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

Pelham's older brother, the Duke of Newcastle, was the first Prime Minister to serve on more than one separate occasion. It was under him that Britain entered the Seven Year War, which began badly for Britain, losing colonies in America and Europe. This was the first war to be fought on every continent. Winston Churchill would later describe it as "The First World War".

Newcastle had been Secretary of State prior to taking head office, and had organised mobs in favour of the Hanoverian succession. The Jacobite cause under James, (the Old Pretender) had been popular and the country was polarised. Newcastle had been instrumental in helping Walpole secure what would become the Georgian era, with the establishment of the House of Hanover.

A theory that people of the city of Newcastle are known as "Geordies" because of Lord Newcastle and the city's support of the king is a popular one. However, there is no evidence to prove this.

Due to disastrous military losses against the French in America, as well as the loss of the colony of Menorca, Newcastle was forced to resign, albeit briefly, his position taken by the Duke of Devonshire.


William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, 1756-1757 (Whig Party)

Pitt the Elder's puppet

Pitt the Elder's puppet

Although his painting makes him look old, the Duke of Devonshire has the dubious distinction of dying younger than any other British Prime Minister in history, aged only 44 years old.

Cavendish stepped into Newcastle's shoes upon his resignation during the Seven Year War, which was not going well for Britain at this point. Britain had lost huge swathes of territory to the French in the American colonies.

Despite Cavendish occupying the role of Prime Minister, the true power in parliament was William Pitt the Elder, who would dominate parliament for many years to come.

Devonshire's administration collapsed after a few months as a result of the court-marshalling and subsequent execution of Admiral Byng, who failed to stop the French taking Menorca. This trial became a major scandal, satirised famously by Voltaire, who wrote in "Candide" that the British find it necessary to shoot one of their Admirals every now and then "pour encourager les autres" (to encourage the others).

Devonshire served as Lord Chamberlain after stepping down from the top job, but died in the Netherlands two years after resigning in solidarity with Newcastle, who was dismissed from office after his second term.

To this day, Cavendish's stately home, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, remains the seat of the Duke of Devonshire, as well as being a popular tourist attraction.

Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, 1757-1762 (Whig Party)

Although Pitt the Elder led the government at this point, he was unable to garner the support required to gain head office himself. Newcastle once more stepped into the breach, and despite their differences of opinion politically, as a partnership Newcastle and Pitt were formidable. Under their "Broad bottom government", shipbuilding became the order of the day and Britain's naval power became the greatest in the world. Britannia really did rule the waves, while strategic alliances with Frederick the Great of Prussia made sure that Hanover, the home of Britain's ruling dynasty, was protected.

George III ascended to the throne in 1760 and distrusted both men, removing them both from power in favour of his former tutor, Lord Bute, who would become the first Tory prime minister. Newcastle returned to high office as Lord Privy Seal in Lord Rockingham's government later in the decade until a stroke in 1767 finally forced his retirement. He died the following year.

Newcastle divided opinion, with much of the credit for Britain's success during the Seven Year War going to Pitt. However, both men worked together to ensure Britain became the dominant power in Europe by the end of the Seven Year War, and Newcastle was essential to this outcome.

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, 1762-1763 (Tory Party)

The first Tory and first Scottish PM

The first Tory and first Scottish PM

Bute was related to the Campbell clan who perpetrated the Glencoe Massacre in 1692. Despite his Scottish roots however, he grew up in England until inheriting estates north of the border.

During the second Jacobite rebellion (with which he had no sympathy), Bute moved back to London and became tutor to the Prince of Wales, the future George III. As his favourite, Bute became Prime Minister in 1762.

Although Bute's stint in the saddle lasted just under a year, it was he who signed the original Treaty of Paris, thus effectively ending the Seven Year War with France and Spain. This resulted in the British claiming much of their North American and Caribbean possessions. However Bute was criticised for conceding territories back to both countries. Pitt the Elder in particular believed this would lead to further war as it gave France the opportunity to once again threaten Britain's economic interests abroad, which indeed did happen. Winston Churchill would later describe the treaty as a "policy of appeasement".

Bute fell from favour with the king after criticising him in a speech, and the introduction of an unpopular tax on cider to raise money for war debts caused riots in the West of England, the main cider producing area of the country. Bute resigned as PM in 1763, remaining in the House of Lords as a Scottish representative. A keen botanist and patron of the arts, Bute has a plant, the Stewartia, named after him.

George Grenville, 1763-1765 (Whig Party)

"No taxation without representation"

"No taxation without representation"

Political power swung back to the Whigs under another old Etonian and lawyer, George Grenville. Grenville, who was married to Pitt the Elder's sister, was the first non-aristocrat to become Prime Minister.

Like his predecessor, he also imposed an unpopular tax, this one on the American colonies. The Stamp Act was a common tax in Britain which involved papers having to be stamped with an official seal that was to be paid for in British currency. This was unpopular in the colonies, and opponents of the tax used the slogan "No taxation without representation", a statement reflecting the resentment of the colonists who were governed from afar and had no say in their own destiny, yet were still being asked to pay taxes. This was the start of what would eventually lead to war and the declaration of independence.

After his resignation in 1765, Grenville reconciled with Pitt, with whom he had previously fallen out after being overlooked for a senior position in the Duke of Devonshire's cabinet, which Pitt was at the helm of. He continued to be active in the House of Commons, but after an unsuccessful attempt to prosecute a weekly periodical for printing a critique of a speech by the king, his public image never recovered from what was seen as an attempt at censorship.

Grenville died in 1770, his son William becoming PM at the start of the following century.


Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham,1765-1766 (Whig Party)

Gave his name to towns in North America, a council estate in Elephant and Castle, London, and the band that sang "Hoots Mon (There's a Moose Loose Aboot This Hoose!)"

Gave his name to towns in North America, a council estate in Elephant and Castle, London, and the band that sang "Hoots Mon (There's a Moose Loose Aboot This Hoose!)"

Charles Wentworth-Watson held office twice during the 18th century. As a young man he joined the king's army, led by the Duke of Cumberland, during Bonnie Prince Charlie's Second Jacobite Rebellion. He later travelled Europe, becoming Lord of the Bedchamber to George II after meeting and befriending him while in Hanover. Rockingham became highly influential as the central politician in the "Rockingham Club" he and his peer group had formed, but upon the ascent of George III, with whom Rockingham did not see eye to eye, Rockingham resigned as Lord of the Bedchamber, becoming leader of the opposition to Bute's Tory administration. Despite his tense relationship with the king, he became PM for the first time in 1765, appointing the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke as his private secretary.

Rockingham repealed the Stamp Act that had made his predecessor so unpopular in the American colonies, inviting Benjamin Franklin to speak to parliament on American policy, and lowering the American colonies' tax on sugar. However, he introduced the unpopular Declaration Act, giving Britain the right to legislate on behalf of the American colonies.

In-fighting within the Whig party led to Rockingham resigning as Prime Minister, spending the following sixteen years as a member of the opposition, and William Pitt the Elder, having long been a powerful background figure, now officially occupied the highest office.


William Pitt,1st Earl of Chatham (Pitt the Elder), 1766-1768

Pitt was running the country long before he got the top job

Pitt was running the country long before he got the top job

Pitt the Elder's grandfather had become immensely wealthy as a trader, beginning in the East India Company, then going it alone, opening new avenues of trade within the subcontinent which eventually filtered back to Britain. Originally seen as a renegade, Thomas Pitt was eventually acknowledged as essential to the success of Britain in India. The sale of a large diamond that he had mysteriously acquired earned him the nickname, "Diamond Pitt", and secured the family's fortune.

A brilliant orator and skillful politician, William Pitt the Elder, (given the nickname by historians to distinguish him from his son of the same name who also served as Prime Minister), joined the military as a young man, but was unable to prove himself as a soldier as Walpole had kept Britain out of military intervention abroad.

After visiting the continent briefly, Pitt returned to London and entered parliament, becoming a regular critic of Walpole's administration, which caused the latter to dismiss him from the army. Also a critic of the Hanoverian reign, Pitt earned himself the dislike of George II. Although Pitt worked closely with the Duke of Newcastle on military policy during the War of Austrian Succession, he was overlooked as Newcastle's representative in the House of Commons due to his outspokenness.

After Newcastle's resignation, Pitt became the power behind the Duke of Devonshire's administration. Despite being dismissed over his views on continental policy and the Admiral Byng affair, Pitt had the support of the public and numerous towns and cities including London granted him civic freedom. Reconciled with Newcastle, who had by now become Prime Minister for the second time, the two men made shipbuilding one of the major British industries as control of the seas established Britain's power abroad and enabled victory on land. This resulted in numerous victories that have gone down in history as key imperial triumphs, including Wolfe's routing of the French in Quebec and Clive of India's victories across the subcontinent.

Diplomatic manoeuvres, such as subsidising Frederick the Great of Prussia to fight France in Europe, thus keeping Hanover safe allowed Britain to focus on its Asian and North American colonies.

This war was heavily reliant on credit as much as military might. When Britain merged with the Dutch under the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, as well as merging as trading companies in America and India in the 17th Century, Britain incorporated the Dutch banking system and relied heavily on credit to finance the war. France had no such banking system in place and had to beg, steal and borrow funds. Its humiliation would eventually lead to revolution at the end of the century.

At the helm of the country under Newcastle's successors, Pitt was Prime Minister in all but name. When George III ascended the throne and Lord Bute occupied Number 10, Pitt resigned over the threat from the Spanish Empire, which was allied to France and threatened British interests in the Caribbean.

Despite this, in 1766, Pitt was asked to form a government. However, his acceptance of a peerage, (1st Earl of Chatham) which he had hitherto refused, lost him a great deal of public support.

Pitt suffered a nervous breakdown and resigned in 1768, disappearing from public life, and only reappearing in the House of Lords the following year. His eventual successor, the Duke of Grafton, conducted all official business in his absence, introducing an unpopular tax on the American colonies which is unlikely to have been approved by Pitt.

Upon his reappearance, he warned about alienating the American colonies and stated that they would be impossible to defeat in battle. This was ignored and war broke out in 1776. Because of his stance against the war, Pitt became a hero in America; the city of Pittsburgh was named in his honour in 1778.

Pitt worked tirelessly under several administrations but he was the true power in parliament long before occupying the top position himself. He continues to be regarded as the greatest politician of the age.



Augustus Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton 1768-1770 (Whig Party)

Painted by Joshua Reynolds

Painted by Joshua Reynolds

Anyone stepping into Pitt the Elder's shoes had quite a difficult act to follow. Fitzroy was MP for Bury St Edmunds, but upon the death of his grandfather he inherited the title the Duke of Grafton and moved to the House of Lords.

Grafton was an opponent of Lord Bute and the king alongside the Duke of Newcastle and Pitt the Elder, believing the terms of the Treaty of Paris would allow the French to rearm and threaten British interests abroad again.

Grafton was part of Pitt's administration, taking the wheel during his breakdown and officially becoming Prime Minister in 1768. Corsica was overrun by the French in 1768. As a direct result of this, Napoleon Bonaparte, born there in 1769, could officially be classed a French citizen. Grafton's failure to act led to his fall from grace and subsequent resignation.

Despite his ousting from the top job, Grafton stayed in government for another 41 years after his resignation, the longest post-premiership of any British Prime Minister in history.

Lord North, 1770-1782 (Tory Party)

A young Frederick North. He looked more and more like a cartoon character the older he got

A young Frederick North. He looked more and more like a cartoon character the older he got

Lord North was at the helm of Britain through the American War of Independence and his reputation is inevitably tarnished with the loss of the colony. Ironically, his former home in London is now accommodation for American undergraduates studying in Britain.

The first Tory Prime Minister since Lord Bute, he became MP for Banbury aged 22. Though offered a place in Lord Rockingham's government, North refused to join the Whig party, preferring to serve as a backbencher.

North took over as Prime Minister in 1770. An early success was a conflict with the Spanish over the Falkland Islands. However, after the Boston Tea Party and numerous punitive measures imposed by parliament, war broke out, with the French and Spanish empires joining the colonists against the British. This time there was no Wolfe or Clive to turn things around.

Britain abandoned the American mainland, resorting to defending its Caribbean sugar plantations, which were a bigger source of revenue. It is said the British military band played "The World Turned Upside-Down" as they surrendered the 13 colonies to George Washington.This had technically been a civil war as there was no real concept of being American, only those loyal to the crown and those who favoured separation. Families were divided by the conflict; for example, Benjamin Franklin's son was a loyalist and the two never spoke again.

In 1782, North received a vote of no confidence and tendered his resignation. After the death of his father in 1790, he inherited the title of Earl of Guildford, dying himself two years later.


Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham,1782 (Whig Party)

Rockingham briefly stood as Prime Minister for a second time in 1782.

His second administration saw steps taken towards the relief of the poor, known as Gilbert's Act after its instigator, Thomas Gilbert. This included the setting up of workhouses, which were later exposed by the likes of Charles Dickens as inhumane prisons for the poor. Famously, Charlie Chaplin spent time in one as a boy.

After fourteen weeks back as Prime Minister, an influenza epidemic swept the country and Rockingham was one of its victims. The second Prime Minister to occupy the position twice, he was succeeded by Lord Shelburne, who was his joint Secretary of State along with Charles James Fox. Fox would become the great political rival of Pitt the Younger in the same way his father, Henry Fox had been the arch-political rival of Pitt the Elder.


William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, 1782-1783 (Whig Party)

Mistrusted due to his liberal ideas and Irish roots

Mistrusted due to his liberal ideas and Irish roots

Seeing action as a soldier during the Seven Year War and proving his valour in several battles in Germany, Shelburne entered parliament in 1760. He ascended to the House of Lords upon the death of his father, whose title he inherited, and would later be further ennobled as the Marquess of Lansdowne.

Formerly Home Secretary under Rockingham, Shelburne was a vehement critic of North's government. A competent economist, he, like Pitt, saw the advantage of free trade with America and was opposed to the war. Ahead of his time in many ways, his generous terms towards America at the second Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the American War of Independence, were the reason for his downfall. As an Irishman, he was also mistrusted by the Catholic-fearing establishment.

Shelburne's Chancellor of the Exchequer was the 23-year-old William Pitt the Younger, who, like his father before him, would soon go on to dominate parliament into the following century.


William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, 1783 (Whig Party)

Twice Prime Minister but had the longest gap between administrations ever

Twice Prime Minister but had the longest gap between administrations ever

The ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II through her maternal grandmother, Portland served in both of Rockingham's administrations but resigned along with Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox upon the appointment of Shelburne.

In 1783 he headed a coalition government until the end of the year. Prime Minister in name only, the true power being in the hands of Fox and Lord North, Portland resigned after an unsuccessful attempt to reform the East India Company and took over as President of the popular charity, the Foundling Hospital.

After severing political ties with Fox over the French Revolution which he disapproved of, Portland joined Pitt the Younger's government as Home Secretary until the death of the latter, returning to the premiership in 1807 after 24 years out of office, the longest gap between premierships of any British Prime Minister.

William Pitt (the Younger), 1783-1801 (Tory Party)

To this day, the youngest ever British PM

To this day, the youngest ever British PM

The second son of Pitt the Elder, the younger Pitt served twice as Prime Minister and was also Chancellor of the Exchequer for most of his first term, having been appointed by Shelburne's administration.

Like his father, he gained his seat in parliament by controlling a rotten borough (a borough with few people but still had an MP who usually owned the area). Despite this, he would later campaign against both rotten and pocket boroughs (where the elections for representatives were corruptly controlled by a landowner), both of which would be abolished in the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832.

In order to stop Charles James Fox and his radical ideas such as universal suffrage, George III appointed the 24-year-old Pitt as Prime Minister much to the derision of many. Pitt offered Fox a post in his cabinet in order to limit his opposition, but his exclusion of Lord North made this untenable and though the two men had previously worked together in the Whig party, they became political rivals like their fathers had been years before.

Pitt was popular with the public, who nicknamed him "Honest Billy" after his attempt to abolish rotten boroughs, although his bill against them was defeated in parliament.

In the wake of the French Revolution, Pitt's government introduced repressive measures against parliamentary reformists, suspending habeas corpus and encouraging people to spy on their neighbours and report any signs of dissent. The revolutionary war was proving costly to Britain, and in order to offset losses due to trade deficits, Pitt introduced income tax in 1797 as a temporary measure. Though this was removed at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it would later be re-introduced, and is still in place to this day.

An attempt to take over the French slave colony of St Dominigue (modern day Haiti) which had revolted and driven out the French, failed, and Pitt was criticised for spending more on this than on the war against France itself. Pitt had formed the Triple Alliance with Holland and Prussia to limit French influence, which collapsed in 1898. A second coalition between Britain, Austria, Russia and the Ottomans also collapsed and Britain now stood alone against France. Pitt then formed an alliance with Ireland to counter any Irish threats of revolution. The Irish red cross was added to the Union Flag and Britain became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.

Despite the alliance, the King, in between his bouts of madness, would not allow Catholic emancipation. Pitt resigned in protest over this, stepping aside for his political ally, Henry Addington, before stepping back into the helm three years later. While out of office, Pitt encouraged the building of the Martello towers, miniature forts built along the coast. Many still exist and some have been successfully converted into luxury accommodation. Pitt also organised defence organisations in coastal towns for fear of a French invasion under the newly crowned Emperor Napoleon.

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount of Sidmouth, 1801-1804, (Tory Party)

Known for his weak premiership and harsh stint as Home Secretary

Known for his weak premiership and harsh stint as Home Secretary

Addington took over a country weakened by harvest failures, a lack of military allies and an embargo on European trade which had been imposed by Napoleon, ("The English are a nation of shopkeepers"). This resulted in the Treaty of Amiens, a much criticised peace treaty with Napoleon Bonaparte which Addington was forced to sign.

This peace did not last long and though he had the support of the king, Addington could not hold a majority in parliament. Combined with his lack of charisma alongside the younger Pitt, Addington handed the baton back to him in 1804.

This was not the end of Addington, who remained at the forefront of politics, elevated by Pitt to the House of Lords. He served as Lord President but resigned after he and Pitt fell out. He later served as Home Secretary, introducing numerous repressive measures resulting in notorious incidents such as the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, when soldiers attacked an unarmed crowd that had turned out to listen to orator Henry Hunt and his speech in favour of universal suffrage.

William Pitt (the Younger), 1804-1806 (Tory Party)

Pitt's second stint as Prime Minister came as the Napoleonic Wars were underway. Using his fiscal expertise, Pitt was able to use Britain's finances to further expand the Royal Navy and apply it to controlling the seas. It was under Pitt that Nelson won the decisive naval battle of the war at Trafalgar, where he was killed in action.

However, the Third Coalition (which included Austria, Russia and Sweden) collapsed after the Battle of Austerlitz, after which Pitt famously said "Roll up that map (of Europe), it will not be wanted these ten years." The war would continue until 1815.

Pitt had suffered from ill-health for most of his life, and died due to complications from an ulcer aged only 46 in 1806. As Pitt never married and had no children, modern historians have speculated on his sexuality. This was an era where obvious homosexuality would have been considered a serious impediment and it is believed that his ambition was far more important to him than anything else. No relationship, homosexual or otherwise is known about him.

William Grenville, 1st Baron Genville, 1806-1807 (Whig Party)

Head of the "Ministry of all the Talents"

Head of the "Ministry of all the Talents"

With former Prime Minister George Grenville as his father, Pitt the Elder as his uncle, Pitt the Younger as his cousin and Queen Anne's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Wyndham Bart as his grandfather, it was unlikely that William Grenville was going to end up working in a factory.

Resigning as Foreign Secretary in 1801 over the King's opposition to Catholic emancipation, the now Baron Grenville became the head of what became known as the "Ministry of all the Talents". This was a coalition of supporters of Charles James Fox (the real power) and supporters of former PM Henry Addington (now Lord Sidmouth) and included Thomas Erskine and Princess Diana's ancestor, George Spencer.

Though his administration failed to end the war, Grenville's major achievement was the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, which prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire. Britain would later lobby other countries to follow.


William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, 1807-1809 (Whig Party)

Portland returned to the top job after 24 years. His attempt to centralise the running of the East India company and to curb abuses and private profiteering by representatives abroad had been overruled by the House of Lords, which had forced his resignation over two decades before.

After serving as Home Secretary for the previous decade, Pitt the Younger's supporters returned to power and Portland became their figurehead. This administration saw the beginning of the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal. However, the government was brought into disrepute when Lord Castlereagh, the Minister for War, and the Foreign Secretary, George Canning ended up fighting a dual on Putney Heath, the former shooting the latter in the leg. Both resigned, with Portland stepping down soon after. He was succeeded by Spencer Perceval, who would become the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated.

Spencer Perceval, 1809-1812 (Tory Party)

Opposed to hunting, slavery and Catholic emancipation, Perceval was the only British PM to have been assassinated

Opposed to hunting, slavery and Catholic emancipation, Perceval was the only British PM to have been assassinated

Remembered foremost for the manner of his death, Spencer Percival was the first and only British Prime Minister to be assassinated, though others, including Robert Peel and Margaret Thatcher have survived attempts.

Under his administration, George III suffered another spell of mental illness, and the Luddite Riots took place. These have been misrepresented as simplistic, but were in fact a protest at the reduction in the quality of production caused by industrialisation as opposed to industrialisation itself..

The son of an Irish Earl, Percival became MP for Northampton after being offered the position by his cousin who had risen to the House of Lords. Rising through the ranks, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1809 and helped ensure Wilberforce's bill to abolish the slave trade went through. He became Prime Minister in the same year, and continued to finance the Duke of Wellington's Iberian campaign. Perceval had 13 children and unusually for the era and for a man of his class, actually spent time with them.

On 11th May 1812, John Bellingham, a businessman who had been bankrupted by the war, imprisoned in Russia and then had his claims for compensation rejected by the British government, shot Perceval dead in the lobby of the House of Commons. Despite a plea of insanity, he was hanged a week later.

Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, 1812-1827 (Tory Party)

Tough on dissent, but not on the causes of it

Tough on dissent, but not on the causes of it

In the wake of Perceval's assassination, Liverpool's administration introduced all kinds of repressive measures. This culminated in 1819, when a suffrage rally of 60-80 000 people at St Peter's Fields, Manchester, was attacked by the army, who charged the crowd killing 15 and injuring approximately 700. It was ironically dubbed the "Peterloo Massacre" after the battle four years before.

Liverpool had already been accused of having blood on his hands when as military commander in Scotland, his men massacred civilians in Tranent protesting against enforced military service, then raped and looted in the aftermath. Liverpool (at the time Lord Hawksbury) was blamed for not being there to control his men, preferring to stay at headquarters at Haddington.

Liverpool was thought of as a shrewd politician despite his draconian and often unpopular policies. In opposition he spoke out against the abolition of the slave trade, though later changed his stance, speaking in favour of it at the Congress of Vienna towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Liverpool's government introduced the notorious Corn Laws, which banned the import of foreign wheat until prices at home reached a minimum. This kept the price of wheat (and therefore bread) artificially high. He suspended habeas corpus several times and introduced the Six Acts, which drastically limited free speech and the right to protest. His unpopularity led to the Cato Street Conspiracy, a Guy Fawkes type plot to assassinate the entire cabinet. This was discovered however, the plotters either executed or transported. He also banned the forming of trade unions.

Under Liverpool, Britain went to war in 1812 with the USA. This did not cause the type of waves that it would do were the same thing to happen today. In Europe this was seen as a minor sideshow as the Napoleonic Wars were still underway, though in North America it is seen as a major victory, with the British being defeated in New Orleans. Washington DC was destroyed and the White House set on fire. It is said it was painted white after this to hide the scorches to the exterior. However this is an urban myth, as it was white before this.

Liverpool was also against Catholic emancipation, which made him particularly unpopular in Ireland.

Liverpool's administration was a time of great change, with the shifting of European borders and the industrial revolution getting into gear, but after the French Revolution and the recent assassination of Perceval, the upper classes were genuinely afraid of the enemy within, and it was also a time of repression and paranoia in Britain.



George Canning, 1827 (Tory Party)

Only PM for 4 months before dying

Only PM for 4 months before dying

Serving for only four months, George Canning held the shortest term in office of any British Prime Minister.

Entering parliament under Pitt the Younger, Canning is particularly remembered for being shot in the leg in a duel with Minister of War Lord Castlereagh as Foreign Secretary during the Duke of Portland's second administration. This resulted in his being passed over as successor for Prime Minister in favour of Spencer Perceval and he, Castlereagh and Portland all resigned.

Canning became Ambassador to Portugal, returning to government under Liverpool's administration as President of the Board of Control, speaking in favour of Catholic emancipation, but being blocked on this in the House of Lords.

Canning succeeded in preventing French intervention in Latin America, opening trade links and aiding newly independent nations, with the help of the Navy, from Spanish control.

Canning's appointment as Prime Minister split the Tory Party, with both the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel refusing to serve under him. However, this made little difference, as Canning died that August aged 57 and was succeeded briefly by Viscount Goderich. Canning Town in East London was not named after him, but is believed to be named after Charles Canning, the first Viceroy of India.


Frederick J Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich, 1827-1828 (Tory Party)

The shortest administration of any PM that didn't die in office

The shortest administration of any PM that didn't die in office

Having served three days longer than his predecessor, George Canning, Goderich's term in office was the second shortest administration and the shortest ever of a Prime Minister who did not die in office.

Under Liverpool's administration, Goderich was joint Paymaster of the Forces when the Corn Laws were brought in. This unpopular law, which kept the price of wheat artificially high, led to his home being vandalised several times and on one occasion two people were shot. The law was eventually abolished but not until almost halfway through the century.

Elevated to the peerage, Goderich served several posts in Liverpool and Canning's cabinets, eventually gaining the top job upon the death of the latter in 1827.

Goderich was unable to gain control of the cabinet, which was a coalition of mostly moderate Tories with three Whigs. The demands of the King and of the cabinet were at odds and Goderich had domestic issues with a mentally ill wife. Some accounts claim he was distraught at being forced to resign while others claim he was wild with relief.

Goderich continued to serve as a politician however, further enobled as the Earl of Ripon. He joined the Whigs under Earl Grey, and also served under Robert Peel, dying in 1859.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1828-1830 (Tory Party)

Napoleon had a brandy named after him, Wellington had a boot

Napoleon had a brandy named after him, Wellington had a boot

Almost single-handedly creating the English stereotype of the stiff upper lip, and most famous for his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, Wellington stood twice as Prime Minister, though the second time was only for three weeks, as caretaker for the absent Peel.

Born in Dublin to Anglo-Irish aristocracy, he is supposed to have said "Being born in a stable doesn't make one a horse". This is however, an urban myth as it is known he was proud of his Irish heritage. His other famous quote about Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton is another myth. Eton had no playing fields in his day and as a schoolboy there, he was noted for his lack of sporting ability.

Wellesley entered parliament as MP for the Irish borough of Trim while joining the military. An aspiring musician, it is said that after falling in love with Kitty Pakenham, the daughter of Baron Longford and being rejected by her family as a man with no prospects, he burnt his violins and concentrated on his military career.

Wellesley rose through the ranks, seeing action in the Netherlands and India, becoming a general and making his fortune.

Not yet famous, he returned to England and met Nelson (then the most famous man in Britain), for the first and only time. He found Nelson vain and superficial, before the admiral left the room to find out who Wellesley was. When he returned, Wellington recalled, "I don't know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more." Nelson would be killed a few weeks later at Trafalgar.

Upon gaining command of the army during the Peninsular War, Wellington gained the respect of the Spanish and Portuguese by executing any of his soldiers who looted, took livestock without permission or raped civilians. Winning key victories across the peninsula and across Europe, Wellesley became a hero and was made the Duke of Wellington, a title his descendants still hold.

After Napoleon escaped from Elba where he had been exiled, he returned to France, toppled Louis XVIII and mobilised his troops once more. The decisive battle was near the small town of Waterloo in Belgium, which along with Prussian allies under Marshall Blucher, Napoleon was finally defeated and exiled to St Helena, living in the house where coincidentally Wellington had stayed in 1805 on his way back from India.

Waterloo, an otherwise unremarkable town, has a hill with a lion monument built on the site of the battlefield and is also the name of the area of London where the London Eye is, as well as being the song that won the Eurovision song contest for ABBA in 1974.

Wellington himself went on to join the Tory party, becoming Prime Minister in 1828. He spoke in favour of Catholic emancipation, but was firmly against Jewish emancipation, parliamentary reform and universal suffrage. Indeed the era was extremely antisemitic, but the latter two issues didn't help Wellington's popularity and mobs rioted outside his home, Apsley House, at Hyde Park Corner in London. He installed iron shutters to protect his windows, which led to his nickname, the "Iron Duke".

Wellington's government fell in the face of the overwhelming demand for parliamentary reform, making way for the first Whig administration in 21 years.





Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, 1830-1834 (Whig Party)

While his predecessor gave his name to a boot, Earl Grey is famous as a type of tea