|George Canning by Richard Evans, 1825|
In the long list of those who have been awarded the title of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, there are names that will go down in history for one reason or another. Some are celebrated for their work in office, others vilified and some, for better or worse, are little remembered at all. During a conversation I had of late in a tea shop adjacent to the salon, it became apparent that few of my learned companions were aware of George Canning, whose 119 days in office stand today as the shortest term served by any Prime Minister. A respected Tory and a steady hand on this, the anniversary of his death, I thought the time was right to revisit the final days of the man who was chosen by George IV to lead the government.
When he came to office in 1827, Canning did not inherit a happy parliament and his health was already failing. He had not been well since January when he attended the evening funeral of Frederick, Duke of York. Sitting in the unheated, nighttime chapel in the depths of winter, Canning came down with a cold so serious that it threatened to carry him off before spring came round. In fact he soldiered on until his lungs became diseased, the Prime Minister continuing in government as his frail health went into terminal decline.
As the summer wore on Canning took up residence at Chiswick House and became increasingly unable to perform official duties. Here he lingered on, staying in the very room where Charles James Fox had died over two decades earlier. At four o'clock in the morning on 8th August 1827, George Canning passed away. His last words, spoken on his deathbed were reportedly, "Spain and Portugal".
Canning was buried in Westminster Abbey amid much ceremony; those who rallied against parliamentary reform mourned his passing. An able politician yet one not much loved by the ruling class of his own party, we might never know what Canning's legacy might have been if not for that final, fatal illness.