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.