Every December mince pies fly off the shelf, but our love for them never seems to last past Christmas. In 1783, William Pitt’s government was disparagingly nicknamed after this ‘phenomenon’. Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project, reflects on whether the label of the ‘Mince Pie Administration’ was a fair prophecy for Pitt’s government.
On 19 December 1783 William Pitt accepted George III’s request for him to form an administration, becoming the youngest ever holder of the office of Prime Minister. The past few months had seen several ministries come and go. There was no reason to expect that Pitt’s would be any different, though one newspaper opined: ‘May he long remain in that situation is the wish of every friend to his country’ [Public Advertiser, 20 December 1783]. The outgoing administration, known as ‘Fox-North’, but headed technically by the duke of Portland, still had a sizeable majority in the House of Commons. There was thus every reason to expect that the naysayers would be proved right and that Pitt’s ‘Mince Pie’ administration would not outlast the Christmas season.
Pitt the Younger’s rise to the top was meteoric by any measure. In 1780 he had been knocked back standing for Cambridge University in the general election but the following year he was given a seat at Appleby by Sir James Lowther, thanks to an intervention by the duke of Rutland. He had only been an MP for 18 months when government came knocking. In July 1782 the earl of Shelburne was struggling to put together a ministry following the death of the marquess of Rockingham. Shelburne was not a popular man and a number of Rockingham’s friends chose to quit rather than serve under him. Lacking anyone else, Shelburne turned to Pitt to become chancellor of the exchequer. Pitt was just 23 years old. He had, in fact, been intended for the Home Office, but there were difficulties with appointing someone as secretary of state with so little experience.
As well taking on the chancellorship, Pitt was also detailed by Shelburne with the job of trying to secure more backing for the ministry, which faced serious opposition from the Foxite Whigs and followers of Lord North. Pitt refused to deal with the latter, so called on Charles James Fox to try to broker a deal but Fox made it clear that under no circumstances would he serve with Shelburne.
By February 1783 Shelburne’s ministry had already run out of steam and Shelburne recommended Pitt to the king to take over as Prime Minister. Pitt declined the job, thereby helping to usher in the next short-lived ‘Fox-North’ ministry. The king, though, was determined not to suffer the coalition a moment longer than necessary. By December Fox-North was out and George III was looking for his third premier of the year. Once again, he turned to Pitt; and this time Pitt accepted the challenge.
Pitt became Prime Minister, with just under a week to go before Christmas, and every reason to believe that he would be out again as quickly as everyone thought. Things began badly with Earl Temple, dubbed by Thomas Orde as a ‘d—d, dolterheaded Coward’, resigning from the government after just four days, while other senior figures refused to serve from the off. There seemed every reason to believe that Frances Crewe, darling of the Whigs and distinguished in their circles with the toast: ‘Buff and Blue, and Mrs Crewe’ was in the right when she declared Pitt:
may do what he likes during the holidays, but it will be a mince-pie administration, depend upon it
Bets were taken on how long the ministry might limp on: Fox thought it could last longer than a week. Unable to persuade most of the heavy-weights to join him, Pitt was forced to hand most cabinet posts to lesser figures – all of them in the Lords. Indeed, Pitt was the only minister of cabinet rank in the Commons. He did, though, have useful support from some junior ministers who would come to be important figures in their own right: notably a future prime minister, William Grenville, and Pitt’s right-hand man in Scotland, the controversial Henry Dundas.
Despite the decidedly shaky start, Pitt’s position was not as bad as it seemed. He enjoyed the king’s confidence and quickly demonstrated more resolution than Shelburne had managed in facing down the opposition. When Parliament returned from the Christmas recess, Pitt was still in office and Members of both Houses began to realize that this time there was reason to shift their allegiance to the king’s man. Festive allusions continued to feature, though. One popular satire of March 1784 featured Pitt as ‘Plum Pudding Billy’ being presented with a huge pudding. Behind him, carrying a chamber pot, was a superannuated John Wilkes: the former radical having decided that Pitt was the man to follow.
The occasion being marked was Pitt’s reception at Grocer’s Hall on 28 February where he was awarded the freedom of the City of London. Wilkes had been there in his role as City Chamberlain. Wilkes’s diary entry for that day made little of the occasion, only noting the dinner at the hall, and the main attendants: Pitt, Lord Temple, Pitt’s older brother, the 2nd earl of Chatham, and a handful of others including William Grenville. He did not mention Pitt and Chatham being waylaid on their way home outside Brooks’s by a group of chairmen ‘armed with bludgeons, broken Chair Poles &c’. The Foxites may have been behind the attack but it only helped demonstrate that talk of mince pies or plum puddings was by then well out of date. Indeed, Pitt was on the verge of turning the tables on the opposition.
In April a new general election was called and this time the supporters of Fox and North were routed. Pitt also had the quiet satisfaction of exchanging his ‘borrowed’ seat at Appleby for Cambridge University, which would remain his seat for the remainder of his career. Fox, meanwhile, faced a fierce contest in Westminster and was forced to accept a deal whereby he was returned for a pocket borough before his election at Westminster was confirmed.
The Mince Pie administration was only supposed to have lasted a matter of days, or weeks. It survived to see Pitt triumph at the 1784 general election and his premiership then endured until 1801. He then returned as Prime Minister three years later for a further 18 months, before dying in office in 1806. The length of his premiership remains the second longest, with only Sir Robert Walpole lasting longer.
Frances Crewe could not have been more wrong in her assessment about Pitt’s prospects for success. She did, though, have the mild satisfaction of living to see her husband raised to the peerage just a month after Pitt’s death.
Robin Eagles, ed, The Diaries of John Wilkes (London Record Society, xlv, 2014)
Matthew Kilburn ‘Mince-pie administration’, Oxford DNB
L.G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox (Oxford 1992)
Jacqueline Reiter, The Late Lord: The Life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (2017)