The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Prosperity Robinsons portrait in Ripon Town Hall.
Prosperity Robinsons portrait in Ripon Town Hall.

The 1st Marquess of Ripon has often been mentioned in this column, both as national statesman, Viceroy of India and as Mayor of Ripon (you will recall that he gave the city the Town Hall during his mayoralty) – but we have never considered his father, an equally interesting, if ultimately less-successful, man.

He was Frederick John Robinson, and he was the second son of Thomas, 2nd Baron Grantham; his elder brother was also Thomas, who succeeded his father as Lord Grantham and eventually took the title of Earl de Grey on his aunt’s death.

Downing Street in 1827, the year Goderich became Prime Minister.

Downing Street in 1827, the year Goderich became Prime Minister.

Thomas was the aristocratic architect of the cell block at what is now Ripon’s Prison and Police Museum and was he first President of the Institute of British Architects.

Frederick was born at Newby Hall on 1 November 1782 and after schooling at Harrow went to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he won the university prize for the best Latin Ode of 1801.

He then studied for the Bar, but was never called.

Instead, in 1804 his mother got him an appointment as private secretary to her cousin, the 3rd Earl of Hardwick, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Two years later this gained him the safe parliamentary seat of Carlow, near Dublin.

Newby Hall, birthplace of Viscount Goderich. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Newby Hall, birthplace of Viscount Goderich. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Carlow proved inconvenient, so in 1807 Frederick took over what was essentially the family’s own pocket borough, Ripon, and remained the city’s MP until 1826.

He was chosen by George Canning, then Foreign Secretary, as part of a mission to negotiate (unsuccessfully) a new treaty with Austria.

His Tory masters gave him some minor appointments, including an under-secretaryship at the War Office. In 1812 he was made a Privy Counsellor and in 1814 he married Lady Sarah Hobart, daughter of the 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire; the couple had three children but only George, the future Marquess, survived childhood.

In Lord Liverpool’s government he was Vice President of the Board of Trade, and he pushed a bill through parliament to restrict importation of cheap corn – part of the Corn Laws legislation.

Because such measures put up the price of bread, there were riots; his house was attacked and the furniture and pictures damaged in one riot, and in another attack someone was shot dead.

Telling the Commons about it, Frederick cried, earning the nickname ‘The Blubberer’.

Despite this, he was made a Cabinet minister in 1818 as President of the Board of Trade, and in 1823 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It is said that his son George was conceived in 11 Downing Street. As Chancellor he proved to be a success as a departmental head and as a man who could be trusted with keeping the nation’s finances on an even keel.

He managed a budget surplus (those were the days!) and, though a Tory, he held liberal views on Catholic emancipation and on the abolition of slavery; these qualities earned him two more tags, ‘Prosperity Robinson’ and ‘Goody Robinson’.

But in 1826 this golden period came to an end. There was a run on a London bank (shades of Northern Rock) and, though it wasn’t Frederick’s fault, his handling of the crisis was thought ineffectual. So Liverpool moved him to the House of Lords – he took the title Viscount Goderich, previously held by his great-great-grandfather Henry Grey, 12th Earl of Kent.

Within the month Liverpool resigned and Canning became Prime Minister.

He appointed Goderich as Leader of the House of Lords and Secretary of State for War (the latter a post his son later held, too).

The Tory party was split when Canning became premier, with Goodrich remaining on the liberal side of the cleft.

Things might have gone reasonably well for him, even so, had not Canning died after just 144 days in office, still the shortest premiership.

It was up to the king, George IV, to choose a new Prime Minister – and he chose the 44-year-old Goderich, who as Lords Leader had effectively been Canning’s deputy.

He was not a success. Goderich tried a coalition of Whigs and Tories, and immediately fell foul of the King, who objected to too many Whigs in the Cabinet, and who wouldn’t approve Goderich’s nominee for the Chancellorship. Goderich’s parliamentary colleague William Huskisson (now famous as the first man to be killed by a railway engine, at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830) reported the king as saying that ‘Goderich has no nerves’ and calling his Prime Minister ‘a damned, snivelling, blubbering blockhead’.

In addition to his governmental pressures, Goderich’s wife was showing signs of metal instability, so it is no surprise that, pushed by the king, he resigned from office after just 147 days – a premiership only three days longer than his predecessor Canning. His son George was born during his Downing Street days.

It was reported that when Goderich went to see the king to tender his resignation, he was in tears (‘the Blubberer’ again!) and the king lent Goderich the royal handkerchief to wipe his eyes. Very soon, though, Goderich was said to be ‘quite another man. . . sleeps at night and laughs and talks as usual’. Perhaps, like David Cameron after his resignation speech in Downing Street, he hummed a little tune . . .

That wasn’t the end of Goderich’s parliamentary carer; he served as Colonial Secretary and was energetic in opposing slavery. In 1833 the king offered to make him a Knight of the Garter, but his rank as a viscount was considered to be too low for the honour. So he was raised another rung in the peerage, becoming Earl of Ripon.

A few more government posts followed; in fact Goderich served in all but two of the governments between 1818 and 1846 – though his son George eclipsed him in this, serving in all the Whig or Liberal cabinets between Lord Melbourne’s and Asquith’s.

Frederick John Robinson, Earl of Ripon, died aged 76 at Putney Heath in London in January 1859. His portrait hangs in the Mayor’s Parlour in Ripon Town Hall.