Sunday 14 April 2013

Death lays his icy hand on Prime Ministers

Spencer Perceval being shot by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons

Margaret Thatcher's death makes me want to sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of prime ministers.

The Prime Minister whose death I most often think of is that of Lord Rosebery, for some reason. Most Prime Ministers outlive their eras but few by so much as Gladstone's successor as Liberal Prime Minister. Lord Rosebery, as he lay dying in 1929, 34 years after he had briefly been Prime Minister, sent his valet to buy a gramophone and one gramophone record. The servants played the Eton Boating Song, over and over again, in the shuttered bedroom, until the earl, forgotten by the world of flappers and moving pictures, was dead. 

He was only Prime Minister for fifteen months but his life must be judged to have been unusually successful. He once said that he had three aims in life: to win the Derby, to marry an heiress and to become Prime Minister. He married the Rothschild heiress and won the Derby twice during his brief premiership.

I do not know what his last words were and I wonder what were Lady Thatcher's. Queen Victoria wanted to do Disraeli the signal honour of visiting him on his sickbed but he declined with what were said to be his last words:
“Why should I see her? She will want to give a message to Albert.”
He had fawned on the Queen for years, but now saw no reason to continue in articulo mortis.

Another version of his last words is:
“I had rather live but I am not afraid to die”, 
but they sound to me as if written for public consumption. While he lay dying, although he had converted to Anglicanism as a boy, he was heard to murmur a Jewish death prayer.

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's last words were 

"This is not the end of me."

George Canning's last words were:

“Spain and Portugal.” 

William Pitt the Younger's were 
“Oh my country! How I leave my country!” 
Or alternatively:
"How I love my country!” 
His nephew, James Stanhope, who was at his deathbed, is the authority for the latter version and is a better authority than Disraeli, who may have originated the widely believed story that Pitt's last words were:

"I think I could eat one of Bellamy's pork pies."
Lord Palmerston's last words are said to have been:
"Die, my dear Doctor? That's the last thing I shall do."
But this, though very well known, is not well sourced.

Lord Derby's last words convey aristocratic disdain:
“Bored to utter extinction.” 
Chamberlain's last words also seem to convey the character of the man:
"Approaching dissolution brings relief."
He was diagnosed with bowel cancer just after he left office. Had he lived in good health he would have run the home front but he would have remained leader of the Conservative Party and therefore shared power with Churchill.

Shortly before his death, Chamberlain wrote an apologia pro vita sua in a letter to Sir John Simon: was the hope of doing something to improve the conditions of life for the poorer people that brought me at past middle life into politics, and it is some satisfaction to me that I was able to carry out some part of my ambition, even though its permanency may be challenged by the destruction of war. For the rest I regret nothing that I have done & I can see nothing undone that I ought to have done. I am therefore content to accept the fate that has so suddenly overtaken me.
What a terrible hand Chamberlain had to play and how should he have played it?

He was a Unitarian and therefore not a Christian, but he, along with Bonar Law and Clement Attlee, neither of whom believed in God, are the only three twentieth century Prime Ministers to have been buried in Westminster Abbey.

Poor Spencer Perceval's last words were to the point:

'Oh, I have been murdered'.
He was a good, able man and would have been a fine Prime Minister had he not been killed. He should win modern day approval for coming from a much more obscure family than Messrs. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. A book came out last year about the murder. He would probably have held office for as long as, after his assassination, Lord Liverpool did and therefore for longer than Mrs. Thatcher.

Sir Winston Churchill's last words were:
"I’m bored with it all."
On his last birthday, Churchill said to his daughters:
I have achieved much to have achieved nothing at all.
I think this might be the judgement of history. 


  1. Your breadth of knowledge always amazes me.

  2. it was a great article - I loved Disraeli on Albert.

  3. George V; 'God damn you'.

  4. George V's last words were announced as having been:

    How is the Empire?

    but were in fact, as every schoolboy knows:

    Bugger Bognor!

    In response to Lord Dawson of Penn's assurance that he would soon be in his beloved Bognor again.

  5. No. 'Bugger Bonor' may or may not have been said in response to to the proposed 'Regis' but they

    were not his last words, as every schoolboy should know.

  6. He was a heavy smoker and, in 1928, he fell ill with a chest infection. He spent some time recuperating at Sir Arthur du Cros's house in the south-coast town of Bognor and, the story goes, when he was leaving the town he was petitioned to rename it Bognor Regis as a mark of his visit. The famous 'Bugger Bognor!" remark may or may not have been his reply but, sadly, they weren't his dying words.

    George returned to London and lived in some discomfort for a few more years, finally succumbing at Sandringham House in 1936. Another version of his final words is "How is the Empire?", said to his secretary Clive Wigram on the day of his death. A variant of the "Bugger Bognor!" story is that he said it on his deathbed when it was suggested that he might soon be well enough to return there. His actual last words appear to have been less quotable - his physician Lord Dawson reported later that his final utterance was "God damn you", said to his nurse when she administered a sedative. There has been much speculation that Dawson prescribed the sedative to hasten the King's demise, so that the press would have the story for the morning newspapers.

    Dawson coined a memorable line for the media with his press release during George's final hours - "The King's life is drawing peacefully to a close".

  7. My memory was at fault. I love Kenneth Rose's biography of George V, one of the funniest book I ever read and must blog about him. He said to Anthony Eden when he became Foreign Secretary following the furore that erupted over the Hoare-Laval Pact.I said to your predecessor: 'You know what they're all saying, no more coals to Newcastle, no more Hoares to Paris.' The fellow didn't even laugh.