JOHNSTONE, George (1764-1813), of Hanover Square, Mdx.

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



26 Mar. 1800 - 1802
1802 - 20 Nov. 1813

Family and Education

bap. 10 Dec. 1764, Pensacola, W. Florida, illegit. s. of Capt. George Johnstone, RN, by Martha Ford. unm. 2da.

Offices Held

Writer E.I. Co. (Bengal) 1781; asst. Persian interpreter to gov.-gen. 1783; factor 1785; first asst. to resident at vizier’s ct. 1787; jun. merchant and acting resident, Lucknow 1790, ret. 1797, res. 1799.

Commr. Board of Control Apr. 1807-July 1809.

Dir. British Fire Office 1805.


Johnstone was one of his father’s four illegitimate children. In his will he left his mother an annuity of £1,500. Sent to India at an early age on his father’s application to William Devaynes*, he can have seen little of his father, but they had many characteristics in common. ‘Clumsy and ungraceful’ in ‘manner, looks, person, and conversation’, Lord Glenbervie’s description of him, was also true of his father. He acquired ‘a command of money’ by ‘contracts and cards’ and after his return from India entered Parliament on a vacancy for a close borough. He had ‘no rank, no situation in life but that of an MP, and no personal description except that of a nabob or Indian parvenu’.1 He took his seat on 28 Mar. and made his maiden speech on 21 Apr. 1800, supporting the Irish union and concluding with a fulsome compliment to Pitt’s administration. On 1 Aug. he announced his intention of offering for the East India directorate at a future opportunity.2 In short, he was ambitious, eager to publicize his relationship with his uncle (Sir) William Pulteney* and Sir James Murray*. On 20 Nov. 1800 he assured the House that the latter’s conduct in the Ferrol expedition would bear every scrutiny.

In the ensuing session Johnstone established himself as an unabashed debater. He was in the minority that objected to increasing the public burden of the poor rates, 19 Dec., 9 and 13 Mar. 1801, and, no doubt with his uncle William’s approbation, soon showed his independence on other subjects. He objected to ministerial packing of committees, 15 Apr. 1801; spoke for country banks against the Bank of England and opposed the bank-note forgery bill, 21, 30 Apr.; voted for Tierney’s motion on the conduct of war, 22 Apr.; and on 27 Apr. called for investigation of the abuse of seizing cargoes from neutral ships, condoned by the court of Admiralty. In the debate on prize courts, he called for a more expeditious appeal system, 29 Apr. He was prepared to align himself with such high-fliers as Bateman Robson and Horne Tooke in debate, 13, 15 May; opposed (as later on 20 Dec. 1802) the subsidization of the West India sugar planters, 3 June; and voted against ministerial indemnity for proceedings during the suspension of civil liberty, 5 June. On 11 June, in the absence of his uncle, he endeavoured to confine the indemnity to the period of the war, but was defeated by 92 votes to 17. On 24 June he first spoke on Indian affairs, objecting to the window dressing of the Company’s financial state in Dundas’s budget and to the ‘system of conquest’ pursued by the Marquess Wellesley.

In the summer of 1801 Johnstone bought an estate in Wales and at the same time canvassed Hedon, with the assistance of a local attorney William Iveson, in quest of another seat in Parliament. His boast that he was a ‘lineal descendant of the great Pulteney family which formerly represented the borough’ irritated another contender, Christopher Savile*, whose mode of contradicting the assertion in a letter to the mayor provoked repeated challenges to a duel from Johnstone. In January 1802 he was bound over to keep the peace.3 In the House that session, in concurrence with Sir William Pulteney, he objected to the insufficient allocation of East India Company ships for private trade, 25 Nov. 1801, in a discursive speech in which he advised against colonization; and on 4 Mar. 1802 opposed the transfer of Company employees from one part of India to another. He was in the minority on the civil list arrears, 29 Mar. 1802, but two days later approved Addington’s resistance to the Prince of Wales’s financial claims. (He did so again on 4 Mar. 1803.)

Johnstone headed the poll at Hedon in 1802. He failed to carry a second man, but succeeded in 1806 and, apart from a contest in 1807, proved secure in his seat. He went to France after the peace of Amiens and on 24 Nov. 1802 endorsed the treaty in the House. On 14 Feb. 1803 he announced a qualified support for the Bank restriction bill, adding that he opposed the multiplication of paper money and wished for a speedy resumption of payment in specie. He questioned the cost of the Ceylon establishment, 2, 18 Mar. 1803; criticized the Indian budget, 21 Mar., and on 30 Mar., renewing his opposition to relief for the West India planters, claimed that Treasury patronage of the mercantile interest, evident in the recent general election, was harmful: ‘monied men were not in general remarkable for their independence’.

Johnstone was reluctant to support the resumption of hostilities with France and voted in the minority on 24 May 1803; but next day he explained that he would support the address, as in general he had the highest opinion of Addington’s ministry and doubted whether any replacement would exercise the same ‘moderation and temper’.4 On 14 June, however, he complained that the supplies requested by the government were excessive for a war about Malta; and on 30 June opined that the resumption was premature and unlikely to achieve any advantage, without an obvious theatre of war, or ready allies. He would have preferred mediation through the Czar of Russia, 8 July. He assured Addington that the war would prove far more costly than he had predicted, 25 July. On 2 Aug. he joined the minority for Fox’s proposal for a council of generals. He renewed his plea for a more speedy settlement of prize claims and appeals, 28 June, 8 July, 3 Aug. 1803, and opposed the government on East India Company affairs, 25, 29 July. On 6 Dec. he dismissed Castlereagh’s Indian budget as offering ‘specious promises of future prosperity’. On 29 Feb. 1804 he moved for the public revenue statistics from 1802 onwards. He voted with opposition on the conduct of the Irish government, 7 Mar., and on 14 Mar. supported, and was teller for, Creevey’s motion against the war in Ceylon. The same day, and again on 6 Apr., he denounced the Mahratta war commenced by Lord Wellesley in the ‘spirit of ambition that had been too prevalent in India, and which particularly had characterized the government of the noble lord’. By now, he was clearly in opposition to the ministry; on 11 Apr. he questioned the purpose of warfare with France once the threat of invasion receded. From then until Addington’s fall he voted against him on defence questions and also assailed the further funding of Exchequer bills, which aggravated the depreciation of paper credit, 20 Apr. He abandoned the motion on Ceylon, of which he had given notice a week before, when the government fell.

Johnstone was listed ‘Fox’ in May 1804 when he went into opposition to Pitt’s second ministry. On 3 May he moved the previous question against the vote of thanks to Wellesley. He found Pitt’s additional force bill no improvement on Addington’s defence measures, 5 June, describing it as ‘this inefficient plan’ (11 June) and ‘totally nugatory’ (14 June). On 25 June he moved for particulars of the East India Company’s claims on government. He renewed his opposition to Exchequer bill issue, 28 June. He opposed the civil list, calling for reductions, except for diplomats, 3 July. On 10 July he assailed the Indian budget and on 14 July produced a set of financial resolutions (in imitation of George Tierney*) in anticipation of Pitt’s. They were negatived on 24 July, though he claimed a substantial agreement with the official figures. In September he was at first listed ‘Fox and Grenville’, then among ‘persons in opposition not quite certain’. He was opposed to hostilities with Spain, 12 Feb. 1805, and to the volume of the subsidies to the allies, 19 Feb., and set his face against Pitt’s raising duties on salt and on agricultural horses, 19 Feb., 4, 5, 7 Mar. He threatened to take over Sheridan’s intended motion on the Carnatic question, 8 Apr. 1805, and when Sheridan reserved it for himself, moved instead for information on the droits of Admiralty, 16 May. He was still eager to expedite prize appeals (7 June 1804, 28 May 1805) and on 5 June secured a clause of his own for the prize agency bill. He voted in the majorities against Melville and accompanied Whitbread to St. James’s with the House’s decision to impeach, 26 June, but unlike Whitbread he opposed Trotter’s indemnity bill, 5 July. He was an opponent of the Duke of Atholl’s claims to compensation, 23 May, 19 June, 2 July 1805. At that time the Treasury listed him ‘Opposition’. On 4 July he presented his second set of financial resolutions and this time secured a greater degree of concurrence with Pitt’s than in the previous year. ‘The most ridiculous toady of great men’, according to Creevey, he and his sister, an indefatigable hostess, entertained the Prince of Wales at Brighton that summer. Mrs Fitzherbert voted him ‘a most vulgar man’, but a generous one.5

Johnstone apparently offered to serve, unsalaried, on the India Board under the Grenville ministry but was disappointed. This was alleged by Sheridan in debate to be the reason for his subsequent hostility to the ministry; but Johnstone, in reply, admitting his offer to Fox, said it was to his credit that he offered his services gratis.6 He found James Paull*, whom he had patronized in India and with whom he had since fallen out, more forward than himself in impugning Wellesley’s Indian administration. On 10 Mar. 1806, moving for information on India, he denied personal hostility to Wellesley, but insisted on the imprudence of his policy. Next day he dissociated himself from Paull in debate, after the latter had chaffed him with claiming to be the originator of the campaign against Wellesley. He retorted that he would not himself have brought forward such charges against Wellesley as Paull now ventured: he preferred preventive measures to impeachments (18 Apr.) and chided Fox, 21 Apr., when he was a teller for Lord Archibald Hamilton’s motion on India, for resisting inquiry. He ostentatiously abstained on Paull’s first charge against Wellesley, 28 Apr., and did not concur in opposition allegations on the nawab of Arcot’s debts, 20 May, or on the Oudh charge, 3 June. At that time a supporter of Sir George Hilaro Barlow as governor-general, he led the junta of East India proprietors who in May expressed their confidence in the court of directors;7 and in the House deplored Barlow’s dismissal as a job, 16 June. On 19 June he was a reluctant witness, for four hours, on the Oudh charge; he would have preferred to give his opinion and not his evidence. He urged Paull to be more moderate in his attacks on Wellesley, 23, 25 June, and repeated his regrets about Barlow’s dismissal in the debates on the India budget, 10, 18 July. He had less to say on other subjects that session, but expressed his scepticism about parliamentary reform, 21 Mar.; criticized the 10 per cent property tax, 31 Mar.; voted against the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr., and opposed Windham’s military plan, 7 May, associating himself in this with Canning. He preferred enlistment from the militia, 6 June. He regretted the abandonment of the proposed tax on private brewers, 6 June, and claimed that government promises of public economy had proved chimerical, 16 June. On 14 July he presented his financial resolutions for the third and last time.

Johnstone was listed ‘adverse’ to the abolition of the slave trade, but said nothing on the subject and in 1807 subscribed £500 to Wilberforce’s election fund. He called for greater honours to victorious army officers, 22 Dec. 1806. On 17 Jan. 1807 he tried to secure the printing of the army estimates in toto, promising close scrutiny of them and of the navy estimates (21, 23 Jan.) and claiming that in practice ministers had abandoned their military plan. On 27 Jan. he moved for an account of pensions, new offices created and salary increases in public departments since April 1805. He was unimpressed with the new plan of finance, 29 Jan., claiming that it underestimated war expenditure. He had a plan of his own, but it was severely handled in debate by Henry Bankes, 19 Feb. He failed to induce ministers to add a Member to the finance committee, 11 Feb., and on 13 Feb. opposed them on the Hampshire election petition. On 20 Mar. he ‘came to offer himself’ to Canning and on 24 Mar., approving Bankes’s resolution against offices in reversion, reproached the Grenville ministry with want of execution of their promises of economy. Then and next day he defended Spencer Perceval against charges of rapacity for remunerative office, which he turned on the Grenville family. By the end of the month he had proposed himself to the Duke of Portland as an honorary member of the India Board in his administration. There was ‘some demur’ before he was accepted. Lord Wellesley wrote to the duke, as he explained to Lord Bathurst, Johnstone’s chief, on 7 Apr.:

Knowing Mr Johnstone’s Indian fame, I thought it right, that you should, all of you, be apprised of it. In that view, I stated my observations on the appointment ... Personally, I assure you that I have no other sentiment on the subject, than a sincere zeal that he may not injure the government. The manner in which the Duke of Portland received my communication was highly flattering to me, and I request you to assure his Grace, that I feel no personal objection to the arrangement.

Bathurst’s own view as expressed to Wellesley was as follows:

I know nothing of Mr Johnstone but by common report that he has the reputation for talents, particularly for some parliamentary talents: and therefore capable of being a troublesome adversary. From various circumstances, a situation at the India Board without pay was the only thing that could be offered him; although I understand there were objections to it on account of his difference with the East India Company—I remember his being at first one of those who was inclined to attack you: but at that time he was adverse to the persons composing the present government, and since he has become more connected with them, he appears to have laid aside that bad habit.

There may be many objections to him, for anything I know, but we are not in a situation to be very select; and he might give you much trouble, if irritated.

Portland merely informed the King that Johnstone was ‘possessed of much Indian knowledge’.8

Priding himself on his unpaid office, Johnstone was teller against Lord Cochrane’s motion for inquiry into Members’ places and pensions, 7 July 1807. On 15 Feb. 1808 he opposed inquiry into the Dardanelles expedition, as the ministers responsible were no longer in power; he denied that he was a cheer-leader for Canning. He was credited with a vote for Whitbread’s resolution in favour of a bid for peace, 29 Feb. On 12 May and 23 June he commended Perceval for refusing ministerial support to John Palmer’s* claims for compensation. Only on Indian affairs did he remain conspicuous in opposition: he admitted on 30 July 1807 that his gloomy view of East India Company affairs had not changed; he criticized Wellesley’s conduct on the Oudh charge, 15 Mar., stopping short of impeachment, and was again hostile on the Carnatic question in June. On both occasions he called for an end to expansion in India and for moderation and justice in Anglo-Indian relations. He supported inquiry into East India Company affairs, 23 Feb. 1809. With such views he could not expect to keep his place. He disliked the reduction of the finance committee, 24 Jan. 1809, but played no part in the Duke of York’s case beyond asking a question, 14 Feb. He admitted that the charge of corruption against Castlereagh was strong, 25 Apr., but called for moderation in proceeding against him; and he strongly opposed Curwen’s reform bill, calling it ‘the first of a series of intended innovations’, 12 June.

Johnstone was dropped from the India Board (though he remained on the House’s select committee on India) at his own previous request in July 1809. He allegedly refused a place on the Treasury or Admiralty board from Perceval in October ‘because they will not make him R[igh]t Hon[our]able’. He voted with ministers on the address, 23 Jan. 1810, but against them for inquiry into the Scheldt expedition, 26 Jan., and on the Earl of Chatham’s conduct, 23 Feb., 5 Mar. He explained that he knew Chatham too well to impute malice to him and had no time for talk of ‘secret interference’, but thought the House should take some step to prevent the recurrence of such conduct. He rallied to ministers at the conclusion of the inquiry, 30 Mar.; so the Whigs were justified in describing him as ‘doubtful’ from their point of view. Although he voted against Burdett’s committal to the Tower, 5 Apr., he indicated a day later in debate his hostility to his views. In May he voted against reform of the criminal law, of sinecures and of Parliament, but was in the minority on the droits of Admiralty, 30 May, and next day stressed his abiding opposition to the handling of East India Company affairs. He had on 8 May protested against the occupation of the island of Macao. He objected to the Admiralty courts bill, 14 June, not out of hostility to Perceval, but because he thought it unjust to neutral powers. He objected on principle to the bribery prevention bill, believing that the present times ‘exceeded any former age in honesty and purity’, 1, 20 June. Although he joined opposition on the Regency bill on 1 Jan. 1811, his speech on the subject was tender towards Perceval; but he was again hostile in the division of 21 Jan. and two days later explained that he objected to the ‘sick bed splendour’ of its proposals, which awarded too much patronage to the Queen and fixed too many limitations on the Regent’s power. On 1 Mar. nobody seconded his proposal of Davies Giddy for the select committee on commercial credit: it was by Giddy’s calculation of probabilities in cards that Johnstone had made £10,000 at the tables.9 He was still not satisfied with the prize and appeal courts, 22 Mar., or with proposals to legislate against bribery at elections, 25 Mar.; in his view, bribery was on the decline and treating almost at an end.

Johnstone had supported a select committee on bullion, 1 Feb. 1810, and been placed on it. On 14 May 1811 he expressed his approval of its report and called for a return to the ‘old and salutary system’. He accordingly opposed the bank-note bill at great length, 19 July, calling for a ‘metallic circulation’. He renewed his opposition next session, espousing his late uncle’s view that the close connexion between the Bank of England and the government was unwholesome, 10 Apr. 1812, and attempted unsuccessfully to limit the issue of banknotes, 20 Apr. He complained that the King’s household bill left the Prince Regent ill-provided for, 27 Jan. 1812, but did not vote against it. He was in the minorities for the offices in reversion bill, 7 Feb., and against McMahon’s sinecure, which he described as a bad omen for a new reign, 22 Feb. Opposing the orders in council, 3 Mar., he stressed that he was by no means ill disposed towards Perceval. On 4 May he voted for sinecure reform. On 5 June, deprecating the current struggle for power, he offered his ‘perfectly disinterested’ support to any government of the Regent’s choice. That speech was by implication critical of Canning and Wellesley, although the latter had been advised to employ him and make him a privy councillor for the sake of his supposed command of three seats in Parliament.10 But on 11 June it was the Whig leaders who incurred his displeasure by their supposed insistence on changes in the Household. Becoming discursive, he criticized their record in office, put in a word for Lord Sidmouth, admitted his hostility to the orders in council and called for reconciliation with the United States. Next day he made his will.

From discursiveness Johnstone graduated to epileptic fits and his colleague canvassed for him at Hedon at the general election of 1812, after he had word of the dissolution from Lord and Lady Yarmouth. The Liverpool administration, despite George Rose’s admonitions to the contrary, was hopeful of his conversion to them, but was apprised by November 1812 of the impossibility of accepting him as a candidate for office. It does not appear that he recovered sufficiently to take his seat in the Parliament of 1812. He died 20 Nov. 1813, allegedly aged 46.11

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Winifred Stokes / R. G. Thorne


Otherwise George Lindsay Johnstone, as appears from his baptismal certificate, India Office Lib. J/1/10, f. 83, a marginal note on his will (PCC 73 Bridport) and his burial entry, Westminster Abbey Registers, 486.

  • 1. Glenbervie Jnls. 139.
  • 2. The Times, 5 Aug. 1800.
  • 3. Ibid. 10, 23 Sept. 1801, 25, 26, 30 Jan. 1802.
  • 4. Ibid. 27 May 1803.
  • 5. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 62, 64, 67.
  • 6. Som. RO, DD/SAS/TN 160/1, ‘A Consistent Man’, 2 May 1807; Parl. Deb. ix. 207, 212.
  • 7. C. H. Philips, E.I. Co. 147-8.
  • 8. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F48/6; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 20 Mar.; Blair Adam mss, Loch to Adam, 31 Mar., Tierney to same, 1 Apr. 1807; Add. 37313, ff. 209, 211; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3418.
  • 9. Haddington mss, Harrowby to Binning, 5 July 1809; Horner mss 4, f. 153; Geo. III Corresp. v. 4126; A. C. Todd, Beyond the Blaze, 152.
  • 10. Add. 37297, ff. 166-7.
  • 11. Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 173; Brougham mss 10345; T.64/261, Rose to ?Arbuthnot, 8 Nov. 1812; Add. 40222, f. 387; Gent. Mag. (1813), ii. 510.