SCOTT, Sir William (1745-1836), of Doctors' Commons and Erleigh Court, nr. Reading, Berks.

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



1790 - Mar. 1801
23 Mar. 1801 - 17 July 1821

Family and Education

b. 17 Oct. 1745, 1st s. of William Scott, coal-fitter, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumb., and bro. of Sir John Scott*. educ. Newcastle g.s.; Corpus, Oxf. 1761, BA 1764; fellow Univ. Coll. Oxf. 1765-81, tutor 1765-76, MA 1767, BCL 1772, DCL 1779; Camden Reader of Ancient History 1773-85; M. Temple, 1762, called 1780. m. (1) 7 Apr. 1781, Anna Maria (d. 4 Sept. 1809), da. and h. of John Bagnall of Erleigh Court, 1s. d.v.p. 1da. (2) 10 Apr. 1813, Lady Louisa Catherine Howe, da. and coh. of Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe, wid. of John Denis Browne, 1st Mq. of Sligo [I], s.p. suc. fa. 1776; kntd. 3 Sept. 1788; cr. Baron Stowell (of Stowell Park, Glos. which he bought for £165,000 in 1811 from the legatee of the 4th Baron Chedworth) 17 July 1821.

Offices Held

Adv. Doctors’ Commons 1779; adv.-gen. Admiralty May 1782-Sept. 1788; registrar, ct. of faculties 1783-90; King’s adv. Sept. 1788-Oct. 1798; judge of consistory ct. of London and vicar-gen. of province of Canterbury Sept. 1788-1820; master of faculties Apr. 1790-d.; bencher, M. Temple 1794, reader 1799, treasurer 1807; judge, ct. of Admiralty Oct. 1798-Feb. 1828; PC and member of Board of Trade 31 Oct. 1798; charity commr. 1818-28; commr. for building new churches 1818.

Maj. L. Inn vols. 1799.


Scott’s career and that of his brother the lord chancellor provide striking examples of the openings available to talented men in this period: George III remarked, ‘There are not often two Scotts to be found in the same family’.1 As the son of a well-to-do Newcastle ‘fitter’—an occupation of which his college president professed never to have heard—by the daughter of another coal agent, he went up to Oxford, thanks to a Durham scholarship for which he qualified by the accident of his birth in that county while his mother was taking refuge before the Jacobite advance. He became fellow and tutor of University College and among his pupils was his future parliamentary patron the 2nd Earl of Radnor. After lecturing successfully on ancient history, he took up a legal career on coming into his inheritance, qualifying both as a civil lawyer and as a barrister and marrying an heiress. Writing to his brother Henry, who carried on his father’s trade in Newcastle, he described their family as ‘English folks of the old stamp ... We all of us owe our present establishment in life to a conduct founded upon industry and frugality—upon unremitting attention to business, and seclusion from company. We inherit from our deceased father not only a provision, but what is more, an example.’ He was averse to a political career at this time: ‘an honest man has nothing to do but to lament the fate of his country and butter his own bread as well as he can’.2

Nevertheless, Scott spoke on the hustings at Newcastle in 1777 and aspired to the representation of his university in 1780, when he withdrew before the superior claims of Sir William Dolben. In 1784 he was involved in a double return at Downton on the Radnor interest, but unseated on petition. He did not then seek another seat, pursuing his professional career with the help of a sinecure in the gift of the archbishop of Canterbury (exchanged for a less valuable one in 1790) and a prosperous Admiralty practice. In 1788 he became advocate-general and was knighted; further honours in the ecclesiastical courts followed. He subscribed £4,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797 and invested in East India Company stock. In 1798 he became judge of the Admiralty court and a privy councillor. Successful in contests at Downton in 1790 and 1796, he transferred in 1801 to Oxford University, which he represented until he received a peerage. He was regarded at that time as ‘a single instance of a professional man representing the university’; as such, he conceived himself ‘bound to watch with great jealousy every innovation with respect to ecclesiastical property’.3 Perhaps the best example of this was his conversion to opposition to the Quaker relief bill, 24 Feb. 1797. He had also, in 1791, been listed among opponents of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland.

Scott seldom spoke in the House except in his professional capacity, his official character reinforcing his natural reserve and disinclination for party politics. He therefore appeared ‘solemn, neat and elegant’. His first major speech was in defence of the instructions to Jervis and Grey in Martinique, 2 June 1795, on which he had advised ministers, but he spoke principally on the affairs of the Admiralty and ecclesiastical courts, whose conduct he defended as far as possible against charges of abuse, to remedy which he introduced bills to regulate prize-money distribution, 22 Apr. 1793; to deal with non-capital offences on the high seas, 18 Mar. 1799; to regulate the West Indian prize courts, 29 Apr. 1801, and the curates bill, 3 May 1796. He opposed the divorce bill, 30 May, and the monastic institutions bill, 23 June 1800; brought in the bill for amending Henry VIII’s statute of clergy, 8 Apr. 1802, which he gave up for the session, 9 June, and revived as the resident clergy bill, 6 Apr. 1803 (it became law on 7 July), and the unsuccessful resident stipendiary curates bill, 15 July 1803, which he wished to wash his hands of (and did so in 1805).4 On 28 June 1803 he defended the Admiralty court against Cochrane’s allegations. On 8 July he introduced the bill for the more effectual manning of the navy and regulating prizes following the resumption of hostilities, and on 20 Mar. 1804 a prize agency bill.

Scott’s reaction to Addington’s ministry was ambivalent. He was reported hostile to the peace preliminaries, but on 2 Sept. 1801 was described to Addington as ‘much attached to you’. In June 1802 Lord Grenville discounted the suggestion that Scott might go up to the Lords, thinking it ‘rather an object of Addington to keep [him] as an assistant occasionally useful to him in the House of Commons’. He carped about ministerial mismanagement of the general election. On 16 Nov. 1802 he proposed Charles Abbot for Speaker. He was ‘from the first hour ... open mouthed’ against the investigation of naval abuses and credited with the damaging amendments introduced in the Lords by his brother to protect witnesses from involuntary disclosures. He was a ‘strong advocate for firmness’: a vigorous government was the only remedy in critical times to prevent ‘the country’ from being ‘irritated beyond all patience’. Attendance of parliamentary committees was not easy for him as early as 1796, but he was a member of the committees on the statutes that year, of that on the coal trade, 13 Mar. 1800, and of the duchy of Cornwall revenue and civil list committees appointed in 1802 and 1804. On Pitt’s return to power Lord Eldon vetoed a project of George Rose* to employ Scott in the construction of a comprehensive administration. He remained attached to Pitt (he was later a Pitt Club steward). He was in the government minority against the censure of Melville, 8 Apr., being chosen for the committee on the tenth naval report, and spoke against Catholic claims, 14 May 1805. By then he was expected to obtain a peerage ‘for his close attendance and voting through thick and thin’ and there was a premature canvass for his seat.5

The Grenville ministry was prepared to employ him as an assessor to the court of prize appeals, but he voted against their American intercourse bill, 17 June 1806, and was regarded as ill disposed towards them. He was listed a staunch supporter of the abolition of the slave trade; he had been one on 18 Apr. 1791. During the crisis of the ministry he took leave of absence for illness. On 7 Apr. 1807 Lord Liverpool permitted himself a joke at his expense, finding Scott ‘wretchedly cold and tepid’:

I am surprised that the production of a coal pit should not have something more inflammable in him. He affected to know nothing and yet he certainly knew more than he pretended. He has some interested job to drive, in which he has not hitherto been successful.6

Scott was well disposed to the Portland ministry as an official friend: the duke was aware of his wish for a peerage. He exonerated the Copenhagen expedition and reaffirmed, against the United States now, as previously in 1799 against the Baltic states, the lex fortiori by which neutral vessels resisting search were confiscated.7 He defended the orders in council in the House, 12 Mar. 1808. He was offered the office of dean of the arches late that year, but declined it on his brother’s advice. In March 1809 he advised Perceval on his resolutions on the Duke of York’s conduct, and staunchly supported his ministry on the Scheldt expedition inquiry, January-March 1810. On 9 Mar. he defended the Admiralty court against Lord Cochrane. He voted against parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810. He was one of the committee to examine the royal physicians, 13 Dec. 1810, and stood by ministers on the Regency, 1 Jan. 1811. A peerage was again rumoured, but was discountenanced by him. He opposed sinecure reform, 4 May 1812, and voted against a stronger administration, 21 May. He had opposed Catholic claims in 1810 (after remaining silent on the subject in 1808), and on 21 Apr. 1812 he presented the university petition against them, but Lord FitzHarris complained to his father next day,

Sir William Scott, proh pudor! sat in an obscure corner of the House—told me he was not well enough to stay and vote, and when I asked him only to say a few words declined doing so and disappeared!

He was preoccupied with other business: on 23 Jan. 1812 he defended, but agreed to reform the spiritual courts, and on 29 June obtained leave for a bill to do so. He also carried a destructive amendment to the Admiralty registrars regulation bill, 19 June. It was not until July 1813 that he revived his bill on spiritual courts, ‘very reluctantly’, according to Romilly, ‘for he has little taste for reform’; he then omitted two clauses which Romilly thought crucial. When Romilly restored one of them (with Scott’s privately expressed concurrence), Eldon sabotaged it in the Lords. Scott was relieved, regarding the bill as a ‘perpetual blister upon him’, unpopular with his clerical constituents. In the same month he secured further modifications to the Admiralty registrars bill.8

Scott, whose constituents had again petitioned against it, opposed Catholic relief, 2 Mar. 1813, though not effectively. In 1814 there were again rumours of a peerage for him, and after a canvass for his seat had commenced he wrote to Lord Liverpool, 27 June, denying that he had given ‘birth or countenance’ to these proceedings, but asking for a peerage. It was denied, 4 Aug. This, with the ridicule excited by his marriage to Lady Sligo, her extravagance and his doubts about his investment in the Stowell estate, a complaint in his knee and the morbid indolence of his only son, depressed him.9 He continued to muster for the ministry on all critical divisions. In 1817 he brought off a coup, as he thought, by spoiling Canning’s chances of becoming his colleague in the university representation, in favour of the anti-Catholic Peel. (In 1818, however, he took the precaution of being returned for Downton as well.) In February 1818 he replaced George Rose on the secret committee investigating sedition. He wrecked Curwen’s bid for tithe reform, having raised ‘the strongest prejudice that he could against it’, 16 Mar. 1818. He opposed Brougham’s motion for inquiry into popular education, 3 June 1818, and Lord Sidmouth’s appointment of him as a commissioner for investigation of charitable abuses under Brougham’s Act was greeted as ‘a mere burlesque on enquiry’ by the Whigs. He was a ‘terrible alarmist’ in November 1819. He had not attended the debate on Catholic relief in May, expecting to be on the losing side.10 He obtained his peerage in 1821, seldom spoke in the Lords and retired from legal office in 1828. He died 28 Jan. 1836.

Sydney Smith remarked of him: ‘it is a fine occupation to make a public law for all nations, or to confirm one; and it is rather singular that so sly a rogue should have done it so honestly’. His ‘luminous’ judgments preserved in the Admiralty Reports formed a code of maritime law of which the American jurist Storey wrote: ‘I have taken care that they shall form the basis of the maritime law of the United States, and I have no hesitation in saying that they ought to do so in that of every civilised country in the world’.11

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Townsend, Lives of Twelve Eminent Judges, ii. 306.
  • 2. Twiss, Eldon, i. 101-2; Extracts from the Letter Bks. of William Scott ; Townsend, 290-2.
  • 3. NLS mss 11150, f. 85; Sidmouth mss, Churton to Sidmouth, 5 Aug. 1805; Romilly, Mems. iii. 300.
  • 4. T. Green, Diary of a Lover of Literature, 235; Colchester, i. 545; ii. 147.
  • 5. PRO 30/29/8/2, f. 210; Sidmouth mss, Macpherson to Addington, 2 Sept. 1801; Add. 37876, f. 43; 41852, f. 120; HMC Fortescue, vii. 210; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 1 Jan. 1803; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 238; Colchester, i. 54; Rose Diaries, ii. 78, 116; Windham Pprs. ii. 263.
  • 6. Fitzwilliam mss, box 69, Laurence to Fitzwilliam [12 July 1806]; HMC Fortescue, viii. 408; Add. 38580, f. 90.
  • 7. Add. 45036, f. 50; Portland mss PwV114; Horner Mems. i. 411; Colchester, ii. 132; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 218; Public Characters (1807), 522; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3513.
  • 8. Twiss, ii. 66; Leveson Gower, ii. 415; Malmesbury mss; Romilly, iii. 6, 43, 45, 113, 115.
  • 9. NLI, Richmond mss 62/435; Add. 38258, ff. 100, 261; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 2 July 1813, 3, 17 Jan. 1816.
  • 10. Twiss, ii. 295-6; Romilly, iii. 300, 330; Add. 51658, Whishaw to Lady Holland, 21 Aug. [1818]; Colchester, iii. 75; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. ii. 36.
  • 11. Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, ii. 703; Townsend, 334; Brougham, Hist. Sketches, iv. 67.