Stanmore in the London Borough of Harrow isn't the loveliest of areas, but late last week I caught a tube to the end of the (Jubilee) line to see where George Hamilton-Gordon, the 4th Earl of Aberdeen – Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1852-55 – ended up. As an undergraduate, I remember visiting Haddo House, the Aberdeens' north-eastern Scottish estate, but the family's southern base was in what is now north-west London.
A cousin of Lord Byron, Lord Aberdeen was orphaned as a child. He spent most of his early life in the south of England and doing the 'Grand Tour' of the Continent. His first government post was as Foreign Secretary under the Duke of Wellington (who's interred at St Paul's Cathedral) and later Robert Peel (he's in Drayton Bassett, Staffordshire). In 1852, when the Earl of Derby's administration was defeated, Aberdeen became Premier of a motley collection of Peelites, Whigs, radicals and Irish representatives. Party politics was not as well defined as it is today.
Although a prolific legislator on matters such as taxation and the Civil Service, Aberdeen's three years as Prime Minister were dominated by foreign affairs as the UK drifted towards war with Russia. The failures of the Crimean War were pinned on Lord Aberdeen personally, and attempts to hold an inquiry led to his resignation in 1855. There's a melancholy quote on the Downing Street website: 'I do not know how I shall bear being out of office. I have many resources and many objects of interest; but after being occupied with great affairs, it is not easy to subside to the level of common occupations'.
Lord Aberdeen died in London five years later. He is buried at a church in Stanmore, not far from W S Gilbert, who died in a pond on his Stanmore estate, Grim's Dyke. He was trying to save a drowning guest. She lived – he did not.
The 'old' St John the Evangelist church dates from 1632 and although it was effectively abandoned a decade before Aberdeen's death, he and his family were interred there rather than in the 'new' St John's situated within eyeshot of the original (now ruined) church. It is, of course, Church of England for, like the Queen, Lord Aberdeen considered himself a Presbyterian while in Scotland but an Anglican in England. He once told Gladstone that he preferred what he called 'the sister church' (of England). In the rather unremarkable 'new' St John's, there are chairs stacked next to a 'recumbent effigy' of the 4th Earl.
Aberdeen was a member of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from 1818-28 and exercised his pre-Disruption rights to present ministers to parishes on his Scottish estates. In the House of Lords, meanwhile, he promoted legislation to allow presbyteries but not congregations the right of veto, which eventually became law post-schism. It is said that he declined to build a kirk on his north-eastern estates through guilt at the many lives lost in the Crimea.
Since we were in the area, a friend and I walked through Canon's Park to another local church, St Lawrence Whitchurch. From the outside, this is nothing out of the ordinary, although inside is Continental-style decoration that would look more at home in southern Italy than Greater London. Responsible for the ostentatiousness was the Duke of Chandos, long-time Chancellor of St Andrews University and the local grandee. Handel was his composer in residence, and indeed used St Lawrence to premiere some of his new compositions.
The following day I caught an early train to York to see another Prime Ministerial tomb, just before I cycled along an old railway line from Whitby to Scarborough. I had just enough time to visit York Minster where Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, rests in the Strafford family crypt. A Whig, he was twice Prime Minister of Great Britain, between 1765-66 and again in 1782 – a gap of 16 years.
Unlike other churches and cathedrals, York Minster has taken the trouble to draw attention to the former Premier in its midst. 'In the Strafford vault below lie 13 coffins,' reads a framed notice. 'Among them that of Lord Rockingham, Prime Minister of England 1765-66 & 1782'. I'm still composing a pedantic letter to the Archbishop of York in my head.
Rockingham's first ministry was the consequence of kingly displeasure at George Grenville, his immediate predecessor. Like Lord Aberdeen a century later, his administration found itself preoccupied with foreign affairs, in this case the American colonies. It passed the Declaratory Act, which asserted that the British Parliament had the right to legislate for the 13 colonies on any matter it wished – a sort of superannuated Sewel Convention.
Internal dissent ended Rockingham's first government, but he was appointed Prime Minister for a second time in 1782, at which point he pushed for an acknowledgement of the independence of (what was by then) the United States of America. His second ministry was also constitutionally significant in that it had virtually replaced one administration with another drawn from the opposition, instead of a more modest rearrangement of the status quo. This is now the norm.
Rockingham's government also passed two acts which disqualified Customs and Excise and postal officers from voting in parliamentary elections, as well as any person holding a contract or commission for government service from sitting as an MP. But Rockingham's second administration was even more short-lived than his first. Just 14 weeks after kissing hands for a second time, he died in that most contemporary of ways – during an influenza epidemic.