ELWILL, John (1643-1717), of Polsloe House, nr. Exeter, Devon

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



Mar. 1681
1689 - 1690
1695 - 1698

Family and Education

bap. 24 Sept. 1643, 1st s. of John Elwill, grocer, of Exeter by Rebecca Pole of Exeter.  educ. Exeter, Oxf. 1659; Leyden 1664.  m. (1) lic. 14 Mar. 1676, Frances, da. of Sir John Bampfylde, 1st Bt.†, of Poltimore, Devon,  s.p.; (2) 2 Oct. 1682, Anne, da. of Edmund Lee, Saddler, of London or Edmund Leigh of Egham, Surr., 2s. 2da.  suc. fa. 1675; kntd. 28 Apr. 1696; cr. Bt. 25 Aug. 1709.1

Offices Held

Jt. receiver-gen. Devon and Exeter 1689–92, 1694–6, 1699–1701; freeman, Plymouth 1696; dep. master of the mint, Exeter 1698; sheriff, Devon Jan.–Nov. 1699; gov. Exeter workhouse 1701.2

Trustee, Exchequer bills 1697; poor Palatines 1709.3


A Whig and a Dissenter, Elwill had built up a successful business at Exeter exporting Devonshire serges and importing German linens. He had first been returned for Bere Alston during the Exclusion crisis by his first wife’s brother-in-law, Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt.*, and was subsequently a trustee of the settlement of Drake’s third marriage in 1690. A Whig ‘collaborator’ under James II, he rallied to William of Orange in 1688 and was briefly Member for Bere Alston again during the Convention Parliament. His extensive trading links with the Continent were singled out for attack in the Commons in February 1693 by Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt.*, who described him as the ‘factor for the foreigners’ at Exeter who was helping the Dutch to ‘run away’ with the English woollen trade.4

Elwill resumed his seat at Bere Alston in 1695. He quickly re-established himself as an extremely active man of business, and his record of 36 tellerships during the course of the 1695 Parliament testifies in particular to the wide range of issues to which he gave his attention, albeit that the divisions themselves were often on obscure points of detail or procedure. He was teller for the first time on 10 Dec. 1695 in favour of a recoinage of clipped money at the old weight and fineness, and early in January was involved in conference proceedings on the issue with the Upper House. On 17 Jan. 1696 he was teller against agreeing with the Lords’ amendments to the treason trials bills. Having been forecast in January as likely to support the Court over the proposed council of trade, he was teller on the 31st in favour of the new commissioners taking the oaths of allegiance to the King. During the debates on the recoinage in February he supported Charles Montagu’s* proposals, and on two occasions, on the 18th and 28th, was teller against fixing guineas at a rate at below 28s., but was not listed as having voted in March in favour of Montagu’s scheme for setting guineas at 22s. He was teller on 27 Feb. in favour of the Avon navigation bill, reported on a private naturalization bill on 5 Mar., and on the 9th was teller in support of an estate bill on behalf of Sir Coplestone Bampfylde, 3rd Bt.*, a member of his first wife’s family. On 2 Apr. he was teller in favour of a petition for expanding the geographical scope of the East India trade.5

The day after prorogation, 28 Apr. 1696, Elwill was knighted, a sure sign of the Court’s appreciation of his efforts in the Commons on the government’s behalf and as an army contractor. On 22 July he wrote to Sir George Treby*, reporting Tory discontent at the purge of non-Associators from the Devon commission of the peace and the lord lieutenant’s efforts

to manage all the tantivy men . . . who have most scandalously refused to give a necessary security to the government in the day of distress. They may fret and foam until they see the little good they do thereby [but] in a short time they will compound and be as flexible as any.

In November he assisted the Court’s management of the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, serving as teller on the 9th in support of the second reading of the attainder bill, and on the 16th to allow counsel against Fenwick to examine evidence given at another trial, and duly voted for the attainder on the division on the 25th. On the 21st he was teller in two divisions: in favour of receiving an Exeter petition against the elections bill; and in favour of including clipped as well as hammered money in the recoinage bill. On 29 Jan. 1697 he reported from a committee concerning the Newfoundland fishery, which made recommendations for the provision of convoys and garrisons for future protection. He was teller on 3 Feb. in favour of further subscriptions to the Bank of England; on the 10th in support of the bill for better establishing public credit; and on the 24th, for authorizing a bill to open the port of Exeter to Irish woollens, in response to a petition from the town’s mercantile community in which he himself was prominent.6

In the next session, on 14 Dec. 1697, Elwill and his political opposite, Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, were ordered to bring in a bill focusing on their mutual west-country interests to prevent the export of wool to France. Elwill subsequently managed the bill through all its stages in the House, which included chairing two sittings of the committee of the whole. On 21 Dec. 1697 he told on the government side against the recommittal of a resolution to grant the King a £700,000 civil list for life; was teller on 20 Jan. 1698 in favour of a further bill concerning Sir Coplestone Bamfylde’s estates; and four days later, for a bill to restrain the wearing of Eastern silks and calicoes. That same month, a report on crown grants revealed that he held a 22-year grant of the post fines of the duchy of Lancaster. On 9 Mar. he was teller against a bill to prevent abuses in weights and measures, and later that month took charge of a naturalization bill. On the 30th he was teller in favour of a rider in the bill for the suppression of blasphemy and profaneness, to include anti-trinitarian writings within its scope, and on 25 June was teller in favour of the supply bill for raising £2m. Elwill had also taken particular interest during the session in issues concerning the poor, particularly as at the time he was involved in initiatives to establish a corporation of the poor at Exeter, of which in 1701 he became governor. At the general election of 1698 he stood down at Bere Alston, but his attempt to secure one of the Exeter seats ended in defeat. A comparative analysis of the old and new Parliaments noted him as a member of the Court party.7

In February 1700 Elwill was granted a property in Queen Street in the city of London forfeited for high treason. His friend Richard Duke*, also a Whig and a Dissenter, wrote to Robert Harley* in September 1704, complaining that by Sir Edward Seymour’s influence Elwill had been put out of the Devon commission, despite his wealth (he was worth £50,000 in all, with £1,000 p.a., besides some £20,000 in capital, including an investment in excess of £4,000 in the Bank of England) and the fact that he was ‘the most necessary justice in the county, living but two miles from Exeter, who stands so fair with the judges that the last assizes they invited him and many of the outed justices to eat with them’. In February 1705 he and Christopher Bale*, another former receiver of taxes for Devon, succeeded in having a particularly arbitrary clause removed from a bill empowering land tax commissioners to scrutinize the accounts of previous receivers which gave harsh powers over their ‘properties’ with no right of appeal. Although the Commons rejected the Lords’ removal of the clause, the bill lapsed. At the 1705 election Elwill, together with his son John, was defeated at Ashburton; and at Honiton, where he also campaigned, Defoe informed Robert Harley* that he endured ‘a terrible mob election’ and was too ‘cowed’ to petition. He tried again at Honiton in 1708, and, although defeated, had at least the satisfaction of being restored to the commission of the peace, but lost his place there again after the Tory triumph of 1710. He died on 25 Apr. 1717.8

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. IGI, Devon; Trans. Devon Assoc. lxii. 221; Mar. Lic. Vicar-Gen. (Harl. Soc. xxxiv), 612; St. Stephen Walbrook (Harl. Soc. Reg. xlix), 66; Manning and Bray, Surrey, iii. 252.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 250; x. 934; xiv. 341; xv. 204, 323; HMC Lords, n.s. vi. 288; HMC 9th Rep. pt. 1, p. 282; Trans. Devon Assoc. 221.
  • 3. Cal. Treas. Bks. xii. 7; Boyer, Anne Annals, viii. app. p.41.
  • 4. Luttrell Diary, 429; E. F. Eliott-Drake, Fam. and Heirs of Drake, ii. 65.
  • 5. Account of Procs. in House of Commons, Relating to Recoining . . . (1696), p. 7.
  • 6. CSP Dom. 1697, p. 114; HMC 13th Rep. VI, 40–41.
  • 7. Trans. Devon Assoc. 221.
  • 8. CJ, xiii. 193; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 207; HMC Portland, ii. 122, 134, 270; Egerton 3359 (unfol.); HMC Lords, n.s. vi. 287–8.