KEVIN GORDON - The PM who ‘sojourned in Seaford’

Kevin Gordon for the web
Kevin Gordon for the web

George Canning was one of the three Prime Ministers to have represented the parliamentary constituency of Seaford (the others being Henry Pelham and William Pitt the Elder). Canning was the last of the three and represented the rotten borough of Seaford in 1827.

George Canning was born in 1770 in Marylebone to Irish parents. His father was a wine merchant and his mother was an actress - not the usual privileged background for politicians. After his father died, Canning was supported by his uncle Stratford Canning.

Kevin Gordon for the web

Kevin Gordon for the web

His uncle was well off, and sponsored the young Canning to attend Eton and later Oxford. Canning excelled at college becoming top of the school at Eton. It was clear he was going far. Stratford Canning had whig (liberal) persuasions and introduced his nephew to liberals such as the playwright Sheridan, author Edmund Burke and Charles Fox.

Despite their political differences, he was also good friends with Tories Robert Jenkinson (Jenkinson as the Earl of Liverpool was our longest serving Prime Minister) and William Pitt the Younger. Pitt had a connection to Seaford as his father had been MP for Seaford between 1747 and 1754 and he himself was made a Freeman of the town in 1789.

It was Pitt who introduced Canning to politics, slipping him into Parliament to represent the rotten borough of Newtown on the Isle of Wight in 1793. Canning was just 23 years old.

Newtown with an electorate of about 12 was able return two members of parliament even though it was much smaller than the nearby town of Newport. In 1797 Canning, with his friend George Ellis (MP for Seaford from 1796 to 1802) founded a newspaper, The Anti-Jacobin Review, which was critical of the French Revolution.

When Pitt became Prime Minister in May 1804, he chose Canning to be his Foreign Secretary. In this role, Canning was remembered for his actions during the French Wars.

He helped save the Portuguese Navy from falling into the hands of the French and was involved with the second Battle of Copenhagen in 1807. This was a resounding success with the enemy losing some 5,000 men and the Royal Navy just 45. The Secretary of State for War at this time was Lord Castlereagh. The two men did not get on. Castlereagh sent troops to the Netherlands when Canning had wanted to send them to Portugal, and as a result, on 21st September 1809, the two men met at Putney Heath at dawn to fight a duel. Canning’s ‘second’ was his friend Charles Rose Ellis who (surprise, surprise) had been MP for Seaford from 1796 to 1806. Both men missed with their first shots but Canning (who had never even handled a gun before) was hit in the leg when Castlereagh re-loaded.

Canning served under a number of Premiers including Spencer Percival. He also represented more constituencies then any other politician I know, including, Wendover, Tralee (Ireland), Newton (for a second term), Hastings, Liverpool, Harwich and Newport. In 1816, Canning became the President of the India Board and six years later became Governor General of India. He was also Ambassador to Portugal.

Canning was a regular visitor to Seaford where he used to escape to relax – on more than one occasion staying in the town with his friend William Huskisson, who was then MP for Chichester. The Morning Post of 4th September 1821 reports that the two men were ‘sojourning at Seaford’. When Canning visited Seaford, he stayed at Seaford House in Crouch Lane, the home of his friend, Charles Rose Ellis.

Following the resignation of the Prime Minister, The Earl of Liverpool in February 1827, King George IV chose Canning to lead the country. Canning was shoehorned (sorry - elected) as MP for Seaford replacing the existing member, Augustus Ellis who was the son of his friend Charles. It is likely that Ellis stood down for Canning but was to be re-elected on his death. As Seaford MP, Canning became Prime Minister on April 10, 1827, Earl Grey (of tea fame) snootily remarked that he should be disqualified from the post because he was the son of an actress.

His term as Seaford MP and Prime Minister was to be short lived. He died in office on 8 August 1827. He is Britain’s shortest serving Prime Minister having been in office for just 119 days but, despite this, he is one of the few politicians to have a statue in Parliament Square, an honour he shares with Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela.