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Ruminations on Mortality

More happy thoughts for a (sort of) sunny Wednesday afternoon, but yesterday (24 September, that is) was the 178th anniversary of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s death. I suspect I was the only one who noticed— that is until I posted about it on Facebook, when roughly 200 of my friends were given the chance to be thoroughly uninterested about it— but I thought it might be an appropriate time to write this post.

John, as I have mentioned before, had no children. The heir to the Chatham title was, therefore, his brother William, who would have been mightily brassed off to be swept away to the House of Lords as Third Earl of Chatham. (Not to mention how annoyed John would have been to have his candle snuffed out well before time… although I suppose he wouldn’t have cared much.) The fate of Pitt the Younger’s government pretty much rode on John’s shoulders, and everyone knew it. Under the circumstances John’s career in the army was rather unfortunate. He didn’t serve abroad much during the wars with France but when he participated in the Helder expedition to Holland in 1799 he was whapped in the shoulder by a spent ball. It was deflected by his epaulette and he survived more or less unscathed (although his coat and waistcoat, reportedly, did not). I don’t suppose he would have been very pleased to  know that his risking his life for his country called forth the typical following encomiums from his cousin the Marquis of Buckingham:

“Lord Chatham’s escape has, I trust, decided you [his brother Lord Grenville] and others to whom the public have a right to look, not to suffer yourselves to forego for his very proper feelings as a soldier the dearest interests of the public; and that, in one word, his further service on the Continent will be negatived; a sacrifice which, I must say, he owes to the public.” (Buckingham to Grenville, 15 October 1799, Dropmore MSS V, 473)

Even a number of Pitt’s earlier biographers had a bit of fun with poor John’s narrow squeak. P.W. Wilson, for example, joked that “Pitt’s career was safeguarded  by the fraternal gold lace” (William Pitt, the Younger (1933), p. 278). Forgive me if I remain straight-faced.

It wasn’t just John’s career that put him at risk, of course. Like all the Pitt children his health was delicate, and any prolonged periods of ill health always got the London newspapers into a state of excitement. Lord Rosebery tells the story of how, “while London was illuminating for the King’s recovery [after the Regency Crisis in 1789], Lord Chatham lay mortally ill. So grave was his malady that the hunters after Providence had fixed on Grenville as the new minister” (Pitt (1891), p. 93). I haven’t found any evidence of this actually happening, but it certainly could have done, although not in the spring or summer of 1789 when John’s movements were thoroughly accounted for. What Rosebery is probably referring to (and somewhat inflating) is the accident that happened to John in the summer of 1788 which I have decided to refer to as the Septic Shoebuckle Incident. From the London Chronicle, 14-16 June 1788:

“The Earl of Chatham has been confined to his room these two months, owing to the kicking of his buckle against his ancle [sic] bone, which, though apparently a trifling accident, has hitherto baffled the efforts of his surgeon to effect a cure.”

So apparently John injured his leg on his shoebuckle (how? ……… no idea: answers on a postcard please). Apart from the fact that the above sounds fairly painful (it almost sounds like the buckle got lodged in his leg, although I think that’s unlikely), the wound obviously went septic and in the absence of antibiotics, kept John under the weather for a good long while. Family and friends were also anxious about it, and apparently with good reason because John’s leg injury kept him unwell for months. “I think my brother is now really at the eve of being able to move again,” William wrote to his mother on 29 August (Stanhope I, 382), three days after the World reported John “nearly recovered” from “a very serious confinement”. By September John was recovering at Henry Dundas’s house in Wimbledon, although it was not until 25 October that the Public Advertiser announced that he was “perfectly recovered from his tedious lameness, occasioned by a wound on the shin from his buckles”. Even that wasn’t the last word: as late as 22 March 1789 the former Pitt family tutor Edward Wilson referred to the injury in a letter to John’s mother (PRO 30/8/67 f 115): “I am truly sorry to hear that anything is the matter with my Lord Chatham’s leg again, but I have rested my hope in your Ladyship’s account of it, as I am now unwilling to trouble his Lordship with enquiries”.

The newspapers were agog. (Had John succumbed, a modern newspaper would almost certainly have run the headline: “Ministry scuppered by a shoebuckle!”) I guess it wasn’t unreasonable to suppose that four to six months was a long time to take to recover from an injury. One can only imagine John’s feelings when he openedthe Morning Herald on 2 October 1788 and discovered that at least one journalist had written him off already:

“If the Earl of Chatham, whose health is much impaired, should die, Mr Pitt will succeed [to the Earldom], and of consequence go up to the House of Peers.”

In 1791 almost exactly the same thing happened (no, not his shoebuckle — that sort of injury surely only happens once in a lifetime). This time, apparently, John fell out of his carriage and broke his leg (according to the Geneve Post on 28 July 1791, anyway). Ouchies for sure, but once again it took months for him to recover, and the length of his recovery possibly owed something to another unspecified underlying illness as Reverend Wilson referred to “the palid [sic] hues that were really alarming” (18 November 1791, PRO 30/8/67 f 53). Either way, the newspapers ran amok again. “The Earl of Chatham was prevented from making his return of the navy, on account of his Lordship’s being confined to his room with a wound in his leg, which he received in stepping to his coach,” reported the London Chronicle on 2 July. Three days later the Star reported him “much recovered”, but on 14 July wrote that he continued “much indisposed at his house in the Admiralty”. On the 19th the Geneve Post announced that he was “so very ill, that is is prevented from leaving his room”. They refrained from printing the running odds on Pitt’s succeeding to the earldom within the month, but someone must have been calculating them by then. On the 21st the Morning Herald dashed the hopes of the gambling men by deeming John “so well recovered … as to be able to resume his Presidency at the Board of Admiralty”, but the account was premature. Pitt wrote to his mother on the same day (PRO 30/8/12 f 436) “My Brother as you probably know, is not yet released from his provoking Confinement; but he certainly mends, tho slowly”. Reverend Wilson also hastened to reassure Lady Chatham: “We receive frequent & undoubted assurances that there is no ground of danger or alarm” (22 July 1791, PRO 30/8/67 f 195).

If Lady Chatham had been following the newspapers she would have needed the reassurance. The Star reopened the odds on the succession of a third Earl of Chatham on 23 July with the news that “The Earl of Chatham continues much indisposed … His Lordship has not attended the Admiralty Board this fortnight”. Not until 12 August did the Evening Mail report that Chatham had gone “out in his carriage, for the first time these six weeks”, and it was not till the end of the month that he resumed his official duties. Probably John’s health was followed so closely because he was a member of the cabinet, but some of it almost certainly had to do with curiosity as to what would happen if he keeled over.

Of course after Pitt died in 1806 nobody cared quite so much whether John lived or died, but as he got older the vultures began to cluster around the various honorary positions and emoluments he held for life in the hopes of inheriting them in due course. In 1831 John’s health collapsed and he thought himself close to death. He wasn’t the only one: the Duke of Wellington received a letter, dated 15 March 1831, from General Sir William Clinton, asking for one of John’s official posts since there was a rumour he had died. The Duke had to write back to tell Clinton he had been misinformed. (University of Southampton Wellington Papers, WP1/1178/26)

Poor John, but it does rather put me in mind of Spamalot’s “Not Dead Yet” song… (…..which probably makes me just as bad as all those sniggering historians to be honest)

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