A family affair? Sir Robert Walpole and the ‘Robinocracy’, 1721-1742

April 3 marks the 300th anniversary of Robert Walpole becoming first lord of the treasury and, with it, assuming the title ‘Prime Minister’ for the first time. In today’s blog Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project, explores Walpole’s rise to power and the familiarity of his surname within the walls of Westminster…

Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford, Jean-Baptiste van Loo, Government Art Collection via ArtUK

On 3 April 1721, 300 years ago today, Robert Walpole was handed the seals of office as first lord of the treasury. He was also appointed chancellor of the exchequer (the two jobs frequently went in tandem in this period). It was not the first time he had held the post, having been first lord of the treasury earlier in the reign of George I: a time when politics was dominated by two pairings – the partnerships of Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, and James Stanhope; and of Walpole and his brother-in-law, Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend. The uneasy alliance had not lasted long and in 1716 Sunderland and Stanhope had succeeded in easing out the other pair. The resulting ‘Whig Schism‘ coincided with a rupture within the royal family. George, Prince of Wales, was ejected from St James’s and went in search of an independent household of his own based at Leicester House, where he attracted a mixed bag of disillusioned Whigs, Tories and the core of the Walpole-Townshend group.

So, Walpole’s return to office in 1720, and his promotion to first lord in 1721 in the wake of the disaster of the South Sea Bubble, constituted more than just a personal achievement. It represented a healing of the schisms at court and in Parliament; but it was also a clear opportunity for his friends and family to make the most of his good fortune. The deaths in close succession of Stanhope (in 1721) and Sunderland (in 1722) further helped open the path for Walpole’s steady ascent.

In the course of his 20 years at the top, Walpole came to be viewed as a political giant. Terms used to describe him included ‘Leviathan’ and there were much-circulated cartoon satires of him in the guise of a modern-day colossus, straddling the political world. Historians have noted his extraordinary grasp of detail, and the extent of his reach into myriad areas of 18th-century life. A further indication of his dominance was his ability to make space for a number of family members in a range of government posts. In this way, his administration might be said not so much to have been a ‘Robinocracy’ as a ‘Walpolocracy’: an administration represented at all levels by ‘the family’ with Robert as the very prominent capo di tutti capi.

The Stature of a Great Man, or the Scotch Colossus, George Bickham the Younger, c.1762, British Museum

Indications that the Walpoles were the ones to watch came in advance of Robert’s own appointment as first lord. A short while before, the press reported the promotion of Robert’s brother, Captain Galfridus Walpole, as joint post-master general, taking over the place vacated following the suicide of James Craggs the Elder. Galfridus had previously had a successful naval career, though his further advancement was brought to a halt by his early death in 1726. That it was not just Robert and Galfridus, though, was made plain by a report in the London Journal for 15 April 1721. Previously an opposition newspaper, the London Journal came to be a warm supporter of Walpole and its account emphasized the extraordinary ascendancy of the family of the once obscure Norfolk squire. Beginning with a paean in praise of Walpole himself, it announced in hyperbolic terms:

Tis with no little pleasure and satisfaction that the lovers of liberty see a deserving patriot worthily restored to his majesty’s favour, and, like Gideon’s fleece, sucking up the dew of Heaven, whilst all about it lie bare and dry.

It then continued to highlight the triumph of the Walpole family, and how they were sharing in the distribution of largesse accompanying Robert’s restoration:

First Lord of the Treasury, Mr Walpole. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Walpole. Clerk of the Pells, Mr Walpole’s son. Customs of London, 2d son of Mr Walpole, in reversion. Secretary of the Treasury, Mr Walpole’s brother. Post-Master General, Mr Walpole’s brother. Secretary to Ireland, Mr Walpole’s brother. Secretary to the Post-Master General, Mr Walpole’s brother-in-law. All other Friends are justly restored to the employments they had lost.

The various family members highlighted by the paper were Walpole’s brothers Horatio and Galfridus; his heir, Robert, and second son Edward; and his brother-in-law Sir Charles Turner. Significantly, the paper omitted another key member of the family, Viscount Townshend, husband of Walpole’s sister, Dorothy. Like Walpole, he had been summoned back to government on the healing of the Whig split as lord president, and after Stanhope’s death he too had been restored to his former post of secretary of state.

Throughout his time in office, family remained important to Walpole, even after the crucial falling out with Townshend, who retired from office in 1730 fed up with being eclipsed by his once junior partner. After 1727 another in-law, George Cholmondeley, Viscount Malpas (later 3rd earl of Cholmondeley), married to Walpole’s daughter Mary, joined other members of the clan in government and continued to hold office beyond Walpole’s fall.

In spite of his careful construction of a ministry with family and friends occupying key posts, after 20 years at the top Walpole’s luck finally ran out. He did his utmost to put off the inevitable. He turned up to committees that had not seen him for years and put on a brave face looking ‘cheerful and composed’ and speaking ‘with spirit, ease & modest dignity’. [Campbell Correspondence, 81]. But commentators spotted that once loyal followers had begun to desert him, leaving Walpole himself trying to cling on in ever more desperate fashion:

He retired unwillingly and slowly: no shipwrecked pilot ever clung to the rudder of a sinking vessel with greater pertinacity than he did to the helm of state [Coxe, Walpole, iii. 245]

By the end of his premiership, Walpole was identified by many of the opposition as the key stumbling block and it is interesting that neither Cholmondeley (the former Malpas) nor Walpole’s brother Horatio shared in his fall, even though there were rumours of efforts to impeach both brothers. Walpole might have tried to keep things in the family, but his removal remained a lonely event as many of his former acolytes let him become the general scapegoat and concentrated on saving themselves.


Further Reading

William Coxe, Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Sir Robert Walpole, earl of Orford

J.E. Davies, ed. The Correspondence of John Campbell MP… (Parliamentary History: Texts & Studies 8)

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