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10 October 1756: birth of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham

YES, 10 October. Yes. YES. No, it’s not a typo. Yes, I realise I am flying in the face of all other published sources, except Wikipedia (and there’s a good reason for that).

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)

Most people, when writing about someone less visible in the historical record, are at least able to say “Well, at least I know when he/she was born/died!” Unfortunately, my biography of the 2nd Earl of Chatham pretty much opens with a page-long footnote explaining why I have plumped for 10 October 1756 as his date of birth, and not the usually-recorded 9 October. (Some sources say 10 September, but, to misquote Monty Python, that’s right out.)

As far as I can see, there is one main reason why the sources focus on 9 October as Chatham’s birthday. It is a letter written by Pitt the Elder to Pitt the Younger on 9 October 1773, which opens with the following lines: “Thursday’s post brought us no letter from the dear traveller [Pitt was on his way to Cambridge]: we trust this day will prove more satisfactory. It is the happy day that gave us your brother…” [Chatham Correspondence IV, 290]

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

Well, that’s clear, isn’t it? Pitt the Elder should have known the date of birth of his own son, no?

Except we find Pitt the Elder writing to his brother-in-law, George Grenville, on 10 October 1756: “Dear Grenville, Lady Hester is as well as can be in her situation, after being delivered of a son this morning.” [Grenville Papers I, 173]

And also to his nephew, Thomas Pitt, later Lord Camelford, also on 10 October 1756: “Lady Hester was safely delivered this morning of a son.” [Letters written by Lord Chatham to his nephew Thomas Pitt (1804), p. 97]

Not to mention the fact that Chatham’s baptismal record in the parish register, entered on 7 November 1756, notes his date of birth as 10 October.

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

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

So what happened? Why the discrepancy? I suppose the most likely possibility is that everything went so quickly (and Chatham’s birth was, apparently, very quick) that nobody troubled to take accurate note of his time of birth. Maybe the clocks in the room were fast. Maybe the midwife (or man midwife, as Chatham was delivered by William Hunter) made a mistake.

Clearly the family celebrated Chatham’s birthday on 9 October, although there could have been other reasons for this. In 1773, 10 October fell on a Sunday: possibly the family decided to celebrate a day early for that reason. I personally think this unlikely, however, as Pitt the Elder specifically says “THIS is the happy day that gave us your brother”. He could have misdated his letter, but this is unlikely, particularly as his son William replied a few days later making reference to “the rejoicings on the happy ninth of October”.

It seems most likely, therefore, that the family for some reason changed their minds about Chatham’s birthday and started celebrating it on 9 October. But he would not be the only 18th century figure surrounded with such confusion — the Duke of Wellington’s precise birthdate, for example, is also disputed.

This doesn’t make my task as biographer any easier, but I’ve plumped for 10 October rather than 9 October because Chatham’s baptismal record suggests that date. The entry was added on 7 November, nearly a full month after Chatham’s birth, so it seems most likely to me that any changes of mind occurred some time after his birth. I’ve therefore gone with the on-the-spot account, and shaved a day off the 2nd Lord Chatham’s age.

You may disagree with me, but I’m sticking to my guns.

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One thought on “10 October 1756: birth of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham

  1. Pingback: “Upon my Honor”: the 2nd Earl of Chatham’s Pedigree | The Late Lord

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