Robert Saunders-Dundas, Second Viscount Melville

First Lord of the Admiralty, 1812-27, 1828-30

March 14, 1771 - June 10, 1851

Robert Saunders-Dundas (1771-1851) Second Viscount Melville from 1811. First Lord of the Admiralty, 1812-27, 1828-30. Son of Henry Dundas (1742-1811), Pitt’s Home Secretary, powerful Scottish political ‘fixer’ and friend of Charles Jenkinson. He studied at Göttingen, Edinburgh and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, then was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1788.

Melville, after seven years as private secretary to his father, became Keeper of the Signet for Scotland in 1801 when his father left office under Addington, thereby maintaining the family’s electoral influence, which declined slowly but was to allow Melville to bring 25 or so Scottish votes to the aid of Liverpool’s administration, acting as advisor on Scottish matters to both the Prince Regent and Liverpool. He kept this job despite his father’s 1805 impeachment, then lost it during the Ministry of All the Talents, to be appointed President of the Board of Control and then Chief Secretary for Ireland under Portland.

Perceval wanted to appoint Melville Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, but Melville’s father prevented him from accepting Cabinet office, so he returned to the Board of Control. There he drafted the East India Company’s charter renewal of 1813, under which it gave up its exclusive trading privileges.

In March 1812, after his father’s death, he was shifted to the Admiralty and promoted to the Cabinet, where Liverpool kept him. Wellington recalled him in 1828. He was a moderate in politics, a friend of Canning and mildly favoured Catholic Emancipation – he proposed and successfully passed a bill in 1817 allowing Catholics to accept army commissions without swearing an oath decrying the doctrine of transubstantiation.1 However, he resigned from the government along with the right-wing stalwarts when Canning became Prime Minister and formed a mixed administration in 1827.

Melville was an intelligent and hard-working Cabinet minister; Mrs. Arbuthnot wrote of him: ‘He is an excellent man, honest and honourable, naturally sagacious.’2 He was concerned about a possible revival in the French fleet in 1813-14 and, once peace came, resisted attempts to cut down the navy drastically. He opposed the introduction of steam because of its expense and would thus put Britain on the same level as her rivals. He was also a keen proponent of naval exploration, together with the long-standing Second Secretary Sir John Barrow3 and is commemorated in Melville Sound, Canada and Melville Island in Australia.

[1] In Catholic doctrine (dating from the eleventh century) the bread and wine offered at the Eucharist actually becomes the blood of Christ. Protestants from Martin Luther on, including the Church of England, do not accept this and regard the bread and wine as purely symbolic.

[2] Bamford and Wellington, The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-32, Vol. 2, p. 225.

[3] Sir John Barrow (1764-1848). Second Secretary to the Admiralty, 1805-6, 1807-45 (appointed by the 1st Viscount Melville). Sponsor of numerous expeditions of Arctic discovery. Author of numerous books and Quarterly Review articles. Commemorated in the Barrow Strait.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson