EVELYN, John II (1682-1763), of Wotton, Surr., and St. James’s, Westminster

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

15 Dec. 1708 - 1710

Family and Education

b. 2 Mar. 1682, 2nd but o. surv. s. of John Evelyn of Deptford, Kent by Martha, da. and coh. of Richard Spencer of London.  educ. French sch. (Greenwich) 1689, Kings St. (Mr Arbuthnot) 1691, Eton 1692–8, Balliol, Oxf. matric. 1699.  m. 18 Sept. 1705, Anne (d. 1752), da. of Edward Boscawen† of Worthevale, Cornwall and sis. of Hugh Boscawen II*, 6s. (3 d.v.p.) 3 da. (1 d.v.p.).  suc. gdfa. 27 Feb. 1706; cr. Bt. 6 Aug. 1713.1

Offices Held

Receiver of stamp duties 1703–Aug. 1708; commr. prizes 1705–Aug. 1708; jt. postmaster gen. Aug. 1708–15; commr. customs 1721–?1763.2

FRS 1722.

Biography

Eagerly monitored for signs of genius, Evelyn’s early progress became a near obsession for his grandfather and namesake, the celebrated diarist. When Evelyn’s father was appointed as a commissioner of the Irish revenue in Dublin, ‘little Jack’ was sent to Eton in the hope that ‘he may be a man useful and ornamental to his country’. However, after the death of his father in 1699, Evelyn became the heir apparent to the Wotton estate, ‘one of the best compacted in Surrey’, and from that time onwards his social advancement became the diarist’s absolute priority. Able to count among his playfellows the offspring of such notable families as the Boscawens and Godolphins, Evelyn had considerable prospects, a view endorsed by Samuel Pepys, who commended the diarist in December 1701 on the abilities of ‘your excellent grandson’. Despite such obvious talents, the sheer momentum of Evelyn’s early career in public office was only sustained by the patronage of Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†), a close family friend whom the diarist had bombarded with notices of Evelyn’s precocity. Although it took several years of patient negotiation before arrangements were finalized for Evelyn’s betrothal to the Treasurer’s niece, the wedding, in September 1705, effectively secured the future of the Wotton estate.3

From the moment he entered public life, Evelyn appeared content to pursue a career as a government official, betraying an aversion to party politics which closely mirrored the outlook of his mentor. The diarist had taken great care to set down guidelines for his grandson’s future conduct in office, and Evelyn’s subsequent electoral career largely accorded with his advice ‘to be diligent, impartial, studying how to serve the country who chose you and to which you are in conscience to be accountable’. Most significantly, the diarist admonished him to seek electoral success ‘without affectation and vainglory . . . or the being carried away by a faction or to serve a party’. Evelyn adhered to this tenet at the Surrey election of 1705, when, in protest against the corrupt methods employed by the Whig financier Sir William Scawen*, he led his family’s tenants to poll for the Tory Edward Harvey*. He was fortunate that this action did not sour his relationship with his patron Godolphin, and in the course of his subsequent career Evelyn clearly learnt to pay greater heed to the wishes of his political masters. However, he found that he could not completely distance himself from politics, and even so notorious a figure as Scawen had claims on Evelyn’s favour, for Evelyn had been welcomed at Scawen’s Haversham estate while attending Eton. Evelyn’s friendship with the Finches of Albury rendered him equally susceptible to Tory overtures, but it was Scawen who managed to secure the Wotton interest at the Surrey election of 1708. In the run-up to that contest, Scawen gave some indication of the extensive local influence which the lords of the manor of Wotton enjoyed when informing Evelyn that the town of Dorking ‘would very willingly wait on you to the election’.4

It was only through a by-election at Helston, the pocket borough dominated by his patron Godolphin, that Evelyn actually gained entrance to Parliament. Having recently been advanced to the lucrative position of postmaster-general, ‘one of the most desirable offices there is, both for credit and advantage’, Evelyn no doubt took up the seat at the request of the Lord Treasurer. The parliamentary presence of his namesake George Evelyn II* adds confusion to the task of delineating his activity at Westminster, but it is clear that he remained on the back benches. Just as inevitably, he supported the Whigs in early 1709 over the naturalization of the poor Palatines, and then voted in favour of Sacheverell’s impeachment a year later. However, he remained characteristically cautious when discussing the great issue of the war on 25 Feb. 1710, remarking to his brother-in-law Boscawen, ‘there is very good reason at all times to suspect the intentions of the French, but as long as the negotiations for peace retard not the preparations for an early campaign, we are safe enough’.5

At the time of the subsequent general election he appeared more perturbed by the possible loss of his postmastership than of his seat, one of his correspondents finding him ‘so indifferent whether you sit in the House or not’. Fortunately for Evelyn, he did manage to retain his office under the new ministry, but there is no evidence to suggest that he mounted any campaign to secure Helston. However, he could not ignore the bitter contest fought between the electoral combatants in Surrey throughout the summer of 1710. In the race to obtain the Wotton interest, Scawen again proved successful, although Evelyn actually confessed to another candidate, his Tory friend Hon. Heneage Finch II*, that it was ‘so much my inclination’ to back him. Support for Scawen was undoubtedly politically dangerous, and early in 1711 came reports that the Tory Francis Gwyn* was to become postmaster-general. Evelyn survived, and at the next general election was much more openly committed to the Surrey Tories, for he attended one of their election meetings as early as January 1713, some eight months in advance of the actual poll. This switch of allegiance may have been heavily influenced by renewed speculation concerning his postmastership, the cares of office having been no doubt increased by the loss of a ‘never-enough-to-be-lamented friend and benefactor’ with the death of Lord Godolphin in September 1712. On the day of the poll itself Evelyn rode to Guildford at the head of some 100 freeholders, but was unable to prevent the return of the Whig grandee Sir Richard Onslow, 3rd Bt.*6

Even though Evelyn chose to remain in exile from the parliamentary arena, he continued to gain public recognition, capping his high-flying career with a baronetcy in July 1713. Typically, he recorded in his diary that the honour only came to his attention when reading a newspaper and that it was granted ‘against my desire’. As postmaster, he was later ideally placed to record the events at court during the final days of Queen Anne, although he was also indebted to his family friend, Lord Chancellor Harcourt (Simon I*), for supplying information concerning her deteriorating condition. In consideration of his connexions with the Oxford (Robert Harley*) administration, Evelyn could expect little favour under the new dynasty, and within a few months had been dismissed from the Post Office. In December 1717 he sought to resurrect his parliamentary career at a Surrey by-election, but failed to overcome the Onslow interest. Not until 1721 did he regain ministerial favour under Walpole, but then managed to retain his new office at the Customs Board until ‘a short time before his death’ in 1763, a longevity based on his professionalism as well as his accommodating attitude towards successive administrations.7

Away from office, Evelyn’s energies were principally directed towards scholarly interests and the improvement of the Wotton estate. It was thus entirely appropriate that his most notable personal achievement was the construction of a private library at Wotton to house the collections built up by three generations of Evelyn bibliophiles. Lord Egmont (John Perceval†), with whom Evelyn was on familiar terms, thought him ‘a sober and religious man and of modest behaviour’, adding that he found him ‘a good scholar’. Two of his sons, John† and William†, emulated their father by representing Helston in Parliament, the latter of whom raised a monument to his deceased parents, extolling their virtues as ‘worthy the imitation of posterity’.8

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Perry Gauci

Notes

  • 1. BL, Evelyn mss 279, travel diary; PCC 377 Caesar; H. Evelyn, Hist. Evelyn Fam. 156–9; Evelyn Diary, iv. 189.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. xviii. 95, xx. 314.
  • 3. Evelyn mss 667, 685, 1690; Private Corresp. of Samuel Pepys ed. Tanner, ii. 242; W. G. Hiscock, John Evelyn and His Circle, 227–36.
  • 4. J. Evelyn, Memoirs for my Grandson ed. G. Keynes, pp. 32–33; Evelyn Diary, v. 595; Evelyn mss 326–7, 667; Evelyn mss, Scawen to Evelyn, 17 Apr. 1708.
  • 5. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 372; Evelyn mss, Anne Evelyn to Mrs. Evelyn, 13 Sept. 1708, Evelyn to Boscawen, 25 Feb. 1710.
  • 6. Evelyn mss, Samuel Thomson to Evelyn, 10, 24 Oct. 1710, Evelyn to Finch, 26 July 1710; diary of John Evelyn II, 29