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Abercromby, James, first Baron Dunfermlinelocked

  • T. F. Henderson
  • , revised by H. C. G. Matthew

Abercromby, James, first Baron Dunfermline (1776–1858), speaker of the House of Commons, the third son of General Sir Ralph Abercromby (1734–1801), and his wife, Mary Anne, née Menzies, was born on 7 November 1776. Sir John Abercromby and Alexander Abercromby, both army officers, were his brothers. James Abercromby was educated at Edinburgh high school and Christ Church, Oxford, and was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1800. In 1801 he obtained a commissionership of bankruptcy, and subsequently he became auditor to the estates of the duke of Devonshire. He broke with family tradition in becoming a whig, and was MP for Midhurst, 1807–12, and for Calne, 1812–30.

Without special claims for promotion as a politician, Abercromby owed his success chiefly to his power of clear and judicious statement, and the prudent use he made of opportunities. His career was also influenced to a considerable extent by the prominent part which he took in the discussion of Scottish business. In 1824 and 1826 he brought forward a motion for a bill to amend the representation of the city of Edinburgh; but although on both occasions he received large support, the power of election remained until 1832 in the hands of the self-elected council of thirty-three. Abercromby served as judge-advocate-general in the brief Canning and Goderich governments, 1827–8. In 1830 he became chief baron of the exchequer of Scotland, and when in 1832 the office was abolished, he received a pension of £2000 p.a. He was chosen along with Francis Jeffrey (and with expenses paid) to represent Edinburgh in the first reformed parliament, having been cautious about parliamentary reform. Grey thought him a 'perfect humbug'. As on various questions of privilege he had shown a special knowledge of the forms of the house, his claims for the speakership were considered by his party in 1833, but Edward John Littleton, afterwards Lord Hatherton, was ultimately chosen to oppose Manners Sutton, who was elected. At the end of the Grey government he was in the cabinet (July–December 1834) as master of the mint. At the opening of the new parliament in 1835 the condition of the political atmosphere was in some respects so uncertain, that the choice of a speaker awakened exceptional interest as a touchstone of party strength; and amid much excitement Abercromby—who stood only on the insistence of Melbourne—was chosen over Manners Sutton by 316 votes to 306, a triumph for the whigs and the occasion for the Lichfield House compact. Abercromby's term of office was marked by the introduction of several important reforms in the management of private bills, tending to simplify the arrangements and minimize the opportunities for jobbery. He was the first Scot to be speaker. In spite of failing health he retained office until May 1839, his capacity to control the house declining. On retiring, with a pension of £4000 p.a., he was created Baron Dunfermline of Dunfermline in the county of Fife.

Dunfermline continued to interest himself in public affairs connected with Edinburgh, and was one of the originators of the United Industrial Schools for the support and training of destitute children. He wrote a life of his father, Sir Ralph Abercromby, which was published posthumously in 1861. He married Mary Anne, daughter of Egerton Leigh of Cheshire, in 1802. His son Ralph (1803–1865) was a diplomatist and a Liberal. Dunfermline died at his home, Colinton House, Midlothian, on 17 April 1858, his widow dying there on 2 August 1874, aged ninety-six.


  • J. A. Manning, The lives of the speakers of the House of Commons (1850)
  • J. Anderson, A history of Edinburgh (1856)
  • A. D. Macintyre, The Liberator: Daniel O'Connell and the Irish party, 1830–1847 (1965)
  • GM, 3rd ser., 4 (1858), 547–51
  • P. A. C. Laundy, The office of speaker (1964)
  • M. Brock, The Great Reform Act (1973)


  • NL Scot., corresp. and papers
  • NL Scot., political memorandum book
  • BL, corresp. with John Allen, Add. MS 52182
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Holland, Add. MSS 51574–51575
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40364–40506
  • Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, letters to sixth duke of Devonshire
  • NA Scot., letters to James Loch
  • NA Scot., letters to Lord Panmure
  • NL Scot., letters to Anne, Lady Baird
  • NL Scot., letters to John Burton
  • NL Scot., corresp. with George Combe
  • NL Scot., letters to second Baron Dunfermline
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Edward Ellice
  • NL Scot., corresp. with the Haldane family
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Jeffrey
  • NL Scot., letters to second earl of Minto
  • NL Scot., letters to Andrew Rutherford
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with T. F. Kennedy
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Russell, PRO 30/22
  • UCL, letters to James Brougham


  • stipple, pubd 1838 (after J. Hayter), BM, NPG
  • W. Brodie, marble bust, 1858, Scot. NPG
  • H. Cook, line engraving (after J. Stewart), BM, NPG
  • G. Hayter, group portrait, oils (The House of Commons, 1833), NPG
  • J. Jackson, oils, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
  • T. Lupton, mezzotint (after C. Smith), BM, NPG
  • J. Watson-Gordon, oils, Scot. NPG
  • D. Wilkie, group portrait, oils (The first council of Queen Victoria, 1837), Royal Collection
  • portrait, repro. in Burke, Gen. GB (1838)

Wealth at Death

£20,180 17s. 6d.: confirmation, 8 Oct 1858, NA Scot., SC 70/1/102/34

£6950 4s. 6d.: additional estate in Wiltshire, 8 Oct 1858, NA Scot., SC 70/1/102/98

£5281 2s. 10d.: additional inventory, 13 Oct 1859, NA Scot., SC 70/1/102/895

G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
Gentleman's Magazine