Rawdon, John (1720–93), 1st earl of Moira, landowner, patron of the arts, and opposition peer, was born 17 March 1720, second (but first surviving) son of Sir John Rawdon, 3rd baronet, of Rawdon Hall, Yorkshire, and Moira, Co. Down, and Dorothy, daughter of Sir Richard Levinge (qv), chief justice of the common pleas in Ireland. He succeeded his father 2 February 1724 and was admitted to Trinity College Dublin on 6 September 1736. However, he does not appear to have graduated, and instead received an honorary Doctor of Laws when he was created Baron Moira in 1753. Between 1738 and 1740 he completed a grand tour of France and Italy from which he sent back many descriptive letters to Thomas Prior (qv), founder of the Dublin Society.
He married three times: first (10 November 1741) Helena, daughter of John Perceval (qv), 1st earl of Egmont, who died of consumption 11 June 1746; secondly (23 December 1746) Anne (d. 1 August 1751), daughter of Trevor Hill, 1st Viscount Hillsborough. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu commented of these two ladies: ‘I fancy they have broke their hearts by being chained to such a companion’ – Sir John was acknowledged by contemporaries to be a ‘poltroon and a common butt’ (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to the countess of Bute, 22 June 1750 (G.E.C., Peerage, ix, 30)). His later prominence in public life may largely be due to the influence of his third wife, his cousin Lady Elizabeth Hastings (qv). They married 26 February 1752, again months after the death of Rawdon's previous wife. James Caulfeild (qv), 1st earl of Charlemont, stated that as a result Rawdon had a worthy companion and helpmate in all he did.
Rawdon was a noted improving landlord and resided on his estate at Montalto, Co. Down, when not at Moira House, Dublin. In 1744 Walter Harris (qv) extolled the agronomy of the Rawdon estate. Rawdon's improving zeal was heightened by being a member of the linen board, and as earl of Moira (to which title he was promoted 30 January 1762) he also regularly chaired meetings of the Dublin Society. On the Montalto estate 100,000 trees of various types were planted in the space of two decades (1770–90) and a reputed £30,000 spent on various improvements. The Moiras’ paternal concern for their tenantry is also apparent: each Thursday the linen drapers who attended Ballynahinch market were invited to their home. In 1783 Rawdon received the honour of a dedicatory print in the famous sequence of etchings by William Hincks (qv), detailing the processes of the Irish linen industry. Under the guidance of Prior a charter school was established at Ballynahinch in 1735, and in later years Rawdon was one of the committee of fifteen of the Incorporated Society who superintended the charter school movement in Ireland. He and his wife were a channel whereby methodism was established in Ireland. The couple regularly opened their home to Calvinist preachers, and when John Wesley (qv) arrived in Co. Down in 1760 and was refused access to the local parish church, Rawdon dispatched a bellman around the village of Moira to summon the townsfolk to an outdoor meeting. Money was also donated to build presbyterian meeting houses, and ten guineas to a local catholic priest.
In his Tour of Ireland (1775) Richard Twiss allocated particular praise to Rawdon's copious art collection. Strickland Lowry, the portrait and landscape painter, was an intimate of the family. Additionally the Rawdons housed a library of 30,000 books and purchased every new publication, so it is of little surprise that in May 1772 Rawdon was one of the two peers appointed by the Dublin Society to inquire into the possibility of establishing a society for antiquities. In 1785 he became a founding member of the Royal Irish Academy and was instrumental in persuading Bishop Thomas Percy (qv) of Dromore to do likewise.
His involvement in the economic and artistic life of his country was both a cause and effect of his Irish patriotism. A biographer suggests that his early and unsuccessful attempt to stand for an English borough, when a bag of potatoes was hung at his door on the day following his defeat, may have been instrumental in forming his political leanings. Although he had little influence in parliament, he was regarded as an opposition peer. In December 1763 he lodged a formal protest concerning an address never agreed to by the lords of Ireland being forwarded to the king, and in December 1769 disagreed with a motion that judges should only hold office during pleasure. Two years later he was among the group of peers who did not see ‘any just claim’ for approving Lord Lieutenant Townshend's (qv) conduct (Journals of the house of lords [Ireland], iv, 547). He opposed Lord North's government and supported the granting of a regency to the prince of Wales (1788–9), joining Henry Grattan (qv) and other liberal MPs in forming the Irish Whig Club (June 1789). He was present when the Northern Whig Club celebrated in Belfast the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. His liberal politics extended beyond the houses of parliament, for in 1783 his tenants thanked him for allowing them to vote according to their own consciences in the Co. Down election campaign between Lord Hillsborough (qv) and Robert Stewart (qv). However, he opposed the Volunteer campaign for parliamentary reform and resigned his commission as colonel of the Union regiment of Volunteers because he did not want catholics admitted to the ranks. However, as the rest of his family were public advocates of catholic relief in the 1790s, it is likely his objections were based on timing rather than principle. He died 20 June 1793 after an attack of gout at Moira House.
As well as two daughters by his first wife, he and his third wife, Elizabeth, had four surviving daughters and three sons who lived to maturity. His two younger sons, John (1756–1808) and George (1761–1800), served in the British house of commons, and he was succeeded by his eldest son Francis Rawdon–Hastings (qv).