IRVING, John (1766-1845), of Ashford, Mdx.

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



1806 - 1832
1837 - 10 Nov. 1845

Family and Education

bap. 5 Oct. 1766,1 1st s. of John Irving of Cushathill and Burnfoot in Middlebie, Dumfries and his w. née Rae. educ. Middlebie parish sch. unm. d. 10 Nov. 1845.

Offices Held

Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1796-1814.

Dir. W.I. Dock Co. 1811-34; pres. Alliance Life and Fire Assurance Co. 1824-d.


Irving, a wealthy London merchant and financier of Scottish extraction, was a partner in Reid, Irving and Company, a concern of second-ranking importance whose dealings, originally concentrated in the West Indies, were increasingly extended worldwide; his partner Sir John Rae Reid* was a director of the Bank of England. He also collaborated with the better known merchant houses of Gurney, Montefiore, Baring and Rothschild, notably in the foundation of the Alliance Assurance company, and with the last two houses he was involved in negotiations over the Austrian loan at the Congress of Verona in 1823, ‘a transaction requiring remarkable ability, and bringing him into contact with nearly all the great statesmen of that assembly’.2

He continued to sit undisturbed for Bramber throughout this period, on the interest of his friend the 5th duke of Rutland. A radical publication in 1820 classed him among ‘the most determined adherents’ of Lord Liverpool’s ministry.3 He was a regular attender who spoke more frequently than in previous Parliaments, mainly on subjects connected to his business interests. He was one of a handful of businessmen named to the select committees on agricultural distress in 1820, 1821 and 1822, and he was a fixture on those inquiring into foreign trade between 1820 and 1824. He delivered the select committee report on General Desfourneaux’s compensation claim for losses incurred during the British occupation of Guadaloupe in 1794, 14 July 1820, and replied to objections to the proposed grant, 13, 15, 28 June 1821, although he could not prevent its substantial reduction.4 He voted in defence of ministers’ conduct towards Queen Caroline, 6 Feb. As a director of the West India Dock Company he replied to a petition against renewal of its charter, 27 Feb. Next day he voted against Catholic relief. He divided against Maberly’s motion on the state of the revenue, 6 Mar., repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr., reduction of the barracks grant, 28 May, omission of arrears from the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June, and Hume’s economy and retrenchment motion, 27 June. He expressed surprise at reports of the Bank of Ireland refusing gold currency as payment, 28 Mar. He approved the Bank of England’s plan to augment the circulating metal currency, 9 Apr., explaining that while he had opposed the resumption of cash payments in 1819 he feared an inquiry would merely cause public alarm; inexplicably, his name appears in the minority list in favour of a select committee. He was a minority teller against the grant to pay exchequer bills, 26 June. He voted against the disfranchisement of ordnance officials, 12 Apr., and Russell’s reform resolutions, 9 May 1821. He divided against more extensive tax reductions, 11, 21 Feb., and abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar. 1822. He voted against removing Catholic peers’ disabilities, 30 Apr. He was the originator of the agriculture select committee’s proposal for the government to subsidize farmers to warehouse surplus corn,5 a plan that met with ridicule when it came before the Commons, 6 May. He diffidently confessed his authorship when pressed by the leader of the House, Lord Londonderry, who then withdrew the resolution ‘seeing that [it] was not supported by those who brought it forward’. Two days later an offended Irving gave only grudging support to Londonderry’s plan to revise the corn duties, comparing it unfavourably with his original scheme, which he complained had been tampered with by the committee. He voted in the minority for Canning’s clause to permit the export of bonded corn, 10 June. He supported a compensation claim from a merchant whose ship had been destroyed by the Spanish, 26 July 1822.6

Irving divided against repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr., inquiries into delays in chancery, 5 June, and the currency, 12 June, and for repeal of the usury laws, 27 June 1823. He welcomed an attempt to reform the Irish banking system, 12 Mar. 1824. He voted against the motion condemning the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June. He divided for the Irish insurrection bill, 14 June 1824, the Irish unlawful societies bill, 25 Feb., and against Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. He voted for the duke of Cumberland’s annuity, 6, 10 June 1825. Like many other business Members he divided against the government’s proposed alterations in the banking system following the recent crash, 13 Feb., but he was satisfied with their bill to restrict the circulation of small notes once a clause had been inserted to extend the life of those issued by the Bank, 20 Feb. 1826. He defended the Bank for its sale and purchase of exchequer bills, its lending policy and its close links with government, 15, 27 Feb. He also publicized its concern to produce a note less amenable to forgers, 21 Mar. He assured the House that ‘a just reciprocity of advantages’ had been secured in the South American treaties bill, 23 Feb., but was scathing about reciprocal trading arrangements in general when supporting a petition for a duty on foreign shipping, 17 Apr. He voted to receive the report on the salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr. He divided against the motion condemning the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar., reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 13 Apr., and Russell’s resolutions against electoral bribery, 26 May. While defending the corn laws, 8 May 1826, he was prepared to admit some relaxation in their terms.

He divided against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827, 12 May, and repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. 1828. He voted for the duke of Clarence’s annuity, 16 Mar. He supported a fixed duty on foreign flour, 19 Mar., and defended the existing corn laws against Hume’s attack, 27 Mar., arguing that the latter’s free trade principles were ‘good in the abstract but ... unfortunately impractical’ as they would ‘subject the most important interest in the country to a course of slow but constant depression and decay’. He gave his ‘hearty concurrence’ to the Canning ministry’s customs bill, 1 June, and voted with them against the Penryn disfranchisement bill, 28 May, 7 June 1827. That August he privately assured John Charles Herries*, the newly appointed chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Goderich’s ministry, that he enjoyed broad support in the City.7 In opposing a higher scale of corn duties, 29 Apr. 1828, his concern to protect the agricultural interest brought him into dispute with Lord Milton over manufacturing labour costs. Despite his general protectionist sympathies, he believed the free importation of wool was necessary to manufacturing industry, 3 June (a view which he repeated, 3 June 1829, 1 Mar. 1830). He favoured repeal of the usury laws, 19 June, but wished to retain restrictions on advances secured upon landed property, invoking the image of the feckless aristocrat ‘ignorant of the principles of business’ and needing protection. He paired with the duke of Wellington’s ministry against the motion criticizing the expenditure on building work at Buckingham House, 23 June 1828. In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, listed him as one who was ‘doubtful’ on the question of Catholic emancipation, but in the event he voted for it, 6 Mar. He spoke in favour of a grant to the West India docks, 14 Apr., and defended the dock company’s purchase of the City canal, 16 Apr. He defended Sir Robert Townshend Farquhar*, the former governor of Mauritius, from allegations that he had been slow to suppress the slave trade there, 3 June 1829, and launched an attack on the Anti-Slavery Reporter, which responded that as a West India merchant Irving was ‘in some measure entitled to be galled by our writings’.8 He was named to the select committee on the East India Company, 9 Feb. 1830. He divided against transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., Lord Blandford’s reform plan, 18 Feb., and the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. On 16 Mar. he caused some annoyance by reading letters from manufacturing districts to contradict opposition claims about the extent of distress, and declared his support for the gold standard. He voted against a reduction in judges’ salaries, 7 July 1830.

The ministry regarded Irving as one of their ‘friends’, and he voted with them in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830. He was named to the renewed select committees on the East India Company, 4 Feb., 28 June, 28 Dec. 1831. He praised Alderman Waithman’s exertions in the field of trade, ‘however much I may differ from him’, 15 Feb., but did not share his concern over the export of unfinished articles such as cotton twist. He spoke in favour of permitting the use of sugar and molasses in distilleries as a means of affording relief to the West India interest, 11 Mar. He raised the spectre of Buonaparte when supporting a grant to the recruiting service, 14 Mar., and denounced Hume’s opposition as ‘sordid economy’. He divided against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar., and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. He never explained his anti-reform stance to the House, but according to the family historian his antipathy to constitutional innovation had been imbibed on an earlier visit to the United States.9 He divided against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and its passage, 21 Sept. 1831. He reiterated his support for the corn laws, 24 June. That day he introduced a bill for the construction of the West India docks, which gained royal assent, 23 Aug. (1 and 2 Gul. IV, c. 52). He supported a reduction in the coffee duty, 25 July. He spoke against a bill to place restrictions on steam vessels, 29 Aug. He objected ‘almost without exception’ to the proposals made by the select committee on the reduction of official salaries (of which he was a member), 29 Sept., and ventured the opinion that many salaries were in fact too low. He opposed a government proposal to allow foreign sugar to be refined in Britain, 11 Oct. He divided against the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He was named to the select committee on the renewal of the Bank of England’s charter, 23 May, and spoke in the Bank’s defence, 26, 27 July. He objected to the orders in council aimed at ending slavery in the West Indies, 4 June, 27 July, 8 Aug., mainly on the ground that they were unenforceable. In a letter the previous autumn to the colonial secretary Goderich he had gone further, refusing to condemn slavery and preferring to focus upon the continued trading in slaves in areas outside British jurisdiction, against which he advocated military action. He maintained that freed slaves ‘almost invariably sink into a life of vagabondage’, and he defended the use of whips in the colonies as necessary among ‘a population so prone to indolence and idleness’. The Anti-Slavery Reporter congratulated Goderich on his principled rejection of the ‘miserable sophistry’ of these arguments, but Irving continued to lobby him about the abolition of slavery in Mauritius, for whose proprietors he acted as an agent.10 He voted against ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 12 July, and obtained no answer to a query about the ministerial response in the event of the Greek government defaulting on loan interest payments, 23 July. With Bramber disfranchised, he offered for Clitheroe, but his visit to that borough provoked a riot. He told the Commons, 10 Aug. 1832, that he regretted the consequent use of military force, and he ascribed his hostile reception to his support for the anatomy bill, ‘the terms boroughmonger and Tory being much too general to excite the hatred displayed on that occasion’. At the general election later that year he was defeated by a Liberal.

Irving stood unsuccessfully for Poole in 1835 but was returned as a Conservative for County Antrim in 1837. Later business ventures, like his bank in Mauritius and the Royal Steam Packet Company, reflected the change in circumstances after the abolition of slavery, to which he seemed entirely reconciled. He was also involved in the project to build a railway across the isthmus of Panama. He died, ‘aged 78’, in November 1845 and left the bulk of his estates in London, Middlesex and Scotland to his nephew and namesake. His inability to bequeath his business acumen to his partners may perhaps account for the collapse of Reid, Irving and Company two years after his death.11

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Howard Spencer


  • 1. IGI (Dumfries).
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1846), i. 93-95; R.W. Hidy, House of Baring in American Trade, 79; H. Cockerell and E. Green, British Insurance Business, 61.
  • 3. Black Bk. (1820), 425, 434.
  • 4. The Times, 15 July 1820, 14, 16, 29 June 1821.
  • 5. B. Hilton, Corn, Cash, Commerce, 154-5.
  • 6. The Times, 27 July 1822.
  • 7. E. Herries, Mems. Herries, i. 227.
  • 8. Anti-Slavery Reporter (June 1829), 11.
  • 9. J.B. Irving, The Irvings, 216-19.
  • 10. PP (1831-2), xlvi. 173; Anti-Slavery Reporter (Jan. 1832), 53; Add. 40879, ff. 206-14.
  • 11. Irving, 216-19; PROB 11/2028/916.