Pelham, Henry

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Pelham, Henry (c.1696–1754). Prime minister. Pelham was 1st lord of the Treasury for over ten years (1743–54) and highly regarded by his contemporaries. But time has faded his reputation between the vividly coloured careers of Walpole and Pitt the Elder. Pelham's career began under the wing of his elder brother, the duke of Newcastle, who brought him into Parliament (MP for Seaford 1717–22 and Sussex 1722–54). The brothers quickly realized that Walpole was becoming the man to support. Pelham became secretary at war in 1724 and paymaster-general in 1730, though his status, certainly in the 1730s, was higher than his offices suggest.

After Walpole's fall in 1742 he recommended Pelham as his successor to George II, who favoured Carteret, the new secretary of state for the northern department. However, in obtaining the Treasury in 1743 Pelham had a firm power base and by the end of 1744 Carteret had resigned. In February 1746, following the retreat of the Jacobites, the king considered replacing his ministers. The Pelham brothers and their many followers resigned, forcing the king to accept them back on their own terms. This ‘storming of the closet’ was of great constitutional significance, demonstrating that government could only work with ministers of whom Parliament approved.

Though Pelham was now thought of as ‘prime’ minister, the government was really a triumvirate of Pelham, Newcastle, and Hardwicke. Newcastle shaped foreign policy, but Pelham controlled the purse strings. Hardwicke often had to mediate between the brothers, who, though extremely fond of each other, were not temperamentally suited. Pelham pursued a policy of including as many political factions in government as possible, leading to an era of undoubted calm. Central to maintaining this calm was the smooth operation of the government's vast patronage system, which Pelham ensured with his bland affability, eye for detail, and, crucially, his presence in the Commons. He also had the respect of talented young politicians such as Pitt and Henry Fox, which Newcastle did not.

Pelham's common sense and restrained style was important in preventing excessive reprisals against the Highlanders following the Jacobite rising of 1745, in restraining Newcastle's policy of subsidy payments to allied countries during the War of the Austrian Succession, and in damping down the popular clamour that followed the bill to naturalize Jews in 1753. But these were essentially reactions to events. Pelham instituted useful Treasury reforms and piloted Hardwicke's 1753 Marriage Act through the Commons, but it was not part of his political philosophy nor his personal inclination to encourage change.

Pelham's death in 1754 surprised his colleagues and marked a decided change of pace in British politics. George II's declaration upon hearing of it, ‘Now I shall have no more peace,’ would have seemed to Henry Pelham a compliment.

Andrew Iain Lewer


Wilkes, J. , A Whig in Power: The Political Career of Henry Pelham (Evanston, Ill., 1964).