ELLIS, Henry (1788-1855).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1820 - 16 Feb. 1821

Family and Education

b. 1 Sept. 1788,1 illegit. s. of Robert Hobart†, 4th earl of Buckinghamshire.2 educ. Harrow 1799-1803;3 by William Nicholson of Soho Square, Mdx. 1804-5;4 Fort William Coll. Calcutta 1805.5 m. 10 June 1820, at Cape Town, Louisa Amelia Wilson of Leominster, Herefs., 3s.6 KCB 27 Apr. 1848. d. 28 Sept. 1855.

Offices Held

Writer E.I. Co. (Bengal) 1805; asst. to sec. of secret, political and foreign depts. 1807, to Lt.-Col. John Malcolm* on Persian expedition 1808; head asst. to dep.-sec. of secret, political and foreign depts. 1809; first asst. to resident at Poonah 1810; res. 1811.

Private sec. to pres. Bengal bd. of control 1812-14; plenip. to Persia 1814; sec. during Anglo-American negotiations 1815; third commr. in Lord Amherst’s embassy to China 1816-17; dep. colonial sec. and commr. of stamps, Cape Colony 1819-21; commr. of customs 1824-5; clerk of the pells 1825-34; commr. bd. of control Dec. 1830-Dec. 1834; PC 11 July 1832; ambassador to Persia 1835-6; spec. mission to Brazil 1842-3; attended Brussels conference on affairs of Italy 1848.


Ellis was born in Dublin, the illegitimate son of Robert Hobart, chief secretary to the Irish viceroy, 1789-93. Hobart had already fathered one natural son, Charles, and it seems likely that both boys were the product of his liaison with Margaretta, the wife of Thomas Adderley. After Adderley’s death they married in 1792, prompting Lady Holland to remark that Hobart had ‘exhibited his high sense of a point d’honnour’.7 Charles and Henry could trace their patronym to Sir Richard Ellys† who, on dying without issue in 1742, had bequeathed his Nocton estates near Lincoln to his distant relations the Hobarts. They entered Harrow in September 1799, but Charles left after only four terms to prepare himself for entry to the East India Company’s service and joined the Fort St. George establishment as a writer late in 1801. (He was dismissed from the service in disgrace in 1822.) Henry left Harrow at the end of the summer term of 1803 and was coached in ‘mathematical and other studies’ for a year before successfully petitioning to join the Bengal establishment. On arrival at Calcutta he enrolled at Fort William College, where he was grounded in Hindustani, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. He left in 1807 to take on the first of a number of junior civil service posts. He resigned from the Company’s service in 1811 but stayed in India and the following year, when his father, now earl of Buckinghamshire, became president of the board of control, he was appointed secretary to the president of the board at Calcutta. His linguistic and diplomatic skills secured him the post of plenipotentiary to Persia in 1814, and the following year he helped to negotiate the Anglo-American peace treaty. When Lord Amherst was asked to head an embassy to China Ellis was appointed public secretary with the official rank of third commissioner.8 Their ship, the Alceste, left England in February 1816 and a year later, returning home after a largely unsuccessful mission, was wrecked off Borneo. As one of the survivors, Ellis accompanied Amherst and a skeleton crew in an open boat to Java, whence they returned in the East Indiaman Ternate to rescue the remaining crew.9 On the voyage home a visit was paid to St. Helena, where Ellis conversed with Buonaparte on a variety of topics. According to one biographer, Buonaparte was later incensed by a passage in Ellis’s account of the embassy to China, published in 1817, in which he accused Buonaparte of revelling in the annoyance caused by his complaints about accommodation. He even went so far as to suggest that ‘some commis to Lord Bathurst’, the colonial secretary, had invented the offending passage and ‘imposed the insertion of it’ on Ellis.10

Four days before Ellis had embarked for China his father had died, leaving all the unentailed Hobart properties to his legitimate daughter Sarah, who had married Frederick John Robinson* in 1814. Ellis and his brother each received a mere £25 annuity from Nocton rents.11 In an attempt to mend his fortunes, and with the backing of Robinson, who had just been appointed president of the board of trade, Ellis canvassed Boston as the Pink candidate early in 1818. Robinson wrote to Lord Liverpool, the premier, on the eve of the general election anticipating success and requesting that Ellis, as a ‘steady friend’ of government, be considered for a post ‘compatible with a seat in Parliament’. Liverpool, however, dismissed Ellis as a ‘political adventurer’ and suggested that he apply directly to government departments.12 His opponents at Boston also regarded him with suspicion. After accusing him of being a placeman willing to pay £3,000 for a seat they published a report of an address in which he had attacked his enemies for wishing ‘to make Boston the theatre of those scenes of blood and murder which were excited in the streets of Paris by Jacobin tunes’. When cornered Ellis admitted his ministerial allegiance, prompting the Blues to dub this ‘China lemon’ a ‘treasury tool’. He finished bottom of the poll, blaming ‘turn-coats’ for his failure, but vowed to return.13 Early in 1819 he secured the post, worth £1,500 a year, of deputy colonial secretary at the Cape, where he arrived in July. For the next 18 months, under the governor Lord Charles Somerset†, whose son he had accompanied in China, he worked among the settlers, particularly those at Algoa Bay.14

At the 1820 general election he was solicited by the Pinks to stand again for Boston, despite objections from some of their supporters to his absence on unspecified ‘engagements abroad’. His agent John Macleod, ship’s surgeon on the China mission, repeatedly denied allegations that as a placeman with a ‘snug situation’ at the Cape he was unlikely to appear, and after a two-day poll he was returned in second place.15 His defeated opponent, William Johnson*, petitioned against his return, claiming that it was invalid because at the time he held an office of profit under the crown. In debate on 25 and 26 May 1820 the minister Thomas Courtenay argued that Ellis should be given more time to appear and defend himself, but William Williams replied that the country could not wait and Sir Robert Heron contended that the dey of Algiers was as eligible to sit for Old Sarum as Ellis was to represent Boston. The Whigs George Tierney and Henry Brougham agreed with the foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh that it was impossible to prove that Ellis had held a crown office on the day of his return. The matter rested there until 31 Jan. 1821, when Johnson reintroduced his petition. An election committee was appointed and Ellis was deemed ineligible and unseated, 16 Feb. 1821.16

He left the Cape, 3 Mar. 1821, and seems not to have returned there, although by the following December he had negotiated the purchase of a government farm in the colony yielding annual rents of 640 rix dollars.17 During Robinson’s tenure of the exchequer from 1823 he was appointed first a commissioner of customs and then clerk of the pells at £3,000 a year. He gave evidence before select committees on the East India Company in the summer of 1830 and published his observations, which included a recommendation that its exclusive privileges be abandoned, in A Series of Letters on the East India Question (1830). When Robinson, now Lord Goderich, became colonial secretary in the Grey ministry, Ellis was appointed a commissioner of the board of control. In June 1831 Goderich included him in the emigration committee and in November recommended him to Grey for the new life appointment of comptroller general of the exchequer, following the proposed reorganization of that department. Goderich argued that not only was Ellis the fittest candidate in terms of experience, but that he had shown ‘an indefatigable zeal and activity in support of the present government’. Moreover

he lives amongst a great variety of society: he is much connected with the literary people of the day, amongst whom (and they are by no means an unimportant class) I know that he has fought our battle, not only upon reform, but upon the general policy and conduct with no common earnestness and success.18

Grey evidently consented, but when the exchequer was revamped in 1834 he went back on his word and installed Sir John Newport* as comptroller. Goderich, now earl of Ripon, remonstrated in vain, but Grey did concede that Ellis should be compensated for the loss of his office, which was abolished in the reorganization.19 According to Ripon, Ellis’s departure from the board of control followed his own resignation from the ministry in May 1834, but Ellis seems to have remained nominally in office until the incoming Conservative ministry ejected him in December. In July 1835 he was appointed ambassador to Persia, but he was recalled in November 1836, and Ripon later complained bitterly to Lord Aberdeen of the Melbourne ministry’s ‘unjust treatment’ of Ellis ‘in respect to the Persian mission’.20 At the 1837 general election Ellis, with Ripon’s backing, stood as a Conservative for Lincoln, where he was described as ‘a half-and-half Liberal of the Stanley school’.21 He was unsuccessful, and a disappointed Ripon recommended him to Sir Robert Peel as a ‘very useful assistant’ in the event of some ‘accidental vacancy’ occurring.22 When Ripon returned to office with the Conservatives in 1841, he persuaded Lord Aberdeen, the foreign secretary, to allow Ellis to head a trade delegation to the Brazils, maintaining that no other diplomat knew more of ‘the true principles of commercial policy’. He concluded his testimony by acknowledging a friendship with Ellis of 40 years, adding, ‘as I owe so much of my actual position in the world to the generosity of his father, I have always felt myself bound to do what I could, to help him in his course through life’.23 Ellis received a knighthood and a pension of £1,400 on his retirement from the diplomatic service, to go with the pension awarded in compensation for his abolished office. He died at his home in Brighton in September 1855.24

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Philip Salmon / Robin Healey


  • 1. BL OIOC J/1/19, f. 224.
  • 2. Add. 43547, f. 185.
  • 3. Harrow School Archives.
  • 4. OIOC J/1/19, f. 225.
  • 5. Bengal Past and Present, xxiv (1922), 114, 124.
  • 6. P. Philip, British Residents at the Cape, 115; PROB 11/2220/834.
  • 7. Holland Jnl. i. 236.
  • 8. OIOC J/1/18, ff. 294-8.
  • 9. Ann. Reg. (1817), Chron. pp. 432-49 contains a full account of the shipwreck extracted from John McLeod’s Voyage of the Alceste (1817).
  • 10. B. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, ii. 404-6.
  • 11. PROB 11/1578/121.
  • 12. Add. 38270, ff. 306, 321.
  • 13. Hist. Boston Election (Boston, 1818), passim.
  • 14. Ellis, Jnl. of Embassy to China, 18.
  • 15. Late Election for Boston (Boston, 1820), 9, 25, 27, 32.
  • 16. CJ, lxxv. 155, 213, 238, 245, 389; lxxvi. 18, 73-77.
  • 17. Recs. Cape Colony ed. G. Theal, xiv. 187-8.
  • 18. Grey mss, Goderich to Grey, 20 Nov. 1831.
  • 19. Add. 40863, ff. 78, 112.
  • 20. Add. 43072, f. 195.
  • 21. The Times, 15 May 1837.
  • 22. Add. 40424, f. 8.
  • 23. Add. 43072, f. 195.
  • 24. The Times, 5 Oct. 1855.