Robert Banks Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool

Prime Minister, 1812-27

June 7, 1770 – December 4, 1828

Robert Banks Jenkinson (1770-1828) Second Earl of Liverpool from 1808. Prime Minister, 1812-27. Foreign Secretary, 1801-4. Home Secretary, 1804-6, 1807-9. Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, 1809-12. He was uniquely qualified to serve as Prime Minister, having occupied all three secretaryships of state before assuming that office, even though he was only a day beyond his 42nd birthday when he achieved it. Since then, only James Callaghan (Prime Minister 1976-79), having held the Foreign and Home Offices and the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, was similarly qualified.

Liverpool had a high level of financial and economic expertise, acquired through his father’s lengthy term as President of the Board of Trade and his own brief period as Master of the Mint. As Asa Briggs wrote, ‘his sheer professionalism as an administrator enabled him to master all the diverse needs of government between 1812 and 1827’.1 He was also widely read with a substantial and varied library – during the run-up to Waterloo he lent Abbot a copy of a rare and ancient Indian travel book, and in 1824 he engaged in a lengthy epistolary debate on literature with Croker.2

Physically, Liverpool was somewhat unprepossessing. His youthful thin, weedy appearance with receding chin had matured into a solidly built man, albeit still with a homely face and a double chin. He also had the slightly awkward movements of his father and rarely looked truly elegant. The diarist Harriet Arbuthnot (wife of Charles Arbuthnot), discussing the 1821 Lawrence painting of him, described him as having ‘an untidy look and a slouching way of standing’, but also remarked on ‘the profound and penetrating expression of countenance which marks this distinguished statesman’.3 Thus, whatever his intellectual and political attainments, Liverpool, a diffident man prone to lemon-yellow breeches in his younger days, could never have managed the sartorial triumph the strikingly handsome Castlereagh achieved in Vienna, where his entirely black and white outfits were a sensation and revolutionised men’s fashion for the next century. Liverpool did achieve two sartorial firsts, however: he was the first prime minister to wear trousers instead of breeches; and the first to cut his hair short instead of either wearing a wig or wearing his hair long in a queue.

Liverpool’s equable personality was one of his greatest strengths, at least early in his premiership, and it was combined with a generally excellent judgement of people. Except from Canning and his circle, he did not excite jealousy; while his father had pushed hard for his advancement, he had been a notably easygoing colleague once he reached the top ranks, prepared to step back to accommodate others’ claims, whether in 1807 in favour of Portland, or in 1809 in favour of Perceval. ‘He is one of the best tempered men living’, Charles Long said of him in 1812;4 accordingly, he was an easy boss for the strong personalities in his Cabinet, notably Castlereagh, Eldon and later Wellington (Sidmouth on the other hand had much of Liverpool’s equanimity). Countess Dorothea Lieven5 was surprised in May 1822 when he remarked of Peel, ‘There is a man who will be Prime Minister before ten years are out’ – she was not used to statesmen regarding the loss of their job with such calm.6

Other strengths which Liverpool brought to the premiership were his administrative ability and capacity for hard work and a knowledge of all areas of policy which enabled him both to manage the overall direction of his government through his able Cabinet and to defend the government’s position capably in the House of Lords. He was not a soaring classical orator but had a mastery of the facts and an ability in explanation that made him among the best debaters of his day. The Whig Tierney said of him in 1813 that he was ‘one of the most prudent ministers and debaters in Parliament I ever knew, and that he is besides a man in the House of Lords who is ready to turn out in all weathers’.7

Liverpool’s main weakness as Prime Minister was a lack of clubability; he joined the Tory club White’s as a young man but used it less as he grew older and withdrew his name in 1823. William Wellesley-Pole in 1820 criticised his unsociability and his lack of attention to the minor details of party management and suggested he ‘spent too much time shut up with clerks’. Charles Arbuthnot wrote in 1819 that he had ‘a most nervous mind’ and Arbuthnot was probably best placed to know this.8 Overall, he was highly introverted by the standards of senior politicians, to an extent that would surely have blocked his rise today. He also had the habit, due to shyness, of looking at the floor when talking to someone.

Liverpool was sustained for his first nine years in office by a notably happy marriage to Louisa, who died in June 1821. The marriage was childless, although there may have been some false pregnancies. Louisa suffered from intermittent ill-health but, when well, participated actively in the entertaining required by the prime ministerial office, as well as providing a sounding board for Liverpool on knotty political and personal questions. Louisa was also active in charity work, being a devout Evangelical, while Liverpool himself took religion seriously, attending church every Sunday morning and reading evening prayers to the household at 5.30 p.m. every Sunday afternoon.9 They were a devoted couple; she would pine if left in the country while he went to London on business. Overall, they provided an example of marital fidelity and affection that was by no means universal in their era.

During his premiership Liverpool was free of money worries, having inherited an income of £15,000 from his father and receiving in addition £3,000 per annum from the Lord Wardenship of the Cinque Ports. He had three principal residences: Fife House in Whitehall, which he used for official business, never living in 10 Downing Street; Coombe Wood in Kingston, a modest country house which he modernised and enlarged and Walmer Castle, the Lord Warden’s residence, a seaside retreat in which he spent the late summer each year after Parliament’s session ended.

After the stress of Queen Caroline’s trial and the death of Louisa, Liverpool’s equable temperament sometimes failed him. Mrs Arbuthnot writes of episodes of tears when harassed by George IV in 1821, shortly after Louisa’s death; his younger colleagues such as Palmerston mocked this, as did Canning and his circle. His irritability after 1821 was exacerbated by poor health, phlebitis and a low pulse rate being among the symptoms thereof. Still, even in his later years Liverpool was unusually open to new ideas, as shown in 1823 when he gave the first Treasury grant, of £1,700 to Charles Babbage to develop his Difference Engine.

Liverpool’s ‘good boss’ persona got him into trouble late in his premiership, when he gave way too much to the forceful and opinionated Canning, much to the distress of his long-term colleagues. In addition, Canning was a much less easy colleague than Castlereagh had been, increasing the stress of a difficult job and leading Liverpool on numerous occasions to contemplate resignation. Liverpool’s final four and a half years as Prime Minister were notably less coherent and successful than his first decade – this has been obscured by subsequent historians, who have undervalued Liverpool’s leadership in the difficult war and early post-war years.

In September 1822 Liverpool married Mary Chester, daughter of the Rev. Charles Chester and niece of the first Lord Bagot. Mary was seven years younger than Liverpool and survived him by eighteen years. This marriage also appears to have been happy, without the closeness of his first marriage; Mary played a less important role in politics and social life than had Louisa. A visit to the Liverpools was a trial to the fashionable; by 1823 two days with Liverpool at Walmer, breakfasting at 9 a.m. and in bed by 10 p.m., was a bore even for the staid Arbuthnot.10

Mrs Arbuthnot tells stories of Liverpool during his first marriage, excelling at charades and leaping over a sofa to sit next to the Countess Lieven. After 1821 she grew exasperated with him from time to time, especially as he was insufficiently staunch in supporting her beloved Wellington against the machinations of Canning. She wrote of him at his death:

He remained Minister too long for his own fame for, as his health decayed, he became supine, let everything go to ruin and had no longer energy or strength to resist the influence of Mr. Canning; but he was a very honest, upright man and deserves a higher character as a statesman than I dare say History will grant to him. … [T]he energy, firmness and talent he displayed in the war and in the most difficult crises will be overlooked or forgotten.11

[1] Comment on Liverpool’s premiership in Briggs, Sir Robert Peel, in van Thal, The Prime Ministers, Vol. 1, pp. 287-96.

[2] Abbot, The Diaries and Correspondence of Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester, Vol. 2, p. 542.

[3] Francis Bamford and the Duke of Wellington (eds), The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-1832, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1950) Vol. 1, p. 121 (17 September 1821).

[4] Quoted in Gash, Lord Liverpool, p. 101.

[5] Christoph Heinrich von Lieven (1774-1839) Count Lieven. Married 1800 Dorothea von Lieven, née Benckendorff (1785-1857). Prince and Princess Lieven from 1826. Lieven was Ambassador to the Court of St James, 1812-34. Dorothea was a Patroness of Almack’s and mistress of Metternich and possibly Palmerston.

[6] Gash, Lord Liverpool, p. 194.

[7] Ibid., p101

[8] Ibid., p192.

[9] Ibid., p201.

[10] Bamford and Wellington, The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-1832, Vol. 2, p. 271 (24 October 1823).

[11] Ibid., pp. 225-26.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson