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

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*


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


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.


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.


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