‘The sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form’: MP of the Month, George Ward Hunt (1825-77)

The recent rise of a certain parson’s daughter to the premiership provides a fitting opportunity to consider the unexpected ascent of a parson’s son to one of the great offices of state during the 1860s – George Ward Hunt, Conservative MP for Northamptonshire North between 1857 and his death in 1877, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Disraeli’s 1868 administration.

Hunt’s name has become synonymous with two moments in Westminster’s popular memory. His inability to locate his dispatch box prior to his only budget speech in 1868 is often bandied about on budget day by journalists seeking historical precedent for the custom of the chancellor holding up their red box outside 11 Downing Street. When he later served as First Lord of the Admiralty in Disraeli’s second ministry from 1874, the practical need to accommodate his gargantuan frame – he was 6ft 4 inches tall and weighed between 21 and 25 stone throughout his adult life – has been used to explain a unique semi-circular recess in the Admiralty’s boardroom table, known as ‘Hunt’s Bay’. Both legends – one that paints a picture of ineptitude, the other of extraordinary obesity – have served to distort the otherwise exemplary parliamentary service of one of the rising stars of the Conservative party in the early 1860s.

Hunt’s political career did not start well. After graduating with a MA from Christ Church, Oxford, and being called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1851, he failed twice to get elected as a Conservative candidate for the borough of Northampton in 1852 and 1857. To make matters worse, in 1857 he suffered the ignominy of being on holiday in Egypt throughout the election, a fact that his local Liberal opponents never let him forget, through heckling about crocodiles, pyramids and mummies at future hustings.

NPG D43474; George Ward Hunt ('Statesmen, No. 77.') by Carlo Pellegrini

‘The fat of the land’, George Ward Hunt by Carlo Pellegrini, Vanity Fair (11 March 1871)

He was finally elected in December 1857 at a by-election for Northamptonshire North, the county division that contained his family’s Wadenhoe estate. Although Hunt’s family could trace their lineage back to Edward III, his lowly status as the son of ‘a well connected country clergymen’ marked him out from the county’s usual stock of aristocratic representatives, and his election bemused Northamptonshire’s established elite. He quickly allayed these fears by throwing himself into the business of the Commons as an active Tory backbencher during his first short Parliament. He made his maiden speech within days of being sworn in (many MPs thought it courteous to wait at least a year before rising to address the Commons, if at all), contributed frequently to debate thereafter and had introduced his first bill within six months of assuming his seat.

After his re-election in 1859 he ramped up his parliamentary activity, taking a particular interest in the fine details of electoral, legal, Church and financial reform. His commitment to debate, committee work and legislative drafting had brought him to the attention of the Conservative leadership by August 1863. In 1865 he confirmed his ambitions within the party by moving a vote of censure on the Liberal Lord Chancellor, and distancing himself from the hard-line Protestant wing of back-bench Conservatives by voting in favour of introducing a Roman Catholic parliamentary oath – a move that prompted jibes of ‘he’s half a Liberal already’ when he was re-elected at that year’s general election.

His dogged campaign to rouse the Liberal government out of its inactivity over a rinderpest outbreak during the latter months of 1865, which had infected almost 75,000 cattle by the start of the 1866 session, confirmed his worthiness for office during the early months of 1866. His farming experience and close connections with England’s agricultural elite made him steadfast in his commitment to much stricter regulations than those proposed by the Liberal government for the movement, quarantine and slaughter of cattle. Hunt’s demands were eventually adopted as national policy leading to a virtual cessation in new cases of cattle plague by November 1866, down from almost 18,000 a week earlier that year.

His excellent parliamentary record was rewarded in 1866 by his appointment as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in Derby’s third Conservative government, where he attended diligently to his official duties in the Commons as well as his daily bureaucratic responsibilities. His command of economic policy and dependable performances in the Commons led many to the realisation that he was the brains behind Disraeli’s third chancellorship, earning his chief’s endorsement as ‘our best man’ by March 1867.

On Disraeli’s ascent to the premiership in 1868, Hunt was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the new prime minister provided the following reference to Queen Victoria ahead of her first meeting with her new chancellor:

he is more than six feet 4 in stature, but does not look so tall from his proportionate breadth – like St Peters, no one is at first aware of his dimensions … he has the sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form … simple, straightforward & truthful … & of a very pleasing & amiable expression of countenance. He has gained golden opinions in the execution of his office as Sec[retary] of the Treasury, & is so popular in the House of Commons that the opposition even intimated recently that if a new Speaker were required, they were not disinclined to consider Mr Ward Hunt’s claims.

[Disraeli to Queen Victoria, 26 Feb. 1868: Benjamin Disraeli letters, 1868, ed. M. G. Wiebe et al. (2013), x. 82]

While Victoria remarked on such a ‘strange description’, she jokingly expressed no doubt that Hunt would ‘add weight to our counsels’. Accordingly, she accepted Disraeli’s recommendation, confirming Hunt’s rise from unknown parson’s son to one of the four great offices of state after only a decade in Parliament.

The full biography of Hunt will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Further reading:

  • Margaret Main Schoenberg, ‘Hunt, George Ward: A 19th Century Giant’, Northamptonshire Past and Present, 5, 4 (1976)
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