Skip to main content

From Walpole to Johnson. A History of the Prime Ministers of Great Britain

I have worked in education and entertainment and am also an historian and businessman and currently studying at the Open University.

Introduction -The Parties

Until 1832 politicians weren't paid and the only people who could afford to do the job were aristocrats. For many, the only qualifications they had for the job was a lot of inherited money and a sense of entitlement. Number 10 Downing Street, London has housed some of the best and worst of them.

The Whigs (who became the Liberals), and the Tories (who became the Conservatives) dominated Parliament before 1924 when the first Labour government took power.

Both Whig and Tory were originally insults- a "whiggamor" being an Irish or Scottish cattle-driver and a "Tory" was an Irish revolutionary. Both were used derisively in the 18th century but the names stuck.

Not only does this tell the story of the top job in British politics, but also the effect different personalities and their administrations have had on the world in general.

Sir Robert Walpole, Start Date Disputed (Anytime Between 1721 & 30)-1742 (Whig Party)

George I spoke no English so he and Walpole conversed in Latin

George I spoke no English so he and Walpole conversed in Latin

The expression "Prime Minister" was originally coined as an abusive term to describe Walpole. As the job evolved from nothing rather than was actually created as a position, it is debated who the first true Prime Minister really was, but Walpole is generally accepted as the original "First Lord of the Treasury". This is also the reason why his official start date is debated.

The office began, not as is usually claimed, because the king couldn't speak English, (many of his advisors were multi-lingual), but because of the aftermath of the collapse of the South Sea Company. The South Sea Bubble, as it is known as in retrospect, sparked investment fever across Britain, rather like the dotcom boom of the late 1990's. Thousands bought shares in the South Sea Company, which traded commodities (including slaves). It was an early get-rich-quick scheme and indeed many people did. However, this river of money couldn't sustain itself and the collapse of September 1720 bankrupted thousands of people. The legendary scientist, Isaac Newton, who lost a fortune over the collapse, famously lamented, "I can predict the movements of the stars, but not the madness of men."

Robert Walpole, a member of the Norfolk gentry, was known as an excellent financial manager, and in 1721, King George I brought him in to tidy up the mess, giving him the titles "First Lord of the Treasury", "Chancellor of the Exchequer" and "Leader of the House of Commons". The two men conversed in Latin as neither spoke the other's language. It is generally accepted by historians that Walpole's administration as First Lord of the Treasury officially began in 1730.

In 1732, the King bought part of 10 Downing Street in Central London and gave it to Walpole as a gift for services to Britain, which Walpole had joined onto a much larger property at the back, hence it being much larger on the inside than it looks from the outside. He set it up as the office of the "First Lord of the Treasury and to this day it remains as such. This title is engraved on the letter box.

Walpole was not a Prime Minister in the sense of today. In the 18th Century the King was the head of the government. Walpole himself insisted he was the "King's Servant". As leader of the Whig party, (which became the Liberals), he led Britain out of the financial crisis, helped secure the Hanoverian succession and kept the country out of wars abroad. Walpole still holds the record as the longest consistently serving Prime Minister, resigning from the post in 1742.


Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, 1742-1743 (Whig Party)

The first PM to die in office

The first PM to die in office

In 1727, George II succeeded his father as king and it was speculated that Compton would take over as First Lord of the Treasury. The new king had hated his father, which, by association, included all his advisors as well. Despite this, Walpole gradually gained the trust and respect of the new king and managed to keep his job for another fifteen years.

Spencer Compton, speaker of the House of Commons until the death of George I, was a close political ally of Walpole. However, the prime minister feared his ambition, and in order to remove a potential political enemy, elevated him to the House of Lords.

Compton was involved in the foundation of the Foundling Hospital, which exists to this day as an umbrella organisation incorporating several hospitals such as Great Ormond Street Childrens Hospital in London and also owns the nearby Coram's Fields. During the 18th and 19th century it was London's most popular charity and is mentioned in many novels including Dickens's "Little Dorrit".

Upon Walpole's resignation in 1742, Compton took over as Prime Minister, gaining a reputation as a willful and hard-headed operator. However, the job took its toll on his health, and after only a year at the helm, Compton died without issue along with his titles.

Henry Pelham, 1743-1754 (Whig Party)

Pelham turned Gretna Green from a one-horse village to an entire industry

Pelham turned Gretna Green from a one-horse village to an entire industry

As a young man Henry Pelham served as a volunteer soldier, seeing action at the Battle of Preston against James, the Old Pretender's troops during the First Jacobite Rebellion.

As the younger brother of the Duke of Newcastle, who would succeed him as Prime Minister, Pelham had served, alongside Walpole and Compton, as a governor of the Foundling Hospital.

Scroll to Continue

Pelham's administration was relatively uneventful on the home front, though the Second Jacobite Rebellion under Bonnie Prince Charlie was ruthlessly crushed. Pelham's government introduced legislation to allow Jews to become naturalised British citizens upon application, and introduced the "Marriage Act". This was intended to stop clandestine marriages for those who did not have parental consent. This was not enforced in Scotland however, and over the next few centuries, the village of Gretna Green, just over the Scottish border, became synonymous with elopement.

Events abroad dominated the rest of Pelham's premiership. After the captain of a British merchant ship had his ear severed by Spanish troops who had boarded his ship, Britain went to war against Spain, subsequently becoming drawn into a wider European conflict against France and its Spanish allies supporting Bavarian claims to Habsburg territories in Austria, known as the War of Austrian Succession. George II became the last ever king of Britain to lead his troops into battle, at Dettingen, Germany, against the French.

In India, the French had taken over Madras, the main headquarters of the British East India Company. Though forced to retreat, they remained a major threat to British trade in the subcontinent. To counter this, the British formed an alliance with the Dutch East India Company to establish supremacy in India.

Pelham died suddenly after eleven years in office, being succeeded by his older brother, the Duke of Newcastle.


Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, 1754-1756 (Whig Party)

The American Dream became a nightmare for Newcastle during his first term

The American Dream became a nightmare for Newcastle during his first term