Henry Dundas 1st Viscount Melville

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Dundas, Henry, 1st Viscount Melville (1742–1811). Scottish politician, son of Robert, Lord Arniston, president of the Court of Session. Dundas followed his family tradition by taking up the law, and in 1766 was appointed solicitor-general for Scotland. He was MP for Midlothian 1774–90 and for Edinburgh 1790–1802 when he was created Viscount Melville. A burly figure and a vigorous and forthright speaker with a broad Scots accent, he was appointed to a series of legal and political offices. He became successively lord advocate [S] 1775, joint keeper of the signet [S] 1777, privy counsellor, treasurer of the navy 1782–3 and 1784–1800, home secretary 1791–4, president of the India Board of Control 1793–1801, secretary of state for war 1794–1801, keeper of the privy seal of Scotland 1800, and 1st lord of the Admiralty 1804–5. The list alone testifies to his indispensable value to Pitt, and Dundas became his right-hand man in the wartime administration as well as his friend and drinking companion. His influence extended far beyond his official duties, for after 1774 he acted as government manager of Scottish affairs and in particular of Scottish elections and MPs. A cynical politician who believed in the power of patronage, he knew almost everyone of importance in Scotland and how to appeal to their self-interest. He was nicknamed ‘Henry the ninth of Scotland’. At the height of his influence he secured the return of at least 36 of the 45 Scottish representatives in the Commons and several in the Lords, though it was a moot point whether these men were attached to the administration or to Dundas personally. He kept his grip on Scottish elections even in opposition to the ‘Talents’ ministry and after his retirement his nephew continued to exercise control of the majority of Scottish members until the Reform Act.

Dundas's success owed much to his command of Indian patronage as president of the Board of Control, which enabled him to bestow lucrative appointments on his Scottish clients. It was said that he sent younger sons ‘by loads to the East Indies’ and that there was scarcely a family of note in Scotland that was not under some obligation to him.

Dundas resigned with Pitt in 1801 but offered support to Addington and was given his peerage in 1802. On Pitt's return in 1804 he became 1st lord of the Admiralty but was forced to resign when an inquiry into financial irregularities in the navy pay office implicated him. He was impeached in 1806—the last occasion on which this process was used—and although acquitted was censured for laxity in his financial control. He attended the Lords only occasionally thereafter.

E. A. Smith