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“Your Grace’s most devoted servant”: the 18th century patronage game

Yesterday I spent a few hours in Nottingham University’s manuscripts department. Nottingham holds the bulk of the papers of the 3rd Duke of Portland, prime minister 1782-3 and 1807-9. Portland started out as Charles James Fox’s political leader but, after the French revolution, distanced himself from the Foxite Whigs and eventually coalesced his following with Pitt the Younger in 1794.

There was lots of fun stuff to look at, but nothing quite like the following exchange between Portland and Sir George Collier over Collier’s search for patronage. Dry and dull the subject may be, but as the correspondence unfolded I found myself snorting into my laptop. I’d like to share bits of it here, because it gives a flavour of the less savoury underbelly of the 18th century political game.


The naval hero

Sir George Collier was a British naval hero from the American War of Independence (… well, that’s how he would no doubt have put it). He had been successful in clearing parts of the American coast of ships and privateers, and also engaged in some spectacular one-on-one ship battles with the Spanish. Despite his almost unbroken record of success he had not received the public recognition he felt he deserved — probably because of his political affiliation with the opposition Whigs under the Marquis of Rockingham and, later, the Duke of Portland.


After Portland’s coalition with Pitt in the summer of 1794 Collier decided it was high time he got that recognition. He was hard-up and needed cash. What does an 18th century public figure who is hard-up and needs cash do? Why, he unashamedly grovels for a government-funded office, of course.

Collier was not shy about his objective:

“My Lord, As the Motives for my not hoisting my Flag are certainly at an End by your Grace’s having been pleas’d to support Ministry, & to take a part in it, I beg to express to your Grace my Wish to have a Command, if you will have the Goodness to interest yourself with the First Lord of the Admiralty for that purpose.”

Subtlety not being Collier’s strong point, he informed Portland exactly what he wanted: “There is no Flag Officer at Chatham, tho’ there is at Sheerness … An appointment for that Post might easily be reviv’d, if Lord Chatham [the First Lord of the Admiralty] chuses it.”[1] Collier felt his health was “so tender & indiffferent, that it is ill calculated (I fear) to encounter the Fatigues & Hardships of foreign Service”, as a result of which he wanted to remain at home. Creating a new post at Chatham was his favourite plan, but he expressed himself just as happy to take the admiralty of any of “the other Royal Ports (Portsmouth, Plymouth & Sheerness)” or the command of the Downs.[2]


Is it something I said?

A week later Portland had not replied, and Collier began to get edgy. “I have been more than anxious to have had the Honor of one Line from You … This great Impatience & Anxiety, makes me again venture to take this fresh Liberty”.

Why was Portland ignoring him? There could be only one reason: Collier’s political record stood against him with Pitt’s government. As a supporter of the Portland interest, after all, Collier had opposed the government on a number of issues, most notably the Regency Crisis in 1788/9.

It seems Collier had already forfeited considerable naval advancement by his alienation of Lord North’s First Lord of the Admiralty in the 1770s, and now in the 1790s Collier feared he had made another high-placed enemy:

“I perceive I don’t stand well, with Lord Chatham by his Inattention on several occasions, nor can I divine or guess the Reason Why, tho’ I have taken some Pains to know; but all Conjecture is quite at a loss.” In fact Collier thought he knew exactly why he was getting Chatham’s cold shoulder, but at this stage of the correspondence he was loath to set it down in black and white.

His nervousness translated itself into excessive flowery fawning. I’m guessing this was de rigueur for 18th century scroungers, but it makes for slightly uncomfortable reading from a 21st century perspective:

“[I wish] to know I have the Happiness of continuing to possess … your Grace’s good Opinion, to me inestimable … If Your Grace with that most kind & benevolent disposition you possess, woud have the Goodness … to tell me if there is a Thing in which Lord Chatham, or any one else can blame me for … I shall to the end of my Life acknowledge your Goodness, with Gratitude, & true Sensibility.”[3]


The Duke of Portland

What Portland thought of all this I can’t say as I have found only one letter from him in return, but presumably at this stage he could do little anyway. Lord Chatham was away from his desk due to ill health from the end of August to the end of September, so Portland would in any case have been unable to do anything but pass on Collier’s letters.

In early October, however, Chatham was back at work and Portland evidently promised to speak with him in person on Collier’s behalf. Collier again urged his desire for a new command to be created at Chatham dockyards, and wrote a memorandum for the First Lord of the Admiralty explaining his opinion on why “the King’s Service woud be so much expedited & better carried on by having a Commander in Chief at so principal a Port”.[4]


“A numerous family”

When Portland’s silence continued still longer, Collier’s tetchiness increased several notches. All floweriness dropped away from his correspondence, and he became much more direct as the suspicion that he was being deliberately ignored solidified in his mind: “I am entirely at a Loss respecting my future destination … had You (my Lord) had an Opportunity of speaking to Lord Chatham on the Subject, I flatter myself your great kindness woud have relieved my anxiety”.

I suspect Collier was much more accustomed to directness than courtly language, but even so his blunt statement of his urgent necessity is quite startling: “A numerous family of 7 Children are strong calls upon my exertions for their Welfare”. And as though the tone of the letter itself was not cheeky enough, Collier clearly decided, while he was about it, he would add another claim on Portland’s “goodness” on behalf of his eldest son, just back from India:

“He is well educated, & I shoud wish Him to have the Honor of being in the Secretary of States Office [Portland was Home Secretary] if your Grace woud have the Goodness to appoint Him to a situation in it.”[5]


Wherein Lord Chatham expresses his dislike of scroungers

Remarkably, Portland did not do what I would have been tempted to do in his situation (tell Collier to get stuffed). He wrote back agreeing to take Collier’s son on in the Home Department (cue Collier’s relapse into overly orotund flattery: “I received with sincere Gratitude of Thanks, your Grace’s most obliging Letter … the knowing I have the Felicity to be esteemed by your Grace, is a most powerful & pleasing Cordial to me”).[6]

He also wrote that he had finally seen Lord Chatham at court, before the King’s levee. His account of the meeting was not exactly encouraging: “He said, on casting his Eye over it [Collier’s memorandum on the Chatham command], that he was too well acquainted with your merits & claims, to want to be reminded of them; & regretted his not having been able to give you a proof of that opinion.”


John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham

This coldness of that did not go unnoticed with Portland, who asked outright if Collier might expect the command of Chatham. “I will not enter into any engagement of that sort,” Chatham replied. Portland tightened the screws a little and urged “the cruelty & injury of a refusal”, whereupon Chatham totally flew off the handle:

“He exclaimed that nothing could be so hard upon a man in his situation as such a construction. That he wished, most earnestly, that he could employ every flag, & indeed every other officer, who is capable & willing to aserve his country, but that if Gentlemen in general who happened not to be employed, conceived that the omission was to be attributed to any reference either to their Political, or Naval Conduct, they equally wronged him & themselves; & they ought, he said, to consider the number of Admirals as well as Captains to whom it was impossible to give commands. So we parted…”[7]

(In other words: “Tell Collier to join the end of the queue.”)

“I admit there was nothing definite in his answer,” Portland concluded with comical restraint, “nor can I say, He gave me any reason to hope for the Chatham command”. He nevertheless thought from something Chatham had said that a naval command might soon be found.


Wherein Collier nearly calls Chatham out

This was, obviously, not what Collier had been hoping to hear. He reminded Portland that he did not want a naval command, and concluded that this was yet another example of political blackballing: “I am afraid, my Lord, that my Sins have arisen out of my political Character … I am passed over … as the Beacon to deter others from venturing to have an Opinion in future”. He reminded Portland again, pointedly, of the “7 strong Claims upon me”, and there the correspondence rested for a month or so, presumably to Portland’s relief.[8]

At the start of December Collier renewed the assault. The commander-in-chief at Plymouth was dying and Collier saw an opportunity to get his domestic command after all. But when Plymouth went instead to Admiral Sir Richard King, Collier’s indignation overflowed in an extraordinary letter to Portland, waxing lyrical and with liberal use of exclamation marks:

“It is hardly possible to restrain my Indignation at the provoking & rude Refusal Lord Chatham has cast upon your Grace! You have with that Goodness so intimately connected with your noble Nature & Family, condescended to help a feeble Plant whom you were pleas’d to think not unworthy [of] your Support … But when the most excellent & best of Men, born to the highest Rank and professing a great & ostensible Station, condescends to offer to the Naval Minister a Person who has serv’d his Country honorably & well, for a certain Post, shall it be presumed to be told this great Character (by the Naval Minister) that ‘He had given Assurances to Sir R[ichar]d King on his quitting one lucrative Command, that he should have another & that the first which fell vacant!!![‘] — & venturing to inform the same excellent Man of this, who had before ask’d the Chatham Command (for his humble Friend) to whom He had ventured to say He ‘woudl not enter into an Engagement of that Sort‘ … !!!!”

At this point Portland was probably reaching for strong stuff to support him, but Collier went further still:

“I own his Inconsistency & affronting Absurdity almost overpowers my Senses, & I can with difficulty keep within the bounds of moderation [… so going up to five exclamation marks, presumably, was right out]. … I despise it [Chatham’s affront], & should be truly happy to express to Lord Chatham some little of my feelings, on this ungenerous occasion: but I restrain myself out of the Respect I owe your Grace”.

Thank goodness for that restraint, because I am fairly certain Collier’s telling Chatham what he thought about him to his face would have led to nothing good. To show he had no hard feelings for Portland, however, Collier signed off in the most effusive manner yet:

“It is only then left me with a Heart flowing with grateful sensations to assure Your Grace they never will be eras’d, & that I shall never fail to remember your Goodness; I am with a fervency not to be expressed & more strong if possible than if your generous Endeavours had been crowned with the Success you wish’d for me, Your Grace’s most devoted & much obliged servant George Collier”.[9]


At last!

Luckily for Collier, even as he was recording his desire to poke Chatham in the eyes the First Lord of the Admiralty was in the throes of being sacked by prime minister Pitt. Chatham’s successor at the Admiralty, Lord Spencer, was a Portland Whig. Collier saw his chance and finally got something he requested: the Command of Sheerness, which he obtained in January 1795.

Unfortunately he did not live long enough to enjoy his salary, and died four months later.

Still, persistence!



[1] Sir George Collier to the Duke of Portland, 6 August 1794, Portland MSS, Nottingham University, PwF 3.001

[2] Sir George Collier to the Duke of Portland, 7 August 1794, Portland MSS, Nottingham University, PwF 3.002

[3] Sir George Collier to the Duke of Portland, 13 August 1794, Portland MSS, Nottingham University, PwF 3.003

[4] Memorandum by Sir George Collier, October 1794, Portland MSS, Nottingham University, PwF 3.005

[5] Sir George Collier to the Duke of Portland, 17 October 1794, Portland MSS, Nottingham University, PwF 3.006

[6] Sir George Collier to the Duke of Portland, 24 October 1794, Portland MSS, Nottingham University, PwF 3.007

[7] Duke of Portland to Sir George Collier (copy), 20 October 1794, Portland MSS, Nottingham University, PwV 108 f 123

[8] Sir George Collier to the Duke of Portland, 24 October 1794, Portland MSS, Nottingham University, PwF 3.007

[9] Sir George Collier to the Duke of Portland, 3 December 1794, Portland MSS, Nottingham University, PwF 3.009



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