John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon

Lord Chancellor 1801-06, 1807-27

June 4, 1751 - January 13, 1838

John Scott (1751-1838) First Baron Eldon from 1799. First Earl of Eldon from 1821. Lord Chancellor, 1801-6, 1807-27. Eldon was the least aristocratic of Liverpool’s Cabinet, the eleventh of sixteen children of a Newcastle coal fitter who died in 1776 worth £20,000, and, while not owning coal mines, also engaged in insurance and owned a pub – such was the commercial elasticity of the eighteenth century. Eldon was educated at Newcastle Royal Grammar School and University College, Oxford. Like Charles Jenkinson, also educated at University College, he was intended for the Church. His elder brother William Scott (1745-1836), first Baron Stowell from 1821, also went to Oxford (Corpus Christi) and became a judge of the High Court of Admiralty, as well as a close friend of Dr Samuel Johnson and an executor of his will.

Eldon graduated in 1770, won a prize for English prose, became a fellow of his college and then eloped with a Newcastle banker’s daughter in 1772 to be married in Scotland, thus ending his fellowship. (He was to be a devoted husband to his wife Elizabeth, despite her refusal to participate in London social life, until her death in 1831.) Accordingly, he gave up thoughts of the Church and entered Middle Temple in 1773, being called to the Bar in 1776, in which year he inherited £1,000, on top of the £2,000 previously settled on him. With the help of his brother, he became junior counsel on an election petition case and rapidly became an expert on elections and well-paid.

Eldon entered the House of Commons in 1783, became a Pittite in December of that year and was appointed Solicitor General in 1788, Attorney General in 1793 and Lord Chief Justice in 1799. He was an able speaker because of his ability to master a subject rapidly and, as such, was increasingly valued by Pitt. As Solicitor General, he was challenged to a duel in 1792 but, unlike Pitt, Castlereagh and Wellington, he refused the challenge, as he had been acting in his professional capacity in the matter in question.

In May 1793, as Attorney General Eldon earned the future wrath of the Whig Lord Chancellor and historian, John Campbell1, by prosecuting John Frost for uttering and repeating seditious words in a coffee house. Frost was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment at Newgate, expulsion from his profession as attorney and a day in the stocks at Charing Cross. Campbell appears to think that Frost should have been let off because he was a gentleman but, in the perilous early years of the French Revolutionary War, Eldon would appear to be justified in prosecuting, whatever Frost’s social status.

Similarly, Eldon’s enthusiastic prosecution of the leading members of the London Corresponding Society in the following year under the Treason Act of 1351, encouraged by Pitt, seems more reasonable 200 years afterwards than it did to Campbell’s snug Victorian Whiggery or to the London mobs who threatened Eldon nightly during the trial. As Eldon said: ‘If a conspiracy to depose the King is an overt act of compassing his death when the conspirators intend to supersede him with another king, it is equally so when they intend to supersede him with a republic.’2 The jury, however, refused to convict on the charge.

Eldon became Lord Chancellor in 1801, an appointment foreseen two years earlier, expedited by his staunch opposition to Catholic Emancipation and his good relations with both the King and the new Prime Minister, Addington. Thereafter he took the position that he was the King’s Lord Chancellor, owing no special allegiance to the Prime Minister. He took responsibility for the treatment of the King during George III’s bouts of porphyria in 1801, 1804 and 1810, allowing the King time to recover on the first two occasions. He also took responsibility for the smooth operation of government during those periods, often acting in the incapacitated King’s name and even facilitating the replacement of Addington by Pitt in 1804. Unlike the treacherous Thurlow in 1789, he was never tempted to call for a regency until it was unavoidable.

With Liverpool, Eldon was instrumental in the formation of the Portland ministry in 1807 and he re-assumed the Lord Chancellorship with enthusiasm, although he regretted that Sidmouth was left out. In both 1809 and 1812 he opposed various coalition proposals (which mostly involved his removal), believing coalitions ‘never strengthen anybody, and do nobody credit’3. He hoped to be made Chancellor of Oxford University in 1809 after Portland’s death but in the event Grenville scraped in by thirteen votes. He then became close to Perceval, was a pall-bearer at his funeral and, by adroit management of the Regency Crisis, ensured he survived the change in monarch.

Like Liverpool, but more strongly, Eldon opposed Catholic Emancipation on constitutional grounds, being close personally to the ‘ultra’, Cumberland. He was generally on the conservative side of the Cabinet, especially on public order issues, strongly supporting Sidmouth’s restrictive legislation of 1817 and the Six Acts of 1819. He also supported imprisonment for debt, believing it essential to preserve the integrity of credit, and, in general, the retention of harsh punishments for minor crimes, regarding them as a maximum which judicial discretion could and should mitigate.

As a judge, Eldon was courteous and even-handed but did nothing to discourage prolixity, so that delays in the Court of Chancery became a matter of scandal. He was, however, a mild reformer of legal practice, creating a Vice-Chancellor to mitigate the intolerable delays of the Chancery court and abolishing trial by battle.

Eldon was generally a pillar of strength to Liverpool, whom he liked, although he was sometimes opposed to him during the last five Canningite years of Liverpool’s government. Eldon’s dislike of Canning, as well as of his principles, extended over several decades – he had described him as ‘Vanity in a human form’ in 1809. Huskisson was another bugbear, probably because of his economic views, but Castlereagh, Sidmouth and, as Home Secretary, Peel were all among Eldon’s favourites.

Eldon’s knowledge of economics and foreign policy and his influence in those areas was limited; for example, he wanted to postpone a return to gold in 1819 and was overruled by Liverpool.

Eldon had been a good friend of George III, who trusted him during his indispositions and used him as a family lawyer. Unlike Liverpool, he also became a good friend of George IV, who resented Eldon’s partial support for Queen Caroline during the ‘Delicate Investigation’ of 1806 but welcomed his help against her on later occasions, notably in 1820 when he presided over the House of Lords trying her.

Eldon retired reluctantly in 1827, attempted to return when Wellington formed a government, briefly voted with the Whigs in 1830 because of the Wellington government’s passage of Catholic Emancipation and, as his last public act, opposed Brunel’s Great Western Railway as a ‘dangerous innovation’. He died in 1838, with a will proved at over £500,000.

Mrs Arbuthnot liked Eldon; she called him a ‘delightful person’ saying, ‘there was so much playfulness in his mind and manner and that, in conversing with him, one forgot that he was old and the greatest lawyer we ever had’4.

[1] John Campbell (1779-1861). 1st Baron Campbell from 1841. Lord Chancellor, 1859-61. Author of the ultra-Whiggish, Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keeper of the Great Seal of England (London: John Murray, 1845).

[2] Ibid., Vol. 7, p. 112.

[3] Ibid., p. 196.

[4] Bamford and Wellington, The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-1832, Vol. 1, p. 36.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson