When the PM was MP for Seaford

'Serial' politician George Canning
'Serial' politician George Canning

In yesterday’s election we voted for a new Prime Minister. The first Prime Minister is acknowledged to be Sir Robert Walpole, who was only really appointed because the King, George I was away in Hanover for long periods and in any case didn’t speak too much English.

As you know, the ‘rotten borough’ of Seaford had two representatives in Parliament and in 1827, these were John Fitzgerald of Corsica Hall, Seaford, and Augustus Ellis, who had been elected not by a vote but by a show of hands. He lived in Seaford House in Crouch Lane.

Ellis was a friend of the Foreign Secretary, George Canning and a few months before had accompanied him on a holiday to the Lake District. On April 14, 1827, Ellis stood down to allow his friend Canning to be the Seaford MP.

Canning was a ‘serial’ politician and had represented the constituencies of Wendover, Tralee (Ireland), Newton (twice), Hastings, Liverpool, Harwich and Newport. In 1816 he became the president of the India Board and six years later became the Governor General of India. He was Ambassador to Portugal and famously had been injured during a duel with another Government Minister, Lord Castlereagh. Canning knew Seaford well as on several occasions he had visited the town for a holiday, staying with Ellis. In 1821 he was accompanied by the Right Honourable William Huskisson, remembered today as the first man to be killed by a railway train.

When the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, had a stroke early in 1827, he asked the King (George IV) for permission to resign and left office on 9th April. The King asked Canning to become the new Prime Minister having rejected the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel.

He was appointed the following day. The only problem was that Canning at that time was not an MP. No problem. Down in Seaford, Ellis stood down to allow Canning to take his place.

There was a short campaign and the election was fixed for 20th April. Before the election the voters were treated to a meal at the New Inn (now the Wellington). It was clear that Canning was going to win, indeed a corespondent to the Morning Chronicle said that ‘only an earthquake or the eruption of a volcano’ could prevent him from being elected.

On the afternoon of the election, the Town Hall in South Street, Seaford, was packed with not only voters but with ‘respectable’ visitors keen to see a small piece of history be made. Thomas Chambers, the father of the Seaford Bailiff, nominated Canning and this was seconded by Charles Harison.

The standing MP John Fitzgerald stood and read a eulogy praising the character of the new Prime Minister and urging those present to vote for him. He also read a letter from Canning who apologised for not being present but said he would visit Seaford at the earliest opportunity.

The election was a unanimous result and not one vote was cast against Canning. He was duly elected and and everyone sat down to a splendid dinner. (I get the impression that most Seaford MPs were elected on the promise of a slap-up meal!). The Bailiff (Mayor) called toasts to the King, the Royal family and Mr Canning, Prime Minister, and now MP for Seaford. Every ‘loyal and patriotic toast was followed by a huge cheers, the last being “Prosperity to the Town and Port of Seaford”.

Unfortunately the euphoria was not to last. Even before he had been elected he was ill. He caught a chill while standing in an unheated church for the funeral of the ‘Grand Old Duke of York” and never recovered. He died a few months later on 8th August having been the Prime Minister for just 119 days. Lord Byron said that he was a “genius, almost a universal one, an orator, a wit, a poet, and a statesman”.

Although Canning was the shortest serving Prime Minister ever, he was well respected and remembered. He was buried in Westminster Abbey and is one of only a handful of politicians to have a statue erected in Parliament Square overlooked by the House of Commons.

Unlike the election yesterday, Canning was elected unanimously and became Prime Minister, not because of the wishes of the people, but at the request of just one man - the King.

Whatever your feelings about yesterday’s election, at least it was far fairer than the one in 1827.