Earl Camden on the collapse of Pitt the Elder in the House of Lords, Kent RO CKS-U840/C173/30

I have been looking for an eyewitness account of the first Earl of Chatham’s spectacular collapse in the House of Lords in April 1778 for some time, and have finally found this account from Lord Camden to his daughter Elizabeth (“dear Betsey”, as the letter begins). I know there is a longer account from Camden to Grafton elsewhere, but I have not seen it so this is as close as I get right now.

The letter is dated 9 April 1778, so two days after Chatham collapsed.  Camden starts with some inconsequential gossip and platitudes (“the plumbs were excellent”) then moves on to the meaty stuff. Camden was present on the occasion: Chatham went to the House of Lords to oppose the Duke of Richmond’s motion for peace with America, and suffered from a stroke halfway through.

Camden writes:

“All our hopes of any material Change of Ministry are checked at once by the fatal Accidt. that happen’d on Tuesday Last in the House of Lords by a sudden fit that seiz’d the E. Chatham just as he was rising to reply to the D. of Richmond. You may conceive better than I can describe the Hurry & Confusion the Expressions of Grieff & astonishment that broke out & actuated the whole Assembly. Every man seemed affected more or less except ye E. of M[ansfield] who kept his seat & remained as much unmoved as the Poor Man himself who was stretch’d Senseless across a Bench. He continued some time in that posture till he was removed into the Painted Chamber. Assistance was sent for in an instant, & Dr Brocklesby was the first Physician that cd be got. In about an hour Addington [Dr Anthony Addington, Chatham’s personal physician] came, & soon after the Earl [revived?] the first Symptom of life being an Endeavour to reach, wch at last had its effect by discharging a Load from his Stomach wch probably was the Occasion of the fit, for it was actually no Apoplexy, but in truth very similar to that Seizure wch took him the beginning of last Summer, for all the Appearances were the same in both. He recover’d, if you remember, from the first very soon; & was better afterwds than we had seen him for many years. I pray to God this may have no worse Consequence. He was carry’d that Eveng to Mr Strutt’s in Palace Yard, where he still remains & is this day to be removed to Serjeant’s in Downing Street. He recover’d his Senses perfectly that Eveng & slept remarkably well. He continued well all yesterday & I hear he slept this morng till ½ past 6 o’clock. I hope the best, but according to my desponding temper, I fear the worst.”

Camden was right to “fear the worst”: Chatham never fully recovered and died on 11 May 1778.


A letter from Pitt to his brother, Kent RO CKS-U1590/S5/C25

This is one of the things I found so interesting today when I went to Maidstone for the archives. It’s a letter from William Pitt to his older brother John, Earl of Chatham, dated 12 October 1778. John was in Gibraltar at the time, having left with his regiment (the 39th) shortly after the death of his father in May. I had initially thought there was little or no correspondence during the early years between the two brothers, but it seems I was wrong, although this letter suggests why I might have got that impression.

What I find so sweet about it is that Pitt is completely aware that his letter might never get to its intended recipient, so he has this awkward air of almost talking to himself. The letter says nothing really beyond “Dear John, I miss you and want you to know that”. I find it poignant, particularly given the relationship the two of them had later in life.

To The Earl of Chatham, Gibraltar

12 October 1778, Hotel, King Street

My dear Brother,

I shall scarcely send you more at present than a single Line, which may perhaps never reach you. If it does, it will at least inform you that I am in the Land of the Living. Nothing has happen’d the least interesting since I wrote last to you, but I am afraid that very few of my Letters have yet reach’d you. I have been writing repeatedly ever since June, thinking to convey my Letters by Col. Mawhood, whose departure has been postponed from Day to Day, and I at least hear that he is not to go at all. He has made over our Letters to another Officer, by whose means, I hope you will at length receive them. At all Events, most of what those Letters contain is by this Time obsolete, besides which I have entirely forgotten most of it; so that I shall not attempt to send you Duplicates. One of my Dispatches has, I find, been intercepted by the French, having been committed to the Helena which unluckily fell in with their Fleet; and I know not how many more may share the same Fate. I left all well at Burton about a Fortnight since, and found Ld and Lady Mahon well at Hayes. I am now immediately going to Cambridge for about a Month. If I have any opportunity, you shall not fail to hear from me soon, whatever may occur.

Your most affectionate Brother, W Pitt.

[PS] I have sent the Stockings and Hats written for by Wood.


I have just got back from the Kent Library and History Centre in Maidstone, where I spent the day up to my elbows in manuscripts and as happy as the proverbial pig in the proverbial you-know-what. It was my first time in the archives in seven years and, although I did feel a teensy bit like a fraud (last time I was in an archive I was a legit research student; now, I’m… well… I guess technically I’m a novelist, but I still feel kind of odd describing myself as such given I’m not published yet). But I now have that lovely almond-crossed-with-gunpowder old-document-handling-smell on my hands and I can’t believe how much I have MISSED it.

I unearthed a few treasures, some of which I will have to share at greater length later:

1) Unexpectedly opening a folder to find http://www.historicalportraits.com/Gallery.asp?Page=Item&ItemID=54&Desc=William-Pitt-by-Sir-Thomas-Lawrence-PRA-|-Sir-Thomas-Lawrence-PRA staring back at me (… which I find odd as apparently it is also held in a private collection, according to the site I’ve linked to here: presumably there were several copies floating about as the one I saw was definitely in pencil and looked legit)

2) Comedy moments as I tried to decipher the first Lord Camden’s handwriting, which looked like a number of spiders caught in a pile-up on the M25

3) Finding a bundle of notes on Pitt’s household expenditures around the turn of the 19th century, in which he clearly had his mind on other things (one of them has a pencil drawing of the ground plan of a stately home on the back….)

And much, much more.

It only took on average 5 minutes to get the documents up when I ordered them, too. That’s a vast improvement on what I remember. In this respect a certain record office which will remain anonymous, but which we will refer to here as Bloucestershire Brecord Boffice, holds the record at an hour and a half per order.

Feeling quite blissed out now.

John’s Birthday

… is not today, but a friend of mine has expressed surprise at one of my previous posts in which I stated that it was 10 October (rather than 9 October, as believed by Wikipedia, the Oxford DNB and just about every other source you may choose to mention). So I’ve been going through my notes to find out exactly why I believed John to be born on 10 October 1756 and not 9 October 1756.

Item the First: from “Letters written by the late Earl of Chatham to his nephew Thomas Pitt…” (London, 1804): p. 97, Letter XXI, dated “Hayes, Oct. 10, 1756” begins with “Dear Nephew, I have the pleasure to acquaint you with the glad tidings of Hayes. Lady Hester was safely delivered this morning of a son.” I know this isn’t a manuscript source exactly, but unless the printer got it wrong, I trust Pitt the Elder to know both the date and the day of his own son’s birth. Although I guess he could have been so overwhelmed by the event that he could have got it wrong. But we’ll give him the benefit of a doubt for now, won’t we?

Item the Second: again not a MSS source, but still: from Canon Thompson, “A History of Hayes in the County of Kent” (London, 1935, p.  57): the book states that the Register Book of St Mary’s, the Hayes Parish Church, lists John as being born on 10 October 1756.

Item the Third: from “The Correspondence of Richard Grenville, Earl Temple and the Rt Hon George Grenville”, ed. William James Smith (London, 1852), I, 173: the birth of John Pitt is recorded as 10 October 1756 (and apparently he was delivered by the famous surgeon John Hunter, which I had forgotten until now. Yay for John).

But the spanner in the works is this latter, dated *9 October* 1773. It’s from Tomline’s “Life of Pitt” (London, 1821),I, 17, and it is a letter from Lord Chatham to William: “Thursday’s post brought us no letter from the dear traveller: we trust this day will prove more satisfactory; it is the happy day that gave us your brother”.

And yet the parish records clearly state him to have been born on 10 October.

Why did Pitt the Elder change his mind?

Will we ever know when John’s real birthday was?

Am I the only person who cares?

I know the answer to the last one anyway: probably.

Lord Chatham and the HMS Boyne

I came across the following article from The World, 12 August 1789, a while ago. Written to defend the appointment of Chatham (a soldier) to the Admiralty, it included an interesting paragraph at the end:

Really? What on earth is this all about? So off I go to research what happened to the Boyne.

So far I haven’t found anything specifically mentioning John, but I did find out that the Boyne was indeed in the West Indies in the early 1780s and returned in the summer of 1780 as part of a merchant convoy, carrying officers home. Its journey was not an easy one:

(St James’s Chronicle, 14-16 September 1780)

Captain Rice was from the 86th Rutland regiment. John had purchased a captaincy (… or been given one by the Duke of Rutland, I am not sure) in said regiment in December 1779, so I wondered whether he might have been on the same ship and whether this was the occasion mentioned by The World in 1789. Unfortunately it looks like the facts don’t match up: according to the London Chronicle of 24 August 1780, Chatham was *just setting out* for the West Indies, not returning.

On the other hand I also found this:

(London Courant and Morning Chronicle, 24 January 1780)

(… which, incidentally, also explains something I had long been confused about, namely why Lord Chatham would voluntarily go off to serve in the West Indies when most men would have avoided such a disease-ridden place like—-well, like the plague.)

So if Chatham was about to leave in January, why did he not leave till the end of August? Unless the newspapers got their wires crossed, and Chatham was on his way *back* from the West Indies at the end of the summer. This would in fact make more sense to me, as I know for a fact Chatham was back in England between October 1780 and February 1781. Had he sailed to the West Indies at the end of August, he would have had to re-embark almost instantly. Furthermore, the Boyne does not seem to have served again after her adventures in 1780, and was eventually broken up in 1783:


I’m still looking, so who knows, but I found it interesting to find this little vignette into the life of an officer travelling to and from military outposts in the 18th century. (I suspect it won’t make it into the novel, as interesting as it is!)

If Chatham *was* on the Boyne in 1780, the Pitt family certainly had a narrow squeak on a number of accounts. 1780 was a spectacularly bad year for the family anyway: Hester, Lady Mahon, the eldest Pitt child, died in July of that year and James Charles, the youngest, a captain in the navy, died of fever in Antigua in the autumn. Had Chatham sunk with the Boyne in September, that would have been three out of the five children gone in the space of four or five months. Not to mention the fact that William would have been Third Earl of Chatham at the age of twenty-one, would never have entered the House of Commons, and might never have become PM.

Thank goodness throwing those cannons overboard worked!