Since Sir Robert Walpole’s appointment as Britain’s first Prime Minister in 1721, there have been fifty-three holders of the post. Only seven have died in office, a list which includes the youngest to have held the post, the oldest to have become PM for the first time and the one who served for the shortest period, as well as the only case of a Prime Ministerial assassination.
All the deaths in office occurred during the period from 1743 to 1865. Since then, increased longevity and a trend towards reaching the office at a younger age in recent times have enabled all subsequent Prime Ministers to enjoy a period of retirement.
The first fatality was Sir Robert Walpole’s successor, Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington. Although Compton became a member of parliament in 1698, at the age of 25, and subsequently held several government posts, he was 69 and in ill health when he eventually succeeded Walpole in 1742. During his undistinguished sixteen months in office he was no more than a titular head of an administration which was known as the Carteret Ministry, named after Lord Carteret, who was the real wielder of executive power. His descendants still live in the family home, Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire, and four American towns and cities called Wilmington were named after him.
His successor, Henry Pelham, was also destined to die in office in 1754 at the age of 59, but his ten year premiership was far more significant. Walpole appointed Pelham as a minister in 1721, and Pelham and his brother, the Duke of Newcastle, were closely involved with Walpole in formulating government policy. As Prime Minister, Pelham had to initially overcome the power exerted by Lord Carteret, and survived a crisis in 1746, when King George II, who disagreed with some of Pelham’s policies, sought, and failed, to have him replaced.
Pelham, who had a strong personality but displayed much tact and diplomacy, was successful in restructuring the government’s finances and reducing the national debt. During his premiership, he reorganised the Royal Navy and had to deal with the Jacobite rising of 1745, when supporters of Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), the grandson of the deposed King James II, tried to restore the Stuart monarchy. In 1751, the Pelham government approved the act which adopted the Gregorian calendar, changing the start of the year from 25 March to 1 January, and in 1753 passed the landmark Jew Bill, which enabled Jews to apply to Parliament to become naturalized British citizens. On his death, Pelham was succeeded as Prime Minister by his brother, the Duke of Newcastle.
Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, had two short spells as Prime Minister, twelve months in 1765/6 and fourteen weeks in 1782 before he died from influenza at 52. However, his impact during his political career was much greater than these short premierships would suggest; he was a man of great integrity who was a major influence on the policies of the Whig party. He was particularly concerned with the constitutional rights of the American colonists. His first administration repealed the Stamp Act, which had caused strong protests from the colonists, and in the last weeks of his life he was pressing for them to be granted independence under a peace treaty to end the American War of Independence, a task completed by his successor, the Earl of Shelburne. Like the Earl of Wilmington, Rockingham’s name lives on in several place names in the eastern United States.
Rockingham was a keen racehorse owner and breeder, and owned the first winner of a classic race which is still run today, the St Leger.
William Pitt the Younger is one of the major figures in British history. Britain’s youngest Prime Minister, he was 24 when appointed in 1783, and his first administration lasted seventeen years. His second premiership had lasted two years when he died in 1806 at the age of 46. He had suffered from ill health throughout his life, and probably died from a peptic ulcer. The last years of his life were dominated by war against France; the momentous British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was followed by French conquest of Russia and Austria, a painful blow to Pitt.
Two important themes in Pitt’s premierships were the recovery of Britain’s finances after the draining effect of the American War of Independence (he introduced the first income tax in 1799) and the campaign to abolish slavery. In this campaign, he gave strong support to William Wilberforce, but did not live to see the passing of the Slave Trade Act, which became law in 1807.
Two other acts which Pitt’s government passed with far-reaching effects were the India Act 1784 and the Act of Union 1800. The India Act took parliamentary control of all British territories in the East Indies which had been administered by the East India Company, a major step in the growth of the British Empire. The latter act combined Great Britain and Ireland in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Spencer Perceval was in the third year of his premiership when, on 11th May 1812, he stepped into the lobby of the House of Commons and was shot in the chest by a lone gunman, John Bellingham. Bellingham, who made no attempt to escape, had a personal grievance against the government; he had repeatedly failed in a claim for compensation for business losses he had suffered in Russia. He was executed a week later. Perceval was 49, and remains the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. Ironically, one of Bellingham’s descendants, Henry Bellingham, is a current member of parliament.
Perceval was a prominent barrister who entered parliament in 1795 and became Solicitor General and Attorney General; he is still the only Prime Minister to have held those posts prior to the premiership. As Prime Minister, he presided over an administration which struggled to maintain parliamentary support. The major problem he had to address in this period was the recurrence of mental problems in King George III. His son, the future George IV, had had to act as Prince Regent in 1788, and Perceval’s administration had to re-instate legal provisions for a further period of Regency under the Regency Bill 1810.
George Canning’s political career co-incided with Perceval’s. He became a member of parliament in 1796, at the age of 26, and was at the centre of political life for the next thirty years, serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Paymaster of the Forces, Treasurer of the Navy and Foreign Secretary. Canning was a charismatic and colourful minister. In 1809, when Foreign Secretary, he fought a duel with pistols on Putney Heath, London, against a fellow cabinet minister, Lord Castlereagh, over a policy disagreement. The duel ended in farce, when Canning missed Castlereagh but had to retire with a wound in the thigh.
When Canning became Prime Minister in 1827, his health was already deteriorating, and his 119 days in office before his death from pneumonia at the age of 57 represent the shortest period in office for any British Prime Minister. He is regarded as a “lost leader”, who could have created a memorable legacy if he had lived longer.
Viscount Palmerston was one of the great political figures of the nineteenth century. First elected to parliament in 1806 at the age of 22, Palmerston spent an extraordinary six decades at the forefront of political life and influenced most of the great events of the age. He was intensely patriotic, and his most significant achievements were in foreign policy. His sixteen years as Foreign Secretary and two periods as Prime Minister, from 1855 to 1858 and from 1859 to 1865 covered a period when Britain was at the height of its imperial power. His strong defence of British interests became known as “gunboat diplomacy”.
Famous for his charming aristocratic manner, he was a very popular public figure and received a state funeral. Aged 71 when he became Prime Minister in 1855, Palmerston is the oldest PM to take up the office for the first time. When he died in 1865, a few days short of his eighty-first birthday, he was the last British Prime Minister to die in office.