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Mary, Countess of Chatham’s “Rheumatick complaint”

[Mary] has not I think been quite well lately. Some how or other she has got a Lameness in her Hip. It is better now and perhaps nothing of any Consequence but I think it makes her look Languid and pale.”[1]

So wrote Lady Harriot Pitt to her mother of Mary Elizabeth Townshend, soon to be engaged to Harriot’s brother Lord Chatham. Mary’s lameness passed, and no further mention is made of it in Harriot’s correspondence. Three weeks later John Chatham proposed to Mary Townshend; within two months they were married. Nobody anticipated that Mary would spend nearly the whole of the first three years of married life an invalid.

The “lameness” Harriot noticed in May 1783 may have been due to a number of things. It may have been a congenital issue, such as hip displasia, that was not picked up until later in life. It may have been early onset arthritis; it may have been some sort of deeper-seated metabolic illness like fibromyalgia. It may have been something entirely different. Whatever the cause, and whatever brought on the attack (a miscarriage perhaps?), by April 1784 Mary had taken to her bed.

The first record I have seen of her illness is Frederick Robinson writing to his brother, Lord Grantham, on 1 April 1784. “Ly. Chatham suffers cruelly when she moves but is rather better,” he wrote, suggesting Mary had already been ill for some time.[2] Three weeks later there was little improvement. On 20 April 1784, in the midst of a general election, William Pitt the Younger wrote to his mother that “Lady Chatham mends a little”. On the same day Mary’s sister Georgiana, devotedly nursing her younger sister, also wrote to Mary’s mother-in-law:

My Sister had a very good night last night, and I hope is better to day. Dr Warren has put off her getting up till tomorrow, on account of her being still a little fatigued with the Physic she took yesterday. Indeed I flatter myself that she is certainly gaining ground, & I hope when the weather is quite fine, that her amendment will be much quicker. It is really quite horrid to think how much she has suffered. … Getting up has hitherto always thrown her back, owing to the fatigue from the great pain she has always suffered, which naturally gives her a great dread of it. … She feels [the pain] more in her knee & leg than she did. What would I give to see her walk again.”[3]

But Mary did not walk again for a very long time. In November 1784, Anne Robinson (Lord Grantham’s sister) reported that “Lady Chatham … now talks of Standing which she has not done for above eight months”.[4] Two months later Mary was still ill, although by this time she seems to have been improving. Lord Grantham noted he had heard she was now able to use a “Merlin’s Chair”, a sort of wheelchair invented by John Joseph Merlin, a Swiss inventor.

A "Merlin chair" from Kenwood House (photo Ashley Wilde)

A “Merlin chair” from Kenwood House (photo Ashley Wilde)

The chair enabled Mary at last to navigate around her house and her spirits rose accordingly: her “health is now very good”, Lord Grantham reported. “She has Strength sufficient to get in and out of her Chair.” By the middle of January she was finally walking across her room for the first time since at least the previous March.[5]

A Merlin chair from 1811 (Wellcome Library)

A Merlin chair from 1811 (Wellcome Library)

A year after taking to her bed Mary was finally getting out and about, although mostly in search of further medical assistance. “I have been taking a long airing with Mary today,” Georgiana reported to the Dowager Lady Chatham on 3 March 1785. “… Going out certainly does her a great deal of good … She has been twice at Mr Partingdons [sic] … & finds great benefit from being Electrified with his large Machine.”[6]

Various medical electrical machines, ca 1770

Various medical electrical machines, ca 1770

“Mr Partingdon” was in fact Miles Partington, a fashionable surgeon whose speciality was to use the power of static electricity to treat rheumatic and nervous complaints in his patients. Mary would have come to his house on Great Russell Street, and would have sat in a comfortable chair propped up on glass blocks while a servant turned the handle of Partington’s machine. A large wheel rubbed against a cushion stuffed with horsehair, while metal rods channelled the resulting static electricity into a Leyden jar. Once fully charged, Partington would have put on a pair of gloves, taken hold of two metal rods insulated with glass handles, and channelled the electricity onto specific points on Mary’s leg and hip. I can’t believe it worked very well, but Mary by this time must have been desperate to believe in anything.

An electrical machine of the sort Miles Partington might have used on Mary

An electrical machine of the sort Miles Partington might have used on Mary

At this time Lord Chatham’s childhood tutor, Edward Wilson, “had the pleasure” of reporting to the Dowager Countess of Chatham that her daughter-in-law was “actually in a state of recovery which I had considered as a hopeless event.”[7]  But Mary’s improvement was much slower than anticipated, and she possibly suffered another relapse shortly afterwards. At any rate, Lord Chatham cancelled plans to travel to Ireland to visit his friend, Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Rutland, and took Mary to the fashionable spa of Buxton instead.[8] The Peak District waters did not do their job: “Lady Chatham has not received so much benefit from Buxton as she expected, but is told it will appear when she has left the place a little time,” Anne Robinson wrote to her brother Frederick.[9] By December, however, she was well enough to go on a hunting trip with her husband near Grantham.[10]

It must have been a temporary rally, however, for in 1786 Mary’s health was still uncertain. By the summer John was happy enough to leave her with Georgiana at Weymouth and at last make his long-delayed trip to Dublin, but it is clear from her father’s letters to her eldest brother John Townshend that she was not as well as her family would have liked. “Lady Chatham is better,” Lord Sydney wrote in August 1786, “but, I am sorry to say, has left Weymouth for Burton [Pynsent, in Somerset, to visit her mother-in-law]. I hope in God, that she will return [to Weymouth], & not trifle with so serious a business. Her recovery may depend entirely upon her use of the warm bathing this year.”[11]

By the end of the year, though, Mary’s health was much better established, so much so that she became pregnant (possibly for the second time). “We have been seasonably chear’d with a piece of news that was communicated to me last Sunday, from the very highest Authority [probably Lord Chatham himself], respecting Lady Chatham on which we most cordially congratulate your Ladyship,” Reverend Wilson wrote to the Dowager Countess of Chatham on 5 November 1786. “Besides the welcome prospect of increase we hope it will be a means of restoring her Ladyships health”.[12] Alas Mary’s pregnancy ended in a miscarriage before the end of the year, but she does not seem to have been especially unwell during 1787. By 1788 was at last able to engage in some political work, canvassing for Lord Hood during the 1788 Westminster by-election and, in 1789, acting as a patroness for the White’s Ball in honour of the King’s recovery from insanity.

It was not, however, the last word, and her “rheumatism” left her permanently lame on one side. In 1795 she seems again to have had a serious rheumatic attack. “Lady Chatham has got the Rheumatism in a very disagreeable Way”, the Dowager Countess wrote to Pitt, “… but … she is otherwise well and grows Fat”.[13] In February 1796, however, she was still ill:

Lady Chatham is I am afraid going to have some return of her old Rheumatick complaint. She has been for some time much more lame than usual: and I called a few days ago when she could not well move out of her Chair. This she attributed to having been electrified too much; but I am afraid she does not get better.[14]

All Lord Chatham’s friends would have remembered, all too well, what long-term effects Lady Chatham’s “rheumatick complaint” might have. On this occasion nothing seems to have come of it, but its spectre must always have hung over their marriage. Unfortunately for the Chathams, Mary’s health was not destined ever to be robust, and in later life she succumbed to mental instability on at least two prolonged occasions. Whether that mental instability was a progression of her earlier rheumatic problems I cannot say, but one thing is for sure: Mary Chatham was never an especially healthy woman.


References

[1] Lady Harriot Pitt to the Countess of Chatham, 19 May 1783, John Rylands Library Manchester University Eng MS 1272 f 38

[2] Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 1 April 1784, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/205

[3] Georgiana Townshend to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 20 April 1784, National Archives PRO 30/8/64 f 167

[4] Anne Robinson to Lord Grantham, 5 November 1784, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/50/56

[5] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 3 January 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/238; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 14 January 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/246; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 17 January 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/249

[6] Georgiana Townshend to Lady Chatham, PRO 30/8/64 f 170

[7] Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 12 March 1785, PRO 30/8/67 f 103

[8] Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 7 October 1785, PRO 30/8/67 f 113

[9] Anne Robinson to Frederick Robinson, 28 August 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/50/65

[10] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 19 December 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/296

[11] Lord Sydney to John Thomas Townshend, August 1786, Nottingham University Archives Hildyard MSS THF/X/3/5 f 2

[12] Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 5 November 1786, PRO 30/8/67 f 134

[13] The Dowager Countess of Chatham to William Pitt, 14 October 1795, PRO 30/8/10 f 31

[14] Lord Bathurst to Lord Camden, 27 February 1796, Kent RO CKS-U840/C95/2

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5 thoughts on “Mary, Countess of Chatham’s “Rheumatick complaint”

  1. Pingback: “My poor afflicted Sister”: Lady Chatham’s first mental illness, 1807-8 | Always Wanted to be a Reiter

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