I’ve been thinking about Prime Ministers recently and thought you might have been too. So here’s a handy list of trivial things you might not know about past British Prime Ministers. To cheer you up, or not, as the case may be. Since we’ve all had enough of you know what, I’m only dealing with Prime Ministers up to 1975. Here goes:
- The First PM was Robert Walpole in 1721.
- Shortest holder of the office was William Pultney, Earl of Bath who lasted from 10-12 February 1746. A contemporary commentator reported:
“And thus ended the second and last part of this astonishing administration which lasted 48 hours and three quarters seven minutes, and eleven seconds; which may truly be called the most honest of all administrations; the minister to the astonishment of all wise men never transacted one rash thing; and what is more marvellous left as much money in the Treasury as he had found it.”
- Youngest to take on the office – the younger Pitt at the age of 24 in 1783
- Average age of PMs on first appointment 52 years and six months.
- Educational backgrounds: (1) Schools – Eton 20, Harrow 7, Westminster 6, and the only other school to boast more than one is Glasgow High School with Campbell- Bannerman and Bonar Law. (2) Universities – Oxford 24, Cambridge 14, Edinburgh 2, Glasgow 2. (3) Colleges – Christ Church – 14, Trinity (Camb) 5, St John’s (Camb) 4.
- Wealth of PMs on taking office? Wealthiest probably 14th Earl of Derby with a rent roll of £100, 000 pa in the 1850s. According to A.J.P. Taylor one of the few to ‘leave office flagrantly richer than when he entered it’ was Lloyd George.
- Sexual morals – highly variable. When Melbourne was cited in a divorce suit his brother wrote to his sister: ‘Do not let William think himself invulnerable for having got off again this time. No man’s luck can go further.’ Lloyd George lived openly with his mistress.
- Responses on becoming PM: Churchill felt he was ‘walking with destiny’. Stanley Baldwin asked people to pray for him. Gladstone who was cutting down a tree when informed of the arrival of the Queen’s Private Secretary said it was his mission to pacify Ireland. Disraeli was flippant and slightly cynical announcing that he had ‘climbed to the top of the greasy pole at last’. Melbourne said it was a ‘damned bore’ and was minded not to accept until his secretary ‘Ubiquity’ Young said: ‘Why, damn it, such a position was never occupied by any Greek or Roman, and if it only lasts two months it is well worth while to have been Prime Minister of England.’
And what could be said to make up the mystery of the perfect Prime Ministerial temperament?
“To define that temperament would not be easy. Courage, tenacity, determination, firm nerves, and clarity of mind are some of the qualities. So too are a certain toughness of the skin and a certain insensitivity. Nor should a Prime Minister be worried too much by scruples and doubts. And if tact and the power to manage men are there too, so much the better. No doubt few Prime Ministers have had every one of these virtues, but if they have not had most of them they have not got very far.”
Robert Blake in The Office of Prime Minister *
And finally, here is Macaulay writing to his father about the death of Canning in 1827 after only 4 months in office:
“To fall at the very moment of reaching the very highest pinnacle of human ambition! the whole work of thirty chequered years of glory and obloquy struck down in a moment! The noblest prize that industry, dexterity, wit and eloquence ever obtained vanishing into nothing in the very instant in which it had been grasped. Vanity of vanities – all is vanity.”
Letters of T. B. Macaulay (ed) Thomas Pinney.
That greasy pole is currently looking – well, pretty greasy, isn’t it?
*All the above from The Office of Prime Minister by Robert Blake (aka Dad).