John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich was one of the most controversial heads that the Royal Navy has had. A career politician with no naval experience, he nevertheless held the office of First Lord of the Admiralty on three separate occasions between 1749, when he was just out of his twenties, and 1782, when he retired. Much of the controversy that surrounds him stems not from his time in office, but from his colourful private life.
His grandfather had been insane for several years before he died in 1729, leaving his ten-year-old grandson very little more than his earldom. His widowed mother had already remarried and effectively abandoned the young Montagu, forcing him to make his own way in the world. It is perhaps not surprising with such an unstable upbringing, that Lord Sandwich was prey to most of the temptations that the 18th had to offer. He was an active member of the notorious Hellfire Club, was an inveterate gambler and a committed rake. He was a good friend of the infamous John Wilkes, telling him on one occasion, "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox." Wilkes is reported to have replied, "That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress." He fathered a large number of illegitimate children with several women, and is remembered in naval circles as the only First Lord to have kept a resident mistress in Admiralty House itself.
Yet while in office, he is said to have been a hard working naval administrator, who was responsible for a number of important innovations. It was Sandwich who was the driving force behind the introduction of coppering of ships’ bottoms, resulting in Royal Navy vessels enjoying better sailing performance and less weed and barnacle growth than those of their opponents. He was also behind the adoption of the carronade many years before the French or Spanish did. Carronades gave Royal Navy ships an edge over their opponents, especially at short range. He also took a great interest in scientific exploration, agreeing to supply the ships and crews for all three voyages of Captain Cook. A keen classicis, it was Sandwich who was behind the profusion of warships named after Greek and Roman gods and goddesses towards the end of the 18th century.
But he must also take some of the blame for the only major strategic defeat suffered by Britain in the 18th century. It was Sandwich who was First Lord of the Admiralty during the crucial years leading up to the American War of Independence. Any plan to defeat the rebels needed the seaboard of the thirteen rebel colonies to have been effectively blockaded, but when war finally broke out, the Royal Navy was ill-prepared to carry this out. Failure to prevent arms, money and later French troops reaching North America from Europe was the fault of the navy, and Sandwich was responsible both during the lead up to war, and during the conflict. There were many factors behind the British defeat in that war, but the state of the Royal Navy was one of the most critical.
The majority of people today know little about John Montagu and his career, but almost all of them will be familiar with the culinary creation that he left the world. During his marathon gaming sessions at the card tables of London, he would refuse to leave the room to eat supper. Instead he would have sliced meat sent to him, placed between two pieces of bread, a form of food that could be consumed one-handed, while the other hand continued to hold his cards. This novel way of eating took its name from its creator, and the sandwich was born.