ELLIS, Welbore (1713-1802), of Tylney Hall, Hants.
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Family and Education
b. 15 Dec. 1713, o. surv. s. of Rt. Rev. Welbore Ellis, bp. of Kildare and (1731) Meath, by Diana, da. of Sir John Briscoe of Boughton, Northants. and Amberley, Suss. educ. Westminster 1727-32; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1732. m. (1) 18 Nov. 1747, Elizabeth (d. 1 Aug. 1761), da. and h. of Sir William Stanhope, s.p.; (2) 20 July 1765, Anne, da. of George Stanley of Paultons, Hants, sis. and coh. of Hans Stanley, s.p. suc. fa. 1 Jan. 1734; cr. Baron Mendip 13 Aug. 1794.
Ld. of Admiralty 1747-Dec. 1755; jt. vice-treasurer [I] Dec. 1755-Dec. 1762; P.C. 20 Mar. 1760; sec. at war Dec. 1762-July 1765; jt. vice-treasurer [I] Apr. 1770-June 1777; treasurer of the navy June 1777-Feb. 1782; sec. of state for America Feb.-Mar. 1782.
Welbore Ellis came of a Yorkshire family, but was born in Ireland (where his father was for more than thirty years a bishop) and acquired property in Dublin.1 Without any parliamentary interest of his own he sat in the House of Commons for over fifty years, and held office for over thirty. Ambitious and industrious, his name became a byword for a place-man prepared to serve any Administration—which is hardly fair to him.
In 1754 he was the chief Admiralty spokesman in the House, and was provided with a seat by Administration at Weymouth and Melcombe Regis. He was a close friend of Henry Fox, who, on becoming secretary of state in September 1755, included Ellis among those for whom he demanded office. ‘I have told Harry Fox that he may do as best suits his affairs with me’, wrote Ellis to Devonshire on 20 Dec. 1755,2‘and that I will cheerfully acquiesce in what shall be settled.’ Fox tried to have Ellis succeed him at the War Office, which proved impracticable;3 and next he was considered for a seat at the Treasury Board. ‘I endeavoured underhand as much as possible ... to avoid it’, wrote Ellis to Devonshire on 3 Feb. 1756,4 and professed to like ‘very well’ the employment of joint vice-treasurer of Ireland which he eventually obtained. On the formation of the Pitt-Devonshire Administration he was again proposed for secretary at war (probably by Devonshire), but the King preferred Barrington.5
Ellis was Fox’s chief manager during the Minorca inquiry, and on 2 May 1757 moved the amendment exonerating the Fox-Newcastle Administration.6 He nearly lost his place when Pitt joined with Newcastle in June. Lady Kildare, Fox’s sister-in-law, wrote on 17 June:7
Poor Mr. Fox is vastly anxious for his friends; it is thought by some they will be all turned out ... others say that it will be only Ellis, or some one very much marked person as his friend.
But Rigby to Bedford on 18 June:8‘Ellis, though he has been pushed at, is to remain where he is.’ Through application to Newcastle, he got himself made a Privy Councillor in March 1760.9 In November he again narrowly escaped being turned out to make room for Sir Thomas Robinson, and saved himself by timely application to Bute. Even Fox had no high opinion of him. ‘Ellis’, he wrote, ‘had by my friendship and accident, got into a place much above his pretensions, and he was the only man in England who did not think so.’10
At the general election of 1761 Dodington, patron of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, accepted Bute’s nominees for the borough; and Ellis had to find a seat elsewhere. Fox advised him to try Aylesbury, an expensive and difficult constituency, where his father-in-law Sir William Stanhope had considerable interest;11 and Newcastle promised Treasury support. Ellis was returned unopposed, but his election cost him £2,000.12
Ellis now directed his applications for advancement to Bute:13 8 Apr. 1761, to become one of the plenipotentiaries at the proposed peace conference; Aug. 1762, to be chancellor of the Exchequer should Dashwood become a peer; 8 Apr. 1763, for ‘the feather of being a Cabinet counsellor’. In June there was a rumour that he was to go as ambassador to The Hague,14 in September to Vienna.15 In December 1762 he succeeded Charles Townshend at the War Office, an onerous and difficult post: ‘to have the principal hand in reducing a large army’, wrote Rigby,16 who had been considered for the office, ‘... is a most irksome and unpleasant task’. Yet Ellis acquitted himself well. James Harris wrote of his speech of 4 Mar. 1763 on the army estimates:17
Mr. Ellis ... was more than an hour in opening this subject, but did it in so masterly a way, with such order, elegance, and perspicuity that he never lost the attention of the House, but was heard to the last with the greatest approbation. His detail of the proper position of troops in America ... was a complete union of military and geographical knowledge. Some small sprinklings of philosophy, sparingly but judiciously applied, served, like salt, to give a seasoning to the whole.
In conversation with Harris on 26 June18 Ellis gave his ideas on future military arrangements in America:
[He] thinks the dominions of North America and the West Indies less liable to revolt by being placed under many governments, jealous of and hating each other, than if under one government. [He] thinks that America should pay its own troops ... that the sum (perhaps £200,000) should be settled by Parliament here, and the quota for each island and province settled by the same authority, and that then the several governments there to adjust the method of raising their own taxation.
And about the agitation against the cider tax: ‘He thinks ... that ’tis best for Government (having the King, the Parliament, and an army) to stand it out and not comply; that compliance only begets an opinion of their superiority in the multitude ... and thence more insolence, more proneness to oppose and clamour’—an attitude he later held on the taxation of America.
Having been informed by Grenville of the abortive attempt to change the Administration in August 1763, Ellis replied, pledging himself ‘fully and strongly’ to Grenville and the King, and asking for the office of first lord of the Admiralty.19 During the next two years he supported Administration loyally, but never identified himself with the ministers. ‘I would serve your Majesty in the station of your footman to procure your ease of mind or to promote the good of your affairs’, he told the King on 21 May 1765. And on 9 July, on being dismissed by the Rockingham Administration:
I have neither intrigued nor caballed; I have in a great degree secluded myself from company to avoid all suspicion and misrepresentation, and have rested with a most resigned confidence in your Majesty’s goodness to me, and having assured your Majesty that I was only your’s, I have carefully avoided every other connexion and support.
The King assured Ellis that he would not be forgotten. Hearing a report that he was to be made joint paymaster-general, he protested that to accept this ‘divided office’ would be ‘lowering me in the opinion of all mankind’.20 ‘Ellis is to have Rigby’s place [of joint vice-treasurer of Ireland]’, wrote Charles Fox to his father on 13 July;21 and Lord George Sackville to Irwin on 14 Sept.:22 ‘They have not yet filled up the vice-treasurers’ employments. Ellis pushes hard to be one.’ On 7 Dec. he inquired of the King if this rumour were true,23 but presumably received a discouraging reply.
On 22 Feb. 1766 Ellis spoke and voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act. In the proposed reconstruction of the ministry following Grafton’s resignation, May 1766, the King pressed for his inclusion. ‘Poor man’, he told Rockingham,24 ‘he belongs to nobody, and therefore nobody [is] for him.’ On 12 July the King named Ellis to Pitt (with Northumberland, Norton, and le Despenser) as ‘men I wished brought again into office’.25 Pitt replied that ‘they were very fit persons ... but as they brought no share of abilities with them, they must wait a little’.
On 9 Dec. 1766 Ellis spoke against Chatham’s East India inquiry;26 but voted with Administration on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768. He supported Administration on the Middlesex election, and in April 1770 returned to office.
Wraxall wrote about Ellis:27
In his figure, manner, and deportment the very essence of form, he regularly took his place on the Treasury bench dressed in all points as if he had been going to the drawing room at St. James’s.
Walpole called him ‘Don Welbore Ellis’;28 and Selwyn wrote of his appointment to the American department:29 ‘Ellis has added another footman to his chariot, and is a minister in form and fact and pomp and everything.’ His precise and formal manner was the reflection of a rigid and authoritarian mind, unable to adapt itself to new ideas. He ‘always had a dislike to doing anything which altered the constitution’;30 and his conception of the constitution was static and literal, taking no account of new trends. ‘He did not think the House of Commons an assembly calculated for the discussion of state affairs’, he said on 25 May 1778.31 ‘It was the business of Parliament to raise supplies, not to debate on the measures of Government.’ He opposed the reporting of parliamentary debates;32 took the lead in the proceedings against Oliver and Crosby for breach of privilege; opposed Grenville’s bill for the trial of contested elections; and spoke against parliamentary reform.33
‘All the confusion that has taken place [in America]’, he said on 5 Mar. 1770,34 ‘is ... totally owing to the repeal of the Stamp Act’; and he opposed all further concessions to the colonies, even when proposed by Government. He spoke against North’s motion for the partial repeal of the Townshend duties, 5 Mar. 1770, and opposed his conciliatory resolutions of February 1775 ‘without an express and definitive acknowledgement from the Americans of our supremacy’.35 (‘Mr. Ellis, who differed from us upon a real conviction that our measure was wrong’, wrote North to the King,36 ‘spoke against us in the most friendly terms, and behaved, as indeed he has always done, as a man of honour and a conscientious friend of Government.’) On 16 Nov. 1775 he ‘replied to Mr. Burke, and added that the greater disposition Great Britain showed towards conciliation the more obstinate, rebellious, and insolent America would become’. On 20 Feb. 1776, he said
that gentle, moderate measures were unhappily pursued when the situation of America called for the most strong and decisive. Thank God this mistaken system is now at an end. A powerful fleet and a powerful army are now going out, and I have not the slightest doubt that they will be sufficient to crush the rebellious Americans.37
On Germain’s resignation in February 1782 Ellis was offered the place of secretary of state for America. North wrote to the King on 5 Feb.:38
Lord North has the honour of informing his Majesty that Mr. Ellis is ready to obey his Majesty’s commands upon any occasion. That he does not desire to make any condition, but expressed the same wish that Lord Hillsborough gave me a hint of—that when he shall receive his Majesty’s commands to retire he may be raised in dignity, and have his title granted in remainder to his nephew. Mr. Ellis however repeated very strongly that this was only a wish of his, and that he was very far from presuming to make any condition.
‘It becomes a man to lay aside all thoughts of self’, wrote Ellis to Edmund Sexton Pery, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, on 21 Feb.39 ‘... The object of all my wishes is that I may in any degree contribute to the salvation of my country.’ But Wraxall wrote of his appointment:40 ‘It seemed difficult to have made a selection in consequence of which less strength would be acquired on the side of Administration.’
Ellis inherited a discredited policy, and joined a Cabinet tottering to its fall: no one could have saved North’s Administration. On 22 Feb. he declared in the House of Commons that he had
never entertained an idea ... that America was to be reduced to obedience by force. His idea always was that in America we had many friends, and that by strongly supporting them we should be able to destroy that party or faction that wished for war.
‘He was not now so sanguine in his hopes of success as he had been some time ago’; still the war must be continued because ‘it was France, not the Congress, that was fighting in America’. In the debate of 15 Mar. he supported Dundas’s idea for ‘a coalition of parties’; and begged the House
not to send his Majesty’s ministers from their seats until this much desired coalition was formed, for by their going out before this was done they would leave the affairs of the public in confusion.
North’s resignation a few days later ended Ellis’s official career.41
During the remainder of 1782 and in 1783 Ellis spoke rarely in the House and avoided contentious political issues. He voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, and was classed by Robinson as a follower of North. His ambition was a peerage, and his hopes were high when North returned to office with the Coalition. ‘I have been in Parliament forty-two years’, he wrote to the King about this time,42 ‘and in this long course of service I can say what few can, that I never was a part of any concerted system of Opposition.’ On 11 July 1783 North wrote to Northington, lord lieutenant of Ireland, who had also been pressing Ellis’s claims:
The character and the merit, the long and faithful services of Mr. Ellis, would probably place him among the peers of Great Britain were the King disposed at this time to make any addition to the British peerage. But, although no such addition can be made in the present moment, his Majesty expressed himself repeatedly in the most gracious manner with respect to Mr. Ellis’s personal worth and pretensions.
‘Welbore Ellis’s [peerage] is refused’, wrote William Windham to Northington on 17 July, ‘so you may imagine no one else has much chance.’43
Ellis voted for Fox’s East India bill, and in a speech of 4 Mar. 1784 came out against Pitt.44 In the Parliament of 1784-90 he voted regularly with Opposition, and was a frequent speaker (e.g., on the Westminster scrutiny, the French commercial treaty, and the Regency). ‘He is a steady, honourable, old gentleman’, wrote Sir Gilbert Elliot to his wife on 6 Mar. 1787,45 ‘but seems out of his place in a hopeless Opposition.’
Ellis broke with Fox over the French Revolution, and obtained his peerage in 1794 (at the age of 80) when the Portland Whigs went over to Pitt.
He died 2 Feb. 1802.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: John Brooke
- 1. Ellis to Edmund Sexton Pery, 31 Dec. 1784, HMC 14th Rep. IX, 184.
- 2. Devonshire mss.
- 3. Ilchester, Hen. Fox, i. 272.
- 4. Devonshire mss; Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 141.
- 5. Temple to Pitt, 9 Nov. 1756, Chatham Corresp. i. 188.
- 6. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, iii. 7.
- 7. Leinster Corresp. i. 48.
- 8. Bedford Corresp. ii. 251.
- 9. Add. 32901, ff. 24-25.
- 10. Fox’s memoir, Life Letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, i. 15.
- 11. Fox to Ellis, 24 Nov. 1760, Hen. Fox mss.
- 12. W. Ellis to Holland, 20 Aug. 1765, Hen. Fox mss.
- 13. Bute mss.
- 14. Barrington to Newcastle, 13 June 1762, Add. 32939, f. 326.
- 15. Shelburne to Fox, 18 Sept. 1762, Ilchester, Letters to Hen. Fox. 161.
- 16. To Bedford, 16 Dec. 1762, Bedford mss 46, f. 148.
- 17. Harris’s ‘Debates’. See also James West’s opinion, Add. 32947, ff. 265-6.
- 18. Harris’s ‘Memoranda’.
- 19. Grenville Pprs. ii. 112-14, 115, 16.
- 20. Fortescue, i. 109, 151.
- 21. Letters to Hen. Fox, 233.
- 22. HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 102.
- 23. Fortescue, i. 196-9.
- 24. Add. 33001, f. 227.
- 25. Fortescue, i. 176.
- 26. Ibid. 425.
- 27. Mems. i. 425.
- 28. To Lady Upper Ossory, 3 Jan. 1780.
- 29. HMC Carlisle, 580.
- 30. Almon, i. 317.
- 31. Stockdale, viii. 300.
- 32. Cavendish’s Debates, ii. 381-2.
- 33. Debrett, ix. 725.
- 34. Cavendish’s Debates, ii. 497.
- 35. Almon, i. 206-7.
- 36. Fortescue, iii. 178.
- 37. Almon, iii. 186, 331-2.
- 38. Fortescue, v. 361.
- 39. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 163.
- 40. Mems. ii. 173.
- 41. Debrett, vi. 263-7, 474.
- 42. In an undated letter in the Royal archives, Windsor.
- 43. Add. 33100, ff. 195, 204.
- 44. Debrett, xiii. 254.
- 45. Life Letters of Sir G. Elliot, i. 134.