George Canning by Sir Richard Westmacott (1775-1856). Bronze. Facing Parliament Square, London. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
George Canning, who served as Prime Minister from 12 April to 8 August 1827, was born into an Anglo-Irish family on 11 April 1770, the first son and second and only surviving child of his father's three children. Canning was descended from a branch of the family which had settled in Ulster; James I granted the manor of Garvagh (Londonderry) in 1618. Canning's father was a barrister who wrote articles, pamphlets and poetry; briefly he set up as a wine merchant but the business failed. George Canning (senior) was disinherited so his son was born into poverty.
When a wealthy uncle took charge of young Canning's education, the a small Irish estate of Kibrahan in County Kilkenny was settled on him, giving him a very small, fluctuating income throughout his life, amounting to about £200 p.a. on average. He struggled financially until he was given a government post in 1796, which brought a salary. This may help to explain why Canning was so eager for ministerial office.
Canning's mother was a 'great beauty'. When she was left destitute by the death of her husband she went on the stage first in London then touring the country. She lived with an actor, Samuel Reddish, to whom she had five children. Later she married Richard Hunn and had a further five children. Canning was educated at Hyde Abbey School near Winchester until he was 12 years old. He then went to Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He was awarded his first Degree in 1791 and a Masters Degree in 1794. He could not afford a Grand Tour so he went on a short tour of the Netherlands and Brussels in the summer of 1791.
He entered Lincoln's Inn in September 1791 but was never called to the Bar. Canning met Pitt the Younger in 1792; Pitt promptly became Canning's hero and he changed his allegiance from the Whigs to the Tory party. Canning believed that some of the Whigs were becoming too radical in their ideas and were too sympathetic towards the Jacobins in France. Canning opposed the revolutionary developments in France and was against parliamentary reform in Britain. In August 1792 Canning wrote to Pitt asking for an interview: subsequently Pitt promised to find a parliamentary seat for Canning. He gave up the law shortly after entering parliament on 28 June 1793 as the MP for Newtown, Isle of Wight, making his maiden speech on 31 January 1794. Later that year he was awarded his MA from Oxford.
In January 1796 Canning was appointed as parliamentary Under--secretary fro Foreign Affairs, working under the Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville. Between 20 November 1797 and 9 July 1798, Canning was the editor of the Anti-Jacobin, its alternative name was the Weekly Examiner. This was a satirical, pro-government, anti-republican, anti-reform publication that included poems and articles written by Canning. In 1799 Canning left his post at the Foreign Office to take up an appointment as one of the Commissioners of the Board of Control for India. By this time, he was financially more stable, having been given the sinecure of Receiver-General of the Alienation Office that carried an annual salary of £700. In May 1800 he was made a Privy Counsellor and in July he married Joan Scott, an heiress worth £100,000. The marriage was a happy one and they had three sons and one daughter. Canning spent the majority of his wife's fortune on property (which included a Lincolnshire farm that lost money), election costs (he fought 16 elections in all), paying off debts incurred before his marriage, paying off his son's gambling debts and general expenses.
On the fall of Pitt in March 1801, Canning resigned from all his offices except that of his sinecure out of loyalty to his mentor. He refused to serve with Addington but returned to office when Pitt resumed the Premiership. Canning became MP for Tralee in 1802: this was the year in which he wrote the poem 'The pilot that weathered the storm' in honour of Pitt's birthday. Canning returned to his original seat at Newport, Isle of Wight, in 1806 but did not serve as a minister in Lord Grenville's ministry.
In 1808 he became Foreign Secretary in Portland's ministry: Portland was his brother-in-law. On Canning's initiative, the fleet was sent to Denmark to capture the Danish fleet: Canning thought that Napoleon was going to use it to attack England. Canning also negotiated treaties of friendship with Portugal and Spain. However, he thought that Castlereagh was mishandling the War Office and decided that he could no longer work with Castlereagh. Consequently in April 1809, Canning wrote to Portland threatening to resign from the Foreign Office unless Castlereagh was removed from the War Office. Portland agreed but chose not to inform Castlereagh of the imminent change. However, Castlereagh discovered that Canning was trying to have him removed from the War Office and challenged Canning to a duel. Canning was wounded in the thigh during the exchange. Canning resigned as Foreign Secretary shortly afterwards when his offer to become PM, on the death of Portland, was rejected by George III. Canning then refused to serve under Spencer Perceval.
In June 1812, Canning was able to carry a motion in the House of Commons in favour of Catholic Emancipation; the following month he refused the post of Foreign Secretary offered to him by Lord Liverpool and Castlereagh because he thought it was humiliating to serve under Castlereagh who was Leader of the House of Commons. At the general election in October he became MP for Liverpool, a seat he represented until 1823. However, in 1814 he was appointed as Ambassador to Lisbon, returning in the autumn of 1815. In March 1820, Canning's eldest son died; in December he resigned as President of the Board of Trade, having refused to take part in the proceedings against Queen Caroline who was a personal friend of Canning.
In April 1822, Canning accepted the post of Governor--general of India in an attempt to escape from his poverty. The post carried an annual salary of £25,000. However, Castlereagh's suicide left open the post of Foreign Secretary, to which Canning was appointed, serving in this capacity until he became PM in April 1827 following the death of Lord Liverpool. As Foreign Secretary, Canning continued Castlereagh's policy of supporting the independence of the Spanish-American colonies. Canning agreed with the Monroe Doctrine that was issued at the end of 1823 and in a speech to parliament in 1826 he said
Contemplating Spain, such as our ancestors had known her, I resolved that if France had Spain it should not be Spain with the Indies. I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the old.He also gave help to the Greeks in their fight for independence from the Ottoman empire. However, Canning would go only so far as to uphold the principle of Greek autonomy. Britain sent troops to Portugal to protect the young Queen Maria against a take--over by her uncle, Dom Miguel. Canning was a supporter of an amendment to the Corn Laws and of the abolition of slavery; throughout his time at the Foreign Office, he fought to uphold Britain's best interests. In 1826, Canning sent a coded despatch to the British Ambassador to the Netherlands; Bagot sat up all night deciphering the note, to find that it said
In matters of commerce the fault of the Dutch
Is giving too little and asking too much;
With equal protection the French are content
So we'll lay on Dutch bottoms just twenty percent.
When he became PM on 12 April 1827, seven members of the Cabinet resigned: Wellington, Westmorland, Peel, Bexley, Melville, Eldon and Bathurst. Canning had to open negotiations with Lord Lansdown, the leader of the Whigs, in an effort to form a coalition government; he was successful in bringing in Lansdown and the Duke of Devonshire. Canning continued to oppose parliamentary reform although Lord John Russell's motion to disenfranchise Penhryn and give its seats to Birmingham and Manchester passed the Commons.
In January 1827, Canning had been at the funeral of the Duke of York where he caught a severe cold which ultimately resulted in inflammation of the lungs and liver. He never recovered and on 8 August 1827 he died.
- Vindication of Government Policies (March 18, 1820)
- Address on the King's Message Respecting Portugal (December 12, 1826)
Hill, FH. George Canning. London, 1887.
Hinde, W. George Canning. London, 1989.
Last modified 21 June 2020