SCARLETT, James (1769-1844), of Abinger Hall, Dorking, Surr.

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



10 Feb. 1819 - 1830
1830 - Mar. 1831
1831 - 1832
1832 - 1834

Family and Education

b. 13 Dec. 1769, in Jamaica, 2nd s. of Robert Scarlett of Duckett’s Spring, St. James, Jamaica by Elizabeth, da. of Col. Philip Anglin of Paradise, Jamaica, wid. of one Wright. educ. privately at home till 1785; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1785; I. Temple 1785, called 1791. m. (1) 23 Oct. 1792, Louise Henrietta (d. 8 Mar. 1829), da. of Peter Campbell of Kilmory, Argyll, 3s. 2da.; (2) 28 Sept. 1843, Elizabeth, da. of Lee Steere Steere (formerly Witts) of Jayes-in-Wotton, Surr., wid. of Rev. Henry John Ridley of Ockley, rector of Abinger, s.p. Kntd. 30 Apr. 1827; cr. Baron Abinger 12 Jan. 1835.

Offices Held

KC 8 Mar. 1816; bencher, I. Temple 1816, solicitor-gen., co. pal. of Dur. 1816, attorney-gen. 1825-34; King’s attorney and serjeant, co. pal. of Lancaster 1819-27; attorney-gen. Apr. 1827-Jan. 1828, June 1829-Nov. 1830; chief baron of Exchequer Dec. 1834-d.; PC 15 Dec. 1834; serjt.-at-law 24 Dec. 1834.


The younger son of a family long settled in Jamaica, Scarlett came to England in 1785 and was bred to the bar. At this time he was a member of the Crown and Rolls debating society. He practised on the northern circuit and at the Lancaster sessions and, ‘not satisfied unless he made the jury parties ... to their own self-deception’, obtained verdict after verdict. Apart from steady application to business, his fine presence and voice and nonchalant but subtle manner secured his reputation, and his fees were legendary. In June 1804 and February 1807 he acted as counsel for the West India interest on the slave trade bill. His Whig politics were a bar to promotion, nor, to his surprise, did the Whigs while in power promote him, though they were prepared to do something for his brother in Jamaica.1 He did not take silk until 1816, although he applied to Lord Eldon to do so as early as 1807. Sir Samuel Romilly* consulted him as a friend on his legal reform measures.

In 1812 Scarlett unsuccessfully contested Lewes, ‘upon popular principles’, under the aegis of his brother-in-law Kemp. He wrote to Lord Cawdor, whom he had, as in 1807, assisted in the Pembrokeshire elections, 23 Sept. 1812:

I know not whether a seat in Parliament be really an object to me. But I think it can do me no harm and my vanity perhaps has not been proof against the temptation of coming in independently of all party and upon the strength of my own character ...

After his defeat he wrote, 9 Oct., ‘next time I shall be certain’, but he was no more successful at a by-election there in 1816, and withdrew at the last moment, still uncertain of success, because of an unexpected ‘domestic calamity’ before the election of 1818. His fellow Whig lawyer Brougham thought him hard done by: writing to Lord Grey, 27 Aug. 1817, he urged that, failing Lewes, the party leaders should find Scarlett a seat. Brougham also wrote to Lord Holland of his

great sacrifices in every way—two contests and a third pending—ten years want of promotion in his profession all overlooked ... the man who in spite of party and court prosecution has worked his way to the head of his profession and would have come into Parliament with all the weight of that high station.

He had more than once refused the offer of a seat from government, who were as aware as the Whigs that he might prove an asset in debate. In February 1818 he was invited to Liverpool by William Roscoe* and, after Romilly’s death, his name was even mentioned for Westminster.2

There was, nevertheless, some surprise in Whig circles when Scarlett was brought in for a vacant seat at Peterborough by Earl Fitzwilliam, with whom he was thought to have ‘no connexion’: he was chosen for his ‘distinguished eminence’ and William Lamb*, at least, maintained that ‘the choice could not have fallen on a better man’. His maiden speech, a few days after he had taken his seat, was in reply to the solicitor-general on the Windsor establishment bill, 22 Feb. 1819. It was described as ‘capital’ and ‘the best first speech ever made by a lawyer at least in modern times’: he was boosted as ‘the greatest acquisition the opposition have gained in the present Parliament’. Tierney, writing to Lord Grey, 28 Feb., reported:

Scarlett bids fair to be a very great accession of strength to us. He has a better parliamentary manner than any lawyer I recollect, and his ingenuity and acuteness savours less of the shop than is usually the case with my learned friends. He entirely did away the whole effect of Peel’s speech.3

On 2 Mar. 1819 Scarlett backed Mackintosh’s motion for a select committee on the criminal law and was named for the committee. He then obtained leave to go the northern circuit. Tierney regretted that his professional duties prevented him from devoting himself to parliamentary business. On 17 May 1819 he joined Brooks’s Club. Next day he voted for Tierney’s censure motion. On 7 June he opposed additional taxation and on 10 and 21 June attacked the foreign enlistment bill. He had voted for burgh reform on 6 May, but avoided the topic otherwise, doubtless from deference to his patron. After a bout of illness in the autumn, Scarlett caused some concern to Brougham, who reported him as being against county meetings to review the Peterloo incident: he hoped that Fitzwilliam would win him over. The prime minister was informed that Scarlett was a critic of ‘tumultuary meetings’, but when Fitzwilliam lost his lord lieutenancy over the issue, Scarlett wrote to him, 1 Nov. 1819, full of indignation.4 In the House he was steadily in opposition. He criticized the Manchester magistrates, 28 Nov., and on 13 Dec. attacked the seditious meetings prevention bill as inimical to the liberties of the country. He also spoke against the blasphemous libel bill, 21 Dec.

Despite his promising start, Scarlett, who ‘reasoned too closely for a large assembly and came too late into Parliament to learn or practise the art of declamation’, did not shine at Westminster. His son, attributing this failure to ‘diffidence and want of moral courage’, remarked that ‘he was ever afraid of losing there the reputation he had acquired in Westminster Hall’.5 He deserted the Whigs over the reform bill in 1831 and died a Tory peer, 7 Apr. 1844.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


P. C. Scarlett’s Memoir of his father (1877) includes Scarlett’s unfinished autobiography.

  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1844), i. 648; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 37; Brougham, Life and Times, i. 402; Scarlett, Mem. 71; Add. 37885, f. 86.
  • 2. Romilly, Mems. ii. 245; Brougham mss 10346; Fortescue mss, Lansdowne to Grenville, 6 Oct. [1812]; Carm. RO, 1 Cawdor 133; Morning Chron. 16 June 1818; Brougham, Life and Times, ii. 323; Add. 51561, Brougham to Holland, Thurs.; 51565, Brougham to Lady Holland, n.d. [1818]; Scarlett, Mem. 132; Creevey’s Life and Times, 108; Grey mss, Lambton to Grey, 11 Nov. 1818.
  • 3. Spencer mss, Lady to Ld. Spencer, 10 Nov.; Fitzwilliam mss, X516/11, Lady Fitzwilliam to Milton, 13 Dec.; box 94, Lamb to same, 11 Nov. 1818; Buckingham, Regency, ii. 318, 321; Colchester, iii. 69, 71; Grey mss, Spencer to Grey, 28 Feb., Rosslyn to same, 24 Feb., Tierney to same, 28 Feb.; Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 23 Feb. 1819; Diary of Lady Shelley, ii. 29.
  • 4. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey [Mar.]; Add. 38574, f. 139; 51561, Brougham to Holland, Fri.; Fitzwilliam mss, box 98, Scarlett to Fitzwilliam, 1 Nov. 1819.
  • 5. Brougham mss 23734.