British Prime Ministers: 10 Amazing Facts

British Prime Ministers: 10 Amazing Facts

1. The Longest Serving Prime Minister

Widely acknowledged as the first British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole was indeed the longest serving Prime Minister although he never officially held the title.

Born in 1676, Walpole was one of 19 children. He was born into a gentry family and rose to prominence within Parliament during the early 18th century. He was elected to parliament in 1701 and pursued moderate policies throughout his career. Although Walpole’s political career wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Robert Walpole

In 1712, he was found guilty of receiving illegal payments. He was dismissed from his post as Secretary of War and imprisoned in the Tower of London for 6 months. Walpole managed to restore his reputation and rise to prominence in the following decades.

Walpole was British Prime Minister for a total of 21 years.

2. The Shortest Serving British Prime Minister

Conversely, the shortest serving Prime Minister was George Canning
(12 April 1827 – 8 August 1827).

George Canning

He served a total of 119 days! George’s health had deteriorated in the last year of his life and he died whilst in office.

3. British Prime Ministers who were Fired by the Monarch

George Grenville became Prime Minister in 1763. He was a highly intelligent man but failed to win popularity with his peers. His imposition of duties on the new colonies in America is credited as a determining factor in the outbreak of the American War of Independence (1775–1783). King George III eventually sacked Grenville in 1765.

George Grenville

William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne was also sacked by a monarch. He entered into a political disagreement with King George IV who ultimately dismissed him in 1834.

4. The Peelers

Then Home Secretary and future Prime Minister, Robert Peel created the first Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. The members of this new and innovative police force were initially referred to as ‘Peelers’ and later ‘Bobbies’ (an abbreviation of Robert’s name).

A ‘Peeler’ Pictured in the 1850’s

Prior to Peel’s reforms, the UK lacked a proper, organised, paid police profession. In order to become a policeman, a man (the profession was only open to men) were required to be over 5 feet 7″ tall and be athletic. They had to be literate and of excellent character.

The public was initially resistant to this new police force. They suspected ‘peelers’ as an infringement on their civil liberties. In an attempt to ease suspicions, policemen were required to wear their uniforms on and off duty.

From 1839, police forces were rolled out across the country.

5. Age is Just a Number!

William Pitt the Younger holds the title as the youngest serving of all British Prime Ministers. He came to office in 1783 at the age of 24.

Conversely, the oldest serving Prime Minister was William Ewart Gladstone. He was 82 years old when he was appointed Prime Minister (for the final time, he had served 3 previous terms) in 1892. Gladstone was also the oldest Prime minister to leave office, he was 84 when he retired in 1894.

Gladstone Pictured c.1898

Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, wins the award of the oldest Prime Minister appointed for the first time. He was 70 years old when he came to office in 1855.

6. British Prime Ministers who Died in Office

A total of 7 Prime ministers have died in office. They are listed along with the years which they served as PM and their ages at death:

  • Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington – 16 February 1742 – 2 July 1743, aged 70.
  • Henry Pelham – 27 August 1743 – 6 March 1754, aged 59.
  • Charles Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham – 27 March 1782 – 1 July 1782, aged 52.
  • William Pitt, the Younger – 10 May 1804 – 23 January 1806, aged 46 (the youngest to die in office).
William Pitt the Younger c.1787
  • Spencer Perceval – 4 October 1809 – 11 May 1812, aged 49.
  • George Canning – 12 April 1827 – 8 August 1827, aged 57.
  • Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston – 12 June 1859 – 18 October 1865, aged 80 (the oldest to die in office).

7. Assassination

Spencer Perceval is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated whilst in office. Perceval entered the House of Commons on 11th May 1812.

The Assassination of Spencer Perceval

He was met by John Bellingham who shot him in the chest. Perceval was carried to a nearby room and died shortly after. Bellingham was arrested, tried and publicly executed.

8. Fancy A Cuppa?

Earl Grey tea is named after Earl Charles Grey who served as British Prime Minister from 1830-1834. The story goes that during Earl Grey’s visit to China, one of his men saved a young boy from drowning. By way of thanks, the boy’s father gave the Earl a tea made from bergamot oil. The Earl reputedly re-created the tea he enjoyed so much when he returned to Britain.

This tale is problematic, Earl Grey had never visited China. Furthermore, bergamot oil was not used in tea in China at this time. It is not entirely clear why the tea was named after the Earl but it is possible that the beverage was offered to him as a diplomatic gift.

Earl Charles Grey

Descendants of the Earl claim that a man from China used bergamot oil to flavour the Earl’s tea at his home in Northumberland. Lady Grey would then serve the tea to her guests and eventually, its popularity grew.

Wherever the association comes from, what is clear is that since the mid- 18-century, Earl Grey tea has been associated with the aristocracy and high society.

9. Keeping it in the Family

Interestingly, a number of British Prime Ministers had family members who had previously held the office.

  • William Pitt the Younger served as PM in 1801 and then again ( 10 May 1804 – 23 January 1806). His father, William Pitt the Elder, or the Earl of Chatham as he is commonly referred to, held the office from (30 July 1766 – 14 October 1768).
William Pitt, the Elder
  • William Grenville (11 February 1806 – 25 March 1807) was the son of former Prime Minister Geroge Grenville (16 April 1763 – 10 July 1765).
  • Brothers Henry Pelham (27 August 1743 – 6 March 1754) and Thomas Pelham – Holles (29 June 1757 – 26 May 1762 ) are the only brothers to have served as PM.

10. The Most Popular British Prime Minister

A variety of polls have been conducted over the past 20 years which have posed the question ‘who is Britain’s most popular Prime Minister?’ Not every poll yields the same result, but the most frequent Prime Minister to top the polls is Winston Churchill.

Churchill’s Famous ‘V’ Sign

But what makes Churchill Britain’s greatest Prime Minister?

Obviously, Churchill is most famous for his role as British Prime Minister during the Second World War. He is revered as the leader who faced the Nazis and led Britain to victory.

Churchill’s Political Career

It surprises some to learn that Churchill had a long political career which spanned decades before the Second World War. And his career wasn’t always necessarily the huge success it’s noted for today!

Churchill Pictured in 1901

Churchill has a special place in my heart – in 1900 he began his political career as MP for Oldham (my home town). He served as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911. However, he was blamed for the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 which saw British troops attempt to seize the
Dardanelles (a stretch of water that separates Europe from Asia). The Allies saw losses of 46,000 troops. Churchill was then demoted from the post and could have easily entered the pages of history as a disastrous, incompetent military tactician.

However, this wasn’t the case. Churchill swapped politics for soldiery and joined the troops on the Front Lines in France in 1915. In 1917, he returned to politics serving as Munitions Minister under David Lloyd George’s new coalition government.

However, the disaster of Gallipoli still hung over him and was not forgotten by his peers, or indeed by the nation. When he stood up to speak in the House of Commons in the 1920s, he would be met with taunts of ‘Remember the Dardanelles’.

Churchill the War Hero

Churchill saw his political and military experiences as lessons learnt as he rose through the political ranks and took up the post of Prime Minister in 1940. Indeed he wrote at this time:

All my past life had been a preparation for this hour and for this trial. 

He spurred the nation into action and united the country against their foe. Who could forget his immortal words as he uttered just before the Battle of Britain (10 July – 31 October 1940):

… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Churchill Pictured in 1941

Millions were rallied into action as Churchill declared:

Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.

How spine-tingling are his words, even to this day!

Theresa May is the 54th British Prime Minister, and next month ushers a new Prime Minister. Will ‘BoJo’ or Jeremy Hunt be the 55th? Whichever of them takes the lead, will they enter the ranks as one of the greatest British Prime Ministers?

A comprehensive list of British Prime Ministers can be found here. For more history posts, click here.

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1 Comment

  1. July 3, 2019 / 12:15 pm

    This was such a fascinating post! I’ve recently watched The Crown (twice) and although it doesn’t go quite as far back as a lot of these, it definitely got me more interested in British parliament and it’s history. I learnt a lot about Winston Churchill from that show!

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