COLHOUN, William MacDowall (fl.1773-1807), of Thorpe and Wretham, nr. Thetford, Norf. and St. Kitts, W.I.

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



1784 - 1802

Family and Education

s. of Robert Colhoun, treasurer of St. Kitts 1754, by Frances, da. of John Mills of St. Kitts. m. a da. of one Parson of St. Kitts, 1 (poss. 2) s. 1da. (who m. 1792 Edward Coke).1

Offices Held


Colhoun owned plantations in St. Kitts, Nevis, and St. Croix, besides two Norfolk estates, and the later financial entanglements of this ‘lordly, evasive and muddle-headed’ man are recounted and analysed by Richard Pares in A West-India Fortune(pp. 280-92). At first in his dealings with the house of Pinney and Tobin Colhoun did nothing ‘downright dishonest’, merely ‘got himself into a horrid muddle’; but after about 1800, the ‘rather shady patrician’ was ‘fast losing all pretence of decency’, and ‘lied and broke promises without shame’.

In politics he seems to have done so from the outset. In March 1773 he came forward as a candidate at Dover, supported by John Wilkes. His election address contained the usual radical promises:2 never to accept a place and to support a bill for shortening the duration of Parliaments. In the end he did not stand, but made way for John Trevanion. In 1780 he was a member of the Westminster committee of association, but dropped out before the end of 1782.

He is next heard of at Bedford in 1784. Bedford corporation had an old feud with the Duke, and next with Samuel Whitbread, one of the sitting Members, who was backed by the Woburn interest. In this fight the corporation were supported, or even directed, by Sir Robert Bernard, and it was he who recommended Colhoun to the corporation. The radical John Horne Tooke acted as Bernard’s agent, and his letters to Bernard tell the story of Colhoun’s election in 1784.3 An undated letter, which seems to be the first of the series, reports Colhoun’s arrival at Huntingdon, ‘he tells me ill with fatigue and fever’. And in a postscript: ‘I have talked with Mr. Colhoun with the utmost openness, and have received the utmost satisfaction upon the points in question.’ What these were is not stated. In a letter of 27 Mar. the corporation have unanimously pledged themselves to support Colhoun, and even the inhabitants, ‘not hitherto ... in our interest’, finding that ‘our political sentiments ... agree with their own, id est, against the Coalition ... declared utmost satisfaction’. But by 30 Mar. a report reached the town that Colhoun had said ‘he reserved £2,000 to support Mr. Fox’s election’. Colhoun, ‘extremely mortified that (without the smallest reasonable foundation, and merely because he professes attachment to measures and not to men but as far as they pursue those measures) he should be so much mistaken’, gave a laboured explanation. When a meeting of Bedford freeholders resident in London was held on 1 Apr., he did not attend, being ‘very ill’; and when doubts were voiced concerning him, Horne Tooke had to fight his battle alone—‘I had never fought a better battle in my life’: ‘the meeting finished ... with an unanimous resolution to support Mr. Colhoun’ provided he signed ‘a certain test’—again what it was is not stated. On 5 Apr. Colhoun was returned unopposed with the support of warm adherents of Pitt; in May he was listed as a Foxite by William Adam; and every recorded vote of his, 1784-90, was given on the Opposition side (he voted, however, with Pitt over parliamentary reform, 18 Apr. 1785, but so did Fox). There is no record of his having spoken before 1790.

The date of his death is unascertained.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. For the Colhoun or Colquhoun family of St. Kitts see Oliver, Hist. Antigua, iii. 258 and 418; see also Austen-Leigh, Eton Coll. Reg. for the sons of W. MacDowall Colhoun. John Horne Tooke, in an undated letter of March 1784, refers to William Parson, who in 1784 contested Thetford, as Colhoun’s brother-in-law.
  • 2. Canterbury Jnl. 16 Mar. 1773.
  • 3. In the Duke of Manchester’s mss, Hunts RO, ddM 12 bundle 2.