CORNWALLIS, Hon. William (1744-1819).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1768 - Mar. 1774
3 Apr. 1782 - 1784
1784 - 1790
1790 - Jan. 1807

Family and Education

b. 20 Feb. 1744, 4th s. of Charles, 1st Earl Cornwallis, and bro. of Charles, Visct. Brome and Hon. Henry Cornwallis. educ. Eton 1753. unm.  G.C.B. 2 Jan. 1815.

Offices Held

Entered R.N. 1755; capt. 1765; on active service in the West Indies and North American waters 1776-82; c.-in-c. East Indies 1788-94; r.-adm. 1793, v.-adm. 1794; adm. 1799.


Cornwallis was returned by his brother Lord Cornwallis for the family borough of Eye; voted with Opposition over Wilkes, 27 Jan. 1769; but after this appears on neither side for four years, being most of the time away on service. Over the royal marriage bill, March 1772, he was classed by Robinson as ‘pro, absent’; and on the renewed motion about the Middlesex election, 26 Apr. 1773, voted with Administration. He vacated his seat in March 1774 for Lord Carmarthen who writes in his Political Memoranda (p. 2): ‘Captain Cornwallis, who wished as much to quit as I did to enter the House of Commons ...’

A pension to ‘Captain Cornwallis’ of £400 p.a. appears in Robinson’s secret service accounts, 1779-1781.1 In the absence of earlier accounts the date at which it started is uncertain, and so is its origin. Bishop Cornwallis wrote to William, 1 Apr. 1782:2 ‘My secretary received what was due to you last Christmas; and there is an end of that business’—which reads like a reference to that pension. It is no longer in the lists communicated to Rockingham and Shelburne. The bishop goes on to say: ‘You will be Member for Eye in a few days ... You are at present without any appointment, but entirely at liberty in Parliament and I have no doubt will be honourably taken care of, although some time may be required for it.’ And Lord Cornwallis wrote to him when informing him of his election, never to look

to my conduct in the political line, but act entirely for yourself, and consider yourself, as you really are, as independent as any Member in the House of Commons.3

William Cornwallis was at that time in the West Indies where he greatly distinguished himself in Rodney’s victory of 12 Apr. He returned home in October 1782, and on 18 Feb. 1783 voted for Shelburne’s peace preliminaries; was again absent on service while Fox’s India bill was before the House; and adhered to Pitt after the dismissal of the Coalition-in a letter to him, 25 Apr. 1796,4 Cornwallis refers to his ‘anxiety in support’ of Pitt when there was a majority against him in the Commons.

Lord Cornwallis wrote to Lt.-Col. Ross, 5 Apr. 1784: ‘My brother was pressed by Lord Howe [first lord of the Admiralty] to stand for Portsmouth, where Government was in great danger of being beat, and it was thought that his name and character would be of great use. I was very unwilling to part with my brother from Eye’5—still, they agreed; William received most vigorous support from the Admiralty;6 and in the end was returned without a poll. There is no record of his having spoken in the House.

Lord Cornwallis wrote to William from Calcutta, 10 Mar. 1789:7

In regard to Portsmouth you must judge for yourself ... but I own I should be very sorry that you should decline Parliament altogether. Eye is entirely at your service, and need be no restraint upon you in point of attendance, or any other consideration.

But after William’s election in 1802, he wrote to Ross, 13 July:8

The Admiral got very drunk at the election, and the next day insisted upon my steward’s taking £500 towards defraying the expenses. Without having given a vote in the House of Commons for many years past, and perhaps never intending to give one again, no youth of one-and-twenty was ever more pleased at coming into Parliament. What unaccountable creatures we are!

William Cornwallis died 5 July 1819.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Royal archives, Windsor.
  • 2. HMC Var. vi. 329.
  • 3. Ibid. 333.
  • 4. Chatham mss.
  • 5. Cornwallis Corresp. i. 171-2.
  • 6. Howe to Wm. Cornwallis, 31 Mar. 1784, HMC Var. vi. 339.
  • 7. Ibid. 343.
  • 8. Cornwallis Corresp. iii. 492.