Rise of a Royal Furniture-Maker (1966) by Nicholas J. Barton was an article published in two parts in Country Life: part one in February 10 1966, pp293-295, and part two in February 17 1966, pp361-362.

An invaluable account of the life of Charles Elliott the cabinet-maker (1752-1832), written by his great x4 grandson (my father). The text is reproduced here in its entirety with the permission of the author, and an illustrated pdf recreation of the original article can be downloaded (right-click here and 'save as').

Part One (February 10 1966, pp293-295)


This is the story of Charles Elliott: a remarkable success story which has remained unknown for so long only because of his own modesty and dislike of publicity. He was descended from the Elliots of Liddesdale (spelling was variable in those days) who are famous in the legends and ballads of the Scottish border. His father took part in the 1715 uprising, was wounded at Preston, and was smuggled out of the country to Holland by his parents. There he married, and through his Dutch wife obtained a job with the Dutch East India Company in Java, where he lived for many years.

When his outlawry was at last reversed, he returned to Britain and settled at Maldon in Essex. In 1742 he was appointed Searcher and Tidewaiter in HM Customs at Burnham-on-Crouch, where he later also owned a mill. It was at Burnham, on July 12, 1752, that Charles Elliott was born. His father died a year later and the young Elliott is next heard of about 1770 as a lad going up to London with a shilling in his pocket. This was the London of George III, familiar to us from Boswell and Johnson.
Elliott entered the cabinet-making business and quickly showed his flair, so that in 1774 he became a partner in the firm of Davis and Elliott at 97 New Bond Street (since renumbered 104). A year later he was married in his parish church, St. George's, Hanover Square (Fig. 3), to Sarah Ann Sherman, daughter of Rev. Dr. Sherman of the parish of St. James, Piccadilly, although there is reason to believe they originally came from near Burnham.

Elliott and his wife lived, with his mother, above the premises in Bond Street. His business flourished and by 1777-78 he had reached the stage of having his portrait painted (Fig. 1). By 1783 he was the father of five children, all baptised at St. George's, and was the sole owner of the firm, Davis having presumably retired. In the next year he received his first royal appointment and supplied "for the Dining Room at Newmarket Palace, a very large mahogany sideboard table with cellarets for 10 bottles; very fine wood and cross-banded and strong, £17 10s."

In 1786 he supplied a china-case for Princess Elizabeth's dressing room at the Queen's House (now called Buckingham Palace) and, perhaps to avoid jealousy, another identical one for the Princess Royal. He was not the only royal furniture-maker, but he was the only one who was also employed as a general contractor and decorator, at a fixed quarterly salary of £157 10s. 0d. The type of work this entailed is shown by his bill for the first quarter of 1785: "For cleaning the Committee Rooms at House of Commons and all the cushions. Cleaning the Queen's House throughout. Washing and Callandering in the best manner Madame Schwellenberg's white window curtains, char cases, etc., making up and washing all the window curtains and making up ditto, chairs, cases quilts etc. for the Royal Nursery and all other rooms therein. Cleaning and preparing the Ball Room at St. James Cleaning Chaple furniture, Canopy etc. Beating for their Majesty's Carpets; new painting; Venetian blinds found, new tapes and lines; taking down, fixing up, and repairing furniture throughout the different apartments at the respective Palaces and other jobbs, found tacks, Glue, Wood, Sundry Accounts, and Buckram."

In the Houses of Parliament Elliott had to "set in order both houses during the sitting" and to do any major repair work that was needed. "In the Royal Palaces no work in upholstery or furniture was too trivial or too large for the firm, from fixing cloth on card tables to supplying and laying expensive Wilton carpets, from fitting bookshelves at 2s. 6d. each to making superb furniture for the best royal apartments."

In May 1784 Elliott's wife died, and a year later he met, at the house of some people called Jones in Cockspur Street, a young lady called Eling Venn (Fig. 2). Her father, Rev. Henry Venn, was one of the most important and most attractive figures in the Evangelical movement in the Church of England. He had once been an outstanding cricketer, but was now worn out by years of hard work at Huddersfield and was semiretired in the quiet and tiny parish of Yelling in Huntingdonshire. Here at Yelling, on December 20, 1785, Eling Venn was married by her father to Charles Elliott. She was given away by her brother, Rev. John Venn, who became one of Elliott's closest friends. It is said that the Venns did not approve of Elliott being "in trade" and that they even persuaded him to have the book in his portrait (Fig. 1) changed from a ledger to the Bible.

However, in the letters of Henry Venn, whom Elliott adopted not only as a father but as a spiritual adviser, there is no such prejudice and the advice is kind, encouraging and understanding. He especially recommended Elliott to give liberally, and to avoid "pleading a large family as a reason for not being merciful and liberal."

From one of Venn's letters at this time it appears that Elliott had been abroad in a Roman Catholic country which, incidentally, he had not liked. This is interesting because Elliott was described as "the first importer of French furniture to England" by his greatgranddaughter, whose memoirs seem to be trustworthy and whose father was brought up in Elliott's home. The importing of French furniture on a large scale began about 1783 when the Prince of Wales (later George IV) came of age and was allowed a separate establishment. The Prince immediately had Carlton House rebuilt and also refurnished, partly in the French styles which he admired. Elliott may well have been involved in obtaining furniture from France.

In this connection it is of great interest that in 1787 the Prince received from Elliott a bill for £1,745 for having "furnished his said Royal Highness with various Articles of upholstery and other things." This was a very large sum of money and the Prince, whose debts were already enormous, thought it was too large. "Disputes and Differences having arisen touching the Propriety of such Bill or charge and the sum of money that ought reasonably and firmly to be paid," both parties agreed to submit to arbitration by a committee of three other upholsterers "indifferently chosen." They found in favour of Elliott, concluding that the Prince, who had so far paid only £533 13s. 4d., must pay not only the remaining £1,211 6s. 8d. and the interest on it, but also £31 10s. 0d. for the costs of the inquiry.

In 1791 Elliott subscribed to Sheraton's "Cabinet Makers Drawing Book" and in 1792 he acquired a "charming country villa at Paddington." In the same year he became a shareholder in the Sierra Leone Company, a bold and original scheme for settling freed slaves in Africa that later became the British Colony and is now an independent republic. Its supporters included Wilberforce, Thornton, and other members of the Clapham sect, and this was probably how Elliott first met them, though a second link was forged soon afterwards when his brother-in-law, John Venn, became Rector of Clapham.

In 1796 a worsening situation in Europe, with Napoleon invading Italy, forced Pitt to appeal for loans from the nation. According to Elliott's greatgranddaughter, he was one of those who lent money, thus helping his country and also himself, since the rates of interest were high.

In 1796 or 1797 the Elliotts themselves moved to Clapham, where they lived in Grove House, on the northwest side of Old Town. The house was pulled down about 1884 but its drive still exists as a little cul-de-sac called Scout Lane. Elliott retained the Bond Street premises for business purposes and it was at this time that Elliott and Co. supplied the furniture to William Tufnell for his house at [redacted], Essex, where much of it remains to this day (Figs. 4, 5, 6 and 7). Not only the furniture but one of the bills survives, and in addition to the main items listed, the bill is endorsed "part of the furniture in drawing-room besides this, the stoves in both rooms, chair and tables in the green drawing-room, window curtains and carpets in ditto, girandoles, bronze figures and two pier glasses." Fig. 4 shows the appearance of one of the rooms complete with its furniture: Elliott must have furnished many such rooms throughout the country, but this is the only one known where the furniture is still there. "In all the furniture at [redacted] described above" concludes one expert, "the materials and craftsmanship are of the very highest order, putting Elliott's firm in the first rank of the time."

This furniture illustrates the type of work that the company produced. "Elliott was one of the last great exponents of the Satinwood period" and his furniture shows the trend away from graceful curves and satinwood to straight surfaces and dark lustrous woods such as mahogany, which were cheaper and therefore more acceptable in the financially stringent times of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

In addition to 97 New Bond Street, Elliott also owned No. 96 (now 103), which he usually rented out, and in March 1798 it was occupied by Nelson, after the Battle of St. Vincent; it was here that he dealt with the bill for the amputation of his arm, which came to £135 1s. 0d.

In 1795 Elliott had received a letter from a William Summers, trying to interest him in a venture to start what became the London Missionary Society. This was, however, an undenominational body, and Elliott seems to have felt that in the task of planting and teaching new churches he could only support a body with whose beliefs he was in full agreement.

On April 12, 1799, he was present at a meeting of members of the Church of England at the Castle and Falcon in Aldersgate Street, which resulted in the formation of the Church Missionary Society. Officers were elected, and Elliott was chosen to serve on the committee. He was later able to show his willingness to work with those of other denominations on projects where there could be no disagreement by joining the committee of the undenominational British and Foreign Bible Society. He was also on the committee of the Prayer Book and Homily Society, and belonged to the Society for Bettering the Poor, the Philanthropic Society, which aimed to reform penniless children who had turned to crime by putting the boys out as apprentices and the girls to service, and the Marine Society, which trained and fitted out poor boys to serve at sea. In addition, he belonged to the Society for the Suppression of Vice, an austere body which began reasonably enough by "informing against certain Italian gentlemen who were selling obscene prints in young ladies' boarding schools" but 20 years later reached a peak of silliness in suppressing Shelley's "Queen Mab."

At this point it is appropriate to consider Elliott's relation to "the Clapham Sect." In accounts of this group he is usually not mentioned at all or described as a fringe member, being excluded from full membership on the curious grounds that he went to live in Clapham because his brother-in-law lived there. In fact, of course, the term "Clapham Sect" was just a convenient label and the boundaries of the sect were never clearly defined. The only possible definition is that it was a group of men united firstly by living in Clapham and secondly by their religious and philanthropic activities. Elliott, as we have seen, was deeply involved in these activities, even though he did not participate in the political struggles which earned the publicity: he probably kept in the background because of his royal appointment. He lived in Clapham and was on intimate terms with the more famous members of the Sect. In the light of what we now know, it is plain that Elliott was in the fullest sense a member of the Clapham Sect.

Part Two (February 17 1966, pp361-362)


It has been known for some time that Charles Elliott was one of the leading English furniture-makers of the late eighteenth century, and it is now established that he was also one of the religious and philanthropic group called the Clapham Sect. What has hitherto been lacking is any knowledge of the man himself; his interests, his character, and the small details of his life that would enable us to form a vivid picture of him. On these a bright light is shed by the records of the Venn family, and especially by the letters and diaries of Rev. John Venn, Rector of Clapham, who was not only Elliott's brother-in-law, but his close friend and neighbour.

In January 1802 Elliott, then aged 51, was dangerously ill. He recovered, but in June Venn was ill too, and they both spent the summer convalescing at Elliott's country house at Brighton. To complete their recovery they set off from Clapham on August 25 on a holiday that would combine sightseeing, visits to old friends, and plenty of exercise. They travelled on horseback up the Great North Road, reaching Lincoln on the 28th. On this same day, although they did not know it at the time, Elliott's young and gifted son William died of a fever in Arabia, where he was secretary to the Embassy: he was popular there, as everywhere, and as a mark of honour was buried in the garden of the Imam of Senna.

At Leeds they lunched with a friend of Elliott's and afterwards "obtained permission by very great favour, which we could not have expected to obtain but as a friend of Mr. Wilberforce's, to see Mr. Gott's manufactory," an important wool mill. (Wilberforce was Member of Parliament for Yorkshire.) In Liverpool they saw a huge fire among the warehouses on the dockside. Soon "the whole town was in commotion ... distress and confusion were painted on every countenance, while the dreadful glare of the fire illuminated every building and street with a disastrous horrid light . . . Mr. Elliott was so affected that we went to Mr. Crane's at almost a mile's distance and begged him to take him in, which he readily did." On their way home they "with much satisfaction viewed the potteries of Mr. Wedgwood at Etruria" and also visited Blenheim Palace and Oxford. The trip did Elliott good and he was able to return to work. In 1803 he was included in Sheraton's list of Master Cabinet-Makers and in 1804 he supplied for His Majesty's parlour at Kew Palace "six best mahogany Grecian shape Parlor chairs, inlaid with ebony, stuffed and covered with red leather," and for Princess Elizabeth's bedroom at Kew "a five foot double headed Grecian couch" and a "handsome mahogany dressing-table, crossbanded with satin wood, rising glass, scent bottles, tins for powder, a drawer with good lock and key, on brass castors."

He was also busy on the committee of the Church Missionary Society who in January 1804 were preparing to send out their first two missionaries. "Application having failed for a passage in a slave-ship, the only conveyance that could be heard of, Mr. Elliott and Mr. Zacharay Macaulay were requested to search for some other." In 1805 came Trafalgar, but the news of victory was accompanied by that of Nelson's death. He was given a state funeral, for which the arrangements were made by Elliott and Co. and another similar firm.

At Clapham, the Venns and Elliotts—and indeed all the Clapham Sect—were constantly visiting each other and entertaining each other to meals. The following selection from Venn's diary provides a series of snapshots of Elliott's daily life:
"1806, Jan 13. Rose at 5. Went with Mr. Elliott and Mr. Pearson to town and delivered a Charge at the London Tavern to four missionaries going to Africa.
Jan 17. Sister went to town with Mr. Elliott in his carriage for a ride.
June 16. Mr. Elliott dined with us and Mr. Petrie. In the evening walked with all the party to view Hanscomb's house, Mr. Elliott having an intention of buying it.
June 28. Rode to town at 7 in the chair with my brother's coachmen to receive a new horse. (This was Elliott's sedan chair: other entries make it plain that brother here means brother-in-law.)
Aug 27. Mr. Elliott not well with toothache. Rainy afternoon. Mr. Elliott relieved by bathing his feet in warm water.
Sept 18. Called on the Elliotts to put off their dining with us today. Mr. Elliott gone to the Bank where I followed.
Sept 19. Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, Mrs. Walker, and E. Venn dined with us off a haunch of venison.
1808, March 2. Meeting of Society for Bettering Poor at Mr. Elliott's.
Oct 14. (At Brighton) Mr. Wilberforce called in from Portsmouth. He and Mrs. Wilberforce slept at Mr. Elliott's.
1809, April 21. Mr. Elliott taken ill with inflammation in peritoneum. (He was better in a week.)
July 20. Music and supper at Mr. Elliott's.
1810, Oct 17. Mr. Elliott began to take The Times with me from this day.
1811, March 29. Dined at Mr. Elliott's. Mr. Elliott going to Maldon. (This is interesting as the only indication that Elliott maintained some connection with his early life.)
Nov 11. Evening, sister returned from Brighton with Mr. Elliott. Late and alarmed oil road."

In 1806 Elliott was one of a committee of seven "principal inhabitants" of Clapham who enquired into the incomes of local tradesmen for tax purposes, and a year later he was asked to provide a baize curtain for the vestry of the church (Fig. 3). In 1808 he was chairman at the AGM of the Church Missionary Society, and was able to announce that missionary work had actually begun. He also had to report the defection of one of the two original missionaries who had deserted his duties and taken to trading, and "more and worse seems to have been known to the committee." Can it have been slaves in which he was trading?

Elliott was now approaching 60, and in 1808 he promoted William Francis, his brother-in-law and his deputy at Bond Street for at least 20 years, to a partnership in the firm. They were still working for the Royal Family, as the following bills show:
"1809. For HRH The Duke of Kent at Kensington Palace. A good mahogany Cylinder writing desk with 2 drawers, inside fitted up with drawers and Pidgeon holes, rising desk on castors, £16 16s.
1810. 2 Handsome Mahogany Sofa tables banded with Rosewood on stout claws and brass castors. £28 12s."
In the same year they charged £606 for reupholstering the House of Commons.

Elliott had also retired from the CMS Committee and was therefore able to spend more time with his large and affectionate family. He had five children by his first marriage and eight by his second, and very successful children they were. Three of them have earned a place in the Dictionary of National Biography: Henry Venn Elliott, Edward Bishop Elliott, and Charlotte Elliott (Fig. 5) who, although an invalid, became famous as the writer of "Just as I am without one plea," and other hymns.
Nevertheless he did have one problem child—his youngest. In 1812 Basil Elliott, who was 13, was expelled from his school at Hammersmith. He became a midshipman under Capt. Coote, who was engaged to Basil's sister Mary. In 1813 they sailed in HMS Peacock for North America and were never heard of again.

Thus Mary lost her brother and her fiancé at the same time. She later acted as amanuensis to Wilberforce but she never married. She had also lost her uncle, since John Venn too was dead. The last entry in his diary is for March 31, 1813: "Sick all morning —very languid. Mr. Elliott drank tea. Mem.—began to take infusion of dandelion."

The Elliotts were at pains to look after Venn's children, as is clear from the diary of his daughter Emelia:
"3 May, 1814. We went together to the Grove to spend some time at my Uncle Elliott's. My uncle and aunt always so kind and loving to us: my cousins so clever and affectionate.
27 October, 1814. My aunt Jane and Caroline went to London to a house in Harley Street belonging to my Uncle Elliott which he lent them for a week that Jane might get her wedding clothes." (This was the marriage of her sister Jane to James Stephen: Leslie Stephen, the mountaineer, was their son and Virginia Woolf their grand-daughter.)
On May 14, 1821, Emelia Venn wrote "My Aunt Elliott took me home. Stopped a long time on the way whilst they had their pictures taken." These must be the pencil sketches by Joseph Slater dated 1821 (Figs. 1 and 4.)

By this time, however, the Elliotts were living mostly at Brighton. This town had become very popular under the influence of the Prince of Wales, who stayed there every year and had the Pavilion built in 1784: he was now King George IV, his father having died in 1820. Elliott's house was called Westfield Lodge and stood on the West Cliff (Fig. 2) where the Hotel Metropole now stands.

In 1826 Elliott bought for £10,000 the recently completed Chapel of St. Mary and presented the living to his son Henry, who worked there for many years, founding a school that still flourishes.

On Sunday, October 14, 1832, Elliott went to church at St. Mary's, "full of vigour" despite his 81 years. He talked to his son of his own unworthiness of the honour of building a temple to the Lord, and of God's goodness to him. After church he walked four times round the garden with one of his nieces. In the afternoon Lord Calthorpe called to sit with him, and in the evening he joined the family in singing "Come let us join our cheerful songs with angels round the throne."

On the following day at 5.30 p.m. he put a handkerchief over his head and asked the maid to wake him in an hour. "Half the hour had scarcely elapsed when she was summoned by his bell and found him on his knees, not in prayer, but bent down with pain." A doctor was summoned and gave him opium pills, but the pain was not much relieved and he died at 11.00 p.m.

He was buried at St. Mary's, having "with his characteristic love of simplicity, left orders that the mourning coaches attending his funeral should have but two horses."
When his will was read, there was very generous provision for all the members of his family, but nothing for the maid or butler "to their disappointment." He was in fact much richer than anyone had realised and his total estate came to nearly half a million pounds. He had come a long way from the lad who went up to London 60 years before with only a shilling.