DOUGLAS, Sylvester (1743-1823), of The Pheasantry, Bushey Park, Mdx.

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



14 Feb. 1795 - 1796
1796 - Dec. 1800
6 July 1801 - 1802
1802 - 1806

Family and Education

b. 24 May 1743, o. surv. s. of John Douglas of Fechil, Aberdeen by 1st w. Margaret, da. of James Gordon of Fechil. educ. Aberdeen Univ. 1757-60; Edinburgh Univ.; Leyden until 1766; continental tour, L. Inn 1771, called 1776. suc. fa. 1762. m. 25 Sept. 1789, Katherine Anne, da. of Frederick North, Lord North*, 1s. d.v.p. cr. Baron Glenbervie [I] 30 Nov. 1800.

Offices Held

King’s attorney, S. Wales circuit 1784-94; KC 7 Feb. 1793; bencher L. Inn 1793, treasurer 1799.

MP [I] 1794-6.

Chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] Jan. 1794-Jan. 1795; PC [I] 20 Jan. 1794, [GB] 4 May 1794; commr. Board of Control June 1795-Feb. 1806; member of Board of Trade Mar. 1796; ld. of Treasury Feb. 1797-Dec. 1800; gov. Cape of Good Hope Jan. 1801 (did not go out); jt. paymaster-gen. Mar. 1801-Jan. 1803; vice-pres. Board of Trade Nov. 1801-Feb. 1804; surveyor-gen. of woods and forests Jan. 1803-Feb. 1806, Apr. 1807-July 1810; first commr. woods, forests and land revenues July 1810-Aug. 1814.


Medicine, not the law, was Douglas’s first choice of profession, but he at length abandoned the latter, as he had the former, opting for a public career. This was at 50 years of age, when he had taken silk after a career more laborious than successful. On the Welsh circuit he made no more than £500 p.a. and he supplemented it by acting as counsel in controverted elections. He had reported those that followed the election of 1774 (and also gained credit by reporting Lord Mansfield’s decisions in King’s bench from 1778); by 1784 disputed elections earned him some £3,000. He was ‘a tall man, with a high nose, whose looks bespoke his nation at any distance’, had ‘a great facility at acquired knowledge, but had no genius’. He was, however, socially ambitious and, within two years of being introduced by Lord Sheffield to the former premier Lord North’s family, married North’s daughter Katherine, her father’s rival in wit and ugliness. Politically he was acceptable: he had joined Brooks’s Club on 4 Jan. and the Whig Club in November 1789, six weeks after his marriage. He was one of the counsel for the prosecution of Warren Hastings and, had the Whigs come to power that year, he was ‘seriously thought of for solicitor-general’; but his friend Sir Gilbert Elliot reported him as being averse to it,

thinking it would be disadvantageous ... in point of income, and too precarious as to future prospects to sacrifice to it anything of consequence at present. He would be obliged to come into Parliament, which would deprive him of the principal business which he has, and which is extremely profitable, I mean the committee and other parliamentary business. He would also lose the next crop of the general election, which he computes at £6,000 in the first two years of the new Parliament, after which he intends to come into Parliament. He would also be obliged to give up his Welsh circuit ... and for all this the profits of the solicitor-general do not exceed £700 a year ... Instead of this he is therefore, I believe, to be solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales, which is little more than honorary, but it keeps him in the line of preferment, and he is also to be appointed counsel to either one or perhaps two of the public boards which are very good things. This is his own plan and has been adopted with the greatest kindness and cordiality by the Duke of Portland.

These hopes were dashed, and despite the Prince’s promise he did not become his solicitor-general. In 1790 he was counsel in election cases as usual.1

That he was a fit husband for Lord North’s daughter Sir Gilbert Elliot had no doubt, when her family made discreet inquiries and he informed them:

I had always understood that he was a gentleman in his birth, though certainly not of any considerable origin in point of fortune—which was a case extremely common in Scotland, as well as usual enough in all other countries; that in the meanwhile he is certainly as good a gentleman now as if he were of the oldest family in England; for his education, his manners, his profession, and his success in it, with the income he enjoyed, were as good titles to be placed in the rank of gentleman as many of the most eminent men in the kingdom could show.

The political capital Douglas might make out of his marriage was not lost in 1792 by North’s death: it gave him his political freedom at a moment when the Whigs were hopelessly divided in opposition. He seceded from the Whig Club with the Portland Whigs and approved his friend Elliot’s efforts to wean Portland from Fox. Elliot reported, 7 Feb. 1793:

Douglas has a silk gown, which he wished for, but considered himself as entitled to it, and does not acknowledge it as any obligation to the chancellor. He is indeed very much disgusted with the chancellor on account of his not being made solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales, for which Douglas says he had both Lord Loughborough’s promise and the Prince’s about the time of the Regency. ... Douglas is also very angry with the chancellor on other accounts, but Douglas was always unreasonable in his own claims, and I do not think his present complaints well founded.

A few months later, Elliot noted that he was ‘making a good deal of money independent of election petitions by the disputed canal bills in Parliament’, but in ‘household business’ penny wise and pound foolish.2

When the ministry offered Elliot the post of commissioner at Toulon in September 1793, he secured from Douglas the admission that he was weary of his profession and wished to enter public life as under-secretary at the Foreign Office, no less, provided he was assured of financial security. Elliot mentioned this to Dundas and Pitt and, having failed to induce William Elliot* to accompany him as secretary, suggested Douglas instead. Pitt concurred and pandered to Douglas’s pleas for future provision, 11 Oct. 1793, but just as Douglas was preparing to set off with Elliot, declined any pledge beyond this special mission for fear of creating a bad precedent. Douglas had stipulated for the under-secretaryship at the Foreign Office (£2,000 p.a.) and a ‘retreat’ of half as much; or £1,500 p.a. as secretary at Toulon, with the assurance of an income equivalent to the preceding stipulation tenable with Parliament. In his disappointment he had no thoughts of a political relapse: on the contrary he vehemently urged William Windham to join the ministry. Through his wife he prodded Dundas to get himself launched. Before the end of the year Pitt had induced Westmorland, viceroy of Ireland, to take him as chief secretary. The Norths, ‘at present orthodox in politics’, concurred and off he went to Dublin, admonished by Edmund Burke.3

Douglas was a diligent chief secretary, sitting for St. Canice in the Irish parliament, but there could be no question of his retaining the post when Fitzwilliam replaced Westmorland a year later. His hope of the sinecure reward of appointment as secretary of state in Ireland was dashed by Portland’s insistence that it would be inauspicious not to award it to an Irishman, if a new policy was to operate in Ireland. He was otherwise compensated: Windham reported to Elliot, 27 Jan. 1795, that Douglas was to have ‘the first lordship of the Treasury which may become vacant and also a seat at the Board of Control, without salary’, as well as a pension of £800 p.a., half to descend to his son, and a seat in Parliament. All this, complained a disgusted Canning, ‘as a reward for about six weeks’ services, and was not worth half as much if his services had been for 16 years’.4 The seat was for Fowey, on Treasury recommendation to Lord Mount Edgcumbe, for the remainder of that Parliament. The other provisions were a matter of tortuous negotiation, the pension particularly, as it was not easy to persuade Douglas that he could not have the reversion of John Robinson’s sinecure of surveyor of woods and forests. The place at the Treasury board was regarded by him as a prior claim. Yet on 13 Jan. 1795 he complained to Dundas that nothing had been done for him and he had already been several times disappointed in his applications for a seat in Parliament before Fowey materialized. His pension was fixed on 21 Mar. at £600 for his life (unless he accepted office of £1,000 or became surveyor of woods and forests) plus £600 in survivorship for himself and his son.5

Douglas’s maiden speech was not surprisingly on the subject of controverted elections, 14 Apr. 1795, but on 19 May, more ambitiously, he attempted a defence of Westmorland’s Irish administration in the debate on Fitzwilliam’s recall. He was shouted down. To Elliot he wrote at the end of that session, ‘I spoke once or twice, and, alas, wretchedly. But I intend not to give it up.’ He was then anxiously awaiting office; but on 2 Nov. 1795 he wrote: ‘I am totally without employment ... I have repeatedly (and ineffectually) remonstrated.’ In fact, he had obtained a place (unsalaried) at the Board of Control in June. The King suggested he might return to Ireland as chief secretary, but Lord Camden would not hear of it.6 On 14 Dec. he pointedly came to Dundas’s rescue in debate and, for good measure, defended his late father-in-law’s character for probity against William Smith next day, when he was appointed to the loan committee. He became a legislator on 18 Feb. 1796 when he obtained leave for a bill to enforce Members’ attendance on election committee ballot days; on 26 Feb. delivered his most pretentious speech in Parliament, as a member of the public loan committee, in defence of Pitt’s dealings with the contractor Walter Boyd*; on 1 Mar. was ordered to help prepare Pitt’s poor relief bill; soon afterwards joined the Board of Trade, and on 28 Apr. took the chair at the committee stage of the inherited property duty bill.

Douglas was returned by Pitt’s friend Lord Carrington for Midhurst in 1796. He had been indignant when George Rose proposed a seat for Penryn at the cost of £1,500, believing that he was to be provided with a seat gratis, but Pitt did not mean that pledge to extend beyond the dissolution. Perhaps Midhurst was a sop, as in September it was arranged that he should accompany Lord Macartney to the Cape and after 18 months succeed him as governor, with a pension of £2,000 p.a. after five years as governor. He agreed, for an Irish peerage, but his wife disliked the prospect and a month later he declined it on the strength of an opening at the Treasury board. There were difficulties about this too and the provoked Douglas bearded Dundas at Wimbledon ‘till he grew certainly red and sometimes pale’ and ‘fixed him’. He got his Treasury place, though only after his wife’s uncle the bishop of Winchester had disgorged a morsel of clerical patronage to placate Richard Hopkins*.7

Douglas made himself useful in the House as a committee chairman and teller, apart from discharging Board of Control duties. He said little in debate, until he offered his services to Pitt to promote union with Ireland.8 By the end of the year he had two volumes of manuscript ready on the subject. He defended the measure in debate, 11 Feb. 1799, brought up the report of the committee on it, 14 Feb., and was one of the commissioners to manage the conference with the Lords on it; he wound up his efforts with what Pitt reported to the King as a ‘very sensible’ speech (afterwards published) in reply to various objections to it, 22 Apr. He renewed his services in the following session. Yet he felt Pitt underestimated his services; he had not been appointed a commissioner for the Union. All he got was appointment to a government commission to regulate the sale of the land tax to corporate bodies, for which he legislated in the spring of 1800. It was not enough to be offered the government of the Cape again either, when he showed an interest in foreign employment in January 1800. His wife assured Dundas that it was on her account that he refused it. In May Lord Minto suggested to Lord Grenville that he should be given administrative office in Piedmont. He would have preferred a short-term mission, such as a continental negotiation. This would have been a quick way to a peerage; but, to obtain an Irish one, he agreed in October 1800 to go to the Cape.9

Created Lord Glenbervie, and vacating his seat, he was sworn in as governor in January 1801, just after Pitt’s resignation, which saved him the journey. Lord Malmesbury exploded, 17 Feb. 1801:

Lord Glenbervie is now talked of to preside at the Board of Control. He had solicited the Cape earnestly and repeatedly from Dundas, and obtained, by persecution, the Irish title from Pitt to support his dignity there—the moment they resigned, he went to Addington to solicit office at home, and has actually got the Pay Office.

Charles Abbot was told that Glenbervie had ‘hinted at Ireland, but Mr Addington had blocked that out completely. He doubted about placing him at the India Board, knowing his merits but not liking the probable consequences of his Scotchness.’ Portland informed Addington he would be glad to accept the Pay Office. Dundas was ‘furious’, not less when Glenbervie offered ‘to leave to his entire disposal all the Scotch patronage, if he will let him have the Board of Control, and be the nominal Scotch minister—very uneasy lest Pitt should recover his power, and revenge himself on those who are now accepting office’. On 30 Mar., writing to Addington, Glenbervie hinted that being junior to Thomas Steele* at the Pay Office, he was available for other employment. Later that year, after becoming Member for Plympton at ministerial instigation and making himself useful in debate, he was offered the presidency of the Board of Control. He declined it as not being a cabinet office and, in short, no better than his current one. He accepted the vice-presidency of the Board of Trade, over which he presided almost at once in Lord Liverpool’s absence. Next he was a candidate both for a vacancy in Aberdeen Burghs and for the Speaker’s chair, for which he had ‘a violent desire’, but the ministry did not sponsor him in either case. ‘He was offended when Addington told him that he understood [Glenbervie] wanted a diplomatic situation and that he had been thought of for America.’ It was ‘a sort of affront’—to Lord North’s son-in-law. In December 1801 he had introduced the bill to ease commercial relations with ‘our late enemies’, and on 24 May following reminded Addington of his promise to consider him for employment in the negotiation of a commercial treaty with France, gathering from Otto, the French emissary, that the time was ripe for one.10 At the ensuing election he was a Treasury nominee for Hastings.

The death of John Robinson opened the surveyorship of woods and forests, ‘one of the best places in the King’s gift’, in December 1802. Glenbervie claimed it as his right. Addington might have liked it (as the King suggested) for his brother Hiley, but conceded it to Glenbervie, in exchange for the Pay Office for Hiley. In Glenbervie’s view he had made the best choice, but he should have been allowed both offices. As it was he was guaranteed £3,000 a year as surveyor, but not promised it for life. He was indifferent to the fate of Addington’s ministry, caring only for his security and for promotion in the peerage. He occasionally spoke in the session of 1802-3, but on 11 Jan. 1804 he wrote: ‘I have been in the House of Commons only the first day. Indeed I told Addington I should attend very little and he civilly said he was sorry I had such a satisfactory reason [his health].’ He gave up his Board of Trade responsibilities. On Pitt’s return to power he was listed ‘doubtful’ and offered to vacate his seat in return for his expenses, but Pitt would not agree to his going out of Parliament. He immersed himself in the business of his office.11 Listed ‘Pitt’ in September 1804 and July 1805, he voted against the censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805, and from 22 May re-emerged in debate. He was on both committees of investigation of the charges against Melville. He was a champion of the Duke of Atholl’s compensation claims, but ridiculed by Whitbread on 14 June for his unhelpful evidence the previous month on a material point before the select committee on the tenth naval report.

Glenbervie was mortified when the Grenville ministry deprived him of his surveyorship. ‘This is the first substantial proof’, he informed the Speaker, 6 Feb. 1806, that Fox ‘has given of that respect for Lady Glenbervie’s father and affection for her late brother which he professed with so much heartfelt pathos the other night in the House’. The same day Lord Minto saw Lord Grenville and Fox to plead for him: he had understood the office was for life; reduced to about £900 a year pension ‘from government’, he was ‘overwhelmed with despair and affliction, and roused from that only by rage’. Minto tried again on 15 Feb. for Lady Glenbervie’s sake and Fox said he would agree to a pension for her, if Grenville did—Grenville did not positively refuse. Her minimum requirement was £600 a year for the joint lives of herself and her son.12 Minto was sent to India in July and Glenbervie asked his advice about laying his case before the King, as nothing had been done and he now had a fifth of the income he earned at the bar in 1793. He afterwards relied on Lord Auckland, his colleague on the land tax commission, to plead his cause, both for compensation for their joint labours and to persuade Grenville to appoint him to hear Cockpit appeals to the Privy Council.13 He may not have attended the House that session and did not seek re-election.

Even when the Portland ministry restored him to the surveyorship in 1807 they at first appointed a joint surveyor, and on finding that would not do, left him as sole surveyor, but reduced his salary, not to the level at which he might continue to have his pension. The public was saved £1,600 p.a. When in 1810 his office was reorganized and he became first of three commissioners, John Calcraft suggested to the House that ‘very little was known of his public merits’. On 2 July 1812 he was again attacked in the House, as a jobber, by Thomas Creevey. When in 1814 Lord Liverpool learned of his wish to retire, he preferred that he should not, because of his pension rights; but retire he did. He died 2 May 1823, outliving his wife and his son. Lady Holland wrote:

Poor old man, he never felt much for others, so cannot expect great sympathy for himself. He had, however, one gift which was pleasant, and he retained it to the last, great eagerness of mind in any pursuit in which he engaged: and he always had a pursuit, to the moment of his death even. He was busy in writing a life of Lord North, and the proof sheets were with him to the last.

Had it been fit for publication, wrote Lord Liverpool, it would have been ‘a desideratum for the cause of truth’.14 To judge by Glenbervie’s Diaries and Journals such confidence was misplaced, though they contain much recherché gossip.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Brian Murphy / R. G. Thorne


Based on the Glenbervie Diaries.

  • 1. Glenbervie Jnls. 99; Bentham Corresp. iii. 334; Brydges, Autobiog. i. 190; NLS mss 11047, ff. 111, 131; 11048, ff. 23, 168.
  • 2. Minto, i. 335-6; ii. 98; NLS mss 11048, ff. 168, 282.
  • 3. NLS mss 11159, f. 7; Add. 37873, f. 216, 224; PRO 30/8/102, ff. 106, 272; 138, f. 304; 160, ff. 27, 35, 37; Add. 37873, f. 264; Burke Corresp. vii. 509.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/325, f. 60; 327, ff. 243 seq.; 329, f. 374; NLS mss 11138, ff. 89, 101, 112; Harewood mss, Canning jnl. 11 Jan. 1795; Bucks, RO, Hobart mss E62.
  • 5. NLS mss 15, ff. 19, 21, 33-38; PRO 30/8/196, f. 131.
  • 6. NLS mss 11130, ff. 52, 62; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1346; Add. 33105, f. 59.
  • 7. Hobart mss E73; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 1/99; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1498.
  • 8. PRO 30/8/327, f. 299; Add. 33106, f. 60.
  • 9. Minto, iii. 29; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 1950, 2264; NLS mss 15, ff. 89, 91; 11130, f. 117; HMC Fortescue, vi. 211; Dacres Adams mss 3/41.
  • 10. Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to Minto, 17 Feb. 1801, cf. Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 7, 9, 10, 29; PRO 30/9/33, Abbot diary, 24 Jan. 1801; Pellew, Sidmouth, i. 315; Sidmouth mss; NLS mss 11053, f. 188; The Times, 23 Nov. 1801, 9 Feb. 1802; NLS mss 11054, f. 14.
  • 11. Sidmouth mss, Henry to J. H. Addington, 24 Dec.; Add. 51585, Tierney to Lady Holland, 26 Dec. 1802; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 2689; NLS mss 11054, ff. 255, 259; 11056, ff. 150, 154; 11130, f. 147; Colchester, i. 518, 531.
  • 12. PRO 30/9/34; NLS mss 11060, ff. 22, 37; 12900, Glenbervie’s draft letter ‘sent to Mr Wm. Elliot’ [1806]; Blair Adam mss, Lady Glenbervie to Adam, 9 Mar. 1806.
  • 13. NLS mss 11146, f. 79; HMC Fortescue, viii. 86, 188, 203, 230, 408.
  • 14. Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3522; Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 1 Oct. 1809, 17, 21 Mar. 1814; Parl. Deb. xvii. 232; Lady Holland to her Son, 22; Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, i. 270.