With family like this…

There’s one thing that has bothered me for some time, and now is the time to blog about it because yesterday I made a discovery.

I have always had a strong feeling that Lady Hester Stanhope disliked her older uncle. She certainly didn’t have much time for him at the end of her life (read her Memoirs, as transcribed by Dr Meryon… “he was a man of no merit, but of great luck”: II, 76, to give only a short example). Until yesterday though the only thing I had found her saying about him prior to her leaving England for good was a comment about his nose being long, which at the time made me laugh.

Yesterday, though, I went to the British Library to check out the Dacres Adams papers. These were papers collected by Pitt the Younger’s last secretary, William Dacres Adams, from Walmer Castle after Pitt’s death, and kept in his family until recently. A couple of years ago the papers were sold and they ended up at the BL. It’s a mixed bag and quite a lot of it involves Adams’ correspondence with friends and family. Adams was very friendly with Lady Hester Stanhope and her brothers James and Charles, all of whom pretty much lived with Pitt in his last years.

After Pitt died Lady Hester was left homeless. She had fled her republican father Earl Stanhope and obviously couldn’t go back to him. The obvious person to take her in would have been her remaining uncle, John, Earl of Chatham, and the fact that he did not do so rankled. Only a few days after Pitt’s death, possibly 26 January 1806, Lady Hester wrote to Adams and referred to John’s failure to assist in scathing terms:

“[Charles] together with James [have paid a] visit to Ld C[hatham] which I deem quite improper, as we all despise him, & therefore ought not to toady him, or put any sort of confidence in him. Had his protection been thought advantageous, we s[houl]d have been recommended to his care” (BL Add MS 89036/2/1 f 10)

Wow, “despise”— that’s a strong word! Nor did she forget Chatham’s failure to rise to his duties as uncle. When her brother Charles was killed in action at Coruna in 1809, John wrote his niece a letter of condolence. Her response must have made him wish he hadn’t bothered: “I feel your kind attentions at this unhappy moment as much as I felt your neglect of me under similar affecting circumstances” (quoted in Tresham Lever, The House of Pitt (1947), p. 338). Ooookay.

And clearly Lady Hester was not the only one of the Stanhope brood to feel this way. Perhaps naturally, her brothers too felt John could have done more for their sister. Charles it seems had spent some time in John’s household when he had first joined the army, learning the trade as it were, and I haven’t found any direct evidence of his disliking John, but as for James… In 1807 he made a visit to Burton Pynsent, formerly the Somerset home of William Pitt the Elder and sold by John after his mother’s death in 1803. James wrote an epigram comparing John with his younger brother and sent it to Adams:

“The immortal Chatham ee’r [sic] he died

These gifts he thus assigned

Take then my fortune John, he cried

Thou William hast my mind

This son the Part improved with toil

That ‘twas his country’s weal

The former Burton learnt to spoil

To shuffle, cut, and deal.”

(Add MS 89036/2/4 f 101)

On John’s behalf I say “OUCH”, not only because, well, *ouch* but because James was being rather unfair. I’ve no idea how far John’s gambling debts influenced the decision to get rid of Burton Pynsent (as Basil Williams, biographer of Pitt the Elder, concluded, using as his source this interview with William Beckford printed in the New Monthly Magazine of 1844, vol 71, 302). James certainly seems to believe this had a role. Maybe it did, although if John was a notorious gambler this is all I’ve heard on the subject. What I do know was that Burton Pynsent was mortgaged to the hilt when John inherited it in 1778, and (along with Hayes Place, also remortgaged at least once by Pitt the Elder) never really managed to be anything but a massive drain on Pitt funds. I think it would be uncharitable to conclude that John couldn’t wait to get his hands on the money for it. No denying he was a spendthrift (it was in the genes!), but the “fortune” he inherited from his father was far from being the amazing thing James obviously assumed it was.

And that brings me to a major point in John’s defence. Lady Hester Stanhope clearly never forgave him for his snub after Pitt’s death. Maybe he should have at least asked her to stay with him for a bit. But do you want to know why I think he didn’t? (Apart from the obvious grief at having just lost his brother?) Because John’s wife Mary was very ill. The Bishop of Lincoln wrote to his wife a week after Pitt’s death: “Lady Chatham is seriously ill; she has fretted herself with a delirious Fever; & Vaughan & Farquhar attend her.” (Ipswich Pretyman MSS HA119/T99/26, 31 January 1806) It’s clear from correspondence surrounding the arrangements for Pitt’s funeral that Mary was not considered out of danger until mid-February. Under those circumstances, maybe Hester might have been a bit more understanding…

 

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