Thomas Pelham-Holles, Prime Minister of Great Britain (Whig 1757 to 1762, 1754 to 1756)

Birth: 21 July 1693 , London
Death: 17 November 1768, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London
Political party: 1757 to 1762, 1754 to 1756
Dates in office: Whig

Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, was one of the eighteenth century’s great political survivors and served as First Lord of the Treasury through peace and war. Born in Sussex in July 1693, he was the eldest son of Thomas Pelham, first baron Pelham of Laughton, and his second wife, Lady Grace Holles. He was educated at Westminster School and matriculated in 1709 at Clare College, Cambridge, although, like many in this period, he did not take a degree.

On his maternal uncle’s death in July 1711, he succeeded to his estates, on condition that he added Holles to his name. His father’s death in February 1712 added to his inheritance, making him a considerable landowner and granting him substantial influence over the election of at least a dozen MPs in his native Sussex, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. His strong support for the Whig cause and the Hanoverian succession was rewarded by George I with a series of noble titles, including the Dukedom of Newcastle, previously held by his uncle.

Thomas Pelham-Holles

During the Whig split of 1717 , Newcastle remained loyal to the Sunderland-Stanhope grouping. He married Lady Henrietta Godolphin in April 1717 and was appointed Lord Chamberlain shortly afterwards. Earlier in that year he had secured the election of his brother, Henry Pelham , as an MP. His long career in public life had begun.

Newcastle initially used his skills as a courtier and he build up good relations with George I. However, following Walpole’s ascent to power, Newcastle moved into a more directly political role. He became Secretary of State for the Southern Department in 1724, becoming (along with his Northern Departmental colleague Viscount Townshend) one of the ministers charged with the direction of British foreign policy. Newcastle served as Townshend’s junior colleague until the latter’s resignation in 1730 made him the senior secretary and second only to Walpole within the administration.

Newcastle’s belief in protecting the rulers of the Habsburg Empire and allying with them to prevent French expansion was a persistent feature of his policy. Walpole’s reluctance to be drawn into conflict in 1733 on the Austrian side in the War of the Polish Succession was the first sign of serious tension between him and Newcastle. Newcastle realised more quickly than Walpole the strength of public feeling that led ultimately to the outbreak of war with Spain in 1739, and he was instrumental in directing British policy in the ensuing conflict.

He, along with Pelham and Hardwicke, survived Walpole’s fall and had stamped their authority on the ministry by 1746. Newcastle continued his responsibility for foreign affairs with Pelham responsible for domestic policy. The two were often at odds, with frequent tension over Newcastle’s instincts to build foreign alliances involving financial commitments for Britain. Following his brother’s death in 1754, Newcastle was persuaded by the King to become First Lord himself.

Events and political miscalculation over the next two and a half years conspired against him. Always anxious about potential rivals, Newcastle was reluctant to give up patronage powers and support the ministry’s leader in the Commons, Henry Fox, sufficiently. His attempts to prevent war in American and Europe failed. The ignominious loss of Minorca to France led Newcastle to resign in November 1756.

Yet Newcastle’s retirement from public life was only temporary. He returned as First Lord in June 1757. His management of finances and marshalling of MPs underpinned William Pitt the Elder’s strategic vision as Secretary of State, ultimately leading to British success in the Seven Years War (1756-63). War-weariness and a change of monarch created tensions within the ministry and George III’s promotion of John Stuart, Earl of Bute , led first to Pitt’s and then Newcastle’s resignation.

Newcastle returned briefly to office as Lord Privy Seal in the Marquess of Rockingham’s first administration. He died in November 1768 at his London residence. Accused by his critics of incompetence, Newcastle’s life shows that balancing royal favour with strong managerial skills could lead to a long, if not entirely successful, political career.

Henry Pelham, Prime Minister of Great Britain (Whig 1743 to 1754)

Birth: Early 1696 (though some sources say 1694), Laughton, Sussex
Death: 6 March 1754 , Arlington St, London
Political party: Whig
Dates in office: 1743 to 1754

Henry Pelham’s tenure as First Lord of the Treasury continued the direction and style of politics inaugurated by his mentor, Robert Walpole. Pelham was the second surviving son of Thomas Pelham, first Baron Pelham of Laughton, and his second wife Lady Grace Holles. Born in London on 26 September 1694, Pelham was educated at Westminster School and Hart Hall (now Hertford College), Oxford. His father’s death in 1712 brought him cash and land in the family’s home county of Sussex. The Pelham family had traditionally been Whigs and both Henry and his elder brother, Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, maintained this allegiance.

Pelham volunteered for the army during the pro-Stuart Jacobite rising of 1715, commanding dragoons at the Battle of Preston. He spent time travelling in Europe before becoming MP for Seaford in Sussex, thanks to his brother’s patronage. He held this seat until 1722 when he was elected as one of the County members for Sussex, holding this seat until his death.

Early political career

His brother’s patronage also helped him acquire his first major office in 1720, as Treasurer of the Chamber (Newcastle was Lord Chamberlain) but, following Walpole’s appointment as First Lord, Pelham took a seat on the Treasury Board. Pelham and his brother were key allies of Walpole in his struggle for control of the administration with John, Lord Carteret and both were rewarded, following Carteret’s sidelining in 1724. Pelham served as Secretary at War from 1724 and became a Privy Councillor in 1725.

Pelham married Lady Katharine Manners, daughter of the second Duke of Rutland, in 1726. The couple’s two sons and two of their six daughters died in infancy. Despite these familial misfortunes, Pelham’s political career proceeded apace. He became Paymaster of the Forces in 1730 (although, unlike other holders of this office, he did not use it to enrich himself) and served as one of Walpole’s senior lieutenants in the House of Commons. Following Walpole’s fall in 1742, Pelham became leader of the Walpolean faction, known as the Old Corps Whigs, in the Commons.

Commons manager and first Lord

Pelham’s political skills in managing the Commons meant that he was quickly earmarked to take over from Spencer Compton as First Lord. Compton’s death simply accelerated the process and Pelham succeeded him in July 1743. He subsequently became Chancellor of the Exchequer (as Walpole had also been) as well.

The heart of the Old Corps

Following Walpole’s fall, Carteret once more emerged as an important political figure, mainly because the King valued his diplomatic skills in a period of international tension. The Old Corps Whigs were, however, slowly able to gain the upper hand over their old rival by resigning in February 1746. When George II was unable to form an alternative administration without them, the Old Corps were returned to power and Carteret’s influence diminished. Pelham, along with Newcastle and Philip Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke and Lord Chancellor, were the mainstays of the government. Pelham worked hard to manage the Commons and domestic affairs more generally, while Newcastle concentrated on foreign policy and Hardwicke tried to keep the peace between the frequently quarrelsome brothers. As head of the Treasury, Pelham’s instincts were always towards reducing expenditure and he was sceptical about some of his brother’s more expansive European alliance schemes. Mindful of the impact on national finances, he succeeded in passing a scheme to consolidate the national debt and reduce the interest rate in 1749.

He died in March 1754, shortly before the General Election. His integrity and unwillingness to enrich himself in public office were noted by contemporaries. A further testament to his political skills came from George II who remarked, on hearing news of his death, ‘I shall have no more peace’, a comment which proved remarkably prescient.

Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister of Great Britain (Whig, 1721-1742)

Birth: 26 August 1676, Houghton Hall, Norfolk
Death: 18 March 1745, Arlington Street, London
Political party: Whig
Dates in office: 1721 to 1742

This is the first of 52 biographies of British Prime Ministers, from Sir Robert Walpole to Gordon Brown. Written by members of History & Policy, a 500+ strong network of expert historians, these new, succinct bios will be published over the coming months.

Each describes the major issues facing the PM at the time, his or her successes and failures in office, as well as personal characteristics. The series will offer readers of the History of Government Blog clear analysis and interesting insights into how Britain’s Prime Ministers have ruled across nearly 300 years.

“My Lord Bath, you and I are now as insignificant men as any in England.”

Today often viewed as the first British Prime Minister, Walpole was described by contemporary opponents as the ‘Screen-Master General’, adept at pulling all the political strings.

Sir Robert Walpole, first Earl of Orford, was born on 26 August 1676 at Houghton in Norfolk. His father, another Robert, was a prominent Norfolk landowner and MP. Robert junior was admitted to Eton in 1690, becoming a King’s Scholar. He entered King’s College, Cambridge in April 1696, but his university education was cut short by the death of his eldest brother in 1698. Walpole returned to Norfolk, now the heir, to learn how to manage the family estates and married the daughter of a wealthy timber merchant, Catherine Shorter, soon afterwards.

A Whig with moderate views

The death of his father in November 1700 helped his political career, as he took his place as MP for Castle Rising in 1701. At the general election of 1702 he secured the seat at King’s Lynn, which he was to hold, with a short intermission in 1712, until February 1742. Walpole’s father had been a Whig, a supporter of the 1688 to 1689 ‘Glorious Revolution’ which gave Britain a constitutional monarchy. Robert junior inherited those views, although he was also perceived as a political moderate and an efficient administrator.

The rise, fall, and rise of Walpole

His political rise was swift. He became Secretary at War in 1708 and Treasurer of the Navy in 1710 to 1711. However, his involvement in the prosecution of Tory preacher Henry Sacheverell had consequences. The Tory government elected in 1710 targeted Walpole: he was found guilty of corruption and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1712, becoming a Whig martyr in the process.

The accession of the Hanoverian King George I in 1714 returned the Whigs to power. Walpole was appointed First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715, but followed his brother-in-law and political mentor, Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, into opposition in 1717 when the Whigs split.

Long tenure

He resumed office as First Lord and Chancellor in April 1721 and retained both positions until February 1742, an unusually long tenure by any standard. This return to office coincided with the serious financial crisis following the South Sea Bubble and Walpole played an important role in restoring government credit.

Careful management

His skill in retaining office when George I died in 1727 was noteworthy in an age when a new monarch typically meant a new administration. His approach to politics relied on careful management of the House of Commons and a tendency to avoid confrontation where possible.

He cultivated backbench support carefully and enjoyed fine wine and good company. He tried to keep taxes low for landowners and was sceptical about the benefits of an expansive foreign policy, knowing that he had to sell the policy (and taxes) to Parliament.

The first Prime Minister

Traditionally regarded as the first Prime Minister, Walpole lived in 10 Downing Street from 1735 having insisted that it become the residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, rather than being given to him personally. Royal support helped him survive a serious crisis over his tax plans in 1733, but in 1742 a combination of opposition from the Prince of Wales and a deteriorating foreign political situation forced his resignation.

George II raised him to the peerage as Earl of Orford and he remained a close confidant of the King until his death in 1745.