Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Number of enrolled freeholders:

174 in 1820; 168 in 1826; 165 in 1830


13 Mar. 1820SIR GEORGE CLERK, bt.
19 June 1826SIR GEORGE CLERK, bt.
15 May 1827SIR GEORGE CLERK, bt. re-elected after appointment to office
18 Feb. 1828SIR GEORGE CLERK, bt. re-elected after appointment to office
23 Feb. 1829SIR GEORGE CLERK, bt. re-elected after appointment to office
9 Aug. 1830SIR GEORGE CLERK, bt.
10 May 1831SIR GEORGE CLERK, bt.

Main Article

Edinburghshire contained much well-developed agricultural land, and there was no significant manufacturing outside Edinburgh, the only royal burgh, and the port of Leith.1 The Tory Dundases of Arniston, in alliance with the 3rd and 4th dukes of Buccleuch, had occupied one seat from 1774 until 1811, when the death of Henry Dundas†, 1st Viscount Melville, had removed his eldest son Robert, the sitting Member, to the Lords. He had been replaced by the 23-year-old Sir George Clerk of Penicuik, who easily defeated the Whig Sir John Hamilton Dalrmyple† of Oxenfoord. He was widely regarded as a locum for the 2nd Viscount Melville’s eldest son Henry Dundas*, who would not come of age until February 1823, or his nephew Robert Dundas, son of the lord chief baron, Robert Dundas† of Arniston, who would attain his majority in 1818. Dalrymple came within 10 votes of Clerk in 1812, but was beaten by 30 in 1818, after extensive and costly enrolments to bolster the Tory interest. In March 1819 Clerk was re-elected after his appointment as a lord of the admiralty in the Liverpool ministry. Robert Dundas (who succeeded to Arniston three months later) resisted pressure from some leading Tory freeholders to challenge Clerk and disclaimed any interest in standing for Parliament for ‘six or seven years’.2 Later in 1819 Buccleuch died, leaving a 13-year-old son. He was replaced as lord lieutenant by the Tory 6th marquess of Lothian. In November the Tories convened a county meeting to vote a loyal address to the king. The Whig lawyer Francis Jeffrey*, editor of the Edinburgh Review, moved an amendment implying censure of the government’s repressive legislation after Peterloo. Clerk and Melville’s brother William Dundas, Member for Edinburgh, denounced this as a piece of sophistry, and it was rejected by 87-18; James Clerk Rattray, a baron of exchequer, reckoned that 13 of the minority were ‘merely paper voters, men of no property in the county ... [who] had bought votes for political purposes’.3

Clerk was returned unopposed at the 1820 general election, proposed by Sir John Hope of Pinkie, convener of the county, and seconded by Fletcher Norton, a baron of exchequer. He commended the government’s stand against unrest.4 On 22 Dec. 1820 Lothian chaired a county meeting called to vote a loyal address to the king, which was moved by Hope and seconded by James Walker of Dalry. The Whig Robert Ferguson* of Raith, Fife, proposed an amendment disavowing sedition, but seeking measures of conciliation and ‘an alteration of system’. It was seconded by Sir Alexander Maitland Gibson of Clifton Hall and supported by, among others, Jeffrey, James Joseph Hope Vere* of Blackwood, James Stuart of Dunearn, Fife, James Gibson Craig of Riccarton and the 2nd earl of Rosslyn. The address was endorsed by Clerk and the lord advocate Sir William Rae* and carried by 111-27.5 Lothian died in April 1824 and was replaced as lord lieutenant by the 16th earl of Morton. As in Lothian’s case, it was arranged with the government that he would step aside for the 5th duke of Buccleuch when he came of age in November 1827.6 The freeholders petitioned the Commons for the free export of Scottish spirits to England, 14 May 1824.7 In 1825 tenants and occupiers petitioned the Commons against relaxation of the corn laws, and the freeholders petitioned both Houses to the same effect after a meeting on 22 Apr.8 In February 1826 the freeholders met to petition both Houses against interference with the Scottish banking system: the speakers included Dalrymple and Gibson Craig. The council, merchants and inhabitants of Musselburgh petitioned in the same sense in April.9 The United Associate Congregation of Dalkeith petitioned the Lords for the abolition of slavery, 26 Apr. 1826.10

At the general election that summer six freeholders, including two Dundases, were added to the roll. Clerk, proposed by Robert Dundas of Arniston and seconded by John Wauchope of Edmonston, was returned unchallenged.11 Hope chaired a county meeting, 13 Mar. 1827, called to petition for enhanced protection for domestic corn growers.12 On the formation of Canning’s ministry in April Clerk initially offered to resign with Melville (his chief at the admiralty), but in the end took office as clerk of the ordnance. At his unopposed re-election in May, when three freeholders were added to the roll, he was sponsored by Gilbert Innes of Stow and Dundas of Arniston. The Whigs Dalrymple, Gibson Craig, Jeffrey and Hope Vere pointedly declared their support for him as the representative of a ‘liberal’ government. Clerk, who before the election had spent some time ‘visiting his constituents, and satisfying their doubts about the Popish question’, sought to appease some disgruntled Melvillites by insisting that he had betrayed no principles in joining Canning’s coalition. At the election dinner, according to Sir Walter Scott, there was ‘a great attendance of Whig and Tory huzzaing each others’ toasts’.13 When Morton died in July 1827, Melville, already alarmed by a report that an earlier interview between Canning and Buccleuch, now three months short of his majority, had ‘ended very drily on the part of the latter’, feared that Canning might be tempted to disregard the understanding about his succession to the lord lieutenancy and give it to his political ally, the 4th earl of Rosebery, a non-resident. He wrote directly in explanation to Canning, so that he would ‘not be allowed to plead ignorance of the intended arrangement’; and shortly before his death in August 1827 Canning gave an assurance that Buccleuch would be appointed on coming of age, as he duly was in January 1828.14 That month Clerk, who had remained in office under Lord Goderich, did likewise (at the admiralty) in the duke of Wellington’s new administration, in which Melville was president of the India board. This further damaged him in the eyes of some Tory freeholders; and on 1 Feb. 1828, two weeks before the by-election for his re-election, Dundas of Arniston, who the previous summer had hinted the he or one of Melville’s sons might offer for the county at the next general election, sought Melville’s advice:

1st. Should I stand for the county? 2nd. If not, should Henry [Dundas, Melville’s eldest son, now Member for Rochester] try? ... There exists more than one strong objection against my doing it: 1. The chance of defeat by the junction of the James Gibson [Craig] party with those who might not wish to turn against Sir George after 19 years’ service. 2. The difficulty of holding the county without residing at Arniston, which under existing circumstances is quite out of the question. 3. The expense attending such a seat in contested votes, etc. 4. The probability of Parliament, especially for such a seat, interfering so much with my profession [the law] as to form a bar against any future promotion therein. 5. The fact of having another seat ready either now or whenever it may be more convenient to take it. If this were not the case, I should have run the risk rather than give up all prospect of being in Parliament. 2nd ... Ought Henry to try? The first objection here also occurs, and ... with greater force ... as from constant residence I have had the opportunity of making more personal friendships and connections among the electors ... None of the other objections apply, and I therefore think Henry ought to try it for the following reasons : 1. If he or I cannot turn out Sir George now, we never can. 2. I fear ... [Rochester] will not be again secured, except at an expense which he cannot bear, and far beyond what the county will cost him.

Melville would not allow his son to stand, ‘because it would look like a personal, and therefore an unworthy attack on ... Sir George’, but promised his ‘concurrence and cordial support’ if Dundas chose to challenge Clerk, though he advised him to be ‘tolerably sure of success before you embark in such a contest’. Lady Melville and Dundas’s kinsman Robert Adam Dundas* strongly urged him to stand; but in the end the wiser counsels of Buccleuch prevailed, and it was decided not to risk creating a damaging split in the Tory interest, which might let in Dalrymple.15 Clerk, who was nominated by Innes and James Tytler of Woodhouselee, defended his political conduct and attributed the breach with the Dundases, which he now considered to be healed, to temporary ‘misunderstandings’.16 He had again to seek re-election in February 1829, after the admiralty had been reconstituted under Melville. He remained in London and was represented by his younger brother John Clerk Maxwell. His sponsors were Sir Francis Walker Drummond of Hawthornden, who welcomed the government’s concession of Catholic emancipation, and John Inglis of Auchendinny. Hope Vere endorsed Clerk, but some freeholders, including William Henry Miller* of Craigentinny and Sir Patrick Walker of Drumsheugh, withdrew their support on account of emancipation.17

On the king’s death in late June 1830 it was rumoured that at the impending general election Dundas of Arniston ‘meant to oppose Clerk’, whose appointment as home office under-secretary was timed to coincide with the dissolution. In the event he was again unchallenged, after nomination by Wardlaw Ramsay and Tytler.18 Dissenters of Dalkeith, the synod of Lothian and the inhabitants of Musselburgh petitioned Parliament for the abolition of slavery in late 1830.19 The council and inhabitants of Musselburgh petitioned the Lords for parliamentary reform and economy, 15 Feb. 1831. On 22 Mar. they petitioned in favour of the Grey ministry’s reform scheme, as did the inhabitants of Penicuik.20 Favourable petitions were sent to the Commons by the council of Musselburgh and the inhabitants of Dalkeith, 19 Mar.21 On the 23rd the Tories convened a county meeting to petition against the ministerial plan while paying lip service to the need for ‘moderate reform’. A reform amendment proposed by Dalrymple and Sir Thomas Gibson Carmichael of Castle Craig was rejected by 68-20.22 After helping to defeat the English bill, Clerk offered at the ensuing general election. Dalrymple was minded to oppose him, but the Edinburgh Whigs, confident of turning him out at the first post-reform election, decided, as Henry Cockburn put it, to ‘leave Sir George to gnaw his last bone in his own kennel undisturbed’.23 At the annual county meeting to re-elect Hope as convener, 30 Apr. 1831, Dalrymple said he would have stood, not with any hope of success, but to demonstrate the pro-reform feelings of many ‘great landed proprietors’, had not the sheriff deliberately fixed the election for the same day as that for Perthshire (10 May), to his disadvantage. The Tories claimed that this was accidental. At the election meeting four dead freeholders were replaced by new ones. Little Gilmour and Innes nominated Clerk, who was endorsed by Miller and Ramsay. Dalrymple spoke for reform, attacked Clerk and, before the vote was taken, left the hall with Gibson Craig and two others. Clerk professed to favour ‘moderate reform’, but condemned the proposed £10 Scottish franchise. He had reluctantly agreed to the city magistrates’ request to cancel the customary dinner to avoid the chance of trouble. Robert Adam Dundas, now the city Member, was followed down the Mound by ‘a crowd of noisy lads’, one of whom threw a stone at him.24 The freeholders petitioned the Lords against permitting the use of molasses in brewing and distilling, 16 Aug. 1831.25 Petitions urging the Lords to support reform were sent up from Dalkeith, Musselburgh and Portobello after the English bill passed the Commons in September 1831.26

At the general election of 1832 Dalrymple beat Clerk by 65 votes in a poll of 1,137 of the 1,294 registered electors.27 Heavy expenditure enabled Clerk to regain the seat in 1835, but he was defeated by William Gibson Craig in 1837 and washed his hands of the county representation. It was held by other Conservatives, 1841-68.28

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), ii. 525-8.
  • 2. Scottish Electoral Politics, pp. ix-xiv; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 533-5; Arniston Mems. 313-14; NAS GD51/1/198/16/40; 51/5/592/1.
  • 3. NLS mss 1496, f. 148; Caledonian Mercury, 11 Nov. 1819.
  • 4. Caledonian Mercury, 16 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Ibid. 23 Dec. 1820.
  • 6. Canning’s Ministry, 349.
  • 7. CJ, lxxix. 366.
  • 8. Ibid. lxxx. 337, 350; LJ, lvii. 646; Caledonian Mercury, 23 Apr. 1825.
  • 9. CJ, lxxxi. 139, 217; LJ, lviii. 58, 166; Caledonian Mercury, 23 Feb. 1826.
  • 10. LJ, lviii. 249.
  • 11. Caledonian Mercury, 15, 22 June 1826.
  • 12. Ibid. 15 Mar. 1827; CJ, lxxxi. 397; LJ, lix. 223-4.
  • 13. Caledonian Mercury, 17 May 1827; Canning’s Ministry, 314; Scott Jnl. 349; Scottish Electoral Politics, pp. xv-xvi.
  • 14. Canning’s Ministry, 349.
  • 15. Arniston Mems. 334, 339-43; Canning’s Ministry, 349; NLS mss 2, f. 111; 24749, f. 42; Scottish Electoral Politics, p. xvi.
  • 16. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 21 Feb. 1828.
  • 17. Caledonian Mercury, 21, 26 Feb. 1829; The Times, 2 Mar. 1829.
  • 18. Stair mss (History of Parliament Aspinall transcripts), W. Murray to Dalrymple, 2 July; Caledonian Mercury, 8, 22, 24 July, 9, 12 Aug. 1830.
  • 19. CJ, lxiii. 78, 110, 144; LJ, lxxxvi. 202, 456; Caledonian Mercury, 9 Dec. 1830.
  • 20. LJ, lxiii. 227, 353, 354.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxxvi. 406; Caledonian Mercury, 12, 17 Mar. 1831.
  • 22. Caledonian Mercury, 19, 24 Mar. 1831.
  • 23. Stair mss, J.A. Murray to Dalrymple, 10 Jan., Abercromby to same, 23 Apr. 1831; Scottish Electoral Politics, p. xvi.
  • 24. Caledonian Mercury, 25, 30 Apr., 2, 5, 12 May 1831.
  • 25. LJ, lxiii. 925.
  • 26. CJ, lxiii. 1022, 1024, 1047.
  • 27. Cockburn Letters, 410, 417, 425, 435-7; Caledonian Mercury, 9 July, 13, 15, 17, 20, 22, 24 Dec.; Add. 40403, f. 150; 51837, Rosebery to Holland, 10 Aug. 1832; Wellington mss WP1/1239/36, 37.
  • 28. Scottish Electoral Politics, pp. xvii-xxxii, 3-6, 18, 63, 126, 127, 137-8.