HUME, Joseph (1777-1855), of 38 York Place, Portman Square, Mdx. and Burnley Hall, Norf.

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



18 Jan. 1812 - 1812
1818 - 1830
1830 - 1837
1837 - 1841
16 Apr. 1842 - 20 Feb. 1855

Family and Education

b. 22 Jan. 1777, yr. s. of James Hume, shipmaster, of Montrose, Forfar by w. Mary Allan.1 educ. Montrose acad.; Edinburgh Univ. 1793-5;2 Aberdeen Univ., MD 1799. m. 17 Aug. 1815, Maria, da. and h. of Hardon Burnley, merchant, of Brunswick Square, Mdx., 3s. 4da.3

Offices Held

Member, RCS Edinburgh 1796.

Asst. surgeon, E.I. Co. naval service 1797, full asst. surgeon 1799; on Bengal medical establishment 1799-1808.

Rector, Aberdeen Univ. 1824-6, 1828-9.


Hume’s father, the master of a small coaster, died soon after Joseph’s birth. His mother was reputed to have supported herself and her children by establishing a retail crockery business in Montrose market. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to a local apothecary. After studying at Edinburgh and Aberdeen and serving briefly as an assistant surgeon in the Duke of York’s retreating army, he qualified as a surgeon in 1796. The following year he secured an appointment as an assistant surgeon in the East India Company’s naval service, probably through the patronage of David Scott I*, and made a voyage of 18 months in the Hope. He became a full assistant surgeon in the Houghton in 1799, and on arriving in Bengal transferred to the Company’s land service. He mastered the native languages and joined the army on the eve of the second Mahrattan war as a surgeon and interpreter. During the war he proved himself an effective and energetic administrator and filled a number of important posts in the pay office, prize agency and commissariat, eventually becoming commissary general.

He returned to England in 1808 with a fortune of about £40,000 In 1809, he undertook a tour of the manufacturing districts and in 1810-11 travelled extensively in the Mediterranean and Middle East. It seems likely that on his return to London, where he settled, he renewed his acquaintance with James Mill, with whom he had been at school in Montrose, and began to imbibe from him the doctrines of political economy.4 He appears also to have developed an interest in the Lancasterian system of education, and to have become friendly with the Duke of Kent, a patron of the Royal Lancasterian Institution.

His return for Weymouth in January 1812 on the death of Sir John Lowther Johnstone was arranged by Spencer Perceval through one of Johnstone’s trustees, Masterton Ure*. In 1822, Brougham, stung by Hume’s recent criticism of Whig lukewarmness on parliamentary reform, wrote to Creevey:

I can remind him of their dividing some 120 on it in 1812, when he was sitting at Perceval’s back, toad-eating him for a place, and acting the part of their covert-doer of all sorts of dirty work in the coarsest and most offensive way thro’ the whole battle of the orders in council, when we beat them and him!5

While he did generally support government, defending the Sicilian subsidy, 25 Mar., and voting against the sinecure bill, 4 May, and Stuart Wortley’s motion, 21 May 1812, he showed signs of the independence which was to characterize his later career. In his first reported speech, 5 Mar., he opposed the expulsion of Benjamin Walsh, and on 9 Mar. he suggested the application of the Lancasterian system to Ireland. On the finance resolutions, 23 July, he expressed a wish that the government ‘would take example by the system which had recently been adopted by the governor-general of India, and keep their expenditure within their income’. The votes against the bill imposing capital punishment for frame-breaking and for inquiry into the Nottingham riots, 14 and 17 Feb. 1812, which are attributed in Parliamentary Debates to William Hoare Hume*, may well have been cast by Joseph. He investigated the causes of Luddism and concluded, as he wrote in his 1812 Letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (page v), that harmony could best be restored to the framework-knitting industry by ‘a repeal of every restriction which can in any way fetter either masters or workmen in the disposal of their capital or labour’. He was added to the revived select committee on the framework-knitters protection bill, 10 July, and on the third reading, 21 July, opposed it root and branch. Although Hume, whose views were those of a doctrinaire political economist, was clearly acting as spokesman for the hosiery and knitting masters, he strongly condemned the ‘erroneous principle’ of existing legislation, that ‘the capitalists or masters are the only part to be protected against combination and injustice’, and argued that ‘the artisans or workmen have an equal right to be protected’. He did not divide the House, but the measure was defeated in the Lords on 24 July.6

He intended to seek re-election for Weymouth at the dissolution of 1812, having apparently been encouraged by Ure, but was unacceptable to the Duke of Cumberland, the dominant Johnstone trustee, probably because his independent views and conduct made him appear a potentially disruptive force. Johnstone’s widow told James Brougham, 26 Oct. 1812:

Entre nous I believe government wished Joseph put out, and I am not sure but he is better out of the way. He did a great deal too much here, and had got an amazing hold on some of the people.

His publicly expressed indignation threatened to embarrass Cumberland, and he was eventually bought off with £1,000, though he nominally stood the poll and was thought to have inspired a later attack on Cumberland in the Independent Whig. At the by-election of 1813 it was rumoured that he would join in the attack on the trustees’ interest, but he did not do so. He was probably the ‘Mr Hume’ who made an abortive attempt to open Lord Lonsdale’s pocket borough of Cockermouth in 1812.7

When he re-entered the House in 1818 it was as an aggressively independent radical, with a political philosophy based on the ideas of Bentham and Mill and a working relationship with Francis Place. It seems likely that his conversion to radicalism arose out of his interest in education and his consequent association with Place in the activities of the British and Foreign Schools Association and the West London Lancasterian Association. In 1827, Place recalled that he had first met Hume through the Quaker Joseph Fox in June 1813, when Hume was instructed by the Duke of Kent to ascertain particulars of Place’s attempts to settle the dispute between Joseph Lancaster and his trustees. The relationship was probably encouraged by Mill, their mutual acquaintance. In 1836 Place told Mrs Grote:

Mill fixed him upon me some 25 years since. I found him devoid of information, dull and selfish. From the country he came, India, and the way in which he commenced his public life here, I had no reliance on him for good service, and no grounds for placing confidence in his integrity. Mill said, work on with him and he will come out, there is much in him which will grow by good nursing ... Mill’s predictions were realised. Hume showed his capabilities and his imperturbable perseverance which have beaten down all opposition and there he stands the man of men.

It took Hume several years to win Place’s full esteem. On 9 Dec. 1815 Place recounted with horror to Mill a current story that shortly before his recent marriage to a wealthy heiress, Hume had callously cast off his pregnant mistress, by whom he had already had two children:

I never liked Hume. I could not but see that he was proud, insolent, and offensive to all to whom he dared so to exhibit himself— mean, cringing, abject, to rank and power ... I can do business with Mr Hume as with any common man but he shall be no friend of mine.8

He canvassed repeatedly but in vain for a seat on the board of the East India Company between 1812 and 1818, and became the most loquacious and relentless critic of the Company’s financial management.9 In 1816 he published A Plan for a New General System of Weights and a pamphlet advocating the establishment of a general scheme for savings banks.

In 1818, Hume, who was a member of the Westminster radicals’ election committee, canvassed Bishop’s Castle, but eventually stood, with the support of the Whig William Maule*, for the Aberdeen district of burghs, which included Montrose, where the establishment of a new constitution had given popular elements greater weight in municipal affairs. He provided a substitute for Bishop’s Castle and, standing on an explicitly radical, independent platform, carried the burghs with remarkable ease against the ministerialist sitting Member. In his victory speech, when he described himself as ‘the independent, unshackled representative of the only free and independent burgh in Scotland’, he advocated gradual progress towards the ‘happy medium’ of ‘a representation uninfluenced by power, and unmoved by popular clamour’ and the elimination of sinecures and extravagant expenditure, and condemned the maintenance of a large standing army in peacetime.10

Hume, who divided consistently and regularly with the left wing of opposition in 1819, quickly made his mark in the House as a voluble and doggedly persistent critic of waste and profusion in all branches of administration. The report in The Times of his remarks on Canning’s indifference to popular distress, 8 June, was considered libellous. Hume ascribed it to unintentional misrepresentation and the furore soon subsided, though he was astonished by Burdett’s allegation, 16 June, that his words had been accurately reported.11 He took no initiatives on parliamentary reform, but he opposed the hasty passage of the Westminster hustings bill, 1 and 3 Feb., supported Scottish burgh reform, 23 Mar., 1 Apr. and 6 May, and was appointed to the committee of inquiry. He voted for an extension of the franchise at Penryn, 22 June, and for Burdett’s reform motion, 1 July, ‘in compliance with the opinion of his constituents’ in favour of ‘a moderate reform’. He continued to expound the doctrines of orthodox political economy, called for Poor Law reform on the Utilitarian model and advocated judicial reform and repeal of the Combination Acts.

In August 1819 Hume explained his political credo to his friend George Sinclair*:

Economy with me is the order of the day, and I look on that as the best reform that can be attempted ... Taxation and extraordinary expenditure ... are the diseases of the State; and reduction of expenses ... will cure it.12

He provoked uproar by moving the adjournment of the debate on the address, 23 Nov. 1819, and the following day argued that ‘the true source of our difficulties and distresses was to be traced to our overwhelming taxation, and to the denial of a proper reform in that House’. He divided to the bitter end against the Six Acts, moved an unsuccessful amendment to the seditious meetings bill, 13 Dec., and secured the production of information on colonial and naval expenditure, 29 Nov. and 8 Dec. 1819. In February 1820 he persistently badgered ministers for clarification of their plans for provision for Queen Caroline.

In 1821 Farington described Hume as ‘a plain, steady speaker, but not an orator’. He was, indeed, one of the most painfully boring speakers of his day and had little imagination or tactical awareness. He himself admitted to Sinclair:

the House of Commons ... are ... impatient of detail, and render every man who, like myself, has the misfortune to consider that a whole is made of parts, and that an increase or decrease, or proper understanding of that whole, is best acquired by an intimate knowledge of the parts, only bearable because decorum forbids them altogether to put him down.13

Yet he was impervious to ridicule and, with his immense physical energy and stubborn perseverance, established himself during his long career as the foremost parliamentary champion of retrenchment and economy, and a prominent figure in radical politics. He died 20 Feb. 1855.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. According to Willis’s Current Notes (1855), 48.
  • 2. The Times, 26 Feb. 1855.
  • 3. Gent. Mag. (1815), ii. 178; PCC 1855, f. 326.
  • 4. A. Bain, James Mill, 7, 76-77.
  • 5. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, ii. 50-51.
  • 6. CJ, lxvii. 582; Nottingham Borough Recs. viii. 157, 160.
  • 7. Brougham mss J571; Northumb. RO, Wallace (Belsay) mss S76/2/28, 32, 34, 40, 41; S76/3/9, 88, 99; S76/7/14; Lonsdale mss, Lonsdale to Ld. Lowther, 12, 19 Dec. 1812.
  • 8. G. Wallas, Life of Place (1918), 183; Add. 27823, ff. 14-16; 35144, f. 366; 35152, f. 187.
  • 9. Add. 38410, f. 302; Whitbread mss W1/5119; C. H. Philips. E.I. Co. 3, 7.
  • 10. Add. 36457, f. 42; 51829, Maule to Ld. Holland, 13, 29 Mar., 12 Apr. 1818; The Late Elections (1818), 430-4.
  • 11. Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 12, 13 June 1819.
  • 12. J. Grant, Sir George Sinclair, 69.
  • 13. R. Lib. Windsor, Farington mss diary, 11 July 1821; Grant, 68-69.