John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), played an important role in the history of the Royal Navy from 1744 to 1782, which included the American War of Independence and the discovery of Australia and islands of the Pacific Ocean. He supported Captain Cook's exploratory voyages and, in return, Cook named the Sandwich Islands for him. Montagu worked extremely long hours in his various government posts and often ate salted beef between toast at his desk, thus giving birth to the sandwich.
Born into a position of nobility, John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich was not handed an ideal life. He was born on November 13, 1718, to Edward Richard Montagu, viscount Hinchinbroke and Elizabeth Popham Montagu. His father died when he was four years old. His grandfather, the third earl, was feebleminded and eventually confined to the Yorkshire home of his uncle, Wortley Montagu, to whom he had mortgaged his estates. His mother appears to have abandoned John and sent him to Eton at the age of seven. She remarried when he was nine and he and his brother William became wards of the Court of Chancery. His grandfather died just before his eleventh birthday. He became the fourth Earl of Sandwich at age ten but had little money to back up the title. His younger brother William was sent to sea at the age of eleven. His grandmother, the countess, had gone to Paris to support the exiled Stuart dynasty and taken what was left of the family's money. His grandmother threatened to disinherit him if he supported King George II, and his friends were suspicious of him because of his connections to the exiled Stuarts.
Public schools in the eighteenth century were not bastions of learning. Montagu proved to be the exception. He had a first class mind and emerged as head of the fifth form in 1732. When he left Eton he had a thorough knowledge of Latin and a working knowledge of Greek. He attributed his success to his tutor Dr. Summer. In April 1735 Montagu entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained for two years. He left without a degree and began a grand tour of Europe. He spent a year in France and then proceeded to Italy, Greece, the Greek islands, Turkey, Smyrna, Egypt, Malta, Spain, and Gibraltar. This journey was quite impressive, as most English nobles did not venture much beyond France and Italy at that time. Seven years after his death a book which may have been his journal was published under the title A Voyage Performed by the Late Earl of Sandwich Round the Mediterranean in the Years 1738 and 1739.
Montagu met Dorothy Fane while he was in Florence, Italy, in 1737 through her brother the Honorable Charles Fane, the British minister at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. They were married on March 3, 1741, in St. Margaret's, Westminster. Friends and acquaintances declared that they were an admirable pair who lived modestly and avoided the temptations of the fashionable world. The couple had five children. Their eldest child, John, was born in 1742 and died soon afterward. His second son and heir, also John, was born in 1744, Edward was born in June 1745, Mary in February 1748, and William Agustus in February 1752. After this Lady Sandwich's mind began to decline and ultimately the two separated in 1755. She was declared insane by the Court of Chancery and became a ward of the court.
Montagu joined the House of Lords in 1739 upon his return to England from his European travels and threw himself into party politics. He became a friend of the Duke of Bedford who appointed him a lord commissioner of the admiralty. In August of 1745 Montagu was sent to Holland on a mission, and soon was appointed captain in the Duke of Bedford's regiment. He became an aide-de-camp to the Duke of Bedford on September 27 and a colonel in the army on October 4, all in the same year. He also became a second colonel in the Duke of Montagu's foot regiment on November 22, 1745. By the time of his death he was a senior general on the list. It is probable that his military service was nominal as he was frequently absent from England on diplomatic missions and was involved with the admiralty. He had a capacity for hard work and ran the admiralty with efficiency in the absence of the Duke of Bedford. In July 1746 Montagu was nominated plenipotentiary at the conferences at Breda and continued in that post until 1748 when the treaty at Aix-la-Chapelle was completed. The French thought they could take advantage of him because of his youth, but he was smart and represented his country well.
When the Duke of Bedford was promoted to the post of secretary of state, Montagu became first lord of the admiralty. He delegated his duties to Lord George Anson who proceeded to clean up the dockyards and naval establishments. Anson also regulated the discipline of the navy with the support of Montagu. His career at the admiralty was derailed when Bedford got into a political fight with the Duke of Newcastle. King George II notified Montagu that his services were no longer needed and he returned to his home on June 12, 1751, and was out of political life until 1755 when he was appointed joint vice-treasurer of Ireland, along with two others. He held this office until 1763.
After Montagu separated from his mentally ill wife, his reputation was sullied. A story was spread in Grosley's Tour of London that a minister of state gambled for twenty-four hours with only a piece of beef between two slices of toasted bread. The new dish was named after the minister who invented it. There is no evidence that Montagu engaged in heavy gambling. He did bet on cricket and a few other sports, but there is no record anywhere of excessive betting. The truth is that he was extremely fond of salt beef. He worked long hours when he was a cabinet minister in 1765 and often missed dinner, which at that time was served at 4:00 p.m., but there is no doubt that he did invent the sandwich.
John Wilkes also attempted to destroy Montagu's reputation with lies and half truths about a club that they belonged to called the Medmenham along with the Earl of March, Sir Francis Dashwood, and others. Apparently the men engaged in some scandalous behavior involving women, offensive poetry, and blasphemy. Wilkes was eventually prosecuted and convicted of blasphemy, but Montagu's name never quite recovered from the scandal. He was even immortalized in the play The Beggar's Opera as Jemmy Twitcher. He was considered sinful, greedy, ambitious, and vain. This depiction of his character did not seem to bother Montagu in the least. He continued to live his life as he pleased. The men who counted were pleased with his defense against Wilkes and welcomed him back into politics after an absence of twelve years.
A more balanced picture of Montagu may have been given by an old friend of his, Lady Mary Fitzgerald. According to her, Montagu needed ambition and vanity in order to succeed. He had a penetrating intelligence, a good understanding of character, and the ability to work with those around him. He had excellent judgment and the ability to foresee difficulties. He liked to be flattered but understood it for what it was. He tended to be either too formal or too familiar. He was happiest when his head ruled his heart. Physically, as shown in the famous Gainsborough painting, Montagu was a big tall man who was somewhat awkward. He had a reputation for breaking china and had a shambling gait that made it appear that he was walking down both sides of the road at once.
Montagu loved classical music, especially Handel, and played the drums in the Hinchingbrooke Orchestra. He founded the Noblemen and Gentlemen's Catch Club, a group that promoted the writing of cannons, catches, and rounds and which continues to exist. He was considered the most important and influential amateur musician of eighteenth-century England. Through his interest in music, he met his longtime mistress, Martha Ray, when she was a seventeen-year-old milliner's apprentice. She had an excellent voice that he proceeded to have trained by the best teachers of the day. She sang most of the female solos in his orchestra. She also bore him five children. Divorce was not allowed in the eighteenth century except by a private act of parliament, and Montagu did not have the money and was concerned about public opinion. The two lived together for seventeen years as man and wife and Montagu's life was happy and stable. However, Martha Ray wanted Montagu to make a settlement on her and her children so that they would be protected if he died. He did not have the money, so she may have had an affair with James Hackman, who wanted to marry her. She refused and he shot her in the head on the steps of Covent Garden in 1779. Montagu was devastated and did not appear at social events for a long time.
Under the Duke of Grafton, Montagu accepted the office of postmaster-general in January 1768 where he served alternate months with Lord de Spencer. Between them they increased the efficiency of the post office. In December 1770 he became one of Lord North's secretary of states. On January 12, 1771, Montagu returned to the admiralty as first lord where he remained for eleven years. He returned to an admiralty in chaos. The dockyards were in disrepair, the ships were suffering from dry rot, and there was not enough English wood to make repairs. The English were embarking on the American war at this time and did not have enough good ships to fight America and her European allies. The most important decision Montagu made in his career in the admiralty was to hire Captain Charles Middleton to reform the navy. During Montagu's tenure at the admiralty a great deal of bribery and stealing apparently occurred, but modern research has proved that Montagu was not personally involved and probably had little knowledge of these events. The American War for Independence was lost partly due to an inefficient navy under his watch, but it is also true that Canada, India, and the West Indies would not have remained in the English sphere without Montagu's work in rebuilding the English fleet.
During Montagu's tenure at the admiralty, England became interested in all things below the equator. Montagu was especially interested in the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook. When Cook proposed a voyage to discover whether Terra Australis existed, Montagu supported him and helped get his ships outfitted in 1778. Cook named the Sandwich Islands after him.
After the fall of North as prime minister, Montagu returned to private life. He continued to promote ancient music and entertain at Hinchingbrooke. Lack of money and bills to pay followed him until his death in 1792. His lasting contribution to England was the reform of naval administration which enabled England to rule the seas for the next hundred years.
The Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, Oxford University Press, 1960.
Rodger, N. A. M., Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich 1717-1792, W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.