John, Earl of Chatham is fast becoming my Best Research Buddy (BRB for short— and who’m I kidding? Let’s just call him John from here on in for concision’s sake. John, blog readers; blog readers, John. Excellent, now we can move on :-D).
The problem is John is one of the Invisible Men in history, unless, as you may have noticed, he is being laughed at/scorned/denigrated/otherwise-middle-finger-saluted by historians. Students of Pitt the Younger may spot him hanging around in a rather embarrassed fashion on the fringes, making the occasional appearance in correspondence, at cabinet meetings, or in Pitt’s private life. Military historians will remember his record at Walcheren in 1809 (STILL not ready to write that post, so just read this for now and then forget you ever heard of it). But otherwise nobody knows who he is, really, and he almost completely drops off the radar in 1810. This isn’t exactly surprising (I suspect John kept his head down as much as possible after Walcheren) but, given he survived until 1835, that’s 25 years unaccounted for— more than the 22 he spent in public office.
I’ve been trying to work out what happened to John after 1810. Not for my novel, obviously— a book about the relationship between John and his brother William naturally comes to a close somewhere around, ooh, say, 23 January 1806— but just for curiosity’s sake. My research is still very much a work in progress, and I suspect not much will come of it until I’ve finished my novel, but I’ve found a few interesting things so far.
The years 1810-20 are still something of a haze to me, so let’s start in 1820. In January of that year John was appointed Governor of Gibraltar. He didn’t go out for a good long while, though. I can’t be sure why, but it probably has something to do with his wife. Mary, Countess of Chatham was approaching the end of her life at this stage; according to her obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine (1821, p. 565) she “had been indisposed nearly two years” prior to her death, so presumably she was suffering from cancer or some other gradually debilitating disease. At the end of April 1821 the newspapers rumoured that John was about to undertake his official duties at last (Times, 30 April 1821), but by the beginning of May John was still in London and still appearing at public functions (for example the King’s birthday dinner on the third). Mary died on 20 May, and although there were rumours that John was about to go out to Gibraltar he did not actually arrive until November 1821.
What he did there I couldn’t tell you now, although I suspect that, too, will be a research object in the future. He stayed in Gibraltar until July 1825. At the beginning of that month he landed back in England “on leave of absence” (Times, 1 July 1825). By the fourth he was in London and the King wrote to him inviting him to attend a “dress ball” at St James’s Palace that evening (PRO 30/70/6 f 420).
Even if the nearly sixty-nine year old John had managed to recover from his journey in such a short time, I doubt whether he was in any condition to attend that ball. I have a suspicion, in fact, that ill health influenced his decision to leave Gibraltar in the first place. John was treated at home by an apothecary on four occasions from 11 to 14 July for fever (PRO 30/8/370 f. 63). His health doesn’t seem to have recovered for a while, either. A good friend and I recently visited Berry Brothers & Rudd, the wine merchants in St James’s, London, where rich and famous customers came throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to be weighed on the enormous coffee scales there. We discovered that John was weighed there on 29 September 1821, just before setting out for Gibraltar. His weight then was 11st 13.5lb, comfortably within a healthy BMI range for a 65-year-old tallish man. On 3 August 1825 it was 9st 10.5 lb, fully clothed and with boots. He was weighed a further four times over the next six months so clearly seems to have been keeping an eye on his weight. By November he seems to have fully recovered— his weight plateaued at about 10st 13lb, and he was well enough to go shooting with friends (Times, 7 November 1825). At the end of 1829 the Times reported categorically that his ill health would prevent him going out again and, although he was occasionally sighted thereafter transacting official business at the Colonial Office, he did not return to Gibraltar (Times, 18 June 1828, 15 January and 20 August 1829).
After that he really does almost completely disappear from the radar. In August 1830 it seems he came so close to death he started to panic about what would happen to his title and estate (more on this later). He was not yet at the end of his life, but clearly had a shock: he took out at least two life insurance policies (……one of which he may or may not have ever actually paid for…) and set about drawing up his will, naming his great nephews William Stanhope Taylor (grandson of his sister Hester) and John Henry Pringle (grandson of his sister Harriot) as joint beneficiaries and executors. In classic John style he got at least one of the names wrong in the official paperwork, which led to a comparatively lengthy period of legal discussion after his death as his heirs patiently tried to explain to the authorities that “Thomas William Taylor” did not in fact exist (the will is available to download from the National Archives, PROB 11/1852).
Although it looks like his health never did fully recover, he still managed to find time for court duties. The latest I have seen him appear in public was at a function for military gentlemen held in Brighton on 13 January 1835. He died on 24 September 1835 at his house in Charles Street, and was buried towards the end of October. I have no idea how much in debt he was but according to the Times of 10 November “all claims on the estate were paid immediately subsequent to the funeral”. How Messrs Taylor and Pringle managed this minor miracle I could not tell you, but in the National Archives there is a catalogue of an auction selling the late Earl of Chatham’s belongings at Christie’s, 16 May 1836 (PRO 30/8/370 f 147). Everything appears to have been sold, from the contents of Chatham’s cellar to the servants’ bedlinen. The leasehold of the house itself— mortgaged from the Dowager Countess of Suffield— was sold for £3000 (PRO 30/7/370 f 137).
John was, of course, long beyond caring by then. He got an earl’s funeral in the family vault at Westminster Abbey, where he joined his father, mother, brother William, sister Harriot and wife. His father and brother got public funerals, but John’s must have also been quite impressive. He was buried in a “strong elm” coffin lined in white satin, enclosed in soldered lead and an outer coffin, also made of elm, studded with brass nails and “richly gilt and burnished” earl’s coronets and garter stars. The funeral train included all the accoutrements of a medieval earl’s funeral, three mourning coaches, “a caparisoned horse” and a hearse drawn by six horses (PRO 30/8/370 f 152). But with that final burst of glory John subsided into obscurity.
Apologies for the gush fest, but I have a very definite feeling that I am the first person since, ooh, 1835, to have looked at half these documents. I feel kind of privileged. 😉