Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, was the second person to be recognised as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the first being Sir Robert Walpole. However, Wilmington’s time in office was much shorter and less distinguished than that of his predecessor.
He was the sixth son of James Compton, 3rd Earl of Northampton. Strangely enough for a member of the aristocracy, his date of birth is unknown and could have been in either 1673 or 1674.
He was educated at St Paul’s School, London, began a legal career by enrolling at the Middle Temple in 1687 and entered Trinity College, Oxford, in 1690.
He became a member of the House of Commons after winning a by-election at Eye, Suffolk, in 1695. Although he came from a Tory family he joined the Whig faction in the Commons, mainly due to a violent disagreement with his elder brother George. He failed to impress as a debater or speechmaker but found a talent for mastering the details of Parliamentary procedure. He also became friendly with Robert Walpole.
In 1707 Spencer Compton was given the extra-Parliamentary job of treasurer to Prince George, the husband of Queen Anne. This was a good move, because he had fallen out with the patron of his Commons seat and was not allowed to continue as MP for Eye after 1710. He had also been appointed Paymaster of Pensions while in the House of Commons and was allowed to keep this job until 1713, possibly because no-one else wanted it.
He re-entered Parliament in 1713 as a member for East Grinstead, Sussex. In 1715 he became treasurer to the Prince of Wales (who later became King George II) and Speaker of the House of Commons, a position that he held for the next 12 years.
The job of Speaker was one that suited him perfectly, given his talent for mastering detail and his general lack of flair and dynamism.
Politics during the early 18th century depended greatly on personal favouritism and dislike, not only between politicians but between the latter and the monarch. The largest fish in the political pond was Robert Walpole, to whom Compton originally offered complete loyalty but this did not last. The problem was caused by the Prince of Wales, who made it perfectly clear to Walpole that he would not be his choice of chief minister when he became king. Spencer Compton would be the man to have this honour, given that Prince George knew all about Compton’s efficiency as a financial manager.
Walpole therefore did all he could he keep Compton out of front-line politics. He made sure that Compton retained his position as Speaker and also that he became Paymaster General, which was a post from which a greedy man like Spencer Compton could make a great deal of money. During his time as Paymaster General – from 1722 to 1730 – it is estimated that he enriched himself to the tune of £100,000.
When King George I died in May 1727 and Prince George became King George II, the latter promptly acted on his promise to dismiss Walpole and appoint Compton in his place as First Lord of the Treasury (the official name of the office of Prime Minister that had evolved under Walpole’s leadership).
However, it soon became clear that Compton was not up to the job and could not do anything without calling on Walpole for assistance. He was forced to admit this to the King, with Walpole present at the meeting, and he thereafter regarded Walpole as having humiliated him by declining to come to his defence.
Walpole therefore resumed his role as Prime Minister, but Compton was still in the King’s favour and was therefore allowed to retain the post of Paymaster General.
Walpole had ceased to be popular with many Whigs and Tories, and Compton was widely believed to be behind much of the anti-Walpole feeling. Walpole came to see Compton as his chief rival and did everything he could to remove the threat. Thus, when Compton was appointed Lord Privy Seal in 1730 – probably due to the King’s influence – Walpole immediately had him removed from the House of Commons by conferring on him the title of Earl of Wilmington, which meant that he would henceforth have to sit in the House of Lords.
Wilmington’s performance in the Lords was no more distinguished than it had been in the Commons. He subsided into the background as he performed his duties without exciting any attention although the suspicion of constant plotting against Walpole was always there.
In 1741 he became more vocal in his opposition and even suggested that there should not be a Prime Minister at all. He was of the view that the King should be allowed to rule without too much interference from Parliamentary factions, of which that led by Walpole was the most objectionable. This opinion was clearly favoured by King George, who in February 1742 removed Walpole from office and appointed Wilmington in his place.
Wilmington was by this time in his late 60s and not in the best of health. As Prime Minister he did not show much in the way of enthusiasm or energy, although he wanted to appoint ministers with a broad range of political views, including Tories as well as Whigs. However, some ministers were chosen with royal approval but without consultation with himself. Chief among these was Lord Carteret as Secretary of State – he was the real controlling force in the government of which Wilmington was little more than a figurehead.
Wilmington’s term of office was ended with his death on 2nd July 1743. He was buried at Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire, thus joining many of his ancestors. He never married, so his estate was inherited by his nephew James Compton.
It had already been understood that Wilmington would hand over the reins of office later that year, so the political succession – to Henry Pelham – was merely brought forward by a few months.
Wilmington must therefore be regarded as one of the footnotes of history. He was not a man of any great talent; he achieved little but was not responsible for any great harm either.
© John Welford