George Canning (1770-1827) has gone down in history as having served the shortest period as Prime Minister in Great Britain, but he also had another side to his life; he was a Freemason, he fought a duel, and was a critic of Britain’s slave trade. Indeed, Canning had been against slavery, stating in 1795 that:
‘I shall content myself, with giving my vote, without any arguments, for the immediate and unqualified abolition’.1
According to Thomas Fenn, Canning joined the Prince of Wales Lodge No.259 from the Somerset House Lodge on 13th April, 1810.2 However, A.W. Oxford, he states that Canning was initiated and passed in No. 4 Lodge on 30th April 1810, having been proposed on 12th February 1810.3 Either way, Canning seemed to have been a Freemason that was attached to a rather distinguished lodge.
A charismatic and promising figure, Canning excelled at Eton and at Oxford and entered politics with ease. He was an associate of Liverpool businessman John Gladstone, the father of the future Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and Freemason Robertson Gladstone, and he was also a close friend of Prime Minister Lord Liverpool. Canning served in many offices before becoming Prime Minister, serving as Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer, but his career in politics also made him enemies. Canning famously fell out with Lord Castlereagh, threatening to resign from his post as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs unless the then Prime Minister, the Duke of Portland, removed Castlereagh. Portland agreed to this demand, but Castlereagh found out and challenged Canning to a duel, which took place on Putney Heath on 21st September 1809. Canning was a poor shot and missed, but Castlereagh was renowned with a pistol and wounded Canning in the thigh.
Canning became Prime Minister on the 12th of April 1827, and died on the 8th of August the same year, serving 119 days in office, the shortest of any Prime Minister. He can also be remembered as a Freemason and as a forward thinking politician who questioned slavery and served in many offices in government.
- P. Jupp, (ed.), The Letter-Journal of George Canning, 1793-1795, Royal Historical Society, Camden Fourth Series, Volume 41, (London, 1991), p.202.
- Thomas Fenn, who wrote The Prince of Wales’s Lodge No. 259: list of members from the time of its constitution, (London: Jarrold & Sons Ltd., Revised ed. 1938), p.33.
- A.W. Oxford, No. 4 an introduction to the History of the Royal Somerset House and Inverness Lodge, (London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd., 1928), p.189.