PULTENEY, William (1729-1805), of Westerhall, Dumfries and The Castle, Shrewsbury.

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



1768 - 1774
8 Mar. 1775 - 30 May 1805

Family and Education

b. 19 Oct. 1729, 3rd s. of Sir James Johnstone, 3rd Bt., of Westerhall by Hon. Barbara Murray, da. of Alexander Murray, 4th Baron Elibank [S]. adv. 1751. m. (1) 10 Nov. 1760, Frances (d. 1 June 1782), da. and h. of Daniel Pulteney (cos. german of William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath), 1da.; (2) 5 Jan. 1804, Margaret, da. and coh. of Sir William Stirling, 4th Bt., of Ardoch, Perth, wid. of Andrew Stuart* of Craigthorn, Lanark, s.p. Took name of Pulteney 1767 when his w. succeeded to the estates of William, 1st Earl of Bath; suc. bro. Sir James Johnstone* as 5th Bt. 3 Sept. 1794.

Offices Held

Commr. Exchequer loan office 1793-d.; member, board of agriculture 1793.


Pulteney, usually described as one of the richest commoners in the empire, albeit a compulsively thrifty man of almost shabby appearance, continued to sit for Shrewsbury, where he possessed the leading interest. In 1790 he purchased control of the four Weymouth seats, and this, combined with the electoral interest in Scotland which he inherited in 1794, made him a force to be reckoned with. He was, moreover, one of the most prominent independent Members of his day and had a reputation as a speaker and writer on financial and economic questions. Since 1784 he had given general support to Pitt’s measures and, if he differed from the minister, explained himself. He continued in this line, despite his private annoyance at Pitt’s permitting Lord Weymouth to assume the title of Marquess of Bath in 1789 without regard for his daughter’s interest in that title.1 He congratulated Pitt on avoiding war with Spain, 14 Dec. 1790, but quibbled with the settlement of differences from the commercial standpoint. He was chosen second on the ballot for the public revenue committee, 4 Apr. 1791.2 On 12 Apr. he voted with opposition on Oczakov and on 10 May, despite previous doubts about his intention, for the exemption of Scotland from the Test Act.

Thereafter, no further minority vote is known until 1796, Pulteney having in May 1792 rallied to government in the face of the French revolutionary menace, though he was less prone to interfere in debate, perhaps because of illness. On 5 Feb. 1795 he was on his feet again, in defence of the war, advocating military as well as naval support for the allies, whose conduct he defended. In June he supported the West India merchants’ petition for relief and spoke on the Prince of Wales’s debts. A member of the select committee on Carlton House expenditure, he was in Lord Moira’s confidence as to the Prince’s views, but tried on 15 June to prevent the Prince from making the public liable for his debts in future. After an adjournment, he was persuaded to drop the proposal, as well as another to bar the Princess of Wales from a duchy of Cornwall dower. He supported the seditious meetings bill, 10 Nov. 1795, as well as the bill for the safety of King and government, 10 Dec. He recommended John Petrie* and Walter Boyd* as loan contractors to Pitt for the subsidy to the Emperor, defending Pitt’s financial policy in the House early in 1796, though he opposed the real succession tax bill in May.3

Pulteney headed the poll with ease in the contest at Shrewsbury in 1796, which was not directed against him: he professed to be neutral in it. On 18 Oct. he supported Pitt’s defence precautions. On 28 Oct. he opposed Pitt’s navy bill funding scheme. He advocated an increase in the coinage to prevent the further depreciation of credit instruments, 31 Oct. On 8 Dec., to Pitt’s surprise, he joined in Fox’s attack on him for raising the imperial loan without consent of Parliament and on 14 Dec. he voted for Fox’s censure motion; he was, however, even more critical of the Bank directors for dictating the repayment of its loans to Pitt. He expressed his own reservations about the imperial loan, 19 Dec. On 28 Feb. 1797, supporting Sheridan’s motion, he demanded an inquiry into the stoppage of cash payments by the Bank. On 13 Mar. The Times reported that Pulteney, with his friend Sir John Sinclair who had just formed an ‘armed neutrality’, had joined opposition, his covert motive being that ‘he wants a lease renewed which is denied him’. Insisting that the Bank stoppage should be only for a fixed time, 22 Mar., Pulteney, usually conspicuous for his mildness in debate, clashed with Wilberforce, saying that he (Pulteney) was ‘a plain matter of fact man: no enthusiast nor did he ever cant about a thing which he did not understand’. Two days later he offered the House a plan to limit the stoppage and, when this was not taken up, proposed on 3 Apr. an amendment to shorten the period of stoppage. Next day, in what Pitt termed a ‘doubtful speech’, in which he defended the imperial loan against Sheridan, he said he thought the restoration of public credit should come first. On 5 Apr., to Pitt’s annoyance, he tried to force through his amendment to the Bank indemnity bill, but it was defeated by 79 votes to 43.4 On 7 Apr. he returned to the attack and in a long speech describing the dangers of the Bank of England monopoly, stated the case for another bank to counter-balance it, which would be solvent. This proposal aroused public discussion. On 10 Apr. he returned to the defence of the imperial loan and attacked the idea of negotiating peace with France as premature.

On 12 Apr. 1797 the Prince of Wales was informed that ‘a meeting is to take place tomorrow between Sir William Pulteney and Lord Moira with a view to form a new administration. The former has accepted the office of chancellor of the Exchequer (without salary) provided the House of Commons can be brought to support him.’ This plan was said to have the approval of many respectable Members. Moira informed the Prince after this interview: ‘The good inclinations of their set may come to something in the end, but as yet, I think, they do not understand one another thoroughly. Sir William appears to me a great deal too sanguine as to the facility with which our financial difficulties can be remedied’. On 26 Apr. Moira added, ‘Sir William, through prejudices against some individuals and partialities which make him desirous of saving others from the ministerial wreck, throws without knowing it infinite embarrassments in the way of his object’. It appears that Pulteney objected to Fox’s being included. Meanwhile in the House he continued to defend the imperial loan, while criticizing the conduct of the war, 1 May. On 10 May he voted for Whitbread’s censure motion and on 25 May supported Sheridan’s motion against the stamp duty bill. On 30 May he introduced a motion for a new bank, attacking the monopoly of the Bank of England; after a critical reception from the Bank directors and Pitt, it was defeated by 50 votes to 15. Next day, he wrote to Moira in conjunction with five of the ‘armed neutrality’ advocating a change in government, as ‘the moment is critical’, and asking Moira to petition the King to this effect, which he did, 2 June. On 25 May Sheridan had approached Charles Grey* ‘from Lord Moira, Sir William Pulteney and a considerable party in the House of Commons’, advocating a coalition, but Grey had peremptorily refused to consider it. Nothing came of the plan and Pulteney resumed his independent conduct in the House.5

He was not in favour of the abolition of the slave trade, but of better treatment of slaves, 27 June 1797. On 3 July he attempted unsuccessfully to frustrate the canal duty bill. He opposed Pitt’s bill authorizing a call of Parliament within 14 days in emergency, 18 July. On 4 Dec. he supported Pitt’s tax proposals, which he thought should be trebled in yield, because loans cost the government so much in interest, and expenditure must be increased to meet the requirements of a war which could no longer be merely defensive. He thought a tax on income would be more equitable than one on expenditure. He subsequently sought to amend the proposals. He had subscribed £10,000 voluntarily to the war effort. He favoured the enlistment of the militia, 30 Dec., and wished more men to be armed, 27 Mar. 1798. On 4 Apr. he opposed the newspaper regulation bill as ‘hostile to English liberty’. The same day he described Pitt’s land tax redemption bill as ‘a violation of the constitution’ and unfair to the landed interest, which, he was wont to complain, always fared badly through being less united than the commercial interest. On this occasion he clashed with the solicitor-general, who accused him of opposition from preference for schemes of his own. His opposition to the bill continued throughout and he also opposed the window tax, 18 Apr., and an increase in the salt duty, 25 Apr. 1798, as he wished to see it abolished. He was interested at this time in reducing naval expenditure.6 In June 1798, apart from championing Scottish interests in debate, he voted twice with opposition on the subject of the Irish rebellion and on 19 June reluctantly agreed to the sending of the militia to Ireland. He voted against the Union, 31 Jan. and 7 Feb. 1799, and again on 21 and 25 Apr. 1800.

Pulteney vehemently opposed the income tax bill, 17 Dec. 1798, as it showed ‘no trust in the people’ and was harmful to the constitution. It left no option to the taxpayer (27 Dec.) and would destroy the middle classes. He clashed with Pitt on the subject and, although he voted for the third reading on 31 Dec., invariably opposed it afterwards. On 7 June 1799, however, on Tierney’s motion, he favoured the war subsidy and opposed the definition of war aims against France. He favoured peace negotiations on 3 Feb. 1800 and rebuked the minister for rejecting them, 17 Feb., thinking a fair peace now possible: on 8 May he claimed that public opinion demanded peace, and voted for it. In the same year he opposed proposals for poor relief out of the public funds and brought in, 2 Apr., a bill to prevent bull baiting, defeated on 18 Apr. He also made various proposals for meeting the scarcity of bread.

When on 10 Feb. 1801 Addington resigned his Speakership to form an administration, Pulteney paid warm tribute to him and in a generally applauded patriotic speech offered him every encouragement. On 11 June he was to have moved an amendment to the Habeas Corpus Indemnity Act, but was unable to do so; he had voted against it on 5 June. On 9 Dec. 1801 he was placed on the East India judicature committee. He had introduced (25 Nov.) after repeated delays at Addington’s request, a motion to permit private trade with India uncontrolled by the East India Company which, as a major stockholder, he characterized as ‘a dangerous and self-perpetuating aristocracy’ which would as soon see foreigners benefit as private English traders. He gave it up on assurances from Addington that the Company would adopt a more liberal policy, though he continued to criticize them and complained on 25 July 1803 that the Board of Control had no control over the Company. He was in the minority on the civil list arrears, 29 Mar. 1802 (and on the civil list committee, 2 Feb. 1804). He defended additional supplies in anticipation of the resumption of war, 11 Mar. 1803, in a speech which put Addington ‘in very good heart’, and on 16 Mar. answered Windham’s attack on the inadequacy of the militia. He justified the resumption of hostilities, 25 May. On 2 Aug. he voted for Fox’s amendment in favour of a war council of generals. He clashed with Pitt, 6 Mar. 1804, when Pitt reproached him for meanness in steadily opposing any payment to volunteers: he retaliated by accusing Pitt of extravagance while in office. He once stated that he believed Pitt to suffer from madness. According to Lord Holland, Pulteney had never forgiven Pitt some disparaging remarks made in the debate on the income tax, and since Addington had taken the helm ‘the vindictive old miser [had] opened his house and was lavish of his money to secure a final separation from Pitt and his exclusion from power’. He stood by Addington in the final attack on his defence policy, 23 Apr., and went into opposition to Pitt’s second administration, voting against the additional force bill in June 1804 and being listed ‘Addingtonian’ in May and September, when he was reported to be making overtures to Addington for a parliamentary alliance.7

He professed to find Pitt’s defence measures inadequate, 16 July 1804, and supported Sheridan’s motion to repeal the Additional Force Act, 6 Mar. 1805. In his last major speech, 28 Feb. 1805, he opposed the abolition of the slave trade as tantamount to abandoning the cultivation of the West Indies: much eloquence, he thought, but little judgment had been applied to the subject. He opposed the salt duty bill, 4 Mar., as oppressive. On 8 Apr. he sided with Whitbread’s censure of Melville, though he professed himself anxious to meet the ideas of both sides of the House. He died 30 May 1805, after a surgical operation, predicting ‘almost the hour of his decease’. Penurious only in regard to himself, he was worth nearly two millions sterling and was ‘the greatest American stockholder ever known’ (he had made great profits through the development of real estate in America).

As a politician he was upright and honest, and had long ranked as one of the most impartial and sensible members of the independent part of the House of Commons, wherein he was a useful and intelligent speaker. His language was plain and unadorned, but he always expressed himself with clearness and precision. He possessed a sound understanding, and his opinion was always received in the House with respectful attention. As a public man, no commoner understood the constitution of his country better, or more uniformly supported it by his conduct.8

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1805), i. 587; Wraxall Mems. ed. Wheatley, iii. 259; Parl. Portraits (1795), ii. 118; PRO 30/8/169, ff. 202-6, 208; Cornwallis Corresp. ii. 42.
  • 2. Public Advertiser, 12 Apr. 1791.
  • 3. CJ, xlviii. 318; PRO 30/8/169, ff. 217-227.
  • 4. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1480, 1509, 1526.
  • 5. Prince of Wales Corresp. iii. 1253, 1255, 1270; iv. 1846; Alnwick mss 58, f. 184; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1565; Grey mss, Grey to Bigge, 15 June 1797.
  • 6. Colchester, i. 148.
  • 7. Add. 35714, f. 37; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 180; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, i. 140; Horner Mems. i. 280.
  • 8. Gent. Mag. (1805), i. 587; Farington, i. 226; ii. 31.