WEMYSS, William (1760-1822), of Wemyss, Fife.
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Family and Education
b. 9 Apr. 1760, 1st surv. s. of Hon. James Wemyss† of Wemyss by Lady Elizabeth Sutherland, da. of William Sutherland†, 17th Earl of Sutherland [S]. educ. Edinburgh h. s.; Christ Church, Oxf. 1776-7. m. 16 Sept. 1788, Frances, da. of Sir William Erskine, 1st Bt., of Torrie, Fife, 4s. 1da. suc. fa. 1786.
Ensign, 2 Ft. Gds. 1777; col. Sutherland fencibles 1779-83; capt. army 1781; dep. adj.-gen. for Scotland with rank of maj. 1786, lt.-col. 1791; col. Sutherland fencibles 1793; brevet col. 1795, maj.-gen. 1798; col. 93 Ft. 1800; lt.-gen. 1805, gen. 1814.
Wemyss, a cousin of the Countess of Sutherland, inherited a ‘great interest’ in Fife. He had been given government support in 1787 at Pitt’s request, in spite of a family history of opposition to Henry Dundas, and he became a firm Pittite and a friend of the Scottish minister. He was unanimously reelected in 1790. Henry Erskine, for the Whigs, opposed him at first, but withdrew two weeks before the poll and, in a circular addressed to the voters, referred to Wemyss as ‘a most respectable candidate who, besides the advantage of residing amongst you, has been aided by the whole weight of ministerial influence’.1 He sat until 1796, giving a silent support to Pitt in the House. He was absent, hostile, on the motion to exempt Scotland from the Test Act, 10 May 1791. His only surviving vote in the Parliament was as an anti-abolitionist on the slave trade motion, 15 Mar. 1796. On the outbreak of the war with revolutionary France, he raised the Sutherland fencibles. He accordingly retired from Parliament in 1796 in favour of his brother-in-law, Sir William Erskine.
In 1797 he dealt with a riot at Tranent provoked by hostility to the Militia Act, and in 1798, placed on the Irish staff, he defeated the rebels at Drogheda on 14 July. He was promoted to major-general. In 1799 the fencible regiment was recruited on an army footing and gazetted as the 93rd Foot. At the next general election, Wemyss found himself in opposition to Dundas. Erskine, who supported Addington, sought re-election, while Dundas brought forward his reluctant relation, John Hope. Wemyss felt honour bound to act in favour of his brother-in-law, but the problem was solved by Hope’s conditional withdrawal.2
Wemyss stood for Fife in 1806, not believing that his brother-in-law could succeed when opposed by Robert Ferguson of Raith, a Foxite. Lady Sutherland wrote to Thomas Grenville, requesting that the government interest should not go against her cousin. Grenville thereupon wrote to Lord Grenville:
I am aware that Fox will naturally wish for Ferguson, who is a great supporter of his; but I suppose that the relationship between Lady Stafford [Sutherland] and Mr Wemys [sic] will be sufficient reason for the influence of the Treasury not being exerted against Wemys. The election is expected to be hard run.
Lord Grenville accepted this advice and seems to have been prepared to go to the length of aiding Wemyss, but the Scottish Whigs were aghast: William Adam and Lord Lauderdale rose in Ferguson’s defence and insisted on a review of the situation. Adam described the result:
Fife. Here it has been agreed at a meeting of Fox, Lauderdale and Grenville that government should be neuter ... I pressed the conduct of Gen. Wemyss: ... his being a Melvillite, that he received the support of all that connection and that he would not in honour do otherwise than support them in Parlt. and I pressed the importance as a mark of the downfall of Melville’s power which wd. result from government supporting Ferguson in Fife. Ld. Grenville felt all this but said he could not go against the wishes of such a friend to government as Lady Stafford for so near a connection as Gen. Wemyss— that neutrality was all he could adopt, especially as Lady Stafford believed and had always stated that Gen. Wemyss would support government.
Dissatisfied with this arrangement, the Whigs were prepared to abide by the terms until Melville openly acted in Wemyss’s favour. After that the election became a trial of strength between the former administration and the current one and Wemyss was defeated by ten votes. He promptly began to take a more active part in the politics of the county and the other constituencies in it.3
He came forward again in 1807, with the Portland administration’s unqualified support. Ferguson did not persist and Wemyss’s election was unanimous. About 1809 he was considered a Melvillite.4 He stood by government throughout the divisions on the Scheldt inquiry early in 1810 and was listed ‘against the Opposition’ by the Whigs. He voted against the release of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr.; against criminal law reform, 1 May, and parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810; for the government’s Regency proposals, 1 Jan. 1811, and against sinecure reform, 24 Feb. and 4 May 1812. Having voted against Stuart Wortley’s motion for a stronger ministry, 21 May, he opposed Canning’s motion for Catholic relief, 22 June 1812, and is not known to have spoken in the Parliament.
Although he had apparently thought of retiring early in 1811, Wemyss was re-elected without opposition in 1812. He continued, as anticipated, to give silent support to administration and again opposed any relaxation of the laws affecting Roman Catholics throughout 1813, despite reports of his changing his mind. He voted with government on civil list questions in 1815 and for the army estimates in March 1816. Although he presented a petition from Fife against the property tax, 28 Feb., he voted for it, 18 Mar. 1816. He again voted against Catholic relief, 21 May 1816, that and his vote with government on the civil list on 24 May being his last known votes. On 6 June 1817 he was granted sick leave and there was some doubt as to whether he would stand again in 1818, but he felt that he had recovered sufficiently. Nevertheless, he made no mark in the ensuing Parliament and it is likely that his health was too precarious to admit of attendance. On 5 May 1819 he took sick leave. He decided not to seek re-election in 1820, but obtained government aid for his son.5 He survived his retirement from political life by barely two years, dying 4 Feb. 1822.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: D. G. Henry
- 1. Pol. State of Scotland 1788, pp. 121, 140; SRO GD51/1/198/10/9; Caledonian Mercury, no. 10, 740; Edinburgh Advertiser, 6-9 July 1790.
- 2. HMC Laing, ii. 624, 663; Foster, Scots MPs, 356; Scots Peerage, viii. 510; see FIFESHIRE.
- 3. HMC Fortescue, viii. 59; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Gibson, 1 Oct., Erskine to Adam, 27 Oct. 1806; SRO GD51/1/198/10.
- 4. SRO GD51/1/198/29/7; PRO, HO102/20/397, Melville to Dundas, 24 July 1808.
- 5. St. Andrews Lib. Melville mss 4504, Kellie to Melville, 6 Feb. 1811; Horner mss 5, f. 99; SRO GD51/1/184, Wemyss to Melville, 25 Jan. 1817; 51/1/198/10/70, 75.