Sandwich, John Montagu, Fourth Earl of

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Sandwich, John Montagu, Fourth Earl of

SANDWICH, JOHN MONTAGU, FOURTH EARL OF. (1718–1792). First lord of the Admiralty. Sandwich was once denounced by Whiggish historians as lazy, corrupt, and largely responsible for the unprepared state of the Royal Navy for war in 1778. More recent research has shown that Sandwich was, in fact (for his time), a hardworking and conscientious administrator, who repeatedly warned his colleagues of the danger of falling behind Bourbon preparations, and did his best to mitigate the effects of parsimony. His preference for a concentration in home waters had much to recommend it. If he can be taken to task, it is for his ruinous clash with Germain over strategy; his ill-concealed ambition and his cleverness, which made him an object of suspicion; and his failure to argue clearly his case.

Born on 13 November 1718, he was first educated at Eton, where he received a thorough classical education. In 1729 he succeeded to the earldom on the death of his father. Leaving Eton in 1735, he spent two years at Trinity College, Cambridge, before embarking upon a tour of the Ottoman Empire, including Constantinople, Greece, and Egypt. In Florence during 1737 he met Dorothy Fane, the younger daughter of an Irish peer, and on his return from the East they married on 3 March 1741.

Entering politics, Sandwich became the duke of Bedford's deputy at the Admiralty, where he worked closely with Admiral George Lord Anson on the development of the Western Squadron strategy. In 1748, still collaborating with Anson, he became first lord of the Admiralty and launched an investigation into the state of the dockyards, only to lose office in 1751 as part of an assault on his patron, Bedford. He did not regain office until 1763, when he again briefly became first lord before being moved to the secretaryship of state for the Northern Department and becoming responsible for the prosecution of John Wilkes. Sandwich lost office when Grenville ministry fell in July 1765, but he became first lord for the third time under North in 1771.

Once again he threw himself into dockyard reform, energetically resisted North's plans for economy, and restored the navy's stocks of seasoned timber within three years. He expanded building capacity by contracting some work to private yards. Long before war with France broke out in 1778, Sandwich repeatedly warned the ministry to fully mobilize the fleet in anticipation of a Bourbon threat—warnings that were ignored until too late.

Sandwich's demands for a concentration in home waters were opposed by Germain, who had the direction of the war in America. Sandwich failed to prevent the detachment of Byron in hot pursuit of the Toulon fleet in April 1778, a move which arguably saved New York but so weakened Keppel that he was unable to win a decisive victory off Ushant in July. It turned out to be the last chance to do so before Spain intervened in 1779. Even then, Sandwich had the worst of the strategic argument and repeated detachments were made to American waters, with the result that a Franco-Spanish fleet briefly dominated the Channel and posed a real danger of invasion. On the other hand, Sandwich generally managed to keep these detachments relatively weak, and there was little coordination between them, a strategic failing for which he must shoulder some responsibility and which in 1781 led to the Yorktown catastrophe.

But in other spheres Sandwich was brilliantly successful. By 1782 the Royal Navy had achieved parity with the combined Bourbon fleets, and the British ships had the advantage of copper bottoms. Sandwich lost office forever when North fell in 1782, but he had laid the foundations of the naval recovery that allowed Britain to survive as a Great Power. He died in London on 30 April 1792 and was buried at Barnwell, Northamptonshire, on 8 May.

He may or may not have invented the sandwich, but if he did it was probably connected with his work habits rather than with gambling. There is no evidence to sustain the suspicions of corruption and quite a lot to the contrary. His exceptional ability and ambition made him many enemies, as did his refusal to promote except on merit. As an administrator, however, he had the respect of his admirals. Though unimpressive as a wartime strategist, he held fast to the fundamental principle of concentration in home waters—the key to British naval success in a hostile Europe.

SEE ALSO North, Sir Frederick.


Martelli, George. Jemmy Twitcher: A Life of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718–1792. London: Cape, 1962.

Rodger, N. A. M. The Insatiable Earl: a life of John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich 1718–1792. London: Harper-Collins, 1993.

Tilley, John A. The British Navy and the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

                                   revised by John Oliphant