Lord Chatham’s seal

It’s rare to find any John-related artefacts out there, perhaps because people didn’t think his things worth keeping (the “wrong Lord Chatham”, as it were). A few months ago, however, I discovered something on the web that actually belonged to him.


Amazingly, the above was John’s seal. I found it on the finds.org.uk site for the public to register finds of archaeological/historical interest. The website notes:

Part of a late eighteenth century gold fob seal set with a cornelian intaglio. The struts and suspension loop are missing. The fob seal is oval in shape and measures 33.81mm by 28.08mm by 5.24mm. It weighs 11.25g. The arms engraved on the intaglio are those of John Pitt, 2nd earl of Chatham (1756-1835), impalling those of his wife, Mary Elizabeth Townshend (1762-1821), daughter of Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney. It encorporates the coronet, supporters and motto, BENIGNO NUMINE (‘by favour of the heavens’) of the earls of Chatham. The seal must date from between the marriage of John Pitt in 1783, and 1805, when the Pitt family sold their estate at Curry Rivel. (From here)

It was found on 1 February 2006, somewhere “in the Curry Rivel area” in Somerset, presumably on the Burton Pynsent estate, where the Pitt family had a house.

What remains of Burton Pynsent (from http://www.panoramio.com/photo/10263323)

What remains of Burton Pynsent (from http://www.panoramio.com/photo/10263323)

I’d guess John was out walking or riding around his estate and lost part of his seal. It’s just one of those reminders that the people I read and write about were actually human beings, who were liable to lose things (and probably quite annoyed about it afterwards).

I have not seen any manuscripts sealed with this particular design, although to be fair most MSS do not include the envelopes along with the letters (some do, particularly if the inside of the envelope formed part of the letter). I do wonder if it is a pre-1790 seal, since John was invested with the Garter in December of 1790 and was so proud of it he put his star/garter symbol on absolutely EVERYTHING. Without knowing more about heraldry, however, I could not say for sure.

As the find.org.uk website notes, the crest on the seal is composed of Chatham’s arms impaled with those of his wife, Mary Elizabeth Townshend. The Chatham arms are below:


And this is the crest of Lord Sydney, Mary’s father:


I would very much like to see a colour version of the Pitt/Townshend crest. I may have to make one myself!


A “Not-So-Grand” Tour: Lord Chatham in Spain and France, March – May 1779

Madrid in the 18th century (from https://villajardines.wordpress.com/history/)

Madrid in the 18th century (from https://villajardines.wordpress.com/history/)


At the beginning of March 1779, the 2nd Earl of Chatham was serving as aide-de-camp to Colonel Robert Boyd in Gibraltar. Aware, no doubt, that hostilities were brewing between Britain and Spain, he received permission to return home, touring round Spain and France on his way. The inveterate gossip Sir Nathaniel Wraxall later recalled Chatham telling him “that he rode post the whole way from [Gibraltar] to Madrid”, a distance of  over 400 miles– although it appears he journeyed to Cadiz first.[1] Chatham spent a fortnight in Madrid, then travelled to Paris via Bordeaux. He arrived back in England at the beginning of May 1779, two months after leaving his garrison.

On 6 March 1779 Thomas Townshend wrote to Chatham’s mother that Lord Grantham, the British ambassador to Madrid, was in “daily expectation of seeing L[or]d Chatham. He says, that he knows L[or]d Chatham to be on the Road with one of L[or]d Hertford’s Sons & another Officer”.[2] Chatham was travelling with Hugh Conway (later Seymour-Conway, eventually known as Lord Hugh Seymour), a captain in the navy and later a notorious rake and close friend of the Prince of Wales. The third member of the group was Adam Colt, a captain in the 73rd Highlanders.[3] I haven’t yet managed to find much about him, but he was very much the junior member of the group in terms of rank and importance, and seems to have been treated as little more than a glorified servant.

Lord Hugh Seymour, by J. Hoppner (1799) (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Hugh_Seymour)

Lord Hugh Seymour, by J. Hoppner (1799) (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Hugh_Seymour)

Grantham did not have a definite arrival date for the three travellers in Madrid, but began preparing the ground diplomatically for their arrival around the first week of March. “I desired Floridablanca [the Spanish Prime Minister] to drop in Conversation … that I expected Lord Chatham &c in order that new faces & high names might create no Surprize”.[4] Grantham himself was curious about his forthcoming visitors: he had not yet met Chatham, but obviously remembered Chatham’s father and wondered, naturally enough, what the 2nd Earl of the name would be like.

They finally arrived on Thursday 25 March. “I walked out this Afternoon,” Grantham wrote to his brother Frederick Robinson, and “met three Gentlemen riding posts[.] [T]heir hats seemed to touch each other, & to make a Line across the Calle. I could not doubt their being my English & stopped them”. The young men’s enormous hats would make several reappearances in Grantham’s correspondence over the next fortnight, but for now Grantham was mainly concerned with acquainting himself at last with Conway, Colt (“young & Scottish”) and of course Chatham, whom he was surprised to find was not, in fact, Pitt the Elder in the flesh: “tall & thin, like his father but has not his Countenance”.[5]

The three young men (Chatham was twenty-one, Conway nineteen, and Colt probably about the same age as Conway) were not staying with Grantham, but the ambassador took on the responsibility of entertaining them. I’m not too sure he realised what he was letting himself in for, and certainly the youngsters do not seem to have spared much thought for Grantham’s official duties. The very first day they were “an hour and a half” late for breakfast, and Grantham soon discovered that if he wanted to get anything done he had to get up early and reserve “two hours in the Evenings to myself”.[6] His chaplain, Robert Waddilove, took the young men on a tour of some of the principal sites in Madrid, while Grantham set down his more considered impressions of his guests:

Lord Chatham is certainly handsome, like his father, but very gentle & modest. He has an exceeding good look of Carlito Pignatelli [presumably a member of the Spanish-Italian Pignatelli dynasty]; is very well behaved & seems as far as I can judge to think & speak very right. Conway has much more vivacity, has a remarkably open Appearance … [and] is exceeding tall & stout. … Cap[tai]n Colt, is a very Cream coloured Foal as ever I saw, a mere Recruit.

Grantham clearly enjoyed punning about the young Scotsman, whom he called “the Colt”: he “has never been out of the field, & is as rough as you can conceive”. Chatham seems to have been slow to open up. Grantham thought he was “rather prim”, although he “opens more than at first”, and was both “engaging & altogether interesting”. He and Conway had “inclinations to Virtue”, something Conway clearly outgrew later in his career, and both “wish to see & to learn”.[7]

Grantham felt Chatham’s reticence was largely due to his background: he “had a very private Education, & has some Timidity in Consequence of it”. He was clearly struck by Chatham’s generous nature, and related a story to his sister Anne:

He [Chatham] has donr at Gibraltar one of the handsomest & most generous Things a Man can do, he forgave a Man, who made rude Use of his Name, he paid his Debts to save him from Perdition, & took the most feeling part possible in a very delicate Situation.[8]

Chatham’s shyness (“he is reserved”) was a bit of a handicap, and Grantham was not surprised to find that he was not universally liked in the army. “It is singular what Accounts reach us from Gibraltar of L[or]d Ch[atham],” Grantham wrote cryptically to his brother.  At least one source suggested Chatham was “intemperate”, although, as Grantham observed, “he has disguised it if it so, as I have seen no marks whatever of such a Disposition … If he has been intemperate at Gibraltar, I will venture to say it was from not knowing how to resist ye. Tyranny of a Toastmaster”. By this time, Grantham had spent nearly two weeks in Chatham’s company and completely warmed to him: “I confess I am very partial to him”. He had no doubt most of the rumours were “formed upon some narrow principle of Regimental Party”: after all, Gibraltar “is divided into Parties, & … [Chatham’s] singular Education does not decently qualify him for a Garrison Life”.[9]

All in all Grantham seems to have found Conway the best company, Chatham the quietest and most mysterious, and Colt, well, “young and Scottish”.

Grantham presented the higher ranking two at the Spanish court (Colt, unfortunately, being only gentry, did not make the grade). Everywhere they went the young men attracted attention, partly, as Grantham noted, because of their “enormous hats”, but also because of who they were: “Ye. notice of Lord Chatham’s arrival, has everywhere excited much Curiosity”.[10] The noblemen received invitations to music parties, balls and dinners (incuding one of “one hundred &  three people”), and Grantham was rushed off his feet taking them here and there, plying them with “Cold Meat & liquor” in his carriage between engagements. The boys kept him on his toes, and on one occasion he nearly “lost” Colt, who left a party early and got snarled up in Madrid’s streets.[11] Despite this, Grantham seems to have managed to keep them largely out of trouble.

During the day Waddilove showed them the Escorial, the “Cabinet of Natural History”, and “the Academy”. The young men spent the Easter weekend in Madrid, and were therefore able to see the Maundy Thursday ritual of washing the feet of the poor.[12] Grantham took them to a concert given by a singer named “Madame Dos”: “Colt fancies himself in Love with her, Conway is in Raptures, & Lord Chatham capable of the most sentimental Admiration”. The three young men finally left on 7 April, leaving an exhausted Grantham suffering from a terrible cold but still mourning his guests, “as they have been exceeding good Company”.[13]

Conway and Colt went their own way, both returning eventually to service in Gibraltar. Chatham, however, went northwards, carrying despatches from Grantham detailing the collapse of diplomatic relations with Spain. Chatham passed through Bordeaux, where he arrived on 18 April and made contact with Grantham’s wine merchant, John Black. He left with £100 worth of wine on credit (……….. whether he actually ever paid for it seems unlikely, so poor John Black) and went on to Paris, which Black assumed he would have reached by the 25th.[14]
Chatham landed back in England at the beginning of May and reached London late in the evening of Friday the 7th. The next day he went to visit his mother, whom he had not seen for a year, but not before delivering his despatches to Grantham’s brother Frederick Robinson, who was very curious to meet him after all he had heard:  “From the little I could see of him in a short & first visit he seems to answer your  descriptions of him[.] I think in his person he is a very good likeness of Camerena’s Nephews in the Spanish Guards[.] He is darker than any of his family which I have seen.”[15] This comparison of John to dark Spaniards will surprise no-one who has seen J.S. Copley’s “Death of Lord Chatham” at the National Gallery: Copley has gone so far as to give John Chatham a noticeable five o’clock shadow.
John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley's "The Death of the Earl of Chatham" (1779)

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley’s “The Death of the Earl of Chatham” (1779)

This was the end of Chatham’s immediate adventures, at least for a while. There was, however, a sequel. In January 1780 Chatham, who had transferred to the 86th Foot, was sent with his regiment to the West Indies. Grantham was desperate to make contact before he left because Chatham still owed him £150 from his visit to Madrid. It seems Chatham did leave without paying, but when Grantham wrote “to wish him a good Journey & to desire his Directions about the Money” (a not-so-subtle hint) Chatham did, eventually, order his banker Coutts to pay up.[16]


Clearly Chatham was fond of Grantham, and grateful for his Spanish hospitality, because Chatham did not very often pay his debts!




[1] Wraxall, Posthumous Memoirs of my Own Time (London, 1836) III, 129; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 19 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/125

[2] Thomas Townshend to Lady Chatham, 6 March 1779, National Archives PRO 30/8/60 f 176

[3] Army List for 1780, WO 65/30

[4] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 11 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/124

[5] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 25 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/126

[6] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 27 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/127

[7] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 27 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/127

[8] Lord Grantham to  Anne Robinson, 2 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/17/4/245a

[9] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 5 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/131; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 6 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/132

[10] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 27 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/127

[11] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 5 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/131

[12] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 31 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/129

[13] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 5 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/131

[14] John Black to Lord Grantham, 28 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/14/36/25

[15] Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 11 May 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/14/333/207

[16] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 17 January 1780, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/162; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 19 January 1780, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/163; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 9 February 1780, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/170


“A difficult part to act”

When I came to Parliament everyone knew who I was. Now they all look through me as though I’m not there … I have no presence, no role, nothing but a name, and even that is more William’s than mine now.

Thus speaks the 2nd Earl of Chatham, the main character of my novel The Long Shadow, shortly after his brother Pitt the Younger makes his maiden speech in the House of Commons. John’s words are, of course, my own, and they reflect one of the main themes of the novel, John’s search for his own identity beyond the long shadow of his father and brother. My theme, however, is well-grounded in fact. He was the eldest son, the head of the family, but heavily dependent on the patronage and favour of his younger brother. It was a complete inversion of the 18th century aristocratic norm. Not only that, but John possessed an impoverished and virtually landless title which was nonetheless closely associated with greatness and authority. How difficult must John’s position have been?

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley's "The Death of the Earl of Chatham" (1779)

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley’s “The Death of the Earl of Chatham” (1779)

With our 20/20 hindsight it is all too easy to forget that Pitt the Younger was not his father’s eldest son. When the first Earl of Chatham died in 1778 all eyes did not automatically turn to his second son, who was barely nineteen, still kept rooms at Cambridge, and was only just embarking on legal training at Lincoln’s Inn. William Pitt had not yet done anything to distinguish himself in the public, although his reputation for hard study and a defence of his father’s posthumous reputation published as an open letter to Lord Bute suggested he had inherited more than his fair share of the family brains. Quite reasonably, everyone turned their attention to the eldest son, John, now the 2nd Earl. “One looks upon him as the Child of the Publick,” Lord Grantham wrote, explaining his curiosity to meet the eldest son of the great Lord Chatham.[1]

At the time of his father’s death John was twenty-one and about to serve as aide-de-camp to General Boyd at Gibraltar. He does not seem to have been well known in political circles, but had clearly kept up social links with the effective head of the Chathamite political interest in Parliament, Lord Shelburne, and he had served on various occasions as a scribe for his gout-stricken father. John’s closest friend, the Duke of Rutland, might have formed a political group of his own — his father, the Marquis of Granby, was nearly as famous a political figure as Pitt the Elder, and Rutland’s rank, wealth and intelligence would have suited him to the task. Astonishingly, however, Rutland laid himself completely at the service of “a man for whom I profess & most sincerely do feel so much”[2]:

My dear Lord, give me Leave to thank you in the Sincerest Manner for the Great Honor you have done me in trusting me with your Proxy [while John was abroad in the West Indies]. Such an unequivocal testimony such a Publick distinguished Demonstration of Confidence from one whose Good opinion & Friendship is the Pride & Pleasure of my Life is a Circumstance too affecting, for me to be able to Express the Satisfaction I feel upon it in terms adequate to my Sensations.[3]

Charles, 4th Duke of Rutland (Wikimedia Commons) [a]

Charles, 4th Duke of Rutland (Wikimedia Commons) [a]

While Rutland was in Ireland, he left Chatham in charge of his parliamentary interest, instructing his agent Daniel Pulteney to apply to Chatham for advice on all political issues.

Had Chatham wanted to, he could have taken advantage of his name and parentage (as his brother William was later to do). His attitude to politics started out diligently enough. He was in Gibraltar from June 1778 until March 1779, so he could do nothing in that period, but one of the first things he did upon returning to England was to take his seat in the House of Lords. The reappearance of the Earl of Chatham in Parliament caused a frenzy of interest:

The young Earl of Chatham took the oaths and his seat in Parliament on Thursday last. His Lordship was dressed in his regimentals … and presented a very elegant, manly, and graceful figure. He is as tall as his late father, has the appearance of much mildness in his countenance, and is said to be a most exemplary young nobleman in his morals, and general good character.[4]

Chatham did not spend much time in England over the next two years, but he crops up regularly enough in the Journals of the House of Lords, and was one of nine opposition Lords who signed an official protest against the King’s elevating Lord George Germain to the peerage as Viscount Sackville.[5] As Rutland’s letter suggests, Chatham cared enough about political issues to make arrangements for his proxy vote to be deployed in his absence.

During a period  of leave in 1781 he spent some time at Lord Shelburne’s house at Bowood, where he was looked upon with great curiosity by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham:

Do you know Lord Chatham? … He has his father’s Roman nose, and, if events should concur to make him have a good opinion of himself, will soon, I dare say, acquire his commanding manner: at present, one sees little more than a kind of reserve, tempered with mildness, but clouded with a little dash of bashfulness.[6]

That “bashfulness”, however, was one of several reasons why John never did manage to find a political niche for himself. His “mildness” was remarked upon by many who met him, often in surprise. “Lord Chatham … has not his [father’s] Countenance,” Lord Grantham noted in astonishment when he met John in Madrid in 1779.[7] But Chatham was not his father, despite inheriting the title: he simply wasn’t cut out for politics. Much later in his life, during the Walcheren debacle, a military subordinate suggested “that he wants confidence in his own powers”, a remarkably incisive comment.[8] He had the intelligence to be interested, but neither the energy nor the drive to make his name. And in any case, by the time Bentham was writing in 1781, the rising star of the Pitt family was becoming clear… and it wasn’t John.

What sort of effect must all this have had on Chatham? He must have been aware that his father always expected great things of him. “The promise of our dear children does me more good than the purest of pure air,” Pitt the Elder once wrote to his wife, referring specifically to both John and William.[9] In the first few years after his father’s death he must have had a great burden on his shoulders, one he was not necessarily well-suited to carry, but he did his best.

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham by William Hoare (Wikimedia Commons) [b]

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham by William Hoare (Wikimedia Commons) [b]

As contemporaries realised, it was a difficult line to tread. When various rumours were circulated regarding his behaviour in Gibraltar, Lord Grantham and his brother Frederick Robinson immediately dismissed them as partisan talk. “I think much depends on ye. hands he will fall into,” Grantham concluded cautiously, but it was Robinson who put his finger on a deeper truth: “I think Ld. Chatham has a difficult part to act in this country, & do not wonder at his character being variously spoken of”.[10]


[1]Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 27 March 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/15/54/127

[2] Rutland to Chatham, 8 December [1778], PRO 30/8/368 f 231

[3] Rutland to Chatham, 22 January 1780, PRO 30/8/368 f 233

[4] London Evening Post, 19 July 1779

[5] House of Lords Journal vol XXXVI, 18 February 1782

[6] Jeremy Bentham to George Wilson, 1781, Benthamiana, ed. J H Burton (London, 1843), p 333

[7] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 25 March 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/15/54/126

[8] Letters from Flushing by an officer of the 81st Regiment (London, 1809), p 126

[9] Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 8 June 1770, Chatham Correspondence IV, 267

[10] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 6 April 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/15/54/132; Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 27 April 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/14/333/198

Image references

[a] http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A4th_Duke_of_Rutland.jpg

[b] http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWilliamPittTheElder.jpg

“He has at least won all our hearts”: Letters from Flushing

No, I’m not ready to do that post just yet, but the Walcheren campaign of 1809 — and obviously the involvement of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham in that campaign — has been on my mind recently. I am aware that when I lay down my pen in a few months at the end of my novel, I am going to have to do some research on Walcheren: I feel I owe it to myself, and to my boy Chatham, to do it. I know it won’t be pleasant, but I can hardly call myself a Chatham expert until I have familiarised myself with every aspect of the campaign.

In due course, therefore, I will probably be writing a series of Walcheren-related posts. For now I’m thinking about it mainly because I have recently made contact with Dr Carl A. Christie, whose doctoral research was on the Walcheren campaign and who kindly sent me an article he wrote on the subject in 1981.[1] While reading the article one of the references caught my eye, so I chased it up:


I was expecting the book to be harsh on John, but while it is not exactly favourable,I was surprised at how positive it was about him. I freely admit I’m much more likely to blog about the nice stuff at this stage (cross my heart I will be fair to Chatham when I come to look at Walcheren properly) but after the bad press he has in the history books I really wasn’t expecting his subordinates to, well … like him. Although it must be noted that being a likeable chap does not necessarily make for a great military commander, and there’s plenty of censure here too.

George Cruikshank, "The Grand Expedition" -- a rather more critical *coughs* portrayal of Lord Chatham's inactivity than in "Letters from Flushing"

George Cruikshank, “The Grand Expedition” — a rather more critical *coughs* portrayal of Lord Chatham’s inactivity than in “Letters from Flushing” (Wikimedia Commons)

The anonymous officer of the 81st Regiment who wrote the letters printed in “Letters from Flushing” may have had a pro-Chatham agenda of some sort, I don’t know: I haven’t done enough research even to guess who he might have been. He certainly had an axe to grind against the navy, so would be expected to take the army’s side in a debate. Taking all that as given, he begins (pp. 3-5) with a lengthy description of Lord Chatham, and the way in which he was viewed at the beginning of the expedition at the end of July 1809. (The letter in question is dated from Ramsgate, 27 July 1809.)

There’s a fair amount of implied criticism in the account — the author is quite circumspect about his opinion: “there is an old proverb, that ‘walls have ears’, and perhaps there are some things which should not be committed to letters” — but the John I have come to know in my research is certainly recognisable here.

So much, however, I will say, that I could wish the Earl [of Chatham] would be more active in putting his talents forth. He is certainly a man of abilities, he thinks solidly, and writes extremely well; but it is not very easy to arouse him into exertion; he is indolent beyond any man I have ever seen. At the present moment he bustles about with some appearance of alacrity; but it is evidently only a fit and a start, and all of us begin to apprehend a relapse. If you pass his window in his hours of leisure, you will invariably see him yawning, or with a book, over which he is sleeping. To sum up all, however, and perhaps to compensate for all, he has the reputation of being as honest a man as Heaven ever formed; he is the perfect gentleman, moreover, in his manners and deportment, and, as I have said before, whatever he does, he does well. If his activity were but equal to his talents, he would be inferior to none of our most celebrated Generals.

The author goes on to hint at one possibility never mentioned by historians for why Chatham was chosen to lead the expedition: his name and heritage inspired loyalty in the troops under his command (pp 4-5).

As the brother of the immortal Pitt, his appointment has given universal satisfaction amongst all the officers; and I do really believe that, under this impelling principle, they would do more for him than for any General in the service. I can scarcely describe to you the enthusiasm with which the good people of Ramsgate flock around the brother of Pitt, and the son of Chatham.

Presumably the soldiery were at least expecting a man who would be at least half as brilliant as his father and brother, although as the account suggests Chatham’s reputation for indolence was well-known.

On pp 125-7, the author again speaks of Chatham’s popularity among the soldiers, something I found rather surprising: from a couple of sources quoted in Gordon Bond and Martin Howard’s accounts of Walcheren I had the impression he was viewed as a distant commander, rather out of touch with what was happening on the front lines. Still, John was always an affable chap, and well-mannered, as the author keeps mentioning (he’s not the only one to lay emphasis on John’s “manners”). There’s nevertheless a flavour of censure about his easy-goingness, and the author does attack his hesitation and inactivity:

As to our Commander in Chief, he spends the greater part of his time in Middleburg [the headquarters], and very freely and good-naturedly permits the officers to follow their own inclinations.


Above: Middelburg, Walcheren Island

So much I must say of him, that every one seems to feel a lively regard for him; his manners are so gentlemanlike, and his temper so easy and affable, that he has at least won all our hearts. But there are certainly some murmurs that he is not sufficiently decisive, that he wants confidence in his own powers [I’d say this is a very incisive observation], that he is too fond of councils of war, and that he is deliberating, where the nature of the service requires that he should be acting. Be this as it may, he is the perfect gentleman [but of course]; and when he thinks proper to exert himself, an excellent officer. Every one acknowledges his abilities, whilst they lament that he does not sufficiently put them forth.

Even the author, however, seems to have fallen under the spell of John’s charm, since he can’t resist finishing off with a sweet story from John’s childhood. It’s almost certainly apocryphal, but having read a fair amount of Pitt family correspondence there is a flavour of truth about the tale:

I have heard that the late Lord Chatham, the great Chatham as he is deservedly called, entertained a very high opinion of our Commander’s abilities. The late Lord Clarendon being one day at his house, and Mr Pitt and Lord Chatham, at that time boys, happening to pass — ‘There, my Lord,’ said Lord Chatham, ‘are my best services to my country; there are two boy who will hereafter be most useful men. The one, Mr Pitt, is the readiest; he has a due confidence in himself. The other will be the most solid thinker.’

There, then, you have it: easy-going, lazy, difficult to rouse, diffident, a slavish follower of official military protocol: yes, that is definitely a Chatham I recognise. But popular, intelligent, full of ability, respected by the men under his command? Now that’s a John I have yet to see in any history books.



All quotations from Letters from Flushing by an officer of the 81st Regiment (London, 1809)

[1] Carl A. Christie, “The Royal Navy and the Walcheren Expedition of 1809”, New Aspects of Naval History ed C. L. Symonds et al (Annapolis, 1981) 190-200

Happy 258th birthday John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham

As those who have followed this blog since its beginning will know, I do not follow the majority view that John, 2nd Earl of Chatham was born on 9 October 1756. As far as I can see the only justification for this is that John’s father wrote a letter to William Pitt (John’s brother) on 9 October 1773 in which he talked of it being “the happy day that gave us your brother”.[1] Possibly it was John’s birthday, as certainly John read Tomline’s draft before the book was published and might have been expected to correct the error, but I tend to think Tomline mistranscribed.

This is why:

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham's baptismal record, Hayes, Kent

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s baptismal record, Hayes, Kent[2]

Even given this is a partial record, I think it’s fairly obvious that I have good grounds for commemorating John’s birthday on the 10th and not the 9th.

Anyway, moving on… in celebration of John’s 258th (he always looked younger than his years), today’s post is about his childhood. I’ve been posting a lot about his later years recently, so it seems fitting to go right back to the beginning for once.

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley's "The Death of the Earl of Chatham"

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, aged 21/2, in John Singleton Copley’s “The Death of the Earl of Chatham”

John was, like his younger brother William, born at Hayes Place, his father’s country house in Kent. (The other three children were born in London.) “We are all well here … and intend that our little colony shall, God willing, receive its increase in the pure air of our village,” Pitt the Elder wrote to his brother-in-law George Grenville on 20 August 1756.[3]

In accordance with his later reputation, it seems John arrived a little later than expected, but when he did decide to make his appearance he was in a hurry.[4] It was probably the quickest entrance he made in his entire life. A delighted Pitt the Elder gushed to George Grenville on the morning of 10 October 1756 about John’s health and size:

Lady Hester is as well as can be in her situation, after being delivered of a son this morning, who is also well. She had a sharp time, but not longer than two hours and a half. There was enough notice to have [William] Hunter [the fashionable accoucheur] and all comforts about us. … Mrs Grenville, I am sure, and perhaps you, will excuse my talking nursery: the young man meets with general applause for stature and strength … He is, however, as they flatter me, without appearance of heaviness, notwithstanding his size.[5]

Pitt was evidently delighted to have a son at last. “[Lady Hester] and the child are as well as possible,” he reported to his nephew Thomas Pitt, “and the father in the joy of his heart”.[6]

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

Most books focus on the childhood of John’s brother William, but there are occasional glimpses of John in the family correspondence. The impression drawn from history is that Lord and Lady Chatham favoured their second son above all the other children, and there is probably some truth in this, but John, too, was much loved. In 1770 Lord Chatham spent some quality time at Burton Pynsent with John, who was going to travel on with his tutor Mr Wilson to Cornwall, while Lady Chatham remained with the four others at Hayes:

Pray tell all at Athens, professors, and scholars, how truly charmed I am with their performances [ie, as correspondents] … They may all rest satisfied that Pitt [John, whose courtesy title as heir was Viscount Pitt] is every thing that can please: he is a sweet, idle boy; he is a sensible, conversable, discreet man: sense or nonsense, verse or prose, Homer, mouse, taste, all shine alike, and draw perpetual applauses from papa and Mr Wilson.[7]

Along with his four siblings Hester, Harriot, William, and James Charles, John was educated at home by a tutor, Reverend Edward Wilson. There were some thoughts of sending him to Eton, where his father had gone, but apparently these came to nothing.[8] He seems to have been a bright boy: he often bested William in his studies, and their tutor Wilson’s comments on the subject can be followed in the Chatham MSS at the National Archives .[9] “John was distinguish’d first for his Mathematicks, and then for his Latin Lesson,” Lady Chatham wrote to her husband in July 1766. “… Mr Wilson imputed their success [John and Hester’s], to the subject, which he told me they took to, with a Taste and an ardour of Application that was quite fine. The subject, was an account of Aristides, and his great Virtues”.[10]

From W.A. Shuffrey, "Some Craven Worthies" (London, 1903)

Rev. Edward Wilson and his brother Thomas, From W.A. Shuffrey, “Some Craven Worthies” (London, 1903)

In terms of his likes and dislikes, John was pure boy. He was never happier than when out riding or shooting, two pastimes he kept up for the rest of his life. In 1777 his mother apologised to a correspondent for John’s not adding his good wishes to a letter, because he was “following the Fox Hounds, for the first day this season”.[11] It seems, however, that he was proficient at drawing, and his tutor Mr Wilson often referred to the vividness of his imagination.[12] Dancing was also a passion: he and his siblings were under the tutelage of the fashionable dancing master Giovanni Gallini, and there are frequent mentions in the correspondence of John staying out late dancing or accepting invitations to Pantheon balls.[13] On at least one occasion Lord Chatham referred to his eldest son as “the powdered beau”, suggesting an early inclination to dressing fashionably and well which he never entirely outgrew.

John was early destined for a career in the army (… which has always struck me as a little unusual as the destination for an older son, but there you go). His future was already determined before he was 14: Lord Chatham joked he was learning “how to live in a March, or bad quarters” when they made a bad journey from London to Somerset in July 1770.[15] John spent the summer of 1773 applying himself assiduously to his studies, Lord Chatham having procured him an ensigncy in the 47th Foot. John was due to go out with General Guy Carleton to Quebec the following year, but in the meantime the sixteen-year-old spent most of a holiday spent at Lyme in Dorset studying with a local military engineer.

Lord Chatham wrote to his wife referring to his eldest son as “young Vauban” and described how he was kept from joining his father and second brother on a ride because “he was generously occupied in learning to defend the happy land we were enjoying. Indeed, my life, the promise of our dear children does me more good than the purest of pure air”.[16] John’s brother James Charles was slightly less generous  when the travellers returned to Burton Pynsent, expressing astonishment “that Pitt has made so amazing a progress in the military art, in so short a time”– but that’s siblings for you.[17]

When he left England for Canada in June 1774 John, theoretically, stopped being a boy and became a man. He was still only 17, though, and he had spent all his childhood at home with his family. Travelling abroad must have been a big shock for a boy who had, essentially, rarely gone much further north than London. Apart from his brother James, he was by far the most well-travelled of the Pitts, travelling with the army to North America, Gibraltar, and the Leeward Islands, as well as in due course the Netherlands.

He was, also, and less positively, the man responsible for selling the house in which he had been born, Hayes Place, and the house in which he spent much of his childhood, Burton Pynsent. Hayes was sold in 1785, Burton Pynsent in 1805, after his mother’s death, both to settle John’s debts– although he had inherited both of them mortgaged to the hilt. John never had children of his own; nor would he, strictly speaking, fulfil the promise his father clearly felt he showed in his youth. But promise he had, and it is well worth remembering that the man who would, in later life and posthumously, be castigated as an idiot, once bested his brother in mathematics.



[1] Tomline, Life of Pitt I, 15

[2] Thanks to Stephenie Woolterton for the picture

[3] Grenville Papers I, 171

[4] Letters written by the late Earl of Chatham to his nephew Thomas Pitt… (London, 1804), p. 96

[5] Grenville Papers I, 173-4

[6] Letters of Lord Chatham to Thomas Pitt, p. 97

[7] Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 3 August 1770, Chatham Correspondence III, 470

[8] Lady Chatham to Lord Temple, 23 September 1769, Grenville Papers 5, 463

[9] PRO 30/8/67

[10] Lady Chatham to Lord Chatham, 11 July 1766, PRO 30/8/9

[11] Lady Chatham to Mrs Thomas Pitt, 25 October 1777, Dropmore Papers, British Library Add Ms 59490, ff 61-2. Thanks to Stephenie Woolterton for the reference

[12] James Charles Pitt to Lord Chatham, 21 June 1773, PRO 30/8/13; Edward Wilson to Lady Chatham, 23 August 1766, PRO 30/8/67

[13] Vere Birdwood, So dearly loved, so much admired (London, 1994), p. 9; Marie Peters, The Elder Pitt (London, 1998), pp. 211-2

[14] Ghita Stanhope and G.P. Gooch, Life of Charles, 3rd Earl Stanhope (London, 1914), p. 10

[15] Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 31 July 1770, PRO 30/8/9

[16] Quoted in Tresham Lever, The House of Pitt (London, 1947), pp. 192-3

[17] James Charles Pitt to Lord Chatham, 21 June 1773, PRO 30/8/13