HAY, Lord John (1793-1851).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1847 - Feb. 1850

Family and Education

b. 1 Apr. 1793, 3rd s. of George, 7th mq. of Tweeddale [S] (d. 1804), and Lady Hannah Charlotte Maitland, da. of James, 7th earl of Lauderdale [S]. m. 2 Sept. 1846, Mary Anne, da. of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, Inverness, s.p. CB 17 Feb. 1837. d. 26 Aug. 1851.

Offices Held

Entered RN 1804, lt. 1812, cdr. 1814, capt. 1818, r.-adm. 1851.

Ld. of admiralty July 1846-Feb. 1850; commodore-superintendent, Devonport dockyard 1850-d.


Hay’s father, the first surviving and possibly illegitimate son of John Hay of Newhall, Haddingtonshire, and Dorothy Hayhurst, daughter of a Lancashire labourer, was an officer in the naval service of the East India Company. In 1787, two years after marrying a daughter of the 7th earl of Lauderdale, he succeeded his first cousin once removed as 7th marquess of Tweeddale and to the family’s Haddingtonshire property at Yester, near Giford. He became lord lieutenant of the county in 1794 and a Scottish representative peer two years later. In 1802 he and his wife went to France for the benefit of his health. They were detained on the renewal of war and died within three months of each other at Verdun in 1804. Tweeddale was succeeded as 8th marquess by his 16-year-old eldest son George, an ensign in the 85th Foot. He rose rapidly through the ranks, served as aide-de-camp to Wellington in the Peninsula and was badly wounded at Busaco and Vitoria and again at Niagara when commanding the 100th Foot in America. A representative peer from 1818 until his death, he received a green ribbon in 1820 and was appointed lord lieutenant of Haddingtonshire in 1823. His younger brother Lord John Hay nominally entered the navy in December 1804, aged 11. From 1805 until the end of the French war he was ‘constantly employed on active service’, initially in the Mediterranean. On a cutting-out expedition from the Seahorse, 16 May 1807, he was severely wounded in both thighs, and his left arm was so badly mangled by a cannon ball that it had to be amputated at the shoulder. He shared in the capture of a Turkish frigate, 6 July 1808. In 1811, backed by his uncle, the 8th earl of Lauderdale, he petitioned the regent to be promoted to lieutenant while still six months short of the required minimum age of 19, but the admiralty would not permit this and he had to wait until May 1812.1 He served in the West Indies, 1812-14, and subsequently at Lisbon, in the Channel and on the Halifax station. He achieved post rank in December 1818 but was unemployed for 14 years thereafter.2

In December 1816 Tweeddale, probably at Lauderdale’s behest, declared Hay a candidate for Haddingtonshire at the next election, supposedly as a supporter of the Liverpool administration. Friends of the ministerialist sitting Member Sir James Grant Suttie ensured that he was detained abroad, and he was withdrawn at the 1818 general election.3 At the county meeting called to vote a loyal address to the regent in the wake of Peterloo, 26 Oct 1819, when Tweeddale moved the resolution condemning sedition, Hay proposed the vote of thanks to the chairman.4 He stood against Grant Suttie, who had the support of government, at the general election of 1820, but lost by one vote in a poll of 77.5 His petition claiming a majority of legal votes was rejected. In September 1823 the radical Whig John Cam Hobhouse*, who married Hay’s sister Julia in 1828, described him as ‘a very intelligent, shrewd man indeed, a little formal at first’.6 He came forward for Haddingtonshire at the 1826 general election and walked over. He later claimed that he had stated that he could not support government on the Catholic question;7 and he voted for relief, 6 Mar. 1827. Not known to have spoken in debate in this period, he presented constituency petitions against relaxation of the corn laws, 27 Feb., 2, 9 Apr., and voted in the minority of 98 against the corn bill, 2 Apr.8 He divided for the spring guns bill, 23 Apr. He was one of the ‘combinationists’, as he called them in a letter to Tweeddale, who went ‘with Peel’ on his retirement from office rather than serve with Canning that month. He told his brother on the 27th that the new ministry might prove to be ‘formidable’ and that ‘party spirit runs high in town’, so that it was ‘hardly safe to open one’s mouth’. A week later he praised Peel’s ‘manly and honest’ explanation of his conduct and informed Tweeddale that he was one of the ‘number of Members’ who had ‘decided not to vote for the Catholic question as long as Canning is at the head of administration’:

Some tell me I am very inconsistent ... but I feel justified in doing so when I know that the king was obliged to give a pledge to the bishops in order to get them to support the government that he would never grant the claims. It is in my opinion highly improper to place the king in that situation ... Canning has a desperate game to play ... If he loses there is an end to his political career and he must die like a dog.9

In mid-May 1827 he dined with Peel, who noticed that he was the only Scottish Member among the 30 guests, which prompted Hay to speculate that ‘in the event of his coming into office again I ... shall have a good and useful friend in him’. He reported that Lauderdale was ‘not ... pleased with my taking so decided a part’ and wanted to bracket him with his sons Lord Maitland and Anthony Maitland and ‘hold us up to the government as his Members, but that would never suit me’. He added that during his attendance on a private bill committee he had frequently ‘come into competition’ with the Canningite Lord Binning, ‘the would-be manager of Scotland’, over burgh reform, which Hay was willing in theory to accept, provided the Scottish counties were reformed also.10 He duly supported Wellington’s administration, in which Peel was home secretary, from January 1828, though he voted in the majority for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. He presented two petitions from Haddington for repeal of the stamp duty on receipts, 31 Mar., and one from his county against interference with the corn laws, 28 Apr. He voted for Catholic relief, 12 May. He was in the minority of 54 against the financial provision for Canning’s family, 13 May, and the ministerial majority on the ordnance estimates, 4 July 1828. In January 1829 he was considered as a possible mover or seconder of the address, which would announce the proposed concession of Catholic emancipation.11 He was not selected for this task, but he voted for the measure, as expected, 6, 30 Mar. His only known votes in the 1830 session were against the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr. He presented Scottish petitions against the additional duty on corn spirits, 6 May 1830.

Three days later he told his brother, who was in Geneva, that uncertainty over the king’s survival had ‘paralyzed’ political affairs, that ‘considerable alterations in the formation of the government’ were likely and that the Whigs, who ‘sit with their mouths open and will take any scraps however trivial that the duke may throw out’, could probably be seduced. At the end of the month, however, he reported that Lord Grey and the Whigs remained in ‘decided opposition’, that the Huskissonites were inclined to back them and that the estranged Ultra Tories were unpredictable: if they all joined forces against Wellington, ‘his government could not stand a day’.12 By then he was certain of being opposed in Haddingtonshire at the anticipated general election by Grant Suttie’s son. He feared for his chances unless Wellington could be got to ‘tell’ Lord Melville, the Scottish manager, that ‘he does not wish me to be opposed’. Wellington intervened, and when Parliament was dissolved following the king’s death Melville made it clear that the government preferred Hay, who had ‘steadily supported them’.13 At the election, when Grant Suttie persisted, Hay’s supporters carried the vote for praeses and he was victorious by ten votes in a poll of 74. He laughed off the criticism of Sir George Warrender* that his lack of a personal property stake in the county made him unfit to represent its agricultural interest. He claimed to have supported the promotion of ‘free and liberal principles’ and to have backed Wellington’s ministry ‘from principle’: ‘he was under no pledge to ministers, and his support depended entirely on the character of their measures’. His boast that ‘in all great questions of principle, he had as often voted against as for ministers’ is not substantiated by the evidence of the surviving division lists. He reported his success to Wellington and promised continued support, and in reply was congratulated ‘most sincerely’.14

Ministers duly listed him as one of their ‘friends’. On 4 Nov. 1830 he told Tweeddale that ‘things begin to look better’ and that ‘the government party’ expected a majority of 60 - the minimum for credibility, he thought - against Brougham’s anticipated reform motion, though ‘everyone regrets more than ever the decided tone of the duke [against reform], as he has left ministers no retreat in the event of being beat in the Commons’. Five days later he deplored the efforts of some Members of Parliament and ‘many blackguards outside of it’ to ‘cry down the government’, and approved their decision to advise William IV not to attend the City dinner. As for the reform showdown on the 15th, he had

much fear they will not be strong enough to resist the fury of opponents supported as they are by a lawless mob. I wish them joy if they (the Whigs) succeed, but I doubt their courage to execute one plan they have in view at the moment. Place is all they want, and having got that they will throw all liberal opinions overboard and rule with a rod of iron, as Whigs and Jacobins have always done.

On 14 Nov. he dined with Wellington, who was ‘in great spirits’, with ‘about 30 of the Commons’.15 He was in the ministerial minority on the civil list next day. As the Grey ministry was being formed, he reported the ‘very bad news’ that 84,000 Birmingham workers had ‘struck for higher wages’ and reflected that ‘the new people will find it much easier to make speeches than to keep peace in the country’.16 By the following week, when he had taken his place ‘on the opposition bench’ with ‘Peel and Co.’ (in his own case, next to Dan O’Connell, whom he found ‘a most agreeable fellow’), he was beginning to consider the implications of the ‘extensive change’ to the Scottish electoral system which ministers were expected to propose:

I am most anxious to know the opinion of the county, as I must shape my course accordingly. Whatever the freeholders of Scotland may say to it they may rest assured that a reform bill will be carried in the Commons by five to one ... I have always thought that as long as things were allowed to remain as they are in England, Scotland ought to be left alone, but if a change of the system took place in one part of the kingdom the same reform must be applied to the whole.

When Lord Maitland told him in December 1830 that he would jeopardize his seat if he supported reform and that ‘my friends had said I was for going all lengths’, he kept his counsel, but informed Tweeddale:

In one respect that is true ... [but] I have never failed to qualify my opinions, so that if I am compelled to entertain the question, I shall advocate and support that which I think most sure to maintain the aristocracy in their present position and at the same time ensure the country a lasting repose. It is the opinion of every man I am in the habit of speaking to that if reform is refused to the present government a revolution will follow. In Scotland I believe the people do not care much about it; but ... in [England] ... nine tenths are in favour of it.

He believed that any reform should be ‘simple and extensive’, as ‘a half measure will not do’: he favoured the retention of existing voting rights combined with a £40, perhaps £20, franchise in the counties and a £10 qualification in the burghs. Dismissing the notions of both ‘moderate’ and ‘radical reformers’, with which his brother furnished him, he was anxious to preserve the power of the crown and the authority of the nobility, which in Scotland could be done by enfranchising ‘the yeomen’ in order to ‘encourage them to make common cause with the aristocracy’.17 But the day after the government’s reform scheme was unveiled on 1 Mar. 1831, he wrote to his brother:

I will vote most decidedly against ... [this] most unreasonable and unjustifiable plan ... It would not leave a vestige of the constitution behind it. Although I had ... modified my opinions ... after hearing ... [those] of others and particularly those who send me to Parliament ... I was prepared to go beyond them from a conviction that something was absolutely necessary to conciliate the country, or rather the reformers ... I was willing to give the large towns representatives, also to have extended the franchise ... The general opinion is that government will be in a minority of 100, some think 150.

On 10 Mar. he alerted his brother to the proposed £500 property qualification for Members in the Scottish reform bill, which would ‘be a most effectual way of throwing me overboard’, and advised him, on the assumption that the measure would eventually become law, to consult Lauderdale as to its likely effect on their county interest. He was inclined to ‘give it up with a good grace’ in favour of Lauderdale’s son-in-law James Balfour* at the next dissolution, quite apart from the consideration that under naval regulations he was obliged ‘in the course of two or three years’ to make an offer of active service to avoid forfeiting his promotion to rear-admiral.18 He divided against the second reading of the English reform bill, 22 Mar., and was ‘astonished’ at its being carried by one vote. Sure that the Parliament ‘cannot live three months longer’, he was keen to retire when the dissolution came. He suggested to Tweeddale that the best line to take would be to inform the Haddingtonshire freeholders that ‘the aspect of affairs in Europe renders it probable that the navy may shortly be called into active service’, which would prevent him from fulfilling his duties as Member. He accordingly addressed the county in these terms, 7 Apr., and a week later Balfour declared his candidature as an opponent of the reform bills.19 Hay voted in the majority for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the English bill, 19 Apr. 1831, and retired when Parliament was dissolved a few days later.

He was appointed to the Castor frigate in September 1832 and from then until 1840 was active in command of a small squadron off the northern coast of Spain during the civil war. He frequently led combined naval and marine forces on land and was involved in the relief of Bilbao in December 1836.20 He was made a lord of the admiralty in Lord John Russell’s* first ministry in 1846 and was returned to Parliament as a Liberal for New Windsor. He retired in 1850 to take charge of Devonport dockyard, where, as ‘a man of strict habits, and stern inflexible justice’, he sought to root out corruption and favouritism. His death in harness in August 1851, shortly after being promoted to rear-admiral, earned him a public funeral.21

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1851), ii. 427; Add. 45044, ff. 107-13, 116, 117.
  • 2. Oxford DNB.
  • 3. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 543.
  • 4. The Times, 6 Nov. 1819.
  • 5. NAS GD51/1/198/9/23, 29; 51/5/749/1, pp. 186-7; Caledonian Mercury, 23 Mar. 1820.
  • 6. Broughton, Recollections, iii. 26.
  • 7. Caledonian Mercury, 12 Aug. 1830.
  • 8. The Times, 28 Feb., 3, 10 Apr. 1827.
  • 9. NLS mss 14441, ff. 20, 22.
  • 10. Ibid. f. 24.
  • 11. Add. 40398, f. 86.
  • 12. NLS mss 14441, ff. 44, 63.
  • 13. NLS mss 2, f. 151; 14441, f. 63; Hopetoun mss 167, f. 155; Wellington mss WP1/1132/26; Caledonian Mercury, 17 July 1830.
  • 14. Caledonian Mercury, 12 Aug. 1830; Wellington mss WP1/1133/38.
  • 15. NLS mss 14441, ff. 74, 78, 91.
  • 16. Ibid. f. 89.
  • 17. Ibid. ff. 82, 104, 110, 116.
  • 18. Ibid. ff. 96, 114.
  • 19. Ibid. ff. 100, 102, 119; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 14, 16 Apr. 1831; Wellington mss WP1/1182/9.
  • 20. Wellington Pol. Corresp. ii. 858; Holland House Diaries, 354; Oxford DNB.
  • 21. Gent. Mag. (1851), ii. 428.