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Sir Robert Walpole

Sir Robert Walpole Born: 26 August 1676 in Houghton, Norfolk

First entered Parliament: 11 Jan 1701

Age he became PM: 44 years, 107 days

Maiden speech: His first recorded speech in the House of Commons was on 24 Jan 1704 on the rights of electors

Total time as PM: 20 years, 314 days

Died: 18 March 1745 in Arlington Street, London

Nicknames: “Sir Blustering” and “Screen-Master General”

Education: Eton and King’s College, Cambridge

Family: Robert Walpole was the fifth born of 17 children, eight of whom died when they were very young. He was married twice (to Catherine Shorter and then Maria Skerrett) and had three sons.

Interests: Collecting paintings, brewing beer, hunting and beagling

A short history

Today regarded as the first British prime minister, Walpole would not have described himself as such. The title was originally a term of abuse, not status, and was not officially recognised until 1905.

Walpole did, however, have many of the responsibilities and duties of the modern office of prime minister. Walpole was also the first to live and work in 10 Downing Street.

He was said to be a large man, with a direct and earthy manner, a colourful personality and a brilliant mind.

The third son of a family of seventeen, he was educated at Eton and Cambridge, and inherited a country estate aged 24.

With this wealth he gained the financial independence necessary to enter politics at the time.

In 1701 he became the Whig member of Parliament for Castle Rising, Norfolk. He proved himself an excellent speaker, and rose rapidly within the party. He was made a member of the Admiralty Board, Secretary of War and, in 1709, Treasurer of the Navy.

There was a small setback in 1712, when the ruling Tories had Walpole tried for accepting an illegal payment as Secretary of War. Found guilty, he spent six months imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Despite this, when the Whigs regained power, Walpole quickly rose to the positions of First Lord of theTreasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Walpole resigned amid party infighting in 1717, splitting the Whigs in Parliament, but in 1720 returned to the government as Paymaster General.

Appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Treasury for a second time, Walpole’s powers as prime minister date from this point. Walpole was quickly successful, neutralising dangerous opponents, reducing the national debt and stabilising prices and wages.

His great influence stemmed from his popularity with both King and people. He realised the importance of a closely involved, active role in the Commons to consolidate this power.

It was also alleged that he effectively used bribery and corruption to retain the power he so relished.

After George I’s death in 1727, Walpole was briefly superseded by King George II’s favourite, Spencer Compton. He succeeded in returning to prominence by buttering up the King, and by consistently going further than Compton’s own attempts at sycophancy.

King George II, now won round to Walpole, made his prime minister a gift of 10 Downing Street, where he moved in 1735.

In 1739 Walpole’s poor performance in a war against Spain reduced confidence in his ability to carry out his duties. A disappointing general election result in 1741 made his position even more precarious.

Walpole was forced to resign as prime minister in 1742, and was elevated to the House of Lords. An enquiry was launched into the distribution of secret service money under his premiership, alleging corruption but the matter was never pursued.

Quote Unquote

To the Earl of Bath on their elevation to the House of Lords:

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

Did you know?

Walpole still holds the record for the longest term of any prime minister in history - 20 years.

First wife - Catherine Shorter

Lady Walpole, Catherine Shorter Walpole was twice married. His first wife was a merchant’s daughter from Kent, who bore him five children.

She enjoyed extravagance, frequently attending the opera and buying expensive clothes and jewellery.

During his time as prime minister Walpole grew estranged from his wife and took a succession of lovers. Within a year of Lady Walpole dying in 1737, Walpole married one of them.

Second wife - Maria Skerett

Nearly 26 years his junior, Maria Skerett was witty and beautiful. She died after having a miscarriage in 1738, a bitter blow to Walpole.

Notable events during Walpole’s Premiership

1721 regular postal service is established between London and New England…1724 Philip V abdicates the Spanish throne…1725 Casanova, the Italian adventurer, is born…1731 Number 10, the residence of British prime ministers, is built in Westminster…1740 famine in Ireland…1741 Handel composes The Messiah in only 18 days

The next Prime Minister

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