported that Addington was inclined to give him office; Malmesbury’s response was that he would rather support than oppose government, but deprecated their subservience to Buonaparte. Canning had wished to draw FitzHarris into his conspiracy to reinstate Pitt at the helm and on 3 June 1803 he voted in the minority for Pitt’s question in favour of the orders of the day. He was listed a Pittite in March 1804, when he left the House on Wrottesley’s motion and voted for Pitt’s naval motion. He confirmed it by his votes of 13, 16, 23 and 25 Apr. in the defence divisions that brought Addington down.5 On 13 May, unsolicited, Pitt offered him a seat at the Treasury board, which recovered the salary he had lost in 1802. Meanwhile the Duke of Leeds had given up his interest at Helston, which had fallen into the clutches of (Sir) Christopher Hawkins*, rendering FitzHarris’s reelection uncertain, though he had been led to expect that the seat would be his for the duration of that Parliament. At first Pitt agreed to delay his appointment and even to appoint a locum, but changed his mind: on 16 May FitzHarris was gazetted. Two days later he vacated his seat. His father did not wish to put Pitt to the inconvenience of finding a seat for him, and he did not wish to sit for a government borough. Even Helston dissatisfied him now because Pitt’s offer to negotiate on his behalf with Hawkins made it ‘a species of government borough’. His father eased his mind by insisting on paying for the seat, but Hawkins refused such payment. So the negotiation fell through. FitzHarris took his seat at the Treasury board, 28 May, and kissed hands on 6 June without a seat in the House. Once again he was a reluctant office holder and had to be dissuaded from immediately throwing up his militia command.6

The quest for a seat for FitzHarris proved difficult. Lord Minto tried to dislodge Lord Glenbervie from his, but Pitt wanted him to remain in the House. The Irish borough of Carlow turned out to be a mirage. On 13 June FitzHarris informed his father that in view of the current difficulties of the government he wished to offer to resign office and wait for ‘a private bargain’ for a seat. The offer was made next day and declined by Pitt. Soon afterwards negotiations for a Cornish seat on the Buller interest fell through and William Wickham refused to vacate Cashel for him, Pitt’s pleas notwithstanding.7 It was not until September 1804 that Lord Pembroke secured him an opening at Horsham on Lady Irwin’s interest, through the mediation of her son-in-law Lord William Gordon. His father was ‘glad to get him a seat without any Treasury assistance’. After the adverse vote on Melville, 8 Apr. 1805, FitzHarris, left in the government minority, was one of those who shielded the disconsolate Pitt from hostile gaze as he left the House.8 Later that year, in a depression brought on by a mistaken assumption that he would be disappointed in love, he wished to give up public life. His father recalled him to his duty:9

You inclined to forego all these bona externa, ... public service both in Parliament and in office, pre-eminence of situation, connection with the leading persons in the country (consequently their goodwill), all of which you have been so fortunate as to attain without any effort or trouble, and at an unusually early period of life; partly I gladly acknowledge from your own excellent character, but partly also ... from the favourable position into which you were thrown ... Were you to relinquish the distinguished station you now stand in ... the regrets, at the loss of the prize you would have thus voluntarily flung away, would be infinitely beyond and very different from those you now experience from being occasionally debarred of recreations ... which from the particular circumstances of the moment are not compatible with your official attendance.

Six weeks later Pitt’s death relieved him of the burden of office.

FitzHarris went into opposition to the Grenville ministry with Pitt’s ‘staunch friends’, with whom he met on 19 Feb. and 10 Mar. 1806. He voted in the minorities of 3 Mar. and 30 Apr. and was teller against the Chelsea Hospital bill, 12 June 1806. On his marriage his father allowed him £2,000 a year plus the expenses of his seat ‘which I think it most essential for you on every account to retain’. Pitt’s death had deprived him of the prospect of a seat for Lostwithiel and negotiations for Heytesbury were just afoot when Parliament was dissolved. FitzHarris, with Lord Palmerston in tow, sought re-election at Horsham, his father agreeing to pay £4,000 when he was returned. A double return ensued and the decision of the House, surprisingly, went against him. At the general election of 1807 he came in for Heytesbury on the A’Court interest for £4,000.10

The Duke of Portland on taking office gave Malmesbury ‘the choice for FitzHarris either to be under-secretary of state for the Foreign department or to hold a seat at the Treasury’. FitzHarris (according to his father’s diary, 25 Mar. 1807) ‘without hesitation, chose the under-secretaryship, from thinking that confinement with business was better than confinement and no business’; and he himself recorded, ‘I did not hesitate to select [the Foreign Office] under one [Canning] whom I had long known as an intimate friend of my family, and whose brilliant talents had always called forth my admiration.’ But Malmesbury, in his letter of 12 July 1807 to Portland, took upon himself the full responsibility for his son’s decision, made

entirely in deference to my opinion, his own being decidedly ... that a due attention to the duties of this laborious office and a regular attendance in Parliament would be more than he could undertake either with credit and satisfaction to himself or without materially affecting both his constitution and his domestic comforts—I urged him to try—and now after four months’ experience, he declares to me and I am sure it is an honest and genuine avowal that the fatigue and constant sedentary life is more than he can bear—that it impairs his health and oversets all his comforts and this, I am sorry to say, I already perceive that it does.

FitzHarris later told his son that the main reason for his resignation was the seizure of the Danish fleet, which business passed chiefly through his hands: ‘the insincerity of politics was little suited to his susceptible feelings of morality and honour’. But neither FitzHarris nor his father could bear the ‘idea of perfect idleness’; nor could Malmesbury give him what he considered an adequate allowance, so he requested a seat at the Treasury or the Admiralty for him. Portland hoped to find a seat at the Treasury and FitzHarris declined a mission offered him by Canning in July, at Berlin. A solution presented itself with the death of Lord Bolton, 30 July 1807: Portland offered his appointments to Malmesbury, who suggested that his son should take the governorship of the Isle of Wight (worth over £1,300 p.a.), giving up his reversionary pension (£1,200 p.a.). On appointment FitzHarris immediately resigned his office but remained in Parliament, being re-elected for Heytesbury.11 On 28 Jan. 1808 he was government teller on the Danish question.


When a vacancy arose for a Hampshire county seat late in 1808, Portland suggested FitzHarris to his father as his first choice for it, but Malmesbury demurred: it would be ‘heaping too many Hampshire honours on the same family’. As it was, FitzHarris had to deny publicly an allegation of William Cobbett’s that he was still entitled to the reversionary pension. His dislike of ‘the daily dirty work of the House’ increased; he deplored ministerial handling of the Duke of York’s case, but welcomed the failure of Madocks’s motion against ministerial corruption, 11 May 1809.12 Since a Morning Chronicle sneer at Canning’s indebtedness as Foreign secretary to Malmesbury late in 1807, he and his father had been snubbed by Canning, but the reconstruction of the cabinet without Canning in 1809 perplexed FitzHarris, who hesitated to pursue a political line opposite to his former chief’s.

I felt that when I accepted a confidential office under Canning, that I was attaching myself to him, and said so at the time. Were I now to support those with whom he is at variance, I break with him, and form a new connection, with the intention of breaking that as soon as the present ministers lose their places.

He considered Perceval’s ministry as ‘in a political view ... weak and insufficient in the mass’ and did not expect it to survive: if he supported it in office, he told his father, 24 Oct. 1809, he must either follow it into opposition,

or once more tack about without knowing whither to steer, becoming either a courtier or a no party man.

I do not approve of non attendance in Parliament, but I really think, in my individual instance, it is the only method I can pursue with a view to my own feelings, or to my public character.

His father argued that FitzHarris owed his office to Portland, who had resigned only through ill health: they should therefore continue to support it. FitzHarris, regarding their link with Canning as broken ‘beyond redemption’, replied (20 Nov.):

It appearing ... to me to be your confirmed intention of supporting Perceval’s administration, I shall certainly (as I feel it my duty to do) accede to your wishes on the subject, as no middle line you state can be pursued. I must also adopt, in a choice of difficulties, Perceval as my political leader, for it comes to this at last:—Support him for six weeks (and longer he will not need it) in the next session of Parliament, and I am enlisted in his ranks for ever. For on what plea could I desert then? He goes into opposition; is attacked for the measures of his government; he calls for my support in adversity, can I refuse it? You may, however, now consider me as having decided to take this line.13

FitzHarris accordingly rallied to Perceval’s ministry on the address, 23 Jan. 1810, and on the Scheldt question, 26 Jan., 23 Feb., 5 and 30 Mar. He did so reluctantly, having suggested to Perceval that a constant attendance on his part was out of the question. It was his father who urged him to stand by Pitt’s brother Lord Chatham when his conduct was impugned on 5 Mar. and he next day complained that he had voted in three minorities against his opinion, in support of a temporizing administration:

my situation is really a very unpleasant one—I do not go down to the House any longer zealous in the cause I am supporting, or admiring the men I support—when I get there instead of being able to mix with those with whom I’ve been accustomed to sit—I must keep aloof for even amongst friends a difference of opinion must produce a shyness within these walls—for there can be no confidence amongst those who disagree.

He admitted that but for Canning’s personal slight of them, he would in all probability have followed his line. His father cajoled him: he need not support Perceval ‘one jot farther’, but he ought to stay for the question of aid to Portugal, for Wellington’s sake. He stayed longer and was listed ‘against the Opposition’ by the Whigs. At the end of March he favoured the adjournment on Burdett’s conduct. Illness prevented him from voting on it on 5 Apr. but he sent his father sarcastic reports a few days later of Burdett’s pretensions and the House’s pusillanimity in the face of them.14

FitzHarris was pressed to resume attendance in the autumn of 1810 not by his father but by Lord Palmerston, to further the ministerial wish for an adjournment before settling the Regency. He did so and on 1 Jan. 1811 voted with ministers, despite his dislike of the proposed restrictions. His father approved, though abstaining himself to be consistent with his conduct in 1788, and regretted only that FitzHarris did not deign to explain to Perceval that father and son were not at loggerheads on the question.15 FitzHarris voted against the offices in reversion abolition bill, 7 Feb. 1812. He was opposed to Catholic relief, 24 Apr., but would not come up to oppose Stuart Wortley’s motion, 21 May. If present, he admitted, he would have voted against it, but he saw no prospects for Liverpool’s continuation of Perceval’s administration, as there was ‘no rising man amongst them’. He felt no personal or political attachment to them, having lost four leaders in seven years (Pitt, Portland, Canning and Perceval) and now found politics ‘a disgusting subject’. He resisted pressure to attend on Stuart Wortley’s second motion, although his father urged him ‘the present question is not who shall govern us, but whether we are to have any government at all’; but was prepared to attend on the orders in council and Catholic relief, on which he held ‘a strong and decided opinion’. He was a diehard opponent of relief, 22 June 1812, deploring the cabinet’s neutrality on the question. At the dissolution he and his father agreed that in view of Curwen’s ‘foolish bill’, it was not worth the risk of purchasing a seat for the next Parliament.16

FitzHarris was nevertheless returned to Westminster by Lord Pembroke on a vacancy at Wilton in November 1816. The death of his wife a year before had affected him extremely and he was not to be got out of his habit of living at Heron Court ‘for ten months out of the twelve’, though his friends doubtless intended that he should. On 12 Mar. 1817 he made his first reported speech, to state what happened at the Hampshire meeting on parliamentary reform. He voted against Catholic relief, 9 May 1817. Next session he supported ministers on their employment of informers against sedition, 5 Mar., and on the ducal marriage grant, 15 Apr. He had his father’s acquiescence in his apathy about reviving the family interest in the borough of Christchurch, or standing for the verderership of the New Forest, on the death of George Rose*. He attended to vote against Brougham’s motion for inquiry into popular education, 3 June 1818. In February 1819 Frederick John Robinson urged him to attend the House, adding ‘I know you do not much like to be disturbed in your country retreat’. He had thoughts of resigning his seat in April, but his father gently dissuaded him. He proposed attending to oppose Catholic relief and also opposed Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May. He took his second leave of absence that session on 27 May. On 10 June he voted for the foreign enlistment bill after a further plea from Robinson and on 21 June paired in favour of it. He was besieged with pleas to attend in October 1819 and did so: but on 18 Dec. received a Treasury request to return to town and support them.17

He died 10 Sept. 1841, ‘a Tory of the purest school, and of unbending politics’.18

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: M. H. Port / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 17 Mar. 1799; Add. 33107, f. 15; 41855, ff. 228, 236, 246, 247, 257; Pellew, Sidmouth, i. 255.
  • 2. Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 9 Feb. 1801.
  • 3. Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 11, 51; Add. 33107, ff. 15, 180; Pellew, i. 430; Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 7 Aug.; FitzHarris jnl. 29 Aug., 21 Sept. 4 Oct. 1801; NLS mss 11053, f. 171.
  • 4. Add. 33109, f. 58; Malmesbury mss, Pelham to Malmesbury, 17 Dec. 1801, Burton to Malmesbury, 5 Feb. 1802, reply.
  • 5. NLS mss 11054, f. 62; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 188; Malmesbury mss, Canning to Malmesbury, 4 Dec. 1802; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 8 Mar. 1804.
  • 6. Malmesbury mss, Pitt to Malmesbury, 13 May, reply, Long to same, 14 May, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, 24, 25 May, to Pelham, 15 May, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 16, 17, 20 May 1804; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 306-7, 320, 326.
  • 7. NLS mss 11056, ff. 150, 154; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 11, 13, 15, 19 June, replies 12, 14, 17 June 1804; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 5/51; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 307, 317, 328; Add. 35715, f. 101; 35751, f. 200.
  • 8. Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to Pitt, 21 Sept., Pembroke to Malmesbury, 27 Sept. 1804; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 330, 347n.
  • 9. Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 8 Dec. 1805.
  • 10. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 20 Feb., 11 Mar.; Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 2, 4 May, 14, 17 Oct., 5 Nov., 18 Dec. 1806, 9 Jan., 29 Apr. 1807.
  • 11. Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 377, 389-90; Malmesbury Letters, ii. 25; Malmesbury mss, Portland to Malmesbury, 12 July 1807; Malmesbury, Mems. of an Ex-Minister, 2.
  • 12. Malmesbury mss, Portland to Malmesbury, 12 Nov., reply 13 Nov., FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 29 Nov. 1808, 26 Jan., 18 Feb., 12 May 1809.
  • 13. Malmesbury Letters, ii. 169-71, 181, 190-1, 195-6.
  • 14. Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 4, 7 Mar., FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 6, 29 Mar., 6, 8, 10 Apr. 1810.
  • 15. Ibid. Sulivan to FitzHarris, 30 Oct., FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 16 Nov., 21 Dec. 1810, 1, 2, 3, 5, 22 Jan. 1811, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 23, 28 Dec. 1810, 2, 6 Jan, 1811.
  • 16. Ibid, Mrs Robinson to FitzHarris [21 May], 12 June, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 24 May, 1, 9, 12, 16, 23 June, 27 Sept., FitzHarris to Palmerston, 10 June, Malmesbury to FitzHarris [?11 June 1812].
  • 17. Ibid. Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 17, 19 Jan. 1818, 16 Apr., reply 18 Apr., Arbuthnot to FitzHarris, 18 Dec. 1819; Malmesbury Letters, ii. 525, 527, 529.
  • 18. Malmesbury, Mems. of an Ex-Minister, 9.