Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ellis, John (1698-1790)

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ELLIS, JOHN (1698–1790), scrivener and political writer, son of James and Susannah Ellis, was born in the parish of St. Clement Danes, London, 22 March 1698. His father was of an eccentric and roving disposition, a good swordsman, and very agile, but unable, from his narrow means, to provide his children with a proper education. John was first sent to a wretched day-school in Dogwell Court, Whitefriars, with a brother and two sisters, and was afterwards removed to another, not much superior, in Wine Office Court, Fleet Street. Here he learned the rudiments of grammar, chiefly by his own industry, and is said while at school to have translated a Latin poem of Payne Fisher entitled 'Marston Moore, sive de obsidione prœlioque Eboracensi carmen lib. 6,' 1660, 4to, which was afterwards published in 1750 (Watt, Bibl. Brit.) His mother, Susannah Philpot, was a fanatical dissenter, and the strictness of her discipline in his early years caused him to entertain throughout his life a strong aversion to sectaries. He began his business career as clerk or apprentice to Mr. John Taverner, a scrivener in Threadneedle Street, and improved his knowledge of Latin by listening to the assistance which his master gave in his school-exercises to his son, who was a pupil at Merchant Taylors' School. On the death of his master Ellis succeeded to the business in partnership with young Taverner, whose idleness and imprudence involved him for a long period in considerable anxiety and loss. The proper business of a scrivener was to make charters and deeds concerning lands and tenements and all other writings which by law are required to be sealed, and Ellis, who outlived every member of the profession, was equally respected by his clients, personal acquaintances, and literary friends. Among the earliest of these were Dr. King of Oxford and his pupil Lord Orrery, with whom he frequently exchanged visits. He also corresponded on intimate terms with the Rev. N. Fayting, master of Merchant Taylors' School, rector of St. Martin Outwich, and prebendary of Lincoln, their letters being frequently in verse. In 1742-3 he made a poetical translation of Dr. King's 'Templum Libertatis,' which, however, like most of his literary efforts, was not printed. Another intimate friend was Moses Mendez, who addressed to him a poetical epistle describing a journey to Ireland, which, with Ellis's reply, also in verse, was printed in a 'Collection of Poems,' published in 1767.

Chief among the circle of his literary friends and admirers was Dr. Johnson, who once said to Boswell, 'It is wonderful, sir, what is to be found in London. The most literary conversation that I ever enjoyed was at the table of Jack Ellis, a money-scrivener behind the Royal Exchange, with whom I used to dine generally once a week.' Ellis, though not ambitious of publication, did not discontinue writing verses for more than seventy years, and used frequently to recite with energy and vivacity poems of a hundred lines after the age of eighty-eight years. His principal work was a translation of 'Ovid's Epistles,' which Johnson frequently recommended him to publish, but his modesty would not allow it. The few pieces he published were:

  1. 'The South Sea Dream,' a poem in Hudibrastic verse, 1720.
  2. A verse translation from Latin of a rather broad jeu d'esprit entitled 'The Surprise, or the Gentleman turned Apothecary,' 1739, 12mo, originally written in French prose.
  3. A travesty of Maphæus, published in 1758 with the following title:

    The Canto added by Maphæus
    To Virgil's twelve books of Æneus,
    From the original Bombastic,
    Done into English Hudibrastic,
    With notes beneath, and Latin text,
    In every other page annext.'

He also contributed several small pieces to Dodsley's 'Collection of Poems by several hands,' 6 vols., 1763, which were printed with his name in the sixth volume of the work. One of these, 'The Cheat's Apology,' was set to music and song by Vernon at Vauxhall with much success. A short allegorical poem, 'Tartana, or the Plaidie,' was printed in 1782 in the 'European Magazine' (ii. 151, 234). A number of his versus, composed at various times for Boydell, Bowles, and other printsetters, were also printed. Besides many unpublished poems he left behind him versions of Æsop and Cato, and of portions of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses.' According to an unpublished poem addressed to EIlis by Moses Mendez, printed by 'W. C.' in 'Notes and Queries' (4th ser. vii. 5), he used to attend at the Cock tavern in Threadneedle Street every Friday evening at eight o'clock to enjoy the society of his literary friends; his cheerful and amiable disposition and large fund of anecdotes, which he told with great effect, making him a very agreeable companion.

Ellis took an active part in the affairs of the Scriveners' Company, of which he was four times master. His portrait was painted in 1781 by T. Frye, at the expense of the company, to be hung in their hall, and was also engraved for them by W. Pether, he being in his eighty-third year. Ellis was also for forty years an active member of the corporation of London, being elected a common councilman for Broad Street ward in 1750, and afterwards appointed alderman's deputy. The duties of the latter post he actively discharged until his resignation on St. Thomas's day 1790, not many days before his death.

In January 1765 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the office of chamberlain of London, Ellis was never married, and, being of temperate and cheerful habits, lived to an advanced age. Up to his eighty-fifth year he used frequently to walk thirty miles a day. Boswell, who visited him 4 Oct. 1790, in his ninety-third year, found his judgment distinct and clear and his memory 'able to serve him very well after a little recollection' (Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 21). In the last year of his life his circumstances were reduced by the bankruptcy of a person whom he had generously assisted, but his friends speedily relieved him. He died 31 Dec. 1790, and was buried 5 Jan. 1791 in tho church of St. Bartholomew by the Exchange. He lived for many years in Black Swan Court, and afterwards in Capel Court, Bartholomew Lane. A letter from him to Dr. Johnson, printed in the 'European Magazine,' describes a remarkable alteration in his eyesight, which occurred in his eighty-sixth year, while on a short visit to Margate.

[An excellent account of Ellis is cotributed by his friend, Isaac Reed, to the European Magazine for 1792, xxi, 3-5, 125-8, with portrait; Scriveners' Company's Records; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. 18th Cent., iii. 409.]

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