ELLIOT, William (1766-1818), of Wells, nr. Jedburgh, Roxburgh and Reigate, Surr.

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



5 Mar. 1801 - 1802
1802 - 26 Oct. 1818

Family and Education

b. 12 Mar. 1766, o.s. of William Nassau Elliot, barrister and commissary gen. to the forces in Germany, of Reigate, Surr. by Martha Tryphena Louisa, da. of Sir Nathaniel Meade, serjt.-at-law. educ. privately by Mr Pooler; Aberdeen 1783-5; I. Temple 1783. unm. suc. fa. 1775.

Offices Held

MP [I] 1796-97, 1798-1800.

Private sec. to chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] 1796; under-sec. of state (military) [I] June 1796-1801; chief sec. to ld. Lt. [I] Mar. 1806-Apr. 1807; commr. treasury [I] 1806-7; PC 12 Feb. 1806.

Lt. Surr. yeoman cav. 1794, capt., res. 1806.


Elliot was descended from a branch of the same family as the Elliots of Stobbs and Minto which prospered in trade in London. His estate in Scotland was derived from his uncle William Elliot and brought him into close contact with his distant kinsman of Minto, Sir Gilbert Elliot; thereafter he referred with pride to his ‘Border blood’. This sense of belonging was necessary to him, the only child of an only child. Sir Gilbert after encountering him as a law student in 1786 reported:

I saw young Elliot of Wells yesterday, and was extremely pleased with him. He is most entirely warmly with us in politics. I mean London politics—of course in county politics if necessary; and he is very sensible, modest, and agreeable in his manner.

He did not take to the law, developing a ‘most extensive antipathy to lawyers, whether Scotch or English’. On 3 Apr. 1787 he joined the Whig Club. A year later Sir Gilbert could write of him as ‘Wells, whom I have made acquainted with most of my friends and who is extremely liked by them all’. He assisted Sir Gilbert to prepare his speech on Warren Hastings’s trial and gave moral support in the gallery of the House when his kinsman spoke. Sir Gilbert reported, 10 May 1788:

He is loved by Burke, I believe, next to myself, and is admired and doted on by all my friends, with whom he lives as much as I do. He certainly has been a great blessing to me, and the blessing ... I believe is mutual, for it is impossible for two people to suit each other so entirely as we do, and there appears to be a very singular fitness, as it were, between us.

Later that year Elliot found himself one of the informal Whig ‘cabinet council’ on the Regency: so he became, in Windham’s phrase, ‘a thin phial of political essence’ and inseparable from Sir Gilbert, who encouraged him to aspire to a seat in Parliament, conveying the political news to him when they were apart. He was, moreover, as Sir Gilbert discovered, vulnerable, unmarriageable and ‘dead to every sensation and enjoyment ... like a wet blanket to a fire’. He therefore acquiesced in everything that was chosen for him. After securing his election to Brooks’s Club, 10 Apr. 1792, Sir Gilbert wrote that it would ‘brush him up a little, and be a resource to one of his political turn, who has no society of his own, male or female, and there is no danger of his playing’.1

Jocularly styling him his ‘dominie’, Sir Gilbert made him his intermediary with the Duke of Portland. He seceded from the Whig Club, 28 Feb. 1793. Sir Gilbert expected him to be offered employment and he set out with him to Toulon when he went as civil commissioner in the autumn of 1793, having played a confidential role in Sir Gilbert’s negotiations with government, but went only as far as Brussels, returning via the Duke of York’s camp in Flanders. He was a determined foe to ‘innovation’ and French principles: Edmund Burke reported of him at this time: ‘I have never observed a more sound and mature judgment in the oldest’; and Fanny Burney completed the picture: ‘a tall, thin young man, plain in face, dress and manner, but sensible’. When Sir Gilbert was posted to Corsica as viceroy in 1794, he tried in vain to induce Elliot to join him there as his secretary; but he agreed to put himself in the running for Sir Gilbert’s borough seat, if practicable. (It was not.) Elliot discounted rumours that he was about to obtain office: he believed that Portland had cooled towards him. He was thought of by Edmund Burke for the vacant seat for Malton in 1794, if Richard Burke or French Laurence declined it. He rendered Burke service in the matter of his pension. He was also very friendly with William Windham*, who offered him a place in the Home Office, if he obtained that department on joining government. Elliot, for his part, regarded him as the mainstay in the cabinet against a ‘regicide peace’. He preferred the ‘chances’ of war to peace, which meant ‘certain ruin’.2

In 1795 Elliot, dismayed at Earl Fitzwilliam’s recall and reluctant to become a ‘soldier of fortune’, was mentioned by Pitt to, and thought of by Lord Camden for appointment as his secretary in Ireland; but this ‘would not have been a proper situation for him’. Instead he became private secretary to Camden’s chief secretary Thomas Pelham, with the option of succeeding Sackville Hamilton as under-secretary in the civil department, and Pelham in due course. When he arrived in Ireland in March 1796, he elected to become under-secretary in the military department, less well paid, but less laborious, so that he could obtain leaves of absence. At Dublin he was dubbed ‘The Castle Spectre’. His going put out of the question his possible candidature for Roxburghshire in Sir Gilbert’s place, which he thought futile in any case. Having failed to persuade ministers to give fresh employ to Sir Gilbert, he secured him a peerage. He was highly thought of at the Castle, but disliked the situation: only Sir Gilbert’s becoming chief secretary would have made it palatable. Burke and Windham had persuaded him into it and he feared ‘the imputation of shrinking from business’. His health was not equal to it, for which reason Camden again had to give up the idea of making him his chief secretary in 1798. Elliot himself thought of resigning, particularly when, late in 1798, there was no longer any question of Pelham’s returning to Dublin, and he refused to give his vote in the Irish parliament in favour of the Union if Catholic claims were not considered. He tried in vain to convince Pitt on this point but agreed to stay, December 1798, when Castlereagh persuaded him that the leading Irish Catholics were not in favour of concessions at present. In March 1799 Castlereagh described him as ‘quite recovered’ and ‘the comfort of my life’. On the eve of the Union, Cornwallis proposed making him the Irish under-secretary resident in London. After the Union, he transferred from St. Canice, the Irish borough at the disposal of government which he had represented, to another such seat, Portarlington. He forfeited this seat by his opposition to Addington and was returned by Earl Fitzwilliam at the election of 1802. Dundas had pressed him to take the government of the Cape, but he refused on principle. He could have remained in office under Pelham and come in for Seaford on his interest, but he declined; nor would he contemplate standing for Roxburghshire with his kinsman’s support. Accepting the offer of Peterborough, 8 Dec. 1801, he was confident that he and his patron saw eye to eye in politics: his views were total agreement with Burke on the French revolution, acceptance of the suspension of liberty at home only during hostilities, disinclination to ‘any general or systematic line of parliamentary conduct in respect to ministers, either of support or opposition’, hostility to parliamentary reform and support for Catholic relief and civil liberty in Ireland, and for an amelioration but not an immediate abolition of the slave trade.3

Elliot had already made his parliamentary debut, which was ‘short, well heard, and universally applauded’, on 4 Nov. 1801, when he joined with Windham and the Grenvillites in attacking the peace preliminaries with France, which offered only ‘a delusive and transient repose’. On 19 Jan. 1802 he was labelled a warmonger by Lord Hawkesbury when he described the French naval expedition to the West Indies as part of a ‘thirst for universal dominion’. On 3 Mar. he spoke in favour of a large military establishment to avert the consequences of a disadvantageous peace. He seconded Windham’s motion on the plight of Malta, 3 May, and two days later himself moved for papers bearing on the Treaty of Amiens. His speeches were much admired. He and French Laurence were called the two Tartars of Tibet by the Moniteur for their intransigence and acquired some notoriety. John Frere* wrote of Elliot to his son, ‘He is the thinnest, baldest, whitest lath that ever you saw ... I wish the writer of the Moniteur could see the Savage as he denominates him’.4 On 14 May 1802 Elliot, who was also in frequent consultation with Thomas Grenville*, voted with the small minority against the peace treaty. He opposed the Scottish militia bill, 31 May. He characterized France as the armed robber at the door in his attack on the address, 24 Nov. 1802, and on 29 Dec. secured a shortening of the adjournment in view of the French menace. By 11 Mar. 1803 he flattered himself that the government were at last alive to it and on 24 May he welcomed the resumption of hostilities as just and necessary. He voted for Patten’s censure motion, 3 June. A critic of the embodiment of the Irish militia, he described their preference for the militia as the weakness of government’s defence measures, 23 June. On 2 Aug. he was in the minority for Fox’s motion for a council of general officers. His Irish experience prompted his long critique of the application of martial law in Ireland, 11 Aug.; he informed Lord Malmesbury, 13 Aug., ‘the little clique here which has managed the affairs of Ireland to the exclusion of Pelham has permitted a system of rebellious organisation to be matured in that country’.5 He accordingly supported an inquiry into the rebellion, 11 Nov. He surprisingly announced on 5 Dec. that he would not negative the Irish martial law bill but, believing that those who voted for the Union had ‘a special duty to Ireland’, feared he might ‘live to repent’ the vote he gave in its favour. He voted for inquiry into Emmet’s rising, 7 Mar. and attacked the Irish militia offer bill, 10 Apr. 1804, as ‘impolitic, imperfect and inadequate’. Having joined the combined opposition to Addington that month, he meant to harry him further over the Irish barracks department, when the ministry fell.

Elliot remained in opposition with the Grenvillites during Pitt’s second ministry. He was a critic of Pitt’s role after 1801 and had objected to a coalition of Pitt and Addington in 1803, even if Lord Grenville were included. He attacked Pitt’s additional force bill in June 1804. When Grenville took office in 1806, he disliked the alliance with Sidmouth and his friends, fearing a ‘nominal’ cabinet. He wished for his patron’s inclusion. Writing to Minto to deny the rumour that he himself was to be secretary at war, he explained that he did not expect to be included in the administration, as with ‘so many different interests, some sacrifice must be made’; he admitted his claims, but was reluctant to undertake ‘the fatigue of any very active employment’. Yet Windham urged Grenville to employ him. He accepted the office of chief secretary to the Duke of Bedford at Dublin. Grenville had to press him to do so and Elliot confessed to ‘much reluctance and apprehension, as my health is by no means in such a state as to qualify me for such exertion’. George Tierney* who had hoped for the post, was obliged to admit that Fox, who thought Elliot had ‘a fair share of prudence’ to go with his other qualities, was in favour of Elliot having it. At Dublin, where he was styled ‘le Revenant’, his experience was not particularly happy; there were rumours of his giving up in the summer of 1806. The management of Irish elections proved uncongenial and, while he possessed the perfect confidence of the viceroy, he was sorely tried by the responsibility of negotiating with the representatives of the Irish Catholic body early in 1807. The Marquess of Buckingham referred to Elliot’s ‘want of management’ in this business, while he himself wrote to Grenville, 17 Mar. 1807, to say that he could not remain in office unless some concessions were made to Catholic claims, and proposed conferring with him in London on the need for a change of Irish administration. Grenville had hoped that Elliot would persuade the viceroy to stand firm and this news confirmed his pessimism about achieving any measure of Catholic relief, which the event justified. As early as May 1806 Elliot had expressed his fear that ‘a vexatious opposition from the crown to government’ would undermine the ministry. He did not lose the esteem of Grenville, who thought him ‘the person who least deserves reproaches from any of us, being, unquestionably, the most zealous, and by far the most considerable and able friend we have out of the line of our own immediate and near connexions’.6

Elliot, who had been willing to give up his seat to Windham after the election, resumed militant opposition with the Grenvillites in 1807 and justified their Irish policy; he was a keen advocate of the grant to Maynooth College and of Catholic relief during the session of 1807-8, when he thought opposition might regain esteem by unity and moderation. His commitment to them caused him to decline a ministerial offer to join Minto in India, as a commissioner of inquiry into retrenchment. Apart from Irish affairs, he spoke only against the vote of thanks for the bombardment of Copenhagen, 28 Jan. 1808, and in criticism of the militia bill, 25 Jan. 1809; on this and subsequent occasions he regretted that Windham’s military plans had not been adopted, rather than such ‘hackneyed expedients’. He was a supporter of Ponsonby’s leadership of the opposition and, as such, constantly consulted as to tactics; he was no friend to the radical branch of the Whigs. Thus he went away before the division on Madocks’s motion on corruption, 12 May 1809, and did not support Curwen’s reform bill in June. He criticized Whitbread for his acquiescence in the petition in favour of Burdett, 9 May 1810, which he found improper. He voted against Brand’s motion for reform, 21 May 1810. During these years he was ‘very, very gloomy’, fearing a revolution ‘very soon’.

‘The stern Elliot’, as Windham called him, was much affected by the latter’s death and had thoughts of retiring from politics. But he could still be relied upon to make ‘an honourable and eloquent protest’. This he did during the Regency debates, Nov.-Dec. 1810, and against the re-appointment of the Duke of York, 6 June 1811, when he explained that he had previously voted only for Bankes’s motion for the duke’s removal in March 1809 and abstained on the two others. As he disliked the Prince of Wales’s ‘weakness and fluctuation of character’, he had regarded the Whig failure to return to power in February 1811 as ‘a happy deliverance’ and had, to Lord Grenville’s mortification, refused to consider office. On 7 Mar. he was the only English Member to support Ponsonby’s views on Catholic relief and he spoke up for freedom of conscience in the army and militia that session. He joined in the Whig attacks on McMahon’s appointments in February and April 1812, though his objection to sinecures was not deep rooted: he dismissed the offices in reversion bill as ‘of little moment’, 7 Feb. 1812. After supporting Lord Morpeth’s Irish motion, 4 Feb., energetically advocating relief for the Irish Catholics, he presented a petition from the English Catholics for relief, 20 Apr., and on 24 Apr. justified Catholic relief, not on abstract grounds, but as ‘a matter of moral and political prudence’. On parliamentary reform, Elliot remained adamant: opposing Brand’s motion, 8 May, he thought that ‘in general the House spoke the sense of the people’. This being the case, he deplored in a ‘well received’ speech the return to power of a discredited administration, 11 June, and the exclusion of the Whigs, whose part in the negotiations for a stronger administration he defended.7

Elliot joined the Grenvillites in refusing to support Whitbread’s amendment to the address, 30 Nov. 1812; he subsequently deplored Whitbread’s and Methuen’s procedure in the cause of the Princess of Wales. On the other hand, he supported Whitbread’s motion in defence of the Spanish Liberal refugees at Gibraltar, 1 Mar. 1815. In 1813, 1814 and 1816 he presented petitions for relief from the English Catholics; his speech of 21 May 1816 in its favour was received with ‘loud cheers from all parts of the House’, and on 9 May 1817, when he seconded Grattan’s motion for Irish Catholic relief, he ridiculed the fears of alarmist critics of the measure. On 3 Mar. 1815 he announced a change of mind in favour of the corn bill, which he had voted against the previous session: regretting his difference with his friends, particularly Francis Horner*, he explained that he could not see the agricultural interest sacrificed. Having supported the Regent’s address on France, 7 Apr. 1815, he was in favour of the property tax, 20 Apr., but thought ministers should be censured for permitting Buonaparte to escape from Elba. He refused to support Whitbread’s motion in favour of negotiations with Buonaparte, 28 Apr., and could not oppose the address, 1 Feb. 1816, as he had from the start favoured the resumption of hostilities. On 20 Feb., to quote Castlereagh, ‘Mr Elliot although he did not vote for the address made a most powerful speech in support of the main principles of the peace, and left nothing unsaid in the view of the House’. (His only objection was to the indemnity demanded from France.) Writing to Lord Grenville on 23 Jan., he had admitted that he was at loggerheads with his Whig friends and announced that he would attend no more party meetings: like other Grenvillites, he refused to attend the meeting of 31 Jan. He wished to retire from public life, and when that summer there were rumours of a dissolution, he informed his patron that retirement was ‘essential to my comfort, happiness, and health’, but he allowed himself to be persuaded by Fitzwilliam to continue.8 He had steadily supported government retrenchment that session, as he did during the next.

Much persuasion was necessary to induce Elliot to attend the party meeting of 21 Jan. 1817 to frame a composite amendment to the address. He had not wished to go, refusing to come to terms with parliamentary reform, even if moderate. Tierney reported, 22 Jan., ‘Elliot attended our meeting, and appeared to be in a state of more than usual alarm on the subject of parliamentary reform. He is ... avowedly, adverse to any amendment, but, if there must be one, makes no objection to that proposed.’ Elliot himself informed Fitzwilliam that he had explained that he was in the habit of consulting Lord Grenville and that he could not support reform: ‘no influence of friendship or party connexion could induce me to countenance it even by an ambiguous expression in any document that was to go forth to the public’.9 In the House he opposed reform petitions and spoke disparagingly of ‘state architects’, 29, 31 Jan. 1817. On 20 May he voted against Burdett’s reform motion. He also joined the Grenvillites in supporting the seditious meetings bill, 24 Feb. (though not the Lords’ amendment to it, 28 Mar.) and, as a member of the secret committee, the suspension of habeas corpus, 23 June, in which he differed from his patron’s son Lord Milton. He justified his views in his correspondence with Fitzwilliam, but feared that his ‘languid health’ would affect his future attendance, 19 Dec. 1817. When he resumed attendance, he retained his opposition seat, though he voted with ministers on their employment of informers, 5 Mar. 1818. On 16 Apr. he opposed the marriage grants to the royal dukes, also the subject of his last vote, 15 May. He had been too ill to attend for some time and although he consented to his re-election in 1818 and offered ‘the little co-operation I can give’ to opposition, he realized that he could not ‘contribute a mite of service to any cause’, as he could no longer ‘bear the habits and fatigue of a London or public life’. He assented, without subscribing, to Tierney’s leadership of opposition, but wished to resign his seat if his health did not improve by winter.10 As in the case of Francis Horner, to whom he had paid moving tribute in the House, a convalescence abroad was suggested. He died, ‘free from alarm’ until two days before, 29 Oct. 1818 at Minto House, not supposing his lungs to be seriously affected, but considering his complaints to be due to gout and ‘an hereditary disposition to asthma’. He settled his property in Scotland ‘in the strictest terms of a Scotch entail upon the oldest branch of [the Elliot family] represented by Sir William Elliot of Stobbs’.11

William Lamb, his Peterborough colleague, recalled that everything that Elliot did at the election of 1818 ‘was more than usually marked by that pure taste and lofty feeling, both of which so peculiarly belonged to him [and] seemed to convey that he felt that it was all for the last time’. Lord Althorp voted him ‘not only the honestest but one of the ablest’ of politicians. His chief in Ireland, the Duke of Bedford, ‘never met with a man of better principles or more honourable feelings’. Lord Grenville, mortified at Elliot’s refusal to consider office in 1811, had written ‘there is no other person that can supply the sort of service which he would have rendered us’ and did not need on Elliot’s death to be reminded by William Wickham*:

In the House of Commons he alone gave life and spirit to your opinions and principles, and, as it were, embodied them, so that in the heat of all the political rage of the last 12 years, when they were brought forward or expounded by him no one ever ventured to treat them either as factious or theoretical, much less as the result of ignorance or presumption.

The last of the brilliant school of Burke and Windham, Elliot left as evidence of his magnanimity his speeches, productions of considerable moral refinement. Lord Colchester summed him up:

A man of the loftiest and gentlest spirit, the most cultivated understanding, and eminently distinguished in debate by his dignified sentiments, by the force and correctness of his language, by depth of reasoning, and eloquence; commanding always the profound respect of all parties by the combined weight of his talents and character.12,

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Col. W. Elliot, Elliots of Brugh and Wells ; NLS mss 11048, f. 202; 11137, ff. 1, 34; Minto, i. 107, 197, 200, 202, 245, 309, 349, 358, 359, 378; ii. 10, 19; iii. 300; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, ii. 164.
  • 2. Minto, ii. 44, 73; iii. 198; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 85; Burke Corresp. vii. 430; NLS mss 11048, f. 238; 11137, f. 61; 11138, ff. 9, 71, 112; Diary of Madame d’Arblay ed. Dobson, iii. 417; Windham Pprs. ii. 27.
  • 3. PRO 30/8/325, ff. 26, 326; Camden mss C122/9, O198/3; Add. 33102, ff. 26, 39; 33106, ff. 94, 243; NLS mss 11137, f. 68; 11138, ff. 123, 133, 134, 141, 154, 162, 168, 178; Castlereagh Corresp. i. 403, 412, 421; ii. 9, 29; Minto, ii. 389; iii. 27-30, 35, 50; Parl. Pprs. (1829) iv. 378; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 9; Fitzwilliam mss, box 59, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 6 Dec., Elliot to same, 8 Dec. 1801.
  • 4. Colchester, i. 377; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 255, 276; NLS mss 11054, ff. 47, 59, 135, 217; Fitzwilliam mss, box 60, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 2 Mar.; Frere mss, J. to B. Frere, 19 May 1802.
  • 5. Malmesbury mss; HMC Fortescue, vii. 124, 199.
  • 6. Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 300; Minto, iii. 284, 323, 348; Fitzwilliam mss, box 68, Elliot to Fitzwilliam, 5 Feb.; NLS, Minto mss, Elliot to Minto, 29 Jan.; Sheridan mss, Tierney to Sheridan, 4 Mar.; Add. 35645, f. 316; 37847, f. 1; 37889, f. 133; 47569, f. 275; 51661, Bedford to Holland, 29 Sept. 1806; HMC Fortescue, ix. 73, 80, 98, 100, 112, 121; Spencer mss, Elliot to Spencer, 5 May 1806; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 99; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, ii. 164.
  • 7. NLS mss 11087, ff. 67, 125, 161; 11804, W. to Gilbert Elliot, 31 May 1808; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 222; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 10 Dec. 1807; Add. 34458, f. 635; 41852, f. 352; 41853, ff. 5, 23, 27, 365; 41854, f. 377; Lansdowne mss, Holland to Petty, 11 Dec. [1807]; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 12 May 1809; Fitzwilliam mss, box 72, Laurence to Fitzwilliam [3 May 1807]; box 79, Elliot to same, 2 Feb.; Grey mss, Grenville to Grey, 28 Jan. 1811; NLI, Richmond mss 63/588.
  • 8. Add. 41853, f. 298; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F32/74; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 637; Fortescue mss, Elliot to Grenville, 23 Jan.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 1 Feb.; Fitzwilliam mss, box 84, Elliot to Fitzwilliam, 22 Jan.; box 85, same to same, 10 Aug., 16 Oct. 1816.
  • 9. Grey mss, Grey to Holland, 16 Jan., Tierney to Grey, 20, 22 Jan. 1817; HMC Fortescue, x. 422; Fitzwilliam mss, box 88, Elliot to Fitzwilliam, 20, 22 Jan. 1817.
  • 10. Horner mss 7, f. 305; Fitzwilliam mss, box 89, Elliot to Fitzwilliam, 19 Dec. 1817; box 93, Elliot to Tierney (copy), 19 July, to Fitzwilliam, 20, 22 July, 19 Sept.; NLW, Coedymaen mss 20, Buckingham to Williams Wynn, Fri. [Mar.]; NLS mss 11804, Elliot to Minto, 2, 17 Feb. 1818.
  • 11. Fitzwilliam mss, box 93, Minto to Fitzwilliam, 21 Oct.; box 94, same to same, 30 Oct. 1818.
  • 12. Ibid. Althorp to Milton, 4 Nov., Lamb to Fitzwilliam, 11 Nov.; Fortescue mss, Wickham to Grenville, 8 Nov. 1818; Add. 51661, Bedford to Holland, 29 Sept. 1806; Grey mss, Grenville to Grey, 28 Jan. 1811; Coedymaen mss 8, f. 557; Morning Chron. 2 Nov. 1818; Colchester, iii. 63.