COCKBURN, Sir James, 8th Bt. (1729-1804), of Langton, Berwickshire and Petersham, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



9 Jan. 1772 - 1784

Family and Education

b. 1729, 2nd s. of William Cockburn, merchant, of Ayton and Eyemouth, Berkwickshire, by his cos. Frances, da. of Dr. James Cockburn, physician in Jamaica.  m. (1) 31 Mar. 1755, Mary (d. 5 Apr. 1766), da. of Henry Douglas, London merchant, 1s. d.v.p. 3 da.; (2) 10 July 1769, Augusta Anne, da. of Rev. Francis Ayscough, dean of Bristol, 5s. 1da.  suc. his cos. as 8th Bt. 30 Apr. 1745.

Offices Held

Commissary gen. to the army in Germany 1762-3; director E. I. Co. 1767-9, 1770-3; principal usher of the white rod in Scotland 1766.


When Cockburn unexpectedly succeeded to the baronetcy, the estates of the bankrupt Langton branch of the family had long been in the possession of their principal creditors, the Cockburns of Cockburn, who also claimed the hereditary office of principal usher. In 1755 James, after long litigation, failed to establish his right to the honour, which with all other Langton property was auctioned in 1757 and passed out of the ownership of both branches of the family.1

As a youth Cockburn entered business in London with Henry Douglas, a wealthy Scots-West Indian merchant, whose daughter (with a dowry of £10,000) he married. In May 1760 he was appointed a commissary under Prince Ferdinand,2 and went to Germany with letters of introduction from his friend John Calcraft.3 Within a month he had succeeded as commissary of supply, ‘without any other assistance than his own merit’,4 and by his energy and initiative earned the praise of Prince Ferdinand, Granby, and Conway.5 He maintained close contact with Calcraft, Sir George Colebrooke and Nicholas Linwood in London, to procure advancement for himself and contracts for his friends;6 and in 1761 Gilbert Elliot wrote about him to Bute:7 ‘No commissary has given so much satisfaction either to the Treasury or to the army in general as Sir James Cockburn.’ In March 1762 he was appointed commissary general to the forces in Germany.8

After the war he was closely associated with Colebrooke in East India Company affairs; included in the House list of candidates for the court of directors in 1765, he was dropped at the insistence of Lawrence Dundas and Lord Holland,9 and did not becomes a director until 1767. In 1765 Cockburn, his relation John Stewart and Colebrooke purchased extensive plantations in Dominica, and were active in obtaining a legislature and government separate from the Tobago-Grenada-group.10 They were also concerned in the Colebrooke Bay Co., an undertaking to acquire two townships in New Hampshire.11

Cockburn was now a rich man and ambitious of restoring his family’s prestige in Scotland. By 1766 he had bought back the office of heritable usher and in 1769 a portion of the Cockburn estates.12 In 1771 Colebrooke, having purchased properties in Lanarkshire and attached himself to the Hamilton interest, recommended Cockburn to the Hamilton guardians as candidate at the by-election for Linlithgow Burghs; and he was returned unopposed.

Cockburn joined the East India group of M.P.s led by Laurence Sulivan and on 30 March seconded his motion for a bill (subsequently dropped) ‘for the better regulation of the East India Company’.13 During the crisis in the Company’s affairs Cockburn, like Colebrooke, was known to have ‘bulled’ East India stock on the Amsterdam market; was accused ‘of having withheld the true state of the Company’s affairs from the proprietors’;14 and did not stand for the directorate in 1773.

Little affected by the financial crash of 1772, Cockburn lavished money on his burghs to counter the interest of Sir Lawrence Dundas.15 Although given no guarantee in 1771 that he would be the Hamilton candidate at the general election, Cockburn felt aggrieved when Andrew Stuart, to split the opposition to the Hamilton interest in Lanarkshire, negotiated on behalf of the guardians an agreement with Buccleuch over Linlithgow Burghs. Anxious about the chances of his friend Sir Adam Fergusson in Ayrshire, Buccleuch authorized Henry Dundas to propose that the united Buccleuch-Hamilton interest should procure the burghs for Sir Adam, but that the election should be fought by the Hamilton nominee as ‘ostensible candidate’, who, if Fergusson lost Ayrshire, must resign in his favour. Cockburn, when informed, strongly objected, claiming that, with Hamilton support, he could defeat any combination against him.

It would not be suitable for him nor his situation in life to be the ostensible man in fighting the Burghs and afterwards retire, making his bow to them and desiring them to choose Sir Adam Fergusson or any other person whatever.

After numerous conferences, the Hamilton guardians pronounced their ultimatum: unless Cockburn accepted ‘second place’ the Hamilton interest would be given to another candidate. At a meeting on 23 Aug. at Colebrooke’s house, attended by Stuart, Charles Fergusson (Sir Adam’s brother), and John Fordyce, the Scottish receiver general, Cockburn swallowed his pride and agreed to the terms.16 At the general election he was returned against the Dundas candidate; and, as Fergusson secured Ayrshire, retained the seat.

Cockburn uniformly supported Government in Parliament. In 1776 he and his partner Henry Douglas secured a valuable contract for supplying 100,000 gallons of Grenada rum to the troops in America;17 and in the debate of 15 May 1777 on the cost of the war Cockburn rose to explain the circumstances of his contract and to justify the high price charged.18 Cockburn and Douglas also acted as agents for the receiver general of the Scottish land tax who allowed them to retain vast sums in their hands.19 By 1778 Cockburn was in serious financial trouble, although not apparently declared bankrupt until 1781. The major cause was his involvement in the transactions of Lauchlin Macleane and John Macpherson with the Nawab of Arcot. Cockburn was persuaded to advance large sums and pledge his credit for a loan to the Nawab, but when Macleane was lost at sea in 1778 and the project fell into confusion, he found himself hopelessly in debt to his creditors, including the receiver general of the land tax.20 North came to his rescue; by 1779 Cockburn was receiving a secret service pension of £600 p.a. in the name of his wife;21 and until March 1782 his vote was naturally at North’s disposal.

North wrote to the King soon after his resignation:22

Sir James Cockburn is in the extremest distress. He has received the pension in the name of Lady Cockburn. His Majesty will consider whether it will be right to suppress this pension altogether or to leave Lady Cockburn in this, or to insert her in some other list, on account of her distress and the former connexions of her father with his Majesty and the Royal Family.

The King replied:23 ‘I will set down the name of his wife’; and included her in the list of private pensioners delivered on 21 Apr. to Rockingham, to whom Cockburn, in support of his claim, submitted a memorial recounting his services as commissary twenty years before.24 Payment was continued under Shelburne, yet Cockburn voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783. He voted for Fox’s East India bill, 27 Nov. 1783, but was among the earliest converts to Pitt’s Administration.25

In 1784 he had little chance of re-election; and, without money or influence, he was discarded by the combined Hamilton, Buccleuch and Queensberry interests.

In 1786 Cockburn, in desperate financial straits, sought refuge from his creditors by obtaining diplomatic immunity as secretary to the Prussian minister, an abuse of privilege against which Lord Carmarthen protested to the King.26 When Cockburn in 1792 was trying to recover his Arcot debts, Henry Dundas commented:27 ‘I believe Sir James was the unfortunate dupe of others and therefore to be pitied.’ During the last years of his life, when his sons had achieved distinction, Cockburn was apparently no longer in financial difficulties.

He died 26 July 1804.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Sir R. Cockburn and H. A. Cockburn, Cockburn Family Recs. 54 et seq.; House of Lords Appeals, 14, 21 Mar. 1755, Add. 36159, ff. 349-418.
  • 2. T52/50/479.
  • 3. Add. 17495, ff. 12b, 14, 14b.
  • 4. Calcraft to Lady Cockburn, 12 June 1760, ibid. f. 41.
  • 5. See Cockburn’s memorial of 1782 on his services, Rockingham mss, and his corresp. 1760-3 in HMC Rutland, ii.
  • 6. Calcraft to Cockburn and to Peter Taylor, 3 Oct. 1760, Add. 17495, f. 150b.
  • 7. Elliot to Bute, ?Aug, 1761, Bute mss.
  • 8. T29/34/251; T52/53/349.
  • 9. L. S. Sutherland. E. I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 133; J. Walsh to Clive, 5 Apr. 1765. Powis mss.
  • 10. T. Whately to G. Grenville, 25 Oct. 1765. Grenville mss (JM); Bd. Trade Jnl. 1764-7, pp. 425-6; APC Col. Unbound Pprs. 472; 1766-83, 14; T29/41/4.
  • 11. John Nelson to Grenville, 4 Sept. 1769, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 12. T. H. Cockburn Hood, House of Cockburn, 105.
  • 13. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 239, f. 184; Sutherland, 231.
  • 14. Ibid. 228, 245.
  • 15. Andrew Stuart to the Duchess of Argyll, 20 Aug. 1773, Duke of Argyll, Intimate Society Letters of 18th Cent. i. 169. Argyll to W. Mure, 24 Feb. 1774, Caldwell Pprs. ii (2), p. 230.
  • 16. Corresp. between Dundas and A. Stuart, 7, 20, 25 June, 23 Aug. 1774; J. Lockhart Ross to Dundas, 15 July, and Dundas’s reply, 29 Aug. 1774, Buccleuch mss.
  • 17. T29/45/103; T54/42/187.
  • 18. Almon, vii. 212-13.
  • 19. W. R. Ward, ‘Land Tax in Scotland 1707-98.’ Bulletin Rylands Lib. xxxvii. 304.
  • 20. Dundas to Lord Grenville, 5 Aug. 1792, HMC Fortescue, ii. 297-8.
  • 21. Royal archives, Windsor, secret service accs.
  • 22. Fortescue, v. 469.
  • 23. Ibid. 473.
  • 24. Rockingham mss.
  • 25. Laprade, 54.
  • 26. Carmarthen to the King, 29 June 1786, Royal archives.
  • 27. Dundas to Grenville, 5 Aug. 1792, HMC Fortescue, ii. 297-8.