SINCLAIR, George (1790-1868), of Ulbster and Thurso Castle, Caithness

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



26 Aug. 1811 - 1812
1818 - 1820
1831 - 1841

Family and Education

b. 28 Aug. 1790, 1st s. of Sir John Sinclair†, 1st bt., of Ulbster and 2nd w. Hon. Diana Jane Elizabeth Macdonald, da. of Alexander, 1st Bar. Macdonald [I]. educ. Harrow 1802; Göttingen Univ. 1806. m. 1 May 1816, Catherine Camilla, da. of Sir William Manners†, 1st bt., of Buckminster Park, Leics., 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 3da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. as 2nd bt. 21 Dec. 1835. d. 9 Oct. 1868.

Offices Held


When Sinclair asked Sir Walter Scott to sit on the committee of inquiry into Dr. John Knox’s dealings with the Edinburgh body-snatchers in January 1829, the novelist wrote:

Sir John Sinclair is provided with a substitute to continue the trade of boring. When he is called to be a bore like some old classic amongst the heavenly constellations haud deficiat alter. I saw with a sick and sorry heart his eldest son, tall and ungainly like the knight himself with cheek as sleek as oil and a wit as thick as mustard. Young hopeful’s business with me was to invite me to ... lend a hand to whitewash this much to be suspected individual. But he shall ride off on no back of mine ... The rest of the committee are to be doctors and surgeons ... and I suppose the doughty Sir John at the head of them all and this young boar pig to swell the cry.1

Scott was unfair in tarring Sinclair with the same brush as his egregious father, whom he had never forgiven for his insensitive attempt to provide him with a second wife in 1826. Although Sinclair certainly took himself seriously, he was not given to inflicting his advice indiscriminately on all and sundry, and had more than his share of self-doubt, a weakness unfamiliar to his father, whose ineffable self-importance must have often embarrassed him.2 One of the more preposterous attempts at self-aggrandizement by Sir John Sinclair, whose claims for a peerage in the 1820s were ignored, was his offer of 2 Apr. 1824 (five weeks short of his 70th birthday) to take on the Irish secretaryship (which was not vacant) in order to apply his economic expertise to the salvation of Ireland: if he went to Dublin, he told George’s old schoolfellow Peel, the home secretary, ‘I would take my son with me, to whose abilities you are no stranger, and it might be the means of introducing him into the line of public business for which he is so well qualified’.3 Sir John also bombarded the king and his ministers with copies of George’s Narrative, published in 1826, of his interrogation by Buonaparte 20 years previously, after being detained near Jena on suspicion of espionage.4 For his own part, George Sinclair had become soon after his marriage a convert to Pentecostal Evangelicalism, which was thereafter the mainspring of his life.5 To his wife, for instance, he wrote from Boulogne, 4 June 1822:

I am never more contented than in the bosom of my family; and I hope that my mind is in some degree weaned from an attachment to certain illusions, which education, example, habit, and practice, had for some time fostered and encouraged. I am, undoubtedly, conscious that my triumph is very imperfect ... but I should indeed be ungrateful to my heavenly Father, if I did not feel that some improvement has been wrought; that I am more humble, more contrite, more satisfied than I once was ... If I had no duties and obligations, incompatible with such an arrangement, I should like to retire with my children and you to the country; to give up London, with all its temptations and disappointments, and devote my time entirely to domestic quiet and enjoyment.6

Sinclair’s marked independence during the 1818 Parliament, his support for parliamentary reform and his friendships with Sir Francis Burdett* and Joseph Hume* made him suspect in the eyes of the Liverpool ministry, while his radical leanings were unpopular with some of the Caithness lairds. His involvement in the county meeting of 1 Oct. 1823 which passed resolutions endorsing the Whig Lord Archibald Hamilton’s recent Commons motion for reform of the Scottish county representation prompted the lord lieutenant, Lord Caithness, to put forward his brother James Sinclair* for the next general election. He sought and secured the support of Lord Melville, the minister responsible for Scotland.7 The outraged Sir John Sinclair tried in vain to thwart this challenge, appealing to Melville and his Edinburgh underlings and furnishing a letter from George in which he asserted that his espousal of ‘moderate’ parliamentary reform ‘is now my only point of difference with ministers’. At the same time he acknowledged that it was ‘highly reasonable’ that the consequence of his ‘occasional votes against them’ should be ‘a complete exclusion from any personal emolument or advancement’.8 In 1824 Sir John, begging Peel to intervene with Melville, insisted that George was ‘well inclined to support the present government’, but Peel declined to act.9 Sinclair, encouraged by the Whig Dissenter William Smith*, stood his ground as the two factions struggled for supremacy, but at the rowdy and litigious 1826 general election he lost to James Sinclair by five votes in a poll of 41 freeholders.10 Immediately afterwards his father asked Lord Radnor, an earlier recipient of a copy of the Narrative, to bring him in for Downton in the room of the poet Southey, whom he had returned without his knowledge or consent:

He was twice elected to represent ... Caithness ... and ... displayed talents that proved him capable of making a figure in the line of politics ... He had directed particular attention to the corn and currency questions which are to be decided in the course of the next or the ensuing session, and on the decision regarding which the fate of the nation depends ... I wish much that my son could be brought in for a couple of sessions ... that he may have an opportunity of stating his sentiments on ... [these] two most important subjects.

Radnor replied:

You cannot expect me to be actuated with the warmth of a parent. I consider myself as sufficiently excused by saying that I am sorry to be contributing to your disappointment, but so it must be.11

In November 1827 Sir James Mackintosh* recorded Lord Lansdowne’s story that during the recent ministerial stalemate over the appointment of John Herries* as chancellor of the exchequer in the Goderich ministry, Sir John Sinclair had put himself forward for the post and added that ‘he should still further provide for the public service by educating his son to supply his place when the fatal moment of decline should arrive’.12 Caithness did not return a Member in 1830, but at the general election of 1831 Sinclair, who since his defeat had continued his academic and theological studies, came forward as ‘a moderate reformer’. There was widespread local support for the Grey ministry’s reform scheme, and he encountered no opposition. On the hustings he spoke of

the necessity of setting the question at rest, by a final and satisfactory adjustment, an end which can only be attained by the adoption of a measure so comprehensive in its extent, so popular in its principles, so matured in its details, and so salutary in its operation, as to leave the visionary without influence, and the disaffected without excuse.

Portraying himself as ‘a martyr to the cause’ for 20 years, he argued that the proposed extension of the franchise would ‘raise in the scale of political importance the middling classes of society, which are the boast and the bulwark of the land’. As ever, he emphasized his hostility to universal suffrage and annual parliaments; but he trusted that those not presently possessed of the requisite ‘property’ and ‘intelligence’ to be entrusted with the vote would be encouraged to ‘look forward to its ultimate attainment, as an additional and powerful stimulus to economy and perseverance in industrious exertion’.13

The assertion of Sinclair’s biographer, that ‘whenever it was known that he was to make one of his great speeches, the House was sure to be filled with Members anxious to hear him’, can be dismissed as fantasy.14 He did, however, carry out his parliamentary duties with characteristic earnestness, and his periodic interventions in debate were clear and forthright, if nothing else. He presented a petition from the Highland Society of London for a bill to amend the Acts for its incorporation, 27 June. On 5 July he introduced the measure, which became law on 23 Aug. He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced English reform bill, 6 July, and against the adjournment, 12 July. He was a steady supporter of the details of the bill, and may have assisted Thomas Kennedy* in compiling for the government whips ‘correct lists’ of the votes of Scottish Members.15 He voted for its third reading and passage, 19, 21 Sept. He divided with the minority for adjournment of the debate on the issue of the Dublin writ, 8 Aug., but voted with ministers in the first division of 23 Aug. on their alleged improper interference in the election there. He presented Caithness petitions for the abolition of slavery, 12 Aug., and against the use of molasses in brewing and distilling, 26 Aug. On 12 Sept. he suggested to the indignant Tory Colonel Sibthorp that his own ‘vehemence of manner and gesticulation’ had been largely responsible for an unflattering report in The Times of his speech of 6 Sept. Later that day he spoke and voted against government for inquiry into the effects of renewal of the Sugar Refinery Act on the West Indian colonies, each one of which contained ‘a volcano of discontent, of which a very slight shock may be sufficient to cause the explosion’. On 26 Sept. he voted, as an elder of the Church of Scotland, to discontinue the Maynooth grant: he did so, he said, not out of personal hostility to Catholics, whose emancipation he had always supported, but because he was not prepared to subsidize the training of ‘men who, from duty as well as inclination, must labour to subvert our Protestant establishments, and supplant our national faith’. He voted for the motion of confidence in the ministry, 10 Oct. 1831.

Sinclair voted for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831. A month later he attracted public attention by refusing an invitation from William IV, his close friend of many years, to dine with him on a Sunday. Privately, he chided the king for his well-known hostility to the ‘Saints’, for it was ‘by them that the spirit of true religion is kept alive’:

I myself once despised those whom I am now most desirous to resemble. I myself once shunned that society which I now find most edifying and congenial. I myself was once ‘a blasphemer, a persecutor, and injurious’, walking according to the course of this world, and having my affections engrossed by ‘seen and temporal objects’.16

To the consternation of some Edinburgh Whigs, who feared it reflected the king’s views, he voted against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan. 1832.17 He argued that they had failed to make out their case, and said that while he opposed them with ‘great reluctance’, he felt bound, on this as on all issues, ‘to follow the dictates of my own judgement, without reference to parties or persons’. The following day, however, he warmly praised ministers for their ‘courage’ and ‘honesty’ in promoting reform which, amongst its many benefits, would rescue ‘the people of Scotland from that state of political thraldom and degradation which had subsisted during so many centuries’. He supported the details of the English bill, though he opposed the enfranchisement of Merthyr Tydvil by the expedient of depriving Monmouthshire of a third Member, 14 Mar., when he asserted that ‘my anxiety to support government is controlled by a sense of duty’. He voted for the third reading, 22 Mar. He sided with government on relations with Portugal, 9 Feb., but opposed the ‘hasty and impolitic’ malt drawback bill, 30 Mar., 2 Apr. He voted for the address asking the king to appoint only ministers who would carry undiluted reform, 10 May, and two days later, at a moment of ‘imminent and almost unprecedented peril’, wrote to William begging him not to appoint the duke of Wellington prime minister, for to do so

would do more to lower the character of public men, more to endanger the royal authority, more to encourage political profligacy and abandonment of principles, than it is possible to exaggerate or to conceive. In his hands concession is deprived of all its grace, and of all its efficacy. The people ... would rather take less from Lord Grey than obtain more through the party which has undermined and supplanted him ... Not one of Lord Grey’s supporters will be base enough to abandon him ... I myself, who never so much as exchanged with him a sentence of common civility, I, who have been often frowned at for occasional votes against the administration, and who had no personal favours, either to expect or to be grateful for, must honestly avow, that I consider myself bound ... to adhere to him in this emergency ... Should Parliament be dissolved, I myself shall retire to private life.18

With Grey reinstated, he voted for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May, and against a Conservative amendment to the Scottish measure, 1 June, when he said that ‘our support has been given, not to reform for the sake of ministers, but to ministers for the sake of reform’. He was in the majority for a detail of the Scottish bill, 15 June. He spoke and voted for Sadler’s proposal for a property tax on Irish absentee landlords, ‘who grind the faces of the poor, and dissipate the income extorted from a famishing tenantry, in foreign luxuries or at English watering-places’, 19 June. He belatedly presented petitions for the supplies to be withheld until the reform bills had become law, 20 June, along with petitions against the government’s Irish education scheme. He supported the principle of Baring’s bill to exclude insolvent debtors from Parliament, 27 June. He presented a Westminster petition for enforcing better observance of the Sabbath, 3 July. He rallied to government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 20 July, but on 30 July he cavilled at the proposed increase in the lord chancellor’s pension, called for an increase in Scottish judicial salaries and placed on record his belief that the Irish viceroyalty, a source of ‘intrigue and discord’, should be abolished. He moved a wrecking amendment against Hume’s bill to exclude the recorder of Dublin from the Commons, 31 July 1832, but the House was counted out.

Notwithstanding the ‘nervous state of health’ which had always handicapped him, Sinclair came in again for Caithness in 1832. Three years later he adhered to Peel’s Conservative party with Sir James Graham* and Edward Smith Stanley*. He had lost control of his county seat by 1841, when he was beaten by two Liberals at Halifax.19 A prominent participant in the Scottish non-intrusion controversy, he eventually joined the Free Church and became a prolific pamphleteer on religious questions.20 The deaths of his first son Dudley (the youngest, Granville, had died in 1833), his mother and his sister Helen within a short period in 1844-5 cast a pall over him; and in 1847 he was taken to task by his friend John Croker* for turning his back on the world:

You need no advice ... as to the true source of consolation; but I think there are minor helps which you seem to neglect too much. You should join your family in Edinburgh, and mix with the morning and evening thoughts of the world to come, the daily duties, avocations, and even amusements of the world in which we live ... Leave ... the hyperborean gloom of your castle near the pole, and ... [go] to Edinburgh, where old and new friends will convince you that, as long as heaven is pleased to leave us in this world, it provides us with the pabulum vitae - something worth living for.

Sinclair was still finding cause to regret ‘the years misspent in faithless courts and fawning senates, neither doing nor deriving any good’, in 1855, when he lamented the prevalent ‘fatal mediocrity’ in every sphere of life.21 An attack of bronchitis in May 1867 drove him to Cannes for the winter, but he returned little improved and died in Edinburgh in October 1868.22

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Scott Jnl. 579-80.
  • 2. R. Mitchison, Agricultural Sir John, 35, 228, 250-1.
  • 3. Ibid. 255; Add. 40363, f. 235; 40382, f. 98.
  • 4. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1226; Add. 40385, f. 112.
  • 5. B. Hilton, Age of Atonement, 92-95; J. Grant, Sir George Sinclair, 150-71, 258-61; NAS GD136/519/14, 17.
  • 6. Grant, 55-56.
  • 7. NLS mss 2, f. 68; 1054, f. 187; NAS GD51/1/198/6/16, 17; Mitchison, 258-9.
  • 8. NAS GD51/1/198/6/17, 20.
  • 9. Add. 40317, ff. 27, 30.
  • 10. Sinclair mss, Smith to G. Sinclair, 3 Jan. 1824; Mitchison, 259-61; Inverness Courier, 12 July 1826. See CAITHNESS.
  • 11. Sinclair mss, Sir J. Sinclair to Radnor, 11 July, reply, 18 July 1826.
  • 12. Add. 52447, f. 119.
  • 13. NAS GD136/519/21; Inverness Courier, 20 Apr., 4, 11, 18 May; The Times, 24 May 1831.
  • 14. Grant, 121.
  • 15. Cockburn Letters, 339-40.
  • 16. Mitchison, 228; Grant, 254-61.
  • 17. Cockburn Letters, 389.
  • 18. Grant, 261-7.
  • 19. Add. 40414, f. 29.
  • 20. Grant, 267-99; Parker, Peel, iii. 73-79, 87-89.
  • 21. Disraeli Letters, iv. 1475; Croker Pprs. iii. 182.
  • 22. Grant, 4572-4; Oxford DNB.