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Edward Ellice, the elder (1781-1863)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1888

Edward Ellice the elder, politician, was of an English family which settled in Aberdeenshire about the middle of the seventeenth century. His grandfather established himself as a merchant in New York, and his father, Alexander, taking the English side in the war of independence, removed to Montreal and founded the house of Inglis, Ellice, & Co. He was also managing director of the Hudson's Bay Company, supplied a very large part of the capital with which the whole fur trade was carried on, and established a branch of his firm in London about 1800.

Edward, his third son, was born in 1781, and was educated at Winchester [1]. He afterwards studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and while there lived in the family of Principal Brown. He matriculated at the university in 1797, and graduated M.A. in 1800, having chiefly studied ancient history, logic, and moral philosophy. He became a clerk in his father's London house, and there acquired his remarkable business habits, and went to Canada in 1803, where he engaged in the fur trade. He happened while in Canada in 1806 to make the first passage in the first steamboat ever launched, the Fulton.

In 1805 he became connected with the competing Canadian fur companies, the North-West Company and the X. Y. Company. In this way he was the opponent of the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1820 the colonial secretary, Lord Bathurst, consulted him as to an amalgamation of the companies, which, after a very difficult negotiation, he accomplished 26 March 1821, and on his suggestion an act was passed in 1821 giving the thus constituted Hudson's Bay Company the right of exclusive trade for twenty years. He remained connected with the company till his death, and was then still a deputy-governor.

In 1803 he also paid his first visit to the United States, which he repeatedly revisited down to 1859, acquainting himself with the state of politics from time to time. He foresaw for many years the civil war of 1861 and its enormous cost, and deplored the prospect of the conquest of the confederate states. He was, however, so little of a partisan as to entertain impartially Mason, the confederate commissioner, in 1862, and Adams, the United States ambassador, in 1863.

Having married in 1809 Lady Hannah Althea Bettesworth, widow of Captain Bettesworth, R.N., and youngest sister of the second Earl Grey, he was thrown into constant contact with the whig party. By her he had one son, Edward, afterwards M.P. for the St. Andrews burghs. She died 29 July 1832. He married in 1843 Lady Leicester, widow of the first Earl of Leicester, and third daughter of the fourth Earl of Albemarle. She died in 1844.

His views were at first strongly radical, and he was the friend and associate of Sir F. Burdett, Sir J. Cam Hobhouse, and Whitbread; and during his closest alliance with the whig government he was supposed to represent the radical section. He was elected a member of Brooks's Club 3 June 1809, and in 1818, with Peter Moore, defeated Joseph Butterworth and was returned for Coventry. Coventry had an exclusively freeman's franchise, and there being no householder vote as such, a large proportion of the 3,700 voters had to be brought from a distance. The elections were thus enormously costly, but there was no direct bribery. In 1820 he was again returned at the head of the poll. Foreseeing the difficulty of colonial relations with Canada, he supported in 1822 Wilmot's Canadian Government and Trade Bill. He was defeated at Coventry in 1826, but was again successful in 1830.

In 1831 he was returned with Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer, and continued to represent the town till his death, receiving the second votes of radicals and conservatives, as well as liberal support. He never canvassed, but during elections, or when his votes had given offence, his habit was to address meetings. In general his constituents allowed him much political latitude.

During his first three parliaments he was a follower of Joseph Hume. In Lord Grey's government, in spite of Lord Duncannon's claims from his services as whip to the opposition, he was appointed, November 1830, secretary to the treasury and whip — an arduous post, as he had the principal conduct of the election of 1831, was opposed by a very able tory whip, Holmes, and had large funds to administer. ‘He beat the enemy with their own weapons,’ says Le Marchant; ‘he collected large sums from the leading whigs, with which he purchased several of the nomination boroughs previously represented by tories.’ Having a great provincial connection with local liberal leaders, he was widely successful. He was not on the committee of four which prepared the first scheme of reform for the approval of the cabinet, but he vigorously supported it in parliament, especially the parts of it which enfranchised the metropolitan boroughs. ‘He had more to do,’ says Campbell, ‘with carrying the bill than any other man’.

In August 1832 he resigned his secretaryship, and expressed a strong wish never to hold office again. His business affairs called him to America, and his passage was taken, when Lord Grey by a written entreaty induced him to accept in April 1833 the secretaryship at war with a seat in the cabinet, which he held till Lord Melbourne's resignation in December 1834. While secretary at war he had urged strongly that appointments in the army should be made directly by the secretary, so as to secure responsibility to parliament; but in this he was steadily opposed by the Duke of Wellington. From 1834 he never held office again, but continued the confidential adviser of liberal governments till his death. His advice in general was for liberals to resign rather than be turned out; and when in opposition, not to be in a hurry to turn out a conservative government.

He was influential in forming many ministries, especially Lord Melbourne's second administration. In 1834, while the committee appointed to consider Whittle Harvey's claims to be called to the bar was sitting, he was charged with having employed public funds for election purposes in 1832. The charge, however, was refuted; he had found large sums for the election from his own private fortune upon the failure of party funds. In 1836 he was chiefly instrumental in founding the Reform Club, of which he was the first chairman. After the Reform Bill of 1832 he was opposed to further organic change, and condemned Lord John Russell's proposals for further reform. Though he did not agree with Palmerston's foreign policy, especially in 1840, when he and other whigs misled Guizot into supposing that his policy in the East would not be interfered with by England, he supported him as premier.

He was intimate with many leading French politicians, especially with Guizot, Thiers, Prosper Mérimée, and Madame de Lieven. In April 1836 he was in Paris, privately urging the French government to send an armed force into Spain, and again in January 1837, after a visit to America, intriguing to set up Thiers against the government of M. Molé. In 1855 he was a member of Roebuck's committee to inquire into the administration of the Crimean war; and in 1857 of the Hudson's Bay committee, before which he was also a witness. He was universally known by the nickname, probably invented by Brougham, of ‘the Bear’ — ‘for his wiliness,’ says Carlyle, ‘rather than for any trace of ferocity,’ really from his connection with the north-west fur trade.

He was a most hospitable and disinterested man, and never sought anything from governments. He declined even the peerage which was the obvious reward of his great party services, and probably the sole acquisition of his political life was the silver inkstand which he retained in accordance with the custom of the time when he gave up the office of secretary at war. Though little of a student, he was well informed, a ready speaker, but not easily stirred to speak, an excellent whip, exempt from the social prejudices of the whigs, popular with the House of Commons, sagacious, and independent. ‘Il était,’ says P. Mérimée, ‘l'un des plus parfaits modèles du gentleman de la vieille roche.’ Politics cost him large sacrifices, for he was a busy and successful merchant; the first to pass from the counting-house to the cabinet. He inherited large landed estates in Canada and in the state of New York, and was in early life practically engaged in colonising them. He entertained at Glenquoich in Inverness with a profuse but delightful hospitality, sometimes having more than a thousand guests in a year. He was made a D.C.L. of St. Andrews, and was appointed a deputy-lieutenant of Inverness-shire in 1862. He presided at a public dinner at Inverness held to celebrate the completion of the northern railways on 10 September 1863, and was found dead in his bed at Ardochy, on his estate of Glengarry, from heart disease on 17 September, in the following week. He was buried on 23 September at Tor-na-Cairidh, a mound at the end of Loch Garry.

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