WEMYSS, James Erskine (1789-1854), of Wemyss, Fife

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



1820 - 1831
1832 - 1847

Family and Education

b. 9 July 1789, 1st. s. of William Wemyss† of Wemyss and Frances, da. of Sir William Erskine, 1st bt., of Torrie. m. 8 Aug. 1826, Lady Emma Hay, da. of William, 17th earl of Erroll [S], 2s. 2da. (1 d.v.p.) suc. fa. 1822; to Torrie by right of his mother 1841. d. 3 Apr. 1854.

Offices Held

Entered RN 1801, midshipman 1804, lt. 1808, cdr. 1812, capt. 1814, half-pay 1814, r.-adm. 1850.

Ld. lt. Fife 1840-d.


Wemyss gained a reputation in this period as a formidable electioneer whose speeches and addresses were ‘those of a jolly mariner, rough, homespun, full of a sort of ready raillery, blunt, off hand and ready witted, such as were sure to draw cheers from a crowd’.1 The well-connected heir to valuable Fifeshire estates, he had joined the navy in 1801, three years after his mother’s death, as a first class volunteer on his uncle Charles Wemyss’s ship Unicorn. He transferred to Sir Edward Pellew’s† crew off Ferrol the following year and served in several ships in the East Indies, the Mediterranean, the North Sea and on the home station. Pellew, after whom he was to name his second son, made him his flag lieutenant in 1808 after the Victor, in which he was acting lieutenant, suffered heavy losses. Admiral Josias Rowley* praised his contribution to the reduction of Genoa as commander of the Éclair at the battle of Port d’Anzo in April 1814. In July that year, after captaining the Rainbow on her return voyage to England, he went on half-pay and was awarded an additional £100 a year for bravery.2 His father, the ailing Member for Fifeshire, was thwarted in his ambition of making way for him at the general election of 1818, but, with government acquiescence, they effected the transfer in 1820 after an expensive contest.3 In notices, speeches and his letters to the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager Lord Melville, who acknowledged his popularity but privately doubted his competence, Wemyss professed allegiance to the ‘principles which actuated the late Mr. Pitt’ and declared that ‘so long as the present government continue to entertain such, they will be steadily supported by me in all their great questions’.4 His complaint early in the new Parliament that his Tory rival Sir John Oswald of Dunnikier claimed the right to control Fifeshire patronage brought reassurance from Melville that the government had not intervened at the late election and he hinted at future support for Wemyss as their sitting Member.5

He divided against Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, 30 Apr. 1822, 21 Apr. 1825, and the Irish franchise bill, 26 Apr. 1825, and against parliamentary reform, including changes in the Scottish representation, 9, 10 May 1821, 20 Feb., 2 June 1823, 13 Apr. 1826. Assertions in radical publications that he ‘always’ voted with ministers were, however, inaccurate.6 He made a point of attending county meetings and dealing personally with petitions, and his support for administration was tempered by his readiness to represent local interests. At the Fifeshire meeting of 28 Dec. 1820 he spoke in favour of adopting a loyal address to the king and against a hostile Whig amendment defending the freedom of the press.7 He divided with government in 1821 on the Queen Caroline affair, 6 Feb., the revenue, 6 Mar., and retrenchment, 27 June, but against them on the additional malt duty, 21 Mar., 3 Apr., which he declared when presenting hostile petitions, 12, 21 Mar., 17 May, that it was the duty of every Scottish Member to oppose.8 He voted against committing the printer of John Bull to Newgate for an alleged libel on Henry Grey Bennet*, 11 May, and against making forgery a non-capital offence, 23 May 1821. Having delayed his return to Westminster on account of his father’s death, 4 Feb. 1822, he presented petitions for repeal of the leather tax, 1 May, the malt tax and excise duties, 6 May, and repeated the arguments voiced at their adoption in Fifeshire, which the chancellor of the exchequer Vansittart had difficulty in countering, 6 May. He divided with Lethbridge and the agriculturists against the government’s relief proposals, 8 May.9 He voted against inquiring into Irish tithes, 19 June, and the lord advocate’s treatment of the Scottish press, 25 June 1822. He voted in Whitmore’s minority for a gradual reduction to 60s. in the corn pivot price, 26 Feb., and against government for inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., but with them on chancery delays, 5 June 1823. He presented petitions on the laws regulating the trades in tallow and linen, 7, 21 May 1823, and one against slavery from the convocation of Fife, 7 May 1824, but he voted against condemning the indictment in Demerara of the Methodist missionary John Smith, 11 June 1824.10 At the Fifeshire head court, 5 Oct. 1824, he said that he had opposed the introduction of the Scottish judicature bill late that session on account of its timing and ‘without regard to the merits of the measure itself’ and ‘would have opposed any other bill of consequence prepared at the same period’.11 His success in obtaining the living of Cupar for Dr. Adamson in January 1825 was marred by allegations of jobbing and the difficulties with the corporation and heritors which it generated.12 He presented several petitions against corn law reform, 28 Apr. He condemned the Leith docks bill as a ‘gross job’ and voted to kill it, 20 May. He voted against increasing the duke of Cumberland’s award, 27 May, but for the annuity bill, 10 June 1825. He presented and endorsed Auchtermuchty’s petition against altering the Scottish banking system, 7 Apr., and several against slavery, 16, 17 Apr. 1826.13 Although injured in a fall during his passage by steamboat from London, Wemyss chaired the county meeting on the Forth ferries, 5 May 1826. He stayed on to convalesce and canvass and came in unopposed at the general election in June. On the hustings he explained that he had generally supported ministers hitherto ‘because he thought them right’, but because he deplored the president of the board of trade Huskisson’s decision to repeal the navigation laws and their recent ‘vacillating conduct on the corn laws’, he intended voting in future ‘as he saw fit’.14 He spoke similarly at Melville’s installation as rector of St. Andrews University in October and candidly acknowledged that his conduct as a Member was not ‘free from mistakes’.15 His local influence was boosted by his marriage in August 1826 to Lord Errol’s daughter Emma (whose sister Isabel had married his brother William in 1820) and by his only sister Frances’s marriage in October 1826 to Lord Loughborough*.

Wemyss presented Fifeshire petitions for and against corn law revision, 26 Feb., and divided against the Liverpool ministry’s corn bill, 2 Apr. 1827. He voted against Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and for the grant to the duke of Clarence, 16 Mar., and the spring guns bill, 23 Mar. 1827.16 Responding on 5 Feb. 1828 to a summons from Peel as home secretary and leader of the House in the duke of Wellington’s ministry, he congratulated him on his return to office, apologized for his late arrival that session and cautioned that he would oppose the colonial secretary Huskisson’s measures, ‘which regard I owe to myself, as well as to my constituents’.17 He welcomed Wellington’s decision to appoint Loughborough’s father the earl of Rosslyn lord lieutenant of Fifeshire that month.18 He presented a petition for facilitating anatomical dissection, 2 May, and vehemently opposed the Aberdeen harbour bill, 5 May, but his anti-Catholic vote, 12 May, was the only one reported that session. Drawn during the recess into the controversy concerning the appointment of a convener for Fifeshire, he informed Oswald, 26 Aug. 1828:

I came to the resolution of supporting General Balfour from no political motive, but from being well advised that he was the only man likely to secure unanimity amongst all parties. As Member for the county it is rather against my feelings to interfere in this matter beyond a vote, particularly as I have such a respect for General Durham and personally I care not who is convener, but as long as I am Member, it is my bounden duty to keep the county and the commissioners of supply in good humour, and heal, if possible, the recent wounds that have been so industriously inflicted on our peace.19

The patronage secretary Planta predicted that he would vote ‘with government’ for Catholic emancipation in 1829, but he divided against the measure, 6, 18, 30 Mar., and presented and endorsed hostile petitions from Fifeshire and Inverary, 11 Feb., 26 Mar., and defended the decision of the Associate Synod of Kirkcaldy to petition similarly in the name of their president Thomas Grey, 30 Mar. He did not vote on distress in 1830, but he referred to it when presenting petitions against the proposed additional duty on corn spirits from Fifeshire and elsewhere 3, 17 May. He also brought up petitions that day against taxing Scottish probate inventories and against the East India Company’s trading monopoly. He cast a rare vote with the revived Whig opposition for abolishing the Irish lord lieutenancy, 11 May, and voted to amend the sale of beer bill’s provisions for on-consumption, 21 June. He secured an uncontested return for Fifeshire at the 1830 general election. His notices highlighted local issues, and when pressed on the hustings to explain his parliamentary conduct, he declared that ‘since the break-up of Lord Liverpool’s administration, he had voted for no particular party’ and ‘had he ... adhered to every successive administration ... his conduct must have been like a fool’s coat - of many colours’. He insisted that his vote on the Irish lord lieutenancy was, like the office itself, of no consequence, as ‘there might as well be a lord lieutenant of Edinburgh’, defended his stance on the beer bill and refused, when challenged, to make pledges on reform.20 He probably interfered at St. Andrews at the burgh elections at Michaelmas.21

Ministers counted Wemyss among their ‘friends’, but he was absent from the division on the civil list when they were brought down, 15 Nov. 1830. He presented a petition for parliamentary reform from Cupar, 19 Mar., and divided for the Grey ministry’s English reform bill at its second reading, 22 Mar. 1831.22 In a major speech on the 25th, which the pro-reform Fife Herald edited and printed, he countered claims made by Hume and Sir Michael Shaw Stewart on behalf of the Scottish reformers and tempered contradictory ones by the anti-reformer James Lindsay, whose father Lord Balcarres was intriguing in Fifeshire with a view to returning Lindsay and accused Wemyss of jobbing to promote his own interests under the proposed Leven navigation bill. A proposal in the Scottish reform bill to disfranchise the Anstruther Easter Burghs was widely resented, and the reformers had been refused a county meeting.23 Wemyss’s speech stated that he supported the English bill only so far as it ‘relates to the out-voters and dependent boroughs. Further I cannot go, for I do not pretend to understand the measure’. He acknowledged the shortcomings of the Scottish system but added:

I am one of those who think that real property should be entitled to a proper share in the representation, even if it went only as far as £20; but when the franchise is attempted to be placed in the hands of the manufacturing and agricultural classes of Scotland, I fear that the interests of the people will be continually at war with each other and think that the result of such a measure would be to produce a continual political warfare ... We should have one party petitioning for a corn bill and another ... for no corn bill and so on ... With regard to the alteration of the boroughs, that I admit is good in principle, but requires some alteration in the details. It is a great anomaly to disfranchise one borough, and without a good, or indeed any reasons being assigned, to allow another to remain in its existing state ... I know there is a feeling in favour of reform, but it is a silent feeling as yet: for the petitions I have hitherto received came from those who are under the influence of others, and do not embrace the intelligence and respectability of all the counties ... I have reason to believe that many of my constituents in the county of Fife are alarmed at the proposed alteration in the franchise.

He issued notices countering reports that he would make way for Lindsay, 17 Apr., and voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the reform bill, 19 Apr.24 Assisted by his 1820 Whig opponent Robert Ferguson* of Raith, he contested the ensuing general election as a reformer, but lost by 85-68 to Lindsay.25 He attributed his defeat to his pro-reform votes and maintained at the election meeting that

it had been well known, at the treasury, during the duke of Wellington’s administration, that he was friendly to reform. The only reason why he had never before voted for that measure was that he thought it improper to agitate a question involving so many interests till it should be brought forward by the government and the country and not by an individual.

He also signalled his intention of standing again, when the county should ‘be inclined to support a candidate who had no fortune to spend on canvassing, and no East India interest to offer’.26 His political loss was followed by a personal one in July 1831, when his eldest daughter was stillborn.27

Now regarded as a ‘semi-liberal’,28 Wemyss obliged Lindsay to make way for him without a contest at the general election of 1832, defeated him in 1835 and made the Fifeshire seat a ‘hopeless’ one for the Conservatives during his lifetime.29 He retired at the dissolution of 1847, having been appointed lord lieutenant six years previously and ensured the succession of his heirs to the Erskine estates by a private Act of 1841. He died in April 1854 at Wemyss Castle, to which with Torrie he was succeeded by his elder son James Henry Erskine Wemyss (d. 1864), Liberal Member for Fifeshire, 1859-64.30

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott


  • 1. Fifeshire Jnl. 6 Apr. 1854.
  • 2. Ibid.; W.R. O’Byrne, Naval Biog. iii. 1268-9.
  • 3. NAS GD51/1/198/10/70,75.
  • 4. NAS GD51/1/198/10/76-87; Caledonian Mercury, 7 Feb., 9, 23 Mar.; Scotsman, 25 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. NAS GD51/1/198/10/88, 89; Oswald of Dunnikier mss VIA/2, election speeches 1820.
  • 6. Extraordinary Red Bk. (1821), 240; Black Bk. (1823), 201.
  • 7. Caledonian Mercury, 1 Jan. 1821.
  • 8. The Times, 13, 22 Mar., 18 May 1821.
  • 9. Ibid. 2, 7 May 1822.
  • 10. Ibid. 8, 22 May 1823, 8 May 1824.
  • 11. Caledonian Mercury, 7 Oct. 1824.
  • 12. Add. 40370, ff. 235-8; 40371, ff. 53, 59; 40372, ff. 43, 45, 170-84.
  • 13. The Times, 8, 18, 27 Apr. 1826.
  • 14. NAS GD164/1799/11, 12, 15; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 8, 12 June; Scotsman, 1 July 1826.
  • 15. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 30 Oct. 1826.
  • 16. The Times, 27 Feb. 1827.
  • 17. Add. 40395, f. 194.
  • 18. NLS mss 2, f. 125.
  • 19. Oswald of Dunnikier mss VIA/2, Wemyss to Oswald, 26 Aug. and passim, 1828.
  • 20. Fife Herald, 8, 29 July, 12 Aug.; Scotsman, 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 21. NAS GD16/34/387/7, F.W. Drummond to Airlie, 7 Sept. 1830.
  • 22. The Times, 24 Mar. 1831.
  • 23. Fife Herald, 4 Nov., 9, 23 Dec. 1830, 20, 27 Jan., 10, 31 Mar., 7 Apr. 1831; Oswald of Dunnikier mss VIA/2, G. Campbell to Oswald, 28, 31 Dec. 1830.
  • 24. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 23 Apr. 1831.
  • 25. Fife Herald, 28 Apr., 12 May; Caledonian Mercury, 7 May; Scotsman, 28 May 1831.
  • 26. Fifeshire Herald, 2 June 1831.
  • 27. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 21 July 1831.
  • 28. The Times, 25 Aug. 1831.
  • 29. Fife Herald, 21 June, 13, 20 Dec. 1832; Scottish Electoral Politics, 252, 274-5.
  • 30. Gent. Mag. (1854), i. 192.