WATSON, James (1748-96), of Powis Place, Mdx.

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



1790 - Mar. 1795

Family and Education

b. 1748, 1st s. of Rev. James Watson, DD, presbyterian minister of Southwark, Surr. by his w. (d. 26 Apr. 1795), da. and coh. of Thomas Hanchett of Christall Grange, Essex. educ. Mile End acad.; Edinburgh Univ. MA 1777, LLD 1778; Pembroke, Oxf. 9 Nov. 1777, aged 29; I. Temple 1775; L. Inn 1780, called 1780. m. by 1778, Joanna (d. 7 May 1811), da. of Thomas Burges of Gosport, Hants, issue. Kntd. 10 June 1795.

Offices Held

Serjt.-at-law 27 Nov. 1787; puisne judge, Bengal 1795.

Recorder, Bridport until 1795.


Watson was intended to follow his father’s footsteps in the presbyterian ministry and was pastor of a dissenting congregation at Gosport from 1771 to 1777.1 There (again like his father) he married ‘a young lady of good fortune, either in possession or expectation’ and, at his father-in-law’s instigation, abandoned divinity for the law. He practiced as a barrister on the western circuit, to no great effect as he ‘never paid much attention to it’. His abilities were ‘neither mean nor distinguished’. With a large family to support, he sought security. As a serjeant-at-law, he applied to Pitt, 16 June 1789, to become recorder of London, promising ‘wherever I am placed to support your measures to the utmost’. It was as recorder of Bridport that he entered Parliament for that borough a year later, with the support of the corporation, in which the dissenting interest was strong. On 6 Dec. 1791 he applied to Pitt to become counsel to the Admiralty. His chief ambition was to become an Indian judge and ‘he laboured to attain it, by entering on all occasions with ardour into India politics, and by an uniform support of the measures of administration’.2

‘Mr Serjeant Watson’ was indeed a zealous ministerialist; he frequently acted as teller on the government side and as often took their part in debate. In his most notable speeches, he castigated opposition for obstructing Pitt’s foreign policy, 13 Dec. 1790; as a supporter of the repeal of the Test Act with regard to Scotland in April 1791, he defended the reputation of dissenters as loyal citizens, 17 Dec. 1792, and supported the employment of émigré troops, 11 Apr., and the suspension of habeas corpus, 17 May 1794. He also said a few words in favour of the abolition of the slave trade, 25 Feb. 1794. He otherwise confined himself mostly to matters of law and Indian affairs. He was chairman of committees of the House on 31 Dec. 1792, 22 Mar. 1793 and 4 Mar. 1795. From his pamphlet on East India Company affairs, Cursory remarks (published in January 1795), it appears that he was acting as counsel to the directors. He was also a stockholder.

Watson achieved his ambition when he was posted to Calcutta in 1795:

Now comes the wildest freak that folly owns,
Viz. Serjeant Watson, post Sir William Jones.

By then, he was no longer on good terms with the Bridport corporation. He had done little to satisfy their patronage requirements and had been snubbed by them: the dissenting element objected to his not voting against the war. In consequence he met with a hostile reception when he tried to engineer the return of his brother-in-law Burges as his successor and as a supporter of government, though he had not been ‘deterred by any expense’, so he assured Pitt on the eve of sailing for India, 18 June 1795.3

Watson’s ‘natural disposition was amiable’, but he sacrificed his life, as Hickey recalled, ‘to a ridiculous piece of obstinacy’:

about three weeks after his arrival, not liking the house he inhabited, [he] purchased a very excellent one at Chouringee, the removing into which terminated his mortal career. Like many other opinionated new comers he affected to hold in contempt the prevalent and justly formed notion that the sun was peculiarly injurious in Bengal, avowing that he had no doubt but any man might go out in it, without more detriment than in other hot countries, and this he put into practice, exposing himself to its burning rays several hours superintending the loading of the hackerys that were transporting his furniture from one house to the other ... On the second day ... he said he felt rather uncomfortable, with a great degree of giddiness ... he lay down upon a sofa ... and before sufficient time elapsed to summon medical assistance, he breathed his last [2 May 1796].4

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. PRO RG4/805; Gent. Mag. (1829), ii. 564.
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1797), i. 163; W. Howitt, Northern Heights of London, 261; PRO 30/8/187, ff. 200, 202.
  • 3. PRO 30/8/187, ff. 206, 208.
  • 4. Hickey Mems. ed. Spencer, iv. 134, 211.