Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burges, James Bland

BURGES, Sir JAMES BLAND (afterwards Lamb) (1752–1824), politician, was born on 8 June 1752. He was the son of Mr. George Burges, whose immediate ancestors were Berkshire gentry. George Burges entered the army, and distinguished himself at Culloden by capturing the standard of Prince Charles's body-guard, borne by the Duke of Athole. He contracted a romantic marriage with Lord Somerville's daughter. After services in Scotland and at Gibraltar, for which he received the thanks of the prime minister, the Duke of Newcastle, he became a commissioner of the Scottish excise, 1761–8, and afterwards comptroller-general of the Scottish customs from 1768 till his death, 16 March 1786, in London.

Burges was educated at Westminster School and University College, Oxford. On leaving Oxford in 1773 he went to Europe, visiting the Low Countries, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy. At Rome he had a private audience of Pope Clement XIV. Returning to England, Burges studied law. On 19 June 1777 he married the Hon. Elizabeth Noel, daughter of Lord Wentworth. He was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn the same year, and was now appointed a commissioner in bankruptcy. Mrs. Burges dying in childbirth two years after her marriage, in 1780 Burges married Anne, daughter of Colonel Montolieu, baron de Saint Hypolite, by whom he had ten children. He made the acquaintance of Pitt, and at a dinner at Burges's a passage of arms occurred between Pitt and Gibbon, which led to the indignant retirement of the historian. In 1782 Burges was offered the appointment of minister to the court of Warsaw, which he declined. The scheme of the sinking fund, usually associated with the name of Pitt, was actually originated by John Lamb, the friend of Burges, and the latter unfolded the project to the statesman. Pitt warmly expressed the obligation he was under for the financial details furnished him on Lamb's behalf. When the existence of Pitt's ministry was threatened in consequence of the opposition to the mutiny bill, Burges virtually saved it by the discovery that the mutiny bill was not necessarily a money bill, and that many instances had occurred of mutiny bills being first introduced in the House of Lords.

In 1787 Burges was returned to parliament for the borough of Helston in Cornwall. He took a conspicuous part in favour of Warren Hastings during the early days of the impeachment, and while his attitude gained him the lasting friendship of Hastings it lost him for a time the favour of Pitt. At the close of Sheridan's speech Burges was put forward by Pitt to answer him, but the house was impatient. The following day Pitt himself greatly astonished the house and his friends by attacking Hastings. Burges insisted on dividing the house, however, but was defeated by 175 to 68 votes. Burges intervened to prevent a duel between Burke and General Caillaud, whom the former had accused of the deliberate murder of an Indian prince. In May 1788 Burges gave notice of a motion for an account of the money expended on the trial of Warren Hastings, and he was cordially supported by Pitt. Sheridan and Burke were extremely indignant with Burges, but his motion was carried by a majority of sixty to seventeen. Subsequently, when Sheridan made his great speech on the Oude Begums, Burges was unwise enough to obtrude upon the house once more matters of finance, a step for which he was severely and sarcastically rebuked by Burke.

Burges steadily supported Wilberforce in his anti-slavery agitation, and rendered valuable assistance in mitigating the horrors of the Middle Passage. He also prepared a bill for the improvement of the condition of prisoners for debt; but although he twice carried it past the second reading it was on both occasions lost through the opposition of the legal profession. At the time of Pitt's pecuniary embarrassment Burges contributed 1,000l. towards the payment of his debts. In 1789 the Duke of Leeds offered him the post of under-secretary of state in the foreign department, which Burges accepted. In his new office he initiated many useful reforms, and in conjunction with Thurlow succeeded in disposing of delicate questions with Naples and Honduras. On the resignation of the Duke of Leeds, Burges offered to retire with his chief, but Pitt persuaded him to remain. In consequence of a double return for the borough of Helston at the general election of 1790 a parliamentary committee was appointed to inquire into the circumstances, and Burges lost his seat; but he still remained at the foreign office. It appears from the Burges papers that the dagger which Burke used in the House of Commons on a memorable occasion was one supplied to him by Burges. War was at this time believed to be imminent, and Pitt requested Burges to write a pamphlet to prepare the public mind. Pitt emphatically told the French envoy that England would support Holland if attacked by France. As the result of a discovery accidentally made by Burges this was fully expected; but the danger ultimately blew over. When the doctrines of the author of 'The Rights of Man' began to be propagated among certain classes in England, Burges wrote to his friend, Colonel Simcoe, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, that 'the very first opportunity will be laid hold of to make an example of these libellers and treasonable propagators of French principles.'

Burges was one of the three commissioners when the privy seal was temporarily placed in commission during Earl Spencer's absence. In August 1794 he was offered his choice of going as minister to Copenhagen or to Switzerland, the object being to appoint a new under-secretary in his room. In a letter to Lord Grenville, Burges declined both appointments. Burges was thrown into frequent contact with the royal family. His epigrams and poems especially attracted the attention of the Princess Elizabeth, and she prepared a series of drawings with her own hand to illustrate his poetical effusion, 'The Birth and Triumph of Love.'

During the serious riots of 1795 in London, Pitt, Nepean, and Burges were the only public officials who daily appeared at the government offices. Burges received at this time marks of approval of his official acts from abroad, among them being the gift of a fine diamond snuff box, of the value of 400l., from the Empress Catherine II, presented to him on the ground that he had always been a good friend of Russia. In 1795 Burges retired from the foreign office to make room for a personal friend of Lord Grenville. He received a baronetcy, and had also conferred upon him the sinecure title and post of knight marshal of the royal household, with remainder to his son.

Burges now devoted himself to literary pursuits. He formed the acquaintance of Cumberland, the dramatist, who took a great interest in a portentous achievement of Burges, entitled 'Richard thi» First.' This voluminous poem consists of eighteen books, written in the Spenserian metre (2 vols. 1801). Burges was also a playwright, and two of his pieces were produced on the stage. The one entitled 'Riches' was an adaptation of Massinger's 'City Madam.' The other was 'Tricks upon Travellers.' The author wrote six other plays, the best a comedy named 'The Crusaders,' being a representation of German life in a somewhat distant age. Burges was also the author of a treatise on 'The Law of Insolvency,' a romantic poem in twelve cantos entitled 'The Dragon Knight' (1818), and a work purporting to contain 'Reasons in favour of a New Translation of the Holy Scriptures' (1819). He also wrote a number of tales and satirical poems, as well as a series of letters under the signature of 'Alfred.' He wrote, in conjunction with Cumberland, a sacred poem entitled 'The Exodiad' (1807-8). Burges and another undersecretary of state of congenial tastes and opinions were the founders of the 'Sun' newspaper, begun with the sanction of Pitt.

In 1810 Burges lost his wife, in the following year his friend Cumberland died, and in 1812 his son, Wentworth Noel, was killed at Burgos. In 1812 Burges married for a third time, his wife being Lady Margaret Fordyce, daughter of the Earl of Balcarres, and widow of General Alexander Fordyce. Burges had formed an attachment in his youth for his third wife, then Lady Margaret Lindsay; but the young lover was sent abroad, and out of this attachment sprang the universally admired ballad of 'Auld Robin Gray,' Burges being the young Jamie of this poem, which was written by Ladv Margaret's sister, the Lady Anne Barnard [q. v.] Lady Burges died in 1814.

In 1821 Burges came into possession of the estate of his friend John Lamb, and assumed by royal license the name of Sir James Lamb. He died on 11 Oct. 1824. In character he is represented as belonging to the type of the old English gentleman.

[Selections from the Letters and Correspondence of Sir James Bland Burges, Bart., with Notices of his Life, ed. Hutton. 1885; The Birth and Triumph of Love. 1796: Richard the First, 1800; Sir J. B. Burges's Dramas. 2 vols. 1817; Sir J. B. Burges's Dragon Knight, 1818; Annual Register, 1824.]

G. B. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.42
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
305 i 24 Burges, Sir James B.: for commissioner of excise, and died read a commissioner of the Scottish excise 1761-8, and afterwards comptroller-general of the Scottish customs from 1768 till his death on 16 March 1786
306 ii 21 for General Alexander Fordyce read Alexander Fordyce [q. v.]