ELIOT, Edward (1727-1804), of Port Eliot, Cornw.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



12 Dec. 1748 - 1768
1768 - 1774
1774 - Nov. 1775
15 Nov. 1775 - 13 Jan. 1784

Family and Education

b. 8 July 1727, 1st s. of Richard Eliot, M.P., by Harriet, illegit. da. of James Craggs jun., M.P.; she m. (2) Nov. 1749, Capt. John Hamilton, R.N. (their s. was J. J. Hamilton). educ. Liskeard sch.; St. Mary Hall, Oxf. 1742; Grand Tour (with Philip Stanhope) 1746-8. m. 25 Sept. 1756, Catherine. da. and h. of Edward Elliston of Gestingthorpe, Essex by Catherine, sis of Edward Gibbon sen. of Buriton, Hants, 4s. suc. fa. 19 Nov. 1748;  cr. Baron Eliot 13 Jan. 1784.

Offices Held

Receiver gen. of duchy of Cornwall 13 May 1749- d.; ld. of Trade Dec. 1759-Mar. 1776.


Eliot succeeded his father in 1748 as M.P. for St. Germans and receiver general of the duchy of Cornwall. After the death of the Prince of Wales in 1751, Eliot joined the Pelhams, with Robert Nugent, his uncle by marriage, for political mentor. At the general election of 1754 Eliot chose his candidates in understanding with Administration1 but from among his own friends: Edmund Nugent, Philip Stanhope, and Anthony Champion.

On 20 Oct. 1755 Newcastle asked Eliot, then in France, to attend the opening of the session if his health permitted, and anyhow to send across Champion. Eliot replied, 7 Nov., that, having received Newcastle’s letter at Lyons, he set out for home, but this ‘has brought back a return of my spitting of blood’, and he therefore let Champion proceed to London alone.2

On 5 Oct. 1756 Eliot applied to Newcastle for a place at the Board of Trade,3

which is the lowest Board; where I hope to get such information as may enable some of us young people who act together to put in execution the resolution we have formed, of endeavouring to speak in the House of Commons upon points of business ... I believe I can be of as much use towards carrying on his Majesty’s business both as to interest and elections in the country, and as to the House of Commons in town, as any body whatsoever to whom your Grace can give the Board of Trade.

He pressed for an explicit answer, ‘for it is high time that I should be in some certain track of life, my age will not admit of delays as to my outset’. Newcastle had only a slight acquaintance with Eliot, but knew that he did ‘make as many Members of Parliament as any of them’. ‘He is a pretty young man’, he wrote to Hardwicke on 10 Oct., ‘I saw him at Hanover. He looks high; but he seems a peremptory gentleman. Lord Chesterfield has a great opinion of him.’4 To Eliot Newcastle replied with promises, often to be repeated.5 In June 1757 Eliot reminded the Duke of his ‘former kind intentions’ and of the lost opportunities of obliging him. And on 15 May 1759:6

I desire to stake my whole credit (for the present and to come) with your Grace on this point, and I shall make it my final criterion whereby to judge your Grace’s intentions towards me.

A week later, in a bitter, threatening letter:7

I am in a worse situation (with respect to office) a great deal now than I was ten years ago. I have lost some of the best years of my life—which is irrecoverable, and it does not appear unlikely but that I am condemned to lose more.

And on 28 Oct. 1759:8

Three or four years ago, indeed, my Lord Duke, you might have given me a seat at the Board of Trade with an extreme good grace, and I should have accepted it with joy. At present I have waited so long, and have seen so many people ... preferred before me, that I should be insincere if I said that either my ambition or my vanity could be flattered with my being the last at the lowest Board.

Appointed in December 1759, he looked back at three wasted years, ‘a loss, in point of business, which I shall never retrieve’.9 He can hardly be said to have tried: his attendance at Board meetings from 1760-73 was poor, and nil 1773-6; and what was to have been his ‘outset’ was the only place of business he ever held.

Thus by 1760 relations between Eliot and Newcastle were strained: Eliot resented any suggestion of being directed by him; and Newcastle wrote of the ‘many instances’ he had had ‘of that gentleman’s extraordinary way of thinking’.10 Eliot would still approach Newcastle on matters arising in the Treasury,11 and offer him his parliamentary interest in Sussex, but was turning to Bute, and tried ‘to recommend himself, his offices, and his Cornwall affairs’ to Bute’s protection.12

In 1761 Eliot had six seats to fill, Grampound having attached itself to him in 1758. There was, however, a difference in the way he filled up his boroughs. Counting the four seats at St. Germans and Liskeard, 1754-90, as 144 year-seat units, members of the Eliot family held 54, close friends another 54, and strangers only 36; i.e. on an average one seat only in four was filled by a stranger; while at Grampound Eliot invariably returned strangers.

Eliot’s charge for a seat rose from the £2,000 he demanded from Fanshawe at Grampound in 176113 to the flat rate of £3,000 in 1780: which followed the general price level. But Gibbon in 1774 was returned on exceptionally easy terms, and so probably was Langlois. Looking back at nearly half a century of borough patronage, Eliot wrote to Pitt on 7 Oct. 1797:14

In election transactions I have never received what in the one town or the other I had not previously laid out. Such receipts were matters of necessity—I have never submitted to them without a feeling of reluctance. Often I have received nothing, and not infrequently have thereby suffered very considerable personal inconvenience.

In 1761 the Members returned by Eliot for the family boroughs were he himself, Champion, and Stanhope, and Philip Stephens recommended to him on a vacancy in 1759 by Anson:15 at Grampound he re-elected the two Administration candidates returned in 1754. When in October 1761 Newcastle sent out his parliamentary whip, the attendance of only Champion and Stanhope was to be secured by Eliot.16

In Bute’s parliamentary list of December 1761 ‘Nugent and Government’ is put against Eliot. Early in December 1762 Fox did not include him among the Members favourable to the peace preliminaries; and Eliot was absent from the two divisions of 9 and 10 Dec., while Champion voted against them. On 11 Dec. Fox, when sending Bute the lists of the minority, remarked:17

You’ll observe Mr. Champion in both lists. Nugent says he is not the proper person to write to Eliot, who stays in the country, but he thinks without any ill will, notwithstanding this symptom of Champion’s vote.

Although an office-holder, and generally well-inclined to the Grenville Government—he was marked ‘pro’ by Jenkinson in the autumn of 1763—Eliot was as irregular in his attendance in Parliament as he was independent in his voting when present. He was absent from the important division of 15 Nov. 1763; voted with the Government on general warrants, 6 Feb.; but against them over the Cider Act, 10 Feb.18 and with the Opposition over general warrants, 15 and 18 Feb.

Nugent, who hung back for a fortnight after Grenville’s dismissal, when informing him on 24 July 1765 of having resigned, added that he had engaged himself in honour to Eliot to do so; and on 8 Aug.: ‘I explained to Lord Temple what I meant by my engagement to Eliot’19—puzzling statements, especially as Eliot himself did not resign. In a paper of June 1765 on a plan of the new Government, Rockingham wrote:20

Edward Eliot—should not be removed—brings in two or three Members—has been very well inclined—and has taken opportunities of showing it—and is a man of abilities and character.

In 1766 and 1767 both Rockingham and Newcastle placed him among the supporters of the Chatham Administration, and even over the land tax he voted with the Government.

The general election of 1768, though coming at the end of full seven years, found Eliot unprepared—it was his nature to hesitate and worry and tie himself into knots. For Grampound he again returned Government candidates: Grey Cooper, secretary to the Treasury, and C. W. Cornwall, a friend of Shelburne’s. For both his family boroughs he returned himself and his friend Samuel Salt, obviously in order to gain a further eight months in which to decide on his choice of the other two Members. Benjamin Langlois, a close friend, was one applicant; and Rockingham, Portland, and some of their supporters, thought that Eliot’s nomination might be obtained for Opposition candidates. On 30 July 1768 Portland wrote to Burke that, not knowing what Eliot’s engagements were to Langlois, he had not written to Eliot yet, but was very willing to do so on behalf of Burke’s brother Richard, and thus procure ‘for the cause ... an additional support in Parliament from your family’. And on 16 Aug. Rockingham wrote to Burke: ‘I have not yet wrote again to Mr. Eliot which I must do. I don’t expect success.’ Eliot replied to Portland on 18 Nov., apologizing for the long delay:21

I sincerely wish I could have thought myself at liberty to obey your Grace’s and Lord Rockingham’s commands. I was not in the least aware that either the one or the other would have imagined me to be wholly unengaged so late, or would have had a friend unprovided with a seat, whom you each have it so much at heart to bring into Parliament.
Although I have been what is called successful, yet many circumstances have fallen out so unfortunately with regard to me at this general election, that I have felt much more uneasiness and concern from it than pleasure or satisfaction. The not being able to comply with your Grace’s and Lord Rockingham’s applications add much to that uneasiness and concern. At the same time that I can truly assure your Grace and his Lordship that I look upon myself as very much and very particularly honoured by having had those applications.

He went on to explain his reasons for returning Langlois, and said nothing about the other seat, for which he had returned George Jennings, a Government supporter.

Here is the net result of the 1768 election in Eliot’s boroughs: of the Members for Grampound, after Chatham and Shelburne had resigned, C. W. Cornwall went into opposition—so that his vote and Cooper’s cancelled out each other; of the Members for Eliot’s family boroughs, Salt from the very outset regularly voted with the Opposition, obviously left free by Eliot to take his own line; Jennings, with similar regularity, voted on the Government side; Langlois did not return from Vienna till 1771, and then, in need of a place, voted with the Government; while Eliot himself is not known ever to have spoken or voted in that Parliament—he seems to have grown indifferent to politics, and to have spent most of his time in the country.

Gibbon, who even while enjoying Eliot’s hospitality and friendship spoke of him in a carping manner, wrote to his step-mother from Port Eliot on 10 Sept. 1773:

Our civil landlord possesses neither a pack of hounds, nor a stable of running horses, nor a large farm, nor a good library. The last only would interest me; but it is singular that a man of fortune, who chooses to pass nine months of the year in the country, should have none of them.

The library may not have satisfied Gibbon’s requirements, but the impression this passage gives is hardly fair to Eliot, a member of the Literary Club and one of the ‘most familiar and valued friends’ of Sir Joshua Reynolds.22 Elsewhere Gibbon speaks of Eliot’s ‘indolence’—he was hesitant and inclined to fret, and the result therefore often fell short of the effort. Yet he took a prominent part in county affairs; in June 1771 was one of the founders of the Cornish Bank; and in an age of extravagant expenditure looked carefully, or even anxiously, after his financial affairs.

On 9 Sept. 1774, before the dissolution of Parliament was announced, Eliot, who had in his will made Gibbon an executor and guardian to his children, offered him ‘an independent seat’ on very favourable terms, replacing Jennings. The other Members in Eliot’s family boroughs remained the same, while at Grampound he again returned strangers designated by Government—‘I set you down for Mr. Eliot’s borough of Grampound’, wrote North to Joseph Yorke, 16 Sept.23

At a by-election, on 15 Nov. 1775, Eliot was returned unopposed for Cornwall—a signal mark of popularity: as a rule counties were averse to placemen, and Cornwall to the big borough owners. ‘I am amazed how he condescended to accept it’, wrote Gibbon on 4 Dec. ‘The Member of St. Germans might lurk in the country, but the knight of Cornwall must attend the House of Commons.’ Henceforth Eliot’s name re-appears in division lists. Opposed to the American war, he voted on 11 Mar. 1776 against a motion for army extraordinaries, ‘and soon after resigned his employment’.24 On 8 May 1780, Thomas Pitt wrote to William Lemon:25

I must say that Mr. Eliot both by the independent line he has taken in Parliament, and by the zeal with which he has assisted every object of the county since he has been one of its representatives, has in my opinion entitled himself to our support and confidence at the next election.

For his own seat at St. Germans, Eliot returned in November 1775 John Pownall, secretary to the Board of Trade; and when in 1776 Pownall was appointed commissioner of the Excise, Eliot, though in opposition, returned another Government supporter, John Peachey: because Pownall, ‘an intimate friend of mine for many years, had set his heart on being made commissioner’, and could not be if this lost a vote to Government.26 He similarly re-elected Langlois on his promotion, 3 June 1778, and Gibbon on his obtaining office, 12 July 1779.

Robinson in his electoral survey of July 1780 wrote against St. Germans:

Mr. Eliot has been seen relative to this and his other boroughs, but he has not been explicit, saying he must consult his friends in the county and at present it seems doubtful whether he will bring in the friends of Government. He is violent against Administration.

When Dr. Richard Williams offered, at a price, to act as intermediary, North wrote to Robinson, 13 Aug. 1780:27

As to seeing Mr. Eliot, I always told you that it did not appear to me likely to be of any service; if he would serve us at all he would in his conversation with you have given you reason to expect it ... Dr. Williams ... will not find us ungrateful for any successful negotiation he may have with Mr. Eliot ... Employ him on that commission; he is much more likely to succeed than I should be.

Robinson thought Williams’s terms unacceptable, and meant to seek some other approach to Eliot, though with ‘little hopes’ of success.28 In the end North accepted Williams’s conditions. ‘I have yesterday sent a man down post to Cornwall to sound Eliot’, Robinson wrote to Jenkinson on 21 Aug., ‘a man Eliot has confidence in, and has trusted in his election jobs.’ And the next day:29 ‘Langlois may do some good with Eliot, and as soon as I well dare venture I will talk to him, but Gibbon I understand is not so well with Eliot as he was.’ After this nothing more appears about Government attempts to secure Eliot’s electoral support. By that time he was fully committed to the Opposition leaders, and was not going to re-elect even Gibbon and Langlois. On 17 Aug. Rockingham asked Portland to inform Eliot that John Christian declined, but ‘all the others for whom I particularly spoke are decisively fixed to accept’; he himself would write to Eliot ‘immediately after York races’.30 On 20 Aug. Eliot wrote to Portland on the choice of candidates.

I have not the least objection to either of the three names you mention, unless the baronet is a North Briton ...
Had I time, were I in the way, and could absolutely pick and choose ... I should wish to have one candidate of talents, one that was likely to make a public speaker, and not very likely to get a seat elsewhere. Mr. Windham of Norfolk, and Mr. Jones (a candidate for Oxford) have both come into my head.

He had never seen either, but what he ‘conceived of their principles and abilities’, brought them to his mind.

On the sudden dissolution of the House on 1 Sept., Rockingham wrote to Portland:

I have furnished Mr. Eliot with four good candidates. First Mr. Lucas, president of Guys Hospital, by the recommendation of our friend Mr. Scudamore. My second is Sir John Ramsden (half brother to Lady Rockingham). My third Dudley Long Esq. My fourth Charles Duncombe Esq. of Duncombe Park Yorkshire. This latter must be a secret. Indeed the whole transaction in regard to all of them must be secret.

Portland replied on 3 Sept., greatly lamenting Rockingham’s long silence,

not only from apprehensions of the effect it may have had upon Eliot’s mind, but from the embarrassment which it has occasioned and may still create in his parliamentary arrangements, and the disappointment which may ensue to your fourth candidate, which ... I greatly fear is now become unavoidable.

He added that Salt doubted ‘his being any longer a part of Mr. Eliot’s corps’. Rockingham’s delays and Salt’s ‘refinements and irresolution’ were undoubtedly embarrassing when only about ten days intervened between the dissolution and the elections in Eliot’s boroughs. But there was something more to Eliot’s choice for the fourth seat: he accepted for it Wilbraham Tollemache, a candidate recommended to him by Shelburne.31 On 22 Sept. Rockingham wrote to Portland in high glee:32

The enemy have lost five Members and the friends of their country have got a reinforcement of five. A difference of ten gained at one haul is a comfortable event.

Eliot himself was re-elected for the county unopposed. Jeremy Bentham, who met Eliot at Bowood in August 1781,33 describes him as

a modest, civil, good kind of man; sensible enough; but without those pretensions which one would expect to find in a man whose station in his country is so commanding, and political influence so great. He is modest enough in his conversation about politics, but desponding. He says he scarce ever looks into a paper, nor dares he, for fear of ill news.

—an attitude toward British disasters widely different from that of some of the other Opposition leaders.

In the new Parliament Eliot and his group of six Members regularly acted with the Opposition till the fall of North.

While the new Government was being formed, towards the end of March 1782, Shelburne wrote about Eliot in an undated memorandum for the King:34

He looks to peerage. He returns seven Members of Parliament, has a very great fortune, and uncommon personal weight in Cornwall, where the King wants an able person of influence; would humbly recommend him to your Majesty’s remembrance when peers are made ...

When in July 1782 the split occurred between Shelburne and Rockingham’s political heirs, Eliot came out on Shelburne’s side, and Edward James Eliot took office as a lord of the Treasury. But besides them, Lucas alone of Eliot’s group voted on 18 Feb. 1783 for Shelburne’s peace preliminaries; and all five, including Tollemache, adhered to the Coalition. They were dropped by Eliot at the general election of 1784, at which he returned his two sons and his half-brother J. J. Hamilton and three other steady followers of Pitt. He himself had on 13 Jan. 1784 been created a baron. He adhered to Pitt till the end of his life. He died 17 Feb. 1804.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Eliot to H. Pelham, 12 Feb. 1754, Newcastle (Clumber) mss; Add. 32734, f. 275; 32735, f. 599.
  • 2. Add. 32860, ff. 107, 408.
  • 3. Add. 32868, ff. 96-97.
  • 4. Ibid. f. 173.
  • 5. Add. 32871, f. 356; 32872, f. 95.
  • 6. Add. 32891, f. 142.
  • 7. Ibid. ff. 237-8.
  • 8. Add. 32895, ff. 446-7.
  • 9. Add. 32900, f. 145.
  • 10. Add. 32915, ff. 168-9.
  • 11. Add. 32914, f. 217; 32919, f. 529.
  • 12. Gilbert Elliot to Bute, 11 Mar. 1761, Bute mss.
  • 13. Add. 32917, f. 359.
  • 14. Chatham mss.
  • 15. Anson to Eliot, 13 Nov. 1759, Eliot mss.
  • 16. Add. 32929, ff. 303-11.
  • 17. Bute mss.
  • 18. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 19. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 20. Rockingham mss.
  • 21. Portland mss.
  • 22. Leslie Taylor, Life Times of Reynolds, ii. 431.
  • 23. Add. 35370, f. 275.
  • 24. Walpole, Last Jnls. i. 533.
  • 25. Lemon Pprs. Royal Institution of Cornwall.
  • 26. Eliot to Gibbon, 24 Aug. 1780, Add. 34886, ff. 111-12.
  • 27. Abergavenny mss.
  • 28. To North, 14 Aug., ibid.
  • 29. Add. 38567, ff. 59, 61.
  • 30. Portland mss.
  • 31. Eliot to Shelburne, 14, 16 Sept. 1780, Lansdowne mss.
  • 32. Portland mss.
  • 33. Works, ed. Bowring, x. 96.
  • 34. Fortescue, v. 431.