A Moment in London’s History – Sir Robert Walpole becomes first ‘Prime Minister’…

Portrait of Robert Walpole (1676-1745); probably a work of Godfrey Kneller (via Wikipedia).

This month – over the Easter weekend, in fact – marked the 300th anniversary of the date on which Sir Robert Walpole effectively became the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Walpole, who had entered Parliament as a Whig at the age of 25 in 1701, had had a tumultuous political career which had included rising quickly to the positions of Secretary at War and Treasury of the Navy before, having been targeted by his Tory opponents, spending six months in the Tower of London after he was found guilty of corruption.

The accession of King George I in 1714 was good news for the Whigs and the following year Walpole was appointed First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715. He resigned a couple of years later due to a party split but by 1720 he was once again man of influence, appointed to the Privy Council and made Paymaster General as well as Paymaster of the Forces.

The following year, on 3rd April, 1721, he was effectively elevated to the position of Prime Minister after being appointed First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and leader of the House of Commons.

Walpole remained at the head of the government until 1742 when he resigned after a motion of no confidence was moved against him. But it wasn’t all bad news, King George II subsequently elevated him to the House of Lords as the Earl of Orford.

Interesting, it was also King George II who offered Walpole the residence in Downing Street (Walpole only accepted on condition that it be a gift to the office of the First Lord of the Admiralty so he wasn’t liable for the cost of upkeep).

Walpole was the first of what has since been an unbroken line of 77 Prime Ministers (although only 55 people have held the office due to the multiple occasions on which individuals have served).

While the term was used informally to describe Walpole as far back as the 1730s (although in 1741 he denied he was the “sole and prime minister” in the House of Commons, thanks to the association of the term with foreign tyrannies), it wasn’t until the following century that it was used in Parliament (Benjamin Disraeli, was the first to sign an act using the title in 1878) and not until 1905 was the post of prime minister officially given recognition in the order of precedence.

LondonLife – New Sheriffs in the City…

The two new sheriffs of the City of London – Alderman Alan Yarrow and Wendy Mead CC (pictured here second and fourth from left with Lord Mayor Michael Bear between them) – were admitted into office in a ceremony at Guildhall last week following their election in June by the City livery companies. The office of sheriff dates back to the Middle Ages and, until the institution of the mayoralty in 1189, sheriffs or ‘shire reeves’ were charged with governing the city as the king’s representatives, collecting royal revenues and enforcing royal justice. The role now includes ensuring the smooth running of the Central Criminal Court (housed at the Old Bailey), attending the Lord Mayor as he carries out his official duties and presenting petitions from the City to Parliament at the Bar at the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the City of London announced on Monday that Alderman David Wootton, himself a former sheriff (as all Lord Mayors must be) as well as a past master of of the Worshipful Company of Fletchers and of the Worshipful Company of Solicitors, has been elected the 684th Lord Mayor of the City of London. He takes office on Friday, 11th November (the Lord Mayor’s Show takes place the following day). For more, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk.

PICTURE: Courtesy of City of London Corporation.

Lost London – Blackfriars Priory

The London area of Blackfriars – centred on Blackfriars Railway Station – takes its name from the former Dominican friary (known as the “black friars” thanks to their dark robes) which stood on the site.

The Dominicans first came to England in the 1220s and soon took up residence in Holborn. But the limitations of that site led them to move to a new location between Ludgate and the River Thames in the latter part of the 13th century. There, they constructed a substantial priory.

The priory subsequently played an important part in London’s civic and religious life – Parliament and the Privy Council is known to have met here and in 1529, a hearing was held here with regard to the divorce of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

It was also a place of burial for the wealthy and influential – among those buried there was the beloved wife of Edward I, Eleanor of Castille (at least her heart was – her body was buried at Westminster Abbey).

The priory was dissolved in 1538 during the Dissolution. The Blackfriars Playhouse was built on the site during Elizabethan times and the Apothecaries Company also took up residence there. Those of the original buildings that survived were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. In more recent times, the area became the site of Blackfriars Railway Station.

A reminder of the area’s origins can be found on the facade of The Black Friar pub (1875) which sits opposite Blackfriars Bridge at the western end of Queen Victoria Street (pictured). There you can see a statue of a black friar, the work of Henry Poole which dates from around the beginning of the 20th century. There is also a plaque commemorating the friary in nearby Carter Lane.