On a chilly November day in 1718, John Montagu (aka, Montague) was born into the British Peerage as the son of Edward Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke. Within the realm of British nobility, the “Peerage” ranks just below the Royal Family. Peers include Dukes and Duchesses, Barons and Viscounts, all of whom are part of a legal system of largely hereditary titles.
One of those titles is “Earl,” which comes from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon term “eorl,” referring to a military leader. An Earl is equivalent in status to a continental European “Count” and ranks just below Duke and Marquess in the hierarchy of the Peerage.
At the age of four, Montagu’s father died, leaving him as the sole heir to the family estate in the river port town of Sandwich, Kent. The boy’s mother soon remarried, leaving her only son to be raised by his grandfather, Edward Montagu, the 3rd Earl of Sandwich. When the Earl passed away in 1729, the ten-year-old succeeded him to become the 4th Earl of Sandwich, a title he would retain until his own death in 1792.
Public Life, Private Passions
During Montagu’s more than six decades as Earl, he held a number of military and political offices, not the least of which was First Lord of the Admiralty, as well as positions as Postmaster General and Secretary of State for the Northern Department. From 1739, he took his place in the House of Lords as a Patriot Whig. There, he was referred to not by his title or given name, but by his constituency—Sandwich.
In 1741, Sandwich married Dorothy Fane, the 24-year-old daughter of the 1st Viscount Fane. Two years later, they had a son, John, whose title from birth was Viscount Hinchingbrooke. The boy was destined to succeed his father as the 5th Earl, but his youth was marred by the deteriorating health of his mother, who eventually went insane.
As Sandwich saw his wife’s condition grow worse, he turned his attention to a talented opera singer named Martha Ray. She became his mistress and together they conceived at least five children and perhaps as many as nine. However, tragedy struck in 1779; in the foyer of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Ray was murdered by a jealous suitor, James Hackman, Rector of Wiveton, and Sandwich never recovered from his grief. He retired from public life in 1782.
History portrays John Montagu as a lackluster statesman at best and a corrupt, incompetent aristocrat at worst. One of his enemies once wrote of Sandwich that “Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little.” But there are two very special ways in which his memory lives on, one related to geography and the other to gambling.
In his time of service to the Royal Navy, Lord Sandwich was a great supporter of the famous explorer Captain James Cook. Sandwich was responsible for securing the funds that made it possible to purchase and outfit three ships—Resolution, Adventure and Discovery—for Cook’s second and third expeditions in the Pacific Ocean. By way of thanking his patron, Cook named in Montagu’s honor the “Sandwich Islands,” which are better known today as the Hawaiian Islands.
Also, according to popular legend, at some time in 1765, the British statesman got involved in a marathon card game at White’s of London, a tavern with gambling in the rear. For 24 straight hours he played, unable to pull himself away from the game even for a bite to eat. Famished and in need of energy, Montagu asked a waiter to bring him a piece of meat between two slices of bread. Other players followed his lead, saying “the same as Sandwich,” and the name for that simple dish has remained unchanged—“sandwich”—till this day.