BALFOUR, John (1750-1842), of Trenabie, Orkney and Charlton Grove, Kent.

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



Family and Education

b. 6 Nov. 1750, 1st s. of William Balfour of Trenabie by Elizabeth, da. and h. of Rev. Thomas Coventry of Newark, Notts. educ. Aberdeen Univ. 1766-70. m. 10 Nov. 1783, at Calcutta,1 Henrietta, da. of Benjamin Sullivan of Dromeragh, co. Cork, wid. of Col. Alexander Maclellan, s.p. suc fa. 1786.2

Offices Held

Writer, E. I. Co. (Madras) 1772, coroner and clerk to the justices 1776, accountant-gen. of mayor’s ct., factor 1778, jun. merchant 1780, auditor of public accts. 1784-8, sen. merchant 1785, member, board of trade 1786, left service 1795.3


Balfour’s father was factor to Sir Lawrence Dundas, the biggest landowner in Orkney, who in 1772 procured John a writership with the East India Company. He came home from India gravely ill in 1774, but recovered his health, returned and went on to hold a succession of lucrative posts. One of the founders of the Carnatic Bank, he left India about 1789 and sold his shares in the enterprise shortly afterwards.4

During his absence a rift developed between his family and the Dundases. Sir Lawrence sued his father for alleged arrears in 1780, and after William Balfour’s death in 1786 his executors revived the legal dispute with his former employer’s son and successor Sir Thomas Dundas*, a friend and supporter of Fox. In 1790 Balfour came forward for Orkney, with the approval of Henry Dundas, as the candidate of the smaller proprietors who had for some time been working against the dominant but carelessly managed Dundas interest. When his opponent, Sir Thomas’s cousin, publicly accused him of showing base ingratitude towards the family of his benefactor, Balfour retorted that his writership had been the reward for his father’s loyal service and that his connexion with Sir Lawrence had turned out to be ‘the greatest misfortune of his life’. Although, by his own later account, he rejected a proposal from the Honyman family to settle terms for the future representation of the county, he received their support, which proved decisive in the contest.5

Balfour made no mark in the House, where he presumably gave silent support to government. He voted, as predicted, against the relief of Scotsmen from the Test Act, 10 May 1791. He derived very little satisfaction from holding the seat and became increasingly disillusioned with ministerial indifference to the ‘peculiar hardships’ of Orkney and failure to dispense sufficient patronage to reward relatives and supporters. When he sounded Henry Dundas in 1795 he found him evasive and inclined to press William Honyman’s right to a full say in the disposition of the seat, a claim which Balfour, who resented the assumption that he was indebted to either of them for it, particularly in view of his heavy expenses in 1790, flatly rejected. Inconclusive bartering with Honyman disposed him to surrender the seat, but in April 1796 Honyman finally promised unconditional support. Before committing himself to standing, Balfour demanded of Honyman and Dundas the exertion of enough influence to guarantee success, a fair share in patronage and a clear understanding that, until he received it, he was under obligations to no one. His terms were rejected and Honyman, having come to terms with the former Dundas party, put up his brother, with Henry Dundas’s support. Balfour, angry and disappointed, stood ostentatiously aloof from the election and wrote to his supporter Robert Baikie a letter for communication to the freeholders:

In the situation of their representative, in times of much just apprehension, I have given an assiduous and uniform support to those measures ... necessary to the security of everything dear to us. It has at the same time been my constant wish, and endeavour ... to promote the good of the county ... If in this respect my success has fallen short of expectation, I trust my friends will be persuaded that the failure has proceeded from causes which I could not control.6

Balfour lived mainly in England after 1804. As an East India Company stockholder he was entitled to three votes for the directorate in 1806. He may have been the John Balfour of London who unsuccessfully contested Pontefract in 1818. He regained the Orkney seat two years later and died 15 Oct. 1842.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Orkney Co. Lib. Balfour mss 17/1; Bengal Past and Present, vii. 168.
  • 2. Scots Mag. (1786), 569.
  • 3. Compiled from information in C. Prinsep, Madras Civilians, 6-7; H. D. Love, Vestiges of Old Madras, iii. 107, 164, 321; Balfour mss 4/10.
  • 4. P. N. S. Graeme, ‘Parl. Rep. Orkney and Shetland’, Orkney Misc. i (1953), 74; Love, iii. 423.
  • 5. London Chron. 30 June, 7 July 1790; Balfour mss 24/8, Balfour to Dundas, 22 Apr. 1796.
  • 6. SRO GD51/1/198/19/3-5; Balfour mss 24/8, Dundas to Balfour, 21 Oct. 1795, Honyman to same, 15 Apr., Balfour to Honyman, 30 Apr., to Baikie [June 1796]; 24/9, Balfour to Dundas, 19 May, reply 20 May 1796.