Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth: Speaker and Prime Minister

Created on Tuesday 4th May 2021 by:
Murray Tremellen
Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth 1757-1844. Oil painting by Thomas Philips after John Singleton Copley. © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2718. www.parliament.uk/art
Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth 1757-1844. Oil painting by Thomas Philips after John Singleton Copley. © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2718. www.parliament.uk/art

Back in October I introduced my research on the first Speaker’s House at Westminster. In 1794, the Speaker of the House of Commons took over the former Auditor’s House, next door to St Stephen’s Chapel, which he then used as his official residence until 1834. To understand why the house was transferred to the Speaker, and how it was developed and modified over the next forty years, we need to know something of the Speakers of this period. The first of these is Henry Addington, a man at the forefront of British politics for more than thirty years, who holds the unusual distinction of having served as both Speaker and Prime Minister. This achievement was all the more remarkable because, in an age when British politics was dominated by aristocratic families, Addington had risen from a relatively modest middle-class background. Nevertheless, he is – like the Speaker’s House itself – all but forgotten today. Detailed biographies of him can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) and the History of Parliament (in two parts: before and after 1790), but this post will give a brief introduction to his career and explain his significance in relation to the Speaker’s House.

Addington’s father, Dr Anthony Addington, was a physician who had built a successful London practice catering to wealthy clients. Among these was the prominent statesman William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. Thus, at a young age Henry became acquainted with Chatham’s second son, William Pitt the Younger. Both men subsequently studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, and Pitt must have recognised Addington’s political potential. Thus, when Pitt became Prime Minister in 1783, he encouraged Addington to stand for Parliament; the latter was duly returned for Devizes in the 1784 General Election.

Addington was initially a rather quiet MP, although he sat on several parliamentary committees. There was some initial scepticism when, at Pitt’s behest, he stood for Speakership in June 1789. Yet Addington confounded his critics and remained in the chair for almost twelve years, only stepping down in February 1801 when Pitt suddenly resigned in response to the King’s refusal to countenance Catholic emancipation. George III had developed a great respect for Addington and he now invited him to form an administration, a move which Pitt supported. Addington thus gained the distinction of becoming the first British Prime Minister to be drawn from the middle classes, and one of only three men to have held the offices of both Speaker and Prime Minister.

However, the change of circumstances strained Addington’s friendship with Pitt. In May 1804 Pitt, disappointed with the performance of Addington’s ministry, ousted his old friend from office and returned to power. The two men made a public reconciliation at the end of the year, and in January 1805 Addington was ennobled as Viscount Sidmouth, at Pitt’s behest. Nevertheless, he never enjoyed an easy relationship with Pitt’s second ministry, nor with the succession of ministries which followed Pitt’s premature death in 1806. It was only in 1812, following the accession of Lord Liverpool to the Premiership, that Sidmouth finally returned to the front rank of politics, being given the post of Home Secretary. His tenure proved controversial, as he oversaw the government’s attempts to repress popular discontent and resist growing demands for political reform. Nevertheless, he retained the office until his retirement in 1822. He died twelve years later, the last survivor of Pitt’s political circle.

In the century that followed, Addington was generally remembered as an unsuccessful Prime Minister and a controversial Home Secretary, while his earlier achievements as Speaker were largely neglected. In 1965 Philip Ziegler’s biography attempted to rehabilitate his reputation by emphasising this earlier phase of his career. Ziegler declared Addington to have been “an uncommonly good Speaker”; his conciliatory personality made him an excellent mediator between Government and Opposition.[1] He also introduced “Addington’s rule”, the principle that the Speaker, if called on to exercise his casting vote, should always vote for further discussion if possible. This rule is still followed by the Speaker to this day.

His success in the role, along with his genial personality, quickly won him the respect and affection of the whole house, and particularly of Pitt himself. In fact, Addington became one of the Prime Minister’s closest friends and advisors; the latter became a regular visitor to Addington’s country retreat at Woodley, Berkshire. The landscape architect Humphrey Repton called here several times to discuss business, and was able to observe the two men together. He paints a touching portrait of them, saying that they “loved each other as brothers, and played together like schoolboys”.[2] The closeness of their friendship makes their later political separation all the more poignant.

The grant of the Speaker’s House to Addington in 1794 was a significant coup for this rising political star. As my colleague Kirsty has outlined, the house – which had been cobbled together from various buildings around the Tudor cloisters of St Stephen’s Chapel – had previously been occupied by the Auditor and Tellers of the Exchequer. It is still not clear exactly why, or by whom, the decision was made to transfer the house to the Speaker; my ongoing research aims to answer this question. However, given Addington’s close friendship with Pitt, it seems probable that the Prime Minister had an input. Regardless of how the grant came about, Addington must have relished the additional prestige and dignity that his official residence conferred on him. His portrait by John Singleton Copley (above right) shows him in his pomp, flaunting the Speaker’s grand ceremonial robes and wig. He was clearly a man determined to make the most of his position.

Whatever one’s judgement on the success – or otherwise – of Addington’s career, he was a leading figure in British politics who deserves to be better remembered. For him, the Speakership proved an ideal springboard for social and political advancement, and my research aims to clarify how he used the Speaker’s House to advance these objectives.


[1] Philip Ziegler: Addington: A Life of Henry Addington, First Viscount Sidmouth (London: Collins, 1965), p. 60

[2] British Library, Add MS 62112: Repton memoirs, part II (c. 1814), f. 58