The “Late” Lord Chatham at the Admiralty, 1794

It’s no secret that John was— how shall I put it— not the most punctual of people, and he quite liked the easy life. I certainly haven’t found much to dispute this, although I have found numerous occasions on which he attended public events before eleven o’clock in the morning, so clearly he wasn’t utterly incapable of it. 😉 But John was NOT a morning person, and… well… his nickname of the “Late” Lord Chatham was not entirely undeserved.

This nickname was first applied, I believe, after he was demoted from the Admiralty in December 1794. Sir Nathaniel Wraxall in his Memoirs (obviously completely accurate, of course………) recalled (in the late 1830s) that he was referred to as “the late First Lord of the Admiralty” (Posthumous Memoirs III, 130). It stuck even more after Walcheren, although I admit I have not seen any contemporary references to it before then.

But by the end of 1793 John’s public reputation was in tatters. Perhaps as a result of the failure of the allied coalition expedition to Dunkirk, for which John was partially blamed, nobody seemed to think he was able to do his job properly. Sir Gilbert Elliot (Life and Letters II, 160) reported on 11 September 1793, “The opinion of Lord Chatham’s insufficiency in his office is quite universal; although I know how totally inconclusive even the most general rumours are, yet I can hardly disbelieve all I hear on that point.” I have blogged elsewhere about how Michael Duffy in his article on the Dunkirk campaign considered Chatham less to blame than has been thought, but by December 1794 John was effectively dead weight. George Canning wrote regarding his dismissal in early 1795: “There was much discussion [in the House of Commons] … upon Lord Chatham’s conduct as first Lord of the Admiralty— from which discussion his character and conduct appeared to come out more clear and even praiseworthy than I, though a friend of Government, could have hoped or imagined. It is however a good thing after all that he is gone— for the voice of the publick was against him, and that is reason enough” (Jupp, Letter Journal of George Canning, 7 January 1795, p 182)

There were certainly plenty of rumours about John’s general conduct. Rumour whispered that he never got up until noon, or later (although Sir Joseph Farington, in his journal, heard from John’s colleague and neighbour Admiral Gardner that John was generally at work by half past eleven: Farington I, 64, 19 July 1794). He was supposedly addicted to partying and (again according to Elliot, quoted in Ehrman’s Younger Pitt volume 2, 379) “said to get drunk every evening”.

When I was at the National Archives on Saturday, one thing I desperately wanted to do was check out John’s attendance record as First Lord of the Admiralty on the Admiralty Board. I’d read in Duffy’s article that it wasn’t as bad as reported, being somewhere above 50% in the summer of 1793 when Dunkirk was at its height. I only managed to get hold of the records for 1794, and had to skip the second half of April and all of May because I was kicked out at the end of the day, but I carefully noted down all occasions John attended the Admiralty Board from 2 January until his last appearance after his sacking on 15 December.

The end result pretty much bears out Duffy’s conclusions. John turned up to 54.5% of all Admiralty Board meetings between Monday 2 January and Monday 15 December, 145 days out of a possible total of 266. He attended several Sundays, and attended several special Boards held at Portsmouth during the King and Queen’s visit there to commemorate the battle of the Glorious First of June. He had a big chunk out in August and September— he did not attend at all between 26 August and 29 September— but I’m guessing that was his annual “Let’s torture small birds and furry animals” holiday, and in any case I have found evidence he was quite ill for some of the time. (He also regularly sent letters in as he is still mentioned in the minutes, even though absent.)

My conclusion? Well, he could have spent most of these meetings with his feet on the table staring at the gorgeous wooden Board Room ceiling, but he still managed to pull his weight. The only person who seems to have attended more was Sir Charles Middleton, who was at every single sodding board meeting from May onwards (was the man never ill?!). There was also one Admiral (Affleck) who somehow managed to attend both the London and the Portsmouth board meetings during the King and Queen’s Portsmouth visit. But John was definitely visible. To judge from the minutes he pitched in occasionally (usually to communicate messages from the King, or Secretary of State).

So not a constant attender, but making a good effort. As a cabinet minister he had other duties, and as a courtier he would also have been required to attend official functions, which may account for some of the absences. But apart from the big September absence there are no huge acres of time off. He did have holidays, but he took them in smallish bites.

I guess this sort of thing only tells you so much … but it’s food for thought.

Part 2 of my guest blog post for English Historical Fiction Authors on Pitt

Can be found here:

http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/introducing-that-amazing-man-william.html?spref=fb

 

(Part One, which went live on 24 November, is here: http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/introducing-that-amazing-man-william.html?m=1)

The 1799 Helder Expedition

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(British forces landing at the Helder, 27 August 1799, by Dirk Lengendyck, from here)

The Helder Expedition was one of the campaigns that formed a part of the Second Coalition of allies against France. Its purpose was to open a second front in Holland to distract the French, who when the campaign was planned doing badly in the Rhineland and northern Italy fighting against Austrian and Russian troops.

Forty-five thousand British and Russian troops landed on the North Holland peninsula between the end of August and the middle of September 1799. Their objective was to march on Amsterdam, with the aim of flushing the French occupying forces out of the country and restoring the regime of the House of Orange.

Strong winds prevented the forces landing at all until the very end of August. The campaign initially went well, with the Dutch navy surrendering without a shot being fired on 30 August, but things quickly went downhill. At the beginning of September the bad weather re-established itself and did not let up for weeks. The allied commander-in-chief, the Duke of York, quickly discovered that he had not been adequately supplied for a lengthy campaign and that the Dutch inhabitants were either indifferent or hostile to the invading forces. The allied forces entrenched themselves behind the Zijpe Canal and waited for the weather to improve.

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(Map of the main locations involved in the Helder campaign, from here)

From the very first the British and Russian forces did not get along well. The two forces did not mix: the British considered the Russians to be little more than savages, “repulsive and ferocious” (Edward Walsh, A narrative of the expedition to Holland 1800, p 47). Matters did not improve when, on 19 September, the Duke of York ordered the troops to attack the French and Dutch lines and force them to retreat further south. Possibly due to poor communication the Russians began marching earlier than planned and soon over-extended their line. The Russian commander in chief, Hermann, and his deputy were captured in the ensuing fight in the town of Bergen. The British troops were forced to abandon their original objective in order to rescue the Russian forces from disaster.

It was not an auspicious beginning, and from that moment on the Russian command— now headed by General Ivan Essen— harboured a deep distrust of their British allies. Two weeks passed before the weather improved sufficiently for another attempt, and on 2 October the allies attempted to capture the towns of Egmont op Zee, Bergen and Alkmaar from the French.

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(Battle of Egmont, 2 October 1799)

On this occasion they were more successful, and by the end of a lengthy day of fighting on the beaches and sand dunes the French fell back. The allies suffered heavy casualties, however, in part due to the nature of the terrain.

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(17th century depiction of Egmont op Zee, showing the huge sand dunes)

The towns were surrounded by a network of enormous sand dunes, some as high as 80 or 100 feet, and criss-crossed with deep narrow valleys. This made it impossible to form up large units of men, and the British in particular found it heavy going. A private soldier from the 92nd regiment of Highlanders wrote afterwards:

“In one instance, one of our parties having climbed to the top of a sand ridge, found that a party of the enemy was just beneath, and instantly rushed down the ridge upon them; but the side of the ridge was so steep and soft, that the effort to keep themselves from falling prevented them from making regular use of their arms. They were involuntarily precipitated amongst the enemy, and the bottom of the ridge was so narrow, and the footing on all sides so soft, that neither party were [sic] able, for want of room, to make use of the bayonet; but they struck at each other with the butts of their firelocks, and some individuals were fighting with their fists.” (Narrative of a private soldier in His Majesty’s 92nd regiment of foot… 1820, p 75)

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(Photograph of the sand dunes around Schoorl, North Holland)

Following the battle of the 2nd October the allied forces were able to move out from behind the Zijpe and entrench themselves further south around Alkmaar. They were still several miles away from Amsterdam, however. A further attempt to push the lines further forward was made on 6 October in an assault on Beverwijk.

Once again, however, poor communication between the brigades led to near disaster. The weather was so poor that the troops could barely see each other, let alone the enemy. The Duke of York, who remained at Alkmaar, had no idea what was going on and sent one of his aides up a church spire with a telescope to check on his troops’ progress.

Reports of the battle are sketchy, but what seems to have happened was that the Russians became over-extended for a second time. They pushed on to Castricum and more British divisions had to be hastily sent out to reinforce them and extend their flank. The French commander, General Brune, charged at the head of his cavalry in person, but were turned back by a British cavalry charge through the sandhills which pretty much saved the day.

By evening the French and Dutch retreated but the allied forces were exhausted and had, once again, suffered heavy casualties. The rain had mired down the roads and cut off their precarious supply lines. They had no choice but to retreat, in some disorder— some British units confused the dykes that criss-crossed the country with the wet roads and fell in. The army retreated back to the Zijpe and the French and Dutch regained their lost territory.

It was status quo, and the weather continued dreadful. The supplies were running low, the men were beginning to fall victim to marsh fever, and there was no immediate prospect of success in a march on Amsterdam. More seriously, news came in of General Suvorov’s defeat in Switzerland at the hands of Massena: the allied force, originally meant to be a distraction for the French, was now in danger of becoming the whole French army’s main focus.

The commanders decided to cut their losses and make terms. These were signed on 18 October and permitted the allied forces to evacuate unmolested, provided 8000 French prisoners of war were released from Britain.

The end result of the campaign was several thousand casualties, mostly Russian, and extreme bad feeling between Britain and her ally. Shortly afterwards Russia dropped out of the coalition, although the Russian troops remained in the Channel Islands until the spring thaw allowed them to return home.

The French Alarm, or Billy Budget’s Terror

W. O’Keefe, ‘The French Alarm or Billy Budgets Terror’ (1797-8)

Oh dear me. 😉 I should possibly look up when this was actually published, but it may well have been either a reference to the 1796 invasion scare in Ireland when the French invading forces were only dispersed by bad weather; the 1797 invasion attempt at Fishguard, which caused a run on the banks and a suspension of cash payments; or the 1798 French invasion of Ireland in the wake of the 1798 rebellion. William O’Keefe was, after all, Irish.

Given the reference to “Bounaparte” I would say it was 1798, though. It may in fact have been less a reference to a specific invasion scare and more a reference to the Defence of the Realm Act of 1798, which first provided for the calling out of volunteer soldiery (at this point mainly but not uniquely limited to the propertied classes) and began the process of inventorying the nation’s manpower and materials that could be called on in an emergency.

O’Keefe clearly believed the government was all of a panic, but the 1797-8 was a bad period for invasion scares and there were several attempts on the British Isles as I detailed above. I wonder what O’Keefe would have made of the 1803 Levy en Masse Act, which effectively legalised mass conscription in the event of an invasion, and the various defence acts that followed it.

Edited to add:

A quick google turned up http://www.rechercheisidore.fr/search/resource/?uri=ark:/12148/btv1b6940564m, which suggests the print was published in January 1797. I’m not entirely convinced of this but it is plausible, in which case the event referred to would be Hoche’s failed invasion of Ireland in 1796.

Another letter from Spencer Perceval

chatham1 chatham2 chatham3 chatham4 chatham5

I’m guessing the moment John read this letter was the moment he saw the end of his 22-year cabinet career rushing towards him at great speed.

This letter was written by the prime minister, Spencer Perceval during the enquiries in Parliament in early 1810 over the failure of the expedition to Walcheren, which Lord Chatham commanded. Perhaps the most embarrassing detail for Perceval’s government was the fact that Chatham submitted a memorandum of defence to the King, privately, on 15 October 1809 after returning from campaign. He later resubmitted the memorandum in accordance with protocol to the King via the Privy Council, on 15 February 1810, but it was too late. The opposition, led by Sir Samuel Whitbread, accused Chatham and, through him, the government of unconstitutional behaviour. Chatham was Master General of the Ordnance with a seat in the cabinet at the time.

The government had only been in power a few months and was already half-crippled with weakness. Whitbread’s attack was a disaster, and it is clear from the letters Perceval sent to Chatham that he was utterly incandescent with rage at Chatham’s foolishness. During the debate to which Perceval refers in the following letter Whitbread made a direct accusation of unconstitutionality against Chatham. Perceval managed to get the debate adjourned till Monday. His defence of Chatham was lukewarm at best. After saying he would not merely sacrifice a cabinet colleague because the opposition had made unfounded accusations against him, he went on:

“He begged, however, not to be misunderstood: he did not mean to say if a colleague was wrong he should, under any circumstances, be supported. But in a ballanced [sic] case, where a colleague was merely in error, he thought by deserting his cause, he should be exposed to more merited reprobation than could otherwise fall to his share, justice, decency, and propriety alike called on them to postpone coming to a decision on the resolutions that night”.

(Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates volume 16, p. 1**, here)

In public Perceval and his colleagues focused on the rather weak argument that Chatham had made a “mistake”. In private, Perceval was much more brusque. He had already written to Chatham informing him that Whitbread would pounce if Chatham did not resign his cabinet post. Perceval did not outright demand Chatham’s resignation now, but his letter was clearly designed to tell him: “There’s only so much my government can now do. I’m not going to destroy the ministry for you. Weigh the consequences of your actions well.”

I can hardly read this letter without wincing, and I imagine John, too, had a bad moment or six when he opened Perceval’s packet to read the following.

Spencer Perceval to John, Earl of Chatham, 4 March 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f 145

“My Dear Lord

I was in expectation of seeing you to day at the Cabinet, or I should have endeavoured to pursue a meeting with you by appointment.

You are aware of the Line which I took in the Ho of Co on Friday last [the debate of the 2nd, in which Perceval labelled Chatham’s early submission of his memorandum to the King an “error” and postponed the vote]; it succeeded to the extent of putting off the discussion, and gave me the opportunity of making known to our Friends, that while on the one hand I did not mean to Satisfy you in delivering your Narrative to the King with the request that it should not be communicated for the present, so on the other I could not consent to ascribe to that delivery any of that Motive or Character which our adversaries endeavour to impute to it [ie, that it was unconstitutional]; and therefore that I should recommend it to the House to pass it by with the previous Question. With this Impression known to be felt by me, we shall meet the Question in the Ho of Commons tomorrow, and I believe that this is the most advantageous manner in which this Question can be met.

I wish it may succeed; but I have too much reason to fear that we shall be beat [in fact Whitbread’s motion was not passed, but only by a slim margin of 33 votes]. I have heard to day and yesterday of several who will keep away, and not suffer us. Lascelles, & the Master of the Robes are two, who think the House of Commons cannot pass over the subject by the previous Question. These are authorities of great weight. Still I feel most strongly that, if the Ho of Co should pronounce any judgment against this proceeding of yours [note: “of yours” ~ If John didn’t feel his hair standing on end at that phrase then he was excessively dim], more especially if they characterize it as unconstitutional, it will be impossible that the King’s Service can go on, particularly in our State of Weakness, with the Weight of such a vote against any one of His Servants; and therefore it is absolutely necessary to endeavour to resist it.

This I shall do to the best of my power. But I should not think I acted fairly by you if I did not thus fully apprize you of the view which I take of this unfortunate Business [John’s hair, already standing on end, probably started to turn white at this point].

[And then the last paragraph, in which Spencer Perceval, deeply religious as he is, doesn’t swear but clearly wants to say something stronger than “unfortunate”:]

I cannot conclude this note without assuring you how deeply I lament all the untoward circumstances which this unfortunate narrative has brought upon us all, and more particularly upon you.

[Ouch!]

I am My Dr Lord

Yrs most truly

Sp Perceval”

Oh dear John, part the zillionth

“There is to be a meeting at my house tomorrow Evening at 9 OClock precisely, and I hope your Lordship will be able to attend it”

(Spencer Perceval to John, Earl of Chatham, undated [January 1810], PRO 30/8/368 f 137)

From the emphasis on “precisely” I draw further confirmation that John’s reputation as the “Late” Lord Chatham was not entirely undeserved. 😉

Tumblr historical figures meme: John, 2nd Earl of Chatham

A while ago a questionnaire was doing the rounds on Tumblr. Followers were supposed to submit the name of a historical figure, and the blogger would answer the questions on the questionnaire with that figure in mind. I did a few of these, but my favourite was obviously my response to the name of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham (no prizes for guessing why). My response is below.

So this one is a bit of a gift 😀 (and I imagine ardentpittite knew that). I could let the blog speak for itself but that would pass up an opportunity to gush about John— so buckle up folks, ‘cause I can’t stop myself. 😉

Why I like him

John and I are accidental buddies. Like most people I encountered him through his brother, and it was only after I started researching him in his own right that I realised he was actually pretty cool too. He could have been so jealous of his younger brother, but he wasn’t. His was a supporting role and he accepted it entirely. It probably suited his character but it still takes strength.

He was terribly maligned and it didn’t help that every time he tried to distinguish himself he got slapped down because of who he was (sent to Quebec, then called back because his father disagreed with the American war — check. Called to the Cabinet, then demoted because his brother wanted to keep the other departments sweet — check. Prevented again and again from actually doing anything remotely dangerous with the army because his brother was his heir and didn’t fancy going to the House of Lords — check, check, check, check, check…)

He was also (sorry anoondayeclipse) by far the most handsome member of the family. *wipes brow*

Why I don’t

Let’s face it, the “Late Lord Chatham” sobriquet was not entirely undeserved. He was addicted to his lie-ins, he hardly ever turned up anywhere on time and I get the impression he was a rubbish correspondent. He could also be petty and snide. And his political opinions … ! I know I shouldn’t let it bother me— he was a man of his time and all that— but he was much more conservative than his brother. Anti abolition of the slave trade, anti parliamentary reform, anti Catholic emancipation, anti, well, everything. And his opinions on how to deal with insurrectionary Ireland in 1798 frankly make my hair stand on end. But as with his brother, I don’t have to agree with him to like him.

Favourite anecdote

Probably the occasion I blogged about in the past when John turned up at half past four to an official Court function that started at noon, thus completely living up to his name and reputation 😉 . In his defence he wasn’t well at the time.

Favourite quotation

John had a noticeable lack of a sense of humour in contrast to his brother William, but when he did make jokes they were dry and rather sarcastic. My favourite is reported by his sister Harriot (it’s printed in her Letters, edited by Cuthbert Headlam): he referred to rumours of forthcoming society marriages and pairings as “Stock Jobbing Reports”. Love it.

The quotation that completely breaks my heart and then stamps on all the pieces, though, is the letter from John to Earl Camden, 7 August 1796 (Kent RO Camden MSS CKS-U840/254/4) in which John lets out his bitterness at being sacked from the Admiralty in 1794. It was the letter that first convinced me John’s side of the story might be worth telling: “The mischief done me, is irreparable, and tho my Brother, whenever he gives himself time to reflect, must (if he possesses any of the feelings wich I always believed him to have) regret the step into which he was surprised, he can never set it right”. *sobs*

BrOTP

John and the 4th Duke of Rutland. Well obviously.

OTP

John seems to have been one of those strange 18th century creatures: an aristocrat in love with his own wife. Lady Hester Stanhope’s memoirs may have made reference to a “mistress”, but I have never found evidence of one. I may be wrong but it seems to me John and his wife were rarely apart. So John-Mary. Works for me.

Oh-God-why-did-that-have-to-happen

Walcheren. I don’t think I need to elaborate. If I do … google it. I’m saying nothing.

And if Walcheren had to happen … WHY, WHY, WHY did John have to submit “that wretched memorandum” (Spencer Perceval’s words, I’d use stronger ones) to the King first? Really, John, you weren’t stupid, but I really wonder what you were thinking.

Unpopular opinion

I think pretty much everything I think about John goes against the grain. He was his own enemy 99% of the time, but he was so thoroughly shafted by everyone he stood no chance. Yes, I realise some would say (and some have said… David Andress I’m looking at you) he had a pretty cushy time coasting on his brother’s influence. They are not entirely wrong of course, but I reckon John had enough pride to disagree.

It doesn’t help that his executors possibly went through his papers and kept the most random bits and bobs imaginable from them; either that or John sorted through them himself. John’s portion of the National Archives Chatham Papers is, basically: loads of household bills from 1834-5 that his heirs needed to settle his outstanding accounts after his death; several huge folios full of correspondence, notes and memoranda on Walcheren and the aftermath; lots of stuff from the Admiralty from 1793-4, which I have a hunch John kept for a reason that I won’t go into here; and uhm, a scattering of letters from friends and family, mainly 1780s-1790s. That is literally it.

What I am saying here is that my “unpopular opinion” is that he is actually worth anyone’s time of day.

A wish

That he and Mary had managed to sprog. There were miscarriages. *sobs anew*

My nickname for him

I have called him “John” throughout and have no intention of stopping. Anyone who has a problem with this can get stuffed.

Five words that best describe him

Clever, lazy, elegant, serious, maligned.

If I could say one thing to him

Should Castlereagh ever suggest the command of an amphibious expedition to Antwerp … just say no.

Favourite portrayal

George Romney’s portrait of John will for ever give me naughty thoughts. I don’t seem to be able to add photos to this, nor can I in any case for copyright reasons. Second place belongs to my avatar, the detail of John’s face from Sir George Hayter’s Trial of Queen Caroline (1823):

Yes, John is in his mid to late 60s in that painting. He aged well.

Least favourite portrayal

Sir Tresham Lever, The House of Pitt (1947). “Stupid” and “useless”?! Please.