ELWES, John (1714-89), of Marcham, Berks. and Stoke, Suff.
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Family and Education
b. 7 Apr. 1714, o.s. of Robert Meggott, Southwark brewer, and gd.-s. of George Meggott, M.P. for Southwark 1722-3, by Amy, da. of Sir Gervase Elwes, 1st Bt., M.P. educ. Westminster 1722-9; Geneva. unm. suc. fa. c.1718; gd.-fa. 1723; took name of Elwes 1750; suc. to Stoke estates of his uncle, Sir Hervey Elwes, 2nd Bt., M.P., 1763.
‘During the life time of Mr. Elwes’, states Edward Topham, journalist and playwright, ‘I said to him, more than once, “I would write his life.” His answer was—“there is nothing in it, sir, worth mentioning.”’ But Topham persisted, and produced, in the words of Horace Walpole, ‘one of the most amusing anecdotal books in the English language’;1 it went through 12 editions; and made ‘Elwes the miser’ into a stereotype and legend—he appears under this description in the DNB, and even in the British Museum catalogue of manuscripts. The biography is written with a professed moral purpose—to demonstrate ‘the perfect vanity of unused wealth’; and having traced avarice as a family failing of the Elweses, deals with it in John Elwes with abundant repetition and elaboration. Here is a typical passage:
In the penury of Mr. Elwes there was something that seemed like a judgement from heaven. All earthly comforts he voluntarily denied himself: he would walk home in the rain, in London, sooner than pay a shilling for a coach: he would sit in wet clothes sooner than have a fire to dry them: he would eat his provisions in the last stage of putrefaction sooner than have afresh joint from the butcher's; and he wore a wig for above a fortnight, which I saw him pick up out of a rut in a lane where we were riding.
Yet he was generally credited with other qualities not usually associated with the qualities of a miser: he was a daring rider, keeping a remarkable stable of hunters; he was gentle and courteous, and would put himself to considerable inconvenience to help others; he would lend money but never on usurious terms; and at one time he ‘played deep’, but became disinclined to it ‘from paying always, and not always being paid’. ‘His avarice’, says Topham, ‘consisted not in hard-heartedness, but in self-denial.’ There was austerity in his character, and a probity which commanded respect. The Gentleman's Magazine wrote about him in its obituary notice: ‘In such high estimation was he held for his love of justice, that numberless disputes among his constituents and others were left to his sole arbitrement.’2 And similarly Topham states that his qualities as a magistrate earned him the offer of election to Parliament for the county.
When before the general election for 1754 a party at Abingdon opposed to John Morton asked Lord Fane to recommend to them a candidate, he thought in the first place of Elwes, and the Duke of Bedford directed Richard Neville Aldworth to find out whether Elwes would be prepared to stand.3 Aldworth replied on 2 Apr. that Elwes, ‘who is certainly a very proper person for the purpose in question, has already declared to me in confidence and in the most positive terms his resolution ... not to stand at Abingdon, and though at the time he told me so he seemed sorry he had ever made that promise, yet he added he was determined to keep it’. Nothing more is known about Elwes standing for Parliament until 1772.
In 1772, writes Topham, there was ‘the prospect of a contested election betwixt two most respectable families in Berkshire’, when Lord Craven proposed Elwes as a third person unobjectionable to both sides; ‘he was to be brought in by the freeholders for nothing’. And one of the few known letters from Elwes confirms Topham's account—he wrote to his London steward on 7 Jan. 1772:4
I suppose you see that I am raised to great honour by my kind countrymen, by which an opposition in the county was prevented, which is so very much to the disadvantage of all ranks of people.
In 1772 Elwes's was something of a freak election; and in 1774 Robinson doubted whether it would be repeated.5 But it was. ‘A more respectable Member never sat in Parliament’, wrote the Gentleman's Magazine in 1789. And the Public Ledger in 1779: ‘A most worthy and respectable country gentleman, votes perfectly according to his conscience on each side, but generally with Opposition.’ And Topham: ‘In every part of his conduct, and in every vote he gave, he proved himself ... an independent country gentleman ... Wishing for no post, desirous of no rank, wanting no emolument, and being perfectly conscientious, he stood aloof from ... temptations.’
At the outset Elwes sided with North, ‘from no other motive ... than a fair and honest belief’ that his measures were right. The first division list in which his name appears, that of 25 Feb. 1774 on the Grenville Act, confirms this account: Elwes voted with the Opposition but is marked by North as one of those ‘who generally vote with [the Government] and are friends’. He voted again with the Opposition over Wilkes's motion on the Middlesex election, 22 Feb. 1775. ‘Both parties’, writes Topham, ‘were equally fond of having him as a nominee on their contested elections; frequently he was the chairman; and he was remarkable for the patience with which he always heard the the counsel.’ There is no record of his having spoken in the House, except when reporting as chairman of a committee. His name does not appear in the minority lists 1775-9. But Robinson's description of Elwes in his survey for the general election of 1780 marks the transition: ‘Mr. Elwes though not against yet mostly is so’ (a way of expressing in the language of the time that although not prejudiced against the Government, Elwes as a rule opposed it). He now came to vote regularly with the Opposition: in all the ten division lists available between March 1779 and the fall of the North Government. On 18 Feb. 1783 Elwes voted against Shelburne's peace preliminaries; but he was one of the four Members who, having seen that the Opposition ‘was levelled not at the measures of Government, but at the man’, next voted with the minister. On 7 May 1783 Elwes voted for Pitt's parliamentary reform.
Elwes adhered to the Coalition, and voted for Fox's East India bill; ‘though I have talked with Mr. Elwes frequently upon the subject’, writes Topham, ’I never could really learn why he supported it’. And John Sinclair wrote about him in a list which he drew up for Pitt about the end of December 1783:6 ‘I believe voted for the bill, being of Smith's select committee. He could not resist Mr. Pitt's personal solicitation.’
He died November 1789; his entailed estates valued at £7,000 a year descended to a great nephew; his personal estate, near £300,000, to his two illegitimate sons, John and George Elwes.