Ensign Charles Pratt, Ostend 1798

A couple of days ago, while I was taking an hour or so out after my working day to transcribe some notes on Sir Home Popham (whom I am beginning to enjoy researching — how could I not, when he was so unexpected in every way?), I made a chance discovery.

Sir_Home_Riggs_Popham

Captain Home Popham

In May 1798, Popham helped plan and carry out an amphibious attack on Ostend harbour, where the French were making naval preparations for a possible invasion of the British Isles. Popham commanded the naval side of the expedition; the military side was commanded by Sir Eyre Coote. The expedition was partially successful: the targets were destroyed, but due to unfavourable winds Popham was unable to rescue Coote and his men from being taken prisoner.

Illustrated Battles of the Nineteenth Century. [By Archibald Forbes, Major Arthur Griffiths, and others.]

Sir Eyre Coote, from Wikipedia

One of the men taken with Coote was the mysterious Ensign Charles Pratt of the 49th Foot. His story at and after Ostend could probably form the basis of a novel (are you listening, my author friends?). According to Popham, he ‘had been with me on the Continent, & was acting as General Coote’s Aid[e] de Camp at Ostend; he [Pratt] was put in close prison on being taken & has remained there ever since’. [Popham to Lord Spencer, 1 April 1799, TNA ADM 1/2319]

On 16 March 1799, however, Pratt managed to escape. In his own words, he ‘sett [sic] off immediately for Flushing [on the island of Walcheren, Zeeland], in hopes of getting over [to England] from thence, but the risk being too great I sett out for Rotterdam next morning, but no Vessel being ready I went to Amsterdam which I reached the 22d. On the 28th I sail’d from the Texel & landed this evening [30 March] at Whitsable.’ [Pratt to Popham, 30 March 1799, TNA ADM 1/2319]

On his way home, Pratt managed to make himself useful by counting every single ship fitting out in Flushing, Rotterdam, and the Texel, which Popham forwarded on to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Spencer.

I have called Pratt ‘mysterious’ because, well … I can’t find out much about him. I am fairly sure there will be more in the archives lurking somewhere, but I need some pointers to narrow my search. So this is a bit of a call for help: does anyone know any more of Ensign Pratt?

The little I have managed to find is quickly told. He entered the army as an ensign in the 49th (Hertfordshire) Foot on 30 April 1798. [TNA WO 65/48, Army List 1798] I have a feeling his background was not strictly military — Popham says in his letter that Pratt had been with him on the continent, probably referring to 1794-5 when Popham was in Flanders, and there is a letter in the Grey MSS at Durham dated 2 May 1798 in which a ‘Mr Pratt’ is mentioned as being a ‘guide’. From this I deduce that Pratt was one of Popham’s ‘useful friends’ from his Ostend days in the 1790s — I may be wrong though.

When he was taken at Ostend, moreover, Pratt’s status seems to have been dubious. There is plenty of correspondence in the Coote papers at Michigan (which I cannot access yet … but I will) between Coote and French General Championnet respecting Ensign (or ‘Lieutenant’) Pratt’s role as ADC and as an officer in the 49th Foot, which makes me wonder — along with the fact that he was kept ‘in close prison ‘ — whether his role was as above-board as it seems.

Either way, following Pratt’s escape, he seems not to have done very much. He was with Popham in Russia in the summer of 1799, when Popham went to arrange the passage of Russian troops for the joint Anglo-Russian expedition to the Helder, and along with Popham received presents from Tsar Paul (the Chester Courant of 3 September 1799 described him as ‘Captain Popham’s assistant in this business’). But although referred to several times in 1798 and 1799 as a lieutenant, he was not commissioned as such until 8 November 1799, when he transferred into the 9th Regiment of Foot.

He subsequently disappears from any records I can find. He went onto the half-pay list on 25 November 1802 (TNA WO 65/52), where he remained until 25 January 1805 when he exchanged into the 92nd Highlanders, still as a lieutenant (TNA WO 65/55). Later that year, according to the London Gazette of 3 September 1805, he ‘retired’ from the Army altogether.

I can’t find any record of him after that.

I am fairly sure I will find out more about this chap, but so far I am drawing a blank. I want to find out more about his connection with Popham, and what he was doing at Ostend (and Russia), and obviously I want to read all about his escape. But he seems, like a lot of people who surrounded and interacted with Popham, to be a fairly shadowy figure who only interacted with official sources because of his brief séjour in the Army.

So … anyone know anything else about him?

Help? Please? And thank you in advance.

Sir Home Popham off Boulogne, 1804: or, correspondence with Lord Melville, BL Add MS 41080

20 June 1804 (f. 10)

Sir Home Popham: My dear Lord.

Lord Melville: Sir Home.

Popham: You remember that letter Lord Hutchinson sent you?

Melville: Yes, of course I –

Popham: THERE WAS NO LETTER. THERE WAS NEVER ANY LETTER. AND IF THERE WAS, LORD HUTCHINSON DIDN’T SEND IT.

Melville:

Popham: Oh, and tell Mr Pitt he didn’t receive one, either. Have a great day.

 

Sir_Home_Riggs_Popham

Sir Home Popham, from here

 

11 July 1804 (f. 18)

Popham: My Lord. May I visit you on Friday?

Melville: Yes, of course. Why not?

Popham: I’ve had my chart of the Red Sea printed for you. I’ll bring it with me.

Melville: Jolly good. I look forward to it.

Popham: Along with a memorandum on a subject to which I understand you and Mr Pitt jointly directed my examination. Which obviously I cannot talk about. Obviously.

Melville: Ouch! Please stop nudging me so hard. I GET IT.

Popham: Sorry.

29 July 1804 (f. 19)

Popham: Sorry I haven’t been in touch for [checks notes] 24 hours. One of my kids was ill.

Melville: That’s quite all right.

Popham: To make up for my silence, here’s an enormously long memorandum about all the bad things the Admiralty under Lord St Vincent has been doing to me.

Melville: I hope you haven’t shown this to anybody else? It’s very … strident.

Popham: Nope. Just you.

Melville: Thank God.

Popham: And Mr Addington.

Melville: … Oh?

Popham: But he told me not to show it to anybody else.

Melville: I’m  not surprised. I –

Popham: I may have left a copy with Lord Chatham, Mr Yorke, Lord Hobart, and Sir Andrew Snape Hamond.

Melville: I think you should maybe –

Popham: And most of the other members of the Cabinet. And maybe one or two influential MPs. Oh, and several people I met at the last levee who expressed an interest. But nobody else, I promise.

 

800px-Henry_Dundas,_1st_Viscount_Melville_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence

Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, from here

Undated, but after the previous one (f. 21)

Popham: I tried to call on you at Putney this morning but I couldn’t find you.

Melville: Ah, erm. I had to leave in a hurry.

Popham: So they told me. I brought you the books I promised.

Melville: Thanks.

Popham: While we’re here, I take this occasion of troubling you with a recital of another act of official duplicity against me.

Melville: *** eats his wig in frustration ***

1 August 1804 (f. 23)

Popham: You know those … things you asked me to examine?

Melville: What things?

Popham: You know. Those … things. Mr … Francis’s … things.

Melville: You’re nudging me again. I told you to stop that. And stop waggling your eyebrows, it’s off-putting.

Popham: Sorry.

Melville: You mean Mr Fulton’s torpedoes?

Popham: OH MY GOD BE QUIET this is supposed to be top secret

 

10 August 1804 (f. 27)

Popham: At last, I’m ready to start my experiments with Mr … Francis’s … things.

Melville: It’s OK. This is a confidential line. Just say ‘torpedoes’.

Popham: NEW IDEAS HAVE SUGGESTED THEMSELVES TO ME WHICH MAY BE CONSIDERED A GREAT AID TO AN OPERATION SO UTTERLY VITAL TO THE SURVIVAL OF THE COUNTRY

Melville: Right, yes, I figured, or you wouldn’t be writing.

Popham: But I’ll wait until the next post to write about it in detail, because I was only writing to let you know I was still alive and making progress.

Melville: *** groans ***

12 August 1804 (f. 29)

Popham: Coo-ee! It’s me.

Melville: Hi.

Popham: Right well, the … things … well – they, erm. Need work.

Melville: Fine. Take all the time you need.

Popham: But time and season have passed away so fast I have no time for further experiments. I’m going off to Portsmouth tomorrow and will leave some instructions behind about improving the … things.

Melville: All right, but –

Popham: Then I’ll be in town on Wednesday to talk to you.

Melville: Looking forward to it. (to his secretary) Lock the doors and bar the windows, I’m not in, OK?

8 September 1804 (f. 40)

Popham: I came to see you yesterday, but you weren’t in.

Melville: Oh yes, something came up at the last moment. I’m so, so sorry.

Popham: The … things are ready.

Melville: Excellent.

Popham: I spent all of this morning using my telegraphic signals – did I ever tell you about those? They’re brilliant, aren’t they? – to make it look like my primary object in coming ashore was to try the system out on Admiral Lewis’s squadron.

Melville: I suppose you might be expected to be working on them, yes.

Popham: Admiral Lewis signalled back ‘PULL THE OTHER ONE, IT’S GOT BELLS ON’, and I didn’t even know it was possible to signal that.

 

Fulton

Robert Fulton (“Mr Francis”), from here

12 September 1804 (f. 44)

Popham: So! We’re meeting on Friday at 11 am?

Melville: If we must.

Popham: I’ll bring Mr … Francis with me.

Melville: Fulton. I know who he is.

Popham: But I can’t say any more here, because there’s no point setting anything down in writing by letter.

MELVILLE: WHY ARE YOU WRITING TO ME THEN?! *** throws chair across room ***

21 September 1804 (f. 53)

Popham: The … things are STILL ready.

Melville: Why haven’t you used them yet, then?

Popham: Too busy writing letters.

Melville: I see.

24 September 1804 (f. 56)

Popham: It’s all ready.

Melville: You said.

25 September 1804 (f. 57)

Popham: Did I mention we were ready?

Melville: YES

27 September 1804 (f. 62)

Popham: Just wanted to tell you it was Thursday.

Later, same day (f. 64)

Popham: … and to assure your Lordship that my attention is most seriously and sincerely directed to this object, and to be ready to act under any circumstances that may arise.

Melville: *** beats head against table ***

 

Raid_on_Boulogne_1804_colour

Raid at Boulogne, 2-3 October 1804, from here

28 September 1804 (f. 68)

Popham: We’re ready to attack the French tomorrow! So long as the weather holds, your Lordship may depend on it, something will be effected.

Melville: And then you’ll shut up, yes?

Popham: I’d just like it to go down on record that the reason we haven’t done anything yet is because Admiral Lord Keith, who’s nominally in command here, only rocked up yesterday in his flagship. Bastard.

Melville: Noted.

Popham: Just to say if the wind changes, we’re buggered.

Melville: Fine, fine. You’re off the hook. Go away.

 

[No letters cover the raid on Boulogne on the night of 2/3 October.]

 

28 October 1804 (f. 71)

Popham: Me again!

Melville: What now.

Popham: I’ve been all over the place. I got your letter at Dover, then went to Ramsgate via Deal, then back to Dover via Sandwich.

Melville: Why?

Popham: No idea. But I just want to tell you that I handed Lord Keith a copy of my instructions.

Melville: OK, that’s – wait. You handed him a copy of your instructions?

Popham: Yep.

Melville: The ones he was supposed to hand to you as your commanding officer?

Popham: Yep.

Melville: *** blinks ***

Popham: He seemed a bit hurt not to get them directly from you.

Melville: I have no idea why.

Popham: Anyway. WANT TO TRY SOME MORE … THINGS AT BOULOGNE?

 

***

I may have interpreted some of this correspondence rather liberally, but not as much as you’d think, and some of the lines are verbatim. If you don’t believe me, you can call up the volume yourself in the British Library and check.

 

 

‘A dirty Apothecary’: the elopement of Lady Lucy Stanhope and Thomas Taylor

Lady Chatham has now an account of her poor Granddaughter, disposed of (with ten thousand pounds) to a dirty Apothecary in whose shop she is to reside at Sevenoakes. [1]

Lady Lucy Rachel Stanhope was not quite 16 years old when Lady Aylesford wrote this report to Mrs Stapleton, companion to the Dowager Countess of Chatham. Born on 20 February 1780, Lucy was the youngest daughter of Charles, 3rd Earl Stanhope, and his first wife, Lady Hester Pitt. This made her the granddaughter of the first Earl of Chatham and niece of prime minister William Pitt the Younger.

At the end of January 1796, Lady Lucy disappeared from Chevening, her father’s Kentish country estate. Her family sought desperately to find her; when they did, it transpired she had not gone far. She had eloped to the neighbouring town of Sevenoaks with a man named Thomas Taylor.

V0011301 The wedding of Lady Lucy Stanhope to Thomas Taylor, a

James Gillray’s satirical portrayal of Lady Lucy Stanhope’s wedding to Thomas Taylor (1796), from here

Thomas Taylor was probably a Stanhope family employee, and Lady Lucy would have seen a great deal of him while living in the country. He was about a dozen years older than his bride (he was probably born in the late 1760s) and had received some medical training under the surgeon Henry Cline. His fellow trainee surgeon, Sir Astley Cooper, later wrote of him:

Taylor was a clever fellow, but entirely a man of pleasure, and hated our dirty experiments, as he was a neat methodical man, and much sought by the ladies of the west-end of the town, who used to fetch him in their carriages. [2]

An apothecary, therefore; but hardly a dirty one, and one who had to hurriedly abandon his profession to marry the woman he had absconded with, which he did on 26 April 1796 (with Lord Stanhope’s reluctant blessing).

In some ways, Lord Stanhope might be said to have reaped what he had sown. Born in 1753, the 3rd Earl was educated in Geneva, then a centre for avant-garde political and democratic thought. He was something of an eccentric; two generally-given examples are that he refused to powder his hair and always slept with the window open, although they seem sensible enough to me. He was also a celebrated scientist who experimented with electricity, designed a fire-retardant material, and tried to patent a steam-boat.

3rdEarlStanhope

From here

Unfortunately for Stanhope, he was also considered eccentric because he whole-heartedly embraced the French Revolution, smashing his armorial bearings and styling himself ‘Citizen Stanhope’. Perhaps the only reason he wasn’t locked up for this was that the prime minister, Pitt, did not want to cause an éclat by imprisoning his own brother-in-law. Nevertheless, Stanhope alienated his second wife and all six of his children, who fled one by one and never spoke to him again. His two younger sons, whom he had intended to bring up as ‘mechanics or manufacturers’, escaped ‘out of [the] Window with their best Coats & Linen’. [3]

This may have had something to do with his efforts to get his sons to renounce their claims to the Stanhope title; it probably had just as much to do with the physical abuse to which he subjected them. His eldest daughter, Lady Hester Stanhope, later recalled her father ‘often has said that from the hour I was born I had been a stranger to fear. I certainly felt no fear when he held a knife to my throat – only pity for the arm that held it.’ [4]

Stanhope never voiced open objection to his youngest daughter’s choice of husband – he couldn’t, really; not with his republican views. Still, he must have known that Lucy had acted at least in part to get away from him. When his other two daughters, Hester and Griselda, also left him within four years of Lucy’s elopement, ‘he was heard to compare himself to Lear, quoting the line (certainly applicable), “I never gave thee kingdoms”.’ [5]

20130623_160457

Chevening, Kent (photo by J. Reiter)

Whatever Lord Stanhope’s true feelings may have been, his Pitt in-laws were horrified. They came to accept the match, of course – Pitt the Younger got Thomas Taylor a minor sinecure as Comptroller General of the Customs, and the second Earl of Chatham made Lucy’s eldest son William one of his two heirs and executors. Still, as head of the family, Lord Chatham felt it necessary to try and stop his niece making a terrible mistake. Probably he tried to persuade Lucy that it would not matter if she broke it off, for everyone would believe she had been coerced by her notably republican father.

Lucy’s response to her aunt, however, showed she was perfectly aware of her actions and that she had made her choice freely. Every line of her letter to the Countess of Chatham after her elopement (but before her marriage) rings with confidence and defiance – and, dare I say it, with considerable sass.

Dear Lady Chatham,

We received yours and my Uncle [probably the 2nd Earl of Chatham]’s letters this morning. I cannot express the obligation I feel myself under to you both, for the interest you take in my happiness, nor how grateful I am for the advice you have given me upon this occasion, which, however contrary your sentiments are to mine upon the subject in question, I cannot but regard as the strongest proof of the sincerity of that affection you so kindly assure me of. But I must add, I should indeed justify the opinion you seem to take of my choice standing as nothing, if when I had finally consented, to what has not been the lowly idea of the moment, but the result of sincere attachment, the arguments you have offered could make me waver. I have been well aware that with many of my station, Mr Taylor’s situation would be an insuperable objection; but with me, that objection has no weight. And whatever respect I may feel for your opinion, and however I may regret acting contrary to your wishes, at a time that you and my Uncle have shown me so much kindness; my first consideration ought certainly to be, for my own happiness; and since I have the sanction of a good father, I know no one whose disapprobation can influence me. I prefer happiness to Splendour and Riches, and had they any charms for me I would gladly sacrifice them all for Mr Taylor’s sake. Affection for him, has been the guide, and the sole guide of my conduct; no other sentiments, no other opinions, have led me to the decision I have irrevocably made. At the same time, believe me, I shall ever remember your solicitude upon this occasion for what you consider as my welfare, with unfeigned sentiments of affection and respect.

Pray give my love to Uncle and with all my most sincere thanks for his goodness. My sisters join in the same to you both.

I remain

Your ever affectionate and grateful Niece

Lucy Rachael Stanhope [6]

This letter is certainly a lot longer (although perhaps just as firm) than its direct translation: ‘Mind your own business.’

References

[1] Charlotte, Lady Ayesford to Mrs Stapleton, 10 February 1796, National Army Museum, Combermere MSS, 8408-114.

[2] Bransby Blake Cooper, The life of Sir Astley Cooper, Bart. … vol. 1 (London: J.W. Parker, 1843), p. 182.

[3] Charles Lamb to John Rickman, [February 1802], Edwin W. Marrs, Jr. (ed.), The letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb, vol. 2 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), p. 50.

[4] Duchess of Cleveland, The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope (London: John Murray, 1914), p. 16.

[5] Cleveland, Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope, p. 12.

[6] Lady Lucy Rachael Stanhope to Mary, Countess of Chatham, undated [1796], National Army Museum, Combermere MSS, 8408-114.

The name’s James, Charles James: a Napoleonic-era enigma (Part 2)

James portrait from Poems vol 1 1811

From the frontispiece of the 1808 edition of Charles James’s Poems

You can read last week’s post about Charles James, poet, fixer, and international man of mystery extraordinaire, here.

Major of the Royal Artillery Drivers and ‘French Secretary’ to the Ordnance

In 1806, Pitt the Younger died and Lord Moira’s Whig associates came to government as the Ministry of All the Talents. Moira himself became Master-General of the Ordnance.

Moira – who was, as you will recall, Charles James’s patron and employer – wanted to bring James with him, but couldn’t quite manage to get him openly attached to the Ordnance. As the Master-General could employ the services of any officer on the Ordnance establishment in any way he wanted, however, Moira appointed James (who, insofar as he had any military duties at all, was currently a lieutenant on half-pay in the 62nd) as Major of the Royal Artillery Drivers.

This was, to put it mildly, a bit of a stretch, but it doesn’t seem to have been exactly illegal. The majority was a new post (created January 1806) with a handsome salary of about £400 a year (a guinea a day, plus perquisites and allowances); because it overlapped with field commissions that already existed, the majority also had very few practical duties. This allowed Moira to use James in any way he liked, and the way he chose to use him was as ‘French Secretary’.

James’s duties as ‘French Secretary’ were just as nebulous as his duties as a major. James himself later described them as follows: ‘attendance on the Master-General, receipt, transcript or translation of foreign papers, personal interviews with foreigners and others, together with confidential reports … chiefly on foreign matters’. [1] The closest anyone got to any practical official designation of James’s duties was a line in a letter from Colonel Charles Neville, Secretary to the Master-General of the Ordnance, employing him for a task ‘whereon his Lordship [the 2nd Earl of Chatham, Moira’s successor at the Ordnance] and you conversed when you last saw him’. [2]

regimental_companion

(The Regimental Companion, vol. 3, p. 508)

From this, it seems that James’s duties either didn’t exist at all, in which case the post was a total sinecure – which James strenuously denied – or that his duties weren’t the kind of thing he could talk about in a public document.

James’s strange position inevitably came to the notice of the Commissioners of Military Enquiry (the Commission for Military Enquiry had been instituted in 1805 to look into potential financial abuses in many military departments). The Commissioners were convinced the new majority was a job, but proving this was like nailing jelly to the wall.

The most likely explanation for James’s role at the Ordnance is that Moira was using him as he had often used him before – to undertake rather shady activities out of the public eye, and to engage in liaison with Ordnance contacts and agents abroad: ‘engaged in particulars of a military nature, for the general benefit of the service’. [3]

It All Becomes Too Much

A-Kick-at-the-Broad-Bottoms-Gillray

James Gillray, ‘A Kick at the Broad-Bottoms!’ (1807), from here. Moira is portrayed on the right with his arms in the air in alarm

Moira fell from the Ordnance (along with the rest of his government) in March 1807, but James stayed on as ‘French Secretary’ under the 2nd Earl of Chatham. Chatham, however, was at the opposite end of the political spectrum from James, and seems to have avoided employing James except when it was absolutely necessary to do so.

James was understandably unhappy with Chatham and with the Commission for Military Enquiry, which he thought should have been investigating why Chatham kept him on the Ordnance’s paybooks without actually using him rather than engaging in a witch-hunt against innocent parties (viz. Major Charles James, RA Drivers):

‘There is not an officer in the service, civil or military, but may be subjected to the most rigorous inquiry. There is not one but may have the dirty passions of the human mind let loose against him; and there are many who may be placed in a situation to excite and consequently to incur the visitation of envy, spleen, and prejudice.’ [4]

But politics was in no mood for military inefficiency, and it was a bad time to be a public servant with a salary but no obvious duties.

Hague

In early 1809, the Duke of York, the Commander-in-Chief, was investigated by a whole House of Commons committee in 1809 to determine whether he’d been complicit in selling commissions through the influence of his former mistress, Mary-Anne Clarke. James didn’t crop up during that investigation, but he was name-checked in a bile-filled pamphlet by Thomas Hague:

‘I do not inquire what distinguished talent recommended him, whether his poetical effusions, or his military dictionary? I leave Colonel Crewe [James’s friend and another Moira connection] to describe his excellence as a billiard player, and his never erring stroke at some pocket or other. Whether the Major or Lord Petty [a former Chancellor of the Exchequer] be the better financier I care not – I do not question his dexterity as a truckster, his cold closeness as a bargain driver; but, as a gunner driver, I may be permitted to speak of him; to ask what are his claims to the rank he bears, and the pay he receives? Do they arise from foreign service, wounds, or exploits? I will not assert that the Major has never been abroad, because he was educated in the Jesuit’s college, at Bruges; where he has perhaps qualified himself to become the head of that order [ouch]; but, I aver that he has never done a day’s military duty, OUT of England.’ [5]

James v Stuarton

stuarton

James had also been attacked from an altogether dodgier quarter. In February 1808, James brought a case against George Francis Stuart, Count Stuarton (a direct descendant of James II and the Jacobite ‘Kings Over the Water’). Stuarton was almost certainly a connection between Moira and the French Royalists, whose cause Stuarton was in Britain to promote.

The background to the case is hazy – James’s only comment on the matter was that he had ‘instituted a Criminal Information against’ Stuarton ‘for reasons known to the Earl of Moira, and to Earl Spencer, then Secretary of State for the Home Department’. [6] He later claimed he had prosecuted the case with funding from the Ordnance, which suggests the business was one with potential implications for the government. [7]

Stuarton’s libel doesn’t survive, but he probably accused James of playing a double game during the Quiberon affair in 1795, betraying the Royalists and ‘encourag[ing] or abett[ing] their persecutors in Paris’ – perhaps insinuating that the government’s employment of such a man showed it had never been serious about helping the Royalists at all. [8] The man formerly known as ‘Jacobin’ James may well have been a figure of suspicion to many, but, with the silent might of the government behind him, James naturally won his case. Stuarton subsequently escaped to America to avoid arrest.

By this time, however, James was becoming a liability. His usefulness depended on his low profile, and between 1808 and 1810 he was being talked about far too much. Lord Mulgrave, Lord Chatham’s successor at the Ordnance, quietly let James go in August 1810. I don’t suppose it was coincidental that James had just finished giving evidence to the Military Commissioners at the time.

Spying for the Home Office

In 1813, Moira introduced James to Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, ‘for the purpose of being honourably employed’. [9] This wasn’t referring to a clerkship.

recto

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, from here

By November, James was pulling in old favours from his contacts and informants on the continent – men he either knew through his financial ventures, or through his family’s wine trade, or through his work with the French Royalists in the 1790s and early 1800s. His background in Flanders (particularly Liège) also came in handy. [10]

Throughout 1814 and 1815, James’s information networks were crucial to a government seeking to keep an eye on French opinion of the newly-restored Bourbon monarchy. The importance of his contacts rose sharply with the return of Napoleon. [11] James may have remained in the pay of the Home Office until the end of his life: he may have been the ‘Major James’ who was called upon in the trial of the Cato Street conspirators, one of whom confessed to him that the cabinet was about to be murdered. [12] Although I can’t prove James’s connection with the Cato Street Conspiracy, it’s just the sort of thing I’d expect him to be mixed up in.

The end

After 1815, James seems to have spent most of his time devoting himself to domestic concerns. In October 1818, he married a woman named Judith Appleton, who was roughly 23 or 24 years his junior. The pair had already been an unmarried item for at least a decade, and had five children: Charles Woodcock, born in 1807; Francis, who died in 1818; William Bosville, born in 1809; Maria; and Louisa (born in 1816 or 1817). There may also have been another son named John, born in 1808.

Why James waited so long to marry Judith is unclear, but it raises the possibility that one or the other of them may have been secretly married to someone else. I haven’t been able to substantiate this, though.

James didn’t live long enough to enjoy married life much. He died suddenly at the beginning of 1821, at the age of about 63. He was buried with his son Francis in St Mary’s, Paddington.

st mary

St Mary’s Church, Paddington, from here

His widow Judith inherited his house at Gloucester Place and (in a somewhat bizarre twist) she married another army agent – James Ashley – within seven weeks of burying her husband. Keeping it in the family, Ashley’s daughter Elizabeth later married James and Judith’s son Charles Woodcock.

Judith spent many years trying to obtain the money her husband had been owed by Moira (now Marquess of Hastings), but never succeeded. I can’t help feeling that, after so many years of devoted service, James and his family were owed something at least, but then maybe Moira felt his preferment and protection (and James undoubtedly needed both) had cleared all arrears between them.

Acknowledgements

I owe huge thanks to Rory Muir, Lynn Dawson, Sarah Murden, Charlie Stevenson, and Stephen Lark, whose time and resources I have totally monopolised in trying to track down the elusive Major James.

References

[1] 17th Report of the Commissioners of Military Enquiry (1811), p. 228.

[2] Charles James, Regimental Companion (1811), vol 3 (7th ed) (London: T Egerton, 1811), p. 508.

[3] James, Regimental Companion, vol. 3, pp. 511-12.

[4] James, Regimental Companion, vol. 3, p. 507.

[5] Thomas Hague, A letter to his Royal Highness the Duke of York on Recent Events, with a statement of the conduct of Generals Trigge and Fox, during their Commands at Gibraltar, and an Inquiry into Major Charles James’s Claims to Promotion (London: Wm Horseman, 1809), pp. 38-9.

[6] Memorandum by James, 6 Nov 1807, Liverpool MSS, British Library Add MS 38259, f. 267.

[7] James, Regimental Companion, vol. 3, p. 500.

[8] This is clear from some of the evidence printed in Papers on Charles James read to the Grand Jury for Westminster in the cause James versus George Francis Stuart, alias Count Stuarton, etc, 12 Feb 1808 (London: C. Roworth, 1808).

[9] James to Lord Liverpool, undated [1820], Liverpool MSS, British Library Add MS 38286, f. 228.

[10] James to Lord Sidmouth, Devon Record Office, Sidmouth MSS, 152M/C1813/OF/37, 38.

[11] James to Lord Sidmouth, Devon Record Office, Sidmouth MSS, 152M/C1815/0F29, 30, 31, 36; also Lyon and Turnbull’s Rare Books, MSS, Maps and Photographs catalogue of 31 August 2006, https://issuu.com/lyonandturnbullauctioneers/docs/476.

[12] Morning Chronicle, 20 April 1820.

The name’s James, Charles James: A Napoleonic Enigma (Part 1)

A few months ago, while I was researching something completely different, Major Charles James exploded into my life.

James portrait from Poems vol 1 1811

Charles James (frontispiece to the 1808 edition of his poems)

James was what one might delicately label ‘a right piece of work’. I have started using the hashtag #shady to refer to him in my notes. He was many things in his relatively short life (c1758–1821), many contradictory. While he would have described himself as a poet and an author, he was also a soldier and military encyclopaedist; a man of business; an army agent; a revolutionary sympathiser; a political jobber; a ‘fixer’; and a spy.

He was a chameleon who constantly reinvented his identity to suit the circumstances, and haunts the sources like a fabulously interesting and often rather sordid shadow. [1] I’ve become maybe a little bit obsessed with finding more about him over the past few weeks. Here, in a nutshell, is why.

Who Was Charles James?

Charles James was probably born in 1758 (give or take a year or two), possibly in Warwickshire. The only other things I know for certain are that he was the eldest son, he had a sister named Mary, and his father was a merchant (possibly a wine merchant) operating between Dover and Flanders.

The contradictions surrounding James’s life were evident to me right from the start. Even his name is disputed. In April 1780, he was admitted to Gray’s Inn to study law (he switched to Lincoln’s Inn in 1796) under the name Charles Simpson. Five years later, he petitioned Gray’s Inn to have his name changed to James, on the pretext that he had given his uncle’s name by accident. [2]

james or simpson grays inn

Joseph Foster, Register of Admissions to Gray’s Inn, 1521–1889 … (London: Hansard, 1889) p. 390, from here

I find it hard to believe Charles had entered a wrong surname for himself by mistake, particularly as it took him five years to rectify the error, but whatever the explanation, he was already an identity chameleon in his mid-20s.

James was almost certainly Catholic, and he was educated at the Jesuit College at Bruges and Liège. This ‘Papist’ background brought his trustworthiness (and even his patriotism) into question on more than one occasion. He was fluent in Latin and French and spent much of his life abroad; many of his early poems were inspired by experiences in Flanders and France.

liege

The Collège en Isle of Liège (engraving of 1740), public domain from here

His early inclinations were, indeed, towards literary pursuits. He published a translation of Beaumarchais’ Tarare in 1787, another translation of Petrarch’s Laura in 1789, and his first volume of Poems in the same year (republishing and expanding them frequently until 1817).

‘Jacobin’ James

James was on the continent when the French Revolution broke out. He found the whole experience profoundly inspiring and made absolutely no attempt to conceal which side he was on. Clue: it wasn’t the side of Louis XVI.

He returned frequently to Liège and to France between 1789 and 1790 and claimed to have taken a piece of the Bastille as a keepsake. He chronicled his experiences and his thoughts on the revolution itself in a publication entitled Audi Alteram Partem, or an extenuation of the conduct of the French Revolutionists (1792; reissued 1793), in which he defended the aims of the revolution and suggested facts had been twisted for political purposes.

audialterampartem

This was probably enough to put his name on the Pitt government’s very long list of troublemakers. Nor did James ever change his political opinions, despite his later activities (and more on those shortly). He remained convinced the French Revolution would have been a harmless domestic uprising had foreign governments not interfered. Although he benefited from Britain’s system of corruption and political jobbery, he was never comfortable with it, and in darker moments suspected he was being blocked and blacklisted by a vengeful government with a very long memory.

He may have had a point. Although government members clearly found him useful, his requests for preferment, promotion, or reward were generally met with a po-faced rebuff. James was, after all, the son of a merchant (and a Catholic one at that); although he was happy to swallow his political opinions when required, he was publicly connected with oppositionists and outcasts. James named one of his sons after Sir Francis Burdett, and his library contained a number of personally-dedicated volumes written by John Horne Tooke, who had been tried for treason in 1794 and was a close friend.

James was so outspoken in private circles that his friends nicknamed him ‘Jacobin James’.

The Moira Connection

In April 1788, having given up on a legal career, James joined the West Middlesex Militia as a lieutenant. A year later he was promoted to captain.

NYPL Moira

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Right Honble. Francis Rawdon Hastings Earl of Moira from here

At around this time he became acquainted with Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Lord Rawdon and, later, Earl of Moira (later still Marquess of Hastings). Moira was a military man and an oppositionist, most closely associated with the Prince of Wales’s reversionary circle. Moira’s comparatively liberal opinions (he supported religious freedom and the abolition of slavery) appealed to James, whose intelligence and discretion in turn appealed to Moira.

Moira became James’s military and political patron. In 1789, James received permission, possibly through Moira, to dedicate his first book of poems to the Prince of Wales. In 1791, James dedicated a pamphlet to Moira on the reform of the militia. In the same year, James published the first edition of his famous Regimental Companion with the approval of the Commander-in-Chief. It’s hard to imagine Horse Guards taking a punt on an unknown captain of a militia regiment had James not had a highly influential sponsor like Moira to speak for him.

James’s Military Career (… such as it was)

Although best known as a military theorist, James never saw active service. In 1793, Moira did try to bring James (still a militia captain) with him to Flanders, but the request was refused by the commander-in-chief Lord Amherst on the grounds that officers of the militia could not serve abroad. [3]

Two years later, Moira managed to get James appointed to the pleasingly alliterative post of Deputy Muster-Master General on the expedition of French royalists to Quiberon in the summer of 1795.

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Letter addressed to Capt. Charles James in his capacity of Deputy Muster-Master General, British Library Add MS 32694

Even now, however, Captain James was not permitted to serve overseas as a militia officer: he had to do all his work from the expedition’s British base in Southampton. James’s language skills must have been an absolute boon, although presumably his ‘Jacobin’ credentials were something of a down side. James seems, however, to have been well-regarded by the Royalist officers with whom he liaised, and he impressed Moira with his grasp of detail in his financial and logistical duties (and his other, less overt, assignments).

James transferred from the West Middlesex militia to the North York Militia in 1795, but his career took a hit in 1797 when he resigned over what he thought of as the political promotion of a junior captain over his head. Due to a misunderstanding, which James was convinced was due to prejudice at the highest levels against his personal opinions, he tried to transfer into the Line and was refused. Subsequent schemes, including a proposal to raise and captain a mulatto regiment in Demerara, were also turned down by the War Office.

With Moira’s assistance, James managed to purchase an ensigncy in the 60th in November 1798, but sold out in 1799 – the same year he brought out his celebrated Military Dictionary. This, along with the Regimental Companion and his collection of court-martial sentences, cemented his reputation as a military theorist, so it’s ironic that he was a civilian when it first came out.

James did not re-enter the army until 1804, when Moira’s political barometer seemed to be rising: his connection with the Prince of Wales and the political mess following Pitt the Younger’s resignation in 1801 made him a likely prime minister. James ‘was presented’ (his words, not mine) with an ensigncy in the 55th Foot, which he rapidly swapped for a half-pay lieutenancy in the 62nd.

The Austen Connection

James later claimed he had served Moira ‘to the known destruction of all my professional views and prospects’, [4] but the connection was bearing quiet fruit. With such aristocratic patronage behind him, James dabbled as an army agent – essentially an individual or firm handling the financial business and pay of a regiment, and also brokering the sale of commissions (sometimes for sums far higher than the official price, with the agent pocketing the difference). [5]

Moira also employed James as his ‘confidential agent’ and man of business. In this capacity, James managed Moira’s financial affairs, arranging loans and raising funds for his patron.

James’s legal background and connections to business and trade (his father and brother-in-law were both wine merchants; his youngest son also later became one) fitted him for this role. It wasn’t exactly a sinecure. Moira had lent a great deal of money to the Prince of Wales, which was roughly equivalent to throwing thousands of pounds out of a window. He had also possibly invested funds in the British-sponsored French Royalist risings of the 1790s. By March 1804, Moira may have owed a whopping £100,000. [6]

James’s main task, therefore, was to keep Moira’s affairs either afloat, or at least out of the newspapers. This brought hm into contact with Jane Austen’s brother Henry, of the bank Austen and Maunde.

James may have known Henry Austen since the late 1790s, when they had both served in the militia at Colchester. [7] In 1801, Henry Austen, Henry Maunde, and Charles James signed a secret agreement to operate as an army agency for a number of militia regiments. James asked to keep his part in the arrangement secret, but took a third of the profits and retained the right to inspect all the accounts. Lord Moira’s name did not appear, but the main purpose of James’s connection with Austen and Maunde seems to have been to use the bank to raise loans for his patron.

Getting involved in Moira’s tangled finances was a fatal business. In 1813, Austen and Maunde lent Moira £6,000 (a loan brokered, or perhaps extorted, by James). When Moira inevitably failed to pay, the bank took him to court for damages, but lost because the courts felt they had demanded an illegally high rate of interest. The bank folded, and Henry Austen became bankrupt. [8]

It wasn’t all bad for the Austens. Henry did persuade James to put pressure on Moira to obtain commissions for Francis and Charles Austen, both naval officers; he was successful for Charles Austen at least. [9] And Henry’s sister Jane may have got her first break as an author through James, whose own publisher – Thomas Egerton – broke away from his usual military stock to publish her first novels. [10]

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Letter addressed to Charles James at Thomas Egerton’s Military Library, Whitehall, British Library Add MS 32694

This probably didn’t really make up for what James did, and Henry Austen must have been delighted to know that James himself eventually got steam-rollered by Moira’s debts. James claimed never to have received any pay for his work for Moira; even if he was lying, he certainly didn’t benefit much from it in the long term. A friend later heard that James had lent Moira £8,000 on his own account, which Moira never repaid, and which contributed to James’s own financial insolvency. [11]

 

TO BE CONTINUED

Part 2 of my mini-biography of Charles James can be read here.

 

Acknowledgements

I owe huge thanks to Rory Muir, Lynn Dawson, Sarah Murden, Charlie Stevenson, and Stephen Lark, whose time and resources I have totally monopolised in trying to track down the elusive Major James.

 

References

[1] His papers were sold at auction in 1986, but I have no idea where they are now. If anyone does know, could they tell me? Pretty please? Thank you.

[2] Joseph Foster, Register of Admissions to Gray’s Inn, 1521–1889 … (London: Hansard, 1889) p. 390; many thanks to Sarah Murden for flagging this up to me.

[3] Papers on Charles James read to the Grand Jury for Westminster in the cause James versus George Francis Stuart, alias Count Stuarton, 12 Feb 1808 (London: C. Roworth, 1808), p. 1.

[4] Will, TNA PROB 11/1647/77.

[5] Clive Caplan, ‘Jane Austen’s Banker Brother: Henry Thomas Austen of Austen & Co, 1801­–16’, Persuasions (20)  1998, pp. 69–90, p. 70.

[6] Stuart Bennett, ‘Lord Moira and the Austens’, Persuasions 35 (2013), pp. 129–52, p. 134.

[7] E.J. Clery, Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister (London: Biteback Publishing, 2017, ebook edition).

[8] Bennett, ‘Lord Moira and the Austens’, pp. 142-3; Clery, Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister; Annual Register for 1816 (London: J. Dodsley, 1817), p. 287.

[9] Bennett, ‘Lord Moira and the Austens’, p. 130.

[10] Bennett, ‘Lord Moira and the Austens’, p. 141.

[11] John Taylor, Records of my Life, vol 2 (London: Edward Bull, 1832), p. 301.

 

Who wrote “Letters from Flushing”?

One of the most famous contemporary descriptions of the Walcheren campaign is a small volume entitled Letters from Flushing … an account of the expedition to Walcheren, Beveland, and the Mouth of the Scheldt, under the command of the Earl of Chatham (London: Richard Phillips, 1809). The book consists of 14 letters allegedly written home to friends by ‘an officer of the 81st Regiment’, covering the period from 27 July (just before the expedition sailed) to 8 September (just before half of the forces returned to Britain).

 

lettersfromflushing

This book has long been a puzzle to me. It’s a brilliant text – apart from anything else, the description of the bombardment of Flushing between 13-15 August is just fabulous – and some of the details given in it about life in Zeeland under the British occupation are wonderful. But there are several odd things about it. Why does the author of the letters return to England in mid-September, when the 81st remained on Walcheren until the final evacuation of the island in December? Why is he hardly ever with his regiment, when the movements of the 81st can be easily traced in the various diaries and official proceedings?

These mysteries, I feel, ought to be cleared up if the author can be identified. We know he was on the 81st; the fact that he is hardly ever with the 81st, and in fact finally leaves without it in mid-September, suggests he was on the staff. This is supported by his birds’ eye view of the campaign and his familiarity with the higher echelons of command, which is highly unusual for a junior officer attached to a particular regiment.

Who, then, was the author? He was educated although probably not classically so. He had his ear to the ground (there are frequent references to public affairs that could only be garnered by someone with an interest in them). He was unmarried, referring approvingly to ‘Sir John Moore’s maxim that a soldier should have nothing to do with a wife’ – but possibly attached, going on to say ‘And yet I think that some of these wives are too precious luxuries for us contentedly to give the monopoly of them to you non-military gentlemen’ (p. 19). He probably wasn’t at Corunna with the rest of the 81st, as he talks of opinions ‘which I have frequently heard from the officers who have served in Spain’ (p. 154), suggesting he did not do so himself. Otherwise, I had to guess.

The obvious place to start in my quest to identify this officer was to see if anyone had done it before me. (That would have been handy.) Were there any identifying marks on the various versions of Letters available on the internet, or recorded in any online catalogues? Alas, no.

My next port of call was the Army List (annual and monthly), although I’m not entirely sure what I was looking for here. I guess I was I was kind of hoping one of the names would leap out at me waving a sign reading ‘I wrote Letters from Flushing!’, but no such luck. Not only that, but most of the names from both battalions of the 81st were jumbled together, with only a few identified as belonging to one or the other (only the second battalion was at Walcheren).

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My eureka moment was provided by a visit to the National Archives, where I called up the muster book of the second battalion of the 81st [1] and the monthly returns of the officers attached to the Walcheren campaign [2]. This latter document contained a detailed list of the staff, including regimental affiliation.

Squeezed at the very bottom of the first page was the only officer attached to the 81st – Captain George Charles D’Aguilar, ADC to Colonel Thomas Mahon (a staff officer).

officersreturn_daguilar

D’Aguilar (1784-1855) is an interesting character of himself. Of Jewish extraction, he entered the Army as an ensign in the 86th Regt in 1799. He spent nearly his entire early career in India with his regiment, before transferring to a captaincy in the 81st and returning home in May 1809 – just in time for Walcheren. He went on to become Assistant Adjutant-General in Ireland and at Horse Guards, before participating in the Opium Wars and becoming Lieutenant Governor of Hong Kong.

George_Charles_D'Aguilar

G.C. D’Aguilar in later life, from here

Could D’Aguilar have written Letters? It’s certainly possible. He sailed on 29 July with Mahon, which corroborates information given in the second letter of Letters (which clearly shows the author to have sailed with the second part of the fleet). Excitingly, he also seems to have returned in mid-September. The Gentleman’s Magazine [3] states that he ‘returned to England with the cavalry’ under Mahon’s command, and he was certainly in Lancashire to propose to his future wife, Eliza Drinkwater, at the end of September.[4]

The fact D’Aguilar had left Walcheren by the end of September is confirmed by the officers’ return.[2] Although the return shows him as still being on Walcheren in October, this was an error, as shown by a pencilled ‘LA’ (Leave of Absence) next to his name.

officersreturn_LA

The next return confirms that he was given leave until the end of December.

officersreturn_absentI must admit that D’Aguilar’s authorship is a speculative, rather than a definite, identification. I can’t find any obvious connection between D’Aguilar and the printer of Letters, Richard Phillips, except that Phillips was a well-known publisher of other military works. Nor can I confirm that D’Aguilar stayed at Bedford Square, where the Advertisement at the beginning of Letters is signed. D’Aguilar did, however, go on to publish several other works in his lifetime, including The Officers; Manual (a translation of the Military Maxims of Napoleon).[5]

And yet, if I can’t confirm that D’Aguilar was the author, I can’t find anyone else in the 2nd battalion of the 81st who fits the bill. This is evident from comparing the information in the payroll [1] and the officers’ returns. [2]

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At the end of September, only a handful of 2nd battalion officers were not present on Walcheren. Apart from D’Aguilar (and a scattering of officers who were serving with the 1st battalion in Sicily), 18 officers were listed as absent:

  • Lt-Col James Kempt – serving in North America as QMG
  • Major Henry Milling – severely wounded at Corunna and not yet fit for duty
  • Capt J. Lutman – severely wounded at Corunna (effectively invalided for life)
  • Capt Ralph Crofton – guarding the battalion’s heavy baggage at Bletchington, Oxon. (the regimental depot)
  • Capt Caesar Colclough – recruiting in England since July
  • Capt William Dams – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt J.G. Hort – lost his right leg at Corunna
  • Lt Armstrong – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt Thomas Thomson – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt William Hyde – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt Thomas Manning – recruiting in England since July
  • Ens R.J. Marston – recruiting in England since July
  • Ens J.L. Serjeant – recruiting in England since July
  • Ensigns Anderson and Pringle – absent without leave, but last seen alive during the march to Corunna and ‘presumed dead’
  • Ens White – sick with fever since 12 Sept
  • Apothecary Chislett – sick with fever since 13 Sept

None of these people could possibly have written Letters – leaving D’Aguilar as the only possible person capable of compiling Letters as early as October 1809.

References

[1] WO 12/8953.

[2] WO 17/2479.

[3] Gentleman’s Magazine, vols 198-9 (1855), p. 94.

[4] D’Aguilar v Drinkwater, Francis Vesey and John Beames, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery during the time of Lord Chancellor Eldon, vol 2 (London: Reed and Hunter, 1814), p. 227.

[5] H. Stephens (2008) D’Aguilar, Sir George Charles (1784–1855), army officer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 15 May 2019, from here.

 

“The Severest Censure of this House”: a government is repeatedly defeated in the House of Commons, 1810

Current events in Parliament are very interesting to me as a political historian, although I admit I’d prefer to be watching from the safer distance of, say, a couple of centuries. Since I am a historian, however, and a Napoleonic-era one at that, yesterday’s triple defeat of Theresa May’s government reminded me strongly of the situation of the Perceval government over the winter of 1809–1810. Perceval’s government wasn’t exactly found to be in “contempt of Parliament”, like May’s, but it might as well have been. Here’s why.

The Perceval Government

spencer_perceval

Spencer Perceval kissed hands as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer at the beginning of October 1809. He succeeded the Duke of Portland. At the beginning of September, it had been revealed that Foreign Secretary George Canning had been intriguing against the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, for some months. Portland had actually agreed to force Castlereagh out and reshuffle the cabinet to accommodate Canning’s friend Lord Wellesley. The outcome of all this was that Canning and Castlereagh both resigned (and then fought a duel), while Portland – who had recently suffered a stroke and was in poor health – gave way to Perceval.

Perceval thus started out under the shadow of Canning and Castlereagh’s disgrace. His position was not improved by the fact that the Portland government’s big military campaign of the year – the Walcheren expedition, involving 40,000 troops and over 600 naval vessels – was in its final disastrous throes. The expedition’s commander, Lord Chatham, had failed to take Antwerp (his ultimate goal), and sickness was tearing through the troops. By mid-September, nearly 10,000 men were on the sick list. Most of the army was recalled, but a garrison of 16,000 men under Sir Eyre Coote remained on Walcheren, pending further orders.

Matters were made even worse by the fact that Lord Chatham, the expedition’s commander, had also been a member of Portland’s cabinet as Master-General of the Ordnance. This was a huge millstone around Perceval’s neck; indeed, many cartoons depicted Chatham at this time with a large millstone inscribed “WALCHEREN”.

AN00079358_001_l

(From here)

Perceval spent several weeks putting his government together. He approached the leaders of the opposition, Lord Grenville and Earl Grey; he approached former prime minister Lord Sidmouth, who had a reasonably sizeable political following. They all refused to join him. With Canning and Castlereagh both out of the question, Perceval found himself having to fall back largely on the same ministers who had served in the discredited Portland government. Even Chatham got to stay on at the Ordnance.

These attempts to shore up an already-tottering government took up most of Perceval’s attentions, and it was only in November that the cabinet finally got around to discussing what to do with Walcheren (meanwhile, half of Coote’s garrison there had fallen ill with fever). Walcheren was finally evacuated at the end of December.

Inquiry: political or military?

Perceval was aware he would face an immediate onslaught from the opposition in Parliament on Walcheren. He knew there was no way he would be able to avoid some sort of political scrutiny, particularly after the extremely influential London Common Council (representing London’s considerable mercantile interests) laid an Address before the King calling for an inquiry into the debacle. A year previously, the Portland government had managed to dodge a similar bullet over the dire military situation in the Peninsula by placing the responsible army commanders (including the future Duke of Wellington) before a military inquiry at Chelsea – despite calls from the City of London for a political investigation. Perceval knew he would not be so lucky now.

common-council-chamber-guildhall

Since an inquiry was inevitable, the only question was what form the inquiry should take. Perceval hoped he would be able to limit any damage to his government by restricting an inquiry to a select committee, which would only be obliged to publish its ultimate decision and not its full proceedings. Effectively, Perceval wanted to control the evidence that would be laid before Parliament (and the public).

Perceval managed to put the meeting of Parliament off over Christmas, but when Parliament met again on 23 January 1810, the opposition went straight to the attack. On 26 January, Lord Porchester led the opposition in its demand for a political inquiry – not a select committee, but a committee of the whole House of Commons (a format that had recently been used for assessing evidence that the Duke of York, as Commander in Chief, had been selling military commissions through his mistress, Mary-Anne Clarke).

mw64890

Lord Porchester

The opposition hoped this format would do two things – indict the government before the eyes of Parliament and the people, and force the government to produce and publish all the relevant paperwork, rather than cherry-picking their evidence. As Porchester argued, the nation at large had a right to know how the government was using its military resources:

I cannot consent to delegate the right of inquiry on this occasion to any select or secret Committee, by whom the course of investigation might be misdirected, or its bounds limited – before whom, possibly, garbled extracts, called documents, might be laid by ministers themselves, in order to produce a partial discussion … It is in a Committee of the whole House alone, we can have a fair case, because if necessary we can examine oral evidence at the Bar.[1]

In other words, Porchester and the opposition were putting the government on trial before the House of Commons – and, by extension, the people.

The government is defeated (repeatedly)

Perceval tried to deflect Porchester’s motion for an inquiry of the whole House by moving the previous question (effectively an attempt to dispose of the motion altogether), on the grounds that a select committee would be more suitable. He found himself deserted by a number of his supporters, including Lord Castlereagh, who (as former Secretary of State for War) welcomed an inquiry into the expedition he had planned, hoping it would clear him; and the Commons supporters of Lord Chatham, who hoped an inquiry would uncover the duplicity of his colleagues in sending him on the expedition with insufficient (and perhaps even false) information.

Perceval first tried to adjourn the debate until 5 February; he was defeated without a division. The previous question was then put, and the opposition carried the day 195 votes to 186. The government was now committed to a full inquiry of the sort they had been dreading. The inquiry began on 2 February 1810; all its proceedings were published, in the newspapers and in the official parliamentary debates (the future Hansard).

Despite the best hopes of the opposition, the government managed to weather the Walcheren storm and did not fall. After the government’s defeats on 26 January, nobody had really been expecting it to survive the inquiry. It nearly didn’t, particularly when it became clear that Lord Chatham had (apparently) submitted a private narrative defending his conduct at Walcheren to the King – an unconstitutional act.

At the end of February 1810, the government was again defeated in the lobbies and forced to produce more written evidence. On 23 February, oppositionist Samuel Whitbread moved that all papers in the Royal archives relating to Chatham’s narrative should be produced; his motion was narrowly passed by 178 to 171. Whitbread then moved two resolutions on 2 March censuring Chatham’s conduct. Perceval was once more unable to move the previous question and throw Whitbread’s censures out without a debate; he lost 221 to 188, with many supporters once again in the Noes lobby. Only an amendment by George Canning (then a backbencher) softened Whitbread’s language and passed without a division, but Perceval had been unable to protect a member of his own government. Only Chatham’s resignation from the cabinet on 7 March prevented the government falling with him.

George Canning

George Canning

The outcome

On 26 March, Lord Porchester moved eight resolutions censuring the ministers:

The expedition to the Scheldt was undertaken under circumstances which afforded no rational hope of adequate success. … The advisers of this ill-judged enterprise are, in the opinion of this House, deeply responsible for the heavy calamities with which its failure has been attended. … Such conduct of His Majesty’s advisers, deserves the severest censure of this House.[2]

The resolutions were discussed by the House of Commons over the course of four bitter days. The opposition had been expecting to force Perceval’s resignation; what actually happened was that Porchester’s resolutions were rejected 272 votes to 232 early in the morning of 31 March. The House of Commons then passed a resolution approving of the retention of Walcheren until December by 255 votes to 232.

What had gone wrong? Perceval’s most recent biographer, Denis Gray, thought Perceval’s unexpected triumph was evidence that his “courage and steadiness had pulled it [survival] off against the greatest imaginable difficulties and odds. After the Walcheren debates Pittites again new that they had a leader of resolution and character.”[3]

Historian Michael Roberts, however, gives a different answer: “The majority of independent members preferred to take the chance that Walcheren would be a salutary lesson to the Government, than to risk putting the country into the hands of a party that had neither policy, nor prospect of uniting upon one, nor ability to carry it out.” Later, Roberts reiterates the point: “The Walcheren vote was not so much in favour of the Tories as against the Whigs”.[4]

In other words, Perceval’s survival was due less to his own skill and more to the weakness of the opposition, which found it easier to criticise than to propose its own alternative agenda. Divided as it was over the issue of whether or not to commit more fully to the war in the Peninsula, and with nascent divisions between Lords Grenville and Grey, the opposition was, indeed, perhaps no more capable than the government to guide the war effort – as their brief stint in power in 1806–7 as the Ministry of All the Talents had shown.

Modern parallels?

Only time will tell of Theresa May’s government is able to hold its own, or whether Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition is capable of presenting a valid alternative political agenda. I suspect we will find out more about that over the coming week. But it struck me that the Walcheren inquiry does have some modern echoes. At any rate, it is certainly not the first time that a government has fought for its life in the face of public scrutiny.

References

[1] Parliamentary Debates volume XV (1812), col. 162

[2] Parliamentary Debates vol. XVI (1812), cols. 78–80

[3] Denis Gray, Spencer Perceval: The Evangelical Prime Minister (Manchester: University Press, 1963), p. 304

[4] Michael Roberts, The Whig Party, 1807–12 (London, 1939), pp. 147, 322–3)