This summer, some of the pictures from the magnificent collection of Sir Robert Walpole are being temporarily returned to Walpole's great mansion: Houghton Hall, in Norfolk; from where Walpole's incompetent grandson had had to sell them to Catherine the Great of Russia to pay off his gambling debts. This would be an appropriate time to examine the sources of Walpole's wealth, and how it was viewed by his contemporaries. (To put the figures in context, we must remember that the majority of families in England at the time had an annual income of not more than £20)
The Walpole family had been landowning gentry in north-east Norfolk for many generations, gradually increasing their wealth by purchase of land and prudent marriages, but had never been of any significance on a national scale. In 1689, however, Robert Walpole, the father of the man usually reckoned to be Britain's first Prime Minister, felt confident enough to spend several hundred pounds getting himself elected as Member of Parliament for Castle Rising; a local constituency with no more than a handful of voters. But this seems to have been the limit of his ambitions, for over the next ten years he remained a silent back-bencher. When he came to London to attend Parliament, he lived frugally. Then in 1700 he died, aged only 50.
The future Prime Minister, was born in 1676. He was the third son, and was originally intended for a career in the Church, but both his elder brothers died in early manhood, leaving him the heir. He progressed through Eton and King's College, Cambridge, and, just before his father's death, to marriage with the daughter of a London merchant.
Directly after the funeral, Robert Walpole arranged to be elected to his father's seat in Parliament, and then set out for London. For the rest of his career he would not return to Norfolk for more than a few weeks a year. Like his father, he gave his support to the Whig party, but he had no intention of remaining an anonymous back-bencher. From the very start, he was determined to become a great man.
The Whigs were led by a clique of great nobles known as the "Junto". Walpole's approach to them was twofold. Firstly, he could make himself useful to them in the House of Commons. But secondly, he wanted to be able to mix with them socially, and for this he would need to spend large amounts of money. So he rented a house in the best part of town, he bought the most fashionable clothes for himself and his wife, and he entertained lavishly, with the finest food and wines. Soon he was elected to the Kit-Cat Club, where the rising young Whigs met, and in 1706 he was able to give a Christmas ball which the Duke of Grafton condescended to attend. Soon after he cemented an important personal alliance when his sister Dorothy married another up-and-coming young Norfolk Whig: Viscount Townshend. Walpole and Townshend were to work together as a partnership for the next quarter of a century: Walpole dealing with finance and political management; Townshend the foreign policy expert.
Where was the money to come from? Whenever possible he bought from local dealers back home in Lynn, and then left the bills unpaid for years. His steward's wages were said to be twelve years in arrears - though his servants would have done well by tips from aristocratic guests. But ultimately the only way to make a lot of money very quickly was to get into government, and get his hand in the public till. (This is a characteristic of early societies, and could still be seen in the 20th century: consider the highly corrupt government of President Harding of the USA in the 1920s, or the way certain Third World dictators would pile up millions in a Swiss bank)
Circumstances favoured Walpole. The reign of Queen Anne (1702-14) was dominated by the War of the Spanish Succession, in which an alliance of Britain, Holland, the Austrian Empire and various smaller powers took on and defeated the France of Louis XIV. The war is best remembered for the Duke of Marlborough's four great victories over the French, but its economic and political impact was just as important. Britain was a much less rich country than France, but was able to fight the war because of its more sophisticated financial structures: the National Debt and the Bank of England. The war was essentially fought with borrowed money, and it saw the emergence of the City of London as Europe's greatest financial centre. The Whig party fully supported the war; the Tories were increasingly critical of the mounting debts and taxes and the rise of dubious-looking money-men, and were eager for a compromise peace. In 1706 Walpole was made a member of the Naval Council (where he used his influence to run his own smuggled goods through Lynn), and in 1708, when most Tories were forced out of the government, he was appointed Secretary-at-War.
Large sums of money now began to pass through his hands, and much of it remained in them. Effectively there was no clear distinction between funds that an official could use for his personal benefit and what was held for the nation; and government contracts, which in wartime were vast and lucrative, were awarded through bribery and political favouritism. Fortunes could be made, as they always had been, by what would nowadays be straightforward embezzlement and corruption. But debate in Parliament was freer than before, and Walpole's opponents were able to draw attention to his activities in a way that had not been possible in previous centuries. It was not long before they caught up with him.
In 1710 the Whig government fell: the Tories under Robert Harley came into power, and swept the country in a general election landslide the next year. The great Duke of Marlborough was sacked from his command of the army, and peace negotiations began with France. Walpole's career now appeared to be in ruins. In January 1712 he was charged with corruption, expelled from the House of Commons and sent to the Tower. His situation was so bad that when his wife visited him, she had to borrow the cost of a carriage from her maid! He was released after six months, but did not regain his place in Parliament until the next election in 1714; by which time the Tories had negotiated a peace treaty with France at Utrecht. Walpole's prospects did not look bright, but luck was on his side.
Queen Anne died, and George of Hanover was proclaimed King. He thought himself badly let down by the terms of Utrecht, and he hated all Tories in consequence. The Whigs returned to office, with Townshend Secretary of State and Walpole Paymaster-General. This was only a minor position, but notorious as one where it was possible to make large amounts of money. Walpole is supposed to have said that "He needed some fat on his bones". He was quite right: over the next four years, over £152,000 passed through his account with the banker Robert Mann; some spent on investments, but the majority on personal expenditure. There was then a struggle for power within the Whig party, and Walpole and Townshend were out of office for a couple of years; but the scandal of the South Sea Bubble and several fortuitous deaths amongst the Whig leadership meant that they were soon firmly entrenched in power. Walpole the held the offices of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer until 1742, and is usually styled Britain's first Prime Minister (see my separate piece on this). Once again the money flowed in.
Much of Walpole's personal accounts have survived, and the figures are staggering. In 1733 he spent over £1000 on wine from just one of his dealers, and returned 552 dozen empty bottles. On one single day he spent £543 on clothes. He gave his brother a watch costing £68. His annual bill for chocolates alone came to £17: considerably more than a labourer could expect to earn in a year. He refurbished the family home at Houghton in Norfolk, but in 1721 he decided that the rambling old house was insufficiently grand for a man of his importance, so it was razed to the ground, and a new Houghton Hall was erected in its place. The project took many years to complete. A whole village, which spoiled the vista, was demolished and rebuilt outside the gates of the estate.
The money for all this came ultimately from the public purse. Walpole was lavish in his use of sinecures (that is, positions which carried a salary but involved little or no actual work) to reward followers, friends, and his own family. His eldest son was given the position of Ranger of Richmond Park in 1726, and immediately appointed his father as his deputy, so that Sir Robert could use, as a retreat, the pleasant house outside London which went with the job. His youngest son, Horace, was provided with an income of £3,400 a year as Teller of the Exchequer, and was able to enjoy a long and extremely comfortable life as a writer and observer of the political scene. Even Walpole's mistress, Maria Skerrett, and their daughter Catherine received £1,000 a year of public money from various sinecures.
But Walpole faced a very vocal opposition.The press had escaped from government censorship under William III, and there was now a large reading public, especially in London, where there was a strong tradition of opposition to the government. An anti-Walpole weekly magazine, "The Craftsman", began publication in December 1726, and always focused on his corruption, as being the most vulnerable aspect of his administration. The wildly libelous "History of the Norfolk Steward" formed a serial in the magazine. Anti-Walpole ballads were very popular:-
"Good people draw near
And a tale you shall hear
A story concerning one Robin
Who from not worth a jot
A vast fortune has got
From politics, brokers and jobbing.
Now all of you know
How a few years ago
He scarce had a guinea his fob in,
But by bribing his friends
To serve his dark ends,
Now worth a full million is Robin".
and so on, for verse after verse.
Walpole made many attempts to crush the opposition press, but without much success, and his own hired propagandists were far less effective. Historians who admired Walpole used to argue that his corrupt methods must be judged by the standards of the time; but in fact attitudes were changing. Walpole's gross corruption (which even his son Horace did not deny) was becoming less acceptable. Walpole's opponents were much more distinguished figures than his supporters. He has been dubbed "the poets' foe": almost all the great writers of the time detested him. Jonathon Swift was a disappointed Tory, who published the satirical "Gulliver's Travels" in 1726 and denounced Walpole's Irish policy in the "Drapier's Letters". Alexander Pope, the greatest poet of the age, was a Roman Catholic, and thus denied any political rights. John Gay's popular "Beggar's Opera" (1728) contained several characters embodying the corrupt Walpole era: Macheath the highwayman, Lockit the gaoler and Peachum the receiver of stolen goods who doubled as an informer. Amongst the younger generation of intellectuals, Dr. Johnson was a lifelong Tory who hated all Whigs. Henry Fielding began his career as the author of violently anti-Walpole plays until censorship of the theatre obliged him to turn to novel-writing. His "The History of Jonathon Wild the Great" (1743) which purported to be about the criminal exploits of London's most notorious gangster of the early 18th century, pointedly drew a parallel between Wild and Walpole, to suggest that the political leaders were only gangsters on a larger scale.
How popular was Walpole in the country? It used to be argued that he had given Britain a period of much-needed peace and stability, after the thirty years of war, invasion threats, spiralling debt and political turmoil that had followed the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. Here again, old assessments have been challenged. Britain was at peace with Europe under Walpole, but the return of war at the start of the 1740s saw the country woefully unprepared, both in terms of allies and of armaments. Under Walpole's leadership the Whigs, who had once been a radical, quasi-republican party, more and more came to resemble an unpopular oligarchy, clinging to power by corrupt methods, and dependent on a monarch who was grossly biased in their favour. Almost certainly the Tories won more votes than Walpole in the General Election of 1734, and the next election in 1741 soon led to his overthrow.
Walpole was the end of a tradition in the matter of gross corruption: it is noticeable that his most important successors in the 18th century, Henry Pelham, Lord North and William Pitt the younger, made no money out of their political careers.
(See also, my earlier post on Walpole as Britain's first Prime Minister)
(In memory of the late, great, Professor J. H. Plumb, who first taught me about Walpole)