Sir Home Popham and the 2nd Viscount Melville: BL Loan MS 57/108

It’s no secret that Sir Home Popham much owed almost his entire career to Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. As Secretary of State for War and then First Lord of the Admiralty, Melville gave Popham nearly all his early employment (official AND unofficial) and helped him into politics. As useful as Popham undoubtedly was, however, I wonder if Melville occasionally wilted under the weight of the masses of correspondence involved in being Popham’s patron.

Raeburn, Henry; The 1st Viscount Melville; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-1st-viscount-melville-201350

This was a hereditary attachment, as is clear from Popham’s correspondence (BL Loan MS 57/108) with Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville, also First Lord of the Admiralty. Like his father, Melville Mark 2 clearly knew the versatile naval captain could be of use. Also like his father, Melville must have grown to hate the sight of Popham’s handwriting on the vast number of (probably very, very fat) letters that came in, sometimes on a thrice-daily basis.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Most of BL Loan MS 57/108 dates from 1812, when Popham was off the north coast of Spain, tasked with liaising with the local guerrillas and trying to tie down as many French troops as possible to take the heat off Lord Wellington and his British army. It was all business, of course, but that never stopped Popham being Popham. Some of the correspondence, indeed, is absolutely tip-top Peak Popham. I summarise it here.

No. 17: 17 May

Popham: HelloooooOOOOOOooooo.

Melville: Hi.

Popham: Thank you SO much for this appointment to the north coast of Spain, after nearly a year of kicking my heels. I promise I will NOT disappoint you.

Melville: You’re welcome. My father said you were a useful man.

Popham: May I take this occasion to report that the flour used by the Mediterranean fleet is REALLY bad? I have some ideas for how to improve your supply from Tangiers, based on an idea I had while in South America. I’ve worked it up into a slim pamphlet for you. Here it is. [loud WHOOMP] [the walls shake]

Melville: ….. ah yes. My father also said you were a man of … ideas.

Popham [proudly]: Damn straight.

No. 20: 22 June, North Coast of Spain

Popham: We’re here!

Melville: Excellent news.

Popham: We could do with two or three cutters for dispatches.

Melville: Righto.

Popham: We could also do with some troop frigates. The Diadem‘s kind of heavy.

Melville: Erm. We don’t have —

Popham: Here’s a brief diary of my movements to date, which I have also sent to Mr Croker and Lord Keith. [loud WHOOMP] [the walls shake]

No. 21: 30 June, North Coast of Spain

Popham: I’ve opened communication with the brigands.

Melville: [chokes] The what?

Popham: I’ve worked out there are about 3,000 French troops in the area. The brigands can muster about 1,000.

Melville: These brigands are the guerrillas, yes? The allies you’re meant to be working with?

Popham: We need a brigade of regulars. Maybe a couple of companies of rriflemen, too. And a couple of engineers. Are you sending that troopship I asked for?

Melville: I really don’t —

Popham: Sorry, French are attacking. Laters.

No. 23: 14 July, off Castro

Popham: I’m sending you volume 2 of my diary.

Melville: Thanks.

Popham: … and also volumes 3, 4, and 5.

Melville: I —

Popham: Is my troopship here yet?

Melville: You see, here’s the thing —

Popham: We’d like two troopships now.

Melville: *wilts*

Popham: Oh, and a bomb vessel. And some Congreve rockets, shrapnel shells, hand grenades, 20,000 muskets, a gun brig (a big one — actually, MAKE IT SIX BIG ONES), some brass mortars, and some 24 pounders. You can send them in the three cutters I asked for. Oh, and — Hang on a tick. Enemy spotted. BRB.

No. 24: Same day, a little later

Popham: Sorry about that. Where were we? Oh yes. We also need $2,000 Spanish dollars, a commissary, and lots of gunpowder.

Melville: THERE’S A BLOODY WAR ON, POPHAM

No. 26: 15 July

Popham: … and some light field pieces (6 and 4 pounders), yet ANOTHER troopship, and a pony.

Melville: We can probably manage the pony.

Popham: I was just joking. I don’t actually want a pony. Hahahaha.

No. 27: 15 July

Popham: Those marines you sent us instead of the riflemen.

Melville: Oh, I’m so glad they arrived safely.

Popham: They bloody SUCK. I’ve tried drilling them, but all the drilling on Earth will never do for Major Graham is quite an imbecile and Major Williams has no great a share either of energy or enterprise.

Melville: You really don’t play well with others, do you?

No. 29: 19 July, Castro

Popham: I’m HURT.

Melville: What happened? Are you OK?

Popham: Your Secretary of the Admiralty has given me a public dressing down.

Melville: … Ah. Is this about moving the arms depot from Corunna to Machechico?

Popham: I can assure you that when I was arrested to be tried by court martial on going to South America, I did not feel half so much as I did when I read Mr Croker’s letter. We really need weapons and Machechico is closer than Corunna.

Melville: But Popham, Lord Wellington needs arms too, and Corunna is —

Popham: I feel so BETRAYED. No squadron ever exerted itself more to obtain the approbation of its country than mine. *sobs*

Melville: … there, there…

No. 36: 16 August

Popham: I’ve just got back from Bilbao, which we re-took from the enemy.

Melville: Brilliant.

Popham: I think the severe lecture which I gave the Spanish generals on the subject of military precaution will have a very good effect.

Melville: ….. you didn’t call them brigands, did you?

Popham [proudly]: YES

No. 42: 25 August, off Bilbao

Popham: I’ll make sure the Belle Poule is at Corunna to carry Lord March to England with dispatches.

Melville: Thank you.

Popham: ……… Although if he had come to Santander he would have been in England long ago.

Melville: NO, Popham. We are NOT moving the depot from Corunna.

No. 48: 1 September, Santander

Popham: BLASTED BRIGANDS — IF THEY POSSESSED ONE GRAIN OF MILITARY TALENT WE WOULD HAVE CAPTURED GUETARIA. Why can’t they just LISTEN to me?!

Melville: Maybe because you keep calling them brigands?

No. 50: 15 September, Santander

Popham: I sent Lieutenant MacFarlane to Lord Wellington with dispatches. I hope you realise a messenger from Corunna took 12 days longer than he did, even though he is just a sea officer on horseback.

Melville: Popham. Can we talk about this? Again?

No. 59: 6 October, Santander

Popham: I’ve decided I need to take Santona.

Melville: OK, fine.

Popham: But the French will probably resist us strongly.

Melville: Bear it in mind.

Popham: It is wonderfully strong, too.

Melville: I get it.

Popham: And will require a great deal of battering.

Melville: Do you want to attack Santona or not?!

No. 64: 15 October, Santander

Popham: OMG OMG OMG did you see what Lord Wellington said about me?! ‘If you were not known to be on the coast, the enemy and the Spaniards will be convinced nothing is intended to be done and I shall have upon my hands more of the enemy than I can well manage. O M actual G *SQUEEEEEEEEEE*

Melville: Yes, well done.

Popham: WELLINGTON LOVES ME

Melville: Good boy, Popham.

Popham: I AM INDISPENSABLE TO THE WAR EFFORT

Melville [to secretary]: He’s going to be insufferable now, isn’t he?

No. 65: Later, same day

Popham: ………….. so can I have several thousand greatcoats and pairs of shoes and 10,000 muskets?

Melville: No.

No. 67: 18 October, Santander

Popham: Since I’m so indispensable now, Wellington’s right-hand man and all that, could you make me a commodore? I mean, officially like? With, you know … the salary?

Melville: No.

Popham:

Melville:

Popham: Also, Lieutenant MacFarlane says that Corunna is much too diff —

Melville: DROP IT.

No. 68: Later, same day

Popham: Did I mention Lord Wellington thinks my presence is VITAL TO THE WAR EFFORT?

Melville [glumly]: Not recently.

No. 71: 19 October, Santander

Popham: You know Lord Wellington said —

Melville: I KNOW

No. 72: 21 October, Santander

Popham: I wanted to apologise for the fact the Diadem has been delayed by the weather. Since she’s carrying several hundred letters I wrote since [checks notes] the day before yesterday, this will occasion Your Lordship a trial of patience to get through them all.

Melville: I’m glad you have finally realised it.

Popham: But I feel I have to acquaint you with every occurrence here.

Melville: You really don’t.

Popham: ANYWAY. Have I got news for you.

Melville [runs hand down face]: What now.

Popham: I had an idea.

Melville: An idea.

Popham: You know Lord Wellington said he could take the fortress of Burgos if only he had more guns, but it was impossible to get them to him in time?

Melville: You … haven’t mucked about with the depot again, have you?

Popham: Oh no. I should be sorry to repeat the errors of my early service on this coast by invading the forms of office in asking in an irregular manner for that which I consider necessary.

Melville: [collapses in silent relief]

Popham: SO I DECIDED TO SEND TWO OF MY OWN SHIP’S GUNS UP TO LORD WELLINGTON.

Melville: ………… and what did Lord Wellington say about this, erm … unusual course of action?

Popham: Oh, I didn’t ask him. But I did send him a letter.

Melville [tensely, through gritted teeth]: …. and what did you say?

Popham: ‘Dear Lord Wellington, you know you told me it was impossible to get my ship’s guns to you? Well, Tah-dah!!! Surprise!!!! IT’S NOT!!! Honestly, I had nothing better to do. If you want more, I can send you ten. No, forty. In THIRTY-SIX HOURS. Beat that, messengers from Corunna. Yours, Popham the Indispensable’

No. 73: 23 October

Melville: OK. So, assuming Lord Wellington doesn’t actually kill you, have you decided to attack Santona yet?

Popham: I think I probably will. [short pause] Or maybe I won’t.

Melville: So you haven’t decided, in fact.

Popham: No, not in so many words.

Melville: I have only to repeat my confidence in your judgement and exertions, and my full persuasion that you will not heedlessly hazard the squadron and marines, right? In other words, you won’t do anything rash?

Popham: Rash? Me?! I WOULD NEVER

Melville: Of course not.

Popham: I’M INDISPENSABLE, REMEMBER?

Off the record

Melville: Dad? I know you can’t hear me, being dead and all. But I want to have a word about this Popham chap. I know we didn’t always get on. But honestly, WHAT THE HECK DID I DO TO YOU FOR YOU TO FOIST HIM ON ME?!

Who’s responsible for the fences? Back to Lord Chatham and Abington Hall

A few days ago I discovered that Cambridgeshire Archives had updated their catalogue, including a half-dozen letters from the 2nd Earl of Chatham I had not seen. As I’ve been a very good girl, I gave myself some time off from Popham to revisit Lord Chatham for an hour.

Lord Chatham’s seal on an 1816 letter (Cambridgeshire Archives)

It was a very good morning. Cambs Archives have moved since I last visited them, so this involved a train journey to Ely, which (as I’ve not been on a train in seven months) was far more exciting than it should have been. When I arrived at the archives my documents were already waiting for me.

The documents consisted mostly of correspondence with Thomas Mortlock, son of the man who founded what became Barclays Bank. Mortlock was Lord Chatham’s landlord. Lord Chatham rented Abington Hall, near Cambridge, from 1816 until he left for Gibraltar in 1821, although he seems not to have vacated the place completely until his return in 1825.

Abington Hall (photo by me)

For some of the period he was away, he sublet to William Wellesley Pole, Lord Maryborough, an old political contact and the Duke of Wellington’s brother. Abington was well known as prime hunting ground, and Maryborough seems to have enjoyed tormenting Lord Chatham about all the game he was missing out on while in Gibraltar:

We have commenced the Shooting Season with as good success as our Neighbours, and I have every reason to believe we are much better off for game this year than we were last Season. … To give you an idea of the quantity of Birds, I found in Mr Holt’s Pastures by the River and in the Field belonging to Mr Barlow bounded by the Lenford Road Nine Large Covies. … I have not yet been on Mr Lyell’s Farm but he says there are double the quantity than there were last year. … We have every appearance of its being a good year for Pheasants. I really think we have Four for every one we had last Season, and the Hares & Rabbits seem to be endless …’

PRO 30/8/368, ff. 17-22, 6 September 1822

And so on, for several pages, by which time Lord Chatham – in his words ‘chained to the Rock’ (he wasn’t subtle about his feelings) – must have been shouting ‘Stop! Please stop! I WANT TO GO HOME!’

All this talk of shooting, however, brings me back to my visit to Cambridgeshire Archives. Much of what I read was pretty tame: Chatham was writing to his landlord, who was neither a friend nor a social equal. The correspondence was curt and business-like. Chatham often wrote in the third person: ‘Lord Chatham presents his Compliments to Mr [Thomas] Mortlock…’. For his part, Mortlock usually replied in terms that stressed their unequal relationship: ‘I promise myself the pleasure of waiting upon you Tomorrow at the hour Your Lordship appoints.’[1] Chatham always signed off ‘Your Very Faithful Humble Servant’; Mortlock, in contrast, was always ‘Obedient’ rather than ‘Faithful’.

I’ve blogged elsewhere on how Lord Chatham wasn’t always a careful tenant. A survey of dilapidations (effectively a checkout inventory) carried out on Abington Hall in 1824 and 1826 compiled a list of £109 14s 6d worth of repairs to be carried out on the house and grounds (rented for £300 a year, so a sizeable sum). The gardens, the survey recorded, were ‘in a bad state’, with unpruned trees and uncropped soil. [2]

Abington Hall, from here

The estate seems to have been problematic for Chatham, and its state may have reflected a disagreement about the terms of his tenancy.

Chatham’s lease with Mortlock was signed on 15 March 1816 [509/T158]. In addition to maintaining the house itself, Chatham had to keep ‘the Mounds Walls Fences Hedges Ditches Gates Bridges Stiles Rails Pales Posts and Drains’ in good repair, which seems like a pretty comprehensive list. Apparently, however, there was wriggle-room.

On 11 October 1816, Thomas Mortlock wrote to Chatham from Cambridge. It’s clear this discussion was already running, and Mortlock was replying to a letter Chatham had sent him (now lost). From context, it seems Chatham had been asked to repair some fences – an inventory of the house had last been taken in August – but demurred.

Mortlock, therefore, had looked into the matter further. ‘Upon referring to the lease,’ he wrote, ‘I find that the Schedule concludes with the words “repair the gates & fences where injured”.’ This certainly concurs with what I saw. Aware he was dealing with a high-ranking and potentially prickly character, however, Mortlock sugared the pill a little: ‘It appears to deserve some further consideration & I cannot but wish that when next I have the honour of waiting upon your Lordship you may be in possession of a Copy of the Lease’. [3]

Chatham’s response is utterly typical of a man who never liked to say anything without being absolutely sure of ALL the facts (it’s also utterly typical in the number of commas, which tended to multiply the more embarrassed Chatham felt himself to be): ‘I conceive it will be difficult to form any judgement, as to, how the concluding words of the Schedule apply, without having the whole subject before me, and I will endeavour to get such further information, with respect to it, as may be necessary, before I have the pleasure of seeing you again.’ [4]

So far, so much an impasse. Nothing much happened for a while, except that the man responsible for repairs to the estate, Mr Harrison, turned up at the end of November, so maybe Chatham won this round and Mortlock caved in? [5]

Or then again, maybe not, and this letter from Chatham to Mortlock in February 1818 suggests an ongoing dispute over a neighbour due to the inadequate fencing: ‘I have completed a small Plantation by ye water side, but it is really so narrow as to be scarcely worth the fencing in. Cou’d it be made broader, and of course a different form, It wou’d not only be much better for Game, but as great an advantage in point of look, to the Place, that if you were [to] see it, I can not but think you wou’d be induced to make some effort with Mr Ewin …  I really do not see, how he can be allowed to continue so very unaccommodating.’ [6]

‘Mr Ewin’ was John Ewin, who appears to have owned much of the land next door to Abington Hall. [7] However, note the point about the game and the fences. It’s subtly made here, but Chatham picked up on it a little more stridently a few days later:

I cannot help troubling you, in order to call your attention, to the deplorable state of the fences round the Belt, which is now almost entirely open, and I fear, besides the injury to the Plantations, I shall lose all the Game I have been endeavouring to rear. The slight temporary repairs done last year were of little avail, and ye stuff has been carried away.

Lord Chatham to Mortlock, 12 February 1818, 509/3/3/4/7

The remainder of Chatham’s letter is all about how ‘there is no time to lose’, which, by the way, is not the first time I’ve seen the famously slothful Chatham chivvying someone else to move faster (and the focus on hunting is absolutely on brand).

Mortlock’s response suggests he really just wanted to fling a copy of the contract in Chatham’s face at this point, and he must have taken a very deep breath before answering: ‘I purposed riding over to Abington to have some conversation with Mr Ewin [Lord Chatham: ‘Yes!’] … but I was unexpectedly called into Suffolk from whence I am just returned. [Lord Chatham: ‘No!’] … [However,] I hope early in next week to ride over to Abington and to call upon your Lordship if not prevented.’ [8]

Did Chatham’s fences ever get fixed? Did Chatham lose all his game? I don’t know, but I can tell you the dispute rumbled on for TWO MORE YEARS before Mortlock did eventually lose patience. The last letter on the subject is dated 14 February 1820 and is very short and to the point:

Mr Mortlock presents his respectful Compliments to Lord Chatham & begs to inform his Lordship that upon referring to the Lease it appears that the repairs which Lord Chatham spoke of to Mr Mortlock on Saturday as partially necessary are therein covenanted to be made by Lord Chatham.’

Mortlock to Chatham, 14 February 1820, Notebook 3, 509/3/3/1/3

Which translates, as far as I can see, to: FOR GOD’S SAKE CHECK THE FLIPPING CONTRACT!

Having said all this, my visit to the archives did help me answer one question. I’ve often wondered whether Chatham actually did ‘well and truly pay or cause to be paid unto the said John Mortlock his Heirs or assigns the said Yearly Rents of Three hundred pounds’, as per his contract. According to Mortlock’s rent book, [9] the answer is, perhaps surprisingly (given Chatham’s notorious financial problems) … yes, he did, in cash, and he was only late with it once.

I wonder if, despite all the damage to his property and the passive-aggressive correspondence about fences, Mortlock realised just how lucky he was?

References

[1] Chatham to Mortlock, 26 Nov 1816, and 27 Nov reply, 509/3/3/2/24

[2] ‘Survey of Dilapidations committed on the Mansion House, Offices, Buildings & Premises at Abington, Cambridge’, Cambridgeshire Archives: January 1824, 296/B29; May 1826: 296/B60, ff. 46-56

[3] Notebook 1, 509/3/3/1/1

[4] Chatham to Mortlock, 8 October 1816, 509/3/3/2/15

[5] Chatham to Mortlock, 26 November 1816, 509/3/3/2/24

[6] Lord Chatham to Mortlock, 6 February 1818, 509/3/3/4/7

[7] Lease, 15 March 1816, 509/T158

[8] Mortlock to Chatham, 14 February 1818, Notebook 3, 509/3/3/1/3

[9] Rent book, 509/7/1/6, ff. 7-8