The dangers of relying on 19th century printed sources

Still going through my MSS notes, and in doing so I found the following letter from Lord Mornington (later Marquis Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington) to Henry Addington, Speaker of the House of Commons. The letter, dated 14 October 1797 (Devon RO Sidmouth MSS, 152M C1797 OZ 38), refers to Pitt’s ill health following the death of his brother-in-law Eliot (for which see more here):

“I trust you are now quite recovered, it was rather too much that you & Pitt should be ill at the same moment. I found him just as you had described him to me, & still more depressed by the death of poor Eliot; he did not disguise to me the state of his health, & I contributed to prevail on him to see Farquhar, I also took care that Farquhar should be apprised (without Pitt’s knowledge) of some leading defects in his system of life; this enabled Farquhar to form a much more accurate judgment of the case. Since Farquhar has seen him & put him upon a course of medicine, he is evidently much better, & has greatly recovered his appetite, & spirits. He went to Walmer quite a different man but he has not yet quite reformed his bad habit of drinking too much at supper.”

I quote the passage in its entirety, not only because it is interesting in itself but also and primarily because it demonstrates a phenomenon I have identified: the habit of 19th century biographers to (for want of a better word) bowdlerise the letters of their subjects.

You will note that in the letter above, Mornington makes no bones about the “leading defects in [Pitt’s] system of life” that he (and Addington, and presumably most of Pitt’s other friends) believed partially responsible for the breakdown in Pitt’s health, namely Pitt’s drinking— “his bad habit of drinking too much at supper”.

Alas this view of Pitt, famous and undeniable though it is, did not sit well with George Pellew, Henry Addington’s Victorian biographer. So … he just decided to leave out the bits of Mornington’s letter he didn’t like. The following is the same passage as the above, only taken from Pellew’s Life of Lord Sidmouth, volume 1, 196:

“I trust you are now quite recovered: it was rather too much that you and Pitt should be ill at the same moment. I found him just as you had described him to me, and still more depressed by the death of poor Eliot. He did not disguise to me the state of his health, and I contributed to prevail on him to see Farquhar, who has put him upon a course of medicine from which he has derived much improvement, and he went to Walmer quite a different man.”

(Spot the difference!)

This trend has ensnared at least one of Pitt’s biographers: Robin Reilly, who cited the Sidmouth Papers in his bibliography but evidently decided Pellew was to be trusted on this occasion. In his biography of Pitt (p. 276) Reilly quotes Pellew’s version of Mornington’s letter. I can’t help feeling that Reilly, whose aim in writing his biography of Pitt was to flesh out “three important influences in his life: his health, his alcoholism and his sexuality” (p. 2), would have kicked himself to know what he was missing by not going back to the source.

Thus ends my cautionary tale for all 18th century historians. 😉


Lord Grenville on parliamentary reporting

In 1818 George Pretyman-Tomline, Bishop of Lincoln, Pitt’s old friend and executor, was putting the finishing touches to the book that would later be published in part as the first official biography of Pitt the Younger. He sent his draft to various of Pitt’s friends and connections to read over. One of them was Lord Grenville, Pitt’s cousin and former Foreign Secretary.

Grenville sent back a lengthy critique of the work. He included some interesting thoughts on the role of parliamentary reporting during Pitt’s time as prime minister. His fear (not entirely unreasonable) was that Tomline’s heavy reliance on official publications such as the Parliamentary Register would affect the public’s view of Pitt’s oratory, and consequently of his opinions. Grenville’s point, essentially, was that parliamentary debates were inaccurately reported. The following is from the Stanhope MSS in Kent RO, U1590/S5/O12.

“I lament to think how much your work will tend to accredit an error already much too prevalent. The practice of reporting the Parliamentary debates from day to day is as you know an innovation of our own times, & one of most extensive consequence both good & evil. At first it was pretty generally understood how very inaccurate such representations are, & must necessarily be. By degrees a contrary impression is taking possession of the public mind, & it is now commonly said, even by those who ought to know better, that these reports though not correctly accurate, are yet, substantially, fair representations of the opinions & arguments which they purport to convey. This opinion is in itself quite erroneous; it is destructive of the truth of history, highly injurious to all public men, &, as it happens, most paticularly so to Mr. Pitt, & those who acted with him in his first administration.

It is impossible that such reports can be even substantially accurate. What justice can a reporter, with the most upright intentions, do to the opinions or reasonings of statesmen on subjects which they have deeply studied, & of which he is often entirely & completely ignorant? What report could you or I make of a pleading in Chancery, a debate in the College of Physicians, or of the deliberations of a Council of War on the attack or defence of a place of which we never even saw a map? Just such are the reports of newspaper reporters, on Plans of Finance, on Measures of Revenue or Commerce, or foreign treaties of trade, alliance, or war, and on legal & constitutional questions of great intricacy, & deep research.

This is true, even if we admit on the part of the Reporter the impartiality of a Judge, & the attention of a sworn Juryman. But you surely must remember that, for reasons too long to be here detailed, there was a considerable period, during which no such impartiality existed towards Mr Pitt & his friends, in the Mass of those who were concerned in these reports. … Justice was rarely, if ever, done to him & to his cause.”

More on Pitt the Younger’s health

In September 1802 Pitt, while out of office, suffered one of his worst attacks of illness ever. It appears he almost died, and to judge from the following letter written by George Rose to the Bishop of Lincoln he gave his doctor, Sir Walter Farquhar, a good fright:

“What an Escape we have had! … Sir Walter Farquhar had the kind attention to write to me from Walmer the 17th Friday; you have probably heard the Particulars of the Attack, but take the Baronet’s own Words, ‘The bilious attack was violent at first, & on Tuesday at his own Request (a very uncommon Circumstance) I arriv’d at Walmer at Eleven o’Clock at night: that Night & Wednesday Matters went on very well; but Yesterday Morning the Symptoms were very unpleasant, & towards Night became much more so: I cannot express to you what I felt, but having a firm Mind to deal with I went on with the Remedies most likely to relieve, and at last by the Help of the warm Bath &c &c the alarming Ills gave way at Two o’Clock this Morning: at Eleven last night I sent an Express to Ramsgate for Doctor Reynolds, who was good enough to be here at Six to-day, & we have arranged future plans. I feel so satisfied that I go off for London at Four, & shall return to the Castle on Sunday, and the Day after I hope to be able to join my Family at Ramsgate … It is not easy to express what one feels on such an occasion … I hope I may never be in the same Situation again.’ You can judge my Dear Lord from this Account what the Danger must have been; when I left Mr Pitt a few weeks ago he was certainly better than I had seen him for some Years.”

After his September 1802 attack Pitt went to Bath, and actually listened to his doctor’s attempts to curb his drinking ……………………………. for a while anyway: Rose to Pretyman, 21 November 1802:

“Mr Pitt’s Health mends every Day; it is really better than it has been ever since I knew him: I am quite sure this Place agrees with him entirely; he eats a small Duck & a half for Breakfast, & more at Dinner than I ever saw him at 1/2 past 4, no Luncheon; two very small Glasses of Madeira at Dinner, & less than a Pint of Port after Dinner; at Night nothing but a Bason of Arrow Root; he is positively in the best possible Train of Management for his Health: But in his way here, at Wilderness, he drank very nearly three Bottles of Port to his own Share at Dinner & Supper; so Lord Camden told me.”

Whoops. 😉

(Ipswich RO Pretyman MSS HA 119/T108/44)

On Pitt the Younger’s health

I am going through all my MSS notes and trying to track down certain references. At the same time I have been finding all sorts of fun and interesting stuff. The following, for example, consists of snippets and summaries from the correspondence of George Rose, one of Pitt’s Secretaries to the Treasury and a close political associate, to George Pretyman, Bishop of Lincoln.

The subject of the correspondence was the death of Pitt’s brother-in-law Edward James Eliot at the age of 39. Eliot had married Pitt’s sister Harriot in 1785, but she died in childbirth in 1786. Eliot had known Pitt since they had been at Pembroke College together and was one of his oldest and closest friends. His death knocked Pitt for six at a time when he was already feeling the strain of the war with France: 1797 was not a good year for the British war effort.

Rose was with Pitt when he first heard the news of Eliot’s unexpected death. He detailed Pitt’s reaction in a letter to Pretyman, dated 20 September 1797:

“The Effect produced by the Event on him is not to be described; the suddenness of the Blow aggravated the Misfortune, he received the Account by the common Post in a Letter from Lord Eliot [Eliot’s father] not knowing the writing; no Circumstances whatever mention’d, but the Event must have been sudden as Mr Pitt told me last Night the latest Accounts were extremely favourable, & Mr Carthew [Pitt’s secretary] who returned to Town last night says our poor Friend had been remarkably well latterly.

I found Mr Pitt last Monday at Holwood with Lord & Lady Chatham, complaining of a Head Ach which had tormented him for a Fortnight, some Degree of Cold, & a Loss of Appetite; I therefore prevailed with him to see Sir Walter Farquhar [his physician] which I hope he will do this Evening. I suppress’d my own Feelings all I could to avoid working his, to say that I am griev’d to my Heart for the Loss we have sustain’d is an Expression far, very far, short of the real Impression made on me by it. I pity Mr Pitt with my whole soul & I lament most unaffectedly the loss of one of the very best Men I have met with in my Intercourse with Mankind”.

The next letter, 22 September 1797, continued to describe the effect of Eliot’s death on Pitt’s health:

“I was in so much real Agitation of Mind yesterday that I do not know whether I mentioned to you my having prevail’d with Mr Pitt the Day before to allow me to send for Sir Walter Farquhar in consequence of which I had appointed him to come last Night. Towards the Evening he grew Sick & reached [retched] violently, after which he was better; Sir Walter came to him about 9, he says he is quite clear about the Case & is sure he can do his Patient effectual Good, that there is much Gout in it [….sorry, but this is a typical Sir Walter diagnosis]. Mr Pitt could not of course go to St James’s yesterday & will therefore stay for the Levee on Wednesday next, after which I trust he will immediately go to Walmer … He feels anxious about the Removal of the little Girl [his niece, Eliot’s daughter Harriot Hester] to Burton, & yet the State of his Mother’s Health makes her being there at Present a Matter of Anxiety. … I did not leave Mr Pitt yesterday, & while I can afford him any Sort of Consolation I shall not think of going anywhere else. He is much better to-day.”

By 26 September Pitt was feeling much better, but was under a fair amount of anxiety over what to do with his orphaned niece Harriot Hester. According to Rose it looked like Eliot had not left a will, although this did turn up later. Pitt, as usual, turned to his usual method of burying pain:

“Mr Pitt continues much better than when I found him here a week ago; his Mind has been diverted from the melancholy Subject by an almost unremitting Attention to the imortant Business of providing the Means of carrying on the War”.

I do find it quite amazing that so many of his friends found it normal to see him dealing with grief and ill health by immersing himself in overwork. I suppose they were used to it by then and it represented a sign that Pitt had returned to normality. Also … probably better than drowning his sorrows in port. :-/

All quotations from Ipswich RO Pretyman Papers HA 119/T108/44

Add MS 41856 f 96: Dialogue between Mr. Addington & Bonaparte

I have been going through my old MSS notes in a bid to find all the relevant information I once collected for my novel in one place. In the process I found the following: a poem, possibly written by Lord Carlisle, either after the peace preliminaries that became the treaty of Amiens were signed in the autumn of 1801 or (more likely) early 1803 before war broke out between Britain and France again.

Carlisle was a member of Lord Grenville’s parliamentary faction. The Grenvilles considered the Peace of Amiens to be a disaster for Britain. Britain pledged to hand back all her wartime conquests except for Trinidad and Ceylon, to restore Egypt to the Ottoman Empire and to give Malta back to the Knights of St John. In return France was to evacuate Italy and her Portuguese territories, but the Grenvilles were unequivocal in their opinion that Britain had made all the sacrifices. The Prime Minister, Henry Addington, they considered to be foolish and inept. The poem has to be read with this in mind.

“Dialogue between Mr Addington and Bonaparte”

Mr. A—.

With a friendship most hearty

To you great Bonaparte

I open my pitiful case.

If by Peace you don’t aid me,

By the God who has made me,

I shan’t keep a moment my place.


And wherefore thus sad in tone

My good Mr. Addington;

I wish you to govern yr. Nation.

I’ll do all that I can,

To preserve such a Man

As yourself, in that high situation.

Only Give me my share,

(What you’ll very well spare)

All Italy, Holland, & Spain.

With Switzerland too,[1]

Tis a trifle to you,

While you keep the rule of the Main.

Mr. A.

Lord for this my dear Chief,

I should hang like a thief:

O grant me an Island, or two!

A free port [2], that with ease,

You may shut when you please,

And something for Jenky [3] to chew.


Well, I’ll give you Ceylon,

Tis a hundred to one

That this may prove dust for your rabble;

Trinidad may impose,

So dont turn up your nose,

I know you don’t venture to squabble. [4]

Did not Hawkesbury state,

(Many thanks to his prate),

How all nations refused you their aid.

Then to War if you’re led

Pitt jumps over your head:

And a fine piece of work you’ll have made.

But I smell all the trick,[5]

Pitt expects us to break:

And that he’ll have to manage the war.

But I know how to fit him; [6]

Take my Peace, and then quit him;

Let your place, not the terms be your care.[7]

[1] Over the course of 1802 and early 1803, Napoleon declared himself President of the Cisalpine Republic [Italy] and sent troops into Switzerland. He also remodelled the Dutch government. Much of this was in contravention to Amiens, and also to previous treaty engagements with Austria (Luneville, 1801)

[2] The Cape of Good Hope. Amiens made this into a free port

[3] Robert Bankes Jenkinson, Lord Hawkesbury, the Foreign Secretary. Later Lord Liverpool.

[4] Altered to “I well know that you don’t dare to squabble”

[5] Altered to “But beware of this trick”

[6] Altered to “But the best way to fit him”

[7] Altered to “Be your place, not your peace your first care”

Eleanor Eden by John Hoppner (ca 1800)

And of course the lady most famous for nearly-but-not-quite becoming Mrs William Pitt the Younger.

Interestingly Pitt’s brother John, Earl of Chatham was totally dismissive of the frenzied rumours surrounding his brother’s courtship of Miss Eden in December 1796: “I can not conceive what cou’d induce Bathurst, to write you word, seriously, that my Brother was to marry Miss Eden. I do not believe a word of it, tho he has certainly often been there this year, but I rather fancy the inducement was to talk over the finances with my Lord. Mrs Bankes, who is intimate with the Aucklands assures me there is nothing at all in it, and that Lady Auckland [Eleanor’s mother] amuses herself very much with the report (which is very current) and at the alarm it gives certain Persons, who are afraid, they will not engross the whole of his time as they have been in the habit of doing” (Chatham to Lord Camden, 23 December 1796, Kent RO U840/C254/6)

Perhaps a little bitchy (and one must remember John was not on the best of terms with his brother in December 1796), but interesting nonetheless. I daresay John was one of the least surprised people in England when Pitt decided not to marry Eleanor Eden after all just a month later.