A while ago I quoted a short bit from one of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s letters to Mrs Stapleton, his mother’s former companion, in which he lamented the impact of his brother’s death and wife’s ill health on his finances. On that occasion John did manage to scrape together a loan of one hundred and fifty pounds; but it was not the first time Mrs Stapleton had cause to ask John for a loan … nor was it the last.
I found the May 1808 letter referred to above interesting in that John did a bit of muttering about his financial difficulties, but it was NOTHING compared to the two letters I found today. These are full-on hand-wringing affairs, quite uncharacteristic of John, and I imagine they would have made quite an impact on Mrs Stapleton for that reason. Whether it was the impact John wished to have is … debatable, because even I (and I freely admit I am more indulgent towards John than many people would be) found them a bit on the pathetic side. Still, there’s no doubt he was an unlucky enough chap, and even if he manages to blame everyone but himself for his predicament I have no doubt his woes were real enough.
I will quote the letters in full, because they make for impressive reading.
Letter One: Colchester, 13 December 1807
My Dear Mrs Stapleton,
Your letter of ye 3rd Inst[ant] from Wynnstay has been forward to me here, where I have been fixed for some time, going up occasionally to London for business, and to see Lady Chatham who is at Frognall. I shou’d be happy if I cou’d tell you, she was as much recovered as you so kindly wish her, but tho very much better, she had not regained her strength sufficiently, when I last saw her, to come down here with me, but I hope to find her better when I go up again which will be in a few days. I must now however painfull tell you, that I have delayed writing to you several days, from the reluctance I felt to return you the only answer in my power, which is, that at this time I really can do nothing. It is doubly painful to me to write on this subject, as it is scarcely possible I shou’d do it, without complaining of the past, which no one has ever yet heard me do. You know full well the manner in which my hands are tied up, and in which I was left, without the power of raising one single sixpence. The business of Burton, from the difficulties attending it, is not yet closed;[*] and when it is, the whole life Interest I have in it, is not worth much above half of what My Mother’s debts amount to. How I shall be able to deal with them I know not. I hope, but till I see my way, I can only hope, that I may have it in my power to make some arrangement about them. My own incumbrances, which from unfortunate events have pressed hard upon me, I can only get rid of gradually by devoting a larger Portion of my Income regularly to them, than I can well manage to do. Had my poor Brother lived, who was jointly with me called upon to pay My Mother’s debts it might have been more easily accomplished. He thought with me, that they might have been paid out of ye Money for which Burton sold, with ye consent of my Nieces. But now alas, as their prospect of inheritance is so much meaner, the thing is more difficult, nor have they the same temptation to agree to it. I mean by this the Stanhopes, for dear Mrs Pringle wou’d do any thing. Had the Estate, been mine, as it shou’d have been, in failure of my Brothers, I shou’d have desired the principal satisfaction, from its having put it in my power to have paid my Mother’s debts, and instead of the pain of this letter, to have had the happiness of doing at once what you wished. I can say no more, and will only add
That I am My Dear Mrs Stapleton
Your Very Affect[ionat]e
[*] I presume this is a reference to the fact Chatham was sued by the Pinney family over the terms of the sale of the Burton Pynsent estate.
Letter Two: Colchester, 2 December 1810
My Dear Mrs Stapleton,
I did not venture here till yesterday, and had no opportunity of writing to you till this days Post, and I am quite vexed to find, that owing to some business which has engaged me till late, I shall not be in time. The subject of your letter is indeed, as you say, one mutually painful to us both. You do me but justice in believing that I feel, and most truly and sincerely I can assure you, I do, for your situation. But painful as it is to me to say it, I will not disguise the truth or deceive you by holding out expectations which, without some good fortune or other, I confess I do not see the prospect of being able to realise. Had my poor Brother been spared, I hardly know how, even together, we cou’d have met the heavy embarrassments which my Poor Mother left. Alone, I can have but little hope of bringing them to a satisfactory settlement. I have paid already more than I know how to deal with, & the consequence has been that it has so thrown me back in all my own payments, that I am pressed at this moment to a degree of inconvenience that I do not like to own, except in confidence to you. My lot has indeed been a hard one. Lady Chatham’s long Illness, in itself a source of the bitterest affliction, has been attended with an expence, that has more than counterbalanced all the efforts, which by a strict oeconomy I cou’d make to bring my affairs at all around, and it is on her account alone, that I am induced not to turn my back at once upon London, rather than to go on struggling with the difficulties I have to contend with. In this situation I am grieved to say I can do nothing. I have dwelt upon this unpleasant subject more than I had intended, but I felt anxious you shou’d be impressed, that nothing but utter impossibility shou’d prevent me from offering my assistance at this distressing moment, and doing that which it wou’d afford me the highest gratification to find in my power. I will not add more than that I am
My Dear Mrs Stapleton
Always Very Sincerely & Affect[ionatel]y Yours
PS. I have said nothing to Lady Chatham about your letter. It wd too much distress her on your account, and I make every thing appear to the best. C
* * *
So there you have it. I’m not too sure what Mrs Stapleton’s reaction can have been to the line “my lot has indeed been a hard one”. Poor John had, indeed, had a bad time of it 1807-10, what with Mary being ill, Walcheren and the aftermath, and the loss of his lucrative salary as Master General of the Ordnance. But he was hardly badly off by any standards: he had a combined annual pension of seven thousand pounds, not to mention his salaries as Commander of the Eastern District, Governor of Jersey, and High Steward of Colchester.
I suppose I would have preferred him to say “Yes! Of course I’ll help, even if I can’t afford it!” But then I suppose learning to say no is, perhaps, one of the only ways to get oneself out of debt. And as we all know, John eventually did get himself out of debt, but not before he had learned his lesson the hard way…
Both Chatham letters are in NAM Combermere MSS 8408-114