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Henry John Temple 3rd Viscount Palmerston Tory and Whig 1855 to 1858, 1859 to 1865
29 October 1784, Westminster, London
18 October 1865, Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire
Dates in office
1855 to 1858, 1859 to 1865
Tory and Whig
Government of India Bill 1858: transferring control of the East India Company to the Crown.
Florence Nightingale said of Palmerston after his death; “Though he made a joke when asked to do the right thing he always did it. He was so much more in earnest than he appeared, he did not do himself justice.”
“The function of government is to calm, rather than to excite agitation.”
A charismatic and popular figure, Lord Palmerston did not become Prime Minister until he was 71, making him the oldest PM in history to take up the office for the first time. His premiership was dominated by foreign events, making him a truly global statesman.
A lively aristocrat well known in society circles, Lord Palmerston was first elected at the age of 26. Over the next 4-and-a-half decades, he built up an impressive long record of ministerial service.
He served first under Tory Prime Ministers as Junior Lord of the Admiralty and then, for 2 decades, as Secretary for War.
During that period, Lord Palmerston was chiefly known as a man of fashion, a junior minister without influence on the general policy of the cabinets he served.
Around 1830 he defected from the Tories to the Whigs because of his support for Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. Lord Grey made him Foreign Secretary, a position in which he excelled, although he was headstrong and independent rather than naturally diplomatic. His abrasive style earned him the nickname ‘Lord Pumicestone’.
For 2 decades, he was at the centre of foreign affairs not only in Europe but also in Turkey, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Asia. He waged the Opium War with China, resulting in the delivery of Hong Kong as a trading base to Britain in 1842.
Highly patriotic, he didn’t shirk from threatening the use of force in the national interest. This jingoism almost led to his downfall in 1850 when he mobilised the Royal Navy against Greece in defence of a British subject. Lord Palmerston’s line – that a British subject would always be protected – proved very popular with the public.
He was finally forced to resign as Foreign Secretary after approving Louis Napoleon’s coup in Paris in 1851. The public was angry at his dismissal, but the establishment was delighted and “Palmerston is smashed” became a common saying. He fought back by bringing down his Prime Minister, Lord Russell, the following year.
After serving as Home Secretary under Aberdeen, he became Prime Minister himself in 1855 when the Earl of Aberdeen was blamed for the disasters of the Crimean War. Lord Palmerstone successfully ended the war, and served as the Prime Minister for 8 years despite his old age.
In his first term, from 1855 to 1858, he had a chance to put his foreign experience into practice. He responded successfully to the Indian mutiny of 1857, supporting a tolerant approach in the face of British calls for hard treatment. In February 1858 he introduced the Government of India Bill to transfer the administration of India from the East India Company to the Crown.
Palmerston was then out of office for a year and a half. During that time he helped form the Liberal Party in 1859 and he returned to government as Prime Minister a few days later.
Political office did not prevent him from affairs with women. A ladies’ man, he was cited in a divorce case as late as 1863, while in his late 70s.
He died in office in 1865 after catching a chill, aged 80. A much-loved public character, he received a state funeral. His last words, apparently, were ‘Die, my dear doctor, that is the last thing I shall do’.