Robert Banks Jenkinson, second Earl of Liverpool, whose 1812-27 administration was the longest and among the most important of the century, is one of the least known British statesmen. This was true even in his own day; he had a gift for blending with his political background. The radical pamphleteers of the Regency period, who savagely lampooned Sidmouth, Eldon and Castlereagh, rarely troubled themselves with the Prime Minister. To the contemporary British public he was little more than a name. Even today we have difficulty in detaching the man from his administration. He seemed to have no existence outside his official life.
Yet a politician who out of the thirty-seven years of his parliamentary career spent thirty-two in office, fifteen as Prime Minister, could hardly have stood the strain without some means of escape and relaxation. Liverpool's personal source of strength was found in his marriage. Pitt, with a shorter career but an even longer occupancy of Downing Street, recoiled when he seemed on the brink of matrimony. Instead, he became addicted to the bottle and died at the age of forty-seven. For Liverpool, a sensitive and honourable man, who enjoyed women's company more perhaps than that of men, a stable and affectionate home-life was almost a necessity. In 1795, when he was only twenty-five, he had married Louisa Hervey, a woman three years older than himself. Her father was the eccentric aesthete Frederick, Bishop of Derry and fourth Earl of Bristol, who lived most of his time in Italy away from his wife and children. His eldest daughter Mary became Lady Erne, only to find herself and her small child deserted by her husband and dependent on her father's casual generosity. When Liverpool became Foreign Secretary in 1801 he obtained for her a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court. The other sister was the beautiful and fascinating Elizabeth Foster, also abandoned by her first husband, who became first children's governess, then mistress, and finally wife to the fifth Duke of Devonshire after living many years in an amicable menage atrois with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. It was an odd set of relatives for young Jenkinson to acquire but from the start he was on affectionate terms with both his sisters-in-law. Indeed, he seemed rather partial to his Devonshire House connections, despite their amoral habits and Whig politics.
The youngest of the Herveys, Louisa Theodosia, was protected by her own happy marriage from the harsh but educative experiences of her two sisters. They were characterised by sense; she by sensibility. Her letters are a breathless mixture of trivial gossip, quick emotionalism, frequent piousness, and warm-hearted generosity. Her religious reflections are sometimes distressing to the modern mind. When a nephew of the Duke of Devonshire was drowned in a wrecked troop transport during the war, she remarked that 'they are just the sort of prosperous people that will suffer peculiarly from such a blow, but it may be wholesome discipline'. On another occasion she raised her elder sister's indignation by lecturing her on the duty of not giving way to unreasonable grief on the death of a great-niece. But such moralisings were not uncommon in a society where Christians still largely believed in a providential ordering of personal events. In Lady Louisa's case it was redeemed by a genuine sympathy for the poor and unfortunate whose lot she constantly tried to alleviate. 'But oh my Dear Sister,' she once wrote to Lady Erne, 'what a number there are who I can not assist! who are sick and destitute and suffering, whilst I am surrounded with comforts far, far beyond my deserts. If I ever had a doubt of a Future State I think this reflection would convince me.'
She had no children of her own. Perhaps for that reason her relationship with her husband was unusually close and happy. His biographer C. D. Yonge remarks that there is hardly any correspondence between them because they were so rarely separated. Her unselfish concern for her 'dearest Lord Hawkesbury,' her 'poor fagged Lord Warden', was almost maternal. He had the affectionate companionship he needed in his private life; she took an artless satisfaction in his rising political importance. He let her into his confidence on official matters and was said to submit important letters for her approval. She often acted as his copying-clerk and was sometimes deputed to convey parliamentary and war news which might more conventionally have come from his pen. Sending a budget of information to her sister in 1801 she observed with a certain self-importance that she would have to go round to 'the office' for further details. In the Hervey family her circle was known with mild derision as 'the cabinet'. As one would expect of a woman to whom personal relations were everything, she identified herself completely with her husband's politics. A loyal Tory and sentimental admirer of the old King, she upheld with ardour the patriotic tradition of the Jenkinson family.
Until his father's death Liverpool was not a particularly wealthy man. Louisa had a small income of her own but departure from office in 1806 would have been a serious matter for them had not George III given him the lucrative Wardenship of the Cinque Ports left vacant by the death of Pitt. This, worth #3,000 per annum, together with an allowance from his father of #4,000, exactly compensated for the loss of his salary as Secretary of State. It also gave him the use of Walmer Castle on the Kent coast. After 1809 the Liverpools had three permanent residences: Walmer, Fife House in Whitehall, and Coombe Wood near Kingston upon Thames, purchased about 1802. Fife House was for the parliamentary session and official entertainment; Walmer served as a pleasant resort for the summer; Coombe Wood was their private country retreat. With its flowers, dogs and poultry, far enough from London to discourage casual callers, near enough to allow quick visits to town, it was always their real home. Louisa wrote a charming description how during the 1805 session she and her husband, yielding to a sudden impulse to get away from the noise of London, went off one evening in a chaise with some cold meat for their supper, reached Coombe about nine 'with a feeling of comfort not to be express'd', slept the night, and next morning had 'above an Hour's walk & potter in the midst of workmen, pigs and Turkeys' before returning to the parliamentary grind. At nearby Kingston, in those days a small town of about 4,000, Liverpool occupied the position of local squire. He became High Steward of the borough; endowed an annual charity of #5 for each of five poor parishioners; and laid the first stone of the new bridge over the Thames in 1825.
Not everybody was enamoured of Coombe Wood. 'Unquestionably the dullest house in which I ever passed a day', pronounced C. W. Wynn in 1824. He was probably referring to the household rather than the house. When Arbuthnot, Liverpool's long-serving Secretary to the Treasury, went down to stay with his chief at Walmer the previous year, he reported to his wife that he had been bored to death: 'they breakfast before 9 and go to bed soon after 10'. Other guests were kinder in their comments. William Collins the artist, invited to Coombe for a few days at Christmas, 1819, was chiefly impressed by the essential goodness of his host and hostess. On Sunday they went to morning service in Kingston Church and in the afternoon the whole household, including the servants, assembled to hear Lord Liverpool read evening prayers, after which they dined.
Liverpool was a sincere and tolerant Anglican rather than a strict Evangelical of the 'saintly' school. Like many of his contemporaries he deprecated Sunday travel 'without necessity', but his patronage of the arts is enough to absolve him from undue religiosity. Canova, for example, whose 'Cupid and Psyche' shocked Wordsworth when shown in London, received a special commission from Lord Liverpool to produce a piece of statuary for him. The sculptor, conceiving possibly that a British Prime Minister would prefer a serious theme, chose as his subject a recumbent Magdalen. Elizabeth, now the widowed Duchess of Devonshire, knowing her brother-in-law, thought rather differently. To the painter, Sir Thomas Lawrence, then in Rome, she wrote firmly in 1819 that: 'Canova must not do too holy a figure for Lord Liverpool, who is a great admirer of female beauty and would like a Nymph or a Venus better than a Magdalen.' Liverpool's even greater interest in Lawrence's branch of the fine arts had important consequences for national policy. In the 1820s the celebrated amateur, Sir George Beaumont, who was the chief advocate of a national gallery of painting, asked his friend Lord Dover to bring the matter to the attention of the Prime Minister. In the event, when the valuable Angerstein collection came on the market, the Government purchased it for #57,000 together with the lease of Angerstein's house at 100 Pall Mall. This was the origin of the National Gallery which first opened its doors to the public in May, 1824. Liverpool's personal interest in the transaction was well-known to his family. Two years later the Government made a handsome addition to the Gallery by buying Titian's 'Bacchus and Ariadne', Poussin's 'Bacchanalian Dance', and Carracci's 'Christ Appearing to St. Peter'. The first two at least of these answered the Duchess Elizabeth's specifications. Seguier, the first Keeper of the National Gallery, told the painter Haydon that Liverpool had been planning to do even more for the encouragement of native art. It was not an undeserved compliment when, at the first Academy dinner after Lord Liverpool's stroke, the President concluded his speech with a eulogy of the Prime Minister and the company drank a toast to his recovery.
Literature was another field in which Liverpool was more knowledgeable than is usually suspected. In 1815 he was able to lend to the Speaker the rare seventeenth-century work, Bernier's Voyages to India , by the physician to the Emperor Augungzebe, which was still the best available description of the Mogul Empire. He could correspond with the omniscient Croker on such literary figures as Burke, Dr. Johnson and Horace Walpole, assist him with his edition of Lord Hertford's Letter , and take issue with him over the identity of Junius. His own literary criticisms were informed and sometimes pungent. Of Bishop Tomline's scissors-and-paste Life of Pitt which came out in 1821, he observed that 'any drayman could have written as good a life of a public man'; whereas on Prior's Life of Burke he thought that there was 'real mind in the book, and some originality of thinking'. Few historians are likely to disagree with either judgement. For Burke as a writer (thought not as a politician and orator) he had immense admiration. 'I wish,' he wrote once, 'the Tory cause had found as good an expositor.' There is only one recorded instance in which he can be said to have shown party animus. While serving with his militia regiment in 1796 (one forgets that Liverpool was at one time Colonel of the Cinque Ports Volunteers) he had to provide a guard for the funeral of Robert Burns. He said afterwards that he cordially disliked the business, since he considered Burns a revolutionary and had always refused to make his acquaintance.
Sober as his own household was, Liverpool was by no means an unsociable guest elsewhere. At Dropmore, Lord Grenville's seat, in 1823 he was reported as being 'chatty, full of anecdotes, and evidently anxious to please'. With encouragement he could even be frivolous. After what Princess Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador, described as a long and solemn dinner at Fife House in June, 1820, he surprised that elegant and intelligent woman by jumping over the back of a sofa on which she was seated and establishing himself on a little foot-stool in front of her. She was not insensible to the attention. 'It is the common joke in this circle of society that he takes a very great interest in me,' she observed complacently to her former lover Metternich; 'I quite like Prime Ministers.' At the end of that year he was one of a large party at Stratfield Saye, Wellington's country house. Though he refused to play with the younger members at blind man's buff, he cheerfully took part in some charades. He proved to be highly expert in that once fashionable pastime and was sufficiently amused to provide an account of it to his family when he returned home.
Lady Liverpool's apparent absence on this occasion was due to her increasing indisposition. In the latter half of 1820, while her husband was presiding with patience and great dignity over the sordid proceedings of the 'Queen's trial', his wife was seriously ill at Coombe Wood. For part of the time Lady Erne came across from Hampton Court to look after her; but it was not until the following year that the danger was fully realised. Her death in June was a shattering blow for her husband. Even a year later his eyes filled with tears at the thought of having to meet her brother for the first time since their bereavement. Chantrey, the leading English sculptor of the day, was commissioned to carve a marble statue of her which was completed in 1825. Though apparently designed as a funerary monument, it was still at Coombe Wood when Liverpool died. It was subsequently placed in Kingston Church where it can be seen today. Unlike the usual florid epitaphs of the period" the inscription beneath the seated, wistful figure is touchingly simple. 'She visited the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and kept herself unspotted from the world.'
There were strong rumours that he might resign after his wife's death. Coming in the middle of his political differences with the King at that time, it had a profound effect on his health. It was in this year that the signs of physical deterioration and nervous irritability appeared which continued intermittently until his stroke in 1827. In 1822 he was suffering from what was apparently a form of phlebitis, a complaint which was troubling him again in 1824. In the House of Lords, where he had long been accustomed to rest one leg along the bench to relieve the pain, it was noted that he now made a habit of putting both up. In this latter year also came reports of lassitude and a disquietingly low pulse which pointed to some chronic affection of the vascular system.
For a time after Louisa's death Lady Erne looked after him with almost a sister's solicitude. The Duchess Elizabeth, who had made a special journey back from her Italian home, stayed with him during that autumn at Fife House. She even undertook to go down to Coombe for a few days, despite her dislike of adding painful associations to the gloom of an English November. Later there were little gatherings like that in the summer of 1822 when Lady Erne was thankfully able to leave him with 'his two cronies', the Duchess of Wellington and Lady Bathurst. The other guests on this occasion were his step-brother Cecil Jenkinson, his cabinet colleague the elderly Lord Bathurst, and the latter's daughter Georgiana. It was not a house-party that would have amused the Duke of Wellington; but the Prime Minister clearly found comfort and relaxation in the company of sympathetic women-friends and quiet, unpolitical conversation. There was little doubt in fact that he would marry again. As early as the autumn of 1821 Georgiana Bathurst, a lively and attractive woman of under thirty, was being quizzed on her probable future as Countess of Liverpool.
It was not her, however, but the slightly older Mary Chester whom he married in September, 1822. The choice was a natural one. A niece of the first Lord Bagot, she had long been a close friend, and for a time apparently domestic companion of his first wife. 'She really is a treasure to me and amongst many things to be thankful for,' Louisa had written as far back as 1807. Though the Duchess Elizabeth wished privately that he had waited a little longer, there was no disposition among the two remaining Hervey sisters to grudge him the domestic happiness h: needed. But Mary Chester had less than five years of real companionship with her increasingly ailing and tired husband. The cerebral haemorrhage he suffered in February, 1827 left him a mental and physical invalid, seen by hardly anyone except his doctor and household. There was a second stroke in July, 1827 and the end came in December, 1828.
Except in Kingston, the event was almost ignored by the outside world. Press and public had little attention for anything at that moment other than the rumours that the Cabinet were going to concede the measure of Catholic Emancipation which throughout his career the dead statesman had steadily opposed. He was buried quietly in the little church at Hawkesbury in Gloucestershire in a family vault beside his father and his first wife. It was not until thirty years later that the eleventh baronet, Sir George Jenkinson, placed a marble tablet high up on the north wall to mark the resting-place of the man who was Prime Minister at the time of Waterloo.
By Norman Gash