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Viscount Palmerston (1784 – 1865)

Following this month's General Election, we take a look at the life of former Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston.

Viscount Palmerston
Viscount Palmerston by Carl Wildt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Viscount Palmerston was over 70 when he became Prime Minister  the oldest person to hold the office for the first time  having spent most of his adult life in a variety of governmental positions. He began his parliamentary career as a Tory but ended it as a Liberal, a fact that underlines his varied and often colourful time as an MP.


Palmerson was born Henry John Temple in 1784, inheriting his title (the third to do so) at the age of 17. Since it was an Irish peerage, he was automatically entitled to become a Member of Parliament, a privilege he took advantage of from 1807 until his death.

Initially serving in the junior office of Secretary at War for the duration of the Tory premiership of Lord Liverpool – a period most noted for the civil unrest that followed the Napoleonic wars as well as the controversial introduction of the Corn Laws – he switched to Earl Grey’s more liberal Whig party in 1830, going on to serve as Foreign Secretary on three separate occasions (1830-34, 1835-41 and 1846-51).

Dealing with a succession of crises in Europe and beyond, Palmerston did not shirk from upsetting Britain’s continental neighbours, blocking France’s ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean regions and pursuing an anti-Russian stance in relation to both its policy along the Indian frontier and towards the Ottoman Empire.

He also expressed a sympathy with some brands of European revolutionaries, which, although endearing to Britain’s radical liberals, made his peers wary. Not least of these was Lord Aberdeen, the Foreign Secretary under Robert Peel from 1841 to 1846, who was by then on the point of forming a coalition government that would launch into the Crimean War.

Home Secretary

Aberdeen appointed Palmerston to the Home Office, where he oversaw the introductions of such laws as the 1853 Factory Act, which outlawed work by young people between 6pm and 6am, and the Vaccination Act of the same year, making vaccination of children compulsory for the first time. He was also known for his penal and prison reforms, particularly in relation to younger culprits, but was notably opposed to widening the electorate to include certain sections of the working classes.

From the Home Office, however, his expertise on foreign matters yielded little influence, and the coalition eventually fell apart under the pressure of the unpopular Crimean War and the equally unpopular statesmen involved.

Palmerston as PM

With that, all eyes turned to Palmerston to form the next government, a position he held for most of the last 10 years of his life. He brought the Crimean War to a generally successful conclusion, built up the British economy to a very healthy state, and – alongside his Chancellor, William Gladstone – made large cuts to income taxes and food duties.

Popular with both the press and the public, Palmerston was widely mourned when he died in 1865, aged 80 and still in office.

Palmerston and Edinburgh

Following schooling at Harrow, Palmerston attended the University of Edinburgh from 1800 until 1803, where he studied political economy under tuition from Dugald Stewart, one of the University’s leading Enlightenment figures.

And his time at the University was a period of contentedness. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that Palmerston described his time at Edinburgh as producing "whatever useful knowledge and habits of mind I possess". While Jasper Ridley’s biographical account states that Stewart wrote to a friend, saying of Palmerston: "In point of temper and conduct he is everything his friends could wish. Indeed, I cannot say that I have ever seen a more faultless character at this time of life, or one possessed of more amiable dispositions".

Palmerston Place, in the west end of Edinburgh, is one of many worldwide locations named in his honour.