ELFORD, William (1749-1837), of Bickham, Devon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1796 - 1806
21 July 1807 - July 1808

Family and Education

b. Aug. 1749, 1st s. of Rev. Lancelot Elford of Bickham, vicar of Plympton, by Grace, da. of Alexander Wills of Kingsbridge. m. (1) 20 Jan. 1776, Mary (d.1817), da. and h. of Rev. John Davies of Plympton, 1s. d.v.p. 2da.; (2) 5 July 1821, Elizabeth, da. and coh. of Humphrey Hall of Manaton, wid. of Lt.-Col. Maine Swete Walrond, barrack master, Dominica, s.p. suc. fa. 1782; cr. Bt. 26 Nov. 1800.

Offices Held

Recorder, Plymouth 1797-1833, Totnes 1832-4.

Lt. S. Devon militia 1788, capt.-lt. 1790, capt. 1792, and maj. 1795, 1st maj. 1797, lt.-col. 1798.


Elford’s was one of the oldest families in the west country; his uncle Jonathan (1684-1755) had sat as a Tory for Saltash and Fowey from 1710 to 1722. A partner in the Plymouth Bank (Elford, Tingcombe and Purchase) which was in existence by 1782, he wrote to Pitt in 1790 offering comments on the plan to tax country banks and praising the government’s general record.1 He was a talented artist, who exhibited at the Royal Academy for over 60 years, and an able scientist, whose most notable work was on yeast substitutes.

At the 1796 general election he was involved in Sir William Molesworth’s futile challenge to the Northumberland interest at Newport, but also stood for Plymouth, which lay about seven miles from Bickham, secured government support and was returned unopposed. The following year he was elected recorder of Plymouth. In his maiden speech, delivered from the government side of the House, 18 Oct. 1796, he welcomed augmentation of the forces to meet the threat of invasion and commended the Treason and Sedition Acts of 1795, which had ‘preserved the tranquillity of the country, and maintained a proper spirit of subordination, which without them could not be expected from a factious tribe of revolutionary doctors’. He was, he boasted, ‘as independent of the favour or rewards of ministers’ as any self-righteous Whig, whatever Fox might say to the contrary of those who supported government. A devoted follower of Pitt to the end, he indeed had little to show for his loyalty in terms of material reward, though not as a result of any conspicuous self-denial. Pitt seems to have taken little notice of him.

Elford, who subscribed £20,000 to the 1797 loyalty loan, supported the Bank indemnity, 22 Mar., spoke against Pollen’s peace motion, 10 Apr., ‘in a low tone of voice’,2 opposed the repeal of the Sedition Acts, 23 May, supported the address, 2 Nov., and was teller for the government majority against Tierney’s motion seeking to debar the secretary for war from sitting in the Commons, 7 Nov. 1797. He was among the small group of ministerialists summoned by Pitt to hear his plans to increase the assessed taxes, 17 Dec. 1797,3 but he was not present to vote for the third reading of the bill 4 Jan. 1798. He supported the land tax redemption bill, 9 May 1798, opposed Burdett’s motion for inquiry into Coldbath Fields prison, 21 May 1799, and was chosen to second the address, 24 Sept., when he lavished praise on the government’s treatment of the militia. He was in pursuit of a baronetcy, but on 12 Nov. 1799 Pitt told Henry Dundas, on whose influence Elford had evidently chosen to pin his hopes, that he had no recollection of ‘ever considering’ it as ‘a thing settled’.4

Elford spoke against Tierney’s motion condemning war for the restoration of the Bourbons, 28 Feb., and denied that this was the government’s object, but when opposing Jones’s similar motion, 8 May 1800, he confessed that it was one which he personally hoped to see achieved. He was a government teller in the division. He accused the opposition of exaggerating the seriousness of the grain shortage, 17 Mar., defended the income tax, 5 June, approved of the illegal combinations amendment bill, 30 June, when he claimed not to have been apprised of his constituents’ intention to petition against it, and supported the imperial loan, 24 July, when he was again a government teller, as he was also in the divisions on the combination bill, 22 July, and the French evacuation of Egypt, 23 July 1800. On subsidiary issues, he opposed Bankes’s bill to encourage potato cultivation, 24 Mar.; supported the removal of the casual poor, 31 Mar., and the unsuccessful adultery prevention bill, 10 June; spoke against the executory devise bill, 8 July, and was teller for the minority of three who voted against its third reading, 14 July 1800.In June 1800, anxious not to leave town ‘in suspense’ over the fate of his baronetcy application, Elford pressed Dundas to try to ensure his inclusion in the next batch of creations, ‘as Mr Pitt has no personal objection to me, and you have been pleased to express that there are some grounds for my asking for it’. His wishes were met in November, thanks, as he gratefully acknowledged, to Dundas’s ‘kindness and patronage’.5

Elford wrote to Addington, 8 Feb. 1801, offering his ‘warmest support’ both as a follower of Pitt’s line and ‘on my own principles’ and soliciting either the receivership of Devon for his son or a post in government for himself. Neither request was granted, but he was as good as his word, speaking in support of the Irish master of the rolls bill, 19 Mar., the Irish martial law bill, 20 Mar., and the indemnity bill, 5 June 1801, when he stated his confidence in the new ministry and was one of their tellers in the division. He got himself into a scrape on 12 Feb. 1801 when he launched into a defence of conditions in Coldbath Fields, maintaining that a personal visit had enabled him to discredit most of the evidence marshalled by Burdett, though he conceded that Governor Aris merited dismissal. Reminded by the Speaker that there was no question before the House, he moved to summon Aris to the bar, only for his intended seconder, William Dundas, to back down. Burdett himself promptly seconded the motion and refused to consent to Elford’s immediate request to withdraw it. He was rescued by government moving the previous question. Elford gave qualified approval to Russell’s poor householders’ relief bill, 25 Feb., but later turned against it, 13 Mar. 1801. On 4 May he introduced a bill to prevent forgeries of country banknotes, but had to drop it, 14 May, when the Speaker ruled that its preamble and contents were inconsistent. A fresh bill was brought in and passed into law on 20 June 1801. His strong objections to the bill relaxing the regulations concerning poor badges, 19, 23 and 25 Nov., were partly responsible for its subsequent modification, which reconciled him to the measure, 27 Nov. 1801. Though he was called to order, 15 Mar. 1802, in the course of impromptu remarks on a newspaper report of Addington’s recent speech on finance which alleged that he planned to repeal the income tax, he had the satisfaction of hearing the minister confirm that it was a complete misrepresentation. He approved the continuance of Bank restriction, 9 Apr., spoke strongly against Burdett’s retrospective motion of censure on Pitt’s administration, 12 Apr., and was a teller in the division. His attempts to commit government to make half-pay provision for militia surgeons, 13, 14 and 23 Apr. 1802, were unsuccessful.

Elford’s relations with the Addington ministry and in particular with St. Vincent, first lord of the Admiralty, turned sour during the general election of 1802 and its aftermath. He had government approval for his renewed candidature for Plymouth, but there was trouble, apparently arising out of a power struggle within the corporation, where Elford had a number of enemies. The prime mover was evidently Robert Fanshawe, chief commissioner of the dockyard, who seems to have instigated the unexpected candidature of Philip Langmead, a local brewer and former mayor, to have deliberately delayed sending for the other candidate very strongly recommended by government, John Graves Simcoe*, until Langmead was sure of success, and then to have encouraged Simcoe to persevere, with assurances that Elford would undoubtedly be the loser. This Simcoe declined to do, feeling that he had no brief from Addington to oust Elford, who was accordingly returned unopposed with Langmead. Elford, reported by Simcoe as believing that St. Vincent was ‘hostile’ to his interests, thought government had bungled the business, lost control of their local functionaries and been duped by a party who posed a threat to their influence in the borough and his own security of tenure. He was incensed when St. Vincent, having ‘lately’ ignored Elford’s own applications ‘on the score of not creating dissatisfaction and jealousy’, went out of his way to conciliate Langmead and his abettors with a public assurance that he would have ‘every attention’ paid to his patronage recommendations. He remonstrated personally with St. Vincent and complained to Addington, who replied that without government support he would not have been seated without a contest and that Langmead could not be denied his fair share of patronage if he supported government.6

Elford was not appeased and on 21 Feb. 1803 he moved for inquiry into St. Vincent’s dismissal of John Marshall as master builder at Plymouth dockyard in March 1802, and went on, defying calls to order, to attack the ‘rash system of innovation’ introduced into the yard by the Admiralty. With the Grenvilles staying aloof, however, he failed to find a seconder. Although he divided with ministers in favour of an adjournment pending confirmation of renewed war, 6 May, he voted for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s debts, 4 Mar., and both for Pitt’s question for the orders of the day and Patten’s censure motion on 3 June, being, so Canning claimed, one of three Members ‘lent’ by him to Pitt for his division.7 When Whitbread moved for information on the Admiralty visitations, 16 June, Elford objected to the publication of ‘ex parte’ evidence, and on 11 July he criticized the bill to regulate administration of the Chatham Chest, the first fruit of the labours of St. Vincent’s commission of naval inquiry.

Having been told in the House by Sir Charles Morice Pole, chairman of the commission, that they did not plan to investigate the Marshall case, Elford gave notice, 13 Dec. 1803, of a motion for inquiry into the dismissal of dockyard officials. On 6 Mar. 1804, when he also spoke against the volunteer consolidation bill, he postponed the motion in view of Pitt’s forthcoming attack on the government’s naval administration. This he supported, 15 Mar., with a biting personal attack on St. Vincent, but according to one of St. Vincent’s friends it was not a success, for ‘the whole House was suddenly seized with a fit of coughing, which ceased on his silence’.8 He voted against government on Ireland, 7 Mar., the war in Ceylon, 14 Mar., and in the divisions of 10, 11, 16, 23 and 25 Apr. which sealed Addington’s fate. On 8 June 1804 he withdrew his naval inquiry motion, rejoicing in the fact that its ‘first object’, the removal of St. Vincent, had been accomplished.

Reports circulating in Plymouth that Elford was to have a place at the Admiralty in Pitt’s government proved incorrect, though he did ask the minister for employment.9 Undeterred by his omission, he continued to support Pitt and to pursue his vendetta against St. Vincent, accusing the commission of naval inquiry of setting itself up as a ‘criminal tribunal’, 1 Mar., and demurring from the vote of thanks for its labours, 2 May 1805. He defended the Corn Laws, 5 Mar., and supported the militia enlistment bill, 28 Mar., and the Atholl compensation bill, 1 July 1805. He voted against the censure of Melville, 8 Apr., and a week later wrote to Windham, professedly on his own initiative, in an attempt to soften his hostility, arguing that Melville was merely the most illustrious victim of the ‘system of denunciation’ employed by ‘that irresistible engine’, the commission of naval inquiry, whose existence

goes to effect the downfall of party, by means which tend to the downfall of all government, inasmuch as it appeals to that rooted opinion ... in the people of every country that their governors and great men are dealing unfairly by them.10

He apparently did not speak in the main debates on the Melville affair, but on 5 July he secured the adoption of an amendment to Trotter’s indemnity bill designed to strengthen the immunity offered to witnesses at the impeachment.

When informed in reply to his request to Pitt for a commissionership of public accounts that the office was incompatible with a seat in Parliament, Elford suggested that it be conferred on his son, by which ‘all my hopes and wishes would be more than gratified’, admitting that government would find it difficult to secure the return of a reliable supporter to replace him at Plymouth, where a formidable opposition to his re-election was developing. Nothing came of this and in November 1805 Pitt’s secretary William Dacres Adams, apologizing to Thomas Peregrine Courtenay* for the fact that his ‘history of Elford’s proceedings went to the bottom’, commented, ‘I do not know what will become of him, but I shall be very much vexed if Mr Pitt does not contrive to place him in some situation soon’. Elford was still unprovided for when Pitt died, though he later claimed that he had secured a promise of an appointment for his son.11

Professing himself now ‘free from every political engagement’, though electoral self-preservation was probably uppermost in his mind, he wrote to Lord Grenville as the ‘person who bears so near and so general an affinity’ to Pitt, seeking ‘permission to consider myself as your firm and sincere adherent’, with the rider that he could not vote inconsistently with his previous opinions on certain controversial issues. Grenville civilly acknowledged and accepted his offer of support.12 In accordance with his caveat, Elford did not vote for the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act and opposed the new ministry’s militia reforms, 3, 10 and 11 July, but otherwise, as Grenville’s nephew Lord Temple admitted, gave them ‘constant and unremitted’ support.13 He supported the royal family annuities bill, 9 July, and opposed inquiry into alleged barracks abuses, 21 July 1806.

He expected government support at Plymouth at the general election of 1806, but discovered that, thanks partly to St. Vincent’s machinations, it was not available to him. Earlier in the year St. Vincent had claimed and secured ministerial support at Plymouth for Pole, now a lord of the Admiralty and in the process had described Elford to ministers ‘in such terms as I think will do him’. As the third candidate, Thomas Tyrwhitt, was a confidant of the Prince of Wales, in whose name an interest had been established at Plymouth with Tyrwhitt’s return in place of Langmead in March 1806, and whose goodwill ministers dare not risk losing, it was clear to Temple and Fremantle, secretary to the Treasury, as early as 31 Aug., that ‘nothing can be done for Elford at Plymouth’, though Temple thought that in fairness ‘something should and ought to be done for his son’. He was accordingly offered a place in the revenue department of the Cape of Good Hope for himself or his son, openings in England being ‘confined and distant’, but he refused to be bought off and stood his ground at Plymouth when Parliament was dissolved. His direct appeal to Grenville to refrain from ‘carrying into effect the revengeful threats of Lord St. Vincent’ was to no avail and the premier refused to correspond further on the matter. Elford allowed himself to be associated with the attempt of Thomas Bewes, a local merchant, to revive the issue of the freeholder franchise, but he was heavily defeated at the poll and his subsequent petition was rejected.14

As soon as the ‘Talents’ fell, Elford wrote to Melville’s son congratulating him on his appointment as president of the Board of Control, detailing his ‘ill-usage’ at the hands of Grenville and soliciting an appointment for his son.15 Through Adams, now the Duke of Portland’s secretary, he began angling for government support at Plymouth in the event of a dissolution, seeking at the same time to stake a future claim for his son on the collectorship of customs. He eventually secured ministerial backing, but his enemies at Plymouth, who included the heads of dockyard departments and leading members of the corporation, proved strong enough to nullify it. He had already decided to withdraw when he received Adams’s letter advising him to quit and assuring him of a quiet return elsewhere.16

He was duly returned in July 1807 for a surplus seat at the Treasury borough of Rye, though Athlone was originally intended to be his berth.17 Little was heard from him in the new Parliament, in which he gave qualified support to the proposal to police Plymouth dockyard, 8 June, spoke on Irish tithes, 16 June, and welcomed the bill imposing heavy penalties for depredation of oyster beds, 22 June 1808. He vacated his seat the following month, perhaps because of declining health.

Elford, whose son was returned for Westbury in 1820 but sat for only six months and died in 1823, was ruined when his bank failed in 1825 and spent the last years of his life at Totnes, the home of his son-in-law. He died 30 Nov. 1837 and his effects were assessed at a mere £300.18

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Trans. Devon Assoc. lxxx. (1948), 211, 228; PRO 30/8/132, f. 162.
  • 2. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1526.
  • 3. Colchester, i. 123.
  • 4. W. L. Clements Lib. Pitt letters.
  • 5. SRO GD51/1/56.
  • 6. Sidmouth mss, Simcoe to Addington, 24 June, Elford to same, 19 July, 2 Sept., Addington to Elford, 5 Sept. 1802; St. Vincent Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. lxi), 89-93.
  • 7. The Times, 7 May; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 6 June 1803.
  • 8. Martin Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. xxiv), 298.
  • 9. Add. 41371, f. 128; PRO 30/8/132, f. 178.
  • 10. Add. 37882, f. 162.
  • 11. PRO 30/8/132, f. 179; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 11/17; SRO GD51/6/1480.
  • 12. Fortescue mss, Elford to Grenville, 20 Feb., reply 21 Feb. 1806.
  • 13. Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2153.
  • 14. NMM, WYN/102, St. Vincent to Pole, 1 Apr. 1806; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2153; Fremantle mss, box 44, Fremantle to Elford, 2 Oct.; Fortescue mss, Elford to Grenville, 18, 27 Oct., Grenville to Elford, 20 Oct. 1806.
  • 15. SRO GD51/6/1480.
  • 16. Dacres Adams mss 10/3-18.
  • 17. Wellington Supp. Despatches, v. 117.
  • 18. Trans. Devon Assoc. xviii (1886), 114; PCC admon. act bk. 1838.