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”. 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: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 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.
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. 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.
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”.
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.
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. 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 . “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”.
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”. It seems, however, that he was proficient at drawing, and his tutor Mr Wilson often referred to the vividness of his imagination. 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. 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. 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”. 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.
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.
 Tomline, Life of Pitt I, 15
 Thanks to Stephenie Woolterton for the picture
 Grenville Papers I, 171
 Letters written by the late Earl of Chatham to his nephew Thomas Pitt… (London, 1804), p. 96
 Grenville Papers I, 173-4
 Letters of Lord Chatham to Thomas Pitt, p. 97
 Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 3 August 1770, Chatham Correspondence III, 470
 Lady Chatham to Lord Temple, 23 September 1769, Grenville Papers 5, 463
 PRO 30/8/67
 Lady Chatham to Lord Chatham, 11 July 1766, PRO 30/8/9
 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
 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
 Vere Birdwood, So dearly loved, so much admired (London, 1994), p. 9; Marie Peters, The Elder Pitt (London, 1998), pp. 211-2
 Ghita Stanhope and G.P. Gooch, Life of Charles, 3rd Earl Stanhope (London, 1914), p. 10
 Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 31 July 1770, PRO 30/8/9
 Quoted in Tresham Lever, The House of Pitt (London, 1947), pp. 192-3
 James Charles Pitt to Lord Chatham, 21 June 1773, PRO 30/8/13
Bit late getting to this, but definitely glad to read this post. Thanks for offering us this glimpse into John’s early life – I really like seeing accounts that really show historical figures as, well, PEOPLE. And yours certainly did just that!
Thank you! I also like to know about all the details. 🙂 the childhood of all the Pitt children was quite unusual, and in fact I was reading a letter yesterday that remarked on it (specifically in relation to John).